Sunday, 28 December 2008

Except One

Mizan Rahman

Let’s engage in a bit of old-fashioned gossip. There’s no harm in that, is there? After all, this is a part of our heritage, a very laudable cultural tradition. Our ancestors have been doing it for ages, so we needn’t feel guilty about it now. Besides, is there a true Bangalee who can honestly claim to be squeaky clean and beyond all reproach? Except one, of course?
 When my wife and I landed in this country some thirty years ago we hardly had anyone to talk to in Bengali except with each other. So the sight of a fellow Bangalee on the street would make us almost jump in joy. We would rush to greet each other in a great surge of emotion, exclaiming in childish exuberance: “My God, you are a Bangalee!”
 But now the situation has changed somewhat. Instead of too few there are just too many Bangalees on the streets of Canada. I speak Bengali almost everywhere everyday. So much so that I have started speaking in English with my wife for the extra practice in case I get rusty. Now, when I meet another Bangalee on the street I do not greet him as I did before, rather mutter in my mind: “You, too!” The feeling is more like exasperation than exhilaration.
  They say the Bangalee communities in New York and Los Angeles have grown to more than 100,000. That’s great! Perhaps it’s the right size for them to become a political force. After all, a Bengali community without some political activity doesn’t sound right. I hear that in New York alone there are more than a dozen weekly papers to serve the news-hungry Bangladeshi communities there and to meet their cultural needs. Unfortunately we are not so lucky in Ottawa, which is but a small rural town in the eyes of our compatriots in the Big Apple. Let alone a weekly paper the lone monthly magazine that we have here is on life-support system at the moment. There is, of course, no real demand of any community news in this town. Thankfully there is hardly any need either. Thanks to a few resourceful ladies here nobody feels the need for any news outlet in a printed form. All you need to do is to take one of these ladies in confidence, whisper in her ear, and get her to promise that she would not divulge it to anyone else. That’s all you need. The next day the news/rumor will be all over town. There will, however, be no guarantee that the original message you wanted to convey will have much resemblance with the final product. But that shouldn’t matter much. After all, accuracy has never been our national obsession.
  Bangladeshi men in Ottawa can be divided into two broad groups: one that likes to pick a fight publicly with someone else in the community, the other that likes to fight more discretely, in private. The first type will pay an annual fee to become a member of the Association, then use the election issue as an excuse for a bit of old-fashioned hooliganism like chair-throwing, swearing, punching and beating. These are our leaders who had their training at home in Bangladesh. However, the other type, the more humble and demure type, with college degrees and secure jobs, like you and I, will find it demeaning to pick an open fight. They would rather stay away from the Association, form their own circle of friends, get close to them, often too close for comfort, resulting in inevitable squabbles and arguments on trivial matters, finally vowing never to see each others’ faces again. Whatever the difference between the two groups they are all united and unanimous on one thing: Bangalees are the worst people on earth, the perpetually infighting people. With one exception, of course.
 We may have a small town here in Ottawa, but that doesn’t mean we laze around all day doing nothing. We can be just as busy as the folks in big cities. Almost every household in our community has something or other every day. Either a lot of eating, or a lot of singing and dancing, or a lot of chanting from the holy books. In a typical Bangladeshi household it is usually the eating that gets precedence. My fellow countrymen do have an abiding passion for inviting people to dinner, served with as much grease and fat as you can possibly get in the market. I’ll admit, however, that on this matter of invitation we have a little problem with time. If you invite someone for a party at 6 he/she will not ordinarily come before 8.If you say, at 7, they will take it to mean 9. You might try to outsmart them by setting the time at 4, assuming that they will show up at 6, which would serve your purpose. Don’t fool yourself, we Bangladeshis are no fools. We’ll think that you are inviting us for lunch instead of dinner, so we might appear on your door at 2, assuming that we didn’t hear you right. On the other hand, the invitee is not immune to some time problems, either. If the host says, come at 6, you might put yourself at risk by taking to mean 6, and not 7 or 8. You might be pleased with yourself by showing up exactly at 6, only to find that the hosts are still out doing the shopping for the party, or their rice is yet to be put on the burner. Time, my friend, is a mirage in our culture. What is time, after all? It’s all in the mind.
 Everyone knows about the zillion problems of Bangladesh. But if you are looking for a solution to any of them you have to come to Ottawa. We have all these intellectual giants here---there is nothing in the world, I mean nothing that these learned gentlemen do not know about. The familiar scene in any Bangladeshi party is the following: the discussion will open with a mandatory denunciation of American imperialism ( sort of an intellectual appetizer for these ranking luminaries). This is not the main course, however. With time the discussion gets more and more energized, the voices louder, the arguments heated, until it turns into a chorus of excited voices all trying to outshout each other, meaning that everybody is speaking at the same time and no one is hearing a word of what the others are saying. But that shouldn’t matter much, because all the problems of Bangladesh are getting solved in the meantime. The kind of wisdom these gentlemen are capable of exuding in these homely sessions is amazing. The country is drowning in corruption? No problem. Just shoot all the bespectacled men in the streets, as Pol Pot did in Cambodia. You want to put a stop to the student unrest and violence in the campuses? Just lock up the campus gates for a year. Population problem? Too many babies? Easy. Get all the males above 25 castrated. Many of these learned gentlemen do not even accept that population is a real problem in Bangladesh. They think it is an anti-Bangladesh propaganda of the US and other imperialist powers of the West. Who but the Almighty Allah can control the birth and death of people? And if Allah created a person He also provided his means to live. Problem is not with the number of people but with their feeble faith in Allah and His holy Messenger. Let there be a revival of true faith in Allah, then you’ll see how the land transforms into a paradise overnight. The real problem of our country lies not in birth control, but in the mosque. This is what many of them firmly believe.
  A friend of mine has just returned from a 5-week trip to Bangladesh. There he owns a lot of property. He has been trying to sell them off and transfer the money over to Canada. Because of some restrictions on transfer of foreign currency he can’t do that legally, so he had to put his creative ideas at work. He converted his takas into gold jewelry and had his wife and two daughters cover their bodies with them. Even he didn’t hesitate to don a pretty bulky chain around his neck. He got off at the Montreal airport without any hassle, paid no duties whatever, claiming that the ornaments were all for personal use, then boasted about how clever he was to have been able to hoodwink the naïve officers at Canada customs. Fresh from his successful trip he was nonetheless quite forthright about giving me an up-to-date account of the sad state of affairs in the god-forsaken country called Bangladesh. No law and order, no respect for authority, everybody is into making a quick buck by hook or crook, mostly by crook. It is corruption, my friend, rampant corruption, that is eating our country, he told me. It is impossible for honest people like you and I to live in the wretched country of crooks and thieves. The same old story---dishonesty, graft, corruption. Everybody is pointing fingers at everyone else. Except one, of course.
  I met a former officer of Bangladesh Customs in Ottawa a few days before. He had come for a visit to Canada with his family. His youngest son is graduating with a B.Sc. degree from a Montreal college. He and his family couldn’t possibly have missed the graduating ceremony, could they?  A devoted family man, he took that opportunity to travel around the world a bit, with an intention of doing the holy Hajj on his way back to Dhaka. What could be more noble and honorable than that? Only an evil mind will wonder where on earth did he get that money from, since a customs officer’s total earnings of his entire life might not be enough to cover the cost of this trip of his. However, he was kind enough to share some of his not-too-memorable experiences at the docks where he spent most of his professional life. Entire shipload of imported goods vanishing in thin air at the Chittagong port, under-the-table dealings blurring the shades between the legal and illegal, the unions and management all in collusion ripping off the government, junior clerks at minimum salary becoming millionaires in one year, how the bureaucrats, diplomats and elected members of the Shangshod conspire to import the big luxury cars from abroad, pay little or no duties, and sell them at exorbitant prices in the local market. I was given a generous serving of all these gory details. It was his firm opinion that there was no way the country could get rid of corruption because the powers who could are corrupt themselves.
  It was not exactly an earth-shaking revelation to me, but I wasn’t quite prepared to have that sort of sober analysis of the sordid state of corruption from a globe-trotting gentleman freshly retired from the very den of corruption he was talking about. Here, too, I could hear the same tune—everybody is guilty except one.
   Recently I was a dinner guest at a young couple’s house while on a month-long vacation in Bangladesh. They were related to me through my wife. The young man was a professor of Physics in a local college in Dhaka. It was brought to my attention that the professor does much of his teaching at home, in his own appropriately furnished living room, rather than in the classrooms. Not free of charge, of course. Each of the 10 or more students pays about a thousand takas every month for the lessons they are supposed to get in his class (for which they already had paid a hefty amount of money to the college). Not bad for a lowly college lecturer in a lowly college of a third world country. Rumour has it that his private students never score less than 60%, while his non-private students hardly get above 50. That didn’t prevent him, of course, from sharing some of his valuable insights with me on the state of our country. All those crooked political leaders, uncle, how despicably low and self-serving people they are! There is not an honest bone in their body. Not even the academics, the bankers, the businessmen, the bureaucrats and diplomats, the doctors and engineers, the nurses and sweepers, peons and craftsmen, ---the land is drowning in corruption, uncle, simply drowning. No one, not even God can save this country anymore. You are lucky to have escaped all this while you had time. Do you think you could get me a job in your University? I’m qualified for at least an assistant professor’s job, don’t you think? Of course, of course, my friend. If you are not qualified, who is?
  I met a barrister friend of mine at the Dhaka Club, an exclusive colonial haunt reserved only for the high and mighty. I was allowed to enter there not because I was high and mighty, but because I was accompanied by one. This friend was truly a giant figure in the country, both in size and stature. Just the opposite of what I am. He has a private helicopter, three printing presses, two apartment buildings, 10-12 houses in exclusive areas of Dhaka, he is a member of the board of directors in a number of banks and industries. His own residence in Baridhara is a huge mansion with floors carved with imported marbles from Italy, adorned with hand-woven carpets from Kashmir, and the toilet seats lined with solid gold. His two sons graduated from Ivy League colleges in the US and are comfortably settled in California. The only daughter is married to a UN executive, and has recently obtained a green card. Sipping from a glass of gin, in a classic aristocratic style, he told me in an unexpectedly gloomy voice,“ You have done very well, my friend. Saved yourself a lot of woes by staying back in Canada.” This friend of mine used to be a very idealistic person in his student years. With a spell-binding personality he used to give a lot of fiery speeches on the campus ground. An incorruptible socialist, that’s how he’d describe himself.
 “ You see Mizan, I could escape too, if I wanted to. I didn’t, because I love my country. If I left who would take care of her”?  Indeed, who would!
  A non-Bengali friend once made a comment to me that I thought was quite insightful.
 “ The worst thing that happened to you people after breaking away from Pakistan is that you are left with no one blame for all your miseries and misfortunes.” Upon that another couldn’t help quipping: “ Why, we still have India” !

  ( Translated by the author from his 1992 Bengali piece “Ekjon Chhara”, first published in Monthly Bangladesh, then in Tirtho Amar Gram)

Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান

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