What is dhaka (hidden) in Dhaka?
It is not for nothing that Dhaka is called a "jadur shohor"—a magical city. No, I don't say this to exoticise a city from the Global South out of any unconscious colonial hangover. I believe in the city's "special" abilities that are crucial in defining the urban pathology and behaviour it generates.
To understand what is magical about Dhaka, we need to look beyond the hard city—the physical city of built forms. The city is never an out and out physical space, corresponding to a totally laid out plan, completely understandable and negotiable by reason and logic alone. It is somatic and semiotic at the same time. While it exists out there in all its corporality, the experience of the city remains subjective, giving rise to an ever present invisible soft city—an elastic network of imagination, dreams, fantasy, nostalgia coupled with memories of experiences lived and/or imagined. In fact, it is through the dialogue between the two that the city we live in is brought into being.
Interestingly, the name "Dhaka" is very suggestive in this regard. Beyond the disputed historical origin of the name, dhaka the Bengali word points to something secretive. Maybe, Dhaka's magic lies in what remains "dhaka" (hidden) in Dhaka.
A careful probe will show that Dhaka is beset by an inordinate love for an "elsewhere"—both in time (golden Bengal) and space (the village, and by extension the provincial city) with serious repercussions on the pattern of urban behaviour noticed here.
For example, Dhaka is conditioned by the memory of the village. Nurtured by nostalgia, it is a partly imagined space, unadulterated by the forces of modernity, and almost mythical in its idyllic qualities. The vision of the village is also directly connected to the myth of the classic villager. The archetypal ideal villager conditions the way the urbanite is perceived as secondary, falling short in the scale of morality and sensitivity. There are many ways in which city dwellers themselves play up this self-demonising imaginary in their daily life. For example, dwellers are often found to have preference for hiring house help straight from rural areas over those who are already in the city, thinking that the city has a corrupting influence, making its residents more commercial, cunning and self-serving.
This logic of nostalgia, memory and fantasy in operation belies what the available urban discourse has groomed us to believe: the city we live in has an orderly existence and anything out of that order, such as the like of dream, fantasy, imagination is unimportant, if not completely redundant, to be considered as part of the experience we so fondly call "urban." But these everyday acts give away the existence of an ever present imaginary, soft city that oozes out of the increasingly urbanising space at every opportunity.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), of all the city authorities, seems to have realised the implications of these associations and instead of negating their existence, it has operationalised the mindscape as an organising principle. Take for example the following DMP directive running digitally at different parts of Dhaka: "Do not drive at your whim criss-crossing the road like a fish in the water." Another, directed to bus drivers, reads: "Do not even think of stopping here." The injunctions in their phrasing and tone allude to a behaviour that results from an ease and comfort with unrestricted movements such as ones noticeable in the village, where most of the rickshaw, truck, bus drivers hail from. The effort in the injunctions seem to be to remind these people on the road of their changed circumstances, and jolt them back to the current spatial arrangement from the other space where they have mental belonging.
On a different note, Dhaka is a city that is hard to categorise. Efforts to do so abound though. The many ascriptions it has been bestowed—a mega city, the densest city, unlivable city, and recently one of the most polluted cities—are efforts to order the disorderly with familiar indexes, and categories. Dhaka poses a problem in that too as this unliveable city happens to be the capital of one of the happiest nations in the world. Only with a careful consideration of the soft city can one begin to understand the contradiction and its operational logic. Against order, reason leading to certainty, Dhaka's operational logic often rests on indeterminacy. Nothing can be fixed about the city. It is fluid by nature.
Dhaka is a place of improbabilities—both good and bad. Living here is like being on the last few minutes of a cricket match, where you keep your hopes up until the very last minute, for anything can happen and you never give up! It is the anticipation of some sort of intervention, something miraculous that is part of the everyday life in the city. People go about the city with a certainty that there is always something to be done. Nothing about Dhaka is conclusive. The more adept you are in handling this unpredictability, the more you are at one with Dhaka's magical spirit.
Nowhere is this indeterminacy captured better than this common yet the vaguest of requests one hears frequently, "Ektoo deikhen please" ("Please consider my case"). Even when you really cannot make any difference, you hear this request for a free size favour under different circumstances from different people. More than the deliverables, what it seeks, it seems, is the comfort in the knowledge that some influence can be exerted upon to change the course of things. There is always something extra to be had above and beyond the existing ways of things and not necessarily when things go wrong. And God forbid if they do, you surely expect intervention of some sort (mobilising strong, weak and even remote ties you have) that can change things for the better. There is always some scope for action! Until the very last minute there is hope in knowing that the city has your back. I wonder if this has anything to do with the proverbial resilience residents of this unliveable city has inculcated to get by.
It is difficult to give up in this city on a very material level too.
You do not throw away anything in Dhaka! You repair almost everything. As long as there is sign of life in an object—it will find a use and utility for itself, be it your car, TV, flip-flops or water bottles. You waste nothing! The terminal stage is not really terminal. This surely gives your imagination a flight. If there is any magic in the city, it is here. If we are to play this magical power in our favour, we have to learn to maneuver the indeterminacy and not waste more energy in trying to disregard or tame the realm of the imaginary, the fantastic, and the magical. May the magical force of the city be with us.
A Dhaka girl through and through, Tabassum Zaman teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). She is a Dhaka enthusiast, who wants to tell the everyday city anew.