Dhaka and Bangladesh are evolving on dramatically different courses

Architect, urban planner and scholar, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is perhaps the most interesting of the modern-day chroniclers of Dhaka and its development. A philosopher of urban spaces and what they mean to and for the humans who inhabit them, Ashraf writes that, in order to understand Dhaka, we must first understand that it is really six cities, each superimposed upon the other: “Six morphologies define the urban organism that is Dhaka, each representing a certain social, economic, and environmental destiny”. The term ‘morphology’, he says, implies the essential form and structure of an organism, as used in biology, and also reveals some of its functional and vital makeup. This framework remains indispensable in making sense of the apparent chaos and incongruity that defines Dhaka today. It is in the contestation between these spaces, between these different cities within a city, that the true Dhaka of today is to be located.

Old Dhaka
Old Dhaka © enki22 / Flickr


Once upon a time, Dhaka was not like this. There were always slums and there were always ugly concrete dwellings, just as there were elegant bungalows set in rambling gardens. But more than anything else, there was space, breathing space. The city was marked by ponds and lakes, and crisscrossed by canals. One could swim and catch fish in these bodies of water, or spend an afternoon under the quiet shade of a tree. The open spaces were not wasteland and scrub, but rather green with vegetation, bushes and trees. You could still see the imprint of the countryside, out of which first the town and then the city had grown.

Dhaka today seems thoroughly out of place when compared to the villages that surround it and make up most of the rest of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a stunningly beautiful country: lush, green, verdant, silvery rivers and lakes spreading like a net throughout, such that until very recently one could travel long distances only by boat. Even today, many of the country’s villages are charming and picturesque, neatly arranged around ponds amid precisely planted shade trees and small patchwork-quilt fields. Looking at such villages, it seems clear that Bangladeshis must have a strong aesthetic sense, not evident anymore in the capital city. A great deal of care has evidently gone into creating an environment that is soothing and pleasing to the eye, and to the mind. Perhaps amidst the poverty and tough times, when one does not have anything else, one can at least use the natural beauty of the surroundings as comfort. It is no coincidence that Bangladeshi poetry and art are filled with paeans to the timeless, serene, tranquil beauty of its villages. Even so determined a critic of all things Bengali, the great author Nirad Chaudhary had to admit – through clenched teeth, as it were – that the villages of Bangladesh were unparalleled in their beauty.

But we do not live in our villages anymore. We live in our cities. Specifically, one in ten Bangladeshis now lives in Dhaka. And the difference between Dhaka and the villages that surround it, and that gave birth to it, is no less than the difference between the Dhaka of today and the Dhaka of antiquity. People change, cities change and countries change. In our minds, we are still a simple, pastoral people of farmers and fishermen, listening to folksongs and dreaming of our idyllic village homes and our green and gold fields. That is who we think we are at heart.

All the while, however, Bangladesh is moving quickly from the rural village-based agricultural economy that has sustained it for thousands of years, to an industrialised country of cities and city-dwellers. And, for better or for worse, whether we like it or not, Dhaka reflects this new Bangladesh. If the old Bangladesh was to be found in the shaded byways and sleepy villages, and reflected in the genteel courtliness of the Dhaka of days gone by, today’s Bangladesh – brash, teeming, heaving, angry, crowded, chaotic – is perfectly reflected in the honking car horns and jam-packed footpaths of today’s Dhaka.