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A city one can ill afford

  • Published at 06:29 pm July 23rd, 2018
City of dust / MEHEDI HASAN

The many trials of living in Dhaka

There are certain aspects of life that are so essential that, in a capitalist society, it has become not merely acceptable, but deeply encouraged to take advantage of these flaws.

As an individual, if you are not afforded certain privileges of wealth, time, and space, it becomes close to impossible to live as a healthy and scrupulous human being. Apart from the top 10% to 1% (ie politicians and business-people), the rest of the population is forced to struggle to not only make ends meet, but also, once those ends have been met, to enjoy life in the best way possible.

Each of these problems, to quote a most commonly used double-barrelled phrase, is a vicious cycle. Take health, for example. To remain healthy, it is difficult to deny that one must eat healthy and exercise. But eating healthy is next to impossible, thanks to chemicals in our food, and the ignorant culinary culture (which, don’t get me wrong, is most delicious) which shoves oil and fat and carbs down our throats. 

And having both the time and money to exercise is next to impossible. When would one do this? After a 12-hour slave-like shift inside some corporate building, exhausted and barely able to reject the bed’s sweet calls for embrace?

And where? In the many fields that once used to call Dhaka its home, that now either been replaced with other concrete buildings or have been privatized? Or should one join a gym, assuming one can afford it? 

Then there are the streets, filled with smoke and dust, which you perhaps fruitlessly try to protect yourself from by wearing one of those thin Tk10 masks, as the air in your lungs slowly gets replaced with soot. If you had a car, maybe you could protect yourself from the heatwave and the pollution inside your ceramic bubble, but alas, you don’t; you are either on a bus, experiencing two to three hour commutes, or on a CNG, losing your salary in meter-less fares. 

If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve gotten on the motorcycle ride-sharing bandwagon, but knowing your luck, you count the days until a wayward bus hits you from the side, and you hit your head on the pavement and die (all because the rider could not be bothered to carry a helmet). 

Even in wanting to celebrate life, when one has the mood, options are limited. What, exactly, is our current national pastime? Is it cricket? Is it “eve-teasing”? Is it going to Hatirjheel on our motorbikes and kissing our lovers in the dark and stopping when headlights come by?

Collectively, though, it must be going to restaurants and eating. Depending on the kind of person you are, each day results either in a search for a new restaurant, or for a trusted place everyone’s been to before. And this only option that we have -- even this is not feasible on a continuous basis.

Restaurants and cafes remain so busy despite the fact that they charge more than most developed nations for items on their menu. A buffet dinner in a hotel can cost you as much as Tk5,000 per head, plus taxes and service charge. Is that not both a terrifying and fascinating reminder of the gaps in wealth, not just between that top 10% you love to hate and you, but between you and so many in the country who remain below the poverty line?

But what else are people supposed to do? One wonders whether the psychological toll the city takes on us provokes its citizens to engage in continuous activities which distract them from the reality of their sometimes almost unbearable existences. That’s why, during both the weekdays and the weekends, there’s never an empty seat or an empty street: Everyone’s out, having “fun, fun, fun,” all the time. What other option do people have? 

This is a country which has crores-worth chandelier weddings and malnutrition at the same time, within the same neighbourhood. And maybe some see an achievement hidden within those two images: This is where we once were, and this is where we are going. 

SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snraul.