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

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Iron Witch

“Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” reached the number 2 position on the UK music charts propelled by a social media campaign marking the death of former prime minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Whereas, the 1979 song by the punk rock band Netsensibles, “I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher” only managed 36th position that week. It seems that people love to hate the Iron Lady.

 I was only 9 years old when Mrs Thatcher went to Number 10. I remember that day. My mom turned to me and said something to the effect of: “Now that there is a woman in charge things will get better for not only Britain but the world.” And in my opinion, it has. To understand her one needs to understand the world that she came to power in. Britain and indeed the world was hit badly by the Opec oil crisis of the early 70s. The Cold War was at its bitter peak. PLO, IRA, ETA, FARC and other such abbreviations held the world at bomb point. The Iranian Revolution was a sign of changing times. In Britain one just needed to hear the popular punk music of the time to figure how disillusioned and dejected the population was. “I want to be an anarchist” sang the Sex Pistols. The British economy was in shambles, with trade unionism at its peak. And as the famous election poster created for the Tory Party by the advertising genius of Saatchi brothers proclaimed: “Labour Isn’t Working. Unemployment was at epidemic proportions.

 Prime Minister Thatcher changed that. True, unemployment peaked under her leadership but that was part and parcel of the economic reform she started. The guiding principal of Thatcherism was smaller government and a freer economy.Your classical Chicago school model. Let the market decide what the people need and want. The government restricts itself to managing money supply and using only macro-economic interventions. One of her most significant contributions was the mass scale privatisation that she pushed. British Airways, telecom, gas, rail etc that were thought to be services that only the government had the resources to provide, were privatised. This was a model that has since been followed around the world.This act took ailing companies that were a strain on the budget and infused them with entrepreneurial professionalism.Not only did the privatised companies become more innovative and efficient but it also showed the business world that they too could come into and succeed in areas that were earlier thought too daunting.

 Regardless of which was Mrs Thatcher’s biggest war - Argentina, the coal miners or the Soviets? One thing is for sure, all of them were principled stands and all three are wars she won.

 She knew that Britain’s pride and identity was in question when Argentina’s military junta occupied the Falkland Islands.Britain sent troops (amongst them the first royal member in modern times to see active military action). Another area of diplomacy was to negotiate the handover of Hong Kong to China where she found a win-win face saving exit.

 With the coal miners it was a battle against trade unions that controlled Britain’s politics and economy. She always believed in reduced government intervention in business. This is where she made a stand. And by standing firm she sent a message that the economy was paramount.Britain went through a socio-economic upheaval due to this but that was a bitter medicine that was absolutely required to save the patient. Britain ended its role as a leading industrial power but reinvented itself into the financial and service powerhouse, that it is now.

 Thatcher was one of the first to declare the end of the Cold War. Along with Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev she was instrumental in bringing down the divide that defined the world for 50 years or so, since the fall of Berlin. With her tempered and passionate logic she helped land the world into more peaceful times. This, despite her leading role in convincing President George Bush Sr to send troops in the First Gulf War. Famously quipping: “This is no time to go wobbly.

I must confess here, one of her biggest failures was the inability to bring peace in Northern Ireland. Maybe she was effected by a failed IRA assassination plot on her. Thatcher was like any other, not without faults: her authoritarian ways, some of her social policy, the reduction of education funding, and of course the infamous “Poll Tax” that marked the beginning of her end.

But in the end Mrs Thatcher left a legacy that still dictates politics and economy across the world. Thatcherism as a principle triumphed. Though people have called it by different names, her true successors was not John Major but rather Tony Blair and in some respects Bill Clinton. Prime Minister Thatcher defined not just centre right politics but politics as a whole. 

I am sad that the witch is dead

Published: Dhaka Tribune 22nd April 2013