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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

The good old days that weren’t

Update : 11 Feb 2016, 06:02 PM

Ah … the good old days. When politicians were honest. When journalists had ethics. When young people had morals. When students were studious and diligent.

When … well, you get the picture. Such musings of nostalgia often help us cope with a world around us that seems, feels, and sounds like a bewildering zoo of petty people bent on expressing evil in big doses and small.

The problem is that recollections, like the children’s game of “telephone,” rarely capture the reality of the past and, more often, end up being the crutches for present day indifference.

That the past was some haven of tranquility inhabited by people of significantly higher measures of rectitude is a romantic notion held on to by certain poetic types who are too psychologically infirm to handle the prose that is present day reality. Look, we were the same species 20, 40, or a hundred years ago, with the same matrix of fears and foibles, vices and virtues, and hopes and hankerings as have today. The context, driven by anxiety and technology, may have readjusted the lines of the matrix but hardly altered it permanently.

No, politicians were not exactly too much more saintly “back in the good old days” either. Even an iconic Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq was on the record in the Bengal Assembly responding to the opposition benches’ charges of nepotism by thunderously asserting that his distant nephew was given a job because the said young man had the greatest qualification for the position -- a kinship with the premier of Bengal!

Well, perhaps that was a very honest answer, if you look at it that way. Or take the near mythical Thomas Jefferson whose canvassers openly exchanged liquor for votes during several of his earlier campaigns for the Virginia legislature a few centuries ago.

Sure, many journalists in the past had awesome ethics and courage and all that. But come on! For every Manik Mia and Enayetullah Khan, there were more than a few government stenographers like Maulana MA Mannan and Altaf Gauhar whose commendable writing abilities were always at the service of their respective masters in uniform.

That incredible appeal of writing praise-pieces and hiding the faults of the rulers is as intense today as it was since the first press was jump-started into operation in this part of the world.

You want to talk about youth and morals? It is true that “ … the children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders, and love chatter in place of exercise …” Well, those words were written by Socrates, many, many, many years ago. I am pretty sure your grandparents heard similar laments from their parents and dished out pretty much the same to yours.

Students? How should I put this politely … let’s see. That Nilkhet market where old tests, “suggestion” books, made-to-order academic papers, and theses are all available wasn’t exactly set up yesterday. Chances are pretty high that your parents, if they went to one of the premier public higher educational institutions in the city, were quite familiar with that place. And no, the scourge called “student politics” has rarely been exclusively about the high-minded competition about debating ideals and ideas either.

None of this is to say that I am immune from imagined nostalgia. There are times that frustration with the current affair of things lead me to mutter: “Ah, the good old days.” Fortunately, before I can go too far down that silly rabbit-hole, my good friend Charlie has his retort ready: “You mean, the days when my people ruled over your people?”

See, Charlie comes from stock that is mostly British and that line has a punch to it for a Bengali, especially one whose ancestry goes back to Murshidabad.

The past is the past, and barring the breath-taking invention of the elusive time-machine, none of us is going back a nanosecond in time, let alone a generation or century. Romanticising a fondly remembered past that perhaps never was is fine as a staple of children’s bedtime stories and historical fiction novels.

As a practical antidote to what ails us in the present and what will bedevil us in the near future, such nostalgia is of very limited value. Instead of comforting each other about how awesome things were back in the “good old days,” perhaps our imaginations and energies are better used in crafting a future which can be the “good new days.” After all, the only control we have over Father Time is that of influencing the future.  

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