Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Once upon a time in dystopia

A tale of overcoming the inevitable

Update : 03 Apr 2024, 09:01 AM

About 16 months ago, a vague sense of intuition prompted me to swap a lazy Saturday for a day in the hospital where a scan was to reveal two strokes, both old but hitherto unnoticed.

Given my family history, they were scarcely a surprise, but still made the weekend more interesting. Over a year later, I can say that, aside from two sleep-interrupted nights searching for symptoms, I quickly got used to the extra medication and check-ups, for which I am grateful. 

Life is for living -- carry on, at least while you can. As soon as we become aware of our own frailty, our core instinct is to delay the inevitable, even if one believes in a better beyond. 

Family, faith, friendship, and living a good life can all provide comfort, but to the cynical are mere distractions from the fact death has been stalking us since our first breath. It is human nature to look on the bright side of life, otherwise nobody would live next door to a volcano. 

Sometimes it is a matter of survival and normality to turn a blind eye to the bad stuff. And sometimes, the bad stuff is you. 

The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s film about Rudolf Höss the commandant of Auschwitz during WWII, portrays SS officers bureaucratically orchestrating the mass murder of Jews, Roma, and other civilians. As the film largely limits on screen atrocities to black smoke billowing out on the other side of the fence while Höss and his wife bring up their children and plant a pleasing garden, it is profoundly disturbing.

Like others, I was most shocked by the casual way Mrs Höss distributed coats and jewellery looted from murdered Jews among friends at a coffee morning. This might not just be about some evil Nazis; it could be about any of us today as consumers. We might not live next door to an exploitative sweatshop in the supply chain of shops we buy from, or a dangerous mine supplying minerals for our computers and phones, but we probably know or can easily learn that such things exist. 

We may not be enthusiastic participants but can still be seen as benefiting from systems that perpetrate misery on fellow human beings. Is saying so dubious moral equivalence, a step too far in self-flagellation, or just another example of how humans tend to look the other way? 

In his much-debated Oscar acceptance speech last month, Jonathan Glazer expressly drew attention to the victims of the ongoing attack on Gaza and the part played by dehumanisation in escalating suffering, prompting his parting question: “How can we resist?” 

People prefer dystopias in films to seem far-off, fictional, and preventable

His comments on the war deservedly earned praise (as well as predictable wrath) but he also made clear his intentions in making the film, were to be timeless, not topical: “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present -- not to say, ‘Look what they did then,’ rather, ‘Look what we do now.’”

For the most part, people prefer dystopias in films to seem far-off, fictional, and preventable. If a UK government started behaving in the authoritarian manner of the right-wing dictatorships founded on bombastic nationalism and scape-goating of minorities and refugees featured in the Hollywood versions of V for Vendetta and Children of Men, they would be stopped right? Ok, perhaps I should get back to you on this after the next election. It might not just be PM Sunak’s government on an accelerating downward spiral.

Whilst Alfonso Cuarón’s take on Children of Men is praised for seeming prescience, one reason its visuals pack a punch is many of its scenes are drawn from real life and contemporary events, like jets attacking a refugee camp, a Pink Floyd album cover, and prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

Strong actors, upbeat music, and familiar tropes from quiz shows and police procedurals are what most people prefer to recall about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, not the utterly heartbreaking lives its lead characters -- and more importantly their many real-life counterparts -- were trying to get away from. Escapism is what sells, even after screenwriter Simon Beaufoy added more politics and violence to Vikas Swarup’s Q and A by making the lead a Muslim member of an underclass hurt by communal violence and gangsters in Mumbai, instead of an orphan given a religiously neutral name.

Nothing less than we should expect from talented artists. Yet, when it comes to the ultimate matter of one’s own death, there are occasionally some religious people who prefer more to talk about end of the world prophecies. Non-believers are not immune from distraction either, with some cutting-edge physicists and science fiction writers alike wargaming ways in which the human species or its legacy can endure beyond the death of even galaxies.

Back on Earth of course, we are but finite flesh and bones. The instinct to try and improve life or at least hope, is what helps make us human.

If, like me, you find it faintly nauseating when someone privileged enough to be used to taking basic needs of safety, shelter, and sustenance for granted, inflicts their “gratitude journal” on others, consider this a warning. Although I don’t write one down myself, if I had to, then apart from family birthdays, the recent moments I would most recall would be a nerdy conversation about the etymology of a running joke with the writer of a hit streaming show which we both silently agreed not to prolong, and a handshake with Bernie Sanders.

The most surreal was unexpectedly finding myself asking Dame Lesley Lawson (aka Twiggy) about The Blues Brothers at the same time as asking the comedian Ben Elton how the world of today compares with the dystopian world of his 1989 novel Stark. That entertainingly featured a ragtag group of activists chancing upon a conspiracy by the world’s super rich to colonize the Moon to escape the imminent collapse of Earth’s food systems, brought about by their own greed.

Mercifully, they answered, with Elton true to form, also waxing lyrically about the sheer opulence and comic vanity of today’s overlords. Silicon Valley billionaires may be taken as Masters of the Universe but are anything but in the face of the cosmos and a good sense of humour.

Dystopias can always be overcome. Until the next one. 

While utopia literally means “not a place,” and cannot exist, dystopia like death is always among us. We just prefer not to dwell on it.


Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.

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