Puti Maach and the Selfish Giant
Puti maachher praan (Many lives of a puti fish)
A small "puti" fish leaps out of the water and plops back in. Yes, even fish can contort muscles and use their fins in ingenious ways to glide, squiggle or somersault. They do so when they get startled—when they are pursued by some predators, or pursuing food themselves. The jump of a small fry can create a small ripple, but it can reach many shores—including that of Ganabhaban.
The constable who silenced the teenage boy, nabbed for joining the protest of his activist mother live-streaming the invasion of a patch of land by police, saying, "Don't you dare jump too much, you puti maachh," did not expect his action to draw such hullabaloo. Thanks to media uproar, the boy and his mother are now released from police custody. The battle for the field is won/lost (depending on which side of the story you want to side with) after the ultimate intervention of the prime minister, who could see through the riddle.
The riddle intensified when Kalabagan police claimed the legal right to build their station on a piece of an abandoned property allocated to them by the deputy commissioner's office. The community, however, had been using that particular plot for the last 50 years for different purposes, including Eid gatherings, washing of dead bodies for funerals, games, fairs and festivities. Their attachment to the field is sentimental. Many residents gave their loved ones the last rite in this field; many come here for a morning or evening walk; and for the most, this is the place for their Eid jamaat. And for the children, this is the only place where they could play some sports, albeit in the dust.
The name Tentultala suggests that there was probably a tamarind tree in the field, but now the place looks like a dusty patch with few scattered trees on the side, offering a much-needed breathing space for the people living in the stifling concrete jungle of Kalabagan. The police needed a permanent station to render service and security to the community. Ironically, in securing the place, they became a source of insecurity for the people they are supposed to protect.
Construction materials in a barbed-wire zone became the bone of contention. Members of the civil society added voice to Syeda Ratna, whose citizen journalism brought the issue to the fore. The spirit that she and her son displayed at a place named after tamarind made me think of spirits of a different kind.
Tetul pata Tetul pata, tetul boro tok (Tamarind leaf, tamarind leaf; Tamarind's so tart)
Legend has it: tamarind trees attract ghosts and other paranormal activities. I found two scientific explanations. The acidic content of the tamarind leaf and the high amount of carbon dioxide released by the plant do not allow other plants to grow under it. Stories of many unnatural deaths are associated with this species. The seedy-shaped fruits hanging in a bunch can be scary at night when winds cause them to swing.
Ghosts in popular culture exist in the twilight zone of belief and non-belief, presence and absence. The field, with its diabolical status of simultaneously "being" and "not being" a playground, is thereby a figurative ghost. It was once allocated to a non-Bangalee architect for designing the neighbourhood before the Liberation War. In absence of the rightful owner, who never took possession of the land, the place allowed the presence of the residents to thrive. But there are spirits that do not like free spirits to roam. Fences were erected, and the mobility was stopped. Police appeared like the Selfish Giant in Oscar Wilde's short story who put up a sign "Trespassers will be prosecuted" to stop children from coming to his cherry orchard.
In Wilde's story, the cherry orchard of the giant was filled with blossoms when children were playing in it. But the Selfish Giant put up the warning sign and scared the children away. The garden stopped blooming, and winter started reigning. By the time the giant realised his fault and allowed a crippled boy to enter his garden to play, it was too late. The boy turned out to be a messenger of God who came to take the giant to the heavenly garden now that he had shown love.
Tumi thako dale, ami thaki khale, tomar amar dekha hobe moroner kale (You're in the branch up there; I'm in the water down here; Death will bring you and I together)
Any avid reader will know the answer to this riddle. The fish and the tamarind come together when they meet in the cooking pot. The drama that we witnessed reminds me of the local delicacy of puti maachher tok (tangy puti stew). The underlying tone, however, is a sad one.
A playground or a park is important for the healthy survival of a populace. In the last 22 years, the number of playgrounds in Dhaka dropped from 150 to 24. Thirty-seven wards of the city out of a total of 129 do not have a playground. The global standard requires an acre of green land for every 5,000 people. That means, for 25 million Dhakaites, we need 2,500 fields. In a generous estimate, we have about 150. The per capita green space in Dhaka in 1995 was 0.5 sq-m as per Rajuk, but it decreased to 0.052 sq-m in 2009. This is a recipe for death. Our construction mania is a destruction mantra.
The splash of the spritely puti maach is a wake-up call for all of us. Not always will we have a fairy godmother to save us from selfish giants. Life is not a fairy tale. To people this tale with living characters, we need to infuse the setting with ingredients of life. Parks and playgrounds are cases in point. The sooner our administrators realise that, the better for us.
I believe the residents of Kalabagan will gather in Tentultala ground to say their Eid prayers, and raise their hands to pray for the timely interventions of the activists, media, and the prime minister, who made a joyous difference. Eid Mubarak!
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).