A vlogger once came to Dhaka Kendra and spotted a Victorian era lamppost right in the middle of the courtyard.
She asked Mohammad Azim Buksh, the director of Dhaka Kendra - a history, heritage and culture centre in Mohini Mohan Das lane, Farashganj, Old Dhaka – why was an old lamppost like that kept there?
"Clearly she did not know that these lampposts are tied intrinsically to the history of this old city. These once used to line the banks of the river by which this city rested," said Azim.
He then laughed heartily, saying, "But I do not blame her because these bits of history have been razed to the ground in the name of modernity. How would she know?"
Seventy-five-year-old Azim is on a mission to preserve the history of Dhaka. A dream project for 40 long years ever since he was a child, Azim brought it to life as a beneficiary project of the Maula Buksh Sardar Memorial Trust in 1997.
Situated on the second storey rooftop of the Maula Buksh Sardar Datobyo Chokkhu Hospital (an eye hospital started in 1989 by the Buksh family as a charity), Dhaka Kendra is essentially a library that was set up exclusively to showcase the rich history of Dhaka and it is free for all.
"Our family library was in our Farashganj Sardar Bari family home. Then we brought it here [on top of the hospital] in 1997 and named it Dhaka Kendra. Since the beginning we have been a part of the Library Association of Bangladesh, an association of all non-governmental libraries of Bangladesh," Azim said.
The family library contained books and novels of all kinds but Dhaka Kendra is exclusively about the rich history of Dhaka so an exclusive collection directly tied to Dhaka is put here, explained Azim.
Additionally, the centre boasts a small museum where everyday household items used by locals are displayed - such as very old pestles and mortars, a gramophone, a black and white television, rotary telephones, old coins, silver and brass crockeries as well as porcelain ones.
Some of these came directly from the Buksh household, some were donated by close relatives or by strangers who wanted to add to the historical value of the place.
The becoming of Dhaka Kenda
Azim's great-great-grandfather was in the bamboo business. But his grandfather, Pyar Buksh Sardar, wanted something different from his life.
He left home and went all the way to Kolkata to learn to be a mechanic. He became the owner of a mechanic shop in 1931 and when World War II broke out in 1939, he became the honorary foreman for the Royal Air Raid Precaution brigade.
There he looked after British military vehicles but he was also allowed to work on the few nawabs' and zamindars' motor vehicles as well. "After the war, my grandfather turned to the transport business. We had 22 buses and trucks," said Azim.
His family rose through the social ranks and his father became a Sardar (chieftain) in 1944. Earlier, he was one of the 22 panchayat leaders of Dhaka. He was also the chief of Sutrapur in Farashganj and the commissioner of ward 1.
"My siblings and I have grown up hearing about the many colours of Dhaka before our time from our father," Azim reminisced, smiling and gazing back into his childhood.
"I am only trying to preserve Dhaka's rich history, at least by allowing people to read about them," he added.
Dhaka Kendra has always been run solely by the Buksh family and the Trust.
The visual attractions of the library
A courtyard inside a house is an integral feature of every considerably large house in old town Dhaka, or at least in what is left of them. The complex housing Dhaka Kendra has one too.
The library from the second floor looks over this courtyard, right in the middle of which is the aforementioned lamppost. Even a beautiful palm tree stands tall in this courtyard, strongly reminiscent of a time when palm trees used to embellish Dhaka in its most beautiful days.
The addition of these minute details goes to show how well versed Azim Buksh himself is about the historical landscape of Old Dhaka.
Climb up a steel flight of stairs and there, in a corner, is the library - small and beautifully decorated. The grandeur of the place is in the very rich collection of books, photos, artefacts it holds.
These artefacts include all kinds of household items that belonged to the first five well known families of old Dhaka, like utensils and cutleries.
Later many more families came on their own to donate their old everyday household items, like murir tin and bakorkhani boxes, paan daani (betel leaf holder), coins and whatnot.
"The families that come forward now were once khandani families but since a lot of them have moved from this country or started doing other things, these old Dhaka items became less significant to them. But I am grateful for their contributions," said Azim.
For someone trying to walk down the memory lane, Dhaka Kendra is a hidden-in-plain-sight treasure trove. In fact, a few of the books this centre has published have been edited by Muntasir Mamoon, a professor at the University of Dhaka, a prolific author and translator. He is also a close associate of the Buksh family.
Readers can borrow the books as well. There is a book at Dhaka Kendra which Babu Reboti Mohan Das, an old Dhaka Zamindar, had given to one of his friends as a gift. He had written this book with his own hand; more like a notebook. The library also has an autobiography of Reboti Mohan.
Many books that paint a very beautiful picture of Dhaka from the old times can be found here. Those on sale are even sold for a reasonably priced range of Tk50 to Tk700.
"Although the entire library can easily accommodate 35 to 40 people, only 10 to 15 people visit everyday. But those that do, they come here for the very love of reading," Azim said.
The meticulously designed inner walls of the place inspires reading - with celluloids, sepia tinted photographs of Dhaka's people, roads and homes in black and white and sketches that exhibit the hallmarks of Dhaka from a time long gone.
"It is simply unimaginable what contemporary Dhaka once used to look like and nothing, not in a thousand years, can be done to revert her back to her former beauty and glory," sighed Azim.
He pulled out a copy of the book Dhakar Khal Pole O Nadir Chitrakar, (a pictorial story of the lakes, banks and rivers of Dhaka), a compilation by Muntassir Mamoon.
He showed us a printed panorama of paintings of Dhaka along the banks of Buriganga. The print kept unfolding till it ran through the entire length of his office.
What was surprising was that Dhaka once used to starkly resemble famous cities along river banks like Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh or Agra along Yamuna in India; the panorama showed all that.
But readers are not confined to the insides of the library itself. They can take a walk out and roam the terrace. There are many benches here where one can sit and read.
The main attraction of the terrace is a white sculpture named Bijoy by sculptor Farid Ahmed. Interestingly, it was put up in 1996, a year before Dhaka Kendra was officially launched. This part of the terrace is called Bijoy Chattar.
"We had that sculpture made by Farid Bhai back in 1996, on the Rajat Jayanti (silver jubilee) of Bangladesh's independence and named it Bijoy," Azim informed us, again taking a long look back in time.
"No matter, we are trying to digitalise content so the newer generations may take interest. We cannot just expect every generation to like or even understand how things worked before their time. So we have to evolve," Azim said.
"Then there is our new Swadhinata Chattar [a gazebo being built]. Here we will hold many conferences where we plan on inviting young ones and they can share their views on myriad topics," he added.
These days researchers too frequent Dhaka Kendra alongside people interested in learning Dhaka's nearly 450-year-old history. The centre is open six days a week, except Thursdays. It is open to researchers Friday through Wednesday from 10am till 2pm.
For readers and the general people, visiting hours are from 4pm till 8pm, except on Fridays when it is open from 3pm to 7pm.