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     Volume 8 Issue 74 | June 19, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

Dhaka Day by Day
City of Contrasts

Farah Ghuznavi

Dhaka is a city brimming with the most blatant contradictions. Scenes of abject poverty coexist cheek-by-jowl with soaring multi-storied buildings, and pavement-dwellers live in uncomfortably close proximity (too close for some!) to lavish shopping malls offering every kind of luxury to the well-heeled consumer. The contrasts can be heartbreaking.

I have never forgotten a conversation I overheard between two street children. A boy of about nine was consoling his younger companion, after a passenger in a private car who (perhaps understandably) had refused to take his window down, by saying “Tui mon kharap korishna. Amra behestey geley, amrao oirokom gari chalabo” (“Don't be sad. One day, when we go to heaven, we'll also drive around in cars like that”).

I have to say, I hope he's right, because the scale of financial inequality and social injustice in evidence on the streets of Dhaka is at times mindboggling. We are all, of course, guilty of playing our own parts within the wider social structure, but I have to say that the overwhelming preoccupation with consumerism that has taken place over the last couple of decades has thrown up some really disturbing issues. It frequently reminds me that there are others out there who probably share the views of an American visitor, who rather fatuously insisted on telling me (when I was working for the Grameen Bank some years ago) that the organisation could only be considered successful when it allowed Grameen Bank members “not to buy one television, but three or four"! Luckily, the Nobel Committee disagreed with him.

While the recent global financial crisis has made the fragility as well as the excesses of the capitalist development model quite evident, the message clearly hasn't quite filtered through to some of the more fortunate denizens of this city. And they make no bones about their belief that more (rather than less) is more. I was shocked when, having gone out to dinner with friends recently, we saw a two year old child being given her milk bottle with Coca-cola in it! The parents had sat down at their table, and immediately instructed the restaurant staff to fill the baby's bottle with Coca-cola. This was at around 9.30 at night, and it was hard to understand why any sane parent would want to pump a young child full of sugar and caffeine at that hour of the night. But perhaps the key word in that sentence is “sane”.

All four of the diners at our table watched transfixed as the poor little girl went through a progressive deterioration, from hyperactivity (when she was making pawing gestures at her father) to a somewhat comatose state (when her activity level went down to a blank and hostile stare at her surroundings). As if things weren't bad enough, her father ensured that the Coca-cola would have the maximum possible effect on her by discouraging her from eating anything. When she tried to reach for some food, he admonished her sternly, saying “Drink your Coke”!

At another table, on the same evening, we caught a snapshot of the modern Dhaka family, where affluence was all too evident: the father of the family was talking on his mobile, his teenage son was playing some game on his mobile, and the mother was eating silently by herself. At yet another table, a pre-teen girl appeared to be talking to her friend on her cellphone, while her teenage brother listened to music on his I-pod, and their parents desultorily ate their food. Depressingly enough, all the technology and disposable income were giving a whole new meaning to the idea of a “family dinner” out…

But if this kind of social analysis can provide the observer with a degree of amusement (however black the humour from which it is derived), the same cannot be said of another social trend that frequently makes me cringe. And this is the sight of an adult or under-age domestic worker, who is expected to be on stand-by, quite literally, while the family for whom she works (usually, it is a “she” that we are talking about) enjoy a lengthy and sumptuous meal at a restaurant of their choice. Frankly, I find it hard to understand why a nuclear or extended family cannot look after the children in their midst for a few hours, without having additional carers in tow.

In some cases, I know that employers may take their household staff to accompany them to a restaurant meal, because the person concerned is viewed as an additional household member who deserves to share in the family's enjoyment. But those cases are rare, and easily spotted. For one thing, in those situations, the domestic worker can be seen sitting with others at the dinner table! Is it really possible that employers fail to realise how incongruous and inappropriate it is for a group of people to be seated, enjoying a meal in a public place, while one person is made to stand alongside, clearly marked out as “a social inferior”?

As disconcerting as such scenes are in many of the popular eating places in Dhaka city, they are sadly taken for granted, as much as part of the scenery as Dhaka's dilapidated infrastructure. Speaking of which, an acquaintance of mine, Polly, described the shock she received during her recent attempt to use an underground walkway near Karwan Bazar. As she made her way down the steps into the tunnel in order to cross the chaotic road, she was horrified to find that there was almost no lighting in the tunnel. As a result, she had to literally feel her way across to reach the way out “As if the total darkness wasn't bad enough, touching the walls meant that I came into contact with some pretty disgusting surfaces, and the stench was awful. So I wasn't surprised at the strange look I got from a man who was going down the steps into the tunnel, as I was making my way out. He must have thought 'What a weird woman' imagine going into a dark tunnel alone, where you might run into any of the plentiful perverts wandering around this town!”

And on the subject of perverts, a few months ago rumours had been spreading about some guy who was flashing women in the park where my friend Nadiya regularly walks. So she was not altogether surprised when two young women rushed up to her one morning and told her that a man had exposed himself to them a few minutes earlier. The weird thing was, this creep was clearly targeting his victims carefully, since it seemed that he only flashed Hindu women (identified by their sindoor or shakhas).

Nadiya persuaded the two women - who were both Hindu - to retrace their route, walking just behind them so that she couldn't be seen clearly. Sure enough, the pervert fell for it, and raised his loosened shirt to reveal his unbuttoned fly. As the two young women made a run for it, he suddenly realised that Nadiya was still standing there. Not missing a beat, she surveyed him coolly before saying, "And that's what you're so keen to show off, is it? Well, I've seen better at cigarette stands!" And with that, she walked off. When she looked back a few seconds later, he had disappeared - presumably her comment was not the reaction he'd been looking for. So it's worth remembering that even in the most public of places, and hostile of spaces, Dhaka has her heroes as well as her harassers…


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