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     Volume 6 Issue 8 | March 2, 2007 |

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A Gathering of Minds

Azizul Jalil

The group of distinguished friends at the lunch.

Through the glass panes of the main dining room of the Heritage restaurant in Gulshan, Dhaka, two lone deer were looking with wide inquisitive eyes at some grey and little or no-haired men. In that glorious winter afternoon, I was there, looking for the peacocks I had seen one evening two years ago. They were not there any more. It was February 7, 2007--fifteen men had gathered-- professors, poets, writers, ambassadors, civil servants, bankers and intellectuals. They were septuagenarians except one who was below and another above the age of eighty. These people have known each other for many decades, quite a few of them-for more than half a century.

Was there an occasion? Not really, except that one in the group was visiting Dhaka from Washington on an annual pilgrimage home.

As we were exchanging news and views, someone remarked that it was a concentration of quite a bit of intellect and wisdom in one single place in Dhaka. Not everyone was comfortable with such self-indulgence. Interestingly, I found that in fact, the weight of intellect was clearly heavier at two ends of the long table. The sitting arrangement led to an uneven distribution of grey matter around the table. When people were obviously in a lighter and witty mood, did we hear lofty ideas and pearls of wisdom? What does one expect in such a situation? From the beginning, it was clear that these people had come to have a pleasant conversation over lunch, not to debate over high policy and philosophy.

Even then, there were occasional sparks and sharp, subtle and witty remarks. At the beginning, when I was trying to provoke a friend, a noted intellectual, by asking for his views in terms other than class conflict, he quickly retorted that his class analysis of events in the country might not suit me either. Irrespective of their levels of intellect, Bangladeshis are political animals and avoiding current state of politics was almost impossible. With recent developments in mind, I raised the question whether democracy had failed us or we had failed democracy. Bangladesh was a wonderful country having fine music and culture and a fast growing economy. People in the cities and countryside are toiling hard to improve their lives. Why then do we periodically get such political jolts?

People were hesitant to enter the discussion. One even reminded that under the current emergency in the country, we were verging on political discussions, which were not allowed. Protesting about being dragged into serious matters when the main objective was to enjoy a fine lunch among old friends, one gentleman came forward to say that we were ourselves responsible for failing democracy. During a brief discussion, there was no unanimity. A few others expressed the opinion that democracy was never given a chance in Bangladesh as successive political leadership was intolerant of opposition, selfish and arrogant.

It does not matter how you define democracy and its institutional set up, the sad fact is that some people have taken advantage of the electoral process to gain power of the state and aggrandize themselves. Another person felt that the urban elite and members of the civil society, by their acts of omission and commission, are also partly responsible for the weakening of civic institutions and the social compact that nurture democratic values. Only blaming politics and the politicians for such an unhappy turn of events would not be fair. A lot of introspection was needed on everybody's part to find a way out of the mess in which the nation found itself.

An academic amongst us expressed the hope that the current purification measures of the caretaker government would have beneficial effects on the political parties and hence, the election. More good and honest people might get elected and a socially responsible governing style may emerge after the next election. Others expressed their ambivalence. Without a change in political leadership and culture, which would take longer time, it could again become politics as usual albeit of a more restrained and sophisticated variety. What then should be done? Not many brilliant ideas came forth from the illustrious gathering. The host, sitting at one end of the table, was not able to hear our entire discourse. He teasingly asked, “If and when you come to a decision in the matter, please share with us your magic solution.”

That was not all; in between there were learned conversations and flash backs to history. I do not remember what triggered it, but at one point, one guest recalled that Guru Nanak had visited Dhaka and possibly Chittagong. Another lunch participant, a scholar, informed us that in fact he was researching into the story. I ventured to recall an anecdote quoted by Salman Rushdie in his introduction to the English translation of The Baburnama. According to Sikh scriptural tradition, Babur (though at the lunch I had mistakenly mentioned Jahangir's name) had a meeting with Nanak. Babur had imprisoned Nanak, but learning of a miracle performed by the Guru, he went to meet him. Such was the presence of the Guru that Babur was reported to have fallen at the feet of Nanak with the cry: “On the face of this faqir one sees God himself.” This story was taken with a pinch of salt by some of the guests because to Muslims (and Babur, a practicing Muslim), God remains unseen.

The hearty meal and sparkling conversation were over. It was time to take leave of each other. I had taken a camera to capture the event. The thought that I might be taking the pictures because some of us might not be there in a year's time when there may be another opportunity to congregate, came to a friend's mind. I felt embarrassed but continued with the picture taking.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.


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