Lizards Losing Their Tails
We are all glued to the mega-spectacle involving the flickering of the dropped or lost tails of some lizards who have tactically dissociated from a disposable part of their bodies to protect themselves from their attackers. These dancing tails have seductive names to live up to their alleged reputation of being honeytraps. They are presented as creatures of a dark fantasyland that exists on the fringe of our concrete jungles. They are presented as nymphs who lure men into their lairs, entertain them with narcotic and carnal substances, and retain memorabilia for future profiteering.
Breathless media coverage of the dancing lizard-tails drowns out stories that affect us more. The spike in coronavirus-related deaths, after some super-spreader events when the lockdown was relaxed during the Eid-ul-Adha festival, is a case in point. The frozen education sector with all its uncertainties serves as another example. The irregularity and irresponsibility of government officials and contractors that led to the crumbling down of the noble gesture of the prime minister's housing project in Mujib Year can be listed as another big issue. The misfortune of the fortune-hunters from the country who try to cross the Mediterranean—hitting the headlines on a regular interval—can be deemed as yet another big news. Workers walking miles to return to their workplace amid Covid-19 movement restrictions; the highway roads that look like snapshots of Mars sent by some spacecraft; the waterlogging in the city that momentarily brings riverbanks to the comfort of our households; the pesky mosquitoes that simply refuse to go away; the brewing tension among the nationalist Rohingyas; the back-to-back win over the Kangaroos on home soil; the leap-year grand gala of sports in the Land of the Rising Sun—all deserve to be treated as big news.
Instead, the dancing tails are getting into our excited heads.
When scores of armed men carried out an all-out raid in the greenery (Banani) to capture one such unarmed nymph, the tail started dancing according to the playbook of a cornered victim: go "live", grab attention even if it requires half-revealing yourself to titillate your audience, and cry "dacoits". Only months back, we were learning about the secret lives of religious leaders and now we are given access to the other quarters. It is no secret that there is no secret. In Greek mythology, Zeus had to visit his favourites in dreams to counsel them, teach them tricks. His agents would hide behind a wooden horse to undo the Helens of society; today, he can flash his winged horse, Pegasus, and strike out anyone at lightning speed. The moment someone has fallen out of favour, there are ample stored images and sound bites to discredit her or him.
The newly revealed facts remind me of one of my favourite fiction works of all time: Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa's 1904 novel Umrao Jan Ada, depicting the gracious ambiance of old Lucknow and its wealthy nawabs, the hideouts of colourful drifters, and the lavish quarters of the city's courtesans. Umrao Jan displays strange sophistication in dealing with the nawab who refuses to marry her or the dacoit who offers stolen jewellery to buy her love. The tails then can have many hidden tales that can be our fascinating guide to unchartered territories. The nymphs of the leafy part of the town recount a contemporary version.
But there is something Machiavellian in the way the narrative is being presented as a media spectacle. Machiavelli advised his modern prince to maintain the rituals of governance and power through the productive use of cultivated spectacles. The gladiators fighting for their lives in an area to unleash the violent desire of the mob and making them a party to the power struggle is an example of spectacle. One can argue that the demand for such violence necessitated the supply of the bloodthirsty event in the first place. The reverse can also be true. The supply of violence created the demand. Whatever the case is, the production, construction, circulation and function of media spectacles hint at some deep-rooted social values. Once we consider the recent media sensationalism as a reaction to a similar action in which a male figure was exposed with bottles of liquors, we will probably be able to assume that the spectacle has an anti-women agenda. Instead of exposing one fairy, can we publish the list of visitors to the fairyland?
What is actually her crime: an expired liquor license, hoarding mind-altering substances, arranging house parties, entertaining guests? According to one responsible police officer, there are many such "night queens". If employing full force to eradicate the night queens is the top priority of law-enforcing agents at a time of national emergency when the whole world is suffering from a pandemic, then, "Houston, we have a problem!" If we really consider these night queens symptomatic of a social disease, then it would be wise to run a full diagnostic test of the social body to address the disease that has caused the fever. The tail of the lizard is more important than these abandoned dancing parts. I am sure by now the lizards have changed their colours, and finding them will be no mean task. They have either left their territories or are hiding in plain sight, camouflaging themselves in their given surrounding. Who knows, some of these lizards may have already been eaten up by bigger predators.
As the audience of the media spectacle, we need to be aware of the information and entertainment (i.e. infotainment) that is being provided in this technologically dazzling, multimedia culture. Our thoughts and actions are influenced by seductive media spectacles. We scandalise the nymphs to strengthen the patriarchy that would like to avenge the humiliation it suffered recently. In the process, the general public becomes nothing but the grass under the feet of two fighting rhinos mentioned in an African proverb.
I shall end with the observations of the French theorist Guy Debord who in the 1960s talked about the Society of the Spectacle. He wrote, "When the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialised mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs." (Section 18).
We are fast losing control over what could once be touched and grasped. We have become mere witnesses deriving voyeuristic pleasures out of seeing things, with no sensation of human touch. We can't pin down why the lizard actually dropped its tail. It's important to ask: what caused the lizard to lose its tail, instead of being entertained by its dance?
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).