Obligingly Obliging

Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. PHOTO: STAR

I select seats 61A and 61B aboard the Boeing 777-200ER for myself and my only other travel companion, my 13-year-old. These are the poor man's business class seats—two seats next to the window and the aisle in the otherwise 3-3-3 seating configuration as the aircraft tapers off at the back. Besides, in the reverse direction, these are the 3rd row seats which will allow me to almost pre-board with the business class passengers.

"You have successfully checked-in!"

Wait, that's not the end: "Note: this is NOT a boarding pass—please proceed to the check-in counter for document verification." I don't complain, after all, this is Bangladesh—we are creative enough to work around every conceivable process in place. At least I am lucky that this airline allows us to check-in online. There are many carriers which, along with sending their oldest aircrafts in the fleet and their most disgruntled freshman cabin crew to Dhaka, simply do not allow online check-in at all. To them, Dhaka Airport and Kamalapur Station are the same.

So, my 13-year-old and I are at Dhaka airport looking for the online check-in counter. As we are curiously walking around the long queues trying to figure out if the online checked-in few do have some privilege (as is the case at most airports, including in Dhaka), the Bangladeshi passengers are tensed. For a nation that doesn't believe in standing in line and now being in one while seeing another fellow deshi curiously wandering around, is a sure sign of his looking to cut the line by trying to find a "friend".

Then the barrage of curt: "Excuse me! The line ends there!"

I find someone who I think works for the airline for her sari matches the colour of the airline logo. Nevertheless, I still ask: "Do you work for this airline?" as opposed to going directly for the question: "Is there an online check-in counter?" For I had once asked a young lady: "Congratulations! So, when is the baby due?" To which she responded angrily: "What baby?"

But I could only go as far as: "Madam…" and then she cuts in: "You need to stand in line."

"No ma'am, I've checked-in online…"

"Everyone has to stand in line!"

I walk to another counter marked "Closed" with an apparent higher-up of the airline. I ask him if he could check us in since we had checked-in online. I also play the "kid card"—"Sir, I'm travelling with a small child." In this situation, a teenager is a "small child."

No dice. But he is polite: "Sorry sir, we have been allocated only three counters today and I'm afraid despite checking in online, you'll have to stand in line with everyone else."

I stand in line that extends all the way to Mohakhali.

We are finally at the counter. As we are about to complete our checking in, someone comes up and tells the staff at the counter: "Can you please check in 'madam'? She has checked-in online." The intonation on the word "madam" denotes some form of VIP-ness. Curious, I look back. Surprise, surprise, she is an expat. I jokingly tell the staff at the counter: "You can check her in, but I tell you, there will be a blood bath!" She agrees: "I will check her in only if all the passengers in line agree." The other employee argues: "But 'sir' has sad that 'madam' be checked in without having to stand in queue as she has checked in online!" I ask out of curiosity: "So, who is the 'sir'?" She points to the same 'sir' who had told me to stand in line with the rest.

Well, my checking in is done. But my checking my anger at the injustice is far from done for I know there are several still in line who had checked in online but are too polite (timid) to argue.

I go to "sir" and tell him (politely): "How come you have allowed that [expat] lady to cut the line for checking in online while you made me, who had also checked in online, stand in line for 1 hour WITH a child?"

And I point like a traffic policeman (and I DO "blow the whistle" on preferential treatment) in view of half a plane of passengers, at the poor staffer who was merely following the "sir's" orders.

Boy, do I love to put people on the spot—more so in the people's court, and more so a guy who is high enough and polished enough to be in the King's court. I do see a few beads of sweat as he apologetically says: "No, I did NOT issue any such instructions! I will see to it that all passengers are treated equally…"

I go back to the line as I watch with sadistic pleasure as the expat is escorted to the back of the line as I am greeted with the approving gaze of many a fellow-passengers.

And the airline staffer smirks: "Hah! And now 'sir' is denying issuing the order and we are the ones who are made to look like fools!"

TIB: This Is Bangladesh. All are equal, some, especially non-natives, are more equal than others to whom we are obligingly obliging. And there is always the "sir", with the self-conferred knighthood, with the right to issue decrees at whim based solely on race, creed and colour.

And I, the brown, will remain the business class passenger, in reverse order, for eternity.

Wait! What? Our boarding passes say seats 41A and 41B! I thought I had selected 61A and 61B online!! No, no! This cannot be the far-reaching doings of "sir"…

Naveed Mahbub is an engineer at Ford & Qualcomm USA and CEO of IBM & Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh turned comedian (by choice), the host of ATN Bangla's The Naveed Mahbub Show and ABC Radio's Good Morning Bangladesh, the founder of Naveed's Comedy Club.

Email: [email protected]

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