A brief account of the day the words went missing
It was one of those crushingly ordinary mornings, muggy and rainless, and I expected, as I sat down at my laptop for the day’s work, coffee by my side, to reach the finish line with little to no trouble.
As per my own personal rule, I was the requisite three-quarters of the way down my oversized mug before starting to type, and was now hammering away at yet another editorial on Covid-19, in the most routine of motions. My editor-brain, I have learned over the years, switches on only after a certain amount of caffeine, but once it’s on, then game on.
And that was when it happened: I stopped in my tracks.
There I was, mid-sentence, you know one of those sentences like so far, coronavirus has taken a devastating toll on … or our resources are close to breaking point and we now have no choice but to … (you get the idea). My fingers hovered over the keyboard, and I was hit by the feeling that the words on the screen had lost all meaning.
I looked at my coffee and wondered what was wrong. I am painfully self-conscious of my limitations in writing, especially early in the morning, which is what the brew is for in the first place, and I have no shame in admitting that if you ask me to write in those wee hours sentences-my-like-sound-this.
But I respect my body clock’s own idiosyncratic rhythms, and only when I’m ready -- sort of like something in the frontal lobe going ping -- do I crack my knuckles and start. Which is why rarely will you actually catch me in the act of sounding like a Millennial Yoda in one of my editorials. On this day too, I had started only after I was well and truly ready, and nothing if not sufficiently caffeinated.
The path ahead of me had looked straightforward, as automatic as brushing one’s teeth. I felt no anxiety. I rapidly blasted off about a hundred smooth words, and was feeling A-OK. Look at you, old timer, I said to myself, look at you putting down letter after letter, word after word. And then. And then.
It happened -- I stopped: What was I typing? Oh right. Covsomethingsomething. Covfefe. Covid? Covid. Yes, the pandemic. But what about it? We need to handle it. Wait. We need to handle what? The authorities need to do what? Bangladesh will be handling a crisis like this? Bangladesh will do … needs to do … what exactly? I started scrolling through sources desperately to find the thing that would anchor my train of thought. Oh good, I see some sort of a news story: Bangladesh marches towards meeting all its development goals. All good then. Good good good. Hold on -- what? Also, what’s this about Covid I was saying? What the actual …
At this point let me hit pause on that petrifying moment while I explain something: I am hardly an idealist, and I know that what we journalists put down on the page isn’t always what we are thinking. I am able to get through the day’s job without collapsing under contradiction, and while I have not yet shaken hands with the devil, I do not kid myself into thinking I am in league with the angels.
Thinking -- actual critical thinking in service of the truth -- let us admit, takes a backseat in this job, appalling as it may sound. 20 years in journalism, nine years in Dhaka Tribune, approximately eight of those running the Editorial and Op-Ed Department: Doing that kind of hard time gives one muscle memory. I suppose it happens to any professional with a half-decent grip on their field, or even a hobbyist who has been doing something long enough.
(This is largely extrapolation rather than first-hand knowledge on my part, because, to be honest, I have never felt truly accomplished at any single thing, but have always somehow accumulated a hefty amount of half-assed knowledge in a lot of different areas. Nevertheless, blending into the shadows, I have looked over the shoulders of doctors or electricians or even Uber drivers -- the good ones -- and understood how true experts work in a way that looks less like work and more like a reflex. This is what athletes, I suppose, refer to as being in the zone, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, what the Japanese call ikigai. In short, it’s when you do that thing you do, and baby, nobody does it quite like you. So I, dear reader, was suspended in a space-time out of joint, in a kind of hole that could only be described as the mortifying, stultifying, polar opposite of flow.)
So. There sat my cliché-addled editorial: The first half of the sentence three paragraphs deep had come out like a reflex, but the second half lay unwritten, suspended in mid-air, failing -- no -- refusing to land on the page. Drama queen that I am, I dragged myself off my work-chair with Herculean effort, and lay on the couch in foetal position. The betrayals of your mind and body against your own person are the hardest ones to stomach.
Here I must make a declaration, as this piece may become a matter of record which even my good friends over at HR may see: I did not call in sick, or retire for the rest of the day. Trust me, I wanted to. But scrolling through a few of the chats on my phone, I was reminded that one of my assistant editors was on a much-needed earned leave, the other was flat on his back after being knocked out from his second dose of Moderna. It was the weekend for another junior member of the team, and another, though on duty, had classes to attend and would not be available until later.
Working from home, of course, can sometimes make help-on-demand as elusive as fairy-dust. I suppose I could lay down the law, but a curmudgeon boss I have never had any success at being: Always liked, never feared. (Could be worse, I suppose?) Oh you need some time off? No worries, mijo! -- that’s my sunshine-filled motto. I’ll cover for you!
No surprises then, that I lay motionless and in a stupor for most of the day, with fever daydreams and ominous stomach rumblings, skirting perilously close to deadline as the sky darkened, until pure terror of catastrophically dropping the ball gripped me, sending an industrial-grade shot of adrenaline through my body. With a sustained burst of energy -- entirely workmanlike and wholly devoid of creative inspiration -- I finished not only the cursed editorial which had been languishing mid-sentence for hours, but the second editorial as well, followed by the rest of the content needed for the editorial page, the op-ed page, the long-form page, and answered a flurry of emails.
When the pages were all done and dusted, I fell onto the (hastily made) bed, comfortably numb, but not in a cozy-comfy time-to-rest kind of way, but more like a PLONK! -- a prosaic, mechanical fall, followed by a passing out. In cinematic terms, at this point there would be a fade to black.
Now lie in it
In the days that followed, I realized the catalyst for this episode may have been a virulent combination of food poisoning, dehydration, and exhaustion, all ganging up on my nervous system’s command centre, subduing it. But of course, in my desperation to romanticize my own inability to complete my work on time, I was coating unto the experience an existential sheen.
Recovery should be no biggie -- I could take a few sick days maybe, and we are allowed those, are we not? After all, it’s 2021, and something nasty is going round, inch by inch taking up space in not just our bodies but minds, living rent free in our heads until the state of I-am-unable-to-can is nothing but the new normal.
At this point, I would like to take the focus off my paralysis of that day and focus on a larger paralysis. Imagine now the camera zooming out, if you will: This has not been a good year for journalism in Bangladesh. A heavy toll has been taken, and not just in terms of the daily experience of those who do the thankless work day after day. Even before the pandemic broke out, the scenario was grim, with draconian laws cracking down on our colleagues. Reporting the news, writing a piece of commentary, dabbling in humour or satire, sometimes simply so much as posting a Facebook status has put people in hot water.
Do journalists need to exercise responsibility and not make unfounded accusations or drag innocent people’s characters through the mud? Absolutely -- but that responsibility is a two-way street. The government cannot harass, intimidate, or abuse journalists if it wants to claim any high ground. In a culture of fear and self-censorship, true journalism, in the purest sense of the concept, dies a slow, drawn out death, and the focus shifts to gossip and scandal when the news is not simply kowtowing.
We cannot safely criticize authority, so we pick the easy targets. The low-hanging fruit become the objects of fascination, and the voices that should be speaking up for what is right simply end up kicking people -- guilty or innocent, that’s irrelevant -- when they are down.
The front page starts scraping the bottom of the sensationalist barrel: She was how old? She was doing what exactly with that man? The parties at their house had how much booze? A lot of ink has been shed over, for instance, Pori Moni or the Bashundhara brother accused in the death of a young woman or the ongoing Evaly fiasco. All of these are, to be fair, real cases that need to be scrutinized, but this must be done along with others that deserve equal attention. But journalists, the ones that remain, are tired. They play it safe and heap their judgments onto what has been pre-judged.
Very few wish to stick their necks out or engage in investigative journalism worth its salt, and honestly, can you blame them? The risk does not seem worth it. It is nothing short of heartbreaking though, that having abuse piled on us has robbed many of us not just of our professional integrity, but also of our empathy. We used to hate bullies, then one morning we woke up as bullies ourselves, and didn’t even notice the change in the mirror.
I have no solution to how our line of work can find its soul again, just like I had no solution for my own personal momentary paralysis that day, brought on by not just a number of physical conditions, but also -- let’s face it -- a kind of numbing of the soul. I needed to stop, just stop, and -- at the risk of sounding too ganja mantra tantra yoga soooo-spiritual for comfort -- find myself. Sometimes we cannot see the full picture unless we step out of the frame.
I remember my first day on the job in a newspaper office. Having just finished the last exams of high school, and not yet having started university, I walked into The Daily Star’s office -- my heart beating so hard I thought people around me could hear it. I thought they would shoo me out, seeing as I resembled a child not old enough to be at an office full of grown-ups, a serious institution where real news was collected, written up, and sent out into the world.
Snatches of a conversation between two reporters floated into my ears -- they were arguing about the factual details of a story, figuring out whether or not it was solid enough to run. The pursuit of truth, my young mind thought, breathing in the cigarette smoke wafting through the office -- finding it, thinking about it, printing it. What a way to make a living. When my first piece came out in Star Weekend Magazine as an official member of the team, I carefully cut the page out and preserved it in a clear plastic folder.
Am I now jaded with the craft? I don’t think so. Two decades have passed, and I still get goosebumps when I start playing with ideas for a new piece, when that dreaded opening line is finally typed out. Or when an op-ed of outstanding quality reaches my hands, breaking me out of the day to day boredom, reminding me what it was all about.
Occasionally I come across a brazen news story, or feature, or analysis piece that reminds me of the courage that still exists in the field, and that for a few renegades in this profession, speaking truth to power still matters. But all that said, I know I have seen and heard too much, and been briefed too many times about the kind of reality we have to navigate. My response is -- has been -- shrug, sigh, it is what it is. I carry on, because that’s what it means to be a professional.
But through this gradually worsening indifference, yours and my own, our throats and our hearts and our souls get a little more parched. Just as salt-water, though it resembles drinking water in appearance, fails to quench thirst, our news fails to satisfy us. The product we put out can no longer quench our thirst for truth.
A soft breeze drifts in, breaking the oppressive heat. I take my coffee and laptop to the veranda -- one of the advantages of working from home. A gentle drizzle starts, mirroring the drip drip drip of my disquiet.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.