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The City and the Writer: In Dhaka with Saad Hossain

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

          —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Dhaka as you feel/see it?

We’ve been having something short of open warfare between our two political parties for the past two years. The mood right now is black humor tinged with frustration and simmering anger. The city people have grown cynical with government and politics. Nothing surprises us any more, from ridiculous larceny, to murder, to outlandish statements by senior officials. I think people believe deep down that the city will endure, despite blockades, burning buses, or the best efforts of our various leaders.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The city is full of poor people, but of course they continue trying to improve their lives. On the way to my office, I follow a road where the sidewalk is filled with a row of makeshift tents where families live. They are essentially plastic sheets wrapped around cardboard, not more than four feet high and four feet across, not anything you would even recognize as habitable. They have their little mud stoves outside and they cook on the sidewalk every day. You can see their entire household as you drive by. I applaud their resilience and ingenuity, and ponder their bad luck; in another situation, another time, they would have thrived. The modern world has encroached very quickly on a large number of people who have not been given the skill set or the starting capital to succeed. And I think this applies to the working class and the poor of all countries. It seems that without a certain amount of wealth to start out with, you are doomed to slip downward. If you feel sorry for animals going extinct, there are many people going the same way, for the same reasons.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In Motijheel, stationed outside a cinema theater, there is a dwarf who treats ailments of the ear. He sits his customers down on the sidewalk and is of the perfect height to peer into the ear and use his instruments. He has a trunk full of equipment and potions, and there is often a long queue of people waiting for him. He is very well respected, and I’ve seen him at it at all hours of the day the past fifteen years.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

I belong to a writers’ group, all of them writing in English, all different genres, all very talented. Unfortunately for English writers situated in Bangladesh, getting published is a mammoth task, and finding a US or UK publisher has the same odds as winning the lottery. However, recently published in Dhaka include works like Voices by Munize Manzur, Hope in Technicolor by Srabonti Ali, A Diamond in the Sky by Shazia Omar, Fragments by Farah Ghuznavi, and The World in My Hands by Kazi Anis Ahmed, among others. Oh, and some great poetry, such as Sari Reams by Sadaf Saaz. These are kind of the new generation of writers who deserve a shot. We have our classical heavyweights, of course, like Tagore, Nazrul, and Humayan Ahmed, among many others.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I’ve lived in Dhaka all my life; this is my city, I have tentacles spread out everywhere. I work in the family business, and our office is near the old town, Old Dhaka, a place full of alleyways and pockets, different from the newer, richer parts of the city, where the original denizens of the city live, where my grandfather and my father first lived. The thing with Dhaka is that it’s still a very raw place, where people drive on the wrong side of the road, pedestrians walk wherever they want, people set up shop on top of road medians and under bridges; sometimes the rules are just very elastic. This liveliness is something I miss whenever I am away.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Dhaka is actually full of literature. The place that comes to mind for me is Bangla Academy, which every year hosts an enormous month long event called Boi Mela, literally “carnival of books,” where every publisher sets out their stalls and hundreds of thousands of people come to buy. For the past three years, Bangla Academy has also hosted the Hay Festival, which is an offshoot of the Welsh lit fest of the same name, and has attracted over ten thousand people last year alone. This, mind you, is an event featuring mainly English writing and foreign authors.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The tristate area of Gulshan, Baridhara, Banani is like a city within a city, an oasis of expensive real estate, restaurants, hotels, and bars. In this place, riots, strikes, and crime rarely intrude. It is, in a sense, a walled city unto itself, insulated by privilege. Then there is the university area, which dates back to times of the British Raj, with beautiful grounds and old buildings, where something literary or artistic is always happening. There is a sense of space there, which is rare in such a crowded town, and it has a grand history. In Dhanmondi, another old suburb, there is the bustle of art galleries and shops and private colleges and schools and parks, a frenzy of activities that are most endearing.   

Where does passion live here?

Passion is the street. At no point is it empty: even at four in the morning, we can find trucks and buses moving, constructions sites unloading material, and tea stalls and kebab shops serving food. There are people everywhere. You can never be alone. And the people love to talk. You can find an intelligent conversation anywhere. If you’re in a traffic jam you can call out to the guy next to you, be it a truck driver, passenger, or walking vendor, and I guarantee you’ll get twenty minutes of philosophy, humor, and politics. There isn’t a cold shoulder anywhere in town.

What is the title of one of your works about Dhaka and what inspired it exactly?

I’m about halfway through a novel tentatively called Magician of Bengal. This is set in Dhaka. I’m kind of scared of writing about Dhaka because I fear that I won’t do it justice. I consider myself more of a sci-fi and fantasy guy so I’m into world building, and there’s a strong possibility that the city I describe is only loosely going to correlate to any actual physical geography.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Dhaka does an outside exist?”

It’s the city I know, so every other city is simply another version of it. I have come to believe that there are no absolutes and reality is a simulation in your brain, and the bundle of assumptions that exist in there is what the sum of existence is for each of us. In that sense, we carry the city around with us wherever we go, and there is no outside for anyone.


 Saad Z. Hossain writes in a niche genre of fantasy, science fiction, and black comedy with an action-adventure twist. He’s a monthly columnist for the Daily Star literary page and Bangladesh’s only reviewer of Science Fiction. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His novel Escape from Baghdad! (2015) is published by Unnamed Press.

Published Sep 1, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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