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Mahfuz Sadique on identity, nostalgia and the price of liberty…

It’s a new world out there. Closer to home, it’s a new Bangladesh back here. Remember that Orwellian nightmare in 1984? The one where you live a life that is no longer of your own making; you stand in front of the mirror, looking at that face staring back with suspicion. Well, two decades too late, in 2005, I had that eerie, recurrent feeling that I was being watched. As I leaned on the barbed-wired, metal barrier, and looked at the Shaheed Minar — our Shaheed Minar — brightly lit as a day, the red-white-green alpana adoring the steps, I was sad. Sad knowing that those hundreds of dark lords of ‘ultimate’ vigilance, i.e. RAB, were here for my security. Sad knowing that thousands of torque-uniformed policemen are tensely guarding every single yard of this lovely university campus, where I had once heard Shimul Mustafa roar into the afternoon air, ‘Shabash Bangali, E Prithibi Abak Takiye Ray.’

A bare-foot, seven-year-old boy tightly gripping the index finger of his father, and timidly climbing the steps holding a single rose stem is my most fond memory of Ekushey. How many Phalguns have passed by as that melancholy tune of Altaf Mahmud floated into the starry night! Not anymore. This year the ether around Shaheed Minar carried — for the first time, ever — religious recitations. The authorities later clarified that it was for the purpose of testing the public address system. Why not test with a song of Ekushey? In fact, Mursalin Alam, a student of Dhaka University, instead of answering questions, ended up asking me, ‘Are the songs of Ekushey not good enough, or have religious scriptures lost their sanctity that they can be tested for microphone testing?’

As I have told you already, there was a new eighth of Phalgun this year. The usual spiralling line of hundreds of banners proclaiming ‘the respect and never-ending glory of Amar Ekushey’ starting from the Shaheed Minar all the way to Palashi, crisscrossing the roads in front of Jagannath Hall, and then the SM Hall, was a bit thinner, a bit more formal. Something was amiss. The eternal song of Ekushey wasn’t there as the backdrop. Amar bhaiyer rakte rangano, Ekushey February…where was our favourite tune?

About half-an-hour after midnight on the 21st — the state formalities over with — the main wave hit the minar shores, as usual. East-West-North-South, and forgive me if I have missed the other dozens of diagonal combination of thana and city units of every known and closet political, cultural, spiritual (there was a group of Sadhus), university organisation, making way one by one in their hundreds towards the metal and concrete structure. So what brings them there every year? ‘It’s different than all the other national days,’ replied Mohammad Aftab Rahman, a grey-white bearded, white kurta-clad man, as he led his group of cultural enthusiasts from Demra. ‘You know, we are an unfortunate nation. Floods, cyclones, hartals, and the image of poverty is what we are known by. This is one of those few things we can proudly claim as our own. Pretension is what we do with other things. This is pure,’ says Rahman, as he pats me on the back.

As I saw for the umpteenth time this annual ritual, the words of Rahman came as a personal realisation. So this is how it goes: wars, movements for multi-faceted reasons have all had their monuments of glory. But Bengalis have something unique. The cultural conscience of something more than just a nation-state is symbolised by the Shaheed Minar. Religions, gender, regionalism — forget about all of that; it’s about being Bengali.

It shows. Through the rigid stares of security, the glow in the eyes of over-enthusiastic youth, the fidgety, yet firm steps of burdened experience coming to the Shaheed Minar had still not lost its timelessness. And as I had watched on TV in other years, and live this year halfway through the night, it truly seemed like the longest night. So many people, toiling into the wee hours of the morning to do just a simple act — congregate! As I went for the morning rounds, I finally found not recurrent nightmares, but sweet memories of bygone days. Little boys in kurtas, and girls in black-white saris, waiting their turn to put a rose or a marigold on the shrine — that is what my mind had been looking for since midnight. ‘Katto manush! (So many people!),’ says five-year-old Anushka from Mohammadpur. ‘I love to dress in sari, and the alpana is very beautiful,’ smartly replies Anushka from atop her father’s shoulders.

The campus was abuzz as usual. The Boi Mela remained the focal attraction. The cultural group Prachyanat had a cultural programme at the Institute of Fine Art. But the gathering surrounding it had very little to do with the programme itself. Bangaliyana was in the air, and they were celebrating it. Film screenings at the Public Library Auditorium had their stray crowd. Poetry recitations at TSC, discussion sessions at every possible venue in and around the Dhaka University campus had all the makings of a regular Ekushey. The Raju Vhaskarjo in front of TSC was ‘occupied’, as is the cyclic ritual, by the reigning political party’s cultural wing.

Ekushey has a vibe of its own. There is more to it than just the usual national celebration. Spring in the air, Boi Mela round the corner, TSC in the middle — the concoction couldn’t have been better. As evening draws in on the 21st, the nightmare of a thousand pairs of eyes scrutinising you is still there, but just as a backdrop.

No sadness in the air now. Just the forgotten flower of some seven-year-old by the footpath, the remains of a torn Ekushey black-badge, and the wait for another Phalgun is in the air. But then as the gloom of the everyday descends, you ask yourself: Will Bangla always be remembered like this? Is the nightmare here to stay?

Listen carefully! You will hear the answer floating in the air:
‘…Jale pure mare chharkhar, tabu matha nowabar nay.
…Shabash Bangali! E prithibi abak takiye ray!’

Published: The New Age/ February-March, 2005

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