Last year, 3,412 people were killed in road accidents. This year, from January to July, 2,297 people have already lost their lives on the roads of Bangladesh. The numbers are truly disturbing, and their sharp increase in the first half of this year alone is worrying, to say the least.
But that’s all they are - numbers. We hear them at the end of every year. We shake our heads at the fates of the faceless many, now lying under the ground because someone didn’t cross the road carefully, or someone else couldn’t be asked to slow down.
Until there comes a day when the numbers get a ‘plus one’ that you can’t just skim over and turn the page. When the term “killed in a road accident” is so much more than just a number.
On Tuesday, October 3, our very own Kitab Bhai became one of that number.
The man we lost
Md Farooq, nickname Kitab, died on a regular, sunny morning. It was just another day and he was just going to work. He slipped from one bus, got crushed between two more, was hit and fell on Airport Road. He was conscious as he lay on that road, asking for help. People passed by and chose to do nothing. Someone eventually did. By the time he was taken to a hospital, he was gone. People continued to pass by that spot. The sun continued to shine. And Kitab was lying on a slab in a hospital, in full health, only 38 years old - gone.
You probably didn’t hear about his death. After all, he was just an ordinary person. He wasn’t rich or famous. I can’t tell you whether he was multitalented, or extraordinary in any way. But he was kind, loyal and he always smiled. And he was loved.
I don’t remember when Kitab came to our family, but he was there from before I was born. He played with my brother. He ran away from lessons, and my Dadu chased him in vain. He loved drinking Pepsi. He was afraid of thunder and lightning (although he was too grownup to admit it by the time I figured that out) and he hid under the bed during Kal Boishakhi storms. Sometimes, he even fell asleep there. Ma was often cross with him, but by the end of the day, he’d have joked or done something silly and mollified her. She pinched his cheeks and made fun of his baby fat.
That Kitab grew up, but he never lost those baby fat cheeks, nor his impish smile. He joined Asiatic centre in 1994 as an office assistant, and rose through the ranks to become admin coordinator. He got married, and had children of his own - a son and a daughter. He was always talking about them, but Ma still made fun of his baby fat. “How can you have children Kitab? You’re still a child yourself,” she’d say. And he’d grin and say “only you think that.” And now he’s gone.
Everyone who knew him will tell you about that grin of his. In the 20+ years he was there, no one could pass through the gates of Asiatic without a smile, a chat and more often than not, a cup of tea. He was usually joking, teasing or driving you mad with one abdaar after the other. He made sure everyone got home safe at the end of a work day. He put his arms around his wife and took pictures in front of mustard fields. He doted on his children. He loved his desher bari. And now he’s gone.
A country that places no value on his life
How many more Kitabs will have to lose their lives like this? How does a country with middle-income status still lose thousands of people every year to road accidents? Kitab bhai is not the first person I care for to have died in a road accident. He is not even the first person I know to have died on that same road. But I hope with all my heart that he will be the first person I know to get the rarest of commodities in this country - justice.
Until then, all I can say is that I’m sorry Kitab bhaiya. I’m sorry you had to die like this. I’m sorry your life that was so precious to us was so cheap to the people who passed you as you lay dying. I’m sorry you live in a country where law enforcers are willing to take bribes and turn the other way when people like you die. I’m sorry you live in a country where the laws ask a dead man to prove his innocence in a hit and run case. I’m sorry that every single day, so many people like you risk their lives and scramble onto vehicles driven by people who don’t care if you live or die.
I’m sorry you live in a country where reckless drivers get punished only if a VIP dies. Where on the rare occasion justice is served, transport workers are able to strike with the backing of those most likely to lose money if they started to be held accountable for all the blood on their hands. Where even a minister can support this level of lawlessness and get away with it.
I wish I could promise you that things will change. I wish I could lie and deny that my words mean nothing, that people will just skim and forget. That maybe one day even I will forget.
But for now, I’ll remember your smile, the cups of coffee in the canteen, the aamras after school, how you affectionately called me ‘buri’, how we celebrated and played with colours when Bangladesh won against Pakistan, in the same place where I’m sitting right now. Only now the pond has shrunk, the trees are gone, the two-storey baris have been replaced by buildings in modern, digital, developing Bangladesh, where markets drive down the price of lives.
And you’re gone. A simple man who loved his family and smiled all the time. Just another footnote in a report about road accidents.