For me, the eighties was a decade of rediscovery. Completing my studies in the United States in 1983, I started working as a software engineer in an emergent area in California that someone had nicknamed Silicon Valley. I came home to Bangladesh every time I had earned a vacation. While here, I spent most of my free time on the streets of Dhaka.
That's because I had a passion for photography and wanted to observe and photograph life in Dhaka's streets.
I saw many Tokais in the streets. They were children who walked the streets slinging a large bag over their shoulder where they collected all manners of discards including paper, bottles, bits and pieces of metal, even discarded rubber sandals.
One day I followed two Tokais for several hours. Their work was not the drudgery I had imagined. While collecting they met all manners of people, ate snacks and goofed off with other kids. Once their bags were full, they headed to a neighbourhood at the heart of the recycling ecosystem in Old Dhaka. They sorted their collection into separate piles of paper, glass, plastic, sandals, metal etc. Their buyer weighed each pile separately (as the price varied between categories) and paid the Tokais.
What happened to these items? I followed the movement of the collected sandals, which were lumped with several hundred others. They were sent to a small factory, also in Old Dhaka, where they were cleaned, melted and poured into moulds to make new sandals.
Tokais are long gone from Dhaka's streets. Bangladeshi children of that age today spend their days in school.
There were things on the streets that are no longer seen today. For example, a variety of snacks sold from open containers, such as achar and hawa mithai, have been replaced by packaged snacks. Corner cigarette stalls hung a rope that smouldered slowly; the smoker lit his cigarette without wasting a matchstick. There were fountain pen vendors who displayed them neatly behind glass in an attaché case. Near every courthouse were rows and rows of typists who were ready to type your legal document for a small fee. Streets were shared by rickshaws, bullock carts, thelagaris, and various automobiles.
I also paid attention to street art. Rickshaw painting technique was perhaps less refined than it is today, but that did not stop the artists from imagining larger than life damsels, heroes and villains. Movie theatres had huge giant signboards. Advertisement billboards were simple, often containing a sentence or two extolling the product, accompanied by paintings of unknown models. A popular graffiti was "I Love You" usually inscribed with flourish on a wall. Whether this declaration was meant for the world in general or for a particular romantic target (perhaps residing in the house behind the wall) I could not tell.
The eighties were a difficult time for Bangladesh. But walking the streets of Dhaka, I learned about the energy and resilience of our people, which is timeless. I had left Bangladesh at a young age and these trips enabled me to rediscover my native land.
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