What people ask me about Bangladesh
27 March 2008
Source: New Statesman
Is my country about to be overrun by radical Islamists? Will everyone drown in the rising sea? I'm suddenly taking on the role of ambassador
On 13 March, I was lucky enough to win the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Best First Book for the Europe and South Asia region, for my novel A Golden Age.
It was a real honour, although the most immediate benefit was that I got to read the acceptance speech I'd written on an index card, rather than looking at it and cringing at its pathetic thank yous for days afterwards. It also meant that the sari I wore and tramped through the rain in to get to New Cross did not end up being another sad example of dress-code miscalculation, but rather a dignified outfit with which to accept an award. Finally, and most importantly, I wasn't consumed with self-pity when introduced to the wonderful Indra Sinha, who won in the Best Book category.
If you want to know what authorial presence looks like, you need look no further than the creator of the Booker-shortlisted Animal's People. He has an oceanic wave of grey hair, and when he walked into the auditorium in a shimmering red kurta, a hush filled the room. He also gave a rousing speech about the Bhopal disaster, urging the audience to imagine the plight of its victims, and issued a damning critique of the Indian government's unwillingness to help them.
Sinha's speech made me think about the difference between coming from a place like Bangladesh and a place like India. When Sinha critiques India, he critiques a state that is riding high on its new status as a super-nation, a nation to be feared and respected, a nation that might take over the world and have us learning Hindi and taking gap years in Hyderabad instead of Paris. When I speak in public about Bangladesh, I find myself reflexively taking on the role of ambassador. Perhaps this is because people are always asking me whether my country is about to be run over by radical Islamists, or if women are forced to wear the veil, or if everyone will drown in the rising sea. I feel rather protective of Bangladesh, and try to refocus the conversation on all that is going right - the resilience of our people, our thriving women's movement, our heroes such as the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, or Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.
Gains and losses
Of course, the picture is much more complicated. This week, Bangladesh celebrates its 37th anniversary. We have much to be proud of, but also much to mourn. It has been over a year since the military-backed caretaker government has taken power - enough time to take stock of what we have gained and lost.
On the one hand, emergency rule stopped the juggernaut of corruption and abuse of power that was the former regime. For this, we cannot but be thankful. However, we also cannot get away from the fact that the people who are in power today were not put there by the citizens of Bangladesh. They have promised to hold elections by the end of the year, but there is very little holding them to this promise.
Even if elections are held, we have given the army a kind of knowledge that can never be revoked - the certainty that it can step forward and take control when it deems us incapable of doing our jobs as citizens. From now on, I fear, our grip on democracy will always be tenuous.
One of the gravest mistakes of this government was the arrest of citizens without due process under the Emergency Powers Act. Many Bangladeshis (myself included) cheered when the corrupt officials of the last regime were hauled into prison under this act. However, along with those few high-profile cases were thousands of other citizens who now languish in prison without any hope of release.
Last week, one of those prisoners - a journalist named Arif who was jailed for publishing a cartoon making oblique reference to the Prophet Muhammad - was finally released. His arrest points dangerously to the caretaker government's unwillingness to offend the Islamic right. But Arif's release - through the campaigns waged by his lawyers, human rights activists and organisations, journalists and bloggers within and outside of Bangladesh - proves that our beleaguered and labyrinthine justice system can, occasionally, fulfil its mandate. On the anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, I cling to these small signs of hope.