The cargo vessel involved in a hit and run incident in Narayanganj on Sunday, leading to the capsize of a passenger launch that killed at least 34 people, was seized at a dock in Gazaria, Munshiganj. Three days after the incident, the Coast Guard there found the vessel anchored near its station and handed it over to the River Police. The vessel, however, by that time had changed its colour—MV SKL-3 was no longer wearing the colour in which it appeared in the video footage ploughing through a small launch. It received a fresh coat of paint as if to hide the stains of killing 34 people earlier. The harrowing tales of the survivors and the horrid sight of dead bodies will evoke our sympathies and haunt our memories for some time. Our newspapers will cry havoc, pointing fingers at the lack of rules and safety, supervision and surveillance, or moral and judicial responsibilities. Then again, when there will be a similar incident in the future (not unlikely during this stormy season), the media will belch in satisfaction, crying another round of havoc, "told ya"! The mundane routine of such tragedy stops me from being sentimental. What intrigues me in this tragedy is neither the villainous vessel nor the hapless mass, but the grand scheme of changing colours.
The errant cargo vessel showed up in a new colour and anchored itself by the dock of a law enforcing agency. It tried to camouflage itself by hiding in plain sight like in a pirate movie. Given the owner's political colour, such positioning is not only daring, but outright stupid and irresponsible. Maybe the vessel thought it would be able to shift the light from itself with the passing of time and the changing of colour will give it some necessary breathing space. In the animal kingdom, chameleons are reputed for such changing of colour as they try to blend into their surroundings. These reptiles are known for releasing and retracting pigments in their skin cells to express their emotions. Recent studies, however, show that underneath the superficial layer of chameleon skin, there are some cells with guanine crystals. Chameleons have the ability to vary the space between these crystals. The crystals can both create and reduce space. The change of colours in a chameleon happens when different wavelengths of light reflect off these moving crystals.
In other words, this change of colour is but an optical illusion. We humans too can play with the way we allow the external lights to play with us. But there are moments, when the illusion, rather the make-up, wears off and our true colours are revealed and exposed.
For instance, the vessel belonging to a people's representative in the national parliament did not bother to act responsibly after the accident. Had the cargo not tried to flee the spot in a hurry, most of the lives could have been saved! They could have helped rescue the accident victims. Of course, the owner was not navigating the vessel. The ones doing so perhaps acted impulsively, but the instruction to change the colour of the vessel is a post facto decision that must have had top level administrative instruction. The painted ship anchored idly by the coast guard shows that life isn't a digital palette of colours that can be changed with an airbrush, particularly when there is a surveillance system in place.
The other incident involving human colours is that of primal lust. A religio-political leader was caught red-handed by some local moral policemen when he went on a tryst. How the mob got a whiff of the secret meeting is anybody's guess; neither he nor his partner were prepared for the whirlwind that followed. By his own admission, the woman he accompanied was his second wife whom he had married after his friend had divorced her. The devil is in the details—the more they try to paint the truth, the shadier the facts appear! The maulana muscled through the mob by conjuring his stick-wielding supporters and rescued himself from immediate humiliation. But his reputation was smeared as his personal life got portrayed in full colour.
The Internet became viral with leaked phone conversations involving the man and the woman. The crystals under the skins started shifting places. Different wavelengths of light are being thrown over the incident as the bioscope turns into a kaleidoscope. Fifty shades of fact and fiction appear and disappear and the superficial veil is removed. The "second" wife disappears and appears as a mother defending her outing to her angry sons. The man with a "second" wife keeps his composure and poses as a defiant husband instructing his "first" wife on how to handle the nosey newsmen. The story gets painted over and over again, adding colour to our Covid-19 induced colourless life in lockdown. Some of us responded, yelling, "it's a honey trap"; many others muttered, chuckling, "honey, you're trapped!" Our actions and reactions during any extraordinary time show our true colours.
The other incident that coloured our imagination last week involved a man who reportedly killed his wife in his Gulshan residence and tried to hide the murder as a car accident. He rammed his car into the walls in the Hatirjhil area, claiming that his sick wife who was in the backseat died from the impact. Police now knows, thanks to CCTV footage, that he actually put the body of his dead wife in his blue car before heading off. The colour of the car matches the pain that it ensued. We don't know the colour of the domestic violence that led to the killing of a mother of an eighteen-month child. We don't know at what heated moment the man tried to act on his impulses to paint his murder as an accident. All we know is that the colour of the car is blue, and that it has witnessed the colours of life in all its shades. How dare we paint it in black and white!
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).