Food for Thought
Dhaka Day by Day
Sights and Signs
Dhaka's traffic jams are legendary, and it's certainly no laughing matter when you find yourself caught in one. But for those seeking entertainment in the city, there are always advertisement hoardings or street signs that provide a quick laugh, and help to while away the traffic time. If we Bangalis have nothing else, we certainly have dreams and aspirations!
In the midst of all the standard carts advertising street food, mostly named after the home district of the owner ("Comilla Chatpati", "Chandpur Phuchka" etc), the one called "Rangpur Kamran Night and Fight Ura Dhura Chatpati" does stand out a bit! (Apologies to those who don't speak Bangla, but that one really is untranslatable). And then there are the literal translations like the chatpati stand called “Brother, Brother, Come Eat” (“Bhai, Bhai, cholo khai”)...
Storefronts also provide rich pickings, and I remember fondly the now-defunct "Cagey Choice for Advanced Man", presumably a clothing store, which a friend of mine happily adapted to: "Cagey Choice for Dodgy Men"! Not to mention the also-defunct "Gud Fud" - long gone, but never to be forgotten...And every day, there are new and exciting shop signs to carry on that proud tradition of free, occasionally enigmatic entertainment - like the eatery intriguingly named "Restaurant Comma" or “Hotel Purabi (fresh) International”!
Wandering into some of these venues can yield further unexpected pleasures. Like the popular bakery in Dhanmondi, where I was recently to be found grazing on a chocolate ball. My attention was caught by a laminated sign on the wall of the establishment, laying out what was described as unsuitable behaviour for those particular premises. Apparently such signs have become increasingly common in fast-food outlets, cafés and other youth hang-outs, with one trendy café warning customers that CPR demonstrations are not allowed on-site!
Interestingly (indeed, audaciously) entitled "What is considered lewd and unacceptable behaviours according to International and UN Standards", the rules pasted on the wall of the bakery prohibited - among many, many other things - "Sticking your tongue deep into the thoart (sic) of your partner, otherwise known as deep frenching". To say that I was taken aback by the rather explicit nature of the notice would have been an understatement (though one has to sympathise with their aim of protecting their clientele from X-rated activities as they enjoy their meal…!)
On a less loaded note, sometimes graffiti can also provide thought-provoking material, like the giant heart shape chalked onto a wall situated by a main thoroughfare, displaying the immortal prose "Baishakhi + Fuad = 'foul' prem" - What on earth does that mean? For the more seriously-minded, warning messages on the walls of a building near the Parliament point out that “oti druto godi-ayoney jonogoner jonno kono mongol ashbey na” (“Too swift a return [of politicians] to the throne will not result in a good outcome for the people”).
And of course, when all else fails, there are people to watch. As one who is forced to spend a considerable amount of time of each day in Dhaka traffic, I must admit that this is one of the best compensations. Occasionally, you come across a scene or observe a moment that is absolutely priceless - in terms of humour, the bizarreness factor or even, occasionally, something unexpectedly moving...
Like the street kids who operate at the Bijoy Sharani crossing all very persistent, but charming nevertheless; each with his or her own distinctive personality and style. Interestingly, while the children are willing enough to take sweets or money offered to them, several are fairly strict in insisting that you accept something in return. On one occasion, that resulted my being bombarded with small candies that were thrown in through the window after I had initially turned down the offerings! While I appreciated the principle behind their actions, I couldn't help feeling slightly like a zoo animal at feeding time...
My favourite among them is the bright eyed 10-year-old boy, with a ready smile, who always wants to know how anyone else sitting in the car is related to me, and tells me (after once identifying my father correctly, several months ago) that I should "bring 'uncle' back to visit sometime"! But I also have a soft spot for the girl who often has a flower for me, whether or not I have anything for her. And her little sister, who flashed a cheeky smile as she told me, "I didn't get a ball - everyone else got one, but I still don't have mine... Will you bring one for me next time?", referring to the time I had brought a handful of small, colourful, hard rubber bouncy balls to give them.
Children usually offer interesting insights, because of their “watchability”. The other day, I spotted a five-year-old boy proudly marching to school with his bright blue rucksack. Alas, a closer look revealed the familiar platinum blonde features of Barbie firmly stamped on the side of the schoolbag. It is possible that the bag was a hand-me-down from an older sister, but from a few feet away it looked brand new, and I couldn't help worrying that soon enough, his peers would begin tormenting him for this terrible faux pas. Someone should have told him to go for the Mickey Mouse schoolbag instead... What were his parents thinking of?
By contrast, the "cool dude" standing outside his workplace on Banani Road 11 - a bakery - seemed totally at ease as he took a cigarette break and chatted with his co-workers. The fact that he was wearing a tastefully blue-tinted plastic hairnet (reminiscent of the shower caps provided in some hotel bathrooms) at the time, did not serve to cramp his style in the least!
In line with the publicity around its reputation, "bhalobasha dibosh" (Valentine's Day) brought its own list of "dishes of the day". One highlight was the surprise sighting of a girl in a strawberry ice cream shade of pink - sadly, it appeared to be her school uniform! Even worse was a little boy of about four, whose small frame was eclipsed by the gigantic paper cut-out of a red heart that was hanging on a string around his neck, with the immortal words "Happy Valentine's Day" hand written on it. Could this be a special class project devised by a particularly sadistic teacher, I wondered...?
Interesting people come in all shapes and guises, of course, and there are some that you just can't miss. Stuck in a traffic jam by the Sonargaon Hotel, my driver Shahjahan and I were mesmerised by a man striding along the pavement. He was undeniably charismatic, with burning eyes set in a lean, striking face. To the untrained eye, he appeared to be talking to himself; but in fact he was engaged in addressing an imaginary crowd, and clearly delivering a fiery political speech. Dressed in a grey jacket and a spotless lungi, he didn't really fit the bill of an ordinary madman on the street.
Somewhat fascinated, Shahjahan said musingly, "Puraton pagoler-i jaiga nai, kintu Dhaka shohorey protidin notun pagoler udoy hoy." ("There isn't enough room for all the madmen we already have, yet every day new madmen emerge in Dhaka city"). Pondering the matter, we nevertheless agreed that he might have a bright future in one of the main political parties. He looked a lot more convincing (and convinced!) than some of the professional politicians we had come across…
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