I was wondering recently why I seem to be cheerful so much of the time. This is not necessarily my natural state, and living in a noisy city of 12 million people, with terrible traffic that makes going much of anywhere something between a struggle and a nightmare, it is often a challenge to stay upbeat.
Upon reflection, the only possible explanation I could find was that in being forced to tell innumerable people countless times during the day that I’m doing well, I can’t help but feel it. In responding to people’s salutes and waves and smiles with a cheery smile, I find the pretension towards good humour merging with the real thing. In other words, I am happy because I smile; I am doing well because I have to keep saying it.
Admittedly my case is an extreme, as a foreigner living in a mostly local area in Bangladesh. But watching those around me makes clear that people’s friendliness is directed at many others as well. In fact, the greetings of the locals are often far more exuberant than what I get, with shouts and vigorous handshakes or even hugs. Something, clearly, is going on.
The mystery is simple enough to explain, and parallels my experiences living in Hanoi in the mid-90s when the main vehicle on the street was still the bicycle. A colleague at the time described cycling in the city as being similar to attending a cocktail party: people regularly greeted each other and exchanged comments, mostly but not exclusively while waiting at intersections. A certain camaraderie formed while we waited, not at the intersection itself, but under the shade of a large tree on a hot day. A similar camaraderie is visible on the mean streets of Dhaka on those rare but wonderful occasions when the traffic consists mainly of cycle rickshaws, and both pullers and passengers comment on a passing demonstration or that old fall-back the weather.
And so it is for me on my daily walks with my dogs and to and from the office. Guards, vendors, and beggars, as well as some of the area residents who are also out walking or buying vegetables from bicycle carts, greet me. The usual greeting being “Good?” as in “Are you good?” I have little choice but to respond, “Good!” whether or not I feel it. The cheerful smiles all around can’t help but be contagious. The various forms of greeting are intriguing: the salute, the wave, the slight movement of the head to one side. Then there are all the quirky greetings one gets: the guard who inverts the usual question into “Good you are?”, the jogger who shouts his enthusiastic liking for my dogs, the woman who bulges her eyes at me, the man who raises and twists one gloved hand in an indecipherable gesture. For whatever reason, it never gets old, it never gets boring; each day I am enchanted by the flash of teeth, the curving of lips, the various ways of asserting a shared humanity.
And what does all this have to do with carfree cities? It is very hard to exchange cheerful greetings while in a car. The more one isolates oneself from others, the more one wishes to. Bus passengers are smelly, people on the streets are intrusive, the only way to travel in comfort, people begin to believe, is by car. They don’t know what they’re missing, and they blame their exasperation and misanthropy on the traffic, the crowds, on anything but their means of transport.
You have to be in a position to interact in order to gain all the pleasures of it. You have to mix with others to realize how wonderful people can be. You can’t be in a car, and the more cars there are on the roads, the more difficult it is for anyone else to enjoy life on the streets, the public life that civilizes cities.
Recently during a hartal (political strike), the streets were quiet though by no means empty: plenty of rickshaws and bicycles plied the streets and lots of people were out walking. All that was missing was the motorized vehicles. As I crossed the street I found myself dawdling, wanting to perform a few dance steps, a little jig. Usually it is the most terrifying act of my day; on that day it was pure pleasure. Walking my dogs, I found myself getting into small conversations with innumerable people whom I normally pass with just a smile and a nod. People seemed happier and more relaxed. There was no background symphony of horns; we could just talk. Hartals are a violent way to achieve car-free and thus fail to give it the good press it needs; but it is interesting to see the change just one day essentially without cars can bring. The same difference occurs, though not to quite the same extreme, early on weekend mornings: with less traffic, people are more relaxed and friendly.
Of one thing I am sure: in addition to the other innumerable benefits we will enjoy once our cities become carfree (including the incredible cost savings, the tremendous reductions in air and noise and other pollution, the better health, the decreased traffic injuries and deaths), people will be a whole lot more cheerful. I, for one, can hardly wait.