I was perched on the edge of a ripped leather chair, stacks of folders balanced precariously on wooden shelves, a creaky fan whirring. The day had started out fine, but now here I was, sitting in a police station in South Asia, doing my very best not to c
A MEGA-CITY of 15 million, Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh, a young nation lodged between India and Myanmar, known for cyclones and the 'Made in Bangladesh' tag on the back of your clothes. Dhaka slaps humanity in your face. The city spills over with people, rickshaws, food stands, malls, motorways, beggars, and bicycles.
It has repeatedly been labelled the world's second least livable city – after Damascus, Syria.
Creaking infrastructure means the streets flood frequently in the rainy season, rubbish piles high, and traffic draws to a standstill for hours. And yet there is an electrical current of progress running through the city, construction sites pop up overnight and new cafés open every week. I am based in the capital working for an international charity. What did I think of Dhaka? I looked at the policeman and then at two men who had walked in from the street, shouting and gesticulating at each other, hyperactive and wild-eyed. The first, dressed in blue overalls, was so thin his bones looked ready to snap. Blood was splattered over his wiry body. The second man, dressed in a canary yellow jacket, was bigger and taller. He clasped at his face, his cheek bashed in and his eye gouged and bloody. Nothing is easy in Dhaka. I thought back to earlier that week when I found myself bumping along the streets in a rickshaw, pale and weak, travelling to the doctor's clinic. I'd been ill for days, reduced to a hallucinating bag of bones. I knew I had to get to the doctor, but taxis are uncommon and unreliable in Dhaka, so I clambered onto a rickshaw and was swirled into a heady mix of traffic jams and lengthy arguments over the fare. It was 40 °C, I was carrying a poo sample in a brown paper bag, and I was on the edge of fainting. I couldn't help but think, 'There must be an easier way'.
But that's Dhaka. It's complicated and hectic, but always interesting. By evening, my flatmates and I would be exhausted and would lie on the sofa, under fans, eating chunks of precious, overpriced cheese and start sentences with 'So, this weird thing happened to me today…' We tried to make sense of our unfamiliar world.
We spoke of our cultural faux-pas. Of riding on a rickshaw and getting stuck between two elephants in an elephantrickshaw jam (elephant trumps rickshaw), of getting lost in alleyways, catching rides on precarious boats through waterways, and of accidentally dropping our scarves – which we had to wear across our chest for modesty – into the toilet bowl (which is kind of where you wanted to throw them on a 40 °C day).
We laughed about the time the landlord (who barely spoke English) turned up at the door with two plucked chickens, a bag bursting with bloody beef, some grapes and a packet of almonds. He wandered his way into our kitchen, blood dripping as he went, and plonked the meat in our freezer without explanation.
There are moments of unexpected beauty and enchantment within the urban jungle; a fiery red sunset from the rooftop as the call to prayer choruses across the city, the colours of the saris and shalwar kameez clothing, the children playing in old ruins on the edge of the city.
I am forever mesmerised, captivated, and astonished by the smallest details – the number of chillies chopped into one omelette, the amount of sugar scooped into one cup of tea, puddles that turned into rivers, footpaths that turned into obstacle courses and young men who nipped between cars at hectic intersections charming customers into buying bouquets of white flowers and knock-off books.
I was five years old again. And the magic was in the detail, every time. Senses were heightened, exhausted and assaulted. If Bangladesh did one thing for me, it made me feel alive; wretchedly, fantastically, frighteningly alive.
Back at the police station, the officer looked at me, patiently waiting for my answer about Dhaka. I thought back to ‘Slaughter Day' during the Islamic Festival ‘Eid-ul-Adha' when cows and goats were brought into the city in preparation for the sacrifice. Tied to fences and gates, some were adorned with tinsel and crowns.
On the day of the sacrifice, blood ran through the streets, dribbling down drains and pooling in pot holes. The slaughter took place on footpaths. In the afternoon I went out on my bike, the stench of bleach – used to help wash the blood away – still strong. Remnants from the day's killing remained; hooves and tails, tufts of
‘ If Bangladesh did one thing for me, it made me feel alive; wretchedly, fantastically, frighteningly alive.’
fur, and the odd ear lying on the dusty footpath. Dogs waited patiently, growling and licking their lips. I watched as neighbours gave away stacks of beef to those less fortunate, with plastic bags of bloodied meat balanced on their heads and gripped in their hands. I had blood on my bicycle tyres and bleach up my nose.
I thought back to another day when on my way home from work I stopped at the local tea stall run by a husband and wife team. Sweet tea (cha) is a Bangladesh staple, sold on nearly every corner. As they mixed my tea with a spoonful of condensed milk, they enquired about my personal life. “Husband?”
“Umm… oh… well… you know… naaaa.”
“Um, not really? Yeah… nah.”
Their faces dropped. I'd killed the conversation. The family is paramount in Bangladesh, and as an unmarried, childfree woman I was frequently looked upon with pity. The woman stepped out from behind the stand and embraced me in a long, tight hug as if to say everything would be okay. She gave me a cup of tea and refused my money.
And so began a tradition whenever I walked past. The tea stand owners would look at me with sad eyes and make my sweet tea, always refusing my money. It was rude to turn down their offer of tea, but I walked past their stand sometimes half a dozen times a day, and there's only so much condensed milk I can stomach. Some days I had to walk a different route home or slink past hoping they wouldn't spot me.
Sitting in the police station, with the creaky, whirring fan, I thought about how living in Dhaka was an adventure I never was going to be ready for. I was warned of the heat and the traffic, but no one tells you how to recover your scarf when it has fallen into the toilet, or how to shake the sight of animals being butchered on the footpath from your mind.
Despite the moments of frustration, confusion and worry, Bangladesh has a way of charming you right when it counts. The policeman looked at me earnestly – no corruption, no bribes, just kind words. I smiled at him.
“I like it here. It's hard, but I like it.”