Vol. 4 Num 276 Sun. March 07, 2004  

The way we are....

They say you are what you are. Yes indeed, I am what I am, a Bangladeshi. The name of my country is Bangladesh.

On June 1,2001, I arrived at the Los Angeles Airport in USA. An African American officer at the immigration countre gave me a broad grin, turned my passport upside down and said, "Your name is Bangladesh but tell me where do you come from?" After considerable exchange of words I was able to convince her that my name was in fact not Bangladesh and that Bangladesh was the name of the country I came from. As she was going through the immigration form (disembarkation card) which I handed over, she took it upon herself to be pleasant engaging me into a lighthearted conversation. After a rather short but protracted "dialoguing" I had to end the conversation by "admitting" that Bangladesh was a place near Calcutta etc.

I was temporarily disappointed by the event but neither frustrated nor disgusted. To a great extent, to me it appeared to be but natural for the immigration officer to be unaware of our antecedents. Frankly I have serious doubts as to how much we know ourselves as people and a nation. It is indeed a sorry picture.

We are highly emotional, poetic in nature and do suffer from all kinds of "complexes". As a nation we rank high as a failure. We are stuck in a groove of false vanity and pretensions. We love to live in the past. We are chaotic at the present and certainly do not have any vision or goals for the future. We are quick to produce excuses. We say democracy works slow and hence thirty years for a newly borne democracy is but too short for any democratic culture to set in. Not even a beginning? I wonder!

We are eternally busy with the frame and not the content. We are more interested in the cover of the book than its contents. We are good at holding ceremonies and celebrate all kinds of anniversaries for good or for worse -- from death and birth anniversaries to inauguration or foundation laying to founding anniversary of some Association or society.

We are a proud people but often carry it too far. Last month was February and any body and every body got busy dissecting and going through all the significance and the glories of our great mother tongue Bengalee. Indeed every Bengalee has reasons to be proud of his or her mother tongue especially when it occupies such a unique position way beyond our own horizons. I said we take it too far. Just consider this. To most Bengalees the study of literature begins and ends in reading the works of Sarath Chandra, Bankim Chandra culminating at the Nobel Laureate Tagore. Nothing wrong with it. But try telling us about Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte or even Nirad Chowdhury we begin to feel uncomfortable. We do not seem to be much impressed. Many of us suffer from the psyche that learning or more so, speaking in English at public functions, to say the least, is an act of arrogance. Just consider the fact that only a tiny segment of the world population confined to the Bengal belt speaks Bengali.

We are highly undisciplined. We have no discipline on the streets, in our work places, in public places like shopping centers and even at places of our worship. The height of our indiscipline is most visible in the streets. Every form of transport is moving in the streets as though the order of the day is "do as you like". People are crossing main thoroughfares and religiously engaged in jay walking without any rhyme or reason. Excepting a few streets most footpaths serve as makeshift stalls. It is so absurd as you find that freshly raised fencings alongside footpaths only to be re-occupied by the vendors. How ironic when you come to think of Bangladeshis being ever so proud of their "sense of beauty" and a "heritage" of high art and culture. Look at our religious festivals. During the two Eid festivals we take leave from our work places for a specific number of days and yet we return to work days after the approved days of leave. Ask any one including senior bureaucrats and members of the civil society they would tell you, " It is but natural, after all, this is Eid".

We are extremely noisy and love to argue over anything and everything under the sun. . We talk in high- pitched voices in classrooms, on the streets and in corridors. Be it places like the floor of the Parliament, or a funeral or in the privacy of our own homes we often talk too loud. We have no patience to listen to other's point of view. The only point of view we are comfortable with and ready to accept is " my view". Yes we are indeed very noisy. The public address system (mike) is used and abused for all conceivable purposes. Selling indigenous medicines at street corners, for Waz Mehfils (a meeting where sermons are given on religious matters) by Moulanas (religious clerics) often through night and day.

We have a queer sense of pride. We often believe that whatever we produce or have, are the "best in the world." To most of us the finest of the rain forests or a mangrove in the world is the Sunderbans a fruit or a vegetable or some indigenous food item served during festivals the best in the world. The mindset is often best reflected in some of consumer product advertisements in the media.

We have hardly any sense of time and time management. We arrive late at wedding ceremonies and even social and official gatherings of much more serious nature. The moment an invitation card reaches our hands, we routinely assume that, it is in the fitness of things to arrive at the venue at least half an hour to an hour after the scheduled time! We have no understanding of the real essence and value of time. Of late, the growing "cell phone culture" has further complicated things. You can never fix an appointment by the hour or minute. The timing of the appointment will routinely be tagged with the pre condition, "do give me a call before you leave the house etc."

Most Bengalis love to view themselves as the most knowledgeable and well-informed individuals on this side of the globe. They are ready to make deliberations and shed pearls of wisdom at the drop of a hat. If you happen to be in the waiting room of, say, a consulting physician you will find that the gentleman sitting next to you is instantly giving you his opinion of the perfect diagnosis and even going to the extent of suggesting a whole range of medication. As the conversation progresses you will soon find out that the gentleman in question happens to be either, say, a photographer or a textile technologist.

Such is the state of our human resources. If we are to survive as respectable nation we simply must bring about drastic changes in our "mindset". We must make "work" our culture instead of basking in past glories and heritage. Culture, history and heritage are important but cannot be all pervasive in the life of a nation.