Have we traded away our right to speak unpalatable truths?
I am what sociologists would call “full assimilated” in terms of language, culture, values, mores, sartorial habits and more. And yet, even I succumb to the temptation of hardwired Epicurean tendencies when in a “safe” environment.
And yours truly, on a 36-hour business visit to New York City, headed out to the Astoria neighbourhood of the borough of Queens about 11pm early this month, and found himself ogling at the simple buffet still being served at a small eatery, which I will not name, run by migrant Chittagonians (is it lawful to call them that, or is it now supposed to be Chattagramians or something equally mouthful under penalty of the Digital Security Act?).
My formal attire would have given away my being from out of town, but even before that, it was obvious I was not one of the regulars at the restaurant. Thankfully, the manager came to my rescue from the choices I faced at the buffet cart, asked me to sit and make myself comfortable while he fixed something for me himself.
And what does he bring me? Steaming white rice, two huge golda chingri curried in a red jhol, a bhorta of shutki and red potatoes, daal, and the obligatory garnishes of onions, kancha morich, and salt. Somewhat sheepishly the gentleman offered me a set of plastic cutlery; looking around I noticed I didn’t need them.
Half an hour later, as I stepped into the still cool New York air and got into my Uber ride, I knew it was going to be with a satiated stomach that I slept … and hoped the alarm woke me up in good time for my appointment the next day.
I had just finished a hearty meal in a place where I could safely eat ethnic food without any judgment or odd looks from others around me.
But the restaurant was safe in another, far more compelling way.
As is wont with Bengalis anywhere on the planet, any gathering, even at commercial premises, inevitably invites spontaneous discussions on deshi politics.
The clientele of the restaurant was almost entirely deshi and, no surprise, as I dove into my daal-maachh-bhaat, around me I got to hear plenty of vigorous and yet respectful banter about the usual political things of Dhaka.
Wildly and widely different perspectives on the performance of the prime minister, the country’s policies, the future and past of the various shades of the opposition, democracy, and dictatorship, statistics and GDP massaging, interpretations of historical events and personalities … and so on and so forth. But you know what did not happen?
There were no punches thrown. No group of vigilantes with self-important titles like this league of students or that movement of fans showed up to break the legs of men and threaten women with rape.
The premise of the restaurant was not vandalized for the “crime” of allowing political discussion, and the proprietor was not humiliated by machete-wielding thugs of the ruling party.
There was no rush of paramilitary troopers to detain those whose words “offended” the living powerful and the dead relatives of the living powerful.
And while a solitary squad car of the New York City Police Departments passed in the course of its regular patrol, there was no self-important detective who barged in to arrest diners deemed insufficiently respectful of politically mandated “truths.”
Nor were any so-called journalists on television calling for the prosecution of diners the next day on their talk shows; and there was certainly no judge in New York City sending these diners to months in detention in the tender mercies of “special branch” operatives.
In other words, vigorous and lively discussion on issues of politics and economics and history in Bangladesh was quite a mundane affair in the safe environs of the Queens borough in the city of New York.
You have to ask yourself: How did we get to a place where Bangladeshis can safely discuss their own country’s current affairs only when sitting in faraway lands?
Of course, blurting out the answer truthfully while sitting in Bangladesh will more likely than not land you in jail under the Digital Security Act or some colonial era defamation law or another similar statute of equally ludicrous provenance.
I suspect, for many of the people at that restaurant that night, this humble self included, there was a choice once between being satiated in our bellies regularly with familiar comfort food or satiated in our conscience with being able to tell the truth as we understood it.
Some of us gave up the regular daal-maachh-bhaat so we didn’t have to give up our right to speak unpalatable truths about the powerful in Bangladesh.
Some comfort foods have too steep a price.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]