From age 3 to 19, I lived in Sobhanbagh quarters. Things were far from utopic but when I think back of Sobhanbagh days, I associate it with a palpable human connection. Neighbors shared tools. Kids exchanged books. Neighboring kids used to come and learn Math from my Maa. The space and income was limited which meant we did not buy each wrench or pliers that we needed-perhaps once every six months. A culture of effortless collaborative consumption. Neighbors kept an eye on the patient living next door. The last family member leaving for work would leave keys with the neighbors for other family members (in retrospect, why not have multiple sets of keys?). There were gossips, unapproved relations, tiffs over petty issues but there were sharing, communication and cooperation.
Now when I visit Dhaka and stay at my Maa’s apartment, I absolutely do not see and feel the same kind of connection. Neighbors are distant if not downright hostile. Children are lonely. Caregiving, be it for the children or elderly is extremely stressful. With the disintegration of joint families, people are more isolated than ever. It seems that it is easier to reach out to the entire world than it is to the neighborhood.
It seems that Dhaka desperately needs those human connections back. When I mention ‘connection’, I do not refer to one involving deep gaze or a discussion about Dadaism. I mean interacting with people outside the nuclear unit. I mean the very disarming gesture of sharing meals couple of times a week. That casual encounter on the way to work(ideally while carpooling!).That balance between connection and privacy. Being a person of fairly strong likes and dislikes, the concept of joint family is too daunting. Too much control, too little authority. Like everything, there must be a happy medium and the Danish may have found it.
“Cohousing means multiple families live on a plot of land or even in a building where certain chores and benefits are shared by everyone. Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped dwellings and extensive common amenities including a common house and recreation areas. Residents are involved in the development of the community so that the community reflects their priority. Residents also share meals couple of times a week. Units are placed in a manner that allows casual interaction with the neighbors.”
It is not possible to plunk down this exact model in Dhaka but it could be improvised to reap most of the benefits. Apartment dwellers could adopt certain elements of this living arrangement. Congregating for dinner a few times a week maybe one of them. Residents would take turns preparing meals for the whole building. Let us do the math:
If it is a six storey building with 3 units on each floor. There are 18 families. If they have community dinner 4 times a week, there are 16 shared meals a month. Each household ends up cooking for the building once a month in exchange of 15 cooking free evening. Think of the newfound free hours a week that would have otherwise been spent after meal preparation. Double that when counting the travel time to and from grocery store. These shared meals may drive down a household food cost when shopped in larger quantities from kawraan bazaar (not to mention packaging free).
Everybody gets to socialize with someone close to their age ,bringing down sense of isolation. Existing building residents could lend their own living room once a month or use the terrace if weather permits. Developers could include a common space in the new buildings. It may lower the return on investment per building, yet potential residents may be intrigued by the concept. This common congregating space can be used for child-care or evening tutoring when designed properly(plugin for design profession!). There are also benefits of skill and knowledge sharing in a building with residence of diverse background.
Dhaka is following the North American blueprint of development when North America(at least the avant garde part of it) is approaching towards the Scandinavian model of development (from lobbying for more bike path to setting up kitchen utensil libraries).
Just like any other collective endeavor, cohousing will give rise to issues based on conflicting preferences. After all we, Bangladeshis are notorious for repeatedly choosing personal agenda over collective well being. Maybe the answer to all perceived aggression is sitting around a warm meal. End of the day, it is a matter of choosing convenience and cooperation over control.