In the very heart of today’s Dhaka, there is a place called Bangla Motors – more commonly known as Bangla Motor. It is to be found midway between the Sonargaon and InterContinental hotels, where New Eskaton Road bursts into Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue. Bus passengers know it well as a stop along routes that ply between Karwan Bazaar and Shahbagh, and others that veer off towards Moghbazar.
No one comes here seeking a major landmark. There is no big hotel here. No hospital. No large mall or bazaar. Some people interested in books and reading might come for Bishwa Shahitya Kendra, approachable through a narrow lane off the main road. Others with a purpose might be searching for brakes, alternators, or car batteries; turning east towards Moghbazar they would immediately encounter a cluster of motor parts shops. But if they come looking for a business that gave the Bangla Motor intersection its name, they would be disappointed.
There isn’t one – and there never was.
Bangla Motors is a myth. More precisely, it is the ghost of something that existed once, though that enterprise bore a different name.
Its name in history
In the early forties my father, Lutfur Rahman, had settled here, and when the British left and Dhaka became capital of the Pakistani province of East Bengal, he opened a car dealership and service station. He named it Pak Motors. I was born in the house that lay right behind.
He sold Austin and Morris cars manufactured by the British Motor Company. The British Motor Company, along with its trademark car names, would in a few more decades itself pass into history. But it, too, has left some ghosts behind. One of those is the sporty Mini Cooper, now made by BMW, but based on the Austin Mini of the 1960s. Another is the sturdy Ambassador that rolled off the assembly line at Hindustan Motors in India from 1958 to 2014. In its lifetime, that car was modelled after two designs of Morris Oxfords from the 1950s.
Pak Motors the business collapsed in a few short years. British Motor Company cars continued to be sold by the larger dealership, Dienfa Motors, located near Dhaka’s Phulbaria railway station. But by the late 1960s, British cars were overtaken by such Japanese imports as Toyota and Mazda.
In the brief time that Pak Motors existed, though, it managed to slip into history as place name. It became the name of the local bus stop.
In Bangladesh, perhaps elsewhere in South Asia as well, there is a simple act of popular democracy through which a bus stop gets named. There is no government dictate involved, nor even the desire of any local personality. It may come to be simply because a bus conductor needs a name when he drops off a passenger at a new location. Or the passenger might supply the name. Once the transaction is complete, rickshawallahs will take it from there, and that name becomes imprinted on the transport map in people’s minds until it rolls off the tongue of all who desire to reach that destination.
Who can trace how the process works? Sometimes there’s clearly a major landmark – Press Club, Farmgate, New Market. But in newly built-up areas, it’s often a matter of first rights. If Zahura Market had been constructed before Pak Motors, we might call the area by that name today. In other cases, it’s a mystery why one name wins out. Between Gulshan 1 and 2, the midway stop is named Agora after the supermarket branch there. But why not other businesses in the area such as Grameen Phone or Trust Bank?
Pak Motors to Bangla Motor
Pak Motors the business might have passed, but what of the brick and mortar that had housed it?
In 1956 my father rented out the pukka building to the United States Consulate for use as their commissary. As a child I remember seeing my first American, the man who visited to handle details with my father. He was a black man and we called him Cartooz, though his name was probably Mr Curtis. A pleasant and friendly man, he lived down the road in a house in Paribagh. I was only a small child then and cannot recall anything else from the time the Americans used the place, but I do remember that when they cancelled the lease a few years later, my brother Sani and I eagerly rummaged through the discards they left behind.
It was all junk – but the broken pieces of appliances became material out of which we fashioned toys for months of play. Loose cables, AC grills, knobs and switches that went clickety-clack became treasures for our imagination. You stuck some of those in an empty cardboard box and one day you could have a radio, next a spaceship or time machine. In 1994, I visited the Lawrence Science labs at the University of California in Berkeley and there in the lobby they laid out odd bits of junk – typewriters and other broken machines – and young children were having the time of their lives using mallets and other tools to create toys of their own. These toys would not be permanent – they would be more like the mandalas of coloured sand that Tibetan Buddhists painstakingly create and then destroy – but they were exciting for the kids and no doubt stretched their imagination.
In the leftovers of the American godown, we also stumbled across some cans of “diet drinks”. We had no clue as to what these were for, but since we were thin ourselves we didn’t care to drink something that might make us even skinnier. The word around the house was that if some food item was suspect we ought to take it over to an uncle who was a Communist – he would eat anything. He lived in our grandparents’ house just a short walk away. Once after our father had shot a sparrow, we took the bird over to our uncle. So, now the diet drinks went to him. I cannot remember if we checked to see if they had any impact on his weight.
Every few years the authorities would widen the Mymensingh Road. From a narrow road it became the broad, divided avenue that it is today. The first time the contract went to an Italian company and they brought in orange-coloured, flat-nosed Fiat trucks. When I take myself back to that time I can still smell the sweet diesel fumes of those trucks and even feel the heat of the melting asphalt.
The building was shorn of its front and my father converted it into a commercial building with a row of storefronts downstairs and offices upstairs. Sibco came here to sell bread, cakes, and patties. My mother started up her father’s defunct Azad Pharmacy, later selling it off to the compounder. A young doctor, Dr Mokaddem, began his practice in the pharmacy, then moved upstairs. He would continue to serve his many patients with dedication and generosity into the new century. A handful of tenants came and went, but many became permanent fixtures of the block.
Next door was another business that my father had started, later passing it on to someone else: a petrol pump and service station. It began as Burmah Shell, changed to Burma Eastern, and after independence it sported the Padma brand. Across the road were Minerva Studio, a tailor shop, and the Hotel Daffodil and Bar. In the mid-1960s, the large Zahura Market was constructed just north. It housed the VIP Store, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation rented its first local office upstairs; in the back there was a courtyard surrounded by a labyrinth of shops, offices and mess quarters.
In 1971 when Bangladesh became independent, there was no way people would mouth Pak Motor any longer. Overnight, to bus conductors and passengers, rickshawallahs and local residents, the name of the area became Bangla Motor. The ghost easily embraced the new name.
This was a time when all reminders of the Pakistan period had to go. In the popular mind, Ayub Gate in Mohammadpur had already become Asad Gate to memorialise Asad, the student leader killed during the 1968-’69 upheaval against Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. Jinnah Avenue became Bangabandhu Avenue. At Dhaka University, Jinnah Hall became Surja Sen Hall and Iqbal Hall was renamed after Sergeant Zahurul Hague.
Such changes happen in most countries. Few people, in the aftermath of a revolution, accept keeping symbols of the old regime.
In 2002, in keeping with the trend that has overtaken Dhaka, the original Pak Motors building was torn down. Together with the petrol pump and the properties behind, it has been replaced by a high-rise structure. The rest of the street corner had already witnessed the arrival of the era of the towers. Bangla Motor now looks very different from what it did even at the turn of the century.
No tangible piece of the old Pak Motors, or the time in which the business existed, remains. But Bangla Motor endures. Like Hatirpool and Elephant Bridge, which live on without any bridge or elephant in sight, it has become a pure cultural artefact, a memorial to history unmoored from any physical object.
The change of name from Pak to Bangla Motors makes me think about other names around the city. What is curious is that while Dhaka obliterated nearly all names associated with the Pakistan period, the city continues to preserve many place names linked to the British era. There are Minto and Bailey Roads in Ramna, Fuller Road and Curzon Hall at Dhaka University, and English and Johnson Roads in the old town.
The English ruled us for about 200 years and that legacy is deep. We have our grievances against the Raj but over those two centuries we also developed a fondness for many things British. Their imprint is strong in our economy, culture, and politics; the legacy especially strong in state institutions. Our police still operate according to the Police Act of 1861, our prisons according to the Jail Code of 1864. As a society we never came to terms with any serious effort at decolonisation.
The Pakistani period, however, left less room for ambivalence. Their domination lasted a mere 24 years, the memory of that time tainted with military rule, relentless efforts to negate our culture and language, and eventually the brutal war they launched against our striving for freedom. It is no surprise that long after the worms in their graves were consuming the remains of Minto and Curzon, place names associated with the lat shahebs like them would not bother us as much as anything linked to Jinnah or Ayub.
We might have done away with Pakistan and its symbols, but beyond the matter of signboards and labels, what is the exact legacy of the Pakistan period in Bangladesh? From police rules to fruitcake, it would be easy to list examples of the British residue. What is it that the Pakistanis brought here that seeped into our social fabric and left a lasting imprint?
On my way to Dhaka once, I stopped in London to visit a friend from childhood. We sat down in his restaurant and tried to list the Pakistani legacy. We struggled hard, ending up in food and music. I asked what about kebab? He replied that it was Mughal cuisine and came to us through multiple channels. Old Dhaka testifies to that. He wondered about ghazals, I brought up qawwali. Eventually we concluded that the very fact that we were straining to find examples showed how weak the Pakistani legacy happens to be.
Dig deeper, and one begins to come up with more.
In the Pakistani years, there was a jump in industrialisation, and factories owned by Adamjee, Bawany and other Karachi-based capitalists emerged around the country. But industrialisation was inevitable; it just so happened that during that time, capital came from those particular houses. Similarly, modernisation came in the form of roads, infrastructure, buildings as well as the growth of universities, but that too was evolutionary and cannot be said to be particularly Pakistani.
The state set up the Film Development Corporation and a cinema industry emerged here. But what we have done with that industry, bad and good, can hardly be traced to the Pakistani influence. Or could I be wrong and the preference in Dhaliwood for bulky actresses wearing odd-looking skimpy clothes is really an import from Lahore? We can’t say we imported that from Calcutta or Bombay.
On the other hand, it’s clear that state radio and television did get their schooling in the Pakistani period on how to be instruments of propaganda and lying. Our newscasters may no longer call the prime minister wazir-e-azam, but the way they promote any person in power bears a strong resemblance to the way Ayub Khan was once glorified.
The institution that carries the strongest holdover from the Pakistani time has to be the military. They too have roots in the British colonial period, but it was Pakistan with its martial law regimes that instilled hostility towards civilian government and cultivated the cause of military dictatorship. We saw this in the Zia and Ershad years and more recently with the Moin-Fakhruddin caretaker regime.
Beyond the state, Pakistani ideology had a marked influence on political culture. Indeed, the most enduring Pakistani legacy lies in the Islamist politics that continues its drive to impose a communal and theocratic stamp on the country. Such politics of course predates the establishment of Pakistan, going back to the “two-nation theory” and the movement that had given birth to the “Muslim nation” we were once part of. Such politics has endured into the Bangladesh era. There might not be major forces seeking to restore us as East Pakistan, but there certainly are powerful currents that would like to see us as a nation built in the image of Pakistan, a sort of Banglastan.
A few years ago, I took a walk through old Dhaka. Imagine my surprise when I came across a road named after a figure from the Pakistan period. I was on Johnson Road where it turned towards Sadarghat, near the old Baptist hostel and the now shuttered Royal Stationery. Signboard after signboard proclaimed the road as Liaquat Avenue after Pakistan’s first prime minister. But later I would discover that this stance was contested: there are those, who insist on the road’s earlier name, Chittaranjan Avenue.
If the Pakistanis had crushed us in 1971, all of Johnson Road would have been Liaquat Avenue. During the war, the Dhaka municipality, under military advice or maybe simply due to the zeal of collaborators, passed a decree renaming over 200 streets and areas. The stated goal was to bring them “in line with national cultures, heritage and history”. Far from respecting heritage, this was a campaign to obliterate a whole layer of our history: it was streets named after Hindu (or maybe Brahmo) figures that were now to be called by Muslim names. Nothing with a Hindu taint was to be spared, including Mahakhali, Narinda and Tejkunipara which were to be called Torabia, Noorinda, and Tamaddun Para. They got carried away and even renamed Bailey and Elephant Roads as Bu-Ali and Al-Arabia. Elephant Road must have reminded someone of the image of Ganesh.
That attempt to rewrite history through dictate, backed by the military danda, did not stick. But the campaign points to a larger tragedy that was well underway. Indeed, the most far-reaching legacy from the Pakistan time is what is no longer here.
As the list of so many roads and lanes named after Hindu figures suggests, there was a time, not long ago, when eastern Bengal and Dhaka had a marked Hindu presence. You could see this even into the 1960s, but as a result of the long march of communal politics, partition, violent riots, discrimination, and the Enemy Property Act, the Hindu presence was reduced to a minor current. The Pakistani massacres of Hindus in 1971 struck an especially cruel blow, but the Bangladesh period did not prove to be kinder. We maintained the shameful Enemy Property Act renamed as the Vested Property Act, and Hindus continued to be pushed out.
We might not have gained much of value from the Pakistani time, but we certainly lost a great deal. We lost writers, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, artisans. We lost an entire culture, and in the process of driving them out—some of our hands culpable, others acquiescent—we sacrificed a part of our own humanity.
Even in the Bangla Motor area, there was a visible Hindu presence. Just to the north, before Karwan Bazaar, stood Kumarpara, a community of potters. After the 1964 riots, this community disappeared. Today that site is occupied by the Sonargaon Hotel.
Erasing the past
The name change from Pak to Bangla Motor was an act by the public, and it stuck. But we also have a chequered history of renaming streets and neighbourhoods through periodic government decrees. While the ambitious 1971 attempt failed, it did not stop the municipality from regular campaigns declaring new names. Sometimes it’s for narrow political reasons (names chosen because of links to the party in power), other times for nobler sounding desires, such as to mark new changes (Bailey Road as Natok Sarani) or to honour heroes from the Liberation War.
Once in a rare while, such names hold, but most often citizens ignore them. The cement monuments carrying the new names simply become one more spot where people direct their betel leaf juice.
As a city evolves, buildings will come and go, populations will shift, old names will give way to new ones. However, a part of me wonders about the disappearance of old names that marked specific moments in our history. Should we erase those moments from our consciousness? But have we not arrived where we are today after having passed through those earlier moments?
Is it not worth remembering that near Sadarghat the British built a park and named it after Victoria, and that it was later named Bahadur Shah Park as a memorial to the sepoys hanged there by the British during the 1857 Uprising? Should we not remember that Gulistan was named after Dhaka’s first modern cinema hall and it became the cornerstone of the city’s central square in the Pakistani period, a vibrant plaza drawing everyone from athletes and politicians to journalists and writers, from curious youngsters to new arrivals into the city?
History is not merely a matter of nostalgia. It also helps make connections, makes us reflect on the present and future. Just remembering Victoria Park and Gulistan bring up those times when Dhaka had attractive public squares where citizens came together and shared, debated, entertained, and made friends, all of it suggesting visions of what a thriving city should contain. While writing this memoir about Bangla Motor, I returned to my childhood there but ended up wondering about the extent of the Pakistani legacy in Bangladesh.
But remembrance, whether for nostalgia or for reflection, requires resources: records, chronicles, memoirs, and museums. I am reminded of an exhibit I saw during a visit to Mexico City. The capital of Mexico, the oldest large city in North America, passed through many occupations, upheavals and changes of regime. It is also a city rich with museums, and in the one dedicated to the city itself, there was an installation that displayed the changes in street names over the course of different revolutions in Mexico.
We could use such exhibits in our museums.
This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.