in Dhanmondi Land
organising in Dhaka turns out to be nothing short
of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Try
to do something about the slaughter of Dhanmondi
as a residential area by the Hun-like invasion
of illegal businesses. As sure as today is Friday,
you are headed straight down a shaft into a demented
Wrongs = 1 walloping Right
if every rogue and her/his cousin are doing it,
up to an Eight-foot banner, strung up between
two light-posts in front of your window. Experience
the throb of bright neon colours inviting one
and all to instantly apply for admission to the
Anywhere-but-In-Bangladesh School next door. Running
all the way from Play Group to A and O Levels,
the school is ready, willing and able to pocket
your non-refundable application fee. Never mind
that the school has very little space. Ignore
the fact that it operates out of a single-family
house that was originally designed to accommodate
2-7 children. Never mind that it has no playground
to speak of for 3-5 year olds. Forget that it
operates without any certificates or licenses
from the Authorities.
takes hours before you get the malik (principal)
on the phone (he's a man-around-town and hard
to track down). When at last you succeed, you
demand that he take the festoon down. Urbane as
he is, the man has no idea what you are talking
about. He cannot comprehend your meaning when
you say that festoons are for selling toothpaste
and cigarettes: not education.
is equally uncomprehending when you add that a
residential area is no place for visually noisy
advertising. However, he will offer as excuse:
all the other schools are doing it”.
mean”, you counter, “that if your school catches
a student cheating and s/he can definitively prove
that other students are also cheating, cheating
is not cheating?”
of debate though not of the problem. The offensive
rag does not come down. Forget about convincing
the authorities to do something about it. Ever
since some year in the 1980s the Dhaka City Corporation
has not issued any trade licenses or licenses
to advertise in the Dhanmondi area. Therefore,
neither the school nor its ragged ad exists. You
are confusing virtual reality for the real thing.
variation of the “2 Wrongs = 1 Right” formula
Right = Justification to do any number of wrongs,
knowing they are wrong.
it or not. Out of some 48+ hospitals, clinics
and labs in Dhanmondi, only one has a permit from
RAJUK to do business in Dhanmondi. The permit
requires this venerable teaching hospital to provide
ample on-site parking for hospital staff, patients
and visitors. Disappointingly enough, the hospital
has chosen to cut corners. Instead of 2 or 3 levels
of underground space it has built only one (patently
inadequate to the volume of traffic the hospital
creates). Even so, instead of using it for parking
the hospital has turned it into space for labs,
offices, clinics and, inevitably, fast-food stores.
The result? A Gordian knot of rickshaws and cars
that tie up roads for blocks around. Life is one
unliveable hell for the neighbourhood.
to complain about this act of high-handed take-over
and you are likely to be told in shocked disbelief:
our hospital provides good medical care” Relax.
You are not the only one to be caught short. I
too didn't know that the Hippocratic oath offered
a choice between being a Bad Daktar and a Good
Daktar. Or that, in exchange for the promise of
being a Good Daktar a physician is free to act
the Dakait, fully entitled to take over a community's
roads, opens spaces, and rights to live free of
noise, crowds and filth.
equation between providing a needed social service
and gaining the right to engage in highway robbery
is but a survival of our feudal past. To be sure,
the glory days are over. Gone are the times when
zamindars were Zamindars. So too is the social
order that allowed a Zamindar to suck tenants
dry so long as he tossed a coin, an occasional
length of cloth or scrap of protein in their direction
once or twice a year. Nonetheless, our feudal
attitudes persist, with devastating consequences
all, the worst offenders in the illegal take-over
of Dhanmondi are none other than schools, colleges,
universities, coaching centres, medical labs,
clinics and hospitals. Adding to the problem is
the influx of NGOs who have started running schools,
colleges, and universities in their bid to reduce
aid-dependency. With the awe in which our culture
holds the obligations to provide bidya (enlightenment),
chikitshya (healing), and shamaj sheba (social
service) who is so low as would oppose the hundreds
of squatters masquerading as principals, teachers,
doctors and social up-lifters?
my mother. Nor my uncles or aunts. Nor, my many
cousins and their children, either. No way! After
all, we come from bhodro stock. My family fancies
itself above gossip and “thinking evil” of people
next door or socially sanctified work. Confronting
greedy neighbours who lease out to schools is
off-limits. It is unthinkable to suggest that
schools, which operate without legal permits,
teach children contempt for the country's laws.
In fact, it is social suicide. It is to say ta-ta
to family invites, some of which come equipped
with really delicious grub.
I exaggerate. It isn't that the bhodro mind-set
is entirely sealed. Occasionally, you can get
people lamenting about the way the cream of our
society flaunts the laws of the land. Unfortunately,
the reaction doesn't last long. Any possibility
for outrage, -- more importantly, righteous action,
-- soon peters out under the spell of the hypnotic
refrain that has come to resemble an alternate
national anthem for us.
Accordingly, Bangladesh may be golden and our
love for it unbounded. But we, her daughters and
sons, are something else.
We are bad. We are vile. Really, really heinous.
We are base. We are venal. And oh so very nefarious.
Yeh! Yeh! Yeh!
short, none but the utterly naïve or the
seriously retarded dare expect things in Bangladesh
to change for the better. Our youth may be going
to pot. We may be headed for extinction because
of the social pandemonium and environmental disasters
we create. But who is so despicable, so utterly
disloyal, so ignominiously un-Bangladeshi, as
to expect us to be anything but us?
this bad-is-cool equation, it is small wonder
that we think nothing of people dying because
of overhead walkways collapsing, houses being
built on marshy land, or reckless electrical wiring.
Or that the pattern of urban “growth”
in Dhaka is what it is: a constant effort to create
and then overwhelm a liveable (hence workable)
centre where children can play, adults hear themselves
think, communities cohere, roads are accessible,
the air breathable and business finds it easy
to move goods and customers around. As a result,
our “centre” has moved from Shadarghat to Islampur,
Nawabpur, Purana Paltan, Naya Paltan, and Azimpur.
Now its Dhanmondi's turn to be killed off, with
Mohammadpur, Gulshan, Banani and Uttara bringing
up the rear. At this rate, Dhaka's shifting centre
threatens to spin us past Gazipur, Chittagong
and plum into the Bay of Bengal.
halt! This is dangerous territory, …….this history
thing. It invites local historians into the arena.
Not only do they have the advantage of knowing
every bend in Dhanmondi's progress. They also
have some truly astounding arguments for acting
Nero to the implosion of Dhanmondi under the weight
of illegal commerce.
Foremost among such arguments is democracy, the
will of the people. Our local historian justifies
the introduction of business in our residential
area because this is “what the people who live
people?, you ask.
you learn, the pioneers of commercialisation were
none other than ministers, secretaries and deputy
secretaries who lived in Dhanmondi. In fact, it
was a former chief minister (from E. Pakistan
times) who was responsible for the introduction
of the first shopping mall in our area. Never
mind that ministers, secretaries and deputy secretaries
probably did not account for .05% of the Dhanmondi
population. Apparently, as the crème-de-la-crème
of society, what the pioneers lacked in numbers
they more than made up for in social weight and
progressive historians shun outdated elitism.
Instead, they will justify the mass violation
of city zoning codes in Dhanmondi on more contemporary
grounds. By now, they argue, a majority of Dhanmondites
are resigned to the de-residentialisation of the
the progressive historian adds, is it right to
stand in the way of economic growth and profit
making? Not wanting to appear passé in
these days of globalisation, BBAs and MBAs, you
have only one comeback. Genuinely interested,
positively serious, you draw up close and ask:
mean if the majority in Dhanmondi approve of trafficking
in children in response to the lucrative demand
for child camel jockeys and child pornography,
the rest of Bangladesh should go along?”
extreme analogy? Yes. A cruel analogy? Quite so.
It leaves me aching with the wish that people
would finally get it straight. That democracy
does not mean being able to act the Cowboy. That
if we tolerate the Cowboy in Dhanmondi, watch
out Gulshan, Banani, Uttara! Watch out Chittagong,
Khulna, Jessore, Faridpur, Barisal et. al!