Food for Thought
Dhaka Day by Day
Guerrillas and Gorillas
Like any 21st-century metropolis, Dhaka has its darker side. And to be fair, with an impossible population density, crumbling infrastructure, extreme poverty and the total lack of public service provision, that's hardly surprising. The last decade has seen the emergence of not only frighteningly high rates of crime, but also disturbing aspects to the nature of such activities. The use of techniques such as rendering people unconscious through offering them contaminated food, or ambushing CNG passengers (with or without the complicity of the CNG driver), and the brutal methods of "disposing" of victims of crime have started to appear in many variegated forms. Not to mention the recent sensational discovery of a serial killer that the news media have made so much of.
It is not always possible to be safe, no matter how careful you may try to be. An acquaintance of mine was mugged with ruthless efficiency after being knocked out as the result of drinking coconut water from a street-side vendor; the coconut had been injected with a powerful sedative. There are many stories of this kind, and the ingenuity of the criminals is almost as striking as the violence of the methods many are happy to use. I felt a chill go down my spine several months ago, while I was watching a reporter ask a member of one of the notorious gangs whether he had actually participated in the butchering of victims himself. Ironically enough, the man responded with a striking degree of indignation, saying "Am I the only one who chopped up those people? Everyone in the gang participated in the chopping!"
Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that extreme as such examples are they are not the only unpleasant encounters you may have. There are any number of more "standard" oddballs and perverts to be found in our fair city - as a friend of mine recently found out. Nadiya is in the habit of taking morning walks with a friend in one of the city's few remaining parks, a pleasant place where a number of people congregate in the early hours of the day to take their daily constitutional.
A couple of months ago she was walking in the park in the early morning, dressed in her tracksuit and doing her own thing. She was approached unexpectedly by an older man who accosted her, and began a tirade - "What's wrong with you, woman? Why are you out so early in the morning, dressed indecently in order to tempt the young men who are here to exercise?" Initially, Nadiya was fairly moderate in her response, saying, "Listen, I am minding my own business, and I suggest that you mind yours!"
But this guy was clearly quite worked up, and continued, "Look at you! You have short hair like a man; you are dressed like a man. I suppose you have a job too! So you probably think that you're just as good as a man!" At this point, Nadiya lost it, saying "Nobody else in this park is looking at me, or has had anything bad to say about how I dress! So why are you looking at me?! If you want to look at something, I suggest you go home and take the burqa off your wife - whom you probably insist on keeping well covered at all times - and look at her instead!" And leaving him speechlessly apoplectic with rage, she stalked off.
In fact, she herself was so angry that she made a full circle of the route and very quickly found herself again walking on the path just behind him. Apparently, this "gentleman" is a regular at that park, so that when his friends arrived there for their walks, they would occasionally call out greetings to him; and he was then forced to turn back to acknowledge them. Of course, he inevitably caught her eye almost every time he did that. But whenever he turned back, Nadiya said, in a tone that left no room for misunderstanding, "Don't you look at me, mister...You just keep looking straight ahead of yourself! Don't you dare look at me!"
Another friend, Khushi, had a less confrontational encounter in another park, though the source of annoyance was similar. She's in the habit of taking her morning walk dressed in a kurta and trousers, though she usually dispenses with the orna, because it tends to interfere with her power walking. Inevitably, there are those who find her “lack of modesty” problematic, and she has been the recipient of a number of comments in this regard, which she largely tends to ignore.
She was amused however by a recent incident involving the self-identified arbiters of suitable park-wear. It was Pahela Baishakh, and Khushi had planned to attend some of the celebratory events after completing her walk, so she was dressed in a sari for a change. She couldn't help but laugh when she heard one of her harassers comment waspishly to his companion, “Ajkey abar Bangali hoisey” (“So today she's pretending to be a Bangali”)!
On a happier note, it must be said that this year, one of the best days to be on the streets of Dhaka was on the 14th of April, when thousands of people were out celebrating the Bangla New Year. Despite the heat, the brightly coloured clothing, music wafting through the air, and beaming smiles were all sights worth seeing. In one instance, I came across a group of young men, most of them well-dressed (in spotless kurta-pyjamas) riding on the back of a truck, singing melodiously. Somewhat incongruously however, one of them was clad in a full-length gorilla suit. I couldn't help wondering what the conservatives at the park would have made of him! Or perhaps they would simply have welcomed him as a fellow throwback to the neanderthal man…?
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