Moving On, and Cultures
Whoever heard me toying with the thought of restarting writing for the SWM occasionally, now that I've been away from Dhaka for more than a year, had the same thing to say. Dhaka magazine, but why? Shouldn't that be a closed chapter? Why must you go back to it?
Can anything in life ever be a closed chapter? And even if one does deem it closed, must it cease to be any less a part of you? We, as entities, are a sum of our experiences, day after day after day. Can I then, extract any one or more part(s) of me, and in the name of the metaphorical moving on, shake it off and move on?
A page read once leaves behind that indelible imprint on the psyche, the book open, closed, regardless. Our associations with a place live on, our physical presence, absence, regardless. Even after having 'moved on' from Hyderabad a decade ago, our next door neighbour from those days calls me up to remind me to knock off my extra kilos well in time for her son's wedding later in the year, because I have to be present there as the daughter she never had! Eight years after having packed our bags and moved on from Pune, my husband and I went to a nearby Mazaar of a Peer Baba a week ago, and stood there silently upon hearing of the demise of our (then) neighbour's death. Six years after having said our adieus to Bombay, it took editors of different publications sitting in their noisy cubicles with the phones constantly ringing, probably half a minute to place me as so and so who had handed in such and such a piece to them then.
Faces. Names. Associations. Memories. Bonding. Beyond physical or spatial boundaries, all. And that is what defines a person's sense of belonging at a given place.
One year plus in Kolkata, Calcutta, Cal - my Cal- and I still don't feel I belong here. And yet, this was practically my second home right through my growing up years. Having lived in a small town near Cal, I vividly remember my numerous and frequent weekend trips, big breaks, long vacations to my maternal grandparents' house in this city. And it is ironical that despite having been here for fifteen months now post Dhaka, the Cal that I still associate with is the one from my earlier days!
Setting about a like to like comparison of the comfort index, I felt far more at ease at the one-year mark in Dhaka than in Cal now! And looking back, am sure that ease had to do with my having made an effort to know and assimilate a new place, a different cultural ethos, a new set of people. True, it was also partially demand led; I had to do my homework well to field the thick and quick barrage of questions that would be aimed at us by family and friends back home about the 'what's and how's' of a typical Bangladeshi life! Now, since I am in my 'own' country, amongst supposedly my 'own' people, those questions, and along with them the myriad possibilities of exploring the unknown, cease to exist! It is indeed a matter of personal shame that I am yet to visit the house of a typical resident Bangali in Calcutta, nor have I felt the slightest of inclination to. When, technically speaking, I am as much of an 'outsider' in Cal, or Delhi, or Bombay, or anywhere in India (other than my small hometown), as I was in Dhaka or in Chittagong. But because I'm in India, cushioned by my 'very own' culture, must I bother to dig deeper?
Which brings me to the other half of my title, 'culture'. What, and who defines a culture? In my four years away from India, I had a two-fold task at hand; sketch a Bangladesh in the minds of my people back home, and paint a picture of India before my Bangladeshi friends! I refer to it as a task, because I did feel it was a responsibility which I had to be true to, to the best of my ability and knowledge. Look at the universality of human nature, on either side of the border, family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, out of abundant curiosity would ask near identical questions about people, lifestyles, habits, preferences of those across the border.
This is where I shudder at the sheer enormousness of the burden I, or each of us posed with these set of questions, carries. Answered casually with frivolousness, or sincerely in earnestness, I was, and still am aware that my words could be creating an everlasting impression in the recipient's mind. My nervousness sprang from the distinct possibility of my, inadvertently, holding an entire culture to ransom by even a single ill informed, flippant, or at times over-grave personal assessment of the culture/ people in question. Can one then possibly remain objective when it's one's subjective opinion that's being expressed!
But all said, at the end of the day, it is this active exchange of ideas, thoughts, opinions which forms the core of a person's experiences at any given place. In a foreign land, I made a conscious effort to participate in this exchange; in my own country, I shy away from it thinking it unnecessary. Therefore, it's no mere coincidence that I made more friends in Dhaka in four years Bangladeshis, Indians, other nationalities than in maybe the last one decade in five different cities in India put together! And it's also true that while my post-college decade within India left me largely untouched, the far fewer Dhaka years made me more humble, tolerant, and aware, and that much closer to being a global citizen.
Closed chapter? Frankly, is it even conceivable?
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007