Chattogram's charm

The War Cemetery. There are 751 graves of soldiers, some as young as 18, who lost their lives in the Second World War.-VIJAY LOKAPALLY

The port city values tradition and is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka. Vijay Lokapally's jottings.

May 16: Chittagong, in Bengali, is Chattogram. A laidback port city with a rich culture. People here take pride in telling you that the city is cleaner and less polluted than Dhaka, and far more friendly and happening. There are no discos or big theatres but the city is developing into a successful commercial hub with great attractions for young manufacturers. It's a year now since Pizza Hut started an outlet in the city after its success in Dhaka. But western fast food is not really popular here since local eateries offer a variety of fare.

The Foy's Lake is a popular destination. Apart from the man-made lake, the spot also has a huge amusement park. Its serene surroundings make for a fascinating sight. The place is very popular with the Chittagong kids.

Here, one runs into a freedom fighter from the liberation war and he goes on a nostalgic trip — of the days when the city was not so populated and not so fiercely driven by commercial greed. But Chattogram has still managed to retain much of its old charm and there is plenty of room for tradition. The city is quite different from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka, which is on the overdrive to catch up with the rest of the world.

May 17: "Please visit the War Cemetery,'' the hotel receptionist says. It nestles on a hill that has now become a concrete jungle. But the greenery at the cemetery has been protected from the invasions of property grabbing sharks. There are 751 graves of soldiers, some as young as 18, who lost their lives in the Second World War. Families from Britain, Australia, India, the Netherlands and Japan still visit this cemetery to pay homage to their dear ones.

Two women's colleges, one medical and the other arts, flank the cemetery. During breaks, the students relax in the lush green environs of the cemetery. The hotel receptionist perhaps lives somewhere close to the cemetery, and for some good reason promotes it as a tourist spot.

May 18: The photographers are cross. A wicket has fallen off the first ball and some of them don't have the best shot. Deshkalyan Choudhary of AFP is always smiling but not this morning. He has just about managed to click the disturbed stumps of Wasim Jaffer. The opener joins a list of 21 batsmen, including four Indians — Sunil Gavaskar, Sudhir Naik, W. V. Raman and S. S. Das — who were out to the first ball of a Test match. Jaffer can draw consolation from the fact that the great Gavaskar has been out to the first ball of a match twice. Mushrafe Bin Mortaza is understandably on cloud nine as he goes on a long celebratory run, his team-mates striving to keep pace.

Jaffer trudges back to the pavilion and Choudhary checks his "booty.'' Not bad, he has a picture that should get into print for its sheer timing. But the photographers get together and prepare a mock protest to the ICC. "Bring in a rule that no bowler should take a wicket off the first ball of the day. We need time to settle down.'' Choudhary laughs it off and settles down for another long and taxing day at the Bir Sreshtha Stadium.

May 19: As we step out of the Chittagong Club, two school buses swing into the adjacent lane. Curiosity takes us on an interesting trail. It is a steep climb and atop the hill is the Zia Memorial. It was once the Circuit House. On a dark morning in May 1981, Gen. Zia-ur-Rehman, the Bangladesh President, was assassinated in this building. The caretaker tells us the structure is nearly 100 years old, a typical piece of British architecture and amazingly well maintained by the authorities, keeping alive the memory of one of the architects of the SAARC Movement and of course a free and modern Bangladesh. The building has on display his personal belongings, and the articles used by the General on the morning of his death. The wall near the spot he was assassinated still has bloodstains, while there are bullet marks on the floor and the staircase. The last section has on display newspaper clippings. The school kids, boisterous at the entrance, are in a sombre mood as the teacher explains the nation's rocky past, recounting motivating tales from the freedom struggle, and exhorting them to learn the lessons well for the sake of a bright future.

May 20: One wakes up to the sweet sound of rain pelting on the windowpanes. The greenery outside is so soothing to the eye but the thought of no cricket is also worrying for those who need to send in mandatory dispatches to their newspapers and news agencies. The drive to the ground is pleasant though. It has rained heavily. The roads in the city have been washed clean and there is an urge to enjoy the weather. News filters in that the teams are indoors and the ground resembles a pool. The umpires call off play early and the media box welcomes a hard-earned holiday in friendly Chittagong. There is plenty to do. The Ocean Mall is a favourite haunt.

Dinesh Karthik and his wife are hopping from one shop to another. A lanky youngster walks into a music shop and picks up the latest Hindi albums. His range of choice is vast — from ghazals to pop. Shahadat Hossain, the athletic Bangladesh medium-fast bowler, is the new rage in town, but in the mall he goes un-noticed. None recognises him in his casual attire as he explores Hindi music and Bollywood movies.

May 21: Hats off to the ground staff. It has worked tirelessly to give the faithful fans some cricket to watch. And there is plenty of action even though the debate on why matches are scheduled in this part of the country at this time of the year rages. "Even a kid would tell you it rains a lot in Chattogram,'' fumes Mustafa Mamun, a reputed cricket journalist. When it rains, we understand one cannot fight nature but what about the facilities at the venue? The drainage system is non-existent. What is perplexing is that the Bir Sreshtha Stadium was newly constructed with the aim of providing the spectators a modern facility. It is modern in all aspects except the playing field. The cricketers are immensely frustrated at having to wait for hours for the play to resume. The Bangladesh team does not mind it. A draw is as good as a victory for the young hopefuls. It is Rahul Dravid's team that wears a sullen look the whole day.

May 22: Grameenphone is the sponsor of the series. In Bangladesh, it is a major telecom company along with Bangla Link and the newly-launched Warid, which has ventured out of the United Arab Emirates. The sponsor has invested richly in Bangladesh cricket, hoping for the team to do well in the coming season. Almost every other day, volunteers from Grameenphone visit the media box, distributing T-shirts. Some grab them, while the others refuse them politely. United News of India's Arindam Basu is the chirpiest of the lot, keeping his mates entertained during the long and dreary breaks due to rain. Even as someone quips, "Grameenphone could have given complimentary mobile sim cards instead of these T-shirts,'' Basu comes up with a gem: "An umbrella each would have been a perfect gift.''

A most befitting advisory from Basu to scribes travelling to Chattogram in May. "Please carry an umbrella to be able to see the city, if not cricket."