Story: Afsan Chowdhury

Photographs: Md Asaduzzaman Pramanik

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Footpaths house as many shops as any of Dhaka’s fancy malls. The footpath, one could suppose, is the supermarket of the poor.

The city is not about to burst at the seams; that happened long ago, with its millions flooding in from everywhere – not to live but to survive. How you survive is no longer a question because the city offers no escape route, no options, no space to manoeuvre. It neither asks nor replies.

In a city where municipalities and authorities no longer offer protection or respite, there is a sense of controlled anarchy and everything is redesigned and rephrased to suit the needs of the survivors. It’s not defined by rules of civic governance or public hygiene but by a will to live – a will stronger than the rule keepers and law givers. It’s not a pretty sight.

All this translates to a level of chaotic energy and disorder that sums up human survival at its raw and robust best. This is a city of multiple identities, defined not by the urban indicators that make it one of the least habitable cities in the world but by the people who refuse to fade away or die.

It’s a city of filth which breeds fruits and flowers of toxic smell and lends a new, unwholesome meaning to the word “beauty”. It’s an ugly city where everything changes meaning including the pavement. The pavements have become the thoroughfares of the pariahs in the city’s caste system: the pedestrians who live in, reshape and ultimately re-imagine the landscape designed by their own refusal to be defeated.