Dhaka dwellers live by some unwritten codes. They certainly give us a sense of security in a reasonably hostile environment. “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Don’t eat from unknown men” are not only doctrines mothers teach their kids, but they are abided by adults too. These implied ethics of self-preservation are instilled in the typical Dhaka-ite’s mind. There is nothing wrong with that. Recall in 2007, Rahat Dewan Khan, a lecturer was brutally murdered by hijackers who rode a shared microbus. However, these very codes have bred xenophobia and cynicism among the metropolitan citizens. Last week, during at my brisk and brief visit to Barisal, my ossified Dhaka-based morals were shaken.
The city of Barisal is home to estimably one-eighth of Dhaka; thus it is safe to say that on May 5, when I jumped down from the ship (read ‘Launch’ in Bangla), there was no traffic jam all throughout. Furthermore, I noticed a novel form of transportation known as ‘Auto’ on the streets. They resemble a cross between the modern-day CNG and the bygone ‘Baby-taxi’. To my horror, when I got onto one of them, three other passengers jumped inside it. “Here goes my camera,” I thought as I was about to be mugged. Or was I?
Surprisingly, the men were dropped off at several points of the city and I reached my destination safely. “We make around 1700 taka every day if the Auto is fully charged,” said Aminul Islam the Auto-puller. I should note that this amount is much higher than the regular CNG drivers’ wage in Dhaka. Since the ‘Auto’-s are charged by electricity, they save the expenditure of fossil fuel. Ironically, the yellow ‘Auto’-s of Barisal are greener than Dhaka’s green CNGs.
The practice of shared commuting is not exclusive to ‘Auto’-s in Barisal. Another popular transport I observed was the human-hauler they call the ‘Mahindra’ (read it as a common noun), named after the retailer brand. These ‘Mahindras’ carry 10-12 people which made me reminisce the days of ‘Tempos’. Many of the ‘Mahindra’ drivers claimed that they make the most by carrying passengers to Kuakata. Kamrul Hasan, the twenty-seven-years-old ‘Mahindra’ driver asserted, “Most of our passengers are office goers, for example, government officers, clerks, bankers and also families. But we prefer tourists.”
Besides being novel to the everyday Dhaka-ite technologically, these transports cater something that has a moral tune – which is completely alien to a Dhaka dweller. According to Kamrul – the ‘Mahindra’- driver, “People do not hesitate getting onto our vehicles or autos with strangers. The clerks often commute with their sahibs (bosses).” Albeit marvelled by their tolerance, my greatest surprise was still awaiting.
I observed an office going man haggling to get a fair fare for a rickshaw ride in the morning. Upon making the deal, he started off for ‘Sadar Road’ (which is downtown Barisal) when a complete stranger accosted the rickshaw and simply asked, “Sadar Road?” Upon approval from the rickshaw-puller, he hopped right beside the first passenger. Then they rode off to the sunset – well okay, not sunset but to town. But just imagine had this phenomenon taken place in Dhaka, what would your reaction be?
Finally, what my extremely brief tour has taught me is not only do small towns have ‘greener’ vehicles but there is a different world outside Dhaka that has a myriad of trust and an absence of cynicism. Therefore, in the words of the great mind of whoever made the ‘meme-generator’ – “Faith in humanity – restored!”
(The writer is a former student of North South University.)