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Poor Man's Sciences: The Survival of Dhaka

08/07/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Saif Ahmed

To function in Dhaka, you need to be privy to certain scientific processes. Sounds absurd? Not necessarily - after all, the city is 75% and 67% denser than Hong Kong and Mumbai respectively, with 115,000 people per square mile, and survival is a tricky game. And sorry Dr Einstein, the types of innovations on which Dhaka thrives are engendered by the likes of slum dwellers and local bus conductors.

"To be a proper Dhaka-ite, one needs to be a dacoit" is probably one of the greatest fallacies we hold dear in Dhaka. What one needs are crafty techniques and tricks, especially if one belongs to the less advantaged classes, to deal with a dense metropolis that inspires bewilderment in most observers.

Dhaka, for all its throes, is the breeding ground for some marvellous forms of applied sciences, necessity being the mother of invention. I was the benefactor of such ingeniousness last month during a ride on a cycle rickshaw (one of the 60,000 or so in Dhaka) from Gulshan to Banani during a sudden downpour.

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This little piece of polythene plastic is the poor man's raincoat. Photo Credit: Saif Ahmed

As the rain grew heavier, Amjad Hossain, the rather ancient rickshaw-wallah, stopped and made me vacate my seat. His motives were noble.

"Bhai, cover yourself, it'll be a strong one," he anticipated as he took out two polythene sheets and handed one to me. I hesitantly took one, but decided not to cover myself up.

Big mistake! Soon enough, I was indeed drenched. Thus, I put up the plastic wrapping over my thighs and went with the flow. And it worked! My wallet dried.

This brings me to another wonder.

Have you ever ridden a public bus? Yes, the government-run BRTC ones, better known locally as "murir tins", a tribute to their ramshackle appearance. Unlike many, I certainly like the charm they add to the cityscape, even including the variations of pickpockets.

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"Left. Not right" Photo Credit: Tahsin Rahman and Marib Alam

I invite you to ride one of these murir tins (not your recently launched, lavish wifi-fitted ones), stand with the crowd and try to get off a moving bus -- something most middle-class office-goers do. The odds are you'll end up with an awful cramp unless you follow another of the city's "street sciences".

"Baam pa diya naamen (Use your left foot)," yelled the bus conductor, which was an act of sublime charitable advice for those getting off the still-moving bus. Murshid Mia, the 16-year-old conductor of BRTC number 11 bus explained, "Since the bus goes through the left side, unless you drop your left leg first, you will need an ambulance."

Murshid Mia will not, or more precisely, cannot, draw a diagram and explain Newton's third law of momentum conservation, but he will certainly offer you a shrill yell before you get off the moving bus with your right foot down.

Now for my slum-dwelling friends. They are full of inexpensive Dhaka-solutions.

For one, they can gather a swarm of mosquitoes on top of their heads on a winter evening, merely by making a buzzing sound and "SPLAT!" Goodbye, Good Knight!

This voodoo, born in the Korail bosti (slum) and Rayerbazar bosti, certainly may qualify for a patent according to Abul and Moushumi, who use the technique every season in Korail football field.

And though there are hundreds of other innovations, I shall conclude by describing Dhaka's retort to earthquake-resilient Japanese homes. According to Dhaka City Corporation data from the last 15 years, every time the Korail slum, situated in Banani (a rather luxurious area in Dhaka), was demolished by the authorities -- without offering any alternative or temporary housing for the destitute residents -- it took the slum-dwellers seven hours on an average to rebuild. Seven!

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Korail slum, demolished using multiple bulldozers in 2012.

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What required seven bulldozers to raze took some 4000 emaciated evictees (including children) and a healthy collection of polythene bags seven hours to rebuild.

The ethical debate about land use of the Dhaka City Corporation is one for another time and out of scope of this article.

Regardless, one strong note rises out of the silence: Dhaka survives.

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