Thursday, February 22, 2007

The New Adventures of Doc Y

Trouble brewed in Gotham City. The evil empress KZdam attacked mercilessly, while her henchman the Clown cleared out the bank vaults. On the other side of town the Hissina spewed venom on all that was good. Everyone ran helter-skelter. Is there no respite from this hell on earth? Will we never return to the days of the good? Is our salvation, our promised land just a dream? Just then across the sky, blazed a light. We looked up and asked, “Is it a social worker? A businessman? A politician?” “No!” came the reply “It’s Doc Y!”

Okay, I am prone to hyperbole. But I needed to match the dramatics that the good Dr. created with his letter to the nation. First of all as a practitioner of the art of Public Relation, I thought this move by him was a pure stroke of genius. Unfortunately it is the only one that I have seen from him in the recent past.

What surprised me the most was that the reaction was not, like I expected it to be, all saying this is the best thing since Mama’s Halim. Regardless of which newspaper you turned to, the balance between the yah-sayers and the nay-sayers was, I would say, a 55:45 split! The biggest argument in the positive side being that “give the man a chance” and on the other, “he can never succeed.”

What was my reply to the open letter? I was torn. Doc Y and I, as those who read my writing know, have a love-hate relationship. Well a relationship, if you take into consideration that I do not think he ever does read my writings. But as I’ve always maintained, he has this immense capability of luring me with his hypnotic spell of doing-good, only to leave me standing all alone at the alter. Be it the Citizen’s Anti Corruption Council or the need to find Clean Candidates. I wonder why I get a sense of déjà vu?

If I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, Dr. Yunus’ latest adventure is a very well meant attempt. He has, if nothing else, an innate understanding of where he sees Bangladesh heading and he has the ability to rally popular support behind that. I believe one of our nation’s biggest problems is the lack of vision of our leaders. Dr. Yunus brings a remedy to that problem.

I also hope his foray into politics will break the myth that there is no place for good honest citizens in nation building or in politics. I wish that I had a taka for every time someone told me that I would not be a successful politician because I did not have the requisite talent in corruption and mastan-giri. I pray the beacon of hope is lit and that many more flock to the arena.

But personal honesty or unremitting charisma cannot be the only criteria for successful politics or for the ability to manage the affairs of a state. A “clean-and-honest” candidate is not the end itself. But rather it is one of the many requirements for a successful statesman. I am sure that just about now I’ll be hit by the argument that Dr Yunus has managed the growth of Grameen Bank and its subsidiaries quite successfully. I would love to get into the debate about what are the parameters to measure success but I think that will derail from my main premise. I do not think Dr. Yunus will be successful in his efforts.

“Why?” you ask. Well for one he has been extremely politically naïve in the last few months (if not longer). He made more than several well-documented blunders. Say by giving President Iajuddin an “A+” when the rest of the nation looked on helplessly. Or the fact that he came up with the desire to go into polls come what may. Or even the fact that he towed the BNP line of constitutional requirement of the polls by a certain time, only to abandon it when the new caretaker government took oath. This coupled with his ill thought out “clean-candidate” speech, makes me question the capability of his advisers. Or for that matter if at all he is taking any advice to start with. And if he is, from whom is it coming?

Some of the events of the last few weeks have bewildered me. For one the fact that Dr. Yunus is so blatantly circumnavigating the current Emergency ordinance prohibiting any political activity. Secondly that he has asked people to form “Preparatory Committees” of 20 people at local level. Now who will be a part of these committees? Of course it would be nice if a common Joe (or in this case Jamal) would sign up. But is this not open to any and sundry to join? How do you identify who is a genuine “Yunuster” and who is an opportunist? I am not even getting into where the funding for such a large-scale mobilisation will come from. But let us not be naïve to think that no money is required to build up a grassroots based organisation. Are we looking at Grameen Foundation, vested interests or even a foreigner like George Soros to give the money?

Well to sum up my case, I believe that Dr. Yunus’ escapade into politics is, while well-intentioned, full of holes big enough to make any political observer squirm in his armchair. I know, I know! The nation is crying out for a change. By my own reporting 53% of the voters have lost faith in both the main political parties. Does it not leave an opportunity for a third force to emerge? Yes it does. But I don’t think Dr Yunus needs to be this force. And even more worryingly I have a feeling he is headed down the Gono Forum route.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to Dr. Yunus having a role in the government. But I think that he needs to rise above the political divide. We do not need another player in the field. It would not even matter that he is a Pele. What we actually do need is a good referee. Though he dismissed it offhandedly, I thought a better position for him to assume is that of the President of Bangladesh. While he is right that this is currently a mere ceremonial role, I would have thought he has the prudence to see the bigger picture. Not all powers have to be vested. Some come when one earns it through courage, respect, forbearance and integrity. For example Mahatma Gandhi never had a constitutionally mandated role in India. But can we ever overestimate his influence in the events of his times? Or what about the ceremonial Presidents of India? Most of them have left indelible mark on his nation’s conscience. In Thailand the King is a constitutional monarch. But a mere suggestion from him can sway a nation. Could Dr. Yunus not play the role of the Chief Vision Architect of the nation? As the President he can guide our collective actions into the right path. He could act as a political ombudsman to the brawling parties that govern us. He could be mentor to the young and a friend to the poor. He could shower us with hope, faith and aspirations. He could actually be the answer we are looking for instead of the debate we are getting into.

Does it mean that I’ll not vote for Nagorik Shakti, let alone support it? Like I said, I am torn. I just hope that Dr. Yunus has the foresight to surround himself with able people, from whom he can get solid advice. Unlike Grameen Bank, governing the country is a different beast. Despite being owned by “poor women of Bangladesh” the former has always been the autocratic fiefdom of its founder. Now he is potentially the head of an organisation that has 140 million often vocal “shareholders”. Only way he can manage this is through investing in a team. He needs to build consensus while delegating responsibility. The first signs of the longevity of his experimentations with politics will be in the constitution of his core team. For that the nation waits anxiously.

While I think Doc Y will not succeed, I do want him to. More importantly I want Bangladesh to benefit from his dreams. Either each way, I think the sky over Gotham has changed forever.

For further of my writings on Dr Yunus you might want to read:

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bangla & I

I find it ironic that I am sitting here writing what “Bangla” means to me in English. But what is Bangla to me? Is it a language? Is it a means of communication? Is it an identity?

At some levels I represent a certain group of young citizens of Bangladesh who are caught in a self-conscious gap. Having spent my school days in a Dhaka based English medium school in the 1980s I was isolated from our mother tongue. Then spending my college days in foreign lands, I got comfortable with even thinking in English. I became what is termed as a “TCK – Third Culture Kid”, looked on as a stranger by both my native tongue and in the language I am most comfortable in.

Now, “my-school-did-not-teach-me-I-am-a-TCK” excuse does not absolve me of my sin of not making the effort to get comfortable with the language. Many of my generation did. My wife for one is nagging me to take her to the Ekushay Boi Mela. I get very ashamed when I cannot place a literary reference from the rich Bangla masterpieces. Given my love for reading I feel I have cheated myself out of an engagement that I would have cherished. One caveat though – I used to be a voracious reader of the Bangla satirical comic Unmad.

I have been back in Dhaka for the last 13 years. Over that time my interaction with Bangla has evolved. Though I still do my thinking and writing in English, my chorcha is getting more intense. I spend a lot of effort in going through a wonderful blog site called With the promise of being the sound of a new revolution it is a site that has various stimulating and engaging conversations happening on diverse topics. Bangla language bloggers from across the world use this as a new medium to exchange ideas. Ironic part of the process is that this site was actually founded by a Norwegian gentleman.

Does that not beg us to ask the question, does our language actually belong to anyone? Or even what the dynamics of a language should be? English for one is a living-breathing animal that morphs depending on which part of the world you are from. Hinglish spoken in India is different from the Spanglish made popular by the Hispanic immigrants in the US. Chicken English of Jamica is not even close to any two Singaporeans speaking. Why, even the Queen’s “territories” of Australia or Scotland or Canada have vastly different interpretations of Her Language. Now before you go splitting dialects with me let me argue it is not the same as the difference between Sylheti and Noakhali. All you need to do is ask a Cockney speaker for directions.

While it is true that there is a difference between cholti and shuddho Bangla, we have been guarding the development of the language quite parochially. In recent times a very visible experiment with the language was through a controversial advertising campaign for a cell-phone campaign aimed at the youth. Oh what hue and cry it created from the purists. Our cultural leaders missed out on the fact that the youth of any generation develop their own lingo. This classifies them and bonds them at a certain level. And as much as you try you cannot muffle this kothin bhaab. The language is not the sole domain of a library or of Bangla Academy. Isn’t the name itself a glaring inconsistency of purpose? No one owns the language. Rather it is owned by all. It is as much the kingdom of a Bhasha Shoinik as it is of an English-medium educated brat.

If Bangla does not belong to me then do I belong to Bangla? And here is where I get clarity. Bangla to me is not a language. It is an essence of my being. Of course it is a language. An important language at that. I still remember my grandmother pleading with me before I went abroad for my study, if I was to marry a bideshi I should ensure she spoke Bangla. Otherwise she could not speak her monerkotha.

But in my mind it is so much more.

In one level it is an identity. Stand at a street corner in Rome and talk loudly in Bangla and you will make so many new friends. Bangladeshi immigrants there will open up their homes and hearts just because you are a deshi bhai.

In another level it is culture. Habib in recent times started a revolution of sorts. It is now so okay to enjoy Bangla music without feeling guilty of- depending on which side of the scale you stand- listening to dance music or to folk song.

And in even other it is an emotion. Unless I say “Dosto” to my friends, or “array aita josh toh” I don’t think the essence of what I am feeling is communicated properly.

Bangla to me is different things. It is a language. It is a means of communication. It is an identity. And most importantly it is a state of mind. Just because I use English more fluently does not mean I am not proud of my language or I am an alien to my culture. My great grandfather Dr. Mohammed Shahidullah was a renowned linguist who reportedly knew more than 26 languages plus tens of dialects. He was one of the proponents of the language (hence Bangla) being the rational of dividing the British Raj instead of religious ones. But when he came out of a stroke, for the first few days he only spoke in French. Does it mean that he was not a patriot? Or he was not a Bangali?

In the case of all of Bangladesh as a collective, I argue, the relationship should be the similar. Yes it is our nation’s language but we should not look at it only as a cultural treasure. We should nurture it and let it flourish. Our language is strong enough to stand the rigors of experimentation. So what if a song or poetry or an advertisement or two people in a conversation mix English, Spanish, Chinese or any other tongue with Bangla. Does it make it weak? No I say. What we are allowing is for it to stand on its own two feet, without needing to mollycoddle it with fervour of a first time mother. Often in our zeal to protect our culture and identity we forget that we live in an interconnected world. If we cannot communicate with this world we will not be looked as an equal participant.

As an IT practitioner I salivate with the prospect of harnessing the power of our 140+ million minds. But the reality is that because of xenophobic educational policy decision of the mid 80s, today we are notoriously short of people who can string an English sentence together. Because of this we can never be a serious world player in the ever-growing voice based BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry. Similarly our young boys and girls often meet a roadblock in their corporate career paths. If only we had a robust educational policy with a strong language component, we could be exporter of managerial and technical resource around the world. Just like our neighbour.

Bangla is a beautiful language. It is an identity. It is a culture. It is in all her glory, an art form. What it should not be is a shackle. In our need to be puritans we should not sacrifice our prosperity. While we should continue to promote our language, we should not be closed to prospects others bring. Let us not be scared. While we are mere mortals our language will live forever.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Shada Moner Manush

Whatever you are doing (reading my blog actually) - STOP! Now stand up and applause. After a minute come back and read why you did what you just did.

In my twelve years in advertising I've never been so proud of something I've been associated with. Today was the culmination of nine month long "hunt". This was not one for the best singer or fashion model. It was not for the most intelligent or for the most athletic. This search was for the most noble. It was a search for those who have looked beyond one own benefits or self-recognition and reached out to humanity with the unending desire to do good.

About a year ago during a brand meeting with our client at Unilever Bangladesh Limited, we decided to do something that I think should be a source of inspiration for 140 million Bangladeshis and more beyond. We embarked on this search for the “Shada Moner Manush.”

The premise was very simple. Our brand Wheel Power White makes your clothes white but to make one’s self pure, we need inspiration.

Between April and May of 2006 we telecast an advertisement asking users to send in their nomination for people who they believe worked tirelessly for the benefits of others. We received more than 3000 entries. A team from Prothom Alo, NTV, Unilever and Adcomm narrowed this down through a few short listing to a panel of 20. And from there Ms Rokia Afzal Rahman, Dr. Debupriyo Bhattarjee and Mr. Motiur Rahman of Prothom Alo selected the final list of 10.

To quote from the brochure by Unilever commemorating this occasion [translation mine]:
"Across Bangladesh there are many who work in silence and without fear, for the welfare of country, society and humanity. They are selfless and without desire for fame or fortune. Through out their lives many have worked tirelessly without assistance from others. In our eyes these are the Shada Moner Manush. To inspire rest of the nation we bring to you these altruistic human beings. We hope they enthuse and motive others to dedicate their lives to the benefit of the nation and her citizens.”
[End Quote]

We believe Shada Moner Manush are
• Binapani Sarkar
• Shree Kanu Datta
• Mokhlesur Rahman
• Honufa Begum
• Sufia Ahmed
• Abdul Malek
• Abdul Majid
• Shamsuddin (Shomesh Daktar)
• Harun-ur Rashid
• Ziaul Haque

They have cared for the poor, the destitute, the helpless, the mentally and physically challenged, the sick, the illiterate and even in one case the dead. They have gone beyond and given up all their worldly possession to find happiness for those who the rest have neglected.

So often I hear that nothing is good in Bangladesh! This gives me the comfort that there is hope for our great nation. I am an optimist. We have desire to do good, to live to our potential. If these 10 people could make a difference in the lives of even a few, why can't we all?

Over the next few days (or weeks – sorry) I’ll bring you the details of each of these great souls. Stay tuned…