Recently, as I was driving to my office, an SUV full of security guards drove past me on the wrong side. I slowed down and let the car come into my lane near Ganabhaban. It took me a while to realize that there was a small procession behind. There was no flag pole or other badge to indicate the protocol or the commercial barometer of the “private” caravan.
When I got to Mirpur Road, I indicated to move into the right lane as I had to turn near the Residential Model College. The pilot SUV, with flashing hazard lights, suddenly veered right and came in front of me. The other two of the fleet wanted to overtake from behind. I wasn’t in the mood to give them room a second time. They were going straight ahead, but they were coming to the first lane to block me. The cars behind started honking, and one of the drivers started yelling. I guess my evening dress and sunglasses didn’t allow their words to turn into slurs. But judging by their testosterone levels, I guess they were short on a minor notch. I had to say to the guy, “If you’re going straight, why do you have to block the right lane?” “
Those who drive to Dhaka would find my logic mundane and my lines insane. It wasn’t just a private security team, but also a rickshaw or CNG city bus that could have “stuck” to me without any warning. So why am I expressing my frustration on such a trivial matter? Having studied psychoanalysis for my academic training, I can locate my repressed frustrations in the subconscious from which they were trying to return. My attempt to respond to the security men was foolish and can perhaps be explained in Freudian terms. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, explained to us how feelings and emotions that we cannot process or negotiate are transferred to the unknown territory of our mind. They remain deposited there, but can return to it in a displaced or transformed form, as in a surge or in a dream or a creative outpouring.
For a split second, I had the fallacy of having equal rights on the road. I am a tax-paying and law-abiding member of society. I have every right to be on the road without infringing any other force, as long as I do not violate the traffic rules. Reality is something else, however, and failing to recognize that reality could be deadly. So why, sane, did I react? Did I really have control over this momentary error of reason? This is where Freud’s psychoanalysis comes in.
My conscious act of defying “unknown” authority was conditioned by a series of interactions that took place during my short journey from Banani to Mohammadpur. I was stuck near the newly designed U-loop at Mohakhali as the extended funnel narrowed the artery. Any chance of widening the road and having all four lanes for incoming traffic from Uttara has been shattered by the construction of some government offices, including that of the Roads and Bridges Authority. Across the road there is a market dangerously close to the railroad tracks, which created a similar bottleneck effect.
Then you get to the flyover to find vehicles carrying flags or badges blocking the access road under the watchful eye of traffic sergeants. Anyone without a badge is however punished. You get off the bridge and hit congestion near the old airport, as some marshals make sure their bosses get priority treatment. Once you enter the connecting road you have to negotiate motorcycles coming from the wrong side, buses stopping mindlessly to pick up and drop off passengers, potholes and puddles, pedestrians distraught, ambulances, speeding tickets and angry flashes of light from vehicles of men in uniform to finally reach the BNCC level crossing.
And then you come across two more lanes of vehicles entering from the wrong side, most of them showing signs of authority. Even the ordinary men who have the platform to unite and create nuisance, like ride-hailing motorcycles or CNG autorickshaws, are there, all casually waiting for the signal to clear. Their body language is simple: if I can’t travel on this side of the road, how dare you move freely on the other side? A game of patience is launched. We wait because they wait. We will pass, only when they can pass. What does he tell us about a nation? Is there a sociological study of the Dhakaites who own the city without any property?
By the time I reached the side alley of the Ganabhaban complex, there was a wave of pent-up anger within me. I was frustrated by the irresponsibility of my fellow citizens. The powerful boost of the procession therefore made me react without thinking of any consequences. And I was lucky to have none.
Wasn’t there an incident where a lawmaker’s son got into trouble for getting into the grudge of the streets? The battle of the four wheels and the two wheels ran a full course. Epic! When I was a student at a public university, our bus driver drove like a Formula 1 driver in Dhaka. We used to feel like the kings of the streets. I once heard that one of the bus drivers at my university had an argument with a microbus belonging to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It was in the 90s. The microbus driver bragged, “Can’t you see my office sign? The other joked, “You work for a prime minister. On my bus, everyone is a potential prime minister. Ah, democracy. It is good to know such an egalitarian theory.
It’s nice to hum Tagore, for example, “We all rule as kings in our king’s kingdom. Why else would we join hands with him?” But how many of us can internalize such principles, let alone put them into practice?
I will close with an incident that happened about two weeks ago. The driver of a carpool motorcycle set his own vehicle on fire as a traffic sergeant was about to fine him for improper parking. The man couldn’t take it anymore. He was tired of the daily routine of systemic abuse. The fire smothered in him came out like a return from the repressed, and in this momentary error of reason he destroyed the very vehicle on which he depended for his sustenance. Police later questioned him to learn that the man was already at a critical point because he was heavily in debt.
Speaking of which, I have to go back to my watching Squid Game on Netflix, the Korean class disparity survival drama. Sometimes illusions are the only way to deal with reality. They are the therapeutic antidotes to momentary failures of reason. Have a nice week end!
Shamsad Mortuza is Acting Vice Chancellor of the Bangladesh Liberal Arts University (ULAB) and Professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).