June 29, 2006

Today I saw a garbage collector sitting on a wooden stump in the middle of a garbage dump on the side of the road, holding a small piece of broken glass and meticulously scrutinising his own features while the traffic flowed by.

June 22, 2006

cultural authenticity

What can be regarded as being authentically Bangladeshi? Having surrendered the meaning of being Bengali to our cousins from Calcutta at the turn of the last century (more on that later if I have the time and/or interest), we at least seem to have been making an effort to take the initiative in defining our own identity since ’71, if not earlier.
This is not the old Bengali vs. Bangladeshi debate. As far as I’m concerned, that debate is dead. Ok fine, clinically dead, but hanging on thanks to life-support provided by our politicians in a desperate attempt to polarise us and maximise their votes. Shades of the Terry Schiavo debate, if we blur metaphor and reality. This debate is centred on the foreign vs. indigenous axis. We’re told constantly exactly what is indigenous: the pure Bangla as spoken in an imagined golden age when the bangla language had apparently remained static, the music of Tagore and everyone preceding him (perhaps a charitable few would include the"adhunik”s!) and, of course, rural culture (as epitomised by baul songs and cottage industry products) seemingly uninfluenced by anything since time immemorial. Anything that does not fit into this frame is labelled foreign. As a result, any sign of synthesis or pure eclecticism is labelled a “cultural invasion”.
One suspects this is so in most post-colonial states floundering to find their own unique identity. And just like the politics of decolonisation, this definition of “indigenous” is negative in nature – defining ourselves by what we are not. Said can be interpreted to say that the West has done the same by setting up the “Oriental” as the epitome of what the Western (modern?) man is not. This is not the place to get into a debate about the precise nature of Orientalism. Even assuming that the West has done the same, they experience other (and the Other’s) cultures without a fear of losing their own; a fear that has been ingrained into Bangladeshis, and possibly other post-colonial states in search of authenticity. One might even say that they experience other cultures from a position of power, but perhaps that’s simplifying it a bit too much.
So to come full circle, what can be regarded as authentically Bangladeshi? Daniel and I once argued about this, though neither of us knew then exactly what we were arguing about. He contended that the Parliament building, having been designed by an American architect, was not Bangladeshi/indigenous. I denied it, but sadly could not articulate back then exactly why I thought so. His was the classic “indigenous vs. foreign” definition of Bangladeshi. I preferred a more inclusive definition, one that would regard as Bangladeshi anything that Bangladeshis do or have done, pure and simple. Perhaps if I could have articulated this back then that debate with Daniel would have had a different ending. When I had asked him exactly why the Parliament building was not “indigenous”, he had replied that, fine building though it was, it betrayed its alien origins by being unlike anything else in Dhaka city. I could have told him that it was unlike anything else in the entire world. A bit like that much maligned term, Bangladeshi.