What Happens to the Heart?

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C I T Y  L I F E – P O P U L A C E 

Mohammad Sifat

On 4 April, the night before a week-long lockdown was imposed, a heavy storm waving from the south struck the heart of the country, the capital – Dhaka. 

In action movies like John Wick, we have often seen the alleged protagonist running through the roads while the city remains motionless. Amid the first appearance of Kal Boishakhi, every person on the streets, returning home or trying to meet a deadline, was that protagonist. And the enormous belly of the city fuelled with tension, traffic, and an invisible tick tock of passing time was a prologue of a lockdown show itself. 

Since the birth of Bangladesh, the capital had never experienced such a long recess period till March last year. The corona pandemic, carrying way too much uncertainty and stress, took a few months for us to realise its derogatory mental effects. So, another lockdown declaration has not only flared our financial tensions but also tilted our mental stability. The only difference is that the last time we were unaware of the upcoming mental consequences but this time we know how to suffice ahead.

Dhaka is the 6th largest megacity in the world, taking on around 21 million people. Indeed, its development setting is yet to reach the landmark of Asian giants like Tokyo, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. The capital creates opportunities and fluctuates money from thin air. Therefore, regardless of its area, each day people from the outskirts and distant districts arrive here to toss their fates. 

No doubt it is a question of why a peasant or a dairy farmer would leave his homeplace and dwell in this stirring city for livelihood. Why does someone choose to pull a rickshaw or cadge around the streets in hot summer days leaving his hometown and family behind? 

Be it a day labourer earning merely 600 taka a day or an industrial tycoon cashing in a quarter-million through a deal, whatever the setting is, this city never lets an endeavour down. 

Being busy is the utmost nature of Dhaka. This adamant and relentless metropolis never takes a break from its daily hustle and bustle. Except for the Eid vacation or any unwanted political chaos, you would never find the long stretching roads of Dhaka tranquil for a while. 

But this time, an unseen pathogen is the antagonist that has locked the whole city, pushing its dwellers to face an unimagined reality. 

These days, the broader landscapes from high above may show vacant streets, half-shuttered shops, hollow neighborhoods. Rickshaw pullers paddle slowly from here to there, not wasting much energy before carrying a passenger. 

But if we zoom closer and take a shot, we may see a city adherent with looming anxieties. It is quite apparent that amid such a pandemic terror and lockdown, residents feel the adrenaline pressure. Every other basic need, namely financial security, health, education — is at grave stake now. 

But aside from this, there is another invisible stigma that haunts the dwellers of a fast-growing city. A metropolis incubates some distinct agility and pace among its inhabitants. The very moment a person arrives here for a graduation or a long-desired job, this agility engulfs him spick and spine.

And all our day to day chores like nine to five jobs, catching a bus, sitting beside the window, traffic at Bijoy Sharani, desk jobs, assignments, smoking a cigarette and returning home tired yet prepared for the next day — are a reflection of this sturdy agility. 

Speed is no doubt the Magnum Opus of a metropolis. We tend to bypass these workloads at weekends or vacations while going to shopping malls, watching Godzilla vs. Kong at multiplexes, eating outside in a fancy restaurant. 

When the city is on a halt, our stimulant agility is caged within our doors. Putting aside all the major pandemic crises, how much do we care for our city-based mental conditions? 

In his great novella The Pearl, John Steinbeck told us the story of Kino, a diver living by La Paz, California. With other native divers, he used to rely on sea-fetched oysters for livelihood. But everything started to turn around after Kino found “The pearl of the world”. The story reaches its peak when a reader finally understands that securing the pearl at the very cost of one’s life is merely a redundancy. 

What is the pearl that we city dwellers have been searching for?

We live in a time where everyday science and technology unfolds a new chapter; everyday, we unleash a mystery. Yet amid such unprecedented velocity, we are stuck with a pandemic crisis that most of us would barely imagine undergoing. 

Maybe it is time the metropolitans paid heed to what a Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen once wrote, “What happens to the heart?”


The writer is a student of International Relations at University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]

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