Few national anthems contain as much paean to one's motherland as the one of Bangladesh. It was none other than Rabindranath Tagore, who composed this lyric eulogising the natural charms of Bengal. The poet has refrained from narrating the myths about the Bengalees as a race in the song, written in the early 20th century. In another poem, he has bemoaned that Bengalees lack many qualities that a great nation possesses. However, he has not failed to portray in minute details the lives of the ordinary rural people in his work. His love for the commoners presents him as a great humanistic writer. The prose pieces, especially the short stories and letters, by him mirror his compassion for people in the Bengal villages.
Tagore's observations were dispassionate and filled with stark realism, and not lacking empathy. These graphic portraits of rural life are mostly found in his letters to his beloved niece Indira written from his 'zamindari' estates in the then East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Notwithstanding his showering of praise on Bengal's natural beauty, when it came to the common rural folks and their day-to-day lives the poet would turn depressed and disillusioned. What struck him most were the poverty and other afflictions plaguing these people.
The spectacle hasn't changed much in the late 20th - early 21st century East Bengal, now the independent and sovereign Bangladesh. Although the pristine beauty of the natural landscape has largely grayed, Bangladesh villages still stand out with their pastoral gifts. Thanks to its fertile soil, the lush greeneries in its rural swathes unfailingly make it unique. Ironically, as has been detected by the great Bengalee poet over one hundred years ago, the miseries of the people here cannot be kept hidden for long. There are pockets in today's rural Bangladesh, which belie many a formal and excessively upbeat portrayal of these areas.
Successive governments remained focused on the country's rural uplift for popularity and have tried to make it a prerequisite for overall development. Ostensibly, ambitious programmes and projects kept being launched aimed at improving the living standards of the village people. As can be expected naturally, governments in this country bring the villages under their spotlight as soon as they assume power. Despite the rural people's being least bothered about the attention they have drawn towards them, they continue to remain crucial to a government's successful tenure. Given this reality, 'model' or 'ideal' villages have routinely been showcased as proof of the governments' capability to govern. Socio-economic development has thus emerged as a catch-phrase in the terminology used for defining rural life.
In the Bengal of the late 19th century or early 20th century, the British colonial government was not required to masquerade as a pro-people administration. Nor were the neo-colonial Pakistani rulers during their 2-decade-long rule. These rulers did not feel it to be incumbent on them to prove themselves benevolent to the people. As part of this plain reality, the Bengal villages did not need diplomatic doublespeak or deceitful shedding of tears on the part of the administration, especially that of the British Empire. Extreme poverty and deprivations in the rural areas were a widely recognised aspect of life. Tagore was well aware of this typical style of the British colonial rule. What struck him most was the ruthlessness of the onslaught of poverty on his lovely 'Sonar Bangla'. Had he not extensively visited the otherwise spectacularly picturesque villages, the poet would have been content with the deceptive veneer of Bengal. During his visits by boat to the far-flung villages, the incisive eyes of his artistic self did not fail to detect the bitter truth - the sub-human level which the villages have been consigned to.
In Bangladesh, villages are routinely made to appear synonymous with territories filled with an ever effusive happiness - which is publicised to have stemmed from the abundant resources and their prospects. The idea apparently has its origins in the ancient Bengal. Due to the land's being basically an agrarian one, it is the villages and their inhabitants in the distant past that comprised its social, later national, realities. Things have started going awry with the rise of the cities and towns. The urban privileges, along with the associated affluence, eventually gave rise to the rural-urban disparity. Traditionally an abode of simple folks, mostly peasants, villages were eventually left to rot in their age-old, woeful plight. On the other hand, the rhetoric about all-round development continued to resonate throughout the rural areas. In a weird development, villages also kept receiving larger chunks of funds from the state coffers. Here lies the catch which many would tempt to liken to a meticulously spun jugglery. In the last forty-six years, the people of the country's approximately 65 thousand villages have been shown a lot of dreams of better times. The authorities in charge of implementing the dreams, i.e., the governments in power, did translate a handful of these dream ventures into reality. Ruefully enough, many a grandiose projects finally emerged as a cruel mockery of serving villagers, who make up 80 per cent of the country's population.
With the ominous creeping-in of varied types of irregularities and graft coupled with incompetence, the plans aimed at ameliorating rural woes have finally proved mirages. It is the helpless, unsuspecting village people who get caught in the traps set by the city-based ruling cliques and their lackeys. In the countrywide pageants seemingly heralding a rural dawn, the bewildered villagers do not find any meaningful role for them. They remain bogged down in a long-drawn-out dark comedy of sorts.
It doesn't require much effort for one to look beyond the still pleasant physical view of the country's villages. All essential elements that complete a beautiful village spectacle are there. There are lush green meadows, the rows of bushy trees along rural neighbourhoods, the rivers and water bodies and the swamps. Birds and insects still chirp, frogs croak, children laugh in their noisy funs. Yet a lot of things go missing. Rural women walk miles every day to bring home drinking water. Many villages do not have sources of clean water like tube wells or well-maintained ponds. During full summer, people bathe in the fetid water in dried-up ponds. In most of the villages, health services are in place just nominally. Many in the outlying villages do not have the clear idea about allopathic medicine, qualified physicians or the semblance of a hospital. In obscure rural pockets, ultra-poor people still constitute large segments of the population. Even in mainstream villages, families can be detected who groan under abject poverty. Proper school-level education eludes scores of children. Notwithstanding the rising social awareness, the scourge of child marriage has yet to be rooted out.
Tagore felt appalled at the miserable destitution of the rural Bengalees. In today's Bangladesh, the scenic beauty and the tolerably affluent look of its villages hide a lot of other distressing truths. The rural neighbourhoods are no more quiet and content. Gone are the days of tranquility. It has been replaced by the screams of a girl-child under sexual assault by human beasts; or the gunshots, and cries of help coming from an old man being hacked. An insidious dread has begun haunting the once peaceful, friendly villages.