The Backpack Nation

“Pack your bags, you are off to Kurigram” is perhaps the most dreaded few words for any working class men. We hate to live in Dhaka, but we don’t want to leave it behind either. So when the population consensus says 10% (or more) of all Bangladeshis are living in or around Dhaka, it doesn’t raise eyebrows. Its funny how people never tend to miss out on “being ecstatic” about an empty Dhaka knowing the honeymoon would last a week at best. We realize why Dhaka has always been the beehive (increasingly even more), but sadly making other beehives is no one’s business. The title of this article has no mention of beehive or Dhaka, so I better get down to business.

Even the female members of the Police aren't too far behind
Even the female members of the Police aren’t too far behind

Backpack or rucksack (used to be called School Bag while growing up) is one of the simplest forms of carrying around essentials. They come in all shapes and sizes (day pack, laptop bag to hiking bag and used in different manners as well (two shoulder, one shoulder and sling). The invention and its utility are beyond question. Thus I will refrain from getting into a discussion on it.

Every day as I take the metro to office (in Gurgaon, India), I see thousands of people carrying some sort of a backpack on their shoulders. Across age or gender the backpack habit is quite prominent. I guess when you live in a big city (some of my colleagues commute 50 miles a day), its imperative to carry every possible essential with you. Starting from laptop (the most obvious) to an extra pair of clothes to go out partying at night the contents inside these colorful, slim and useful backpacks is quite baffling at times. I don’t get to peek into their bags nor was I blessed with see-through vision to enjoy some fascinations long enjoyed by Superman or 007; but the habit of carrying a bit of life in everywhere these people goes leads to a fascinating discovery.

See, logically its quite linear. I go from point X to point Y for work and thus I need to carry my laptop (one will be amazed by how many carry one) or lunch box or organizer or I don’t know what. However this serves only the logical query. Beyond the obvious if you dig deep, you see a thousand nomads running up and down the stairway to success (i.e. career), knowing there is no giving up on this. India is the largest functioning democracy in the world, they carry the baggage of being the second most populous nation as well but what the numbers don’t say is the number of migrant workers.

For us in Bangladesh, its very obvious to imagine who migrant workers are. The ones you see standing up at immigration without knowledge of where to go or the ones you tell tales of getting overly greedy with alcohol in flight. What we don’t realize (most at least) is how these migrant workers are the reason we as a nation haven’t been pushed into chaos and economic anarchy (last time I checked they sent 11 billion USD.

Today however you will have to forego that description. From the Ilias from Kurigram who came to Dhaka to paddle a rickshaw to Mr. Ilias who went to Canada to research on human powered vehicles, they all fall under the definition of migrant workers. In fact so does the million people whose absence makes Dhaka beautiful to you during Eid holidays. Its been an open secret for years that metro people (Dhaka and may be Chittagong) don’t like to live in the non-metro parts of the country (basically rest of Bangladesh). Which has led to a unhealthy centralization of resources and labor around the capital only. I mean there is no harm in Dhaka flourishing, but it can’t be at the cost of rest of Bangladesh.

With 23 cities having population of more than 10 lakh, India never had the luxury of having 1 do-it-all city. Thanks to the diversity of culture and vastness of area, the country today boasts six metros (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore) all of which have at least 70 lakh or more inhabitants.

Now imagine the competition their working classes face. From the early days of education (According to Economist survey of global B-schools, 2001, IIM Ahmedabad “The World’s Toughest B-School to get into”) the typical Indian man knows there is only one thing and one thing alone, compete or perish. Because they are so used to the idea of “being the best in business” and excel at it, tomorrow when you go off to work (in a MNC) the person you will be reporting to, is most likely to be an Indian.

There has been numerous cases (that I know of) where genuinely talented people simply let-go of career opportunities beyond Dhaka (mostly Bangladesh) principally for the fear of alienation. Our childhood and life afterwards is so inter-locked with our family and society that when the time comes, we just can’t let go. In a country where going outside Dhaka for work is at times made compulsory and seen as miseries of having a government job, what awaits the nation of 16 crore with only 1 career destination is surely up to the Almighty. Perhaps we should consult Kirk Kerkorian (one of the pioneers of Las Vegas) about how to build a city out of nowhere and you go there to live in alternate reality.

The backpack carries more significance than just of carrying load indeed. Living a life where you are constantly shifting bases, where living out of home is the norm, where coming home to change for that evening dinner is not an option, where dates with your loved ones take place in a station, life is in a pace of its own. What our policymakers couldn’t give us, what we never got accustomed to is perhaps the answer to our growth. In this globalized economy there is nothing called home and no place for quotes like “home is where the heart is”.

Its time to pick up the bag and head out to face the world!

PS. For those who would rage against brain drain after reading this, you are welcome to stay home 🙂

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