A lexicon for ugliness
Every society has its articles of faith. The strength of a society depends on the extent to which its articles of faith match the realities on the ground. In the Bangladesh I grew up in, one such article of faith was: "There is no country more beautiful than ours." It was what we said about ourselves; it was what poets wrote and singers sang. It seemed unassailable.
But it was not true. The Bangladeshi landscape of the 1980s started to become uglier every day. It became a place where the very elements of life - earth, water, air - are poisoned. The land is strewn with garbage, the rivers and urban waterways are choked with plastic bags and industrial waste. The streets are buckled, the footpaths broken, the air unbreathable, thick with dust. To look at Dhaka is to be greeted with an apocalyptic landscape with no underlying design save for an ever more urgent need to accommodate greater numbers of people.
There were beautiful things here and there but beauty was in retreat; it was ugliness on the march, and very little of what was new was beautiful.
And yet, the article of faith endured: Bangladesh was a beautiful country, we told ourselves, and others did too, almost from habit. Very few writers I grew up reading wrote about the squalor of our towns and cities; they either edged it out, or they emphasised those aspects of Bangladeshi life that would make us feel good about ourselves, depicting a country that had very little to do with the place we lived in.
They wrote about rivers and the skies, and the idiosyncrasies of their families. The television was state-owned those days, and gave a very restricted view of life. News on TV, prone to fantasy at the best of times, was never more fantastical than when it came to filth: The Bangladesh of nationalised television was a clean and happy country.
Art, when it's good, shows you what you always knew was there, but never took notice of. Art in Bangladesh didn't do that. It, in fact, falsified the reality of Bangladesh. Strange as it must sound, it was 24-hour news television, which was introduced in the '90s and free of state control, that began to do the work of art in Bangladesh, to hold up the mirror to our world. In its unforgiving light, we saw Bangladesh as we had never seen it before: a country of open drains and hillocks of filth, of black ponds beaded with mysterious bubbles and edged with bright clumps of grass.
Today, our environmental problems are among the worst in the world. They relate to raw sewage, waste and polluted water bodies, which exacerbate childhood malnourishment, and cause diseases like hepatitis and typhoid fever. The air in the cities is so dirty from factories and cars that it won't be long before people will check the levels of airborne particulate matter, on their smartphones, as people in other countries do the weather, before letting their children out to play.
One father I spoke to last week in Dhanmondi inferred that the air his children were breathing was perhaps the most polluted in the history of mankind. He may be wrong; across the border in New Delhi, India's capital, the air is said to be even worse. But pollution, like poverty, is one of those phenomena whose meaning is lost in the abstract; television gives it a concrete reality. Earlier this month I watched an investigative report where the journalist took his camera behind neatly kept factories - the screen showed a canal where toxic chemicals were being spewed into; a poisonous white froth had broken its banks and foamed out into the street, causing nearby residents to react with rage.
The rage is new. It is what can happen when articles of faith are violated. The Bangladesh I live in today is more aware than ever before of the environmental horrors of its cities and towns. It is part of a new spirit of activism that has crept into the discourse. City corporations are continuously reminding residents not to throw garbage in undesignated spots; even a group of foreign students launched a campaign to make the city cleaner, sweeping streets and collecting garbage from door to door.
It is too early to say how effective these efforts will be: Countries as polluted as ours cannot be cleaned by isolated private acts of goodwill, and we have yet to see what systems of waste management authorities will put in place. Nonetheless, one has to recognise a good initiative when one sees it.
For the journalist and the writer, Bangladesh presents a unique challenge. They must look unflaggingly at their country while, at the same time, never giving up on beauty. It is a continuous juggle, because ugliness offends; it desensitises. What aesthetic idea can come from ugliness? And yet we must not forget the true meaning of that word, "aesthetic." It has everything to do with art, but nothing to do with beauty. Aesthetics - Kant the German worked hard to restore its true meaning - is simply all that is sensory and perceptible and arises from a faculty of disinterested judgment. The greatest aesthetic discovery of my life, as a Bangladeshi journalist, has been the ability to first see our ugliness, find a way to write about it, and then perhaps bump into something beautiful.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.