Lost in Dhaka's maze of roads and buildings

Shihab Sarkar | Published: December 20, 2018 21:43:03 | Updated: December 21, 2018 21:05:07


The pace, in plain terms, is unbelievable; and a little absurd too. The dizzy speed at which the look of Dhaka is changing can be termed mindboggling. It requires the imagination to be stretched to a point which the Dhaka dwellers dared not think even half a decade back. For the long-time residents of the city, the speed of the change is too fast to be able to absorb it. In many localities, the cityscape has changed so outrageously that either one feels lost in a maze of new structures, or mulls leaving this urban tangle.  You may have been used to regularly walking down tree-shaded alleys in a tranquil neighbourhood. Or your mornings and evenings would wear multiple colours with the notes of classical songs coming from a local music school. Another group of people loves to remain overtaken by the gifts of nature showered on a residential area --- comprising a tranquil lake or a pond, a narrow road with fleeting glimpses of vehicles or the languid pedalling of a rickshaw.

All these pleasant and quaint spectacles might vanish with the signal of an invisible magic wand. These days this sorcery is very much at play in Dhaka. Thanks to this urban magic show, the idyllic scenes narrated above are found disappearing, at times in a space of a couple of years. Or one feels puzzled thinking how a near-sylvan area could be replaced by a bustling urban commercial district overnight. People losing their way while moving in previously well-known areas have lately become common in Dhaka. One- or two-storey residential buildings with small gardens at the front being replaced by multi-storey structures, with lanes becoming wide roads, now comprise the scenario of typical urban Dhaka. This view has become a normal feature in many neighbourhoods in older Dhaka - in the south and west of the city. The central part is no exception. It has fallen victim to this urbanisation much earlier.

Of innumerable direct witnesses to these radical changes in Dhaka, this scribe is one. His might be called a special case in the sense that he had lost his way in an area long known to him in the city where he was born and brought up. In this very city, he passed 62 years of his life out of 66. In a recent evening when he was desperately darting in and out of busy roads, the feeling that overtook him was that of complete stupefaction. He felt helpless. There are scores of people like him in this frenetically expanding metropolis. The changes are occurring in many spheres, with many remaining least bothered about them. It may be compared to the human state of mind called one's 'being inured' to something. A largely quiet city in the 1950s and the 1960s, Dhaka's spectacular metamorphosis into an unwieldy metropolis after the country's independence has been featured by stunning infrastructure developments. That this intimate and a veritable home-like city will one day emerge as an alien one was beyond the furthest peripheries of thoughts of many.

Instances scatter throughout the capital. Once outside the main part of Dhaka --- now called the old town, Dhanmondi has been deeply tied to the city since the 1960s. One cannot think of Dhaka without this sprawling neighbourhood. According to researchers, the area actually was a 'mundee' (wholesale market) of 'dhaan' (paddy). Today's Dhanmondi used to witness brisk activities in buying and selling paddy grown a few miles to the north --- Mirpur, and to the northeast --- Badda and many other villages. A small river, long extinct, near Karwan Bazar and the Turag to the west of Dhanmondi eventually emerged as two main routes for the paddy trade. Bullock carts were hired to carry the merchandise to the riversides. Besides, there were 'koolis' (porters), who would carry on their heads loads of paddy sheaf to the riversides. Many people, younger and middle-aged alike, would wear an incredulous look to learn that today's famous Green Road was once known as 'Kooli Road'.

Before Dhaka stepped into the phase of a nearly feverish urbanisation in the 1980s, the city could still take pride in its Arcadian neighbourhoods. Those included Fuller Road, Bakshibazar, Minto Road, Eskaton, Bailey Road, Siddheshwari, Moghbazar and a number of smaller areas. Except Fuller Road, Minto Road and Bailey Road, most of the localities have long been turned into jungles of concrete buildings. It is amazing to watch Bailey Road, the once exclusive cultural hub of Dhaka frequented mainly by the admirers of the arts, turn into a glitzy shopping district. Moghbazar, a posh residential area in the past, or, for that matter Wari or Narinda in old Dhaka, cannot be kept apart from the day-to-day hustle and bustle that we encounter in this city. In place of the one- or two-storey yellowish residential buildings, the whole expanses of these areas are now chockablock with high-rise apartments.

The newly constructed flyovers have virtually altered the basic outward view of the Moghbazar-Mouchak area. Almost a similar urban encroachment on Wari and its adjacent areas has for quite some time been robbing the places of their proverbial grandeur. The serenity that once distinguished these residential pockets still remains lodged in the older people's memories. In reality, it has broken to smithereens thanks to the urban chores of Dhaka. Anyone visiting these old-Dhaka localities after a gap of 3 to 4 decades risks being get lost in the rows of tall buildings and labyrinthine roads and alleyways. A similar metamorphosis has also remodelled the soothing and peaceful look of Gandaria and Laxmibazar.

Few living in Gulshan on the northern fringe of Dhaka can think in the wildest of their fancy that the area was once filled with picnic spots. Owing to Gulshan being a vast expanse of trees and wild shrubs and water bodies, film directors used to choose the place for shoots of their movies. To people plagued by perennial traffic gridlocks in the 21st century Gulshan, these views might appear to have taken shapes in a surrealistic world. But these are not tales told by romantics smitten by nostalgia. Cities with an ambition to grow into a modern metropolis cannot dissociate themselves from changes. If they do so, then they, in effect, lock themselves in a closed space. It doesn't befit the otherwise vibrant cities. Structural changes are sine qua non for a living city. But their planners should not be oblivious to the task of putting a 'human face' on the changes. Moreover, the changes should be meticulously well planned. Their utility in the future like in the present times ought also to be kept in a wide focus. 

shihabskr@ymail.com           

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