ECH_SB_MV_UB

I had kindly been invited to the Experimenter Curator’s Hub, in Kolkata, India. Although I don’t feel like I have anything interesting or useful to say to a room full of curators or people interested in curating, the invite was kind and heartfelt enough for me to say yes. I haven’t been to India since 1997, and then, only around the North: Dehli, Jaipur, Agra and torrential Chandigahr. Having been born in Bangladesh, for a long time I wondered whether I should describe myself as “Bengali” or “Bangladeshi,” interchanging the two when I was younger, only realising the difference much, much later in life (region vs nation, in case you’re wondering). Kolkata is the spiritual centre of Bengali culture, its intellectual fulcrum: literary, cinematic. And it was also, of course, the centre of the East India Company, Britain’s Imperial instrument of colonialism. For all these reasons, I was keen to go.

But in the end I didn’t go. TL;DR: I couldn’t get an online visa, despite having a British passport. I won’t go into all the details, because it will expose my entitled privilege (“I’m British! I can go anywhere!” screeched in a colonial accent, of course). Let’s say a BJP-led antipathy towards Pakistan and especially “secret Pakistanis” combined with the ham-fisted crudeness of automated systems of bureaucracy meant I was not eligible for the online visa process. My father was born in 1937, therefore, in British Imperial India. My mother in 1953, therefore in East Pakistan. They were both Pakistani citizens—as were my grandparents— from 1947 to 1971, when Bangladesh won its independence. I can only deduce, by the number of questions asked about me and my family’s ancestral links to Pakistan, that I had tripped up a computational red-line.

This is a minuscule fraction of what millions go through on a daily basis, burdened with less palatable passports than mine, and by palatable, I simply mean, the extent to which you are welcome or unwelcome and made to prove your worthiness of being welcomed. Birth is the first lottery. Naturalisation to another country, another passport, is another lottery. Both weigh the worth of people in unethically asymmetrical ways.

I often think about what would have happened if my father had decided not to leave Bangladesh in the early 1970s—initially to Libya(!) but eventually to the UK.  What would we have become, in Bangladesh, a country whose greatest adversity is not the punishing climatological condition—a third of Bangladesh may be wiped out by rising sea levels in a few decades—but the violence enacted on the vulnerable masses by the privileged political, economic and military elite.

I touch upon this thought here in an interview with Rosalyn DMello  published in Firstpost. I also talk about automation and AI, living across cities and countries, and the uniquely important opacity of art.