A lament for lost space
Last week, The Daily Star's investigative reportage exposed the work of criminal gangs and henchmen stealing rich top soil from precious arable land to sell to powerful, profiteering brickfield owners. Accompanying photographs of eerie craters and pock-marked surfaces became the stuff of feverish dreams that particular night. I had visions of the geographical space of my motherland—her fragile body—raped and cannibalised by sick, amoral marauders frenziedly gorging on the blood and bones of my Matri Bhumi.
The muezzin's call woke me on the morrow before first light. I sat in my veranda, awaiting dawn's red ray with an aching heart and a dull pain at the back of my head. I looked at the spot in the sky on the east where the burgeoning glow would flare to warm and balm my drooping heart. Once, not too long ago, the horizon before me was open and limitless, and I could commune with the morning star and the evening star from my veranda. I had the infinite grace bestowed upon me of waxing and waning with magnetic Luna, to let my spirit ebb and flow with the tidal surge of the full moon, the half-moon, the odd-shaped gibbous, and the new crescent moon. I would sit with my face to the silver disc and be transformed by its magic at night, and find a propitious omen for the new day in the interrupted glimpse of the grey fading moon at dawn. Even the blue moon and the blood moon were within my complete visual grasp from my rooted spot at home.
Now, with menacing tower blocks encroaching upon the horizon, my view is cut off and I am trapped in claustrophobic space. I can no longer see the stars or the moon unless I climb the two flights of stairs to the roof. On this particular pre-dawn moment of solitary suffering, I looked up at the paltry patch of sky visible between the verdant mango tree and the tall jackfruit tree (with the two score and six bloated fruit hanging from its limbs in staggered design). The foregrounded scene—tactile, pleasant to the olfactory sense, with the wet top soil harbouring rustling evergreens and ferns, and ripe old trees with thick trunks and gnarled embedded roots enclosed within my own walled, protected little space—gave me some solace, yet my body shivered in shock at the recollected background image of present violent, unchecked, unabated ravishment of alluvial mud in large areas of the countryside. Words of anger were on the tip of my tongue. A silent scream made my eyes smart with hot tears. I wanted to voice my pain. I wanted to write.
Writing is self-therapy. Sharing grief is therapeutic. Tonight, after gloomy nights of suppressed rage and hurt, my mind unlocks the channels of free-flowing expression. Words ooze from the cerebrum, and my fingers are suddenly restless. The laptop beckons, and I quietly tap out an elegy on the loss of clay, of earth, of grass and grain, farm and haystacks, cattle and homesteads. Tonight, I lament for all that is lost. I mourn the forced dislocation of large swathes of the rural population. I mourn the myopic, heedless, satanic destruction of the magnificence and munificence of this fertile delta, which once tethered each living being to its charmed triangular geometry of free-flowing rivers and countless snaky tributaries. The annual natural strife with Nature's floods and cyclones made us stronger, more resilient, with the simple folk renewing their vows of loyalty to the soil at each Pahela Baishakh.
The adage, “as you sow, so shall you reap” has its equivalent in every language, culture, and community. It is a warning: cautionary words ignored at one's peril, sage advice often bolstered with archetypal tales of ruination and death. It is morally repugnant that the governing body of my nation is not apprehending the top-soil poachers and their well-heeled cohorts. It is an insult to the memory of the millions martyred in the Liberation War if the ferocious denudation and deforestation is not vigorously policed and punished by stringently enforced laws. We have to weed through the tiered infrastructure to wipe out corrupt culprits if we are to save our native geographical space of East Bengal. Insatiable greed has led to reckless urban development and dangerous ecological imbalance. Fish and fowl are dying, the trees are dying, the children are leaving. Soon, this will be a country of old folk, with rural spaces empty of the young and the brave. The young ones will be gone, some to settle and thrive with diasporic multi-ethnic identities in distant lands, singing songs of the motherland, cooking the food and celebrating the culture of the homeland space they chose to repudiate. Others, in all likelihood, the dispossessed and the unlettered and the economically deprived—the marginalised proletariat—will tragically be lost in boatloads of illegal immigrants. Refugees forever—lost, naked, hungry, floating or drowning, nameless, stateless.
In this context of the looming fear of the obliteration of the essential Bangladeshi space and spatial identities, I finally seek comfort in a more detached intellectual analysis. I conclude with a quote from Ato Quayson, the renowned Ghanaian literary critic: “In diasporic studies, the question 'Where do you come from?' cannot be answered simply with a location. The question implicates family histories and genealogies in the most startling of ways. Diasporic studies have taught me that the question 'Where do you come from?', if posed correctly, can open up a window on a variety of trajectories. The objective of the diasporic imaginary is not to ask and answer, 'Where do you come from?' or 'Where are you going?', but 'Where are you between?'" Because the between-ness, where you think you are between, is highly productive actually in how you relate to the kind of futures you take up.
Rebecca Haque is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.