It always pays when a country maintains a resilient face
Behind the present day face of a prospering Bangladesh, there is the long tale of perseverance and stoicism. As the country celebrates Victory Day and moves into its 48th year of independence, the fascinating evolution of the country through tumultuous events plus the constant denigrating comments by many others come back as a reminder of how tough the journey has been.
For many of us, who were born either during the war or just after it, growing up was like moving through the constant social and political changes of the country -- from a struggling infant nation riddled with problems to a country with a firm placing in the world.
As we rejoice Victory Day, the once used line by many, “there is no use staying in Bangladesh” appears utterly hollow.
There was a time when the common feeling among most in the country was to find a way to go to a first-world state and stay back.
Not anymore though. I do not hear many people saying that there isn’t any hope or “future” by remaining in the country.
The journey has certainly not been smooth; leaving out the political turbulence, if we look at the social evolution, the picture is that of relentless overcoming of obstacles.
For those in their 20s who have been lucky to grow up in this time -- with mobile phones, disposable pocket money, employment while studying, ubiquity of globally renowned fast food joints, job opportunities in a variety of sectors -- the struggle of the country’s first generations should never be lost, because this country made the strides inch by inch.
A time of food rationing
I am sure, no one uses the word “ration” in current day Bangladesh because we have sufficient food everywhere -- starvation is not a major problem.
In the decades after the war, food shortage had been a perennial concern, and in the mid-seventies, droves of young people left villages in search of jobs in the city.
That is how the “domestic help” culture developed -- a large portion of the population decided to provide manual labour in exchange for food. No monthly salary was paid to the domestic help.
The amount of oil, salt, sugar, and rice one could buy was rationed with each city ward having a ration store. All families had ration cards and used them to bring the stipulated provisions every week. Ration store looting was a common event.
Seasonal hunger and crop failure made food shortage a constant headache. Amazing to see how Bangladesh now has surplus rice after feeding everyone.
The general eating habits were Spartan, and hardly indulgent because almost all middle-class families had to live on a tight budget. Today, in this thriving country, a middle-class person can have meat almost every day, but back then, meat twice a week was a treat, three times almost unheard of.
People went to a restaurant maybe twice a year, since disposable income was low, bought new clothes only during religious festivals.
Academic books were preserved with covers made of old calendars so they could either be sold off at the end of the year, or passed down to a younger relative or an underprivileged person.
The “motorbike” dream which eluded many
There have been several reports in the media that the rising number of bikes in the cities is clogging roads. One can look at this from a positive angle too -- buying a bike is no longer a major issue for today’s young.
In the first two decades after independence, owning a motorbike was like having a dream materialized. Most never had their desires fulfilled.
When we were teenagers, the Yamaha 100 was perhaps the most coveted ride.
In a time of austerity, the dream was cherished while in reality, the young had to be content with the Phoenix bicycle. Their dreams though, never died.
The youth today have the best the world can offer: The best clothes, modern phones plus the swanky ride. I feel a sense of profound satisfaction looking at them, living life as it should be lived. In the fulfillment of the youth’s desires stands the face of current Bangladesh -- firm, resolute, prospering, and self-assured.
The golden life can be in Bangladesh too
In the 80s, with the political turbulence wreaking havoc on the general education system and deterring multinationals from opening office here, the option for many young people was to give the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and go to the US to study.
Those who went eventually stayed back after finding employment. That was a time when Islamophobia and Xenophobia were just fancy words in a dictionary.
A common line used back then was: Deshe thaika ki hoibo?
The line may sound a little incongruous now, but at that time with very little option plus constant political turmoil, trying to catch the American dream seemed like the most practical step.
In 2018, many young people are going abroad, but not to stay back, but instead, to look at business opportunities to start something new in Bangladesh.
In my class at Dhaka University, most harbour a desire to become an entrepreneur, hardly anyone wants to leave the country for good. “I will have my own business and drive my BMW in Bangladesh” seems like the inner ambition of many dynamic young of this country.
The struggle of the past comes back as a reminder -- it always pays when a country maintains a resilient face, despite the odds.
We have seen the privation-filled past, and are experiencing the prosperity-filled present. Just like our cricket team, the tigers within the nation’s spirit are awake, and there’s no stopping us.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.