Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bangladesh: A Million Mutinies Now


When the whole country is going on a shopping frenzy, models in flashy designer clothes adorning pages of different magazines and newspapers trying to coax customers into buying the latest Hindi-film inspired Kameez or sari, there exist in this city hundreds and thousands of children, lost and abandoned, who have to struggle day and night to make their ends meet. This is a story of sheer exploitation and utter indifference; a story where mothers are forced to sell their newborns for the price of a two-litre mineral water bottle; a story where children start working as young as five to grow up stunted and malnourished.


On Eid day, six-year old Mohammad Masud will run errands for his benefactor

Mohammad Masud cannot recall what his father looked like; the only thing the six-year old can recall of his father is that of a man drunk who used to beat up his own wife mercilessly; “Like a dog,” Masud says. This he can recall, but how, and under what circumstances one day “that man” stopped coming to their house, Masud’s memory fails to tell us. He, however, remembers entering a shack-- with a ceiling made of blue sheets of plastic--somewhere near BNP-Bosti, where he has been living for the last three years; in their first two years of stay, his mother worked as a housemaid in a nearby house; but one day, Masud believes it was one of the 31 days of last December--precisely on which day that he cannot tell, he has never seen a calendar in his life so far--his mother did not turn up. His wait ended and all hell broke lose under his young feet, when a neighbour called on to inform him of his mother’s death.

“He said it was a truck. He also said that some women did not know how to walk on the streets,” Masud says.

Masud’s neighbour peddles ganja and Phensidyl and soon took Masud under his fold and since his mother’s death, Masud has been running errands for this thin, nervous and shabby man, whom he reveres and to whom he feels grateful for saving his life from starvation. So every day, at dawn Masud will wake up to get ready to carry bundles of ganja to his saviour’s business associates in Saidabad or, at times, to places as far away as Gulshan and Banani.

So, how is he going to spend Eid this time? “These things are not made for us,” he says and smiles; a smile of someone who has earnestly though that a bad question is being asked and anything more need not be told.

At daytime during Eid fifteen-year old Purnima will sleep in a quiet corner of the park

Fifteen-year old Purnima carries a deep scar, the size of a grownup’s middle finger, on one side of her face. Two years ago, a student of class six, Purnima fell in love and eventually eloped with a man she hardly knew. They met when Arif, the man, came to her village to visit one of his relatives. To her, he became an escape from the tortures and brutalities she was going through at the hands of a merciless stepmother. The girl’s dream of starting life anew was soon torn down into peaces. For as soon as they reached Dhaka and booked a room in a hotel in Fakirerpul, Arif left her in a room, alone and locked, saying he is going to fetch her some water.

She has never seen him again.

The following night two men turned up and raped her; for a year she led the life of a sex slave; food they gave her, but whenever she had showed any sign of disinterest in her work, they beat her up, which was usually followed by a threat of gangrape. This ordeal abruptly ended one day; the law enforcers made a raid on one wintry evening, and Purnima, along with her colleagues and keepers were taken to the nearby police station. One humiliation followed the other: the next day some newspapers ran photographs of her along with the others; though the hotel keepers got away with the minimum punishment, a fine perhaps or a hefty bribe, the girls had to spend agonising weeks in the prison. Once they were out in the free world again, she and the other girls were left with no other options but to start the hotel-life all over again. Brutal and soul-killing though it was, this, in the least, gave them three meals a day. But the hotel had been sealed off by the police now; one of the girls knew about the park, where she and the others had come six months ago, and where she now sits and waits for her clients. Purnima is not even her real name, it is a nom de guerre given her by one of the hoteliers, as he thought she resembled a Bangladeshi film actress.

Policemen pester her still, on a daily basis, sometimes for a bribe, sometimes for some sexual favour. When a few days ago, as it rained heavily she did not have a single client for a good four days, some policemen turned up and asked for money, she told them that she did not have any. They beat her up, tried to rape her, and when a group of onlookers gathered to view the spectacle, the law enforcers decided to pick her up to their van. One of the hotel-girls happened to be passing by at that time, her 50 taka saved Purnima from further disgrace.

“I still look for him,” she says about Arif, the man who has ruined her life for good. “While walking the streets sometimes I say to myself that there, in the midst of all these people that person who has destroyed me who is living a comfortable life, who knows, may be with a wife and their children!” she says.

Her Eid? At daytime she will try to get some sleep in a quiet corner of the Park, and in the evening she may go to the theatre to watch a Bangla movie. When she says this, a thin faint smile comes to life as though for a few seconds she becomes a child again.

Nine-year old Asma will spend Eid begging in the streets of the city

The first thing one notices about Asma when one sees her in a busy street, standing on a worn-out clutch, in shabby clothes, is that she has a harelip; it curls like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gapes; she does not have a surname, this nine-years old girl does not know who her parents are, nor can she tell how she has lost her left foot. When she is asked anything about, what she says, these “difficult questions” she always suggests that the inquirers talk to her Khala (aunt). Her aunt, a sturdy woman in her mid-thirties says that Asma has been “sold” to her when she was as young as two. The woman, herself a beggar, claims that the deal was struck in Chilmary, Kurigram, where both she and Asma’s parents where neighbours. The family could not afford to look after her, the aunt claims, and as she has lost a leg-- in an accident she says, but knows not what kind of--and as she has a hare lip, the chances of marrying her off has always deemed remote. According to the deal, the woman gave two ten taka notes to Asma’s father to take her to Dhaka where her would-be aunt earns her bread by begging in the streets. Whatever this girl, still a child, earns goes to the woman.

Asma always looks forward to occasions like Eid and Shab-e-Barat, because, she says, only in these days rich people give alms to the poor generously.

What if they refuse to remain poor?

So, under the billboard on which a jazzy local model uses her heavily made-up face to seduce you into buying the new plasma television, children like Asma, Purnima and Masud toil under a seething sun and, at times, in a pouring rain. The live like a dog; death comes to their doors silently; when the rich and mighty get sick they swiftly jet off to Thailand, Singapore or India, these children, on the other hand, only because they were born poor, always die miserably.

In this Eid before one buys clothes at thirty or forty thousand taka apiece so that he or she can brag or boast a little or because a few interesting people will take some interest in him or her, one must know how crude and indecent this looks like. If this does not happen, if after doing something so vulgar and uncouth, your conscience does not gnaw at you or the faces of these poor children do not haunt you in your dream, if you do not wake up one December morning to a recurring nightmare, please know that you have sold your soul to the Devil. Please know, then, that you have just enrolled into a new club of fat arrivistes, who eat and breed like humans, but have ceased to become one long ago.

The tales of these three lives--millions of other such lives-- can never have a happy ending unless and until you stand up and change your attitudes. Development in capitalism is not a homogenous phenomenon, we know; a society can never change itself in a day, we agree. But, it needs a timid step, at first, to start a giant long-march. A single act of goodness from your part can forever change the lives of hundreds and thousands of Asmas, Purnimas and Masuds. You can always chose the path you are on, but please do not complain when the wheel of history turns on you. What if these millions of lost souls, these children with a forgotten dream, growing up in a world of anarchy, at the end, resort to violence? What if they, frustrated and hapless as they are, translate their misery into angst?

One should not have to travel afar to see signs of trouble. Incidents of “ordinary people taking law into their own hands” have been on the rise. First, it was an uprising of apoplectic farmers burning cars and destroying government buildings to press home their demand of an adequate supply of fertilisers. One such incident after the other, however disturbing, however detrimental to the country’s “image” abroad, have given the masses this idea that in a country where every politician is corrupt, where every one of them carries a price tag, the only way to change this apathetic tyrannical world is through a display of their seething angst. Events like Kansat, Phulbari, Mirpur or Uttara have shown us the extent to which people can go, risking everything, to get what they believe their natural right. This has never been a question of which of the two old ladies has served (ruled would have been the apt word for they both act and talk like modern day queens) the nation better. Many may see these as isolated incidents, for these have taken place in what pretentious half-literate analysts have described as “small pockets”; one who does not want take these outbursts of people’s long-running fury seriously may do so at his or her own peril, for these incidents tell us that a significant number of citizens have lost their faith and trust in a system that has failed pathetically to deliver.

When Bangladesh was liberated from the clutches of Punjabi-Sindhi cliques of Pakistani bourgeoisies in 1971, we were promised a society based on Democracy, Socialism, Nationalism and Secularism; that pledge has never come into being; on the contrary, with a heavy heart, we observe the advent of one military despot after another who whored our sacred constitution, plundered the country’s national resources and had made it a hell for religious and ethnic minorities.

When the more corrupt and viler of the two despots were overthrown in a mass upsurge on December 6, 1990, many had described it as Bangladesh’s own Bastille Day, the country’s Bourgeoisies Revolution. Like its French counterpart, the Revolution promised a society based on Liberty and Equality; things have never changed since then though, only the colour and shape of the tyrants varied. Here, in Bangladeshi society, exists an invisible wall of seclusion and segregation. The country has become a filthy playground for a group of lumpen bourgeoisies, who, half-literate and uncultured as they are, driven by a get-rich-quick lifestyle, are aping the most rotten and putrid versions of Indian and US cultures.

This is a country where setting up a trading firm is more profitable than running an industry; more lucrative, however, remains illegal trading; smuggling that is. So the first timid step that has been talked about earlier can be made by a simple but bold move: Buy everything Bangladeshi; this urge is not because everything foreign is bad or we wish to turn our country into a hermit kingdom; but this step is necessary to save our country in a ruthless globalised world where every country has to fight its own battle.

If things are not changed soon, there is a risk that the country may turn into a failed state. Those who are planning to buy themselves substandard expensive foreign clothes for this year’s Eid must know that people turn round when they are faced to the wall; if you still ask what they do when they turn round, please read the newspapers. These are strong words and you are expected to take them as they are.



ahmedehussain@gmail.com