Wonder years

Posted in action, Bangladesh, Drama, history, movies, sci-fi, thriller, TV by jrahman on November 10, 2017

Thirty years ago today, Dhaka was shut down as the opposition parties — all of them, Awami League, BNP, leftists, Jamaat — demanded the resignation of President HM Ershad.  There were meetings and rallies around the city, many turning violent.  A working class man in his mid-20s was killed around the General Post Office near Gulistan.  He had the words shoirachar nipat jak (down with autocracy) painted in his chest.  Written on his back was ganatantra mukti pak (free democracy).

Of course, there was no school that bright crispy early winter morning.  Our impromptu game of neighbourhood cricket was ended abruptly by an auntie whose window was smashed by a square cut, or perhaps it was a cover drive, or an overthrow — I don’t quite remember after all these years.  I do remember what happened next.  We rode our bikes.  We didn’t care about politics, but coming from a heavily politicised family, I knew enough to avoid going towards the city.  Instead, we gathered on the new road that was being built near our neighbourhood, and then hit the runway of the old airport.  I don’t think any of us had a watch, but even if we did, who checks the time when so much fun is being had!  Before we knew it, we were in the heart of the Cantonment, and it was around the time of the Asr prayer that we returned home.

I was reminded of the adventures of that day, and the parental wrath thus incurred, while bingeing on the latest episodes of Stranger Things.  I am told it’s not bingeing if I am watching only one season.  But I feel five hour-long episodes straight in a weeknight, starting after the day’s chores are done, counts as binge watching.  Bingeing or not, the second season of Stranger Things is even better than the first one.  And that’s quite a feat considering the hype.  Like everyone else, I had no idea about the first season before watching it, liking it instantly, even if it was, to use the show’s self-deprecation, a bit derivative.  I feared disappointment with the new season, fears that proved unjustified.  This must be how it would have felt to watch Godfather 2 or The Empire Strikes Back back then, unfiltered by the accumulated weight of pop culture now-memory.

Now-memory?  From the show.  This post will have spoilers.  Read at own risk.


Still here?  Good.  Arguably, how a story is told is just as important as any big reveal at the end.  Of course, the ending matters.  But knowing the ending won’t necessarily spoil a good yarn.  I for sure wouldn’t mind watching these episodes again, while being all cosy on the couch of that special friend, with some hot cha.  Watching TV together is an experience to be cherished, up to a point.  It can also signify a relationship where there is nothing nice left to be said to each other.

I digress.

I watched Stranger Things 2 well into the early hours, and the following day attended a talk about what keeps public policy economists up at night.  The nerdy heroes of the show would have been among the most avid technophiles of their time, and they used walkie-talkies and cassette players — ancient, right?  And yet, judging by the family’s consumption basket and her working hours, a single mother in a single job seemed to give her two boys a living standard that might be enviable to many of today’s (western) working, or even middle classes.  A more talented person somewhere out there is weaving a general theory on the ways of our lives.  As for me, let me indulge in more nostalgia.

The kid heroes of Stranger Things are slightly older than me.  Shibly Azad is more likely to be their age.  Like Azad, I had last lived in (as opposed to visited) Dhaka in the 1980s.  And I do share some of his memories — for one thing, for most of the decade our TV was a black-and-white 12-inches Sony.

Interestingly, Azad doesn’t mention the mini-series where Raisul Islam Asad plays a rural goodhearted simpleton who is hanged for his protest of some injustice.  Looking back, I suspect it had strong political undertones, which I am sure went over my head at the time.  I do remember though that I was very, very sad — though this is probably because one of my fupus used to call me Madhu Pagla, the character Asad played.

I am familiar with all of the TV dramas Azad writes about, not to mention all the actors and actresses.  But it’s hard to tell how much of what’s in my head reflects what I experienced in the 1980s, and what I learned later.  Memory is funny that way, right?

I think it’s safe to assume that I didn’t fully appreciate all the nuances — not just political or socioeconomic, but also the psychological and relating to human relationships — of these dramas.  How could I?  I was barely a tween in the second half of the 1980s.  I am not sure I understand human heart even now.  I did understand, and love, stuff of science fiction and adventure.  Azad mentions Al Mansur.  Not only was Mansur a fellow resident of Manipuri Para, he also acted in a mid-1980s science fiction series for kids.  Sadly, the only thing I remember from that 1986 show is the name of Mansur’s character — Chikon Kaka.

I remember more clearly the English shows the BTV aired.  Knight Rider was a very popular, and the KITT vs KARR fight was recreated many a times, both at school and in the para.  There were couple of other shows with super vehicles — AirwolfStreet Hawk.  There were shows with a supernatural bent — ManimalThe Man from Atlantis.  Shows from the previous decade — Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk — continued to air on BTV well into the 1980s.  But in the mid-1980s, the show we all loved to watch was The A-Team.  I am surprised that this isn’t mentioned here — the climactic episode’s redecoration of the Byers’ shed is something Hannibal Smith would proud of!

I loved the action adventure stuff on TV.  But even more than that, I loved reading.  I had learnt to read at four, devouring a lot of Russian stuff that were translated into Bangla.  In fact, I had read Rushdesher Upokotha before Thakurmar Jhuli — how is that for cultural imperialism?  But I had moved on from that childish stuff by the time I was seven.  That’s when I first read Chader Pahar and Shonar Kella, and Sheba translations of Tarzan, Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer.  In my tweens I was reading Masud Rana, Alistair Maclean, Garbhadharini, and books about Palestine.  And then there was Mr Holmes.

I was a bona-fide nerd.  You see why I love the monster-slayers of Hawkins?

Was it hard J, growing up, kids can be vicious you know — I was recently asked on a date.  No, it wasn’t hard, largely because I was lucky to be protected by some older bhaiyas and apus.  At school, this had a political undertone that wasn’t lost to me even then.  I attended an air force school, where civilian kids like us were targets of school yard bullying.  We were jealously guarded by the older kids.  None of them had the hair of Steve Harrington, but then again, I am not sure Farah Fawcett hairspray was available in Dhaka back then — perhaps Naeem Mohaiemen can tell us.

I was lucky to avoid bullying.  I was very lucky in fact, having a trauma-free childhood.  Sadly, that’s not the case for so many. I am aware of far too many women, and some men, of my age and social background who were violated as kids.  Bangladeshi society has a sick, disgusting side.  Always did.  Or maybe, to quote Cersei Lannister, everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.

Hopefully my little boy will grow up unhurt, and will stand up against anyone who hurts another. Meanwhile, you don’t have to be a parent to have your heart ache while watching Will Byers wrestle with his trauma from being violated by the shadow monster, or how Joyce or Hopper deal with the loss of or danger to their child.

Okay, I got a bit sentimental there.  I wanted to write a bit more about parenting, but will save it for another day.

Why is this post called The Wonder Years, you wonder?  Well, like the Hawkins kids, and Shibly Azad, the 1980s were the wonder years for me.  More importantly, the 1980s were when Bangladesh as we know it came to be.  The political convulsions of the 1970s settled into what has been familiar to us since then, giving us the socioeconomic trends that we now take for granted.  Perhaps it’s time someone makes a TV show set in the mid-1980s Dhaka to capture those years.

I am looking at you, Asif Saleh and Faham Abdus Salam — they were your wonder years too.


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