Our Shrunken Mentality
The sudden onrush of floodwater flowing into the country through the Teesta at a measured dangerous level—soon after the equally sudden disruption of peace and vandalism of temples and altars in different parts of the country—reminded me of the 1974 movie The Towering Inferno, which I watched at Madhumita skipping school in the early 80s, only to be thrilled by the idea that an uncontrollable fire in a tall building could be diffused by the controlled explosion of a rooftop water reservoir, allowing the flood to put out the fire.
For those of you who are cursing me for the long first sentence, let me assure you that now that I have set the unruly context, I shall return to punctuated thoughts. It is dangerous to pursue wild imagination in a train of thought that associates one thing with another and connects the dots. You end up drawing pictures that may not exist in reality. That is why Greek philosopher Plato did not want poets to be included in his perceived Ideal World. I am not a poet, but I do like words. I do like to represent my surroundings in words, and feel things that eyes cannot see. For instance, musing on rivers and their stories can help you reach many shores that you normally would not travel. That is why rivers are popular motifs for poets. The watery stream can share stories following the flow of the stream of thought.
In the olden days, a flood would have been considered an act of gods. But with proof in the pudding, we know who the eggheads are, and from where the untimely water is heading our way. In the olden days, gods could have been appeased through offerings. What good is a fish offering, however silvery and seasonal it may be, to a god that controls the rivers? They already have what they want. And now they want the waters to be muddied so that they can get the metaphorical fish that they want.
I grew up in Old Dhaka. One of my favourite places was the Ram Krishna Mission library. Every day after school, I would spend hours in the library. I would make sure, before setting off for home, that I sat by the pond to watch the silhouetted fish and hear the merry dins of the temple bells, smelling the air filled with fuming fragrant sticks. On Fridays, I would go to the mosque and perform my ablutions in a koi reservoir with running water, and stand in line with fellow devotees, bowing before an invisible almighty to secure mental peace. Never did I learn to separate one from the other: both places had their own beauties, their own purposes of keeping us in control, and making us humane. I would carry puffed rice in my pockets for the fish both in the temple and in the mosque. I never learned to distinguish one group from the other.
Throughout history, there have been troublemakers: the proverbial Satan or the Shokuni Mama. Provocations are proven ploys to pillage communal harmony. I am working on a book project on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and currently studying his role in diffusing the tension during the 1964 riots that was triggered by a rumour of theft of Prophet Muhammad's hair from a mosque in Kashmir. History does have a bad habit of repeating itself. We have seen Muslims being lynched in India for allegedly eating beef. We have witnessed historic sites being ravaged by groups who carry fire within. The tears of the victims do not have enough water to douse such fire. Our cries merely show our helplessness; the waters are interpreted as signs of punishment. Is it a crime or a sin to be born in a family on whose origin one has no control, except to say that it is the will of the Almighty Creator? If we believe in the one ultimate Creator, then why divide his creation and tarnish it with fire or punish it with water?
My world is becoming smaller by the day. The size of my world is proportionate to the device I am using to view it. With my shrunken world, my worldview has also gotten smaller to fit the size of the screens. I don't sit in the library of the "other" to learn about their culture. I am rather happy to be fed with garnished images served on the timeline of my devices. So, when I see a holy book at the feet of the god of the "other," I cry foul. Of course, it is foul. Who will do such a thing? Think for a second: can you pray in your religious house with the holy book of the other being present there? Does it make sense that a book is placed to desecrate it at a holy time, for which the whole community has been waiting for a year?
The action is questionable. The reactions are equally so. It takes a spark of fire to turn a tower into an inferno. That's what we saw last week. I cringed in shame when my Hindu colleague posted on Facebook that for the first time in his life, he was outside guarding the temple at night, fearing a mob attack in an area where he grew up as a child and where his family was well-respected. I cringed again in shame when another colleague quoted hadith at a public meeting. We have heard of such defensive actions during the Liberation War. Why tell such regressive stories at a time when we want to leapfrog into the future and become a developed country?
We can go on and on to pinpoint who is to blame. I will begin by blaming myself. I have allowed my world to shrink. I have allowed my mind to shrink. I have allowed my education to shrink. When you are shrunken inside, you fight over trivial things. I learned it at school while reading Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." The humans who were only six inches in size fought over which end of an egg should be broken to make an omelette. Swift used the story of Lilliputs to remind us of the friction between the Catholics and the Protestants and, by extension, between the English and the French. We become small the moment we charter our minds in small grids and start harbouring rage. This rage looks for occasions to come out. It waits for provocations to wreak havoc. It seeks pleasure out of the pain of the "other." The small units merge to form groups. The ones who are setting fire in temples here and mosques there, or holding and releasing water at their will to punish the other, are all small beings. They think that they are big enough to establish control over nature or set things right as the agents of a superior authority. In the final count, they are but masters of and slaves to small things. They are so small that they cannot be called humans.
Shamsad Mortuza is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).