• Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022
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OP-ED: Our history on a plate

  • Published at 09:58 pm July 14th, 2021

Weaving stories of identity and inclusion

Growing up I always struggled with this question: “Who am I?” Have you? 

Many of us have been fortunate enough to grow up in a metaphorical or geographical heterogeneous world, from Sydney to Dhaka, London and Dhaka, or here in Bangladesh itself. But haven’t you been irked, every time someone called you an Indian or a Pakistani? Its annoyance is not nationalism, but rather a feeling of integrity that runs deeper than a passport. 

In a world that is driven by mass industrial economic thinking that has developed the mindset of homogeneity, the sprinkles of diversity gradually become more than a showpiece. It is incremental, but things start with a vision, action, and reality. 

I do not deny my privilege, but I have also been a minority in so many stances in the past, and to those who know me, in the present too. However, I grew up fighting social prejudices solely by a focused mindset -- “I need to excel.” To be better and then the best. But the truth is, no matter how much I tried, I felt I was never good enough. A feeling many of us have. 

I burnt out. We rarely had diverse role models 25 years back! Along with predecessors, now Kishwar made that happen for us, she was among the top two contenders of MasterChef Australia. It is not about food only, but about telling the story of our identity. Representation! She said something like: “This is the food of my ancestors.” 

She proved again that there is no shame in embracing our past and merging it with the present. Moving on is not moving away; it’s growth. It makes our present more confident. A number of adults (and now children) grew up not knowing what Bangladesh represents; the food, art, literature are integral parts of civilization. It almost felt like the society grew ashamed of its identity. The superiority complex of many “English medium” kids vis-a-vis Bangla medium is abysmal! Identity started to be extinct. 

While we embraced burgers and burqas, we forgot to take along the shorisha and shari at times! A culture grows when we merge the present and past, move forward embracing the diversity. It’s like experiments in food that Kishwar did. Bangladeshi food, with many Australian ingredients! She just did not put our food on the global map; she put the history, the effort, the roots, and respect that many unsung heroes (read mostly as heroines) deserve. We seldom took time to appreciate these gems’ efforts. 

Growing up in India in a boarding school, I used to be mocked as someone who was from a poorer country. Indian media, like films, equally contributed to the mockery of ignorance. It had a huge impact on my confidence along with personal identity. But today, Bangladesh’s per capita income is higher than India’s. Our cricket team beat India, and there are many more development stories of pride. 

No, it’s not a competition; but these are stories that blurred my identity. A few years back, when I watched Hans Rosling talk about the “Miracle of Bangladesh,” it just made me smile. If you haven’t watched it, I urge you to. 

These macro indicators have been the foundation of our development. I do not deny that there are many social and economic challenges for us, and we have miles to go. But, I am not the only one who sees the glass as half full, rather than completely empty. 

I see that it is being filled up gradually. The story of the past and present will shape our future. The dessert “ice cream with paan” that Kishwar presented is the essence and spirit of the Bangladesh we envision and deserve. That was art, history, culture, and development on a plate. This art of diversity and inclusion is beautiful. It doesn’t matter if she migrated or if she represents all. I see her as a beacon of the force multiplying effect -- inspiring millions home and abroad. To another boy in a boarding school abroad who will not be intimidated. The sheer empowerment runs deeper than food or competition.  

That’s growth for me. I wish more children would grow up each day to learn about diversity across culture, history, gender, sexuality, geography, that is deep-rooted in our soil through art, music, food, clothes, and so much more.

Thank you, to the brave people who paved paths for us in every field. Thank you, Kishwar. Thank you Wasfia, Begum Rokeya, Xulhaz, Bibi Russel, Nazrul, Fokir Lalon Shah, and many other pioneers who stood up and said: “I will change the narrative.” 

Let us weave the stories of identity and inclusion, so that our future generations can stand with pride to fight the prejudices of the world through this beautiful tapestry. We are labourers, we are scientists, we are musicians, we are artists, we are entrepreneurs, we are professionals, we are children of this motherland. 

Saif Kamal is the founder of Toru.

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