While Dhaka drowns in myriad urban problems, all resulting from some sort of scarcity in resources, the city's sensorium is marked by a glaring superfluity—be it visual, tactile, auditory or olfactory. Our experience of the city is thus unavoidably multi-sensual, yet when it comes to analysing the city the way we derive specialised knowledge about the urban environment depends heavily on disciplines and practices that are essentially visual. We depend on cartography, land surveys, optical geography.
The way we derive specialised knowledge about the urban environment depends heavily on disciplines and practices that are essentially visual. In an everyday sense, 'sight seeing' is an activity we regularly engage in with little awareness that what we see only makes a sustained impression when the sight is augmented by senses of sound, smell, taste and touch. It is because of this naturalised preference for 'sight' as reliable, objective and truthful conveyor of knowledge that the city map has become the most dependable guide to the city, even if all it can provide are the geographic locations of its built structures.
For cities like Dhaka that offer a sensorial excess, this hegemony of the visual is alarmingly exclusionary as the other sensory experiences—smell, sound and touch—are devalued as too instinctive or irrational even though they can provide more embodied means of knowing the city, adding richness to the urban discourse.
In an interview with BBC in 2003, the Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, talking about his profound understanding of the city and the kind of fiction it has generated, states that every city has a unique 'texture' to it, and what one can offer when depicting a city is not another image from a postcard but 'a taste from that texture'. To give priority to the visual in urban analysis is to lose out on the texture of the city. While it is often possible for cities to replicate an optical geography, it is not so easy when it comes to the sound or smellscape of the city. And it is in the extra-visual geography that the unique textures of the city are to be found.
Let us consider the case of Dhaka from a trans-visual standpoint. Dhaka is a very loud city. Listening carefully to Dhaka's soundscape, you will get an idea of how what constitutes the 'urban' here is very different from our traditional understanding of the term. It is the bell of the rickshaw, the shrill cry of the vegetable or chicken vendor, the whistle of the garbage disposal van, the blaring horns from the vehicles on the road, the clamorous loud speakers, or the call for prayers that are intrinsic to our living experience of Dhaka. These sounds are one of the many features that give Dhaka a certain character in our mind. Interestingly though, many of these are not primarily city sounds, yet these very sounds represent the semi-ruralised elements, practices, behaviours, and ways of living that define city life in this part of the world.
The 'rural' looms large, and quite palpably over this mega city. One major socio-economic reason behind this is that Dhaka is peopled largely by internal migrants from different rural inlands. The 'Dhakaite' in Dhaka is not the urbanite in the traditional sense of the term, but an amalgamation of rural and urban sensibilities. If you are in Dhaka for the first time, a very common conversation starter is not a discussion on weather but a direct question along the lines of “apnar desher bari kothay?” (where are you originally from?). A Dhakaiya is, in all probability, someone whose earlier generations—if not the immediately preceding one—hails from some rural part of the country, has a desher bari or permanent address to his/her name, which remains an active reference that forms an essential part of his/her identity. The otherwise atypical soundscape of Dhaka is very telling in this regard. You can hear ten different regional dialects all in the same space of time, blurring the lines of geography.
Other than the auditory sense, some places of the city can be said to be dominated by their olfactory geography so much so that some people regard Dhaka as beset by olfactory hazards. This can be attributed to the city corporation-owned roadside dustbins with their contents spilling over, rampant littering in the public space as well as a lack of a well-executed sewage and trash disposal system on the part of the city corporation and a lack of civic sense on the part of the dwellers.
Good examples of this are Hajaribagh where the tanneries are concentrated, or Jatrabari where the city garbage is disposed. Both are places that are predominantly linked with their olfactory distinctiveness. Smell and not sight being the dominant senses in this case, it is likely to be evoked as one of the major constituents of the image of the area. In contrast, Tejgaon industrial area has its own smell which is a peculiar concoction of the smell of bakery, soaps, etc. due to the presence of many local factories making bread, biscuits, ice cream, beverages and soap. The volatile smellscape that changes at every other turn of the main road could leave you happily sniffing the air, making this association a primary one in your spatial memory.
The city also has a very strong tactile presence. Whether walking along the busy intersections of the city, boarding public transport, or simply standing by the road, there is a fair chance of being brushed, pushed and shoved by pedestrians. Dhaka residents generally anticipate such tactile encounters with strangers when they venture into the public space. The feel of the crowd, the bustle and din that go with it make up such a strong image of the day-to-day urban reality of the over-populated city that their absence often makes a resident apprehensive— “is everything all right?” one would readily wonder. An empty Dhaka during long public holidays such as the two Eids, despite being much coveted by city dwellers, remains an anomaly. In those few days Dhaka takes on a new look where the relentless assault of stimuli on all the senses come to an abrupt yet welcome halt. Such a feel and appreciation of the city is only possible through a haptic geographical analysis of the city.
What sociological effect does such abundance have on the senses of city dwellers? In a newspaper article in 2000, architect and scholar Adnan Morshed claims that such abundance of stimuli that clutter the senses of the city dweller results in an urban pathology—a form of 'desensitisation' of its inhabitants toward their physical environment, which in turn results in their “withdrawal, mentally, if not physically, from the environment”. Such 'psycho-spatial estrangement', Morshed maintains, makes them create and retreat into private bubbles—either in the form of a car or flat—fostering what German sociologist Georg Simmel in the beginning of the twentieth century called the 'blasé attitude' of the modern urban man. In the context of a South Asian capital city like Dhaka, the bane of such withdrawal or loss of the ability to react to one's surroundings cannot be overstated. On the face of such incisive social problems, a visual-only urban analysis is highly unlikely to take one too far in the direction that can affect any change. We need to go beyond the city we see and engage with Dhaka as a living city that sniffs, nudges and makes noise too.
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.