Living in a well decorated apartment along a busy stretch of Mohammadpur's Shia Masjid, Ahsanul Huq Shakil painstakingly tracks down matchboxes from around the world. But not just any matches. He collects only those with a story to tell.
His collection is one of the most original and impressive in the world. After all, he boasts the world's smallest matchbox which you have to see with a magnifying glass. The match, perfectly functional, was made in India and there exist only two of them in the world. “And I have one of them,” brags the ardent phillumenist, a collector of both matchboxes and matchbook labels. Take for example, his can shaped matches—used in ships—waterproof and without any label—whose sticks burn for a good five minutes. Then there are matchboxes from Croatia and England in the shape of chest of drawers and embroidered ones from France.
The tiny Indian matchbox is so small that when he received it the first time and tried to show off to family and friends, it fell on the floor and got lost on the floor. “I missed a heartbeat when that happened. Luckily, I found it.”
Shakil, a 44-year-old artist and interior designer came to his hobby in his childhood when a cousin who worked as a crew in the Biman Bangladesh Airlines gave him matchboxes from different countries. Nothing would make the kindergarten kid happier than a colorful matchbox.
Pursuing such a niche, later on, required more than that: a trip to a collectors' convention in the UK, or a chance find at a shop in Europe. Now, he uses personal connections and Web resources to identify matchboxes that can augment his collection, which he showcases online at matchboxmuseum.blogspot.com. He has lived in and travelled to more than a dozen countries including England, Scotland and Ireland. “Now I go only to countries where I think I can find interesting matchboxes,” says Shakil. “If a country does not have matches that I think are collectible, I have no reason to go there.”
Thirty five years and more than fourteen thousand matchboxes from one hundred and eight countries later, his collection is unparallel in the country. Four weeks ago, from Mitko, a Bulgarian collector he received a package containing a set of 21 matches that have images of famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the Big Ben and Burj Khalifa. "When people ask me why I collect matches of all things in the world, I don't know what to say. I guess I just love them.”
Shakil's romance with matches began in 1977, when he was a child growing up in Moghbazar. Romance is the word that best describes his relationship with matches. "I am always on the hunt for them—I put a lot of effort into it—so much so that my wife once told me to choose between her and matchboxes. Lucky for me, both have stayed.” Finding a rare match, to him, is like wooing a beautiful lady. The harder the chase, the better it feels in the end. And he has thousands of reasons to feel good about.
When he gives us a tour of his apartment, it's hard to blame his wife Bobby for being the spoiler. Matches are everywhere—after we are done having tea on the dining table—he slides the top and there are boxes of matches underneath it. He moves a curtain on the wall—there is a mini closet full of matches in all shapes and colour—some look like miniature purses while others are plain old cans. Some are made of pure leather while others of tiles. He makes no attempt to hide his excitement, showing off his collection of rare and exquisite matchboxes one by one while Bobby looks on. His energy proves contagious after a while; she joins in. “I have learned to live with them. But on Fridays when he brings them out to check on them in case some need new wrappers or something, it gets overwhelming. I kick him out,” she quips.
What's unique about his stockpile is that it is broken down by themes like matches with religious motif or by region. Venezuelan matches have the image of Jesus or Virgin Mary on them and those from Denmark launched during Christmas have Santa Claus in the front. Germany has matches for different uses like BBQ (the sticks are eleven and a half inches long), households and fireplaces. The Russian match that he collected from a collector from Moscow named Alexander Pushkin is bigger than an Oxford dictionary and holds 2000 sticks. The ones from Bulgaria, former Czechoslovakia and Germany have a lot of female nudity on them. “These were targeted at labourers who worked in factories.” Two of his gems are a book of matches from the presidential palace of Indonesia and the presidential aircraft of the United Sates. Belgian Union matches still carry the same design and logo as they did one hundred years ago. His rich and rare collection also has Bangladeshi vintage matchboxes.
Regularly keeping in touch with as many as 60 collectors from 24 four countries, Shakil has built a faithful network of collectors with whom he trades. The wait for that elusive match is endlessly exciting for him except for the “fine” at the customs he has to pay every time he goes there to receive a package. “When my friends send me matchboxes, they always take out the sticks. So I don't know what law I am breaking.”
Shakil hopes articles like this will expand appreciation of his work by people including those at the customs.
“I thank the postmen. Even if I am not at home they find me and give me the package. They know matches are my life,” Shakil philosophises.
His enthusiasm for collecting and trading matchboxes has spilled into another hobby such as designing matchboxes and cigar boxes. “I have designed the package of BLACK cigar and match boxes.”