How it feels after the storm
In Dhaka, things go back to normal.
One: There are no more school children in uniform on the streets, directing the flow of traffic, ensuring that traffic is divided into discrete lanes (with one designated emergency lane), and no major rules are broken on the road.
Two: Our social media feeds feel disturbingly vacant. The usual hullabaloo over your best friend’s sister getting married has come back, replacing the constant stream of recorded videos, images, memes which had overtaken Facebook just a week ago. No impressed monologue on the school children’s valiant efforts or on the ensuing violence.
This violence was what had glued you to your Facebook timeline, scrolling for new information on how the police had ignored your fellow citizens and their civil rights, attacking them, throwing tear gas shells, charging them with batons.
No longer the usual rage over “unidentified” thugs with sticks and machetes who, for whatever “mysterious” reason, was alongside the police, charging at the peacefully protesting students.
No usual diatribe on how a group of thugs and rapists had taken over the streets and harassing random individuals or whoever they thought was there to further the “nirapod shorok” agenda.
Occasional memes, “challenging times,” protests in Romania, and Shahidul Alam are sporadic indicators of something having happened. But our words are controlled, our thoughts are policed, especially more so than usual.
Three: University students have, for the most part, returned to their usual schedule of going to classes after a week of clashes with the police, and the ones with sticks who shall not be named. Apart from the occasional post or account, the stories of students being picked up from certain areas by the police, or raids being conducted on apartments housing single men, have died down.
Four: Traffic jams are back, lanes are a myth, and the streets are as chaotic as they ever were. Cars honk, swerve in and out without indicators, buses pick up passengers in the middle of the road, motorbikes on sidewalks. A few stories here and there of deaths on the road. The only change seems to be that passengers on motorbikes are now wearing helmets too. But how long will that last?
And even though we have all fallen back into the same old routine, most of us anyway, into our lives, the same old routine no longer cuts it, not for me anyway, and not at the moment. Even though I’ve read stories of thousands of stories on road accidents, even though I’ve seen countless cars-bikes-CNGs-rickshaws driving erratically, recklessly, irresponsibly on the streets of Dhaka, and even though I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life on these modes of transport stuck in the city’s traffic jam, this new normalcy feels so much worse.
The fact that these streets were, in recent memory, occupied by school-going students has the essence less of an event and more of a feeling. While all of us were inconvenienced by the protests, it was the one time in our history where I could recall people being genuinely OK waiting.
It was the first time that a rallying cry was being echoed so voluminously across the nation, and one that inspired people to believe that things would change. It was, perhaps for many, a mere middle finger to the people who had continued to ignore the many problems which cripple our country, and was an opportunity to vent.
For others, it was inspiration to start acting different, to not be the hypocrites they had always been: Blame the car while on the CNG, blame the CNG while on the rickshaw, blame the rickshaw while in the bus, blame the bus while in the car, even though each party, as is usually the case, was probably at fault for driving recklessly.
But, as I take another Pathao or Uber ride where the driver swerves like a maniac to move ahead, putting both our lives (and our collective humanity) at risk, and the buses ignore the honking on their backs as they pick up passengers, I cannot help but have my heart broken a little, and uncorrupted students on the streets seem like a fairytale.
And while impunity and bus drivers and the police and the system and the rest can all be blamed for the current state of affairs, considering the monstrosity with which we continue to conduct ourselves, we don’t deserve better streets, honestly.
Just look out your car window and the case is there to be made, as a car owner slaps a rickshaw-puller for scraping his vehicle. This is how we behave, and this is how we will continue to behave, it seems. It is, perhaps, good that the protests begin to fade from memory, like it never happened. Because this was not a protest this country deserved.
SN Rasul is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.