The Sapient Ape

Life as an employed MBA grad during an economic recovery. DISCLAIMER: Everything written here is fiction.

South Asian Snow Day

This cab driver'll think twice before charging that kinda fare again.

There’s thing called a hartal today. Its kinda like a snow day but instead of traffic accidents due to icing, you get burnt cars due to mob rules. But the two are indistinguishable to me coz the outcome is the same. No work, late to work, or dangerous to go to work.  Snow, mobs — they all make the same noise when they beat on your car.

To those of you outside Bangladesh or totally ignorant, a hartal is a general strike called by a political party to protest something. They force everyone NOT to go to work. I know, right? AWESOME!!! Except it screws with the economy. Like think about it — 3 hartals a year and GDP (or at least productivity) is down by 1% for the year.

It makes you think — given the rampant energy crisis (-2% GDP), the infrastructure/transportation problems (-1% GDP), corruption (-2% GDP), and a whole whole host of other problems (-1% GDP), Bangladesh’s GDP growth rate of 6% could have been at least 10% easily.  Of course I’m no economist, so these numbers are just estimates or figures I’ve read, heard from others, or totally made up, but they make sense — I mean it takes half a day to go from one office to another, and electricity is gone for up to 12 hours a day during the peak season.

But back to the hartal.  This latest hartal was called to protest the fact that the opposition leader got kicked out her house in the army cantonment and then the Supreme Court wouldn’t hear the case again after the High Court heard it bla bla bla.  Yea, you heard right.   Its like a bunch of 5 year olds at recess.  “Well he said nya nya nya.”  “I know you are but what am I?”

A few days ago, my friend from the US facebooks me and is like “Dude, are you alright?  I heard about all the shit going down.”  I was basically like “Huh? Whaaaa?”, at which time, he pointed me to this very well-written article about the politics of hate in Bangladesh (but aren’t all Economist articles well written?).  Sadly, that subject has become so passe, that it didn’t even register as a potential tinderbox or cause of international concern, but just as another day in the life.

I'm not the only one who thinks that the two ladies who rule this country are a) a joke and b) scary

Really quick background on the political situation here.  Its kinda like the US.  Got two main parties — the liberal idiots (Awami League) and the conservative nasties (BNP).  The liberal idiots are in power right now, and enjoy quite a  comfortable margin in terms of the popular vote.  The conservatives kinda screwed themselves by allying with the religious nutsoes, as well as getting embroiled in inter-party rivalries which further weakened them.  I think thats the gist of it — I ain’t no expert nor do I wanna be.  Needless to say, the parties are more similar than different.  One just hates India and the other one hates Pakistan.

The current government’s (liberal idiots) greatest achievement during its current term has been to rename the airport.  It used to be named after the now-dead leader of the conservative party, but now the liberals came up with the genius idea of naming after a religious icon so that the other party couldn’t rename it again when they come to power.  The Awami League’s second greatest achievement this time around is to kick the widow of the dude-the-airport-was-named-after out of her house in the army cantonment.  Incidentally the widow is the leader of the BNP right now.  The Awami League is also led by a woman — Bangladesh’ current prime minister — who’s daddy (the founder the nation) was assassinated by the BNP in the 70s (although that may not be the most neutral version, its generally seen as the truth).

So basically its a case of revenge for my daddy vs. my hubby was the greatest.  This is what happens when you let women lead — all their political agendas boil down to the men in their lives.  Especially in conservative cultures, ‘coz they ain’t getting any, to boot.  It must be at least 30 years since either of these ladies have done the horizontal mambo (I’ll probably get arrested for that comment).

Its like my dad — he’s still trying to hold on to political realities from 40 years ago.  To him, these are the issues that matter.  My sister and I keep telling him — WE DON’T CARE.  He writes these articles about the liberation war in 1971 that no one can relate to except his senile friends — then they get drunk and discuss how contemporary their school of thought is.

And most politicians, unfortunately, think like him — coz they OLD!  Bangladesh is still a young country — we don’t have hundreds of years of a democratic agenda vs. a republican one.  Its all about who’s family did what to who’s family 20 years ago.

But to our generation, its issues like electricity, roads, the environment, and education that really matter.  Get things done so we can live more comfortably — so that we can make more money — so that our kids can have a future (my imaginary kids).  Or else we outta here.  I’m already planning a move to Bangkok — I just don’t see a way out of this never-ending political cycle of bullshit.

What we need is a benevolent dictator.  A leader educated in the West, who can get things done without red-tape and corruption.  A leader like… ME?

Until then — SNOW DAY!

Incidentally, I’m at work on a snow day.  Sucks to be me.

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Filed under: Economy, Politics, , , , ,

No rage against the Raj.

So I just came back from Kolkata today (Calcutta, to the colonially-inclined racists out there). It was my first time in India in like 25 years or something. Which is kinda weird considering I’m brown… but I was always bored by India — more into asian chicks. Ha ha — just kidding — brown chick renaissance goin’ on right here. Besides, I thought, what could be so damn different between Bangladesh and India? Between East Bengal and West? Between Kolkata and Dhaka? Both hot, stinky hellholes epitomizing human suffering, right? Typhoid, dysentery, malaria (do we got malaria?).

Boy was I wrong. Sure they’re both hot. They’re both stinky. Both cities share similar linguistic roots, and many of the men in both places sport thick virility-tickling mustaches. But that’s about where the similarities end.

Whether it’s the Airtel/Aircel ads that bring to mind Indian cricket team captain MS Dhoni telling me to press my internet button, or the fresh and mountainy TATA Himalayan spring water bringing the slight taste of diesel fuel to my mind’s tongue, India (or INDIA!, as it prefers to be known) has seeped into West Bengali culture like arsenic into UNICEF tubewell water in Bangladesh.

Today, Hindi and English are two of the more prevalent languages spoken in Kolkata, a city that used to pride itself on having the “purest” language in all of South Asia (Bengali – as per its similarities to Sanskrit, the now-dead root of most South Asian languages). And no one seems to care about the cultural dilution. Coz everyone’s making bank (except those poor muslims living in those huts on the way to Kolkata airport sorting through filth). Immigrants, whether it be Biharis, Tibetans, or Punjabis, are taking all the shitty jobs that those intellectualized Bengalis think themselves too good for, like street vending, bell-boying and cab driving. Bengalis work 9-5, getting fat on ghee and counting money, as they have for hundreds of years. Except now they do it in multinational banks. And everybody’s happy (cept the muslims of course, but who cares about them).

But only upon walking the streets of this modern, cosmopolitan Kolkata( they have sidewalks and little shops, and people actually walk and talk, unlike in Dhaka), and checking out the cute girls of all races, shapes and sizes (I like the Orissans! Nah jk, I’m equal opportunity fucker) walking on the streets with no male guardian or protective SUV shell, did I get a sense of how great the divide really is between us Bangladeshis and our snooty neighbors who don’t wear deodorant.

On my first day, I got into a discussion with one of my travel companions about how he believed India is actually falling apart from the inside, coz they are all so culturally dissimilar, and how there’s an Maoist uprising in every state now, and how us Bangladeshis are actually lucky coz we’re a cohesive homogenous unit who all think a certain way, and we really don’t treat our minorities as badly. Ummmm… bullshit. My whole life I’ve seen what culturally dissimilar democracies bring to the global table. New York City, London, and Spain, to name a few. Probably the three pinnacles of human civilization in terms of open-mindedness, acceptance of different cultures, and kick-ass art and music. Immigration, emigration — the movement of people to new locations where they are isolated from those who think just like them — fosters social, cultural, and economic development. Sure, it may be a rocky road, but its one that ends in nougaty nutty goodness.

That to me, is the inherent problem that we face as Bangladeshis. There are a shitload of us — 140 million — but most of us worship the same god, speak the same language, eat the same food, and even wipe our asses the same way (although that last part’s changing, hopefully). We drink the same tea, spit on the same corners, squat to piss, like the same bad Chinese food and music that makes us weepy. How can 140 million be wrong? Well even if they aren’t wrong they sure are damn boring.

Shazia's book cover... I tried to snort this line several times to no avail.

Shazia's book cover... I tried to snort it several times.

The above individual also had a few words of wisdom to ad (nah he’s pretty smart and he’s gonna be reading this blog soon, so I gotta ease up on him). “A friend of mine once said Dhaka has all of the bad things about a big city with none of the good.” We have the insane traffic, we have the pollution, we’ve got the crime, and we’ve got the drug problem. But where is the cultural gemification? Where are the centers for cutting edge music and art? The great street food and the open minded people?

They’re in India, right across the border. Tickets start at about $90 bucks round trip on Kingfisher Airlines, and the stewardesses are hot (with their little red miniskirts)!

Now in case anyone thinks I’m hating on my country, no way. Bengalis have a lot of great democratic, open-minded qualities upon which this country was formed (they escape me right now, its been a while). I just don’t want us to forget those on the road to globalization. I’m just another self-loathing liberal who “wants us to be as good as I know we can.”

Lastly, I’d also like to give a shout out to mah gurl Shazia, who just published her first book with Penguin India, and who’s book launch was the reason I flew out to Kolkata. “Like a Diamond in the Sky.” Its about drugs and Bangladesh so you know its good or at least ironically sad. Read it. She’s gots talents, yo.

Filed under: Politics, traveling, , , , , , , , ,

The Road Taken

So I just read an article about how Professor Yunus just met with Hillary Clinton to discuss healthcare.

Huh?  When did Bangladesh ever make the news for non-cyclones, and what’s even more surprising… Bangladesh and “Green” and healthcare?  You would think that those would never be matched up in any article.  So I haven’t read the article yet, just a sec…

Eh, its just some boring shit about Grameen Bank’s new healthcare initiative and how Bangladeshis are going to be flooded out of a country in a hundred years, but who’s planning to live that long, anyway?

I guess about 250 million people will be.  So, either create the right conditions now, or be met by a quarter billion refugees somewhere around 2110.  And there is the crossroad in which Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent, the world, is at.

A "Dalal"

A "Dalal"

Do we start taking the correct measures — environmentally, politically, socially — starting right now, or do we see the eventual destruction of the country (or the world)?   A country that by sheer force of its population combined with said population’s penchant for dalali, is classified as belonging to the “Next Eleven” economies (although we come in on the bottom, granted).  Economies which have the potential to be the next largest in terms of GDP after the BRIC economies in the coming decades.

There is definitely a large economy here.  A potentially huge economy.  An economy which has only been lightly thumped by the global recession.  An economy, which is in many ways, more “free market” than most Western economies, due to the huge amount of business that is done without paperwork or under the table.  Anything goes, as long as it sells.

And that corruption is one of the quickest roads that could lead us to eventual destruction.  But I don’t think it will (it’ll be another road like rising sea-levels).  Today, a new form of corruption has risen:  “Take a cut, a big one… but try to do something good for the country as well.”  [sarcasm]It warms the heart.[/sarcasm]  These days, unlike during the last decade, it seems that initiatives are being taken which have the country’s long-term benefits in mind.

  • Incentivize industries such as agriculture and power, which will continue to be the engines that drive the economy.
  • Attempt to stomp rampant industrial environmental damage.
  • Plan for the growth of the city and country in 20 years.
  • Diversify the economy away from garments to other export-oriented industries (such as ship-building — who would have thought that Bangladesh would ever have built a ship for a European client?).

I find myself quite pleasantly surprised.  Someone up there holding the strings actually knows his policy shit.  Even if only 20% of what they’re planning comes true, its still quite impressive.  The plans all seem like something I would have heard coming out of the Obama administration if they were as cool as they used to be (or if they didn’t have to wade out of a recession in an international shit-storm).  Someone here who’s in charge has the long-term view in mind.  Coz they realize that without that long-term viewpoint we’re gonna be real f##ked real soon.  And we probably will be but at least we’re trying.

But this post isn’t supposed to be a rant on how great Bangladesh is, its supposed to be a rant about how great I am (DUUHHH)!  I managed to move here at the right time for doing what I want to do — starting a socially-responsible business in renewable energy.  I’ve been talkin’ about that ever since business school (just ask Rainer).  Now its up to me to take what’s mine.  The rightful key to the throne of the world.

As to how that’s going (the renewable energy thing, not the world domination thing), lets just say I’m meeting the right people, and happy with my momentum so far.  But I’ve always been a doer rather than a talker (really?), so lets leave it at that for now.

So here’s to Bangladesh… once “international basket case“, today, international manufacturer of baskets (I’m sure we do, in some tin shack, somewhere).

Filed under: Energy, Politics, Uncategorized, , ,

Young Blood May Prevent Spilt Blood

So my cousins were telling me that this past election that just occurred in Bangladesh (early 2009) was in many ways comparable to Obama’s recent victory.  People were out in the street on election day, cheering and dancing, oblivious to the threat of violence that has become so prevalent in politics, not only in Bangladesh, but pretty much everywhere.  Even in the US, our joy and innocent cheer was subdued by the constant threat to the first black presidential candidate that covered the area (when we were around him) like the view from a secret service sniper net.  I can’t describe the fear I felt as an Obama supporter, constantly praying (to my non-existent God) that nothing would happen to him.  I can’t imagine the sorrow and depression that would permeate our nation and our world if that were to happen.

I’m not going to get on a whole political diatribe.  We all know what politics begets.  It has forever been associated with power, violence, and the suffering of the masses for the benefit of the few.  That may not change in some time, if ever (until women take their true place as the master race, and us men are relegated to sex objects (bring it on!!!)), but perhaps there is hope.  That word, hope, did not mean much to me before — it was a joke, a crutch for weaklings.  But somehow, this transformative election and individual have given hope back to me — a person who in the past was the epitome of  apathy, self-centeredness, and self-destructiveness.

But again — I digress.  This post is really about why politics continues to be run by the same people.  Why the masses around the world are so drawn to cults of personality that they would rather elect a despot they know than a stranger who’s actions might actually benefit their lives.

For example, in Bangladesh.  To those of you who don’t know, I’ll attempt a brief explanation.  Bangladesh used to have three major political parties.  The Awami League (left), the Jatio Party (center), and BNP (right).  Both right and center have gained political power through coups and assassinations, although Awami isn’t much better in terms of political subterfuge.  Today, only left and right remain.  Jatio has been eaten up by Awami, and right (BNP) has formed an alliance with far right (religious fundamentalists).  This recent election was won by left.  But here’s the big joke.  The main political players in Bangladeshi politics for the past 30 years are all still heavily involved on today’s political stage, if they are still alive — otherwise their family members are.  Family dynasties have formed, and power keeps changing hands between them.  Can we really consider this democracy (And please remember that family dynasties are not something very unique to Bangladeshi politics before you attempt to judge us for our backwardness)?  So Bangladeshi politics is starting to mimic more and more the politics of the US, or vice versa.

Except for the rampant — RAMPANT corruption.  Its everywhere here — to the point that it has corrupted the national mindset.  I was in hour 4 of an 8 hour conversation with a friend recently when I realized that us Bengalis have really changed as a people, our self-identity warped and twisted by corruption and greed.  There used to be a time (although it may have been before I was born), when we used to fight for values — for our right to our language and culture.  Now we kill for money and power.  And this is seen as not only unavoidable, but even normal or respectable.

So how do we change it back?  It definitely won’t be by handing power back and forth between the same tired old political parties.  Bangladesh, like the US, needs someone transformative.  Someone young, someone not associated with any of the political dynasties, someone full of idealism, someone incorruptible.  Someone who believes that things can change for the better, and is willing to sacrifice self-interest for that change.  So if you’re out there, transformative political candidate — out there on my friends list on FB — get in touch with me.  I’ll help you run your campaign.

Filed under: Politics, , , , , , , , ,