Dazed & Confused
Like billions of children around the world have been for centuries, I too was introduced to the tale of Cinderella: the quintessential damsel in distress and the reasons for her stress -- harpies of a stepmother and two stepsisters. As countless fables and ancient scripts would have us believe, good always triumphs over evil and somehow “good” is always associated with visually appealing. Naturally, the beautiful Cinderella lives happily ever after with her prince charming (they didn't have prenups back then) and the ugly relatives get their due.
However, unfortunately for Cinderella and all the other “good” (in other words “pretty”) vs. “bad” (ugly) stories, I grew up. In high school, while working on an essay, I came across at least 12 different versions (including re-telling by contemporary writers) of Cinderella. Tanith Lee's version (When the Clock Strikes) speaks of a Cinderella who practices black magic and wants to kill the prince while Gregory Maguire's Cinderella in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a manipulative, self-pitying bimbo who hates her new family, fears the outside world and holes up at home until a visiting French prince's search for a bride offers a chance at escape.
Nothing in the world is absolutely black or white, there's a vast grey area. A father ideal to his offspring, might be working at a lab devising chemicals that may harm millions of children. “Pretty” is not always “benevolent”, and “ugly” is not necessarily “evil”.
Dhaka is defined by countless allegations and complaints: hell for pedestrians, inadequate public transportation, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, indomitable corruption, number of homeless on the rise etc etc. Wait there's more, the sidewalks (that usually smell like urea factories) are invaded by vendors; if it rains (even for a couple of hours), streets are clogged, traffic is backed up all the way to kingdom come (as opposed to Timbaktu when the streets become battlefields during protests and rallies); crimes and violence on the rise; little or no source of recreation (no, mushrooming malls at every block is not considered sources of “recreation” to some like moi)…the list goes on.
But there's another side of Dhaka: A 400 year-old mega-city that houses over 11 million people, a city where hundreds of thousand non-residents come to work everyday, where the homeless and poor live off the generosity of fellow Dhakaites, where people are extra-hospitable to foreigners (I found people of a city in a neighbouring country that supposedly shares a common language and culture with us, to be quite rude and xenophobic), where the crowd takes a stance against any form of injustice within minutes, where the streets take mesmerising hues of Krishnachura red, Radhachura yellow and Jarul purple in summer, where the narrow alleys of Old Dhaka still smell like bakarkhani and on hartaal days the young ones play football/cricket on the streets…
Why babbling about all these, you wonder? Well, partly because I have nothing better to do as I'm on my way home from a friend's after a futile shot at solving a case study for our Economic Geography class. It's happy hour AKA after 10pm. It's when the ban on rickshaws are lifted from all major streets. I guess I can also refer to it as magic hour -- no traffic, no fumes, no chaos…even the street next to the apt where I live is all quiet (which during the day becomes a Qurbanir Haat, as the princesses going to one of the leading schools in Dhaka can't get out of their car and walk a few feet).
As Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit sings No one knows what its like to be the bad man, to be the sad man…in the MP3 player plugged to my ears, I come to a realisation: You're quite the paradox Dhaka and I love you all the same.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006