I have no idea what day it is. I suspect Sunday. Locally, everyone knows it as the day of hartal (which seems to be a combination of strike and, if everything comes together, a demonstration), and therefore a holiday. Apparently, one group has declared a half-day hartal, another a full-day hartal, and a full-day hartal trumps a half-day hartal, so a full day it is. In practice, this means, as Haroun at the guest house says, it is a holday, and the shops are shut. Certainly, the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), where I’m supposed to meet my medical friends, is shut, and I have nothing to do.
Today is not actually raining, as far as I can tell, but everything (myself included) is slick with moisture. I’ve made two excursions, stepping carefully among the puddles and the acreage of mud, and heaps of bricks and dogs and small children who look up to grin mischievously and call out “Hello!” over and over. As soon as I get back to the guest house, I peel off my shirt.
My reconnaissance so far has taught me:
I am on Gulshan Road 12. Gulshan is, as one of the students from ICDDR,B called it, “the posh district,” which means we have mud and bricks and half-finished buildings, but we also have established residences with gates and slim figures in pseudo-military uniforms and paved courtyards with new cars and the usual rash of single-building academic centers, some of which are quite genuine, some of which (such as the one advertising all manner of courses and degrees and announcing its website, www.theprinceton.edu), are probably less so.
My reconnaissance notes:
L outside the gate, then R: Catalina Island Restaurant, Bookshop.
R outside the gate, then L to Sunny Dale Apartments, then L: road of rickshaws. At the end, turn R past series of one-car-garage shops, cobblers squatting on the pavement, leads to major chaotic intersection I shall call Piccadilly Circus.
On an insane whim, knowing that I should probably be doing some kind of reading or editing, I decide to Google Map the city of Dhaka.
This really flies in the fact of experience and common sense. When I was following the polio eradication program in Karachi, I discovered that Karachi, like many cities in South Asia, has no reliable street maps. (Nor census, nor most other items of informational infrastructure.) When we went off in search of a meeting at the Town Health Office, or even in search of the WHO headquarters, the driver would head off in roughly the right direction and then repeatedly ask passers-by if they knew where the THO or the WHO was. No street names. No building numbers. Barely any street, in some places. And even the locals didn’t know their locality: we spent 45 minutes within half a mile of the WHO headquarters, asking if anyone knew where it was, before we found it.
Incredibly, typing “Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangladesh” into Google Maps actually delivers what looks like an authentic street map. Having long ago learned that the map is not the territory and the Internet is not the map, I zoom in with cautious fascination.
What I find has that wonderful combination of plausible fact and plausible fiction. Road No 12 is indeed shown, though on the Google Map it is a clear, purposeful, finished corridor rather than a combination of construction and collapse amid mud puddles, laborers and small children. A number of local landmarks are spelled out, ranging from the impeccable (Transparency International Bangladesh) through the possibly dubious (International Educational Counselling Centre, Inc, which might be entirely genuine, entirely bogus or just trying to make a living any way it can), the mysterious (Amazon Lily Residence) to the delightfully vernacular (Banani Community Centre Cum Bazaar).
I love maps, and I love navigating by maps, but this map leaves me completely adrift for the simple reason that I have not yet seen, and may never on this trip see, the sun. Everything is cloud, sans direction. Normally, I can tell you at once, even if I’m indoors, which way is north, south, east or home. Here, I have no clue.
(Google Earth, by the way, simply backs up Google Maps, like mid-level executives covering each other’s asses.)
Consequently, I have no idea if the Catalina Island Restaurant is on Road No. 11 or on the curiously-named Kemal Ataturk Ave. (Why is the great Ataturk commemorated in Dhaka?) Haroun, giving directions from the front desk of the guest house, refers simply to “main road,” and I’ll bet a thousand taka that if I stepped outside the guest house compound and ask the first passer-by for Kemal Ataturk Avenue he’d have no idea. The map is not the territory, and the internet is not, whatever it may look like, the map.
Above all, anyone who uses an onboard GPS navigation system or an online map finds out sooner or later that the information is only as good as its human on-the-ground updaters. How often do the guys working for the mappers head out here, their clipboards floppy with damp paper, their shirts sticking to the fabric of their car seats? Can’t see it, myself.
Finally, in search of lunch, I’m forced to do some on-the-ground exploring: Road 12 actually runs between Road 7, home of the Catalina Island Bistro (of which more in a moment) and Road 9. Google Maps includes both 7 and 9 but in the wrong place and without a 12 running between them. Piccadilly Circus is in fact Gulshan (Roundabout Number) 1, not identified on Google Maps.
Mushtuq, the Principal Scientific Officer at IEDCR, explains the snag. At some time in the cartographic past, perhaps as much as 20 years ago, all the road numbers in Gulshan were changed. For a while, in fact, people’s addresses literally ran “House #12, Road #8 (old Road # 2).”
I was right: it was hard enough to get the GPS team to seethe in the traffic and slosh through the mud around here just once. To get them to come back and update was just too much. The map has been made: long live the map. Anything wrong with it must be the fault of reality.
As it’s the only place I know to have lunch, I walked around the corner to the Catalina Island Breakfast Bistro and Barbecue, featuring Live Entertainment.
In this part of the world, the rural idyll, the exotic getaway, is a popular concept in even the most unlikely settings. Stepping gingerly around a mud puddle on what I now knew to be Road 7, I crossing the faux footbridge over the faux lagoon, passed the concrete wall painted with the faux blue waves, and found myself the only customer inside a largely featureless interior. As in most places in the developing world, underemployment is a fact of life, and four people showed me to my table.
As usual, the western-style dishes were expensive, and as usual I wasn’t interested in them anyway. Stepping gingerly around the brain masala, I opted for chicken masala, palak paneer and butter naan, with a side of mango juice.
These dishes are familiar, by the way, because what I grew up in the U.K. thinking of as Indian food is in fact Bengali food.
Service was leisurely, and as I waited for my meal I realized that the bookshop next door (where I had just bought Lands of Glass by Alessandro Baricco, its cover already curling up from the damp, and Davd Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, prudently hand-wrapped in transparent plastic) had as much custom as the restaurant—rarely a good sign for a restaurant. A waiter went out to sweep the Astroturf bridge with his whisk broom, and as he did so I saw to my surprise that the faux lagoon actually had fish. Their darting this way and that, and the wind flirting with the leaves of the palm trees and ferns, were today’s live entertainment.
The mango juice arrived, complete with both pulp and froth from the juicer. It was neither heavy nor sticky, and I remembered that monsoon season is also mango season.
Several people brought me clean plates, and my lunch, forking the naan onto a side plate, spooning up my chicken and paneer.
One bite—best naan ever. Fluffy, not greasy.
The chicken seemed to have been cut along Eastern rather than Western geometries, each bite featuring rather more bone and rather less meat that I expected, but all the same it was delicious, with just enough kick from the cardamom, and the palak paneer was the star of the table, with perfectly crispy chunk of fried cheese in a sauce that was colored by spinach but not overwhelmed by it. The whole meal came to just over 1,000 taka.
All morning my head had been congested. I walked back to Road 12 with my sinuses running wild and free.
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