By the time you will be reading this piece, I “should” be on board our national carrier, Biman Bangladesh. I write “should” because nothing about Biman can be said with certainty; listen to the passenger’s mumbling at the boarding bay or lend your eyes and ears to the incidents on the aircraft itself, you are sure to get an endorsement. Our ticketing agent convinced us that with the inclusion of top-of-the-range airliners, Biman has shaped up quite significantly. And we looked forward to being proud on board our national flagbearer.
By the time this piece will be “consumed”, I “should” be landing in Dhaka, after my sojourn from the KSA, worrying about my ride home amidst the travel ban due to the city corporation elections. While some of you will be in an electoral mood, leafing through the poll features in your favourite newspapers, scrolling through their online versions or surfing through the breaking waves of news to ponder whether your act of franchise today has actually mattered or not, how much difference that the dark-marker around your thumb has made, or how much difference the city fathers will make to this unreal city—I shall be worrying about coronavirus, luggage trouble, immigration hassles and so on. Hopefully, I shall be in a mood to ruminate on the discrepancy between the service that was promised and the one that was delivered in our “home in the air”.
No matter how high you are in the sky, you must think of the ground. I guess that is why they say “grounded in reality”. At the risk of being banal, let me point out one brutal reality: Biman’s service epitomises the poor service quality that plagues our entire public system. Then why expect more? Well, Biman is an international player, and for its foreign passengers, it is potentially their first brush with our culture. Any expatriate or an NRB who has lived abroad for a considerable time gets the taste of the country’s hospitality, warmth, sophistication, cuisine, art and culture through its airlines. Say, if you are on board a Chinese plane, it will make sure that you have an understanding of its ongoing new year’s celebration. But not Biman! There is no way you can tell that Bangladesh is celebrating Mujib Year or counting days for its golden jubilee.
Biman’s in-flight entertainment system, from which you are supposed to get your infotainment, gives you the impression that it has been designed as PowerPoint slides by a sixth grader. Let me enlighten the doubters. The information section has the following entries: Bangladesh fact file; Biman history; Coastline of Bangladesh; Discover Bangladesh; Flowers of Bangladesh; Six seasons of Bangladesh; Green valleys of Bangladesh; and MD&CEO message. The pages are static with just one low-res image, and the scroll-down options were not functional.
The information on Bangladesh seems like a page from a BCS guide, which includes land area, current population and projected population of 20 crore by 2025. The essay on seasons must have been written by a GPA-5 SSC student. Here is an excerpt: “The country has six seasons which come in turn and in different decor and beauties. The summer comes with the scorching heats and presents the sunny days. The excessive heat sucks up all the water and leaves the mud dry. The farmer yearns for the rain, the young juveniles come out in the streets to sing the song for rain ‘Allah megh de, pani de...’”
Other entries have a similar tone where some creative genius thought it pertinent to show off their textbook memory. You may wonder why I even bothered reading all these. Well, my seat audio socket for the headphone was missing. I did not mind it—after all, I was on an Umrah flight, where looking for the popular cultural material would have been inappropriate anyway. I still remember the hyped-up inclusion of the five 777-300 ER Boeing planes to the Biman Bangladesh fleet under our PM’s initiative about five years ago. The addition of Dreamliners has stirred up further expectations. Yet the condition of the plane, Arun Alo, and its interior, poor quality accessories surprised me. Five years for a plane is nothing; one expects it to be in mint condition. The seat monitor and the remote were, for lack of a better word, cheap. The buttons were not working, and the remote screamed street quality. I don’t want to believe that the quality of the products was compromised, but the proof was in the pudding. Speaking of pudding, in an entire eight-hour-long flight, only one meal was served. The served daal-bhaji-bhaat at our uni canteen should not have cost me more than Tk 30, and I thanked my platinum god for the pre-boarding lunch and sparing me from hunger.
To make matters worse, the plane started an hour late, which, according to the steward, was for technical trouble while the captain claimed it to be a maintenance issue. I took it as a sign that something was perennially wrong with Biman. The public perception is, Biman has been exploited as a goose that lays golden eggs (or should I say “bars”) for many for a long time. Then again, I am not in a position to comment as my knowledge is limited to the corruption or smuggling stories that surface every now and then.
As a student of culture, I can simply comment on the in-flight AV system. There was no documentary, no video, no infographic markers, no audio-visual effect. By contrast, look at Turkish Airlines that has commissioned Ridley Scott to make a movie, “The Journey”, to showcase Istanbul. Will our new city fathers have such a vision to merge what goes up in the sky and what comes down to earth? Say, will they consider mandatory greening of all rooftops near the airport area so that visitors land in a scenic zone, instead of the present seeming concrete jungle hit by dust storm.
It would be nice to see our city parents conceive an integrated plan. The other shot in the arm to stem the rot can be to request our Honourable Prime Minister to travel incognito in the manner of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. The idea dawned on me while listening to the anecdote of Darb Zubaidah, the princess who along with her husband was known for excavating canals and installing wells for the welfare of pilgrims along the roads from Baghdad to Makkah. Both Princess Zubaidah and her husband Caliph Harun al-Rashid were engaged in endless philanthropic projects. Harun was particularly receptive to what he had heard while wandering through the streets at night. It would be grand to see our PM paying surprise visits to the economy coaches one of these days or taking an alley without entourage one day to see the level of compromises that are being made on the public money released from the exchequer.
The old tunes must change as we approach various national milestones.
P.S. Now you know why I have given a twist to a classic Bob Marley song.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.