Thursday, May 30, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Chasing yesterdays: Part three

How the collective imposes its control on the individual. This is part three of an ongoing series based on discussions with Abdulrazak Gurnah during the DLF 2023

Update : 18 Jan 2023, 12:03 AM

Brain drain is a phenomenon where the populace from a third world country moves to a first world country for better jobs, better salaries, and a better living. While this generally results in a net positive for the individual, the country of origin always treats this as a net loss.

The demographic that is generally talked about in the context of brain drain are generally highly skilled, college educated, white collar workers. Whenever someone achieved something big in a foreign land -- becoming a partner at Goldman Sachs for example -- there is a long sigh as to what the person in question could have done for the land, he was born in. 

The perplexing thing about this matter is the individual who makes the move has a materialistically better life due to the move, and sometimes, the ‘compatriots' of his home country shame and socially ostracize him for doing so. 

Why? If a country cannot provide avenues of growth, why shouldn't people leave? There are of course the repercussions of colonialization and historical oppression that make first world countries so attractive in the first place, but is the onus on the individual to give up a better life just because he got stuck in a country that he didn't even have a say in in the first place? Furthermore, most third world countries have shown that no matter how much economic progress they make, there are things that they are just not willing to change (while historical and current geopolitical conditions play into this matter, the governments in charge have to show that they are on the side of the people if they want people to take a knee. So far, that has not been the case. 

This is just one aspect through which the collective imposes its control on the individual. A collective that none of us chose to serve under, but yet, a collective that is supposedly more important than all our lives combined. 

*This was the specific avenue that I wanted to discuss with Mr Gurnah. Incidentally enough, this year's lit fest was not something I was planning on going to -- a thought that would have surprised me if it had occurred to me over a decade ago. Back in the day when lit fest was nonexistent and hay festival worked as the beacon of winter for literature lovers across the country, I was in high school. The Bangladeshi schooling system reserved the month of November for exams -- the time hay festivals generally occurred -- and if one's parents are short sighted enough to send their kids to a school operated under the NCTB, they are also dumb enough to put a collar around their children's throats. 

I eventually did make my way to the lit fest though, in 2018, when I was in my undergrad. One of my short stories had just come out, and I was excited, thinking that this was the start of my initiation into the mystical realm reserved for only those who are skilled in the ways of the keyboard. However, I stayed maybe half an hour before I hightailed it out of there. 

Something just didn't feel right. I felt exposed. My skin itched profusely. It was as if the insects that had burrowed deep within my skin were not at all happy at the decision I made of coming out into the scene -- to the point where they threatened rupture in order to drive me out, an act of mutually assured destruction that would put an end to this charade for once and for all. 

I gave a single autograph, but my hand trembled so much that I wanted to reimburse the person who brought the book. 

I loitered around in the sun, but no amount of browsing through the books could lift my spirits. 

I went to TSC and smoked a couple of cigarettes. 

I left. 

Memories of that day flooded through as I made my way to the lit fest. When I found my way to the gates, I felt like I would be booted from the premises simply because of going to the gate. 

This was not supposed to happen. I was part of the organizing team and I had an assignment given to me to cover the fest. But that didn't matter. I kept getting looks of disapproval from the staff. I tripped when I went down the stairs to take a seat at Mr Gurnah's seminar. Throughout the talk, the people sitting beside me paid more attention to me than they did to a noble laureate talking on the stage. 

And while all of this was a product of sleep deprived psyche, it didn't mean it wasn't real. My heart pounded throughout the talk. I broke out in sweat. My body twisted in agony to the point where I thought I was going to have a heart attack. 

I needed to leave. 

40 minutes left until it ends. 

30 minutes left until ends. 




Towards the end, I mainly focused on the questions I had prepared for Mr Gurnah. Here was a novelist who talked about memories past and land he once belonged to, and how those are the factors that contributed to a feeling of displacement of his current residence in London. As varied as his oeuvre was, he was still pigeonholed by the literary intelligentsia into the category of a post-colonial novelist, and given my distaste for states of all kind -- both colonial and non-colonial -- there were things I had to discuss with him. Furthermore, the sense of displacement he felt was something that I could relate to as well. 

I was there to do a job. I had to write something about our meeting. Simply reporting on the event and regurgitating the leftover monologues of the critical consensus was never my style. 

As such, having a discussion on a topic that might open up new roads for the both of us seemed like the perfect way to go. 

The Q & A session started, and I raised my hand to the heavens. The first question was taken from the first row. No matter, that is where the VIPs sit. No matter how unfair we think this is, none of us can bite the hand that feeds. 

Furthermore, the moderator seemed to take note of the people who were interested in asking Mr Gurnah questions, so I didn't have anything to worry about, right? 

Hands flashed through the auditorium, kicking off the second round. But the moderator seemed to take notice of everyone but me. 

Round three and she does it again. 

Round four and I decide to accept my fate. 

I make it out of the auditorium but can't seem to stop running into people who laugh into my face. 

I make my way throughout the bookstalls but the shopkeepers cling to me as if I am a known shoplifter. 

I had nothing to eat since morning, so I make my way to restaurant and have some tehari. 

I looked through the used books in Nilkhet, but none of them seem to appeal to me. 

In a sea of people, I found myself a million miles away. 

Whatever, I had done my job, not how I wanted to, but how they wanted me to. 

It was time to head home. 

Nafis Shahriar is an Editorial Assistant at Dhaka Tribune.

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