Awake, quiet, in the deep of the night
I dread the sound, you bleating tonight
Your tiny toes, tied tight with twine
Your tiny body, pinned by people fine
Children circling, in fright, in glee
Butcher with knife, crouching on knee
You’ll struggle in vain, a muffled cry
Blood spurts on floor, who questions why?
Is someone out there, a baby even?
Who wants just you, cares not for heaven?
What God needs blood, as proof of love?
Who swaps money for blood, for life above?
A shopping spree, stars on TV
What’s one goat less, for you and for me?
It is quiet again, respite from heat
The sound remains, I’ll remember your bleat.
Original 12 September 2016. Edited 31 July 2020
?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
Dr A.K.M. Abdus Samad, the director of the mental hospital in Hemayetpur, Pabna, was pragmatic. “An average of 2% of all populations are schizophrenic, and of course there are many other mental ailments. In this country of 130 million, we have one hospital with 400 beds. What do you expect? The government allocation for food is 18 Taka per day (about 45 US cents when we met in 1993). Many mental patients are hyperactive and need more food. A good portion of that 18 Taka goes to the contractor, the remainder has to provide three meals a day. So what can I do? I make sure they get plenty of rice. That way they at least have a full stomach. We have little money for drugs, and virtually no staff for counselling, so we keep them doped. Then they don’t suffer as much.”
The other doctors had a different take. “Pity you’ve come on a Friday they said. On a weekday we could have shown you an electric shock treatment.” It seemed to be a popular ‘treatment’. To the uninitiated like me, the violent convulsions and the near comatose state the patients lay in afterwards didn’t seem to be the way to treat anyone. The care givers differed. The treatment was generally given to suicidal patients they said, and the way they saw it, it was “better than letting them kill themselves.” I didn’t have much of an argument against that one.
I saw the group of visitors come round to the dorms at night and peep through the windows. It was well after visiting hours, but they had paid to get in and have a look at the ‘pagols’ (loonies). On Eid day, many would dress up and come to the peep show. Some patients did get visitors on Eid, a select few even got new clothes or special food, but for most, it was another day of waiting. Another day of hoping that someone close might come and take them away.
In every ward I went, someone would take me aside, and slip a note in my hand. Invariably, scrawled in that note would be an address. “You must take it to them (their relatives). Tell them I’m OK. Tell them to take me away from here.” The first few times I did try and contact those relatives. Some addresses had people who recognised them, most didn’t. None seemed keen on responding. Eventually I gave up, but I would still take the notes. In Hemayetpur, even false hope seemed something worth giving.
As another Eid approaches, I remember the child Shoeb Faruquee had photographed in Chittagong. It won him an award at World Press Photo, but I wonder where the child is now. Patient at mental hospital, Bangladesh
? Shoeb Faruquee, Bangladesh, Drik/Majority World
Mohammad Moinuddin had yet another story to tell:
http://www.newint.org/columns/exposure/2006/08/01/md-main-uddin/ ? Md. Mainuddin, Bangladesh, Drik/Majority World
I was on an assignment at Domra Kanda, an asylum for the mentally ill in Kishoreganj, Bangladesh, where the only medications provided are these ?medallions? filled with spiritual spells and ?blessed water? from traditional spiritual healers. Illiteracy about medical treatments ? particularly those related to mental health issues ? misconceptions and limited health facilities mean that many parents resort to their faith in such medallions and other blessings from spiritual healers. The clinics which provide such traditional solutions do not offer scientific medications of any type and neither are they approved by any health authority. But for many Bangladeshis, faith in traditional healers and their treatments is more powerful, effective and easily available than scientific medication. The parents strongly believe that it is their faith in such spirituality that will cure their child and bring back the long lost peace and happiness to their family.
In a world where normality is a virtue, I salute the few individuals who have chosen to be different.
23rd October 2006. Dhaka
ps: Apologies to ZAK on my spelling of Eid: http://www.kidvai.com/zak/2005/11/its-that-time-of-year-again.html