Political, Religious, Literary, Economic, Bangladesh, International, Life as it is, Cultural

Cultural and National Identity

Most of us have differed often enough with one another on what precisely constitutes culture. That is hardly surprising in view of the fact that it is common for even erudite philosophers to disagree and debate with each other on the raw definition and nuances of culture. The way we perceive culture is very much a mirror of our philosophy in life and of our view of the society we live in. It is but natural that we differ. But does it really make any material difference to a society on what exactly a culture is or on what a particular cultural guru enforces the cultural attributes of a society at a particular point in time and space?

Culture is more like the free-flowing water in a river. It takes on the colour of the alluvium soil it flows over at any particular moment. Culture of a people is anything but static; it changes, it merges, it meanders, it evolves like the life on earth.

The so-called Calcutta Book Fair fiasco had prompted certain coteries of vested interest to make mountain out of a mole hill. At the forefront was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had donned the mantle of the keeper of Muslim Bengali culture. It had self-proclaimed the distinctiveness of Muslims to create a separate identity for Bangladeshi culture.

The party was founded by a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh or Bangla nation. But the Kakul trained former Pakistani army officer who spoke Bangla with a distinct Urdu accent, due to his long stay in the western wing of Pakistan, ultimately took on the role of a Trojan Horse. When he assumed the charge of independent Bangladesh in the aftermath of a series of coup d’etats and assassinations (which many people claim may have been through his acquiescence), he took upon himself the task of rebuilding the nation in the model of “Pakistan.” Thereby, he failed to live up to his glorious deeds during the days of blood and thunder. The unholy coalition that he forged with the religious right had made him to rehabilitate those hated anti-Bangladeshi forces in the independent Bangladesh. It brought back the ghost of Pakistani oppression in Bangladesh.

The Bengalis in Pakistan had made sacrifices to found a modern state based on secular ideology. The Sufi tradition had deeply influenced the Islam in Bengal. Its tolerant ethos was a far cry from the religious intolerance of West Pakistan that would later spawn into Taliban movement.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was a struggle against the hard-line exclusivist tradition of West Pakistan that was trying to supplant the liberal tradition of the eastern wing and turn it effectively into a colony. Under the guidance of the Pakistani junta from the west, the Islamist parties made it their goal to eliminate religious minorities and to discard the secularist strands from the composite culture of Bangladesh. They cried “Islam is in danger.” to garner supporters for their invidious goals.

It was a national goal in certain quarters during the Pakistani era to erect a psychological barrier between West Bengal and East Bengal in the guise of championing the cause of Islam. There was a crack in that barrier for a brief period during 1971-75. But, after 1975, for the next two decades, that barrier was restructured and reinforced to mirror the prejudices and predilections of the past. The master architects of that barrier were the Pakistan trained officers of the Bangladesh army who continued to look back to the pre-liberation days towards Islamabad for political inspiration.

The balance of power in Bengal in the era of Permanent Settlement had indeed tilted disproportionately in favour of the Hindus. The 1947 partition did serve to restore the balance. But it can just as easily be argued that East Bengal got rid of the over-lordship of the local Hindu zamindars only to embrace the colonial shackles of West Pakistan. Furthermore, it was demanded by its new masters to sever all ties with “Hindu” West Bengal with which it shared many common cultural heritage and where at least a quarter of the population was Muslim.

The Bangabhumi of yore was today’s East Bengal. It had always been the core of Bengali language and culture. West Bengal was the Rarhbhumi which was part of Greater Bengal and had, till the coming of the British, looked up to East Bengal for cultural inspiration and sustenance. So, in a sense, Bengal’s cultural heritage had its root in East Bengal. The proponents of Bangladeshi nationalism had their own agenda. It was to erase West Bengal from the canvas of Greater Bengal with a view to turning Bangladesh into a puppet in the hands of Islamabad’s rulers, who would only be too happy to use Bangladesh as the cat’s paw to further their own interests.

Then there were those who had vested interests in declaring, “Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of Bangladesh are two distinct peoples; they have absolutely nothing in common” Inevitably, proponents of this delinquent ideology ignore the cultural affinities of West and East Bengal to emphasise only on religious differences. That was the only way they could erect a barrier between the two Bengals. But even that was not easy because a quarter of West Bengal’s population was Muslim. Would the religious fanatics disown Poet Nazrul Islam because he was from West Bengal?

There are some differences between the inhabitants of the two Bengals. But it is not simple to cut off West Bengal from our cultural canvas on the basis of these differences. Religion, ethnicity, dialect, and regional characteristics, all play an important role in defining our cultural ethos. It is as disingenuous as it is dishonest to try to define it in terms of religion alone.

Consider the regional component, for example. The immigrants in Calcutta from East Bengal, from long before the 1947 partition, had indulged in their regional pride by cheering for the East Bengal team on Calcutta’s football fields. And to this day they continue to do so. It pleases them no end when East Bengal defeats Mohan Bagan. The Islamists in Bangladesh
will be hard put to explain this exultation in the football fields of Calcutta in terms of their mindset of seeing everything with religious lens.

Region-based differences indeed seems far more significant than religion-based ones. A Muslim Bengali from West Bengal is likely to feel more at home with a Hindu Bengali from West Bengal than with a Muslim Bengali from Bangladesh. The age old Ghati-Bangal issue has always transcended religion to give primacy to geography instead.The cultural tradition of the subcontinent kept apart the Hindu migrants from East Bengal to India from the Hindu natives of West Bengal. Even some half a century after the partition of India, Calcutta newspapers continue to conspicuously mention the ancestral roots of prospective brides and grooms in matrimonial columns. One may attribute that to the discriminatory practices of the natives or to the exclusivist practices of the immigrants. But the fact remains that ancestral district can come in the way of tying matrimonial bonds between the Hindu natives and the Hindu immigrants in West Bengal. In fact, even among the Hindu immigrants themselves, a Baidya from Jessore or Bikrampur might find it beneath his dignity to have matrimonial ties with a Baidya from Sylhet or Comilla!

Many a nation state in the world exhibits regional variations in dialect and culture. The regional dialect and the local customs give the nation a “salad bowl” cultural milieu. Thus, Bavarians in Germany have the image of hillbillies. After the reunification of Germany, the people from the former East Germany were often perceived by their newfound compatriots as third worlders! Belgium and Switzerland have people speaking different dialects and even entirely different languages.

In USA, the Mecca of multi-culturalism, people speak of the East Coast, the Mid West or of the deep South with very specific cultural connotations. Let me narrate a personal anecdote. I took a speech course in an American college. During a discussion session, one student was frank enough to admit to her cultural bias based on regional accent. She told the class that Jamal has a non-American accent which is okay with her. But if she hears somebody with a southern accent, she seems to struggle with the thought that the person is of inferior intellect!Most religionists in Bangladesh take a victimological stance to justify their prejudices. They blame the arrogance of the Hindus from West Bengal or of the Hindu zamindar of yore from his own East Bengal for their antagonism toward all Hindus. But if they were honest enough, they would have readily admitted that there could be just as much a tradition of arrogance among the Muslims of Bangladesh. For many years, educated Bengali Muslims inhabiting the central part to the north western part of Bangladesh were extremely reluctant to enter into matrimonial ties with people from Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet. Similarly, many
Chittagongians and Sylhetees never could harbour the thought of marrying “foreigners.” I know of people from Noakhali who feel ashamed to disclose their roots. Many of them feigned to be from Comilla or Chittagong to get accepted by the Dhaka-centric “Bhadrolok” culture.

I was still a school kid when my father got transferred to Chittagong. It was a big cultural shock for me. I was afraid that I would never master the Chittagonian dialect, which is significantly different from the standard Bengali language. To my relief, I finally learnt to not only understand the local dialect but even speak in it after a fashion. A few years later, my father was transferred to Sylhet where I stoically withstood the scorn of my classmates who called me a “Bangal.” Needless to say, it was a pejorative. It was then that I learnt that the Sylhetees considered themselves to be from Assam. They were telling me that they did not think I was worthy of being a friend because I was nothing better than a “Bangal.”

I am sure I will have far less of a cultural shock if I visit Nadia in West Bengal. If I visit the Calcutta metropolis, I may cross path with some Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims alike) who may turn out to be somewhat different. But I doubt they will find me as different as I was found by my Chittagongian and Sylheti classmates. But then I have to bear in mind an
important aspect of social anthropology – many a person I will befriend in this old city have had the advantage of a college education and of urban living for many more than a generation or two. So, there is bound to be some difference between them and those I had encountered in Chittagong and Sylhet who were of rural background and may have belonged to the first generation in the quest of college education.


Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. The original article was published on March 19, 1999 in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH in its Commentary Section.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Political

Well done, Sir!

Dhaka trafficThe The on-duty police officer pleads with a flag-carrying car on Hare Road on June 6. The photo was shared on the ‘Traffic Alert’ Facebook Group. COURTESY: SHAMOL JAHANGIR HUSSAIN.On-duty police officer pleads with a flag-carrying car on Hare Road on June 6. The photo was shared on the ‘Traffic Alert’ Facebook Group. COURTESY: SHAMOL JGIRIN

There are iconic pictures that sometimes capture an age, define a moment in history, exemplify beauty, tragedy, or joy, in ways otherwise impossible to evoke. Who can forget the naked, screaming Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalm attack on her village in 1972; the Chinese man standing in lonely defiance in front of a column of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in 1989; the Times Square kiss; or the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima, heralding the end of WWII?

The picture published in The Daily Star on June 7 on Page 3 of a police officer pleading with a flag-bearing car to not go the wrong side of the road certainly does not have the same drama or historical resonance. But it is remarkable nonetheless for it not only portrays the exemplary integrity of the officer but also reveals a subtle but stark truth about our political realities. The first gives us hope, the second makes us cringe.

We can be justifiably proud of the fact that an officer could, on his own cognisance and authority, exert the supremacy of law and insist that even the privileged classes follow the standard procedures established for everyone else. This is most reassuring. Moreover this took place in a posh area. The people who live or visit here are the ministers and secretaries, power brokers and high rollers, the insiders and deciders. This is where wealth and power seduce each other, and remain locked in intimate, if illicit, embrace.

These are not people used to hearing the word “no”, or being stopped, or being told that they are engaging in an illegal act, or being made to feel accountable for their actions, or (heaven forbid) being asked to correct their behaviour or reverse their decisions. Power in Bangladesh is usually defined, and often expressed, as the ability to flout the law and face no consequences, or as Erich Segal had put it in Love Story in a slightly different context, “never having to say you are sorry.”

Thus, driving on the wrong side of the road becomes a metaphor of our political times. It is an “in your face” raised middle finger which indicates both an entitlement that is casually assumed, and an attitude that is sneeringly demonstrated.

The reason the picture acquires such enormous significance is because it contradicts our typical experiences and expectations. We are not generally used to the rule of law being duly respected and publicly enforced. In these matters we are more likely to being disappointed and, sometimes, outraged. We read of the increasing numbers of extrajudicial killings in the country where those entrusted with enforcing the law take upon themselves the roles of prosecutor, judge and executioner all rolled into one. We also see pictures of stricken family members holding up photographs of people who have “disappeared”.

Some of these supposed “victims” in both groups are/were presumably horrible individuals who deserve to be removed from our midst. But, no amount of public anger and frustration about supposedly “bad people” can, ever, justify the suspension of the human rights and liberties guaranteed in the constitution. We must never forget that the concept of democracy entails a nation governed by law, not a nation governed by “men” (however well-intentioned the latter may be).

The public confidence in the rule of law is also a bit shaken by the lack of enthusiasm in bringing the full force of the law against the high and mighty. There are the bank-swindlers, the land-grabbers, forest-cutters and water-polluters, the money launderers, the drug kingpins, the local “investors” who park their money in dodgy deals and shady holdings abroad, the real estate scammers, the tax evaders, the corrupt contractors offering shoddy work at inflated prices, and the ubiquitous “gatekeepers” of the rentier state who command its resources and extract payment for services to which citizens have a right. These people are not particularly concerned about being “caught” and, in fact, flaunt their (mostly ill-gotten) wealth in rude and taunting swagger.

Moreover, the citizens see inordinate delays in the investigation of crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. In the last several years alone the murders of young Taqi in Narayanganj, college student Tonu in Comilla, journalists Sagar and Runi in Dhaka, and many progressive bloggers and social media activists, remain shrouded in ambiguity and confusion.

Crimes against women and minorities are particularly vulnerable to foot-dragging and seeming indifference. The attacks on temples and ashrams, or communal violence in Ramu in Cox’s Bazar, Shantia in Pabna, Nasirnagar in Brahmanbaria, Thakurpara in Rangpur, or Longadu in Rangamati, have not seen much prosecutorial headway. Similarly, of the 4,541 allegations of rape brought to the much-vaunted one-stop crisis centres over the last 16 years, only 60 have been found guilty. And when one is both a woman and “indigenous” (e.g., Kalpana Chakma who was abducted in 1996), the wait for answers can be long and cruel.

The clogged and sluggish nature of the legal system was revealed in the law minister’s own statement in Parliament in January 2018, when he indicated that there were more than 3.3 million cases pending in courts, with more than 476,000 in the High Court Division and 16,565 in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. More importantly, almost a million cases have been languishing for more than five years. Not only does this provoke the old dictum of “justice delayed is justice denied” but it also indicates a court system almost overwhelmed by the pressures put on it.

There are also some public concerns about the use of law enforcement agencies as partisan instruments serving the agendas of particular governments, rather than as autonomous institutions serving the interests of the State. Cases may be initiated or withdrawn because of political considerations (even indemnifying entire classes of crimes committed at certain times), and judicial orders may, at times, be held in abeyance. In an unprecedented affront to the Courts, it is even possible for an individual, who had been duly charged, convicted and sentenced for a capital crime by the legal system, to receive a political pardon and then be spirited out of the country in the cover of darkness.

But this litany of criticisms and complaints should not blind us to the fact that most law enforcement personnel are generally honest, dedicated and competent. They toil in thankless, often dangerous tasks, are usually overworked and underpaid, and receive little appreciation even when they take huge risks and make personal sacrifices to uphold the principles of law and justice. Moreover, the system has to contend with a colonial legacy which had defined its structures and priorities; struggle with inadequate resources, training and incentives offered to it; and function within a larger moral environment which neither rewards nor encourages integrity and talent. To expect these people to be saints, when most others around them are not, is both unrealistic and unfair.

However, it is undeniable that there are some widespread anxieties and scepticism about the rule of law in the country. It is in this particular context that this picture is so memorable and the officer so heroic. He serves to reaffirm our faith in the system, and reminds us once again that there are honourable people in law enforcement willing, and daring, to do the right thing.

The only aspect of the photograph that is bit awkward, but which also speaks volumes, is that the officer has his hands folded in front of him in a traditional gesture of submission and forgiveness-seeking. Sir, it is the occupant of the vehicle who should be assuming that posture, not you. The law is on your side. So are we. Stand tall.

 

The author, Ahrar Ahmad is the director-general of Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation.

 

Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary

Origin of Bengali Calendar and the celebration of ‘Noboborsho’

cc614c7fe3b876a539e58a314e7a94c5[1]Only three more days to go before another Bengali New Year (also known as Noboborsho), year 1425 on the 14th of April 2018, ushers in sweeping away the misery and pain of the past year. Welcoming the Noboborsho (also known as Pohela Baishakh i.e. the first of the Bengali month called Baishakh) is a very joyous occasion in Bengali culture and it is very much steeped in tradition. That tradition overrides any religious divide, narrow sectarianism and tribalism.

The day normally starts with boys and girls, men and women, all waking up early in the morning before the sun-rise. They are all dressed in bright colourful outfits and women are donned in bright yellow saris and garlands in their hair. The women carry garlands in their hands as they walk the streets, as if to offer garlands to the exalted souls of the New Year and they chant Noboborsho-welcoming songs. As the sun rises, they would welcome the new day ushering in the new year and pray in songs and kirtons that the new year will bring peace, prosperity and happiness. The procession of men and women in convivial mood continues throughout the day and in the evening, there are theatre stages where songs (mainly Tagore songs), plays, dramas etc. are presented.

The Noboborsho (New Year) is not just the beginning of a year in Bengali tradition, it is the beginning of a new chapter, a new undertaking in life. In olden days (before the creation of Pakistan), the Noboborsho would also see the beginning of a new book – a business ledger – for the traders, small businesses or even professionals such as teachers, doctors, engineers etc. For them the new book was like a diary where past experiences, present accomplishments and future aspirations are all depicted. And, as usual, no big occasion in Bengal would go without distribution of sweets!

There used to be a Ponjika – a short printed book giving major events of the next one year and guiding people through thick and thin of their lives. Altogether, Noboborsho is the culmination of the past year and the beginning of a new year, both of them are of equal significance.

This tradition stretching back centuries was temporarily interrupted by the new state, Pakistan, which was created in 1947 on the basis of religious doctrines. Since the Bengali language and culture evolved over the centuries in the land where Hindus and Muslims (as well as Buddhists, Jains and so forth) lived side by side, Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan felt threatened by this long-held tradition. They insisted that Bengali language, Bengali tradition are all Hindu tradition and Muslims of Bangladesh should avoid, indeed boycott, these things and become ‘true Muslims’ by adopting Pakistan’s Urdu language. For the Bengali Muslims, it was like tearing up the age-old tradition and identity for the sake of imported religion. This conflict eventually led to the breakup of Pakistan and thence Bengali Muslims reclaimed their tradition and identity now.

Even now, nearly fifty years after the creation of Bangladesh on the basis of language and culture, there are strident calls by the over-jealous Islamists within the country to stop celebrating Bangla Noboborsho on the plea that it is anti-Islamic and blatantly Hinduism. Even the Bengali Calendar is viewed as anti-Islamic practice. These religious bigots preach things without any shred of knowledge and understanding.

The view that Bangla Noboborsho and Bangla calendar are imports from Hindu culture to Muslim Bangladesh is not only blatantly communal and racist, but also grossly misconceived. This assertion on the basis of religious bigotry could not be farthest from the truth.

Let me give a brief background of the history of Bengali Calendar and how the 14th of April came to be used to usher in the Noboborsho, 1425 BS (Bangla Sôn).

The third Mughal Emperor, Muhammad Akbar (also reverentially addressed as Akbar the Great), was a great reformer and instrumental in promulgating a new Bengali Calendar after modifying the then existing calendar. He did so in order to facilitate the administrative procedures and to fix a firm tax collection date in Bengal.

At that time, the calendar that used to be utilised was known as Tarikh-e-Elahi, which followed the Islamic lunar calendar. The lunar year consists of twelve months, but has 354 or 355 days (following 12 lunar rotations round the earth). Thus, there is a drift of about 10 or 11 days every year between the lunar and solar (Gregorian) calendars. That created a major practical problem. A fixed date for the collection of taxes from the farmers and peasants, normally set at the end of a harvest period, gradually came forward by about 11 days every year and fell out of season.

That meant that whereas a tax collection date might have been originally fixed after the harvest period gradually drifted forward and became a date prior to the harvest after just a few years. That created immense misery to the farmers to pay taxes before the harvest! Realising this serious practical problem, Mughal Emperor, Akbar along with the royal astronomer, Fathullah Shirazi developed the Bengali calendar. It was a synthesis of Islamic lunar calendar and the modern solar calendar.

The year Akbar took over the reign of the Mughal Empire was 1556 AD (Gregorian Calendar). That year in Islamic calendar was 963 AH (Anno Hegirae). He promulgated that a new calendar would be started on the 1st of Muharram (which is the first month of the Islamic Calendar) in that year of 963 AH. Following that system, the year would follow the solar year (365 days) and so no mismatch between the new calendar and the seasons would arise from that time. That calendar came eventually to be known as the Bangla Calendar with Bangla months such as Boishakh, Jyoishto etc. assigned to it.

However, that calendar was slightly revised during the Pakistan days by a committee headed by Dr Mohammad Shahidullah under the auspices of the Bangla Academy in 1966. That revised version (when 14th April was fixed as the beginning of the year) was adopted officially in Bangladesh in 1987. That is the calendar that ushers in the Bengali Noboborsho.

Now the question is how do we get to the year 1425 BS on the 14th of April 2018 AD? The following consideration would show how it is done.

As the start of this calendar was 1556 AD (Akbar’s accession to the throne), which was also the beginning of the Islamic year 963 AH, 462 years (2018 AD – 1556 AD) had passed since then until now. Now adding 462 years to the Islamic year of 963 AH (when the system started), we get 1425. This is how we have the incoming New Year of 1425 BS this year.

Also, one can analyse the difference between the Bengali Calendar and the Islamic Calendar. The Islamic year now is 1439 AH, whereas the Bengali year is 1425 BS. The time when divergence took place was in 1556 AD and during these intervening 462 years (2018-1556) the Islamic calendar fell short by 462 x 11 = 5082 days with regard to solar calendar. This then produced over 14 years (5082/355) in Islamic calendar. In other words, an extra 14 years were produced in the Islamic calendar since the commencement of the Bengali calendar, and that explains why it is 1439 AH, but in Bangla calendar it is 1425 BS.

The adoption and modification of calendars are done by many countries – Islamic or non-Islamic – to suit their needs.

Islamic Republic of Iran uses the Solar Hijri Calendar, called the Sham Hijri (SH), which begins with the vernal equinox (the start of spring in the northern hemisphere). The length of time between vernal equinox and autumnal equinox is about 186 days and 10 hours and the other cycle is 178 days. Afghanistan uses a slight variation of the Iranian calendar. West Bengal uses a Bengali calendar where the Noboborsho is on 15th of April.

Thus, any claim that the Bengali Calendar belongs to a Hindu religion or culture and that adoption of this calendar is un-Islamic can be categorically rejected. Such assertions are utter rubbish and pure bigotry.
A. Rahman is an author and columnist.

Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Technical

Toxins We Ingest: Lead

Toxins-We-Ingest

Lead is one of the most useful minerals in modern industrial societies. We have used it for over 3,000 years. Despite its usefulness, lead is a highly toxic substance. Since we have been using it for millennia, we have been exposed to its toxicity for millennia as well. It was only in the second half of the 20th century we became aware of the dangers of lead.

Lead is everywhere. It is in our food, water, air and soils. Thus, no one is free from this potentially toxic metal. Non-ferrous smelters and plants manufacturing lead-acid batteries for motor vehicles are the most significant contributors of lead to the atmosphere. Other sources of lead in the environment are human activities, in particular, mining and, in some countries, the continued use of leaded gasoline and aviation fuel.

Another source of lead in the air is particulates from lead-based paint manufactured before 1978 and used for painting the interior and exterior of houses, playground equipment, farm machinery and toys. However, because of health concerns, lead from gasoline and paints has been dramatically reduced in recent years.

For almost all of us, food tops the list of lead content. Lead in the food chain comes mostly from direct deposit from the air to plants and from livestock eating these plants. Lead on the plant cannot always be completely removed by washing or other processes. As a result, many foods contain very small amounts of lead. We also ingest lead from the seam soldering of food cans. There could be lead in drinking water, too. The source is lead pipes often found in older homes.

Household items such as jewellery, hair dyes and some cosmetics may contain lead. In addition, Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines, stained glass, candy, drinking glass made of crystal and improperly fired glazed pottery may contain unsafe levels of lead. Acidic liquids such as tea, coffee, wine and juice can break down the glazes, thereby causing lead to leach out of the pottery and enter our body. Although rare, some older pieces of china may contain lead which can leach out too from the surface of the dish and get into foods and beverages.

The US Food and Drug Administration found lead chromate – a chemical added to turmeric root to give it a vibrant yellow colour, in turmeric powder made in Bangladesh and India. Recently, high levels of lead were also found in samples of milk powder imported by Bangladesh.

Lead gets into our body by being inhaled, swallowed, or in a small number of cases, absorbed through the skin. Once lead gets into our system, most of it ends up in the bone and interferes with calcium the bones need. In the bloodstream, lead can damage red blood cells and limit their ability to carry oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it, thus causing anaemia.

Which age-group people are vulnerable to lead poisoning? Lead does not discriminate based on age, gender, race, or economic level. Children are, however, most susceptible to lead poisoning in part because they absorb more in the intestines. Toxicity of lead will increase if the child is malnourished or has iron deficiency. Even unborn babies are not spared from the harmful effects of lead. If a pregnant woman has an elevated level of lead in the blood, the lead can pass from her blood to the blood of the foetus, causing damage similar to the problems associated with postnatal lead exposure. It also increases the risk of her giving birth to a mentally-challenged child.

High-level lead exposure can cause numerous neurological disorders, including fatigue, headache and muscular tremor. It may also reduce one’s appetite, causing clumsiness, and result in a loss of memory. These symptoms are a consequence of damage caused by inorganic (metallic) lead in the brain and spinal cord. Organic lead (compounds containing lead and carbon) may cause a number of psychological disorders, including hallucinations, delusions and overexcitement, and may lead to death.

Lead exposure can also affect the nerves that arise from the brain and spinal cord. The most common symptom in individuals exposed to high levels of lead is weakness of extensor muscles, which cause the joints to open. On a cellular level, lead destroys the insulation of nerve cells. This may explain the reduction in nerve-impulse speed commonly seen in patients who have been exposed to high levels of lead.

Lead also damages the kidneys, causing a disturbance in the mechanisms that help us conserve valuable nutrients, for instance glucose and amino acids that might otherwise be lost in the urine. Prolonged high-level exposure causes a progressive buildup of connective tissues in the kidney and degeneration of the filtering mechanisms that separate wastes from the bloodstream.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning? Unfortunately, there are no obvious symptoms. The ones shown by children appear to mimic those of cold or flu – decreased appetite, stomach aches, hyperactivity, sleeping problems, irritability, etc. The only way to diagnose lead poisoning is by having a blood test. A level of 10 microgrammes per decilitre of lead or greater in the bloodstream is considered unsafe. At levels above 40 microgrammes per decilitre, serious psychological and permanent health damage may occur.

No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Nevertheless, for children 1-5 years old, Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA has set a threshold value of five microgrammes per decilitre.

Treatment for lead poisoning varies depending on how much lead is in the blood. Small amounts often can be treated by a detox process in which a synthetic solution called EDTA is injected into the bloodstream. The solution binds with lead and then discharges through urine. The treatment cannot reverse any damage that has already occurred. Hence, the best way to avoid lead poisoning is to reduce exposure to it.

 

The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Literary, Political

Tagore and Bengali Identity

If there is one person who embodies Bengal, Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore.

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Bangladesh was liberated from the yoke of Pakistan in 1971 as the land of Bangla (বাংলা) speaking people; not as an outpost of alien culture of Pakistan or Middle East. What started as the language movement, following the brutal killing of university students in 1952 demanding Bengali as a national language, eventually turned into ‘linguistic nationalism’ that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh.

For long 24 years, from 1947 to 1971, Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language of Pakistan and obliterate Bengali language and Bengali culture from the indigenous population of the then East Pakistan. The leaders of Pakistan implanted and patronised Islamism in East Pakistan and that helped to evolve Razakar, al-Badr and many other factions of Islamist organisations during the liberation war not only to defeat the nationalist movement but also to wipe out Bengali-ness among the people. But they failed. These Razakars changed their guise, but maintained their ‘Muslim-ness’ as an opposition force against the dominant cultural identity of the people in post-independent Bangladesh.

The ‘Muslim’ identity people might have retreated temporarily following the defeat of their patron, Pakistan, but they were not beaten. They kept reappearing, as and when opportunity arose, to undermine Bengali language and culture. The other arm of their strategy is to propagate Islamic culture as a replacement of Bengali culture. The proliferation of ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’ and ‘burqa’ among Bangladeshi women, the trend of inserting adjuncts like ‘bin’ or ‘bint’ (for men and women respectively) in names, increasing use of Arabic words replacing common Bengali words, all testify cultural invasion under the guise of religion.

This twin strategy of undermining Bengali language and culture, and the import of alien culture had become apparent during the period of military rules in Bangladesh from 1975 to 1992 and then whenever Islamic-oriented political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), often supported by the more overtly Islamist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islam, came to power. Of late, in anticipation of the BNP coming to power in the forthcoming national election at the end of this year, these ‘Muslim’ identity people at the behest of BNP are gearing up and attacking Bengali language and culture.

Although, Willem van Schendel in his book ‘A History of Bangladesh’ identified two competing identity groups distinguishing them as (i) “Bengali-ness” that upholds Bangladesh as the homeland for Bengalis and embraces linguistic community of Tagore, Nazrul, Bankim, Madhushudan, Jasimuddin, Jibanananda Das, Sarat Chandra, Golam Mostafa and so forth and (ii) “Bangladeshi-ness” which takes the view that Bangladesh is, in effect, a logical outcome of Pakistan and the homeland of Muslim Bengal. As, the argument goes, without Pakistan, Bangladesh would not have come into existence and hence Bangladesh remains Muslim and it is ‘overwhelmingly and essentially Muslim’. (They conveniently forget or ignore the fact that during the liberation struggle they did everything to stop Bangladesh coming into existence and now they are claiming it to be Muslim Bangladesh!)

This second group, despite Schendel’s branding it as “Bangladeshi-ness”, is a misnomer and gross misrepresentation. It should rightly be put under “Muslim-ness”, as they put Muslim as their prime identity and their country affiliation comes far below. They accept disgruntledly Bengali as the national language, but many of them would happily accept Urdu as the national language, which conforms to their Muslim identity. They are, in effect, the remnants of the Pakistani period.

Bengali is one of the richest languages in the world. It is the direct descendant of Sanskrit, which is a Proto Indo-European language that has evolved over four millennia. That is why one can find similarities and resemblances between many Bengali words and Italian, English and Cyrillic words.

Of all the Bengali litterateurs, the person that stands out head and shoulder above the rest is Rabindranath Tagore, who was the poet, essayist, novelist, song writer and composer, playwright, philosopher and educationist. He was simply a literary giant not only in India but also in the whole world. He was the only person from Indian subcontinent who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) and his songs are sung as national anthems in two sovereign States – India and Bangladesh.

If there is one person who embodies Bengal and Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore. Although he was born in Kolkata, his ancestors were from Jessore in Bangladesh. Tagore married Mrinalini Devi who hailed from Khulna. Tagore spent more than two decades looking after the zamindari in the then East Bengal and spent extended periods in Shelaidah, Kushtia and Shahjadpur, Pabna and Petishar, Rajshahi. His poetic genius, his philosophy, his perception of life were all moulded by everyday lives of people in this part of East Bengal. He wrote many famous poems, songs, short stories while he was in the houseboat (called Padma) in Shelaidah and Shahjadpur. The most famous book of poems ‘Sonar Tari’ ( সোনার তরী) (The Golden Boat) was written in those days. He gave poetic expressions to occasions such as Bengali New Year (বাংলা নববর্ষ), welcoming rainy season (বর্ষাবরণ), spring festival (বসন্ত উৎসব) and so on that ripple through the hearts and minds of Bengali people the world over.

Tagore felt very strongly for the plight of his poor Muslim tenants (প্রজা). One such occasion that had been narrated by Krisna Dutta like this: When he called a meeting of his tenants one afternoon, he noticed that Hindu tenants were sitting on mattresses and poor Muslim tenants were sitting on grass farther apart. He was cross at this segregation and asked his tenants that everyone must sit together on mattresses; if there were not enough space in the mattresses, everyone must sit on the grass. Quite often he would relieve his poor Muslim tenants of taxes and that did not endear him to his father, Debendranath Tagore.

There is a concerted move by the ‘Muslim’ identity people – the Islamists and Islamist sympathisers – to denigrate Tagore by egregious falsification and trumped up stories. They branded Tagore as a plagiarist, a second-rate poet who attained fame only by British patronising. Needless to say, any attempt to counter such grossly egregious allegations is like going into the dirty gutters with them.

Also, it had been said by those bigots that Tagore was anti-Muslim as, they assert, he wrote a number of poems praising Hindu culture and Hindu religion; he wrote none for Islam. That is quite frankly utterly ridiculous. As a Hindu (in fact he was a follower of Brahmo sect), it was quite natural that he would write about these religions; that does not imply that he was against Islam or Jain or Buddhism. Did he write anything against Islam? No. No. So, how on earth, could he be called an anti-Muslim or racist?

Only one point that merits addressing here is that he had been accused of opposing the foundation of Dhaka University. He might have opposed it initially on economic grounds. It is also possible that he was not enthusiastic about it as he was in the process of setting up his own university at that time, which came into existence the same year that Dhaka university did. But, later on, he supported the Dhaka University when adequate financial provisions were made. He could not have opposed it strongly, as brazen Islamists claim, on grounds of race or religion, because in East Bengal in those days overwhelmingly large fraction (between 70 to 75%) of educated people primed to go to the university were Hindus. So, Tagore’s opposition to Dhaka University would have affected predominantly Hindus. The problem with semi-literate Islamists is that they think that he opposed Dhaka University because it was in Muslim-Bangladesh! How ridiculous!

Syed Abul Maksud in his book ‘Purabange Rabindranath’ (পূর্ববঙ্গে রবীন্দ্রনাথ ) (Rabindranath in East Bengal) stated that Tagore had cordial relations with Muslims in East Bengal. The Muslim aristocrat of Dhaka, Nawab Sir Salimullah “paid rich tributes to the greatest poetical genius of modern India” in a meeting organized in the city on 26 November 1912 to celebrate his Nobel Prize award. Maksud also pointed out that Tagore was given a very enthusiastic reception by the Salimullah Muslim Hall Students’ Union of the University of Dhaka on the 10th of February, 1926 during his second and last visit to Dhaka. It may be pointed out that Dhaka University was founded only five years previously. (If Tagore had opposed it, then SM Hall students’ Union was probably unaware of it and now nearly 100 years later the brazen Islamists had found it out!) It should also be pointed out that the University of Dhaka awarded Tagore an honorary doctorate in 1936.

To say that Tagore had opposed Dhaka university is totally disingenuous and dishonest. Also, the accusation that he was against Muslims has racist connotation. The ‘Muslim’ identity people are hell-bent on carrying out character assassination of Tagore and thereby undermine the very essence of ‘Bengali’ identity of the Bangladeshi people. The sooner these clandestine agents doing Pakistan’s bidding for ‘Muslim-ness’ are exposed, the better it is for the country.

A. Rahman is an author and a columnist