Surfing the waves of saudade
This past December marked four years since I moved out of Dhaka. Next June will mark three years since the last time I visited. But when I close my eyes and think of Dhaka, I see neither Dhaka in the early winter of 2016 or Ramadan in 2018. I see a Dhaka that now only exists in the memories of me and some of my peers, those of us who spent our winter evenings playing badminton, and our ramadans gearing up for Eid.
Perhaps that is why the other day I told my friend that I envy how she lives in Dhaka. She understood where I was coming from, but threatened some physical violence anyway. And then I felt the need to both defend and explain myself.
You see, I would never want to return to Dhaka in space unless I could also return to Dhaka in time. The Dhaka I miss, love, and long for is many thousands of miles away, for sure. But it is also about twenty-five years away in the past. And while an expensive flight ticket can span the space, I do not have a means to go back in time.
"I would never want to return to Dhaka in space unless I could also return to Dhaka in time"
If I had to live in Dhaka today, I would soon start feeling listless. The last time I spent six weeks there, my common response to anyone who asked how it feels to be back was, feels great knowing when I get to leave. I was only half joking, at best three-quarters. If you pressed to explain why I felt this way, I concede I would not really have very many strong reasons. But to use a cliche, the heart wants what the heart wants. Or, in this case, doesn’t want. To live in Dhaka 2021. Or really any Dhaka post 2000.
And yet, the heart also longs for what it longs for. I spend many evenings, a cup of tea in hand, wishing I was drinking much sweeter, syrupy tea in Dhanmondi Lake. Or maybe trying out the diverse street food options. Maybe a group of friends are singing the latest hit song, making up for in passion what they lack in skills.
Speaking of friends, I also miss and long for most of my friends. Where are they and why are we not in touch, you ask? They are all doing fine, and we do often get to talk. But we talk over one app or another, and it involves two hours of planning to find the best time to call, keeping in mind that we are in two different continents. Then, just as we have finalized a time, that one friend from a third continent comes online and says that time does not work for him. Rinse, repeat. I miss how me and my college friends used to sit together in all our classes, have lunch together, and then call each other every evening. As a friend of mine once remarked, we clearly used up our ration for time spent together. Now we talk once every couple of months, and it is always cut short by kids, chores, and errands.
But above all these things, I miss the person I used to be. Maybe that person could only exist in a relaxed, laid back Dhaka. Maybe that person only exists around a nurturing group of friends. The irony is that I am a much wiser person today, if I say so myself. Life and its many lessons have seen to that. I find it easier to be patient with others, to think before forming a judgement or saying an unkind word. Yet, the person I used to be, living in a Dhaka that used to be, was somehow happier. Less world-weary.
Dhaka has changed a lot, and a lot of that has been for the better. Today’s high school students do not have to wait for their dial-up modem to connect to the internet after making sounds like a cat being brutally flayed. The last time I was there, I deeply cherished the fact that Uber and Pathao had my back any time of the day. Dhaka is growing, flourishing, thriving, and I am happy for it.
But you know. If I want a busy metropolis filled with all the luxuries of the world, I have a dozen other options. But Dhaka used to be home, at least my first if not my only home. Somewhere in everything it earned as a growing city, it has had to shed everything that made it home. So I envy you, people of Dhaka. But I will probably not be returning anytime soon.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and lover of fountain pens