The Heart of Dhaka

The ubiquitous rickshawThe ubiquitous rickshaw

Today Ali-bhai (-bhai is Bangla suffix meaning ‘brother’, more polite than just their name), M’s driver takes me on a trip to Old Dhaka. Just as we start off, the last two days of oppressive heat and humidity give way to a deluge from the heavens. Looking at the traffic and rising water levels on the road, I contemplate abandoning the trip, but am glad we continued – about an hour after setting off, we finally reach Old Dhaka (only a few miles away, but traffic makes it longer) and as if on cue, the rain stops. The downpour takes the heat out of the air and makes it all much more bearable.

Ali looking at mangoesAli-bhai looking at mangoes

We stop at Hindu St, an old market street and wander through. Ali tries to explain the merits of Bangladeshi mangoes and how to tell which are Indian and which are Bangladeshi. We stop and drink strong and sweet tea from a street vendor. I smile sheepishly and watch as my tea takes shape. The cart is a filthy, ramshackle vehicle that wouldn’t look out of place collecting rubbish on a London street. A large, battered tin kettle sits boiling away and the vendor sieves my tea out into a small, but clean glass cup. A dollop of condensed milk from a tin and my scalding hot beverage is ready – 20 taka (less than 20p). I feel like Ali’s let me into a little club and catch a glimpse into his world as we sit with a group of other Bangladeshi men and Ali-bhai natters away.

Former glory of Ahsan ManzilFormer glory of Ahsan Manzil

A few minutes of walking and we arrive at Ahsan Manzil – the former official residential palace and seat of the Dhaka Nawab Family. I gain a surprising sense of the former glory and the influence of this merchant family. The mediocre state of the building and the piles of litter in the garden are a sad reflection of the decline, but there is an unmistakable feeling of pride and a glimpse into Bangladeshi identity. There’s so much more I want to learn about this history and heritage. I bump into a random French guy – the first foreigner I’ve seen (outside of M’s friends). He’s a travel agent based in the Maldives, on holiday, seemingly by accident.

Sadarghat terminalSadarghat terminal

Frenetic activity at SadarghatFrenetic activity at Sadarghat

A short stroll away is Sadarghat, Dhaka’s main terminal/port on the banks of the Buriganga. It’s a bustling, energetic place with people scurrying around and bags of good shuttling on and off ferries. I stand and stare, watching the ballet of movement and commerce in action. For some reason, I’m a little shy to draw my camera, so steal a few shots and hide my camera away lest I draw any more attention to myself. A couple of students engage me in a brief conversation – they’re on their way to visit a friend, 4 hours away by boat.

The last floods rose above this wallThe last floods rose above this wall

We stop for some more tea, then hop in a rickshaw back to the car and fight our way through traffic to Lalbagh fort. On the way, we pass along the river road, I ask Ali about the floods and how they affect Dhaka – he points out a wall and explains that the last proper floods in Dhaka saw water levels rise above it. The wall stands a good 8 feet above sea level and is itself about 6 feet. He casually explains that we’re due for another flood and expects it in the next month or so.

Lalbagh FortLalbagh Fort

Lalbagh Fort is an oasis of calm and tranquility amongst the hustle and bustle. It’s an incomplete Mughal fortress initiated by the Viceroy of Bengal, who was subsequently recalled. His successor never finished the fortress as his daughter, Bibi Pari, died here. I don’t really know much more about it, but again, is a glimpse of Bangladeshi heritage that I never really appreciated. The grounds are clean and well kept and offer a peaceful respite. Ali makes a comment to me as I head in that I don’t understand, but after wandering for a while, I realise that this seems to be a spot in Dhaka where couples hide out amongst the small trees. Nothing obscene by our standards, but I wonder whether this is seen as a secret lovers garden and chuckle quietly to myself.

On the way back to pick up M from work, I reflect on what a different experience this would be for her, a white woman on her own and how very different her relationship with Ali is. Both because she is his employer, but also that she is a woman. I feel strangely privileged to be able to hang out with Ali and to be able to sit and drink tea with him – it’s clearly a side of him and Dhaka that M will not get to see.

My day has been full of reflection and encounter. Old Dhaka is metaphorically and literally the heart of the city. The crazed flow of people and goods, the colourful rickshaws and crazy traffic, the smells, sights and sounds. I can see how it could be an overwhelming experience, a maelstrom of sensory overload, but I think you have to surrender to the chaos before you can finally sink in and enjoy it for the vibrant celebration of life that it truly is.