11 days ago

The memory streets of Dhaka

A snap of regular traffic congestion in Dhaka	— Agency photo
A snap of regular traffic congestion in Dhaka — Agency photo

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Despite your feelings about the city, Dhaka remains a place of warmth. Yes, it is a sprawling urban slum these days, with twenty million people crammed into it. The spaces we once knew in our childhood are all gone. The trees have all but vanished; and the ubiquity of forests which dotted the city and in the shade of which we frolicked and played is now memory. No matter where you go in Dhaka, it is skyscrapers --- office buildings and apartment complexes --- you will be running into.

All of this breaks the heart. And yet those of us who live in Dhaka or come back to it from abroad must not be dismissive about the city we have both loved and hated, in almost equal measure, over the decades. A rickshaw ride through Shantinagar creates a rather strange desire in you to spot the small warehouse-like structure which served as your nursery school more than sixty years ago. It was where your teacher kept you detained once, making you kneel down on the hard floor, for a long time because you had not done your homework.

The teacher has passed on, beyond life. And that school structure? Much though you try locating it, you cannot ---because too many monstrosities in the shape of post-modern architecture have come up. You are lost in that forest of concrete. And then you imagine you can find the social welfare library just outside the Shantinagar kitchen market you once accompanied a dusky young woman to. That library too has passed into history; and that dusky beauty lives somewhere else in the city.

It is the memories which matter. And Dhaka holds a lot of memories for one who has lived in it, has gone to college and university as an inhabitant of the city. The rickshaw puller has his three-wheeler meander through the streets and you suddenly realise, at a point, that you are passing by your father's old office. Your father has been dead for over three decades, but from the rickshaw you can see the windows to the first floor room that was his part of the office. It's memory time again, as you recall the many times you made your way to him in that room to collect some money which he had collected for the family.

Those were terribly hard times. The ration card was a saviour, in a certain way. But as you look at those windows, an ache in the heart begins to gnaw at you. Many were the days when, to save money, your father walked to his workplace and back home in rain or sun. Should you alight from the rickshaw and step inside that office, introduce yourself and ask to be permitted to see his old office room? But it's rather late, almost the end of working hours. You move on. That road between Ramna Park and Suhrawardy Udyan recreates youth in you, for it was somewhere in the middle of that road that you sat listening to Bangabandhu speak on the day he came back home from incarceration in Pakistan. At Suhrawardy Udyan, on Independence Day in March 1975, Bangabandhu was again there to speak to his people. That was the last time he was at the udyan.

Memories assail you everywhere in Dhaka. You relate those memories to the present, you remember the friends you have not seen for ages, you think back on the times when you accompanied your sister as she walked to school and later to college because precious money needed to be saved for your mother to provide you with a humble but decent meal at home. At Dhanmondi, where a ship-structured home replaced a residence where you tutored a German schoolboy every afternoon, the past rises before you, to remind you how that experience helped your family find a tiny foothold in life, economically speaking, and go into a restructuring of it. Your brothers went to school and college but also made time to tutor students. Life was tough.

On the road between Shahbagh and Kataban, a young man once spotted his college Bangla teacher walking on the pavement under the blazing sun. The teacher, like all struggling pedagogues in those times, was in shabby attire because poverty dogged him. His eyes brimmed with tears when this young man touched his feet and then told him about his classes that had taught him Bangla. The teacher gathered him in an embrace, overjoyed that his student remembered him. The young man, now in the autumn of his life, attempts finding the exact spot where this brief reunion had come about. The teacher has lain in the grave for years.

In Dhaka, you recall the music shops from where you bought cassettes of old Bengali and Urdu songs. Technology, or its advancement, has pushed those music collections into an era which is almost prehistoric in the mind. At New Market, the bookshops have passed into history, the latest one being Zinat Book Supply, a source of intellectual accomplishment the marks of which remain among the books you have assiduously collected at home. At Bijoynagar, on a street off the main road, you search for the little bookshop which enriched your understanding of the world with its rich collection. You do not see that bookshop any longer. But the mind recreates the bookshop and you love the feeling.

Dhaka's rickshaws draw you to wherever you wish to go. On a CNG-driven scooter, the driver speaks of rising prices, of the syndicates making a mess of life. Buses scream before coming to a sudden stop almost in the middle of the road, to pick up fresh allotments of passengers, their drivers indifferent to the vehicles blocked behind them and honking away in indignation. It's a noisy city --- vehicle drivers blowing horns, rickshaw pullers shouting at one another and at bus drivers, the traffic policeman getting desperate and eventually angry when someone tries to cross the red line.

You do not like all that noise, before realising that this noise is what you truly love. Friends meet over tea or sometimes lunch, ultimately releasing their pent-up emotions about the state of the world in careful as well as chaotic expressions of opinion about the circumstances. Friends ask if you will be staying long. Some of them have been clubbing you, with invitations to these ubiquity of clubs all over town. Other friends generously send you books, some to read at leisure, some others in expectation of a review or two.

Thunder is heard in the evening sky and you expect some rain to cool the earth. You look wistfully at the lowering clouds. You wish she had not died so suddenly, she who painted the world in rainbow colours for you. You think of the rain pelting her grave in its inexplicable fury. You hear her singing the songs which rose from within her soul. The songs are embedded in your heart. She has mingled with the dust.


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