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Requiem for Dhaka

Aly Zaker
Ramna Park is fighting hard to match up to its old glory. Photo: zahedul i khan

This is the city I grew up in and love to come back to. Never have I ever thought of leaving it even at the behest of or opportunity to living in another quite so much more organised and made over city where, as they say, things 'worked'. Well if 'things working' means things are glamourised then I have very little to do with them. But let's see why I am so passionately in love with my city. There are quite a few things in my city that I have known for years and shall not ever barter with anything at any cost.

My city, my world, Dhaka, included a quaint little suburban residential hub as would befit a laid back provincial town where I lived. There was a little station there where only a few trains came and went every day. The station had a tin shaded waiting and station master's room, a cinder covered platform beyond which, in a line, there were Krishnachura trees that would blossom at the advent of summer and make our little station look aflame. In the monsoon one could stand under the tin shade and listen to the ceaseless pitter-patter of the raindrops on it and wait for the train. In the winter you could look beyond the three pairs of tracks and see a vast expanse of empty space dotted with bushes, trees and thatches covered with mist. They were little hamlets in slumber on a lazy winter morning. There were only two bus routes that traversed the town from north to south and from east to west. The main transports were horse drawn hackney carriages and rickshaws. Motorcars were few and far between.

The area known as Ramna to the north of the city was lush green with huge trees, ponds and parks. A walk in this area was a treat. There are extraordinary depictions of the beauty of Ramna in the writings of many Bengali litterateurs of repute. It would be unfair of me not to also mention, with delightful memories, the fares that were atypical of this city. The first item that comes to mind is the oven fresh crispy Bakarkhani, followed by the piping hot Nehari, Sutli Kabab, succulent Tehari, Omriti, Jeebhe Gauja, and Daalpuri. All these used to constitute the usual breakfast menu. The Dhaka dwellers preferred Murg-Pulao to the traditional Biriyani.

When I came to this city I was merely a boy. Coming from a smaller town in the hinterland of Bangladesh then known as East Pakistan, I was suitably impressed by its spread, cleanliness and the well-manicured gardens. As I was growing up I saw various changes set in. New roads were built. Some roads became wider and, most of all, buildings started to infest the roads and avenues, lanes and by-lanes. Shopping areas popped up whichever way you looked. The roads became busier and the quietness of the city was shattered by the sound of speeding motorised vehicles and their wanton honking. The city started to become noisier and increasingly unappealing. But Dhaka still was my favourite.

I remember in my college and university days walking miles on end every day through the roads and lanes that criss-crossed this city. I walked for two reasons. First, to save my bus fare to enable me to see the special matinee shows in the Naaz cinema. They used to show English films. I remember having seen films like 'The Big Country', Two Women, Fall of Berlin, War and Peace, Mutiny in the Bounty, Le Dolce Vita, Sun Flower - indeed they were films, the likes of which people do not get to see in the cinema halls any more. And second, with the money saved I could also indulge in the mouth watering roadside and restaurant food. Dhaka had lots of open spaces and water bodies. Can one imagine that you could play a full game of cricket right behind what is known as Banga Bhaban today? Gradually we saw this dear city of ours transform into a metropolis. We were very happy. In my childhood I used to fight with my cousins in Kolkata on the greatness of my city over theirs. It had a history older than Kolkata and in terms of tranquillity ours was unparallel. We used to also pride over the absence of smoke and fume that is characteristic of Kolkata. Even the number of people on the streets of Kolkata seemed unbearable. Though Kolkata had its glamour, we had our peace. A whole host of good things can be said about this dear city of mine that made us proud and wanting never to desert it.

The dear city that I have been talking about for so long is no more. Though I know that with the progress of time things change. They have to change. Such is the rule of growth. And as a citizen of the modern world I cannot but go along with it. Still it hurts. It hurts because in the process something somewhere has gone wrong and we have to pay a price for it.

The metropolises all over the world have grown up to be megalopolises. None of these enormous cities are as manageable as they were even ten years ago. But they are managing these with equal dexterity while my city has had to succumb to an utterly chaotic growth. It has seen townships grow without any plan whatsoever where roads do not permit even two rickshaws to ply side by side, where trees have been felled without discretion, water bodies filled-in indiscriminately. It has seen markets mushrooming on either side of the lanes clogging traffic every now and then. It has seen slums grow in thousands where people live in sub-human condition. It has seen people indulge in utter lawlessness in their conduct as its citizens.

There have been sporadic efforts at beautification. But those efforts have also been unplanned and inconsistent. Someone felt like planting a couple of trees or shrubs, grow a bit of green pasture, but never looked after those. So, after a few months they look abandoned. All my favourite places of Dhaka wear the same derelict look. The Bhasha Shaheed Minar is jazzed up only in the month of February. The most wonderful monument at Rayer Bazaar looks forsaken. Ramna Park is fighting hard to match up to its old glory. The University area looks dishevelled. Each one of these favourite joints of mine seems to have seen better days.

At times, out of desperation, I think enough is enough. Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to my beloved city. But the next moment I am reminded of an Urdu couplet I have heard about three decades ago, “How I wish, in desperation, I had died now. But if even death fails to bring the elusive peace where shall I go?”

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