Dhaka Days: Life During Hartals

Hartal ● /ˈhɑː.tɑːl/ ● a strike action involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, courts of law, usually as a form of civil disobedience.

Downtown Dhaka on a Hartal day (photo: Rajib Dhar, Dhaka Tribune)
Downtown Dhaka on a Hartal day (photo: Rajib Dhar, Dhaka Tribune)

Today – like most of 2015 – is a hartal in Bangladesh. A ‘hartal’ means a day of ‘political protest’ through a shutdown of transportation & markets; a willful hampering of school, work, shopping and eating out (which is 84% of all we do) in order to drive home a political point. Hartals are usually called by political opposition parties, who enforce it through processions, vandalism, arson and clashes with the police. You may choose to defy a hartal, but be prepared for a Molotov cocktail or two to land on your back. Hurled by underpaid street-children, these are the  newest additions to the arsenal of hooligans.

***

I am out for a walk.

Office timings are lax these days. My afternoon is free. The traffic is light by Dhaka standards; this only happens during the Eids. Commuters are cramming into rusty, Red buses. Pedestrians are walking along briskly – as if in a hurry to get away from an invisible attacker, but reluctant to reveal their fear.

My neighborhood is relatively relaxed and shielded from the violence: there are too many corporate headquarters, MNCs, newspaper editors and diplomats in the area. It’s the poor, slum-dwellers from across the lake who really suffer during the shutdowns. Up ahead, a van belonging to a food catering service is being turned into an ambulance. The technicians have never attempted this modification before. Ambulances are exempted from hartals and are often forced to serve as expensive taxis.

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Turning vans into ambulances makes a lot of business sense during long bouts of shutdowns.
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Bangladeshis are adept at turning threats into opportunities.
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A green traffic signal frees his captive donors and this man steps aside for a smoke break.

Things seem almost normal. Most shops – having endured over a month of shutdowns – have now lifted their shutters. Business had been hurting. Prices are higher now, which is strange considering a hartal typically causes a build-up of goods, which should in turn lower prices.

School children are out too. They’re walking home in groups of four or five – their faces tense. University students are different. They just got wiiiings. In front of BRAC, they’ve taken to sharing snacks and notes, while some others huddle together to delve into their respective phones. Very few will go home before dark. It’s difficult to surrender a long-overdue, hard-fought Freedom from the tyranny of conservative, curfew-wielding parents.

An elderly man takes a break from begging and enjoys a relaxed smoke. Begging in Dhaka’s upscale residential areas is not entirely a bad profession. Despite the ‘Beggar-Free Zone’ road-signs, there are dozens of them chipping away at the bubble of air-conditioned cars that transport the Wealthy. There are urban legends about beggars who have erected 4-storey buildings with their earnings. I once met such a man, whose son was close to finishing medical school. Once the son became a doctor, the man had said, the father would have no need to beg anymore. Thank Allah for sacrificing parents!

***

It’s well past noon. I am hungry. I enter a “bhaat er hotel” – literally meaning a ‘rice hotel’ – a traditional wayside food-joints. These restaurants are the staple when it comes to working men’s lunches. They are typically cheap (lunch with rice, chicken curry / fish, lentil soup @ USD 1.5) shabby, ill-lit, carelessly-serviced and seldom empty. Housed in tin-sheds or thatched-cottages, these Hotels are different from your everyday restaurants. Here’s how:

  1. You can walk in and sit at any table with empty chairs i.e. the tables cannot be booked. This means that capacity is fully utilized and that beggars, cops, executives, mosque-volunteers and development workers often end up at the same table.
  2. There’s an auto-order feature where waiters – usually boys of 10-14 years of age – will set down a plate of rice, a fixed platter of veggies / mashes and an elementary salad in front of you. You are free to eat from it.
  3. If you choose not to eat from it, they will take it back. Interestingly, this is not the case in India, where food served (i.e. touched) cannot be returned. Many suggest it may be because people of upper castes consider it a sin to eat of food touched by lower castes.
  4. Water is free. Its sources are dubious.
  5. Once you’ve run out of curry / vegetables, they will give you some more for free. This is known as ‘thhora’ (a little bit) or ‘jhol’ (gravy).
  6. These hotels almost never overcharge or have hidden costs. Tipping is optional, but rewarding.

As I sit at my table, enjoying my hot chicken curry, fragments of conversation come floating. Two men are discussing a wedding feast. I gather one is the elder brother of the groom and lives in the nearby slum. The other is a professional baburchi (chef / cook).

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Inside the Rice Hotel: the two men on the left are planning the wedding.

It is an afternoon wedding, which means, people will eat more. The groom’s brother wants both chicken and beef on the menu – but can’t come to terms with the costs. But in a Bangladeshi wedding, the feast is everything. It must be scrumptious and available in gluttonous quantities. It’s a matter of honor. So the brother readies himself for the blow and starts to list down the ingredients. The chef takes a deep breath and lets out a tirade: onions, chili, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, khoya / mawa, raisins, saffron, sour yogurt …it goes on for 10 minutes. With each item, he quotes the amount needed for 150 people.  

Outside, a small procession is broken up by the armed police in combat gear. Some small explosions are heard. Two, three men rush inside the hotel – slightly out of breath. They seem to know the owner …so, it’s all okay. In the midst of this commotion, the wedding plan goes on. The chef has now moved on to sweets and is mounting a crazy, new list of ingredients.

***

My day ends at my in-laws’ place. Mother-in-law is cooking for me. As we wait for dinner, she also tells us stories: stories of her childhood, her village and her relatives. In course of time, a sturdy, mighty grandfather-figure comes up …

Circa 1975: it happened one day that a rumor spread across the village that a singular of wild boars had come out of the jungle. Wild boars could be potentially dangerous. So, shutters dropped and doors locked. Immediately, this elderly man chopped down a bamboo from his front-yard and sat down to fashion it into a spear.

The women implored him to come back indoors. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. “Am I not a human being? Why should I retreat in my own turf? You think I can’t defend our home?” he thundered. Sure enough, the singular of boars began to infiltrate the boundaries of the kitchen garden. The patriarch took up his makeshift spear and began to fend them off. At one stage, one boar charged. At the end, one animal lay wounded, the others having fled. The man lived to tell the tale. Till this day, his can’t straighten his fingers, all of which were broken during the scuffle.

But it’s not with a sense of trauma or regret that he tells his tale; but with pride and righteousness. His logic is simple: if a boar comes into your home, you fight. You don’t break down and question why God sent this misery your way. This, to me, seems to embody the indomitable, Bangladeshi strand of Resilience. Try and outlaw me in posh neighborhoods, but I’ll find a way to send my son to medical school. Restrict my van on the roads and I’ll turn a profit by making it into an ambulance. Throw Molotov cocktails my way, but I’ll put up the best wedding feast this side of town. This side of the Bangladeshi doesn’t let up. He doesn’t mope ‘Oh God! Why me?’ …he takes the boar by the horn and throws his punches.

Sometimes, it works. And that’s Life.

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