Dhaka residents’ defiance of control measures to go home paints a bigger picture of who we fundamentally are as a nation
Sitting on his bed in his bachelor apartment in Dhaka before Eid, Sumon Ahmed was counting down the days. Another week and he will be with his beloved wife, two lovely children and ageing parents in his hometown of Kurigram. He exults at the anticipation of seeing those faces after several months.
It is now a very unsettling time in the country because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The countrywide shutdown has caused life to come to a screeching halt. The suspension of public transportation has severely limited movement. Leaving the house and coming in close contact with people has become a highly risky affair. The government wants everyone to stay at home. In an unprecedented announcement, the police had urged Dhaka residents not to travel to their village homes before Eid.
Sumon, who works at a private company as an executive, knows all this. He is also aware of how the number of novel coronavirus infections is constantly rising in the country. Yet, he just cannot think about not celebrating Eid with his family. The mere thought of spending Eid alone in Dhaka engulfs him with a powerful sense of desolation.
"Nah, I must be with my family no matter what," Sumon tells himself. He convinces himself that it is not an impulsive act to plan his exit from this metropolis regardless of the level of risk it entails. His heart repeatedly tells him that an invisible virus that "may" infect him can in no way bar him from showing love, care and affection to his family during Eid.
He eventually manages to reach Kurigram despite all the hurdles and restrictions.
Like Sumon, there are thousands of Dhaka residents whose life is stuck in similar predicaments, to varying degrees albeit. Like Sumon, they have the same longing to be home with their families during Eid.
Sumon's thought patterns represent a certain characteristic of Dhaka residents. How he feels about his family and village home also speaks volumes about who we are as a nation. His desperation to go home in valiant defiance of the government-imposed control measures is inextricably linked to many of the core aspects of the Bangladeshi identity.
Bangladeshis are no one without their families
Bangladesh is a highly collectivist society where our identity revolves around family and community. Unlike Western societies that are built on the philosophy of individualism, we do not define ourselves based on any individual identity. Rather, we define ourselves as members of our family. Citizens of individualistic societies have an independent concept of self, as opposed to our interdependent concept of self. For us, it is never "I"; it is always "we."
Our villages are considered our real roots, no matter how we feel about this subject. It is an identity we cannot wipe out during our lifetime even if we have lived in far-away cities for decades. Our understanding of identity always leads back to that village home where we, or our ancestors, were born.
Where the village home is located is often the third or fourth question we ask a stranger after breaking the ice with him. If we meet someone in Dhaka whose hometown is in Cumilla, we describe him as a "Cumilla native residing in Dhaka" despite the fact he may have lived in Dhaka for most of his life and is very loosely connected to his home district. This is how it goes for Bangladeshi expatriates, too, who live in far-flung corners of the world.
Migrants in Dhaka, families back home
One of the key reasons for this is that a large section of Bangladeshis still lives in villages – even though the number has been declining for decades. According to the World Bank data, 80 percent of the total population lived in villages in 1990. The figure fell to 63 percent in 2018.
We feel connected to the village not just because we want to maintain our ties to where we are from. It is mainly because most of us have family members living there. As family is the basic social unit in our society that is central to our existence, the thought of celebrating festivals alone does not even cross our mind even if this togetherness involves risks due to unwanted external circumstances, for example, the ongoing pandemic. This is the reason why, despite the high probability of Covid-19 transmission, Sumon and his fellow Dhaka residents travelled to their hometowns to celebrate Eid with their families.
The people living in the capital are mostly internal economic migrants from villages. Thousands of rural Bangladeshis migrate to Dhaka every year in search of better livelihoods. A 2018 study by the Dhaka-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit said three out of every five migrants from rural areas come to Dhaka while one in five prefers Chattogram.
These migrants live in Dhaka as it enables them to be better providers for their families. The money they send home is used to meet various household expenses, including medical costs and tuition fees of their children among others. The households are often multigenerational, and some also comprise extended family members. When a rural Bangladeshi like Sumon migrates to the city and works hard, day after day, to put a smile on those people's faces, there is hardly any force that can deter him from going back to them during major festivals like Eid.
Identity vs crisis response
This is where the novel coronavirus control measures aimed at protecting people's lives clashes with our collectivist nature as a nation and the deep emotion that Dhaka's economic migrants feel about their family-oriented identities. Their unconditional love for families and the inherent desire to celebrate festivals with those people to enjoy true happiness overpowered their fear of possibly contracting and transmitting the lethal virus. They knowingly defied the risk of the customary Eid exodus under the present circumstances because their core Bangladeshi identity told them not to compromise on anything that involves family.
This deeply-ingrained sentiment, as we all have observed, saliently held up even during such an unprecedented global crisis. Cases rose during the Eid holidays and also afterwards, as experts had predicted earlier. The full extent of repercussions of this exuberant holidaymaking as a grand gesture of love for families thus remains to be seen.
Will this pandemic be a wake-up call for Sumon to act in a more conscious way in the future if something horrible, God forbid, happens to any of his family members? We will see. That said, what we will certainly see is that a crisis as severe as the novel coronavirus may slightly modify Sumon's culture-dictated behaviour, but it cannot change his core identity.
And Sumon is the quintessential Bangladeshi.