There are cities where you feel at home. In these past many years, having travelled to quite a few cities --- and they really have not been many --- it has always been the idea of home which has governed my thoughts. Dhaka is and will always be home.
No, it is not exactly the sort of Dhaka I knew once, with its homes and courtyards and fruit trees and its sleepy streets. I speak of the 1960s, especially of the times when I happened to be here on holiday with my parents and my siblings. Even till the late 1970s, there was something of the tranquil about Dhaka. That Dhaka does not exist anymore. With nearly every home having turned into flats, the city itself has acquired a flat character.
And yet Dhaka remains home, a symbol of the vibrancy you tend to associate with the mind. The bookshops, the seminars, the university campus, the festivals of poetry and songs, the steamy politics --- all of these make you feel at home. Dhaka comes alive, in the heart, when I am out of it. It throbs in the soul, when I am busy trying to negotiate my way out of a traffic mess, often impelled to get out of my vehicle and direct, somewhat, the knots into which traffic has got caught.
In such moments, it is the movie Patton I go back to for inspiration. The central character, played by George C. Scott, screams orders as he directs tank drivers out of the muddy bind they have fallen into in the middle of war. I try doing the same. And I have a feeling I love doing it. But, yes, there is always the nostalgic, which comes with any assessment of Dhaka. Old images of Rankin Street, Wari, where my family lived for nearly a decade between the 1970s and 1980s, keep flashing through the recesses of the imagination. Heritage was part of Old Dhaka, with all those streets dating from British colonial times running into and away from one another. There were the aged trees, beneath which the tinkle of rickshaws could be heard all the way from dawn to the deep hours of the night. And when I go farther back in time, it is the Sunday images of family happiness at Ramna Park I recall, when our parents let us run wildly all over the place as they sat on the banks of the lake, content in their togetherness.
Ramna Park is still there, a place which has come to be identified with our annual celebrations of Rabindra culture. Speaking of culture, the expansive Shilpakala Academy tells me constantly that for all its manifold problems, in the socio-political sense of the meaning, Dhaka remains the epitome of history resting on tradition. The Bengali imagination is at work through theatre,as it is at play through the varied genres of music, which have always made Bangladesh a repository of nature’s serenity.
It is serenity you feel even as you push through the crowds on your way home. You bump into people, you nearly trip over gaps on the pavements; you cannot get into the bus that will take you home but must wait for another with fewer commuters in it. You fume, you fret, you even think of letting go with curses. But then, it is your Dhaka. The old Gulistan cinema house is not there, but all those shops along which you took long walks in your youth remain. Yes, you miss the open spaces before Baitul Mukarram; you miss Paltan Maidan for it has been consumed by a stadium.
With Dhaka you have a love-hate relationship. All the time you keep conspiring in the mind about the best ways of leaving it, but when you do get out of it, either to journey down to your village or out of the country, you begin to miss it. Dhaka seduces the individual who has been part of it for decades.
The old airport in Tejgaon brings back memories; the hustle and bustle of Mirpur makes one remember life as it is lived by struggling people. And, yes, Dhaka speaks to you of immeasurable pain. You spot pain in the thin lower leg of the rickshawpuller, in the sweat sliding off his back as he struggles away in rain and shine. You see poverty rising all around the shopping malls and the high-rise apartment complexes when old men and old women stretch their hands out to you for a pittance, when little boys and little girls try persuading you into buying the nearly wilted flowers they peddle before Pan Pacific Sonargaon.
You love Dhaka when the monsoon pours. Much as you hate being in it in the sweaty summer days, you know you would not like to be away from it. There is a joy in haggling with the fishmonger in Shantinagar, in arguing with a fruit seller in Mohammadpur, in reprimanding a car owner when he tries to be too smart on an already chaotic street.
Dhaka is in constant choking mode. But it refuses to die. That is its charm, even if its blossoms do not give out their scent anymore.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age