As we run the rat race of life, do we ever question what it’s all for?
I remember joking with a friend once, that no Bangladeshi can ever be caught in a moment of existential crisis, wondering what his purpose in life is. At any given moment, there are bound to be a wide selection of uncles, cousins, coworkers, neighbours, and acquaintances who are armed with advice on exactly what he should to do, where to do this thing, for how long, and what will happen if he does not rigorously follow the advice given. We had a good laugh about it, the kind you laugh because the alternative is to be bitter, and you do not want that.
What did I mean by my joke? Consider the life trajectory of a typical Bangladeshi. Around sixth grade, the process begins. Depending on the makeup of your extended family, you are told that unless you get into engineering/medical school/business school, all the hard work and sacrifice of your ancestors will have been for naught. No pressure, right? If we thought about how we did not ask to be born and should not be guilt-tripped thus, we would be bitter. Better to make a joke out of it.
Let’s say you were one of the fortunate ones. Either your parents had the radical notion that you should do what you like, or you fulfilled the expectations heaped upon you. You are not done. Now a league of relatives, teachers, and peers will remind you that you need to go abroad/become a BCS cadre/get into a famous corporation that designs addictive content that preys on the attention spans of people. If not, then all the investment your parents are making in your education would be a waste. Not to mention you yourself will regret it later in life. There is just no possibility you might be content with doing something else and enjoying a quiet weekend reading your favourite book of poems, is there? You must want the exact same thing your peers want, or else it is a reflection of how poorly your parents raised you.
Suppose you get that job that you (as in society) wanted. Done, right? You checked off everything on the list that society handed to you in your teens, and can finally live the life you want. On weekends and evenings. Well, sort of. As soon as you get married. If you do not get married, maybe your parents will never get to see you “settled”, and wouldn’t that make you feel terrible for the rest of your life? And if you are female, then the dimension of this expectation is on a whole different level. Want to go on a vacation? Go with your husband once you are married? Want to watch a movie? Get married and watch the whole franchise. Want to just sleep in one morning? Get married and do as you wish in your husband’s household etc. You know how it goes.
Well, OK. I have already been doing things society told me to, what is one more? So you bite the bullet and marry someone you have known for less time than your barber. Finally, freedom! Other than how you need to have a baby. The sooner the better. It gets more complicated if you wait too long. And once you have had one, you must have at least one more. Otherwise, your child is going to miss having a sibling. In fact, why just one sibling? Once the eldest is a bit older, they will help raise the youngest. Makes sense, right?
So now you have the degree you were told to get, you are working at the job you were told to get, you have a family and kids you were told life is not complete without. Finally, you are done. With whatever time you still have left for yourself, maybe you can pursue that hobby you wanted to when you were fifteen years old and had to put in on hold to get everything else done. If you think that, well, you are wrong once again. Now the goal post has shifted to buying property, investing in financial products, and of course, making sure your children get into engineering/medical/business school...oh look, we have come round full circle! Except this time it is fair, right? You did in fact sacrifice your whole life for your children, chasing one accolade after another, all because that is what they told you they wanted when you were a teenager...no wait, that cannot be right. They were not even born then!
So you see, life as the average Bangladeshi is rather nice. You never have to worry about what you should be doing. There is never room for doubt or confusion. At the first sign of adolescence, you will be handed a checklist and must get going checking off items one by one. But please make copies before doing so, because you will, in turn, have to hand them to your children, your nieces and nephews, the teenager next door, the family friend’s children…
Or, you could burn the checklist the moment it is handed to you. Live life on your own terms. Not burden your children with expectations of your own because you did not get to live your dreams so why should anyone else. Maybe you would not have as big a house, but there will be room in it to read your favourite books. Maybe your children will not bring some lots of medals, but you will laugh at old comedies just the same. Yes, there will be moments of doubt and angst that come from constantly questioning things and examining life. A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and lover of fountain pens