Baishakh ushers in the new year with thunder, lightening, storms, and the changing colours and moods of nature. The seasons here change every two months, but no other season comes with such fanfare, delivering its message in tempestuous metaphor. This is a message of change and purification. The kal boishakhi storm comes in all its destructive fury, instilling mankind with creative force. And every year the Bengali psyche permeates with a pledge to purge the old and build anew.
In the villages and towns, the halkatha or fresh book of accounts is opened up in the shops and markets on Pahela Baishakh, the New Year. Old dues are paid and the new pages of the books, bound in red cloth, are filled with entries in fresh ink. Individuals, and the society as a whole, also see a flurry of resolutions for a fresh start. They too want to take an account of the past and start a fresh page for the future. So many hopes remain unfilled, so many aspirations unmet. And so much more has been piled into society’s basket, weighing heavily on its moral ethos.
It was the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam who had written an article on aspirations, ‘Aaj chai ki’ or ‘what we want now’. He wrote, ‘Today we want an easy, clear, fresh impetus and progress for this full life. There should be no inertia, ignorance, incompetence or impotence anywhere. The obstacles today may be like the immovable mountains, but will be crushed to nothing under the pursuit for truth.’ We can want the same today. We can ask if our lives have that easy, clear and fresh impetus.
Our lives have seen development, growth and per capita income, but disparity has been exacerbated. The wealthy have become wealthier, but the ultra-poor are burgeoning in number too. The gap between the rich and middle class and the lower classes is wide. This does not set an easy pace of life. Inertia and ignorance are setting us back in the global race. Our education does not provide knowledge, it creates mindless parrots. In this discriminatory and imbalanced education system, it is as if only the Bengali medium students are to learn about our history and culture, and that too in a fragmented fashion.
Our incompetence is voluminous too. We have failed to protect our deprived, marginal people, our indigenous communities. We have failed to establish the rule of law. We do not have a transparent and inclusive democratic system. We still hear demands for a caretaker government to ensure free and fair elections. We are hesitant to speak the truth, waver in front of power, quake in the face evil. Instead of overcoming our timidity with courage, we practice flattery. We bow to power and close our eyes to wrongdoing. We become sycophants of the powerful. That is why law enforcers break the law and injustices are piled up on the weak.
We are the ones who have created this inertia, this ignorance, incompetence and indecisiveness. So many new years have come and gone, but we have not striven for change or cleansing. Consumerism has gripped us as has corruption. We fought so valiantly in 1971 and united as one. So many were killed, each death a huge loss. The people of the villages opened their homes and hearths to all. This was socialism, what found place in our constitution too. But that was about it.
We found a place on the world map but were consumed by capitalism, leading to inevitable disparity. Even so, people rose up, protested, did not give up. But if injustice prevails for too long and exploitation spreads its tentacles, then things grind to a halt. All the furious nor’westers cannot break this impassivity.
But that does not mean we should give up hope. Nazrul didn’t. He struggled in abject poverty, but never lost his strength of mind. When he said that the pursuit of truth would crush all evil, then we must be the ones pursuing truth. But is the society ready for this?
As we enter the new year, there is no alternative but to look ahead. But we also must take a look at the past. Like Nazrul, we want to sever all links with evil. But before we blame the state and society for failing to destroy evil, we must first look within ourselves. Truth is needed to fight against evil. Have we taken up that truth? Do our families place truth above all? In our personal lives, do we value truth or do we submit to all that is false? Nazrul said there can be no compromise with wrong, with injustice, but do we actively believe that?
It is the people who create the moral lapses in society, particularly those who are prone to compromise. Any state has the propensity towards authoritarianism and exploitation. The state looks for unquestioning subservience. And the state grows more and more reckless with increasing subservience. We accept everything of the state with no protest. We do not protest against the massive corruption and irregularities. The common people fall prey to the wealthy and we do not murmur a word of protest. Girls are abused by the powerful in the villages and society turns a blind eye.
Just look at the first page of Prothom Alo over the past months. It’s all about banks being plundered, the yaba trade, abductions and forced disappearances, false cases and so on. Is society rising up against all this? If society does not rise up against all that is wrong, the wrongdoing will simply go from strength to strength. And no one will be spared from the backlash of all that evil.
Let us remember Nazrul this new year. He would fight against evil, his voice reverberated with rebellion. He was ever vigilant against communalism. He had a vision of a self-reliant Bengal where there was no place for economic or social disparity. Where people lived harmony, as one, where the youth opened all doors.
Much has been achieved in Bangladesh which became independent back in 1971. But it is now time to rid the country of all the filth has accumulated over the years. This will be possible if we all look within ourselves. Then the cleansing will begin.
Let this new year be different. Let it tell a tale to be heard by Bengalis down the ages. Let it be an inspiration.
*Syed Manzoorul Islam is a writer and educationist. This piece appeared in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir