Shah Alam , my friend!

Biswanath Bhattacharya

February 22, 2023, 09:53:19   

Shah Alam , my friend!

I guess one of the biggest ironies of our lives is that when we are children, we long to grow up and become adults. When we do become adults, we long to go back to childhood. We long for our childhood friends and for the carefree days we shared with them. We lived life king size, squeezing everything we could out of it. We were anxious to go out in the mornings, reluctant to return home in the evenings.


All of us have fond memories of some particular friends, who were inseparable twin souls, as was Shah Alam for me.


I was born in Wabagai Village near Miang Imphal , Manipur. When I was 9 months old, my family moved to Chhatian Village of Habygang Subdivision (now District ) in Sylhet District. When we migrated from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1959, we put up for a very short period of about nine months in the subdivisional town of Dharmanagar. I was enrolled in a school there in Class V. Immediately after I was promoted to Class VI, my father was transferred to Sonamura, which in due course of time became my second motherland. I was coached to attend school suited and booted, but the atmosphere in my alma mater Nabadwip Chandra (NC) Institution, where I spent the best of my childhood and adolescent days, differed sharply. Suited and booted Biswanath was a hilarious novelty to the other students of Class VI. I had not inherited the virtues of my grandmother but I did inherit her complexion. She was a petite beauty rather like an English lady. My complexion was reddish gold and my eyes were brown, covered by dark eyelids—so dark and so deep that older girls at the school taunted me, saying, “Hey, Biswanath, are you not ashamed of wearing kajol? Are you not a boy?” in reality, I used no cosmetics, which were almost taboo for us. My classmates came in the school uniform of sky-blue shirts and white shorts, but were barefooted. Very soon, I decided discretion was the better part of valour and followed suit. I threw away my boots, much to the chagrin of my grandmother. I attended school barefooted up to Class X. 


Two boys captivated me. One was Krishnananda Laskar and the Kazi Shah Alam. We were a troika. The fourth was Ali Imam Mazumdar. He lived life under a rigid schedule: his active school day started sharp at10:30 am and ended sharp at 04:30 pm. As soon as the last school bell rung, he set off on a longish trek to Kulu Bari, his village. With a big umbrella over his head, he hiked almost 8 kms coming to school and going back.


He was not the only student who travelled long distances daily to get to school. There were other students who walked considerable distances barefoot—some as much as 10–12 kms. These students came eagerly to school, without grumbling. 


Shah Alam , my friend!Our troika came to school and returned home together. The three of us were always at the same spot—be it a football or cricket field or a badminton court. We swapped never ending stories. Of the three of us, I was the most incessant chatterbox. Since Sylhet in East Pakistan was my home district, the Sylhet accent dominated my conversation (it still does). I was and remain a proud Sylheti. The Sylhetis proudly claim they know two languages—one Sylheti and the other English. I was teased by both Krishna and Shah Alam, as well as my other friends, for my accent. But little did I care! 


Really true friends are the jewels in any man's collection of acquaintances. They are hard to come by, but they are so important. They are the people who stand by your side through thick and thin, serve as your go-to travel buddy and often their presence is enough to keep you positive no matter what life throws at you. Genuine friendship is so revered that there are libraries of books, shows and movies featuring unique bonds between two or more pals.


Sonamura was then mostly inhabited by the Muslim gentry—predominantly Bhuiyans, Kazis, and Syeds. They were highly influential and pretty much owned Sonamura town. But they were truly secular, unsullied by the poison of communal differences. We lived in harmony with ourselves and therefore in harmony with the universe. Communal issues began to crack the fabric of Sonamura society with an influx of Hindu refugees from neighbouring East Pakistan in 1964. They ripped the fabric of Sonamura’s communal harmony irreparably. However, we remained unaffected by this disharmony. We were all tied together with a single raw thread of mutual regard. 


Generally, I would finish my studies at 8:00 pm at night and 8:00 am in the morning. As soon as I was done, I would run to the residence of Shah Alam, which was just two minutes away. 


Shah Alam and I would then proceed to Krishna’s house and Krishna would stow his school books somewhere on the table. We would then hang out together till we reluctantly parted to go home.


Shah Alam , my friend! In night we would be on the stairs of the Dewta Bari Temple. One Bakul tree was planted on either side of the stairs. Bakul is an evergreen tree with a distinctive appearance arising from its dark bark with deep fissures. It has a fresh and sweet fragrance. We were enthralled by that enchanting smell. Shah Alam collected some Bakul flowers for his fiancé Biva, though he would not admit it. Yes, he had a fiancé and we encouraged him. Biva happened to be a distant relative of Krishna. On every Hindu pooja and Eid, the three of us were at each other’s house. The semai and luxurious dishes of Mughlai (now Amrita dishes) like biryani, mutton/ chicken chop, Haleem, and Korma Nihari were prepared at Shah Alam’s house on Eid, all of which drove Krishna and me ravenous. 


There was another friend, Jahir Bhuiya, whose mother hailed from the Dhaka Nawab Bari. She used to prepare many types of Amrita (Mughlai) dishes. 


On Saraswathi Pooja or Laxmi Pooja day, our khichdi and Luchis were a must for Shah Alam The three of us went to each other’s kitchen without hesitation. In you, my grandmother was a Brahmin widow! 


We never neglected our studies. Every week we had to memorise two of Shakespeare’s sonnets and two Bengali poems by Rabindranath. Rabindranath and Shakespeare are ingrained in our blood, We tested each other. We never neglected the little things: never skimped on that extra effort, that additional few minutes, that soft word of praise or thanks. We never failed to do the very best that we could. We cared little what others thought. 


Shah Alam once insisted that he also needed a boot like mine. His father bought him canvas shoes which he threw in the nearby tank with disdain. He was good at the flute. On moonlit nights, we were invariably on the bank of the river Gomati, where we would experience heaven when Shah Alam played his flute against the soft backdrop of the river’s flow.  


Krishna was very good at recitation. He had big black eyes, in which I imagined I saw see the depths of the Sonamura water tank. Krishna recited the choicest poems of Rabindranath in his sonorous voice.  


Shah Alam also sang very well- I reproduce one of his favourites: 

Shah Alam , my friend!















When you can dance like there's nobody watching, love like you will never be hurt and sing and play the flute like there is nobody listening, heaven comes to you. And it happens only in childhood.


In 1964, my family had to go to Kolkata for a year. Though I missed that one year at my school, on my return I was promoted to Class X without any examination. But that relief was overshadowed by the heart-wrenching fact I could not find my friend Shah Alam. Hindu fundamentalists, especially the influx of illegal refugees, had driven his family out of India and illegally occupied their vast property. There was not even a single unit of the Muslim gentry to be found in Sonamura in 1965. 


I was shattered. I was constantly sobbing into my pillows. Shah Alam was physically not around anymore, but the bond between our souls survived, strong as ever. 

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”—Khalil Gibran