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OP-ED: Inside the belly of the beast

  • Published at 12:50 am December 20th, 2020
Maybe this world is another planet’s hell FOCUS BANGLA

We are bound to the city by birth

The city of Dhaka is like a dying heart, barely pumping out blood by the virtue of the makeshift nails and stents that have augmented it. The arteries are clogged beyond repair in the centre, and they narrow out into the abyss towards the end. 

From there, after the sea of Styx without the companionship of Charon, the faint beat of nature starts. And as the signal from the mighty cell towers began to dissipate, the sweet breeze of the desolate rivers began to take its place. But the city wasn’t done with us. Through factories on the shores, people in their suits talking about the economy, and one email after the next that reminded me of all the work I had waiting for me back home, the city made it clear that it wasn’t content to be just outside us anymore, but it was inside us as well. Throughout all that, only one message flashed between my head -- I don’t deserve to be here. 

It was a short trip from Dhaka to Chandpur. I took a cabin in the overnight launch. Alongside the bed, there was a desk with a wooden television screen glued onto it. The hollow inside of the TV gave it an ominous air, like it was the same telescreen that was used to condemn Winston in the eponymous 1984. 

I checked to see if the TV could be removed, so that the desk could be made into a makeshift writer’s table. I sighed with relief when I saw that it couldn’t be done, but the hollow stare of the television made me regret this feeling. “I don’t deserve to be here,” I thought. The television just started at me, but this time, the contents of my moneybag nodded in agreement.

I was on the upper deck. Around me, there were groups of friends -- singing, drinking, and smoking the night away. Once we were out of the city’s clutches, and all there was around us was the sound of waves, little dots began to appear on the curtains above. They were just enough to give a feeling of respite, but they were just enough to serve as a reminder that this wasn’t a place like Cox’s Bazar or Saint Martin’s. 

All this trip was was a troubled man’s attempt to get his bearings together, and get his head in the game. And from the looks of it, even though the gears of his minds were turning faster, the dread in his heart wasn’t letting him go that easily. 

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The twin suns sink beneath the lake,

The shadows lengthen

                                                     In Carcosa”

I went back to my cabin in an attempt to read. I brought along an anthology of horror stories, and it contained famous writers from Tagore to Bibhutibhushan. Blinded by the horrific beauty transcribed in that volume, I was forced to shut it. Must this be the price a poet must pay? The simultaneous feeling of great satisfaction and abject horror at the sight of the purest gold?

The launch reached its destination just a little before morning. After breakfast, I loitered around a bit, trying to take in the unfiltered fumes of a morning with no alarms. As the stars began to disappear, and the first rays of the golden sun began to appear, I extended my hand, in an attempt to catch something that was not of this place. But then, the alarm rang. And another rang. And another. 

Soon, the port was swarming with people and their luggage, waiting to report back to their stations. The next launch left at six, but if I didn’t get a move on, I wouldn’t be able to find a place to rest. And I would need my morning rest. I had a big day in front of me. 

When I eventually did get a cabin, what I had was an uneasy sleep, with one ear to the door and the other to my phone. Vacations are expensive, and you never know when the creditor will come to collect his debts. And as always, I don’t deserve to be here. 

When the trip was over, I went down to the lower deck to make my exit. There was a ticket checker at the door, and people without tickets were required to buy one for 100 bucks. I saw people boarding the outside of the launch, and walking on top of the railings, with their wife and children nonetheless. It got me to wonder: “Is human life so cheap that even 100 bucks is more valuable than the life of a child?” 

But no, that wasn’t the case. The only reason people took that route was to exit the launch faster. I pitied them, but who am I to judge here? Haven’t I done the same thing? Instead of taking a proper vacation, I chickened out, taking a momentary break that still took a lot out of my bank account, while making me more tired than I already was. It was as if Aldous Huxley had foreseen the future when he had said: “Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.”

When I got off, the day had already broken, and the streets were filled with broken buildings and the scorch of heat. Just 12 hours ago, the streets were filled with the breeze of seas and neon magic. The groups of friends were parting without as much as a hug, all on their solitary islands of Pathaos and rickshaws. Just 12 hours ago, they were inseparable from each other, filling the night with drunken crackle and half sung melodies. 

How the night protects us from the day. How the day opens our eyes to reality. And the reality is, we were all here on borrowed time, a brief respite from the belly of the beast. We all want to leave the city, but we are bound to it by birth. The city deserves tribute, and our existence is dependent on it. At the end of the day, none of us deserved to be here, and it was time for us to get back to the city, and pay our dues.

Nafis Shahriar is a student of business and a freelance writer.