Samayeen Cooper, a 14-year-old whiz kid from Boston, Massachusetts, was trembling with a great sense of anticipation! This was his maiden visit to the country of his grandparents, from his mother’s side.
His stratospheric air shuttle began approaching Trishal International Airport near Mymensingh, the capital of Bangladesh, a tiny South Asian nation with 211 million people. Seated next to Samayeen was his mother, Aisha Kashem-Cooper, a 36-year-old professor of urban anthropology who was born in Maryland of Bangladeshi parents.
The mother promised her son that one day she would take him to the country where his grandparents had once spent their youth. Professor Kashem-Cooper was particularly proud that Samayeen was one of the five American students who had designed the most creative lunar habitats for their school’s science project earlier this year. The US President Nancy Garcia had invited these talented students to the White House last month. So, for mother and son, this was a trip of extended celebration!
Samayeen gawked through the window and examined the fleeting geography below, as the aerial behemoth with 931 passengers slowly descended toward its landing dock. The pilot announced in baritone: “We will be touching down in 16 minutes.”
“Mom, what is that vast ruinous area south of the capital?” Samayeen asked, puzzled.
“That used to be the capital of the country. It was called Dhaka. No historian could say definitively why it perished and why it was never rehabilitated.”
“So, it’s something like the ancient cities of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and Mehrgarh, which disappeared suddenly from history?”
“Yes, perhaps like those cities of Indus Valley in the 3rd millennium B.C. There are many plausible theories of Dhaka’s mysterious fall, some of which I have actually studied.”
“Like what?” Samayeen sounded impatient as he surveyed the desolate landscape of the former capital from the window of his air shuttle.
“First, the city used to have a unique hydrography; it was surrounded by four rivers. The most important river was in the south. It was called Buriganga and was Dhaka’s Indus or Nile. By the time the city’s population reached 32 million, sometime around 2025, there was a bloody revolution. Everybody was at each other’s throat to grab a piece of urban land. The city was so unhygienic and congested that everybody, rich and poor, became neurotic and paranoid. Politics was totally corrupt and nothing moved an inch without bribes. The ruling oligarchy had no control over sprouting industries that poured poisonous waste into the rivers — although they were barely rivers. They were more like drains to flush out the city’s filth and immorality.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of people in a city of that size! Weren’t there any environmental laws?”
“Sure there were, but no one cared about laws. All of the rivers were filled up illegally. What remained of Buriganga, Turag, Dhaleswari, and Shitolokhya were channels of death. One theory of Dhaka’s demise focused on these rivers of hell, suggesting that a massive plague broke out, killing nearly the entire population of the capital.”
“Something like the Black Death in medieval Europe in the 14th century, the plague that killed more than half of Europe’s population?” Samayeen asked, appalled.
“Yes, something like that. But there is another intriguing theory that it was the social breakdown that actually killed the city. The moral decay in society began much earlier than 2025, though. For decades, streets were completely lawless. Greed and selfishness drove the life of the city. Everybody wanted personal cars in the name of social mobility. Nobody wanted to ride on public buses or trains, even though a number of elevated expressways had been built at a great cost. People thought it wasn’t prestigious to use the public transportation. Wild drivers, without operating licenses, ruled the roads!”
“Where were the police? The political leaders? The government?”
“They were all there, but everybody had his or her own interests. And, laws existed in theory, but they were trashed, right and left. I’ll give you one example. When I was researching early-twenty-first century Dhaka for my Master’s degree, I found a rather strange example from 2011. A well-known filmmaker and a media personality were killed in a road accident. After that tragedy, the city…in fact, the whole country…witnessed civic protests against kleptomaniac ministers who were supposed to be guardians of the country’s best interests. But guess what! While people writhed in pain, one minister even insisted on doling out licenses to drivers who had not even taken driving tests. Can you imagine that in any civilised country?”
“I guess not. Mom, you know so much about a country so far away from you. By the way, that minister sounds crazy! What was his name?”
“His name was Shajahan Khan, a senseless, self-interested person. He had the same name of a Mughal emperor who had built the Taj Mahal. One Shahjahan built a mausoleum for love, and the other sent in an army of demolition men on the street!”
“But why didn’t the head of the government sack that strange minister?”
“I don’t have a clue as to why the prime minister didn’t take any action. Not only did she not sack that minister, but she also chastised the people for complaining too much!” Professor Kashem-Cooper told her son with a tone of exasperation.
“But wasn’t the political system of the country democratic? Where was the opposition?”
“Yes, there was one. But two days after that tragic road accident, the opposition leader celebrated her birthday with a 67-pound cake, commemorating the number of years she had redeemed this world! It was a time of heartless, Dickensian excess. The city became the epitome of a twisted world of immorality.”
“But, mom, I don’t understand! How could all of this destroy a city?”
“Some social theorists speculated that all facets of life were so caught up in a vortex of downward spiral that the city was burnt down in the wake of a violent mass uprising. It was a Bastille gone completely awry! A rotting environment pushed the city to its precipitous fall, not unlike the tower of Babel. A kind of Kiyamat!
“Mom, I am sad to hear this. What an ominous beginning! How is the country now, in 2044?”
“Well, the population is extremely large, and the country lost about 15% of its southern landmass because the sea level rose. But now, Bangladesh is doing fairly well as a middle-income country. It was a remarkable turnaround.”
“How did that happen, mom? Sounds like utopia to me!”
“Sometime after the collapse of Dhaka, people finally came to their senses and followed a path of restraint and discipline. Two existing, bitterly feuding political parties went bankrupt ideologically! A new crop of sincere political leaders with a global vision and knowledge emerged under the banner of multiple political parties. These leaders didn’t feel entitled like those before them. Even when they disagreed with each other, they treated each other with civility and respect. They planned for the future with new technologies in mind and developed an economy that benefited everybody, not just a few. Unlike before, they didn’t take pride in a 7% annual growth rate, while the poor suffered and the environment rotted.”
“Mom, Mymensingh looks very nice from above. Why did they choose it to be the new capital?
“The area comprises the old alluvium of the Gangetic delta. The area is above flood level, somewhat centrally located, and not too far away from the lost capital of Dhaka. Besides, having the ghost of Dhaka around was helpful. Dhaka’s ruins served as a constant reminder to the new leaders of the pitfalls of reckless politics, greed, and selfishness.”
“Aha! Now I understand! The new leaders of the country were really smart to keep the lost city nearby, as a reminder of a wrongful past!”
Samayeen didn’t even notice that the jumbo air shuttle had quietly docked at the terminal. It had taken a full 3 hours and 44 minutes to fly from Boston to Mymensingh! He was exhausted and wished that someday soon this journey would take less than an hour!
Adnan Morshed is associate professor of architecture, architectural history and theory, and sustainable urbanism at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC.