The Case of the Common Nouns

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 6, 2016
The Case of the Common Nouns

A commoner’s the one who dies in the ditch, after being hit by a bus and then becomes part of a breaking news story. Nobody protests; no one cries; no one remembers. A common man’s the one who hogs, at the max, a two column in a daily newspaper, with details of the venue of his death, the time, the scene description, the statement issued from the office of the local law enforcing authority along with an official note. A commoner is a figure, a piece of data to be compiled at the end of the quarter, in order to enrich the national and international statistics. A commoner is always a common noun at the end of the day, withdrawing his or her claims on the proper, as soon as he or she dies. With death, a common man is reduced to dust, never a part of history, having died as the common tool used to attain extraordinary power and having become a part of development rhetoric.

In between March 1 and April 1, I received 112 breaking news notifications, out of which 82 news items covered the extraordinary and the powerful, ranging from national policies, international happenings, awards, down to cricket covering Asia Cup, T20 and all the ICC controversies. However, the rest 29 news items on the common people in 30 days were all about a student dying in the Dhanmondi lake; about the murder of the Rampura twins: about truck drivers killing kids, families, students, housewives; about life and death sentences for murderers of children and rapists of women; and about construction workers dying during work. Breaking news, as is practice, happens to be a record, a statement, a 160 character long announcement that sits firm on our cell phones and charges our pockets. We really don’t pay attention to the common nouns, do we? Can we really remember the name of the four Bangladeshis who died in Libya in March? Or the ones who were murdered in Maijdee in 2007, against which death penalty was handed over to thirteen people on March 23? Or the three dead siblings recovered in Brahmanbaria? Or the missing official of the capital’s Drik Picture Library, whose body was recovered from Narayanganj? What happens to these nameless, faceless commoners who do not figure in our regular equation of importance? What really happens is that these temporary protagonists remain relevant in our selective memories as long as we benefit from it every time we write a report, take to streets to protest, or use statistics in our speeches.

One of the members of this “common-group” visited me yesterday. This particular ‘nobody’ is Shahid. He is 5’5” in height, weighs around 60 kg and works at a garment factory in Narayanganj. A week ago, while he was looking for a CNG for a ride to his workplace, he was gagged, dragged into a microbus by four people, and was asked to keep his head down. This happened in Khilkhet. Armed with pistols and knives, they drove through the 300 metre-long road, took him all the way to Kaliganj and demanded a ransom of Tk. 2 lakhs. That poor employee pleaded for his life and asked to lessen their demand. Eventually, one of the abductors, who was from Barisal, felt sorry for his “deshi bhai” (Shahid is from Barisal as well) and brought down the asking figure to Tk. 1 lakh. Now it was Shahid’s turn to call his bosses and ask money to be sent through bKash. The request reached my ears almost instantly. Cases were filed in three different thanas at lightning speed. In spite of being told not to ever give in to ransom demands, I succumbed, and our team paid out the first Tk. 10,000. But unfortunately, the brutes did what they wanted to. So Shahid’s knuckles were the first to give in to torture. Since he was in constant communication, we were all being constantly updated. I gave in again and sent another Tk. 10,000. At this point, one of them went to an ATM and withdrew another Tk. 10k, dumped Shahid in Rupganj and fled. Shahid then was hospitalised, and was treated for severe neurological damage. When all of this was happening, I was asked not to pay ransom. But, I shall shamelessly admit that I did not pay heed to any of those warnings, just because my brain generated an “Only if it were me” prompt. Then again, should we irresponsibly give in to lawlessness, like I did? In my defense, all I can say is that when it comes to a point when intelligence resources cannot be spared for a “nobody” like Shahid, what other options does the society leave us with but to succumb to pressure? Till date, Shahid’s phone is ringing and the miscreants are answering his phone with full audacity. Needless to add, all law enforcing authorities have been given Shahid’s number and so far his phone hasn’t been tracked and nothing has happened.

Let me share a story with you on a lighter note. One of our young friends had lost her phone and had gone to the thana to report her loss. The officer there looked at her and asked, “Was it an iPhone?” She confirmed that it was. Upon her confirmation, the officer said, “We receive 720 cases at an average on a daily basis. So, yours, unfortunately, cannot be registered. Please use your application: Find My Phone and I am sure you will be successful.” So, every time we hear the beep, and a breaking news arrives on our handsets, we perhaps need to use irony and humour to see through them all. And perhaps we also need to realise that every breaking news item is seeped in helplessness and is often buried as data, while the real tragedy of the common man barely makes it to our hearts. To each one of us, it’s just another man being murdered for money or property, just another woman being raped in another city, and just another child being abused somewhere. Accidents and tragedies just “happen” to belong to someone else, someplace else at some other time. Till we own each one of these incidents, the ‘common’ will never have a name and will only serve the purpose of contemporary social references in useless anonymity.

In the battle of the common noun versus the proper, we need to acknowledge the fact it is the commons that run campaigns, queue up to vote, and contribute to the 6.5 percent GDP growth that we take pride in. So when these anonymous common nouns are being picked up, raped and murdered in common places, the system must work and remediate with expedited and proper efficiency. Otherwise, the powerful will risk an unforgiving oblivion and irrelevance, resulting from a common uprising of dissatisfaction.

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