Hell was invented on a day like this. Or perhaps it was heaven. I have been told I have a negative bias. In all fairness, when faced with such unbearable heat, people probably took the escapist approach, and came up with the idea of heaven.
The late morning sun shines brightly on the beautiful city of Dhaka. Beautiful because it must be. The city of dreams pushes forward with a broken grace, its brokenness endlessly pulling on romantic hearts. It functions while being oblivious to its own intricate apparatus, its lack of self-consciousness a break in the monotony of a post-modernist world. It attracts millions that do not have to be here. Or perhaps they do. In the real world, it is the industrial and commercial centre of the country with thousands of rungs for people to latch on to as they try to climb up the economic ladder. Still, I did not have to be here.
I see the girl walking towards me through a cloud of dust. Dhaka’s natural sepia filter. Today is the day we decide. Leave or stay? Not just the city, but potentially each other. I am taken back to where I think it all began.
I was still a hateful little teenager when I first really met her. She was smarter than me, with her dreams of technological innovation and a fulfilling life. What we shared was a desire for freedom. Which means something quite mundane in a place like Dhaka. All of that was not immediately apparent, though.
“Don’t you go to my school?” she asked.
“What were you chasing around?”
“I am collecting butterflies to put them in a jar.”
“I don’t know.”
My parents often told me about how Dhaka used to be a safer place, a quieter place. They had grown up playing outdoors, visiting neighbourhood friends, and going to bazaar on their own. Was it nostalgia that motivated these fond remembrances? Or were they deriving some kind of perverse pleasure from recounting them to a child who was being raised in an incubator. I am aware this is quite universal in my generation. While safety concerns here are often not ill-founded, there are other things that compromise movement and growth in this otherwise wonderful city.
I wanted to sing Tagore songs again, to people who knew him. I wanted to sit idly in the periphery of all my grandaunts and their adult children as they had serious conversations I did not need to be a part of. My interest in cultures had slowly morphed into a renewed interest in my own culture
Conservative culture perpetuates several monstrosities. In Dhaka, it is, among other things, a constant source of reinforcing the gender barrier. I suppose women are kept safe from my lustful eyes during those partitioned milads, and me from my own lustful nature. But growing up in a setting that emphasises difference more than our common humanity, we understand each other less, and are therefore more hostile. Furthermore, people not adhering to strictly conservative standards are thought of as lesser humans, leading to the popular custom of blaming sexual harassment on the victim’s clothes or character. A culture built on the shaming of victims, a lack of trust in men’s sense of compassion, and a lot of trust in their capacity to turn into rapists -- makes it very difficult to find and hold on to love. Not because girls do not trust me, but because it largely creates the unsafe environment that it apparently warns of. In such a context, people are never free, and dreams die.
By the time we were in the final year of high school, we had become good friends. She had decided on biomedical research as her calling, and was applying to biology programmes in universities in the US and Canada. Through a combination of her influence and some vague interest in viruses, I was also doing the same. I mainly wanted to leave Dhaka, but even then, I was, albeit obliviously, in love with the city. Inexplicably, but inextricably, I was part of the chaos. But for now, I would be separated from it, if only to gain more perspective.
“I am never coming back to this hellhole,” I smirked. “Will you?”
“I probably shouldn’t. Not much goes on in our field here. But it’s hard to say. I will miss the little habits I have developed in all these years of growing up here, the places I go to, the people I know.”
“All very replaceable.”
“You think so?”
We were together all through our undergraduate years. It was the best time. All the freedom and spontaneity I had ever dreamed of. We could stay out as late as we wanted, and on the spur of the moment would decide on driving out to distant cities, grades and deadlines be damned. But it never affected her grades, to be honest. In our junior year, she was working in a lab that studied HIV in a mouse model. I have not forgotten to this day how HIV virions replicate after she explained it to me the night before our virology final. She had grown into an amazingly intelligent academician, even at that young age. She won research fellowships left and right, and was headed down a path of academic superstardom. I was doing something in some lab too, mostly because I felt like I had to. I had grown into a sort of culture junkie. I enjoyed the humanities more than cell biology, and was quite adept at synthesising arguments for why religion is secretly nihilistic, how Basic Instinct
was a feminist take on film noir, and why the history of theatrical traditions is more reflective of a society than its chronology of leaders. All very pointless.
We went to different universities for our master’s degrees. Somehow, my lack of ambition had not caught up with me yet, and I was able to breeze through a prestigious programme and immediately get a job in the city she was studying in. Her Master’s work had been so impressive that she was staying on to get a PhD at the same lab. Everything had come together nicely. But by this point I was desperate to come back to live in Dhaka.
The transformation had been gradual. Aspects of my childhood to which I had never given much thought to were revealed to be important to me. I wanted to sing Tagore songs again, to people who knew him. I wanted to sit idly in the periphery of all my grandaunts and their adult children as they had serious conversations I did not need to be a part of. My interest in cultures had slowly morphed into a renewed interest in my own culture. I felt a sense of responsibility to my people. I came up with noble, but perhaps half-baked ideas and aspirations of improving public health and education in Bangladesh, and yanking the country up from its death spiral. To confound the issue, she actually understood and sympathised. I did not ask her to come back with me.
She deferred the beginning of her PhD, and we came back to Bangladesh in June last year. The idea was to spend the year here, and reevaluate at the end. She found work as a lecturer at a private university, and I got a job at an NGO. Now it is time to decide, and I am no closer to having a clear answer. I have loved living here for the first time since I was a teenager. There is so much to do for entertainment and learning in the cultural sphere now, especially for someone interested in somewhat academic aspects of art, folk history, and traditional music. Last November, we were able to watch a Santali play, listen to Scottish folk musicians perform, and attend a solemn Russian piano recital, among numerous others. These were interspersed with visits to open mics where one could always expect to hear white men and women attempt Bengali songs with unabashed enthusiasm. Dhaka has truly arrived. Alongside such pointlessness, I have even found work to be quite fulfilling. More importantly, I suppose, the work feels necessary.
But Dhaka is still Dhaka. Chaos gives birth to chaos. The same inhibiting environment still pervades the city and its residents. Always vaguely violent, it now directly threatens and interferes with our daily lifestyles. Our naïve brand of Arab worship has probably facilitated this degeneration into a society that produces educated militants. Further degeneration, I should say. Marriage is now a pressing need in my life, if everyone I know is to be believed. I cannot even go on overnight trips with someone I have lived with, which is an ultimately minor but strangely persistent thorn in my side. The familiar two-fingered claw of safety concerns and acceptable bhodro
behaviour creeps up behind me, and pulls me back by the collar at every step. Traveling in a CNG has probably negated the positive effects of quitting cigarettes. More often than I care to think about, the boot of political influence kicks through all the rungs of the economic ladder like a great equaliser as the entire city is brought to a standstill to let one individual pass. Equal in our collective insignificance.But if chaos gives birth to chaos, what am I? What right do I have to leave?
But what right do I have to stay and complicate things for someone who has been beside me for so long? In the real world, I am an individual. I owe nothing to a place or a society, but I owe something to her and myself. Should I rot in the increasingly acidic vomit of a civilisation, or move elsewhere and build a fulfilling life, whatever that may be? How bad could racial micro-aggressions in the US ever be? How bad could singing Tagore songs just for myself be?How bad could it be to not contribute to stopping the brain drain to the West? Quite bad. But not as bad as letting her leave without me. Not even as bad as living here.
I smile at the girl as she emerges from the cloud like rain. The city of death relaxes its chokehold, and I breathe in some more dust.
Ornob Alam is a fiction writer.