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OP-ED: A city of austerity and affluence

  • Published at 03:19 am March 29th, 2021
Dhaka city
Photo: MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

A comparison between the Dhaka that was, and the Dhaka it has become

Standing on the 50th year of the country, one cannot help but feel a sense of pride. This country has overcome many hurdles since 1971 and defied many detractors. In the early 80s, there was a habit among the elderly to discuss the pros and cons of independence, with many opining ruefully that the country had become worse in all aspects after liberation. 

Well, in 2021, the number of people having doubts about the nation will be very small. Only those unwilling to admit that the country has made remarkable strides can possibly harp on that old line.

Bangladesh is not a perfect country; to be frank, the concept of a perfect country exists only in the imagination. Every nation in the world has problems, and so do we. 

Dhaka was and still is the nucleus of the country, though in the decades after the war, the capital was a much different town with austerity all around us. 

Note the word “town,” because Dhaka was not a city by any means; it was a capital trying to shed the traumatic memory of 71 and come to terms with a life of privation. 

In today’s Dhaka, there is luxury, affluence, prosperity, and opulence. From those living in the lower end of the social strata to those at the top, life is blessed by a variety of comforts. 

However, being only a few months younger than Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to grow up in a city which was, for three decades, governed by strict rationing and cautious spending. 

The Tk1 school tiffin

The Tk1 note with the image of a deer is etched in our memory because that’s what we got to spend during our tiffin break in the early 80s. At that time, a bottle of Coke was Tk3 and we had to put aside .50 paisa (aat ana in Bangla) from the tiffin money to buy a Crush or a bottle of Apple Sidra at the end of the week.

We were taught to take good care of our textbooks so they could be used by a junior relative or a student from a disadvantaged family. Teachers regularly reminded us to keep our books covered in old calendar paper so they would not become old and decrepit.

The only luxury for a student going to high school was getting a fountain pen from the family. The school gave the first boy the pen which, and it was something to flaunt. 

One famous brand was Wing Sung; the best ink was Pelican. Then, sometime around 1983 or 84, the first ballpoint pen, Econo, came to the market, creating a storm. Slowly, the fountain pen began to disappear and, for SSC exams, students coveted the Red Leaf pen.

As high school students, we did not demand much -- a few books from the Nilkhet second-hand market, and if grades were satisfactory, then a pair of Reebok or Nike shoes. The fashionable ones wore Roadstar, Pan, or LA Gear. But these were luxury items; most of the time, we were happy with Bata or Khadim’s white canvas, or the legendary blue canvas hockey boots. 

The middle-class smoked Capstan

Smoking was ubiquitous; almost all adult males smoked and the city had cigarette adverts at all major traffic intersections. However, while our fathers and uncles smoked, a young person never lit one up in front of a senior individual in public. Lighting a cigarette in front of a senior was deemed impudence of the worst kind.

As I see people from all levels of society light up Benson and Hedges, I think of a time when the sight of the packet of this brand in someone’s pocket commanded respect from others. The reason was simple: Most people could not afford to buy them.

The intellectuals smoked filter-less Capstans, no longer available in the market, and every month, a certain amount was kept aside for the little vice. A large number of smokers used the pipe. On tranquil evenings, the smell of Borkum Riff, Erinmore, or Flying Dutchman wafted through the air.

One fascinating thing which is lost: All small shops selling cigarettes had a large rope (match chord) with a simmering fire which was used to light up.

Winter clothes meant second-hand markets

Before the garment revolution transformed Bangladesh and the apparel industry, getting clothes was tough, especially winter attire, as there were no local brands. The Gulistan second-hand market, better known as Nixon Market, was famous for winter coats, jackets, and denim. 

The market was thus named because the first lot of clothes came to Bangladesh as handouts during the Nixon regime. President Nixon may have opposed the liberation, but later, as an act of reconciliation and goodwill, sent large amounts of clothes.

In the early 80s, Pearson’s came to the market as the first local fashion outlet, followed soon by Century. In 2021, denim is all over Dhaka, with prices ranging from Tk300 to Tk3,000. 

Back then, there were two choices: The second-hand market or Thai-made denims sold in Elephant Road.

That is the Dhaka life we passed, a time of austerity, privation, and living with ingenious substitutes; today, this is a city which has the best of the world -- a sign stating that as the country crosses 50, luxury of all sorts is within our reach. 

Yet, for some reason, we miss the days long gone because of their naïve simplicity. We certainly knew how to turn austerity into something amazing!

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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