Rickshaws rattle, spokes squeal, and there is a rust on the wind. You can smell it, that rusting air, feel the oxidized atmosphere heavy on your throat and lungs sometimes, even see the haze of particulate matter resting low on the horizon, the color of a dirty fingerprint smeared over Dhaka.
Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. One of the worlds most densely populated cities and, with a population of over 15 million, one of its biggest. Its history (as a city) is not ancient, but storied nonetheless by disparate reigns: founded by the Mughals in the 17th century (laying the cornerstone for its place as the “City of Mosques”), ruled under the Pax Brittania, and then functioning as the capital of “East Pakistan” following India’s ugly Partition in 1947, before finally achieving independence in 1971.
Key to understanding why I’m here when, after all, I’m headed to India, is Bangladesh’s former place under pre-partition British India as “East Bengal.” Kolkata, only a few hundred miles over the border West, was in “West Bengal.” Thus, the two share Bengali culture, cuisine, and the fascinating and difficult Bangla language. Since Bangla is the national language here, the best language schools are in Dhaka. So, I’m here to learn as much Bangla as I can in two months, and then I will put that language to use in Kolkata.
For now, my days are spent buried deep in hours of one on one language instruction and study – cramming verbs and tenses and unfamiliar sentence structures. Bangla really is a beautiful language, though a difficult one. The days aren’t completely without their adventures. Any walk outside is to step into a world of dusty streets where the sewers run open and beggars stretch out their hands with a professionally honed, but still heartbreaking, longing. Chai-wallahs sell tea in plastic cups (not the charming ceramics of Kolkata), or clothing and cigarettes from slapdash pushcarts. Men sit precariously on top of teetering, jam-packed buses – shielding their eyes, scarves pulled over their mouths. It’s half price to ride on top of the bus, but I’ve heard that many of the crippled beggars on the bridges and corners got their start by trying to save a half-fare and losing half a leg instead. Dented cars, weaving motorcycles, bikes, and auto-rickshaws crowd and edge for their space in the anarchy of the roads – lanes seem optional, and first come first serve, regardless of intended direction. Pedestrians walk between the vehicles at any conceivable gap. And, everywhere, more than any other city in the world, bicycle rickshaws carry their passengers to the closer locations. Seat covers torn, chains rusty, frames garishly colored like the mutatus of East Africa.
Then there’s the unexpected things. My Australian housemates introduced me to the American owner of an excellent coffee shop and roaster in an expat-heavy part of town. Jazz, cinnamon rolls, Cappuccinos. I talked to the owner, the manager, the baristas – got the tour around the kitchens. It all made me even more excited for working to open the café in Kolkata – seeing the potential and the fact that I really would love to help open some place like that – a bit of my own writerly, coffee culture in the middle of Bengal. For a coffee lover like myself, a little thing like finding a coffee shop can go a long way towards making these two months very good.
Then I met the Danish Ambassador. It happened like this: the other night a friend of a friend who has lived in Dhaka for years asked me, rather vaguely: “Do you want to go to our art thing?” I said yes, assuming we would be heading to a small-scale education or development project function of some sort. Instead I found myself ushered into the Danish Ambassador’s residence for an International Women’s Day art show, surrounded by state department employees, prominent Bangladeshi artists, and the upper crust of the Dhaka community, and being assailed by waiters carrying platters of wine and tiny sandwich hors d’oeuvres. Evidently everyone else had been given some sort of warning, as I seemed to be the only one clad in flannel and Chacos. I spent several hours looking at some fantastic art by Bangladeshi women, heard a speech by a member of Bangladesh’s hardline Islamic political party on advancing women’s rights, and then another speech by the current Speaker of the House for Bangladesh, and talked a bit about the perceptions versus realities of Islam in Bangladesh with several people. The contrast of that society with the bits of rough life and lines you see everywhere here is remarkable.
First impressions are often some of the most fresh and vivid, but also the least complex and fully formed, and I don’t pretend to yet understand the complexities of Bengali history, culture, politics, religion, and language, but I hope to spend the next years trying to tug at all the unknowns until some meaning unravels and a bit of a clearer picture forms. For now I can only write what I see and what I think, and keep practicing my Bangla.