<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 141 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 13, 2004

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Light in a Village

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

In Bangladesh, villages like Jhutigram (a small village in Gopalganj district) have seen much progress over the years. From hariken (kerosene lanterns) to generators owned by some affluent families, now the whole village sees by night almost as well as it does by day with the advent of electricity. Concrete buildings have gone up in place of many of the mud huts and tin houses. Many homes not only have tube wells but running water.

The bazaar nearby sells many previously unthought of things, from Coke to Grameen phone cards. International calls are sometimes made to or received from sons and daughters living in the UAE, Libya and even France and Italy. The journey to Dhaka is only about five hours by road, and on rather good roads for the most part, with only one or two ferries on the way.

Villages have indeed come a long way from when our fathers had to travel miles on foot over land and water to get to school. Yet the lives of many villagers who have been unable to come out of the circle of illiteracy and poverty sadly remain unchanged.

Sattar, today a carpenter and tomorrow unemployed, sometimes a paharadaar by night for families with cars visiting from the capital, is one such man. An illiterate father of seven children who do not go to school, his wife goes from house to house in the village working all day to earn whatever each family will give her. This is more often a plate of rice that she takes home for her children, than money. Sattar was jailed for a week when someone else took out a bank loan in his name after tricking him into signing the documents and not being able to repay it. His second daughter, Polly -- not more than 18 -- lives with him two years into her marriage. Her gambler husband sold the "van" her parents gave him upon their marriage and made no attempts to take her back home in the last one year, even though he is the father of her six-month-old son.

Though many girls are seen going to school nowadays, some must work -- either in homes in the village or in Dhaka or in garment factories -- to sustain themselves because their families can't save up for a good marriage (more so if the girl is dark). Kuti -- either oblivious to the possibility of an education or having accepted her fate as a domestic help because her family cannot provide for her -- dreams of going to the thana cinema hall to watch Premer Jala or Biyer Phool. Meanwhile, stealing some time off work, she goes from house to house to watch bits of movies on the new television sets of the villagers, sometimes on VCDs.

Some women like Beauty are more or less happily married, until she is pregnant for the fourth time and her mother-in-law awaits the birth of her first grandson who will keep the family going ("Sawal na hoili baungsher batti jalabi ke?" she asks very matter-of-factly). When her fourth granddaughter is born, she breaks into tears.

Beauty is luckier than many women in the village in that she still has her own name. Most women like "Jhontur bou" and "Seemar ma" are known as such -- as someone's wife or someone's mother. No one even knows their real names. Even when young girls are asked who they are, the first question put to them is not what their own name is, but, "Kar maiya?" (Who's daughter are you?). Even in death, when an announcement is made over the microphone of the village mosque, the deceased is referred to as the mother of her eldest son, her own name silent in death as it was during 80 years of her life.

And in the newly built concrete mosque sits the new Imam, in fear of whom jatra and other musical and festive evenings which used to be staged out in the open for all to enjoy, now -- if at all -- take place in a far-off corner of the village with a much smaller audience. Those who dare attend do not admit it for fear of being chastised by the Imam for taking part in “anti-Islamic” and “anti-social” activities.

It's not just a matter of less stars being visible in the sky because of electric lighting taking over in rural areas. No matter how visitors may want our villages to remain "village like", the lives of those who live there must improve. If only the development was not all money-made and machine-run; if only it came from deeper within. Electric lighting combined with enlightened minds could bring far greater development. Perhaps if we fit everyone's heads with mechanical minds, they too would be updated to face the challenges of the day, to bring not modernity but true progress in the lives of the people.



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