Those of You on a Civilizing Mission

Those of you on a civilizing mission – listen up.

You! Yes, you …who regularly risk mockery when you refuse to litter in unlivable cities. And you, who would rather give leftovers to the hungry than dispose of them at the restaurant. And you, who are also part-time teachers to your household help. You, who hop off rickshaws when going uphill. You too, who are intent on finding worthy recipients for your hand-me-down textbooks. And you, who protest food adulterers on the streets. You, who compulsively tighten faucets and turn off stoves in order to conserve.

Your campaigns mean more than you think.

Let it be said that presuming to civilize a civilization that is thousands of years old, can raise suspicions about delusions of grandeur; about a (brown) savior complex. But I urge you to brush aside such discomfort or hesitation; the People will learn to see it as the price of social activism. You, the do-gooders – let me tell you that even without knowing it, Bangladesh needs you to step up. Now, more than ever.

Bystanding locals will enjoy the spectacle and take photos. But to actually get their hands dirty, they need a cultural shift. (Photo courtesy: Clean Up Dhaka)
An activist from the Clean Up Dhaka group in her element. Response to the initiative has been mixed: locals will enjoy the spectacle and take photos, but to actually get their hands dirty …to really commit, they need a cultural shift. (Photo courtesy: Clean Up Dhaka)

Those of you on a civilizing mission – you know who you are. It is you, who are thought outlandish because you insist that domestic-help should not only eat the same food, but also at the same table. It is you, who refuses to cross an empty street, because red lights mean ‘stop’. It is you who are made to wait half an hour in Bangla time fashion because you got to the meeting five minutes early. It is you, who calls out the queue-jumper at a super-shop. It is you, who points out that proficiency in foreign languages does not equal having learnt their virtues and manners. It is you who refuse to give up positions of morality in the face of ancient traditions and cynical cultures.

You are on a civilizing mission if you are still spelling out why ridiculing celebrities for marrying dark, homely spouses is not okay. You are on the mission if you call out aunties who post about Sheryl Sandberg but insist on marriage over career for Bengali girls. You are on a civilizing mission if you suffer in endless queues because your refused to pay a bribe. You are on a civilizing mission if you post about modern apartheids, not because you hate the aggressors, but because you truly feel for the victims. You are on a civilizing mission if you criticize royal crimes not because you secretly serve the vizier, but because of the principle. You are on a civilizing mission if you tell people about the differences between what is just and what is legal. You are on a civilizing mission if you can overcome the discomfort of talking about intrafamilial and marital rape. You are on a civilizing mission if you preach that the son shall not bear the sins of the father; or devour the fruits of his labor.

It is you who turns into a temporary traffic-controller at an immobile intersection. It is you who turn collective opinion against ad hominem attacks on social media. It is you who gives up your bus-seat for someone more deserving. It is you, who embarks on Facebook crusades to find homes for puppies. It is you, who stops to kneel by the old beggar lying listless on the sidewalk. It is you who insists on crediting original authors and artists in this age of misinformation, plagiarism and instant sharing. It is you, who accepts a slap and a scratch while stopping a street fight. It is you, who develops a free traffic app, not to lure in VCs, but just to help. It is you, who rush to sites of humanitarian disaster, armed with only able limbs and bleeding hearts. It is you, who are still prepared to make personal sacrifices for collective gains.

You are the modern, deconstructed prophets.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – don’t get caught up in politics. You will find resistance against honesty and altruism, more than you will find against crime. There is an idiom in Bangla that roughly translates to “to live off the family and drive cattle in the forest.” It points to the altruistic pursuit of higher, collective goals at the expense of one’s worldly support systems. If idioms are any reflection of cultural wisdom, then this culture probably views selfless altruism as ultimately foolish. Centuries of feudal rule have taught us that, rulers and subjects must be at constant loggerheads. What you can have for yourself is only what you can cheat the ruler and the neighbors out of. We are yet to emerge from that dystopia in to a society where cheating the system is not the norm. Sadly, it has turned us into believers in: “apne baachle baaper naam” (ask about your father only if you yourself are saved first).

In contrast, yours’ is the journey of a hermit: selfless, unsung and apparently pointless. But hold on to your ‘no harm’ principle and soldier on. You may be campaigning for royalty for local musicians. Or you may be seeding documentaries or e-books of expensive texts. Even these two diametrically opposite activities may have the common, noble goal of civilizing. So don’t bother with ideology or approval, as long as your goal is true.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – know, that your journey will be neither smooth nor appreciated. It will not be smooth because you will find your subjects reluctant and because your private energy and resources will be spread thin over collective challenges. It will not be smooth because beneficiaries of dysfunctional systems will put up resistance.

Still, do your bit and expect nothing in return. If you are hoping for recognition, funding, popularity or a career – then this appeal is not for you, because you are not on a civilizing mission. But if your actions are indeed selfless, remember that it is not up to you to save the world. But it is up to you to brighten the day.


Those of you on a civilizing mission – don’t lose patience. When you see people unmoved by children’s death or by hunger that makes grass palatable, don’t stop believing. When you hear death warrants issued from the pulpit, don’t lose faith. When you read about unborn children getting shot, don’t forsake your post. When you see societies petrifying into a state of perpetual callousness and indifference, don’t lose hope. You know what they don’t.

When the hundredth drop of water cracks a boulder, it was not the last drop alone that did it but all the previous drops that came before it. Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. Be persistent like the water and you shall break the stone. Even if you make no breakthroughs, you will be one of the ninety-nine water-drops that catapulted the last drop into a revolutionary event. You will be the giants on whose shoulders future missioners will stand and see further.

Those of you on a civilizing mission, please stay the course. You, who are on the verge of surrendering the crusade against classroom bullying, please rant on. And you! You, whose dedication to preventing people-cruelty (against people or animals) can only be described as ‘religious’, please keep fighting tooth and nail. You, whose pestering of VIP vehicles on the wrong-side is running out of steam, lumber on. And you, whose protest against segregation of drivers / chauffeurs at lavish weddings is raising some authoritarian eyebrows, go on rebelling.

You, who are disrupting and lecturing bikers on the sidewalks, keep walking your path. And you, who are chronicling the history of the present, keep making history. You, who are choosing pens over swords in the battle of ideas, defend your lines. You, who are waging wars against underage marriage, keep resisting the advances.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – be reminded that anarchy, pessimism, cynicism and indifference cannot be the natural state of any nation. Understand that we only know what we have seen. If you show us a better way, we will follow. And please know that you are being watched. Emulated, even. The very ones, who think yours’ is a lost cause, are watching on anxiously, wondering at what level of success they should join you. And know that countless others are watching you – trying to get past awe, brush off hesitation or break off historic shackles.

Remember that while explicitly thanking someone is not a part of Bangali culture, we are not ungrateful. Your efforts are not in vain. Even if you fail miserably, your choosing to swim against the current will have been an act of rebellion. By every definition, you – and not talkative grey-haired men with circular logic on television – are our civil society. All of you people creeping ahead with your personal development agenda, on your private civilizing missions, please forge ahead.

This piece originally appeared on The Dhaka Tribune.


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