Sweet Dhaka ‘jam’by Dr Zahir Ahmed
MY JOURNEY from Mohammadpur via Assad Gate to Jahangirnagar University at Savar no longer feels definitive. I want to retread my steps, feel chaotic about the way things are, yet my movement is restricted by the jam.
People like us who are working in Dhaka face the sour taste of traffic, popularly known as jam. It is too sweet a word to describe Dhaka’s traffic, evoking as it does taste of English tea and buttered scones. Due to this jam, on a regular basis, everything abruptly stops. One can see the chaos that flows through the clogged streets, and taste the acrid smoke and spilt oil. Pickled by waves of heat, we sit in the long queues, exhausted with fumes and the rotten farts of battered buses, which are now touting more frequently for an Eid special. The passersby weave between the vehicles. When you want to cross the road you will possibly be rewarded with an accident.
During Ramadan, I try to get out at dawn, speeding through streets that at this hour are dotted by only a few vehicles plying around. I don’t notice much jam at this particular time of the day. In less than one and half hour, our bus reaches Jahangirnagar campus. But before Ramadan, it used to take at least three hours to reach there.
Now, during my return the situation is worse. Horrendous traffic always waits for you on your way back to Dhaka. We have had an expert driver; he proceeds by conquering all encompassing blockages. Pulling away from the pulsating line of vehicles, the driver went on the wrong side, but efficiently travelled a couple of yards and then turned on to the right side. A minute later, the driver informed us that a group of garment workers at Hemayetpur have created the blockade demanding Eid bonus. When the owners refused, they set the road alight. The driver turned around to find a shortcut. After battling through another two hours of jam, I had managed to reach Gabtali. The stationary traffic made me disoriented and I was swimming in the nostalgic sea.
I used to cross the Turag bridge towards Amin bazaar, once a wide river that had water flowing through it, but now narrowed by pucca houses and concrete towers under construction. It is here that I understand what has made the difference. I regularly cross this area and foolishly thought of it as unchanging, but today I suddenly felt that surrounding the bridge a violent construction and deconstruction is taking place: concrete towers are being constructed, pipe lines and other frightening looking structures, all surrounded by bricks, stones and concrete fences. My bird eye view haunts an unformulated question: what’s going on? Is it true, that, as we have been informed by newspaper reports, the Turag and the immediate vicinity will soon be filled?
What I remember as a 45 minutes journey from Dhaka to Jahangirnagar is gone: no natural beauty from Gabtali to Jahangirnagar that I used to enjoy, just a couple of land grabbers’ gorgeous housing estates are being built across the Turag river with loaded trucks awaiting to fill out the bank. Nowadays I don’t feel the gentle wind. This I clearly remember: cool breeze, fishing nets, and small boats in the over flooded fields like islands.
But all are transformed. Where once the island was used for water transports, and one used to carry goods by a boat, now there is the controversial giant Modhumita housing, growing so quickly that it’s possible to miss the original landmarks I used to be familiar with for the last 23 years or so. I am scared by the violent presence of the housing estates. Which janapath are we building now? I feel nostalgic about the way things were. I had the image of this area as a riverside area, where a couple of years earlier I had a quick sound sleep in our Jahangirnagar bus while inhaling the fresh air as we passed by. But now it is rapidly transforming into a concrete based construction area.
The bus starts moving. So here we proceed again, feeling a little comfort inside the bus but moving ever closer to the line of vehicles heading towards the Assad Gate where I should get down.
The next section of the journey to Mohammadpur is even worse. I have proceeded with a rickshaw moving inch to inch, bumper to bumper, speeding through streets that at this hour are filled with vehicles taking the hurried passengers to break their fasts with iftar. The air is grey with pollution. I can smell sulphur and feel discomfort. After an hour, my rickshaw has entered Tajmahal Road and I stop at the apartment gate. So, I eventually set my foot inside my house, feeling a little embarrassed before my dearest family members waiting for me to break our fasts together with lavish and delicious food. But I am already too late to join them for dining.
Dr Zahir Ahmed is professor, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University. email@example.com.
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