Maracana, Wembley, Cannes and Narayanganj
Last week, all eyes were fixed on Neymar's ripped shorts, Badhon's jewelled blouse or English rogue fans' red-crosses, when something terrible happened: one slipper of a pair was thrown out of a factory building in Narayanganj to give a Tk 2 lakh message (yes that's what life is worth minus the Eid bonus) on behalf of someone who was at that time facing the fury of a fire that was coming to consume her. The message was loud and clear: the end was near, and her relatives needed to know that she was here. No further detail on the female victim who died in the fire that broke out in a food processing factory is available. But the scripted sandal speaks for all 52 individuals who died that day on July 9. Most of them were teenagers. Most of them were women. The gate was locked. The workers got trapped. The usual story all over. The site supervisor thought that the fire would soon be diffused as he took his workers to an anteroom where the volatile ACs are kept. His one mistake proved fatal allowing the fire to score high.
"The charred victims were piled in a fleet of ambulances to take them to mortuaries amid anguished shouts and tears from people watching in the streets", describes Al Jazeera.
How do you process such emotion in the midst of a visual feast when the golden heroes are locking horns with their sky-blue challengers, when the Romans are back to raid Londinium with resistance from the medieval barbarians notwithstanding their Red Cross garbs to prove that, by Saint George, they are otherwise civilised with God on their side? With so many spectacles that are there to cause you distract, why tarry longer on the lives that are already lost? Return to the arena where life is being celebrated: change the channel. Go to Maracana, Wembley, or Cannes; you will be fine. Write a sympathetic note on Facebook, your conscience will have its alibi.
Better focus on whether the shorts of Neymar were ripped as part of some voodoo to end the losing streak of Argentina in the finals. If it were tennis, he could have gone off the field to change (oh, meanwhile, on another channel, Djokovic won the Wimbledon by the way), but it's not! The Brazilian striker had to wait till the half time—by that time the damage was done; some Angel had scored.
From the angelic light of de Maria you shift your focus to the noor of Rehana Maryam. There's something prosaic about that name. A full name for a movie title: who would have thought! A standing ovation for a Bangladeshi film, that too at Cannes: who would have thought! Workplace sexual harassment captured in a restless handheld camera using a muted colour palette—boy, I am intrigued! A manufactured statement against patriarchy. The reviews are titillating the desire to view the movie after its French Riviera preview. And the smart cast in their dazzling dresses are adding glamour on a world stage. Yes, we use cheap labours to make sweatshirts, but we make jamdanis too! Stunning revelations.
Beneath the veneer of all the action that had our eyes wide open, there is a trail of tears. Of possession and dispossession. Can one be black and afford to fail in a white man's game? Can one be poor and a woman and a teenager when a factory owner is up to making money? Disgusted as much as I was to see the football hooligans beating their rival fans as they were coming out of their gallery doors, disgusted as much as I were to see the racial slurs against the players of African origin for failing to score in a tie breaker, I was not surprised. The white robe emblazoned with red cross reminded me of the narrative of supremacy that goes in the name of religion, in the name of race, in the name of gender. These players are nothing but modern-day gladiators brought from the former colonies to perform in an arena for the pleasure and profit of the privileged. There is not much difference between the players and the workers in a factory: both groups are mere subjects to be acted upon. Both are paid players, albeit of different scales.
They are the willing participants in a system that manipulates and manufactures. They volunteered or were forced to volunteer their skills and labour for the benefits of the others: their owners, their consumers. It takes a fire, the inner or the outer, to rip through the curtain of normalcy to expose how abnormal life is! No matter how many knees you "take" before the start of the match to conjure the spirit of George Floyd who was choked to death by some white supremacists, there is a raging fire at the core of a white heart; something that cannot stand the sight of black. No matter how you try to remove your black or brown stains and join the rank of the white saints, the fire will be there. The same fire was there when the KKK used it to purify the dark race by burning it down on crosses that held Jesus; the same fire was there when the Nazis used it in their gas chambers to burn down the Jews. The same fire is there to slit the throats of the infidel by those who claim fidelity. Some fires are incidental, some are accidental.
I would not say that the businessmen hated their workers and wanted to burn them down because deep down in the patriarchal system they did not like women to come to the fore. On the contrary, these young women were needed for the businessmen to become more shajeeb, more lively! I know all guns are being fired at the businessmen now. As is customary, news of irregularities is popping up. The more faults that are found, the more desperate the businessmen would become to get out of jail. And that is good news for the men who are processing their new food. Before the Eid, the timing couldn't have been any better. The price tag for the dead has already been fixed, and now, one can only assume, there will be many price tags for the owners who will seek their freedom. But how about those sleek officials who made routine visits to each factory to renew the safety certificates? Isn't there a long list of certificates including one on fire safety that needs to be maintained by each manufacturing site for the sake of compliance? Who issued those?
You see, the fault lies in the system. We see fire. We see the belching smoke. But we do not see the system. We forget the lessons that we learnt at our primary schools: a stitch in time, saves nine. When fire rips through the system, it momentarily exposes what lies beneath! We see the greedy faces of some dark devils who allowed the fire to prevail. Then again, the devil offers us distractions. We are offered with enough materials to get busy with: the shorts of Neymar, the blouse of Badhan. People will forget the 52 who died, but they will remember the skin that was exposed. Because that's where the nerves are. That's where the sensations are!
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).