Good conversations are rare these days. That again is only natural when politics becomes polarized, to a point where every discussion on the affairs of state falls under the shadow of the partisan. Besides, there is also the fact that consumerism, which has in these past few decades been a predominant factor in Bengali life, has quite left the art of conversation stifled. Capitalism, as most of you might agree, is a positive danger for a society trying to free itself of poverty.
In Bangladesh, the rise of an elitist culture has created the perfect conditions for a rapid march backward to blissful ignorance. In other words, regression has been an underpinning of life these past many years. In a land where the art of reading has fast been turning into a lost cause and bookshops have been winding down, you do not expect good conversations to flow through living rooms and cavernous halls.
Note that few homes are there these days where you can come upon a collection of books or even journals. If that is modernity, we have all been paying a price for it. Rare is the home or the family which will make you feel comfortable on the intellectual front. Conversations are, from such a perspective, becoming an idea that is prehistoric in essence.
But, then again, there are those moments where a lunch gets transformed into a lively conversation on ideas, underlined as they are by nostalgia, reminiscences and a dash of humor. Put a journalist or two together around that lunch table and bring into the company a couple of former government officials. If possible, pull in an academic.
What follows is a charming afternoon passing quietly and happily into a contented evening. You speak of presidents and of the many individual nuances in their attitudes to office; you recall the arrogance of retired bureaucrats and the sycophancy demonstrated by superannuated diplomats as you have seen them. The purpose is surely not to badmouth them but it is surely to draw attention, in that subtle way, to the different facets of human behavior.
There are the tales of beautiful film stars getting entangled with politicians, with the latter paying the price, which rekindle the realities of old. The odor of scandal is always something to build on, for tales of forbidden romance and the resultant intense deliberations on them have always been the staple of conversation. You do not undermine the film stars or the politicians. You simply travel back to an era where romance of the kind they engaged in, if they at all did, was not looked kindly upon. In that conversation, it is their bravery or foolhardy behavior you draw attention to.
Healthy conversations come laden with things anecdotal. Was a dictator tall or short or of middling height? There is no way you can be sure, for the dictator is dead. Remembering him is the beginning of a retelling of the old yarns about him, the jokes that have been around since before he crashed to earth in an aircraft that theoretically was immune to accidents.
Conversations get to have more spice added to them, even as mugs of tea follow to keep them going, when they zero in on presidents busy worrying if they will be covered by the newspapers on the morning that is ahead. There is then the story of upright presidents who feel they have absolutely every reason to berate the gangs of shady businessmen who wish to be in their cherished company. The bluntness of these morally upright heads of state is what such conversations focus on, for these men have the courage to ask these robber barons why they steal public money and yet strut around like proud peacocks.
Good conversations often veer round to talk of old music, of good books, of the absence of books in the original and of a surfeit of translated versions of them. Have you wondered why books which once related to the War of Liberation and which were written by individuals in countries around yours were once spotted in the bookshops in Dhaka but have now gone missing? The translations are there, of course. But how certain can the reader be that paragraphs or pages have not been inserted there that were not there in the original? And, by the way, why must books written and published abroad, especially about your country, not find their way into your bookshops?
A characteristic of a good conversation is the many shades of laughter which come into it. The former civil servant enlightens you with tales of the amusing he experienced in his days in government. He who once saw politicians up close speaks of their strengths and of their foibles. The journalist, knowing he is good company, makes a promise to himself even as he laughs uproariously with the others that at some point in future he could pack all those stories in a work that just might attract light and lightness as it seeks readers.
A good conversation energizes those who engage in it. It is a journey of the mind translated into stirrings of the heart.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age