A mythical place called Bangla Motors

Below is the original post on Bangla Motors that I wrote in November 2005. Since then I revised it twice, the first version appearing in an Eid special of Dhaka’s New Age newspaper in 2006 and the more substantial revision published in the Arts and Letters magazine of the Dhaka Tribune on April 6, 2017. The latest version can be found here.

If you go to Dhaka, Bangladesh, you may come across a place called "Bangla Motors." Buses stop there, and rickshaws, CNG’s, and taxis can get you there. It stands at the intersection of Mymensingh and Moghbazaar roads, roughly halfway between the Shonargaon and Sheraton hotels. Do not, however, look for a business by the name of "Bangla Motors." There isn’t one.
    There never was. The name is testimony to the determined way Bangladeshis were eager to wipe out the legacy of Pakistani rule after the country became independent.

I was born in a house at this very intersection. After the British left the subcontinent and Dhaka became capital of East Pakistan, my father had opened a garage and car dealership with the name "Pak Motors." It sold cars made by the British Motor Company. At that time, many businesses embraced names associated with the new country of Pakistan.
    Though "Pak Motors" the business collapsed fairly quickly, "Pak Motors" as place name had already entered history. As the first major business in the area, it immediately gifted its name to the intersection, and it became the name of the local bus stop.
    My father was left with a big concrete building that had housed the garage. This building would go through many changes over the years. In the mid-50s, it was rented out to the U.S. Consulate as a warehouse. As a child, I remember seeing my first American. He was black; we called him Cartooz, though his name was probably Mr. Curtis. I don’t recall anything else from the time the Americans actually used the place, but when they left, my brother and I went through all the discards they left behind. Most of it was junk. But the broken pieces of air conditioners and electrical equipment became materials out of which we could fashion things for play. We also came across some cans of "diet drinks." We had no clue what that meant, but since we were thin ourselves, we didn’t want to drink anything that would turn us even skinnier. The line around the family was that if some food item was suspect, we ought to take it over to an uncle who was a communist. It was said he would eat anything, so those cans went to him. I do not know what he did with them.
    In the coming years, the government would periodically widen Mymensingh Road in front of the building. The first time the construction job went to an Italian company and Fiat trucks idled nearby, spewing their diesel exhaust. I remember it smelling kinda sweet.
    The building would be shorn of its front, and it was turned into a commercial building with a row of storefronts on the ground level, and offices upstairs. There was a bakery that sold bread, biscuits, patties, cakes, and carbonated beverages. There was a store that sold car batteries. My mother rented one of the storefronts to start up a pharmacy; within a few years it passed on to the compounder. A doctor, who was for many decades to come our family physician, set up his offices upstairs. A saw mill set up shop next to the building.
    Next to this building was another business that my father began and passed on to others: a petrol pump with a service station. It started off as a Burmah Oil Company station but that soon became Burmah Shell. After independence, it would sport a Bengali brand name. Across the street there was a photo studio, Minerva studios, and the Hotel Daffodil. Across the intersection, another petrol pump was constructed. If memory serves me right, it began as an Esso brand station.

In 1971, Bangladesh became independent. There was no way people would mouth Pak Motors any more. The name of the intersection simply became "Bangla Motors."
    All reminders of the Pakistani period had to go. Ayub Gate near Mohammedpur had already in the popular mind become Asad Gate, after Asad, the first martyr of the 1968-69 mass upheaval against the dictator Ayub Khan. Jinnah Avenue would become Bongobondhu Avenue.
The curious thing is that Dhaka maintains some place names associated with the British colonial period, such as Minto Road, Bailey Road, even English Road in the old part of town. The English were there for more than 200 years and that legacy is deep. But the period of Pakistani domination lasted only 24 years and the memory of that period is tainted with the brutality of military rule and the war they launched against our strivings for freedom.
    A couple of years ago, the original Pak Motors building was torn down. It is being replaced with a new high-rise structure. As a result, there is no more physical remnant of the old Pak Motors. Bangla Motors will continue to be the name by which the intersection will be called. It will be a pure cultural artifact, testimony to historical change unmoored from any material object.
    But before Pak Motors came to be, this used to be once a rural settlement on the outskirts of Dhaka. What was it called then? That name has long been obliterated by history.
    When I think of the way Bangla Motors came to be, I sometimes wonder, shorn of all place names, signboards, labels, what is the legacy of the Pakistani period? The British left behind a very strong mark on economy, politics, and culture in the country. During the Pakistani period, there was some industrialization, some modernization, and the setting up of such cultural institutions as the Dhaka film development zone, the radio and television, etc. Is the Pakistani legacy today mainly to be seen in the growth of the influence of the Islamic right wing that wants to impose a religious, communal stamp on the country? Or are there other ways in which the Pakistani period marked us that continue? I am curious.

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7 Comments

  1. Farah Ghuznavi

    I loved this! It reminded me of many of the “flavours” I recall from my own childhood (i.e. the occasional encounter with a completely unknown object such as a “diet drink”, the odd and inexplicable relative whom everyone has a certain take on etc), when Dhaka was not just a different place, but a different world…This piece captures the sense of that very well.

  2. prachi

    enjoyed this entry, mahmud. the question you raise is a serious one, with sometimes hilarious but mostly tragic consequences: think ayodhya, for one. sometimes i think that the “recentness” of the conquest brings with it an urgency to remove all traces of it and then we indulge in our favourite activity of renaming stuff hoping all those traces will immediately vanish…. but then we’ve also seen how it’s more important to erase muslim symbols than british ones in india. so perhaps it’s the ‘other’ that is critical to one’s selfhood that gets most treatment, while smaller others are deemed less threatening: in the case of bangladesh, certainly, that other is pakistan, no? actually, i am also curious about how the pakistan movement, which was very strong and vocal in urban centers like dhaka and chittagong, is taught nowadays in standard bangladeshi history classes.

  3. Mahmud

    It seems to me that our desire to rid the symbols of Pakistan had a great deal to do with the emergence of Bangladesh through a bloody war against the occupation. Perhaps the brevity of the Pakistan period, not even 25 years, also meant that it wasn’t very hard to rid ourselves of the symbols of that period. The British period spanned a couple of centuries, the imprint in our social fabric was deeper, and besides, the departure of the British rule is not, in Bengal, remembered so much as freedom as it is remembered as “partition.” In popular consciousness, a different narrative triumphed over the anti-colonial one.
    However, your question about how the history of the Pakistan period is taught in Bangladesh is an interesting one. I don’t know the answer. I do know that the history of the post-independence period, the history that is propagated in the popular realm, has been thoroughly politicized in the framework of the factionalism of our two main political parties.

  4. I loved reading this passage. this passage brought sooo many flash backs. As i read this passage i can see how many things we as in Bangladeshi’s although i was no where at that time, meaning i wasnt even born. But the thing im tryin to say if we can overcome a war den y cant we bring these political parties down and just united Bangladesh as a whole instead of 2 parties havin fights after fights and just plainly killin each other, and y cant we stop all the corruptions in this small country. Im not tryin to attack anyone here in my writing or point the finger, if any one felt attacked on or feel hurt…. im sorry. i jus wana no Y CANT WE UNITE

  5. Too many typos and miss put and left out words in the above writing. i forgot to proofread sorry

    I loved reading this passage. this passage brought sooo many flash backs. As i read this passage i can see how many things we as in Bangladeshi’s overcame, although i was no where at that time, meaning i wasn’t even born. But the thing i don’t understand, if we can overcome and win a war den y cant we bring these political parties together and just united Bangladesh as a whole instead of 2 parties, having fights after fights and just plainly killing ourselves, and y cant we stop all the corruptions in this small tiny country. I’m not trying to attack anyone here in my writing or point the finger, if any one felt attacked on or feel hurt…. i’m sorry. i just want to no y CANT WE BE UNITED AS ONE BENGLADESH.

  6. jibon

    I have searched detailed past history of Bangla Motors in public library and internet. But found nothing except this article. Almost all history books on Dhaka inform us only about old Dhaka (from Sadarghat to Ramna), not about the new Dhaka (from Bangla Motors to Uttara).

  7. A.mustafa

    I have been to your house many many times to visit Sunny uncle and Donira aunty with my dad Ghulam Mustafa who worked for James Finlay and friends with Sunny uncle since the war. I have fond memories of your mother and event went to Pagla to visit your country home once by speed boat.

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