Andrew Buncombe: Silence descends on the noisiest city

Dhaka Notebook: I wonder whether Dhaka's reputation might be somewhat unfair

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The Independent Online

I had left in anticipation of noise and chaos, of gridlocked streets, of snarling, fume-belching traffic, of hordes of people. After all, isn't Dhaka the world's most densely populated city? Doesn't it have the world's worst pollution? Isn't everyone forced to wear face-masks because the treacley, unshifting air is so bad?

When I arrive, it's something of a surprise then, to discover there's nobody here. The roads are all but empty of traffic, there are no queues, no noise. The journey from the airport takes barely 20 minutes rather than the hour or so I'd expected. It's not as though I'm disappointed, but I wonder whether Dhaka's reputation might be somewhat unfair.

I learn there is good reason for the unnatural calm. I've arrived in the middle of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice when millions of cattle and goats are slaughtered and – more relevantly in regard to the traffic situation – everyone tries to return home to their villages. Heaven knows how many animals get the ritual chop, but the meat doesn't go to waste; tradition dictates that those who can afford to hold sacrifices donate a third to the poor, a third to their relatives and neighbours and retain just the remainder for themselves.

I suspect that Eid is also something of an occasion to show off one's wealth. One evening, being pedalled back to my guesthouse in the upmarket Gulshan district, I spy four huge cows standing tethered outside a large, beautiful home. "He must be a very rich man," says the rickshaw driver.

A few days later, the people are back. The trains into the capital from the rural hinterland are so full that people are forced to sit on top. Of course, along with the people comes the noise, the chaos and pollution. This may be the Dhaka I had expected, but I know which I prefer.

Election? What election?

On the issue of quiet, there's a general election in two weeks, but you wouldn't know it. The interim government, which has ruled under a state of emergency for two years, banned contesting parties from putting up posters or holding rallies. The parties seethe that this prevents them from doing their job. The Daily Star newspaper, however has found at least one person who approves, quoting Mahamuda Begum, a supposed city resident who said: "The nicest thing this year is that the candidates are not allowed to hold rallies ... and block the movement of people, which used to be a constant irritant."

I should Coco

I'm learning Bengali slang. Some of it's rude, some is fun. Pongo – a word that apparently dates from the days of British rule – means sick or ill. A medical facility properly called the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation is known by everyone simply as Pongo Hospital.