The small eatery, Sumon Chotpoti, has no space for a kitchen. The establishment on Kalibari Road in Jhalakathi occupies a ground floor room barely big enough for its few tables and chairs. That leaves proprietor Shonkor Chandra, 67, standing on the roadside of an afternoon, surrounded by his ingredients.
Chandra, a Hindu, makes up for the lack of space by being organised. Various chotpoti elements are neatly arranged in plastic bowls and baskets of purple, red and blue – chillies, boiled egg, onions. He knows the value of combination. He's expert in entertaining his fellow townsfolk.
Unlike chotpoti, society is made of people and flavoured by ideas rather than tamarind and spices. While Chandra might not find room for a kitchen he is lucky. In Jhalakathi's society there is no shortage of space. Contemporary Jhalakathi District is one of the most communally harmonious in the country – and local people deservedly take pride from that.
“We just took tea together,” says Muslim Anisur Rahman, proprietor of Siam Motors, referring to a Hindu friend. “We are neighbours. We live in one place. We are often guests at Hindu weddings. There's no disturbance in Jhalakathi.”
“There are no problems here,” agrees Hindu Nirmal Mandal, 50, who's been running the Sun Studio photography store for 25 years.
“We are not Hindus and Muslims,” says Chandra, “but people. You do your religion and I do mine. What does it matter? Jhalakathi is a bit good in this way.”
While a connoisseur might detect the various elements in Chandra's chotpoti, the factors which produce an enlightened Jhalakathi are not so obvious. Yet on the wall of Sumon Chotpoti are a number of small stickers that hold a clue to at least part of the reason.
On them is written, “Oh Muslim boys, in which hadith have you found that your prestige will decline if you work?” It is to be assumed that for Chandra the mantra for constructive activity applies in equal measure to those of other faiths – yet more telling is that those are the words of the late Islamic theologian Maulana Md. Azizur Rahman Nesarabadi.
Regarded as a saint and commonly referred to as Quaid Saheb Hujur, his shrine is at the expansive Nesarabadi Islamic Complex by the Bashanda River not far from town. His son Md Khalilur Rahman Nesarabadi is the current Principal of the large madrassa there and responsible for the more than forty organisations under the Nesarabadi umbrella.
“He was the mirror of Islam,” says his son, “He believed Islam was not only for Muslims but for everybody.” Indeed, Quaid Saheb Hujur's contribution to Jhalakathi is well-regarded by all religious communities. Both Mandal and Chandra have visited his shrine – Chandra is a regular.
Born in 1911, by all accounts Quaid Saheb Hujur lived a simple life. According to his son, he believed it sinful to save money and never had a bank account or his own home. Khalilur remembers on one occasion when his family was in a particularly bad financial state, his father received cheques for substantial amounts from the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh as proceeds from books he had written. The son took the cheques to his father hoping it could alleviate the family's difficulties.
“My life is for Allah,” Quaid Saheb Hujur told him, “My writing is not for earning money. This money is for the welfare of the people.”
Quaid Saheb Hujur believed in an Islam of leading by example and constructive engagement. In 1960 he founded an institution to provide mediation for villagers when the nearest court was in Barisal. He pursued an interest in allopathic treatment, encouraging locals to understand the properties of plants and cultivate those with health benefits. Even today at the madrassa complex the tea served is sourced from joshanda, the mehendi plant, which is thought to be healthy.
He founded numerous educational institutions and was instrumental in introducing technical education alongside religious instruction at madrassas. After all, practical skills could only enhance religious knowledge in providing the student with a better opportunity to engage with society on its own terms. He also believed in the rights of women to be educated, and the Nesarabadi complex includes a women's madrassa.
“We Muslims have forgotten that serving fellow humans is one of the cardinal principles of our religion,” Quaid Sahed Hujur is reported to have said, “In order to become true Muslims we must serve humanity.”
Believing it to be Islam's work, Quaid Saheb Hujur organised an anti-corruption committee and participated in many anti-corruption processions over the years. According to his son, he was once detained for his efforts. At a rally he had called out dishonest officials by name, which had forced them through shame to return ill-gotten sums.
A great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore and a reader of Swami Vivekananda, Quaid Saheb Hujur was not averse to visiting Hindu religious ceremonies. After all, how could one hope to be of assistance to broader humanity if one does not engage with it? It is documented that he once went to listen to kirtan chanting in the bhakti tradition, performed by a group of kirtankars. After that experience Quaid Saheb Hujur said, “All religions say the same things.”
Visiting a kirtan was not a challenge to his Islamic faith but rather an expression of it.
During the 1971 Liberation War it is recorded that some Hindus approached Quaid Saheb Hujur seeking to convert to Islam. Their decision was driven by fear, thinking they might be saved from the Pakistani Army. He discouraged them, saying, “The Pakistani Army is killing Muslims as well. Life and death are in God's hands.” For Quaid Saheb Hujur, conversion motivated by fear was not a proper endeavour.
He believed that for the betterment of Bangladesh good people of all religions should stand united against dictatorship and corruption, and rise above religious difference for peace and unity. That is the legacy he left for Jhalakathi.
Unsurprisingly for a saint, there are miracles ascribed to his life, which are naturally difficult to verify. Similarly it reads as somewhat out of character that he took a stand against atheists – though it might do to remember that until the most recent years the term was not politicized in Bangladesh in the way it is today, and to him, it might've been more of a synonym for immorality and lack of principle.
In any case, one does not need to be a Muslim or agree with all aspects of his beliefs to find within his teachings compassion and understanding. The Islam that Quaid Saheb Hujur taught is a faith of the 'middle path' with no place for either slackness or extremism.
In Jhalakathi, the legacy of Quaid Saheb Hujur continues to be both significant and significantly positive. While a society is made of people, ideas create the flavour. And leadership matters.
Asked what his father would have done if he had lived to see these troubling recent days of Hindu homes being burnt and temples desecrated in several other districts of the country, his son says, “He would have gone to those districts straight away and tried to convince the Muslim communities that it is wrong. Islam does not believe in destruction but in good behaviour and harmony.”
For Shonkor Chandra it might be even simpler. He knows the value of combination. He knows that anyone favouring communalism could never enjoy the diversity of chotpoti. They'd be left, perhaps, to chew on onions. And he could certainly contemplate such things of an afternoon by the roadside, before the customers arrive, in a peaceful district like Jhalakathi, in a society that's not lacking in space.
* information sourced from interview and various Nesarabadi Islamic Complex publications.