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     Volume 7 Issue 17 | April 25, 2008 |

  Cover Story
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Writing the Wrong

In the Way of Dreams

Sharbari Ahmed

I have just left Dhaka. The last time I was there was three years ago and my level of awareness and concerns were very different. I am not going to expound on the obvious. The crushing humanity, the beggars assailing us the moment the car was stopped at a traffic light. The astounding disparity between those who could count on three solid meals a day and those who could not. I missed the New Year by a day and I was told that the level of excitement and optimism that is on display on that day is enough to make a person think that Bangladesh is a nation of dreamers who have held on to their sense of wonder. I know that it is a nation of brilliant artists. I have walked through galleries in town proving just that point. The beauty, grace and boldness hanging on those walls remind an outsider like me that this is a place that cannot be categorised easily. It is not merely a country filled with pot bellied malnourished children and rapacious politicians, but one where highly sophisticated artists can and at times do flourish. But it is a place that is having some difficulty holding on to its dreams. I might go as far as to say that it may have, for the most part, stopped dreaming at all at least until the one spring day every year.

That being said, however, I think it has a tremendous amount to do with the fact that Bangladesh is devoid of privacy. One needs space to dream after all but more importantly it is such a visceral place where we are faced with things that human beings should never have to see on an almost daily basis. What comes to mind for me was a small boy, the same age as my son or thereabouts, who had one arm and was begging in the street near the cantonment area. I watched him, hanging out on the traffic divider with his friends. He was laughing and jovial in between begging stints, being a child and possibly part of a highly organised gang of street kids who regularly hit up car passengers. But he was not whole and a child should always, always be whole. He also had no shirt any time I saw him and I could count the ribs on his skinny body. He was utterly exposed to the elements for at least eight hours a day. I know his plight does not define a nation but so many people in the west, as well as the mainstream American media have come to think of him and those like him as representing the quintessence of the country. It made me wonder if Bangladeshis in general have not started thinking this as well, thus obscuring their own visions of themselves and what they could achieve.

In the two weeks that I was visiting I also became acutely aware of how adept Bangladeshis of a certain class have become at ignoring this boy and those like him. Not everyone, of course, but oh so many. But I understand why, naturally. It's simply too hard for some to see day in and day out. It's cloying, it presses down on a person's soul. It makes it arduous to breathe. The desensitization (for some) is an act of self-preservation. But there is also the flip side of this, where the very act of ignoring these fellow human beings robs us of our humanity.

For those of us who do have the luxury of dreaming, however, I think we unconsciously absorb the unnaturalness of it all. We simply can't avoid that and I do think it ultimately prevents most of us from giving full breadth to our dreams. I think it makes it impossible to recognise what our destiny island everyone, everyone, has a destiny, a purpose to fulfill. I met with many friends while there and what I observed was a deeply ingrained ennui that in the past I have judged unfairly as self-indulgence.

But there are others who are doing their best to keep their heads above water simply by giving back. I have a friend who is caught between wanting to run away from the suffocation and staying so she can do something to help. And she has. She has set up, through her own mettle and a strong sense of responsibility, a programme for street children. It is not easy, an uphill battle at best, but she is sticking it out. Among the numerous things she is doing to help these children is that she teaches them art and a means to express themselves through it. She wants them to, even though fate has conspired to rob them of their childhood, retain that sense of magic and wonder that is their right. She wants them to dream of better things. First, however, she always has to convince the parents to let their children stay in the programme.

I have another friend in Dhaka, a woman I admire very much who has figured out that part of her destiny is to make people feel special. To acknowledge each person she comes across and giving them recognition. All human beings thrive on kindness and in an environment such as Bangladesh, kindness is imperative.

She simply recognises people because ultimately any way one slices it, all human beings just want love and recognition. She does this by a kind word, a subtle compliment or just by listening to them and giving credence to their point of view.

It is late for me here, almost one in the morning. I was working all day in New York City. It was not very cold but for whatever reason today the subway was filled with homeless people who did not want to brave the outside world. I sat near one man but had to move because he smelled so bad. He had all his worldly possessions stuffed into two shopping bags at his feet and slept soundly, laid out on the seats. It unnerved me and I felt that I hade been imposed upon by this man. I had been daydreaming the entire ride downtown. I stopped the moment I saw him.

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