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Kill a mocking monster

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A woman is in tears in the village of Mareya in the Boda upazila of Panchagarh as she searches for her two relatives who have been missing since a boat carrying Hindu worshipers heading to the Bodeshwari temple capsized in the Korotoa River on September 25, 2022. PHOTO: MD QUAMRUL ISLAM RUBAIYAT

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A woman is in tears in the village of Mareya in the Boda upazila of Panchagarh as she searches for her two relatives who have been missing since a boat carrying Hindu worshipers heading to the Bodeshwari temple capsized in the Korotoa River on September 25, 2022. PHOTO: MD QUAMRUL ISLAM RUBAIYAT

I’m trying to get that image out of my head. Over a hundred people of all ages came to get their place on a boat that would take them across the Korotoa River to celebrate Mahalaya. These pilgrims have joined the herd in good faith – they must go to the temple to invite their goddess before she begins to descend from Mount Kailash for the annihilation of the monster. They would also pay homage to their deceased ancestors. There was not a centimeter of empty space left on the boat. The boatman waded back and forth to check how his passengers had been lined. Some last-minute passengers touched the edge reverently or doused the waters reverently before the boat set sail.

They were devotees from the Panchagarh district, at the northern tip of Bangladesh, who had rented this boat to visit the Bodeshwari temple. Surprisingly, none of them – out of the hundred pilgrims – pointed out how dangerous it was to travel like this. Not a single soul protested, “I’m not getting on this ship.” They simply sailed to their death. Within minutes the overcrowded boat capsized and most worshipers perished; at least 68 bodies have been found so far, many of which are still missing.

What made them join this death march? A belief that they would be taken care of by divine providence! The practical reason was that it was the best they could afford. Who in their right mind would like to see their money wasted? The Korotoa River had other plans, however. As tame as he seemed in the fall, there was no room for recklessness. Shouldn’t I pity these victims? Instead, I am bowled over by their mindless stupidity. I’m angry at those people ashore who let them dock unsafely and continued to record the show. I am angry with the relatives who came to see them for not talking to these people. The accident shows how cheap our lives have become. What is the point of paying compensation per body? Use this money to improve transport quality and safety rules. Use it to educate people and instill common sense.

I try to get another image out of my head. Hundreds of Eden Women’s College students were seen screaming and screaming, fighting, pulling their hair and banging on the iron door in the middle of the night. The scene was noisy; I haven’t turned up the volume on my TV. A deja vu. The allegations are serious and outright illegal: student leaders are allegedly involved in seat trading, extortion, torture, forcing other students to engage in unethical activities, and controlling hostels and cafeterias. We have heard it before. The college principal said The star of the day that previous investigations were still ongoing, and she is now seeking psychological counselors to change student mindsets.

My common sense tells me not to rock the boat carrying the Eves of Eden. They are no less powerful and deadly than their male colleagues, whom we recently saw in action. And the sad thing is that the existential label they wear and the jerseys they wear are only temporary. Their essential identity is linked to power politics. They blindly join the party vehicle in hopes of being blessed by divine providence. It is a slow death of another kind: the massacre of a generation. And the worst part is that they devour the image of their founder, who fought to give us freedom.

I’m trying to get that image out of my head. After a hiatus from an administrative position at a private university, I resumed my work at the oldest university in the country. I’m assigned a class called “Novels through Theory,” in which I teach Frankenstein, a multi-layered 19th century text written by 19-year-old Mary Shelley. The author believed she was responsible for the death of her mother, who died of a postpartum infection. Mary Shelley therefore wanted the human race to continue without the need for biological birth which kills many women. His science fiction is about creating a life without the need for a mother. She forces her male protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, to bring corpses to life in his laboratory.

My feminist reading of the novel shows the performativity of gender to argue that gender roles are elaborate social performances that one puts on in one’s daily life. It goes beyond fixed conceptions of “man” as “masculine” and of “woman” as “feminine”. Victor is the “mother” of the creature, for example.

I gave other examples of our national women’s football team, whose bravery at Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal, won the nation a coveted trophy that had eluded its male colleagues for decades. These women led the mission and returned as national heroes in a roofless bus under the sky. Their performance was masculine. But when some of these girls were returning to their hometowns on a public bus, they were verbally abused by conservative men for their alleged “abnormal” sexual performance in “skinny” clothes. In this remote private space, girls were reduced to being “stereotypical women”.

As I said these words, I noticed a few students in my class shaking their heads in visible displeasure. The signal was obvious. I have to be careful with my examples. Much like giving one of Frankenstein’s definitions, I had to refrain from referring it to our student body. Frankenstein is “something that destroys or harms the person or persons who created it”. But the irony is this: even Frankenstein, a name mistakenly given to the monstrous creature, wanted to learn. He read history, poetry, philosophy and politics, and wanted to know himself before his self-annihilation for the sake of mankind. He realized that the purpose of life is to give it meaning, not to die meaningless or become the cause of harm to others.

I try to drive these meaningless images out of my head.

Doctor Shamsad Mortuza is an English professor at Dhaka University.