Cities of amnesia (18 July 2021)

“When will I see you again?”

Modern telecommunications allay some of the downsides of having to ask this most common of pandemic questions. But this does not make up for countless people around the world postponing journeys to the places of their birth.

Having assumed last year that 2022 would be the earliest I could get on a plane, I am fully reconciled to this being the longest gap I can remember between journeys to Dhaka.

But that does not make up for missing its sights, sounds, and people.

Especially because experience suggests places in Bangladesh can become unrecognizable far more rapidly and completely than they change in the UK. 

A chance stumble on a photograph from a short work visit in 2001 recently brought this home. In the background were large numbers of people strolling and having picnics in the grounds of Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban.  

Until Covid-19, security precautions did not prevent large numbers of ordinary constituents and tourists alike wandering around the House of Commons in Westminster, so I am used to complaining about the fencing off of Sangsad Bhaban as a visible metaphor for the relative remoteness of most Bangladeshi MPs from the people they serve. But until re-seeing the old photograph, I had forgotten how much simpler the grounds used to be to access. 

How much more may change, and whether Metro Rail will be operational when I return is for the time being only for the imagination. 

My parents’ families first moved to Dhaka in the 1950s. As a teenager at the time, my father devoured any book he could find on the city’s history and quickly tried all its bus routes, interests which I have in part inherited. 

While Banglapedia has an informative article on the history of the old Ramna racecourse/ Suhrawardy Udyan area highlighting its patronage by the Nawabs of Dhaka and the British, I am still struggling to find a definitive date for when the last horse race was run.

It is with some interest, then, that I followed the planning debates which have arisen around the development of Suhrawardy Udyan and TSC at Dhaka University. I was intrigued by the statement issued by the chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s influential Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) supporting calls to preserve the iconic structure at Kamlapur Railway Station.

Frankly, until Bangladesh can domestically make and maintain better trains and tracks, I find it hard to get worked up about a 1960s railway station. Louis Kahn’s masterpiece design for the national parliament is far more significant.

Likewise, the debates around Suhrawardy Udyan and DU do at least show they are widely recognized as places of unique national and historical importance. The pleasantly lit-up glass tower at the Swadhinata Stambha complex certainly augurs hope that sensitivity and a sense of public space will prevail around Suhrawardy Udyan.

Such sensibilities are rare elsewhere in the city. Public space, like most parks and canals, is routinely either despoiled, eaten up, or zealously guarded by small elites.

2021/11/send-money-news-portel-770-x-90-1-1635916373828.gif

How many pledges to clean up the Buriganga or build a more attractive circular river route do you remember, and how many have you forgotten?

City planning is either ignored or based on erroneous principles. Dhaka is too small in area for the North American concept of purely residential car-dominated zones, when vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods as in cities like Amsterdam are much more appropriate.

Most scandalously, because it is such a unique and missed opportunity, Old Dhaka and its rich heritage and potential are seemingly neglected as somewhere people only pass by on the way to the stadium or the bustle of Sadarghat. 

By contrast, in London, the past is always on display and readily Googled even as the city mutates with each generation.

The Square Mile of the City of London builds its skyscrapers on a recognizably medieval and in parts Roman street pattern. Walking past the 330 metre-long “groundscraper” being built by Google next to King’s Cross station the other day, it seemed clear that even newcomers would recognize this as just one of the many developments that have completely transformed an area derelict and crime ridden for decades.

But not quite completely. Amongst the pricey flats aimed squarely at the global 1%, you can still discern the outlines of the giant gas cylinders seen in old British films. It is in fact the centuries-old canals and industrial buildings repurposed as university and leisure facilities which are now drawing tourists aplenty. 

Perhaps one reason it is easy for Sherlock Holmes to have so many iterations is that it is not that hard to imagine a Victorian detective being able to navigate the contemporary city’s geography and buildings.

I am not alone in valuing Londoners’ ability to reinvent the city while remembering its past and promoting amenities for all. I would certainly like to see more denizens of Dhaka campaign for the same. And I must add, that both Bangladesh and the UK would also benefit from much more decentralization of government and commerce away from their capitals.

As the pandemic makes Dhaka for me a city less of memory and more of imagination, I do imagine Bangladesh will somehow continue to make more change for the better than the worse. The 50th anniversary supplements in this paper illustrate what has been possible by a still young nation, and what it can look forward to in the future.

The UK as an older country however, gives more cause for pessimism. Respect for history is healthy, living in an increasingly imaginary past not so. And the older one gets, the harder it becomes to remember.

The often Trumpian tone and rhetoric emanating from Boris Johnson’s government benefits as much from supporters forgetting his government’s many mistakes and blatant untruths as it does from the opposition and media largely forgetting how to be able to hold it to account.

At this point, it is worth recalling that amnesia can be a temporary and reversible condition, but dementia never so. That can only be slowed at best. Before death.