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"A Short History of Chittagong Club"

A response and review

Published : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017 at 12:00 AM Count : 233
Mahbubar Rahman

"A Short History of Chittagong Club"
Notwithstanding the fact that time passes like rippling waves of the running river before it is lost in the mist of time, yet it leaves some vestiges and traces of millions and billions of sparkling episodes of life at bend to bend to ponder over and write history--- a tale of past events. Many historical monuments, structures, places, artefacts etc spread around the world stand silent witness to passing time to enrich knowledge and wisdom of humans towards focusing to longer back in history in order to see further ahead in time frame. Hundreds or thousands of years whatever we visualize or imagine in the back of our mind and put it in record in our book of history is nothing but a history covering only a fraction of a millionth second in time frame in an epic of cosmic dimension.   
Any piece of land with building and structures standing steadfastly for long 141 year, become a part of history and quietly witness, like a holy man in meditation with eyes closed, the rise and fall of civilization in different twists and turns of passing time.
In the picturesque surrounding, a piece of land in the heart of Chittagong city spreading over 280 acres of land on a hillock stands its head held high with a clock tower at its entry to signify and remind how fast time is passing at the every stroke of a second and lost in the smog of infinity, is Chittagong club--- a hub and second home of the elites of the city for pastime.
In last 141 years, billions and trillions of gallons of water flowed through river Karnafuli, thousands of people came and gone, different floras and meadows in the wilderness bloomed uncared, trampled beneath the feet and wasted its sweetness with skies above the head still remaining as blue as it was; Chittagong club stands high with its name and fame and continue to witness how waves of life continue to flow with rhythmic pace. A piece of land carefully mounted and nestled on a curved hillock, holding carefully a club of the elites named  Chittagong Club for last 141 years judiciously demands a history to be written in its name sake.
Former chairman (2013-14) of the club Dr. Omar Faruque Yousuf felt the necessity of having written a history of Chittagong Club and accordingly requested Professor Quazi Mostain Billah of the Department of English, University of Chittagong and a Civil Service member of the club to look for a historian for the prized job. Prof. Billah could not fix up with any historian from his university because of their pre-occupation with other jobs of equal importance and finally had to take the responsibility of writing a history of Chittagong Club on his own shoulders in spite of  the fact that some Senior ex members like Mr. Mahbub Anwar, Mr. Murad Ali Kader (Robert) and others attempted and wrote history of the club in briefer form on different occasions which were duly published in the club's annual magazines and reports earlier.
It needs no mention that writing a history is not an easy job. In reality, facts belong to history and the reflections and analyses are historians' own. Without pretending to be a historian, Prof. Billah sincerely confessed that he took quite some time to initiate and finish the work. Despite all pains and predicaments standing between writing even a short history, Prof. Billah has crafted the history with elegant ease and ultimately brought out the publication 'A short History of Chittagong Club' in late 2016. Blended with extensive erudition and hard work of Prof. Quazi Mostain Billah the book has been laced with candid observations and comments which are unique of its kind.
To begin with, Prof. Billah penned a unique narrative with painting in its canvas a vivid picture of Chittagong of the early days. He wrote, how a city bedecked and ornamented by sea, lakes, woods, hills and overall a greenery abound attracted the fascination of Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and finally British to invade and settle in its soil first with the face of traders and then ruler. Duly named Porte-Granda or grand port by the Portuguese conquerors and traders, Chittagong Port--- a natural harbour unique of its kind in this region was developed on the bank of river Karnafuli.
Born in Lusai Mountain range, river Karnafuli graced the lands on its banks with fecundity for agriculture and well for developing the Porte-Granda as the Portages traders reasoned. The author of the book kept on narrating the arrival of British in Chittagong as administrative officials of the British-Raj and tea-planters who felt the necessity of establishing a club at a suitable place mainly for relieving themselves of the state of acute and chronic loneliness and boredom and to socializing with other fellow member's in their pastime. Membership of the club was restricted primarily among the white skins only.
The author narrates "while visiting Chittagong City in 1798, Dr. Francis Buchanan Hamilton gave a description of Chittagong as follows: "The town Chittagong is very populous--- It consist entirely of a number of scattered villages occupying the narrow valleys which separate the south   end of the low hills running from seetacoon (Sitakund range) to the kurrun Fullee (Karnafuli)."
Prof. Billah further quoted Arthur Lloyd Clay who served in Chittagong from 1862 to 1863. Clay's 'Leaves from a diary in lower Bengal', draws also a picturesque portrait of Chittagong. Clay say: "Chittagong is one of the prettiest places in Lower Bengal, the houses built on low hills, between which the roads wind about in a picturesque but, to a new corner, rather bewildering manner......."
Prof. Billah went on narrating further that "not all travellers complimented Chittagong. John Beams, the Deputy collector of Chittagong between 1875-6 the year of the club was initiated provisionally and in 1876, referred it loathsome. In his memoirs of a Bengal Civilian (1961) he paints a dark picture of Chittagong. Cynically, he notes, "It is deadly unhealthy, isolated from the rest of India, and the work is not only heavy but of a particularly troublesome in intricate kind. The dirt, the noxious vermin, and the smells are unique 'Chittagong the loathsome 'we called it".
But Beams' bitterness thaws when he takes up his pen to talk about the natural beauty of Chittagong. His bitterness leaves him when he portrays the landscape of Chittagong. He writes: "The district of Chittagong is a long, narrow strip bounded on the west by Bay of Bengal, on the east by a tangled network of low, densely wooded hills" Beams' description of the beauty of Chittagong shows him enraptured at times. He further writes in his memoirs: "As we sit here in a veranda hang with orchids in bloom we look down on masses of palms and other trees and on little specks of men and crawling far below-the great white river full of ships beyond wooded hills, no end to the palms and the little sparkling waterfalls. But alas! The things which our feeble human nature requires for its comfort are very bad."
Beams' loathsome primary observation about Chittagong can, however, be seen as Beams' having spewed his own dirt and vermin festering inside his insidious and vitriolic colonial mind-set despite his appreciation of beauty of Chittagong in later part of life, as I reason.  
In his narratives, Prof. Billah observed that "Beams' observation is full of gall and there was no way to confirm the veracity of his criticism as we don't have enough alternative narratives to square with his portrayal of the people. However, it can be held against him that he was judging with the typical colonial mindset', that loved the land but hated the people".
As counter narrative, Prof. Billah duly highlighted Nabin Chandra Sen's description of those days to balance the colonial narrative. "He was a poet, essayist and administrator, certainly one of the sharpest minds of his time, moreover he was a son of the soil and arguably, had first-hand knowledge of things of his birthplace as Prof. Billah further reckoned, "In his memoir Sen records his days in Chittagong as a civil servant. From his account we can see that the masters were not infallible. In his two stints he crossed swords with the British administrators a number of times and proved their ineptitudes and stupidities; he even succeeded on numerous occasions to deflate their overblown egos by his boldness and sagacity".
'A short History of Chittagong Club', portrays a short account how tea plantation was introduced in the nineteenth century. "It was begun first in Assam and Chittagong was chosen next for tea plantation. The first tea garden was started in Chittagong in 1840 in what now makes the premise of Chittagong Club".
The writer further refers former chairman of Chittagong Club Mr. Mahbub Anwar's discussion on the history of Chittagong Club where Mr. Anwar mentioned that to solve this specific problem Mr. W.A. Campbell, a tea planter, founded a provisional club to accommodate the tea planters in 1875. That was the beginning. "The present club building was mainly a bungalow for the garden manager". However within three years Campbell's provisional club was transformed into the Chittagong Club as Mr. Mahbub Anwar is said to have informed.
"Thus when Campbell's provisional club founded in 1875 transformed itself into Chittagong Club in three years offering more opportunities for accommodation; it modelled itself on the evolving English coffeehouse clubs." The Europeans flocked there to reside and socialize. Consequently, a typical colonial institute was grafted on a land here in Chittagong, out of colonial necessity by colonial masters, as Prof Billah informed.  
Having highlighted the historical background of Chittagong club in the context socio-economic conditions of Chittagong in the bygone days, the author has taken the readers to a pleasant journey navigating through the different segments of time on which Chittagong Club grew over the years. Prof. Billah has given a brief rundown of commendable development works that the club undertook over the time under the leadership of different General Committees which run the administration and management of the club.
The most spectacular development work took place in the time of General Committees with Mr Abu Tayab as Chairman of the club. The old and worn out building with leakage on its roof littering and adding extra drop of water trickled down whisky glass of the connoisseur of drinks at the bar, was replaced by a building with all modern facilities to the taste of the members, keeping consistencies of the heritage of the old club building that stood in place for long time ever since it was built during British time.
Born in the womb of colonial time with the legacy of maintaining all outlandish culture and body language club has come out with a new face of projecting our own culture long after Bangladesh came into being in 1971 after fighting a war of liberation. In spite of the fact that Chittagong club was attacked and received few flying bullets that pierced glass window panes in 1971, somehow a changed mind-set of upholding our own culture and heritage did not duly anchor in our thoughts and recesses of imagination long after we have emerged ourselves as an independent nation with rich history, culture and heritage. This is of course, due to our long enduring acquaintances and likings for alien culture with mind-set of subjects of British Raj.
At the passage of time, club now belongs to members who uphold our own culture through different cultural programs on occasion of Independence Day, Victory Day, Pahela Baishakh and other programs reflecting our home grown culture with of course, keeping in place New Year celebration, Ball dances and other programs belonging to English culture. Chittagong Club still maintains English dress code with a close collar on Club Nights where Panjabi-Pajama do not find any place in spite of the facts that other elite clubs in Bangladesh like Dhaka Club, Gulshan Club etc have no such barrier as far as the dress code is concerned. Chittagong Club's proclivity and fascination in maintaining English dress code and culture in some form or other is, however, acceptable in good sense of the term as long as the mind-set of the members remain steadfast with nationalistic zeal and spirit without being turned outlandish and sunk in the morass of stagnation.
Professor Billah duly highlighted on different Bengali cultural program that the club undertakes throughout the year with perhaps inadvertently having missed to mention about a program on 26th March 2012 in commemoration of 41th Independence Day of Bangladesh, in the tenure of Mr. Abu Tayab; recognizing and honoring the freedom fighter members of the club for their gallant role during our liberation war which has no parallel in our national history.
It goes without exaggeration that Chittagong Club is proud of its own glorious history. As the coin has its both bright and dark side, bright side of the coin often outshines temporarily by the dark side by ominous shadow. Club's good names and repute often being challenged and tarnished by corrupt and unethical activities the club got entangled with some serious litigation over transfer of membership issue engineered by a small segment of unscrupulous Committee Members. Club's leadership of course with general consensus stood steadfast in dealing with such nuisances at time they surfaced and came into the notice. Such kind of unwanted incidents that shook the core value of the club and its subsequent remedy still remain afresh in the memory of the club members that Prof. Billah has consciously noted with all fairness without concealing the fact.
Waters of Karnafuli cascading down the rivers, its creaks and tributaries from time immemorial will continue to flow thousand more years.   As a hub of socio-cultural activities, Chittagong Club witnessed the long history of 141 year and stood the test of time as one of the elite clubs not only in the country but in the sub-continent. Many came and many gone as member of the club, but the club remain standing as living testament of history, which Prof. Billah attempted to marvel at the flashes of his inspiring finding from history with his scholarly competence. Consequently the book 'A Short History of Chittagong Club' attracts attention as a stimulating piece of composition. It is easy and pleasant read. I trust this unique work will attract keen attention and interest of discerning readers. Long live Chittagong Club.
Mahbubar Rahman is a former civil servant

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