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     Volume 4 Issue 70 | November 11, 2005|

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In Retrospect

The Race Course Maidan
That Once Was

SD Khan

THE year was 1948 -- immediately after the partition of British India and the emergence of Pakistan and Bharat. Our family had just moved from Calcutta to the then Dacca, my father being a servant in the colonial government. Upon arrival here, we took up our residence in that part of old Dacca, called Agha Nawaber Deuri, near Armanitola. It was a sleepy town then, Dacca -- no motor car, no buses, no trucks. There were only horse carriages, occasional rickshaws and a population of possibly 2-3 lakhs. I was a student of class III in the Armanitola Govt High School, which had a considerably big playground before it. Besides, the huge Armanitola "Maatth" in that part of the town was the most renowned play and recreational field. Public meetings (very rare in those days) and religious congregations (Eid) used to be held in this ground. Ramna, in those days was considered rather a 'remote' place from the main Dacca town. People generally did not frequent this sparsely inhabited area. But only once a week, on Sunday, many people thronged to the Ramna Race Course Maidan to witness or bet on, the horse racing that was fashionable in those days under the patronisation of Dacca Gymkhana Club (whose remnant is the present Dhaka Club).

Sometimes I too used to visit the race course ground to see the horse racing. And on other week days, accompanied by our lodging teacher, we would have a stroll around the ground in the afternoon. What a huge racing ground it was! I still remember those white wooden fencing encircling the entire ground, punctuated by high watch-towers erected at equal intervals all around the racing path. As we had only very recently arrived from Calcutta, the memory of Calcutta's "Gorer Maatth" was yet fresh in our minds. It was as if we had got back our Gorer Maatth here in Dacca in the Race Course Maidan. As we soon shifted our residence from Armanitola to Dhanmondi (behind the old Hatirpool), the Ramna Race Course Maidan became our regular haunt for recreation. It was an extravaganza of green, comprising perhaps hundreds of acres, whose one end could not be seen from the other. In this vast greenery, there stood another great landmark of the then Dacca. Almost at its centre there was the Ramna Kalibari, with its majestic spire towering over the clear landscape with an unobstructed view of it from a great distance. This ancient architecture was razed to the ground by the Pak Army in 1971. Just in front of the Kalibari, there used to be a magnificent dighi or pond with a beautiful ghat of brick on its northern side. Its crystal-clear water with a sheet of ripples created on its surface by the gentle blowing breeze, was a captivating sight, compelling the onlooker to take a dive. The school-going young boy that I was, I often took the liberty of taking a hearty bath along with my friends on my way back from school. For this secret adventure, I'd stealthily tuck into my schoolbag an extra pair of trousers and a towel. It was all grass and grass on the plain dry land under the open sky. There was no standing tree whatsoever on it. People used to just walk all over the place, fly kites or just sit together eating peanuts and gossiping. What once used to be a real sunny open space or the "lungs" of the city, has now been turned into a dark forest lending itself to be used as a haven for floating sex-workers, drug addicts and hijackers etc. It is impossible for the poor walkers, for whom it was intended, to use its walk-ways, because of the foul smell emanating from the human excreta strewn all over the place. The story of one time Dacca Race Course Maidan is very sad indeed. Nurtured by the British Raj and the Dacca Nawabs as their exclusive recreation venue, its existence is now being threatened to almost non-entity by the vicissitudes of time. The Dacca Race Course Maidan was once not only a single large open land within the main Dacca city, but it was a landmark as well. It has been the hot-spot of many historical events of the country -- starting from the first and last public meeting of Quaid-e-Azam in 1948, the historic 23rd March public meeting of Bongobondhu in 1971, and the surrender of Pakistan Army in 1971. Besides being a convenient ground for public meetings accommodating large numbers of people, all kinds of gatherings and state functions such as the Army Parade, Industrial Fair, civic receptions to foreign dignitaries etc were held during the Pakistan rule. After the independence of Bangladesh, the Race Course Maidan gradually started to fade from its eminence. During President Zia's time, almost a third of its area was eaten up by the Shishu Park. The remaining part was fenced out all around to protect it from vagrants and vandals. At the same time, as part of the tree plantation drive going on at that time, innumerable tree saplings of various kinds were planted all over the newly named Suhrawardy uddyan. In the euphora of 'green revolution' it perhaps escaped the mind of the tree planters that this uddyan was supposed to be embellished with only small trees and shrubs appropriate for a garden and not with mammoth trees to turn it into an Amazon rain forest. In a matter of a few years, the entire uddyan turned into a dense forest of trees of tall breeds. By the benison of our natural climate the luxuriant growth of the foliage of these huge trees is keeping the floor of the woodland dark all the year round, as a result of which the ground is soggy. The entire ground is now dark and damp, unsuitable for walking on it. The air underneath the trees is also unconducive for breathing. So the irony is, the very lungs of our city is suffering from oedima. Owing to this unhealthy environment prevailing in the uddyan people are not frequenting there anymore. During the Awami League rule, a substantial part of the uddyan was acquired for the erection of a huge tower at the place where the Pak Army surrendered on 16, December 1971. The entire plot of land marked for this purpose has been fenced off by corrugated tin sheets. Only a few walk-ways survived this enclosure to remind us of their once-upon-a-time existence.

It is a pity that in a city of 120 million people, the only open space that was available to them for breathing some fresh air has been swallowed by various thoughtlessly placed government establishments and in the process the last trace of the long lost Dacca Race Course Maidan is being effaced from the memory of the people of Dhaka for ever. But in sharp contrast to ours, the Calcutta Gorer Maatth still today remains exactly in the manner it was during the British Raj. No governmental work has engulfed their beloved Gorer Maatth nor any weird modification upon it has changed its timeless appearance.

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