Living in a Po-Co World

It would be nice to think of a region I’ll call ‘expatriate Dhaka’ as unified by an endless circle of popcorn. That’s right, popcorn. A bideshi (foreigner) from the south of the city stuck in a traffic jam buys a bag of popcorn from a child wallah, then gives it to another child begging for food in the north. I would like automatically to say that the reverse always happens, but I’m not entirely sure.

Most of those living in the north of the city, in Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, seem reluctant to stray from their enclave. Not only do the non-migratory habits of these stagnant northerners put the kybosh on the harmonious image of hundreds of packets of popcorn changing hands across Dhaka’s streets, they represent the regressive dangers of living in a post-colonial world. The alien corn should not expect the field it sprouts in to adapt to its growth, but the bad, mad-dogs-and-Englishmen seed is never buried far beneath the expatriate community, and in Dhaka, the expatriate community is thickest in the north.

The north and south of expat Dhaka are defined first by facility, then personality. The north is known for its superior ice-cream parlours and restaurants that serve edible non-Bangla cuisine. It is a neighbourhood full of embassies and high commissions and the requisite appendages, like expatriate clubs that mix a south Asian version of the Cosmopolitan and throw colour-coded parties to add vibrancy to the otherwise indistinguishable weeks.

Because of its high density expatriate population, the north has schools that seem to be transplanted from American teen flicks and grog shops that need passports and passbooks to access. There are also a smattering of international fast food restaurants and brand stores replete with assistants who speak charmingly accented English, and autodidactic rickshawallahs who articulate ditto while charging all bideshi the same inflated rate.

A bucolic element to the luxury flats is provided by the homeless who, apart from edging the man-made lakes with their picturesque tin shacks, rear goats, cows and children that roam the streets unregistered. Apart from the bag snatchers who target bideshi when they’re at their most vulnerable (club-hopping under the influence), there is an air of ease and privilege in the north, mingling with the pollution and the clamour of the streets. Exclusive ease and privilege, that is, belonging exclusively to the bideshi and wealthy deshi (locals) who have made the north their own by super-imposing the West.

I’ve visited the north of Dhaka often enough to appreciate its good points. I once spent a weekend house-sitting in a well-appointed flat in Gulshan 2, with a pet dog, solid furniture, air conditioning, hot water, and countless vine-twined balconies with views of a quiet lake. As proof that true friendship cares naught for geography, several of my friends live right in the heartland of the north, so many pleasant memories of them have Gulshan or Banani as a backdrop. In northern situ is also one particular hotel I call my ‘Tiffany’s’ because its quiet grandeur and restraint dispels for a time the rawness of the world outside, and the tofu salad it serves up for lunch has never caused internal horrors, either. Yet although a retreat is often welcome, I would not like to live my life in Tiffany’s.

The south of Dhaka, an aristocratic area back in the day, is composed of Mohammadpur, Lalmatia and Dhanmondi and the surrounding tangle of university grounds and old city. Functional, featureless apartment buildings still find themselves neighbours to once-white mansions decaying behind overgrown gardens. The south is known for its museums and art galleries that swiftly turn out local exhibitions, events that always find a new aspect of the life and work of Tagore to focus on, and its students, who are found everywhere but are in larger numbers around Dhanmondi lake and, surprisingly, on campus. The south is home to Dhaka’s gaol where prisoners languish in Dickensian conditions, to a small but steady cluster of junkies, to random knife-wielders and one elusive gentleman who amuses himself in the early morning by terrorising bideshi women with a shiny meat cleaver, and the usual crowd of creepy or cheating wallahs whose dealings poison the name of their nobly toiling bhais (brothers).

For those who go beyond facility and even personality, there is an undercurrent of competition between the north and south of Dhaka (as for the east and west, I have no idea). In epic tradition, such rivalry is caused by bad blood, envy, avarice — any of the seven deadly sins you can name, really. In post-colonial (po-co) Dhaka, it’s more likely to be the product of idle minds, something else invented to vary the program of chit-chat at the embassy clubs, and nothing to take too seriously.

If northerners scoff at the culturally submerged self-consciousness of the south or the iffy nightlife that has made me rename (partly in defence) Dhanmondi ‘Dodgemondi’ or ‘The Dodge’, it won’t be trumped by what is the most pleasant aspect of living here — we’re removed from what my friend Jo calls ‘Bideshipur’, or at least by contrast. Residents of Mohammadpur live at such a grassroots level and have such a heightened cultural experience as to make us in the Dodge look positively bourgeois and our arses as lily white and pampered as any of those expats in the north.

And what expatriates they are, these po-co men and women. In the early 1930s Roald Dahl recognised he was travelling to Africa with a robustly barmy but dying generation of true colonials, and treasured them for their eccentricities and linguistic anomalies. Sometimes I wonder if the zoo isn’t the best place for the middle-aged expats I meet in Dhaka, although for slightly different reasons. Most of them act and look quite normal. They do drink gin, but interspersed with beer, and avoid the safari suit and topee in favour of the florid floral shirt. Most of them have their hearts in the right places, if their generosity at fund-raising events is anything to go by, although the end result is somewhat haphazard, like a game of ‘Pin the Conscience on the Public Servant’, played by their tipsy spouses.

The younger po-cos are either confident and goofy and generous, or confident and cool and far from congenial. This junior breed live off fat salaries and tend to deride the earnest lifestyles of others who (like Australian volunteers) don’t treat development like any other job and don’t live within their means in the flashiest way possible. They strictly confine their social group (unlike Australian volunteers) to those whose confidence they can nourish and feed off. They may denounce the north for its very post-colonial colonialism, but they make their homes there anyway, because that’s where the liquor flows freely and where their self-worth can remain unshaken.

It’s difficult to be a bideshi in Bangladesh and not be conscious of it. Those in the north are more vulnerable to enclave-induced blindness, however, because there are enough Western diversions to help you forget the reality of Dhaka and enough people willing to let you. The common deshi reverence for anything Western can make idols of the younger expats. I saw a group of them after I hadn’t been in Bangladesh for a while, and was struck by the resemblance of these young untouchables to the Charlie’s Angels. As they strode through the rapidly-parting crowd with sunglasses lowered, a toss to their hair and a shimmer to their white teeth, I could swear I could hear one say, “Look at us. We’re young, entitled and beautiful,” and even if they weren’t they’d still believe it.

Older expatriates I know believe that having a local maid or driver, and occasionally asking how they are, keeps them ‘in touch’ with ‘the real people’. Others can’t fathom that wireless internet exists in this country, think that any knowledge of Bangladeshi trivia is superfluous, demand that Nando’s (famous for peri-peri chicken) open a branch closer to their home, and select their dinner from the same menu at the same embassy club each evening. They inhabit a world where man is still His Excellency and woman is His Excellency’s Wife, who seeks the same worthy refuge sought by society ladies for generations: philanthropy, where panels are composed of other (self-described) spouses with names like Winki and who permanently reside in one of Dhaka’s four luxury hotels.

Post-colonial Dhaka still seems defined by a fragment of the White Man’s Burden, a duty which drove white people to virgin lands to show innocent savages where their centuries-old traditions were going wrong. After all, it’s still ‘us’ who are aiding ‘them’ and there’s no escaping that dichotomy in a hurry. Until our friend globalisation develops developing countries into developed ones, or whatever the wicked future has in store, expatriates half- and full-hearted can only attempt retain their balance; realise the value of the culture they live in yet not blindly accept every facet of it. Challenge, improvement, and ultimately development are impossible without understanding.

But is there hope for the most po-co, least P.C expat? Generalisations about other people and their lives are never profound and are often cruel. To a rough, smelly, shorn-haired Aussie volunteer who is coming nowhere near to making a difference in the field of sustainable development, however, they are ever so much fun to invent, and like those who characterise the north and south of Dhaka as the duelling houses of Montague and Capulet, we all need our diversions.

What a dramatic twist to realise that too much diversion can be unsafe. Living in a po-co world can make you sociable, confident, and generous, but can also leave you susceptible to severe reality shock, ignorance, or, worse still, floating away in your own little bubble, never to be seen again, scattering use, conscience, and character as you go.