My feet have stories to tell: They have traversed whatever little of the world they were lucky enough to have visited with much skill and alacrity. Up the mountains of Scotland and down the hills of Himachal Pradesh, they have served me well.
And then, they met the streets of Dhaka.
Rain over me
Humblebrags about being a world-weary traveller aside, by the time the rains of last week had ended, my feet had waded through the drain-heavy, mud-caked, fecally unchallenged waters of Mouchak.
Stuck in traffic, I was forced to bus it, then rickshaw it, and then when the flyover construction near Mouchak had rendered the streets untenable even for rickshaws to pass through, I had to take off my shoes and socks, roll up my trouser sleeves, and semi-swim across the filthy muck myself.
During this foray into the chaotic wilderness wrought on the streets of Dhaka by heavy rainfall, I realised that, to me, despite all the lists and reviews I had read, this was the point I officially deemed this city to be uninhabitable.
For most of my careful paddling through the dark murkiness, I didn’t know what was where. What if I had fallen into a gaping hole? What if, as I struggled through the gravel, I had cut my feet? What if I had pricked them on a drug addict’s syringe? (This is to say nothing of the obvious spreading of diseases and contagion through the intermingling of sewage and rain water).
Across the narrow sea
But Dhaka has been uninhabitable for a while. That’s merely where I myself drew the line, born as I am into reasonable privilege and wealth.
For others, buses aren’t options. Wading through fecal matter isn’t an option. Choosing to sleep with your bed half-submerged in drain water, while valuables get ruined isn’t an option.
For some, this line had been crossed long ago.
If there was one good thing that came out of this, it was that it overflowed the narrow sea which divided the haves from the have-nots. Regardless of whether you had a car or not, if you could afford to take the highway or not, each and every one of us floated on the currents, pushed by the whims of the flood which overtook the currents of the road.
Well, almost. Those with disgustingly large Pajeros and Harriers still owned the streets, as they always do, while the rest of us watched from underneath the awnings, trying to keep ourselves dry.
Progress is knee-deep
What struck me as especially poignant about last week’s catastrophe, however, was that much of it was the result of so-called progress.
The construction of the flyover had resulted in a bottleneck, the root of which stretched all the way to the American embassy.
The road that connects Bashundhara, through Badda and Progoti Shoroni, to Mouchak, must currently stand as the worst street in the city.
Not only has the road been riddled with holes and construction material and garbage and waste, the fact that much of it is a direct result of the government’s actions is, despite the government being a repeat offender, to me, almost unacceptable.
What’s the point of all this progress if we have to come back down again anyway? We can’t keep flying forever, we can’t stay on the highway till eternity
While the national narrative takes us across highways and expressways and flyovers, it seems that we have forgotten what exactly we are leaving behind. Everything, of course, looks mighty fine from up high in the ivory tower.
The smooth roads and the sinuous trajectory create the illusion that we have come so far, that we have progressed towards such great heights.
But what’s the point of all this progress if we have to come back down again anyway?
We can’t keep flying forever, we can’t stay on the highway for eternity, in between our past and present.
We may have begun from the muddy waters of post-war famine and drought, but we can’t forget that, if we don’t improve the roots from which the behemoths of concrete rise, we have to come down to the same muddy waters, spreading disease and filth.
The fault in us
Not that we would be able to maintain it anyway. You give a people progress, they chew it up and spit it back out.
Nothing against the people per se, but we find ourselves locked inside the vicious cycle of post-colonial, post-war, post-independence, post-globalisation, post-corruption, post-haste world of economic self-empowerment.
You give us trash cans, we steal it. You give us Uber, we demand tips.
You give us meters on our CNGs, we refuse to abide by it. You give us a nice supermarket, we don’t stand in the queue.
Good things don’t survive here, and good ideas even less. You can’t change the world, without changing yourself.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter at @snrasul.