Many indivi-duals who come to this country for the first time are enamoured by the overabundance of genuine hospitality that they receive from the local people. So much so that they are willing to overlook all the jarring notes—the sickening traffic, the nauseating garbage, the choking air pollution, the jaw-dropping disregard for rules, the lack of public toilets at crucial times and so on. Except perhaps one thing—the lack of privacy. That is something hard to digest for the uninitiated. Unwanted attention is usually reserved mainly for two groups—foreigners and women. Thus foreign women will be showered with extra dollops of undesired attention. Generally speaking, however, curiosity is a national trait and acting on it a national pastime—resulting in intense attention to what is none of one’s business and it is not always out of any sleazy, knavish motive.
The irresistible curiosity to know what’s cooking at the neighbour’s has now been expanded to the higher powers—for our own protection as they say and not to be termed with such uncharitable terms as “state surveillance” or “muzzling dissent”. Hence it is of utmost importance and hardly unusual for the state to want to know exactly how you feel, what you think and the way you express your thoughts and if necessary take action, for the greater good, obviously.
Of course you can have an opinion—as long as it doesn’t differ with those who matter. Think of it as part of cultural etiquette—it is considered ill-mannered to contradict those who know more than you, like your parents (the powers that be), your elder brother (Boro Bhai). You must learn to respect those above you—in terms of age, wisdom, the number of lethal weapons they carry or the artillery of provisions in the law. If you don’t, well then you must lie in your own grave. Sometimes, in the literal sense, unfortunately.
But human nature is incorrigibly contradictory. Humans like rules but they love to break them too. While they want to be led, they are always finding ways to oppose or argue. Think of our earliest ancestors where one tribesman just couldn’t help but raise the bison bone in his hand in dissent during dinner when the heftiest of the lot insisted that you would fall off the edge if you ventured beyond the horizon to look for water sources, hence better stay put and at least die, albeit parched, on solid ground! Even then it was basic instinct to differ, to disagree and express what one felt through grunts and growls or the rudimentary rules of sign language.
But now we are “civilised” for goodness sake! We do not go around making trouble by saying all sorts of rubbish to embarrass our seniors, our rulers. Alright—if you must have a difference of opinion you may disagree about whether we should use bamboo instead of iron rods in buildings. Oh wait, maybe not—that too may be seen as a bit too risqué. Okay, how about dengue season—how to avoid getting it. But please, do not talk about how the city corporations have failed to kill the larvae of those tiny killers months ago when we already knew the disease would come—just like they did the year before, and the year before that. No, stick to the innocent basics—the Aedes mosquito, its characteristics, the times it may attack, the precautions you can take to make sure your home is not a breeding ground. Yes exactly, it’s basically your fault.
For those who just cannot keep their hands out of the filth and are prone to talk about uncomfortable truths of the state, poke your nose into the affairs of other states. Talk about the unfortunate Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who, after 265 days of imprisonment for reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims by security forces, were sentenced to seven years in prison for breach of the Official Secrets Act. Talk about how they were framed by government officials who gave them confidential documents so that they could be caught under the Act.
Talk about the American president who publicly termed the media as “an enemy”. Talk about the Maldives where a president lost in the elections because the people were just tired of the unbridled corruption and draconian measures to silence dissenting voices. Perhaps you could even talk about how people’s mandate eventually won despite the police raid on the opposition’s campaign office a day before the elections and regardless of the fact that many international observers and journalists were denied visas during elections.
By the way, did you know that you are one of Bangladesh’s 26 million active social media users? The number could well be higher by now since that was last year’s data. Now that our guardians have devoted a large part of their attention through an innocent law to make sure you don’t post, “like” or “dislike” something that would cause harm to you or your country, perhaps it is time to rethink the way we use social media. Share the ridiculous videos of Dhaka’s growing number of upstarts—without comment please. Talk about cricket. Post all the cat videos and pouty faces you like. Refrain from things that don’t concern you—for once just don’t give in to your basic Bengali instinct to be inquisitive. Remember what they say about how “curiosity killed the cat”…
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.