Like people, cities have phases of life: childhood, youth, old age. New York, for example, is an old man of a city: a dirty, cranky old man smelling of stale beer and cigars. Dhaka, on the other hand, wears its youth like a banner, unfurled for all to see. It is the ultimate, the quintessential adolescent city: awkward, insecure, lanky, with a breaking voice and a day’s growth of beard.
Dhaka is a city full of reckless energy and vitality, a city of unbounded, planless growth. Most importantly, it is a city which is hardly a city at all, most of it having only just risen from the paddy fields a generation ago, and still carrying with it the raw provincial mindset of the village. We compare this with its erstwhile sister city, Calcutta. Though in the measure of years
Calcutta is the younger, through the wear and tear of the colonial ages she has aged the greater. Now we see her bent under the weight of years like a poor beggar woman, and her womb, that once bore such a plentiful harvest of culture, hangs now between her hips like shriveled grapes on the vine.
The pure image of Dhaka bespeaks its youth: in the broad, bold avenues that cut through the city, impatiently outstripping its growth; in the signs of construction everywhere as buildings rise from the virgin earth like new teeth; and in the upward thrust of the steel pilings that bristle from the roof of every house, which seem to proclaim: “Another storey is yet to come!”
In Dhaka City we are confronted with startling visions of contradiction: high-tech computer stores beside ramshackle tea stalls, aging bureaucrats side-by-side with cordless telephones, rickshaws next to Honda Civics – visions of the strange co-existence of village and city, of old and new, which most pointedly recall the image of the awkward adolescent as he moves unsteadily through his new world, with his adult’s body and his child’s mind.
Beyond these descriptive elements of Dhaka City there is an overreaching, elemental sense of the spirit of youth. In the tea houses, in the student meetings and cultural festivals, the Ekushey melas and film screenings, we feel the pulsing vitality of that youth. It carries with it a sense of exuberance and limitless possibility, a sense that, at any moment, great things will be achieved. And indeed, at that age of vitality and conviction, great things are really possible.
Dhaka may be a place of the vitality of youth, but it is also full of the insecurity of youth, and the crude, raw emotion which it breeds. Here there is the harsh simplicity of the village, not the bourgeois finesse of the aged city; here, friendship is fast and strong, but enmity is also quick to rise hot in the blood, and violence readily spurts forth like lava from a young volcano. Jealousy, one of the crudest emotions, is openly displayed and virulently avenged. Impartial appreciation is an impossibility here, and talent, however brilliant, quickly fades in misery, or dies in a tragic flash. Thus the potential fruit of the future is killed, recklessly and mercilessly. Furthermore, this youthful city, inflated with the brashness of its age, is remarkably shortsighted with regard to the past. It has no sense of history, and thus no compassion for the intrinsic value of the old. It is a city which constantly strives to create itself, trampling in the process whatever came before. The adolescent city, then, has neither past nor future; here there is only the present, where all survive or perish in the crux of the moment.
But let us not forget the receding mother of the beast, Old Dhaka, at its core. From her vantage point on the banks of the Buriganga River, she watches the son she has spawned outstrip her in size and scope, stretching his long arms to the countryside, drawing all in voraciouly, with his endless appetite for more people and more land. As night falls, she pulls her ragged garments close about her. And there, in her winding alleyways, in her darkened doorways, she shakes her weary head and whispers, “How soon they forget their mothers.”
(Courtesy, The Voice of Bangladesh, New York)