Dhaka's flowers and flames
The flowers go for 5 or 10 taka (5 to 10 cents) a piece: red and white roses, tuberose, garlands of marigold, multihued gladioli, lilies and water lilies, carnations, a smattering of chrysanthemums and baby’s breath. Bunches are made up on site, alongside pre-made bouquets, on the southeast corner of Shahbag intersection in Dhaka. The famous flower stalls at this corner have been in business for decades. ‘Twenty years,’ each of the three stallholders I spoke to said when asked how long they had been around. Some had been there longer and 20 could just be a marker of longevity rather than actual duration.
Every now and then there are calls to clear these sidewalks, to make them pedestrian friendly, as if a few feet of floral interruptions are what spoils their walkability. At Mayer Doa (Mother’s Prayers), Babul was engrossed in stemming, pruning and watering his perishable wares. How do they halt these periodic rumblings for eviction? ‘We have our ways,’ he hazards a reply, not wishing to disclose much. He is there every day from dawn to receive supplies arriving from Jessore and Savar, until they close late in the evening. His brother, who is the proprietor – ‘his senior’ – gets in late, a luxury a ‘junior’ doesn’t have.
The cubicle-sized stalls face the National Museum and on the street in between, almost every day a public protest, procession or celebration is in order. As a public square, it is as likely to see a protest against government repression as it is to have government partisans hold rallies there, and Babul and his colleagues are everyday witnesses to this cauldron of politics. But mere passive observers they are not, often supplying flowers to these rallies, and also offering repose to tired protesters should they want a seat, a drink of water, or a chat. When things get intemperate, with teargas and stones lobbed, others can run for shelter but they can’t, inhaling both the mood and air of the moment. Only when one of them is struck by a bullet, which has happened, are they rushed to a hospital just across the road.
As an intersection, Shahbag mór (corner) in Dhaka has seen it all and if anything qualifies as more than all, then the sidewalk flower vendors by the police station are witness to that ‘more’. Shahbag, ‘garden of kings’ in Farsi, lives up to its name – the kings are long gone, and so are the gardens of lore, but it still plays host to making, sealing, or usurping the fates of those clinging to their thrones. Of 17th-century vintage, the area shed its regal idyll after the 1947 partition, and has since been the site of major and minor political upheavals connected to Bangladesh’s history and current affairs. On 13 November 2018, there was a protest here to mark 100 days of the photographer Shahidul Alam’s incarceration.
Just south of the intersection is Suhrawardy Udyan, where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made his rousing call for liberation on 7 March 1971, and Dhaka University, where student uprisings fired up movements to topple regimes and dictators in pre- and post-independence Bangladesh. Throughout the 1980s, until the fall of military dictator HM Ershad in 1990, the university was one of the major hubs of resistance to the regime. Circling the intersection now are two major hospitals, the National Museum, the National Public Library and a line of bookstores. Stand at Shahbag mór and do a 360-degree turn and you would be standing at the historical, commercial, cultural and social crossroads – literal and figurative – of Dhaka and Bangladesh.
Rites of fire join rites of flowers as emblems of sacrifice and regeneration. Flowers are essential to our rituals of beginnings and endings, desire, love and sacrifice, birth, death, remembrance and atonements. They are feeling incarnate, fleshed-out offerings of those shapeless pains and pleasures. Flames and flowers. Appropriately, in Hindu mythology Agni the fire god, emissary between gods and humans, also lords over the disha or direction southeast, the blossoming corner of Shahbag mór. The gardens of kings have gone and instead a more humble but fitting street corner is their successor, a location which since the mid-20th century has become associated more with the usurpation of power – getting rid of kings – than with being their playground.