‘Is Bangladesh turning fundamentalist?’ – and other questions I no longer wish to answer

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Source: The Guardian

By 

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 inBangladesh, 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.

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