nineteenth-century social critic once observed that the national
character of the average Englishman was stupidity. And who was
the average Englishman? The average Englishman was one who sat
at the back of the omnibus. I have often wondered about the
national character of the average Bangali. But 'national character'
and 'average Bangali' are both slippery terms.
Who, for instance, is the average Bangali? Again, it is tempting
to use such a convenient term as 'national character,' but is
it at all an objectively identifiable category? It might be
easier to talk about national characteristics, rather than a
single monolithic national character. For the sake of this column,
let us say that the average Bangali does exist, as does the
average Englishman in the back of the omnibus, and that it is
indeed possible to identify certain characteristics that are
Is the average
Bangali then one who works in rice fields in
the countryside, in which case this column will go nowhere.
Or is the average Bangali one who sits in a rickshaw and spits
with unconcern at a passing pedestrian? He could be one who
walks along a crowded street and then suddenly coming upon a
quiet stretch and an inviting wall, unzips his fly and pisses
copiously, inaugurating a rivulet of urine that meanders from
the wall to the end of the sidewalk. Or, is the average Bangali
one who sits in the back of a bus, like the average Englishman,
spitting betel-nut juice at a passing car below and missing
the car window just by inches? He could be all of these. But
surrounded as we are by fellow Bangalis all around us and by
the 'Bangali-ness' both within ourselves and in the people around
us at all times, we are likely to be oblivious to these national
character(istics) become more pronounced when they are expressed
in situations where you least expect them. Bangali-ness is better
understood when articulated in an alien un-Bangali environment.
Like in the back of an aeroplane. Look around at all the Bangalis
on board a plane with you and something about the national characteristics
of an average Bangali might begin to dawn on you. Bangali-ness
or Bangali national character expresses itself most forcefully
in the extra-national space of an aeroplane.
I was recently
in a flight from Bangkok to Dhaka. The plane was delayed for
about half an hour simply because we Bangalis were carrying
too much cabin luggage. For a frenzied half an hour, there was
much heaving and shoving, overhead cabin racks opening and shutting,
when finally a kind of acceptable quiet descended and the plane
began to get ready to take off. Then suddenly the crew began
shouting at a number of Bangalis standing at different places
in the aisles talking to other fellow Bangalis. “Please sit
down, sit down. Please put your seat upright, yes, seat in upright
position, please fasten your seats belts, buckle your seats
had to be repeated several times before the recalcitrant Bangali
passengers would do what they were told. Is recalcitrance then
a national characteristic of Bangalis? Certainly some of us
love to fly standing in the aisles, like we were travelling
in a bus from Gulistan to Mirpur. And why not, because the flight
from Bangkok to Dhaka takes less time than the bus journey.
Bangalis on board seem to have some kind of instinctive aversion
to fastening seat belts. Seat belts are eventually fastened
because the crew insists on it. And then when the “fasten your
seat belt” sign goes off, there is almost a symphony of belt
clicking as hundreds of seat belts are simultaneously unfastened.
I have never fathomed the Bangali urgency to unfasten belts.
I have sometimes flown for hours without realizing that my seat
belts were fastened all the time, having become quite accustomed
to the unavoidable constriction of long distance flying. This
unfastening-of seat-belt national characteristic is one that
I do not share with my Bangali brethren on board.
is another. Like most flights these days, the Bangkok-Dhaka
flight is non-smoking. Almost as soon as the passengers began
to relax with their seat belts off, my Bangali brother sitting
next to me shuffled off to the toilet. A few others walked toward
the same direction and formed a queue. This I could understand
because airplane toilets fascinate me. Marvelling at the art
of economic space use, I often spend more time inside a toilet
than is strictly necessary. I press the flush several times,
pull a knob here, squeeze another there and then eventually
walk out after liberally splashing on the free cologne inside.
I have a feeling that most Bangali passengers never use free
cologne. My Bangali brother-in-the-toilet came out reeking of
cigarette smoke instead of the cologne, and a crewmember immediately
charged him with improper behaviour. “Sir, you have just smoked
a cigarette inside the toilet. This is a non-smoking flight.”
He said this several times, and the Bangali simply looked away,
looking sheepish, stupid, arrogant and guilty. I think I am
not getting the look quite right. He simply looked very Bangali.
There were three or four who smoked on board. Each accusation
was met by a stupid
do Bangalis on board do? They carry more cabin luggage than
is decent, they sometimes stand in the aisles throughout short
flights, they refuse to fasten seat belts, they smoke when smoking
is strictly forbidden, and they leave the aeroplane toilets
smelling like the ones in Zia International Airport. Not much
different from Bangalis in the back of a bus, or on a rickshaw,
or those relieving themselves on the street. Not much different
from the national character of the Englishman in the back of
the omnibus, I dare say. That surely is something to be proud
plane has landed and I am glad to be back home with my brothers.
I am a Bangali too.
writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.