Close to noon, while I grope for colours to paint my Bangladesh, I look at a daily that habitually sells well with Boschian human deformities and negative news, and I smile. On 21 July 2006 – 35 years, seven months from when we first happened – Bangladesh has covered the graph from all angles, and has ended up being a positive quotient in most of its challenging equations. It is not the line that identifies us today, it is the people here who sketch the character of the land. Perhaps a cartoon by ‘Ranabi’, from way back on 9 January 1971, best explains the psyche of the people’s power in Bangladesh.
The cartoon’s aptly captioned: Protiggya Nobayon, and it stands for renewing a pledge. The map boasts of a strong fist, shooing the profiteers, black marketers and smugglers away from the land, while the people, barefoot and lungi-clad, are positioned in their soon-to-be-won freedom land – Bangladesh. We had won or, to say the least, we had bought our right to independence at the cost of our blood, sweat and tears.
The UNCTAD LDC report 2006 reflects the land’s improvement in 15 indicators, which include average national labour productivity, birth, death, infant and under-five mortality rates, life expectancy, population growth, school enrolment, per capita energy consumption and a few others. Areas which have been touched by the masses have experienced dramatic growth and recovery. If there are any specks of dirt and disillusionment on the page, let it be known that these blemishes are all products of the Political Midases. In this land, at their touch, gold turns to dust, and fables and myths lose their magic within an instant.
Yet Bangladesh is free today. Every face down the alley sweats today and labours towards a more successful tomorrow. A lower-middle-class household has at least a couple of children going to school. Some of them even have house help. With their kettles boiling, they hurriedly prepare their cha and leave for their workplaces. One actually hears a spoon clinking in a mug at such a home. One actually enjoys the luxurious sight of at least a 12-inch black-and-white television there. The people live in this land, perhaps not with cushioned lives, but at least with the bare minimum hope of getting a better job in the next lane, which has newer factory buildings coming up.
This place smells of opportunity. There may be floods, there maybe strikes; roadblocks may be a fortnightly affair. But for the masses, these are speed-breakers that temporarily slow their pace. These do not deter the common vision or even impair the dream of 1971.
Controversies are regular in this country. The Election Commission may have spent an unhealthy sum on the most wasted voter list of the century; the Finance Ministry may strategically ask for an explanation from the CEC; there may be rebels within the government voicing their frustrations, there may be popular slogans promising nothing short of a ‘golden Bengal’; there may be waves of criticism in revenge rags which attempt to mesmerise the simple folk – but underestimating the power of History and the strength of democracy, even if imperfect.
The people of Bangladesh have shadhinota (independence) in their veins. They need no lessons on war and freedom. Survivors in this topography of corruption and dispensable beneficiaries, who benefit from the current administration in their everyday lives of commerce, the people have all learnt their lessons. To them, desh ranks way above the conniving 5000 ill-meaning hands, through whom the balance of power sways every five years. This sway does not bring in fresh air for the crowd – it rather ensures a selfish survival seeped in wealth and greed for those in position. And every five years, the amusement park thrives with politicians queuing up for their next ride.
‘Freedom’ in Bangladesh has turned out to be a household concept. It’s a space that ensures my bread, my breath and my peace. The space that lies between me and the well-mounted 24-inch plasma screen has mountains I cannot cross. The apparent shots at ‘apparent’ objective reporting of burning scenes in the busiest areas of Dhaka, or the rapes happening at the most distant corners of Kurigram, are all part of the simulation game.
As a woman, as a mother, as a conscious Bangladeshi, I feel that we are placing images way above their qualifying range. Media moguls controlling the scene have a silent say in all our discourses. Private channels try being progressive and often test our senses. Even the hyper-conscious ‘I’ gives in at times, thinking … maybe, just maybe, it’s time to turn a new page. Perhaps the mogul doesn’t stink so much, perhaps the opposition will at least play the cards right for strategic reasons, maybe there will be a lesser evil springing up from the rungs of hell.
However, it takes me a nanosecond to pinch myself and lead my senses back to sanity. It isn’t happening. The hyper-reality of seminars, symposiums, conferences and dialogues is quicksand and … 35 long years of being Bangladeshi has smartened us up, and we all know better than to give in to the façade.
For us, Bangladesh still offers opportunities of minimum employment, transport, habitat, health, education and oxygen. For us, even the few factories that shut down following the recent labour unrest are opening, once again, at 7:00 every morning; the retailers are still hanging on to the supplier chain. The FDI inflow, though at a nominal level of USD 400-plus million, spells hope. The IT sector, though late, today is operating through a submarine cable; the pharmacies are selling comparable made-in-Bangladesh medicines; the supermarkets have packaged food. Banga Bazaar, the market that sells the export surplus of the readymade garment industry, stands for a respite to our closet; every second woman, a skilled homemaker for years, attempts micro-entrepreneurship in the form of a vegetable garden, a small boutique, poultry or a beauty salon representing an urban economic rescue.
And at the end of a fatigued day, every second family in town comfortably settles in the living room couch and watches the day go by in hypnotic electronic slides. My colleague who just got beaten up in the morning becomes a part of my news quota. I follow his story through the screen, through the letters in the press. Perhaps this is the disconnect that a third-world democracy should be dreading. Perhaps we should all wake up and make the unrest in the next street over our business.
After all, paraphrasing Amartya Sen, identity does become a complicated business when we ourselves haven’t been friends with our own entities in a long time. As a woman trained to believe that silence is the most desirable complicity of all, I propose that we shed our passivity, rebel along with Adrienne Rich against being “a table set with room for the Stranger”, against “being a woman who sells for a boat ticket”, and not stand there in a poem: “unsatisfied”.
Just because two women leaders are playing with our political sensibilities and subjecting us to infinite derogatory female jokes, doesn’t mean that we give up our road. Rather, our roadmap should have more female voices emerging from the ruins of our political scene, resorting, if need be, to a lifetime of Philomela’s prayers:
The air of Heaven will hear, and any god,
If there is any god in Heaven, will hear me.