Nadia Kabir Barb
Have you ever been in a situation where you meet someone - a complete stranger and they start up a conversation with you? Before you know it, you are privy to even the most intimate details of their life. At times the information you are given can be a little too personal and make you cringe. For some reason I find myself in this position time and time again. Not that I have a problem with it but there are times when a smile has instigated a monologue by the person sitting with me in the waiting room of my doctor's surgery, where the symptoms and ailment they are suffering from is described in rather graphic detail. On a few and extremely rare occasions when I have ventured to the gym, my fellow sufferers have thought it necessary to confide in me the reason for their sudden decision to lose weight, tone up or just work out! There have also been numerous times where shop keepers, taxi drivers, plumbers etc have struck up a conversations with me and I have found myself engaged in heated debates about religion and politics, small talk about the weather, exchanging tips on raising children and other topics ranging from one end of the conversational spectrum to the other. On my recent trip to Dhaka I found myself in one of these rather familiar situations and a random encounter with a shopkeeper inspired me to write this article.
I was sitting in a traffic jam and as the car seemed to move an inch every twenty minutes I got slightly frustrated with our rather protracted and incredibly laborious journey home and decided to stop and buy some flowers from the shop on the side of the road. It was at least better than sitting in stationary traffic for what felt like an eternity. As I stepped into the little shop which smelled of 'rajanigandha' and roses, I found my annoyance abating. Having surveyed the flowers displayed around me, and not really having found anything that grabbed my fancy, I asked the gentleman to make me a little bouquet. His assistant immediately started showing me various combinations of different varieties and colours of flowers and then proceeded to make my arrangement. As I waited, the shopkeeper looked out of the window and shook his head. Interpreting this as a sign of his dismay at the sea of cars, buses and rickshaws grid locked outside, I commented on how awful the traffic situation had become since my last trip to Dhaka. It was as if I had opened the floodgates to some pent up frustrations and he launched into a diatribe on the current political and economic state of the country. But his concerns were not only valid but insightful as well.
His opening statement was that he was neither a supporter of the AL nor BNP, as he did not have much faith in either party any more. I felt the need at this point to convey the fact to him that I too had no affiliation to either party so he could rest assured I would not take any of his comments personally. His main complaint was that the government, past and present, did not seem to be concerned with the welfare of the masses. One only had to look at the spiralling price of food which was rising day by day and as far as he could see there was no sign of respite. Empty promises do not feed empty stomachs. I asked him how his business was doing and he remarked that he was just about keeping his head above water. Thankfully people were still buying flowers.
He asked me rhetorically why the government did nothing to ease the traffic situation. "You have to be a Minister to get through the traffic" he added with a laugh. My puzzled look encouraged him to elaborate. "If you have a flag on your car, the traffic police let you pass, otherwise you have to wait till they decide to let the cars go. On top of that they block one road for 10-15 minutes and then let them go and then block the other side --- instead of helping they are creating a backlog of cars" I agreed with him as I had made more or less the same remark to someone the previous day. We then speculated whether the situation would ease up a little if people actually followed the rules and stopped when the lights turned red and went when they were green. Our conclusion was that there were just too many vehicles these days and the Dhaka infrastructure could not cope with the sheer volume on the streets.
The shopkeeper obviously had more on his mind and wanted to continue with our conversation."Why is the government wasting their time and spending tax payers' money changing the names of roads and buildings? Is it going to help the people who are dying on the streets knowing that the Bangladesh China Friendship Conference Centre has been changed to Bangabandhu Conference Centre? People still call the PG Hospital 'PG Hospital' and Jamuna Bridge 'Jamuna Bridge'so what did it achieve by changing the names in the first place?" He has a point. I myself am perplexed at this rather bizarre phenomenon where well-established institutions, roads and buildings are being renamed. How is it possible or even right? We seem to be on a journey, which is changing the historical face of Dhaka and that to me is a sign of arrogance and a show of hubris, which is distasteful. Surely there are so many other, far more important issues that the government should be tackling and their priorities should consist of some of the topics weighing on the mind of the shop keeper and millions of other like minded Bangladeshis. Maybe the government should take some pointers from the man selling flowers on the roadside.
By this stage my bouquet was ready and I thanked the florist for my flowers and especially for my rather enlightening encounter.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009