and the moon is the only light we'll see...
If looks could be deceiving… on the surface, one would think that Dhaka is a city that teems with life throughout the day and sleeps through the night like an infant past his nightlife. Come shine, the fishermen hark their prices of the day, elevators scale up and down corporate buildings and life, in its mundane train of events, seem to have everything on its tracks. With everything right where it ought to be. But when the moon is out in its glory and the clock swivels past midnight, everything goes down. In fact, as the Dhaka city goes under the waves of torpor, things and events that usually pass unnoticed begin to unfold. Come midnight, most in the upper strata of social class would be wrapping their blankets a little tighter around themselves and dreaming of yet more money. But, below the lofty apartments, amidst the shanty houses, night coach stands and the snaking alleyways, life has just begun. Like a newly hatched chick tumbling forth into a world of chaos, people view things with an inquisitive eye. The streets bustle with activities; people hurry along. This is Dhaka City.
Very few of us has actually taken a stroll down the street in the depths of the night. Thus, the origination of the assumption that little happens out there that is of significance. More often, us "elites" do not even step out of our homes after 8, preferring instead to bask in the regal comfort those TV room cushions lend us. Or we just stay back to enjoy some quiet family dinner. This is our world, our arena- anything outside this, anything that does not feature the egoistic "us", may well patter down to oblivion, for all we care. While racy parties stimulating underhanded gossips may well define "Dhaka nightlife" for us, the phrase holds an altogether different meaning for the "real" people.
If you want a glimpse into this world, for a starter, take a drive to the Shangshad Bhaban. It might be with your family or your better half, but at any rate, the lights- crimson and green- are a sight worth losing a few hours of sleep. You could bring along bags of crisps (aka, late night snacks), but better still the place has tea and cigarette vendors for those willing, even if only temporarily, to live the makeshift street life. "We come here pretty often, me and my family," says Sajed Dewan, an associate professor in a renowned hospital, who happens to believe in such late night sprees, "We live in Mohammadpur, so it's not really far away. After dinner, we take the car for a spin, and this is usually where we end up coming." Antara, his six year old daughter insists that I add her opinion too- that she loves the play of lights and that she does not like staying home much.
On the other hand, if a mere puff or a sip would not settle your cravings (or, if your appetite is as healthy as mine, even after an exhaustive three-course dinner!), there are more interesting alternatives. For the connoisseurs of food, drop by some places like Star or other small hotels where they serve biriyani at 3 'o clock in the morning and where the lights are so bright and people so noisy that it would be no different than it would have been in the afternoon. These hotels are flanked by bus drivers and nighttime labourers at that time of the hour. Customers come and go; orders are taken by waiters who pass by carrying stacks of crockery and utensils taller than themselves; tea spills over onto the table, and the content munching on on crispy mughlai parathas can be heard. "My truck stops a few yards from this hotel," says Ahammod Jomir, a truck driver, "So I come here often for a cup of tea to keep myself awake for the journey ahead. Also they have good food and the price is good too." At that time of the night, menus are discarded and people have anything and everything that is available. So imagine the waiter's reaction when I recently walked into one of these hotels and asked for a menu at 2am. The rest is a lesson that I do not want to embarrass myself with by declaring it on print.
Moving away from food, there are other interesting aspects of a typical Dhaka nightlife. There are fights that break out in a drunken frenzy, and bottles are thrown about. But just as the fights had started out of the blue, they drop dead into a sudden hush. Then they start again. Ladies wearing apple-shine lipsticks stand in dark corners and watch, waiting for those in search of a different form of satisfaction. Cups of tea are sold on the street and cigarettes are smoked by those waiting for their night coaches to arrive. A crowd gathers as the late night matinee draws to an end and drowsy audiences pour into the street, briefly blinded by the sudden onslaught of the moonlight. This is a common scene outside Modhumita or Balaka cinema halls at that time of the night.
For yet another facet of Dhaka nightlife, go grocery shopping. This, naturally, would not be the typical activity of wheeling a trolley down the aisles of some plush supermarket. A place to start with is Karwan Bazar, but for some real action schedule your visit really late at night- or almost at the brink of dawn. Fresh vegetables and meat are put on offer for the (upcoming) day, and the prices are rockbottom for those buying wholesale. Another similar place is Banasri in Rampura, where the vendors bring in vegetables from across the lake. If you happen to have a knack for muri (puffed rice), there are trucks that bring in a vast load of "muri" to be sold on a wholesale basis in Tejgoan. Even before dawn takes a sneak peak, the last grain of "muri" vanishes, sold to the retailers who gather like an army of ants.
To wrap it all up, it might well be that Dhaka falls somewhat short of the Milan, Paris or even Mumbai standards of "nightlife" (read: clubbing, disco and womanising). But what it does have a "nightlife" that provides the word itself with an altogether different, yet a pleasant, meaning. It may seem like a simple walk down the streets (not to mention, with the added fear of being mugged), but what you would come across- the people, the food, the activities- all under a single blanket of the night sky, would definitely be worth a shot. With the City stepping on its 400th year, there has sure been a lot of water under the bridge, four centuries worth of history and culture. The nightlife holds testimony everything that makes Dhaka, and it would be a shame if you have not come to know it for what it is by now.
By Shahmuddin Ahmed Siddiky
An arm clasping in half embrace, her head gently on my shoulder, Nina mutely took small sips of the tamarind rum punch. Condensed water drops trickled down the glass into the meticulously tucked in white tissue- the ice melting long before she had taken notice of it.
Nina snuggled closer, enjoying the warmth. She was like that, high on caffeine; tranquil and affectionate when tipsy. Her eyes, dreary and dark circled against the bright complexion, showed signs of sleepless nights. She hummed along the popular tune playing in the backdrop. Anita, our host, was always discerning when it came to selecting party tunes. Often retro and nostalgic, sometimes new age and on rare occasions outright LOUD! But they hardly ever seemed out of place.
The music suddenly stopped, so did the buzz of the heated conversation. The generator roared in its majestic glory, bringing life back to the tungsten and the overhead fan. The air conditioner however remained silent in defiance.
Placing a cushion under her, I slipped out into the wide veranda. Lit up a stick to clear the boredom of corporate backbiting that I was so indifferent to. My life was simpler, my problems down to earth. I had learned to hate encountering friends and their midsummer parties but both Nina and I never failed to make an appearance, and that too as a couple. Our secret was for us to hide; our insecurities ours to sort out.
In moments of solitude, I often gaze up into the night sky, and compare images I so vividly remember of my childhood. Shujan, sibling, a good decade older than I, had a Van Gogh print in his study. I never could relate to the picture. Dhaka night always seemed less colourful, her palette constrained, incomparable to the exhaustive Saint-Remy sky.
The sound of guitar came thick in the sultry, humid air overpowering the cacophony of generators in whirlwind motion. Across the street, a group of young boys smoked cigarettes and made merry. Young girls in their mid teens, gossiped on the patio, their flirtatious giggles directed at the boys standing below. Park Street, Baridhara remained silent, the traffic sparse- a stark contrast to the crowded localities where life comes to a standstill with the 'black out.'
Decades back, I spent sleepless nights exploring the sky line, bareback and supine against the rough cement of the rooftop, looking through a theodolite my friend had brought from his father's construction company. Like voyeurs, we peeped into details of the sparkling moon, the craters presenting themselves as a stigma we never fathomed. We looked beyond, far away from our comfortable roof in search of life away from earth.
We soon learnt about the aliens that lived amongst us. The theodolite gave a sneak preview of the private lives of our neighbours- studious children, marital discord and the girl-next-door in lingerie. As thirteen-year-olds, it was innocence lost. We were elated in our new found identity but more often than not, we stared at the open sky simply because we were humbled by its vast premise.
My good friend insomnia, with whom I have always shared a love/hate relationship often came to visit. Nina was my faithful companion during those painful, sleepless nights… yawning but always attentive. It was a habit she picked up from her intern days. Visibly tired and fatigued, her mind had adapted to remain alert. A pretense that she was interested; she was anything but.
We spent most our evenings within the confines of our 1200 sft apartment. With changing seasons, and passing time our relationship took new forms. We ceased to know each other, to understand opinions and to honour views. She spent most of her time at the hospital and studying for her degree, I spent mine in seclusion, treading the streets of Dhaka. Searching for stories of the average man, which would be forever preserved throughout my work.
The streets of Dhaka seem unfamiliar in the depth of the nights. The hullabaloo goes dry, conjuring an unfamiliar image. The drawn shutters, closed stores and groceries bear sole witness to the haunting, desolate streets. As the bustle of life cease, the requiem of the city reaches the solitary nocturne.
Often, I hear the laments of the city- through blazing neon signs and graffiti on the wall; the drunken brawl that spurs from too much intoxication and the changing traffic lights: green, yellow, red and yellow again. At the street side food joints, I hear stories of fatigued rickshaw pullers working overtime. They narrate to me their sagas that spans from remote villages to the asphalt ways of the city. I often take notes in my mind: a possible book, a short story maybe, but I did not write anymore.
By Mannan Mashhur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed,
Zahedul I Khan