Bedford College Magazine (my first short story)
The sound of the bolt seemed to grate loud into the night as he locked the door.? For a fleeting moment he flustered as he imagined every person in the enormous house knowingly smile at hearing the sound. It was her he was more worried about; locking the door when they were the only ones in the room seemed to have sinister implications somehow ? but, surely it was understandable, after all they were now man and wife. Continue reading “Ami Tomay Bhalobashi”
A lovely short story.
Craigslist: that scourge of the newspaper industry, that den of lust, that middleman responsible for an untold number of bedbug crises.
Or, Craigslist: the Internet’s simplest and most ingenious disruptor, a digital equivalent of the neighborhood telephone pole papered from sidewalk to eye line with “HELP WANTED” and “GARAGE SALE: TODAY!” fliers.
How about, Craigslist: accidental publisher of short fiction?
On Tuesday evening, “Missed Connection” appeared as a personal listing on Brooklyn’s corner of the website. It begins like most of these confessions do:
I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train.
I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. Continue reading “”
Once she decided to banish love out of her life, her world turned upside down. She had never thought that later she would face any such problem that she won?t be able to solve. And trying to solve that problem, she would herself become a problem. She had never thought that in loveless times the flowers fade, the breeze turns into scalding wind, sadness engulfs the walls of your home and despite the cacophony of noises emanating from the courtyard, a deafening silence overwhelms you and takes possession of your heart like a cobra with its hood raised, whose hissing sets your very being on such a fire that neither the cold water nor the icy winds can ever extinguish. The heart burns, the cobra hisses, the fire rages and doesn?t die out. Whatever you do, it does not die out; it just refuses to die out.
She put her left hand on her chest and walked slowly towards the window. It was pitch dark in the street opposite. A municipal bulb, visible near the last corner of that lane near Zainab Massi?s [maternal aunt] house, looked like a lamp burning in a hut at the edge of a forest, which sometimes shows the way to the lost travellers. That bulb was surrounded by a silent darkness. A murmur could be heard coming from Uncle Arshad?s house, situated just opposite the window. Chachi [paternal aunt] Rashida will as usual be narrating the same old tale of Scheherazade to her grandsons and granddaughters. She would conclude with the words: ?What a wonderful woman she was! How intelligent, quick witted and brave!? When she heard that story as a child, she had asked, flapping her eyelashes, ?How come, Chachi?? ?That is because instead of accepting defeat, she had decided to bravely fight the cruel king. God helped her succeed. Look children, it is an honour for the brave to die fighting. Then death ceases to be death, it claims the status of martyrdom and that is a very high status, indeed,? Chachi had said.
Chachi used to tell this story always on the last day of the week. This was her principle. The children waited for the story for full seven days, and then she poured it into their ears, drop by drop. That was why this story was very popular among the children. The next day was a holiday and she remembered how instead of flying kites, playing marbles or simply making noises on the roof with her siblings, she had spent the day engulfed in silence. The issue of dying while fighting bravely had got stuck in her young consciousness. She spent the whole day lying on the cot and looking into the sky. In her heart she repeated innumerable times what aunt had said. But she couldn’t figure out what was so special about dying while fighting bravely which earned such praise from Chachi. What courage Scheherazade had displayed that so overwhelmed the aunt that she was narrating her story to everyone? When she could comprehend nothing, she decided not to listen to the story of Scheherazade again and came down from the roof.
Great, Chachi! She felt the echo of conversation reach her ears, and a sigh escaped her lips. Your Scheherazade had succeeded in defeating death due to her narrative gift. But here life itself has been crushing everyone since centuries. I haven?t seen any Scheherazade who could prevail over it. Everyone is afraid of it, and can be seen bowing before it with folded hands. Death appears helpless in facing life. Death is kind and one?s own, at least, it doesn’t reject you. Rather it accepts one into its lap with a lot of affection. She felt like shouting at Chachi Rashida through the window and ask her to let go of the poor Scheherazade now, for god?s sake. To forgive that Scheherazade! The poor girl might have got tired of fighting death. Let her face life now. She should also know that there is a world outside the world of art, where there is hunger, there are worries, there is sadness, there is hatred, there are contradictions and…. And life is like the cruel king. And life doesn’t pay any attention to the narrative skills of the master storyteller. It has no interest in any such art. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that it’s not possible to trick it with any such art.
Life cannot be appeased. It has its own facts, its own assessments, its own canvas, its own brush and its own colours. Ideas too are its own and so it paints whatever catches its fancy: Upright, inverted, oblique, crooked, as she feels like. And the remarkable thing is that nobody can mould life the way one wants. ?O.K. Scheherazade! If you ever come out of the discourse created by Chachi Rashida, I shall tell you what life is all about.? The sigh emanating from her heart became an expression of her very being. Now in her eyes could be seen the innocence of an eleven year old girl, who takes note of the quickly lengthening shadows on a hot summer afternoon; one who has a small painting brush in one hand and a simple page, torn from a notebook, fluttering in the other.
She wanted to make a painting of the shadows; the shadows of the arches, walls, terraces and the attic of the house. The shadows that came down from the mulberry, mango, black plum and margosa trees growing in the courtyard and spread there in strange shapes, forms and directions. She used to watch the play of shadows while sitting in the centre of the courtyard in one of the arches of an old Baradari whose plaster was coming off. And her feeling of wonder used to multiply manifold when she would see an ill-shaped shadow emerge from the arch she sat under, and spread on the ground. ?Do I look like this?? surprised she would wonder and run into the room. It was during those days that she thought of capturing the shadows in a painting. Perhaps in this way the shadows could be prevented from spreading and lengthening. But that day, her amazement knew no bounds when she saw a shadow in the middle of the arch, move strangely left and right with a yard long brush on a square shaded piece of paper. Do shadows also…? She thought and threw the painting brush away.
It was during those days that a strange accident took place which threw her into a never ending vicious cycle. All her later life was moulded into that cycle. And that cycle became her life cycle. She could never get out of it. Then she could see nothing. She closed her mind?s eye. All her innumerable little childhood joys were strung into an unending chain of tears. Unobtrusively she put that chain around her neck, never to take it off. And then that little girl metamorphosed from Mother?s Muni to Zohri, to Zohra Baji and finally to Zohra Aapa. Recollecting that transformation, Zohra felt a cold shiver quicken through her being. Wrinkles began to appear on her face, which expressed her innocent fears. Sad glitter of twinkling glow-worms began to flicker on her empty palms. A scene emerged in front of her gloomy eyes, a scene that had snatched the joy of breathing from her and had burdened a twelve year old girl with a load of centuries. When she tried to carry the burden, her shoulders slumped, her back bent double, her hands started trembling and legs turned shaky. But she couldn?t even complain against the burden.
She just kept laughing. To keep smiling in face of an extreme sorrow is also akin to defeating the grief. Implicitly, it was like victory over grief. But she learned too late that it was not so. Grief was a wrestler that displayed greater tricks when it was out of the arena. It was simply impossible to prevail over it. Now she left the window and sat in the chair. She untied her long black hair and resting her head on the back of the chair, closed her tired eyes and took deep breaths. ?Life is a four-directional battle, Miss Zohra Sultan.? A whisper rose from somewhere close by. ?How many opponents will you fight? You?ll get exhausted.? ?This exhaustion is here since those days Professor Zaka, when I didn?t even fully understand the meaning of exhaustion.? She thought despondently, feeling the murmuring silence enclosed within the four walls of the room. How can I tell you, Professor Zaka? When the upheaval occurred, a good deal was buried under the rubble.
Long time ago, Professor Zaka, a dark night had swallowed the light out of my life like a cruel demon. The sleep had turned into a continuous wakefulness and dreams, into frightening dreamlessness. When a 12-year-old girl, rudely shaken out of her sound sleep by the frightening noises all around her, had chosen to plug her ears with her fingers. She had devoutly prayed to be blinded in both her eyes when she witnessed that horrifying scene. Finding herself defenceless and overcome by her vulnerability, she had accepted defeat and sitting near the mutilated bodies of her dear ones, had dipped her fingers in their thick blood and written a pledge on her own self. Crying, she had noiselessly run to the rooftop with Maya pressed to her bosom, to talk to God. Perhaps she had the illusion that God is nearer the rooftop. There is no barrier in-between, but this too was her delusion. She learned later that God is far away from everywhere. It is not so easy to reach Him. So she did not cry while giving the final bath and burying the blood-drenched bodies of her parents and three younger siblings. The dry dust flying into her eyes had settled on her eyelashes, spread on her lips and engulfed her very existence. Later, staring at the photograph of a terrorist, printed on the last page of a newspaper, she had tried hard to bring back tears to her dry eyes, the tears that got lost somewhere in the labyrinth of some dark alley on a brutal night.
Professor Zaka, the walls of that room used to be very pitiless and chilly where I, clutching Maya to my bosom, attempted to get rid of the questions written over the frightened open eyes of those mutilated bodies, and to find some sleep by hitting my head against the pillow. Covering both my eyes with palms of her hands, I used to vigorously recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi [a prayer from Quran]. ?Go to sleep, Go to sleep?, I used to admonish myself. Those days I used to feel very angry with God. I wished I would come face to face with Him and ask what type of a God He was who destroyed the world of the unsuspecting? Did He prefer those who haughtily roamed around freely, nonchalantly killing or injuring whosoever they liked, without any worry whatsoever? Pitted against them were people like us, who even after having been destroyed completely, kept on praying to You, talking to You.?
A car blew horn in the street below, she got up from her chair, shut the window and lay on the bed. On the wall facing her, was a photograph of twenty year-old Maya. Maya on whose lips a smile had spread out like flowering buds and life glittered in her eyes like a fountain in the hills. In her confident manner, there was an extraordinary openness. As if she will jump out of the photograph and exuberantly embrace her, ?Aapa, Zohra Aapa, the blue sky, high snow clad mountain tops, adventurers conquering those tops and the determination visible in the eyes of those people, fascinate me. Aapa, let us also go to conquer some top. I wish to plant my Aapa?s flag on the highest peak of the world. Zohra Aapa, the Great! Zohra Aapa, the highest peak in the world, higher than the Himalayas, mad?? She turned in the bed and felt a sharp twinge of sorrow rise in her chest: ?Wah Maya! How would you know of what brittle clay your sister is made of, how fragile is her being? It was for your sake that your Aapa transformed herself into something like the Himalayas. What else could she do?? ?But Aapa you never revealed why we were so alone despite having so many relatives?? ?Because we loved to live with freedom? she had smiled.? ?That is okay. But, when our parents died, you were so young. Tell me, how you decided to live on your own??
On this probing, a pitiless night buried deep in her heart stared at her ironically. But she was ready. Since long, she had prepared herself for this moment. So she spoke calmly: ?Maya, you have always been stupid. You fool, how was I alone? My Maya was with me, so were Noor Chacha, Massi Khairan, and Chacha Rashid. There were Masi Zainab and Mama Tufail. And we were there. They all were there. We have been living among them all. They used to be here all day long. Leave that, Yaar Maya! The truth is that I didn?t like locking up our parental house and shifting somewhere else. Should I tell you the truth, Maya?? She became a bit sad. ?You were so young; you do not know how our parents used to look after this house. They had supervised every brick that was laid in this house. They had carefully tended every leaf, every plant and every flower-bed with their labour and prayers. Then how could I desert this house and let others take its possession. Maya, this house is a place of worship for me, where love is a prerequisite and purity a duty; where you can respectfully pay your obeisance any time. Where you can worship and that is all.? Saying so, she tried to erase the image of that horrible night from her mind, when in that place of worship the blood of innocents was senselessly shed. That night, the cruel rite of butchering was performed; something, which was neither so ordained by God, nor expected as an offering by Goddess Kali. Perhaps, even she doesn?t demand such sacrifices any more. And God, He has been uninvolved from the very beginning, so uninvolved. Why should He require such sacrifices?
?What happened, Aapa?? Maya was troubled by the changing expressions on her face. ?Nothing, my dear.? She had controlled herself. A smile was playing on her dust covered lips. ?Then what happened, Aapa?? Detecting curiosity in Maya?s eyes, she continued slowly: ?Then, your Aapa grew up, matured, became the most mature, maturer than our parents and she succeeded the mother, took over her kingdom. In her kingdom, she simultaneously performed the duties of the king, the queen and the slave. She ordered shut all the secret escape routes. She zealously protected the borders of her kingdom and began to enjoy life with her dear Maya Rani. Everyone was surprised; everyone was confident about the imminent collapse of the kingdom; everyone was waiting. Everyone spread rumours; because such things had not happened before. But as you say, your Aapa is stronger than the Himalayas, so everything went off well. (And… my Maya grew up. After a long time she breathed peacefully, holding Maya to her bosom.) Perhaps life would have gone on comfortably had Professor Zaka?s arrival not caused the upheaval. A little joy trapped in her heart for centuries escaped through some small crack and settled on the forehead of Professor Zaka. What? Completely oblivious of his presence, Zohra stared at him surprised.
?Zohra Sultan! Time is fast running out of your grip. There is only one path available to those obsessed with the quest for truth in this universe; it is that they surrender their true need to the care of some Mansoor without wasting any time. Why do you forget that you are not alone in this universe? There are some other equally headstrong people here, who are driven by the same spirit, who live with that spirit and love their selfless desire.? She saw that a ray of happiness was now playing on Professor Zaka?s chest.
?Zohra Sultan! Howsoever high your aim, it should not defy nature, otherwise, the aim does not remain aim, it grows into obstinacy. Those who go against nature suffer and cause suffering to others also.? ?Professor Zaka, I don?t understand why you are after me? What do you want from me?? she heard herself speak. ?I don?t mean any harm, Zohra Sultan.? She observed that the glitter of some unseen happiness shining in Professor Zaka?s eyes had suddenly begun to fade away. He bowed a bit to place the notebook he was carrying, on the table. And she observed that the little ray of happiness that had been glowing on his chest suddenly vanished. ?I wish to draw you out of your self-created world where you have imprisoned yourself since ages.? ?It is not like that, Professor Zaka.? The confidence in her voice had a ring of defeat to it. ?Yes, yes, I know you regard this as your kingdom,? he spoke aggressively. ?But without seeking your pardon, I wish to assert Miss Zohra Sultan that you are making a big mistake, a very big mistake.?
This was the moment when angry Zohra Sultan ordered him out of her world. Banished love out of her life. And taking Professor Zaka?s spirit as an illusion, she withdrew completely into her own little world.
But after this, the time sense began to go awry. The tastes began to alter and the moods underwent transformation. After moving at her own pace for such a long time she began to feel an innocent urge in her heart to stop, to rest which she tried her best to suppress with her strict rules and discipline. But she saw that the urge was growing like the bamboo. The system of her kingdom got disturbed within days, hours and moments. The eyes, on guard since so long, began to feel heavy because of the sleeplessness; the eyelids tended to close under the weight of some unknown burden. In her heart she felt such a pang that she was even afraid to name. ?Is that all Zohra Sultan! How strange that you, despite being so courageous, intelligent, and self-confident, don?t know what is in your heart? Something that you long for, but can?t admit to yourself. Perhaps admission is defined as cowardice in your dictionary. But I would like to make this clear to you that there is limit to denial also. ?If defiance crosses a certain limit, it results in problems.?? The words of Professor Zaka came from so close that she was surprised.
?Professor Zaka! Long ago I tried to make a painting of the shadows. But I was so frightened by my own shadow that the painting brush fell from my hand. But do you know what happened after that? On seeing the innocent blood of my dear ones, I dipped my finger in the blood and wrote a pledge on my very being. The surprising thing is that this scene didn?t frighten me but a strange defiance permeated every pore of my being I cannot get rid of, now. Professor Zaka! You are right this ?kingdom? was a delusion; I have no hesitation in admitting this. I am in love with you but, believe me, my defiance creates a wall between you and me, a wall made of such a mirror that I find myself standing on its both sides. On both sides, I find myself. In such a situation, I do not understand where you disappear. Now tell me, where should I go? What should I do??
Far away, Professor Zaka was fast asleep in a room in the youth hostel, when something suddenly woke him up; as if the touch of a wing of some divine angel roused him, saying ?Get up, Professor Zaka!? He got up, and yielding his fulfilled dream to his shortened sleep, went towards that part of the city where a girl, captive of a cruel moment and sleepless since ages, was standing on the crossroads, carrying the burden of defiance on her head.
My first podcast
?No one ever comes back,? she said. She was baleful, half a tear welling on her eyes. I had no way of knowing when I might be back. I hugged her tight as she sat on my lap, but my words were not convincing. She had been promised many times before and knew not to be too wishful. The name ?Happy? seemed a difficult one to use to describe her. Yet minutes before Happy Akhter Nodi and I had been playing, laughing, teasing one another. She was probably around 10. She didn?t really know, and I couldn?t really tell.
Her mother had brought her over to the Sonar Bangla Children?s home three years ago. Happy had wanted to come herself. She wanted to study. To become a doctor. To serve people. But parting had been sad. Her mother had come to see her on previous new year days, but this time she?d rung to say she couldn?t make it. There was too much work over the holidays. Happy understood, but it didn?t make it any easier. She wanted to go to the fair, to buy toys, to dress up in a new sari. She wanted her mum. Happy was spunky, bubbly, naughty, and dying to be loved. I tried to tell her that her mother might come another day. We both knew I was pretending.
She was being protective of me. Making sure the other kids didn?t hassle me too much. She became my self appointed muse. The poem by Kazi Nazrul I was trying to sit and translate wasn?t easy and they were all impatient. There was a children?s poem in the book, which she remembered from school, but even that didn?t hold her attention. We both knew I would be leaving soon. The sun was coming down and I was waiting for that sweet light when I would photograph Putul (an older girl in the home) in the green paddy fields. I was there on an assignment, and needed to get back to work. I would then go back to Dhaka, and perhaps out of her life for ever.
?You will ring tomorrow, or I?ll never talk to you again.? This had been the biggest threat we knew as children. ?I?ll never talk to you again.? I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. It would be new year?s day, and it gave me some chance to make amends. She snuggled up to me and said, ?You have to give me a name. One just for us.? Despite her sadness, the name Happy had seemed very apt. She was a happy child. They must have given her the name knowingly. Her mother?s name Adori Begum, had also perhaps been a name she had been given. A woman who provided love. When I?d photographed Happy before, she was being her mischievous self. She?d put on a shawl around her head and looked much older than she was. Now she looked smaller than her age, and very fragile.
As the light went down, we went to the paddy fields together, holding hands all the way. Happy jealously warding off the other kids. The light was beautiful and Putul glowed in the green paddy. Then it was time to go. As we walked back she guided me through the bracken, protecting me from every thorn. As we came to a clearing, she looked me over and untangled a rubber band dangling from my pouch. It was a worn band, left over from an old baggage tag at some airport. ?I?ll keep this,? she said. ?Now, give me my name.? I whispered back ?Anmona?. It was all I could think of. This wistful girl, with the bright eyes, full of sadness, suddenly seemed so far away.
We said our goodbyes and as all the children rushed to hug and kiss and wave goodbye, Happy stayed back. Silently she repeated the word ?Anmona?. As the car moved out of the gate I could see her through the dust. She was holding on to a worn ragged baggage tag.
1st Baishakh 1414
Bangla New Year’s Day
It was in the early 90?s that Pedro had written. I had only heard of this famous Mexican photographer, a pioneer of digital photography and author of the first photo essay on CD ROM, ?I Photograph to Remember?. It was a gentle, intimate and deeply perceptive essay on the last days of his parents who were dying of cancer. I remember the image of his father looking as if he could fly. He was bringing out his new CD, ?Truths and Fiction? and wanted me to write an introductory text, something about my responses to the new digital technology. We didn?t have email then, and faxes were expensive, but we continued a dialogue that went far beyond his CD, or his subsequent books.
We met several years later when Ma, Rahnuma and I had gone to Arle, in the South of France. I had a small exhibition in the festival there. Rahnuma was doing her PhD in Brighton and Ma and I were going to join her there. We would go on to France, and Italy and then go overland through the Alps to Holland. It was before Schengen, so we needed visas for each country that we needed to cross. Armed with invitation letters from friends in each country, Ma and I did the embassy rounds. Friends at the embassies helped, and we even got recommendation letters for Rahnuma which she could use in London for her visas. Undaunted by the sign inside the Belgian Embassy in Dhaka, that said ?We do not issue tourist visas?, and other equally friendly mementos in the remaining ones, we gathered all the visas, joined up with Rahnuma in London and headed off to Paris. The organisers were paying for my trip, but Andre Raynouard at the Alliance, had kindly arranged for trips to France for photographers Shehzad and Mahmud as well and we all met up in Paris. Trips to Editing, the agency that represented us in France at that time, and visits to Magnum were warm ups to Arles. We took the train to Marseille where Gilles and Isabelle picked us up. Driving through the sunflower fields that Van Gogh and Gaughin must have painted, I remember wondering if the mottled bark of the trees in Arles had inspired their rugged brush strokes.
Pedro had a massive exhibition at Arles, and I remember marvelling at the digitally produced images printed on canvas, hanging in gilded frames, all along the walls of what appeared to be a medieval church. Pedro was showing the new CD on a Mac to his enraptured audience. I too had a go playing with this new toy. Thinking I was Hispanic, Pedro came up to me and asked if I would like to see the Spanish version. In an air of nonchalance I shrugged, but suggested I might be interested in the Bangla version. Pedro smiled and told me of this very good Bangladeshi friend that he had, called Shahidul Alam, who he would introduce me to! The bear hug that I got when I revealed my identity nearly did me in.
The rest of the trip went well too, but the highlights were, being in Milano at the house of Gabriela Calvenzi, the picture editor of MODA, when Italy beat Bulgaria in the semis of the world cup and that breathtaking train ride through the Alps. We visited Nipa and Alam in Basle, and they drove us through the sunflower fields and gentle waterfalls in Switzerland. Ma was disappointed that they did not check our German visas on the train. We had gone to so much trouble to get those visas! Walking through Amsterdam?s red light district with Ma was another interesting experience, but what I remember more of that city was the meal we had. I had been in the jury of World Press (WPP) the two previous years, and had many friends there. Marloes Krijnen, the managing director of WPP took us all to dinner at a fancy Argentinean restaurant. Ma ordered a very exotic sounding dish, which we were a bit jealous of, until the waiter turned up with a baked potato with a blob of butter on top!
The US trip to visit Rahnuma?s brother Khadem, was relatively uneventful, except for the immigration officer?s zeal in checking us out, as he always did with ?certain types of passports?. This resulted in us missing our flight, and I was in full ?journo mode?. Out came my notebook, my digital recorder, I took copious notes, interviewed people, quizzed him on what he meant by ?certain types of passport?. The guy was rattled enough to upgrade us to business class for appeasement. He tried to mumble something about our garb being inappropriate, but my cold stare put a stop to that.
We didn?t go to Mexico that trip, and my first opportunity came in 1996, when the Centro de la Imagen invited me to speak at PhotoSeptembre. As it is now, there was no Mexican embassy in Dhaka. even my foreign secretary friend had been unable to extract a visa application form from the nearest embassy in Delhi, let alone a visa itself. I tried plan B. The consul general in London had heard of me and wanted to help. We exchanged phone numbers as I went off to Fotokina in Cologne, loathe to hang around in London while the bureaucrats decided what to do with me. The consul phoned me in Cologne, asking me to take the night train, in order to arrive in time. Groggily, I made my way from Waterloo to the consul office. True to his word, the consul managed a visa in time for me to race to the airport and catch my flight to New York and on to Mexico City.
Being the only African or Asian in this huge meet with over 800 exhibitions should have been daunting, but my naivet? helped me overcome such inhibitions. I was thrilled by the work on display in this amazingly culturally rich city. Manual Alvarez Bravo turning up on the day of my talk should have been enough. Reaching across to the next table over dinner to chat to Gabriel Garcia Marquez should have left me sufficiently awed, but I was too excited to be fazed by any of this. My memories were more of the trip to Oaxaca that Patricia Mendoza, the director of Centro de la Imagen had organised for a few of us. It was a small but interesting group. Fred Baldwin and Wendy Waitriss who ran Fotofest in Houston, Alasdair Foster (this was when he ran the photo festival in Edinburgh and before he became the director of the Australian Centre of Photography), and Marcelo Brodsky, the president of Latin Stock from Sao Paolo, made up our motley team. We passionately argued, and fervently planned; charting out the routes that we felt photography should take. I remember those torrid moments, but my most distinct memory is of the midnight visit to the Aztec temples that Patricia had managed to organise. The temples were off limits after sunset, but Patricia knew everyone, and had arranged for us to go on a full moon. I remember walking along the ancient corridors of the shrine, glistening in the moonlight, the quiet and eerie stillness, the sound of the bats, the whoosh of the owl, and sparkling in the valley below the gently glowing city of Oaxaca. I have very different memories of Francesco Toledo, sitting on the red clay, chatting to other artists. This was the artist who had raised millions and donated his own work, to set up some of the finest museums and galleries to be found. I could imagine him in the dried up pond in Charukola, or in Modhu?r canteen, passionately debating the merit of some work of art. While the visions included Toledo and other students, sadly, I couldn?t see the directors or the DGs of our own institutions coming out of their dull carpeted offices with towel backed chairs and touching the earth with such sincerity.
I remembered the brightly coloured shawls, the hibiscus and tamarind drinks, the blue beans and the fried crickets. So when Pedro asked me to speak at the 10th anniversary of zonezero.com I could hardly refuse. There was still no embassy, and no guarantee that it would work again in London. The world had changed in between, and Pedro was loath to have a bearded Muslim, negotiate immigration officers in the ?land of the free?. So he arranged for a direct flight to Mexico City from Paris, and sent a very official looking letter with lots of stamps to the embassy there. I had been emailed a copy. I was going to Prague enroute, so two visas needed to be managed. Luckily Martin Hadlow of the Media Development Loan Fund in Prague who had invited me to Prague, knew the ambassador in Paris, who knew the ambassador in Bangkok, who spoke to the consul general in Kuala Lumpur. The Czech consulate gave me a multiple entry visa immediately but Mexico was not going to be so easy. I was going to buy the tickets to Prague, Amsterdam and Manchester in Paris. So I had a ticket to Mexico and no visa and a visa to the Czech Republic but no ticket. It was going to be fun.
We were all approaching Prague differently. Sameera and I travelled to London together, and I went on to Paris. Czhoton had been doing a long assignment in Denmark, so he flew directly from Copenhagen. Shabbir unfortunately had been denied a visa, for the ?Catch 22? reason that he had never been to Europe before. I was staying with Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo. In the morning, it was Sylvie who navigated the answering machine sil vous plez?s, but ended up getting no coherent response from the embassy. So armed with a map, I walked down Strassbourg St Denis to rue de? . The embassy was closed. With my rusty French, I could work out that the 16th September was Mexico?s Independence Day. Luckily, and rather uncharacteristically, I had kept a margin and had resisted purchasing my other tickets until I had my Mexican visa.
Dominique from Contact Press recommended their travel agent who was very helpful, but struggled with my itinerary. A Paris Prague single came to over $ 1,200! A return would work out cheaper, but I needed to include a Saturday night. That meant missing out on my show in Groningen, as I wouldn?t have time to go on to Manchester and then to Oldham and back to Paris in time to catch my flight to Mexico City on Tuesday morning.
Eventually we managed a Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam Paris ticket that was reasonable, and good old Easyjet from the nearby cybercafe, provided a Paris Liverpool Paris flight, at a quite good price. All I now needed was that Mexican visa. The visa officer I met on the 17th was very pleasant. Pedro had provided an imposing looking document, with several stamps. The sort bureaucrats love. Gauging that they would issue the visa, I hesitantly asked how long it might take. ?48 hours? was the short reply. I was in trouble. All my budget price tickets were non refundable and non endorse-able. Besides, I?d already killed two of the four days I was meant to have for this meeting in Prague. Luckily, I had my itinerary with me. The sight of eleven flights, two train journeys and four car journeys, across ten cities in three continents over fifteen days, should have been enough to convince her that I was totally mad, and shouldn?t be allowed in any country, but it worked, and she agreed to let me have the visa in an hour (my flight to Amsterdam was in the afternoon). There was the minor matter of the fee. 134 Euros to be paid in cash. I gulped. In these days of electronic money, one rarely carried cash around. No problem. I had my travellers cheques. I would be back in a jiffy with the money. Could I have my passport please. ?Sorry, we need the passport to process the visa.? Logical enough, but I was stuck again. I combed all the banks in the neighbourhood, but they wouldn?t give me an advance on my credit card. Eventually a bureau de change with a trusting officer, decided he would take the risk, and cashed my travellers cheques without a passport. Back to the embassy, collect visa, rush to Sylvies?, train to Garu du Nord (Charles de Gaulle, doesn?t have a left luggage), pick up luggage, and finally with visas, tickets and passport, I dashed to the airport. Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam, Groningen, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Manchester, Oldham, Manchester, Liverpool, Paris and then on to Mexico City. In between Martin had taken us on a lovely night walk across old Prague. Drew, arranged the Liverpool, Manchester Oldham circuit, and Lotte and Anonna, joined me in Groningen, where Maria and Ype gave me a grand tour of the Norderlicht (the Northern Lights) Festival. Opening up galleries in the middle of the night, Bresson, George Rodgers, Capa, all in one go! And of course there were my two shows, in the synagogue in Groningen and the one in Gallery Oldham that I had gone to see.
Mexico was all that it had promised to be. Great speakers, old friends, wonderful presentations. Our own session was unusual. There were only two speakers as opposed to the customary four. Brian Storm, Bill Gate?s right hand man at Corbis, versus this bearded Muslim from a small agency in Bangladesh! Techno power versus spunk! It was the classic duel and the gallery loved it. I don?t think Gates will be making a takeover bid for Drik just yet. It was again at Pedro?s on the eve of the talk. Trish was leaving for New York the next day, for the judging of the Eugene Smith Awards, and this was a quick dinner she?d arranged. Mark (senior curator of Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and I were the only guests. Pedro took us for a walk along Coyocan. We went down the streets where Frieda Kahlo and Trotsky used to live. Visited Cortes? palace where Pedro and Trisha were married, and soaked in the energy of Pedro?s bustling para.
There were of course the more traditional touristy visits. I?ll remember Maximilian?s palace for its ornate loo, and the boat ride along the ?Floating Gardens of Xochimilco? and the Aztec dance amidst the pyramids. It took a while to get used to the fact that we had a film crew following us for most of the trip. The producer, Michel, had been a war photographer for many years, but was now known for his sensational environmental films. We talked of the possibility of him coming to Pathshala to teach. The highlights for me were the visit to Fototeca in Pachuca where we saw the original glass plate of Zapata?s official portrait. The joy of holding history in my hands, was only to be topped by the visit to the incredible ?Museum of Anthropology? in Mexico City. I had been told about this famous museum before, but hadn?t quite made it during my last visit. This time round I was determined to make it. North Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans and one lone Bangladeshi made a curious mix.
What a museum it was! Having visited some of the most famed museums around the world, I felt I had seen it all, but this one simply took one?s breath away. Apart from the sheer exquisite nature of the exhibits, I was enchanted by the love and the care that must have gone into setting up the display. Each piece of stone, was carefully positioned, thoughtfully lit, and displayed as a prized possession, which of course they were. The tombs descended down an intricate stairway, with sections cut out, so we could visualise our descent into the burial grounds. Lights carefully placed at floor level, lit up small artefacts, that characterised the personalities of dead. Tools for the rights of passage, a child?s toy, a garment to take one across the border of the living and the dead. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the distant vision, each had a role to play in this wondrous display.
I had finally managed to free myself from my endearing film crew, on the morning of departure. I was not going to miss the Koudelka show. Hanging around the Palais Bella Artes, waiting for the doors to open, I made rapid notes of what was left on my ?to do? list. Gift for people back home! I was in trouble. But Koudelka was having none of this. This was an exhibition that could not be rushed. The sheer versatility of the man was amazing in itself. And then to see, in his latest reincarnation, images with such mastery of tones, such splendid play of forms, such freshness of vision, was simply mind blowing. Shopping time had to go. I needed excuses. Still reeling from this visual feast, I dashed to the alleyways at the back of the Sheraton. There were no ponchos for Topu, but a few revolutionary T shirts, and the odd Mexican trinket would have to do.
I stopped in Paris long enough to drop in at Reza?s and pick up the CD for the new Drik calendar. Sylvie had arranged an assignment for me with Geo, and having taken over the Contact Press Office, I asked the writer to visit me there. Michel Szulc Krysnovsky had just returned from his assignment in Dhaka where Pathshala student Sunny, had worked as his fixer. He brought his portfolio over, and we talked of exhibition possibilities. Robert gave a copy of his new book on the Cultural Revolution for Rahnuma and me, duly stamped with his new Chinese signature. A few hours sleep at Sylvie?s and it was time for the airport again. I would have three whole days in Dhaka before heading off to Taipei. Bliss.