“Accept loss forever.” — Jack Kerouac
I was travelling to London for work recently. Brexit had just happened and I was deeply upset. Instead of coming together, we were pulling apart. It felt like an isolating, falsely protective measure made out of fear and intolerance. I worried about the longer term implications of what other actions this would trigger, and that perhaps a continent would fracture once again.
It was a cool blue summer early evening on Sunday and my friend and I were crossing Leicester Square for the Prince Charles Cinema. The usual buskers of jugglers, people pretending to be bronze statues, and other entertainers were dotted around the square. We passed two Spanish musicians playing beautiful strings music in one corner.
The next time I heard the same musicians playing the same song was a week later, when I was back in London for a few days. I passed them on Trafalgar Square to attend a vigil for Dhaka. Three days before, armed gunmen had attacked Holey Bakery in Gulshan, taken diners and staff hostage, and brutally murdered 22 people.
The emerging stories were devastating. The gunmen tested the hostages by forcing them to recite from the Quran, and released those who could. Twenty-year-old Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain could recite and was offered the chance to walk out; when he refused to leave without his two friends, he was killed alongside them. Neighbours of the bakery could hear the screams of the people inside being murdered.
Further unverified stories also emerged that the gunmen had gone to two other cafés first but not finding enough foreigners, they came to Holey. Nine Italians, seven Japanese, two Bangladeshis, an Indian and a US citizen were killed, along with two policemen who tried to enter the premises.
There have been horrific murders, often by machete, of secular bloggers, writers, gay rights activists, foreigners, religious minorities and other “free thinkers” in the past few years in Bangladesh by numerous Islamist groups. Nobody becomes immune or even numb to this. Each murder brings a darkness into the soul.
I was born into a war. I was in Kuwait when Iran bombed it; the French embassy next door to our school was one of the targets, and I still remember our giant solid school building shaking from the impact. I was in London during 7/7 when the bus I would take to go into town was blown up by a suicide bomber. Yet this attack in Dhaka, eight thousand kilometres from where I was, hit me harder than anything I’ve known in a long time.
I had never attended a vigil before in my life, but this was close to home. Family friends were brutally killed. Gulshan is my neighbourhood in Dhaka. Holey was one of the few places where my friends and I would regularly go. It had been converted from a house belonging to a classmate’s family where I used to stay as a teenager.
Beyond the unspeakably gruesome killings, it was also the underlying desire of the terrorists to turn secular Bangladesh into an Islamist state, where women are veiled, where public law is replaced by Sharia, where the arts are banned. We attended the vigil to mourn those who died, and to stand in solidarity for secularism and pluralism.
We are here for a blink of an eye
The third time I heard this strings band was the evening before I left London. I had spent four days weeping over the tragedy. I felt enraged, heartbroken and helpless. The only thing I could do was examine my life and ask what the hell I was doing with it. All what I had imagined were important looked insignificant in this new light. I didn’t want to sleepwalk through my life, assured I have all the time in the world. I considered big, sweeping changes. A new job. A new country. Getting over my fear of relationships.
I was walking back from a long day of work and passed Piccadilly Circus where the two Spanish men were playing, surrounded by an appreciative crowd. It was the same song I had heard in passing the previous two times. And like before, it sounded hauntingly beautiful – poignant and urgent all at once.
I was still teary, overwhelmed by sadness. I wanted to do something Big, to show myself that I was doing something meaningful with my life. I imagined the dramatic goalposts or the radical shifts that would shape my trajectory, ones I would look back on and be proud of.
I then realised that it is in the day to day existence that we carry our truth. Our legacy doesn’t have to dazzle and live in history. Maybe our greatest legacy is that we live with integrity, honesty, humility and kindness. That we believe in and contribute towards a pluralistic and fair society where we help and protect one another. That we listen and that we too are heard.
I realised that life is really in the seemingly inconsequential moments that fall in between the big stuff. It’s in the small gestures of care we give each other. It’s in the connections we make while talking until the restaurant closes and we’re kicked out. It’s when a newborn looks up and smiles at us (even for a non-baby person like me). It’s in wading through the monsoons and having a stranger provide shelter with her umbrella.
Maybe it’s in deciding to rest instead of constantly being on the go. Of choosing to say no when we otherwise always say yes, or choosing to say yes when we usually say no. Of foregoing the map and getting lost. Of asking ourselves what it is that we want to do – not with our lives, but at this moment.
I realised that what I really had to do was stop and listen to the music.
“My art and profession is to live.” — Michel de Montaigne
Here’s a clip I recorded of the music I heard from the strings band The Passaport playing their version of Secrets by OneRepublic. This live version is different to the one on their CD, Looping Hit.