Struggle for Learning: Story of an Un-caged Parrot
Fifteen years ago, I happened to engage myself in conversation with a group of people who were never schooled. The persons I talked with included a snake charmer, a female herbal medicine practitioner, a dervish (spiritual person) of the sufi tradition, a yatra (folk opera) actor and a basket weaver. I was interested to collect their stories of how they had learned different skills and acquired relevant knowledge.
Over time, most of the tales I heard have faded in my memory the way water unevenly wears down a piece of soap. It was the basket weaver, Antaj Ullah, whom I remember most. He was also a folk singer, capable of composing sophisticated verse. In response to my question regarding learning, he sang a song. The message of the song was that "human beings learn from samsara (social reality) the same way a fish learns the trick of swimming".
In contrast to the experience of these rural personalities, in a mainstream social system formal school claims to be the only legitimate venue for learning. However, a deeper reflection based on experience and observation suggests that learning occur in social context. In a school environment, students are artificially groomed. The learning climate of the societal context is more like the atmosphere of a forest where plants grow in relation to other plants and animals as well as sunlight, rain and soil. In school, the atmosphere is analogous to a greenhouse, where hybrids grow in isolation.
In this essay, I strive to understand the nature of learning and its interconnectedness with the life experience. In the following, I will present a series of autobiographic stories to illustrate the interaction between my own learning and the social context.
Story of an Un-caged Parrot
As a child
growing up in a rural village in
At one point, I sneaked out and visited a primary school. I vividly remember the encounter with a teacher who introduced himself as baga master meaning tiger teacher. The baga would hop from one class to another growling under his military style mustache and cane the students. The whole thing chilled my bones so much I decided not to ever become the feed of the baga.
I started growing up like an un-caged bird. I did not have a school where I could study or be caned. I had an entire village to fly around. I had long days to get through. I would roam over the green grassy meadow, scaring dragonflies, soaking my feet with silvery dew. I would hear the rhythmic sound of women pounding rice as I wound through the trails between thatched huts. A gray hawk would circle over my head sending a cluster of chickens under the umbrella of a bush. Occasionally, when the hawk attacked, a mother hen would fight back to protect her offspring. Sometimes, I would stop near the bank of a river to collect fallen, faded orange leaves. I would tear the leaves and shape them into a herd of animals. I would pick tiny white flowers to have a sip of nectar.
In those days when other children of the village were being caned in a school for not learning their spelling and addition, I would enjoy my peaceful existence mostly with village folk and participate in their rituals. A herdsman would allow me to ride his water buffalo while he played the flute. I would learn to interpret the longing encoded in his tune. One time he showed me a fierce fight between a mongoose and a cobra. I remember pondering for hours after the bloody encounter, the reasons for the animosity.
Amma, my mother, started to teach me reading and writing when I was a little older. We would collect banana leaves, vines and berries from our backyard. She would make a pen by cutting khag, a tall grass. We would crush the vines and berries to get the brown and magenta juice out for making two different colors of ink. I learned to write on a banana leaf the ninety-nine names of Allah (God) before I learned to read. Amma would help me to draw geometrical designs in magenta around the brown colored names of Allah. We would preserve the dry banana script with great care. She also introduced me to counting numbers, simple addition and subtractions. We would play with a basket full of brown tamarind and scarlet sandalwood seeds. The tamarind seeds would represent our neighbors. I would count them. The sandalwood seeds would represent the neighbors who had passed away. My assignment was to count the total then subtract the "living" from the "deceased".
became familiar with writing the alphabet, she taught me reading. Amma gave
me a book that had pictures of camels, tents and a desert in it. The reading was much harder than calligraphy. She would ask me again and again to try and spell. Sometimes she would read with me but often she
would embroidery a jainamaj (prayer rug). She would illustrate the picture of Kaba sharif, a shrine
of my ancestors in
message to his apostle would not inspire me to read.
I wanted to throw the book away and go out for a visit in the village. Amma would
insist on me staying and bribed me with sweet pickle and a rhyme. The rhyme was about a person who reads and
eventually rides a car or a horse to go explore other countries. The rhyme would bring back of my motivation. An idea would run through my mind that if I really
learned to read, one day I would visit
Most evenings, villagers would gather in our bamboo-walled bungalow with its thatched roofed, for majlish (leisurely meetings). Folks would sit in a semi- circle on the wide veranda over looking a pond. They would chat endlessly over the cups of sweet, milky tea. Often Antaj Ullah, a basket weaver elder would recite from a Puthi, a lyrical story written in the vernacular, spinning the tale of a legend. His voice would vibrate with emotion when he would sing about the sepoy mutiny. I would shut my eyes to follow the story line of the rhyme. I remember visualizing the figures of Indian sepoy, (soldiers),
fighting against their sahib masters to achieve independence. Once the puthi recitation was over, the weaver would brush his long beard with his finger and smoke hukka (water pipe). The momentary silence would be filled with a noise of invisible crickets. Before I fell into sleep, I would imagine the faces of the mutinous sepoys.
visitor named Mr. Hussain would show up in our bungalow once in a while. He would talk about topics we had never heard of. He would mention, "life is changing a great
deal these days. Russians are sending dogs and
men into space!" He would continue
"Americans are not really falling behind in the space race. Once they are done with bombing
Generally his discussion would end abruptly, producing a deep silence. I would think about the names, countries and causes that he mentioned. I would try to make sense out of everything that I heard. But it was not easy. Time would pass very slowly. The moon would filter through a cloud creating soft colors, touching purple petals of the water hyacinth. A fish would flip its tail. The sound of stirring water would bring me back to reality.
My uncle would tell me in a hushed voice that I must not tell anybody that Mr. Hussain was sleeping in our gula ghar (rice storage). I learned the English word "underground" at that age. I learned that the police were after him because he was organizing our freedom movement. I learned that the independence we achieved from the British raj was a fake one. "We must stand up to find the real one," Mr. Hussain would say. I was becoming restless to grow up quickly so that I could stand erect, along with Mr. Hussain.
liked to read having all family members and relatives sitting around him in a cluster. He would sit on a faded Kashmiri rug keeping a calliographed copy of Babornama, the autobiography of the
first Mogul emperor in
In some dark
evenings, if my uncle were in a proper mood, we would walk to an ancient mosque in the
neighborhood. We would climb to the top of a
minaret. He would show me the locations of
stars and tell me the names of constellations. One
time he told me that a very rich person in
Before my uncle taught me the positions of all the constellations and their relationship with the changes of the seasons, he became very ill. He was treated with a combination of homeopathic and herbal medicine but his condition sharply deteriorated. Amma awakened me at late night to sit near his sick bed. He looked very frail, but conscious. With difficulty, he asked me to read from Chaher Dervish, a story of four Sufis, written by Urdu poet Amir Khasru. For some unknown reason, my family believed that the book had healing power. So I read with devotion. Once the first chapter was finished, I paused. The sound of azan (call for prayer) filled the atmosphere. My uncle opened his eyes and smiled. My aunt sobbed. When she covered his face with a white chador (large cloth body covering), I knew my uncle had passed away. A week later when I was performing prayer during cahrom (after death ritual), it occurred to me that despite my belief of Chaher Dervish, my uncle had really died.
Life was not
always slow in my village. The majlis in our bungalow became energized with the
possibility of a general election, the first plebiscite in the history of
There was a
celebration and distribution of misty
(sweetmeats). Mr. Hussain showed up again. I learned from the conversations that he would not
have to stay underground anymore. Bengalis
were to be granted autonomy and rights once a civilian government formed in
spontaneous protest, demonstration and hartal (strike). The military regime in
another word from the conversations in our bungalow - "civil war". I had not
studied any books of geography or seen a map, but I learned that the jets were built in
were soldiers, tanks and machine guns on the street. Thousands
of people started fleeing the country. There
was no transportation, so people walked, rode bullock carts and ran to cross the border. The planes came again. This time I joined other villagers under the thick
canopy of trees, like chickens hiding from a hawk. A
nearby Hindu neighborhood, the religious minority of then
day in the early evening, I found myself in a makeshift refugee camp in Tripura, an
impoverished state of
college for a few months. I neither learned
the alchemy of dividing hydrogen and oxygen nor was noticed by any girl my age. However, I did become friendly with a group of boys
affiliated with leftist politics. We would
spend our endless hours in the school canteen drinking tea, smoking cheap cigarettes and
skipping all the required classes. A small,
bounded book with a bright red color would float from hand to hand in our circle. I learned that a man known as Chairman Mao from
socio-political situation of our infant country deteriorated quickly. The country of
In this meeting, Mr. Hussain asked us, as college students, to make a decision whether to continue attending college or to reject school to become political activists. I, along with my college friends, had two choices - either get a degree and eventually try to find a clerical job or go to the villages to organize farmers and work to establish their rights. I was frustrated with the thought that the second independence that we got also appeared to be juta (fake). We called it juta because during the liberation war there was a promise of multiparty democracy and freedom of expression. We felt frustrated that the leadership of the new country forgot about the promises and engineered a mono-party dictatorship instead. We were particularly angry that the new government chose to shoot on the protesters who were demanding food and civil liberty. We were all restless to do something about it. So, we chose the second option, quit the college immediately and organized political activities so that the independence would be meaningful to us.
many months in villages interacting with farmers. At
one point, I started to live in Hasnabad. Adjusting to the life of Hasnabad
was not easy. It was a different village than
the ones I was familiar with as a child. Hasnabad did not have a river; therefore the farmers couldn't
irrigate water for a second corp. The economic
situation of these farmers was comparatively poorer than the villages I was familiar with.
On the other hand, Hasnabad had a large Jutdhar (landowner)
class who were rich and powerful. The experience of learning to live in Hasnabad was like reading a novel for a second time after many years
and understanding the dimensions that I had not noticed at first. Now I was looking at the landscapes of lush green
rice fields and farmers following their cows with a yoke on their shoulders through the
lens of a political activist. I had to focus
beyond the intense rural beauty of
At times, I was suffering from a dual mind. Part of me wanted to go back to college and study the science that I perceived was the powerful genie that sahibs had in their bottle. Part of me wanted to integrated with rural life in order to understand why the farmers who worked dawn to dusk did not get enough to eat. Famine was going on. Even though there was shortage of food in Hasnabad, the farmers tried to be hospitable to me. I started living with Ajmot Ali's family. Ajmot Ali was forced to sell half of his paddy land to a jutdhar. Ajmot Ali would sit under a pamelo tree, shivering with malarial fever, describing the way he was subjected to forgery. He had to borrow money from the Jutdhar in order to pay a dowry for his daughter. He had to sign documents without being able to read. The document was a sale deed for his paddy land. His story would end with a big sigh then he would stare at the disciplined lines of black ants and predict more drought.
Nabitun, his daughter, a young woman with a melancholic smile, offered me panta bhat (rice soaked with water and chile paste). Her eyebrows reminded me of the faded curves of twin rainbows as she sat at a distance to watch me eat. Not long before, I learned that her husband inflicted a deep scar on her neckline because he wanted a radio and bicycle from his in-law's family. She would walk a long way to fetch water. I would watch as her figure disappeared behind the coconut grove carrying several pitchers. I felt very sympathetic towards her, but I knew it would be inappropriate for me to show my feelings.
I would organize baitak (meeting) of farmers under a bunyan tree. In the evening, village folks would gather to tell their stories. I would listen how a farmer family got evicted from their home because they refused to have their daughter marry a jutdhar who already had three wives. There were stories of people who became outcast because of a difference of opinion with a jutdhar or a mullah (Muslim cleric). We would discuss the legal rights of land less farmers and share-croppers as well as the laws regarding dowry and polygamy. There were a lot of incidences of forgery because farmers were illiterate. I proposed starting an adult literacy class. Ajmot Ali dragged on his bidi (hand rolled tobacco wrapped cigarette) and commented, "the mistrusted jutdhar went to school. Jutdhar's children were studying in a university. They are educated, they do forgery, they confiscate poor people's land. We are poor farmers, we are uneducated, but we do not do what Jutdhar does to us". I thought literacy skills might help the farmers to be able to read legal documents, so they would not be easily cheated. Ajmot Ali's strong reaction discouraged me.
My proposal of literacy classes did not interest them. However, they were excited to hear that the law acknowledged rights for land-less farmers and share-croppers. We would talk about action based on this new information. Farmers showed significant interest in recapturing lands that were taken illegally by the jutdhars. We would sit quietly thinking about future actions. Darkness of the early evening would slowly engulf the village. Fruit bats would crisscross the sky. We would plan to reclaim Ajmot Ali's lost land. A nocturnal creature would drop a soft orange fruit from the bunyan tree. We would plan how to organize all the farmers and fight.
Our constitutional right to organize political activities was not tolerated. A group of para-militaries known as rakhi bahini came to the village to suppress activists. Each village where farmers politically organized was stormed. Mr. Hussain and some of my college friends were arrested. I narrowly escaped, not due to my foresight, but to my skill in climbing a tree quickly while rakhi bahini were combing the village. After this incident, I dived deeper in the village masses the way a fish hides itself in mud when a fisherman approaches.
A farmer, whose name I don't want to mention, gave me shelter in his cowshed. This personalized the meaning of the word underground that I had learned as a child. I shared the space with two sickly cows and plenty of mosquitoes. Most of the time I would lay down on a reed mat placed on the top of a pile of hay. The pungent odor of urine and cow dung thickened the air. I would not go outside due to fear of being arrested. I would spend my time looking at the urine gathered in hoof marks. I would watch mosquitoes breeding. I had plenty of time for reflection. I would think about my political colleagues who were recently arrested or living in underground dens. All had been involved in the struggle to liberate Bangladesh. What we did in villages was our legitimate right to organize political activities. I was sad that the infant country was not ensuring the political freedom of her freedom fighters.
I lived in the cowshed for two months. I became very ill with a high fever at the end of my stay. I was in a delirium. In the dark, my host farmer and his son carried me in a swinging bamboo basket to Mr. Atul Roy's house in a neighboring village, Datta Gram. Mr. Roy, the headmaster of the local high school, knew my uncle and Mr. Hussain. All three were involved in the language movement of 1952. They broke the political ban on assembly, demonstrated in favor of establishing Bangali as a state language and been assaulted by the Pakistani police. Probably due to this connection, Mr. Roy gave me shelter in his attic. I would lay on a quilt in the dark for many days, half-conscious with a high fever. My headache was particularly strong. I thought I would die and was afraid that I would have a painful death. I was afraid that I would not have a proper burial.
But time passed and I started recovering slowly. I often heard Mr. Roy's children running around underneath. The fragrance of incense would float to me. I would hear the bell ringing softly and someone was reading a mantra in a magical voice. Mr. Roy's mother who I called ma would climb the attic in the evening after her puja (worship). She would wipe my head with a cold rag and offer me prashad (fruits and sweets from the offering). She would maintain that the prashad had healing power. It seems she was right. Within a few days, I was able to get up but couldn't stand erect because of the low ceiling. I managed to move around a little bit and discovered a pile of books. I started reading the illustrated edition of Ramayana. I could not concentrate for a long time. I had a ringing noise in my ears. I would take frequent pauses and look at a beam of light coming through a hole in the wall. I would watch the swirling dust going round and round and contemplate that, as a child, I was told upper class Hindus would never allow a Muslim to enter their inner courtyard or eat a meal together. I would think about Mr. Roy and ma's generosity. Being upper class Hindus, they did not turn their faces from a sick young man who happened to be born in a Muslim family.
As I was recovering, I wanted to read Chaher Dervish again. I mentioned my interest to Mr. Roy. Instead, he brought me Mother, a novel by Russian writer Maxim Gorky, and some books of Tagore from the school library. The reading triggered me to write about myself. I thought I would not be able get out of the attic. I started writing about myself, the people I had recently met and the memories that passed through my head. During long breaks, I would observe a huge black and yellow spider spinning its web. I would watch tiny bugs getting caught in the web and feel sorry for them. I would think about myself like a little bug. I would imagine there were webs of spies, informers, police and rakhi bahini everywhere. I was restless.
I wanted to communicate with my political friends who were living underground in neighboring villages. To do this, I wanted to produce a newspaper. I prepared a narrative illustrating a jutdhar's abuse of a farmer. I wrote up my views as well as a description of the rakhi bahini's suppression. I calligraphed the material and asked Mr. Roy if I could get some carbon paper to make copies. I wanted to pass it to my friends through a trusted farmer. Mr. Roy read the material with a knitted brow. He made several corrections and asked me to rewrite a portion. He suggested that I use a pseudonym. I wanted to adapt a Hindu name for this purpose. With a toothless smile, ma chose a name that had Roy at the end. Mr. Roy took the script to his school and discretely mimeographed several copies.
I lived with the Roy family for almost a year. Over this time period, my newspaper grew in size and content. My friends who were hiding in neighboring villages would send me news and views. I would compile them. Although my adapted name was used as the editor, Mr. Roy would do the job of correcting and occasionally censoring. He would insist that I read a few books and improve my grammatical skills. He started teaching me preliminary English. His teaching was always followed with some form of testing. I was not fond examination, but he would reward me by bringing books of poems from the school library.
One day Mr. Roy unexpectedly came back home from school in the middle of the day. He climbed to the attic with a transistor radio. He looked confused. He told me that the president of Bangladesh was murdered along with most of his family members and relatives. The military had taken over power. One coup d'etat was followed by a counter coup. The situation of coup and counter coup continued for a while. I started spending part of my evenings with the Roy family downstairs listening to BBC. One day, Mr. Roy brought more news. He climbed to the attic again and showed me two newspapers. I read that a large number of political prisoners were released from jail that included Mr. Hussain. I further learned that the rakhi bahini had been dismantled by the new military regime. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Roy found out that I was no longer on the wanted list.
It was a bright morning when I had my breakfast with the Roy family for the first time in the downstairs kitchen. Afterwards, I touched ma's feet to say goodbye. Ma blessed me with the touch of vermilion on my forehead. I came outside, looked at the clear sky after a long time. As I walked to the local bus stop, I was not very steady. My back hurt, probably because I had not walked or stood erect for a long time.
I had a smooth ride back to Moulvi Bazaar town where I had attended college briefly. I hesitated for a while at the bus stop. I was not sure whether I should be going back to my relatives' house. I stepped into a barber's shop and looked into a mirror. I was surprised to see my change. In the mirror, I saw my long bearded reflection that resembled more a monkey than a man. I thought, I should clean up, but I did not have the money. I left the shop and started walking on the street. I ran into a man I knew. He told me that Mr. Hussain was being given a reception in the local press club. I walked there directly.
Outdoor assembly was not yet permitted in Bangladesh, therefore, Mr. Hussain's reception was organized inside the press club. Upon entering, I noticed about forty people sitting on the floor. Mr. Hussain was speaking wearing a yellow marigold garland. He noticed me immediately and waved. During his speech, he took off his khadi Kurta (home spun loose shirt), and showed his chest full with brown and bluish marks of torture inflicted while in prison. The reception followed by a tea party. I took the opportunity to distribute some copies of my mimeographed newspaper to local journalists.
I started living with my relative as I had lived before. He was a government officer. Within a few days, I came to realize that I was no longer the same person as before. I became used with vegetarian meals while living in the Roy's attic. My relative's family ate meat. I also learned my political opinion had evolved. I no longer agreed with my relative's view that a newborn country needs to be ruled by military for stability's sake. Readjustment with food habit was easy but the political perspective was not. So, I had to learn a process of coexisting without conflict. My relative was kind, but he had opinions about my life. He pressured me to go back to college. He made the point that it was not the study but my safety that concerned him. He thought that if I enrolled again I would give an impression that I have a normal life. I consulted with Mr. Hussain. He also thought that for strategic reasons I should hang out in a college as long as martial law prevailed.
I enrolled again and got permission to sit in private for the Higher Secondary Certificate examination. My relative found a tutor. While I was preparing for the examination, a journalist from a local newspaper asked me to write stories about my experience in the village. I was excited. I started a series entitled "Letter from a Remote Village". I wrote about the atrocities that occurred in the farmers' lives. Some of my stories were published. I was told to focus on stories but not analysis. I learned that the press was subject to"limited censorship". I further learned to compromise my writing in order to get a newspaper space for expression.
In college, I got acquainted with some young writers. I regularly participated in a forum where young writers were encouraged to read their new writing. Mr. Depan Das, a gray hair professor who was the chair of the Bengali department, would give feedback and encourage my writing. I would spend hours sitting under a frangipani tree writing and rewriting before going to this forum. I was never satisfied. Pinkish flowers would fall on my script. Evening dew would make the writing pad moist, the sunlight would be faded but I would not stop trying. I started sending my poems to journals. Some of them were published.
I wanted a writing outlet where I didn't have to negotiate with editors. I thought I could edit a small magazine. I talked with my writer friends and was encouraged. I collected writings and organized the script. When I finally gave the script to a printing press, I was excited. After a few days I learned that the local intelligence officers had confiscated the materials from the printing press. I felt angry and went to the local police station. An officer told me politely that the administration was required to examine my materials to search for subversive elements. I was informed that it might take a year to do the assessment.
I tried to meet the sub-divisional officer who was responsible for the town of Moulvi Bazaar. I was denied. I visited professor Das whom I always thought of as my patron. He told me to do nothing. He said, "this is martial law, we all need to maintain a very low profile. This is not the right time to publish a magazine. You don't want to be in military's black list." I went to the local news paper office and requested the editor to publish this news of confiscation. The editor laughed. He said, "it would be too dangerous." I felt rejected and confined myself in my relatives' house. I would sit under the frangipani tree but was not able to write any more. I decided to leave town.
I went back to the village of Hasnabad after a long time. I went around the village and met many people. Hasnabad had not changed a lot. I took my evening meal with Ajmot Ali's family. The food was familiar - rice and dried fish. Ajmot Ali smoked the hukka (water pipe) while his wife served the meal. I felt the absence of his daughter Nabitun and asked where was she. My question was met with silence. I noticed a distance look in Ajmot Ali's face. He continued smoking while his wife hid a deep sigh. She covered her face with edge of her sari and left. I finished my meal with uneasiness.
In the late evening, I sat with a group of villagers under the ancient bunyan tree. We all were chatting to catch up. At some point, I took out the cuttings of "Letter from a Remote Village" and read out a story. Gulab Ullah, a landless farmer sitting next to me was mentioned in the story. I finished the reading describing how he was assaulted by a jutdhar. He reacted by saying, "hai hai alas, if I knew how to read". Iman Meah, a rickshaw puller asked me if I could write a story about Ajmot Ali's daughter Nabitun. I asked what happened to her. Iman Meah lit his bidi, coughed loudly and said, "Mullah and some jutdhars pressured Ajmot Ali to send his daughter back to her husband's house. They threatened him with excommunication from the panchayat (traditional village forum) if he did not obey. Ajmot Ali had no choice. The reluctant Nabitun had to go back to her husband. No one knows what happened there. After a few months, news arrived in Hasnabad that her sari had caught fire and she burned to death".
I felt a surge of emotion. I sat for a while under the tree alone even after all villagers left for home. I experienced a personal loss. I started wondering why I came back to this village. Was I nurturing a desire to see Nabitun again? What connection did I have with her? I realized that I had developed an attachment with her without being conscious of it. Moonlight broke though the clouds creating mysterious shadows among the bunyan leaves. I started thinking to write about her. My emotions transformed into words, sentences and symbols the way clouds melt into rain. Slowly, I composed an eulogy.
I did not want to go back to Moulvi Bazaar because my ego had been hurt there. I wanted to stay in Hasnabad. I was careful not to organize any activity with political overtones. Under martial law, political activities were not permitted. I was careful not to invite trouble. I thought about Gulab Ullah's comment. I read more stories from "Letter from a Remote Village" to the villagers. Two other villagers expressed their casual interest to learn to read. I organized a baitak (meeting). I asked if people would be interested to learn reading and writing and some showed interest. I expected Ajmot Ali to oppose the idea, but he remained silent. When we were looking for space, he offered his tiny hut in the outer yard where I was sleeping.
I started an adult literacy class with four persons. I did not have any materials. I reconnected with Mr. Roy who gave me some books, pencils and a broken blackboard. My adult learners did not find these books interesting because they were written for children. Instead, I wrote up a real life story that had recently occurred in Hasnabad. Some learners adored it. I had them tell me more stories. I would calligraph and then mimeographed these stories at Mr. Roy's school.
These stories generated a great deal of discussion. The villagers who were not interested in reading and writing played a key part in analyzing the stories. I learned that literacy was not their need but rather they were concerned with poverty and social injustice. I knew that I couldn't change the situation by doing a literacy class. But I thought it was important to discuss the social situation.
I remember a discussion about the shortage of drinking water. Most of the farmers were dependent on Jutdhars' pond. As a group social action, we dug two wells, one in Ajmot Ali's and another in Gulab Ullah's yard. This generated great enthusiasm. Next, we created a gula (rice storage) where farmers contributed rice. Someone in need of food was allowed to borrow rice from the gula instead of from a jutdhar.
Now the village panchayat pressured the villagers not to come to adult literacy class. The villagers talked about this ban for hours concluding that jutdhars and mullahs dominated the panchayat. I calligraphed literacy materials based these discussions. We talked if we could organize an alternative panchayat for the farmers. The villager agreed to form a somity (organization) which would function as their panchayat. Subsequently, a group of jutdhars and a mullah came to the hut. They told me not to corrupt the farmers and to leave the village immediately. I refused.
Hasnabad gave me an opportunity to read a large number of books. I would walk to the high school and come back with a pile of books from the library. In the day when farmers were busy plowing land, I would sit under a tree and read. In the late evening when all the discussion and literacy practice was over, I would write. I was working on a novel. The main character of the novel was a young revolutionary who was committed to social change. My character resembled me but he was doing heroic things in the story that I was not capable of in real life. I also described Gulab Ullah and Ajmot Ali under different names as characters fighting for social justice.
I devoted a whole chapter to depict the character of Ajmot Ali's daughter, Nabitun. She was no longer a docile wife of a husband who demanded more dowry. She left home and started living with a revolutionary group in an underground location. She was preparing herself to organize political activism in order to establish women's right. I remember it was a cloudy and humid night when I finished the episode. I was happy with the progress, so I went to sleep peacefully. I was awakened in the middle of night with suffocating smoke and extreme heat. I opened my eyes to notice curled red flames of fire in all directions. I screamed and tried to open the door. The door seemed tied up from the outside. I screamed again and kicked at the door. The flimsy bamboo wall, engulfed with fire, collapsed immediately. I jumped over the flames to the yard. Ajmot Ali and his wife came out of their house. I watched the hut, literacy materials and my script all burned into ashes.
There was no evidence but the farmers believed that the Jutdhar had set the fire. I sent the account to the newspaper, but nothing was published. Slowly, the farmers and I rebuilt the hut and produced the materials again. The idea of developing a newspaper for the farmers came to me. I wrote up the news of the fire at the literacy center in easy language. A learner illustrated the scene. Another learner composed a folk song commemorating the event. I calligraphed the account and put it on a public wall.
I lived in Hasnabad a few months during which time I developed more newspapers as dewal patrika (wall magazine). Jutdhar's atrocity was a constant theme of the paper. I would not name names, rather present the story under the veil of a metaphor. At the same time, the somity was growing well. The farmers selected their leader and started functioning like an alternative panchayat. We were proud of the progress but then trouble erupted. The Jutdhars came in a large, menacing group with guns shooting into the air. A young Jutdhar pulled out a sharp knife and jabbed at my chest. The wound was not deep, but I was forced to leave Hasnabad.
I went back to Moulvi Bazaar defeated and spent a few days in a hospital. My relative was happy to see me back. During my recovery, he asked me to go back to college. I spent the next several months at the college hanging out with my writer friends. I had not heard any news from Hasnabad. I was surprised when a letter came. Gulab Ullah wrote only three or four sentences that they no longer had a literacy class but the farmers were still united under the somity. I read this letter many times and noticed that Gulab Ullah's handwriting had the same calligraphy that I learned from amma.
I met Nagibur Rahman, a young man of my age at the college. Nagib was a bird watcher. We would travel to marshy areas to watch migratory birds. He gave me books on nature conservation. From Nagib, I learned about the Chipko movement in India where indigenous people hugged trees to save them from loggers. One time we went to an Indian town named Dharma Nagor to find more books about this movement. We could not find anything on Chipko but came back with large book about Salim Ali, a legendary Indian bird watcher.
Sometimes in the late 1980's, Nagib took me to visit Sharer Goj Paher, a Hill region of the Moulvi Bazaar subdivision. Every morning we would walk quietly through the deep green forest to watch the birds. I remember, it was a foggy afternoon. We observed a habitat of parrots for an hour. We made entries in our fieldnotes as the bird watching book suggested. We were walking happily through the shrubs covered with silvery dew, sparkling slightly with light winter sun. Our path turned abruptly and we ran into villagers carrying a dead body. We learned that Faruk Meah, a young man of early 30s, had been shot point blank in his chest while collecting bamboo from the forest. The villagers further told us that the mohaldhar (owner of a logging company) had shot Faruk and threatened them if they went into the forest again. We walked with Faruk's body to his hut. We shyly watched as his grandmother raised her hands in a prayer and mourned quietly. We also witnessed Faruks' newly wed wife, cry violently and plunge herself into the chest of the dead body smearing her face with dark blood.
After the burial, Nagib left to follow the route of a rare migratory bird, but I stayed on in Sharer Goj Paher. I worked with people to protest the murder. My experience in Hasnabad taught me how to organize villagers. I was able to motivate them for a pado yatra (protest march). I, with thousands of marchers, walked to Moulvi Bazaar town about thirty miles away from the Sharer Goj. We violated the ban on political assembly. After the pado yatra, I stayed on for another two or three months. I helped people to organize. I helped them find out information about their rights, but still kept a low profile.
Living in Sharer Goj alerted me to the disproportionate destruction by loggers on the surrounding natural resource. I would take long walks. I observed how hillock after hillock became barren as a result of indiscriminate logging. Sometimes, I would sit on an exposed rock gazing at the flow of a brook. Water would cut through the shadow of one remaining large tree. A flock of bright green parrots would fly over head. I would think about the villagers. These people had been living at the edge of the forest for centuries. By replanting trees that they used, they ensured the regeneration of growth, but they no longer had the right to collect fodder, fuel wood and bamboo. On the other hand, mohaldhars, rich urban business people, were given the commercial rights to extract as much timber as they wanted.
In the mid 1980's, the Friends in Village Development Bangladesh (FIVDB), a local NGO (non-government organization) offered me a job. They wanted me to write primers and develop materials for their non-formal adult literacy program. At this time, the country was again under a harsh martial law and political activities were suppressed. I was not able to write what I wanted due to strong censorship. I accepted the job. I started interacting with people who had been doing non-formal adult literacy as their profession. From them, I learned a method of adult education that was introduced by Paulo Freire, an educator from Brazil.
At that time, I came in contact with two westerners, Allen Gibson, a tall bald man from Scotland and Geraldine Hines, a green-eyed woman from Ireland. I had grown up listening to stories of how shahibs had colonized our country. Although I never met any shahibs, I was skeptical of their presence. These two people changed my mind. Both were delightful, often helping me to learn English. Geraldine would remind me that other countries besides Bangladesh had been colonized by the British such has her country of Ireland. She was a woman of contradictions. Though she smoked constantly, she advocated health programs for the adult learners. Allen was more interested in planning. He organized information into diagrams and introduced me to the world of computers.
The core of my NGO experience was to conduct literacy classes with rickshaw pullers. I had come to believe that my experience in Hasnabad had been unsuccessful, but I came to realize Hasnabad had prepared me to work with the rickshaw pullers. I collected the rickshaw pullers' life stories, identified key words and produced lessons. I would field test the lesson to improve the materials. Step by step, I learned to involve the rickshaw pullers in writing their own materials. I knew that mainstream newspapers did not represent the issues important to these learners or at the level of their limited reading ability. So I organized a newspaper for adult new literates. My colleague, Enayet Islam, a professional photographer and painter, was very helpful. He taught me how to design the layout and how to add illustrations to support the text.
I observed the rickshaw pullers becoming readers. I noticed their level of social awareness increasing as a result of discussions. However, the social transformation I dreamed of was not occurring and I didn't know what else to do. I was becoming part of the rickshaw pullers' life. At the end of a class, I would walk with some of them to a darga (shrine). They would fall into rhythmic zekr (chanting). Anu Meah, an elderly one-eyed rickshaw puller, would sing a marfathy (spiritual) song. He would raise his face towards the sky, shut his one good eye and sing loudly "tell me my golden friend what have I to learn from the bazaar of life, tell me once again." The zekr would end at midnight. Anu meah and other rickshaw pullers, would go back to their home, but I stayed on, leaning my back on wall of the shrine. I would look at the night sky. The sound of crickets filled the atmosphere. I would think about Anu Meah's song. I had heard the same song many times in my childhood from the Antaj Ullah, the Basket weaver, but this time there was a new meaning. Was I doing the right thing? "What have I learned from the bazaar of life?"
I was working for FIVDB but not agreeing with every project my NGO implemented. I became aware that, despite the FIVDB's stated mission of participatory development, the NGO was pushing for projects that funders wanted rather than the villagers. I was developing disagreement with colleagues and becoming isolated. In these difficult times, I felt restless. I would take long bike rides, passing through rice fields, tea gardens and villages. Stray dogs would run behind the bike and barking at me. I would continue biking till darkness made my path invisible.
One time, I got lost. I got off and pushed my bike in the dark. I arrived in a yard where a group of people was sitting around a campfire. My sudden arrival startled them but they greeted me politely. I soon realized that they were speaking a language I did not understand. I was exhausted and sat near the fire. An older man started coughing. He seemed out of breath. The veins of his neck became swollen as he spit into the fire. He paused and spoke immediately in my native dialect with a heavy accent. From him, I learned that they were Patra, an ethnic minority community living for centuries on the edge of the forest. He told me that recently they had lost some of their fertile land to the expansion of a rubber garden. They had not received compensation for the loss. Our conversation continued for a while. Sorup Patra, the older man, showed me the technique of making charcoal between the gap of his deep cough. I learned that the Patra community makes charcoal by burning wood to sell to the iron-smiths in Sylhet town. I understood that due to land loss, charcoal making became a key profession for their livelihood.
I spent the night with Sorup Patra's family. The next morning when I was about to say goodbye to Sorup babu (Mr.), I noticed that he spit blood. With the help of Ziaur Rahman Shipar, a FIVDB colleague, I was able to transfer Sorup babu to a tuberculosis hospital in Sylhet town. After that, I became a regular visitor to the Patra village. I would spend days with them. One day, Suromoni, Sorup babu's wife, drew an imaginary line around my feet. She shut her eyes and pronounced that I was her brother in the last life. From her, I started to learn the Patro language. I prepared a glossary. I started recording some of the oral stories that Suromoni and other Patro elders told me. Simultaneously, I wrote a feature for a newspaper illustrating how a rubber company had confiscated their land.
Sorup babu came back from the hospital after two months. He looked better and took great interest to tell me the Patra history, rituals and clan etiquette. He asked his son to take me places where the Parta king had a palace, a temple and a huge pond. One day Sorup babu himself came out with his cane and showed me a legendary path, now covered with vegetation. The last Patra raja (king) Gourgobindo used this path to flee when the Muslim forces captured his kingdom in thirteen century. Depok Roy, a colleague from FIVDB, helped me to take pictures of the Patra's way of life - ruins, charcoal making fire, Suromoini and some other Patro individuals. I remember, after a long day of picture-taking, Depok and I would talk about colonialism. We researched through local history books and confirmed that the Muslim rulers had colonized the Patra community long before the British came to the Sylhet region. Depok helped me to compile the information I had collected about Patra culture into an article. It was published in a journal.
My FIVDB colleagues organized an adult literacy class and a children school for the Patra community. I learned quickly that since Bengali, the language of the curriculum, was not their first language, they were having difficulty to adapt. I started questioning if I was doing the right thing. I, along with my FIVDB colleagues, consulted with the Patra elders. They were ambivalent. Some wanted to learn Bengali; others did not.
Over several consultations around the charcoal campfire, I presented the information I had collected about their culture. Enthusiastically, they listened and played with the photos. By this time I had another story published in a newspaper describing how British tea planters had evicted the Patra community from their homeland for tea garden expansion. I prepared the essay based on the information Sorup babu and some other Patra elders provided. But the newspaper did not publish the names of the elders who provided the information due to lack of space. I felt sad. A week later, I received two complimentary letters from readers. The letters encouraged me to compile all the information I collected into a booklet form. FIVDB published it for wider circulation.
All these writing brought me some fame. Sylhet Radio invited me to discuss the Patra issue on air. Salim Samad, the Director of Development Feature Agency, asked me to become a regular contributor. I wrote features on topics such as how a foreign company was evicting people and deforesting at the same time. I remember one time being recognized in a tea stall as a writer of a story where I illustrated how topsoil was being used for baking bricks resulting in low productivity of paddy land. The tea drinker, a rural elite, bought jilabe (sweet pretzel) and cigarettes to greet me. Momentarily, I enjoyed the attention. However, I became uncomfortable with the awareness that people whose issue I illustrated did not even know how to read. While pedaling back to home one evening, I started thinking - am I doing the right thing?
In the late eighties, the political situation of Bangladesh was bleak. The normal political practice of dissent and demonstration was suppressed. The political parties were divided into factions. Armed conflict among rival political groups erupted everywhere. At that time, several political activists I knew were murdered. I remember New Year's day in 1990, when I was biking to the Patra village a school master stopped me to say that the body of Mr. Hussain was found mutilated in a graveyard. I had not met him in many years. He had been underground and following the dream of social revolution. I was no longer aligned with his political ideology but his killing was a great loss.
A week later, I went to Mr. Hussain's village to visit his family. I found his ancestral home burnt into ashes. His relatives were all hiding, fearing death from his political opponents. The villagers discouraged me from visiting his burial site because of the danger. The villagers informed me that an armed political group, the protégé of the ruling military regime, had forbid them to participate in Mr. Hussain's janaja (Muslim ritual for death).
On my way back, I bought a local newspaper at the bus station. On the bottom of the back page I saw the picture of my bird watching friend, Nagib, smiling with a pair of binocular in his hand. I read that he was stabbed to death. In the second picture, his face was disfigured by large quantities of nitric acid. An extremist political faction who claimed the responsibility of the killing had pinned a poster on his chest that read, "punishment to the reactionary anti-people bird watcher". Nagib left behind a book and articles on migratory birds. Somehow I managed go back to the Patra village that evening. Suromoni greeted me. I was not able to tell her what was going on in my mind, but she sensed my sadness. She put a garland of dry leaf and roots around my neck. Then sprinkled khor, a locally brewed fragrance on my head to calm me down.
I was so depressed. I took a week off from my regular work and confined myself in a public library in Sylhet town. I came across a dusty old magazine that had an article on Badshah Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, a legendary Pushtun leader from the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan. The article discussed how Khan had organized a non-violent "army" of 100,000 strong Pushtuns to fight against the colonial injustice in 1930s. I was drawn to learn more about Frontier Gandhi. I asked the librarian if he knew any more books or essays about Khan's non-violent movement. The bearded librarian studied me over his bifocals, climbed up the trembling rung of his ladder and found me a moth eaten autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. I read the Bengali translation of My Experiments with Truth. The reading had a healing affect on me. The librarian helped me to locate several articles and books that illustrated how some Bengali and indigenous personalities resisted British raj (colonial administration) and local feudal oppression in a non-violent manner. I began compiling information from different sources. After a month long research, I started writing a series about historical events where Bengali and indigenous people took non-violent political actions. A small regional newspaper published the series of five episodes.
I was looking for a change. PACT (Private Agencies Collaborating Together), an American NGO, invited me to participate in a training institute in the United States. I was expected to present the process of developing literacy material in Bangladesh. Despite my poor ability to communicate in English, I accepted this opportunity to travel. In the summer of 1990, I arrived at Northampton, a small town in Massachusetts, after two days of flying. I ran into Hollyn Green, a Caucasian woman wearing torn up oriental brocade flip flop shoes. She introduced herself as the coordinator of the training institute. We were staying at the Smith College students' hostel. She took me to the kitchen to show how to use a coffee maker. Shaking slightly her antique bronze colored hair, she told me that she speaks Farsi. I learned that Hollyn had just come back from Istanbul where she was working with Iranian and Kurdish refugees.
The Center for International Education (CIE) at the University of Massachusetts had organized this six-week training institute that gave me an opportunity to interact with literacy professionals from twelve different countries. During our field trips and parties, we all would mingle with beer cans in hand and exchange experiences and frustrations with our literacy work. Most evenings, we would chat in the lobby of Smith colleges' hostel. I remember an evening when I had difficulty to fall in sleep due to the time change. Hollyn, wearing a woven oriental scarf, came to my room looking for a drink. I offered her some cheap Irish tobacco and a rolling paper instead. We sat together on the wooden stairs of the hostel over looking the late evening sky. Hollyn told me about her participation in anti-Vietnam War activities. She surprised me by reciting from Hafiz, a Farsi poet. Hafiz's poem made a bridge between us. As a child, I had seen many editions of dewani-e-Hafiz (collection of Hafiz's poems) in our house. In times when my uncle was in a dilemma, he would ask me to open the book arbitrarily. He would recite the poem with devotion and look for guidance from it. My increasing friendship with Hollyn posed a dilemma. This was the first time I am coming in contact with a woman whose culture I do not know. I wanted to look at the dewan for direction.
When I arrived in Northampton, my understanding of the U.S. was that it is a country of Caucasian with some African descents living as a legacy of slave trade. Hollyn took me to places and parties that showed that the U.S. demography was much more diverse than I thought. I was surprised to meet people from ten or twelve different origins, all recently new Americans, joining in potluck parties with their diverse accents and flavorful ethnic foods. I would walk with Hollyn in huge malls looking at the stocks of consumer goods realizing that I can not buy most of them. Another day, we watched a group of homeless people demonstrating on the streets of Northampton protesting social service cuts. At the end of the training institute, when I was expected to visit some of my Bangladeshi friends, I chose to go to Cape Cod, a coastal port, with Hollyn instead.
I returned to Bangladesh after the two-month visit in the U.S. Hollyn's letter followed me. I would receive a letter every other day. I was not yet good at writing English. So I had to take a special effort to learn how to answer. I grew up believing the notion that English was a colonial language that was used to domesticate people from our part of the world. The training institute at the U.S. taught me that I could use the same language for other purposes. As I was learning how to write letters. I was communicating with Hollyn and with literacy professionals from Lesotho, South Africa and other countries. This realization encouraged me to study English systematically. I would listen to the English news on the radio and read novels. One year later, in the summer 1991, Hollyn sent me a fiancee visa. I went back to Northampton again. She was coordinating the same training institute. This time, I got a job as trainer. In the autumn, we went to Vermont, a state just north of Massachusetts, to look at the fall colors. We were married by a female Justice of the Peace under a lilac tree without friends or relatives in attendance.
Hollyn and I started living in a tiny milkroom of a hundred-year old run down barn. She advised me to become a student at CIE. So did David Kinsey, a professor who had observed my presentations at the institute. I applied because I did not know what else to do in a new country. I could not pass the entry barrier tests of TOFEL or the GRE. Professor Kinsey and Professor Miltz supported my candidacy. Professor Miltz negotiated with the school for a year. Eventually, school accepted me as an experimental graduate student mostly based on my field experience. At thirty-five, I became a student of formal schooling one more time. Although I found some reading and researching interesting at the graduate school, I had difficulty to cope with the class attendance and paper writing requirements. I also had a problem figuring out how to translate academic knowledge with the field reality. However, I liked working at CIE.
Hollyn and I became coworkers. We worked as trainers with educators coming from other countries. We also visited several adult literacy projects in the New England area. These field trips helped me to learn that adult learners in the U.S. are not very different from learners in Bangladesh. They looked different in terms of their skin color and physical features. However, in deep down, the learners from both countries share similar problems of poverty, learning disabilities and social marginalization.
Four years after my immigration to the U.S., we both became restless to go back to the field. Hollyn and I applied for international jobs in education and development. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an U.S.- based NGO, hired us as Co-Field Directors for their rural development program in Laos. We arrived in Vientiane, the capital Laos, one of the remaining five socialist countries, in June 1995 with our fifteen month old daughter, Kajori.
We started living in a wooden stilt house on the Mekong. We tried to get to know the Lao people by visiting temples, the marketplace and our neighbors and learning Lao language. In my position as Field Director, I would travel to the field by helicopters and tiny planes. Sometimes a tractor or a Russian-built jeep would take me to remote villages where ethnic minorities were living for ages isolated by lush green mountains and rock formations. I grew up hearing that socialism promotes a classless society and provides free education and health care. Living in Laos has provided me a completely different impression. During our five-year stay, I visited over hundred villages where schools or medical facilities were non-existent. I also encountered a bureaucrat class of socialist party elite who not only controlled the government but also the other spheres of social life.
Hollyn and I witnessed the small landlocked country's transition to global market economy while still clinging to the one party system. We saw how trade liberalization was allowing multinational corporations to extract natural resources. We visited places massively dotted with bomb craters left from the Vietnam War. The government, the villagers and aid agency colleagues told us that there was a period when the U.S. dropped a plane load of bomb in northern Laos every eight minute. We observed how the Lao people were using bomb cases to grow flowers and vegetables. In places, they are turning the war metal into fine necklaces, cowbells and lamps. We became friends with men and women who had lost their hands or legs from an explosion of a leftover bomb. This experience forced me to write. I illustrated the story of a woman who walked from Laos to Vietnam in order to get way from the U.S. bombing. I described piles of unexploded bombs. I illustrated the cultural rituals of Lao ethnic minorities where I was welcomed.
In late summer of 2000, we came back to the United States. We now live in Amherst, a small town in Massachusetts. As a family, we participate in peace activities and marches that oppose the U.S. war involvement. We socialize with adult literacy learners, homeless people and inmates. I write about them in my native language. In quiet moments, I feel sorry that I no longer serve my community in Bangladesh. However, I try to build a bridge through my writing. Sometimes, I take a long walk on Robert Frost nature trail. I daydream as I pass through the woods. I imagine going to a new country, perhaps Vietnam this time, to learn about the culture. I imagine sitting under a raintree in the Red River delta, watching, farmers with their conical hats, turning the defoliant infested terrain into terraces of green vegetables and golden chrysanthemums.
 "A contrast between the caged and uncaged bird has been used as a metaphor in Bangali folklore for centuries. The general interpretation is a comparison between a conventional and unconventional path of life. However, some folk singers and poets used the same metaphor with a twist in meaning. For example, Lalon Shah and Hason Raja, two nineteen century 'bawl' (a folk spiritual tradition) singer poets, used this metaphor extensively to illustrate a contrast between worldly limitation and spiritual freedom."