In 1981, Minu Chaklader and MA Chaklader, parents of two young boys, found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Their sons, Mithu and Titu, were in grades 7 and 5 respectively at American International School, and school officials had just announced that every student would have to learn to swim that year.
Now, if you know 1980s Dhaka, there weren’t many swimming pools back then, especially for children to learn. But Minu, a persistent mother, discovered that at the Intercontinental Hotel there was a swimming pool where you could learn to swim. But the charges were a staggering 200 Tk per person. That may not seem like much today, but back then it was a lot. This meant that Mithu and Titu’s parents would have to pay Tk 400 every month for each of them.
So, Minu Chaklader took her sons to Shahidullah Hall in Dhaka University and let them bathe in the pond. Their driver was the boys’ main instructor. Several days passed there without interruption and Mithu and Titu had almost learned their way in the water until one day the university authority intervened and declared that foreigners were not allowed there.
But their indomitable mother didn’t stop there. The following week, she took the boys to Gulshan Lake and, as before, the boys continued to learn to swim with their driver.
“There we were, jumping into Gulshan Lake with cows and buffaloes, and we were the happiest we could have been,” recalls Shamsul Alam Chaklader, or the story’s little boy Mithu.
The two brothers were perhaps the happiest at the time, but the struggle to find a decent pool for the kids never ceased to trouble their parents. Minu Chaklader’s husband, MA Chaklader, was an engineer by profession and a philanthropist by passion.
If they couldn’t find a pool even for their boys, what about the city girls? This thought tormented MY Chaklader. So the next morning he got up and decided to build his own swimming pool, right on the land he owned next to his apartment building.
“Being an engineer, Abba often did something or changed the plan of our house. So we weren’t surprised when one day we saw him with his measuring tools, taking notes in his notebook. We thought that it was a crazy idea he wanted to build a swimming pool,” Mithu said as he recalled the early days.
But leaving everyone speechless, Mr. Chaklader transformed the six katha or 4,320 square foot lot into a beautiful swimming pool. It took him six months to design and build the pool. He decided it would be for women only.
The swimming club finally started in 1983 and over the past 40 years more than 20,000 girls and women have learned to swim in this club including famous actresses like Suborna Mustafa, Shomi Kaiser, Parveen Sultana Diti, the girl of Humayun Ahmed Shila Ahmed and many others.
The club is still active today. Currently there are 48 members learning and three trainers teaching. The club opens at nine in the morning and stays open until 5 p.m. Members and Learners can come into the club anytime between nine and five Sunday through Tuesday and swim for an hour. It is kept closed on Mondays.
“As it’s exam season, you won’t find many people now. In June-July we get a lot of people because of the heat and students don’t have exams at that time” , said Shefali Akhter, one of the trainers, said.
Two months ago, the club also launched a swimming session for boys. It starts at 5 p.m. after the ladies leave, then it’s kept open until 10 p.m.
“Abba wanted this place to be respected, hence the name ‘Mother Club'”
Around the 1980s, the area from Madhubagh to Moghbazar was what we called “the middle of nowhere”. No one would expect a swimming pool there, right next to the then disorganized Hatirjheel.
But the lake was not as we see it today, “It was a vast lowland swamp or ‘beel’ and beyond it you could see a wooded area, where, according to my father, tigers roamed” , said Mithu Chaklader.
“On top of that, Dhaka was a conservative place at the time, especially the mohollas. There were concerns about ‘what kind of place is it’ or ‘why would the girls come every day’. People were starting to spread rumors that some sort of illegal activity was going on here, etc.” Mithu said.
At first, the idea of the swimming club was not accepted by the people. The neighbors didn’t want to send their daughters here either.
Then the Chaklader couple came up with a solution, they gave the club the name “Mother Club”. Since everyone is emotional about their mother and has deep respect for her, if the place was named that, no one would disrespect her. The other thing they decided to do was have Mrs. Minu Chaklader take care of the club, which meant she was the one keeping the registration books. Female coaches were appointed and boys over the age of 10 were not allowed.
Slowly the business began to gain acceptance, especially among actresses who wanted no media attention while they were learning a life skill.
“Another reason our Mother Club was trusted was that from the very beginning Amma and Abba made sure that no boy was even allowed to stand outside the entrance. Abba was so respected in our area that no one even dared to disturb people around,” Mithu said.
And while we were talking to Suborna Mustafa, she also said the same thing. “It was Shomi (actress Shomi Kaiser) who took me to the club. I was 25 or 26 at the time, and it was quite late to learn to swim. But I had a great time there. The coaches were very responsible, the water was clean and the area was safe. But the most important thing was that it was not an open pool, which means the pool had a roof. so felt safe that no one could see us, and also we didn’t get sunburn,” Suborna said.
The structure is still the same, it looks like a huge living room that has been transformed into a pool area with blue tiles and white mosaic flooring, although time has managed to leave its mark on it. The mosaic has black spots here and there, the adhesive between the tiles has taken on a reddish hue. But when you enter the complex, you can feel the warmth of a ‘mohalla’, which was once the heart of Dhaka city dwellers.
Pool water is filtered weekly and chlorine is not used to clean it
The pool has two water jets flowing into it. Instead of chlorine, they use a natural filtering process to purify the water. The streams have three layers of stones and mosses to suck up all the impurities.
Md Ansaruddin Alam maintains the pool. “The foams are washed and sun-dried monthly and replaced with clean foams. The entire pool is cleaned weekly.”
It is also essential to take a bath and change clothes before entering the water. There are six bathrooms where members and learners can take baths and change.
Shefali said: “It’s a necessary step to keep the water clean. We’re carrying a lot of dirt when we get to this place and we don’t want all of that going into the water with us.”
It is also necessary to wear a swimming cap, again, for the same reason. They provide swimsuits, caps and goggles. A combination of all of these can cost you dearly in Tk. 1,000 to TK. 1,400.
So on a cloudy and humid day in May, when being in Moghbazar mor feels like a punishment, you can head towards Masjid Road and drive to Madhubagh. At 357°C in Madhubagh, the oasis called Mother Club will refresh you.