AS THE SUN SETS over the Buriganga River, the water shimmers like a puddle of spilt mercury, silhouetting the dozens of river craft that dot its surface. Moored along the north bank, bleeding rust, sits Bangladesh’s fleet of ‘rockets’—colonial-era paddle steamers fitted with belching diesel engines, bearing loads of passengers along the country’s network of rivers and waterways. The Buriganga bisects Dhaka’s old city; Bangladesh’s talisman, its central terminus, the final destination for rural migrants—and one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
Shamir Shaha occupies what would have once been the best real estate in the old city. Along with his wife Joysree Dey and two young children, he occupies the top floor of a building that locals refer to as Borobari—a rococo mansion constructed by three Hindu brothers in 1917. The house sits on a street in Farashganj (French Market), cheek-by-jowl with the hulking remains of structures built during the city’s 19th-century commercial boom. Their elaborate steel brackets and stately carved exteriors recall an era of unbounded prosperity.
But for many, these old structures are now less valuable than the land on which they sit. Shamir Shaha says that recently, the building’s owners started demolishing the structure’s back end, pressuring the ten families that live in Borobari to vacate the premises. Seven complied, despite the fact that the plans violated local building laws. The remaining three, including Shaha, have refused to leave. “If they could get this space vacant it would be very easy for them to destroy the building,” says Shaha, a life-long Borobari resident. “This is our heritage, this is our history. This building is a special corner of our lives.” Around a third of the structure—now a rubble-filled void—was levelled before the Capital Development Authority called for the building’s preservation.