?I have lost a son, maybe I?ll lose another, but I won?t let them setup a coalmine here.? To Tahmina Begum who had lost her son Toriqul to police bullets, her land was also her family. It could have been a ?B? rated western except that it is set in the east. People wanting to hang on to their ancestral land versus mining companies wanting huge profits. There have been only minor changes from previous scripts. When farmers wanted fertilizers and seeds, the police had opened fire killing them, when they wanted electricity to irrigate their soil, the police had opened fire killing them. Now that they want to retain their land rather than have it converted into coal mines again the police have opened fire killing them. The Shaotals, being indigenous minority groups, find themselves even more vulnerable within this persecuted community. In the shootings on the 26th September 2006, in Phulbari, Dinajpur, in northwestern Bangladesh, at least six villagers are known to have been killed, over a hundred are said to be missing.
PHOTOS and TEXT by SHEHAB UDDIN
Most people find shelters for senior citizens depressing and avoid visiting them. But working on this photo feature at the Pashupati Bridhashram over the past six months, I have been inexplicably uplifted. I forget the stress of living in Kathmandu and my homesickness for my native Bangladesh. I feel fortunate that I have a family, as many of the senior citizens once had. But what gives me hope is that even though they have lost families and possessions, they still care. They care for each other and they retain a deep sense of humanity. The story of how they landed up here is almost always the same: in their old age they became a burden on their families who dumped them at Pashupati. For the elderly, it?s sometimes a relief that they are in such a holy place and don?t have to bear the taunts of a home where they are no longer welcome. None of them came here willingly and no one has anywhere to go. The Pashupati Bridhashram is run by the government so its budget is limited, it is congested, short-staffed and shows signs of mismanagement. There are 230 residents, 140 of them women.
GREETING: ?Namaste, aram?? That is how Sankule Lati, 77, greets strangers with a namaste and a quick tilt to her head.
LAUGHING: Til Kumari Khatri, 71, and Yadongba Tamang, 70, laugh and play like children. Til Kumari has been here since 1998. Her daughter-in-law brought her to the shelter one day and left saying: ?I?ll be back soon.? She never came back.
CHANTING: Every morning and evening residents gather for bhajans. Those who can?t walk to the prayer room chant from their own beds.
BATHING: Dhana Kumari Ranabhat, 99, takes a bath with the help of her husband Dil Bahadhur Ranabhat, 90. The couple is lucky, few here still have their spouses. Dhana Kumari was forced here after her husband died but married Dil Bahadhur, a retired soldier.
CHATTING: Tirtha Maya Thapa, 75 and Man Kumari Thapa, 75, sit and chat. Tirtha Maya was so busy taking care of her parents, she never married. But after they died, her relatives evicted her from her house. Man Kumari?s long lost son came and took her home a few months ago.
EATING: Bishnumaya Lati, 72, takes her evening meal with her two favourite dogs in attendance. She lives here with her husband.
COOKING: Kanchi Khatri cooks food in the shelter. She was the maid servant at the home of an astrologer and when she was no longer able to work nine years ago, her employer brought her here.
PRAYING: Laxmi Thapa, 68, prays to a wall full of pictures of the gods. She doesn?t remember where she was born or her family since she was married very young. Laxmi worked as a domestic all her life. Her alcoholic husband used to beat her up. When she broke her arm, her employer abandoned her so she came here. Now she prays all the time. ?I spent all my life helping others,? she says, ?now there is no one to help me.?
FEEDING: Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in the shelter. They are her only friends. She used to sell flowers in Pashupati and when her husband died, she came here.
COMBING: Ratna Maya Katiwada, 68, has kept to herself since she came here three years ago. No one knows the whereabouts of her family or where she is from.
RECITING: Shanti Tuladhar recites a poem from her book, Unko Samjhana. She loves poetry and is still writing. Married at 30, her husband was in the army and when he died 12 years ago, she was sent here. Shanti doesn?t like to talk about her son. She reads us her favourite poem:
In my old age
My sons have grown up
Huts have turned into high-rises
They?re adding floors one by one
For me, there is just the pyre left
As the house grew taller
We were pushed lower
Lower than the staircase dark and dank
My son has grown up but what has he done?
I became a burden and he brought me here
My family is foreign forever,
These strangers are family now.
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He looked worried as most passengers would do, waiting for luggage that should have arrived. It had been a while since EK005 from Dubai had landed at Heathrow terminal 3. Belt 2 was almost empty. They announced that one lot of bags was yet to arrive. There was hope yet.
Now that we were the only two passengers left, we made eye contact. With a faint nod he registered my recognition, as celebrities often do. He asked me in Urdu, where I was from. Dhaka, I muttered, and we shook hands. He found no need to introduce himself as Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I resisted the temptation to ask him about his property in London, or the proposed tryst with Benazir.
This had occurred before, once at terminal 4 when General Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh had arrived. No fanfare, no waiting crowds, people walking by. I wondered how it felt. They both had absolute power when they ruled, and had used it with abandon. I remembered our resistance in the streets, the police brutality, the teargas. Noor Hossain and Milon’s death. Despite all the rhetoric about their closeness to the people, fending for themselves at the airport terminal was probably as near as they ever got to seeing what it was like on the other side.
7th June 2006
Chobi Mela IV
She packed her load of firewood onto the crowded train in Pangsha. The morning sun peered through the lazy winter haze. The vendors called ?chai garam, boildeem? and the train slowly chugged out of the station, people still clambering on board, or finishing last minute transactions. Some saying farewell. The scene had probably not been very different a hundred years ago. Maybe then, they carried pan in place of firewood, or some other commodity that people at the other end needed. She would come back the same day, bringing back what was needed here. Only today she was a smuggler. The artificial and somewhat random lines drawn by a British lawyer had made her an outlaw. She was crossing boundaries. There were other boundaries to cross. The job a woman was allowed to do, the class signs on the coaches that she could not read but was constantly made aware of. The changing light and the smells as sheet (winter) went into boshonto (spring). The Ashar clouds that the photographers waited for, which seemed to wait until the light was right.
Rickshaw wallas find circuitous routes to take passengers across the VIP road. Their tenuous existence made more difficult by the fact that permits are difficult to get, and the bribes now higher. Hip hop music in trendy discos in Gulshan and Banani with unwritten but clearly defined dress codes make space for the yuppie elite of Dhaka. The Baul Mela in Kushtia draws a somewhat different crowd. Ecstasy and Ganja breaks down some barriers while music creates the bonding. Lalon talks of other boundaries, of body and soul, the bird and the cage.
Photography creates its own compartments. The photojournalist, the fine artist, the well paid celebrity, the bohemian dreamer, the purist, the pragmatist, the classical, the hypermodern, the uncropped image, the setup shot, the Gettys and the Driks. The majority world. The South. The North. The West. The developing world. Red filters, green filters, high pass filters, layers, masks, feathered edges. No photoshop, yes photoshop. Canonites, Nikonites, Leicaphytes, digital, analogue.
The digital divide. The haves, the have nots. Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores. Heterosexuals, metrosexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals. The straight, the kinky. The visionaries, the mercenaries, the crude the erudite, the pensive the flamboyant. Oil, gas, bombs, immigration officials. WTO, subsidies, sperm banks, kings, tyrants, presidents, prime ministers, revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, activists, pacifists, the weak, the meek, the strong, the bully. The good the evil. The hawks the doves. The evolutionists, the creationists. The crusaders the Jihadis. The raised fist, the clasped palms. The defiant, the oppressive, the green, the red. The virgin.
Whether cattle are well fed, or children go hungry, whether bombs are valid for defence, or tools of aggression, boundaries ? seen and unseen ? define our modes of conduct, our freedoms, our values, our very ability to recognise the presence of the boundaries that bind us.
Lisa Botos from the Time Magazine office in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister?s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister?s chair.
I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told ?hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.? Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. ?Only once? I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.
It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you?ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex?s writeup.
Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck?s cab like a crown. Like Ali?s father, who first put a brush into his son?s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter?s workshop after mornings in school.
As we watch in horror at the scale of the event, several things come to mind. How events a thousand miles away can affect our lives in so many ways. How connected we are in our joys and our sorrow. I realise that Bangladesh was not as badly affected as our neighbours, and that we should take pride in our achievements, but Bangladeshi newspapers today gloated over the victory of the Bangladeshi cricket team over India in their headlines! While I fret over the fact that the media plays on the negative, to downplay a disaster of such proportions in favour of a cricket match said a lot about our sense of proportions. In 1991, when nearly a million people had gathered to demand the trial of a war criminal, the government had chosen to ignore the news and mentioned instead the man of the match in a cricket game in Shunamganj. I had hoped a free media would play a more responsible role.
As I watch BBC and CNN interview British and German tourists, and the director of Oxfam from her office in Oxford, I remember my experiences in the 1991 cyclone where one hundred and twenty thousand people died in Bangladesh. As I stumbled through the debris, trying to get a sense of what had happened on the night of the 29th April 2001, I kept asking “What happened that night?” The aid workers told me of the number of bags of wheat they had distributed. The government officials quoted the figure in dollars that would be needed for reconstruction, the engineers spoke of the force of the wind.
A young woman in Sandweep looked at me and said “The land became a sea, and the sea became a wave”.
I try to imagine the tsunamis hitting the coasts of India, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and remember her words. The thousands whose lives have been wrecked by the earthquake do not constitute the ‘experts’ that the media consider worth asking.
27th December 2004
Politically Correct Eid Greetings
Well, the long holidays are over, and the streets of Dhaka are slowly getting back to their normal frenzy. The horns, the put-put of the baby taxis, the bewildered stare of the taxi driver as he tries to interpret the gyrations of the traffic warden, the gentle smile on the bus driver as he parks the bus in the center lane waiting for the passengers to offload the chicken coops on the rooftop, the suicidal pedestrian who tries to cross the road over to Jahangir Tower in Kawran Bajar, the glee on Asma, the flower girl’s face as she spots me, and skips between two trucks, to my bicycle, knowing she has a sure sale, the babu in the back seat with the newspaper covering his face, the blind beggar coughing through the thick black smoke of the BRTC double-decker are some of the familiar signs that tell me that there is stability in my life and the world has not changed. In this season of greetings, and eco conscious, politically correct messages, I send you a recycled, lead-free wish.
May you find a way to travel
From anywhere to anywhere
In the rush hour
In less than an hour
And when you get there
May you find a parking space
The year has had its usual ups and downs for Drik, but the adrenaline flowing due to the constant crisis management during Chobi Mela has everyone hyped up. The big show on the 10th January looms. The hits in the web site have climbed regularly, and the December total of 105,857 hits is an all time record for us. It’s a credit to you all for having stuck with us for so long.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May the good light be with you.
Wed Jan 3, 2001
The streets of Dhaka looked far from festive last night. The eerie glow of the sodium lamps lit the mounted police and their dogs. There were said to be 5000 in the streets. The barbed wire barricades and the stop searches, put a damper on the marauding young men prowling the streets, but the packed dance floor at the Gulshan Club seemed unaffected by it all. The TSC corner at Dhaka University, on the other hand, was an all male affair. The police presence was not reassuring enough for women to enter the macho fray.
As I opened the greeting cards that wished me well for the new season, I kept remembering how different was Eid for the Afghans from Christmas for the US Marines.
I remembered my delight as a child, when we would look out of the rooftops for the new moon. We would bathe early in the morning and go out with our friends, all decked in our new clothes. Alert to the idea that a few smart salaams could net some extra pocket money.
For Ruhul Amin, in this story by the children of Out of Focus “Season’s Greetings” perhaps has more to do with going back home to the village, than with Christianity or Islam, or the celebration of Bangla or Chinese identity.
“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?
In the coming days, I wish for you and I, and Ruhul Amin and the children of Out of Focus, less murderous and warmongering leaders.
Tue Jan 1, 2002
It was in the foothills of the Himalayas that he was born. In a bullock cart amidst a snowstorm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh’s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, the frail old man shrunken with age, but with a heart as wide as the ocean, and a mind as young as the children that he loved, Golam Kasem, nicknamed Daddy, died at the tender age of 104. The single storied yellow building at 73 Indira Road, with its unkempt garden, was home not only to Bangladesh’s oldest photographer, but also the first Bengali Muslim short story writer.
Born on the 5th November 1894, Daddy lost his mother shortly after birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography the way many young men take up many things, to impress a young girl. She had promised to cook for him if he could develop a film that others had failed with. Kasem embarked with the same trait for disciplined research, that he maintained till his death. He went round the studios of Mednapur to find out the method that would win him his meal. He never talked of what the meal was like, but did describe how he used a hardner to prevent the emulsion from peeling off. Saving his bus fare to school to buy a brownie camera, he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. And importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, amidst old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918. The harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used.
Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses. His spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. “Her first dance” is a delicate photograph of a child amidst a twirl, centre stage with her family as an audience. Strong portraits of his friend a teacher and the calm portrait of his grandmother belie the fact that he was an amateur, who took photographs for fun. He sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for Drik’s 1991 calendar.
The founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his house in Indira Road where the club was housed. Regular visitors included poet Sufia Kamal, painter Qamrul Hassan and photographer Manzoor Alam Beg. His letters were hand-written, each one numbered, and the envelopes often made of recycled newspapers or book wrappings. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club were unusual events. Photographers who would abstain from many local competitions would submit those small 4″ x 5″ prints. And they were proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme. And Daddy would always sing.
The room next to his bedroom was his darkroom. A red plastic bowl stuck under a light bulb, his safe light. He mixed his own chemicals from old tins of chemicals. Often I would get a SOS. The same neat handwriting, asking for potassium ferricyanide or some other chemical that he needed for his latest experiment. Photography was his passion. Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he kept his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor driven models, his preference was for a simple manual SLR, “preferably not too heavy” he would add with a mischievous smile. That is not to say he was shy of technology. I remember him holding up his thick glasses to read his first Email from his grandson in Canada. He asked me to come back the next day, and as I parked my bicycle by his rose garden, he was ready with his answer, again written in his neat handwriting. He was fascinated by Email and used it regularly, and curious about how the message would get through the ether.
He was fiercely independent. He cooked his own meals, fed his dog and his cats and did his own shopping. Until recently, he would even go on his own to a house down the road and guide himself up the stairs to meet a lady friend whom he occasionally visited. Rarely would he talk of himself and it was only in passing conversation with the late Mr Nasiruddin that I discovered that Daddy was the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat, and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter, and short stories for general publication. His last manuscript, a simple manual on photography, sadly lies in my hands, unpublished. He had dearly wanted it printed before he died. The proofing was complete, the photographs selected, but ‘matters of consequence’ allowed other projects to take precedence. His last note, urging me on with the publication, will forever haunt me.
Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. “My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins.” On Friday the 9th January 1998, the body finally said no and the mind took wings.
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