During his regular stroll in the palace garden, Emperor Akbar once saw many crows flying around. He asked his minister, "How many crows are there in our kingdom, Birbal?"
Birbal quipped, "There are 95,463 crows in your kingdom, Excellency."
"How could you be so sure?" the Emperor asked.
"You can get them counted, Excellency," Birbal said.
The Emperor again said, "What if there are less?"
"Then some of them must have gone to some neighbouring kingdom for a visit."
"And if there are more than that, then?" asked Akbar.
"Then it means that other crows have come to visit their relatives in our kingdom," said the witty minister.
Thus Birbal got a suitable reward for counting crows by not counting crows.
Our obsession with numbers while hoping for the coronavirus curve to flatten makes this story quite topical. Every day we are counting new casualties, and counting days for this pandemic to be over. Any discerning reader must have understood by now that the trickster that I am referring to is not Birbal, but a hospital owner who made exorbitant amounts of money by pretending to count Covid-19 patients. However, in so doing, in no way am I equating patients undergoing this pandemic with the crows. Crows are the hapless victims, albeit reference points, in this narrative curve.
However, this analogy does involve an animal, rather its instincts. In lack of subtlety, let me say: Shahed the trickster is an animal. It is not unnatural for a trickster to be associated with animals. Tricksters in folk tales are humans with animal attributes, and vice versa. The cunningness or foolishness of a literary trickster such as Birbal, Nasreddin Hodja, Gopal Bhar, Mulla do Piaja can be interchangeably assigned to a fox, an alligator, a coyote, a possum and the like. In many communities, animals are part of human kinship. Hence, we call the foolish fox an uncle. In Western tradition, an animal belongs to the lower strata as it lacks the thinking faculty—its psyche. According to Aristotle, beasts have sensory perceptions, desires, memory, imagination, and even emotions. But animals don't have a soul, which we may call conscience in today's term.
When RAB nabbed Shahed from the outskirts of the neighbouring country, and its footage was being live-streamed, I told myself, what a scavenger! Yet this man sweet talked to climb up the social ladder. He is a conman who appeared in talk shows, used his media tag to befriend the high and mighty, and put on a peacock's tail to blend in. I guess now we will have his plumes removed and wings clipped.
Shahed by all counts is an animal who does not have any conscience. Or how can one toy with the emotion of the people who are suffering from a fatal disease? Throwing away the test samples and fabricating test results are acts of greed that has its origin in material gain in this earthly life. I am not religious enough to foretell what divine provisions there are for animals of this sort! But I sincerely hope that he gets exemplary punishment to deter others from committing similar wrongs.
Then again, Shahed is just one of many countless crows (read scavengers) that are out there. He is just one conman. There is a controversial con-woman too. A doctor and her husband are breaking bad and making news. A handsome couple—who would have thought! Reality isn't what it always seems. Could it be that they are mere pawns on someone else's chessboard? How do I know? I don't, but any thinking animal can make an intellectual guess by looking at the pattern.
The government has been extra careful to keep its affiliated party cadres away from the fight against coronavirus. It relied mostly on the institutional bureaucracy and its public officials. And these officials in turn often allow a certain type of economic rent to flourish. According to Investopedia, "Economic rent is an amount of money earned that exceeds that which is economically or socially necessary. Economic rents often arise from market inefficiencies or information asymmetries." One such example is contract rent where involved parties engage in a mutually agreed-upon deal granting one party unequal benefits. The over-invoicing of the price of a pillow during procurement for officials working in the Rooppur Power Plant is a glaring case in point.
A little bird told me, there are some government officials who run or have share in consultancy or trading firms. These officials hire third-party agents, give them inside information to get an upper-hand in the bidding process, or do the work themselves under the guise of phony firms. If I have heard it from a little bird, then it must not be a state secret; others who have ears of the big birds must know it too. People like Sabrina, Arif, Shahed are the puppets on strings. Their dance stopped because the cue music had been stopped for them. Now they are performing an act of a different sort. They rose to fame in the first act, and now they are having a spectacular fall at the will of the scribe. Their current job is to keep us entertained and distracted for a while. There are some intelligent people out there who are busy in outwitting the system. They are the ones investing in condominiums in Dubai Palm Beach or Begumpara in Toronto or second homes in Malaysia. They are the ones who can fly away in chartered planes. Yet when they are interred in their graves, the vaults in which they secured money become useless. But it is the duty of the government to make sure to stop the culture of impunity in which the scavengers have increased manifold. Flushing them temporarily out of the country to show that there are a less number of crows will do no good. If we really want to attain the desired economic growth, we first need to take care of these scavengers who circle over the dead and the dying ones.
In his last public speech, Bangabandhu uttered some unpleasant truth, "My peasants are not corrupt. My labourers are not corrupt. Who takes bribe then? Who carry out black marketing? Who serve as foreign agents? Who does money laundering? Who does hoarding/stockpiling? It is us, the 5 percent educated people. The bribe takers and corrupts are amongst us, the 5 percent educated people. We must change our characters and purify our souls" (Suhrawardy Uddan, March 26, 1975).
The number of educated people has gone up, and so has the level of corruption. It's time we say, bring back conscience; and stamp out corruption.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org