অসম্ভব স্পর্শকাতর একটা বিষয় দিয়ে শুরু করছি। সম্প্রতি পাঁচ বছরের একটি কন্যাশিশুর ভয়ংকর যৌন নির্যাতনের খবর সামাজিক যোগাযোগের মাধ্যমগুলোতে আলোড়ন তুলেছে। খবরটা দেখে আমরা সবাই শিউরে উঠেছি। বিকৃত যৌনাকাঙ…
কেউ যদি সবসময় সন্দেহে থাকে, যা দেখছে তা আসলে দেখছে কিনা, যা শুনছে ঠিক ঠিক শুনছে কিনা, যা ভাবছে ঠিক ভাবছে কিনা, তাকে আমরা স্রেফ উন্মাদ ঠাওরাবো, অথবা মাতাল, তাই না? নিজের বিচারশক্তি সম্পর্কে আমরা সব…
Before I moved here, I heard a lot of good things about the city – its green rolling hills and perfect fall foliage, its old small-town flavor and charming pedestrian mall, its nooks and corners imbuing rich history and university with remarkable architecture, which its creator, the Great Thomas Jefferson, loved so much.
But when I first reached Charlottesville on a bleak Christmas Eve, I could not feel a vestige of that charm. The ache of uprooting myself from the place I lived all my life was still raw and the uncertainties of the new life were looming large over my heart. The unfamiliarity of the new place and its people was making me really nervous. The deserted college town during Christmas, with its leafless trees and the piercingly cold wind, was no solace. Coming from a crowded part of the world, I would sit by the window to have a glimpse of a passersby and my first snow made me extremely depressed.
Eventually spring arrived and suddenly things started getting better. Through the large windows of our little apartment, I could see the young leaves growing by the day, luminous green. I could see the fluffy-tailed squirrels busily running around, the red robins perched on the railing of our deck, lost in thought and, once in a while, a stray deer.
And I started making friends too, tentatively. We would sit under the blue sky, enjoying the soft breeze or leisurely stroll the downtown mall. Time to time, we would take a trip to the Blue-Ridge; layers and layers of soft-shaped, almost adorable, mountains looked literally blue, actually gray blue, on crisp spring days.
One fine morning, I was pleasantly surprised to discover those little enclosed gardens hidden by the side of the main grounds of the university. The gardens are nothing like the elaborate English ones or the Japanese ones with profound meaning. But they have a certain blissful character, inviting you to rest. I spent an entire afternoon sitting in a shadowy corner of one of these gardens, reading my book. On languid afternoons, I would read books lying down on my couch, while the birds kept chirping and the green shadows kept dancing in the light breeze outside my window.
The next one year simply whizzed by. We spent the summer in the other side of the country, Seattle. That’s another story but when we came back, it was almost fall. The background of my little apartment was already changing. Gradually, the luminous green gave way to an extravagant medley of crimson, orange, yellow and all possible shades of brown. One early morning we went to the mountains. This time though, the Blur-ridge, in the morning light, took an otherworldly hue of a very soft purple. I’ve always felt an inexplicable attraction towards the Himalayas. I still do. But if Himalayas is the Cleopatra of mountains, I would imagine Blue-Ridge as that down-to-earth woman, whose beauty has a warm and comforting quality.
This time, we went apple picking and had fall picnics, on mountain top orchards and by the lakeside. And our little group of friends have become so close in such a short time that the lonely and sad winter last year felt like a distant nightmare. The first snow this winter felt delightful, all around pristine white glittering in golden light. But before I could get used to the wonders of this amazing place and be a part of its daily life, it was time to leave. Perhaps, I was never prepared to be a part of this city, because I knew I was going to leave. I was sad to leave Charlottesville and my friends, without of course knowing that I will be back again.
Very recently, the World Bank has elevated Bangladesh to the category of lower-middle income countries. Well and good. Indeed, keeping aside increasing religious fanaticism, the progress in Bangladesh has been quite remarkable in many fronts. Among the much cited success stories are: lower child and maternal mortality compared to other poor nations, women empowerment because of the garments sector and NGO activities and, last but not the least, higher rate of primary and secondary education among children. But if we dig deeper beyond the glossy statistics, the picture that we get is not so rosy.
Last week I visited the government primary school in my ancestral village, Kadamrasulpur. The village is well-connected with Dhaka city as well as Mymensingh and the school in question is a very old one, producing majority of the notable people from the village. The teachers are proud of the quality of their students and informed me that despite such a heavy rain and bad weather for last couple of days, the school is swarming with kids.
However, if you go there, you will need to stretch your imagination to match the reality with the mental picture you might have formed from the description. The front of the school compound has most probably been encroached by the local bullies who built ugly shops there, hiding the school from the main street. Once you are on the school ground, there is an abandoned single-story building on your right, a decrepit tin building in your front and a two-roomed, relatively better-looking brick-building on your left; one of the rooms is used as the office for the teachers. You will keep wondering where exactly the classes are held.
Actually I went to that school to discuss about the possibility of doing a reading and painting projects for the kids. The teachers showed me a number of high-quality children’s books that they have recently received through a donor project. But most of those books were in English and, by default, beyond the reach of the students and even the teachers of primary schools in rural Bangladesh. I wonder who chose those books. Two smiling, young teachers told me that they read the Bangla books to the children, who like it a lot. One of them, teenager-looking, always smiling and according to the other teachers, very passionate Roma Didi, told me how badly she wanted a library for the kids so that they could sit there and read by themselves after school. They once let the children take those books home, but half of the books rented were either lost or destroyed. After all they are kids.
They took me to the bare bone tin-building, which is basically a single room with mud floor where the fifth grade and the first grade students are huddled together facing opposite directions. I learned that the first graders are usually accommodated in a room of the abandoned building. There, they simply sit on the mat because there are only forty benches for the four hundred students of the school. But because it is raining a lot this year, the floor of that decaying building is leaching; so the first graders have temporarily migrated to fifth grade.
As I peeped through a window of the abandoned building, a fetid smell overwhelmed my nostrils and the soggy floor with moldy walls made me very sad. I wondered how the first grade kids sit there even when the floor is not leaching and what exactly they learn. The only good classroom, which the second graders were lucky to have, is in the newer building beside the teachers’ room. Third and fourth grade classes are held during the second shift because of room shortage.
However, it is not all grim. After repeated request for a very long time, finally the authority has sanctioned construction of a new school building, though the teachers don’t know when exactly the work will begin and how the illegally occupied land will be rescued. Roma didi told me very earnestly that she really wishes to have a space for a library when the new building is a reality.
I wished them best of luck and said goodbye. As I stepped out of the school, I asked when the only workable school building was built. 2003, the headmistress answered. I sighed. The building already looks double that its age, thanks to the very honest engineers and contractors who built it and the authority who is supposed to maintain it.
Perhaps I knew since I was a baby that my Nana, my mom’s dad, passed away a year before I was born, at just forty-something. I learned that the old harmonium that I played with my passionate little hands was bought by my Nana for my mom when she was a child. I learned that my Nana completed his education from Dhaka University, known as the Oxford of the East at that time, but chose to be a school teacher in the village. I saw his elegant handwriting on the first pages of old books and dictionaries, expressing the desire that his young daughters and sons would use those someday. I saw his blurry photo with curly, jet-black hair and peaceful eyes through a pair of glasses with a large frame. He seemed very familiar to me – almost the kind of familiarity you feel towards someone so close that you forget to care about him. Maybe that’s why I never missed my Nana as a child.
But my longing for this man began to increase as I started to learn more and more about him. The first reason is very selfish. My mom was his first-born and he loved her intensely. I am my mom’s first-born; so I imagined that he would have loved me the same.
Gradually I learned that his love was not contained within his immediate family. In his time, roads in rural Bangladesh were almost non-existent. Monsoon rain would turn the primitive, mud roads into sludge and the villages into impenetrable islands. The dry summer-heat would turn those roads into a sea of fine powder, which would cover your feet like the face of a mime artist. But nothing would put him out. He would simply shrug his shoulder, put my mom on the front of his bicycle and start his customary visit to his relatives’ places one by one – sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces. One monsoon night, they reached his sister’s house surrounded by a temporary lake of fresh water. Since it was very late, they could not find a boat. They shouted but nobody responded. So my Nana took off his clean shirt, put my mom on his shoulder and waded through the water to see his sister. Decades after he was no more, the eyes of his sisters and aunts would be filled with large tears every time they remembered him, telling us how much he loved them and they loved him back.
As I started forming a complete mental picture of the kind of person he was – from the stories that people told me, the eclectic collection of books he left behind and his invaluable diary, scrapbook cum journal, that he bequeathed my mom – I started realizing what an exceptional man he was.
My Nana loved music, so much so that he bought a nice harmonium for my mom when she was a child, despite his financial limitation. In rural Bangladesh, it would be hard to find a good music teacher. Whenever he would learn that a good signer was around or even in a not-so-close town, he would coax them to accept his invitation to visit his house and teach his daughter a song or two. As early as I can remember, I heard my mom singing, mostly Tagore songs. I can’t imagine now, how she sang those songs without crying, just a few years after his death. I would.
After his death, his family was under deep water. With the tiny salary of a Head-Master, he had to maintain a family of seven. Not surprisingly, he did not leave a lot of wealth behind. When he died, my mom was barely twenty, married yet a student. All her siblings were still in school. My Nanu, my mom’s mom, must have spent endless nights with the feeling of standing on a quicksand after the death of her husband. But in the end, nobody died of hunger and all her children and their children including myself, did quite well.
Uncertainty, poverty and suffering is a part of most people’s life in the world. But as I began to feel his aura, I realized that his untimely death had created a loss more profound than mundane pain and suffering.
The declaration of the equal rights of women is pasted on the first page of his diary that I inherited from my mom. He got it typed from somewhere with his initials at the bottom. The promise of that declaration written half a century ago is still elusive. Did he believe in those words? I have a feeling he did. My mom told me that, after coming from school, often he would wash my Nanu’s clothes by hand and hang them neatly on the clothes line. I don’t know a lot of Bangladeshi men, even from our generation and next, who would do such a thing.
If he wanted a good life for himself, he could probably choose some other profession, particularly with his excellent command over languages. Instead, he chose to teach school kids in godforsaken corners of Bangladesh after finishing his education in the city. Some ten years ago, I visited a village and saw the very house where my mom’s family once lived. The aging house was falling apart by then, but even in its prime time, it was just a little mud house with almost no modern amenities. It is not that he never worried about money. I found a couple of entries in his journal where he expressed his frustration with the governing body of his school, who never cared about how the teachers made their ends meet. But the other day my Nanu told me, in a sour tone, how my uncle, her son, turned just like my Nana, spending his time and money on his students and caring very little about his own family.
My mom talks about a childhood which seems almost Spartan, mainly because they had so little means. But I can sense the richness of her social life back then, receiving the love of so many relatives and friends of my Nana, learning music from so many teachers, singing with her music-loving neighbors on cool and often not-so-cool afternoons and, of course, being the daughter of this enlightened man with a beautiful mind. Being the first-born, she was fortunate to spend the longest time and forge the strongest bond with their dad.
My mom studied English literature because my Nana really wished she did. He himself was a student of history. But his love for literature was endless. His literary collection of thoughts and quotes about the meaning of life, happiness, morality, beauty and romanticism, his journal full of poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Byron speak for his endless pursuit of wisdom and aesthetics. Pasted on the scrapbook, there are pictures of philosophers, poets and writers from random, precious magazines he could occasionally find. There is a sketch of classic beauty with a soft gaze – She walks in beauty like the night…
On a sad monsoon day, this fine man simply fell on the ground while teaching a class and never woke up again – leaving behind a beautiful young wife and his five children, his school and his students, his books and dictionaries, his journals and scrapbooks and his dreams, now shattered, of his children and students intensifying and carrying the flame of his desire to be enlightened.
For the kind of man he was, his untimely death felt glaringly unjust to me when I grew up. At times, I would be filled with an unreasonable fury towards him. Why he had to die so soon? Why he could not wait long enough to give me some of his treasures? My unseen Nana left a hole in my heart which could not be healed.
During my recent farewell brunch with my American Mom Dena, I was telling her about my Nana. After listening everything, she mused that may be the kind of person I am today is because he was my grandfather. Suddenly I realized that actually he did not die; he is somewhere in my genes, constantly stirring me to find the truth and beauty in life. Suddenly I stopped missing him anymore.
In his essay Home-Coming, E. B. White wrote “familiarity is the thing – the sense of belonging”. Reading this, I reflected for some time about my current state of belongingness. Where do I belong?
For quite some time now, I have been a wanderer. Couple of years here, a few months there. The life of a traveler enriched me in many ways; it showed me the world, opened my eyes, allowed me to meet people of all colors and made me realize that all humans are essentially the same. They love and hate the same way, they cry and smile for the same reasons and, strangely enough, they joke and make fun of each other in similar fashion. This realization is particularly significant for me, someone who lived in an extremely homogeneous country for her whole life.
And I made friends, some remarkable ones. I can easily brag to my friends and relatives back home that I have a friend in almost any part of the world. A few of them also became my close friends, with whom I can open my heart and pick up the conversation even if we meet after a very long time. I owe to my traveler’s life for knowing all these wonderful people.
But the same traveler’s life inflicted me, again and again, with the pain of leaving the very same friends I made and the uncomfortable goodbyes with the fake consolation of meeting again. Over the years, I kind of became inured of such infliction. In any case, I am not a person who gets too attached to any person or a thing. I can’t really think of a time when I cried because of an imminent parting. But still today, it does leave a mark in my mind, like the mark left on the grass by the brick that was always there.
I heard people saying that you can get used to anything. But I guess there is a difference between getting used to and being comfortable with something. I still don’t know where I will be next month or next year or the next decade. Yes I got used to the prospective lack of stability in my life, but I don’t think I am comfortable with it.
I have this romantic notion of living in a town where I would live forever. I would take a little stroll every evening and meet the same people and pass by the same tea stall. I know very well even if I lived in my hometown, this would not be the case. Today, all my friends are in different parts of the world. And more importantly, people I knew changed a great deal. Me too. So it cannot be the same.
Yet the familiarity of belonging, as White said, is extremely seductive to me. Every time I have got to leave, I pack up like a pro. As you can imagine, I have become quite a good packer by now. But something deep inside me keeps telling “don’t go, don’t go.”
When I was a college student, I remember watching a movie about a homeless girl who made it to Harvard. It was a true story. It made me cry; yet I wondered if it was really so sensational that it would be a Hollywood story. I come from one of the poorest countries in the world. I am very much familiar with the face of poverty. But back then, little did I know how it engulfs the entire life of the poor, their hopes and aspirations.
Poor people often do not have an aspiration because they know that it will only break their hearts. Yes, there is a social ladder that they could possibly climb. But the bottom rungs of that ladder are too far apart. Or maybe the poor are so stunted by malnutrition that they just can’t reach the next rung. They could strive and jump. But most probably they will fall through the gap facedown.
It is a common wisdom that education can push anyone up the ladder. I saw people expressing their annoyance about why poor people do not send their kids to school despite free education? Well, the path to success through education is not unconditional. It is full of loopholes. Schools that poorer children go to are also poor. In those schools, quality of education tends to be much worse than average. Uneducated parents stressed out with their constant battle with poverty are not much of a help. Many poor kids learn almost nothing after years of schooling.
Even if a poor kid somehow rises from the ashes and get a chance to go to a good college, where would the money come from? I read a news about a poor kid who got admission in a leading public medical college in Bangladesh. Any middle-class parent would be overjoyed by the child’s success. But the parents of that kid were concerned and sad because they did not know how they would pay for his education. Even he somehow manages to scrape by and completes his education, what is the guarantee that he would get a good job? Would he be smart enough and speak good English like his middle-class friends? Does he have the social network that is crucial for landing him a job? Who knows?
With all these ifs and buts and the opportunity cost of sending the children to school, poor parents often make the choice of sending them to work instead of school. May be they make the best possible decision for their children? May be they don’t want that their children to be educated with a lifelong aspiration to transcend only to become a part of the “ant tribe”, as they are called in China, disillusioned and heart-broken.
Education is just an example. Invisible obstacles litter the path to success for any poor anywhere in the world. So it is insensitive to make blanket comments about the poor judgment of the poor, as many of us often do. We need to be more sensitive about their situations.
For policy makers it is absolutely important to wear the shoes of the poor to have a better understanding about their world and to be able to make real poor-friendly policies. It is not just about giving out food stamps, it is about creating an environment of social mobility where poor people can be assured that if they work hard they can reach their destination.