Seema Nusrat Amin: The Darbar of melting pots

Image © Naeem Mohaiemen

Author Image © Naeem Mohaiemen

The Darbar of melting pots: when country overwhelms city
by Seema Nusrat Amin

‘There are earrings in the fountain
And cows in the sky.’             

No picturesque streets musicians here, none playing the journey songs between the stops of the city, no gypsies or immigrants as on the trams of Geneva, the tube of London, or the synchronized metros of Paris or Tokyo …except for the occasional blind man, with his token stringed instrument on the path of transit by the Farmgate park; and that too, rarely, for the ruse of beggars  dominate and the Robi shops that inhabit the path tells a joke, a joke that could only be told by a city, and one at which only Dhaka could laugh, while the soul shudders from within. 

Melting Pot, Indira Road

On hot days the color of sand, Indira road still stretches an unrelenting body of market rhythms from Farmgate to the staccato bazaars on the dangerously uneven footpath that gives up its broken passage before Manik Mia avenue; incongruously enchanting, the road carries streams of humanity pulsating from the bridge that is as many-hued as the dying cinema facing the vertigo of bus stands on the bulge of the main road, to the repeating tea stalls that sit like sentries alongside the bumper to bumper tempos.  The disorienting air of this road once known for being the abode of ‘intellectuals’  is harmonized to a chaos like that of rain, striking forms and tuning its shapelessness with the rhythms of movement and languor, a strange container for a stranger freedom. That very metropolitan freedom of the multiplicity of things–food, fruit, men, hotels and vehicles—constitutes the peculiar, familiar disarray of this artery of the living city that is Dhaka.  At night the veins of her hands are lit like plasma, or constant lightning, and hot roadside food is sold; this stop and start scene goes on and on as the fruit and vegetable markets stay awake until the discreet other world of the hotels take over when who knows what happens; then, the morning  ajan heralds the sweetest hours—the sanctuaries of emptiness– before it begins all over again, with buses and their pimps demanding movement, while the pineapple and fish sellers realign themselves on the other end of the footpath, humming a harpsichord’s ode to a life that might be as parched as the desert but could never be as bare.

It is here, in this most mongrel of city arteries, this model of smothering togetherness, that twice a year, a world turns inside-out and other-worldly purity claims a stake on the walls from 30-30 Indira Road, overtaking political graffiti in the wall that runs opposite all the way to the end of the park; here where the vertical expansion of a Darbar slowly superimposed upon the urban-airs of Indira Road turned an urban melting pot into mere nodes for a mystical clearing, as though the jungle of cities could be turned into a desert,  reflecting, for all to see, a conspiracy of inner and outer power.  Ever since Kutub Bag Darbar Sharif grew its slender minaret, snugly fitting its mysteriously modern façade on top of a ‘hotel’, a slow, sure transformation took place in 30-30A Indira road, while the melting pot of classes which claim a stake in that intersection of alley and road alternately held its breath, in awe, then bewilderment, and penultimately, broke into the camp of attraction and the camp of repulsion.

It is no simple fraud, this (initially) delicate red herring whose lateral expansion is damned by a house called ‘Obuuj Mon,’ but on his opposite side a wall is being built to mark off an immense apartment building, still unfinished, on the ground of a supermarket that used to be.   At first the residents lived in a gentle harmony with the nascent stone, the vertical expansion was not quite as bewildering to a culture habituated to the opposition of sacred and profane and the juxtaposition of the sacred in mundane spaces.  Yet, overtime, as Kutu Bag carved its intention, and bellowed its destiny, the vertical expansion combined with a lateral diffusion too immense to ignore.

Thursdays the transformation is hypnotic, alternating with crude.  The bitter speech of an imam jolts with the sweet chanting of Baba.  Yet who can argue that the Pir’s voice is enchanted? That though he lives in the inner chamber of a spiral and spiritual hierarchy, a lineage from Chishti that ventured its magic– that the road to food and peace, to ecstasy and relief, is short.  Come Orosh, food is promised, though controlling the crowd becomes harder with increased numbers from the villages and near and far from within the city.  The middle and upper class residents of that alley are alternately respectful, severe and constrained: the mouth of their alley is turned into a gate, with God heralded soberly, unlike the Darbar whose appearance is now less serene in green and white, with a touch of gold and fake terracotta, dressed up for a wedding it seems in the disco-like pumping music of lights—red, yellow, blue.  They are suddenly the residents of the Pir’s street.

His captives and his guests, they inevitably receive a portion of the feast, they begin to pray in the mosque, out of convenience.  A stalwart of the old ‘intellectual Indira Road’, a retired man enters with skepticism the spiral path to the cushioned top.  On receiving his ‘magic’ (or blessed) blessing, he returns dumbfounded and speechless: but what else does one go to feel in such a place, but speechless.  The expatriate finds the gatekeepers of the Darbar—young men with distinct non-Dravidian features, children without homes– strangely ‘ashraf; the children guarding the sandals in numbered pairs, the sing-song chanting unbearably sweet.  There is an expectantcy.  The girl walks past the Darbar to smell…a feeling of sweet-smelling languor?  Or the rock-like vibrations from Zikr?  Is there a difference between our Dhaka Darbar and the New Delhi Kawali-sites, where known criminals take refuge in a part of town ostentatiously poorer than the rest of the capital?  This Darbar is not quite as haze-filled, not quite as much of an open secret.  There is something inviolable at the top of those spiral stars; this is not an open house, yet its arms are constantly open, embracing the fakirs on the road at day, hearing them curse at night.

Since this is Dhaka, where slums and the residences of the elite face each other, it is not surprising that a certain spatial fluidity allows for the encroachment of the poor and ‘low (rural) culture’ on the middle class urbanite sensibility that holds the social fabric of such urban melting pots together.   Foucault’s concept of the ‘heterotopia’ may be appropriate here.  Foucault wrote ‘the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time.’  That anxiety finds expression in what he calls heterotopias, or ‘counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.’  Although Dhaka’s origin as a city can be traced back to the 5 BC as a Buddhist stronghold, its modern metropolitan consciousness has been not only recent, but is perhaps also tenuous in that its social formations has been shaped by rural-urban interpenetration.  Tania Sengupta, in  Between country and city: fluid spaces of provincial administrative towns in nineteenth-century wrote,Provincial urbanism in colonial Bengal defied clear-cut categories and in effect created a ‘fluid’ spatial culture which was distinct from, but also calibrated between, metropolitan centres on the one hand and a vast rural hinterland on the other.’  This spatial fluidity continued into the post-colonial period,  with rural migration continuing unabatedly, even  as urban culture appropriated cosmopolitan airs and created a kind of ‘Paris not France’ dichotomy between the capital and the rest of the country.  The non-Parisians, of course, say ‘Paris, ce n’est pas La france.’  Paris, it’s not France.  The reverse truth is: France, ce n’est que Paris.  France is Paris. The anxiety regarding the rural hinterland, manifest in its overflow in the thousands of ‘new’ rickshaws that hit the streets, is suppressed perhaps in the general superimpositions and overlap of Dhaka life—but in the Darbar, and particularly, ‘at’ Orosh (that space-time, discontinuous from general time and general space).

Orosh is an ‘other world’ imposed horizontally and hierarchically upon Indira Road’s complascent urbanism, a sanctum that opens up and closes,  a show-and-tell fairground for children, and a rural-overwhelming of an urban space– this Dhaka of the political magnet, this Bangladesh of the Dhaka cultural and social elite.  The Darbar has a specific resonance, both spiritual and political.  Its presence functions as a heterotopia where there are entries and exits, rites of purifications, a spiritual hierarchy that vertically imposes a spatial-other-world that negates the economic-functionality of most spaces in the city.   In Kutubag, and the new proliferation of Darbars in Dhaka, we find spatial fluidity not only of rural and urban, where hundreds flow from different provinces to Dhaka in buses for Orosh, but a spatial grid of political and economic webs of power, power alchemized in heterotopia.  If we think of Kutubag as a heterotopia, the second principle of Foucault’s hetero-typology is seen at work:  ‘The second principle of this description of heterotopias is that a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion; for each heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society and the same heterotopia can, according to the synchrony of the culture in which it occurs, have one function or another.’

If we want to understand Darbar, and the proliferation of Darbars and Orosh and power and their gates, we have to go beyond the matrix of political power that is distinctly manipulating the spiritual-socio-economic space with in our culture; we have to go to the rural hinterland, to the spiritual imaginary of a country that has believed in magic-men, been transported by Maulanas—spiritual and political—and has not yet become cynical, in spite of shortchange by politicians and pirs.  We have to delve deeper than the urban secular anxiety over the ‘madrasa’ imagined in film, and the politicization of Islam, which is real enough.  The idiosyncrasies of a city like Dhaka sometimes pop up like unwanted weeds, or merge with the landscape of weeds, placing Louis Kahn’s parliament with in a few metres from the Darbar’s mix of direct relief and indirect God.

This year the camp of repulsion found an ear in the press. The newspapers described the transformation of Indira Road during the three days of Ur starting from 25 January during which they had blocked almost all the sideways and walkways near the Darbar for keeping the sacrificial animals (Cows, Goats, Camels).  Huge arches were erected from Farmgate to Anowara Park, in front of the parliament. An article by Bangladesh Chronicle published in January captured the apparent ‘rohosho’ of political webs as well as the spiritual gossamer that mesmerizes the poor.  During the Orosh, and many months before it, the wall heralding the Pir artfully transformed the political graffiti of Indira Road with spiritual introductions: O Murshid Hazrat Kutub-Uddin Ahmed Khan Matwaili (Ku. Si. A:) master/spiritual-teacher/Pir of Mujaddid E Zaman Hazrat Khwaja Baba Zakir Shah Kutubbaghi Naqshabandi, Mujaddedi, Quadri. Chisty (Madda Jillahul Ali). His holyness khwaja Baba Zakir Shah (Ma Ji A:) is the spiritual Master, Mystic and Sufi in the Naqshabandia and Mujaddedia Sufi order.  But soon after the newspapers came out, the graffiti left.  The Darbar’s ‘assemby’ seems to have heeded the public outcry; their loudspeakers on Thursdays are gone; the spiritual graffiti in the walls, too.  A rural-alternate world, alternate to the political posters and billboards, has receded.  Lonely alley, without God’s ineffable messages.  Some ‘shadoron manush’ are not pleased: They will have billboards, they will have cars, they will lease us tea stalls, but they will not let us hear God’s name, go crazy with his word?  They were angry: can’t you walk one day, on Friday?  The answer is an echo from the ‘mansions’ that are apartment buildings in the Road:  This is a residential street, in one of the busiest parts of Dhaka, where on earth will we keep our cars, how will we go to the hospital or give our exams?  The market has not saved ‘holy days’ for the private universities, the newspapers or those who work seven days a week.  The obstacles posed by this strange influx of the ‘rural’ and the ‘ancient’ and the politico-spiritual mystery of Dhak, is a series of  embankments, it stems the flood of those who have no ‘disco’ and no sophistry and no elegance but the green minaret, the sweetness of his voice, and the phastamic, fantasy-reality  of a God who loves ‘beauty’, who speaks to them in a dialect of inner and outer power, whose outward show is as enthralling as an amusement park and whose inner invocations leave a buzz that lasts two short days out of the hell they laugh at each day.

As a culture synchronized to the stemming of the flow in Ramadan and a thousand unasked for interventions  into life (from VIP passage to hartal), a sudden influx of the rural should not be so strange?  The ‘rural’ superimposition is so graphic, it is as though a master artist was laughing at the paradoxical political-cultural landscapes permitted to co-inhabit the politico-urban body of the capital.  A director couldn’t have asked for a more surreal, more acute capture of the rural-urban and class discrepancy?  Who are these people who take over entire cities, with its market and tolerance? If their religion bids them use the fields—what can orthodox Islam say to these masses overflowing into the city walls?  In a world devoid of spiritual dignity, political humanity and basic material fulfillment, magic, both in its pseudo-spiritual—supremacy and its real relief,  yearns to find its tricks, and the underclass and the overlords share the amorphous meanings of the man wielding the wand.  The hotel management changed, it seems to be at an ebb.  Who can tell whose Darbar will be greater next? Surely a Darbar this close to the parliament has more than a little political—green light?  The crowds of Dhaka periodically accept all the inanity—mumbo-jumbo– of magic mantras from the seats of power.
Seema Nusrat Amin is author of a book of verse, Bootsole Unbound: by the wayside of mystery (UPL).

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