Published in The Independent (Bangladesh) on 17 March 2011

Gulshan 1, me thinks

Long-time Gulshanites may very easily distinguish their locality’s two major intersections, known as Circle 1 and Circle 2.  At a glance, they will recognise Kosturi, Cuppa Coffee and UPS when they arrive at Circle 2, and will not need to spot Baul Music to know they have reached its slighter smaller sister, Circle 1.  Others blessed with an innate sense of direction will know where they are before they arrive – they are also probably the ones who never run late.  For mere mortals though, including the out-of-towners or the newly-arrived, the buzzing intersections are a grey and neon jumble of billboards, eateries and commercial space.  Much time can be wasted and risk encountered by crisscrossing one of the four eight-lane roads unnecessarily – that is, as a result of disorientation.  One false move in the wrong direction involves retracing your steps and crossing the road opposite – that’s 24 lanes of traffic to dodge.

I have trotted circular paths around both intersections over the last 18 months – it seems I’ll never learn.  I tried using the smaller shops as a point of reference (who knew that billboards change?!), but quickly became confused as I tried to remember the location of Al-Madina Pharmacy while staring at Al-Madina Optics, and glanced across the road to register Al-Amin Pharmacy.  I’m even more hopeless at night, when the shops’ shutters roll down, making each indistinguishable but for the overhead signs.  I have accepted that I will never find Banani from either intersection without seeking immediate help.

It was therefore something of a relief to learn from a traffic policeman in Gulshan 2 that many people ask for directions every day.  In fact, as soon as he uttered those few comforting words, a businessman approached him to ask, “Which way to Gulshan Park?”  The constable said that the most sought after (and seemingly mysterious) destinations are Wonderland, Gulshan 2 Market and the American Embassy.  The human map shrugged good naturedly before turning back to work wonders with the unruly traffic.

While reflecting on the success of Dhaka’s beautification for the Cricket World Cup – which is especially pretty when illuminated by colourful lights at night — it occurred to me that a permanent landmark could replace the ICC’s friendly mascot in Gulshan 1, Stumpy the Elephant.  If it were possible, with a single glance, to know with certainty whether I was in Gulshan 1 or 2, I for one could promise to spend less time in the congested intersections and would therefore leave more space for others. Ditto, perhaps, for confused cars.

The tiny green sign for "Baul's Music" is my personal landmark for Gulshan 1!

The tiny green sign for “Baul’s Music” is my personal landmark for Gulshan 1!

Giant numbers in Bangla and English could be created by one of Bangladesh’s tremendously talented sculptors, such as Hamiduzzaman Khan, whose large scale pieces already stand in prominent places in the capital.  And there is no doubt an abundance of ready and willing hands and minds at the Institute of Architects Bangladesh.  I won’t deny that my thoughts ran away from me as I began to imagine a landmark design competition… sponsored by Grameen!

Although my efforts to obtain a statement of interest from Banglalink, Nokia, Grameen (and perhaps randomly, Gilette) have been fruitless so far, it still doesn’t seem a completely silly idea (though you may beg to differ).  I think I’m simply not the right person to be asking, but couldn’t resist floating the idea to others.  After all, a city can never have too much art, and I was excited to learn on Wikipedia that, “Thoroughfares in [Gulshan] are beautified by the major cellphone companies of Bangladesh.”  And as many residents are irritated by the unplanned commercialisation of what was once a thoroughly residential and diplomatic area, perhaps one of these mega companies could give something back to the community it overtook .  Who knows, they may even contemplate throwing in a few free signs – “This way to Wonderland.”