Dhaka Bangladesh

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The City of Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka, sometimes still spelled Dacca by foreigners, grew rapidly during its moments of political power. From 1610 to 1717, Dhaka was the Mughal capital of Bengal. From 1906 to 1912, it was the capital of an eastern province within the British Raj. From 1947 to 1971, it was the capital of the eastern wing of Pakistan. Since 1971, Dhaka has been the capital city of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Different periods mingle in the fabric of the modern city, but its history divides the whole into two sections: Old Dhaka, squeezed to the south, and New Dhaka, expanding northward.
The waterfront along the Buriganga makes a clear southern boundary for Old Dhaka. Nothing so conspicuous lies to the north, but a line can be traced the tanneries at Hazaribagh on the west, past the cemetery at Azimpur, then along Fulbaria Road, the route of the old railway, and when you cross it, coming south, you know you are in Old Dhaka. Suddenly the pace slows, the crowd thickens, and the noise dies down. The streets are too cramped for mot or vehicles, too jammed with their traffic of rickshaws, handcarts, and pedestrians. Open drains run along the edges of the streets, handy for men with a need to urinate; then, abruptly, buildings rise into sheer continuous walls on each side, shaping narrow twisted canyons, deep in shadow, filled at the bottom with a perpetual roil of motion.
Old and new buildings alternate irregularly in the walls, the old displaying a characteristic style. Of stuccoes brick, tinted white or blue or pink, they conflate neoclassical and Mughal vocabularies. Engaged columns carry round or cusped and pointed arches, blooming with ornamental fancy. At ground level, shops and stalls open into an endless market. Above the stalls and behind the walls, around courtyards in filled with buildings, live the people. They comprise an intensely urban population of artisans and merchants, noted for their religiosity, whether Muslim or Hindu, distinct in their dialect and diet, distinct in Dhaka for the weakness of their connections to the countryside and for the absence among them of extremes of wealth or poverty.
Neighborhood names recall separate origins and imply functional division. Chouk Bazar and Bangla Bazar bustle with trade. Textiles are sold along Islampur Road, parts for rickshaws along Bangsal Road. Silversmiths work in Tanti Bazar, coppersmiths in Becharam Deuri. But the architectural flow is unbroken. Residential, commercial, and industrial zones merge to make one massive, impossibly complicated interlinking of small spaces.
Old Dhaka works like this. To the west, on the main street through Nawabganj, lives the master of a brass-casting enterprise. The ceilings are high. An etching of the Kaaba hangs on the wall. Salah Uddin sits on the big bedstead in his cool front room, while I drink sweet, creamy tea and he tells me that all religions are one. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians have the same God, and God sent the Prophet Muhammad with the last revelation, a perfect message of peace. But foolish people split into factions and fell into violence, so God sent Genghiz Khan as a scourge and a warning to those who stray from the path of love. ‘When a Muslim prince in the line of Genghiz Khan entered India in triumph, Salah Uddin tells me, Hindu craftsmen presented him with a marvelous piece of engraved brass, and so great was his appreciation that, from that time to this, engraved brass has been an emblem of sub continental artistic excellence. That is his heritage. Beginning as a repairman in his boyhood, Salah Uddin has risen to mastery of his craft. Through the back door, a narrow courtyard runs along Salah Uddin’s workshop, with its lathe and grinding machines, pointing toward the little lab where he has been mixing chemicals, he says, since the days when his hair was still black, trying to find the formula for a brass polish as lustrous and lasting as that available at high cost from the West.
Salah Uddin’s production begins in a bamboo workshop at the other end of Old Dhaka, far to the east, beneath a bridge at Narinda, where the quick tempo is set by the masters Abdul Karim and Abdul Razzaque. There is a boy to crank the bellows and another to trim the sprue, while two teams keep the frames moving with rhythmic precision, packing a black blend of sand and oil around a model that is removed before the double mold is sealed and tilted to receive its radiant stream of molten brass. They are casting the parts that will be assembled into vases and ground smooth by Salah Uddin’s workers in the shop at his home. Then the vases are shifted farther west into a jumble of tiny brick shops so Zakir Hossain can eng rave them. With no preliminary sketch, following a plan filed only in his head, Zakir hammers a slim chisel out over the shiny surface, swiftly carving a series of flowers, then linking them with vines into a geometric interlace that his apprentice fills with detail. There is one more step. In Jamal Abedin’s bamboo shed on swampy land by the river, the engraved brass vases are buffed bright.
The work is done by hand, but it is split, dispersed among many locations and many people. Space is tight. People abound. Bangladesh is small, Salah Uddin says, but its population is large. People need employment, labor is cheap, and the master divides the process efficiently, establishing an order within which each man performs, repetitively, competently, the most difficult task he can manage, and jobs remain for novices. Division in labor, requiring skills of cooperation as well as execution, is the norm, though it is accomplished differently, shop to shop. Nakshiwala Babul, Salah Uddin’s young competitor in the trade, entrusts casting to another, but he has consolidated finishing and engraving in th4 apartment building where he lives in Pilkhana. Life and labor cohere. The master lives with his work; his skill lies in his craft, his responsibility is to organize the workforce, supply the materials, and manage sales. Once Salah Uddin sustained his operation with steady orders from Japan. Now he sells when he can to export firms, and, like Nakshiwala Babul, he supplies the stores that sell brass ornaments in Gulshan and along the New Elephant Road in New Dhaka.


New Dhaka, the city developed in the twentieth century, is not unified by a grid, a plan that conquers land in advance of habitation. Wide avenues cross wide spaces, open enough to bring to mind the delta beneath the pavement, open enough to lift the eye to the sky above the unruly traffic, proceeding, somehow simultaneously, at the pace of the fleet sedan, the laden truck, the cycle rickshaw, the bullock cart, the man on foot, the cow in no hurry. The main pulse is north and south (in contrast to the east-west urge along the river in Old Dhaka), but broad boulevards cut at every angle, intersecting at circles, then swinging away, sailing over the flat terrain to connect spots distinct in tone, astonishing in contrast: the business district at Motijheel, with its tall, flashy glass boxes like those of any up-to-date conurbation; the vast, fastidious parks surrounding distinguished government buildings, notably the bold Parliament, designed by Louis Kahn; the swank military cantonment, with its tennis courts and gracious homes, its jets and tanks calmed into sculpture at the gateways; the grim stretch of industrial buildings at Tejgaon; the old potters’ town of Rayer Bazar, with its shadowy workshops built of earth; the busy street markets at Farmgate and Mohammadpur; the roofed bazaar and circles of shops, centered by a domed mosque, at New Market; the gridded patches of luxurious houses in Dhanmondi, Banani, and Gulshan; the bustis deposited at random.

“Slum” is the usual, brutal translation. Calling the bustis “squatter settlements” would connect them to similar communities of poor people, newly come from the country to establish themselves with desperate hope in cities expanding too fast to plan across the globe. The busti is a piece of rural lands cape ruthlessly compressed in urban space. Occupying land to which the people own no title, bamboo houses pack tighter than they do in villages. Mosques and schools stand among them. Straight paths carry commerce to teahouses in the middle, and the outer rim runs with stalls where food and pots are sold, where vehicles are repaired. Beyond, where the fields should be, gardens are tended and cattle graze in vacant lots and swaths of park.
The rising sun throws a rosy glow around the women in colorful saris leaving for their work in distant garment factories or in the nearby white apartment buildings where they will do the cooking and cleaning of other women. Mistress and maid probably share rural origins. Memories, culture: shared notions of authority and propriety ease their joint effort at domestic order. ‘What they do not share is luck. The daily lives of the women of the bustis enfold sudden, incredible contrasts of poverty and wealth. Their husbands work as unskilled laborers, as street vendors and rickshaw pullers. It is the job they can get. Carnivalesque rickshaws crowd the yards around the bustis.


In the streets of Dhaka city, there are more than eighty-eight thousand rickshaws, maybe one hundred and fifty thousand, maybe more. No one knows the number, but rickshaws are a pervasive, emblematic feature of city life, and they provoke divergent response. Men rich enough to own automobiles and influence government policy are annoyed at the way they clog the traffic. The compassionate recognize that rickshaws provide employment to nearly a quarter of the city’s workforce, to hundreds of thousands of men who ply them in shifts, who build and repair them. Rickshaws carry two-thirds of Dhaka’s burden of passengers. They are necessary, but the puller’s labor, the compassionate say, is inhuman. It is not harder than farm work, the labor left behind. ‘What is inhuman is less the labor than the wages that husbands and fathers gain from it. Swarms of bright rickshaws add interest to the city’s slow motion, and they have frequently excited the curiosity of foreign visitors, for collectively they comprise a quantitatively astounding public exhibition of art.
Assembled in bamboo sheds, or, like brass in Old Dhaka, in a sequence of shops, each specializing in some segment of the process, rickshaws end in the hands of decorators like Ismail Mistri, at the edge of the busti at Agargaon, or Anis Mistri on Jafarabad Road in Rayer Bazar. The owner of the rickshaw, who will rent it to the puller, provides the decorator with no directions. “What does he know about art?” asks the artist Anis Mistri. Anis receives the forward portion of a bicycle, trailing two wheels, between which, upon stiff springs, a slipper-shaped coach is framed of wood and sheathed in aluminum. It will seat two in comfort—or a whole family or a towering heap of stuffed sacks with a man balanced on top.
Anis Mistri’s shop has space for one rickshaw, and room at the side for his sewing machine. He has been at it for a decade and he finishes one every five days, adding the unnecessary ornament that, in this place of scant resources, amounts to a quarter of the cost of the whole. Working with an eye to receiving, as is customary, more than the agreed upon minimum, Anis paints birds and flowers on the iron frame, studs patterns of tacks into the aluminum, upholsters the seat with painted plastic, decorates the folding top with paint and appliqué, and adds a painted tin panel to the rear, above the flowered bumper.
Since the end of the 1905, Dhaka has been a city for rickshaws—pedal power fits the flat surface—and since the 1950s, the rickshaws have been splashed with color to move in schools like extravagant tropical fish. The traffic whirl has been further confused, since the middle of the 198os, by two kinds of motorized rickshaw: the plain, light mishuk, developed with government supp ort, and the more powerful, more numerous, richly ornamented vehicles called, using the English words, scooters or baby taxis or babies or taxis.
Asking among the drivers for the manufacturer they thought was best, I was led to the shop of Yunus Mistri in Maghbazar. Handling several at once, Yunus Mistri’s workers produce one baby taxi every twelve-hour day. It begins with the chassis, modeled on the Vespa at the Bajaj factory in India. Rolling on three wheels, with the engine, front seat, and windshield in place, the scooter enters the first shed, where one man frames the coach of wood and sheets it with aluminum, three men seat it on the chassis, and another man bends and welds the metal tubing of the roof. To one side, in an open yard, three boys wrap the tubing with colorful tape, and two boys paint the body black and block in the program of ornament on the sides and front. In a second shed, men at sewing machines stitch the top and upholstery, a boy hatches in the detail of the minor ornament and letters the shop’s signature, while Abdul Jabbar, the younger brother of the master, chalks and carefully paints the picture on the rear ordered by the owner. Another baby taxi is ready for the street.
There is one basic plan for the decoration of baby taxis, and two for rickshaws, though they merge in the process of endless repair. Most rickshaws are decorated in the Dhaka style, with the main displays on the seat and rear panel, but perhaps one in twenty is in the style the pullers associate with Comilla, east of the Meghna River, in which the main ornament is painted directly on the back of the coach. On all, the flurry of detail is distributed in bilateral symmetry on the transverse line, as it is on birds of paradise, but the major work on the rear of the baby taxi, on the back panel of the Dhaka rickshaw, or in a circle on the rear of the Comilla rickshaw, can burst out of the prevailing order with a claim for special attention.
The one image they all share is the Taj Mahal. Most of the artists and pullers I asked called it a mosque, some identifying it as a particular mosque in Dhaka. (And a concrete mosque in the form of the Taj Mahal, under construction on the city’s northern edge, will make them right.) Others knew it was a tomb in India, but their deeper knowledge wound to a similar, culturally coherent conclusion when they declared the Taj Mahal to be “a symbol of our Islamic heritage.” What might be taken as loosely evocative of the Indian subcontinent is unambiguously a religious emblem to the people.

The Taj Mahal is joined in the streets by other clear signs of the faith of the owners and pullers. Renderings of local mosques, most often the Star Mosque in Old Dhaka, adorn the baby taxis. The decoration of the Comilla rickshaw is generally geometric and floral in the Muslim taste, though a circle might contain a portrait in profile of the white horse that Husayn, grandson of the Prophet, rode to martyrdom at Kerbala. Above the windshield of the baby taxi, on the rear of the rickshaw, on the front of the modest green mishuk, in Arabic, are written the names of God and the Prophet.
Rickshaws and baby taxis share, too, flowers, birds, and animals—the lot us and rose, songbirds, parrots, and peacocks, tigers, lions, elephants, and healthy white cows—the beautiful, useful, potent wonders of nature. Then the vehicles part in depicting the human. Rickshaws exhibit gaudy group portraits of Bangladeshi movie stars in roles that generally imply a triangle of passionate violence. They call these pink and blue faces, these fleshy women with machine guns, their heroes and heroines. The cinema is the resort of underpaid laborers; prosperous people stay home and watch television. Pictures inspired by movie posters do not fit the pretentious baby taxis that illustrate Bangladesh, instead, with scenes of rural life—after mosques, next most common among his commissions says the artist Abdul Jabbar—and with modern buildings, especially those touched with national sentiment: the Parliament and the monuments to the martyrs of the Language Movement and the War of Independence. Gesturing to their own ability to conquer space with speed and ease, baby taxis carry images of modern transport—not the rich man’s private car, but bridges, ships, trains, and airplanes, sometimes the Concorde, but more often jets labeled as belonging to the national fleet of Bangladesh.
Through portraits of the stars or of human creations—the village of thatched houses beside a river on which a sailboat glides; the steamer passing beneath a long iron bridge, a jet in the sky—Dhaka’s public display centers upon contemporary Bangladesh. Then, through images that Abdul Jabbar collects in the category of calendar pictures, the baby taxi refers to the wider world. Global variety is not represented by people, by bodies, but in the Muslim manner by objects, signs of human accomplishment: by buildings in Europe, the Tower Bridge in London being most common, and in Asia, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto being the favorite. Suffused with self-satisfaction, Americans fret or gloat about their nation’s neocolonial expanse. ‘While American soft drinks are ubiquitous in Bangladesh (and that is a good thing in a place of dangerous drinking water), there is little else. The United States is a minor, marginal presence on the map implicit in the rickshaw’s gallery. I saw the Statue of Liberty on a few baby taxis, Mickey Mouse dressed as Robin Hood on a few more, but the most common reference to my nation was a heroic portrait of Saddam Hussein, his hands lifted in prayer, a rocket burning an arc in the air. There are far more European images than American, more Asian than European, and most of the pictures show the native land in its own sufficient diversity.
Mosques and government buildings, sailboats and steamers, quiet villages, splendid peacocks, armed heroes, monuments to the dead: moving pictures decorate the traffic with fragments of the Bangladeshi worldview. Signs of religious and political authority of rural peace and urban progress, of the nation’s history and its connections west to England and east to Japan, sketch a cont ext around beautiful, violent creatures. Rickshaws fill the streets, representing the people to them, and introducing Bangladesh to the visitor.
Dhaka is called the city of rickshaws; the rickshaw is one thing that unifies this city of division, bringing Old Dhaka and New together. The other is the mosque. Dhaka is more often called the city of mosques and minarets.
There are one thousand, six hundred and fifty mosques in Dhaka. Domed mosques in the Mughal manner are not restricted to the old city. Built to mark progress when Dhaka expanded during the seventeenth century, in its days of Mughal grandeur, they endured when the city withdrew to the Buriganga, and they stand still, interrupting the mass of twentieth-century construction with historic shells that provide modern people with places for prayer.
Contemporary development, in New Dhaka and in Old, is characterized by a new form. Agile designers have dismembered the Mughal mosque and meshed it with the modern commercial building to create a mosque fit to a compact urban setting. Walls follow the street, screening and enclosing a prayer hail built in the wide, shallow Mughal proportions. The conjunction is usually irregular, since the orientations of the screen to the street and the hail to Mecca rarely coincide. Two or three floors pile above into a high-rise house of worship. 1 he upper walls are pierced to welcome the flow of air. Along the street, the building absorbs shops that, like those around the base of the raised Mughal mosque, contribute rents to maintain the sacred foundation. A minaret on the roof, tipped with a bulbous Mughal dome on columns, announces the mosque within. From the dome, a veil of ornament descends, defining a tower, or dropping a bright stripe to the entrance.

It might be stucco and paint, but the ornament most typical of the twentieth century is a mosaic composed of broken bits of china and glass. This shimmering skin of recycled scraps appears in passages on mansions and Hindu temples built early in the century. On the tombs of Muslim saints, on the Koshaituli Mosque, built in 1919 and decorated in 1971, and on the Star Mosque, as pictured on baby taxis, gleaming mosaics coat the domes. When it was erected in the eighteenth century, the Star Mosque was a late realization of the basic Mughal form: a prayer hall of three bays, with three domes above, three mihrabs within. An elderly gentleman at prayer there told me that the mosque was given its revetment of English Art Nouveau tiles and its star-spangled mosaics by a wealthy tobacco merchant in the 1920s. I happened to visit first when workmen were finishing the two bays added to the northern end of the Star Mosque in the 1980s. One man was breaking bottles and crockery into neat pieces. Three young men were spreading the ceramic mosaic of the facade, and they invited me to clamber up to the scaffold and press a few shards of bright white china into the damp, gray surface, filling in between the stars, adding my bit to the fabric of Old Dhaka.
The mosaic that sheathes the old tomb or mosque is limited in the new mosque to a few key features: the domed minaret that calls the faithful to prayer; the gateway marking the transition from the racket of the street to the peace of the interior; the mihrab through which prayer is sent. In accord with Muslim aesthetic precepts, sparkles of color on the white surface form words calligrapher in Arabic—the names of God and the Prophet or the Profession of Faith— or they shape into flowers, blossoming on the vine of life or lifting from a vase. In the niches of the Koshaituli Mosque, or on the mihrab of the new Baitur Rahim Mosque in Mirpur, the flowers in the vase—cut, yet standing in full bloom, holding their symmetrical arrangement in an airless atmosphere— provide a clear symbol of life after death. This emblem of hope and promise reiterates an old Mughal motif, shared widely in Islamic art and paralleled in modern Dhaka by designs engraved on brass trays and painted on the Comilla rickshaws.
Inside, the mosque embraces a wide, impeccably clean space. Blessedly quiet and ornamented with the flora of Paradise, it offers rest to the body and hope for the soul. Outside, the street is jammed and hot, boiling with noise, clatty with dirt. Crows pick through the garbage. Smoke stains the sky.
It is different when strikes banish motor vehicles from the streets. Then there is the soft whir of the rickshaws. The pace steadies and slows. The sky turns blue.

Dhaka is the city of mosques and rickshaws. Rich with color and meaning, mosques and rickshaws embody the worker’s unconquered will and bring the city together, unifying Dhaka in the counterpoint they offer to that which prevails.
The District
At some point on every road out of the city, the traffic thins, the turmoil is swallowed by the tremendous calm of the countryside. Where the vast delta reclaims dominion, it is still Dhaka. The capital city is a dense, frenzied node in the broad rural district that bears its name. The city would die without the country, the source of its food. The country needs the city less, but village people find markets for their produce in downtown Dhaka. The rural and urban combine in a reciprocal system of supply and influence, as people and goods travel the roads and rivers, into the city, into the country, continually.
South of Dhaka city, across the Buriganga, Zinzira spreads along the waterfront. Wooden ferry boats, beamy gondolas rowed from the stern, cut through the traffic of high-powered trawlers and low vessels laden with sand, crossing from Babu Bazar Ghat in Old Dhaka to the shore at Zinzira. On the riverbank, men build ships of steel and wood. Narrow streets strike inland, lined with cramped shops full of men hammering brass and copper into globular water jars, hemispherical drums, and ornamental planters. They begin with battered scraps, scavenged from wrecks in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong. The scraps, humpy, lumpy, corroded, and bent, seem beyond recall, but young men hammer away. They pound and pound; they snip and pound seams, solder and pound more. Intransigent fragments slowly coalesce into elegant vessels.
My time passed in one of the bamboo sheds that line the street. A bowl of coins to give beggars rests on the earthen floor in the front, where the men hammer in the light. His workers—Malek, Selim, Shamsul, Dinesh, and Liton—pound and join the forms, and then the master, Saidul Rahman, pounds them more. The metal, beaten by human will, transformed through a sequence of increasingly delicate hammerings, has become smooth, its origin in battered scraps obliterated. Next the vessels travel farther inland, through the market, and down the backstreet where Mohammad Hasnain Khan lives. In the yard by his house, Hasnain’s workers fill the brass vessels with a hot mix of linseed oil, brickdust, and resin that cools and hardens to offer resistance.

Moving a punch beneath his steady hammer, Mohammad Nazim divides the surface with flowers, links them into a geometric pattern with vines, then drives the background in deeply. The decoration seems to be extruded from the rear in repoussé, though it was hammered from the front in the embossing technique. The black, tar-like stuff is cracked out, and, in a shed by the yard, the vessels are buffed bright as gold, to be sold in stores in New Dhaka, to become ornamental planters in expensive homes.
Farther south, across the Dhaleswari, lies the region called Bikrampur, in Munshiganj district, where the Padma meets the Meghna at the heart of the delta. It is country again, a landscape of villages, of farmers and potters, and the potters at work around Srinagar are famed for images pressed into clay molds, fired, painted, and sold on the streets of Dhaka.
To the northwest, the main road escaping from Dhaka passes through Savar (where the city ungraciously yields to the country) and continues, crossing the Bangshai River near Dhamrai. An ancient town, the market town for the northwestern corner of Dhaka district, Dhamrai is a center for workers in metal, from blacksmiths to goldsmiths. In the town, at the Paresh shop, four buildings outline a generous courtyard. One is the master’s home. In the second, two men pack clay around a brass vessel to shape the outer jacket of a mold. In the third building, a long open shed, one man models a core into the

Moving a punch beneath his steady hammer, Mohammad Nazim divides the surface with flowers, links them into a geometric pattern with vines, then drives the background in deeply. The decoration seems to be extruded from the rear in repoussé, though it was hammered from the front in the embossing technique. The black, tar-like stuff is cracked out, and, in a shed by the yard, the vessels are buffed bright as gold, to be sold in stores in New Dhaka, to become ornamental planters in expensive homes.
Farther south, across the Dhaleswari, lies the region called Bikrampur, in Munshiganj district, where the Padma meets the Meghna at the heart of the delta. It is country again, a landscape of villages, of farmers and potters, and the potters at work around Srinagar are famed for images pressed into clay molds, fired, painted, and sold on the streets of Dhaka.
To the northwest, the main road escaping from Dhaka passes through Savar (where the city ungraciously yields to the country) and continues, crossing the Bangshai River near Dhamrai. An ancient town, the market town for the northwestern corner of Dhaka district, Dhamrai is a center for workers in metal, from blacksmiths to goldsmiths. In the town, at the Paresh shop, four buildings outline a generous courtyard. One is the master’s home. In the second, two men pack clay around a brass vessel to shape the outer jacket of a mold. In the third building, a long open shed, one man models a core into the

split jacket, and two men, Sunil Chandra Mandal and Subash Chandra Pal, working at the artist’s contemplative pace, refine and perfect the shop’s masterpiece, the trim embedded mold of clay that leaves precisely the right space for the flow of molten brass. At the far end of the shed, Prem Chand Pal tongs the egg-shaped clay crucible from the furnace, cracks it, and tips its hot liquid into the mold. In the last shed, four more men break the brass vessels out of their baked clay crusts, file and grind them smooth, then polish them on a lathe. Their product is a spouted container for water, wholesaled in Dhamrai, retailed in Dhaka, and used at the toilet.
The Great Mosque of Dhamrai, built at the very end of the last century, stands in the middle of a long market. Two porches, the second bearing four domes, darken entry to the wide, shallow prayer hail. Three domes ascend, and the central one of the three mihrabs glitters in a brilliant mosaic of rigid vines and flowers. From the mosque, roads go north and northeast, reaching into the countryside where villages stand upon mounds, where farmers work the dirt and potters fashion water jars and flowerpots for the markets in Dhaka city.

To the east, the market town of Demra marks the edge of Dhaka district. On Fridays at dawn in Demra, weavers sell and middlemen buy the jamdani saris that are exported to India and sold at New Market in Dhaka. One morning before sunrise, Muhammad Sayeedur and I met in downtown Dhaka with a plan to go beyond Demra and find a village of Hindu carpenters. We roused the grumpy operator of a baby taxi, and after the dreary; traditional haggling was done, he drove us the ten miles east. At Demra we found a ferryman who rowed us up the Shitalakshya River, past the long, handsome village of Rupshi where pairs of weavers at bamboo looms in bamboo shops pick patterns in the gossamer warp, running extra wefts between the shuttled shoots, brocading designs that seem to float on vapor. Called Dhakajamdanis, the saris woven in these villages are the descendants of the fabled muslins of antiquity, the latest in a long line of superfine textiles that have brought traders to this region since the days when Roman women, like Dhaka’s ladies today, wrapped themselves in airy fabric.
Beyond Rupshi, our boat came to ground on the eastern bank, and we walked. The sun was up and burning. Our route wandered along the raised earthen baulks that divide the wide fields of rice. There was no road, no passage for wheels, and we walked in single file, coming at last to the village of Pirulia where the brothers, Dhiren Chandra Sarkar and Sumanta Chandra Sarkar, explained their craft. ‘When it rains, they work indoors, framing big bedsteads and carving the headboards with peacocks in pairs. In dry weather, they work in the shade of an open shed, making round-bottomed boats of the type used to ferry passengers on the Shitalakshya and the Buriganga. Their boats are smaller than the wooden ships built above the beach at Zinzira, but the technology is basically the same, and it is general in Bangladesh. They lay a hewn keel, rising high at stem and stern. Then they bend and nail planks to the keel and to each other in sequence, in tension, shaping the leaf-shaped, spoon-shaped shell into which, afterward, they build the frame.
After tea in the home of Pirulia’s old master carpenter, Narayan Chandra Sarkar, we began the journey home, the long walk to the river, the boat trip down to Demra, the dusty ride to Dhaka. We walked in the heat, under the immense sky. There was no shade, no sound. On one side, damp fields, worked by gatherings of silent men, swept away to the far edge where clay and bamboo villages stood on earthen lumps in clumps of trees. On the other side, preposterously, the long green line of the horizon was broken by the surreal, glittering glass towers of downtown Dhaka.