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Dhaka Tribune

Dhaka Lit Fest

Chasing yesterdays: Part two

Setting the stage for 'disagreements' with Abdulrazak Gurnah and how collective identities try to impose control over the individual. This is part two of an ongoing series

Update : 10 Jan 2023, 01:21 PM

This notion of a degradation of a collective identity is a particular pet peeve of mine. Growing up, I was as patriotic as was expected of a child brought up under the nationalized idea of what a Bengali should be. But the seeds of alienation were always there. The kids around me would all act and behave a certain way, and I would always feel like an outsider in my attempts to bridge the gap. Not to say I was an outcast, but all my life, I had played a role with the end goal of trying to fit in. Of trying to be the ideal student, of trying to be the ideal son, of trying to be the ideal wage slave. This feeling of disquiet is deeply personal, and I recognize that this is a feeling that is shared by millions -- if not billions -- across the world. Then how does this personal feeling of alienation tie in with the idea of degraded collective identities in a global landscape? Moreover, if this is a feeling that is shared by millions of people, wouldn't that point to the creation of a new collective identity over the older ones? 

Traditional wisdom would assert this to indeed be the case. But if you ask me, I have my doubts. 

Traditional nationalistic collective identities assert the existence of a system where the individuals living in the system generally act and think within an observable scale. If we talk about Bengali nationalism, that scale would mean that we would all like rice, we would all like fish, and that we would all be brave and courageous souls who would not think twice before throwing themselves to the flames in order to serve the nation. 

If we shift the basis for this collective identity from nation to a race of people. Much of the above discourse remains the same: that we like rice, that we like fish, that we are the most hospitable people in the world, and that we are homesick imbeciles that are ruled by our emotions. 

Is there some truth to these assertions? Maybe. On an average, certainly large chunks of the population show traits that fall somewhere within this range. But is it not true that a large portion of people don't conform to these ideals? 

Let's start with myself. I like rice, but I hate fish. I would rather shoot myself than even consider the thought of entertaining strangers I have no interest to mingle with. And as for shedding blood for an arbitrary piece of land, who cares? 

And before you ride your high horses and call me every pejorative that your tiny little brain can muster, ask yourself this, if you were given the choice between being born in America or being born in Bangladesh, what would you choose? 

Take a deep breath. Try to calm down. Remove emotions from the equation, and answer from your heart. 

And now you know

But is the degradation of a collective identity contingent on some ungrateful people like me refusing to conform to the status quo and going full unpatriotic for the chance of a better life? 

Traditional wisdom would assert this to be indeed the cast. But if you ask me, I would say no. 

The question that was asked in the previous section points out a fundamental characteristic of existence as a whole that had been forgotten in our pursuit of order and collective zeal. Given that patriotism is nothing more than an instrument that instills order by force, it wouldn't be a far-reaching conclusion to link feelings of patriotism or nationalism or any sense of extremist pride in a collective identity to a totalitarian need to suppress critical thinking. 

Let's go back to the question of the previous section. Take out either/or nature from the equation. Simply ask yourself this, why were you born in Bangladesh? Why were you not born in a country like America? Justifications run the gamut from this was ordained by fate that you were meant to be Bengali to begin with, which is the same thing as believing in fate. The problem with this justification is fate is something you believe in by having faith. This is not something that is or ever has been proven. People certainly have their empirical evidence for believing in this notion -- I have mine as well -- but for argument's sake, if we do take fate as a proven system under which everything operates, the question of why doesn't cease to exist. Okay, so the plan was for you to be born in Bangladesh. But why did it have to be you? You might say that this was because this is where you fit in the larger plan, but it didn't have to be you. And if it had to be someone with the same characteristics as you, it could have very well been someone else. 

The notion of fate asserts that there is an overarching plan for everything to happen, so let's represent that plan as two people going for a walk. One of them has a weak physique, and by the end of the walk, he will die. The other is healthy and cunning, and seeing the dead body's pocket filled with money, he will take the greens and flee the scene. 

In a scenario like this, we also need to assume the existence of an omniscient entity that will create these two people out of nothing, as an assumption of fate's existence means someone must be sitting at the head of the table. Even if we apply a more secular framework and say that fate is nothing more than the results of the ensuing chain reaction of the big bang, then it still means that the two people of the above scenario would have to materialize out of non-living organisms -- ie, something out of nothing. In the scenario with the omniscient being, the being would make an arbitrary choice based on its own judgement. It might not appear arbitrary to it, but given that there are an infinite range of options to choose from and an omniscient being by definition has the power to change reality by its will, the end product of this roadmap where you were assigned the role of a dying person comes down to the whims and whimseys of said omniscient being -- ie, this is an arbitrary choice. 

And if we take a look at the model of chain reaction, well, then it is as arbitrary as it can be. 

“This seems finished. But this just isn't my style, honestly.” 

“Could you elaborate on what you didn't like?” 

“It's not that. Your story just doesn't feel Bengali enough. If I bought a book by an author from Nigeria, I would expect to learn more about the Nigerian culture. You get what I am saying?” 

And just like that, my expressions were tossed inside the bin. It had nothing to do with the quality of the actual piece itself. However, it had everything to do with the limitations placed on my freedom of expression by a birthright I want nothing to do with, a birthright I didn't even choose to begin with. 

Much of life can be summed up with this paragraph alone. If we entertain the view that our inclusion into specific groups, culture, and geography are nothing more than the result of chance, we also need to factor into account that this hand we have assigned to be play will naturally impose limitations on our moves. However, this is not something we chose to do. We were just dealt a bad hand. 

Unlike poker, however, the rules of the game don't have any hard or fast rule that you have to stick to the hand you were delivered. One of the core tenets of capitalism is that man is the architect of his own face, that through grit and perseverance, man has the power to make anything of himself as he sees fit. 

However, if we return to the opening paragraph of this section, it becomes clear that is not the case. 

Let's broaden our scope. If you don't like fish, you are mocked. If you behave differently, you are branded an outcast. If you want to settle abroad for your own betterment, you are branded a traitor. 

This is how collective identities try to impose control over the individual. There are examples that would be far more relevant to how this control is imposed, but due to geographical restrictions, that's not something that can be discussed here. Instead, let's talk about brain drain.

 Nafis Shahriar is an Editorial Assistant at Dhaka Tribune. 

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