Goodbye Toronto. Hello Dhaka, once more

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 19 Jan 2012, 07:03 PM
Updated : 19 Jan 2012, 07:03 PM

I thought this would not happen again but once more I am on the move. After nearly 5 years in Toronto I am moving back to Dhaka. The reasons are many but all these happened in a matter of a week when my daughter declared that she wanted to return to Dhaka. Since she was the main reason why we were in Canada, it made no sense to stay on if she wasn't there. And soon in a matter of days, we as a family were coming back. Suddenly it was time to say goodbye, suddenly time to say hello again.

Life is nothing if not unpredictable.

* * *

I visited Dhaka last July and found everything terribly expensive and chaotic. I am not sure how I will cope but that's what most of my life has been, trying to start from the first again and again. And it would be a lie if I said I disliked it entirely. I have lived in a dozen cities in four continents, long enough to have to open bank accounts and pay income tax.

Maybe I am an 'uncertainty' addict.

* * *

I am leaving Toronto with mixed feelings. Many factors have worked behind this decision but the lack of opportunity to do proper work has been important. I don't think it makes much sense to spend the rest of my days not doing things I want to do. My daughter probably said what I had felt in my heart but could not do much about.

Not writing books, not making films, not being part of activism is not a happy life for me.

But it is also true that I like Toronto, a city where everyone from all over the world comes to live. I have never been comfortable in mono-ethno cultural Bangladesh, so Toronto of many kinds of faces was wonderful for me.

Its public library system is awesome and in the last 4+ years, I have discovered several new fields of pleasure thanks to it. I will truly miss this.

I hugely enjoyed the casual and organised politeness of Canadian life. I liked thanking the bus driver, the shopkeeper, being able to say sorry when you bump into someone. So many polite spaces, never mind if they are just formal ones.

I love Canadian weather, the cold, the rain, the snow — all of it. In Toronto when it rains, I put on a raincoat and walk for hours. I watch rain drops falling on the pavements and trees and everything else. In Dhaka there is hardly any space left even on which the rain can fall.

There are many such things I love but in the end the hunger to do something more interesting than just make a living prevailed.

* * *

But what of Dhaka, the city that has changed so much that I no longer recognise its people and its ways as much as I did once. It is a stressed city, a difficult city which has become a symbol of urban failure which some disgruntled people call a nightmare. As a city, it is dead or dying and many say it is the worst in the world barring Harare in Zimbabwe. Some even say Dhaka is worse. But worse actually is the failure of municipal governance where leaders look at creating and producing a new municipality rather than doing something about the existing problems. It is a cruel city which exists to deny, letting some flaunt wealth and luxury as millions huddle and suffer. It is a city which enrages me and many others.

It is the city of my birth and hopefully the city of my death. Like it or not, it is my city.

* * *

There are few things to like in Dhaka unless you are a masochist: those who find pleasure in pain. The traffic jams are just one of the problems really because every problem that you can think of and a few that you can't think of happens here. When you leave home, you are not sure you will reach your destination and even if you do, there is no guarantee you will return home. Electricity, water, sunlight, housing, food, environment… the list of things which fail to pass the minimum test of any acceptable standard are many. Anyone contemplating to actually want to live in Dhaka is probably a loony from the Pabna mental hospital. Yet Dhaka has certain things on offer which draws people.

* * *

Dhaka offers a sense of desperate energy that few other places do. There is almost a crackle in its air as millions push to make their way to a living and life. It is a city where people have some of the most sharply contrasting features as they display extreme patience while going anywhere stuck in a jam to amazing impatience as they explode at the slightest provocation.

People are hustlers and honest in the same proportion, insisting, demanding that they be allowed to live in a city which can bear no more. The richest live in this city with wealth and consumption few Westerners can afford. It is also the city where many generations have lived, married and given birth on the pavement.

This is not a city for the fainthearted or the feeble. It is a place where only the strong can survive and keep some of the dignity intact as well.

It neither gives nor accepts excuses. It offers nothing as comfort or joy. It is all up to you. And there are millions like you.

* * *

Toronto is Dhaka's exact opposite. Nothing moves except polite murmurs of approval or disapproval. Dhaka has million flaws, more than most places in the world but people here are alive to it and some want to do something about it.

It is the kind of world I am familiar with; where I feel I can try to make a difference.

* * *

So there you go my new beginning once more. I keep doing it all the time and I am not sure I won't do it again. I must remember to buy spoons, pans, beds, curtains and all of it once more and one day pushing the curtain aside on a hot and humid morning be scared and challenged at the same time to live in a city, which you like it or not insists everyone jump up and pay attention.

In Toronto, it snowed well yesterday and for the first time this winter snow shovels had to be used. I am glad it did for it was clearly my last snowfall. I felt it was some kind of a goodbye gesture from this city.

Goodbye Toronto.

Now I wonder what Dhaka has in store as a welcome sign.

Hello Dhaka.

Afsan Chowdhury is a Consulting Editor of