The clouds are almost still. Cracking loudspeakers atop the spires of thousands of mosques carry the muezzin’s azan. Countless crows move with tense steps around the garbage trucks. The city cleaners are still sweeping the avenues, streets, by lanes. Slow paced old men and women, wearing their jovial smiles and booming with stories of the way of the world, old and new, crisscross the streets. A city — my city — is waking up. Dhaka is rising, again.
Along Elephant Road, Mirpur Road, Kawran Bazaar, and the many major lanes, that now also house glass-wrapped shopping malls and other gargantuan edifices, tired day labourers have already woken to another day under the same sky. The strained muscles, levers and engines that build and move this sprawling capital have started their never-ending motion of change. Not that it ever goes to sleep, for abode to millions, this city — Dhaka — beats like the heart of a country. Always!
Today, like every other day, thousands will arrive at Phulbaria, Gabtoli, Sayedabad, Sadarghat, Kamlapur to her promise of a ‘better life’, and the other thousands will stand still by the roadside, the black pitch staring back at their momentary hopelessness in this metamorphosing capital of a young nation.
Dhaka is also a city of memories, of dreams made, of hopes shattered. She is our city. Save a few grumpy faced historians, debating over the ‘exact’ date (yes, even the year is disputed!) of Dhaka’s emergence as a formal city, last week was widely proclaimed as the tilottoma city’s birthday. Four hundred years of history as the centre for a people, Dhaka has seen them all come and go. Emperors, colonials, ‘fake’ federalists, and the eventual emergence as the capital of a nation of its own. That is the story of Dhaka that the pages of history will tell. However, people make the place. Probably, therefore, Dhaka’s story is essentially of its people too. From the eccentric Dhakaiyyas of Old Dhaka to the nouveau rich scattered across the new city, and to the recent suburban Dhakaites of Uttara, the millions of lives that make up this city are as fascinating as they are diverse.
While it remains as the city of fleeting lives, the past few decades have seen the rise of a collective consciousness for an entire generation of urbanites who have been born, have grown up, and dreamt, within the confines of this concrete jungle that is Dhaka. I am one of them.
Like millions of the post-liberation era, I was also born in Dhaka. No midwife, but a doctor delivered me; no azan proclaimed my birth, but a certificate; no grandparent’s mango orchard to spend the year-end vacation (well, sometimes for Eid maybe), but an alley crisscrossed by an amusing game of light and shadow that came through the openings between those ever-increasing multi-storied ‘homes’ of other such city boys. Still, today, take me out of this city for more than a week, and I suffocate. Yes, I have learned to discreetly smug at the smog, and profusely fume at the traffic, but it has come to be a part of my life.
Rather than being a continuous stream of memories, Dhaka has filled lives with moments. Events — collective and personal — have created a connexion of shared experiences. While these have made us all part of the larger texture of this metropolis, like the many others around the world, they have severed us from each other.
Growing up in Dhaka has been somewhat of a solitary experience. While the neighbourhood-feel of paras is still there in smaller towns around the country, the new urbanites of Dhaka were never truly a part of the place. With millions living in rented housing, and the other millions living in shifting slums of the periphery, Dhaka never owns anyone. To me, the memories of personal and collective experiences make up Dhaka. And, how sparing this city has been when it came to experiences!
That non-descript last house at the dead-end narrow alley in Shantinagar, where one misty winter morning a seventeen-year old boy had paused for a while to look at the sheuli flowers spread out like ‘happy flowers from the mountains’, is tucked neatly somewhere in memory. So is the exhilaration of being a part of the jubilant crowd of thousands on the streets of the capital when Bangladesh won its test status, is etched in recollections. The Igloo van on lazy afternoons or the fading voice of the chanachurrrrr-man all make up my Dhaka. And yes, this city holds memories of many firsts. Yes, the girl who looked at the sky for far too long, after one of many coaching classes, was naturally my first crush. Of falling in love, of heartbreaks, of hidden kisses on rickshaws beaten down with the rain of cumulous city clouds, is my Dhaka.
Sometimes I hate her for making my life miserable, I curse her for not growing up, and for not becoming mature like those other cities of the world, and right then she holds me tight, like a long lost love. In a while, when the rickshaw puller will pedal me through those familiar streets, my city will whisper their names to me: Manik Miah Avenue, Dhanmondi 32, Shatmosjid Road, Central Road, Bhuter Goli, Aga Moshi Lane, Free School Street…