By Tahmima Anam
I am a novelist. I look around at the world and I make up stories about people, families, lovers and friends. More often than not, the stories take place in Bangladesh, where I was born. When I close my eyes and think of home, it’s the peaty smell of the monsoon, the harsh light of the equatorial sun, the clashing sounds of the capital city, Dhaka, that come to mind.
But, more often than not, people do not ask me about the peaty smell of the monsoon. The questions are about other things, the bigger things, such as religion, politics, the unaccounted bodies of the dead, the history that makes the present. I do not resent these questions – I understand why people ask them; after all, the headlines tell a particular story, and sometimes, we look for an interlocutor – someone to bridge the gap between here and there.
But I would like to declare a moratorium on such topics, and in preparation, I have listed here all the questions I no longer wish to answer about Bangladesh. Not because they are uninteresting to me, but because I am making space for all the other questions, the questions about falling in love, about the taste of water in the air, about the blue-black feathers and crimson eyes of the koel bird. Next time, ask me about those.
Here are the top questions I no longer want to answer about Bangladesh:
Is Bangladesh turning fundamentalist?
When I was a child growing up outside Bangladesh (my father was a UN diplomat, so we moved every few years), I would always dread the question: “Where are you from?” because as soon as I replied, a doleful, sorry expression would come over whoever I was talking to.
“Are there a lot of floods?” people would ask. Children, rather more blunt, would say: “Is everyone poor?” In graduate school, after I attended a guest lecture by a famous feminist, I was invited to have lunch with the lecturer, a woman I had long admired, and whose books I had devoured as a teenager. When I told her I was from Bangladesh, she said, “Good for you!”, as if I had crawled out of the gutter just moments before our meeting.
But I am nostalgic for those responses now. Today, when the name of my country comes up, people don’t immediately think of poverty – they think of fundamentalism, and the innocent victims of hate crimes. I can’t blame them: in the last three years, targeted, ideologically driven killings have occurred on a terrifyingly regular basis. It began with the murder of atheist bloggers in 2013, and has now spread to include foreign nationals, publishers, a university professor whose only crime was that he loved music, and, last month, the LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Majumder. The government’s response has been shameful, a combination of denial, victim-blaming and a complete lack of commitment to catching the killers. A man has just been arrested for Mannan’s death, and we are hoping this signals a change of attitude on the part of the authorities.
I can answer this question in two ways. Yes, there are murderers in Bangladesh who produce hitlists of the progressive, secular, music-loving professors and activists and journalists in the country. One by one, they are picking them off. International terror organisations such as Islamic State and al-Qaida have taken responsibility for these crimes, although the government insists they have been carried out by vengeful members of the opposition.
But I can also point to the strong tradition of diversity and inclusion in Bangladesh. I can describe last month’s celebration of Pohela Boishakh, Bengali new year, which was carried out with great fanfare and not a religious symbol in sight. I can continue to insist that the majority of Bangladeshis have no desire to murder bloggers or university professors or LGBT activists, as if that point needed to be made. I can insist that the story of Bangladesh is not the story of a secular country that has turned to radicalism: it is the story of a country that has, against all odds, survived, even flourished. Where there used to be famine, there is now a rice crop that manages to feed 180 million people. Where once there were devastating statistics on everything from education to public health, there is economic growth, and NGOs such as Grameen Bank and Brac, whose programmes on health, non-formal primary education and microcredit have been replicated all over the world.
There is no denying it: the murderous fringe groups exist. The apathetic government also exists. The secular tradition, which reveres the poet Rabindranath Tagore and has people painting murals on the pavement and celebrating the diversity of our culture in poetry and song, also exists. But it is impossible to write about religion, impossible to openly discuss a wide range of issues – not just because social media makes our opinions visible to a wide audience, but because there is a lack of moral outrage against these crimes, a tacit, understated belief that somehow, somewhere, the atheist blogger and the gay man and the music-loving professor deserved it. And that is the scariest thing of all.
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