The saga of the port city of Chattogram

A view of Chattogram city	—Collected Photo A view of Chattogram city —Collected Photo

As days wear on, the residents of Chattogram continue to see the city's deterioration in almost all sectors. Ranging from traffic gridlocks, water logging, rise in unplanned construction of multi-storey buildings, hill levelling, to deforestation --- few urban ills are there that do not plague the city. But Chattogram once didn't fail to earn the reputation of being a city with extraordinary features. It is set against the backdrop of highly sought-after gifts of nature --- a coast line, the coalescence of the Karnafuli River into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, dense forests grown on hill ranges, clean air to the indigenous people's scattered villages. All these evocative phenomena of nature and their peaceful coexistence with humans would dominate the city even in the last phase of the 20th century.

Nowadays, water logging of the important roads and residential areas is a normal feature. Upscale areas like Halishahar these days remain submerged with high tide water for long hours. The scourge has become chronic thanks to the inability of the high-tide water to flow back into the sea through rivers. In its return to its source, the water has to struggle with a lot of hindrances mainly resulting from garbage and sludge accumulated in the major and minor canals. Flooding of the busy streets due to the overflowing of sewerage lines adds to the scourge of blocked water flows. The overall atmosphere of the city of Chattogram keeps being smeared by scores of afflictions. Criminal activities like mugging, harassment of women, violence let loose by teenage gangs and drug abuse are some of them.       

In spite of all these modern-day maladies, the early days of the largest city of the land after Dhaka were impressive. These differences were marked by the major aerial features characterising the two cities. The 21st century Chattogram city doesn't have many ruins of concrete structures and ancient historical sites like those seen in Dhaka. Whatever remains of the days gone by not long ago are mainly found scattered across the city. These sites are on the way of crumbling to the ground. According to historians focused on Chattogram, previously Chittagong and Porto de Grande de Bengala during Portuguese occupation, was once filled with Stone Age fossils and tools unearthed in the region. They indicate that Chattogram has been inhabited since Neolithic times. It has been proved to be an ancient port city, with a recorded history dating back to the 4th century BC. Another school of historians links the port's trading activity with the Arab-Yemini traders centred in Baghdad. Its decline occurred after the eventual weakening of the Portuguese armada in wars, especially in Somalia's Mogadishu.  Chattogram gained its city status in 1863, much later than the eastern Bengal capital Dhaka.

 As the port city's formal journey began from the start of operation of its seaport in the 9th century, the port area should have stood witness to the journey of the city's development throughout the later centuries. Unfortunately, not much of their remnants could be found today. Thanks to its seaside location beside a spacious river, lush green hills and hillocks spanning it, Chattogram didn't take long to be counted among the popular health resorts, which existed in the 18th -20th century Indian sub-continent. Those included Darjeeling, Shillong, Nainital, Goa, Puri and many others.

However, the scenic beauty began paling from the late 1960s. By that time, the frenzy of constructing residential and office buildings, movement of automobiles, mass-scale migration to the port city had begun in full swing. The process of an insidious metamorphosis gripped the city. The changes could be found spectacularly in the city's busy urban centres, and the fast emerging residential neighbourhoods. The port city's urban unfolding began in full swing in the post-Liberation War period.

True to its heroic legacy starting from the anti-British ambush of the revolutionary soldiers guided by their leader Surya Sen to the broadcasts of the Swadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendra from March 26, 1971 onwards, Chattogrm played decisive roles in all liberation struggles fought by the Bengalees. The port city witnessed many other revolutionary activities throughout the 9-month Liberation War. Compared to its heroic role in the struggle for the Bangladesh independence, the city had got little recognition until the 21st century. Many blame it on the dearth of Chattogram-born patriotic leaders and revolutionary workers, who should have marched alongside the mainstream Bengalee leaders based in Dhaka. As it became clear in the following years, Chattogram, essentially, was a commerce-based yet tourist city.

But the city's fame as an attractive tourist spot and a great income source at one time began plummeting. In terms of law and order and peaceful liveability, Chattogram was considered an exemplary city in Bengal, and later in independent Bangladesh. Due to this reason, the port city with its unique urban calmness amid its low-height hill ranges carved out a distinctive place for itself. Due to this reason, it didn't fail to raise a distinctive class of creative artists and academics. They included both permanently and temporarily Chattogram-based authors, little magazine editors, group theatre activists, scholars and academics. Abul Fazal, Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury were among the revered academics and poets. In the following years, Prof Anisuzzaman, Abu Hena Mostafa Kamal et al helped the port city academia elevate itself to find a new and solid footing. Poets Mohammad Rafiq, Altaf Hossain, Shaheed Quaderi came all the way from Dhaka to join Suchorit Chowdhury, Abul Momen and others to make Chattogram a vibrant centre of the arts. They brought out the literary journal 'Ochira'. Murtaja Baseer from Dhaka also came along to join them. The literary scene in the 1970s witnessed a creative vibrancy already sweeping over Dhaka. The port city's wave of the Spark Generation's new literature attracted young writers from all parts of the country. Apart from Dainik Azadi, the city soon witnessed the publication of The Purbokone, The Daily Life and a few low-circulation Bangla dailies. Chattogram also proved itself to be a publication centre, with 'Boighor' in the chief focus.

It is really heartbreaking to see how lawlessness and violence vitiated the city. Side by side with it, urban pollution of different kinds, bouts of lawlessness and neighbourhood-based violence, intra-party feuds on the university campus continue to detract from the city's past glory and charm. Had it not for the Chittagong Port, the Patenga beach and the Karnafuli bank, the city would long have relegated to a minor regional town. Besides, the city's Khatunganj wholesale business centre's century-old past activities continue only as a reminder of Chattogram's past commercial importance. Though moribund, it has yet to fade out completely.


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