The middle class . . . in perennial struggle

The middle class . . . in perennial struggle

There are all the worries we need to deal with, though we cannot say that we will tide over them anytime soon. For the middle class, and especially for those who have fixed jobs and so salaries that do not increase in tune with the times, these are hard times. And when we speak of the poor, we simply have nothing to say. Poverty has a way of keeping people trapped in its darkness, with the trap getting thicker and increasingly unbreakable by the minute. 

With Eid-ul-Adha around the corner, our worries are now on a quantum leap. Of course, traders whose natural aim is to see their cattle sold in the Eid markets for good profit are happy. One cannot grudge them their happiness, for they have suffered in these past two years of a covid-driven malaise. Many among these traders are looking to circumstances where a sacrificial cow which would normally fetch Tk 70,000 will now claim no less than Tk 1,00,000. 

Point well taken. But where does that leave the buyer, that hard-working middle class Muslim man whose one annual moment of happiness is to have his family celebrate the qurbani Eid, as we know it, in good comfort? One can imagine such buyers, or prospective buyers, moving around the Eid markets all over the country, despair writ large on their features. In their eyes will shine the dark light of gloom.  

That is the worry which assails us as we approach Eid. There are then the other worries, primary among which is the need to rehabilitate the millions who have been battered by the flash floods in Sylhet and Sunamganj. Commonsense informs us that the aftermath of devastating floods or unprecedented tidal storms is a long period of recovery and reconstruction. And that is precisely the condition in Sylhet and Sunamganj and all other regions where the rivers have been playing havoc with life, with crops, indeed with dreams communities thrive on. 

It is this sense of guilt which will work in those of us fortunate enough to manage the means of celebrating Eid a few days from now. In a society where austerity in solidarity with those worse off than others is a misnomer, it is these worries which dominate the middle class mind. That next-door neighbor is in pain and my own pain prevents me from reaching out to him. That is the tragedy. That is the shame. 

Our worries take on increasingly bigger swathes in this season of heat and rain. For the past many days, the supply of electricity in a number of areas in the nation's capital has been erratic. No fewer than three times a day --- and that is a pretty conservative estimate --- power goes off, leaving citizens in both a physical and psychological predicament. Why must it be that when we have been assured of good electricity supply nationwide the assurance falters with every outage in the day and at night?  

The perspiration, the sheer discomfort caused by such outage hardly need explaining. And all those people --- young students and others --- who must bank on their computers and laptops to accomplish their quotidian tasks online? The enormity of the problem can only be imagined. 

It is in the villages that electricity, the absence of it, has been creating havoc. When your relative advises you to defer your visit to your ancestral home in your charming little village --- because he is worried you will be in a state of torment in those long hours of life without electricity --- you listen to him.  

But worse is the feeling which rises in you about the suffering of those who live in all those villages where electricity connections are part of life and yet life is in free fall because no current flows through those wires. Power outage brings us all together in an eerie sort of unity: all of us suffer in the heat. 

The middle class has historically been a struggling lot. Go back to that market --- some would call it a kitchen market --- for it is there that the struggle, never having ceased, manifests itself in a strange manner of renewal. You have second thoughts about buying beef because beef costs Tk 700 a kilogram or more.  

That fish you think will make a delicious meal for the family is for you a pipe dream, for your resources do not permit you to be bold enough to buy it at the prohibitive price demanded of you. Vegetables you have grown into adulthood savouring increase your worries, for their prices keep going up by the day.  

These are times which test the patience of the middle class. Life is today a matter of survival for families which have nothing but fixed salaries to fall back on. The school fees for the children must be paid, for the school authorities have demanded it.  

It matters little that you protest when a school charges computer fees for a child who is yet a toddler and in nursery class. Crass commercialism is at work. Where are the governmental means to put a stop to such brigandage? Your bootless cries to the heavens will not be answered. 

The poor survive on scraps, if there are any scraps around. They move around, empty soiled bags in hand, in the rural haats, hoping and praying that they will be able to purchase a few items commensurate with the extremely limited cash in the folds of their lungis and go home breathing a sigh of relief.  

In the towns and in the cities, rickshaw pullers demand higher fares, for they too have families doing all they can to beat back hunger. In that emaciated form of human life, you see suffering as it has come down through the generations. 

You inquire of the driver of the CNG-propelled auto rickshaw why he asks for that exorbitant fare from you. His response leaves you shame-faced: at the end of the day he must hand over a big chunk of money, from the fare he has accumulated, to the owner of the vehicle. And what remains, a rather paltry amount, is what he will spend on buying provisions for his family on his way back home. 

You do not argue with him. You pay him the fare he has asked for. As you alight from the auto-rickshaw, that ancient thought of society being a landscape of inequality, of widening gaps between rich and poor, of those condemned to tough living and fading dreams runs riot in the imagination in you.   

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