How Dhaka has transformed over the decades
There’s been quite a hullabaloo over Dhaka bagging the spot for the fourth worst city in the world. A few years ago, the position was even lower, just one step ahead of a war-ravaged city teeming with radicals. Anyway, when an ailing person in an ambulance cannot be guaranteed proper medical treatment in a hospital within the shortest possible time, we can call that abysmal.
Perhaps I am not alone in thinking and believing that with one major problem solved, this city can still redeem itself. That one headache is certainly traffic, though due to corona lockdowns and related restrictions, travelling around Dhaka has been relatively better.
There are several flyovers in place but the ones in Malibagh, Basabo, and Rampura do not have proper lighting, enough security cameras, or police boxes, and have been known to be preferred by muggers and motorcycle snatchers.
However, this piece is about the Dhaka we grew up in in the late 70s and 80s. We never heard of international city rankings, but those who lived here hardly disliked the city, which is enough to prove that this was not a terrible place.
A city of ponds and trees
This was once a city where city dwellers spent holiday afternoons bathing in ponds. It was common for many individual homes to have a small pond in the backyard.
As written by the acclaimed late Indian writer Khushwant Singh, when the Indian soldiers came to Dhaka as liberators in 1971, they were amazed at the beauty of the city, shaded by countless ancient trees.
The ponds also served a much more utilitarian purpose, providing emergency water in case of fire-related accidents. Many years later, when a fire department official was asked after the Nimtali carnage what he missed in tackling the intractable blaze, he remarked that if the ponds had been kept then fire service workers could also use the water in the ponds as a back-up support.
Along with the ponds, houses had trees, from coconut to mangoes to jackfruits. Practically speaking, these homes may not be feasible anymore, though apartments can still be made to follow certain green guidelines.
Homes in the 70s and 80s belonged to middle class families and, over time with more people coming to Dhaka, the land became valuable, making apartment culture inevitable.
Gulshan, a placid suburbia
What is now the cacophonous commercial zone was a leafy part just outside Dhaka. Gulshan was deemed outside the purview of the main city. While walking on a breezy afternoon, the rustle of the trees was a treat.
Those living in the heart of the city went to Gulshan as a sort of weekend trip. This area, with large red brick colonial-style homes, resembled something exotic. By 8 pm, the road from DIT 1 market to DIT 2 became desolate, while the park seemed like a haunted place. The only crowded place in Gulshan 2 was Video Connection, the biggest VHS cassette rental store in the city.
After Baridhara, it was simply unscarred countryside. I still recall a trip to Kalachandpur with our domestic help, which was just like a village -- bamboo huts with tin roofs on top.
This was supposed to be a residential area, yet from the mid 90s offices began relocating here for some inexplicable reason.
A rickshaw ride on a rainy evening
A rickshaw tour of the city on a rainy evening is still possible if you are within the Dhaka University campus, though back in the 80s, one could indulge in such a romantic ride anywhere in Dhaka. In the mid-80s, one of our favourite pastimes was hiring a rickshaw for an hour for Tk. 20 and roaming about.
The sad part is Dhaka now has modern hospitals with state of the art facilities, but getting there on time is often a challenge.
The electricity problem has been tackled to an extent as we don’t have infernal power outages anymore. Would you believe it that in the past, electricity cuts didn’t seem that irritating because even in the height of summer, evenings were cool?
We actually looked forward to power cuts because in the darkness, horror stories were narrated with great zest by relatives or domestic help. Almost everyone had their brush-ins with a ghost, which was embellished to create a spooky impact.
Dhaka was a town and not a city. The pace of life was slow, there was a homogeneity among the middle classes, demand was low, and satisfaction guaranteed with very little. In that life, we had a lot of values -- competing with the Joneses was just an idiom.
That town morphed into a megacity, and whether we like it or not, it will only grow bigger. But bigger is not always better.
The ranking of Dhaka can be improved once the traffic situation is better. But I wonder, will a better ranked city mean people with improved ideals? Shouldn’t there be a survey about the decay of values among urban people and how it contributes to pervasive depravity and decadence?
Towheed Feroze is a journalist, and he teaches at the University of Dhaka.