• Monday, December 22, 2014

Freedom in the air

Shifting Images

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd”

Milia Ali

My current visit to Dhaka has been especially enjoyable, and in some ways enlightening. It's the first time in a decade that I am spending the summer in Bangladesh. Needless to say, the beauty of the monsoons has once again entranced me. The pattering sound of raindrops, the misty landscape and the cloudy sky revived memories of the romantic dreams of my youth, the “Borsha”songs of longing I sang, the way I would lose myself in the surreal world of the rains drenching my soul in its idyllic beauty!

That the monsoons coincided with the fasting period of Ramadan added a somewhat different flavour to my visit. For many Muslims, Ramadan is a month of meditation and reflection whereas for some it also serves as an opportunity for frenetic socialising -- iftar parties, shopping sprees and gift swapping. Hence the fasting season allows one to observe two contrasting aspects of life: the material pursuits we get embroiled in as well as the spiritual rejuvenation we aspire to achieve!

My regular winter holidays in Dhaka are a different kind of renewal: connecting with childhood friends, visiting relatives, attending weddings and partaking of Dhaka's rich cultural scene. But Ramadan combined with the monsoons provided a sobering opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff and go through some deep introspection.This is not to say that I did not indulge in fun activities like the World Cup and iftar get-togethers. The latter provided the finest culinary experiences of colour, taste, scent and flavour -- more eclectic than the contrast of the scorching July heat and the pouring monsoon rains.

In the midst of all the activity a mundane incident presented a soul-searching “Ramadan experience.” On a hot afternoon my husband and I made a trip through nerve-racking traffic to the Jamuna Park Mall to watch “Noah” in 3-D. On arriving at the Box Office we were casually informed that the show was cancelled, ostensibly for want of “sufficient audience.” Needless to say I lost it and got into a rather brusque argument with the man at the ticket counter about bad management, unethical business practices, and insensitivity to clients' needs. The complaints were addressed with the standard bureaucratic response: “Madam, it was a management decision, I have no say in the matter.”

Halfway through the argument, a sudden, but unoriginal, flash of insight came to me. “Why am I venting my anger on this helpless employee who has no power over the decision making process?” I asked myself. Isn't this kind of intolerance at the core of the hatred and violence we encounter in our world today? If a small inconvenience in my daily routine prompts an explosion of emotions on my part how can I blame those facing larger disruptions when they create an avalanche of violence? After all, accepting setbacks and moving on without any feeling of acrimony or vengeance at an individual level may be the first step toward creating greater understanding among human beings.

Once my anger subsided, I realised that the incident had taught me a valuable lesson. A lesson that might be the essence of Ramadan's spirit of abstinence -- namely, abstaining from “hitting back.”

As I rode back home in a reflective mood, my thoughts reverted to a book that I am currently reading -- The True American -- a real life story of a Bangladeshi-American, Rais Bhuiyan, who was shot and maimed by an “American Terrorist” after 9/11. This was a life-changing event for this young immigrant who had come to America to realise his dreams. Ten years later, a pilgrimage to Mecca transformed Bhuiyan and he decided to forgive his attacker following Islam's core message of mercy. Subsequently, he waged a public-relations campaign in his home state of Texas to save his assaulter (who had killed two other men) from the death penalty.

Written with great empathy and feeling, by Anand Giridharadas, The True American is about the universal spirit of compassion and forgiveness that transcends race, religion and  ethnic boundaries. It tells us what a “true human being” is capable of and rightly puts forgiveness on a pedestal as the most important quality that inspires magnanimity.

History shows that the soft power of forgiveness and non-violence can go a long way toward solving even intractable problems.But this lesson seems to have escaped the powerful world leaders, as ongoing events in Gaza confirm.What we see today is an uncontrollable spiral of violence and killing extending from Syria to Afghanistan. There seems to be no respite and there will be none until the protagonists realise that the solution lies not in seeking vengeance but in empathy and forgiveness. For it's only through empathy that we can connect with each other and reach mutual understanding.

 

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank. E-mail: shiftigimages@gmail.com

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, August 03, 2014

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