Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., one of the best regarded American poets of the 19th century, once observed that the axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the center of each and every town or city. Dhaka had already seen that axis when the first urban settlements started in the 7th century. For many centuries since then, the city remained eclipsed under Buddhist and Hindu kings until it proved its mettle in 1608. The Mughals arrived and made it the capital of Bengal.
Dhaka is already more than 408 years old as a capital city. The fortune of the city has waxed and waned many times in all these years. It lost its place first to Murshidabad in 1717 and then to Calcutta in 1772 as a principal city. Then its star rose again through a series of partitions.
The partition of Bengal briefly made it the capital of the newly formed province of East Bengal and Assam. The partition of India made it the capital of the eastern wing of Pakistan. Finally, the partition of Pakistan shot her to prominence once again as the national capital of an independent country.
The city, measuring 12 miles in length and 8 miles in breadth, was inhabited by nearly one million people in 1608. Today it is a much more sprawling city of nearly 17 million people packed like sardines in an area of 360 square kilometers. Obviously, Dhaka is now more densely populated. Power shortages, a contaminated water supply, inadequate drainage, crime, traffic congestion and deplorable sanitary conditions make it an unbearable city. On the other hand, tall buildings, spanking new shopping arcades, a growing number of cars, mobile phones, restaurants, etc., give it the flavor of a thriving metropolis.
But is Dhaka a modern city? Or, is it still a backward urban settlement struggling to cope with the pressures of modernization? It is definitely not a comfortable city like Stockholm, Geneva or Johannesburg. It is not a beautiful city like Venice or Florence. It is not a commercial, financial and cultural capital like New York. It cannot be compared to Moscow, Shanghai or Peking in terms of culture, history and size. It is not the axis of world politics like Washington DC, Moscow or Peking.
Dhaka has reasonably advanced as a physical city, but has lagged behind in reputation. It started as the capital of "a bottomless basket" as the country was once described by an insensitive western bureaucrat. It is now the capital of one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Rightly or wrongly, it is also known for growing religious fundamentalism, which makes it the center of an alleged breeding ground for religious intolerance and terrorism.
Four hundred years ago, there was no sign of communal tension in Dhaka as people of all religions lived in peace and harmony. Dhaka attracted many foreign traders from Arabia, Persia, Armenia, China, Malaya, Java and Sumatra, who enriched its commercial and cultural fabric. Then the Marwari bankers, and the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French and Greek investors came and turned Dhaka into a manufacturing station.
It is said that the most important element of a great city is the spontaneity of free human exchange. In other words, a city does not classify as great if it limits human contact either through repression, distance or other impediments. Dhaka, like Calcutta and Mumbai, has enough people, but gives the impression of a dysfunctional city because too many of them are living in misery.
Four hundred years of Dhaka have been eventful. But a depleting water level and a growing population, failing infrastructure and bickering national politics, is pushing this city to the edge. The shell has changed but the core has a long way to go.