Vol. 5 Num 452 Fri. September 02, 2005  

'Now I place my hand on the shoulder of possibilities'

If you happen to visit the Botanical Gardens at Mirpur on the outskirts of the city, look right as you line up at the single file entrance. You will see a tiny shop, if you can call it that. It is but a lone wood and glass showcase, out in the open under a scorching sun, and stuffed with packets of snacks and topped with bottled water and cold drinks. On the front of the show case you will find these words written in bold caption in Bangla: Ei rakhlam haat shombhabonar kandhe, which translates into the title of the present paragraphs.

I was at the gardens to photograph flowers. The lotuses were simply beautiful. They thoroughly compensated me for last year's disappointment. To me it took some time for the message of the sentence to sink in. And who wrote it? I asked. Was it a line out of a modern Bengali poem? I quizzed friends with literary bends. No, it was not from any modern poem they knew of. Intrigued, I went back to the gardens. The subterfuge used was that I wanted a second look at the lotuses, this time with sparkling rain drops on their magnificent leaves. It did rain that day.

A young boy was in charge at the shop. I asked him who wrote those words. He did not know, he said, but I could ask the owner. I did. The owner turned out to be a young man perhaps in his late twenties. Where did he find those words? I wanted to know. "No where", he said, "These are my words. I wrote them myself." Then he explained.

He has a master's degree in political science. But he could not find a job. For ten long years it had been a struggle to survive. The snack stand at the entrance of the Botanical Gardens was where he finally hoped to find success. He was determined to make it work. This was where he rested his hand on the shoulder of possibilities.

I thought the words were brilliant poetry, congratulated him, wished him success, and left. But the words did not leave me. They continued to haunt me. How many thousands of young men and women, like the author of those words, dream new dreams every day for a better life, or at least renew them every day, I wondered. And how many thousands of dreams are dashed every day! As our car raced back to the city, hundreds of tiny roadside shops sped by. How many of them are symbols of hope and not desperation?

Were they all shoulders of possibilities? One should hope they were. There must be thousands of individual success stories in the country. We read about them in newspaper reports. Some of them came creeping back into my thoughts. There must be a thousand shoulders of possibilities.

Yet did we not, as a nation too, start with a hand on a shoulder of huge possibilities? People who fought for independence from foreign rule had a vision of a strong democratic, secular, liberal society that would open up enormous opportunities for individual and collective fulfillment. That goal remains a distant dream.

We had gone only a short distance from the gardens when our car was caught in an unexpected traffic jam. As we crawled along, we realised something was wrong. There was large police presence at street intersections. Some streets had been barricaded. We made detours. Our driver craned his neck from his window. What was up, he asked someone. A prominent businessman had been murdered for refusing to pay extortion money. There had been large scale violence in the streets as a result. I was reminded of countless hundreds of people killed by extortionists over the past few years. Law enforcement agencies, damning law, have themselves killed many hundreds, supposedly to stop such extortions. Back on the main road, we passed large hand painted slogans demanding punishment to killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I was reminded that it had been three decades since the murder and yet the nation had not found the collective will to punish the killers.

The trip from the gardens ended. Soon we were back in the safety of home. A few days later the nation was rocked to its foundations as Islamist militants carried out some five hundred bombings across the country. That was days before the first anniversary of the August 21, 2004 grenade attacks that took the lives of twenty two innocent people and wounded hundreds in an act of unprecedented savagery.

Can the vendor by the gate of the Botanical Gardens and the thousands like him long keep their grip on the shoulder of possibilities if the nation loses its on its own?

Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist.