coming out of the cocoon
While the condition of the majority Bangladeshis has remained deplorably stagnant, with little improvement in terms of the quality of living, significant changes have taken place in the lifestyle of the middle class. The notion of an urban lifestyle has come into being setting the tone for everything that relates to living. Whether it is clothes, food or the way one sets up one's home, dramatic changes have taken place. An increase in purchasing power, greater exposure to world trends through the electronic media, rapid urbanisation and so on, have created influences in lifestyle, beyond the control of the middle class urbanite.
In the seventies or sixties, Dhaka was a pretty, green, small city with a handful of cars plying on the road and many rickshaws, few shops and fewer people. That was in the early seventies, when the city looked nothing more than a moffassil town. A rickshaw ride around Dhanmondi was considered equivalent to underground racing now. It was a sleepy city where attending a wedding was a prime source of entertainment and a departmental store Ruma in Elephant Road was considered the ultimate shopping experience. The late seventies and early eighties saw a slow change. Snow White's ice cream cones, buzzing Bailey road, British Council and USIS were the few slivers of cosmopolitan living.
By the mid-eighties someone woke the sleeping giant Consumerism - and there was no stopping it. Dhaka grew into this metropolis of trendy shopping malls, happening cafes and skyscrapers.
In this era and time, couples in their posh 3000 plus sq ft flats SMS friends to come over for after-dinner drinks or coffee.
The change is obvious and fascinating. The way our living standards, our priorities in life, our responsibilities even our tastes and preferences have changed and adapted to new dimensions is worth mentioning.
In the early years of the seventies, the idea of women going to the kitchen markets was unthinkable. Grocery was always a weekly affair, when the man of the house would go to the market and get everything from vegetables to fish to mutton to eggs for one whole week. Refrigerators were considered a luxury and less than a handful could afford it. So the fish had to be kept live in big drums of water and the favourite mutton curry had to be cooked and eaten at one go. Cooked food was kept in meat-safes for a single day.
Then, in the late seventies and early eighties, the scenario started to take a different turn. With hundreds of thousands of men opting for jobs in the Middle East, and increase of the number of second generation Bangladeshi businessmen, the women became outward and shared and did a lot of work that were traditionally done by men. From dropping children to schools to bookkeeping to taking care of banking affairs and even visiting kitchen markets, they changed as and with their cash flow.
For many of the city people, the shift from living on a stifling salary of Tk.5000 only (that's what a joint secretary drew in the late seventies and a little more in the early eighties) to earning in foreign currency, the change was drastic, and the freedom to buy was evident. This also had a huge impact on the market economy. Suddenly middle class Bangalis could buy and covet things they never had before. A Saudi Arab returnee obviously carried a two-in-one, a digital watch, a television set or a refrigerator therefore the once dubbed luxury items were becoming commonplace.
Dhaka's cityscape also started to change drastically from the early nineties, mainly due to the centralised nature of the Bangladesh economy. An increasing number of people started developing homes and living in the suburbs. This was complemented by the rise of numbers of different types of motor vehicles. An increasing number of people have been buying cars.
A Rip Van Winkle who had gone to sleep in the 70's will find it unbelievable to see in 2005 that most of the main streets of Dhaka no longer allow rickshaws to move about. The empty Dhaka streets of the 70's now gasp for breath due to heavy traffic jams even at mid-night at places like Farm Gate.
With so much happening in the lives of the middle class, consumerism has taken a different meaning. A thriving market reflects a thriving middle-class, because their buying capacities determine the success of an economy. The late eighties and nineties with open markets, aggressive advertising and cable television have added a new dimension to our lives.
What we saw on TV or read on magazines or even heard from friends is what we wanted to look like or live like. Exposure to other cultures by travelling or migrating allowed us to adopt many new values and preferences influenced by the West. This trend was also nurtured by the development policy of the government. All these combined together reflects on the present wave of consumerism.
The seventies' middle class families used to be dependent on a single earner, usually the man of the house. Today, in most middle class homes both husband and wife earn . Often, in the overwhelming consumer culture, even the earning of two earners is perceived as 'not enough'.
Another new phenomenon is that of shopping as a means of entertainment. Due, perhaps to limited budgets, and also because of the lack of facilities, this was unheard of in the seventies. Eating out was also a rare pleasure. Today, a major form of entertainment is to go shop till one drops or dine at a trendy restaurant offering cuisine from different countries.
Today women are working in offices and this is no scattered incident like in the eighties when working meant only teaching in schools. With her financial independence a woman lavishly spends money on grooming, on furnishing the home, on children and on entertaining.
The mobile culture has also brought in eye-catching changes in lifestyles. The woman of the millennium does her monthly bazaar over the phone. The fishmongers, the vegetable vendor, the fruit-seller, all come equipped with cell-phones these days. Madam calls and the order is placed, the fish delivered all cleaned and packed. Even if she is not at home, the maid makes the payment. For other essentials the superstores serve her purpose. This simple act of doing one's grocery shopping illustrates just how far we've come from the days of old.
This adjustment and modification remains the same in case of fashion and style, interior decoration, office decoration, entertainment, eating out, infotainment, business, communication, and transportation, etc. You name a sector and you'll see change.
From wearing bell bottoms and elephant ear collar shirts to baggies, to discos to trendy fusion; from receiving love letters in blue envelopes to a hundred SMS a day saying 'I love you', Bangladeshi urbanites have really changed. Now, whether the change has been for the better or worse is for you to decide.
This piece just puts the spotlight on the transitions in the Bangali lifestyle.
By Raffat Binte Rashid
Photo: Munem Wasif
Model: Sharmila Bondopaddhay