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     Volume 6 Issue 48 | December 14, 2007 |

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Writing the Wrong

The Helpless Cynic

Sharbari Ahmed

On November 15th of this year my friend called me at 5 in the evening, sounding worried. I answered the phone absentmindedly because I was in the middle of a full blown panic attack -- not clinical mind you -- brought on by the fact that I did not have a single house hold object that looked remotely like a pancreas.

My eight- year-old son had been assigned a school project of recreating the entire digestive system with only found and house hold objects. My husband had very conveniently eaten something that disagreed with his digestive system and I was stuck with the hot glue gun and three feet of tubing that I could barely manage to bend into a large intestine. Just as I was burning myself with the glue gun my friend called and said, “Are you okay?”

“Are you psychic,” I replied, genuinely mystified. (You all know of my history with “psychics”. If you have been faithfully reading me that is.) Because, you see, I was distinctly not okay because my child was going to be the only one in his third grade class with a small intestine located near an epiglottis. I challenge you all to look up what that is.

“No,” she said. “I watch the news.” I wanted to tell her that that was a very bad idea because all the news as of late appeared to be unfortunate and this day was no exception.

“There was a cyclone in Bangladesh,” she said and was silent, waiting for me to respond. I did not hear her at first because my son was waving the glue gun around and threatening to burn the house down. I gave him a time out (which he chuckled at) and said, “I'm sorry, honey, what did you say?”

“There was a really terrible cyclone. Was anyone in your family affected?”

The information barely registered. “My parents don't live anywhere near the water,” I said, as I snatched the shoe leather that was doubling as a liver out of my son's hand and wagged a warning finger at him. “Listen, are you good at recreating things with household items?” I said. This was met with a slight pause. “Uh, not really. Are you sure everyone over there is okay? I don't know how much family you have over there,” my friend asked again. There was no reproach in her voice but I suddenly became self conscious that I was not sufficiently upset or at least displaying concern. “These things happen all the time,” I said to her lamely, knowing that the moment I said that it would sound impotent.

“Okay,” she said doubtfully. “I was just worried. It looks really bad. Thousands of people"

“I have to go,” I said, cutting her off. “I have to help my kid get this thing done.”

She said okay and hung up. I finished the project with my son and fed him and puttered around the house, switching off lights and filling the dog's water bowl. I did not turn on the news or the radio. We have the BBC news channel on cable and that is what I watch to get a semblance of the truth of things but the TV screen remained dark.

That night while lying in bed I thought about my friend and how kind she was to care and how callous I must have appeared to her. I thought about why I reacted the way I did. It occurred to me that the coward's way out is to be cynical. Committed cynics call it being “realistic” I call it being weak. And when it comes to Bangladesh -- a land I left in a hurry at the age of three weeks -- I have never quite known quite how to feel when she is ravaged by destruction-man made or otherwise. I know this: a part of me rankles at the pity and I get defensive. Bangladesh will be just fine; I have wanted to say on certain occasions to well meaning folks who are just trying to be kind but end up sounding like missionaries. What they say: I am so sorry to hear about the cyclone/suicide bombing/acid attacks/female infanticide (yes, at one time or another someone has said this to me.) in Bangladesh. What I actually hear: Oh I am so sorry that your non-Christian, savage little scrap of land is feeling the wrath of the very Christian Almighty Yahweh as a result of your distinctly third world goings on. Okay, okay, so I have a tiny little sandalwood chip on my shoulder. So what? I have my reasons.

Before I even turned on the news the next day I knew what the images of the devastation would look like. I knew it would be the poorest of the poor whose simple lives had been turned on their heads, who had nothing before and have even less now. It seems -- and I know this is a skewed view -- that lately anywhere in the world where Mother Nature shows she is still in charge, that it is the poor who bear the brunt of her wrath. I thought about Katrina and the people of New Orleans. They had just as hard a time getting aid as many Bangladeshis are having now.

I may not even have a right to write about what has happened over there. I am not there. I am isolated and comfortable and helpless. Someone in Dhaka told me that was how many people in the cities, away from the devastation were feeling. I have urged my friends to send money and they have (many through various Christian charity services). I know I don't have all the facts at my fingertips. The reportage of the cyclone in the American media outlets is spotty at best. After the first heady moments of seeing death and destruction it lost its lustre, CNN promptly returned to reporting on another story about violence and despair; people getting trampled in malls while rushing to buy the latest gadget for Christmas.

More than one pal has called to see if I was okay. I noticed that they all sound like I have lost a relative, that they are actually giving me condolences.

“I don't have immediate family living in the rural areas,” I told another friend of mine. “I don't know anyone who died.”

“I know that,” he said. “I just wanted to see if you were okay. After all it's where you were born.” It occurred to me then that I was in mourning -- like I had been when the last cyclone hit or whenever anything happens to make the country's journey that much harder. That it was like watching someone you love being wounded in a terrible way and not being able to do anything about it.

But, you know, that friend who first called me called me back and said, “So? How do you really feel?”
“Please help,” I said. “Send money. Anything.”
I guess my friends know me better than I realised.


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