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A bohemian noon at Beauty Boarding

  • Published at 10:45 am July 9th, 2018
A place to let your creative juices flow / COURTESY

What secrets lie within the walls of Beauty Boarding?

No CNG wants to go to Banglabazaar. The reason: Terrible traffic jam plus road-cutting.

“This eats up a long time and we simply cannot afford to waste hours for one trip,” said an exasperated CNG driver. But after offering an added incentive we were on our way. The driver, a man of around the age of 60, drove with the zest of a 25-year-old.

And yes, he seemed quite happy that Brazil were out of the World Cup. “France are the best,” he asserted. We did not get into an argument.

Around 2:00pm, standing under a remorseless sun in front of the Banglabazaar post office, the pandemonium seemed too much to tolerate.

From here, walking would be advisable we were told, and within 10 minutes found ourselves at the rather nondescript entrance of Beauty Boarding -- the spot of preserved history in the midst of Old Dhaka cacophony and congested high-rises.

“Idyll in insanity,” someone quipped.

Shaded by trees, the old building, once the residence of a zamindar, it is now incongruous among all the modern, featureless establishments which surround it. The walls have a crumbling look, though the main structure appears resolute.

At 2:30pm, the dining hall is filled. Rice bowls are passed around, followed by vegetables, lentils, and other delectable items. The food is simple, yet everyone here seemed to be savouring it like something special.

“Some come here for the food and then they fall in love with the environment and decide to spend time after lunch,” said Dilip Dutta, sitting at the boarding’s reception.

But why is Beauty Boarding such an exotic place?

A boarding which inspired avant-garde writers, poets, and rebels

As history goes, in the 1960s, a renowned poet, Shahid Quadri, arranged a literary gathering here which was the beginning of Beauty Boarding’s association with our literary efflorescence in the following decades.

Poet Nirmalendu Goon is believed to have stayed at the boarding for five years, while notable literary figures like Ahmed Sofa, Humayun Azad, Humayun Ahmed, and Abu Zafar Obaidullah came here to talk about new ideas.

The boarding, in the late 1960s and in the two decades after independence, became irrevocably intertwined with creative impulses of avowed leftist bohemians.

Back in the 1970s, the educated and the enlightened usually took two paths: Either government service and a disciplined life or the delicious unpredictability of bohemian living.

In the latter, livelihood came either from writing, acting, painting, or working as a journalist.

In a society where most lived a prosaic existence, Beauty Boarding attracted those who battled inner turbulence, expressed their demons in language, celluloid, or canvas, experiencing mystical bliss.

These people were romantics. Socialist to the core, their pens denounced imperialist designs around the world, notably in Vietnam, Chile, and Guatemala and they poured scorn on neo-colonialism.

All those who came to Beauty Boarding had one thing in common: Almost all of them secretly hoped for a social uprising that would lead to more equality. In time, though, many such ideals died or were deliberately killed.

Yet, amidst the walls of the Boarding rooms, remnants of frayed romance linger. If one sits at a quiet place and contemplates, the Boarding’s past seems to slowly unravel.

The food is basic but it’s never the grub, but the atmosphere

You are possibly expecting me to say the food is out of the world. Well, it’s not. The dishes are simple, everyday items one eats at a Bengali home.

But you don’t come here for the food.

People come here because they want to soak themselves in history and get a taste of going back in time.

In fact, one can actually live in the past once a room is rented. Most retain the original look from the early 20th century. The rate, though from the present, is surprisingly reasonable -- Tk650 for a double bedroom which also has a TV.

People still stay here and organize literary sessions, says Taposh Pal, a young vivacious room attendant.

“Makes sense because with nature, the ruins, and the heritage, the creative juices flow faster,” came the enthusiastic comment from Zahirul Islam Mamoon, a journalist from New Age and a dilettante film-maker.

Mamoon is also thinking about making a short film within the boarding premises about a poet who comes back after staying abroad for 15 years to relive the star-drenched nights of unemployed fantasy and a small poem still intact on one of the walls.

Of course, amidst all this history there’s a reminder that you are in a time when security is of paramount importance -- and so, every other corner has a strategically placed camera for surveillance.

Renegades welcome, radicals beware.

Why should you go to Beauty Boarding?

Well, with traffic around old part of the city reminding us of purgatory, making a plan to go to Beauty Boarding needs courage. But you should go if there is a rebel in you, craving the unconventional.

You must pay the boarding a visit if, behind that corporate façade, within you is an eccentric eager to discover something intriguing.

Some moments of introspection within the aged walls may trigger an unorthodox idea -- it may inspire you to do “that daring thing” which you were always terrified of attempting.

For me, the hours spent at Beauty Boarding brought back a famous quote by French philosopher Rousseau: “I prefer liberty with danger than peace with slavery.” 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.