How do you know if you made it in Bangladesh? Well, a healthy catalogue of disposed cases filed against you, a bank balance that looks grey as the black and white mingle, a house in a non-disgusting neighbourhood and a car, of course.
If all else fails, do or pay enough until people call you sir or madam. Sir is a big deal in Bangladesh and it doesn't come easy, unless you are a teacher, at which point it's almost ordained.
Kaushik Basu, a former World Bank chief economist, had joined India's federal government in 2009. In his memoir titled "Policymaker's Journal (Simon & Schuster)", Basu recounted encountering this "Sir" phenomenon.
In the book he writes that that during a government meeting, he counted the number of times the word "sir" was used and he concluded that it was "on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)".
Doing some quick math, Basu calculated that 13% of the official's time was spent saying sir.
This sir culture, or rather deference for those in a form of authority, is considered both a hierarchal mindset and a colonial hang-up. And if it happens in India, you know it happens here.
But pretending this is some engrained pattern of behaviour from the times of yore is blatantly false. This culture is still fostered today in offices and homes around the world.
The sir/madam idea begins in school, where teachers cannot simply be called teachers. In that time, it is firmly established that those in authority need to be addressed respectfully. The exchange isn't an equal one: no choices are given.
For the ordinary, getting to a sir doesn't happen overnight. There are steps.
Step 1: It's all about the suffixes
The suffix in how you are addressed is a marker of which rung of society you belong to. Sad, but facts aren't always meant to be pleasant.
You never start off with sir. It begins with your name, perhaps even your last name. Then, out of courtesy, you move onto bhai. Bhai is a big step, especially when your seniors begin calling you that. Once they do, congratulations, you have just begun your journey to dizzying heights.
The bhai thing is more valuable in the streets than in NGOs, where the culture is to call everyone that, apparently. But development workers are a strange breed anyway and their bureaucracy is beyond the comprehension of the common man.
At this point, some of us may have already turned their noses up on the gendered terms this thought-provoking piece is resplendent in. But, we, as a patriarchal society, either haven't given apu/apa as much weight or have even sullied that good thing as men do. Perhaps, apa just does have more weight than apu. I could be wrong, though.
Once you make it to bhai/apa, the next natural step is to be called "boss". Indeed, Bangladeshis can toss the term boss around to curry favour with others, but no one will just start calling you boss out of nowhere. You must have done something to deserve it, which includes either being good at what you do or being good at pretending to be good at what you do.
Step 2: What does your social media posts say about you
Have a stupid opinion? Don't hesitate to share on social media. It doesn't matter what you think, but in what position you are in for your opinions to be more acceptable. A 250-word explainer on the problems in Bangladesh's indecency act may generate a miserly 12 likes, but if you can establish yourself as a Sir, then even your non-expert two-cents on the many issues with Covid-19 vaccines can generate over 500 likes.
And it's not the reactions that matter only. People will also need to engage with healthy use of phrases like "Well said, sir", "Couldn't have said it better, boss" or even the crowd-favourite, "You just perfectly said what was on my mind, apa".
Test your social media clout by posting a birthday post of a random person and see how many other randoms wish that person on your post. The more comments you have, the more Sir you are.
Step 3: Don't curb your privilege
A harsh lesson you learn in the gritty streets of Dhaka is the unabashed reverence for entitlement. With a gleaming four-wheeler, you can drive into any building in the city. The guards won't ask who you are there to meet. The car and your demeanour, the fact that you don't even meet their eyes, tell them you cannot be stopped.
Unfortunately, those exercising the privilege are often barely even aware of it. To them, that's how the world works. Why bother with returning a "salam" when it comes from a lowly plebian? What value is someone's feelings when you have so much on your plate already?
It's also important to not get this twisted: people's entitlement, at least in Bangladesh, does not necessarily stem from wealth. Often times, it's just always there.
If anyone can be led to believe that they are in some sort of position of power or authority, then the entitlement breeds by itself.
Treat people with too much respect and they may mark you as someone who probably doesn't deserve it.
At least, that's what the city teaches you.
Step 5: Acknowledge privilege but only when condescending
Got out of a jam because of your connections? Make sure to tell people about it, drop in a few names, and of course always remember to thank your privilege and talk about how now you understand what it must mean for someone without your privilege.
But make sure to actually not take time to understand anyone's struggle. It's just a gimmick, a look, with no need to get too deep into it.
Step 4: Go live or go home
Wonder why Step 5 came before Step 4? Because when you want to be the sir/madam, you need to break rules. You need to make sure your chair is higher than everyone else's in the room.
Make sure your car is big too. In fact, overcompensate for everything small with everything else really big. That'll show them.
With that done, take the final step and go Live on Facebook, or become a Youtube speaker.
Post pictures with a 1,000 books and caption it "Reading list for the week." Then, read the back flap of the books, quickly Google some reviews, and then make a short Live video explaining the "learnings" you got from the book. You can basically say anything you want and the half-wits, who you must ensure are populating your social media lists, will wax lyrical about how much they have "learnt from you, Sir".
Now that you have all the steps, make sure you actually also do something other than talk smack. Get a job, start a business, or just constantly talk about working 18-hours a day. If none of it works, don't bother me, no one calls me sir yet.