After Bianca Devins, on How to Be a Woman

I want to tell a story. It’s probably not a story. Yesterday, I reported on a follow-up to the Bianca Devins murder. You know, the average 17-yo murdered by a(n older) man she rejected, who then posted photos on her social media telling other men they can’t have her. That one. People on Instagram are going crazy -- they’re collecting photos of her beheaded body like people collect flood reliefs, scrambling and collecting as many variations as they can, posting them on Instagram in exchange for followers. I don’t know what the right word for this is. Morbid? Dystopia? 2019?

I reported on her murder and beheaded body on Monday. Two days ago, I walked into my favorite Chinatown salon for a massage. They’re my favorite in the city, and always nice and kind. I bargained a bit for the rate, and they settled with mine. There was a young lady sitting across from me in the waiting area. She struck up a conversation with me. She said she never realized you could bargain with stuff like this until she heard me. And so she, too, decided to do it. She was so happy. If childhood was a color, it would be her. She was just happy. We ended up chatting. She was in the city for work from LA; she hated the subway, and how New Yorkers tip. She was so excited to learn about what I do, “Do you always run around with stories?” Omg!” I saw her eyes light up, my dream career a reality, at least temporarily, in the eyes of a stranger. She said finance was boring; I wondered if she has to worry about health insurance. Probably not. I smiled along.

She wanted to look for my work. When she came across my Daily Dot author’s page, even more excitement. “So many stories! I’m gonna read the murder one.” She read through Bianca’s story, her widened eyes narrowing a little by little. I am watching her learn how to be a woman. There are so many ways. You could be cushioned with a steady job & health insurance, or bargaining at a Chinatown salon, or ending up a dead body on someone else’s social media. It’s a spectrum, but at the root of it, our feet are chained. No matter where.

“You went through the murder photos?” she asked, part-horrified, part-intrigued. Yes, I have to, in order to verify it. “So you saw her beheaded body’s photo?” she asked again. Yes.

“Wow you must be having nightmares!” she said. That’s the moment I took it in. I reviewed, numerous times, murdered photos of Bianca, blood splattered on her face, her mouth half open, her throat slashed. Why wasn’t I having nightmares? I’ve never been the tough kind of person and frankly, I’m happy not being so. I’m learning to love my own softness, own it, because it is home -- has been for three decades -- I don’t plan on “being tough” -- not for this job, not for love, not for life. I’ve survived my softness, and I’m good with it.

But why wasn’t I having nightmares?

“Oh yeah, it’s crazy” I lied. The truth is, the nightmares I’ve been having are of my own hell, man holding me, on his terms; man who lay next to me but wouldn’t let me sleep; man who entered my home, my bedsheets and set the clock on his terms. My softness giving in to his whims. The truth is, as women, we can prepare our whole life for a man to not do to us what we hear them do to others -- but an entire lifetime’s preparation won’t save us from a man who does what he does. In this room, in the bedsheets, my own home, I lost a country. That is what men do, come in, conquer, and occupy. That is what they’re historically taught to do.

But why wasn’t I having nightmares? With this stranger’s question, and wonder, and sadness, all in once, I noticed myself learning how to be a woman. Soft and numb. Let it scratch you, but don’t let it hurt you. Because the wounds, if they start opening up, they could swallow the sun whole.

Last evening, I read at Sakhi’s event honoring women and survivors. I read one poem about the men we love who break glass, and one poem about the women who survive. Survival is a choice -- and every woman makes it. Not everyone is allowed to see it through, but we make it.

The thing that makes me sad about Bianca’s murder is she had her struggles with mental illness. She fought herself, to live her life. She survived her own self. But she couldn’t survive Man.

In Helen’s Troy, a memory of Dhaka

En route Troy. Our tour guide, Orhan, says he was born here. He has so much pride about belonging to a piece of history. Who wouldn’t? Before the tour, he shows us the nine cities of Troy, nine lifetimes. The first one was lost after a fire.

He says, “They say the Trojan war was fought because of the most beautiful woman Helen. I have another theory. Money. Let’s take the tour, and then I will ask you what you think.” I almost feel bad for him. Who will tell him there is and has only ever been one reason behind wars: men. Violence to create imagined victories. Helen—beauty and woman—was always an excuse, not reason. I don’t say it. Maybe by the end of the tour, I will.

He says his father was also a tour guide. Orhan himself grew up watching the replica of the Trojan horse being built. There is so much enthusiasm in his voice: you can almost hear his childhood in it. He says he’s been a guide for 20 years now. 20 years. Same story. Everyday. How does that feel? I ask. He says, “Same story. Everyday. But different people. Different energy.” An Austrian family is with us on the tour. The father is a nice man, he asks me questions. The daughter corrects Orhan for a slight slip he made about Hector and Achilles. She says, “I kinda know this already.” That is the ultimate victory of the white man—coming to someone else’s story to tell them how much better they know it. 

Orhan tries to correct himself and is fumbling. She doesn’t realize why he is struggling to articulate it. I’ve seen it. That space between your pristine childhood and a white woman correcting you, how your tongue shrinks. I can hear it in his voice. 

After the tour ends, he doesn’t ask us the reason behind the war. He takes us to his store, we meet his mother who is so excited to see us. I buy a miniature horse for Ma. She was more excited about this trip than I was. 

On my way back, I switch on my phone, read about the fire in Dhaka. People jumping out of a building to save themselves. They knew they couldn’t count on the city to have their back. I think of the first of the nine Troy cities. Who will tell them? We’re all here. Still. Doing the same things. We just tell the story differently.

On Bourdain: This is how the world shrinks

My travels taught me how to fall in love with strangers. My backpacks are full of stories—of the stranger who saved us when we were stranded in an asleep village in Hoi An surrounded by wild dogs at midnight; the stranger who held my hand from Thessaloniki to Berlin as my anxiety shot up in the middle of the flight—and then helped pay for my U-bahn when it wouldn't accept cash; the strangers in the hostel in Kathmandu who celebrated my 25th with me (I was otherwise alone); the conductor on the Nottingham-Manchester train who, when Baba couldn't find the 4th ticket, let us go because he connected with the mark on Baba's forehead that signified his own prayer rituals; the bookshop owner in Kolkata who has been sending me love through Baba—never having met me, but suggesting books for me, always in awe of the books on my wishlist.

Over the years, in so many moments of hopelessness, these are the strangers who gave me hope. Helped me unlive the fear of otherness that's instilled in us. And I never got a chance to fully articulate what that's meant to me—until a week ago. In a cover letter for a position to work with Anthony Bourdain's team for EPU. It was one of those foolish ambitions, something I didn't really count on. Then I got a call back for the next step, and yesterday, spent most of the day writing a test for the position. Whenever I felt demotivated because of visa issues, I'd read the cover letter I wrote in the application—and a foolishly excited part of me wondered if Bourdain himself read the letter and my stories about strangers. So silly, I know! But I think that's what happens when you're finally able to share a story you've been wanting to for years, when you're finally able to bring it out of a vacuum — you begin to think in infinites.

It's almost like I can see the stories shrink back to a vacuum, become finite now. And that's how I feel about all the stories that will now remain untold. This isn't just the loss of a person, it's a loss of possibilities — like, someone who could make infinity out of a finite world, someone who had gone on to the other side of fear, when they leave, the world just shrinks.


Yesterday morning I found an eyelash on my wrist. And instead of making a wish, I reminded myself all that I am thankful for, and that I am proud of myself. It takes a lot to hold yourself together while your entire body is tempted to drown, and no one tells us that enough. At the beginning of this year, I’d wished for resilience, but I didn’t realize that at the heart of resilience is our ability to endure. And that means having to brave storms you didn’t even think could exist. It’s been a year of so much laughter (so much) and losses, endings and incomplete beginnings, fractured friendships and fractured hopes - the entire spectrum of unbelongings. There were times I felt I’d touched the sky, and there were times I struggled to find home - in places as much as in people. But something about being pushed against the wall instead made me feel thankful for all that I have. I think that’s what unbelonging does: unravels you out of your comfortable sadness, and makes you remember the laughter over the losses. And I want to remember how much I laughed. The strangers who gave me home. And how it all taught me that happiness isn’t a choice, gratitude is. Belonging is.

I took this picture sometime in the summer. We came across this piano casually sitting in the middle of Morningside Park with zero fucks to give about how out-of-place it was. And that is my wish for the year ahead: to be at peace even in places and moments of unbelongings. Because if you can unbelong from places and people you once called home, you can make yourself belong in the strangest places too.

So let’s hear it, 2018. Bring me your strangers.

So many pasts were ripped open today. So many of us went back to that one day/night/period of our lives when it happened, when we endured, when we suffered without even realizing what we were suffering because we were too young/naive/drunk/sober/naked/modestly-clothed to understand it. So many wounds ripped open. Even for those who didn't put it out there - *I hope you know your experience is no less valid if you aren't sharing it.

But amid the chaos that unfolded today, of women, men, humans sharing their trauma, putting it out there* because it's about fucking time we are seen, I see you. I see us - a sea of survivors coming together. And I pray this wave creates ripples. Changes something, somewhere. Even if it's for one person.

Me too.

JFK after the executive order

Back from JFK, and a lot of things need to be said.

We watched history happen today. Participated in it too, maybe. I showed up to the rally at JFK neither as a journalist nor as a protester. I documented it, sure, and supported the march and (internally) chimed in with the slogans but I didn't show up particularly for any of that.

I showed up because, on a very basic human level, I knew I had to. People from Bangladesh aren't (yet) affected by this ban, and I don't have family or friends or friends of friends stranded at the airport.

And I wasn't the only one like that. Once we arrived there, the thing that struck me at first (take it however you want to) was the number of white Americans at the protest. This is important. It's important because of the number of times I've heard people say "These days whenever I see a white man, I secretly wonder if they've voted for Trump" (a problematic statement because assuming anyone who's a white man has voted for Trump is essentially the same foundation Islamophobia is based on). It's important because a lot of people have felt a lack of solidarity from the white community (at least my understanding from blog posts etc), and they're not wrong. But today's event made me wonder if that's changing perhaps?

I'd honestly assumed the rally would be mainly Muslims and people directly affected by the ban. I saw the opposite. I'd assumed it would have only young hippies - I was wrong. There was one elderly woman (among others) swaying a rose against the police barricades, as well as six-year-old kids holding placards.

Today, more than ever before, we needed to see love. And the protesters at JFK made us feel it. Thank you New York. For being so unapologetically you. For reminding us what's at stake and for showing us the strides we can make when we come together.

There's a long, long way to go. The current stay on the ban is temporary and there are people still unsure whether or not they can return to the US without being detained (despite their legal status), and none of this makes it better. But what we witnessed today, the power of resistance, of solidarity, or just a simple fucking rose against the police barricades - it needs to be remembered. It needs to be remembered because in the future, when other communities are under attack (and they will be) this is what we will look back on, this is what we will reflect on to remind ourselves how much we lose when we look away from things that don't directly affect us and how much we gain from the simple act of showing up.

We will remember how simple it is to create history.

"President Donald Trump" - the immediate afterthings

The last 24 hours have been a trance. I woke up in the morning with this lurch in my gut and a sinking feeling inside. This year has let the world down in many, many ways - and Tuesday's results was the final blow.

A lot of people wonder why we are so affected - when it's not our country, our election, our leader. But I've never felt more invested in any election back home because back home the election has never invested in its people. But in the last few months, I've seen Americans get ecstatic about a possible Hillary presidency. I've seen America ready to make history. And even those of us who couldn't vote were given the chance to feel like we were a part of it. And that's why it matters.

Today, the J-school community came together for people to share how they were feeling, and what the next steps are. While the world outside is sitting back and mocking America, people here are in a state of panic. People are scared. They are nervous. They are broken. In just one day, I've seen people break down in the middle of conversations. I've seen people start a sentence and not be able to finish it. I've seen people in a continuous state of shock.

But what held us together was the messages we received - from professors, friends, family - who, despite the media's obvious failure in this election, urged us to go on, reminded us of the crucial role journalism must play in the next four years. What held us together was people's unfaltering belief in the work we do - and the work we need to do in donald trump's America.

Today, it's so easy for the world outside to laugh at how "America fucked up." But the America I know didn't fuck up. The America I know woke up Wednesday morning and sent their immigrant friends, poc friends, Muslim friends, LGBT friends, female friends, anyone-who-is-not-a-white-male friends messages of solidarity. The America I know held healing and support group sessions today for communities to come together and process this hurt. The America I know wept all day today, collapsed on the inside, but still held on to each other with strength and love.

The America I know had every reason to give up after Tuesday night, but is choosing to fight instead. And the world shouldn't give up on her. It can't afford to.

Exactly a year ago, "Dhee" - the first lesbian comic character of Bangladesh - was launched. It was a day of such immense celebrations, grand hopes. We sang, we danced, we smiled and we boasted it all. Our happiness shone.  Around five months ago, I sat in the AJ+ newsroom and proudly told my colleagues about Bangladesh's progressive LGBT movement: there's a magazine, there are comic characters, there are workshops. There is momentum.  In less than ten days, things changed. The machetes rose. Blood spilled. People went offline. People hid. People began fearing like we never had before.  In hindsight, it was the beginning of so much more. In a few days - and again in a few months, Dhaka fluctuated between life and silence, between being home and a ghost town, being a place of comfort and a place of conflict. Dhaka became unrecognizable.  I don't know what we've entered into. I don't know what we will become but God, if for one day, we could go back to that place of hope, of dancing and singing out loud, of living with celebrations and not fear, of living in that momentum and not in stagnancy, if for one day we could have that spirit back.  If, one day.  Happy Birthday, Dhee. We still believe.  [Artwork by Project Dhee]

Exactly a year ago, "Dhee" - the first lesbian comic character of Bangladesh - was launched. It was a day of such immense celebrations, grand hopes. We sang, we danced, we smiled and we boasted it all. Our happiness shone.

Around five months ago, I sat in the AJ+ newsroom and proudly told my colleagues about Bangladesh's progressive LGBT movement: there's a magazine, there are comic characters, there are workshops. There is momentum.

In less than ten days, things changed. The machetes rose. Blood spilled. People went offline. People hid. People began fearing like we never had before.

In hindsight, it was the beginning of so much more. In a few days - and again in a few months, Dhaka fluctuated between life and silence, between being home and a ghost town, being a place of comfort and a place of conflict. Dhaka became unrecognizable.

I don't know what we've entered into. I don't know what we will become but God, if for one day, we could go back to that place of hope, of dancing and singing out loud, of living with celebrations and not fear, of living in that momentum and not in stagnancy, if for one day we could have that spirit back.

If, one day.

Happy Birthday, Dhee. We still believe.

[Artwork by Project Dhee]

after Dhaka

I came back to Dhaka four years ago (mainly because I hated writing cover letters) but also because I wanted to do journalism from home, for the people I belong to, from the place I belong to. Dhaka was a different place then. Dhaka was rage on the streets and candle light vigils at Shahbagh, Dhaka was celebrating the dhaak-dhols of puja in the golis, Dhaka was loud and bold.

Dhaka wasn't fear.

And then things began changing. A slow fear began seeping into our system. We didn't even realize how big it had gotten until one morning, exactly a month ago, we woke up to see the monsters sleeping among us.

Leaving Dhaka is nothing new for me. I've done it before and I'll probably do it again. But the last time I left for a new journey, I was a mere teenager, too preoccupied with my dream school to be bothered about the city I was leaving behind. Dhaka then was a mere place, not home.

But then I moved back. I relearned the city. The people. The candle-lit corners of kaacha bajars, the newfound spirit of activism, the awkward growth of its skyline trying to be....something. Anything.

And there's no place else I'll ever call home. Not with the same kind of love at least. Despite everything that happened the past month (or few years), I've seen the people be resilient, I've seen foreigners say fuck-it and take walks on the streets, I've seen the writers continue to wage their wars with their pens. I've seen Dhaka survive.

And that, Dhaka, is the hope I leave you with. That no matter the war, no matter the wreckage, you continue to survive. Everyday.

a city in silence: 'Holey' and its immediate afterthings

It rained today. It finally rained today. It felt like the heavens were mourning but perhaps that's too silly a statement. Maybe it was just raining and that's that.

I have a lot of things I wanted to say, but in the aftermath, amid the numerous opinions and conspiracy theories about what happened and what didn't happen, it feels pointless to say anything. Because whatever I do say, will eventually fall through the loopholes of this situation - of what they're saying and not saying, of the void created by the inconsistent numbers and indifferent press briefings.

But I suppose that is what aftermaths are made of. Conspiracy theories and inconsistent numbers. Hopeless remnants of beautiful friends. Blood. Pictures on social media. Memories of loved ones. An anecdote from the last time you met them. The panic of realizing that it was so close to home that this time, it could've been me. And then, a bigger panic of realizing, it *will* be me. Next time, or the time after that, or maybe the time after that. It feels too close for any of us to miss the bullet now. Or machete. Sorry, I meant sword.

And that's the next realization: it wasn't a bullet to the chest and quick and easy. It was time consuming, it was personal, it was them saying, "Look, we had the option of making it easier, simpler, but this is how desperately we went to spread the hate. SHOW the hate." It was a whole fucking process. And it makes you realize that you, you'd thought there must be some limit to how cruel the human mind could get - you were wrong. There's no end to how much worse it can get.

These days, Dhaka is growing up fast. On a random sunny afternoon, when you look up from the streets, you'll realize - with a sudden sense of pride - the high rises, the new buildings and bridges. A brand new skyline. It's the kind of naive surprise a parent suddenly feels when their child is off to college. You look and you realize, "Wow have we come this far?" The buildings under-construction, staring at the sky with their (half-open) heads held high - they reek of change, of newer times, of better times. Of courage.

And then there's this. The reality of our homegrown terror. Anything that can make the whole city shake, crumble the high-rises. Five hours after the siege began, I remember telling a friend, no one takes hostages for five hours and remains silent. It feels ominous. 
In retrospect, even with that feeling, I'd thought the worst that could happen was a suicide bombing. What happened, as we know, was so much worse. One that's shocked us into silence.

And this silence - it's not just on the roads and in public places; this silence is in our homes, in our conversations, even in our prayers. My family has a tradition of saying prayers right before Iftar - it's our version of saying grace. This whole month, the elders complained that we weren't doing that enough. We weren't praying enough. Yesterday at Iftar, the silence descended on us like sunset. We sat together, and without saying anything, we began praying by ourselves. A room full of silence. A house full of silence. An entire neighborhood full of silence.

A city in silence.

Silence for the ones who believed and maybe didn't believe. Silence for those who were made to watch others being slaughtered, silence for those who were asked to recite verses they'd perhaps never even read, silence for those whose blood spilled all over the floor that the survivors had to walk out through them, silence for her, who would find every other reason to be happy, silence for him, who supposedly was let go but refused to leave without his friends, silence for the mother who was going home to give birth in her hometown, silence for him who, when asked why Bangladesh was still safe for foreigners despite numerous threats, said, the people are good, silence for her who loved it so much here that she'd even bought a home.

Silence for those who were just out for dinner on a Friday night, maybe cracking lame jokes, or discussing work, or thinking of the next match.

A silence that feels so pointless.

There's a lot of things I wanted to say to you. But you're gone and we're strangers and it's raining like someone is weeping but we can't quite hear them and the whole city is in a mess. But know this, the silence you've left us in - it will never leave us. We will look back on this day and say "Remember when...?", a quiet fear settling in our gut. Maybe we will go on to complete the sentence. Maybe even to crack a joke in a few minutes. But the reminder, of what those from among us, could do to us, have done to us, this silence, it will stay. Maybe not on the streets or at dinner tables. But inside us. Deep inside us.

And meanwhile, maybe we'll just believe that the heavens, too, are mourning. Maybe we'll just let them cry.