Being the world's most densely populated city, it is not easy for Dhaka city to provide open leisure space for its citizens, nor it is possible to manage homogenous, class-neutral space or events for the urban dwellers.
The heterogeneity of economic and social categories offers Dhaka city a complex and mixed mapping of leisure space with the city area. Relatively more cosmopolitan than other cities of the country, Dhaka city accommodates a wide array of urban, multinational, multi-ethnic professionals working in different government, non-government, private, multinational, international organizations.
Responding to the global trend of café-culture, Dhaka has become spotted with the mushrooming hundreds of coffee-shops across the urban landscape. Coffee World, a Swiss café franchise, first opened four outlets in four different urban elite concentration of the city. That was just the beginning and now café or coffee has become a popular space for the urban youth as well as professionals.
Coffee shops (Cafés) have taken up a significant position in the city's urban geography being the space for relaxing over a range of speciality coffee like latte, mocha, cappuccino, Americano, espresso to name a few. However, the word 'café' does not solely refer to coffee-shop, rather little restaurants serving fast food and meals are also taking up the term to remain in the urban trend.
Leisure generally refers to the free time when we are not in work, education or carrying out essential domestic activities and compulsory activities e.g. sleeping and eating. And by recreation, we understand the activities that are done when not working and are done for amusement, fun or pleasure.
Hence, 'leisure geography' implies a spatial understanding of different points of urban geography which people occupy when they don't work. The use of the term leisure geography represents an attempt to construct a cognitive map of the city that lets us understand who should consume what, where and when.
Most of the urban leisure locations such as coffee shop which nurture such consumer habits (sometimes can also be termed as consumer fetish) are associated with the urban professionals and youth preferring to stay in the city, rather than moving towards the more middle-class suburbs.
Thus these urban professionals serve in the so-called gentrification process of the city. Indian poststructuralist urban theorist Arjun Appadurai points out that these coffee shops borrow much of their signifying potential prestige and distinctiveness from their embeddedness in global flows.
Responding to that global popular hype of café-culture, multinational franchises are becoming interested in opening their outlets in the city. Franchises like North End Coffee Roasters, Butlers' Chocolate Café, Gloria Jean's, Coffee World, Second Cup Coffee, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are sprawling over Dhaka's upscale urbanscapes.
Alcohol consumption has become another recent feature of leisure activity among Dhaka's urban professionals. Bars across Dhaka city have increased in number over the last decade.
However, due to religious and moral inhibition attached to alcohol consumption and state discouragement (you need to have a license for alcohol consumption as Bangladeshi passport holder and if caught consuming without permission, you might be subject to legal actions), there is a general discomfort of the mid-scale bar-goers.
But, for the frequenters of the upscale bars located in different boutique hotels and elite locations, i.e. Gulshan, Banani etc., that social and prejudiced inhibition is less at work. Mixed-gender socialising is usually noticed in those upscale bars. Some clubs annexed to different diplomatic missions also accommodate the expat professionals working in Dhaka and also ensure elite mixed-gender socialization.
While drinking for people from the privileged social and economic background is considered to be rather natural and acceptable, drinking among their less privileged counterparts may be associated with loose sexual norms and even prostitution. Women frequenting mid-scale bars are considered having no social esteem and sometimes even stereotypically thought to be attached to the sex industry.
Hence, bar space as leisure geography in Dhaka is very much gendered. We can say that leisure choice among the urban youth largely depends on their social class, moral outlook, job pattern (white collar or not) and sometimes even their religious affiliation. And, café culture balances the demands of both leisure and morality.
Considering the level of cosmopolitanism, some urban spaces in Dhaka is more cosmopolitan and culturally, if not economically, accommodative. Urban segments like Banani, Baridhara, Gulshan, Dhanmondi being the centres of multiple corporate, diplomatic, international and multinational houses have a cosmopolitan and liberal vibe in their mannerism, language and customs and etiquettes. People working and living there hence catch up with their socialization paradigms, i.e. use of English,
chic/decent attire, mobility with personal vehicles, etc. Different art galleries (Gallery Kaya), boutiques shops (Jaatra, Aarong), foreign language learning centres (Goethe Institute, Alliance Française, British Council) also have their own cafés which cater the urban leisure lifestyle of the educated class- both students and professionals.
Contrary to the upscale urban space such as Gulshan and the like, street food and popular kebab stores of Mohammadpur area offer an affordable leisure experience with less-expensive Asian food. The concentration of stranded Bihari and Shi'ite population and their religious and ritualistic adherence in the neighbourhood have given the place a sectarian, pious and less sophisticated line.
As I hinted earlier, social ambition and concern for sophistication are two vital factors among the urban population in selecting/ frequenting their leisure space. The selection of space of leisure activities, i.e. where to relax and socialise, is not only about economic process and class distinction; sometimes these are the spaces where our cultural identities are expressed and even negotiated.
Playing golf as a leisure activity and having lazy coffee-chat at Alliance Française café might not imply the same spatial economy as outcome. However, by over politicizing leisure activities, we also run the risk of ignoring the fact of merely having fun or seeking escape of everyday concerns of economy and politics.
Rabindra Sorobor, a popular hangout space located over the Dhanmondi lake, is another leisure hub for the evening strollers, urban youth and professionals alike. Bustled with a number of tea and fast food stalls, tea/coffee/cigarette selling hawkers, this place offers rather democratic leisure to people from different social, economic, professional and gender orientation.
This place has an equal appeal both for its open-air leisure offerings and clandestine dealing, i.e. prostitution, drug selling, secret political talks, etc. This is perhaps one of the very few places in Dhaka where genderqueers are accommodated and less bullied. The stage at Rabindra Sorobor incorporates a cultural appeal in this place with different cultural shows organized around the year, especially during winter.
Consumption of urban space is the novel dimension of interest for the sociologists. They investigate the process whereby urban space itself becomes the object of consumption. The ordinary quotidian neighbourhood with normal space for residence becomes the consumable tourist sight.
One such site bearing the British colonial and Mughal cultural and economic legacy is the old quarter of Dhaka popularly known as Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka). A place once famous for its muslin trade has now become a popular destination for the traditional food lovers and a must-see/visit item for any touristic venture which includes Dhaka.
A secular site for its peaceful co-existence of different religious faiths housing different religious and cultural festivals and funfairs such as Eid Ul Fitr, Durga Puja, Muharram, Sakrain Festival, Saraswati Puja etc., old Dhaka has now become a brand name. Old Dhaka Iftar or old Dhaka kebab/biriyani have become a must-try for tourists who come to Dhaka for the first time.
Cultural promotion of Old Dhaka is carried out by tourism-related websites like Tripadvisor, Wikitravel etc. There are different tour packages such as "Fascinating Old Dhaka and Ship Breaking Yard Trip" which include old Dhaka sight-seeing and culture-exploring experiences.
This is how the image of a space entices tourists to come and spend their money in that space. Such images and narratives tend to highlight the spectacular sites, colonial architecture and diverse food experience embedding the national history of Bangladesh to turn it more consumable to the tourists and even the Dhaka dwellers.
However, such alluring narratives oftentimes ignore the urban inequalities, i.e. despicable living condition, lack of urban facilities, etc., that the Old Dhaka residents are facing.
Researches can be conducted to see if the marketing of ethnic neighbourhoods like Dhaka has any depoliticizing effects. Because, the more branding we will do of Old Dhaka with all its mouth-watering dishes, nostalgic river ports, dingy alleys, and colonial architecture, the less the inner struggles of old Dhaka will be exposed.
The romanticisation of space has a powerful impact in concealing the urban and spatial crisis and it is complemented by an act of branding of ethnic space which sociologists call "marketable ethnicity". This phenomenon of consumption of impoverished and less privileged urban space is what the sociologists call 'slum tourism', a form of city tourism that involves the visits to the impoverished neighbourhoods.
The idea of leisure implies a recreational pastime, a crucial factor for both our mental and physical health. The urban anxiety, stress and the evolving economic dynamics continuously negotiate with the idea of leisure, but one thing common to almost all urban leisure practices is its focus on the interior space, with outdoor leisure geography becoming rare.
The author is an associate professor of Department of English at Jahangirnagar University.