My contract with VSO was for a year, and today I will leave Bangladesh and return to England, bringing this time to a close. And almost certainly this blog, bar a possible epilogue from London. How to surmise a year? I haven’t found religion or myself, but I haven’t really looked. What’s so distracting is Bangladesh; it throws up surprises in every corner and I can’t help but be transfixed by it.
I’ve seen things here that you would never see in the ‘West’, not because people are necessarily so poor or the country so incredible, but because Bangladesh really is like the unsynthesised manifold of human life. Here, I find one can see things in a way that you wouldn’t be able to in Europe, that both the presentation and the perception holds an almost absurd blinding clarity. Bangladesh is what happens if you cram far too many people in to a ridiculous part of the world, prone to flooding, earthquakes and with terrible weather, and don’t provide any kind of adequate infrastructure or governance to accommodate them. In the slums the density is around 200,000 people per square kilometre. There are pockets of shiny Western ‘modernity’ and convenience, but large areas that resemble a Dickensian candlelit world of stories amidst shadows, as if you might concentrate a whole soap-opera in to one little shack.
I feel like our lives in the West now are so packaged and buffed, protected; everything conforms to a health and safety standard, operates in a more or less uniform manner; high streets are dominated by the same shops which look the same, everything is tucked away behind plate glass and packaging and lit properly and cooled artificially, we define ourselves through numerous codes and identifications, online profiles, we communicate through browser windows and other plastic boxes, so all our life is seen through various physical or mental artificial barriers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I appreciate and value the benefits. But take all of that away, and you get Bangladesh.
Your phone breaks? In England I would register online, send it off in a special package, fill in a numerous forms and ‘track’ the status and wait weeks. Here I can just get some kid in a shack to take it to pieces and fix it in five minutes with his little fingers, who can’t read or write but has taught himself Nokia. You want to buy some meat? You can either order it online, or go to a big supermarket and have something that’s been flown maybe 10,000 miles and slaughtered, cut, packaged, processed, cooled, weighed and labelled by a machine, scanned by a machine, and then paid for through machines. Or you can go to the butchers where carcasses hang outside in the hot sun like washing lines of flesh, and either get a cut off that or point to an animal tied up outside and have that slaughtered for you there and then. There’s no middleman between life and reality.
I think Bangladesh is like life behind the scenes, if you take away all the regulations and codes of practice and charters and just let the world get on with it. You don’t actually need to wear anything more than a loin-cloth to operate heavy machinery. You don’t actually need traffic lights. It helps, but you can manage without it. All our ‘mod cons’ and advancements, to paraphrase Milligan don’t really bring happiness, just a far more pleasant form of misery. Whereas Western living is so controlled and managed, synthesised through numerous cultural/physical/psychological boundaries, life in Bangladesh is glaring out at the world in High Fidelity, High Definition, and I’ll really, really miss that. It doesn’t make things easy, but it’s raw. What happens just depends how you prepare it.
It has occurred to me now that although I have dreamt many times of going back to England, the actual process and events of arriving home and seeing friends and family again, I’ve never imagined the process of leaving Bangladesh; the concept that to arrive in England means I have to depart from Bangladesh didn’t combine for me. Going back to my home didn’t involve leaving my other. For this place has been my home, and despite the lack of organised events, it’s the cacophonic chaos of disorganised, spontaneous life here that makes Bangladesh the most exciting place I’ve ever lived in. I shall certainly return.
What I will return to though, is hard to predict. When I arrived last September 2006 Bangladesh had an elected government. This government stood down, constitutionally, and since then the country has politically been dissolved and diluted in to a collection of squabbling factions in suits and in uniform, whilst millions continue to suffer in lunghis. Two weeks ago whilst I was on holiday there were mass protests against the military-backed civilian regime for the first time, as the idea of suffering in silence becomes increasingly impossible. The problem for the protesters though is that the current military-backed regime is the best currently available; Bangladesh is already at the door of the last chance saloon, peering in to a murky abyss of either martial law/fully-fledged military rule on one side or a vicious, elitist self-obsessed ‘political’ old guard who surely would take every step to gain revenge on those who’ve humiliated them and grasp power this time even more tightly than before. They have to step away from that. I think Bangladesh has been a dramatic lesson for any onlooker in what can happen when power is dissolved in an atmosphere devoid of moral authority.
Elections are promised before the end of 2008, but what the people will have to elect, and what they will be electing for is extremely unclear. Democracy is far more than divesting one’s political will every 4 or 5 years, and until Bangladesh can reform it’s institutions to accommodate this fact, the farce of ‘democracy’ in certain countries, preponderantly in the developing world will continue. It’s interesting to me how the words ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’, with meanings that would traditionally oppose each other have in Bangladesh come to equate to the same thing. This pollution of concepts and ideas by human greed and malice, at the expense of tens of millions of people is overall the saddest aspect of my year here.
But whether there is a free and fair election in 2008 or not, Bangladesh’s rulers will still have their work cut out to save the country from further hardships. The economy is teetering, dependent on the garment industry, remittance and international aid, none of which can be relied upon and is subject to external forces. Flooding has caused a humanitarian crisis this monsoon, and climate change will increasingly ravage Bangladesh over the next thirty years as the seas rise, the rainfall increases, and the flow from the Himalyas in to the country rises also. The country can’t generate enough electricity, or an adequate health or education system. The legal system still suffers from corruption and political bias, and the government still insists on denying fundamental human rights, including the freedoms of speech and association which are so crucial to lifting Bangladesh out and away from its problems, if that is possible. Meanwhile the government’s security forces continue to arrest and detain people with no regard to due process, and assault and even kill people with impunity.
The alternative that is increasingly presenting itself is fostered by religious extremists who are capitalising on people’s misfortune and disempowerment. This alternative must be met and countered by the Bangladeshi centre, for the presence of religious extremism and political militancy only attracts the wrong kind of world attention. Furthermore, when Bangladesh really does become fatally affected by climate change, where in the world can more than 150 million people go to? A country that was previously held up (falsely or not) as a fine example of a Muslim democracy can not be dropped, otherwise we will face a refugee crisis and these refugees will be met with suspicion rather than compassion.
I feel that Bangladesh’s internal problems today will have external implications tomorrow, and affect everyone’s problems within the next twenty years. That’s why those who can make a difference have a responsibility to act now to help others, before it becomes a question of how can we act to save ourselves. I certainly feel that this might be a place I’m leaving today, but it’s not a country you can say goodbye to.
Bangladesh in a sentence? Michael Palin in his ‘Himalaya’ book went through the country and remarked that when watching workmen, it’s impossible to tell whether they’re putting something up or breaking it down, and I think that sums up Bangladesh really well. But it’s alright. 150 million Bangladeshis just about manage, and I have too.
It doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to coming back to London. I’ve read a lot of books here, the best being either ‘Middlemarch’ or ‘Midnight’s Children’ (the worst being ‘Come in Number 37’ the autobiography of mediocre 1990s footballer Rob Lee. I’m a connoisseur of footballer’s autobiographies but that was buying toilet paper with the shit already smeared on it). Yet there’s a passage in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ by George Elliot, at the very end of chapter five which is maybe my favourite bit of prose ever – Elliot writes “what novelty is worth that sweet monotony where is everything is known, and loved because it is known?
“The wood I walk in on this mild May day… – what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky, with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind …our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us, and transform our perception into love.”
So right now, much as it’s great to have incredible experiences, it’s going to be good to get back to that sweet monotony where the stimulus talks your language, and you’re not translating anymore.
Fast forward 146 years from Elliot and there’s a song ‘Fire of London’ by a South London based hip-hop group called ‘Why Lout?’ which basically sums up everything that I feel about my city, a place that isn’t just a large urban monster but through accident of birth is my home, and contains the mother tongue of my imagination. You can download the track here.
Another tune that has been something of a soundtrack for me in Bangladesh is ‘Factory’ by Martha Wainwright, a beautiful lilting lament that begins with the couplet “These are not my people I should never have come here”. But I’ve found as the last year has gone on that whilst I could never say that I am Bangladeshi, there’s no reason to think that different people can’t take pleasure in the same life. I’m separated either through my education, upbringing, culture, wealth, health, spiritual or temporal beliefs from the vast majority of Bangladeshis, yet there’s much less of the artificial barriers and constraints that separate people in the West. I’ve felt obviously completely distinct from Bangladeshis over the last year, but also strangely in solidarity with the country here, I think because there are so few places to hide. You get swept up and embraced whether you like it or not, but if you can manage to stop struggling, abandon your own lenses of perception and accept that those lenses are useless here – perception is irrelevant, the country has one layer, one screen that everyone is pressed against to make up the pixels of a bigger picture of Bangladesh. That envelops everybody; it’s a shared common space. It’s a very crowded space, uncomfortable at times, but its one layer.
Over the year, I’ve also learnt a bit of the Bangla language. So this, as they say in Bangladesh, is now shesh.