<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 141 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 13 , 2004

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Neeman A Sobhan

As every sensible Dhaka dweller knows, getting stuck in a traffic back up is arguably (I have always wanted to use that word) the BEST thing that could happen to any self-aware human adult who hankers after the extra time and opportunity needed for personal growth and spiritual development. Surely, the Traffic-Jam Method of Self Exploration and Higher Education is not unknown to the inhabitants of Dhaka? I'm certain that I am not the only person who has come out of Dhaka's traffic soup, a better, more self-fulfilled human being! You are wondering if I'm hysterical. I don't know, sitting for hours in cars has numbed my senses but I am certainly a happy case of hysteria. Honestly!

In earlier times, when I was less... ummm...spiritually evolved, traffic jams brought forth from me an explosion of expletives. In a tearing hurry, I would lean over the seat, breathing down my poor driver's neck as if my being at the steering wheel might have helped to part the Red Sea composed of, other than private cars: sermonising auto-rikshaws ('Namaj qayem koro' wagging its fingers from the back); Shohag (or whatever) cabs; cycle thela-gari carrying someone's living room; tottering two story buses patched out of beaten biscuit tins; rikshaws decorated with Salvatore Dali inspired flights of undigested fancy involving pink- cheeked men chasing fat sari-clad fairies; cyclists carrying live chicken and motor cyclists carrying their entire families; pedestrians spitting and hawking their guts out; hawkers peddling Taslima Nasrin spilling her guts out; and beggars thumping on your window in righteous indignation. ("Ki, kisu diben na?" one hollered at me. "Na, dibo na!" I said querulously. "Oh! Kintu raag koren kain?" Ah! The exquisite absurdity of it all made me burst into laughter that day. I wanted to say to him, "You sit in this infernal car and stew helplessly for forty five minutes, while I'll go around playing tabla on people's car windows and then we'll talk about anger.")

Slowly I realised that except for Friday, most days the drill was the same, the route was the same, the traffic situation was the same, and my reactions and stress-levels were the same too. Nothing changed or could change, after all 'The Traffic Problem' is obviously a permanent Bengali affliction that we have just accepted as something to be lived with, an incurable urban malady faced by a medieval-minded government with feeble Hakimi cures. I mean, since no one was going to solve the traffic problem, the only change could come from the one other factor, which was in my control: myself.

I decided to change my reactions and block out frustration. I told myself: if you are late, you are late; if you have missed your flight, you have missed it; if the programme has started, it has started. NOTHING that you can do will help, so just sit back and accept it. To achieve this first level of Traffic Nirvana, every time my driver turned off the ignition in the crowded midst of the Great Emptiness (Mohakhali) or some other misnomer of a road, I trained myself to believe that it was a gift from heaven, a bonus time to sit back and do all the things I didn't have time to do.

At first I did what every experienced traffic-jam sufferer in Dhaka has been doing all the time that I've been breezing around in Rome. I took my books, magazines and music with me. I also attended to all my phone calls in the car; made my dinner guest list and menu, and the long list of jobs that I would not get done that day. I put all the photos since 1982 into albums (destroying all my one-eye shut classics); put back all my CD's and cassettes into their right covers (Oh! My God, here was my Sarah Brightman hiding in the Jagjit cover), sorted my cosmetic bag (finally throwing out the unused blue mascara and the five favourite lipstick stubs) and disentangled my costume jewellery. Between Kala Bagan and Panthopoth I took off my nail polish and put on three perfect coats, tweezed my eyebrows (er...that gap is when the driver started the car without warning) and flossed my teeth (Hey! You lecher in that car, don't you have mothers and sisters with teeth?)

Yes, like any normal Dhaka-ite, I started to bring along my harmonium in my car for my daily sargam, as well as my scrabble board, not to mention my bag of sewing so I could sew all those loose and missing buttons and hem the sari-fall/false (what is that word?). Yes, like any astute Dhaka wala I realised that the driver-driven and traffic-jammed car was the ideal place to polish your silver coffee spoons, put fillings into the hundred cocktail samosas and organise your desk drawer or any other drawer by just lifting it out and bringing it along.........WHAT? You mean no one does that? No samosas, no sewing, no tweezing either? Oops. Maybe I got carried away. But the freedom of the stalled car, the suspended moment in the march of time, isn't it too heady, too delicious to waste? Why the heck haven't you done all of the above?

Well, actually, I haven't done any of the above either, but admit it, the ideas, arguably (wow, twice in one article!), are sound and perfectly do-able. No? Okay, so I didn't organise my life and groom myself during traffic back up, but I did move on to the next level. I asked myself, where except in the interior of your car, physically cut off from the distractions of your everyday world can you confront your inner you? This was the right time for meditation, yoga, prayer, and that summit of worldly detachment: sleep.

Even in Rome, I am a traffic-light spiritualist, and I believe that the car is the womb of intellectual nourishment. To this end, and on an earnest note, I really consider books on tapes as the staple of the person who spends long hours in the car. I feel there is a market in Dhaka for books on cassette, both in English and Bangla. Apart from entertainment, these tapes could be technical too, so people can learn languages, develop self-awareness or study for exams while driving. My brother-in-law the cardio-vascular surgeon in Virginia keeps up with information in his field by listening to medical journals and books on tape.

My younger sister in Maryland works with a book company called Recorded books and I've always fantasized running such a company in Bangladesh, providing a whole array of tapes on Bangla literature recorded by the fine local theatre artists and actors, aimed not just for those who have little time to read but also for the ex-pats who would like to stay in touch with literary developments at home. There could also be a selection of works of English literature for local consumption, which would be a step in teaching correct and well-pronounced English to Bangali commuters and students whose subject is not English.

In short, nothing should stop us in getting on with our lives, not even a traffic jam. And now that the car has started again, and the battery of my laptop is almost finished, let me end this article right here and catch up on my nap while the car inches on the Karwan bazar Road towards the bastion of the Daily Star, light years away.


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