Getting to Work

There’s the morning rush: finding a CNG, hoping the jams will be less on account of the late start, remembering to tell the driver not to attempt that foolhardy ‘short cut’ through Lalmatia.  There’s the evening slog: there almost certainly won’t be any available CNG from Gulshan.  It’s commuting in Dhaka: on the plus side, no two days are the same.

While waiting for a CNG, the morning flock of empty rickshaws passes like ducks flying north for the summer.  They sometimes stop to inquire, like the guy who happened to be sporting a blue United Nations cap with the initials of some mission or other across it.  ‘Nice hat,’ I couldn’t help but say.

‘What is it?’ he asked, ‘Police or something?’

‘Yes, more or less police.  And it looks great!’

Finally a CNG arrives.  It’s not an unusual thing, the passenger door fixed shut by a long bit of string wrapped around part of the vehicle’s frame.  It’s unwound.  I get in.  The driver surgically bandages the door shut again.  ‘What kind of system do you call this?’ I asked, ‘Is it digital?’

‘Exactly!’ he laughed, ‘Digital!’

Some months ago a CNG driver took the opportunity to tell me I’ve become Bangladeshi, as we pulled up outside the office.  It was a strange first sentence between us.  ‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

Well, he’d heard me speaking some version of Bangla on the mobile along the way and was taken by my smoking a Navy cigarette rather than Benson. I laughed and said, ‘Yes, I made a big mistake, didn’t I?’

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Well, tell me, what are Bangladeshis like?’

‘Oh really not good, bad, bad,’ he said without hesitation.

‘So I made a big mistake then?’

‘Yes, you did!’

And a work colleague told me something similar once as we walked along Gulshan Avenue.  ‘You’re so Bangladeshi,’ he said, ‘there’s a footpath and still you’re walking on the road.’

When time allows I’m prone to stopping at the tea shop before office and there was one morning I heard another customer saying to the shopkeeper, ‘give me half a cigarette.’

‘You want to buy half a cigarette?’ said the shopkeeper, laughing, ‘Maybe you should buy a whole one?’

Bhai,’ the customer replied, ‘you know how it is. If I buy a whole one I’ll have to break a note to pay for it and once you break a banknote it’s all spent before you know it. So just give me half.’

The shopkeeper obliged and having smoked half, the customer carefully stubbed out the cigarette and gave the remaining portion back to the shopkeeper to hold onto until he came back later. 

And of course there are easier days too, transport wise.  After office, there used to be Charlie ‘Pajero’ Brown, the short, balding fellow employed as a driver.  As is customary he takes extra passengers when his boss isn’t around.  Charlie used to be a semi-regular transport link, but I haven’t seen him for a while.  Still, commuting by someone else’s private car isn’t irregular in Dhaka.  One of my friends once travelled across the city as a fare-paying passenger in an ambulance!  Life in the Mega-City is nothing if not flexible.

Then there are the human instincts: in Dhaka everything’s reversed.  When the road is empty the immediate thought is, ‘what’s going on?  Has something happened?’  In another city that thought would be because of a traffic jam, not the lack of one.

And there was a day when a CNG pulled up, peak hour, Gulshan to Dhanmondi, and it usually costs the earth.  I asked the price and to my horror the driver said, ‘there’s a meter, isn’t there?’  It was very odd.  My immediate reaction, without a moment’s thought was, ‘and what kind of scam is that?’  In the last few years no other CNG driver has ever so readily offered the meter in the evening rush from Gulshan!  And it’s hardly common at other times.

I had to question him.  ‘Are you new in Dhaka?’

‘I’ve been here for twelve years,’ he said.  I was quite suspicious.  I monitored the driver and the route to make sure of no sudden tricks or unwarranted detours!  But nothing untoward happened.  It goes to show, in Dhaka anything is possible: even using the meter.

And yet, there's more joy to be had in Dhaka's traffic!  There are the mysterious teachings of rickshaws, especially if you've got a driver from the north.  When frustrated there's always dreaming of the Bangladeshi metro, or just throw it all in and move to Lilliput.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Getting to Work

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