Will Dhaka collapse under its own weight, or will it keep chugging along?
It was May 22, 2003. I was 12 years old. I have always despised flights, and do so to this very day, though I certainly have become better accustomed.
On this particular day, I had bid farewell to my beloved India, my home from 1996-2003, where I experienced my first schooling, my first friends, my first taste of cricket, badminton, books, music, and all the wonderful nuances of life.
I knew nothing of Bangladesh, with limited visits during my seven-year stay in Delhi, and little to no memory of life that preceded it, beyond a near-death experience at around three years old when I put my hand in an electric socket. But I digress.
In India as a child, I lived in a quaint area in South Delhi called National Park, in Lajpat Nagar. My days constituted about four hours of running around the dozens of parks that existed within an approximately two square kilometre area.
My world completely changed when I was back in Dhaka. At 12 years old, growing, just hitting puberty, I was suddenly barred from stepping out of the house. There were no parks, no fields, nothing in the way of open spaces around me. It was school, home. Trapped alone. Rinse and repeat. Over and over.
My time in school was no different, for my school was little more than a tiny building, with, once again, little space for playing, running around, just being a kid. I was the new kid, the one with the Indian accent, the one who “didn’t get it.”
Over time, I began to get accustomed to life as a Dhaka citizen, now my home. My parents finally started letting me get out of the house after 10th grade. I received my doses of reality checks, over and over. In Delhi, I remained isolated in my little corner in National Park, living the perfect childhood. I knew not of beggars, of bandits, of dangers.
My time in the US, from 2015 to 2018, brought with it more questions than answers. By that time, I had come to love my life in Dhaka. I made little effort to stay back in the US, instead wanting to come back to Bangladesh, intending to tackle Dhaka with what I believed to be the newfound perspective of a global citizen.
Yet, now three years since I have been back, I cannot help but compare and contrast to life in a developed country, and once again, to India.
Bangladeshis love to tout that the country has overtaken India in terms of per capita GDP; indeed, Bangladeshis truly love talking about any success that they have had. And they have a right to, as well, for this is a country born from a brutal Liberation War, toppling an oppressive regime, and has overcome adversity time and time again, from dictatorships to incessant flooding and cyclones and everything in between.
But do Bangladeshis love Bangladesh? If truly asked, beyond the surface, are Bangladeshis proud to be Bangladeshis?
And what does it mean to be a Bangladeshi? What is it that we offer that is unique to the world?
In America, I grew weary of correcting people that Bangladesh was not “in India” and that it was one of the most populated nations on the planet, not just a tiny blip somewhere on the map. Yet, when asked about my country, my city, I always paused. I did not know what I would say.
Patriotism runs in Americans and Indians. Perhaps to a fault. For Bangladeshis, a special brand of self-loathing appears to be the mantra. This was doubly true for me, having spent 10 years, or roughly one-third of my life combined, in India and America.
I experienced life in a developed country -- despite the myriad issues America has, there was no question that when it came to the little things, from the clean air to the predictable traffic, it was a night and day difference. Similarly, my time in India is associated with freedom, with space. Both of which are severely lacking in Dhaka.
I often point to Dhaka’s food scene as emblematic of a nation that struggles with its identity. On the one hand, it does not offer the variety of even smaller major cities of America. However, what it also lacks is a proud representation of its own cuisine. Indeed, if in Kolkata, Indian eateries offering different variations of Indian food dominated, in Dhaka, it was the Western items -- the pizzas, the burgers, etc -- that dominated. What did that say about us?
And yet, there remain pockets of hope in Dhaka’s dysfunction. Dhanmondi Lake is perhaps among the very best of what Dhaka offers, with its dirty waters, littered walking paths, and the sounds of laughter, exertion, begging, runners, lovers, children, etc. It is a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of whether you are a millionaire, or whether you are a beggar. With any heterogeneous space, it comes with its imperfections. It is what makes it human.
Contrast that with a pristine park in the Gulshan area. Perfectly manicured. Enforced rules and regulations. Perfect, perhaps. And yet, intimidating, unwelcome. Soulless. Lacking character. It is not where a group of kids off the street are welcome to sing and dance. It is not where beggars may beg. It is not representative of Dhaka.
Yet, what is representative of Dhaka? And how silly of me to even begin to think that I can answer that question. For I am nothing but a privileged upper-middle class Bangladeshi myself, who can (for the most part) partake in the activities only reserved for the 1% in society, or if not partake, I can at least get a glimpse, a sniff. I cannot even begin to claim that I know what the homeless -- and there are so, so many homeless -- feel in this country. Or the millions of RMG workers. The day labourers, the petty thieves, the rickshaw-pullers.
Yet, amidst all the imperfections and dysfunctions, Dhaka offers hope. Whether that hope is real, or merely an illusion, I do not know. Some days, I feel it will implode under its own weight. And yet, even amidst the pandemic which rages on, Dhaka chugs along, in its beautiful dysfunctionality.
AHM Mustafizur Rahman is Assistant Op-Ed Editor, Dhaka Tribune.