THE ENDURING CITY
EACH time I come to Dhaka for a visit I am faced with the same question from friends and acquaintances: “So, how does it feel coming back to this chaotic city with its horrendous traffic, noise and pollution?” I am at a loss for an appropriate answer. The point is, I may have left Dhaka but it has always been there for me — never failing to welcome me in its warm embrace. How can I be judgmental about a city that gives me a sense of being and belonging?
As I was preparing for my trip to Dhaka in December, friends in the US cautioned me about the dangers of visiting the city at a politically volatile period. I reasoned that as someone who has been a part of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, I am too connected to the roots to be intimidated by hartals and shutdowns. In any case, if 15 million people live in Dhaka in health, sickness, happiness and suffering, who am I to claim that my life needs more protection and care than theirs?
However, the truth is, I, too, am critical about the city’s congested streets, crowded shopping plazas, high noise level and smog. Moreover, the hartal days are fraught with a kind of uncertainty that I rarely face in the US. But, despite all the aggravation and tiring routines, Dhaka is like a mother with whom I can never sever my emotional ties even though the umbilical cord was cut long ago.
The amazing thing about Dhaka is its incredible resilience. Once the election fever subsided, the city reverted to a normal pace. By “normal” I mean traffic is once again unbearable (a trip from Gulshan to Dhanmandi could take 3 hours). The policemen are still clueless on how to manage the mayhem created by honking cars maneuvering their way to get ahead, rickety rickshaws meandering through narrow gaps and wayward pedestrians crossing roads at all odd points. The street vendors are busy peddling everything from pirated books to poached birds. The construction of high rises has started with renewed vigour. These steel, cement and glass structures continue to encroach on streets, announcing their ugly existence with a callous disregard to aesthetics!
Yet I keep returning to Dhaka for a glimpse of the hazy sunset from my balcony and the sound of the cuckoo’s early morning call from my neighbour’s garden. These small pleasures provide me with a sense of comfort that I can find nowhere else. True, Dhaka is not Istanbul with its museums, mosques and the Sea of Marmara. It’s not even Kolkata where visitors line up for a tour of the Victoria Memorial. But this is the city where I grew up chasing butterflies in my front yard, getting wet in the soothing showers of the monsoons, watching Elvis Presley movies with friends in Naz cinema and accompanying my aunts to an old town theater to see Suchitra Sen in Harano Sur.
Dhaka is where I first fell in love and also suffered my first heartbreak. I sang in the shade of its wooded parks and marched down its tree-lined streets to protest against the autocratic Pakistani regime. Even today, when I pass by my old school it evokes memories of my teachers who inculcated in me a love for learning and an appreciation for the beautiful things of life.
Sadly, the city’s trees have almost disappeared, Naz cinema no longer exists, and my old home is now a jungle of apartments. But this is still my Dhaka — where I have friends and relatives who have been constant in their love and loyalty, despite the many changes that all of us have been through. It’s these friendships and associations that make this town special for me.
Beneath Dhaka’s unattractive façade lies a compassionate soul. The city and its people have a great ability to accept and adapt. From a quaint town of the ’70s it has transformed into a bustling city — reinventing itself to accommodate the rapid changes. But, despite all its urbanisation Dhaka still retains touches of its rusticself… The other day I was shopping in Gulshan 2. A hawker sitting with his basket of Dhaka cheese offered me a big chunk. When I told him I had no cash left on me he said: “Apa, please take it, you can pay me tomorrow.” I was surprised that in spite of the pressures of urban living the cheese seller had preserved his innate goodness and trust in others.The kind gesture touched me.
At that moment I realised why Dhaka is so close to my heart — it’s “my city.”
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.
February 09, 2014