Missing the Monalisa smile

She was simple and sophisticated, charming and exuberant, quietly noisy, mildly strong, mischievously coy and full of life even in eminent death.

Rezwana Chowdhury Monalisa

We made plans seated in the Drik conference room. She wanted to study. She wanted to take on more responsibilities, she wanted to be more than a pretty, smiling face at the Reception. “I wish I could take your place one day” she said to me. I marveled at her courage. An unpopular HR Manager’s post is not what most would aspire to attain. “What’s stopping you?” I asked. “So much pressure to be good wife and mother, no time to be anything else” she said, little realising she didn’t have much time to be either, leave alone my post. This was nearly 3 years ago.
Lisa by Shaikat

When the bi-annual Chobi Mela came in 2009, she was given more responsibilities and she shone at it. She worked tirelessly. I had remarks to the effect of “Oh we never knew Lisa was so capable” – we never gave her an opportunity before. There was more. She never forgot a birthday. She would run around get a cake and gift and gather everyone to blow out the traditional candle and cut the cake. She took pains to do it right. She took time for others when time was never on her side.
We sat once more in the conference room, reading her medical reports somewhere in late November 2009. She was shaking. “Was I too ambitious that God is punishing me?” she cried. Her needle biopsy confirmed malignancy. She had to remove the tumour. “Will you stay with me through this? I don’t know how to tell my husband” my aspiring HR Manager was sobbing in my arms. I stood outside the OT when they took the monstrosity out. I looked at it under the microscope at the Lab at the Apollo Hospitals in Dhaka. A beautiful beast. The pink bubbles with the dark blue spots were as gorgeous as Lisa’s colour coded bindis and ear-rings.
The Pathologist, Professor Tarique sighed a deep sigh. He asked me “Is she your friend?” I told him she was my sister – a future manager at his cousin ‘Zahed’s’ picture library. He pursed his lips and went on to dissect the next tumour. I left with a heavy heart to the airport while she still was recovering in hospital.
She bounced back the next year. And during one of my visits, she walked back into the conference with some of that same confidence and cheerfulness that is so characteristic of her. I was overjoyed. This was my Lisa. Skin scarred and skin burned with radiation but nothing could mar that brave smile. She looked even more charming with her head fully covered. She fought hard to keep that head above the challenges that came her way.
When I left again, she was a little apprehensive. “Not sure if I can be anything more than this” she said. I kept seeing pink bubbles and dark blue spots. She was much more than she ever will know. We had occasional chats online. I was glad she was back in her familiar seat at the Reception. Certainly better than pining at home. But she always longed to get back home to be with her son.
One and a half years later, I make the trip again to Dhaka, imagining Lisa’s shriek when I surprise her at the Drik reception. I brought her favourite coconut rocks. They still lie in my travel bag a day later. I never got the chance. I only got the chance to see her body wrapped tightly in a cocoon of white cloth. Her mother recognised me and fell into my arms with great sobs. She wanted me to see her face one last time and instructed the women attending on her last rituals to open just a peep. I looked invain, there was no brave smile anymore. Or maybe just a hint. It was hard to say. What does one say at times like this when a mother buries her daughter or a son so young and tender, his mother.
But etched in my mind is her vivaciousness, her smile, the life she shortly lived, but most of all her aspirations. The tragedy would have been if she had had no dreams at all.
Rest in peace, my sister.
Jeevani Fernando

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

4 thoughts on “Missing the Monalisa smile”

  1. I cannot stop crying.
    lisa was the brightest spot for me at the last ChobiMela. She invited me to her home but i never did make and told myself i must see her at the next festival.
    no request was too small for her to assist with.
    i am so sorry about this.
    My condolences to the big Shaidul Alam’s family. It is too much!

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