Sunday, 19 April 2015

Exile Part 2: Myth of Return

I would go back to my village in the north eastern corner of Bangladesh, Sunamgonj, which is full of big lakes that light up at night with moonlight and thunders in the day during monsoon season. The thunders strike while the dark grey gloomy skies make constant sounds that seem like a warning from the divine in a heavy deep voice to stay inside the house. We children would not care and come out collecting the mangoes downed by the storm.

If I go back to those days, I would be staying inside the house; looking out and contemplating, against the rhythmic sound of rain drops bursting onto the tin roofs of the house and think of my exile. Or I would probably just be in bed resting under a light blanket (katha) my mother and aunts sewed while gossiping their husband’s faults.

In our Mamar bari (maternal uncle’s house), we boys would dare to sail out to the lake (hawor) in stormy weathers and would jump from the small boat we took without uncle’s permission. All day long we would compete with each other on who could jump first to grab the shaluk (some fruits born in water).

We would annoy the fishermen all day long who were busy catching their prey and eager to get to the social capital, the bazaar,  as soon as they could, to get a good bargain. Often a bargain would come from a rich customer who lived abroad, a customer who had bargained their economic wellbeing in exchange to accepting a permanent exile in London.

I would go back to those nights when we would await with sleepy eyes for delicious dinners cooked by my aunty on a mud stove. The room we used to read and have dinner in, was barely lit with rural-electricity (Polli bidduth). The light was poorer in comparison to the lantern’s light and we would keep them both on. Electricity was a special blessing then and was provided to only a few privileged families due to their political and social connections with the local distributor.

The mud stove that my mother and aunty used to cook on would burn the wood and tree branches collected during the day from the wild. No the wilderness didn’t have any dangerous animals in it- but the stories of snakes and small tigers from the parents helped to calm our excitement with necessary fear before we slept.

There were fishes from the pond in the canal adjacent to the house that became a footpath in the dry season and there were fresh vegetables in the winter, grown in our gardens. These gardens had fences made of bamboo braches to save the fruits from the wondering cattle.
Hawor in Sunamganj, Bangladesh


I still remember the ‘Khuarr’, a man-made jail for the cattles, made of the strongest of the bamboos, to punish the cattle that raided our neighbour’s vegetable gardens. The owner of the cattle had to pay a hasty fine to release their disobedient animal. This was often a cause of conflict between families and tribes in the village.

The jailing of a cow was probably my first experience of societal law and justice, and for some reason as a child I found it cruel and terrifying. My childish heart wished that the cow should have been allowed to eat and go wherever it liked. Punishing it by restricting it into a closed square was probably the first cruellest thing I observed.  This thought of mine was transformed into a silly joke later, when I observed my father slaughtering our favourite cow in the name of God and we enjoyed its meat for dinner.

In recollecting the ‘crimes’by cattle invading human space, I remember our crimes as boys. I would go back to those nights when I joined my brothers to steal coconuts from neighbouring ‘baris’ (houses) and kept on raiding the village to find every fruit they have grown in their houses wild and that we could lay our handson.

This would happen while we could hear the Imam at the mosque or some religious speaker from a distant village speaking at Jalsha (yearly event organised by a mosque or Masjid). For us boys Jalsha night were an excellent excuse to get out of the house.

The hujurs (preachers) were religiously busy shouting and screaming about the temperature of the hellfire, the importance of hating disbelievers and how many huuri’s (virgin women) you would be granted in heaven. The Jalsha  was more commonly organised in the winters following our annual school exam period..

I would like to have gone back to jump in the canal (khaal) again that remained dry most of the year but during monsoon gave us the opportunity to catch big chunks of fish with its thousands of small descendants and would make a fantastic meal. How ruthless we were. 

At night we would go and observe egoistic tribal uncles and brothers resolving issues. They loved trouble for the sake of itand gained enjoyment, ‘community trial’ kick from it, whilst sipping away tea dipped with salty biscuits made available by the one small shop in the village. The most expensive brand of cigarettes sold at this shop was ‘Gold Leaf’ and my uncles and father would smoke it religiously day and night.


     A Mother’s Dilemma  

I would go back to my small town Sylhet which was calm in the morning when I walked to my school. This town has now became a disorganised city, full of big buildings at the receiving end of the capitalist wave, proudly hosting KFC and Pizza Hut. I would go back to my friends who would become fathers, quarrelling husbands and to my dear mother who grows old missing my presence beside to her and tragically praying that I never return from exile.  

She does not want to me to return to her land -our land, because it does not guarantee the security of my life, liberty, progress and everyday ‘chaul (rice) and dail (lentils), the Bangladeshi version of bread and butter. 

A cruel reality that to secure my bread and butter, my mother and I slaughter our connection with my native land. I leave my country. Often I am reminded by many friends who were (un)fortunate to remain in their land that I should be appreciative of the fact that I was able to escape. That exile was better than being married to ones land for life, says friends.  

So my mother was my associate in executing this exile, like many other millions of concerned mothers in Bangladesh who urge their sons to leave, feeling compelled that the only security of life and prosperity is to leave this cursed land, go overseas and embrace exile. For some, this exile is just to jump on a never returning ship to Malaysia or to be a servant of brutal torturing rich Middle Eastern Sheikh from the Prophet’s country, Saudi Arabia, or to help building the capitalist UAE empire earning a minimum wage. 

For some, exile happened in the name of ‘education’ and taking advantage of the British immigration system. Exiles in western countries are preferable than the Middle-Eastern ones. Here, the prospects of life are good, the governments are 'liberal' and employers are probably less racist- providing a generous pay.

     Myth of Return

Edward Said lived a life on exile and no wonder he captures it perfectly in his reflection:
‘’ Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”

A question that I often confront nowadays is ‘Will I be able to go back?’. The impossibility frightens me and the possibility frightens me even more - the possibility to confront something that has been lost. Sometimes it is wise to not discover what you could have lost, is it not? In fact nothing is banished if you don’t discover what is there to be banished in the first place.

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