Déjà vu in Dhaka en route Elysium

What is that sweet intoxication with the past? The past that beckons us so enticingly to a world to which we can never return. Like unrequited love, the days gone by leave us with a sense of yearning, and we are drawn to the past like a moth to a flame. But sometimes an adroit wordsmith can lead us, without getting our wings burned, on an intriguing journey to the days of yore, on a trip down memory lane, and quench that nostalgia that troubles our souls.

And it is Chowdhury Ishraq Uz Zaman who is that blessed soul who has not just taken us down the alleys and lanes of yesteryear, but also opened up vistas of a landscape with a flourish of his pen -- a landscape  replete with busy streets, busier vendors and the all the hustle and bustle of the Dhaka that was Dacca.

The book is 'In the Corridors of Elysium'. While basically it may be about the author's journey from home to school and back again, it is much more. It is a kaleidoscope of the colours that throbbed in the city's veins. The author has added a sub-title to the book's name -- 'Of Legends, Legacies and Lost Treasures.' He captures the essence of the book in those words, words that lure us into the pages, down the streets of Dhanmandi, past New Market, entering Armanitola, up in front of Victoria Park and ultimately to his dear alma mater St Gregory's High School.

"Every step we take towards a destination is a step left behind in the past, never to be retraced again"

Zaman refers to his endeavour -- this book -- as a Time Machine. Again, an apt label. While HG Wells' novel by that name is an apocalyptic  journey to the future, this voyage is a step back in time.

This time-traveller's tale begins in Chapter 2, 'Pearls of Paradise', where the writer as a little boy is on this daily trek to school, partly on foot and partly by bus. This chapter takes us from New Market to Victoria Park, and what a trip!

As he trudges behind his elder companion, the descriptions are so evocative, we feel we are there too -- walking down the bustling sidewalks with the dirty drains. The cries of vendors all around, the all too familiar daily din of Dhaka. These descriptions have echoes of RK Narayan, whose works were unpretentious with an underlying sense of humour, reminding readers of the people we pass every day, the neighbours and unnamed albeit familiar faces.

"Every step we take towards a destination is a step left behind in the past, never to be retraced again," writes the author. Aha! But you have proven yourself wrong, writer! Not only have you retraced your steps, but you have dragged us along with you too, very willingly, I admit.

People of the author's generation can relate to the sights and sounds, the people and places. The generation of today can grasp a sense of the past. The present, after all, is meaningless without an understanding of the past.

His description of a 'photo studio' may confuse the younger 'smartphone' generation, but it brings a smile to the faces those turning grey at the temples when he describes the rudimentary studio as 'a rickety wooden chair, a piece of white cloth, and a wooden camera.'

The passages of the book about New Market remind one of the time when New Market was more than just a shopping centre, it was central to a teenager's life, a part of 'hanging out', the ideal 'adda' spot just as the malls in America were to the teens there.

And when Zaman goes through an old family photo album, the manner in which he describes his feels, also describes how the reader feels in the 'Corridors of Elysium'. He writes that the pictures, "threw the floodgates of nostalgia wide open"  and recalls the "tsunami of memories that flooded" him.

People of the author's generation can relate to the sights and sounds, the people and places. The generation of today can grasp a sense of the past. The present, after all, is meaningless without an understanding of the past.

The bicycle shops of Bangshal speak volumes also of the values that families nurtured. There was no such thing as instant gratification back then. To children of today who are used to getting the latest gadget the moment they demand for it, if their parents can afford (often if they can't too, alas!), it may seem appalling that the writer's father didn't get him a cycle until he was in college or that the writer went to school by public bus, his father refusing his mother's suggestion to take him by car. This sentence says it all, "My siblings and I somehow also seemed to be able to instinctively comprehend the undercurrent that set the tone of our family's stance on matters relating to 'need' and 'capacity' and, therefore, usually refrained from making undue demands." O tempora, o mores! Oh, the times, oh the customs!

What other gems does this book offer us in terms of sights and sites of the dear old city? The 'murir tin' bus rumbling along like a reluctant overburdened beast. The lassi making process -- one can almost taste the frothy white concoction -- the yogurt drink chilled with chips of ice.

When the little Zaman arrives at school, the reader is compelled to draw in a sharp breath at the description: "Eventually it was time for me to get off that sidewalk. The journey's end was ushered in by the emergence -- out of a backdrop of a myriad of structures and a canopy of mature greenery -- of an edifice of stately magnificence and majestic beauty. This was Saint Gregory's High School'.

Even a football game of the boys is described with such an entertaining analogy -- "ten little football players chasing a Pied Piper everywhere it went." A unique description, rather!

Thus from the cover to the end, the book is replete with revelations of the socio-economic circumstances of Dhaka at the time, the ethics, the trade and commerce, the education, the places, and of course, the main protagonist of the book, Saint Gregory's.

The parting tribute is beautiful - 'Many of our teachers at St Gregory's High School, especially the senior teachers, have moved on from here to the thereafter and are now wandering happily and freely on the Fields of Elysium. I am sure they are, as much as I am, assured of the fact that they have left behind on Earth a likeness of themselves in terms of bountiful knowledge, sublime thoughts, enlightening philosophies, uncompromising principles and caring souls in each and every student whose lives they have touched."

As a student, Zaman carries on that torch with pride and gratitude.

One does not have to be a Gregorian to be glued to the book from start to end. Anyone who lives and loves Dhaka, will love this book too. Even to those who have no inkling of Dhaka or St Greogory's, this is a compelling read, a memoir of a remarkable memorist.

'In the Corridors of Elysium ' is available online here.