A descriptive essay on how Bangladesh looked and felt in 2018. An essay on how small acts of rebellion are the cornerstone of a revolution. An essay for the future.
There is a particular event I remember from 2018, an event that has been etched into my memory in the guise of a snapshot. I was in the second year of university, and I was not in the best of places. I had this particular errand I had to run, and I was passing through Dhaka University. Standing in the middle of the road that leads through the university from Shahbag, I saw a man with his face painted in the colours of the country, or a flag of the country flowing from his hands like the flags of the valiant heroes that had freed this country. Bangladesh has never been safe when it comes to our roads, and it took the death of a young student to push us over the edge. The air smelt of gunpowder, and there was not a single road that was not occupied by students. The whole of Dhaka was at war, and the only thing that would be good enough to satiate the students would be complete and comprehensive measures that would stop these senseless deaths. “No more death on the roads,” they cried, “No more mourning of our compatriots.”
Much happened in those weeks, in that November of fire and blood. But when I try to recall that month, all that remains is the picture of a stoic man with the colours of our country, like a one-man army taking on the filth that had grown its roots deep.
And now, three years later, nothing much has changed. Our roads are as unsafe as ever, and there has been another death on the roads that have led the students onto the grounds once again. This time, they will do something. This time, they will not give up ground. But compared to last time, this doesn’t even seem like an echo of the past. In fact, it feels like a broken record is just going through its routine screeches.
And with that, I’m back where it all started.
I just don’t mean that I am historically in the same place I was in 2018. I am physically, spiritually, and mentally back in that state as well. Actually, 2018 is a stand-in here, an amalgamation of different times and different feelings, with the particular choice of the year being an outcome of the protests that happened that time, linked with the protest that is happening now. Physically, I am back in the home of my childhood, the very origins of my being. Spiritually and mentally, I broke down as soon as we changed homes, and had a repeat of my episodes from 2018, even resembling a big episode I had when I was once a child. It is as Marx stated, “History repeats itself. First as a tragedy, second as a farce.”
And yet, I am not in the same place that I was. It is true that I am at a starting line that resembles some starting lines of my past, but the course is entirely different. It is wider now, and my muscles are more pumped. In a way, there are certain cyclical repetitions we go through our lives. But we like the repetitions that make us happy and dread at the repetitions that make us sad. But such is life. Just like the trees shedding their leaves and regrowing them anew, we too have to shed our shelters as we circle the sun. But as we partake in this annual ritual, our spheres of motion get bigger. And just like the trees growing limbs so far up the trunk that they become permanent, we too acquire stars that become a permanent feature of our lives. And through these repetitions with the support of our permanent stars, we too become stronger, to the point where the next time we find ourselves at the starting line, we are up for the challenge with new rigour. And sometimes, that is all it takes.
I have been following the protests this time, and so far, I have been disappointed. But a ray of hope entered my irises as I saw the news last night. The students want to continue their movement until they see concrete actions. They are not going to disperse upon hearing the promise of change anymore. And just like that, what seemed like the echo of Bastille or the whisper of Red October, turned into the cigar-smoking face of Che, as he foresaw the Cuban revolution.
I, too, have been surprised at my own strength. A breakdown like this would have crippled me a couple of years back. But due to my lucky star, and the almighty above, I have found in me a strength that I could never have guessed was hidden within me. As Camus said, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
So, that’s what ageing means to me. It means that we will find ourselves at the starting line over and over again, and that’s okay. Because each time we will be stronger, with our companions beside our side. And on some lucky day, while we are running the course of this race, we might just reach the ultimate finish line.
I’m not saying that I have acquired all the strength or resilience needed to live for the rest of my life. I’m not saying that the student protests would be a complete success. But whatever we gather from here, it will act as fuel for us in the future. And one of these days, we will all reach our finish lines.
As Sam Esmail said in Mr Robot, “Every day we change the world. But to change the world in a way that means anything, that takes more time than most people have. It never happens all at once.”
So, as we gather these small victories, we march forward. And the next time there is a repeat of 2018, I know that both myself and the world would be in a better place.
I’m back where it all started, a place where, as the skies turned white, I got a glimpse of the future. November has barely ended, but Dhaka has been getting colder, which is unusual for a country as hot as ours. Who knows if there will be snowfall this year, a blanket of pure white to wash away the dark?
Wouldn’t that be a sight?
Nafis Shahriar has previously published an essay with TWI, alongside a bunch of essays in Dhaka Tribune. He has also published two pieces of flash fiction and one short story in a local anthology. He currently works as an apprentice sub-editor at Dhaka Tribune.