There is nothing golden about Shonar Bangla anymore. There hasn’t been anything golden ever since our independence 45 years ago, writes Alekha Baji from Bangladesh
My friend lent me her gym bag for the holidays. I was in a hurry to reach my hometown the evening before Eid, but didn’t have a bag big enough to carry the gifts I’d bought for my family, who had gone ahead before me. The gym bag came in handy. When I asked her about how soon she would need it back, she shrugged and answered, “With everything that’s happening all around us, Dad’s grounded me from going out. No gym for me for a long, long time. Not until things get normal, at least.” We sat on her bedroom floor in observant silence, sharing a cigarette, pondering upon what the definition of normal was.
One would think this is normal for Dhaka after the hostage situation and the horrific killings that shook the country two weeks ago. People boarding themselves shut inside their houses, their living rooms, their bedrooms, their bathrooms, retreating into the rooms inside their heads, hoping against hope that those sanctuaries remain safe for as long as possible, until the dark clouds of terror and panic and confusion melt away into sun again.
Yet, the city is functioning without too much of this Great Escape business. The terror act at Holey Artisan Bakery and O Kitchen has seemingly sent shockwaves through the spine of Bangladesh, but honestly, that is not necessarily the case.
Able men from all corners of the country filled up the roads of Dhaka as the month of Ramadan came to an end, to earn some extra Eid money pulling rickshaws in the wide roads of the sprawling metropolis. Shopkeepers and grocery stores functioned without batting an eyelid. The only thing that touched them was the loss of business because the upper classes refused to be brought out on the streets. I asked a walking cigarette vendor if he was afraid. He seemed confused at first; upon observing how casually my friend bought an entire packet of Benson and Hedges off him, though, he replied, “Apu (elder sister), the poor people of this country see loss on an everyday basis. We have been losing our loved ones to hordes and hordes of conquerors, one after another, from a time even our old people cannot remember. Only these days, some of the people we lose come back; and it’s never a good thing when they return.”
Leave the zombie apocalypse movies to Hollywood. Here, in the Islam-centric Third World, when people come back from the dead, they come as a different sort of undead—in the form of mutated ideas placed in their heads. Ideas are bulletproof, writes Alan Moore, and one has to agree, the fear that everyone is talking about is the infusion of the idea that the Islamic State has been propagating into our next generation. These are mere boys we are talking about, just like we were boys and girls just fresh out of school, looking for ‘the answer to life’.
I had a conversation in university when I was 20 with a boy my age about the existence of God, and that conversation lasted for three nights, full of coffee and the edge of reasoning. There was no winning in these conversations. I remained an atheist until I found my answers in leaving the mysterious be, and he found solace in helping poor people, regardless of their caste or creed. Most kids, though, are never this lucky. Even I thought I’d found God once, tripping on acid, lying on a desert far, far away from here (for I the Lord your God is a jealous god). God lives among men, after all, and the answers that lie in the hearts of men almost always rise from the darker side of the moon.
The crescent lunar sickle will require sharpening soon. Eid-ul-Fitr is over, the rich have donated to the poor, but the gross inequity of our country remains. Gulshan is the hub of the crème de la crème of Bangladesh, and like I mentioned before, the fear and panic has only touched them, “the ones that matter” in this country, and a few else. Xulhas Mannan’s murder made a lot of splashes in the media, with the public security concerns and the burning issue of LGBT rights here, but so many more Xulhas Mannans die every day, and barely make it out of the depths of our newspapers. So much of the country has been desensitized to fire and blood, that nothing is too brutal anymore. Beheadings, mutilation, rape, all of this is part and parcel of living in this strange country of ours. At least, to the population that lives in the ‘touchable’ country, whose very bodies are groped by politics and rain alike.
The rain hurts the most. My friend tells me he walked out of the prayer on Eid morning, when the preacher in his mosque, instead of talking about the love we must bear for our fellow human beings, started talking about the protection of the Muslim ummah (community), and those we must leave behind on the road to heaven. I can imagine my poor friend walking out of the mosque into the irritating drizzle that has been the soundtrack to this year’s Eid, seething but not knowing what to do with the anger clenched in his fists. Already news was pouring in of Sholakia, the biggest Eid congregation in the country, under attack by unidentified militants. He said later, very churlishly, “If there was a God, the idiots of the world are ignoring his tears.” I would have pointed out that god is a woman, after all, but he was too angry already for my prodding to have been golden sunshine to his dark clouds.
There is nothing golden about Shonar Bangla anymore. There hasn’t been anything golden ever since our independence 45 years ago. The rich have gotten richer through the rampant corruption that has been allowed in this country ever since its inception in March 1971. All that remains of our historic liberation war is the romance, and living heroes we have turned into beggars. We are conditioned from childhood, educated about the divide. For every liberal Bengali-Muslim household, you have ten who promote religious, racist and classist intolerance as a legacy. If one needs to see how divided we are as a country, one only needs to peruse through an average Bangladeshi’s Facebook newsfeed from the 1st of July 2016.
Social media has brought about the ultimate divide that exists in our society, apart from the financial inequity and the differences in belief. A country is now individual voices adding to the pandemonium with their incessant screaming and Chinese whisper. A man is now a propagandist, or sharing another’s propaganda by just reading the headlines of articles and panicking. Heroes do not remain heroes for too long, or become so untouchable that it is impossible to question the emotional upheaval that resulted in finding a hero where only victims were to be found. Conspiracy theorists fight the optimists, the superiorists fight everyone they think is idiotic, the blame game fights the universities and guardians, the politically aligned fight the much maligned humanists. The ashes have just begun to settle, yet we still cannot even begin to agree with one another and the ruling power regarding what transpired that one blood drenched Friday night at O Kitchen.
A house is divided, and the house cannot stand for long if this continues.
To a majority of this country, the Holey Artisan slaughter by Muslim factionists might be far removed from their every day struggles, but it was a major statement nonetheless by the group that represents the farce that is the Islamic State ideology. Probably the second most policed location in the country was infiltrated by regular boy-next-doors, AK 22s in hand. It displayed to the nation that we have turned a blind eye towards a festering cancer for too long, nowhere is a guaranteed safe place. It displayed to the world how we are not prepared for the future, and how the most powerful people in the country were just, people. It has thrown a monkey wrench into both Bangladesh’s backyard mechanics and its foreign policies. What we are not talking about, though, is how we are not united at all to counter such a hateful act. And that makes all the difference in the world.
I wanted to return my friend her gym bag yesterday, and somehow cajoled her father into letting her out to a café right next door to her place for dinner. Halfway through our pineapple iced teas, we decided to step outside for a smoke before our meals were served. I felt a lot of tension as I was going out the door, and realized the entire café was staring at us, as if in disbelief. My friend, ever observant, strode back to our table, picked up the gym bag, furiously zipped it open to display its empty contents to the hapless restaurant.
There was no sigh of relief. Instead, we all went back into the rooms in our heads, waiting for the rain to stop. What we forget is that in this country, it has always been raining, and the drainage system has always spilled onto our roads, and once out, we have walked through the drain water shrugging and arguing amongst ourselves about what should be done, until all our collective excreta will one day creep up to our chins. I’d say we’re still just about waist high right now, last week was just some kids splashing around in the sewage. We will soon forget the taste of things to come.