Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 49, Tuesday January 6, 2008



dhaka driving

A good way to describe any city is to look for microcosms in the smaller things. Being a regular driver on Dhaka roads, I can say that I have some experience of what motorists in Dhaka go through. Where do I start? Well, the city is full of traffic lights flashing red, green and yellow, and to many this is a sign of order and discipline. But look closer, and you will see many of these traffic lights are turned off. Why? Because all of them are instruments of electricity waste. It is no secret that no one in Dhaka adheres to the universally accepted rule of stopping when the light is red. Of course, the same oblivion is not shown to the green light.

Also, I can say with some pride that to be a Dhaka driver requires considerable skill and awareness. In most other cities, what are motorists faced with? At the most, the odd aggressive driver trying to overtake everyone else in his/her quest to reach the destination as fast as possible. Although it will be hard for inhabitants of saner cities to believe, every driver in Dhaka is like the one in the previous sentence. It doesn't end there; the aggressive drivers are not the only deterrents to a smooth ride on Dhaka streets.

Rickshaws, pedestrians, CNGs enter the vista of the windshield from nowhere, but don't slam the brakes too hard; the car behind you is most likely following too close and is liable to slam into the rear bumper. Such scenes are very common; you can see one almost everyday at roadsides. The respective drivers are either going at it verbally or physically, or are being held back by bystanders. Oh, of course a long cue will most likely build up behind these two stalled vehicles.

Another practice that speaks for the mindset of Dhaka drivers is the use of headlights when two cars are face to face in a narrow street and only one can go through at a time. All around the world, the driver flashing the lights means that he or she wants the other car to come through. In Dhaka, however, the same signal means: you stay there, I am coming through.

The question might crop up: What do the traffic police do? Well, let me illustrate with an example. One day I jumped the red light at the Kakoli junction because, well, I am a Dhakaite, and was unexpectedly stopped by a traffic policeman. No problem, I had my answer ready: "Bhai, there are times when you wave us through on a red light. So how are we to know when the red light means stop?" This inquiry was made with all sincerity, and he knew it, and let me go on my way.

Okay, let's now come back to the issue of microcosms. On the streets are chaos, with motorists, Rickshaw pullers, and pedestrians living by the rule of the jungle. The impression you get when looking at Dhaka streets is of things falling apart yet staying together, as if tied by an invisible thread. Despite the chaos, people still go out everyday and do whatever they have to do to live their lives. This, I feel, speaks for Dhaka life; utter chaos, but the people do what they do best, they make it work.


Cranky Dhaka

Rickshaw bells, krishnochura in summer, phuchka stalls, sidewalk shopping, pirated-book vendors, flower girls, open manholes, shiny malls, shabby shanties...Dhaka has a personality all of her own. One wishes one could say the same about her residents. Whether it's the rising prices, the political instability, or the unpredictable weather, Dhakaites are gradually becoming increasingly irritable, something which manifests itself in many different ways. This week, we look at some scenarios where Dhaka gets its crank on.

Fight club
While the emergency situation managed to keep a clamp on the kind of widespread rioting and mayhem that ensued prior 1/11 and continued for a while afterwards, there have been several incidents involving rage, muscle and not a little bloodshed.

Case in point: a simple altercation during a sporting event that escalated into citywide chaos when the university students and small vendors ganged up to unleash some serious breakage. Then there were the repeated accounts of RMG agitations that kept cropping up throughout the year, where factories were vandalised and production brought to a halt.

While these were slightly large-scale events, there were also smaller, but explosive situations, like the highly-publicised feud between the medical students and the public university students a few months back, over the case of a stolen cell-phone, which resulted in the death of the alleged thief.

Round two featured the equally talked-about series of skirmishes between students of a reputed design school and another private university over the matter of someone insulting someone else's sister.

If you think these are silly reasons for calling out the back-up and dishing out some good old-fashioned gono dholai Dhaka-style, consider the utter bedlam that broke loose during a couple of 'friendly' football tournaments held in the city recently. Dhaka certainly seems to be a caseful of dynamite just waiting for a spark.

Road rage
If they're not running out there beating one another to pulp, the citizens of this fine city find ways to vent their anger right out on the road. Civic sense and traffic smarts have never been our strong suites, but recently, the traffic-related tension is rising. Just get on the road, and you'll find more overtaking, road-hogging, cutting in than you'd expect to find in a game of NFS. Added to that the foul language and rude hand gestures from whoever didn't manage to get the upper hand just this once. Sunglasses at night are becoming less of a fashion flub and more of a necessity, what with all these fast cars flashing high beams right onto your face.

Angry passengers beating up hapless rickshawallahs have been an unfortunately common scene for a while now, but these days, the drivers of three-wheelers are just as quick to dish out some hurts of their own. Minor accidents, where the only injuries are suffered by someone's fender or bumper, quickly escalate into mob incidents, with passers-by joining into land a random punch, or egg on someone to fight.

Brat pack
The teen years were never an easy time, but these days the young ones seem a little too eager to announce their problems to the world at large. Be it the kind of language they use in public places and mixed company, making you wonder if you haven't blundered onto a rap video set, or the sullen attitude they bring into their part-time jobs and classrooms, manners and good breeding are fast becoming antiquated here.

Talking back at teachers, being rude to service staff, and of course, venting their spleen on walls, furniture and public property using markers, spray paint and other tools, as the old Offspring song goes, 'The kids ain't alright.'

With things being the way they are, there are two things we can do: blame politics, economics, the weather, and everything else under the sun, and continue to be cranky. Or we could try and practise a little tolerance, and learn to be a little more considerate about each other's needs, and maybe life won't be so bad.

By Miss Manners


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