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Stuck on the same road

  • Published at 06:51 pm October 31st, 2015
Stuck on the same road

Patience is our nation’s greatest strength -- palpable through the movement of traffic and the frustration that comes along with it. It is patience and forbearance that I observe every day while commuting.

As a regular commuter in a crammed public bus, I find patience to be my everyday companion. The flow of traffic and the haphazard gridlock are only small parts of the behavioural pattern and the disposition of the dwellers of Dhaka city. On my daily ride to work in a fully packed public bus, the social class disparity unfolds before my eyes -- the class inequality is made explicit in the selection of an individual’s mode of transport.

While the stream of vehicles cannot be used to analyse society as a whole, nonetheless, it partially reflects our disposition, our apathy, and the symbols of pride and elitism that are reflected in the way of travel. Car ownership, an emblem of the aspiring middle-class and elites, also serves as a source of pride, as a source of callous indifference to the plight of the non-car-owning commuters.

However, the insensitivity is not representative of entire car-owning population. There is a minority of private vehicle owners who carry out their social responsibility by providing lifts to their colleagues and acquaintances. Only 5% of people commute in private cars, using up 70% of road space. If the majority of car owners performed their social responsibility, traffic jams would be significantly reduced.

Apparent within the congestion is class inequality. A portrait of aloofness and insensitivity of the ambitious middle class and urban elites towards the wider society is mirrored on the windows of cars. Car windows draw a barrier symbolic of class separation, of a sharp contrast between the privileged and the deprived. When the starving faces of hawkers knock at the windows in desperation to sell their products, they are hardly noticed by most passengers.

The knocking of hawkers and beggars at the glass windows distorts the harmony and the peace of the urban elite -- it breaks the rhythm of their music and of their coziness. There are some who roll down their car windows with profound kindness, while there are others who pretend to not even listen to the rumblings of the ravenous stomachs.

The invisible glass also shields the passengers inside in comfort against the majority of commuters travelling in public buses in sweat-drenched clothes, clinging to the person next to them. The plight of people commuting in buses hardly enters the mind of the privileged.

Despite the class differences, or modes of transportation, a connection is established at a superficial level, connecting people of different social classes against the cause of transportation gridlock. This solidarity is the result of patience and endurance, as commuters envision a time when the puzzle of motorised and non-motorised vehicle entanglement will be solved, and they will reach their destinations.

This is a reflection of a connection to our distant past of once belonging to the peasant class. Farmers and peasants usually lead a monotonous life, yet they live on through the echoes of a distant dream of a prosperous future for their children. While I sit in the congestion, I see the portrait of a patient farmer in the sweat of commuters, whose unfathomable fortitude fails in making him or her despondent at the notion of travelling every day to work in overcrowded public buses.

The public bus is a platform for the integration of a wide range of classes; people belonging to lower social classes often sit next to individuals from the educated middle class. The barriers separating the classes evaporate for a brief moment while travelling, allowing space for interaction.

Interaction takes the form of casual talks as well as rude exchanges as passengers argue with one another over trivial matters. Public buses become a marketplace for hawkers selling a variety of items, each bus for a brief moment transformed into a podium for the hawkers’ creative product advertisements, mostly through well-rehearsed rhythmic intonations.

Ear-piercing horns resonate in the air, as if such boisterous noise would supernaturally evoke the genie, and free the road from chaotic congestion. Blame-games become an active sport during this moment, when one driver blames another for causing the chaos; participation in the chaos is a boost to the ego.

Car horns are considered rude and impolite in civilised parts of the world. Never for once did I hear a vehicle horn during my long years abroad, but in Bangladesh, blaring horns is a display of masculinity.

The exhibition of masculinity also takes place through patriarchal exercises in public buses, when sexist men do not give up seats reserved for women and mindlessly justify their decision. Gender discrimination is prevalent -- bus drivers do not pick up female passengers during peak hours, and female passengers frequently become victims of sinister ogling. The deeply harboured sexism is also evident through the absence of women on the roads and walkways.

The movement of traffic sketches a rough anatomy of our society, reflecting our greatest strengths and weaknesses. Our greatest strength lies in our adaptability and patience, while our lack of respect for other human beings is our greatest weakness.

Traffic congestion would not have been as severe an issue if we had empathy. People with vehicles would have helped those without then, and the transportation businesses would have given their best service to commuters. Commuters, then, would not have to suffer due to monopoly imposed on some bus routes to ensure profit maximisation for certain influential political personnel. Only through nurturing these values can our country progress in all dimensions, creating a more equal, respectful, and just society. 

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