I figured three days in Dhaka would be enough. After all, the capital of Bangladesh wasn’t especially renowned for tourism or its sights. Bangladesh itself was supposedly the least developed of the South Asian giants. With neither the juggernaut destination status of India, nor the exotic intrigue of Myanmar, Bangladesh is often passed up by international travellers: backpackers and weekend jet-setters alike.
Still, I felt it was a necessary and informative destination during my travels. Though I have spent most of my life in the States, I identify equally as both Desi as American.Relatively contented with what I’d learned about my birthplace, India, over my last few trips, I felt a strong desire to learn from my desi neighbors. I seized an opportunity at work to lead some research in Nepal. Later, I jumped through bureaucratic hoops to enter Pakistan, especially elusive for anyone with Indian ancestry. I decided it was time to venture east to the Bengali heartland.
The Dhaka of my imagination was synonymous with characteristics that make a city difficult to love: congested traffic and unresolved poverty. That a city might offer something, even excel, despite certain major drawbacks can be hard to grasp. But it’s a benefit of doubt we routinely offer up to many Western cities. Chicago’s astronomical homicide rate or Barcelona’s notorious pickpockets, for example, don’t deter tourists from their respective skyscrapers or churches. (Arguably, this type of crime represents a far greater risk than spending an extra twenty minutes in an air-conditioned Uber.)
Still, I too fell prey to this type of thinking, rationalizing that 3 or 4 days would be enough to understand this urban behemoth. I’d zip in for a long weekend and get a quick feel of Bangladesh’s capital. I’d probably get sick of it within a few days. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A chance encounter months earlier had introduced me to a Bengali American, who was gracious enough to host me. I was invited to a live music show where I was thrilled to meet an incredibly diverse group ranging from entrepreneurs, filmmakers, to political scientists; locals, ex-pats, and re-pats (returning Bengalis) alike. But I had to drag myself away from conversation to get some sleep before Bangladesh’s largest festival — Pohela Boishkh
The streets were teeming with excitement. The roads were adorned with hand drawn art, almost too beautiful to step on. Throngs of families dressed to the nines, in colourful Punjabis, saris, flower garlands, and gamchas. Throngs of women and men, Muslims, Hindus, Christians celebrating a cultural holiday with equal fervour — I realized I hadn’t experienced anything like this before.
It dawned on me that weekend of the 14–16th of April was sacred across so many cultures. Here I was celebrating Pohela Boishakh with Bangladeshi Muslims, which also coincided with the Sikh New Year in India. My friends in my former home of Cambodia were celebrating the Buddhist New Year. And recently I had seen the preparations that Nepali Hindus were making for their New Year. Not to mention, that Christians and Jews around the world were marking their own Easter and Passover Holidays. There was something beautiful of so many major cultures and religions celebrating the same day of a new year, of liberation, of harvest, of spring, of rebirth that speaks to a greater shared humanity than any of the differences we can choose to magnify.
A pluralistic society fashions a bulwark against the religious fanaticism that can crop up in nation-states defined by a singular religious identity
In Dhaka, paraders carried floats representing figures from Bengali traditional art — icons often excised in Islamic countries observing a more orthodox prohibition on graven images. There was something unique about the Dhaka spirit: a religious tolerance and an inclusion of women in public spaces less prevalent in some of its sister cities.
It was a theme I observed time and time again. 12% of Bangladesh’s citizens are Hindu, to the 86% majority of Muslims. Hindu temples and observances are a common site throughout the country. (The remaining 2% are Buddhist and Christian ). It’s a similar majority / minority ratio seen in India, except that the 87% in India are Hindu. Protecting the rights of religious minorities has a doubly positive impact.
A pluralistic society fashions a bulwark against the religious fanaticism that can crop up in nation-states defined by a singular religious identity. All this lends itself to a remarkably progressive and liberal country. Bangladesh is a proud Muslim-majority nation, but Islam doesn’t pervade every conversation. Women appear to have broader options in their public appearance: saris, kurtas, western wear. A few women opt for the hijab – which many argue was a trend only recently imported from the Gulf.
Given all this, it should be no surprise that Bangladesh is home to one of the fastest growing economies in the world boasting a 7% annual GDP growth rate. Dhaka’s is even more impressive at 12%. There is a palpable excitement as economic opportunities are increasing across the ranks. New construction abounds, with mid-rise buildings around every corner. There is a burgeoning middle class whose purchasing power is being felt throughout.
Dhaka is currently building its first metro line, to be operational by 2020, which should help alleviate some of its traffic woes. It’s not hard to feel you’re witnessing the development of one of the 21st century’s most dynamic cosmopolitan capitals.
I was amazed, but mostly ashamed, by how much I had to learn about the 250 million people of the Bengal region, no further from my hometown of Hyderabad, India than Seattle is from San Francisco. This was yet another example of the myopia induced by nationalism — and shamefully, perhaps the superiority complex some Indians hold over their regional counterparts: As if a marginally higher GDP per capita justifies ignorance on the cultures, languages, and ways of near neighbours.
At first glance, it would be hard to differentiate Dhaka from Delhi or Karachi (with the exception of green auto-rickshaws instead of yellow.) The cityscapes, the traffic, the way people walk, or mix rice with curry with their hands — it was all the same. Visiting Dhaka felt like meeting a cousin I didn’t know I had.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Bangladesh’s greatest seduction — its cuisine. A devotee of desi cuisine, diving into Dhaka dining was an unrivaled gustatory experience. For example, the flavour of mustard (shorshe bhaat) that for reasons unknown is relegated to a background spice in other desi cuisines. The sharp pungent taste sits in strong contrast to other flavours in a dish and adds a unique element that was unfamiliar to me. One of the best uses of this, surprisingly enough, was in the kashondi mix to dress fresh cut pineapples sold by street vendors.
I met an excellent teacher, Anthony, and through my daily lessons (and high similarity with Hindi-Urdu) I was making significant progress towards conversational Bangla. I even found a regular barber where we discussed our favourite Bollywood actors over a hot shave. I was so intoxicated with the city, I even started looking into jobs — setting up a few informational meetings with a tech start-up in town.
With all this, it perhaps no surprise that I settled into a quick life into Dhaka. Unlike other destinations, this cultural overlap made it feel less like I was ‘touring’ Dhaka than living in it. Board game nights over home cooked dal-bhaat-torkari instead of running around searching for guidebook recommendations transformed my perspective of Bangladesh.
But before I knew it, those 3 days in Dhaka had turned into 3 weeks. As much as I wanted to extend my stay, I had other horizons to explore. I grimaced as I booked my onward flight — and said my goodbyes knowing I would return soon.