In the 80s, one sarcastic comment—for reasons better not stated out of respect for the deceased—was aired every now and then: hurl a stone in Dhaka’s air and you are sure to hit either a poet or a crow. On the surface, it was an innocent joke about the sheer number of creatures—those who fly with their wings and those others who dream to do so with their imagination.
A comment from a visitor recently reminded me of the saying. “Have you noticed that there is no bird in your city?” “Seriously, not even a house crow?” We looked out from my office lounge on the fourth floor overlooking Dhanmondi Lake. On any given day, I surely would have caught a glimpse of one or two. There wasn’t any, as if the birds had decided to prove our guest scholar from Australia right.
Opposite to my home in Banani, there is a parakeet family that lives in the hollow of an air-conditioner pipe. It is a sheer delight for me to see the avian couple rearing their chicks or being visited by a bunch of relatives every morning. The welcome cacophony adds a soothing touch to our mundane madness.
I remember when we moved to a new apartment in Cantonment, we were awakened by a heavy breathing noise at night. For days, we thought the house was haunted or something. Only days after, we found that there was a pigeon nest in the sanitary pipe on the roof, causing an act of ventriloquism. The almost-human breathing of the birds got transmitted through the pipes, giving an impression that they were coming from elsewhere.
And who hasn’t had the experience of saving trapped sparrows from ceiling fans? We often get to hear the cuckoo cooing, see the dust-shower of common mynas (shalik) or an odd sighting of a kingfisher. Dhaka still has its birds, but urbanity is encroaching upon their habitation. Most of us take their presence for granted. But my foreign friend made me realise that there was a dearth of birds. And the other thing that he observed involved the level of noise pollution. As a linguist, Dr Ahmar Mahbbob of the University of Sydney maintained that exposure to such high levels of noise would affect the cognitive growth of our children. In other words, children, especially between the ages of two and five, would find it difficult to learn languages and make intelligent verbal expressions.
A 2018 study of the Department of Environment found that the average sound level in the city’s commercial areas was around 80-110dB. Experts believe that a routine exposure to 90dB for half an hour can cause hearing loss. Add to that the possibility of the release of stress hormone, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and even death.
We live in a city where death is our fellow dweller. We can die in 50 different ways. Even if the noise is withdrawn, we will probably die of silence. Remember the 1987 movie Pushpak, featuring Kamal Hassan? A job-seeking graduate who used to live in the slum incidentally got to stay in a five-star hotel. The peacefulness of the hotel stopped the man from sleeping at night. He went back to his chaotic slum to record the hullabaloo involving domestic fights, dog’s barking, children’s cry, drunkard’s nuisance, and verbal invectives in a cassette recorder. He played the familiar noise all night long to put him to sleep. We too have become so used to such high level of noises that we fail to think of life beyond it. Our drivers honk meaninglessly, yet we remain nonchalant in our back seats.
Laws were passed to stop cars from using hooters or honking in VIP roads. Lawmakers have shown us that those laws are for mere mortals which can be imposed on a whim (as and when necessary). The lawmakers themselves can siren through the city with their entourage, encouraging others to join the noise hike. Wasn’t it our prophet who left sugar himself before advising a little boy to avoid excessive eating of sweets? We need leaders who will practice what they preach. Don’t bother passing any law if you have no intention of following or implementing it yourself.
I once had a friend coming in from India. He was surprised by the battered look of our public buses. He said that he had seen such rickety buses only in the Caribbean. He was shocked by the steel bumpers in private vehicles. I couldn’t tell him that our buses make special wooden and tin frames knowing very well that they would get involved in extreme car fights with passengers inside. I couldn’t tell him that fencing our cars shows our feudal mindset of posing as the lord of the space that we occupy, even while we are on the public streets. Little do we care that these bumpers could be life-threatening to pedestrians or people on lighter vehicles!
I had a meeting with a group of embassy officials who were a bit late. I blamed the rehearsed excuse: traffic jam, but their response was: forget the traffic, think of the air pollution. They pulled out the app that measured Dhaka’s appalling air quality. And there I was thinking it to be fog, and my friends confirmed it was smog. No wonder so many of us are suffering from respiratory diseases.
As Dhakaites, we have grown used to many of its ills. It often takes a fresh pair of eyes to objectively reflect on the reality in which we live. I mention a host of foreigners because through their eyes we could see the dwindling number of birds or rising level of different pollutants. This is a realisation that I had while reading a book by an Indian journalist. I was in Grade 7 or 8. This journalist started his travelogue by mentioning our national mosque. He said, the cuboid shape of the mosque built after the Kaaba loses its sanctity by the heavy presence of commercial outlets around. Back then, for every little errand, we would go to Baitul Mukarram: replacing a watch belt, jewellery for wedding gifts, buying audio cassettes, books, comics or utensils. It took a non-Muslim foreigner to understand that our profane visits were compromising the sacredness of the place. On that day, I realised, even as a teenager, that sometimes you need to distance yourself from the truth to understand it.
It’s about time we listened to our foreign friends and made Dhaka liveable.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.