May 9, 2020
Greetings from Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the city is in lockdown.
Our confinement signals its continuing existence through the absence of sound. This once-chaotic megacity—known mainly for its noise, crowding and pollution—has fallen eerily quiet. The azaan dutifully rings out five times a day, but the mosques are closed, even during the holy month of Ramadan. Instead of teenagers singing in the adjacent park at night, all we hear now is the soft murmur of frogs.
I’m sure you remember that Dhaka is no stranger to enforced shutdowns. Hartals—general strikes—have been used as a political weapon from British times to protest tyrannical rule. But this shutdown is proving a lot harder to manage, as the people are asked to strike this time against an unknown and unseen enemy.
Many Bangladeshis live on the edge of subsistence in the best of times. The virus has shut down most jobs, farming, and education across the country, and our burgeoning welfare schemes can barely reach everyone. We are witnessing a sight not seen in almost fifty years: flocks of poor people milling about empty streets, desperate for food. Everyone is giving to charity, but what we do at the individual level feels quite inadequate to the enormity of the situation. Still, we do what we can, and then retreat to the new rhythm of our days.
Perhaps I am better equipped for the enforced isolation, as a writer and an intense introvert (or a misanthropist, as my wife would say). I grew up idealistically admiring those freethinkers who were placed under house arrest for their self-harming obduracy. And I feel I’m getting an ersatz taste of such an existence, though mercifully free from the accompanying political or judicial terrors.
I languish late in bed, and drink excessive quantities of coffee through my Zoom meetings, which thankfully must end after forty minutes. Afternoons bring the pleasure of reading. In the evening, the extended family gathers on the roof. We family elders drink tea and watch the children play cricket while our dog chases the ball. We all marvel when a rare airplane flies overhead and we speculate as to its purpose. Kites, an old pastime, can be seen again flying from rooftops.
Bangladeshis are, I say without calumny, specially trained to cope with disasters. But this one will test us, as everyone else, in new ways. We can take heart from our record of resilience but can’t help but fret about the possible scale of the challenge ahead.
I pray for this virus to end. I pray it will not harm those I love. I also secretly wish that my own small removal from the world could go on forever.
The season of storms is upon us. As I write, the rain is beating the window, as hard as pellets. This season is known for its duality: it cleanses away the dust of the winter, but also brings the whirlwinds, leaving destruction and destitution in their wake.
I hope you and your family are keeping safe and well, and that this worldwide hartal of our generation will lift someday soon.
Your old friend,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Ahmed’s contribution will be directed to Sajida Foundation.