A View from the Ladies Common Room, Dacca University
Remembrance of things past…
DU. How those letters conjure up a sense of awe and bittersweet memory. Always in the vanguard of political, progressive movements… Language (1952), Constitution (1962), Democracy (1968/69) and Independence (1971)… but distinguished too, for its intellectual environment and academic excellence. Dacca University's endless graffiti marked corridors were a daunting place for me, a teenager and a female, in the politically momentous years of the late 1960s.
My cousin Rafat Deen (English 1963) and my elder sister Shama (English 1966) had both trail-blazed successfully, convincing my recently-widowed Mother that I was mature enough to enter its hallowed ground and apply for a place in the Honours programme of the Political Science Department in the latter half of '67. My Registration cost all of Rs 6! Not a bad bargain, when you consider that on the faculty, amongst others, were luminaries, Professor Mozaffar Ahmed Chowdhury (MAC), Dr.Rashiduzzaman and the legendary, 'Razzaque Sir.'
Emerging from the mild, protected environs of the all-girls Holy Cross College, it was a great leap forward into the unknown and the harsh realities of a wider world, way beyond my comfort zone. For the first time one came across people from varied backgrounds, hailing from distant villages and remote towns in faraway districts. Most importantly at DU, there was no forced segregation. Both sexes were treated as equals…as co-students, classmates and comrades.
This was not Aligarh University where a 'Purdah' in the classroom separated the sexes or Karachi University (which I later attended) where Fascist Proctors armed with yardsticks roamed the grounds measuring and enforcing the ridiculous rule that there must be a three-foot distance if girls and boys had the temerity to address each other!
At DU we did not receive, nor did we expect any preferential treatment either from the Administration or our Professors. The ratio of males to females was around three to one but apart from a few 'reserved' seats in the first few rows of lecture rooms all students were deemed democratically and biologically equal.
There was however one exception, where female autonomy and independence was guaranteed: the Ladies Common Room. Located on the ground floor of the Arts Faculty building, it was our special quarter, our Zenanah. The Men had their Modhu's canteen and jointly we could fraternise at the TSC (Teacher Student Centre) but the ladies common room was our personal space.
If gentleman callers wanted to see us, they must first send a note inside, and then the ladies would deign to emerge from behind the curtain. No man could enter its portals. Not even the Dean, Vice Chancellor or the Governor himself … except the teenage boy from the canteen.
Deferentially the blushing lad would enter and with lowered gaze, take our orders for Singhara, Aloor Chop, Roshogollah, and Cha.
Just two wide rooms and a central pathway buzzed with constant chatter and bonhomie. Old acquaintances were renewed and new friendships formed that still survive. It was a place where we could literally let down our hair, refresh, play table-tennis, read newspapers or take forty winks on the armchairs; a place of interaction where we exchanged ideas, gossip, confirmed or denied rumours. Impromptu plans were made for the cinema, restaurants or shopping at the new market.
It was a melting pot -- where rural met urban, village met city, Hindu met Muslim,
old Dacca met new Dacca, English medium met Bangla medium, sari met shalwar-kameez, first year met final year, economics met psychology, and art met science. Frequently we received visitors… from the neighbouring Arts College, Medical College and Engineering University. Sometimes and much to our merriment, a brave middle-aged aunty might show up surreptitiously checking out a prospective bride for her eligible son!
This is where campus love stories began or came to a bitter end; where we celebrated an impending nuptial or wept in horror at the shocking suicide of a fellow student. This is where we escaped when 'Rag Day' colour festivities became too riotous, or hid when the fearsome twosome 'Khoka' went walkabout with his pet snake and knife-wielding assistant 'Passpartout' (aptly nicknamed as he had not passed beyond the 'part two' of any educational institution)! Suffice to say, they were not fellow students but professional goons sent by the Government to terrorise the student body. But even Khoka, snake and sidekick did not dare enter the Ladies' Common Room.
Politics --- local, national and international was a recurring theme. Frequently some aspiring student leader would stand on the table tennis table to deliver a tirade on the burning questions of the day. We joined heartily in the slogan-mongering. 'Down with this... Zindabad that'! Sometimes we joined a procession in the corridors demanding a hated one's mangsho and rokto!
At DU one's political education began early. In the very first week, along with deciphering the time tables, we also had to figure out our political affiliations. Were we Pro- Peking (EPSU, Menon group) or Pro-Moscow (EPSU, Motia group)? Were we Nationalists (Chatro league led by Tofail Ahmed)? Or horror upon horror, supporters of the Government Goon Party, the NSF!
This was the era of the Vietnam War, Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, Paris student uprising and the Sino-Soviet split. Revolution was on the doorstep. Even the fiery Tariq Ali, came all the way from London to address us under the Bot Tola…the Banyan tree. Some lucky students journeyed to Santosh, Tangail to participate in the great gathering of Leftists. There was hope, idealism and a feeling that the 'times they - are - a changing,' like in the Bob Dylan song.
Surprising as it may sound, in the midst of these distractions we did manage to attend classes, tutorials, visit libraries and receive an education. But as later events testify, this was the calm before the storm. Earth-shattering, epoch-making times were just round the corner. Not just the November 1970 cyclone but a major political hurricane was brewing in the country. Twice the authorities closed the university Sine Die with no date for resumption. Hostels were emptied, students went home. It was a portend for the darker days that lay ahead when DU would become the eye of the storm.
More than forty-five plus years have passed but I remember vividly a conversation with a fellow student in the common room. We shared a Subsidiary class and a common surname. It was December, 1970 and a general election had been decisively won. 'So when is your father going to Islamabad?' I inquired. She replied: 'I don't know.' And then with a characteristic twinkle in her light eyes: 'I think Islamabad will be coming here.' We both laughed. Little did we realise then the import of her remark.
In the coming months, DU and Ruqayyah Hall would suffer a bloody onslaught but they survived… and so too, the Ladies Common Room. Sadly, I was not there when it re-opened -- its denizens - battered, bruised but victorious regrouped to mourn their fallen comrades and teachers. As they recounted tearful experiences, I am told, a tragicomic note was interjected by our cinema - loving friend from Comilla. Despite suffering a terrible personal loss, she lamented loudly: 'Hai re Hai! Pakistan shesh!! Aar aamra Mohammad Ali - Zeba chobi dektey paarbo na. Eeesh!'
Ghazala Akbar was once the Feature Editor of the Arab Times, Kuwait. Now-a-days she lives in London.