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The tenth-largest city on the planet—and one of the fastest-growing—Dhaka is, by definition, a "megacity" of over 12 million Bangladeshis. Having survived the British colonial era and having won their freedom from Pakistan, not to mention having survived a genocide waged against them in 1971, their roots run deep—in a capital city where a great intellectual tradition prevails (the city contains 52 universities) as well as a profound respect and love for the arts.
Located on the east bank of the Buriganga River, one of the tributaries of the Jamuna (which connects with the Padma and the Ganges), it is a complex city made up of modern westernized districts as well as impoverished slums, charming old Mughal forts as well as notable twentieth-century structures by contemporary architect Louis Kahn.
Gorgeous river views belie the ravages of pollution and industry that feed Western demand. Known historically as "the city of mosques," it is also informally referred to as "the rickshaw capital of the world," where over half a million rickshaws run on its streets every day.
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Perhaps for the visiting westerner, the moment of epiphany arrives as soon as one crosses into Old Town, an astonishing maze of quaint earthen streets, charming mosques, houses, cemeteries, artisans and tradespeople with a knack for turning scraps and shambles into smooth running machines and marketable goods. As one strolls along, one begins to question all modern assumptions regarding progress and human ingenuity.
In fact, it is the people of Bangladesh that are so unique. From the solemnity of Jummah Friday prayer to waves of people travelling to the countryside to visit relatives for Eid. From simple acts of kindness between unlikely city-dwellers crossing paths by happenstance to organized political protests or workers fighting for a livable wage.
From a colorful Hindu ceremony in Old Town to the pigeon market in Kaptan Bazar in Gulistan in the city's center...
From the expression of a man shouting joyfully, having finally acquired his ticket in Kamalapur Train Station, after having stood in an endless line for over two hours, to the group of photojournalists setting aside their cameras to haul ashore a boat of stranded river-travellers, to a refreshing walk in a monsoon rain...
The moment for me was when I was logjammed in traffic at a major intersection—perspiring inside an auto-rickshaw—in a sea of rickshaws, trucks, and cars, in the sweltering humidity, without a hint of a single wheel turning in a bottlenecked clog of vehicles without any lane markers to even guide them...
A small child, a girl, walking barefooted on the hot tarmac, and selling roses from car to car, like many children from the slums (some of them homeless), who sell bouquets of roses or jasmine for pocket change at intersections in order to survive, she spotted me as a foreigner and approached.
As I rummaged through my pockets looking for a loose bill or some coins, I hesitated, for she had stopped and was looking curiously in through the door of the purring rickshaw with the most open and accepting expression I think I have ever read on a face. And before I even had a chance to give her something, she pulled a single rose from out of a bouquet and, with a beaming smile, slipped it in through the wire grate, then was gone.
— James Williamson
All images ©2022 Dipu Malakar
Article ©2022 James Williamson
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Dipu Malakar is a native of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His photographs have been published in the Daily Star, Prothom Alo, the Independent, Dhaka Tribune, Daily Janakantha and the Daily Bangladesh Protidin among others. He is currently a staff photojournalist with www.en.banglanews24.com/. You can see more of Dipu's work, including his color work, at www.dipumalakar.wordpress.com/