What do you see through your rear window?

Posted in society by jrahman on October 27, 2009

215px-RearwindowposterRear Window is a 1954 Hollywood classic.  Set in Manhattan, James Stewart plays a photographer nursing a broken leg.  He sits bored in his Greenwich Village apartment, passing the time by spying on his neighbors — a dancer who likes to practice in her underwear (it’s summer), a woman who lives by herself, a musician working at his piano, and several married couples, including a salesman with a bedridden wife.  As the movie progresses, Stewart, his girlfriend Grace Kelly, and us the viewers, start suspecting that the salesman has killed his wife.  But we never know until the very end whether there really was a murder, because all the unusual things raising suspicion had reasonable, innocent explanations.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the movie is considered as one of the best thrillers ever made. 

I have often wondered what would happen if the movie was set in today’s Dhaka, where life is every bit as hectic and alienating as it is in 1950s (or even present day) Manhattan.  Dear reader, if you were sitting with a binocular in the balcony of your Uttara/Mohammadpur/Poribagh/Shantinagar flat, and saw suspicious going ons in the neighbouing building, what would you do?

This is obviously a rhetorical question.  But let’s think about the underlying social dynamics here.  In a small town, or in a suburb, the stylised social dynamics is that most people know what goes on in others’  lives.  If someone’s wife is missing all of a sudden, people notice.  It is difficult to conceal a murder in such a setting.  In a big city, this isn’t possible.  People might not even know the neighbour, let alone if someone is murdered.

Take the Awami League lawmaker Barrister Tapash for example.  It turns out that he lived in the same Gulshan building as the brother of Major Dalim (infamous for his role in the 15 August massacre that killed Tapash’s parents).  Did Tapash and Swapan, Dalim’s brother, know each other?  When did Tapash move into the building?  Would he have known that Dalim’s brother was living there?  Would he care? 

Tapash and Swapan live in the rich end of the town.  What about the solid middle class and lower middle class neighbourhoods.  What about the residents of buildings described here?  Do they know who their neighbours are?  Would they know if the khalamma or the bhabi in the neighbouring flat goes missing? 

I have wondered about these questions, but have no answer myself.  I don’t know Dhaka well enough to answer.  But my family and friends who live in Dhaka don’t seem to have any clear answer either.  Some of them have lived in the same building for decades, and tell me that they used to know the neighbours well, but not any more.  Others have moved into their buildings more recently, and have no idea nor interest in neighbours. 

Of course, this lack of interest in one’s neighbour’s affairs need not be a bad thing.   This shows a growing appreciation of privacy, a better recognition of an individual’s right to be left alone.  But there are flipsides.  In Rear Window a possible murderer could have gotten away because no one cared about their neighbour.  The same could be happening in Dhaka.

In fact, it’s not even certain that this kind of thing can’t happen in small town or village.  Last year, an Austrian guy was found to have repeatedly raped his daughter for nearly two decades in his basement.  This happened in a small town, and no one knew.  And this doesn’t happen just in the capitalist, materialist west.  As Rumi bhai discusses here, a serial killer haunted rural Bangladesh without anyone realising what was going on.  It seems that it’s not just Manhattan, even in rural Bangladesh one might not know much about their neighbours!

Let’s think about something else.  Those of you who had moved to a big western city from desh as a young person would know the sense of alienation and depression that comes from being alone for the first time in your life.  When someone moves from a village in Gaibandha or Golachipa to Dhaka, wouldn’t they feel exactly the same way?  In the urban jungles of the west, there is a dozen way you can get over your blues.  What does the young person in Dhaka do? 

Bangladesh’s economy has been growing by around 6 per cent a year, doubling every 12 years.  Per capita income is doubling every two decades.  It is by no means a stretch to say that most Bangladeshis today are better off than their ancestors at any point in the past few centuries.  But this also means that our social fabric is ripped asunder.  In Rumi bhai’s words: the era that Rasu Kha ushers in front of us, is a bad era.

But surely we are not the first people to have gone through this social change.  Jack the Ripper stalked the alleys of East London, not far from the Banglatown, in the 1890s.  His preys had living conditions that were certainly no better than those of Rasu Kha’s victims.  In the late 1960s, a large scale social science research found what were considered ‘Bengali religious and moral values’ simply didn’t exist in the slums of Kolkata (source: Geoffrey Moorehouse’s Calcutta).

The question for our social scientists and activists is how we can learn from the experience of those who went before us.

(Crossposted at UV)

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