Dhaka monsoon then and now

Dozens of longtime Dhaka residents can still graphically remember the monsoon rains that last all day. These people include those who are now in their seventies and eighties. The rain-drenched city, its woodland nature dominated by trees and shrubs, and low-rise residences of soggy concrete and tin were routine sites. The monsoon rain would continue uninterrupted throughout the day to bless people on some days with balmy afternoon glows. People now in their seventies to eighties witnessed first-hand these distinctive monsoon shows — the air filled with the unfamiliar aroma of wild tree leaves and flowers, the neighborhood’s muddy roads turning to slippery with puddles here and there. The threat of waterlogging had not yet beset Dhaka at that time.

On the main roads, pedicabs would dominate the scene. Newly constructed trails would remain filled with male and female pedestrians using black umbrellas. Colorful and fancy Japanese umbrellas for women were largely unknown then. The road scene would be punctuated by the speeding of passenger cars and city buses. Some roads would find carriages moving quietly over medium distances.

With the exception of a few, small songbirds in general would remain invisible on rainy days. But glimpses of rain-drenched crows could be seen through the leaves of the trees. The desperate croaks of these hungry birds would make tender-hearted people restless. House sparrows would be perched on the balcony railings with the occasional chatter and wing flapping. The croaking of the frogs would make the nights surreal, letting the chirping insects add to the music. There would be few vendors on a typical monsoon day. The same applied to beggars.

Monsoons appeared every year in the emerging city of Dhaka with this distinctive look. He went through the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s without much respite. The monsoon downpour would start in the wee hours and continue through the night to greet children and adults with sweeping gusts of rain. Most of them were found looking out the windows in the morning. All of their desires had one thing in common — praying that the pouring rain wouldn’t stop. Many primary schools are said to be declared closed for the day due to the rain. Ironically, closures would become futile with children soaked to the skin, umbrellas outstretched. Attendance at well-known high schools would be rare. Alongside the students, a large number of teachers would remain absent. Attendance at government offices would remain low with each monsoon.

However, in many cases the absence of government employees was due to localized road flooding. It was not a congestion. Due to the fact that many residential areas in Dhaka are located in lowlands near large bodies of water, roads and residences at that time would remain submerged. This would continue for a few days, with rainwater returning to the water-filled mini-‘haors’. These small-scale monsoon floods returned almost every year, causing immense suffering to local residents.

People living and doing business on the banks of the overflowing Buriganga, Turag and Balu rivers would become the worst victims. Fifty to seventy years ago, Dhaka did not yet have some semblance of modern drainage in place. By settling for crude methods of getting water to flow through the almost overgrown canals, Dhaka would have to face its monsoon trials — so just happening. Despite this fact, the capital’s current monsoon woes appear like nightmares when compared to the past fallout from annual rainy seasons. At the time, some suburbs of the city went underwater. But the freshness associated with the new water would remain intact. Sadly, that gift of the monsoon is long gone.

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