city and country

Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
When you’re living amongst another culture, it’s a truism that the cultural rituals and practices stand out as obvious. And, it’s just as obvious that these manifestations of belief and attitude are rooted in a way of thinking. Some of these are self-evident. But some are not and become crystallised only as a consequence of some incidental exchange, rather than standing out like beacons. I had one of these moments recently when a Bangladeshi student responded to a question in class.

rural-urban drift

      We were talking about the industrial revolution, starting in Britain and spreading everywhere else. (Bangladeshi people are living through their own industrial revolution. The time lag of two centuries sometimes embarrasses them but they get it.) Naturally, this led us to talk about changes like rural-urban drift.

Student Nasimul wrote that the city could do without the country but not vice versa. He firmly believes that the rural areas are backward and that the cities are the pinnacle of human endeavour. The inference is clear: the hope is that human habitation should ideally form a contiguous carpet of enlightened urbanisation so that the primitive areas are subsumed in development.

in the jungle near Sylhet
“jungle to paradise to jungle”

  Coincidentally, I was reading a novel at about the same time wherein the author described the sequence of growth and decline as “jungle to paradise to jungle”. This arrested me for a moment as I would have thought that the jungle was the paradise and the city was the blight. 

A third exchange reinforced the revelation. Raju is a successful industrialist in Dhaka who has travelled in Australia, including by car on the country roads. He says the country is lamentably empty and should be filled up (with people!!), with a view to eradicating open spaces. He can’t get his head around my contention that Australia is already over-populated.

These three chance encounters are revelatory to me. They help explain actions and beliefs in this culture.

central place theory

What happened to Christaller’s theory of central place? Yes, this theory firmly placed the city at the top of the pecking order but it simultaneously reinforced the fact that that the two are interdependent. Isn’t it obvious? We don’t produce food in cities but we eat it. Where is it supposed to come from? Don’t the city folk need the rural folk more than the reverse? Do we not also care about other creatures that have a claim on the planet? Don’t we need oxygen?

Christaller’s theory explains so much of our spatial existence. Maybe some world cities have distorted the relationship but surely in developing countries – where rural-urban drift carries on apace – the link is self-evident. Apparently not.

When we were travelling recently in India (a country developing at breakneck speed under the doctrine that development will allow them to take their rightful place in the firmament of the world’s people), we were regaled at every stop. It was common for locals to proudly point out to us any miniscule sign of development (read progress). They earnestly wanted us to observe dams, monuments, shops and shrines (I really struggle with that last one).

They seem to think that because we are from the west we want to see evidence of economic progress. They’re genuinely surprised when we explain that we want to get away from people and see what nature provided.

election day in Dhaka

       This is not the way I think of urbanisation. I think all urbanisation represents a blight on nature; perhaps a necessary evil, perhaps sustainable in some degree but nevertheless a denudation of what is right and natural. Thinking about cities like Nasimul does opens my eyes to the reckless pursuit of urbanised mankind. Is this why there are still so many who think conservationists are enemies to humanity?

khoda hafez


Other photos from hereabouts

tea plantations in Sylhet, Bangladesh

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