A life on perpetual tenterhooks | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 06, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 06, 2018

MY DHAKA

A life on perpetual tenterhooks

The city is like a text. It always gives us clues in many forms into its inner world. Reading those signs may allow us to see a pattern leading to the city's psycho-social world. Why is this even important? Because this is the invisible landscape that conditions the visible one, determining the way we behave in the city. Let us consider Dhaka. How does living in Dhaka feel ? It is like being on perpetual tenterhooks.

While it is not uncommon to find kindness and compassion for fellow human beings in the unlikeliest of places, the predominant mood that engulfs Dhaka remains one of misgivings. On the surface, Dhaka dwellers come across as a bunch of loud and confident urbanites—their actions in public decisive, but their minds always tiptoeing around the city in apprehension of some sort of danger or potential risk.

Any daily activity—even those as mundane as buying food—leaves you as tense and taut as the strings of a bow. You cannot let your guard down in fear of your trust being compromised. The nefarious public image of Dhaka intensifies the pressure on your nerves. The city is regularly cited as an infamous breeding ground for all sorts of environmental pollution that holds many health risks. It is in fact a commonly held belief that once you have breathed in Dhaka's air and eaten Dhaka's food, your system is immune to anything else. It is from such assumptions that you expect a friend or relative returning from abroad to look healthier and fresher, i.e. to have gained weight, as s/he is believed to be on fresher and purer intakes.

Another everyday practice which betrays Dhaka's infamously untrustworthy reputation is that of relatives, friends, neighbours or co-workers enthusiastically sharing homegrown summer fruits from their rooftop gardens, or their villages, with the emphasis that they are not from the city stores, which can hardly be trusted.

It is not every day that you have the fortune of biting into a handful of lychees or jamruls without having to worry about their purity and freshness. Insecurity regarding food, however, is just one example. There are numerous other aspects of urban life that continuously add to the edginess that is intrinsic to living in Dhaka.

You cannot slack, and are always on full alert. Conditioned by a pro-rural sentiment, the sense of mistrust is so ubiquitous that by extension it quite easily becomes an unconscious castigation of all things urban.

In terms of social life too, Dhaka holds wide-ranging dangers. Living in Dhaka, for many, has become a life lived in perpetual fear of some unforeseen evil—one's property is always at risk of being grabbed, one's life can be endangered on the road due to reckless and aggressive driving or urban crimes of varied natures. In short, some dreadful interventions in our daily lives are hardly surprising.

Predictably, many of us grew up on parental advice against talking to, going anywhere with or eating anything offered by a stranger. Unfortunately, however, Dhaka's ever-changing composition is such that strangers are all we get—as neighbours, co-workers, or service providers. Peopled by internal migrants to a large extent, Dhaka poses a daily threat to the comfort we may feel in familiarity. In this, Dhaka is like most other big cities in the world, but the difference perhaps lies in the acute fear of strangers that we are conditioned in. 

It is this anxiety about the 'dubious stranger' that makes people forge any possible link based on one's desher bari (ancestral home). For migrants, this is very natural when they first venture into the city to stay in touch with acquaintances, no matter how distant, from their own locality—for even a distant relationship solidifies into a dependable support system in the early days in the city.

For long-term residents of the cit,y too, the myth of the baleful stranger is no less important. The everyday choices we make often depend on the imaginary ties we create with selective people that make life liveable amidst the atmosphere of mistrust and misgivings. Take your regular grocery shopping for example. Chances are that you trust this fish-seller over that one simply because this particular one claims to hail from your ancestral hometown and is less likely to breach your trust with inferior wares, or so you assume. Thus, you arbitrarily forge a causal relation based on the flimsiest of ties and with a willing suspension of disbelief, only to temporarily avert the risk of falling prey to the archetypal menacing figure of the stranger.

Given this atmosphere of distrust, familiarity is nothing less than a social capital, giving rise to common interjections like “do you know who I am?” Knowledge is power indeed! Aware of its currency, and as if to ward off the sinister associations that come with unfamiliarity, the city dweller is often seen to play the 'familiarity card'—based mostly on common locality/region—whenever orientation to new people or situations is called for. The general assumption is: when one meets a stranger from one's 'original' hometown, it is likely to ease their existentialist angst regarding the desperate need to hinge their trust somewhere safe in a sea of strangers.

This mindscape has ripple effects. This high-strung life, this constant vigilance wears us down, resulting in a pathological reserve, atypical of the western urban pathology of anomie and boredom. This does call for a preference for an insular existence, but more like a protective instinct that in turn increasingly encourages people to seek refuge inside walls, compartments and other forms of self-made bubbles minimising exposure to adversities. Back in 2008, urbanist Kazi Khaleed Ashraf wrote about how the biggest investment in the city remains on walls and fences. Things have gotten worse since then. Dhaka has become a fragmented city with its walled enclaves for houses in the name of safety measures for oneself and the next generation. This disassociation and disengagement with the city does not bode well for Dhaka, or any city for that matter.

Today more than 50 percent  of the world population live in urban areas. Following that trend, Bangladesh's urban population is on the rise too. With approximately 35 percent of the population living in urban areas at present, the steady growth pattern can only mean that the country will probably see 50 percent,  or higher, urban population within a couple of decades. Castigating the city, or generating a negative urban discourse will surely not make things better for our over-burdened megacity. It is time we take the city's psycho-social drift more seriously and be more careful about the urban pathology it generates. Images are powerful; they can propel the future. We desperately need some powerful vision of the city to counteract this air of recrimination. The power of discourse is such it can inform the future.

We need to create that discourse by looking at our strengths. Some self-reflection is in order. It is not easy to live a life under a sense of constant foreboding. But we do get by, we devise our own tactics, we make do. Maybe it is time to tell those stories and play on our strengths. If not now, when?

A Dhaka girl through and through, Tabassum Zaman teaches  at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). She is a Dhaka enthusiast, who wants to tell the everyday city anew.

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