Illustration: Nasheen Jahan Nasir
Illustration: Nasheen Jahan Nasir

Rethinking the urbanity puzzle

Dhaka through the experimental lens.
(This article is part of our special series 'Rethinking Bangladesh'. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)

You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:

there's no ship for you, there's no road.

Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you've destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Albeit gloomy, this excerpt from C P Cavafy's 1975 poem 'The City' is a bittersweet reminder of the reality of urban civilisation. For those of us navigating the chaos and charisma of life in the burgeoning cities of Southasia, these lines almost seem like an anthem of being. Depleting water resources, extreme weather, incessant footfalls of migrants and diminishing spaces are generally considered dark laurels of a Southasian urbanity gone wrong. However, the narrative of urbanisation is inadequate to encompass the idea that cities are also imaginations and shadows of ourselves. In the quiet catastrophe that has fallen upon the urban populace in the aftermath of the pandemic, there is a need for different 'ways of seeing' and meditating on a rapidly changing topography and consciousness. It is while grappling with this thought during lazy lockdown days that I stumbled upon a series of experimental films by independent filmmaker Abid Hossain Khan.
His short experimental films made in 2016 (available on YouTube) are reflections on the synergy of humans and their environment. In a modern metropolis bursting at the seams, poverty and squalor are usually taken as disturbing incursions into the urban ecosystem and aesthetic. Khan subtly reverts the gaze through films like Mechanism and Steps in which the most distinct, diverse and deprived populace are placed at the heart of the urban narrative.

Like the textile workers, rickshaw pullers and boatmen, the labourers follow in the line of Sisyphus.

UN Habitat data suggests that Dhaka is the most crowded city in the world, with a staggering 44,500 people sharing each square kilometre of space and 40 percent of the population residing in slums. A city's relationship with its inhabitants is deeply determined by class and caste. For those involved in the most fundamental, and hence, the most hazardous and menial labour, the city is only a shelter. In the climate discourse, they are both victims and threats to sustainable urban development. What is often neglected, however, is their role in exposing faulty urban planning and a city administration that uses climate as a scapegoat for its incompetence.
Sewing machines and sustainability
Mechanism takes us into the narrow and confined spaces of the global textile industry. Bangladesh is today one of the world's largest garment exporters, with the RMG (readymade garments) sector accounting for 84 percent of Bangladesh's exports. With nearly four million workers tirelessly greasing the global garment chain, it is little wonder that the economic boom comes at a dark cost. The garment factories employ cheap labour where regulatory norms are disregarded. Despite the awareness and initiatives undertaken following a number of tragedies, especially the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, the picture is far from decent. In the opening shots of Mechanism, labour and machine are broken down into their finer details through close up shots of desktop sewing machines and dexterous fingers and feet operating on them. The soundscape captures the myriad noises of the factory in fine specifics to the extent that it might seem jarring to the audience. At one point, the camera overlooks a narrow lane, possibly between two workshop buildings, and people passing by. It is here, as the shot lingers, that you get a sense of claustrophobia.
Stills from 'Mechanism'.
Stills from 'Mechanism'.
The textile industry is the biggest pull for climate migrants in Bangladesh who leave the coasts for a new and safer life inland. Nevertheless, this mobility is strangely static given the vulnerability of both worlds. In the ecological discourse, the Global South is often seen as being geographically cursed. The question of precarious occupations somehow gets mired in the humdrum of international business consortiums, and, as a result, one is led into the dead-end of inevitability. Through Mechanism, Khan curates the urban landscape for markers of livelihoods bearing the brunt of this inevitability.
Still from 'Mechanism'.
Still from 'Mechanism'.
As the camera pans through an industrial neighbourhood, one is reminded of the dim and ominous ghettos of history. Mannequins, as mascots of a global exploitative labour network, stand guard in the wreckage of urban planning. One is forced to think about how a nation once famous for its textile arts, natural dyes, block-printing, handlooms and embroideries, is now forced to part with its rich history of craftsmanship. Towns like Ruhitpur, once a major hub for manufacturing traditional lungis (sarongs), and Sirajganj, known for weaving gamchas (checked cotton towels), have been left far behind by a policy of excessive centralisation of Dhaka. The rapid growth of 'poor megacities' (a term popularised by economist Edward Glaeser) is just another reminder that the word 'sustainable' in sustainable urban development is meant for the market and not for the people or their knowledge systems.
Life versus lifeline

With nearly four million workers tirelessly greasing the global garment chain, it is little wonder that the economic boom comes at a dark cost.

In the film Steps, we are drawn into the bustling and vibrant Sadarghat water-vessel terminal on the Buriganga river. A friend's father who escaped Bangladesh with his family (then East Pakistan) in 1967 recalls how inland waterways were the lifeline of the nation. Yet, today the most crucial and busiest of waterways, the Buriganga and its channels, are a death trap to Dhaka and adjoining districts. The crazy rush hour traffic can best be described as the deadliest Takeshi's Castle challenge: wooden boats meandering past gravel barges, cargo ships and steamers. Accidents are common here as boats collide with barges or as over-crowded ferries capsise. The only people to rely on here are the ferrymen, left to their own devices with fare rates cheap as dirt and lack of sound emergency services. Most of them are migrants, forced to leave their homes and land behind in the countryside and coasts. Thrust inland by the sea, one could say, these ferrymen now guide lives on the river. As part of the BBC television programme 'Toughest Place to be a Ferryman' in 2012, Colin Window was struck by the glaring disparity of labour. A bridge officer on the Woolwich ferry across the Thames in London, he was astonished at how his Bangladeshi counterpart worked.
The opening shot of 'Steps'.
The opening shot of 'Steps'.
In Steps, Khan locates Dhaka's maddening pace on Buriganga's waters. Unceasing movement of humans, goods, and aspirations paints a picture of resilience which does not come off as pompous or overtly compensatory. Southasia's prosperity and drudgery are both carried by its waters and through his lens, Khan ponders over the developmental glitches that have exacerbated an otherwise redeemable ecosystem. It is not simply Buriganga's traffic, but also its filth and stench, that makes it so deadly. Recently, an editorial in Bangladesh's leading daily Prothom Alo talked about the stalled circular water-bus services which were launched way back in 2004. Discharge of all kinds of industrial waste and untreated sewage has filled up the river bed affecting navigability. Moreover, the unplanned construction of landing stations and illegal river encroachments have only added to the challenges facing the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA).

For Dhaka, one of the most congested and polluted of all Southasian cities, the lessons of its survival are to be found in the quarters where the city is said to crumble

Moments from 'Steps'.
Moments from 'Steps'.
Khan treats water as the reflective medium, both literally and figuratively. A number of close-up shots of half-submerged planks of jetties and water engulfing the lower rungs of the steps of the ghat serve as reminders of a climate conundrum amidst vignettes of routine life. This presentiment, however, is not used to shock or alarm. The UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition warns us of the pitfalls of communicating the concept of climate change in a language that induces panic and misunderstanding. Climate change is a complex and contentious topic, the nuances of which are usually lost in the polarised nature of the debate. "Spinning climate change as a security threat is likely to undermine, rather than strengthen, serious efforts to link climate change mitigation and adaptation to development efforts that reduce poverty and promote equity. Playing with fear is like playing with fire. You cannot be sure exactly where it will spread," says Betsy Hartmann, professor emerita of development studies, Hampshire College, who works on population, migration, environment and security issues. This is a reality that needs contemplation and a commitment to collective action, and therefore this is where the camera dallies.
The city for the other

One is forced to think about how a nation once famous for its textile arts, natural dyes, block-printing, handlooms and embroideries, is now forced to part with its rich history of craftsmanship.

The black and white template of Mechanism is cut in two places. The first is a scene of a verdant river-side exuding the serenity that the urban milieu often escapes to which soon shifts to the shambled settlements rising on its banks. Colourful rickshaws are stacked precariously next to each other. As in any other unplanned and fast-growing cities in Southasia, van/rickshaw pullers and sewer cleaners are the last hope during tedious days of waterlogging. They are also those hardest hit by the increasingly volatile monsoons. It is usually the poor who are at the frontlines of the climate onslaught, no matter where they are. They are also framed as threats in dominant urban planning discourses, thus further jeopardising attempts at dealing with the migrant question in all its sincerity.
Stills from 'Mechanism'.
Stills from 'Mechanism'.
Khan, however, incorporates them seamlessly with the urban topography, thereby challenging the invisibilisation of the urban labour force. It is this invisibilisation that perhaps made it so shocking to see migrants undertaking perilous journeys on foot across the Subcontinent in the wake of a sudden nationwide lockdown in India. Had they been acknowledged and integrated in the language and imagery of urbanisation, a shameful and unforgivable crisis could have been averted.
Still from 'Mechanism'.
Still from 'Mechanism'.
Another scene where Khan comes back to colour is the long closing shot of a boatman struggling his way through a polluted canal somewhere in Dhaka. Old Dhaka was known for the elaborate system of canals built by the Mughals to facilitate the city's drainage. However, with the expansion of economic opportunities and demands of globalisation in the latter half of the 20th century, the canals were filled in, encroached upon and converted into dumping grounds for the city's wastes. From over 50 canals in the 1980s, the number has fallen to less than 40 with only 26 among them maintained by the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA) as of 2017. Yet, the threats remain potent. Patience and restlessness seem to outdo each other in this long shot where the boat meanders and occasionally gets caught up in the solid wastes (from textiles to tanneries to miscellaneous garbage). This is also a tussle between what Arundhati Roy's character in the 1989 movie, In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones calls the idea of the city and non-city. As a student of architecture, Roy's character breaks down the third world city into these two parts. The city is the aesthetic and curated part, aspirational, romantic, and efficient. The non-city is where the destitution and squalor of the city enters a blind spot. In Khan's films, the non-city is reclaimed by the ones condemned to it. The canal belongs to the boatman, even as the city turns away.
Rescuing the peripheries

As in any other unplanned and fast-growing cities in Southasia, van/rickshaw pullers and sewer cleaners are the last hope during tedious days of waterlogging.

One can extend the imagery of the non-city and its people in the film Sisyphus. In it, Khan documents the extraction of sand and rocks from riverbeds, an activity that has been flourishing illegally and unabated. Like the textile workers, rickshaw pullers and boatmen, the labourers follow in the line of Sisyphus, the Greek hero who was punished for cheating death twice. It was French philosopher and writer Albert Camus who rescued Sisyphus from the curse of endless futile labour (of rolling a boulder uphill only for it to fall back down) by suggesting that Sisyphus could approach his task with joy. Khan's Sisyphus is somewhere on the edge of the metaphor. Geographically too, he documents an edge, which Kazi Khaleed Ashraf (architect and director of Bengal Institute for Architectures, Landscapes and Settlements) defines as a "precious terrain of land-water mass of wetlands, flood-plains, canals, and agricultural fields. The edge is where the dry meets the wet, the 'developed' meets the 'primitive,' and infrastructure meets the structure-less. This is also where the urbanite meets the farmer, the land-grabber discovers his opportunity, and the uprooted often makes her habitation". Urbanisation is too invested in the core (the city) to envision the possibilities of transforming the edge.
Stills from 'Sisyphus'.
Stills from 'Sisyphus'.
The idea of the periphery existing to feed the core is merely a reflection of the lack of an imaginative urban ideology. Through Sisyphus, Khan extends the conversation on a life of labour that glaringly asserts its presence in the blind spots of an urban ecosystem that spills beyond the limits of the city. Khan does not miss the world of makeshift shelters, food and prayer for the sand and boulders.
Khan's cinematographer Mahde Hasan deftly captures the paradox of Dhaka's growth in the trivia of details. The traditional motifs on sewing machines, the thread-work embroidery on a ferryman's shirt, the cheap plastic slippers, and distressed denim bearing the word 'style' – all of them open up an avenue for a personal re-engagement with the question of one's place in the ecosystem of desire and development. The marks of indigenous labour and skill are visible, though cornered by a degrading consumerist culture driven by the West. Environmental sustainability or economic growth is not meant to adhere to a global template set by the powers that be. They are to do with what we have at our disposal, much like the residents of the non-cities. For Dhaka, one of the most congested and polluted of all Southasian cities, the lessons of its survival are to be found in the quarters where the city is said to crumble. It would do good to invoke the word jugaad in the discourse of urbanity. Jugaad is a commonly used Southasian colloquial word for 'hack'. Reimagining and utilising our geography, spaces, knowledge and institutions in a way that transforms development to align with well-being is what shall redeem us. Be it Dhaka, Karachi, Delhi or Kathmandu, the cities of Southasia face a challenge, which is one of imagination.
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