An expanse of road punctuated with the soft, intermittent glow of streetlights beckons. The cool night air drifts through the car, as the passengers take in the serenity of the city. One wonders if this is really Dhaka.. It's Thursday night, and four friends decide to take advantage of the short-lived peace on the streets by going out on a late night exploration of the city. Star Lifestyle goes along for the ride.
It all started with a discussion on how Dhaka is devoid of recreation, and how in other cities around the world there are still things to do after the clock strikes twelve. The counter-argument was that there are things to do in Dhaka as well; one just has to get into the spirit, and so on and so forth. Eventually a late night drive was decided upon.
After a bit of a dash down Airport road, or the Uttara highway as it is also called, everyone was “getting into the spirit”. It came as a surprise how pleasant Dhaka could be when drivers are not cutting you off, or pedestrians jumping in front of the car in a display of foolhardy idiocy.
Turning around at the Airport, the group decided to go to the other end of town, to Puran Dhaka. This, they agreed, would be unthinkable only a few hours ago, because of the congestion that plagues the city during business hours. Now, at 1:00 am, the only vehicles on the street are trucks moving like despots to and from their points of deposit or pick-up, and of course, the rickshaw with its meandering pedal squeaks.
And it really does feel like a different city. The gridlock that we are so used to seeing has become tattooed on our outlook of Dhaka. Seeing Dhaka late at night is like looking at a beautiful face that you had previously only seen wearing a mask; an ugly mask.
As the car crossed Staff Road, one of the friends, Iftekhar, wanted to have tea. Shafiq, the one doing the driving and who lived in the area, turned left on Kemal Ataturk towards Gulshan-2. Near the Gulshan-2 intersection, we cannot divulge exactly where because the stall owner fears the police will shut him down, they stop at a tea stall that stays open through the night. It seems quite a popular place, as there are around a dozen customers there at that time of night.
It took about fifteen minutes to get to Thatari Bazaar. Joy, the beefiest member of the party, guided them there. Upon reaching the destination, it was evident why: Star Hotel and Restaurant. Joy wanted kachchi, and with dinner a thing of the past, so did the rest of the group. Unfortunately, there was no kachchi, and there usually isn't at that time of night, the waiter informed. Disappointed but not discouraged, the friends gorged on whatever there was on the menu, as if to compensate for the absence of kachchi. Boti kebab and naan washed down with faluda seemed to be the order of the night.
“I can't believe we are in Puran Dhaka, and we can actually move about in a car,” Shafiq said in awe as they climbed back into the car, which seemed smaller after the feast. Making their way back through the older parts of the city, they wondered at the fabulous architecture of Dhaka's official buildings.
“They seem more visible now,” Shafiq observed as they drove passed the Supreme Court at Ramna.
Through Moghbazaar they drove, and arriving at the junction, that terrible soul-crushing junction, the car's occupants all burst out laughing. It was the laughter of people who had been suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous traffic, and just happened to encounter their tormentor holding an empty quiver.
Zooming through Shaat Rastar Mor, Tanvir, the quietest of the friends, mentioned the new Link road that connected Tejgaon with Bijoy Sharani. “I haven't yet gone down that road, and I won't during the day. I've seen the newspaper photos of gridlock,” he said.
Shafiq obliged. It was beautiful. Bright lights, an empty, smooth road, and very little by way of traffic. Stopping at the top of the flyover, they got down to stretch their legs. Right then, it seemed, Dhaka existed only for them. They were walking down the street, actually walking down the middle of the street.
Joy closed his eyes. "I'm trying to imagine the chaos that rules in this very spot during the day," he opened his eyes, and smiled. "I can't imagine it, and yet, only five hours later…"
“Hey, look over here,” Iftekhar, peering over the railing, called out. Joining him, the group could see a stretch of railway lines running from North to South under the bridge. With the railway tracks, of course, there were slums, looking at which they were reminded of the tragic aspect of Dhaka.
It was now two in the morning, and from their silent perch in the sky, they could hear the faint notes of a baby's wail; no doubt cries of hunger. That was as apt a picture of Dhaka as could be thought of. Glimmering roads and highways, opulent buildings, all seem to cover up the inconvenience lying below; the inconvenience of a baby's hunger-wrought screams.
Spirits slightly dampened by the bleak sights and sounds below, the friends made their way to Mohakhali -where near the bus stand some tea stalls were still open - and stopped for an after-dinner cup of tea. Perhaps sensing the downturn in his mates' spirits, Tanvir offered a way to end the night on a high: “Let's all go up to my roof.”
The other three jumped on this suggestion, as it had been a long time since they hung out on a rooftop.
The night sky glimmered with moonlight, and seven storeys above ground on the rooftop, the breeze was stronger. The friends were in a relaxed mood, and had all huddled into a circle in a corner of the roof. Tanvir brought out his guitar, and everyone started off into the anthem of the recreational guitarist and his vocalist hopefuls, Dur Paharer Dhare.
Over the railing, the moon shone on Dhaka, and in the distance could be seen clusters of tall and small buildings, with lights twinkling through the leaves of trees that line the streets of residential areas. It was a picturesque view.
It was three in the morning when the party broke and everyone dispersed to their homes. From the expressions of content on their faces, it could be told that the night was not only fun; it was enriching.
Iftekhar, who made the original argument in favour of Dhaka's night-time offerings, captured the theme of the night best as he said, “Dhaka is not like any other city. It has its faults and its strengths. We have to be open to it.” Having experienced Dhaka at night, one could not but agree.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed