<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 131 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 21, 2003

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Bangalis on Board

Shawkat Hussain

A 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
indisputably Bangali.

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 characteristics.

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 belts please.”

Every instruction 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.

And there 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
Bangali silence.

So what 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 of.

But the plane has landed and I am glad to be back home with my brothers. I am a Bangali too.

The writer can be contacted at bangla_deshi@hot-mail.com.


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