As soon as the plane lands on the runway, you see tall blades of grass and buildings with a dark layer of mildew on the surface; humidity, coupled with inexpensive building materials and inadequate maintenance, creates an environment not comparable to international standards. You step off the plane and realize that you are not in Kansas anymore; there are a zillion people everywhere.
Walking through shabbily carpeted hallways, notice the yellowish walls and now some advertisement for local cellular phone service provider. One escalator down, you stand in-line for the skinny immigration officer who frantically searches for the “No Visa Required” stamp on your passport. I wonder what he would tell me, if by some fluke, that particular page is not there on my passport. Would he ask me to leave the country that gave me birth?
This is the gateway for hundreds of thousands people who travel from Bangladesh, to a world beyond their current existence.
Twenty four years ago, on a day like this, from this very gateway, I left Bangladesh to start a new life. I was eighteen and had just finished my High School Certificate (HSC) exams. When you know little about how the world works, you also tend to disregard the risks of all things that could go wrong in such a journey. Ignorance and inexperience has its privileges.
I distinctly remember that day, August 19, when our home turned into a sort of a mini open-house; many friends and relatives came to our rented Maghbazar home with multitude of hugs, tears and prayers. Someone brought a Koran, a set of bed linen, the sweet-syrupy caramel pudding that I loved and then there were the numerous Kurtas!
My Nana/Nanu were hugging me goodbye. My Dadi (paternal grandmother), who started to address me as her mora gacher phool(blossom from her dead tree) wished me all the best when I went to see her that morning. Having lost my father only 10 weeks ago, his father, my Dada, didn’t say a word when I touched his feet in respect. From his stoic facial expression, I couldn’t tell whether he was upset or relieved that I was leaving.
My mother wore a gray cotton sari that I had gifted her (with my earned salary at a temporary job). I had my last meal at the dining table with my sister/mother and was anxious to start my journey. In a caravan of cars, we came to the airport.
To an outsider, this may look like lots of drama. In Bangalee culture, these farewells can be quite dramatic, always emotional. You are starting a new life; no one knows the outcome of this process. One of my uncles had left (many years ago) and had never come back. If one thinks about this particular juncture, it truly is a turning a point in the life of a simple, middle class teenager from Dhaka who was going overseas Rajotto Joy Korte (to conquer the world).
Two suitcase full of clothes and three thousand United States Dollars (two semesters of tuition for the university). That’s all that I had, to accompany me in this long, unexplained journey. When one grows up in a large extended family with fourteen uncles/aunts and twenty plus cousins, who all care, it’s a little absurd to envision leaving this protective shell to go somewhere alone. In today’s terms, the contrast would be like leaving everything I have today, to start on a journey to Mars!
In 1985 Bangladesh, the opportunities for an average student like me, with honest “do-good” parents and no ill-acquired/jomidari wealth or military connections, were fairly limited. It was impossible to imagine writing one’s own destiny in a country with limited opportunities.
In our post-colonial, South Asian surroundings, one is also typically tied to their family and invariably identified as someone’s “son”, “nephew”, “grandson” or “brother”. That’s just the way the social structure is constructed. It is difficult to imagine another alternative. Without the experience of life, I was determined to break this boundary of introductions.
Today, when I visit Bangladesh I speak to the youth and see the hope, aspirations in their eyes; I recognize Bangladesh’s annual GDP growing at the clip of 6+%, trying to achieve middle-income nation status quickly, I see my successful friends (who stayed/returned) enjoying life to its fullest, it provides a deep sense of satisfaction. I see the opportunities, and options, that the “new” generation of Bangladeshis are creating for themselves.
When I left my Bangladesh, this young nation-state, fragile and under the curse of a tyrannical military ruler, was unable to provide the assurances for a restless teenager who wanted to conquer the Orion. Today, despite the imperfections and pock marks on her face, my motherland is moving into a different stage of her life, where glimmers of opportunity appears real and achievable.
To me, Bangladesh gave birth and nourished me, instilled basic values, provided shelter, love and comfort when I needed it most. United States, on the other hand is like a loving adoptive parent; it has given me opportunities, education and training that would have been impossible to receive elsewhere.
There is a part of me that my mother (Bangladesh) has gifted me, embedded in me, like the color of the sky. Even if takes different shades during different parts of the day, inherently, it will always be that blue, that soothes your heart and fills your soul.
Every time I land back in Bangladesh, I look through the large waiting crowds outside the baggage-claim area; my fragile mother, in her crumpled cotton sari, awaits me with all her fierce anxiety and knows that I am there for only a few days. I won’t do anything to help or enrich her. I come and visit my friends and family and then fly back to my comfortable existence elsewhere. But still, she welcomes me with open arms, calls me “Baba” and asks me if my journey went well.
I am hard-pressed to tell her that the journey that began some twenty-four years ago can never really end.