<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing if not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 15 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 25, 2003

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A place to sit

Shawkat Hussain

The moral of a tale that I have just read goes like this. When you are dead you are dead.
And there is yet another moral: Make love when you can. It's good for you.
The book is rare, so I thought I would share these two simple and profound utterances with my readers, particularly those past their youth. I am also pretty sure that these two morals will raise the hackles of quite a few people I know, and many more I don't. These thoughts turn me to other situations just outside my compound walls.
I have the privilege of living in one of the best neighbourhoods in the city even if the houses in which we live in are quite squalid: there are no traffic jams here, the roads are wide, the sidewalks newly paved, and ancient poinciana trees give shade when shade is needed. In the evenings, in the penumbra of sodium lights, scores of young couples sit side by side, approximately five metres apart from other couples. I find this sight quite heart-warming. There are few places in Dhaka city where lovers can sit and talk; here, just outside the compound where I live, these young people find some privacy in a public road. They sit and hold hands, and the darkness makes it difficult to see more. It would be impolite to want to see more either. It is simply not my business to intervene in what is in the nature of youth, to question what is so obviously good. Or so I think. Surely, youth cannot be so excellent in itself that it requires no love. What could be the outcome of such hand-holding and sitting? In a worst-case scenario, there might be some broken hearts, some growing-up pains; in some cases, it is possible that romantic friendships might actually lead to marriage, family and so on. Certainly, it cannot be questioned holding hands is better than holding guns. And we are not even talking of love-making here.
But as I said, such behaviour raises the hackles of some self-appointed moral vigilantes. I have heard many expressions of righteous indignation against 'shameless youth' in many private conversations; and at least on one occasion I have witnessed straightforward intervention. A posse of three men, armed with high degrees and higher moral rage and authority (whence this comes from, I do not know), confronted a young woman and a young man sitting somewhere in the dark of an evening, both in their early twenties, with a series of loud, blustering questions: What are you doing, you shameless kids? Do your parents know what you are up to? You should be whipped! And they went on and on, whipping up a fury of words against these two young lovers shivering with fright. I was right behind them and I intervened, questioning their right to question the young couple.
Is there some law against sitting and holding hands on a quiet public road? Is there a law against lovers and loving? And most importantly, what gives them the moral sanction to intervene in matters of the heart, even if romantic transactions, within acceptable bounds of decency, are taking place in public? But what is acceptable to one may be utterly unacceptable to others. I am not sure about the psychology of these puny men venting their moral outrage against young lovers, and much could be said about it no doubt. It would be so much better, I told these men (with whom I live in the same community and work in the same profession), if they dared to raise their voices against the real trouble-makers in the area the gun-toting cadres of different student organisations. My moral colleagues melted away in the dark as did their victims of moral rage.
A couple of weeks back I went to the Bakul-tala in the Insitute of Fine Arts to listen to a Baul singer who had just arrived from Kushtia. The Bakul-tala is just a wonderful place for sitting, a raised concrete platform surrounding the foot of the tree in a wide circle. Predictably, there were many young people (dare I say lovers again) sitting there; some came and joined our group with the Baul. When the sting of the mosquitoes became more than the song of Baul, we decided to leave, and at the moment of departure I saw an ugly sign nailed to the trunk of the tree. It proclaimed: IT IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN TO SIT UNDER THE BAKUL TREE. No one seemed to give a hoot to what the sign said. One can understand signs forbidding people to pee against a particular wall, or to walk on the grass, or to pick flowers from someone else's garden, but to set up a sign forbidding people to sit in a place designed for sitters is the height of idiocy. The sign had ceased to signify. Most sitters happen to be lovers you see.
The Institute could do one of three of things: it could demolish the meant-for-sitting-platform, or ring the platform under the bakul tree with barbed-wire fence, making it out-of-bounds for those crossing the bounds of questionable morality. Or better still, good sense could prevail. The sign could be simply taken down. What is the point of an order that is unenforceable, meaningless, ridiculous, and unaesthetic to boot? Once again, ponder the morals at the top, ye moralisers.




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