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By a Bangladeshi

What it means to be Bengali

Every other day a family member will chime in to ask me if I’m teaching Noah (my 14 month-old) Bengali the language and the culture. And every time I silently shake my head.  Continue reading “What it means to be Bengali”

Dhaka – epilogue

I always wondered where the tea stalls or more endearingly referred to in Bangladesh as ‘mudir dokan’ access the old Indian songs from the gramophone, black and white era. When my rickshaw swivels through one of these dokans early morning, the tune and the old melody sound hauntingly beautiful. Continue reading “Dhaka – epilogue”

Musing

To Dhaka,

My muse, my mistress, my beloved.

(Quote abridged; original unfit for publication.) Continue reading “Musing”

Counterdiction

Yes you have read it right. I did just invent the word in the title. Hence please refrain from consulting the thesaurus or alternatively look away from the more popular google search-bar and let me explain myself a little better! I believe this is the second occasion where I have been guilty of taking the liberty to create portmanteau terms and I only have the excess of creative energy flowing through my veins currently to blame for it. This characteristic reckless display of boldness this time around though has been triggered by a phase, that I am constantly finding myself in, where opposing thoughts collide, creating ample sparks to invite a reactive response to mitigate matters, only resulting in more fervour! I hope to have made quite an impression by this incomplete vague explanation in my first paragraph and to prove the extent to which my audacity has grown, over the past couple of months, I am proud to present my first piece without a disclaimer! (Applause)
Upon returning to Bangladesh and settling comfortably back into the privileged, bourgeois standard of living in Dhaka, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how this city is the perfect paradise for an adrenaline junkie. I mean it – who needs to rely on drugs or invest into an adrenaline pumping recreation when the constant life-and-death reality that surrounds you is more than capable of throwing you into the deepest pits of illusion, consecutively make you disillusioned while providing you with the accompanying sensation of jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute the whole time. The reason I have successfully managed to offend both the city and my particular class, all in the same breath, is because it is not the first instance when I have bitterly noticed the positioning of my own class in this society and the views and opinions it seems to represent and I must say they are not, as one might describe as ‘kosher’ or more relevant in this society’s context as – ‘halal’.
There is no easy way to state the truth surrounding the conformity of this upper-middle-class or as I like to refer to as the ‘unfortunately privileged’ part of the society and the fact to the matter is that the invisible caste system, unassigned by any racial or religious discrimination (as we might observe in the neighbouring countries) which exist amidst the people of the same colour, features and profile in this country is a puzzle. It is a puzzle I have neither been able to unravel nor understand ever since I can remember and it started right from within my own household, where as a child myself and the hired help had never been allowed to occupy the same space at the same time, without clearly defining our individual domains.* The very first encounter with an exception to this rule was when I visited a friend’s house from school and discovered her exceptionally liberal-minded parents allowing their young hired maid to sit at the same table as us and I remember how all the other kids, including myself reacted to it – not with negativity thankfully but with sheer incredulity at such a leap of a break from tradition! The ratio of rational forward thinking people in this particular class – with similar financial means when I was growing up – against the bourgeois was 1:100 and sadly it has not changed much since.
What have we really got against the hordes of the black, brown and yellow that walk the same road as us every day and why can we not for once accept that they are our majority, the driving force of this nation and not the ruling minority that speeds past in their air-conditioned BMWs? When the RMG sector in this country first started gaining momentum and a lot of this apparent ‘lower’ class joined this contemporary stream of workforce, I did not have to venture far to hear comments like ‘look how this boom in the garment industry has affected this lower class! Suddenly their attitudes have changed, their backs straightened, they are looking us straight in the eye!’. This was a clear indication of the fear that I noticed in my surroundings where the supposed upper-class suddenly started to feel threatened as their subconscious stoked their growing concern over the repercussions of an empowered underclass which might ultimately grow powerful enough to compete at the same level as us, even, God-forbid intermingle with our own children and contaminate future generations! I must pause here to take off the figurative cloak that I had draped myself in thus far (to better explain my inherited personal positioning in this class struggle) and would refrain from using the term ‘us’ when speaking of the upper-middle-class from here on, as in the context of this piece, I mentally do not sit within that arena.
In wake of the current Savar crisis in Bangladesh, which by the way had even raised the alarm at the Vatican I hear, I am once again disappointed to discover that this country has been divided into two by even a tragedy of this magnitude. The segregation now lies between the capitalist vs. the idealist, the patrician vs. the egalitarian, the former in both cases presenting success stories based on monetary facts and figures and the latter obviously highlighting the failure in the form of a retreat from human development. What we collectively fail to realise is the number of years and a catastrophe serving as an eye-opener that took us to reflect on the lawless manner in which the upper-class has been conducting all employment transactions with the underclass. The complete lack of regulations and regard in relation to working condition, fair pay, discrimination and foul play exceeds far beyond the realms of the RMG sector alone. It seeps into our homes, in the driving seats of the most chauffeur-driven cars, in our kitchens, on the stools guarding our forts and into the very bane of our everyday existence! The desensitised negligence from the educated section of the society and the vanity from the ‘elite’ is reminiscent of a struggle in a different part of the world long ago – the American civil war and the African-American civil rights movements respectively. Under the current circumstances, we either give rise to an Abraham Lincoln from amongst us or wait for another Martin Luther King to be born out of oppression. Either way, we need to be rescued from this attitude where we see only to make it unseen and feel only to make it unfelt.
Collectively, as a society beyond class and creed, and individually let us exorcise the demons within ourselves and eradicate this gap between the different classes that still exist today before we can hope to achieve anything else and perhaps tilt the scale towards the more rational, progressive and forward thinkers of this country. This can be achieved first and foremost – by growing a conscience. The oxford dictionary describes education as ‘an enlightening experience’ and while you would find many a certified educated person around you, how many do you believe have actually acquired their sensibilities in the true essence of the definition? Let us be enlightened and grow a little more courage and show it by taking some baby steps – like I have by shedding the cloak of disclaimers today just because I did not feel the need to justify my actions publicly just this once – and as a nation develop unabashedly, both monetarily and conscientiously, hand in hand. In a hurry to get to work, let us not forget our morals back home.
*please refer to “labour crisis in the household: truth or myth?” for a related story. 

It was a dark and stormy night…

 I wrote the central gist of this little piece many years ago, given the title above as the topic of the essay, for a school assignment in year 8 or 9. I was made to stand up in front of the class and read it out loud. It was momentous, especially at that age when the creative part in me sought after any acknowledgement and revelled in applause, while withdrew into seclusion and took a million steps backward at the mere mention of criticism. It was a delicate time and my feelings and opinions raw – fresh out of the oven! I have attempted to the best of my ability to recapture and rewrite the basic story, staying true to the formidable, crude and unadulterated thoughts that occupied my mind at fourteen/fifteen, once upon a time. However, the treatment had undergone unforgivable reparation and wear and tear of age. I have also added a few parts taking recent events into consideration that made me remember this story in the first place. I feel the need for it to be retold. The time is right.

Continue reading “It was a dark and stormy night…”

D.H.A.K.A

Now this is a real abbreviation; none of those wishy-washy titles that have been in existence since “F.R.I.E.N.D.S” came on air.  However, I am not too sure whether there is any kind of sequence or interrelation between what each letter represents.  D for dark? H for hallucinatory? A for abstract? K for kindred? A for alien? This is a city of dark, hallucinatory and abstract kindred aliens to be more precise and poses a lot more question marks than I can handle.
I have recently realised how almost all my writings commence with some sort of a disclaimer, if not disclaimers. I mean why should this be an exception! Now getting to the disclaimer bit, I do realise the risk of attempting to talk about the qualities of a city, that too about one that has innumerable facets, most of which is still undiscovered by myself after spending a significant chunk of my life there. However, I still believe the risk is worth taking. You would hardly find any two individuals giving you the same account on a city no matter how similar their stories might happen to be and although my storytelling would not be exempt from any of the clichés that are incessantly associated with this city of ours, it would nevertheless be different.
I can still vividly hear each set of drum rolls that came about in rapid succession that night. With each drumbeat, my heart skipped several. There are certain moments in your life when you blindly wish for something in exchange for almost anything and this certainly was one of mine. Yes, this was that historical night that changed everything for the people of Bangladesh. That dark, dreary night in March when we challenged our fates against the gruelling upper hand of Pakistan; gnawed our way up, stood our ground and declared in a unified clear voice that we would not go quietly into the night, we would not vanish without a fight. Yes, this was the Asia Cup final cricket match against Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Okay, so enough with my melodrama and million apologies for the intended pun but to be quite frank, never before had I felt the entire nation standing united for a single cause the way I had witnessed it that night at the stadium! I was born in December 1985 and quite unfortunate, I believe, that I missed out on that single opportunity of feeling the ferocious passion that brought about this country’s independence 14 years prior. The only glimpses of it’s evidence, a pale shadow of the past can now only be viewed on these rare occasions of a significant cricket tournament.
Bangladesh as a whole really is quite an interesting country to say the least. There are people ruthlessly conning you for minimal gain, taking advantage of you the second you undergo a weak or vulnerable moment, using emotion as a weapon at every given opportunity, at one hand. On the other, people can take you by surprise by doing something totally selfless when least expected! It is a rollercoaster emotional tornado that is unpredictable and without any specific pattern. I have been thrown into this chaos at birth and left at it’s mercy for the first seventeen years of my life and at the end of this span I exited as clueless as the day I had entered. Thus, when I had an opportunity to take a two-month’s sabbatical (both professional and personal) from my usual structured Sydney life, I was face-to-face with an unusual opportunity to explore the city I had left behind.
What I discovered in these couple of months perhaps raised a lot of new questions but certainly restored my faith on the three aspects, or pillars as I like to refer to them as, that had withstood time and tide. The three pillars: food, religion and cricket. To begin with the first pillar, I do realise that it should come as no surprise that it is important to the characteristics of any given city, however, with Dhaka it is a lifeline that people tends to hold onto with dear life. Restaurants, cafes and lounges are probably important anywhere but in a city where there is very little or no nightlife for the majority otherwise, they are snares waiting to entangle the lives of people here on a daily basis and takes it to another level of enjoyment that I have personally hardly seen anywhere else. In a city where we all have to return to our families and a hearty home-cooked meal end of the day, it is the opportunity to socialise over a meal that becomes the main objective. Thus the not-yet-married couples throng the cafes, the already married couples have some quality time before returning to parents or parents-in-laws, the exhausted office-goer shares a light moment before facing the reality of responsibilities that awaits home and the school, college and university bound crowd enjoys a moment in peace before the burden of deadlines and assignments set in. Thus, these eat-out joints provide them with not food that is perhaps readily available elsewhere but with a haven, a place in-between, far from reality.
I remember once I was crossing the street in Sydney with a dear friend, engaged in an intense conversation over the presence and influence of religion in that city, and I made an impromptu remark that had more truth to it than I had realised then. Quoting myself: if you want to find God, you will not find him in these streets of Sydney. He will evade you. If you want to find him, you will have to travel back to Dhaka with me to witness His presence and existence incorporated into our very lives. That is where He dwells.
Though it was a casual remark but a few months later when I made my way back to this city, I felt the depth of it once again. God really dwells here. From the moment the dawn breaks and the sweet music of “Azaan” start to send signals to your brainwaves, at first softly, like a hum and then building in tempo to a cry of faith and devotion that calls out urgently to every individual to the peaceful moan in the background during “Esha” that calls it a day in a serene dismissal. Regardless of the level of faith you harness towards this particular religion, it never fails to dissect your day into five parts.  There is a beautiful song by a Bangladeshi folk band that talks about this dissection better than I can ever explain and although hardly any Dhakaitie can relate to the activities mentioned in the song, we can all empathise in true essence. Very roughly translated, the lyrics are as follows:-
In the wake of Fajr, I was busy fighting sleep
Johr was spent in the comings and goings of life
My Asr was at the mercy of my livelihood
Alas, I had no time for prayers
Maghrb was spent in the shed with the animals
With them untied, my life was a mess
Alas, I had no time for prayers
During Esha, my wife cries out we have no rice
And with that cries my child and so does my life
Alas, I had no time for prayers!
Okay, did I not mention it was a rough translation? The words are mostly my own loosely based on the song and mostly inspired by it, but hopefully I managed to make my point.
Because I started this piece with cricket, somehow it seems befitting that it should end with cricket and also perhaps more so because cricket is all I can feel in my veins right now. Reliving that unfortunate match right now, feeling the pain of loosing to Pakistan had perhaps driven me a little mad and I am perhaps loosing sight of what I had originally set to achieve through this writing but in case you find yourself as muddled and in wonderment after reading this as I currently am feeling, then I would not consider this as an entirely wasted effort after all! This is exactly the pot of boiling and confusing emotions that I enter this city with every time and exit almost exactly in a similar fashion – with just perhaps a million more questions and amazement to add to the basket!

Labour Crisis in the household: truth or myth?

Honufa was only nine and a half when she took her first steps into our new home. She was a tiny little figure with more bones in her body than flesh. Within a month or so, she flourished into a full-bodied beautiful young girl, who could capture anyone’s affection by just pouting her lips in a disarming smile. There was such longing in her melancholy eyes that it still haunts me and reminds me of the carefree soul of a child trapped in a mindless labyrinth unable to find her way out.

Our camaraderie was circumstantial and inevitable being of the same age and in the same house for most part of our lives but it was not always right for me to express my feelings for her. Individual seating arrangement in the house had early on defined our differences: while I sat on the couch, she would be on the floor by my side and while I slept in my own bedroom, she would make a bed on the kitchen floor! Such was the magnitude of the invisible difference, that it held me back from reaching out to her out of a need to conform to our social norms and customs.

Honufa was a hired help in our house: one of the millions working in a family home for a living in Bangladesh, a large number of who have become a part of our culture over the years. They are all around us leading their meaningless, non-existent lives and represent the non-entities of the society. The educated section of the society, on the other hand, who can afford them turn a blind eye to any responsibility they might have towards their condition apart from providing a salary, food and shelter. Most young people working for these families are aged between 7 to 16 years and every second family in the vicinity of Dhaka city are subconsciously supporting child labour without ever admitting the concept to themselves.

On my last trip to Bangladesh, I remember asking my mother how she justified the need of having two extra helping hands in the house besides being a housewife herself. Her defence included some atrocious remarks about people living abroad failing to understand how things are run in Bangladesh and another new angle that woke me up. This new angle shed light to a perspective that all families who have hired help seemed to share. They have this self-satisfying perception that they positively contribute towards the society by employing the impoverished and their salaries give them a better quality life. They also tend to believe that without this financial help they would either perish or be forced to beg on the streets. That all sounds very encouraging but my point is being trapped in a house with no security, doing ungodly hours with no idea about fair pay, no education- is all this really improving the quality of their lives? Is it not crippling another whole generation of people to suffer from illiteracy and lack of self respect? If some people are really that fond of charitable activity, they should donate those hefty amounts to charitable organisations and NGO-who have professional methods to undertake such responsibilities-and not take matters into their own hands. It is a poor excuse used by us for so long that we have actually started to believe in it but it is nothing but a camouflage over the fact that we choose comfort of our bodies over what is right or wrong. Especially the underprivileged children, growing up side by side with the more fortunate ones, will essentially have the same magnitude of differences in the future that Honufa and I had to grow up with and the legacy of this invisible chasm between the two classes will continue forever.

We, as Bangladeshis, have a general habit of blaming everything on the incompetence of the government without stopping to ponder if there is anything each of us can contribute in our daily lives to make life better. In a recent discussion over this issue, a friend commented saying there is no basic framework to control anything in Bangladesh let alone deciding fairness of pay and working conditions of hired help, which is why you just have to work around it or live with it. She pointed out the traffic conditions which is probably at its worst and asked me the simple question whether I would stop driving in Bangladesh and sit at home just because the traffic cannot be regulated by the government efficiently. In my opinion, traffic and the human beings concerned in this issue are very different subjects. If traffic conditions are bad on the streets, I agree there is little we can personally do about it but to let a tradition of locking young people up in our houses and expect children not to act like children continue, is inexcusable. If the government cannot maintain a framework to monitor this condition, it does not mean we can persist with this inhuman behaviour and make poor excuses for it. If the undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate degrees combined cannot teach us the simple lesson of how to treat people with respect, then I have to admit we spend all that money after education in vain!

The main question to ask ourselves, I believe, is whether we can really justify the need for this sort of labour; the same question I asked my mother on my last visit. Is it really that difficult to wash your dishes after you eat or mop the floor that “you” dirty yourself? Everyone seems to be constantly whining about how impossible it has become to get a “good” maid in the house. Is it really necessary to have three different people do the household chores in the house which you can probably manage yourself and all because of cheap labour? I wonder if we ever stop to think about how we take advantage of people, who are in need and not in a position to decide what is right for themselves, forgetting the fact that they cannot think right but “we” can-we are capable of thinking for ourselves and also for them!

Honufa and millions of other children like her are incapable of making a decision on their own. If a family decides to invite a person to come into their home and work for them, they need to realize what an extremely serious responsibility it is. This decision needs to be looked upon as exactly the same as adopting that child and ensure that the minimum basic need of that person is looked into, of which the primary three would be food, living condition and education.

There is a serious need for a wake up call to raise social concerns in our surroundings and to discard old norms and customs that only make people suffer. We need to raise the minimum amount of awareness so we can at least meet our own eyes in the reflection. We need to wake up to the simple truth that only because there is nobody to watch over what we do in privacy, how we treat the ones who only stay in our kitchen, it does not give us the right to mistreat another human being. We have to learn to be accountable to ourselves since there is no system looking over us. If we make a mess, is it not easier to clean it ourselves rather than adopting a system with no regulations whatsoever? If we still decide to take up this practice with humanitarian reason and the like, we need to realize the seriousness of the responsibility, we cannot leave any stones unturned because the children should not have to bear the brunt under any circumstances. We need to take it upon ourselves to return the youth to the likes of Honufa and join the cause in our daily lives to free their soulsImage

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