For the three years that I lived in Niketan, Gulshan, I commuted to my workplace in Mohakhali by rickshaw. Each day was an adventure then; indeed, an odyssey of sorts through a narrow, winding route that Niketan denizens knew by heart. I did not have a car, and the lanes (too narrow to be called streets) were in terrible shape. On rainy days, they virtually turned into puddles and ditches. The rickshaw-puller's job was to veer through those potholes in such a way that the passengers were not ejected from their seats. It was impossible to just sit on a rickshaw and not flinch or frown.
One day, I woke up especially early because I had invigilation duty at the university where I worked then. It was a Friday morning in winter, and the loudspeaker of some picnic-going crowd was blaring: “Porayna chokher polok/ Dekhe tar rooper jholok!” (I can't help staring at her/ because she's so gorgeous!)
I flagged and climbed into a rickshaw, gritting my teeth for the 20-minute rollercoaster ride to Mohakhali. The rickshaw-puller was obviously mesmerized by the song. He looked longingly at two large buses with colourful banners that stood ready to depart. He started humming along in an off-tune voice, “Ami gyan harabo, naki moray jabo...” (Shall I faint, or shall I die?) I blanched as I looked at his rope-like limbs and oil-slicked hair. He was a young fellow in his early twenties, but the sound emitting from his throat was more like a squeaky adolescent. “Hey, look where you're going!” I snapped. “You don't have to look at the bus and sing that horrendous song. Or else other people will faint before you do.”
The rickshaw-puller looked back at me sheepishly and said with a shy smile, “You're right, of course, apa. My sister says the same thing.”
We stopped at Niketan Gate, one of the points of entry into our neighbourhood. It was a large two-part iron gate, with one part usually swung open for traffic, the other closed. Today, however, even that opening was blocked. A large bullock stood immobile at the half-open gate that led into the narrow back-streets winding their way to Mohakhali bazaar.”Yaa Ali! Yaa Ali!” Several people were yelling at the top of their voices, beseeching our long-suffering caliph for strength; the accent on the second syllable of his name suggesting that the task was immensely strenuous. My rickshaw-puller and I gaped in wonder at the sable beast that was the size of a mini-mountain. It was accompanied by two herdsmen, a young lad of about fourteen, and an imperious-looking man with a Saudi turban on his head, no doubt the owner of the beast. Everyone (except the owner) was pressing the stubborn animal forward, trying to get him through the gate. The giant stood with its muzzle turned sideways and its tail swishing this way and that; it was unperturbed and acted as if it was being pestered by mere insects. It had clearly come all this way—why was it now refusing to move? Suddenly, we heard a sharp cry, and gasped as our gaze fell on the man who was bringing up the rear. A dark semi-liquid ooze clung to his shirt, and he spewed maledictions, cursing the bullock to its seventh generation. Relieved of its burden, the bullock finally moved— as if nothing had happened at all. The surrounding crowd also dispersed, and we resumed our journey.
Immediately after it crossed Niketan gate, my rickshaw turned right into a narrow lane full of shops. A little boy sat on a stool in a barbershop, his face distorted into a toothless grimace. Clearly, he didn't want to be there but had been brought in by his father who stood next to him as his head was being shaved. I felt sorry for the poor chap and wondered what brought them there so early on a Friday morning, and also why he was getting his head shaved in winter. The rickshaw at this point was moving very slowly. There was a long line of rickshaws and vans here even this early in the morning. After all, this was the only way rickshaws could reach Mohakhali and Gulshan since they were not allowed on the main road.
Suddenly, I heard a startled shout behind me. I twisted my neck to look through the opening at the back of my rickshaw. O Lord, what a crowd! A serpentine queue of rickshaws and rickshaw-vans had formed behind us. A young man standing on a van was shouting with raised hands. But while he was the source of the hubbub, the cause lay elsewhere. He was looking upward at an opened window of a house. It was one of those unruly dwellings that seem to sprout by the roadside without rhyme or reason, and without boundary walls, their doors opening right onto the street. The man in question was dripping wet and I gathered that someone had just thrown water out of that window---not an untypical occurrence in back alleys of Dhaka!.
Immediately, people from other vehicles began to hurl obscenities. This too was not untypical! Thankfully though, the line of rickshaws started moving once again; the hooting and jeering around us slowly subsided. What a spectacle! I sighed and closed my eyes for a few seconds. When I opened them, I caught a glimpse of a strange-looking bird that sat on a grimy yellow wall on the other side of the narrow street. It was small and had red and black stripes. It hopped, sprinted, and then flew away before I could take a good look, disappearing among the trees in front of a discoloured and dilapidated old house.
The house took my breath away. Where did it appear from? I had travelled this road very often; how come I had never noticed it before? It was a two-storied structure, the kind you see in old Dhaka. Moss and creepers had colonized its cracked and crumbling walls. The traffic had now slowed to a halt again, so the rickshaw-puller stopped right in front of the house. The grove fronting the house was so natural, unassuming and inviting that our best-kept gardens of Gulshan could not compete with it. I looked at the rusty little gate and the enclosed copse wistfully as the rickshaw-puller dragged us on toward the busy Mohakhali street known by the WASA water tank that towers above it. I had a full day of work ahead. But even if my days were not so hectic, would I have stopped to take a good look at the rusty moss-covered gate and the overgrown garden? We Dhaka-dwellers have become too cynically urbane and have little time to reminisce or dream even though it can still surprise us—every now and then!
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh