Tweets from Projonmo Square—-four hours in the Tahrir of Dhaka, amidst a people’s revolution

Projonmo Square, around 150,000 protesters have been demonstrating here since February 6th without any recess.

Just walked into the #Shahbagh Square; people from all walks of life have gathered here since the past three days to stage their protest.

I was absolutely flabbergasted, overwhelmed and shocked by the huge crowd that lay ahead of me. Within a minute after I had entered, I was looking at virtually thousands of faces; faces emanating a jubilant feature you normally associate with patriotism and a vision for a better world.

Yet in those faces which had come from all sorts of diverse social backgrounds—-I saw a welcome to anyone willing to join them in this fight to serve the history. I had a momentary glimpse into the future of all ordinary, middle-class, patriotic Bangladeshis like me. I saw an insight into the glorious future that awaited my country, and the huge role that I can play in order to become a part of its history.

What a crowd! #Shahbagh, the Tahrir of Dhaka

Trust me when I say this: never before in my life have I felt a love for my country so subtle yet so overwhelming. At that point in time, even if someone had told me that my country required me to jump in the deepest crevices of the Atlantic Ocean, I would have taken the leap valiantly. It was a feeling that transcends almost all other subtleties in the universe. It was a discovery. A new discovery of patriotism.

Candle-light protests at night

Wherever I look, I find hope. Hope for a country where its nascent generations are as patriotic as the one that liberated it from the hyenas who once upon a time enslaved the masses.

For forty 42 years our land has waited; waited patiently for a blood and passion.

In 1971, in one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan at a cost of 30 million lives and the rape of around 2 million women (In fact, the war is described as one of the few in history where the Pakistani army used rape of Bengali women as a powerful tactic to not only intimidate the people, but also to subsequently create a society filled with bitter truths.). During the war, a group of Bengalis and Biharis (immigrants from Pakistan into Bangladesh), in an attempt to please their Pakistani masters, collaborated with the Pakistani Army and participated in the mass genocide and rape undertaken by the military regime. The main Bangladeshi political party that betrayed their own people to form a paramilitary group with the army was the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Shibir.

The people’s revolution on the second day.

For forty years, none of those collaborators at the top had been handed down a death sentence. And moreover, they are now occupying powerful and wealthy positions in our society. How ironic for a nation! #Shahbagh

But today after all these 42 years, the soil of our land has once again cried the cry of freedom and justice. And it only took one verdict.

On 5th February, 2013 when Kader Mollah———infamously known as Mirpurer Koshai (the Butcher of Mirpur) for mass-slaughtering around 400 unarmed, innocent Bangladeshis and raping many young women in his area during the war; some with his own hands and others by direct orders to his disciples—-came out of the International Criminal Tribunal with a verdict of guilty and a lifetime imprisonment, the general public became more enraged than ever before to see the criminal’s smiling face and victory sign flashing out of all media outlets.

A huge candle-light vigil, with the map of Bangladesh illuminated in the center.

For 400 murders, a person gets a life sentence? Really?

And so the online community of Bangladesh, extremely angered with the judge not giving a death sentence to the accused, called for peaceful protests and demonstrations in the gigantic crossroads of Shahbagh, a bustling part of Dhaka which is almost always clogged with speedy traffic.

Although initially led by the Bangladeshi Blogger and Facebook Activists’ Group, the protest was soon joined in by thousands of ordinary people from all walks of life who were discontented with the tribunal’s verdict.

It took barely a night for Shahbagh to become the center of the people’s revolution, and to represent a new call for justice and rule of law. Traffic was halted for at least a kilometer all around Shahbagh and security was tightened throughout the area.

But the most important part about the protests was the people’s unity. Students, teachers, clerics, liberals, leftists, right-wings, people regardless of their political and religious affiliations appeared hand in hand to lead a new uprising against the traitors, mass-murderers and rapists of 1971. Everyone promised to keep political speech out of everything, and asserted that the sole purpose of occupying Shahbagh was to ignite the spirit of 1971 into all the people of the country.

A revolution for the people by the people. Fourth consecutive day of the protests

It’s 2013. And our generation has now engulfed into a new war of liberation: ensuring justice for the souls who were murdered, raped and betrayed by these war criminals.

2013, 42 years after 1971, brought on a new war. A war that we, the new generation are entitled to fight.

On the third successive day of the protest, when I joined the crowd and chanted “Ekattorer haatiyaar gorje uthhuk arrekbar” (Let the weapons of 1971 be loaded once again this year) at the top of my voice, I knew that for the first time in my life, our land and our generation had a glorious future.

And I felt confident that this was where I wanted to be. That this was the city, this land of the 160 million and this vibrant vicinity was where I wanted to write the golden pages of my autobiography.

And after that day, time and again, I have strolled all the way from my home in Green Road to Shahbagh Square, recently renamed Projonmo Square (the Generation’s Square) in light of the recent events, simply to chant slogans and be a part of the crowd. I will do it tomorrow again, the day after as well, and also the day after that as long as the revolution exists and our demands for a death sentence for the mass murderers of 1971 are not met.

The entire country has but one verdict: the traitors must all be hanged for their mass-killings and rape during 1971.

I will be there as long as the blood underneath my body is hot and flowing through my veins. As long as my people, my nation does not get the justice it deserves.

I will chant ‘Joy Bangla’ (Long Live Bangladesh!) with my sore throat and never get exhausted because I have a feeling that this was what I always wanted to be a part of.

I will not stop, the blood of 30 million people that courses through me will not cease because I know that we are all united as a nation regardless of our religious or political divisions.

In 2013, although I am not in a battle-field, I am the freedom fighter. The new freedom fighter vying for the long-lost justice.

I might just be a speck of light in the huge crowd of #Shahbagh, but I know I am contributing towards sth far greater than any of us can ever dream about: towards building our great nation….

Joy Bangla!

 

 

 

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Cursed be the land that gave birth to you Bishwajit. Cursed be the existence which scapegoated you. Cursed be the universe that stayed silent at your murder.

I am sure this wasn’t the first time such a barbaric act happened in Bangladesh. I am sure this wasn’t the first time you have been terrified beyond your wits by what is happening outside your comfortable, air-conditioned bedroom; or the first time you were moved by watching the headlines of the Bangladeshi media outlets.

But what I am sure about is the fact that the culprits will get away once again.

A very ‘random’ blockade scene in Bangladesh

On December 9, 2012, Bangladesh had a fierce country-wide blockade imposed by the opposition party of the Parliament, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), along with its alliance Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s most powerful Islamic fundamentalist party whose central leaders are all in jail due to war-crimes. The event was as usual as it always is—–opposition activists burned vehicles and tires, engaged themselves in extremely rough scuffles with law enforcers that culminated in many of their activists being taken into police custody, and street-fights broke out between the mercenaries of the opposition and the ruling party’s endorsed thugs from each of their respective student wings. However, the next day all the media outlets flashed only one headline.

On Monday, December 10, 2012, when the rest of the world celebrated the Global Human Rights Day, the front page covers of all newspapers were adorned with a man being hacked to death by none other than the hooligans of the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). The television news channels had a field day with their camera crews showing BCL activists beating and stabbing a man to death whom they accused of being an opposition goon possessing cocktail bombs; and as all this was happening the police present around the BCL men simply watched silently as the man was being beaten up while the newspaper reporters were watching and filming the scene in action.

The ruling party’s BCL thugs beating the innocent Bishwajit to death

But apparently, the guy in question being hacked to death was not an opposition party goon. Rather, he was a normal tailor who was going to his shop from home to work hard and meet his ends in urban Dhaka.

In cases such as this, the government would deliberately jump to conclusions that the man beaten to death was actually a sponsored mercenary of the opposition who was vandalizing vehicles and looting shops and thus deserved a ‘repercussion’ for his gruesome act. On the other hand the opposition parties, in a desperate attempt to stir up public sentiments in their favor, would seize the opportunity to claim that the man who was demonstrating peacefully against the fascist government was a devoted patriot from their group. But only this time, neither of the parties could play the incident in their favor.

The reason behind this is the fact that the man was a 24-year old Hindu by the name of Bishwajit Das. While the BCL men were killing him, he was heard screaming repeatedly that he couldn’t be an activist from the Islamist opposition because of his religion. And that they could test this physically right at that time if they wanted to. But the more secular BCL group, which was busy with its prey, hardly listened to him.

They left him unconscious while the media-personnel took all they required; and the police, with its sticks and batons to beat up trouble-makers, still stood watching like the rest of the passers-by. Locales from the area rushed the unconscious Bishwajit to the nearest hospital where the doctors immediately pronounced him dead.

All the BCL goons who were involved in the act were pinpointed by the media outlets which carried out an in-depth analysis of each of the murderers. Apparently, all the men involved were top leaders from Jagannath University’s BCL, which is famous for its violence and infighting among different factions and also with rival student wings. Their crime records were already famous all over the country, but this time only were they newly highlighted.

The bigger photo shows the murderers (a red circle and several red dots) at the front row of the ruling party’s subsequent procession; while the smaller one shows one of the killers enjoying the birthday party that took place a few hours after the murder was committed.

More ironically, on the very same day that they killed Bishwajit, the murderers were normal enough to attend the birthday party of the unit President of Jagannath University’s BCL where the media captured them having a great time as if nothing had happened during the day. The next day, the government responded by saying, despite the fact that each of them were incumbent activists of BCL, that the killers had no affiliation whatsoever with the ruling party. And that they were rather pawns planted by the opposition to create anarchy in Dhaka so that it would eventually culminate in a new political disorder to stop the trial of the war-criminals.

In a world which is changing every single day, we modern Bangladeshis are part of a generation which substituted a weird sort of nationalism based on our language, liberation war and ethnic identity to one where every one of us is a global citizen. We are part of a movement of socially-aware citizens of the world who dress up in the same way regardless of whether they are in America, Bangladesh or Lebanon; listen to the same pop music despite barriers in language and culture; and think of the same levels of human rights and freedom of expression all over the globe. An incident like the killing of Bishwajit underscores the extent to which impunity has spread throughout our society. It tells us how we are entering into a world where the government gives pompous talks of protecting civilians and ensuring security, equal opportunities and stability for all but fails to stop its unruly activists from committing murders of innocent civilians in broad daylight. We are rapidly transcending into a new society which stays silent at times of repression and injustice, and shrugs away its shoulders to say that nothing has happened as long as individual interests remain unaffected.

Meanwhile, several Hindu fundamentalist groups of neighboring India have decided to stand up and call the killing of Bishwajit an ethnic cleansing against Hindus in Bangladesh. But unfortunately what these groups fail to realize is that, it was not a Hindu that was killed. It was an innocent human being just like us; a typical, cricket-loving Bangladeshi who worked hard to earn his bread amidst immense hardship but was murdered in front of the entire world.

As long as a revolution built on the strongest principles of justice, equality and human rights is not established; as long as a process that ensures law and order protecting all ordinary citizens from these killers who have been created by political leaders to further agenda through dirty politics is not created, more and more Bishwajits will continue to be scapegoated. Although we do not acknowledge it, the next Bishwajit could very likely be one from among us. We could be the next ordinary citizen of the country to become the victim of Bangladesh’s barbaric politics.

At the time of this writing, at least eight of the killers—including Mahfuzur Rahman Nahid, the BCL leader who led the heinous act—- have been arrested by the police. However, in a society where the people decide to remain silent against barbaric crimes like the killing of Bishwajit, incidents like this will happen. The fact that this happened in the month of December, the month when Bangladesh achieved victory from Pakistan after a bloody liberation war in 1971, directly underscores the extent to which we are far away from the Bangladesh 30 million people gave up their lives for.

Facebook profile of the murderer Nahid; how could this cold-blooded killer be a normal person just like the rest of us?

 

 

WHY BANGLADESH WON’T ACCEPT ANY MORE ROHINGYAS

Although the issue has come into a new limelight with President Obama’s visit to Myanmar, no one really needs any introduction to the topic. Pictures of Rohingya men and women have been flooding the international newspapers since the sectarian clashes began in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. And fingers have not only been pointed at the Myanmar government for its failure in protecting its minorities, but also at Myanmar’s neighbor Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has firmly refused to allow any more Rohingya influx into the country. And has, instead, followed a neutral diplomatic stance by refusing to condemn either of the two sides. International condemnation, particularly in Pakistan of which Bangladesh was once a part, have on the other hand been tremendous. Everyone has criticized the already impoverished state for its silence and refusal to accommodate people in dire need.

Indonesians protest against Myanmar

But the local public opinion on the issue have been divided.

Although the official count of Rohingyas who are housed in UN refugee camps in the border city of Cox’s Bazaar is around 30,000, the real count is at least 200,000. Most of these Rohingyas work in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh’s most economically-important tourist city. A good many of them marry among the Bengali communities and become settled. The luckiest ones even succeed in getting a Bangladeshi passport, which acts as their gateway to the oil-wealthy economies of the Middle-East where the country sends millions of workers every year.

But all these refugees have to be clothed, fed and educated by the state. In a country where people struggle to meet their daily needs, the government has a very good reason not to take any more burdens. And so to preempt any more influx of Rohingyas in search of hope in Bangladesh, the government has even reduced access to Rohingya refugee-camps for international and local NGOs; making sure that all humanitarian aid were delivered by the army and border guards only. Recently, in an extremely embarrassing feat, a Turkish lawmaker, while on holiday in Cox’s Bazaar during the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, was arrested by the police for trying to distribute meat of the sacrifice among the Rohingya refugees.

But the most important reality of the problem was generated in a spat of sectarian attacks by Muslim mobs on Buddhist communities in Cox’s Bazaar.

A Rohingya refugee, who has fled the sectarian tensions in Myanmar, pleading with the Bangladesh Border Guards to grant him into the gates of Bangladesh

After a Buddhist teenager of Cox’s Bazaar tagged a controversial Islamophobic photo on facebook right after the mayhem of Innocence of Muslims, mobs of Islamists, within a few hours, gathered with bamboos and sticks, and attacked Buddhist temples and homes in Ramu, Ukhia and several other regions of Cox’s Bazaar. Speculators have confirmed that the attack was more planned than anyone could have imagined. People were brought in through trucks and buses from all over the district, where diverse religions have never had a problem, and within a span of a few hours the Buddhists were rendered homeless.

Everything was done in a planned, coordinated manner. Several centuries-old Buddhist statues have been destroyed for good and the police’s role have been called into question. Many have accused the local politicians of being a part of the blasphemy. Fingers have been pointed at DGFI and NSI—-Bangladesh’s two most notorious intelligence agencies——since it was impossible to carry out such an attack on minorities without their foreknowledge.

It all ended with the Awami League, the liberal, secular, left-wing ruling party, and the BNP, the centre-right, conservative, Islamist-secular, opposition party throwing accusations at each other.

But one thing was clear: Rohingyas were involved in vast numbers. Whoever planned the attack, carried out the arson by recruiting them from the UN refugee camps.

Jamaat-i-Islami, Bangladesh’s most problematic Islamic fundamentalist party, has firmly denied any accusations of having a role in the attack on minorities. Although there is a pervasive belief that the conservative, pro-Pakistani Islamist group was involved in the assault, its members have refused all charges of using any stateless Rohingyas to advance their political agendas.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the capital city has been untouched by the Rohingya issue. The centre of all political activism, art, culture and policy-making, Dhaka has gone on as if nothing has happened. One of the most liberal cities of South Asia, Dhaka and its economic ambitions have embraced its stance on the Rohingyas more positively than outsiders can think.

Although there have been mass-demonstrations by intellectuals, freedom fighters and human rights organizations after the attack on Buddhists, the people here are more busy with calling for a permanent end to child marriage and for scraping the new bill on Hindu laws that discriminate against Hindu widows. In a city where religion is becoming less important everyday; where feminists are chanting slogans of rescinding the use of Sharia in property inheritance; and where an ever-increasing proportion of the people are echoing calls for a removal of the phrase “Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah” used in the country’s constitution; the Rohingyas aren’t a topic that people want to think about.

Bangladesh’s economic ties with Myanmar have also been an issue. As the neighbor embraces a liberal economy after its democratic transition, Bangladeshi capitalists and businessmen have targeted Burma as a new potential market for enormous growth. Talks are already underway to set up Bangladeshi power-stations in Myanmar so that the energy-starved nation can meet its huge power demand in the rapidly boosting up industrial sector. Any disruption of the diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries would ultimately harm Bangladesh’s expanding business prospects in the region, and would rather benefit its mightier neighbor India.

So questions on all social networks by Bangladeshis have been similar. Don’t people lose lives on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine? No one cares about them, so why all this targeting Bangladesh for something it played no part in? Why suddenly this we-muslims-need-to-save-our-brothers-and-sisters-in-Myanmar-from-Aung-Sun-Suu-Kyi type of thing? Aren’t our tax money low enough already for a huge population like ours?

The Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has also been condemned all over the globe

However, many have raised a voice for the Rohingyas as well. Editorial columns and opinion on leading media outlets have condemned the violence and criticized the Bangladeshi government for its lack of an international response over the issue. Some have reminded the country that during the liberation war of 1971, when the Pakistani army and Jamaat-i-Islami were persecuting and raping as much as possible to create ‘a breed of better Muslims’, the neighboring India, seeing a positive political opportunity of a divided-Pakistan, granted refugee status to 2 million people who fled the violence into West Bengal.

But the situation in this case is different. If more Rohingyas are allowed refugee status in Bangladesh, it is quite unlikely that they will ever return to Myanmar again when the Burmese government accepts them back; thus further burdening the Bangladesh economy.

In an age of high economic ambitions, capitalism and materialism in South Asia’s one of the most populous and rapidly-developing countries, this is how the pervasive belief about Rohingyas is prevalent. Any government in power would have closed off its borders in a situation such as this. In fact many analysts now think that the Bangladeshi government made the perfect decision during the conflict. Not only did it stop violence from escalating within its own borders, but also kept international pressure and awareness abuzz on the Myanmar government, which has followed a system of ethnic cleansing and persecution of the Rohingyas since the early 1970s.

Right after the liberation war devastated Bangladesh and pushed it back by at least five decades, the nascent country, despite all its hurdles, gave refugee status to the thousands of Rohingyas who fled the Burmese military’s sectarian war against the Muslim communities. But after three decades, there is a popular feeling that it’s now time for Suu Kyi and her men-in-uniform to take back the people whom they have wronged in their own lands just because they were Muslims and not from the same faith as the majority of the people. As much as there is a call for Pakistan to take back its huge number of refugees in Bangladesh who have been rendered stateless during the 1971 war, there is also a call for the Myanmar government to stop further burdening the economic potentials of a country desperately in search of social prosperity and interfaith harmony.

Eccentricities in a Bangladeshi Gaa’ye Holud

Gaa’ye holud is an essential part of Bangladeshi marriage traditions. It is the first of the 4/3-day long celebrations carried out to celebrate the unity of two families through marriage. On this occasion, traditionally bride and bridegrooms used to be rubbed on the face with mustard paste by all sorts of people—sometimes on the same day and sometimes on separate days—–but in the past one decade or so, as Bangladesh became increasingly globalized and make up, gold, facebook photos and expensive imported dresses from Pakistan and India rapidly made it impossible to rub mustard paste on the faces of the bride and her groom, gaa’ye holuds began to use mustard paste as decoration items only. Nowadays it is more about wearing good clothes, going to the beauty salon and the DJ playing hard and fast dance beats to which everyone would dance around. At least that’s the picture in the urban cities now.

Photo credit: nudratowens.com

 

Although an indispensable part of the traditional 4-day long Bengali marriage ceremony, gaa’ye holud, in my opinion, is an event most ceremonies can easily do without. In fact, before the latest one I attended whose tales would soon ensue, I can’t even properly recall the last time I went to a gaa’ye holud invitation. To me, as an observer, the event seemed to waste a lot of money, time and other resources for no good reason at all, and the material side of me always sighed to think of all the expenditure going on behind the scenes of a lavish gaaye holud. And there was the philosophy of personal beliefs as well. Around two and a half years back when I turned into an Islamic fundamentalist——-courtesy of the Islamophobic blog-networks———and increasingly shifted towards a more pan-Islamic school of thought and belief system (although I do suffer from intermittent bouts of agnosticism and atheism as well), I began to find the style of dancing and singing in a gaa’ye holud absolutely abhorrent. And with these foundations for a thought-process, my penchant for skipping all sorts of gaa’ye holud grew in an unprecedented manner.

But the latest one was from a series of occasions I could have never refused. It happened to be a classmate-since-class-four’s elder brother’s holud, and my family and I were specifically invited by none other than the mother of the bridegroom herself. It was virtually impossible to escape this one unless and until there was a darn good reason to do so. And hence I had to accede to the request.

But since my mom couldn’t go because of her last minute health-constraints I was left alone. I put on some ironed cotton trousers and punjabi, showered with my new Moroccan rosewater flavored liquid soap and after climbing through an hour-long traffic in a route which would have taken me 20 minutes to reach my destination in anywhere other than the city of Dhaka on a normal Wednesday evening, I finally landed myself in Trust Milonayton on Mohakhali.

Now there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that this was going to be an occasion where the lazy Bengalis will finally decide to be punctual. So although the event was scheduled to be at 7:30 pm, when I entered the grandiloquent hall at around 8:30 pm, there was but a score of people sitting and whiling away their time. I slid myself through the slightly opened façade and was glared at by the cameraman when I almost tripped on his gargantuan wires. That’s nothing new though. I have this thing for slipping whenever I try to walk properly. I raised a hand and punched the air around me to show my disregard for the man’s glare. In a further effort to boost up my lost confidence, I even heaved up my chest and poised my breasts outwards in a malicious attempt to imitate the Bollywood actor Salman Khan. But in return I was met by more stares. And then immediately, just before that Salman Khan-ish feeling decided to leave me, I felt the need to set up a new facebook status through my phone: Letzz rockzz peoplezzz. Fromzz Salzzzmanzzz Khanzz.

Feeling weird, I strode on and scoured the place for anyone I knew. Unfortunately, there was none.

But fortunately, there was an unknown, gorgeous-looking girl sitting just in front the sofa I had taken refuge in; and like me she seemed to be all alone as well. My heart skipped a beat when she turned around and our gazes met, and I could perceive her beautiful multicolored sari draped elegantly over her maroon blouse, hiding her presumptuously poised out breasts in a manner too provocative and too feminine to lower my gaze.

দূর হতে আমি তারে সাধিবো
গোপনে বিরহ ডরে বাধিবো………………...

Kill me woman! Kill me! I thought to myself as she turned backwards again to see the people entering through the red carpet.

I chuckled as I noticed her lavishly made up face and the henna-designed hands. I wondered whether it would be deemed too inappropriate in a public place like that to start a nice little chat with her.

Preoccupied with this dilemma, and wondering whether I possessed enough charisma to charm up an unfamiliar girl, I suddenly noticed a middle-aged woman with her two young (and severely attractive!) post-teenage daughters approach my sofa. The woman sat beside my seat and shifted towards me with a forgive-me smile.

“Ami ki shore jaabo?” Complemented by a smile, in the most pleasant-hearing shuddho Bengali accent I possessed, I asked her whether I should change seats.

“It will be good for us,” the lady smiled back and then looked at her daughters. I changed seats and had to appease my back for shelter in a more uncomfortable chair. Weird. Aren’t these the same ladies calling for equal rights for both men and women? What kind of man would’ve asked the lady or her daughters to shift seats for the men’s convenience when there were many other seats available?

#Such-an-unequal-country!

And it was at that point when the lazy, fat and gluttonous Bengalis found food. A food corner had popped up and was offering the first of the two course meal of the event to the guests. I, being the typical food-loving Bengali, found the smell of jilapis and pakoras wafting through the hall as irresistible as the ladies around me. Very soon I had had stomached around 10 pakoras with chutney and a few incredibly tasty jilapis to counter the sour taste. I also took a plate of chotpoti from the fuchka-chotpoti corner. And then finally, when I had decided that it was enough, I finished off with a few glasses of hot coffee.

It was a further half-an-hour before the bride and her groom arrived. The DJ made a point of stopping all other sounds to play the song Ajib Aur Shaan Shahenshah as loudly as possibleto make the entrance sound as grand as that of Akbar in the Indian film Jodhaa-Akbar. But by then, my heart had skipped beats for several times as more and more beautiful young ladies filed onto the red carpet and took seats around me. I went to deposit my vacant chotpoti plate back to the food corner and then met my friend and host for the evening.

“Aaare doctor sahib. How do you do?”

As we hug slightly and look at each other, my friend has something to say.

“Let me show you an `angle`.” He whispered to my ears over the roar of the music.

“`Angle`?” I asked back, perplexed.

“Yes; an `angle`. The girl in the red sari, standing directly opposite to me over there on the food corner,” he used his eyes to indicate, “I have had a crush on that cousin since class five. Don’t point. Do you like her?”

I turned around 360 degrees to look at the hapless-looking, massively-foundationed and a-conspicuously-dark-shade-of-mascara-wearing girl. “Well. Pretty workable.” And then, as an afterthought I added, “You should see Vina Arsara*. The only girl I ever felt physically attracted to. She used to turn me on; trust me.”

“Oh you know what? I have a pretty-looking friend on facebook with that name.”

“Dude there could be a million other Vina Arsaras on facebook….”

“Yeah but she had a few mutual friends with me. So I guess she is the one.”

“Still it’s a pleasure to behold her. All the boys in Maths class used to run after her when the class ended. And she ran away from all of them.” This culminated in somewhat of a laughter. Even the people around us who were standing with prying ears smirked at our girl-watching conversation. But what exactly do you expect two adolescent males who have known each other for most of their lives to talk about in a place swarming with beautiful girls if not about the opposite sex and their fantasies?

“Oh come on,” my friend brought me back to my senses. “I will show you another `angle`. This cousin is at the bottom of my list though.”

As we walk he suddenly points to another absolutely ravishing, wealthily-dressed girl.

“Holy shit!” The words poured out from my mouth before I could stop them. “Dude, this one really, really is a bubbling piece of hot shit.”

My friend on the other hand grimaced a wide-toothed smile. On his face it was clearly written ‘I told you so’.

After all the ogling was over, when we had both become heavily sinned, and when I was confused whether gaa’ye holud should be renamed as girl-watching or not, it was time for dinner. Morog-polau complemented with Shammi Kebab and khashir rezala. I took a seat at an almost empty table, with only a few weird-looking people sitting around lazily.

But as soon as the waiter had arrived, everyone was filled with a vigor that multiplied by many folds as each plate began to be piled up with the multitude of items.

A middle-aged lady and one of her acquaintances was sitting across from me. On the other side of the woman was probably her maid servant. She piled up her servant’s plate with food and then after some time, all of a sudden, probably thinking that it was beneath her to sit with her servant for the victuals, she got up leaving her plate untouched. It was pretty obvious from the manner she left after thinking it through for sometime that she was affected by problems of class and castes in her decision. And my reasoning behind her eccentric demeanor was further substantiated by how she materialized minutes later at the table out of nowhere and then, instead of resuming her position, she tried to shower both her servant and the acquaintance she had left behind with food from the table. In her mind maybe, she knew that she had behaved unjustly. And thus out of that feeling of guilt, she was trying to make repercussions by being overly kind and entertaining to her servant who had been left behind feeling small and undignified at the mistress’ behavior.

I wondered how I would have behaved if I had been in the woman’s shoes. Surely I don’t mind sharing the same table with our servants or driver in a wedding party. But I reconsidered my mom; I was absolutely sure, given the high level of sobriety and demeanor she maintains, that my mom would have never sat on the same table with her helpers.

It’s a weird world indeed. The formation of Pakistan during the 1947 partition and Bangladesh during the 1971 war stemmed out precisely from class difference. Pakistan was formed to get rid of the Zamindar and landlord-based caste system. And then Bangladesh was shaped because of the class difference and discrimination between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. But today in the modern-day parties of urbanized Dhaka, the issue has largely been scraped away from everyone’s mind.

When I returned back home my mom summoned me to her room.

“What the—?” she stopped in mid-speech as she looked at me.

“Yes?” I wondered how I had disapproved her now.

“Please don’t tell me you wore this simple-looking punjabi to the holud. Please don’t.”

“Well mom. I must disappoint you on that. Because this is the one I wore.”

My mom was ready to erupt. “Why is it that you have to earn my disapproval for your weird style of clothing during every single occasion? Can you never put on something decent?”

“Well you know, don’t you? Half the time I don’t even look at what I have put on. But this punjabi looks okay. Maybe a bit mismatched but workable nevertheless….”

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you get provided enough to buy you a gorgeous punjabi? And I thought you have your own savings now. I am sure your host did not even look at you once throughout the holud. You are so un-presentable.”

“On the contrary I actually had quite a great time. And anyways, my friend wouldn’t have been my friend if he chose people through their outlook. So please: stop.”

With that I impudently left her room. I got undressed and switched off my bedroom lights to get some sleep. Reclining on my bed, I reflected back on the events of the evening.

So yes, if I am to end this write-up in the traditional SAT essay style, I should probably conclude that that was one fucking eccentric evening!

But then again, my life itself is an eccentric one. So I don’t really think I ought to complain about eccentricities in a Bangladeshi gaa’ye holud.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

*Names in this article have been changed in order to protect people’s privacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And……….. its Food, Monsoon & Ramadan all at once in Dhaka

It’s raining cats and dogs at around 12:30 in the afternoon

As August opens up and the world settles down to  calculate and fret over its profits and losses for the first seven months of 2012, here in Dhaka Monsoon is blazing with its full force. While it is the Ramadan season, it is also that time of the year when rain is ubiquitous throughout all the regions of Bangladesh, and there has to be a flood or two in this land of rivers so that the residents can at least commemorate the season with the death tolls. If it is sunny and the Dhaka glare is switched on throughout the  day, it has to rain throughout the night and the next day as well. The dark clouds are always looming ahead, and with the state of pavements in this extremely  overcrowded city, puddles and splashes on the roads are anything but a novelty. And add all that to the extremely fast-paced lifestyle that most of us Dhakaites lead, I am sure none of the pedestrians on the streets will be able to boast of a day without having had their expensive shoes mud-ridden and made unusable for the next few days. And if you are, by any chance, a Bata-slipper lover for the daily chores like me, I am afraid your feet will never be able to spend a day without getting themselves devastatingly dirty.

Unless of course if you prefer to spend the days indoors.

But then again, the season is absolutely impresionante (I am working on my Spanish you see?) if you want to curl up with a good book in your room. That’s precisely what I am doing nowadays. You can sit back inside your home and enjoy the sounds of the wind howling and raging a war against the Thai-aluminum glassed windows in your background. And comfortably gulp down all sorts of fiction or something else that is good to read.

The days and nights  are extremely windy. But even with all the monsoon and rain, night-time brings on socialization for the city’s huge and overworked populace. Although all wedding ceremonies are shunned away in this season, being Ramadan & Monsoon at the same time, almost every Thursday—the weekday before Friday, which is the public holiday here———- is celebrated with parties and gatherings of friends and family, and good food is always on the table! But before good food, it is the fruit cocktails and squashes that dominate every home nowadays. And although everyone knows Bangladesh as the land of natural disasters and poverty, food is something that is more or less cheap and abundant everywhere. The lowland delta region is extremely arable and thus able to produce a plethora of different fruits. A day on the streets of Dhaka is enough to substantiate my aforementioned claim because as you read this, the city is repleted with street vendors and stalls selling fresh seasonal fruits(and definitely not the frozen ones) such as mangoes, pineapples, jack-fruits etc. So a cold glass of a fruit splash is offered to every guest coming into a house.

Evening-parties however, bring on different varieties of food. For those of you who don’t know, we Bangladeshis are food-loving  gluttons. Our cuisine is an eclectic concoction of South Asian, Middle-Eastern and British influences. It all has to do with the history here in this part of the world. Traditionally although the Bengali food is mainly rice and fish (with Hilsha being treated as the king of fishes), due to the fact that Bengal was ruled by the Mughals (Muslim Emperors from the Middle-East) and Afghans for a time, and by the British colonialists later on, the food culture is largely diverse and widely reminiscent of our multicultural past. And of course you have all the gourmet Chinese and Mexican restaurants flooding the streets of the major cities as well.

Help yourself to Shik Kabab and Paratha people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, with all the religious salvation and piety involved in this season, the time is also ripe for us Dhakaites to stop fretting around over our extremely busy lifestyles and to start donating  for charity through Zakat.  Around the country scores of people are being deprived of the blessings of life. Countless are starving to death even in this blessed Ramadan season. And it is up to us to share our wealth and privileges with all those who can’t put food to their  mouths neither during  Sehri nor during Iftar.  It is imperative in order for us to be able to create a healthy society that we start coming out of our public and private spheres and start addressing the injustice and poverty that is ubiquitous throughout the many regions of Bangladesh.

The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.

 

Amidst The Crowd, Thou Shall Be Haunted

Lord, said David, since you do not need us,
why did you create these two worlds?

Reality replied: O prisoner of time,
I was a secret treasure of kindness and generosity,
and I wished this treasure to be known,
so I created a mirror: its shining face, the heart;
its darkened back, the world;
The back would please you if you’ve never seen the face.


Cruel. Unjust. Lifeless. Pitiless. Vindictive. Callous.

I was assaulted by all of the above phrases as I listened to Rasel’s story. His is the story of an average Bangladeshi’s life. The story of hope, nightmares and the struggle to live on. The story of deceit, shattered dreams and spasms of never-ending darkness.

At thirteen years old, Rasel is the only breadwinner of his family of five. With his parents sick and jobless, it has been up to him for quite some time as the eldest son to try and manage some money in order to feed himself and the rest of his folks. On good days he earns around 100 taka ($1.25) by picking up scrap, reusable materials from the streets of Dhaka for sale at the recycling factories. In addition, his younger siblings—Rubina and Rashed—– roam around Dhanmondi Lake and beg from the couples in the open couples’ retreats, thereby adding a meager amount to the household income. Together they add up whatever they can; and spend out of what they have been provided with.

On days at a stretch they go without lunch just so that the entire family can have a moderate dinner at night. Bengali families are always closely-knit, and a person no matter how selfish or jealous a nature he sports, will always have to feed his entire clan before he puts something into his own mouth. Begging and picking up waste materials full-time to maximize the amount of income, Rasel and his siblings are hardly allowed any reprieve from the glaring Dhaka sun. It is evident from each of their brown, tanned skins and malnourished bodies that the only shelter they have been provided is under the scorching tropical daylight.

Ironic really. The wealthy need to visit the sunny beaches and expensive resorts in order to get themselves a boastful tan. But here for Rasel and his siblings, a sun-tan is something that comes with existence.

Has anyone ever produced a mirror out of mud and straw?
Yet cleaned away the mud and straw,
so that a mirror might be revealed.

Until the juice ferments a while in the cask,
it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright,
you must do a little work.

Rife with endemic starvation and poverty, Rasel’s family represents one of many poor class families struggling hard to find a place in the gold mine of Dhaka. And Rasel is one of the 3 million children in Bangladesh who live under the international poverty line.

“And you don’t attend the charity school nearby?” I ask him all of a sudden amidst our conversation. Somehow I already know the answer.

Rasel grimaces a silly smile.

“I have attended classes up to the third grade in my village school before I came to Dhaka. Why do I need to study when it gives me no food?” Rational, I acknowledge. “And besides, I need to come here in the morning right after the Fajr prayers. Otherwise, I will be unable to collect enough materials for sale.”

As we speak in front of the beautifully sparkling waters before us, the sun begins to ogle with a greater force. Debilitating and reminding us of its strength, it tells us how powerless we are against the Supreme Force that decides our Fateful existence.

“I used to work at a garments factory before. Earning around 1400 taka ($18 approx.) monthly. But I left because of the overwork and really poor conditions.”

I recalled seeing an international news report about T-shirts made by child laborers and exported from Bangladesh that were sold at $20 each in the superstores of North America and Europe.

“So, what do you plan to become? Bangladesh is advancing forward literally by the day. Soon we will become a thriving middle-income country. What do you think about the future?”

My question elicited quite a quotidian response.

“Kono mote khawa dawa koira baichha thaklei hoilo.” I think all I need to do is eat and survive through the day.

Had I asked this same question to another child of the same age but from the privileged, middle-class society that I belong to and whose members I befriend and entertain, I would have been confronted with a very different answer. Perhaps it would have been the dream of becoming a scientist. A doctor. Or even a pilot. If possible an engineer as well.

My King addressed the soul of my flesh:
You return just as you left.
Where are the traces of my gifts?

We know that alchemy transforms copper into gold.
This Sun doesn’t want a crown or robe from God’s grace.
He is a hat to a hundred bald men,
a covering for ten who were naked.

The afternoon Azan suddenly became ubiquitous throughout the vibrant, overpopulated neighborhoods of Dhaka. Here in Dhanmondi, the tall residential skyscrapers loomed ahead of me. In recent years the region has been morphed into a pinnacle of development. Since the country’s Prime Minister has her private residences in this area, it was imperative that the neighborhoods symbolized the making of a modern cosmopolitan city.

But, the truth is, this air of development have hardly touched the lives of people like Rasel and his family. While the country is developing at an unprecedented rate, while increasing numbers of families are sending their children to the local American schools and shipping them off to attend US universities, a huge population still remains underdeveloped. And the numbers of the homeless are exceptionally higher in those areas of the city where most of the people enjoy a per capita income equal to almost that of any normal developed city in the West.

Unequal growth. Something that most development economist and policy-makers in Bangladesh prefer to ignore in order to underscore our rapid rate of economic growth.

“You can pray your namaz, can’t you?” I inquire, having arrived almost to the end of our conversation.

“Yes, I have completed the Arabic Qur’an once!” he says excitedly. Must be an achievement for him.

But his sister Rubina, who has remained silent till then, cuts in all of a sudden.

“But he never prays!”

At this Rasel remonstrates. “I do. But only during the Friday afternoon prayers.”

By then, it has already become too late for me. I take my leave and walk off, breathing the beautiful scent of flowers and food. Entering into Green Road, the attractive stench of spices and barbecue permeated through my nostrils.

“Oh! They have begun to burn the chicken grills and shik kebabs already? Maybe I will get a shwarma for the evening meal.” I ponder to myself.

But then, the terrible, the most horrifying of all truths strike back at me.

Will Rasel and his family be guaranteed a bowl of rice for tonight?

Jesus sat humbly on the back of an ass, my child!
How could a zephyr ride an ass?
Spirit, find your way, in seeking lowness like a stream.
Reason, tread the path of selflessness into eternity.

Remember God so much that you are forgotten.
Let the caller and the called disappear;
Be lost in the Call.

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The poems have been extracted from the Persian Sufi poet Maulana Rumi’s legendary work Be Lost in the Call’

The rising dissent—–Bangladesh’s divulging ‘labor-spring’

As the world celebrates another Labor Day, here in Bangladesh, laborers have a hard time grappling with their family and professional lives. Due to the availability of cheap labor and a huge population of 160 million people cramped together in a very small state, in this part of the world labor-intensive industries have been thriving continuously since the early 1990s—the period when a democratic and investment-friendly economy was formed for the first time. This liberalization of the economy has introduced work for millions of impoverished Bangladeshis with little or no training. But on the other hand the privatization has also created an extremely capitalistic society.

 

Today within two decades, Bangladesh has already become one of the leading suppliers of the global cloth manufacturing industry, frozen foods and leather. It is also predicted that with the current boost in the export of high quality, cheap pharmaceuticals to the European Union countries and the Middle-East, the pharmaceutical industry will soon begin to dominate as well. In addition, along with India, the poverty-stricken country has always been a top producer of jute and jute-based products, although this sector has surpassed through many upheavals and hindrances in the past few years.

 

But the conditions of workers in all these industries who help to amass huge amounts of foreign income each year for the country are far from good. Not only do they have to go through extremely dangerous and poor working conditions, but are also forced to lead lives with  low wages as a result of which almost all the industrial workers live much under the international poverty line. This is the very reason why the country is always abuzz and making international headlines with workers’ strikes and protests. And the government also has always been under intense domestic and international pressure for securing the rights of the workers.

 

A shimmering example to demonstrate the inhumane conditions of the industrial workers in Bangladeshi factories is the ready-made garments industry. As the highest export income-earner for the economy and as the world’s second highest global supplier, the industry employs around 3.6 million workers, around 95% of which are females. Recently the international think-tank Mckinsey has also predicted that by the year 2015, the Bangladeshi cloth industry will have overtaken its Chinese counterpart to become the leading cloth supplier and also the first choice for international investors and importers to invest in this sector. During the last fiscal year, the industry has exported $18 billion worth of apparels to the global market.

 

But the naked truth is that this rise has been achieved on the saddles of exploitation of the impoverished workers in these industries. It is their hands and the investors’ money that produce high-quality, cheap clothes for global superstores like Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger and H & M. An eminent local economist has recently calculated that for every $100 worth of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ apparel sold in Walmart in America, $25 is taken by the US government; $35 by the factory-owners, shareholders and the other investors; around $38 by Walmart; while the worker whose arduous work and dexterity produced the item has to remain content with barely a small fraction of a dollar.

And so, due to this unequal division of the money, the country has always been rife with workers’ rights issues and dissent. Violence is not uncommon between protesting and demonstrating worker groups and the policemen. And several workers have even been killed in clashes with the police forces and other owner-sponsored agencies. However, most of the time the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in the National parliament, has always succeeded in crushing down the trade union groups and any call for riots.

 

With the set-up of the government-sponsored Industrial Police—-an elite police force specialized in monitoring, gathering intelligence and quenching any demonstrations by the workers——trade unions have been thrown into silence by repeated torturing of trade union activists. The current government has increased the minimum wage rate of garments’ workers from around $20 to $36 in terms of the current exchange rate. Yet, the price is far from enough. The workers, most of them living in slums and closed quarters in cities, barely manage to survive with the 10% inflation rate currently in the country. The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity, a prominent trade union in the country, has demanded that the minimum rate be raised to at least around $58 but the government, with the strength of the BGMEA lobby, has firmly quelled all forms of opposition and has strictly claimed that after the increase, even though it is meager, no forms of protestations or indiscipline will be tolerated in the aforementioned sector.

 

Although most of the industrial workers live in slums, some get the privilege(!) of dwelling in cramped, shabby little quarters and buildings in the narrowest alley-ways of the cities

During the last big uprising of garments’ workers back in 2010, activists from several trade unions were even arrested by law enforcement officers and brutally tortured to preempt them from going against the owner associations and to stop them from demanding a greater minimum wage rate.

 

As if the wages weren’t enough, the garments’ workers have to deal with a lot of other issues as well. One of the most important concerns is safety. The factories which house thousands of male and female workers are equipped with little or almost no security. With lax safety standards, fires have erupted in many factories quite frequently in the past decade, killing many workers on the spot due to the absence of any emergency or fire exits. While the owners of these factories are among the highest tax-payers of the country with their kids being sent to American schools that charge fees up to $11000 annually, and while

Garments workers clashing with the industrial police

they themselves reside in posh apartments in the wealthy neighborhoods and drive luxurious cars, the laborers work arduously throughout the day with small lunch and prayer breaks risking their lives constantly to be able to feed their families. Although due to the assistance of welfare organizations like BRAC they are sending their kids to schools, they know perfectly well that in the near future their children will also have to embrace the same fate as them because of the enormous class difference.

A fire in a luxurious-looking factory of the locally owned Hameem Group killed 20 workers and injured a further 100.

 

There is also the severe case of gender discrimination in these factories. Women are allowed to work side by side with their male compatriots, although most factories have segregated the sexes in the clothing lines. But the wages offered to females is almost half as that offered to males for the same job. The majority of the workers in the garments trade are females who have come to the cities in search of jobs to feed themselves and help run their families. But with the money they earn they can hardly run their own self. Also, since they have absolutely no guarantee of maternal leave or pregnancy leave or any other feminine facility, life becomes harder and more and more stressful for them at work everyday. While the government, the Western leaders and the religious mullahs of the country, along with the fiercely Islamic elite, champion the state of women empowerment in an extremely conservative, religious state like Bangladesh and never fail to underscore that women in this country are much better off than our mightier neighbors like India and Pakistan, the growing exploitation of the female populace has taken a toll with the rapid growth of the garments’ trade.

 

With the next Olympic Games under the red carpet, big brands like Nike, Puma and Adidas, are already active with the manufacture of sports’ clothing throughout the world. And a big chunk of these outfits are being made in this small state of the 160 million, where these high profile brands are constantly underpaying the workers and maintaining their solidarity with the government and the industry owners. International allegations against many of the factories supplying these global sporting brands have been brought about  but even with the repeated calls for better wages and conditions, the lives of the average worker remains virtually unchanged.

 

Last month, the deepening divide and the growing dissent have escalated all of a sudden. Aminul Islam (39), a former garment worker and one of the presidents of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, went missing on 4th April. On 5th April his tortured and murdered body was discovered on the sides of a road around 61 miles from Dhaka, in an area with a high concentration of garments’ industries. Previously he had been arrested several times along with many others for organizing protests and demonstrations. Recently he had also been working hard to organize a mass protest for better working conditions and improved wages in several garments factories of the Dhaka-based Shanta Group, which supplies clothes to global companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Nike.

 

It is evident that the murder was carried out with a political motivation. Several

Aminul Islam, 39, a labor activist who was found dead just outside Dhaka on 5th April

international and domestic human rights and workers’ rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Worker Rights Consortium, Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers’ Federation have all asked for a transparent and carefully monitored investigation into the matter.

 

It is mainly due to the hard-work of these industrial workers and their struggle for better lives for themselves and for upcoming generations that the country is earning huge amounts in foreign income. With the rapid industrialization and inflow of foreign money, economic growth and poverty alleviation throughout the country has been robust throughout the last decade. A burgeoning middle-class and upper class population has been created in Dhaka, Chittagong and the rest of the cities and villages due to the ubiquitous growth of these industries.

 

Dhaka, the city I grew up and live in, is currently a heavily industrialized urban city. Everywhere you go—except in the wealthier and the middle class residential areas—you will come across factories on both sides of the roads. I am, in fact, a direct product of that industrial revolution in Bangladesh. My

The growth of the industrial and urbanized Dhaka has brought about a sky-scraper boon for the burgeoning middle & upper class to live in

father is a raw materials supplier to garments factories and although his is the sole income for the family of four, we are quite a thriving middle class family with me and my other sibling sent to English schools to read Shakespeare and to get ourselves mesmerized by the natural sciences.

 

But what about those children of industrial workers who know that they will also have to work hard and live with injustice for the rest of their lives just like their parents? Will their be more killings of the Aminuls then?

With the garments owned by Korean or local investors, or even a joint venture, with the cotton from neighboring India and equipments from China, it is the hands of these workers that assemble the final product in garment factories and stick the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ brand label on it. The product is then packed up and sent across the seas, deserts, mountains and oceans to Europe and the United States, the Middle-East, Japan, Korea, Russia and Australia. It maybe a shirt, skirt or a trouser. Or simply a mass-produced Western dress. Due to the assembly line mass-production in this age of globalization, the prices of these Western and global clothing in the domestic market have actually become much lower than the traditional Bengali clothes for the middle-class citizens. But when the price at which the foreigners are buying the item is considered, it will surely be far beyond any worker’s total monthly income. Yet these workers have a hard time grappling with their life and overcoming the hindrances of discordant prospects and a grim future for themselves. They lead a life with extreme discomfort and risk just to be able to live. Time and again they are forced to confront to the fact that their succeeding generations will also have to lead the same lives. Yet, they move on. Shoving away their tears, they go to work each day to the factories, where discipline is stringent and no latecomers are ever tolerated. They work towards a bleak future, yet continue to serve the global community at whatever price that is available to them for survival.

While the workers live and work in extremely hostile conditions, the industrialists, merchants and businessmen enjoy the air-conditioned, safer & well-ventilated modern commercial buildings of Kawran Bazar, Motijheel, Gulshan & Dhanmondi.

 

Thoughts on March 26—-from 1971 to 2012

This piece was written on the occasion of March 26, the day when as one of my friends had aptly put “the world became pregnant and bore a new country called Bangladesh”. It marked Bangladesh’s 41st Independence day.

1971 flag of Bangladesh

1971 flag of Bangladesh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Flag of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

I stand atop the mounted floor of my apartment’s roof, over the newly embellished cream-colored tiles. I stare ahead of me at the monstrous skyscrapers of Dhanmondi dominating the skylines with prestige. I think of this evening. I think of what it might have been like at this very instant back in 1971.

Although the Indian writer Sharmila Bose has firmly argued that the figures of the Bangladesh liberation war were fabricated, I try to imagine the moment, the time when the city was shivering after the loss of around 4000 unarmed civilians within one midnight at the hands of a brutal regime that was supposed to protect them. I try to feel the darkness that had engulfed the sun which had risen over Dhaka on March 26, 1971. And all that I get is the stench of death, the death of a vibrant, overpopulated city. People ambushed and then run over by the military tanks in an effort to mix the dead with the mud. Alas! From the mud we rise and to the mud we return, and it is there that we meet the Hereafter.

I see people running. Not in the year 1971, but today. Running about their daily affairs, working hard to meet their everyday needs. Trying their best to make some sense of their life. These are the people, I think to myself, whose diligence have given our country economic progress and emancipation. These are the people because of whom at only 41 years of age, Bangladesh is already the 42nd largest economy—ahead of the colonialist nation that had devastated and exploited it before its liberation—- according to IMF in terms of purchasing power parity . These are the people who make me proud today for working towards the golden future of the glorious land of Bengal, towards the legacy begun by the illiterate Dravidians, continued by the courage and power of Shaista Khan, Siraj-ud-Daula, Preeti Lata, Titu Mir, Sher-e-Bangla, Maulana Bhashani, Sheikh Mujib and countless others. These are the people who teach me to live, enjoy and blog.

What was it like for these people back in that pitch dark day of March 26, 1971? Were they still running about? To bring food and shelter for their families? Or only to flee the darkness that loomed ahead and awaited them eagerly? Was the Adhaan to signal the commencement of night still so loud back then as it is today? And did the men and women still prostate and switch off radios and televisions after the Adhaan even on that particular day?

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The spirit of freedom and egalitarianism has penetrated permanently into our hearts the day Sheikh Mujib took the mike on 7th March and announced freedom from tyranny as soon as even one ounce of blood was dropped from a Bangladeshi man. Ever since that day we have taken pride in being part of a nation that has been oppressed and treated as second-class ever since its formation after independence from the British Raj. We know for a fact that no matter how many Sharmila Boses rant at us and accuse us of being story-tellers, no matter how turbulent our political arena has become, no matter how rampant corruption is in our everyday lives, we are a nation that can be proud of its achievements. We are a nation looking for peace, diligence and simple lifestyles.

It is always very exciting to hear remarks about the War of Independence from foreigners. And what could be better than a quote directly from a new generation Pakistani? One interesting link I made recently is with Nayab Fareed, a Pakistani student studying Mass Communications in Abu Dhabi. This is what Nayab had to say about the Bangladesh liberation war:

“All I know is that Bangladesh was once East Pakistan & then they got separated. It was our fault till an extent. I asked my mom but she told me that she herself was a kid back then. We lost a war to India because of some East Pakistanis when they disclosed some secrets about the navy (I am not sure which incident Nayab is referring to at this point but the Daily Prothom Alo recently published a report on a group of Bangladeshis in the Pakistan Army who accumulated arms and ammunitions for the Bangladesh cause) That’s what I heard once. Also, I heard it was our fault too. Discrimination. We were not very fair to them. At the moment my own country is in a mess, so we discuss Pakistan or maybe other Muslim countries like Palestine/ Iraq/ Afghanistan. It’s disappointing though. Pakistanis regret it & still wish it was our part. I know the Pakistani version of the story, never heard the Bangladeshi version though.”

Of course, expecting a Pakistani to know something about the liberation war is pointless really. The history lives only with the ones who suffered. It is transferred only by those who had been afflicted with pain, with an anguish so terrible to bear that it becomes an offense not to transfer it on in words, thoughts and deeds. Actually, I half expected Nayab to tell me straight in the face that Bangladesh was the result of the India-Pakistan rift as described by many conspiracy theorists. But whatever it was, Bangladesh paid dearly. We lost 3000000 civilians including freedom fighters, children and women, while countless mothers and sisters were raped incessantly till their death. In addition, the country suffered huge droughts after the war as a result of which many more lives were claimed.

Although the Bangladesh government later on proudly proclaimed the raped women as ‘war heroines’ the damage was already done. This is what Taslima Nasrin, an eminent Bengali writer currently exiled from the country for her sectarian writings, had to say later on about one of her aunts and the month of December when the war finally came to an end:

“……………It is December now. This was the month when 18 years ago, nine months after the war, I, as part of a bunch of kids, did procession in the backyard tying a piece of cloth, with red on the dark green and yellow map in the red, on a piece of bamboo, and uttered: Joy Bangla.

In Mymensingh, from March until November ’71, the head Imam of the big Mosque has dumped many into the well after slaughtering them in his own hands. It was in December again when the city people brought out countless corps from the well in order to find their nearest ones. My relatives went out to search for those who had left for the war, or vanished without for good. Pakistani soldiers looted our properties, burnt our house before they left, took my father away and bashed him with boots and bayonets, shot two of my uncles and left their dead bodies on the road, plucked my brother’s right eye out. In December two out of my three uncles, who had left for the liberation war, returned. Sixteen days later, from the Pakistani camp, returned home my 21 year old aunt. Some of the neighbors, who fought for liberation and returned home, have lost their hands, some their legs. Still December is the month when the relatives of the crippled war victims became overwhelmed with joy for their homecoming.

But nobody expected my poor aunt’s return home. They all would have been relieved if she did not. Ever since, I always proudly referred to my father, brother and uncles. I was proud of our losses. But I never mention my aunt. Today stepping out of all damn inhibitions, I am proudly saying that: in the darkroom of the military camp ten brutish lechers (Pakistani soldiers) have incessantly raped my aunt for 16 days.

Our society did not pride on my aunt. In newspapers and magazines, in conferences, meetings and seminars the big shots went loud about raped women. Their pompous title “War heroines” for the victim women of war is nothing but a farce in the name of liberalism.

Although everybody accepted the ravage, the torture by boots and bayonets, even dreadful deaths unleashed by the war-they did not accept the hapless accident: rape.

Photograph of a brutally raped & murdered woman found on the streets during the war

In December, the political leaders were shouting outside for the honor of the raped mothers and sisters; then in December, the month of our victory, as the last resort to keep her honor: my aunt hanged herself on the wooden beam of their house.

Taslima Nasreen: Nirbachita Columns (P: 25-26)
The genocide that began for ethnic cleansing to remove Hindus from the Muslim land, while murdering Muslims and Hindus without any discrimination did eventually come to an end. But the truth is, we are nowhere near to achieving the dreams seen by our freedom fighters. We are not making sure that the women who were raped and the people that were martyred were not done so in vain. We need people to carry on that light of equality, human rights and justice that refused to preempt the courage of the fighters against all odds. We need to relay on this light of freedom.
Are we, as yet, ready to carry on that light forward for our own sake?
Photos & Taslima Nasreen’s words copied from muktadhara.net

What exactly art thou doing in the name of Social Work?

With all the colleges nowadays requiring extra-curricular activities as  part of their application, in the past few years all of a sudden Bangladesh has seen a rapid boon in the number of social workers or community service volunteers or whatever you prefer to call them. So, is this good or bad? Before imposing any opinion on you I should like to at first give you some background information about these so-called social activities.

Most of the younger generation Bangladeshis prefer to go to college. Thanks a lot to the government’s repeatedly unfailing initiatives to raise the country’s literacy rate and also to the rise of educational institutes in the private sector. Now, with the overwhelming population of Bangladesh it is virtually impossible to give seats to everyone in a college and thus the colleges have decided to be highly selective. The country’s renowned medical college, Dhaka Medical College has had an acceptance rate of 0.4% in recent years, much less than that of Harvard(5%). And it is not at all easy to disseminate the best from the so many talented Bangladeshis out there so the better private colleges, following their American and British counterparts, have decided to ask for extra-curricular activities in their applications. In addition to this, a large number of newer generation Bangladeshis, whose families have accumulated enough wealth to waste them, prefer to go abroad for their college. Hence extra-curricular activities have become an integral part of everyone of our lives  as college-bound students. And since this is an under-developed country we are talking about the easiest thing to do here is to begin a volunteer organization.

Obviously starting a volunteer  organization is way better than wasting your time dating or lingering around—-things which teenagers nowadays find really ‘cool’ to do—–but the point is most of these organizations serve only one selfish purpose for their founders and members: extracurricular activities to talk about in their college applications. Almost all of these organizations were begun by grade 11/12 students in  a desperate attempt to ‘work for the society’ although I have serious misgivings exactly what the words in the aforementioned quote mean. And most of them do work towards their purpose initially but once the founders have secured awesome positions in American colleges the blogs never get updated, the websites never get opened and the plethora of road-marches and other volunteering acts never get reenacted. That is just one hard truth to digest but it is true. I was going through these articles at umnotablogger about the recent volunteering scandals in the Universal Children’s Day 2011 and could not help but applaud the writers for bringing up this highly controversial but veritable issue in front of the public.

Pictures like these of Jaago members whiling away their time when they were supposed to work for the Universal Children's Day fundraiser were strewn all over the web

The thing is I am not at all antagonistic towards these volunteer organizations but I just hate the pretense involved in all of them. I think like this. The founders and members are all privileged people living lavish lives in big cities and dreaming big. All their plans are centered around a college education and perhaps a life in a developed country. Most of them are essentially using the deprived and the impoverished in the society to achieve their purpose. You might argue that they are doing something at least, not writing a stupid blog to demoralize them like me but the truth is, these things are diminishing the independence of the poor. The poor will feel less incentive to work and will rely more on these rich brats to come up with regular one day-long plans to feed and clothe them. A quick look around the streets of Dhaka will assert to that fact. The number of people coming to the city from the villages to become beggars is rapidly rising and recently there have even been scams about terrorist groups who amputate hands and legs to turn healthy, absolutely perfect individuals into physically-handicapped beggars (The stuff in Slumdog Millionaire was not made up you see). When the country’s economy is booming with the leadership of an extremely young average working population is it all right to deliberately coerce  healthy, active citizens  into permanently-disabled beggars just so that they can earn a decent amount of money and sympathy everyday?

And moreover this trend has even been turned into some sort of ‘gang fights’ as well. A member from one group is not allowed to join another group. Blogs are pressed everyday  by members from each organizations to tease and deride new actions or activities undertaken by opponent groups. A girl from one is not allowed to date a guy from another(all right this one is a made-up). In short these volunteer activities, in spite of their positive media coverage, have begun a trend the authorities should quickly look into.

Some of these awe-inspiring volunteer organizations have even been accused of money-laundering. I cannot confirm the source but smoke is in the air that the founders of  Organization X(which obviously is a pseudonym), one of the most famous of its kind in the country, have bagged exorbitant sums of cash from foreign donations in the name of developing their ‘school for the poor’. Given the ostentatious nature of these people coupled with our highly-corrupt in our society I will not at all be surprised if now money to the poor gets robbed.

You might accuse me of being partisan, or a mawkish nut but it is just that I cannot tolerate all this any more. Why is it that every good deed we undertake has to have a purpose? Can we not find at least one self-less deed? Is it truly not possible to do something totally for the sake of the socially-deprived? Can we not take more measures along with the government to make the poor self subservient instead of increasing their reliance on us, the privileged few? Can we not work more actively towards making Bangladesh a middle-income country by the end of 2015, as per the government’s plans?

I seek solace in the fact that this is the land that has bred people like Professor Muhammad Yunus and Sir Fazle Hassan Abed and their world-famous institutions Grameen Bank and BRAC. This is the beautiful region that has inspired achievers like Professor Amartya Sen and Rabindranath Tagore. Even after all the inspiration we receive everyday do we  still have to resort to such low extents and transgress our moral and ethical values just so that we can get into the college of our dreams? I know many of you will read this and think about it but my advice is do not get daunted by whatever it is these volunteer organizations are doing. If you really want to do some good and you are really a social worker, believe me you will not have to look far.

Image taken from socialworkers.org

PS: At the time of writing, the writer himself is a college-bound senior for Fall 2012 and he also suffers from a dearth of extra-curricular activities like most of you Indian subcontinentals out there (unless of course you are good enough to win International Math Olympiads or something) . But he has successfully betrayed his temptations and refused to join or create any of the pretentious organizations mentioned above just so that he can impress the admission officers. He firmly believes in working for the society but not for his own gain; for the people out there who really deserves his help.