Life… it changes.

I’ve been missing for a few months from this blog now. I just did not find myself reaching out to write about anything. Dhaka has been like Dhaka – what it normally is. it’s noisy and chaotic and then there are amazing moments like summer storms and the fever of the national cricket team beating the neighbors in a historic win. My love for Dhaka has been pushed through the paces as it does every day.

And now I am to leave it all behind.

This is not a surprise. I’ve known I would be leaving; I’m the one who initiated it. I’ve typed in my essays; I’ve gone through the hurdles of standardized test scores, of picking schools, researching programs, getting recommendations. I’ve mentally prepared myself and my family that I plan to undertake a big change in my life soon and we should all fall into line. Now the last bit of formality is done.

Then why does it feel like such a big surprise?

I am not ready for this at all. Everything, and I mean, everything tangible around me is changing. I’ve lived in this one city my whole life. I’ve lived around these same people. While I’ve always dreamt of starting a new life, taking on a new adventure, when I’ve finally able to do it, it suddenly seems a bit nerve wracking.

It’s not that I’m moving to a new city.

A new country. Half way around the world.

I’m a mixed bag of emotions now. On the one hand I’m incredibly excited that this is finally happening after so much hard work. I’m so looking forward to starting this new phase in my life. It’s a new wonderful place and all I see around me are opportunities.

But my heart still yearns for the familiar. My family, my friends, my life here seems too precious to just uproot and leave behind.

We are all made of the experiences we have and the people in our lives. When I leave, I will leave behind a part of myself among Dhaka City and the people I love. I will be a different person from leaving behind that part of me. When I start that new life I will get new experiences and meet new people who will change me again.

Maybe it’s not just the moving and the change. Maybe all I’m scared of is meeting this new me.

The Balloon Man

I work in one of the busiest areas of Dhaka City. If you want to get a taste of the rush of Dhaka, you need to stand in the Gulshan 1 Circle for five minutes [preferably holding on to another person for support]. People cross roads wearing their heart as a protection helmet, rushing into oncoming traffic as though the cars are made of air. If you stand still, the oncoming rush of people and motorcycles [two-wheelers rarely use the roads in Dhaka, they prefer to think the pavements are made for them and honk on the people trying to walk there] will drag you along – a lesson about life itself.

A few days ago, I was standing in the middle of the pavement in this busy area during rush hour. The evening was comfortably cool and uncomfortably busy. I was surrounded by office-goers, shoppers, families, street-vendors and a hundred different types of people going about their day. I had an arm full of groceries. As I waited for my ride, I stood next to a shoe store, and found myself contemplating my experience of the city, always good fodder for the next blog post for my often-ignored little blog.

My eyes were drawn to a man sitting quietly next to where I stood. He was old, wearing a long white panjabi and lungi. He had an impressive beard and wore a traditional cap on his head. And he held a large bunch of orange and blue balloons in his hand.

Balloon Man
Balloon Man

I had seen him around that road a few times before actually. He sold balloons in the area. I had often wanted to buy some from him to keep in my room – just to brighten the place up. I would like to believe we are never too old or too lost to buy balloons for ourselves.

Balloon-man was content to stare at the world pass him by, holding on to his balloons, not even bothering to approach potential customers for a hard sell. It was like he had taken it for granted that nobody was in the mood for his balloons that day in that busy street.

I put my paparazzi skills to use and furtively took a picture. I wanted to ask his story. I wanted an orange balloon. I wanted to haggle over the price and figure out if this is all he’s ever done. Had he always sold things on the sidewalks? Has he come to hard times? Why on earth did he look so wise and peaceful? Why was he not trying to sell his balloons?

But I couldn’t. I could not gather the courage to walk up to him and ask for a balloon, and have a thousand people turn their heads as they passed me by, a young female standing in the busiest road in Dhaka, holding groceries and an orange balloon floating over her head.

I do not blame the city or the people who would stare. I blame myself and my own hesitance to be uncomfortable for a few minutes and trade money for a balloon. I also blame the thoughts in the man’s head and the stories that he kept. I was too intimidated to break his quiet contemplation of the world. I just did not want to bother him.

I left Balloon-man sitting on his perch, the balloons floating calmly as he did in his thoughts. I look around for him when I pass that place now. I have not caught him since that day. If I do see him again, I’ll get myself a balloon. Hopefully that day, he will just be an ordinary balloon-seller, and not the most interesting, most intimidating person in the busiest intersection in Dhaka City. If he happens to be that again, hopefully, I will not be a wimp.

Biryani Blessings

Winter is the season of weddings. Actually these days in Dhaka, the whole year is the season of weddings, but winter is especially tight. Winter is perfect for the Technicolor, intense, chaotic carnival that our weddings are. Winter is also the time a lot of people making their homes outside Bangladesh choose to visit, and invariably these temporary migrants either come to get married, or attend someone’s wedding. So for the last two weeks of December, I was not surprised that I had a wedding event to go to EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. Yes they were of different people, and mostly different events of the same three or four weddings. But during winter it is not unusual for many of us to attend several events on the same night, especially on holidays and weekends. A lot of people hate the season for this. There are just too many clashes and too many places you have to be in a frenzied attempt to not upset the hosts. Bangladeshi’s believe that happiness increases the more people you share it with. Over the years I’ve found myself being invited, turning down and attending weddings of people I have never met, just because I am known by association. I appreciate the sentiment and I never miss one I should not. But then after every single night of dressing up and doing the same thing over and over again, I find my resolve to attend wavering. However there is the one wedding staple that I always consider before turning down an event – the wedding biriyani.

The biriyani – this fabled rice dish’s origins are a little murky, being known to hail from Mughal and Hyderabadi cuisine in India. The word itself is Persian. But wherever the origins are, it has made a stable and beloved home in the kitchens and stomachs of Dhakaites. No proper wedding celebration in Dhaka is complete without a decadent Kacchi Biriyani (Biriyani with mutton and potatoes) served in at least one of the events.

No matter how amazing our moms are and how formidable the cooking skills, even they cannot replicate the Wedding Biryani. It is so good, that I love Kacchi Biryani with a passion – and I never eat mutton any other time. It’s just simply different in its lusciousness and depth of flavor. There is no finesse in the actual cooking. Giant pots that reach my waist are filled with rice with an assortment of spices and ghee and cooked on the ground on open flames. The meat and the potatoes are cooked separately, and then combined with the rice. The pots are then sealed with soft dough which acts as a glue to ensure proper pressure – called a ‘dam’. The typical wedding chef is a middle aged man with a team of helpers with years of experience – a baburchi with a snappy name like Idu or Nanna or Zakir – and the really good ones need to be booked months before the event. There are no state of the art kitchen equipment and delicate ingredients. Bangladeshi wedding food is hearty, real, spicy, heavy and dangerous in large quantities. Almost like most Bangladeshis. I suppose the cooking is not that complicated, given how common it is to find good biryani in the hundred weddings of the year. But, there is so much magic that wafts up from the steaming rice and soft meat as it is served in front of you, you find yourself struggling with not going to another wedding the next day.

Love is at the heart of a wedding. Love and happiness and good blessings to be shared among well-wishers. Unsurprisingly, it is also at the heart of a plate of perfect Wedding Biriyani. A plate of perfect Biryani is always loved, always makes people happy and is considered a pretty damn good blessing. Unsurprisingly the two are always found close to each other, and hopefully it shall always remain, for those of us in this side of the world with the chaotic weddings and the delicious food – a match made in gastronomical heaven.

Fall

My pinterest homepage is exploding with pumpkin spice everything, decoration ideas for Halloween and girls in knee high boots, leg warmers, scarves and the latest in fall fashion. It’s fall. The lovely season of golden leaves and awesome clothes.

Except I live in Dhaka.

Yes, it’s October and theoretically a truly a beautiful time. Here in Dhaka it is tropical business as usual. There is a slight chill in the air after 2 or 3 a.m. that stays till dawn. In the morning the shadows are cool, but the sun is achingly bright and hot even as early as 8 am. You would not like to stand on direct sunlight because of how hot the sun’s rays are.

It’s a tease really. In the morning winter magic taunts us. It wafts through the air like the smell of kebabs on the tandoor in some corner we cannot see. It disappears within a few hours as we get busy with the day and get chilled to the bones from the uncontrollable air conditioning at work that is always set too cold. By afternoon it is just plain hot. Or it is raining. The weather has been pretty weird lately.

I remember reading in school about the six seasons in Bangladesh and the fluffy white clouds and the kash ful (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccharum_spontaneum) that signifies autumn for this country. I usually never noticed the poetic difference that those hopeful authors tried to point out to us. But those books were written by authors who lived in a time when the seasons played a part in their lives and did not abandon them amid the concrete and steel of a city jungle. However, something did happen recently. Small white fluffy feathers were found all over Dhaka last month, so much so that people were posting queries on the social media asking what they were. Turns out it was kash ful, the flowery part of a type of tall grass that grows in autumn in the subcontinent, just like the books used to talk about. I guess nature found a way to snake its way into the concrete and glass and millions of ignorant unworthy people to show them she’s not that far gone.

One day maybe I’ll get to experience autumn with all its red and golden hues those pinterest girls keep going crazy about. (I will never try pumpkin spiced anything for sure though). Maybe I will finally wear those damn boots that look so good. But for this year, it’s only flying kash ful landing on my head as I race across the busy interaction that says to me… fall is here.

Wasting Away On The Streets

I am a firm believer in believing in the good in something. Even when most things point to the negative, I always have a small, niggling doubt in my mind that hopes to justify the inappropriate and illogical. I believe things just do not suck by default and if they seem that they do, there must be a logical explanation behind it that may somehow make it easier to accept.

Sadly, this is not something I feel about the traffic situation in Dhaka.

In the past two days, I have spent on average 4.5 hours commuting to and from work. The map in my phone says the distance is approximately 8 to 9 km, and takes 19 minutes without traffic. Now since no one in Dhaka has ever fully accepted the words ‘without traffic’ as a truth [unless it’s three am], the estimates by the map is in all accounts, invalid. Even then the actual time should be somewhat closer to the estimate. It’s not even in the same continent as close.

The traffic situation prompts the urban, facebook-trigger happy commuter with a steady slew of frustrated status updates damning this City to hell and beyond. Some enterprising people put up updates to ask about the waiting time for a particular area in hopes to predict a faster route. Mostly it’s just anger and frustration and a hopeless desire to walk out of the vehicles and break someone’s windshield.

The opportunity cost is insane. Brace yourself for some intense second grade math. Two plus two four hours taken from twenty four. Five days a week. If we work fifty weeks a year [because who can skip work and get sick or go on vacation when so much time is wasted on the roads?] that is 1000 hours just coming and going from work. That is 60,000 minutes of one person’s year spent sitting inside a car or a bus or an auto-rickshaw. The most you can do in this time is listen to the radio, if you’re lucky enough not to drive, read a book, go through your phone and answer calls. Maybe bicker about the state of the world with your commute-mates.

The issue should not be whether we are making optimum use of our time while being stuck in traffic. Instead there needs to be an actual shift in not taking this horrible waste of time and money for granted anymore. I read up on cases where some cities of the world improved traffic conditions drastically by programs and initiatives. Unfortunately when I tried to imagine implementing those ideas within the context of Dhaka, I found that in most cases it would not work. It is not that there is no scope of change by following the programs of other cities. But the overhaul would need to be so major it would require the combined effort of the government, private enterprises, the commuters and a league of angels to bring about a significant shift.

I am not hopeful. The naïve, believe-in-the-best side of me has been horribly beaten down in this case. I realize how precious my time is. In the four hours I spend in the car, I may come up with the greatest novel ever written. Or I may just take a nap. Either ways it would be my choice to do so. I would not be a slave of a system which can arguably be considered one of the best, or should I say, worst examples of inefficiency and lack of planning and progress of urban transportation. I sound bitter and there will be people talking to me about headway by referring to upcoming flyovers being constructed and so on. But I say to them, as the traffic situation has gone from bad to disgusting, how many campaigns have you seen that promotes car-pooling, encourages use of public-transportation, encourages people to walk instead of taking their cars and enforces proper traffic laws? I’ve seen none so far, and I’ve been alive to wait for it for twenty six years. This is in a city with probably one of the worst continuous traffic conditions in the whole world.

There are many who say we as a people are incapable of improvement in certain aspects. We do not follow rules of the road and we drive like maniacs. It’s like blaming the kid who blows up a toilet for not knowing any better instead of the parents who never told him that this was not what good kids do. The people of this city do not have a special gene that makes us contribute to bad traffic. In a proper system, everyone will behave. But there needs to be a start somewhere. Someone needs to tell us – we are doing this, you can do your part by doing that. Case in point, there are no major traffic issues within the armed forces cantonment of the city. People follow rules because they are enforced. They do not magically turn into law-abiding citizens as they pass through those gates.

It’s not often I go about bringing a negative image of my country where the whole world can see it. My country has enough to deal with without me adding to the pile of damaging things it is known for. But I also feel I had to do something, even if that means five people read this and just empathize. Also, it’s been almost two hours that I’ve started for home, and writing seemed a better use of the time.