Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Transitions: Notes from Dhaka’s ‘Historical Underground’ - Part 1

‘Transition’ is a word loaded with uncertainties for it narrows the width of examining issues over a time frame and leaves us pleasantly surprised at how much or how little we have managed to achieve. For instance, if we are to look at the transition in air transportation, from the Wright Brothers attempt to fly a ‘machine’ in 1903, to supersonic Concords, Man on the Moon in 1969, the Space Shuttles, Stealth bombers that defy radars, or the Aerial predator Drones that go into battle with no humanoid on board: all of it happened within the span of the last hundred years, a century that defied mans achievements in technology to the one that preceded it.

This write-up is about my transitional experience in Bangladesh over the last forty years of the century gone by. From the sixties, on to this new millennium it’s all about the icons that made me emotive, frustrated or sensitized but for most part, kept me happy. I am sure many have shared similar transitions – bitter, as they may have been in some cases, they never failed to percolate hope. Hope is the essence of mans survival; no capital has to be expended other than expanding the spirit of a Soul, that understands precious little, but to move forward. Nature moves us on from a ‘cell’, to an embryo, a fetus, an infant, and child, pre-teen, post-teen. When we become ‘gray haired forty-something’ we take stock and say with futile benediction – ‘life itself is a transition’ and ‘hope for a better world way beyond’ what our limited faculty of the imagination affords us, for granted. Even in death man is programmed to remain hopeful.

The First ‘Steps’ in Transition – for me was waking up to pitter-patter sounds of my feet encased in paper shoes. The year 1960, and I was less than 3 years old in Narayangang where I was born. Next, would be spending hours before the mirror figuring what this ‘deflected reflection’ is all about, a ‘name’ that I would respond to, and then the gift of speech, ‘hey world I have arrived’ and there was to be no looking back.

The Glorious Sixties – was exploding around me. Among the first icon was the large Murphy Radio set that Dad hooked up to a wire-mesh antennae inside the living room, which came up with strange voices, and even stranger human expressions most of which I didn’t understand. I could conjure a million images, and they were all patently mine. Music and songs filled my life; everything from Pakistani crooner Ahmed Rushdie’s Urdu song, ‘Co Co Coreena’ jive, or ‘Hello, hello Mr.Abdul Ghani’ was the rage.

Sunday afternoon it was Top of the Pop ‘western music’ time, as Dad would explain. I was too young to understand the lyrics, but Elvis Presley’s ‘Aint Nothin but a Hound dog’, hounded me like nothing else did. I discovered I could dance (The Twist it was called) ta da da! I was communicating telepathically with beings in another continent, another world, and the Morning News daily had Elvis’s photograph and while I loved that puffed up, greased slick back, hairstyle, mine were ‘crew-cut’ coat brush like short and it better be that way. My hero then was Cassius Marcellus Clay, aka Muhammad Ali the boxer, and I had a large scrapbook filled with his photographs!

Morning News held copyrights to an icon of intellectual stimulation which my father, Uncles and other elders would pore hours over, the Get A Word – crossword puzzle, which would leave me….well ‘puzzled’! Weren’t soap or cell companies dishing out money as ‘sponsor’ – nor was there any inducement to ‘buy one and get two free’. People were paid cash prizes by the daily for ‘brain power’…any takers today?

And then came this very heavy black device that technicians took more than a day to hook up. The Telephone it was called then and ‘land lines’ today? This was more fun than the Radio, as it talked back to me, and I would run wherever I was, and stop whatever I was doing to sing in a cheery ‘Hello’ whenever it tring-tringed! Amazing, in that many years of transition nobody has managed to translate ‘Hello’ into Bengali – ‘ohey’?

Fridays, Dad would drag me along to the mosque, and while I never understood a word of Arabic, things were scary. For reasons best known to gOD and Dad’s great annoyance, I would be pushed way, way, back, to the last row of the congregation, apparently an ‘appropriate place’ for an ‘improper child’ like me by some design of the Maker! The horror of saying prayers to the ‘Almighty’, with complete strangers, and then crying out loud when I couldn’t trace Dad after it all ended, makes the hair in my arms rise to this day.

The other BIG scare was the attack during khutbas on Hindus, who were the ‘lowest of the low’ as we were made to believe, in the eyes of Allah and not ‘worthy of friendship of the faithful’. Yet I couldn’t figure out why my parents never stopped me from playing with Oomla Agarwal, my best friend and son of a rich Marwari jute merchant, in the building complex we lived? When I asked Oomla the very innocent question of how we were ‘different’ – he promptly dropped his shorts and asked me to do the same. Our difference was clearly, only about a quarter centimeter of flesh taken ‘off’ our respective ‘you know what’!

In Narayangang Preparatory School where I had my earliest schooling, on Guy Fawkes Day, we burnt effigies of the traitor, and when I would narrate this with excitement to my stern Arabic teacher at home, he would chastise me for attending a ‘Christian ceremony’, making me a Muslim of lesser faith. With that began my revolt against ‘faith’, and I discovered quite early in life, that ‘this’ was destined to be my new FAITH. I remained Arabic illiterate by choice.


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