By Anas Khwaja
Nawab Bari A state within a state Ahsan Manzil and its adjacent Nawabbari was a private residential property since Khwaja Alimullah moved from his Begum Bazaar residence in the mid 18th century. Ahsan Manzil and Nawabbari had three main entrances. The first entrance was from the south side of Ahsan Manzil overlooking Buriganga. The second cast iron gate was on the west side by Mr. K.M. Ismail’s house, Riverview at 7 Ahsanullah Road leading to Wiseghat Road. This gate was also known as Ismail Mia’s gate. The third entrance known as Nohbat Khana was on the north side leading to Islampur road. There were also two narrow alleys from Talab Kinaar (Round Tank) leading to Ampatti (Shahzada Mia lane) and Buckland Bundh. Members of the Dhaka Nawab Family lived for many generations in this gated community and grew mostly through inter family marriages. That is how the family remained tightly knit and the closed door community remained closed for outsiders for years.
This vicinity was not only secluded but very safe. According to elders, even runaway criminals or rioters found sanctuary once inside the perimeter of Nawab Bari. British Police did not dare to step inside to arrest them. Female family members like Afsani Begum with her peers would swim on the serene water of Nawabbari pond (Alimullah tank). Ambassador K.M.Kaiser’s autobiography mentions his father K.M.Manzoor (nephew of Nawab Khwaja Abdul Ghani) used to bring grocery with a coolie. Collie or Jamadar (cleaner) were considered outsiders. Such outsider’s entrance was marked by warning “Mardana Avay, Mardana Avay”, so women would go inside and maintain purdah. Even as late as 1980, Nawabbari was literally outside the range of section 144. Curfew, martial law or hartal (strike), life inside Nawabbari Talab Kinaar was as usual. As if it was a state within a state.
Winds of change Things started to change in early seventies. Javed Hassan son of Zebunnesa Begum (daughter of K.M.Ahad) was the pioneer in fabric business in Nawabbari. He inherited a sari store in Sadarghat and started importing fabric from China. His contemporary was Khwaja Showkat Kamal and K.M.Shakil who had a shop in East Bengal Market. This Khwaja duo introduced imported “Cut Piece” a bye product of garments industry from Japan and soon found a lucrative consumer base. To sell this high quality but cheap “cut piece” and “than”, makeshift tin shaded stores started to spring up on the entrance to Nawab Bari from Islampur road. Khwaja Afsaruddin a.k.a (Cheena man) organized a flea market on Nawab of Dhaka’s stable (Astabal) and named after himself-“Cheena Market”. Khwaja Borhanuddin (son of K. Kamaluddin Kiti Mia) turned his ancestral home into first clothing market .Slowly other residential complexes in Nawabbari one after another were tore down and commercial clothing markets made inroads. To name a few early constructions in chronological order Anwar Market, Zaheer Market, Huq Market, Mansur Castle Market, Habibullah Market, Arzoo Market and Zebunnesa Market .
Economic Boom The commercialization of Nawab Bari changed the fortune for many Nawabbarians. Stipend (Mushara) from the Nawab Estate had ebbed long time ago. Nawab Askari Jute mill was nationalized during Mujib era. DNFA motors and Deen Brothers Limited – a distributor of tobacco products who provided jobs to many family members were declining in early 70’s. After independence mostly urdu speaking Dhaka Nawab Family members found themselves unprepared for the job market. In this bleak scenario fabric market came as a savior. The landowners enriched with salami (advance for long term lease) made multistory buildings while monthly rent from the shops and apartments became stable source of income. Many young family members turned entrepreneur, some freelancers and others became salesman. Some started their own dying business. There was growing demand from wholesalers for warehouse space. Shop owners, salesman and others also preferred to live in close proximity to work. These factors caused Nawabbari’s real estate value to sky rocket.
Masjid The management of the Nawabbari Jame Masjid silently changed hands from Alimillah Waqf to local merchant association body (predominantly outsiders). Off course this came as blessing and for the betterment of the mosque.
Rent from Footpath Rent collected from the tiny roadside stores locally known as “Tome” which went to run Bachelor Sporting Club is now going to Moulvi Abdullah Welfare Trust coffer. Taka 428,000.00 was collected for twelve months ending December 31 2009 which is ultimately disbursed among the trust beneficiaries.
This economic prosperity for the Nawabbarians came at an enormous social cost.
Maktab Nawab Habibullah School, locally known here as Maktab was one of the victims of commercialization. This one story school which stood right opposite to the Nawabbari Jame Masjid for 100 years was demolished in favor of market. The Maktab was rebuilt over market in a dilapidated condition.
Municipal Market Bnagladesh government acquired Astabal (Stable) on the northern side of Ahsan Manzil and turned it into a municipal market. This was done on 3rd November 1985 through martial law act 4/1985. The total acquired area was .6886 acre with compensation of Taka 43,71,599.20. Corrupt government officials benefited from the shop allotments in the municipal market. They compromised the solemnity of a historical landmark for greed. The north gate of Ahsan Manzil or Nohbat Khana was left in ruin.
Lost constituency Fabric market accompanied a flock of businessmen and realtors who vie for power. It would be impossible for remaining native Nawabbarians to win against these deep pocketed businessmen for Municipal Ward commissioner’s office.
Traffic Today Ambulance, fire truck or daily traffic find it impossible to ply through sea of shoppers in ever narrowing Ahsanullah Road. Friday is the only day one dares to drive in Nawabbari when markets are closed.
Sports Realtors have turned every possible square inch into shops leaving no room for playground. Chota Chakkar, Bara Chakkar, Chaman is no longer there. Once considered the breeding ground of national hockey and badminton players has become a concrete jungle.
Conclusion With commercialization of residential property Nawab family members living in the area found them as millionaires overnight. Markets named after the native landowners still bear the names. As a respectful gesture markets are closed with death of native landlord or any family member until deceased’s Janaza prayer. With passage of days local residents found it difficult to commute for school or office. With change in demography Nawabbari lost its charm. For many the neighborhood was no longer viable to live with family. As real estate value went up they sold their properties and moved to other parts of Dhaka city- taking only memories of what was their ancestral home for almost two centuries. Paharia Baraf & Kaseeda in Ramadan, Kawabbe, Mehendi meri lala range, Baithak, Amma baad in Jumma, Janaza baleg Marad ka hai in Janaza , hockey, Mandila are all gone in reality. They only live in splintered family member’s memory who witnessed those golden days. Cloth market has pulled thread from our social fabrics one at a time, destroyed the family and once what used to be its rich culture.