Atoning a generation

Shayan s. Khan

Photo Credit: Wahid Adnan/drik News

I was born into a generation of Bangladeshis who had a lot to atone for. Not all of it was our fault, and in most cases, we only became aware of the issues at stake much later in life. Indeed, just recently, I would say, once we started coming out of the shadow of parental care and making a living, or making the lives we live in some way meaningful, did we realise.

Children of Dictatorship (and flanked on either side by those of Liberation and Democracy), we have grown into our role as custodians of the nation's future fairly comfortably. But that in itself is disturbing, given the orgy of crime and injustice we partook in, whether knowingly or not, during our most formative years, the Eighties and Nineties.

Consider the list. Without the collective strength of our 'eyeballs', the invasion of the distasteful, and wholly fantastical, anti-culture peddled by Bollywood and Ekta Kapoor's soppy serials might just have been held at bay. No matter how much it may be a function of the changing times, it is our generation that has overseen the shift away from traditional 'downers' such as cannabis, cough syrup and heroin as the drugs of choice towards a new generation of 'uppers' that draw on amphetamine, its residue, caffeine and Harpic. We even rendered the reading of books once considered the fount of a cultured disposition out of fashion, and in the mother of all enforced disappearances, allowed Milk Vita Chocolate Milk to be taken off the shelves.

That all was bad enough, and surely even now, each will draw vehemently opposing views regarding the merits, or demerits of the role played by our generation in each occurrence. Indeed, it would be difficult to achieve some form of consensus on the undesirability of the phenomena mentioned above. We all have friends who swear by the aspirations they're fed watching Bollywood. Barge in on any crowd of excitable young delinquents today, and you're likely to face wide-eyed, edgy discomfort at any effort to convey the 'consciousness' as Bob Marley memorably put it bestowed by smoking a spliff. However, our blissful acceptance of one violently distorted feature of the society we grew up in has occasioned a bit of reflection just recently, at least among some of us within the circle of my acquaintances. And here it is almost surprising how many of us are on the same page regarding its detrimental effect on how we conduct our lives.

I am referring to the multiple levels of segregation we submit ourselves to, from the cradle to the grave, as citizens of Bangladesh. The fact that most of the lines that mark these divisions have been institutionalised over centuries by the way society has evolved in this patch of the Indian subcontinent means we hardly ever notice them. But stop for a moment to think, and you'll see that they are all around us from the sweeper colony in Tikatoli to the 'servants' quarters' at home.

For myself, and most of my friends, our most profound experience of these divisions came in the form of the wall that gradually went up eventually becoming too high between those of us attending the capital's English-medium schools, and those on the other side who went to Bengali-medium schools.

Ever since independence, Bangladesh has been unique in the region for its three education streams English, Bengali, and Arabic for religious studies and allowing students to choose whichever one they like, as long as they could afford it. That laid the grounds for a generation of Bangladeshis growing up in relative isolation from each other. English-medium and Bengali-medium kids hardly mix with each other, and madrasah students don't mix with anyone else.

From a very young age, the idea was drummed into our heads of the 'Other': those who flocked in their droves to the government schools. We came to know they didn't practice co-education among boys and girls; that none of their rooms were air-conditioned, and how they could hardly speak a word of English. There seemed to be this vast gulf in terms of lifestyle, sensibilities and temperament that existed between us, and thinking back now, throughout our school lives, the opportunities to reconcile these differences were remarkably few and far between.

I recall some awkward encounters on the cricket ground during the annual inter-school tournament, where games between English and Bengali-medium schools always witnessed an extra edge. The rivalry between teams from Scholastica on the one hand, and say Government Laboratory or Dhanmondi Boys on the other, always had a visceral element to them that never surfaced in games against other English-medium schools, despite the greater sense of anticipation born of cavalry against them.

It wasn't like we instinctively hated each other's guts. We just failed consistently to find some common ground from where a sense of camaraderie could develop. It's common for students from each stream to blame the other for this failure. English-medium students blame Bengali-medium students of harbouring insecurities. They return with handwritten complaints about a certain aloofness, bordering on arrogance, on the part of English-medium students that stands in the way of nurturing friendships between the two groups of students.

Whatever the case might be, what it has meant is that forty years after independence, the country is faced with a classic conundrum where a cohort of much promise has arrived, or is about to, at its date with destiny, but with virtually no idea as how to pool its resources.

That is because in general, these people from different backgrounds fail to truly connect at the level of society. It's not always due to pride or prejudice. People just don't know each other, and their dispositions arising out of a background in any one of three possibilities. Sure, it's better in some places, worse in some and in any case, “Grameenphone a thaika chor homu na” as a friend who works at the country's leading telco said to me. A friend of over twenty years observed the other day how despite having worked where he does for over three years, he hasn't met a single colleague from outside the same bracket (English-medium) that he would call a friend.

The nature of the problem is fraught with numerous complexities. The crux of the matter probably lies within the Marxist framework of class analysis, which can explain how current conditions emerged and entrenched the status quo that now exists. But the progressive ethic must demand its overthrow by any means if not by revolution in a country that at least gets to elect its leaders, then through determinate evolution.

The twisted contours of our society have almost always allowed lice to rise to the top, which may not offer much hope of a level playing field. Yet it is my contention that a far-reaching social upheaval is underway here in Bangladesh, and to sense the pulse of this movement, you've got to go down to the grassroots, outside Dhaka.

It is there that you will find the strongest forces gathered to take on reverse-ageism and received wisdom. I have been surprised to see how some of the provincial players have been far better team-mates than they may have been in the past.

Incremental change is something we can believe in. The most prominent indicator of all has been the trend in votes cast by the public in the municipal elections. Almost all of the elections have resulted in defeats for the government. But that is not to say they have seen victories for the opposition. The intelligence indicates the public is ready to express its distaste with the entire brand of politics that has been on display for the last 40 years. Independent candidates not tied to the shackles of party reverence are in high demand. The battle ahead is surely going to make for more difficult days ahead. Whatever we may have lost along the way, it is only in looking ahead, and not necessarily too far even, that we can nourish ourselves.

Shayan S. Khan is managing editor of the Dhaka Courier