Where the Sane Fear to Tread
Bursting at the seams with a population of over 12 million and more people coming in every day, more and more vehicles on the same roads, traffic jams that paralyse life and resources diminishing fast, Dhaka is becoming an unliveable city. Add to that the bad habits of its citizens and what you get is a city zigzagging along like a crazed animal with vertigo. So just how impossible has Dhaka become? The Star gives a low-down on the realities of Dhaka life.
Illustrations: Sadatuddin Ahmed
Living Inside the Box
Aasha Mehreen Amin
Dhaka is definitely a city of apartments buildings. Everything, from the neighbourhood park to the neighbourhood swamp, has been eaten up by real estate developers, much to the delight of Dhaka dwellers, some of whom who can't get enough cash from their land and others who need a roof over their heads and have the money to have one. For most urbanites, home is a rectangular box inside a rectangular building, inside a polygon of a complex.
Complex is probably the best way to describe apartment living, as one has to deal with a myriad of challenges. Though meant to be the most modern and convenient mode of living, in reality life in many apartments could not be more inconvenient.
The most prominent feature of apartment living is the unwanted intimacy you must share with your not-so- neighbourly neighbours. You religiously avoid eye contact in the lift yet there are few intimate details you don't know about one another - things like whose housemaid had a fling with whose driver, which shaheb has a girlfriend in a few blocks away, which Begum Shaheb beats up her maid and sometimes, her hubby, which teenager sneaks out when the parents go partying, so on and so forth.
This is not because of the concern for the trials and tribulations of fellow apartment residents and not just out of our general nosiness to know everyone else's business, though that does play a significant role. It's because the walls of our precious abodes are way too thin to keep what-should-not-be-heard, out. You know exactly when the shaheb next door has awoken by his thunderous sneezes, coughs and belches that seem you are living next to a Tyrannosaurus with a massive cold allergy. You know when the lady of the house has woken up on the wrong side of the bed as she screeches expletives at the little maid for forgetting to switch off the veranda light by 5:40 am. You know when the kids next door are particularly exuberant (probably after their daily consumption of a gallon of soda) as they bounce their basketball above your head a hundred and twenty-two times (you know because you're counting).
Strangely, these sounds get louder as the day progresses into nighttime. So it is no surprise when, at the stroke of midnight, you hear someone grinding spices, dragging their furniture to and fro, running with a vengeance in wooden clogs or irate couples taking turns to bang the door on each other every thirty seconds.
Then there may be a lull. But it is just before the storm. Just when you have managed to douse your senses with a fistful of tranquillisers and sedatives, your brain will threaten to implode. The young stud-and-a-half next door has turned on Lady Gaga's 'Poker Face' on full volume.
You later find out that the apartment next to yours has been turned into an all night casino and discotheque. Now you know where those skimpily clad, garishly made up girls came from and why your teenaged son keeps wanting to take halwa to the neighbour.
There are other challenges to apartment living besides developing a high threshold for jarring loud sounds (sometimes the accompanying deafness helps). You maybe confronted with quite a few unexpected possibilities (besides the unexpected visits from the random cable guy, electrician, gas-meter man, possible robber, just when you are about to eat lunch).
Your day in fact, may be slightly delayed when you realise that there is no water in the shower, sink or anywhere else because you didn't wake up at 6 a.m. when they (the powers that be) had decided to turn on the water pump so you could stock up a few bucketfuls. Next time of course, you are ready alarm clock, balti and mog and all.
Other little inconveniences of living in a flat as we used to call them, include occasionally getting stuck in the lift somewhere between the 15 and 16th floors, getting hit by some organic (and inorganic) matter when an inmate of your building throws out portions of his garbage, out the window, just as you have stepped out bathed and shining, for work. Then there is load shedding when you are heating up the dinner or when Tendulkar is making two centuries in a row or when the kids are cramming for their public exams next day. There is also the possibility of some idiot guest of your neighbour parking his obnoxious, gargantuan vehicle in your parking lot while you were out.
But what can one do? We must accept the fact that Dhaka is actually becoming smaller in terms of open spaces. There is little alternative but to crawl into our rectangular box each day and pray that our children don't start to think that gardens and parks are only stuff they show on TV.
Sights and Smells of the City
A tourist brochure for Dhaka will mention the National Parliament House, Bashundhara City, the largest shopping mall in South Asia, the Lalbagh Fort, built in the 17th century, and the colourful open markets humming with activity, but what it neglects to mention is that this is the city to be in if you are tired of your dull, routine and orderly life and want to get in touch with your primitive side. What a brochure will fail to mention are the many interesting sights and smells one cannot even imagine in their wildest dreams unless they have experienced Dhaka first hand. A walk down the streets will show you that here in Dhaka we have the freedom to do what we please, follow our whims and impulses and never worry about inconveniencing others.
A prime example of this is the fact that despite there being 48 public toilets and 100 newly ordered mobile toilets (useable from 8am to 8pm) for the 12 million (possibly more this is just the official number) people of the city, most people still choose not to pay the five takas charge to use these facilities and use the streets instead for urination and defecation. This is a common practice for people, especially the male city dwellers regardless of their socio-economic background. It is not out of the ordinary to see men lined up on the sidewalk, urinating either into the open drain next to it or any old corner they find comfortable. Why, you ask? Because they have been stuck in traffic for hours, a public toilet is nowhere in sight or too expensive, or simply because they enjoy the exhibition, the excuses are endless. Parks are also extremely popular makeshift toilets. The streets and most public places are also used liberally for disposing other types of bodily fluids such as spit and phlegm. From the rickshaw pullers to the polished, educated people sitting in air-conditioned cars, this habit is a favourite amongst most Dhaka city dwellers. Stand on the sidewalk for more than half a minute and you are guaranteed to be overwhelmed by the disgusting sounds of people clearing their throats, gagging and spitting loudly, inconsiderate of those around them. Believe it or not there have been times when people have mistaken all the spit around them for an out of season rain shower. It can be confidently stated that there is not a single road or sidewalk which is not adorned with spit and phlegm in this entire city.
Familiar as these spectacles are in our everyday lives, it is still difficult not to be nauseated at the sight of them. Therefore the common practice of vomiting in public can
be sympathized with. What do we do when we can't take the heat, the smells and the polluted claustrophobic environment we are subjected to? Roll down our bus window and throw up of course. Buses are often streaked with vomit as a part of their bright eye catching decor. Why bother carrying a paper bag (plastic ones have been banned to keep drains from clogging) when that too will end up on the street? Which brings us to the next indulgence we enjoy of littering in public.
Imagine never having to take out your trash and simply throwing it out through the kitchen window. Here in Dhaka, that's exactly what we do. Not just the kitchen window, most of us are so wrapped up in our hectic lives, we cannot spare a minute of our precious time to find a trashcan for our garbage while we are on the streets. Nope, we just throw it in any old place our hearts desire never mind that from the 3500 tons of garbage generated daily in this city, the DCC cleans up only 44 per cent and the sewage system covers only 30 per cent of the city's population. The rest of the garbage and human fluids and excrement just sits there and rots spreading unbearable odours and not to mention diseases such as Gastroenteritic attacks, respiratory and cardio-vascular illnesses, skin diseases, worm infestation, dengue and so much more. Never mind all that though, it's convenience we value and we do what it takes to make ourselves comfortable and take everything else in stride.
Another popular hobby enjoyed by some men of Dhaka city is ogling at women in public. No matter how conservatively attired they are and regardless of their age, they could be as young as their grandchild or as old as an auntie but nothing stops the blatantly lewd stares that attack women who venture into the streets. Some men, more creative than others will even sing suggestive film songs for the ladies to get their attention.
Some of course take it a step further in crowded areas be it a sidewalk or New Market, and will grab and pinch women and disappear into the crowd. The shabbily dressed dirty looking men are the usual suspects, but well dressed, innocent looking young men are often caught engaging in this beloved pastime as well.
In most civilized societies, the acts mentioned above would be considered, deplorable, disgusting, barbaric, revolting not to mention punishable by the law but in Dhaka we are not held back by common propriety or even the legal system. We have received the distinction of being "the second worst polluted and unliveable city in the world" by the
Economist Intelligence Group but the question is, should we be proud of it?
The Points of Having a Car
Dhaka is probably the lone city in the world where you can park vehicles wherever you want. Take it literally: wherever means everywhere--in front of someone's door, in the middle of the street, on a busy footpath, you just have to name it. A car is all that you need; you are allowed to drop your child at the school gate, even if it means keeping a hundred others waiting in a sea of cars and buses.
Asked if she could not leave her precious little 16-year-old, the pearl of her eyes, at the parking lot, which is only one-minute away from his school, a rather irate mother replies: "What is the point of having a car if I can't drop him at his school?" We leave her behind as her eyes smoulder at the stupid question. She, however, repeats the ritual in the afternoon, waits patiently in a queue of a couple of hundred owners of precious little 16-year-olds, to pick her son up from the school gate.
She braves the rain and the sun, and of course the political gatherings that are held every alternate week to celebrate this political leader's birthday or demanding the other's arrest. For those who 'block the streets' like this, the mother has nothing but sheer contempt.
Her eyes are aflame again and she declares, "These leaders are good for nothing. Why do they have to block this 'busy road'?" she is in a rush indeed, her precious little gem has been waiting for her for the last 10 minutes at the school gate. If he has to walk for a minute in this heat (it is winter), what is the point of having a car? And, more importantly, what about his family's ijjat? So the mother waits, as the car snakes through the car-clogged street; her eyes are bloodshot again, but she is not at all angry this time, just the smog.
Sleaze is Back
It is not the car-wallahas who rule the street; there exists another bunch of privileged few who can block the road at whim. Of course they have to come up with an excuse, and a lot can be found at the snap of a finger:
"That bhai (a political leader-cum extortionist who has siphoned billons of taka from government exchequer) must be allowed to come back from a self-imposed exile."
"There was no electricity in our neighbourhood in the evening and last episode of Dulhan was being aired at that time."
"Some government-party backed student-extortionists have demanded toll from our market's shops."
"These shoppers are taking out processions against our student leaders, there is a conspiracy going on against our government, we need to save democracy from these criminal businessmen."
"What? We can't take out a procession in the International Breastfeeding Day? How will the mums breastfeed their children otherwise? Which planet are you from?"
The list can get endless. Presently a meeting is going on in Karwan Bazaar Kitchen Market celebrating the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of bird flu. A flock of chickens, birds themselves, are in the waiting. These chickens, free from the flu, are to be slaughtered soon. Lucky them.
Sleaze is Back II
Have you ever come across a person with a b-i-g burger in mouth while on the cell phone trying to coax someone into washing both hands before lunch, dinner and supper? The burger might be replaced by woodapple and the instructions will be on how to wipe the toilet seat, before its use.
Brave Dhakaites do not even shy away from cleaning their dirty laundry in public. So intimate details of one's private life ("You should not have screamed at me last night. I haven't yet got the bribe for the new contract. Can't buy you those diamond rings, sweetheart.") are given away.
Or what about this? "Son, you must not see that girl any more. Her father owns only two houses in Dhaka. Why not my friend Jaglul's daughter Bilkis? What? She is fat and ugly, I understand. But what about money? Don't you need money, son?"
Or in a worse situation you can come across a worried parent talking to the daughter who now lives thousands of miles away in a place called Wichita: "Now take out one half teaspoon of daal. Oh, didn't you boil the water before? Come on! Boil some water. In the utensil, blockhead! Call me again when the water has started boiling."
So you hold your tongue. Tough, no?
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