Memory always plays tricks on us in old age and nostalgia makes the past appear perennially serene then. Once upon a time, we tend to feel at a later stage of life, everything was peaceful and stress-free. And then, as theology forewarned us all, came the fall, for we inexplicably exiled ourselves from paradise through our own self-destructive imaginings and craving for forbidden knowledge.
And so when I think of the Dhaka of my childhood, I keep thinking of how beautiful and unspoiled it all was, and how we all have ruined it totally in the last forty or so years. True, the monsoons would make the drains flood and stink, but the rain pouring down would wash away the detritus and unpleasant stuff from them soon enough. True, we lacked many of the creature comforts without which life seems unlivable nowadays, but did we ever miss them then? No, in that prelapsarian world nothing bad stayed stuck in the cityscape and we loved its good things forever and forever, no matter how rudimentary the municipal services were, or how basic or bare the furnishings of our homes were at that time.
The other day a friend forwarded a link to me about Dhaka in the 1960s that made me think that in this case at least memory did not play a trick on me. The link led me to a posting on Dhaka by Pantha Rahman Reza made on 29 July, 2016 (Global Voices-https://globalvoices.org). But before I go to Reza's posting let me quote the information posted in Global Voices by its staff about itself: “We are a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators” dedicated to promoting “understanding and friendship across borders.”
Pantha's posting is really a photo-essay about Dhaka in the 1960s and is titled “Old Photos Bring Back Sweet Memories of Bangladesh's Capital Dhaka”. What Pantha has done in his piece is feature the work of the British aid worker Roger Gwynn who came to Dhaka in the 1960s as a volunteer for Service Civil International and who seemed to have photographed extensively the life of ordinary people in East Pakistan then. The photos are amateurish work I would say, but that not much art is needed for anyone interested in representing everyday life faithfully is clearly obvious in this case; Gwyn has captured well for us a Dhaka that is fascinating, if only to those of us who were growing up in the city at that time, and are in a state of perpetual grief now about its contemporary dreadfulness.
Look at the photograph of Topkhana Road, for example, framed by trees that have now disappeared. Viewing the slow-paced traffic and the sauntering pedestrians sharing the street with some bicycles and a few three- and four wheelers, one can only be bemused by the contrast between the unhurried pace of life in Dhaka then and the frantic, crowded city street scene that we are bound to view every time we cross this street in our time. And look at the open spaces in front of Victoria Park, Saderghat that Gwynn has framed. Even on a hartal day now, would we able to glimpse old Dhaka so sparsely populated, and as unspoiled and uncluttered as is the scene the British photographer has managed to freeze in time? And behold thela gari pullers next to their handcarts in front of the photos of New Market. Why is the street all but barren of life? Where is the hustle and bustle one associates with the New Market ambiance these days? Where is the throng that make movement of anyone, pedestrian or not, impossible at times now? Surely, the solitary microbus in the street would barely disturb the silence of such a street even at its noisiest then, whereas now one's hearing would be bothered by a cacophony of sounds, whether emitting from cantankerous car drivers in all types of vehicles, struggling all day across the chaotic, crowded street that you have to cross in considerable confusion most times of the day.
Gwynn's Dhaka is truly, magically safe, if we juxtapose it now with the images cluttering our mind of the contemporary cityscape. Behold for example the photo of children in old Dhaka peering intently at a bioscope from different positions, as if they didn't even need to see through its eye to view the world of magic, and as if they would all see through it at the same time. Can you imagine children now on the streets of old Dhaka doing anything similar? We did so whenever we could, but parents now would certainly shoo away their offsprings from such activity in the city's unsafe streets at any time of the day.
Look at the two rare images of Sadarghat's riverfront and Nawabpur Road from an even earlier—1950s—Dhaka supplied for this piece by the indefatigable hispotrian and archivist of Dhaka photographs and artworks Waqar A. Khan. Can you imagine a Sadarghat and Nawabpur Road so full of empty spaces and so sparsely polulated in our time?
As L. P. Hartley once said— the past is a foreign country. For sure, no passport will ever transmit me to the safe, quite pleasant, and mostly quiet Dhaka of the sixties that we can glimpse in Roger Gwynn's photos. I know, too, that the “sweet memories” of this Dhaka can only be revived only through such images retrieved from archives or from memory's caverns. But a city-dweller all my life, and one who has had the good fortune of being on streets of some of the world's largest cities, I truly hope to see before my time is out a Dhaka where pedestrians and citizens, young or old, can walk with relative safety and in relative silence most of the day. Our children will never again peer at bioscopes they can access in the city's street that will take them to some enchanted land in some holiday afternoon, but surely Dhaka's streets will offer them in a not too distant future, magical attractions through video consoles and play stations, accessible in amusement parks scattered all over the city; surely there they will be able to peer into distant galaxies where their parents can take them whenever possible. The past will always be the past, but perhaps we can come out of the horrific, chaotic Dhaka we are seemingly doomed to inhabit forever at present. Certainly, we can hope that this megacity of ours will be redeemed by our city fathers/mothers and leaders so that it can be, if not paradise regained, a place where citizens can feel secure and experience pleasant scenes and quiet moments every day, and not be harried and handicapped by persistent urban nightmares in their waking moments.
Fakrul Alam has just retired from the University of Dhaka and is Consulting Editor of The Daily Star