“Take your belongings and head for the old dormitory. The dorm is a good one; it's located at the south-east of the college campus—only a little distance away—said the Principal of the government college on the day I joined it as a teacher from the Education Cadre. He seemed to be proud of his college, its administration and beautiful location; the sparkle in his eyes said it all. The L- shaped college building sat at the heart of a lush green landscape, bordered on one side by a thick forest and on the other by a small river meandering lazily out of sight.
As I discovered later that day, however, the "little distance" that he talked about was really three miles further off. I needed to cross a long-deserted Muslim graveyard en route to my dormitory. This was a two-storied affair in a place overhung with ancient trees, and home to snakes and toads during the rainy season. Our 'next-door' neighbor happened to be 'only' a twenty-minute walk away! There were reports that some of my colleagues had heard and seen all sorts of unearthly things at night, which made many of them change their lodging and rent rooms nearer to the college.
I laughed out loud remembering these stories later; even two days prior to my joining, I was in Dhaka enjoying domestic bliss with my family, having tasty meals, and laughing heartily at every little thing. And two days later, I would be living next to a graveyard, unsure of whether I would be able to survive even a single night in that eery dorm. This is where my much-coveted government job had taken me to! I was supposed to be happy but no tears of happiness coursed down my cheeks. The irony of my situation was all too painful.
While I was grieving at my misfortune thus, another line of thinking got me. You could even say that I was quite appalled at my own snobbery at this thought. If the place seemed to me horribly backward, antipodal to Dhaka life, I, for one, should have been able to adapt far more easily than others could. Was I not born in a village? Did not my grandfather ride bull-carts and smoke hookah made of raw tobacco after an exhausting day at the field day after day?
These and many other things came to my mind then. So, when the Principal pointed at the dormitory, my mind had taken the opposite track. It then went back in time and to a place thousands of miles away—Jerusalem! Stories of helpless Jews and their tragic journeys away from their homeland to other parts of the world filled my mind. My lips involuntarily murmured the word—Diaspora!
The word, of course, refers to the spatial displacement of people from their homeland. I had been familiar with it since my student days in Dhaka University when I had read books of theories and fiction from cover to cover and had discovered that displacement was a recurring phenomenon in the history of mankind; it had been affecting the lives of many groups of people and had changed their fates forever. Diasporic people had to inhabit multiple worlds, imbibing the essence of different cultures; theirs were stories of trauma, of endurance, of growing doubts about the prospect of returning to their homelands.
That was what the books had told me. But on that day when the imagined glory of the government job seemed to vanish into thin air, I wised up to the horror of having to spend the rest of my career among toads and snakes and in a world with minimum creature comforts. The real meaning of a diasporic existence hit me hard like a bullet then. I realized at that time, that government employees in Bangladesh are condemned to lead such lives; I understood that these employees on their routine peregrination from place to place eventually end up as cynics, skeptical of such romantic notions as 'home', 'origins' or 'roots.'
One can say that these people archive the memories of places they have been to. Rural life is as much part of their experience as urban life. Proximity to nature doesn't necessarily occasion romantic gush in their mind; sometimes, it may subtend to an opposite spectrum of emotions (the first reaction I had on the day of joining was to pack up and head for Dhaka!).
Didn't these employees remember the dear ones they had left behind in their ancestral lands as well as the diasporic ones would? Didn't their eyes too mist over in nostalgic remembrance of bygone days?
A year later on the eve of an Eid, I asked one of my colleagues whether he would visit his ancestral village on that festive occasion. "Why bother?” he said. “Dhaka is fun for my children; they love the place; besides, my parents back 'home' don't expect me every year....and, don't forget the rush on the way back...”
Clearly, there has been a sea-change in the idealized notion of 'home' for some of us. As people are mechanically drawn along the ruthless trajectory of their careers, they invent and re-invent the myth of 'home,' based on the options available to them and the livability of the place they happen to be in.
That must be why, in spite of all the farce and comedy of so-called progress, Dhaka, a place so steeped in dog-eat-dog ethics, has been re-invented as home for so many of us. Dhaka is the place we love, the place we hate. And, though Dhaka has its paradoxes (not always too subtle for perception), it still has the generosity to accommodate men and women like us and nurture their many ambitions!
It is always difficult to explain the fascination that attaches to a place like Dhaka and the madcap attraction that people feel for it. And it is equally inexplicable why so many government employees—born in the country, raised in Dhaka, and posted to one far-flung place or another—religiously take the last bus or launch to Dhaka on Thursday, only to report back to their offices on Sunday morning week after week.
But there is no enigma in the fact that this journey is no labor to them as long as it ends in the felicity of meeting their loved ones. After all, these moments of bliss are like stops in oases for government employees as they trek on long and arduous journeys through a career filled with bureaucratic banalities - a fate not that dissimilar to that of diasporic people in history.
Indeed, the experience of most government employees can be quite overwhelming. To their bosses, they are late-comers; to their colleagues' shirkers; to their families, they are sorry tales of failures. But if truth be told they are among the most misunderstood of men in employment in Bangladesh; they are men and women living diasporic lives without attracting a modicum of sympathy from the people they so often work and live with.
My Dhaka life was all but over; my professional career was about to begin in one small thana-town; the Principal had clearly read my mind. “Quit thinking of going back to Dhaka; you have a degree from Dhaka University, got yourself a government job; now focus on your career; no point in looking back young man!"
"Thank you Sir"-I said by way of reply.
The writer is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Barisal.