Old Dhaka
Photo: enki22 / Flickr
Old Dhaka Photo: enki22 / Flickr

Out of place, out of time

Dhaka and Bangladesh are evolving on dramatically different courses.

(This article was first published in our October 2008 issue.) 

Cities, even as they grow and swell with the passing of the years, are said to retain their essential individual characteristics. But not, it seems, Dhaka. Has there ever been a city so far removed from the incarnations of its past? Now, it is a truism that all cities change with time, and cities in Southasia – which have experienced unprecedented growth, development, urbanisation and industrialisation over the past 50 or 60 years – have almost uniformly metamorphosed from colonial backwaters into exploding megalopolises. Still, though, there is something in Dhaka's extraordinary transformation that seems to go beyond the typical.

Dhaka today is utterly unrecognisable as the sleepy, charming, tranquil town it was even half a century ago. There is something thoroughly startling about this transmutation from a genteel and sedate town of tree-lined avenues, ponds, canals and spacious bungalows set amidst overgrown gardens – to this present incarnation as a dizzying metropolis of 12 million people, blaring automobiles and block after block of unpainted concrete apartments, as far as the eye can see. But the difference is more than merely in the physical transformation; it is also one of tone and feel. Dhaka today is a high-octane megacity, where life is fast and furious (except for the traffic, which remains slow and torpid), where anger and violence simmer beneath the surface.

The city is a tinderbox, where muggers, petty thieves and hijackers are routinely beaten to death by angry crowds of vigilantes; where disgruntled industrial workers take over the streets at a moment's notice; where violence and anarchy are never far away. Dhaka is always seething, swelling, heaving and pulsating. From the rickshaw puller to the taxi driver to the traffic policeman to the garment worker to the college student to the peon to the well-heeled professional – sometimes it seems as though the one thing that everyone in Dhaka has in common is anger. Anger forever bubbles beneath the surface of this once-placid town, threatening to boil over at any moment. It is this anger that differentiates the Dhaka of the 21st century from the Dhaka of the past. And it is this coarsening that is the most wrenching and remarkable of the changes wrought by history.

Architect, urban planner and scholar, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is perhaps the most interesting of the modern-day chroniclers of Dhaka and its development. A philosopher of urban spaces and what they mean to and for the humans who inhabit them, Ashraf writes that, in order to understand Dhaka, we must first understand that it is really six cities, each superimposed upon the other: "Six morphologies define the urban organism that is Dhaka, each representing a certain social, economic, and environmental destiny". The term 'morphology', he says, implies the essential form and structure of an organism, as used in biology, and also reveals some of its functional and vital makeup. This framework remains indispensable in making sense of the apparent chaos and incongruity that defines Dhaka today. It is in the contestation between these spaces, between these different cities within a city, that the true Dhaka of today is to be located.

Buried Jahangirnagar

Let us start with the historical old city, on the eastern bank of the river Buriganga. There are records of urban settlement as far back as the time of the Gupta empire of the 4th century. But the old city first achieved prominence in 1608, when Islam Khan, the new subedar of Bengal, chose it as his new capital, and (with amusing servility) renamed it Jahangirnagar after his boss, the reigning Mughal emperor. This was to become what we now think of as the original city of Dhaka, which stretched for some ten miles along the Buriganga and, at the height of its power, could boast close to a million inhabitants – more than the city would see until after independence, three and a half centuries later. It was this city that defined Dhaka until the 20th century, and that now remains only in glimpses, all but eclipsed and obliterated by the newer morphologies that have grown up around it.

Both of my grandmothers belonged to this old Dhaka. They liked nothing more than to reminisce about the Dhaka of their girlhoods, back in the early 1900s, when Dhaka was a courtly, genteel town – the very last flowering, in their telling, of Mughal etiquette and sensibility. It is this history that is today still reflected in the faded grandeur of the old city, now crumbling due to decades of neglect. The narrow, winding, high-walled lanes and alleyways, the old high-ceilinged houses with verandas and balconies, the old neighbourhoods, the graveyards and gardens, the mosques, the grand old mansions – these are all still there if one goes looking.

The intrepid explorer would have to look hard, however, because this old Dhaka is now practically buried under the sprawling new city. The alleyways are crowded with rickshaws and motorbikes and baby taxis and a relentless tide of humanity. The old buildings are in shocking conditions. Many have been subdivided so many times and now house so many families that it is often hard to tell them apart from the concrete apartment blocks that have come up over the past decade. It is only on close inspection that the squalor gives hints of the grandeur beneath the surface.

The second distinct geographic and conceptual space is the colonial-era part of Dhaka, developed by the British during the early 20th century. Similar to colonial boroughs the length and breadth of the Subcontinent, this development was typified by stately government buildings, spacious tree-lined avenues, and sturdy white-washed bungalows set amidst always overgrown (the British never did manage to fully tame the landscape) gardens. Once upon a time, this was the new city; and even though it is today far from the ritziest part of town, the streets here are still wider and the trees more abundant and the greenery more evident than in any other part.

Being an architect himself, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is particularly taken with the character of what residents of the city call the Second Capital. This encompasses the Estonian-American architect Louis Kahn's astonishing national parliament building and its surrounding environs of neat red-brick apartments set amidst gardens and an artificial lake. Perhaps this was once intended as a vision of what Dhaka could be, but so incongruous is it and so secure has it been kept from encroachment by the rest of the city that today it truly does stand by itself. Alone among Dhaka's neighbourhoods, it is free of squalor and chaos and the teeming masses of humanity. But it is a tiny oasis, and in its singularity, both architecturally and in terms of its pristine condition, it looks as though it has dropped from outer space. How long before the rest of the angry, overcrowded city, which has thus far been kept at bay, scales the walls and swallows it whole?

The fifth morphology

Now we turn to the real city. These are the planned areas that began to be inhabited after Partition. Even the names of these localities betray their origins, revealing that not so very long ago they were nothing but jungle and vegetation: Dhanmondi (rice granary), Katabon (thorn forest), Kathalbagan (jackfruit grove), Kalabagan (banana grove), Gulshan (flower garden). These were developed and settled during the 1950s and 1960s, and even as late as the 1970s were still considered backwaters, a bit removed from the hurly-burly of the urban metropolis, where one built a house if one wanted to get away from it all. They were originally suburbs that, as the city grew by leaps and bounds, eventually found themselves smack in the middle of the city. Today, one can scarcely imagine that these were originally conceived as model towns, with spacious plots, residential and commercial areas carefully zoned out – attempts at upscale neighbourhoods, far from the madding crowds.

What has happened was that the city has been taken over by what Kazi Khaleed Ashraf refers to as the 'fifth morphology'. This encapsulates all the unplanned developments and buildings that now fill up the city; in many places, this fifth morphology has superimposed itself on all the others, with the planned model towns giving way to vast unplanned extensions and encroachments. This, indeed, is Dhaka today. At the time of independence, the population of the city was still under one million, but this swelled to over five million by the end of the decade. Today, the population of the city is anywhere from 12 to 15 million, depending on how and who you count, and it is growing by the day.

Everywhere one looks in Dhaka, construction is taking place. Sand, cement, bricks, iron rods, half-finished construction sites and armies of wiry, emaciated builders. The houses that have not been subdivided are being knocked down, to be replaced by apartment blocks. The apartments are built as close to the boundary perimeters as permitted by law – indeed, more often than not, much closer – as everyone wants to make the most out of that most scarce of resources, real estate. This inevitably gives the new developments a crowded, cheek-by-jowl look and feel. And it is fitting that the crowdedness of the city's streets finds its parallel in the congested skyline, where the new buildings likewise jostle with each other for elbow room, no different from the pedestrians below.

Dhaka is now a city of concrete blocks. The emblematic neighbourhoods are the lower-middle-class ones, which stretch from one end of the city to the other – Khilgaon, Jatrabari, Badda. Street after street of unpainted five- and six-storey concrete boxes stacked one next to the other; whole families occupying two rooms, maybe 500 square feet in total, that are suffocating, claustrophobic and sweltering cauldrons of misery. If they are lucky, these are the homes of the peons, the clerks, the industrial workers, the mechanics, the primary-school teachers, the nurses, the secretaries, who together make up the bulk of Dhaka's population.

This is what Dhaka looks like today. It is certainly a far cry from the well-tended gardens and houses that still exist in Gulshan and Dhanmondi, and from the modern sky-scraping apartment complexes that are being built to accommodate the new generation of professionals and white-collar workers – from the posh restaurants and cafes, from the air-conditioned luxuries of the gleaming Bashundhara City shopping mall, which claims to be the largest in Southasia. But even these remote outposts of luxury cannot fool anyone into believing that this is the Dhaka of the future. The roads leading up to Bashundhara City remain rutted and potholed, and filled with honking automobiles, jostling pedestrians and insistent street vendors. The mall overlooks slums and shantytowns, and anyone who steps out of the gates steps smack into the chaos and squalor of the streets of Dhaka.

Echoes of countryside

Nonetheless, the stifling concrete boxes are a clear step up from the slums that have sprouted in every untended corner of the city, by the railroad tracks, under flyovers, on the fringes of stagnant and decaying ponds and water bodies or perched on rickety stilts that rise up out of the murk and filth. Estimates of Dhaka's slum population range anywhere from 10 percent to a third of the entire population; and it is expanding relentlessly with new arrivals, particularly refugees from riverbank erosion and other rural calamities. The slums are the homes of the rickshaw pullers, the day labourers, the domestic help, the garment workers, the sanitation workers, the unemployed or underemployed, the itinerant. If they are lucky, they will boast tin roofs and maybe even tin walls. But the majority of houses in these places are still warrens of woven bamboo and cardboard and blue tarpaulin, all crammed into the most fetid and godforsaken byways of the city, places that no one else wants or cares or thinks about. Occasionally, a developer will turn his rapacious eyes onto such plots of land, and fire will suddenly rip through a slum, clearing it out and reducing it to smouldering ashes within a few hours.

Once upon a time, Dhaka was not like this. There were always slums and there were always ugly concrete dwellings, just as there were elegant bungalows set in rambling gardens. But more than anything else, there was space, breathing space. The city was marked by ponds and lakes, and crisscrossed by canals. One could swim and catch fish in these bodies of water, or spend an afternoon under the quiet shade of a tree. The open spaces were not wasteland and scrub, but rather green with vegetation, bushes and trees. You could still see the imprint of the countryside, out of which first the town and then the city had grown.

Dhaka today seems thoroughly out of place when compared to the villages that surround it and make up most of the rest of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a stunningly beautiful country: lush, green, verdant, silvery rivers and lakes spreading like a net throughout, such that until very recently one could travel long distances only by boat. Even today, many of the country's villages are charming and picturesque, neatly arranged around ponds amid precisely planted shade trees and small patchwork-quilt fields. Looking at such villages, it seems clear that Bangladeshis must have a strong aesthetic sense, not evident anymore in the capital city. A great deal of care has evidently gone into creating an environment that is soothing and pleasing to the eye, and to the mind. Perhaps amidst the poverty and tough times, when one does not have anything else, one can at least use the natural beauty of the surroundings as comfort. It is no coincidence that Bangladeshi poetry and art are filled with paeans to the timeless, serene, tranquil beauty of its villages. Even so determined a critic of all things Bengali, the great author Nirad Chaudhary had to admit – through clenched teeth, as it were – that the villages of Bangladesh were unparalleled in their beauty.

But we do not live in our villages anymore. We live in our cities. Specifically, one in ten Bangladeshis now lives in Dhaka. And the difference between Dhaka and the villages that surround it, and that gave birth to it, is no less than the difference between the Dhaka of today and the Dhaka of antiquity. People change, cities change and countries change. In our minds, we are still a simple, pastoral people of farmers and fishermen, listening to folksongs and dreaming of our idyllic village homes and our green and gold fields. That is who we think we are at heart.

All the while, however, Bangladesh is moving quickly from the rural village-based agricultural economy that has sustained it for thousands of years, to an industrialised country of cities and city-dwellers. And, for better or for worse, whether we like it or not, Dhaka reflects this new Bangladesh. If the old Bangladesh was to be found in the shaded byways and sleepy villages, and reflected in the genteel courtliness of the Dhaka of days gone by, today's Bangladesh – brash, teeming, heaving, angry, crowded, chaotic – is perfectly reflected in the honking car horns and jam-packed footpaths of today's Dhaka.


This article was first published in our October 2008 issue. 

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