The Life in Traffic Jams

Dhaka traffic (photo: Star Magazine)
Dhaka street, 1999
The other day in my English class I asked the students to tell me what was bad about living in Dhaka. At the top of the list was traffic jams. One particular evening, when on my way to dinner, I found myself sitting in a rickshaw in the midst of the turmoil of a jam on Satmasjid Road and I thought, "yes, there really is a lot of traffic to complain about." But strangely enough, I like it.

In the city of my birth, Sydney, things are much more orderly. There are sometimes traffic jams too but cars wait, for the most part patiently, in long neat queues demarcated by lane lines. People obey traffic lights there.

The contrast with Satmasjid Road couldn't be greater: rickshaws squeezed like citrus fruit filling every tiny crevice of roadway, weaving slowly amongst the battered buses and cars, turning left from the right side of the road or right from the left and sometimes trundling along in the wrong direction altogether. It's a familiar scene.


Dhaka jam in 1999 (now is worse)
 There was a street kid who must have done something mischievous because a young man had caught him by the arm and in the middle of the vehicle clutter he was busily uttering harsh words, the detail of which could not be heard over the sound of car horns. Some passengers in a tempo got out to mediate, or to find out what the kid had done for all important adda purposes, while all the rickshaw passengers and drivers around watched with interest. The young man raised his hand as if to hit the street kid, but the street kid knew it was never going to happen. The mediators from the tempo and the spectators on the other rickshaws knew it was never going to happen too. It was not a serious situation.

The little life scene concluded a few minutes later with the street kid pulling his earlobes and repeatedly squatting as a form of apology, which to western eyes looks so unusual. And then he was on his way. The young man wandered off, the not-required mediators got back into their tempo and the several rickshaw passengers switched their attention to something else as we all inched forward slightly along the road. It's the sort of life encounter that's so commonplace in this city, but for a Sydneysider there's something remarkable about it: to see a young man censure a street kid as though he was his older brother; to see strangers act a little like family members. Bangladeshis, I think, take it for granted.

The news from Sydney the other day included a gruesome story about a woman who'd died alone in her apartment and hadn't been discovered for a number of weeks. The news story reported her neighbours had noticed the stench of rotting flesh but had not called the police because they did not want to be involved. In Australia it happens that sometimes people lay dead for weeks or even months in their homes unnoticed, because they live alone and nobody comes to visit. It's difficult to imagine such a situation occurring here.

A few minutes later my rickshaw nearly scraped the bumper of a nearby car. The driver yelled a few words as my rickshaw driver kept silent, but it was the car which was parked askew from the curb. Evidence of scrapes and bumps is to be seen on any car or bus in this city that has spent more than a day out of the showroom, and what has always impressed me is even when such situations get heated, the drivers of each vehicle are usually able to sort it out themselves and get on their way without too much delay. It seems assumed that a car in Dhaka will have a few dents on it. In Sydney where such scrapes are much rarer, drivers usually swap insurance details, fill in claim forms for compensation and sometimes even small incidents involve the police or a court case.
Dhaka tailback (photo: Star Magazine)

Another few metres and a good ten minutes further along, I noticed a rickshaw driver at road's edge resting with his feet up on the handlebars. Having given up the hope of moving anywhere, he was playing a bamboo flute instead. It was the very definition of playing in the traffic. Undoubtedly he was somewhere far away, entirely oblivious to the hubbub of the road drowning out his song; I imagined in his village sitting on a setu, or little bridge, somewhere among the rice fields, relaxing in the tranquility of the countryside, enjoying a breeze. Every single commuter stuck there in the jam must have wanted to join him. I know I did.

It's inevitable that sometimes when stuck in a jam, when it takes three times longer to arrive somewhere than it should, we curse this city. It's an easy matter to long for a few more freeways, orderly traffic flow and convenience. And while I must confess I am saved the worst of it for I live close enough to work to walk, I think that as well as being annoyed about Dhaka's traffic jams it's worthwhile to keep aside a small smile for those intimate, personal moments in other people's lives that traffic jams make us witness to, what makes a Dhaka traffic jam an organism of humanity and an expression of this city's life, while in Sydney, when jams occur, they're just a row of cars.

And if you still doubt you can enjoy Dhaka's traffic then think of this: when we complain of the huge number of rickshaws that add to the congestion we make ourselves, most of us, hypocrites, for we're never including the one we're sitting on.




You can learn a lot on a rickshaw too, especially if you've got a driver from the north.  Or, you can just chill out in the 'hood!


This article was also published in Star Magazine, here: Another Way of Looking at Jams and in Rising Stars supplement, here: Dhaka Jams from a Different Perspective





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