Even while the flight was still in the air, approaching the runway for landing, most of the Bangladeshi passengers hastened to unbuckle their seta-belts and started a mad rush for their overhead (and invariably overweight) bags. They all wanted to be the first to get their bags out at the gate, the first to leave the plane, the first to be at the immigration line. Nobody but nobody was paying any attention to what the poor air-hostess was trying to announce at the top of her voice, her desperate plea for them to get back to their seats and keep their seat-belts buckled until the plane comes to a full stop at the gate. It all fell on deaf ears. It was in defiance of all aviation laws, as if to declare that now that they in their own land they do not have to abide by the “white man’s laws” anymore. All they had in mind is a race, a fierce, unyielding competition to beat others, by whatever means it takes, to be at the gate ahead of everybody else. “To be the first at the gate” seems to have become a national obsession with our people, completely oblivious of the fact that in the process they have managed to fall behind almost every other nation in the world.
It was just three years before, the last time I visited Bangladesh, I couldn’t but marvel at the enormous size of the new airport building, as well as the smart and prompt service at almost every official counter, both immigration and customs. This time, however, things were markedly different. I was standing near the middle of a long line-up at the immigration counter holding my “foreign” passport, when a small plain-clothed fellow came from nowhere and snatched the immigration forms I had in my hands. Before I could react he declared in a semi-official voice that I am a “foreigner”, so I needed expert help in filling out the forms properly, which he was there for, as a representative of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, to help doing, free of cost. Annoyed as I was at his not-too-polished manners I was nonetheless pleased that the Government seems to have gone out of its way to help the nonresident travelers through the rather confusing process of immigration and customs. Until I realized that this clever fellow’s motives were less than entirely altruistic toward the “poor foreigners” as he obviously would like to think of us. In fact it was more than likely that he was in league with the rest of the immigration officials in the building trying to spot the foreign passport holders, use their well-honed skills to fleece them out of a few precious US dollars or British pounds. For he not only “filled up” my forms that I had already done myself, but managed to whisk me through the front of the line, ignoring the fact this was a blatant breach of official rules, then get my papers quickly signed and sealed by the ‘kind-hearted’ officer at the booth. Tired and exhausted as I was after a long sleepless journey I couldn’t help feeling deeply embarrassed by this whole episode of receiving “precious little help” from no less than the representatives of the Govt. of Bangladesh without even asking for it, and in such an irregular manner. But the motive became clear only later, when I was getting ready to leave the immigration doors. This “kindly” gentleman stood in my way almost blocking the exit, and asked in a somewhat demanding tone: “Didn’t you forget something, sir?” Oh yes, of course, I did indeed. The tips---the ubiquitous tips. Fortunately I had an extra dollar in my pocket. What I didn’t know, however, is that a dollar is not an acceptable currency anymore at the Dhaka airport-----the minimum is a 5 dollar bill, even for a street beggar. I didn’t have a 5 dollar bill, only a couple of dollar bills and a 10 dollar one. The wily fellow somehow managed to rid me of the bill with the higher denomination.
Three years before I had vowed to myself, as I was boarding the flight out of Dhaka airport, that it would be the last time I’d have visited my country. Nothing against the country, of course, it’s just my own failing health and my inability to stay well for more than a week.It seems my body had a special affinity for all the deadly virus and bacteria of Bangladesh. In less than a week of my arrival I find myself coughing and sneezing, or visiting the toilet far too often . The poor sister of mine finds herself running from doctor to doctor, and from one clinic to another, trying to find relief for her ailing Canadian brother. It’s only near the end of my stay I may start feeling a little better, but by that time it’s time to leave. So, what’s the point going there in the first place?
And yet, hello there, I am here once again. My sons were not too pleased with me that I broke my own promise. They pleaded with me to reconsider my “foolish” decision to take the same trip yet again. For heaven’s sake, dad, cancel your flight, and save us from having to die out of worrying for you all the time”. I’d say to that, rather mischievously: “Good, let this be your turn to worry for me. This will be an earned payback for the years and years of continuous worry that your mother and I had to go through when you were young. We worried because you we loved you and because you are so precious to us. And now you will worry for the same reason”. Then I added:“ Why do I break my promise again and again? For the same reason. Love. I love my country. Pull of one’s land of birth is a very strong force. It’s like the adolescent love----intense and irrational. It doesn’t add up to any logical end-----it is like the center of a strong gravitational force from some unknown part of the universe. You are completely helpless in its field. To tell you the truth, my boys, this is the only love that outlives every other love of life----this blind love for your own country. All other material love will soon fade away, only this one will keep growing. Particularly with distance. And with age.The farther you are from your country the stronger you feel for it. Strange, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s a bit hard for you to understand these peculiar aspects of human nature, but you will one day as you get older.“
And yet, I know much too well that the country I’ve come to visit now is not the same country I knew in the past. The land that was once my endless playground, with her wide open space for my adolescent adventures to go wild at times, has long been lost. But wait a minute. Am I talking about the loss of a land, or the loss of my past? Spring comes only once in a man’s life, right? Everything is colorful at that time. One feels that he is the center of the universe----everything around him has been put in place just to please him. The world was a huge orchestra that was playing to his favorite music, an endless garden that was ablaze with flowers of all colors and fragrance.
I went to my old village for a brief visit. Accompanied by two sisters and two brothers. When I was a young boy I’d think nothing of jumping on a crowded, filthy, third class compartment of a local train at the Fulbaria station near the edge of what is now called the ‘old Dhaka’. Trains in those days were powered by steam, which to me was great fun because of its slow, leisurely pace and its apparent disregard for a time schedule. It was just a short distance by today’s standard, no more than 35 miles, yet the train would take almost the whole day to reach my destination-----Khanabari station, two miles from my village Hashnabad. No reason to complain. For me the ride was the real attraction. And the distance----ah, the illusive distance. Thanks to the slow pace of the train the 35 miles would seem to be a continent away, the distance was mesmerizingly alluring. Every time I went to my village I wished the journey would never end.
But today, alas today, my old frail body, worn by years and years of use and abuse, is hesitant to take the short trip even for half of a day. Can’t even imagine boarding a passenger train, third class or first, steam or diesel, too conscious of safety, infectious diseases, dirty water, suspicious-looking people. Too careful, too timid to take the next step. So we decided to go by car instead. Getting a car was not a problem, of course, every one of my siblings owned a private car, as almost everybody else does in Dhaka these days. As an expatriate who left his country more than 50 years ago I couldn’t help seeing the irony that in one generation the status of an automobile rises sharply from an unreachable luxury to an everyday necessity.
Although my personal choice would have been a train ride if only for the sake of old times, just to tickle myself with the memories of over sixty years before, notwithstanding the obvious discomforts in the passenger compartments and the time it takes to go from one point to another, we opted for the car, because we couldn’t imagine having to spend the night at our village home, that could hardly be called a ‘home’ anymore. My ever-caring sisters wouldn’t allow anything to happen to their beloved brother, their adorable dada, just because they let their guards down and didn’t think twice before deciding to stay over in the filthy, unhealthy environment of the village. There are far too many dangers there-----dirty water, unclean cooking hands of our well-meaning relatives, and, above all, in the dark of the night village the thieves and robbers are always lurking in the wings. Even the neo-Islamist zealots of the village can become a threat for an agnostic Canadian Bangladeshi like me. Seated comfortably in one of the two cars, my mind, however, oblivious of all the real and imagined perils of a rural visit, was traveling in a time capsule while my sisters were drawing up the details of whom to visit in the village, and where to take me that might be of some interest. I was trying to recreate the wonderful days of the past that were long gone, and letting my imagination run wild in a dazed reverie of the mind. But you know something? Even my imagination doesn’t seem to take me anywhere. It stops at a crossroad. I do not seem to be the same person anymore. Time has split the person into two different men. Today our gasoline-powered automobile is barreling along the intercity highways built by the strong hands of the free citizens of a free country. There are no more of those groves of mangoes lining the two sides of the road, no seasonal jackfruits to fill the air with their delectably luscious aroma. Instead, there are teeming crowds everywhere, with their ever present stench of sweat, their dawn-to-dusk hard labor bearing down on their frail bodies, turning them into moving shadows in a horror movie. Wherever I look I see people, waves of people bumping into each other, hanging onto each other, with no rooms to move, no rooms to breathe, nowhere to look but at each other. The density is overpowering. There is no nature there anymore, just people and nothing but people. Wherever I look I see countless rickshaws, dust-coated dirty buses and baby-taxis and trucks and bullock carts and vans and rows and rows of push-carts. How many people are there in this tiny land of mine? Fifteen crores? Maybe sixteen. That was last year’s estimate. It must have changed this year. Whatever number they come up with today, will rise by a few hundred thousand tomorrow. Next month it may be a million more. When I look around with a mental picture of rice-fields spread across miles and miles of open space under a blue sky all I see is vast construction sites filled with bricks and bags of sand and cement, all ready to build the next row of apartment complexes. In vain I crave for the village there was once on this ground, with its rain-filled river banks, its wide open fields of corn and grains gently waving at the urban visitors. Where is that village of my youth? There is no village any more. The village has been gobbled up by the city. The boys of the village do not live in the village any longer. They have gone to the city to peddle the rickety rickshaws. And they dream to go to the rich Arab lands where there are jobs, any jobs, menial jobs--- jobs that the Arabs are loathe to do themselves. To Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq. Or to the richer eastern countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore. Hungry people will go anywhere in search of food.
On your return from the visit to your homeland you are inevitably faced with one question: how was it? What do you think is the state of the country? A dull, mundane question, and not too original either. About the state of our country, my friend, you should know better than I do. It is you who have the satellite connection with the country, so you can watch every hour of the day and night what is going on in that god-forsaken country of ours. Fresh, up-to-date news, if I need to know, can be found from you, every hour by the hour. Besides, my purpose was not to gauge the overall situation in the country, rather to spend some leisurely time with my aging siblings, reminiscing our old times, our lost childhood and adolescence. Also to visit a few old friends, who are still alive, still have not lost their minds or their precious memory. If your question is: what did you see in the country, then it’s a different matter. The eye is mine, so what I see with these eyes is strictly my seeing-----that can be, and often is, going to be different from what you or others may see. We all do the act of seeing with a pair of colored glasses on our eyes----colored by our own beliefs and prejudices, and preconceived ideas and opinions. I always maintained that men do not see with their eyes, but with their minds. But you know something? The truth of the matter is: it doesn’t really make any difference to anyone in the world what my eyes saw in my country. Or even what I think is going to happen in future. I do not live in that country. I only go there for occasional visits, when the conditions are just fine for flying, with a bagful of US dollars in my pocket, then spend a few leisurely weeks eating rich Bangladeshi food at people’s homes, then head home (notice that this ‘home’ of mine is not the same it was a few short years before), as soon as the hot muggy season starts buzzing in the air. I go to my country just so I can be spoiled by the new-found comfort and affluence, which you can see only in one area-----one that is bounded by the magical circle: Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara. My travel route in Bangladesh usually starts from the airport straight to somewhere in that holy belt. The people who inhabit those areas are not much different from what I am-----a migrating winter bird. At least in their world-view. At home in nice cool days of winter, but to somewhere in the west when it becomes too hot and uncomfortable. They try to be as respectful to the local tradition as possible-----they will eat their water-soaked left-over rice, but only once a year, and not because of not enough fresh food being available, but because it is trendy to do so------not because there’s not enough food, but because there is too much. The home of my host in Dhaka isn’t likely to have a hole in the roof for the summer rain to leak through, it’s not a place where the domestic rodents would feel comfortable, or the flush floods turning the yards into a river. No, I do not go to see the ugly side of my country, only the polished, flashy face of it. My legs will rest on rich carpeted floors in the well-decorated living rooms lined with impressive collection of libraries, which I doubt if anyone has ever bothered to read beyond the first page. Every room has an attached bathroom, even the ‘servants’ quarter’ has its own private bathroom area (see, how modern, human-right conscious people we have become), which is no small feat when you consider the fact that it is in a country where you are not likely to find a single public washroom anywhere in the megacity of Dhaka, especially when you are badly in need of one.
Years of having lived in Canada, one of the coldest countries in the world, must have given me an extra sensitivity to the heat of Dhaka, even in the relatively mild season of winter. But that is not a problem, really, for my kindly hosts. Every room has an attached AC. This magical acronym, I found out, is one of the few things the new born babies in our neo-affluent families learn even before they can fully pronounce their own names. I remember the first time I heard it in a car I couldn’t figure out what it meant. (Yes, I know what you will say. By that time I was already getting a bit confused about a lot of worldly things). My sister had to spell it out for me-----Air Conditioner). So you see, physical comfort for an expatriate brother or brother-in-law is not a problem anymore. Everything is there for you-----just have to ask for it. Western music? Mozart? Bach or Beethoven? They have stocks of those also. You need to get something from the store? Don’t worry. The driver will take you there, carry your bags, even if you insist on carrying them yourself, however heavy or light they may be. In this house nobody carries his/her shopping bags but the driver or the servant, nobody has ever opened the car door by him/herself. Nobody has ever used the shoe polish on his/her own shoes, washed the clothes, hung the laundry, or even changed the baby’s diaper. Now tell me, my friend, having lived in this environment how much knowledge I’d gather on Bangladesh that would have any credibility anywhere? As far as I could see Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara is not Bangladesh------only the streets are. The homes here are the same as you will find in any modern western home, but the outside is different. The outside is hell, which people usually mean real Bangladesh. Don’t be shocked if I say that there are slums in this posh area also-----of course there are. Are there any slums in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe area, or the US’s Scotsdale? Of course not. But here in Bangladesh the realities are different. Here the coexistence of a posh area and a run-down slum is the two sides of the same equation-----one is a consequence of the other. Like the dark shadows under the bright lamp. One justifies the other. Of course not everybody looks at these ubiquitous slums of upscale Dhaka as a simple cause-and-effect situation. Only a nuisance, a disgusting eyesore, as my friends and relations would have me believe.
I found myself in a rather embarrassing situation in Dhaka on my latest visit. There was a dinner invitation at a relative’s place in the evening. A young couple, well-educated, bright and talented engineers, both husband and wife, which is not too uncommon in modern Bangladesh. They made a lot of money in their trade, so they can afford the high living styles of the upscale suburban areas of Dhaka. On their longer vacations they take the family to the expensive sea-resorts in India. Sometimes they will take off for a week-long recess to Singapore, just the two of them, or to some hill-top resorts in the European Alps. For a good life money has never been a problem for them.
After a hearty meal we were doing some small talk-----weather in Dhaka and Ottawa, the traffic jams, the political situation, the rotten state of the education system. Pretty soon we came upon the hot topic of the day----the non-resident Bangladeshis, NRB in short. It was hot because only a month ago there was a big conferenceof the NRB’s from all over the world, considered big experts in their respective areas of specialty, and hence amply qualified to fly in on expense account, dine and wine in the best hotels that the city of Dhaka can offer, and utter a few precious words, some magical words, that would suddenly help open the eyes of the hapless Bangladeshis to the right ways of how to solve the problems of their country. The discussion invariably zeroed in on the specific topic of ‘expatriate’ talent, and how that invaluable resource could be made useful for the greater good of their native country. What exactly they can do, and more specifically, what are the things that have been done here that can be credited to ‘nonresident’ talent. So went on the low-key, cool-tempered tone of conversation, until suddenly there seemed to be an eruption. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, this young technocrat who made a ton of money drawing sketches for fashionable homes and condos and ultramodern shopping malls, burst out with angry denunciation of the entire class of the ‘so-called non-resident talents’, saying things like ‘they would best serve their country by just staying away, do nothing at all’. That they are ‘the real honey-suckers who, in the name of helping their native country, are coming here to dine and wine in the best hotels, at the expense of the poor taxpayers, to give us their so-called expert opinions on what is good for us and what is not. If I had a say on any of this I’d just shove it on their face, and say: “ thanks but no thanks, we are doing quite well with or without your help, God is the best helper of all, please leave us alone, and that will be the best help you can deliver as far as we are concerned.”’ He was not finished. “You want to know who are our best friends? Who are doing the real sacrifice for their country? The real patriots? It’s those poor, illiterate, ignorant village boys who are earning those precious dollars for the treasury of their motherland by working like slaves in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. You guys are enjoying the best of all worlds in the affluent west, God bless you, but please, we beg you, do not try to advise us on what is good for us.” Frankly I was taken aback by the apparent hostility in his voice-----it was completely uncalled-for, I thought. Nothing that I said, or was uttered in our otherwise civil discussion, that could have contributed to the sudden outburst. I know, of course, that our people, mild-mannered under normal circumstances, can exhibit some unexpected combustibility with little or no apparent provocation. Obviously his wife, quiet all the time, and deeply embarrassed by her husband’s lack of common civility of a ‘gracious host’, decided to put a halt to all the madness, so she cleverly steered the discussion away from the NRB’s to the harmless family matters. My sense of relief couldn’t have been more profound.After that barrage of sharp rebuke of the entire class of the NRB’s all I could look for was a quick and graceful way to say good night to my hosts and dash for the exit.
But the whole episode, as unpleasant as it was, kept me awake for the better part of the night. Kept me thinking. Could it be, despite the absolutely despicable way he had chosen to put it to me, that there was a grain of truth in what he had to say, I asked myself. Could it be true that in the name of coming to visit our old country with loads of big ideas of how to run the country more efficiently, we, the so-called NRB’s, actually end up adding to its problems? Are we going to be a part of the solution, or, are we really the problem, as the fellow said so emphatically? Isn’t it true that we, the venerable NRB’s, come for short visits to our ‘homeland’, when the weather is nice, when the political climate is relatively calm, with bagful of theories of development that we learned from the big professional schools in the West, then appear on the national television talk-shows to dazzle the eyes of our wide-eyed viewers with the vast amount of knowledge that we have acquired, finally to board the return flight as the days start getting a little warmer and stickier?How many of us can claim to have stayed over for a year or so, like a great many Indian expatriates do, through thick and thin, to join our hands with the working mass of our hapless country, without any financial compensation in return? I wonder. There must be a handful of exceptions, as there always are, but they are definitely not the rule. At least one person I know who doesn’t----myself. Today it’s my health that wouldn’t permit me to prolong my stay, but there were other excuses not to stay when I was much younger. Today it may be the body, yesterday it was the mind. So would it be too much of a breach of graceful hospitality if my fellow country-men raise their collective fingers at me and say: “You have come to have a good time in our country, so, please have as good a time as you can, but please, we beg you, do not try to tell us what is good for us and what isn’t”? No, I don’t think so.
But despite how acutely aware I may be of my personal limitations, or those of my other aging fellow nationals from Bangladesh, there is no denying of the fact that we all originated from this land-----this is the place where the journey began. Just because we are perceived to be living in a land of plenty, enjoying the benefits of an affluent society, doesn’t mean that our lives are but an endless trail of uninterrupted mirth and happiness-----no, it is not necessarily a garden of roses as it may seem from a distance. It is true that we do not suffer the same day-to-day frustrationsand hopelessness that they do at home, so we may not be privy to their sufferings. But there are some frustrations and hopelessness in our ‘affluent’ lives also, which may not be easy for the people at home to fathom. People may live worlds apart, but they all share one common thing: problems. Their colors may vary, shades may be different, but problems they all are. It may be hard for my fellow countrymen to believe, but one of the main sources of our so-called ‘problems’ is our old country----the country we left behind. The truth of that old adage: “the farther you are the stronger the pull is”, cannot be fully appreciated until you are far away. And by far the strongest of these ‘pulls’ arise from the separation from your land of birth. The ‘land’ doesn’t remain a piece of real estate anymore, no more a piece of sodden earth, but a beloved face, a home that you have lost forever. It’s not easy to appreciate from ‘home’ in that long-deserted land, how painful that ‘loss’ can be. In our subconscious mind it can easily trickle into our everyday thoughts, in our unguarded moments of absent-mindedness, in the jobs we do for a living, or the things we talk about with our spouses and friends . Not too infrequently we find ourselves engaged in meaningless squabbles with each other on issues that directly or indirectly concern the country----sometimes we get to the point of fisticuffs, or worse. We fight over what is right or wrong for the country, get ourselves organized into political groups, organize rallies on the streets of Ottawa and Washington on issues that have nothing to do with the local population, but everything to do with things that are happening in the far-away lands. Our bodies may have found a home away from home, but our minds and hearts remain firmly rooted in the home we are not likely to go back to. So my friends, it is for more than a few good meals and good laughs and perhaps a few tears as well, with old friends and relatives, that we spend thousands of dollars every two or three years to book flights for Dhaka or Sylhet or wherever the destination may be. It is much more than what the bare eye can see, much more subtle than the mind can comprehend. It is at the very core of our existence. It defines who we are, why we are, even though we may not have a clear idea of what it is. It is with us as a constant companion, as a shadow we leave behind when we walk. It throbs in our heart continuously, like the heart itself. Those who have never set a foot out of their country will never understand what I am talking about. How will they know what drives us to start talking about our country when we manage to go there on occasional visits? There may not be much substance in what we say, but God knows there is never a question of our hearts not being there. We are well aware that we shall not be able to solve any of the problems that the country is facing, but wouldn’t it be a bigger problem if we didn’t even think about them?
In a somewhat perverse way I feel grateful to that rude young man for some of the thoughts he helped implant in my mind. Having said that I, too, have a few pointed questions to ask the self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ like him. We, the vilified expatriates, may be all air and no substance, but exactly what are the invaluable contributions they themselves are making to the well-being of the country, economic and otherwise? Yes, they are staying home, perhaps spurning the lure of a comfortable foreign country, I’ll give them the full credit for that. They are the ones who are living there through good times and bad, slugging it out with all the dirt and filth in the air, the myriads of bugs and insects that inhabit their homes, day after day, year in and year out, which I’ll happily allow them. We are mostly exempted from that part of the ‘suffering’ if I can call it suffering at all. But if we can be targeted for ridicule and rebuke because of the perceived ‘luxury’ filled life we lead abroad, why is it that the privileged class that this particular gentleman and his kind represent should be left unscathed and untouched? Do they not deserve a fraction of the same rebuke and ridicule that they have subjected us to? As far as I could tell the amount of luxury goods that I saw in that house, or in any house of their class will easily exceed the ‘luxuries’ I can afford in my own house in Ottawa, or I will ever desire to have. My house here is but a small hut compared to the palatial mansions they have built for themselves on vast tracts of land, where the cost of land is only comparable with the price of pure gold. For the people living in slums nearby, the inevitable slums I referred to a little while ago, these rich people’s big homes are like big insults, mocking them for their very existence-----a constant reminder of the inequities that pervade the entire society. These ultra-rich friends of mine may have set up their permanent residence in the country, but do they really, really, understand what it means to make a hard-earned living by working dawn-to-dusk in subhuman conditions? So, don’t you think it would be a tad hypocritical for them to try the ‘guilt’ card on me by telling all the sad tales of the desperately poor people of the country?
Let me say it straight. I think the big problem of the problem, if not the basic problem, is the freshly spawning class of ultra-rich people that we are witnessing since independence in 1971. What exactly does it mean to be ‘ultra-rich’ these days? First, they are rich, outrageously rich. They are not always aware how and where the money is pouring from, so forget about you and I having any clue. Second, their children go to the English Medium schools, preparing for their eventual O-level and A-level exams, which are administered by the lords of education not their own country, but in the good-old colonial land of United Kingdom, and in particular, the royal city of Cambridge. What it all means is that these patriotic citizens of our land are preparing their children as export models for the more coveted western markets, just as the shrimp farmers in the deep south of Bangladesh are aiming to send their best products to foreign markets. These children speak English with great ease, while they speak Bengali, supposedly their mother tongue, with equal difficulty. I am yet to hear of any high-income Bengali family sending their children to a public school where the medium is Bengali-----that would be a very shameful act indeed. They wouldn’t be able to show their face to any of their fellow members in the weekly sauna clubs or birthday parties. Third, at least one of the members in their extended families will have set up his/her permanent residence somewhere in the West, (it has to be the West, and not any crummy backyard of Africa or Asia) preferably in the US or Canada, or down under, the great open land of Australia-----because these are the blessed countries where money grows on trees, where dreams come true no matter what, and where the weekly income for an unemployed worker may exceed the wages of a regular working person. From my personal knowledge of the Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara triangle, I haven’t seen a single family who doesn’t have one or more children having emigrated to the west. Fourth, they own more than one ‘flat’ in the city. Flats, for this class of people, are what can be described as a cash cow. Their god of good fortune. The idea is that one of the flats will be their principal residence, while the others are their ‘frredom-55’-----a nice little nest-egg for their retirement.
In the good old days the phrase ‘upper middle class’ used to mean much more than their higher incomes. Usually it would mean higher education, higher cultural sensibilities, higher taste in arts, music, lifestyle, as well as high moral standards. Nowadays, of course, these are extras that need not restrict anyone from claiming a status among the upper classes-----money alone can apparently buy a lot of those so-called education, high taste, arts and music. Today higher education is just an option-----not a necessary ingredient for real success. The argument goes like this: if you can get rich by skipping the education part then why waste time on it? Why indeed! Besides,what does education mean these days, anyway? A piece of paper with an official seal on it? Sometimes it’s not much more worth than that lousy piece of paper. Education today is like the hard currency-----a highly devalued commodity. Just as the money today isn’t worth a fraction of the money fifty years before, education has faced the same fate if you compare with what it used to be in our grandparents’ days. According to popular folklore there was a tradition in some of the old Hindu families that the smartest and the most gifted of their children will choose teaching in high schools as his/her profession. Education in those times meant much more than imparting classroom instruction according to a set syllabus-----it meant building a character, a sound solid human being capable of withholding the best traditions of his/her society with full respect for all fellow human beings. Education used to mean preparing the young men and women for a better future of themselves as well as the world they live in. It meant strength of character, of strong resolve to withhold the fundamental values of humanity, of an idealism to forge ahead trying to create a better world. How does that lofty goal compare with the strictly utilitarian attitude of today? Let’s not even think about that. It is too painful.
The correlation between higher education and the gradual development of higher personal tastes cannot be overemphasized. By education I do not mean the usual rote education, but real education which is a lot harder. Rote education ends up with a meaningless ‘certificate’, but no enlightenment. For what I call real education the goal is the enlightenment, a certificate is just a minor acknowledgement of completion of a program. In the olden days there was a word in Bengali:Shikkha-deekkha, meaning, roughly, education with dedicated devotion. That is, both a curriculum and a character. A trained person for a particular job, but a complete personality for all jobs. You can get a formal education by simply cramming your books, but you cannot build your character or your personality by cramming anything. It comes through years of dedicated hard work and a strict regime of mental and physical hardship and austerity. This dedicated devotion I am talking about will teach you what it means to be a human being, what it means to be humble and respectful to others, to be tolerant and charitable, to be a better person, be it at home or at a gathering or a shopping area, or wherever you may be. Fifty or sixty years before people didn’t have enough money to send their kids to pricy schools, nor did they need to. There was good education, good solid education, even in the poorest of poor schools. Plus a full dose of character-building programs.
You will see a problem no matter where you look at in my old country of Bangladesh. The ranking of these problems in terms of severity may be debatable, but ultimately this too will be counterproductive. Experts in different areas may pick a different one, some may choose the overpopulation, some food production, some will pick economy as their pet topic, some may take education. What is needed now is not as much their expertise in locating the problems, as their knowledge of how to address those problems in an effort to seek a solution. I am not much of an expert in anything. But I’ll humbly submit that I spent my entire life in the business of education, so it may not too impertinent on my part to offer one or two ideas on this subject.
Right now, right at this moment, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that there is an undercurrent of a slow wave of change in the country. One could feel it in the air. It’s not on the surface yet, but it is pulsating, it is palpable. It would be nice if the initiative would originate from the political quarters, but let us not lament on something that could have happened but didn’t. The crux of the matter is that some kind of change is about to happen there. Question is: what kind of change? Who will be the agent of that change? What is needed isn’t just any kind of change, but some fundamental changes. Changes in the way people behave, and think. Changes in the way people look at their values and traditions. They are not easy to come by----they take time, may take years and years, may even take some catastrophic events for those attitudinal changes to take root. Is it likely that the neo-rich class of Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara triangle will for some reason feel inspired to bring about a radical change in the society that may threaten their own freshly-minted wealth? Hardly! They will be quite satisfied with the status quo, as the rich always are in every society in every goddamn country. That leaves us with only one possible source: the younger generation, who do not have much to lose except a dream for a better country that they feel they are owed. They are acutely aware that they have been cheated out of a life by the greedy older generation who, in the name of enhancing the wealth of the country, ended up enhancing their own, thus ruining the future of an entire generation of not so rich but talented and promising young boys and girls. It is the children of the filthy rich who are finding employment in foreign lands because they had the good fortune of learning the English language at school, while the children of the poor middle class had to languish in Bengali schools trying to learn everything from Math to Religion to Science in the Bengali medium thus closing the door for them to compete with the more privileged ones. This has to change. This has to change in a radical way. Education should be open and fair to everybody irrespective of his/her means. This is especially true in an underdeveloped country like Bangladesh, although my personal belief is that the principle of universal education should be applicable universally to all people in every country of the world.
If there has to be a meaningful change in my country then I strongly believe the first step must be taken in the area of education. The slow erosion of our educational standards didn’t start recently----it began almost as soon as the British left the subcontinent. Slowly but steadily the foundation started getting weaker and weaker. Ill-trained teachers, high student-teacher ratios in classrooms, poorly written textbooks, more emphasis on religious education than on modern scientific learning-----none of these elements had any positive effect on the overall objectives of what a modern society should be aiming for. Unfortunately the process of decline accelerated since our independence instead of the opposite that was what everyone hoped for. The primary reason for that is perhaps a very poor understanding of the real objectives of the nation as a whole by the people who were put in power.What can you expect from a semi- literate person, given the portfolio of education, in charge of drawing up a master plan for the entire country? Add to that one more unspeakable element of gory filth----the rampant corruption at every level of the government, and you get the blueprint of the total breakdown of a system that never had a chance to recover. In the name of introducing the principal language of the country as the primary medium of education for the common mass, while setting up a parallel system of privately funded for-profit elite schools where English is the medium of education (and where, incidentally, the kids from the politicians’ families went), they helped create two or more classes in a society where class was never one of the major issues, since most of us basically belonged to the same class, namely, the class of working farmers. Suddenly, in a large community of have-nots, there cropped up pockets of upper-class, upper middle-class and lower middle-classes.
I was born when the British were still reigning over the country. I went to a government-subsidized High Secondary School for Muslim boys where most of the students came from farming families in the nearby villages. However there were also a number of boys from the rich landowning family of the local Nawabs, who always came to school in chauffeur-driven automobiles. Within the walls of our school we never felt that we belonged to two different ‘classes’. But today, things are radically different. The ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ hardly get an opportunity to mix together, let alone become close friends. Thanks to the new lords of the independent country the ‘classes’ are now sharply defined and divided. One may ask: did we learn anything in those subsidized schools that was worth something? I can’t answer for others, but I can for my own education. Admittedly I didn’t turn out to be a wonder-kid, but whatever English I can manage to write today (I know, it’s not much), is all that I learned in that poor school of my childhood where the barefooted farmers’ boys sat beside the well-dressed boys from the landowners’ families. What we had in those days was a balanced education: equal emphasis on Bengali and English, plus a strong foundation in basic mathematics and sciences.
But today, the ‘good’ schools are defined to be those that have English as their medium of education, where you have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to get you child admitted. Good schools are only for rich people today. I’m told that even to get your toddler admitted in a kindergarten you need to spend a bushel of money, plus a hefty ‘voluntary’ contribution to the school’s general fund. These under-the-table arrangements are called ‘donations’. On top of all that there is the ubiquitous ‘additional income’ for the teachers, in the guise of the so-called ‘coaching class’. This is nothing but a form of ordinary graft, an abominable betrayal of the sacred oath of student-teacher relationship. In my days, the honorable teachers, almost as poor as their students, wouldn’t even imagine how to ask for money from their students for a bit of extra coaching outside the classroom. Thank God, I didn’t have to grow up today, because if I did then there was no way my father could afford sending me to school, let alone dishing out some additional cash for this vicious malignant in our education system called ‘coaching school’. I wonder what would have happened to me if I were to grow up today with my father having to support a large family with his honest, hard-earned little income. Quit school after the primary? Peddle a rickshaw? Die an early, happy death, of consumption, or cholera, malaria?
Did I say ‘honest’ income? Something of an oxymoron in today’s polluted culture. ‘Honesty is the best policy’---the phrase used to be drilled into our head in those days. There was another popular phrase that we all loved to quote: ‘Knowledge is power’. Hah! What a joke. Today, honesty is the worst policy----a sure way to perennial poverty. And knowledge? What about knowledge? All you need is an iPhone, a smartphone, that everyone has these days, and the real power is not that small box anyway, but in the hard cash that the ultra-rich will need the help of their smartphone to count.
How long can this be allowed to continue? Not too long, I hope. This has to change----dramatically and fundamentally. We need a complete overhaul. A state that stands to effectively block the way a young man or woman can fulfill his/her dreams and ambitions, irrespective of his/her means, social or financial status, his/her class, race or religion, that fails to show the way to a poor child how to unshackle himself from the bondage of poverty, is essentially a failed state, in my opinion. That state doesn’t deserve a place among the family of independent states of the United Nations. Regretfully I have to say that my old country of Bangladesh is tethering precariously toward that condition. Somehow we have to find a way to dig ourselves out of that deep hole. What we need, desperately need, is change, some radical change, real meaningful change. Not cosmetic, but fundamental change.
I’m well aware that I am not the first individual who has thought about it as a serious problem. There are many more, both in and out of the country. Lot of us have wondered how did we, how on earth, did we allow our education system erode so quickly and apparently, so irretrievably? I had an opportunity to discuss the matter with some of the people who are directly affected by this precipitous decline of educational standards, namely, the young students, past and present. They, too, do not have much faith in the standard of their education in comparison with other countries. They suffer from low esteem of what they have learned in their home country, which becomes acutely clear to them when they come abroad. They are aware that they will have to make up a lot of ground before they can catch up with their fellow students from elsewhere. It is not their fault. They have been cheated out of a good, honest education. They are the new generation of worthless degrees with no real value. They have no jobs at home, and no demand abroad, except in cheap labor markets. With a certificate for a bachelor’s degree gathering dust at home they find themselves having to make a living driving a cab, delivering pizza or cutting meat in the grocery stores. They didn’t deserve this----we have forced them to seek a life they didn’t want to have. This is our lost generation----lost because we failed to take care of them when there was time.
As a preamble to the rest of my article I’ll tell you a story about a little girl I read about on one of my recent visits to Bangladesh. She is from some remote village in North Bengal-----a young teen-aged girl, the oldest of a number of siblings, who along with their hapless mother were left on their own by their father, missing for quite a while, and presumed to have remarried and set up a new family. The mother tries her best to feed her children by working dawn to dusk at other people’s homes, but of course, there is never enough to feed the entire family. Normally, the eldest child, the teen-aged girl in this case, would also have worked in someone’s house to supplement her mother’s meager income. But this girl had other ideas. She wanted to go to school. She wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. If this is not an audacity of hope then what is I wonder. There was no way on earth that she or her mother could have worked it out to send her to school while keeping the family fed. But she made it happen. And she was absolutely determined that she would make it happen. So this is what the little girl did. She started going to school as she planned, then, after school she would come home to gobble up whatever tidbits were there in the kitchen for her to calm the hunger, take an empty pot, and run for the market in a village where nobody would recognize her face. The idea was to beg----yes, beg for a few small changes from the kind-hearted strangers. There was never enough money in the pot, but just about enough to buy some essentials for her mother to cook for the family. The next day the same routine would follow, and the next, the next, and so on. This is how she kept her dream alive. I do not know, and I wish I tried more to follow up her story, what happened to her since I left the country. But this girl kept me thinking. Isn’t it our collective responsibility to rescue that girl from the cruel bondage of having to feed her family with her empty-pot charity while keeping her dream alive to become a doctor? Is it what our independence was meant for? No, I think it is time we wake up to what the real needs are. The real need is to liberate that poor girl from the indignity of begging and send her straight to school without having to worry for the food for the family. I think the state of Bangladesh owes it to her. Let no dreams be shattered for want of money. Our future cannot be built unless we let these dreams, these outrageous dreams, come true. True liberty for the nation can be achieved only when the individual liberties can be assured.
A few of my high achieving friends have expressed the view that there is a severe lack of top quality research in Bangladesh, that there are no good researchers, no real scholarship, and hence no intellectual productivity in the real sense. I do not share that view completely. I agree that there isn’t much meaningful research going on in the country, but it is not true that we do not have top quality researchers or scholars. On the contrary, I think our pool of national scholars is no less impressive than almost any country in South Asia. A few of them can easily compete with the best of the world in their fields. No, it’s not the dearth of scholars we suffer from, what we do not have is an environment of scholarship. We do have highly gifted people among us, who could have been tremendously productive had they been given the opportunities, the freedom of mind and thought, as well as ample financial support that is almost automatic in western societies for scholars of that caliber. Perhaps more than the physical support what is needed for a creative mind to keep producing new ideas is freedom-----something our society doesn’t seem to understand too well. If a scientist or a scholar of any field has to be always conscious if his/her ideas may be found offensive by some powerful person or some powerful group, political or religious or otherwise, then he/she cannot do his/her work freely. Production of knowledge is not much different from production of food grains. It needs good care-----good soil condition, regular watering and sufficient exposure to the sun as well as rain. The conditions conducive to good intellectual productivity hasn’t developed as much as one would hope for. The inevitable result of all this is a state of total frustration many of these highly intelligent people find themselves in, isolated and abandoned, each living in a cocoon of his/her own making, some even finding solace in doing the most unproductive thing of all-----spend their time in the mosque. They may have been formally honored in public ceremonies with some token awards some time or other, but by and large they are left alone to rot in their own solitary confinement. What our nation doesn’t seem to understand is that the true scholars do not care much for those meaningless awards----what they want is an opportunity to work freely, independently, and without any interference from any power group of any kind. Unfortunately we are yet to be able to create these conditions for scholars to thrive and prosper. As a result we may have individual scholars here and there, but no sustained work around the ideas introduced by him/her-----no school of scholarship as there are aplenty in the western world.
Finally, I’d like to take a look at some of the traditional blockages that seem to prevent the creative mind to have a free hand in creating his/her new things. The most obvious blockage is our religious bigotries, our near total obsession with the daily rules and rituals of religious practices. Even apart from religious obsession we cherish a social culture that isn’t a whole lot different from a tribal culture of the middle ages. Our mind is focused more on the individual family than on the nation as a whole. In most matters of life our center of attention is our family (extended family I mean), so to hell with national interests if there is a perceived conflict with our personal interests. This family or self-oriented mindset of our people demonstrates itself quite blatantly in almost everything we look at in Bangladesh. An ultra-narrow pathway beside a palatial home built on an acre-wide piece of land, open manholes and sewers all over the town, no public washrooms anywhere in the city while every house in the upper middle class areas has an attached bathroom with every room, people unwilling to line up for anything, be it for a passport, a ticket at the cinema, or a seat in the hospital. The same is true when it comes to employment for a job. It is almost always the inside man, recommended by the big boss, who will get the job, and not necessarily the most qualified person. I am told it is the same in the colleges and universities as well-----forget about your qualifications, what matters most is whom you know and how powerful your patron is.
These are but small examples of how the individual/family interests are often outweighing the national interests in our tribal culture. I’ll admit that there are pockets of valiant efforts here and there to break away from this vicious circle of family interests. From time to time we hear of outstanding people doing outstanding things for the community that bring benefit not just to their own families but to every family, which is what we need. Unfortunately, more often than not, these too, are individual efforts that tend to fizzle out soon after the person dies. Not too many people come forward to pick up the mantle and carry on the good work he/she started. These individual good acts are, in a sense, demonstration of the same phenomenon I just alluded to------individualism. What the society needs, in this day and age, are collective efforts. In order to sustain the good work begun by one visionary individual one needs to establish an institution that will continue the tradition. In most of the western countries it is the strength of the institutions that keep the entire structure standing on its own legs. Almost every great man/woman leaves a legacy which gradually develops into powerful institutions that benefit an entire population. Legacy alone doesn’t make one immortal, his/her work carried through by the subsequent institutions, do. His contribution then crosses over the local area into the international field. He becomes a world citizen.
What our country needs is many more of these outstanding people-----people who become household names in course of time not just in their own homeland but the world over. I can name just a few institutions in Bangladesh that have earned my respect because of the long tradition of service they have established. Bangla Academy, Bulbul Academy, Chhayanot, Udichi, Arts and Culture Academy, Bardem, General Health Center, are among the few that deserve honorable mention for their long and difficult journey in carrying on with their mission of public service. Perhaps the most well-known among all Bangladeshi institutions is Grameen Bank, started by the great visionary gentleman called Dr. Mohammad Yunus. People outside Bangladesh may not have heard about Chhayanot or Bardem, but Grameen Bank is no longer just a Bangladeshi term, it has an international flavor. We need more of these world-known institutions. We need intellectual production similar to South Korea and Japan. We need good bright innovators, thinkers, inventors, topnotch scholars. Don’t we have the potential? Of course we have. Talent is something that is uniformly distributed among the human race, at least that is what I believe. It’s not the lack of talent but the lack of social and political support that often keeps them from pushing ahead. We need to shake our tribal culture, for heaven’s sake. We need to create a free environment for the talented people to their things, to create a new world for us all. At the moment our governments are not doing their jobs as well as one would hope for. They seem to be more interested in polarizing the students in the universities for political purposes, rather than encouraging the highly talented young men and women to become successful innovators and inventors in whatever field they may be working on. Our leaders keep boasting about the University of Dhaka being the Oxford of the East, which is no more than a cruel joke today. It was never comparable to Oxford, and isn’t likely to be in the near future, as long as the social and political attitudes of the government and the people remain unchanged.
( Translated by the author from the original Bengali story: Shudhu Mati Noy)
Mizan Rahman ♥♪♥ মীজান রহমান