Sunday, May 12, 2013

The (un) importance of labels

Do labels do justice to the complexities of our reality?

I believe the term used to describe me for the last two months has been “chhagu.” A slang term that connotes a supporter of Islamist-leaning politics. Interesting, I thought, given the fact that my lifestyle choices are often in direct contradiction to being a radical Islamist. So, why am I a chhagu? Probably because I did not prescribe to the demand that Jamaat-e-Islami should be banned. Is it not possible that I could abhor religious politics, but could still believe that every citizen in a democracy has a right to his/her own opinion, no matter how opposed it is to mine?
Now that I think of it, I realise that we love to put labels on everything and everyone. At its most basic level, of course it is easy to define someone or something, but this presents the risk that we see only in black and white! In spite of the fact that I’m colour blind, I’ve always believed my life is very colourful. So here I am, spending an introspective afternoon concerning myself with the “labels” that are often assigned to me.
The first, of course, was the debate of Bangladeshi vs. Bangalee vs. Sylheti. I am all three, I thought. I am and always have been a citizen of this country. Tick for point one. My mother strongly claims her Dhakaiya roots, so that’s a tick for point two! My father and his family, for a few generations, have been from Sylhet (although, if we look back further, we can trace our roots elsewhere), so I guess tick for point three. Thus, I am a Bangladeshi Bangalee from Sylhet, to be absolutely precise about the matter.
“Am I a Muslim?” I ask myself. I don’t pray, don’t perform many of the rituals required, and at times do things that are considered “haram.” But I do have faith. I do believe that. Allah is the One, and I believe in His divine powers. So, I believe I am a Muslim.
Then it started getting tricky: “What political beliefs do I hold?” I am a firm believer in a small government with little interference. The classical US Republican standpoint, except when it comes to the Democratic liberal attitudes I have towards personal freedoms of choice - pro-choice, pro-same gender marriage (pro-marriage equality), stricter gun control, etc. Hold on … I am not a voter in the US, so that makes all of these irrelevant!
More relevant is the question of what my politics are closer to my reality? For one, I still hold that a government should have strong boundaries as to where its direct involvement can be – specifically in the areas concerning business. Unfortunately, none of the established political parties in Bangladesh explicitly promote that. So how do I choose?
Most of the time, that choice is made for me. Many label me a “BNP” supporter because of a decision my father took in 1979! He had contested and won an election from that party. But after the 1991 elections, he became disillusioned and left politics altogether.Unfortunately for him, and for me, that label seemed to have stuck. I cannot speak for him, but I am not comfortable with this. While I have great respect and sympathy for the ideals of Ziaur Rahman, I think the “uttaradhikaris” of the party he created have drifted far from the politics he had preached. At present, I cannot claim to be on the same page with them on many points. Neither can the Awami League claim to be the party that it was in 1971, when it sparked the hopes of a nation. The Jatiya Party is a political group that I was opposed to even before I started to develop a political conscience. Jamaat and such parties have no appeal to me because I believe religion is a personal choice. A third force then? While in theory it is a good idea, it really isn’t practical. I think any change in the political landscape of the country has to come from reform of the existing two political camps. Thus, I am a political being without a home.
I am, and have always been, an optimist. I think the future is bright for us as a nation. Ironically, and sadly for me, I am very pessimistic when it comes to the immediate future of my country. Due to our myopic goals, we are creating rifts in society that will take generations to mend.
Labels. We seem to love them. But does it do justice to the complexities of our reality? We are so fast to utilise them that we overlook how inadequate it is to describe the person whom we are labelling, and goes on to reveal our lack of understanding of our own surroundings.
In the end, what is this “Me”? There is only one label that I can truly, without a doubt, say is appropriate for me – a “kachchi biriyani lover.”

Published: Dhaka Tribune 6th May 2013

Of lungis and national pride

“Choli ke piche kya hai? (What’s behind the blouse?)” was a song that sent India into a tailspin in the early 90s. The moral brigade termed it vulgar. A lot of us sniggered at the provocative innuendo. I think what was forgotten was the following line that answered: the heart is behind.
I wonder if the members of the Baridhara Society (appropriately BS) ever heard that song.
Their version must be wondering what’s under the lungi? Hmm. Actually, what does the lungi connote? Why did it send a section of the Bangladeshi social media scene into a tizzy? What was so harmful that it required police in riot gear and shotguns to stop a group of lungi clad youngsters from going to Baridhara? But most importantly, why did BS think it was not up to snuff to be worn in their neighbourhood?
I initially thought the ban was so ridiculous that it must have been a publicity stunt by a lungi manufacturer who recently launched a television commercial where it showed Bangladeshis marching with pride in their national dress. Is it our national dress?
I will argue it is the most popular dress. Well, maybe after the sari. But somewhere in our desire to move up the social standing we seem to have abandoned it. So, the higher one goes up the ladder, the more “western” the attire. I find it absurd that in the heat of the summer I have salesmen making calls in full business attire.
I myself did that when I first joined the work force. Matter of fact, I had quite an enviable tie collection. In the initial days I found that if I wore it to a new office, I was ushered into the inside meeting rooms rather than waiting unceremoniously at the common reception waiting area. Within a few years I found myself outside again. It was then that I noticed other salesmen wearing the tie and I was no exception. So I abandoned it in favour of an open collar shirt and jacket.
Back I was in the board room. That’s when it struck me that in corporate Bangladesh, clothes did make the man!
I was introduced to the lungi when I was 12 by my father. I wore it for a few years before going off to boarding school and subsequently university where I moved to pajamas and boxers. I rediscovered the lungi after a trip to Cox’s Bazar where I picked up a few from the Burmese market. Over the last 18-20 years it has been what I slip into as soon as I reach home. Aaahh! As another television commercial said: “Nothing more Aaram!”
I have thought of wearing the garment out in public a few times, but actually never had the guts to. I often wondered to myself why. I still remember seeing a particular celebrity chef who I saw wearing one at a wedding, and thought to myself how well he carried it off. During my high school days in Tamilnadu, it used to be the formal dress. A compulsory attire for weddings and such. But here we rather wear a suit or at best a “punjabi.”
So what is our national dress? Our founding father popularised the sleeveless coat. President Zia the safari suit. President Ershad the achkan. But none are practical for the Bangladeshi weather. The punjabi, as the name suggests isn’t some thing what was invented here. Matter of fact another popular outfit is the Arab robe that is common amongst mostly religious men. Interestingly the Arabs also wear a lungi like garment called the izaar. The lungi can and should therefore be the prime candidate for the position.
Now if that is the case, should we not see a full adoption of it in our everyday work and social life? This is clearly not the case. We have lost our sense of pride and identity, and we have a misguided belief that everything international is “modern.” This is sad - because if “dil” (heart) was behind the choli (blouse) surely our national pride is beneath our lungis! 

Published: Dhaka Tribune 28th April 2013