A momentary lapse of reason
Recently, while I was driving to my office, an SUV full of security men whooshed past me on the wrong side. I slowed down and let the car come to my lane near Ganabhaban. It took me a while to realise that there was a small motorcade behind. There was no flag stand or any other insignia to indicate the protocol or the commercial barometer of the "private" caravan.
When I got on to Mirpur Road, I indicated to move to the right lane as I needed to turn near the Residential Model College. The pilot SUV, flashing emergency lights, suddenly veered right and came in front of me. The other two of the fleet wanted to overtake from behind. I was in no mood to give them room for a second time. They would go straight, yet they came to the first lane to block me. The cars behind started honking, and one of the drivers started yelling. I guess my formal attire and shades did not allow their words to turn into invectives. But judging from their testosterone levels, I guess they were short by a minor notch. I had to tell the guy, "If you are going straight, why do you have to block the right lane?"
Those who drive in Dhaka would find my logic banal and my retorts insane. It's not only a private security team, but also a CNG-run autorickshaw or a city bus that could have "sided" me without any warning. Then why am I expressing my frustration over such a trivial issue? Having studied psychoanalysis for my academic training, I can locate my repressed frustrations in the unconscious from where they were trying to make a return. My attempt to talk back to security men was foolish, and can perhaps be explained in Freudian terms. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, has told us how the feelings and emotions that we cannot process or negotiate get transferred to the unknown territory of our mind. They remain deposited there, but can make a return in displaced or transformed form—like in an outburst or in a dream or a creative outpouring.
For a split second, I had the fallacy of having equal rights to the road. I am a tax-paying, law-abiding member of society. I have every right to be on the road without the infringement of any other force, as long as I am not violating the traffic rules. The reality is something else, however, and not acknowledging that reality could be lethal. Then why, on a sane mind, did I react? Did I really have control over that momentary lapse of reason? This is where Freud's psychoanalysis comes in.
My conscious act to defy the "unknown" authority was conditioned by a series of interactions that took place during my short drive from Banani to Mohammadpur. I was stuck near the newly designed U-loop at Mohakhali, as the extended funnel narrowed the thoroughfare. Any chance to widen the road and to have all four lanes for the incoming traffic from Uttara has been snapped by the construction of some government offices, including that of the roads and bridges authority. On the other side of the road, there is a market dangerously close to the rail track, which has created a similar effect of a bottleneck.
Then you come to the flyover only to find that some flag-bearing or insignia-ridden vehicles are blocking the approach road under the watchful eyes of traffic sergeants. Anyone without a badge is, however, punished. You get down from the flyover and hit the congestion near the Old Airport as some provosts are making sure that their bosses get priority treatment. Once you enter the link road, you have to negotiate motorbikes coming from the wrong sides, buses stopping mindlessly to pick and drop passengers, potholes and puddles, clueless pedestrians, ambulances, speeding over-takers, and angry flashes of lights from the vehicles of uniformed men to finally reach the BNCC crossing.
And then you encounter two extra lanes of incoming vehicles from the wrong side, most featuring some signs of authority. Even common men who have the platform to unite and create nuisances, such as the ride-sharing service motorcycles or the CNG autorickshaws, are there—all nonchalantly waiting for the signal to be cleared. Their body language is simple: if I can't travel from this side of the road, how dare you move freely on the other side? A game of patience is initiated. We wait because they wait. We will pass, only when they can pass. What does it tell us about a nation? Is there any sociological study of Dhakaites who own the city without any ownership?
By the time I reached the side alley of the Ganabhaban complex, there was a wave of pent-up anger in me. I was frustrated by the irresponsibility of my fellow citizens. The power nudge of the motorcade, thus, made me react without thinking of any consequence. And I was lucky to have none.
Wasn't there an incident where a lawmaker's son got into trouble for getting into street rancour? The battle of the four wheels and two wheels ran a full course. Epic! When I was a student at a public university, our bus driver used to drive like a Formula 1 driver in Dhaka. We used to feel like the kings of the streets. I heard one day that one of my university's bus drivers got into an altercation with a microbus belonging to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). This was in the 90s. The microbus driver bragged, "Can't you see the sign of my office?" The other one quipped, "You work for one prime minister. In my bus, everyone is a potential prime minister." Ah, democracy. It is nice to know about such an egalitarian theory.
It is nice to hum Tagore, for instance, "We all rule as kings in the kingdom of our King. Why else would we join hands with him?" But how many of us can internalise such principles, let alone practise them?
I will end with an incident that took place about two weeks ago. A driver of a ride-sharing motorbike set fire to his own vehicle when a traffic sergeant was about to fine him for wrong parking. The man could not take it anymore. He had had enough of the daily routine of systemic abuses. The smothered fire in him came out as a return of the repressed, and in that momentary lapse of reason, he destroyed the very vehicle that he depended on for his livelihood. The police later quizzed him to learn that the man was already at a tipping point as he was under huge debt.
Speaking of which, I must return to my viewing of Squid Game on Netflix, the Korean survival drama on class disparity. Sometimes, illusions are the only way to handle reality. They are the therapeutic antidotes to momentary lapses of reason. Happy weekend!
Shamsad Mortuza is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).