I first came to Bangladesh in 1978 I was five years old.
My memories remain vivid and I recall wide streets scattered
with a few cars, military vehicles and buses. I don't
remember jams; only the supersonic rickshaw pullers that
carried me like the wind to my next destination. The only
crowd was the one on the launch that took me to Pathuakali
to see my Nanu and Nana. Perhaps these memories are tinged
with Romanticism and they can easily be dismissed. When
I came again in 1994, I was twenty. Although the traffic
was dense at times, it was never as clogged as it is today.
Only a few years ago in 2002, I was filming in Mohakali,
standing in the street with my camera; the overhead flyover
was still a concept then. That footage now rests comfortably
in one of my films. It would not be possible to get the
same shot today. The flyover has invaded the sky and wrestles
with the horizon. Neon lights set against a canvas of
pink, crows cruising over head, a giant Singer sign flashing
through the night--this is what my lens captured back
then. Now when I travel through that same part of Dhaka
city, it is of course a different picture.
flyover, I assume, is designed to ease the flow of traffic.
It looms above the people, cluttered down below in a weave
of makeshift stalls. The traffic twists and turns like
a giant slug only inching a few metres at a time. It is
as if we are stuck in time, we look helplessly out of
our car windows, beggars seize the opportunity to tap
on the glass for a few paltry takas and sitting trapped
a fatigue sets in from simply doing nothing.
cross the road, the traffic edges forward and other folk
poke their heads out of battered buses wondering when
they will get home. The flyover casts a shadow over us
all like a giant limb that has invaded the city held up
with scaffolding that ripples through the air like a mass
of red veins. Each time I travel under that concrete monster
I shudder a little. I look above and see tiny figures
scurrying overhead, their skin blackened from the glare
of the sun. They will work late into the night. As the
sun sets the light is smothered with a grey shadow and
a few lone trees wave their leafy heads, dwarfed next
to its new giant companion.
the flyover a great symbol of modernisation and development?
Will it mark the beginning of a great infrastructure overhaul?
Will it solve the ubiquitous jams that choke the city
day by day? In terms of design it has little beauty. The
grey stone seems the cheapest sort; it is already stained
and the design is clumsy and far from elegant. If I am
honest I prefer the multi-colour mayhem of the billboards
and tiny stalls that litter the streets. They are part
of the pulse of Dhaka city. Locals complain, 'the flyover
should have been finished ages ago, the government is
just prolonging the process to get more money.' Another
says 'They could have used a local company but they chose
a Chinese one instead, they charge more you see.' Naively
I reply 'That doesn't make sense why didn't the government
use a local firm if it is more cost effective? ' 'You
fool.' The same person interjects. 'If the government
uses a foreign firm they can pocket more money.' What
do I know? I live in London, my parents are both Bangladeshi
but when I come to Dhaka I am a mere observer. I have
no right to criticise or judge, I just watch and listen
to what the people have to say.
have noticed that it is very easy to criticise whatever
a government tries to do and it seems that a lot has been
done in a very short space of time. Those yellow baby
taxis that use to chug along leaving thick snakes of black
smoke have been banished from the streets. The CNG taxis
are more environmentally friendly although less colouful.
The flyover is supposed to diminish the traffic, it might
not work but at least it is an inroad, albeit a physically
I am in London if I ever hear a bad word uttered about
Dhaka I am the first one to defend the country. Bangladesh
has a poor self-image, it might be impoverished, it might
suffer from demographic problems, it might be perennially
flooded but its people are a proud and resilient one.
They are a fiercely creative one; they bring colour, music
and liveliness to any street corner. I have been to Brussels,
Paris, Stockholm, Kuala Lumpur, New York, Cologne, Barcelona
and many other great cities. But they all seem dull compared
with Dhaka because Dhaka city might be struggling and
creaking with its masses but it is alive. It is easy to
look to the West and aspire to emulate their way forward
in terms of modernisation. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of
a Muslim country, is living proof that it is possible
to have aesthetic and virulent development without it
impinging on the Muslim way of life.
is staunchly Muslim but it's society, consisting of a
large middle class, is also liberal and curious. It is
very plain to see that Bangladesh has adopted the neo
liberal model wholeheartedly and signs of Capitalist development
are evident in the booming construction trade and the
erection of even more shopping malls.
observation is that the current development is not structured
and seems very haphazard. Space is being gobbled up at
an alarming rate with little thought about the social
impact in terms of diminished living space and quality
of life. When driving through Cantonement the streets
are wide and clean, the buildings almost gleam because
they seem polished, the houses have gardens and the space
that surrounds them lets them breathe. Similarly, near
the Parliament building the streets stretch wide and far,
the trees are abundant and the air seems cleaner in these
parts. It is clearly possible to create space and order
in Dhaka city. The question is have parts of the city
become too dense and complex to even attempt to think
about any form of restructuring. In short has the task
become too daunting to entertain?
have noticed in Gulshan that something is going on although
I am not quite sure what it is. The roundabout has gone
and a few lone workmen lay stones in concrete. What is
this thing they have constructed? 'It's supposed to ease
the traffic problem but it's just created more mess',
someone tells me. I wonder if something like the London
congestion charge would be an idea to create revenue and
encourage people to take the bus. Although sitting on
a bus seems like a claustrophobic and sweaty experience
in Dhaka city. Clearly, there are no easy solutions but
something has to be done, the question is will these grand
concrete gestures diminish the jams or just create more?
Will they scar the country in their ugliness or mark the
beginning of the creation of a new infrastructure. Will
these measures make Dhaka more functional or only create
more dysfunction? Only time will tell.
writer is a film maker based in London and Brassels