Taking a stroll around Madhur Canteen, named after Madhu Sudan Dey, a visitor would come across various spots - where students of Dhaka University sit in rows, chatting and possibly planning their future. It is a place where the streets widen to make room for creative minds and the walls are covered with political graffiti and posters. Chairman of Workers Party of Bangladesh, Rashed Khan Menon considered it as a parallel school of progressive thought, politics and rational debates, and till date he believes, “its yard is filled with the leaders of tomorrow.”
Family members and former students of Dhaka University remember Madhu Da and the vibrant centre that he unwittingly created that became the epicentre of many significant movements.
There are also amusing stories about this legendary canteen. Madhu Da's son Arun Kumar Dey talks about a ledger called 'Na Diye Udhao' ('disappeared without paying') that has a rather eminent list of debtors including the likes of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ataur Rahman Khan and so on. The historical ledger, however, was lost after Madhu Da's death in 1971.
Rashed Khan Menon recollects: “I heard that Madhu Da had a ledger called Na Diye Udhao. It contains many well-known names of today." "Perhaps my name is also there!" he laughs.
"Madhu Da used to visit different government offices to collect his dues. Most of the time such efforts were in vain" he adds. "But still he used to do it cheerfully because I know that he enjoyed visiting old faces.”
Madhu Da was far more than just the canteen operator. Arun Kumar, now the director of Madhur Canteen says that his father always used to help the students and never very particular about retrieving the dues the students owed him.
He tells the Star, “Sometimes, students mockingly complained that Madhu Da, you charge extra. My father would relply, 'give me less when you will pay all the dues, it is not possible for me to keep correct accounts all the time'. He was very simple man and always tried to help the students. I believe his long presence among the student leaders made him a political analyst as well.”
During the rule of East Pakistan, before every political movement, student leaders and activists used to gather at Madhur Canteen. It was for this that after the military crackdown by the Pakistani army, Madhu Sudan Dey was killed in the dark night of March 26, 1971.
Arun recalls the agonising incident, “My brother and his wife were the first victims. When they arrested my father, my mother tried to save him. But, they did not care and started firing. My mother died instantly while my father fell to the ground with one bullet hitting himone of his hands. And then they dragged my father to Jagannath Hall playground. There he was killed with many students.” Since then, Arun Kumar Dey has been running the canteen.
Like a fresco, the canteen's ceiling is painted in green and red stretching from east to west. Today's Madhur Canteen once used as a 'Darbar Hall' of Nawabs for formal and informal meetings. Built as a skating rink and a ballroom for the Nawabs, it was later converted into a dining hall and meeting place for students and faculty of Dhaka University. This is where the Muslim League of India was formed in 1906.
The history of Madhur Canteen dates back to 1921, late Aditya Chandra Dey, started the Canteen with his fifteen-year-old sons Madhu. At that time they used to sell different types of sweets and confectionary. In 1935, soon after Aditya Chandra's death, Madhusudan Dey began to run the Canteen. Gradually he became a popular figure among the student leaders and became fondly known as “Madhuda”. His towering popularity changed the Canteen's billboard and within years it was renamed Madhur Canteen.
In the late 1960s, Madhur Canteen became a focal point for planning student protests against the West Pakistan regime. Flanked on one side by the Arts Faculty of Dhaka University and on the other by the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), till date the Madhur Canteen remains a powerful political symbol in the country.
In 1995, Toufiq Hosen Khan a second year student of fine arts engraved a sculpture of Madhu Sudan Dey, which remains as a reminiscence of Madhu Da, who connect himself with the protest and struggle of the people in 1971. In an interview with the Star Toufiq says, “Madhu Da is one of the inspiring figures and a role model for the students and he is also a martyr of the Liberation War. So I wanted to do something that will stay as a permanent mark of respect and to tell the students about Madhu Da.”