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     Volume 4 Issue 19 | October 29, 2004 |

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Out with the
New and in
with the Old

Lally Snow

‘Dhaka is a place of last resort for the dispossessed and displaced from the countryside.' So reads my, by now dog eared and much thumbed through yet trusty guidebook. A modern twist on the story of Dick Wittington and perhaps not the most positive of introductions to the capital of a developing country and a far cry from the usual accolades attributed to other, perhaps more sophisticated cities around the world.

As a relative newcomer to the city, and Dhaka being my first port of call, I was, and still am intrigued by it. Cities, by their very nature, are big. They seep like a drop of ink on blotting paper silently spreading into that place where the land meets the sky; oblivion. Dhaka is no exception. The other day the lofty heights of a friends eleventh floor apartment gave me fantastic views of the city from all angles, but its edge could not been seen and, fantastical though it may sound, I could almost imagine it sprawling across the whole globe, in synchrony with the low lying clouds, an endless sea of telegraph poles, wires, high rise buildings, domes of mosques and, of course, rickshaws. (Would Dhaka be complete without its rickshaws?)

I have the misfortune of being female and European looking (and perhaps a little naive), but down on the ground Dhaka proves to offer a new experience every day and, if I am honest, these experiences are sometimes not particularly enjoyable. What first strikes the outsider is the sheer volume of noise. When I first learnt to drive, my instructor reprimanded me on countless occasions for playful yet illicit use of the cars' horn. ' As you can see from page 47 paragraph c of your manual,' he would say gravely making notes with an ominous red pen, 'the horn is only to be used as a warning to other cars who might not see you around a narrow corner, never in anger, haste or jest. Emergencies only.' But here, in Dhaka, anything goes. Hoot for attention; ring in annoyance; hoot 'get out of my way,' when words become redundant; ring to mean left or right or straight on or all three; hoot to mean hurry up; ring to mean slow down; hoot for fun, even. There are no rules and if there were, rules are meant to be broken, or so the saying goes.

The volume of traffic and pollution coincides with this noise and likewise there does not seem to be much consistency in driving standards. Although there are lines to indicate lanes, a loud toot seems to take precedence over actually adhering to these lanes and a wave of the arm in any which direction suffices to communicate to any one interested in a desired path. However, I am accustomed to this way of travel now. Pollution levels, as we all know, are higher here than almost anywhere else in the world. This combined with the general sense of decay that seems to emanate from building projects left unfinished in certain corners of the city, makes Dhaka appear, to me at least, a little lost, not least pandemonic.

But perhaps this is all a little superficial. What really amazes, shocks, disturbs and upsets me about Dhaka is the poverty. Do not get me wrong, I have not just emerged from a world where everything is safe and sure and where everyone is comfortable. I know that poverty is rife and have seen countless limb-less and emaciated examples of it from Laos to London. Until now, Cambodia had the most profound sense of poverty and degradation with its child prostitutes, numerous amputees, a prevailing sense of loss.

But it is nothing compared to Dhaka. I saw one woman in Phnom Penh, pick her way through the rubbish directly outside the tourist vicinity, trying to salvage some sort of existence from the waste of others. Just one and I was horrified. I see that here daily and the presence of barefooted, half-naked beggars is like no where else I have been but I am aware that to the permanent resident this is the norm. The strangest thing, though, for me, is the disparity of wealth. In perfect antithesis, it is not unusual to see a surprisingly new looking 4x4 next waiting in traffic next to one of these barefooted down and outs. Or a smart residential complex just in front of one of the city's many shantytowns.

On my journey into work, I have to pass a number of busy flyovers and areas of rancid wasteland. 'So what?' you say, 'This is Dhaka. Get over it.' But I cannot. Poverty is one thing, but it is the overriding sense of hopelessness that prevails. Static human lives seem to cling to the edge of the road, some lying, some standing both un-seeing and un-doing in the filth and squalor.

When I first arrived in this illustrious city a friend told me that I must go to Old Dhaka especially 'The Pink Palace,' and it sounded intriguing. I duly read up in my faithful guide book and set off, clearly stating to the CNG driver 'Ashan Manzil'. Half an hour later we were outside the National Museum, and after much gesticulation and exchange of buzzwords such as 'Old Dhaka please,' 'Eeer, Shankharia Bazar?' 'Ummm, Burigana River?' and 'na National Museum!' I found myself at the edge of Old Dhaka although where exactly, I do not know.

Instantly noticeable was the absence of road noise. If my ears had been ringing from the sounds of congestion, they were now ringing, literally, from the symphony of rickshaw bells. Immediately, I was enchanted as before me lay a maze of winding streets and dilapidated yet romantic looking buildings not a neon sign or high rise building in sight. I walked for a while taking in the new array of sights and smells. Due to the relative lack of traffic the air was filled with delicious, and to me exotic, aromas both sweet and savoury, I passed a girl weaving together flowers and smelt their nectar, rice sellers measured and weighed their bounty and I heard individual grains hit the ground amid laughs and chatter. Although I was still an object of curiosity, people were far too busy with what they were doing to bother with me and at last I was anonymous. It was refreshing and I felt refreshed.

Of course, in New Dhaka there are signs of hope and development. Buildings are built albeit slowly, markets prosper with the throng of customers, and the very presence of all this traffic is a sign of commerce to me at least. In last weeks heavy rain I was amused, if a little bewildered, to see people carrying on regardless of the torrent of water descending from the heavens. Likewise in the blistering heat, umbrellas become sunbrellas. Whatever the weather, life goes on. In contrast when it snows in England the whole country goes into a neurotic frenzy with roads becoming blocked and power failures; if there are leaves on the lines (yes leaves), trains don't run; when it is hot, the hospitals become filled with individuals suffering from sunstroke, mild burns and dehydration; when it rains people go without lunch for fear of getting wet. Life does not go on.

People have since told me that Old Dhaka is one of the most over populated and poor places of the city and that it is usual for buildings to collapse at random due to the lack of original planning. In retrospect, perhaps this is evident, but at the time, it was not. Yes, there were rubbish pickers, yes there were signs of unchecked poverty but even above the shop fronts life looked busy, cheerful and, well it looked hopeful. In front of Ashan Manzil, which incidentally was closed, could be seen the hustle and bustle of the river. Later on, from the vantage point of the Gulistan crossing ant-like people smiled and splashed as they washed, traded with each other in earnest, or merely sat pensively on their boats.

From the Gulistan crossing that afternoon, there was a break in the clouds and I could see the tale of the two cities, and suddenly the ending appeared more promising and optimistic. May be, one day, Dhaka will be returned to its former glory as a city so lusted after by Mughals and Empire builders alike. If the younger generations can learn from their predecessors, so too can the New learn from the Old.

Lally Snow is a UK-based journalist interning with The Daily Star


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