Getting together during the Eid holidays is a common event, almost everywhere. The main objective is to spend hours talking or, to use the Bengali term, indulge in adda for hours.
The topics vary: Politics is always there, lack of civic sense, insidious influence of decadence, the inexorable rise of a philistine nouveau riche class ... the list goes on.
The day after Eid, a few friends, my brother, and I got together for a leisurely evening of chatting, and the group comprised of a noted photographer, a government civil servant, two musicians, a restaurateur, a textile factory owner, and a regular editorial writer for a leading newspaper.
For good reason, the first issue was security at eateries. The common question was: Who would feel safe going into an up-market place to eat?
I suddenly recalled a colleague from work, a self-proclaimed gourmet, who said that after the Gulshan terror attack, he would rather stop going to any restaurant in the affluent part and come over to Old Dhaka instead.
That observation was made in levity but carried the current social tension.
The restaurateur, who also supplies fresh vegetables to several eateries in Gulshan, said: “Holey used to be one of the places which bought fresh produce from me, and when I went to other restaurants before Eid to talk about future supplies, I noticed a sense of suppressed fear in the dining halls.”
The photographer, a pizza lover, added, using the word atonko (profound apprehension) when describing the state of patrons at certain places where he had gone recently. “There was a sense of palpable agitation in their behaviour; a loud sound from the kitchen had everyone almost running out.”
The radio jockey plus musician, who runs an immensely popular music program, expressed his dilemma emanating from his wife, a US citizen, refusing to stay in Bangladesh any longer.
Well, is the US any safer? Maybe if one goes into the lesser known states like Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, or Wisconsin, was the civil servant’s interjection.
The other musician observed almost rhetorically: “Where is the country heading? It seems we are being pulled into a vortex of decadence and lawlessness.”
Are we looking at a future where Bangladesh society will be off-limits to all visitors? A grim disconnect is in the making
The journalist raised the matter of transvestites and floating-boat people using the snake tactic to extort money from common pedestrians.
“Well, they won’t try that trick with me anymore,” stated the musician who, long time ago, as a teenager, used to have a snake in a jar as a pet.
Later, he went around in public with the serpent coiled around his wrist.
“When a woman came and showed a snake to me, demanding money, I took the reptile and pretended to bite its head off, which scared the living daylights out of the so-called extortionist,” observed the rebellious musician.
“What if the money is demanded by a mahout on a trained elephant!”
“Well, not everyone can muster the courage,” said the photographer. “Maybe there should be a public awareness advert against such fear-mongering aimed at forcing people to pay money.”
“As for adverts,” added the restaurateur, “have you seen this callous commercial where a family, in expressing gratitude to the mother for washing clothes, hands her a large packet of washing powder saying that with this detergent, cleaning would be faster?”
“Who are behind the ideas of such adverts,” questioned the civil servant, also pointing to another tasteless commercial in West Bengal where the line “The quality of women is in her hair not in her skills” is reportedly used.
The photographer lamented the lack of originality in creative sides, saying: “The problem is, we are blindly following a trend set by someone else, not trying hard enough to create new avenues of thought.”
“As a photographer, what I see among newcomers in my line is a desire to click the same old topics: Poverty, struggling life, nature. Interestingly, there is affluence in Bangladesh which can also be used as a powerful subject.”
Opulence, and life on the other side of struggle! Not a bad idea.
Only, for some odd reason, luxury as a photographic topic can never stir up the pathos or the melancholia.
Or perhaps, they will trigger revulsion because some people are better off than others.
I liked the photographer’s idea. His rationale seemed appealing: Why only click struggle and sorrow when these are not the only faces of society?
Anyone can sympathise with a friend’s suffering but it needs a very high nature to sympathise with a friend’s success -- Oscar Wilde did have a point.
Whatever the topic of discussion was, and no matter how discursive they got, in the end, we all came back to Dhaka and the attack on Holey Artisan.
The recurring question: Where is this heading? The textile factory owner, a late-comer to the party, was blunt in his rather dismal assessment: Leaving out all conspiracy theories leading to far-reaching political consequences with possible international ramifications, the immediate impact will be on the garment sector.
Overseas buyers will be terrified to come here, possibly international textile seminars will be postponed indefinitely, resulting in several buyers moving to somewhere without any threat from radicals.
Foreigners based in the city had developed a culture over the last two decades of eating out and cycling around the city on holidays, which has stopped totally.
The Old Dhaka tour that attracted mainly diplomats stationed here will be suspended and the presence of writers, cultural activists, and poets at cafes and bookstores will come down sharply.
Are we looking at a future where Bangladesh society will be off-limits to all visitors? A grim disconnect is in the making.
Maybe next Eid, if we are all alive and well at another adda, we can think back and assess the impact.