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.
Khala (auntie) was happy to see me. It was on impulse that I had gone to see her that day. I hadn’t seen her for a while and simply wanted to know how she was. She greeted me with her usual impish smile, but the smile had more to do with the fact that she had found a photographer in the house. Quickly she bundled me to the next room where a woman was holding a new born baby. Jamila had just been born, and Khala had found a photographer who could record this important moment.
The mother was quiet, and after a few photographs, I left mother and daughter in peace. This was a child the mother knew she couldn’t afford to keep. It was back in the drawing room of that old Dhanmondi house that I saw Nasreen. She had come in through the garden, one of the few in Dhanmondi that the developers had not yet buried in concrete. We’d known each other for a long time, and along with her sister Shireen, had attended many rallies organised by Nari Pokkho, the womens group that they belonged to. On many a protest, I had become an honorary woman and a proud member of the group.
Her wild curly hair bouncing as she spoke, we talked of the work we were doing together on HIV/AIDS. Positive Lives (www.positivelives.org), an exhibition I had worked on as a curator and a photographer, was a show Action Aid had been touring country wide. They had organised educational programmes and gotten local celebrities to draw the crowds in. It had been a hugely successful tour. We talked of the work they were doing with the acid survivors. Rattling off ideas at great speed, for me to pursue, she dashed back to the office. Breezing out as she had breezed in. It was later that I learned that Nasreen and her husband Choton, had adopted Jamila. From then on, it was Jamila who took centre stage in Nasreen’s life. But that was the last I saw Nasreen alive.
Choton and I were fellow journalists, and whenever an important statement needed to go to press, it was Choton I would turn to. From Press Club to Motijheel to Topkhana, we would do the night time beat. He knew every editor in town and which desk to leave the press release on. Sometimes it was in search of Choton, that I would call up Nasreen. We would talk of work, but invariably the conversation veered to Jamila, never accidentally.
When I heard of the accident, I hadn’t been too concerned. A leg injury inside the parking space didn’t sound too critical. But soon I sensed something was seriously wrong. All day long people gathered at the hospital. Ministers, celebrities, acid victims, friends, ordinary people. It was through their faces that I learnt how Nasreen had touched people’s lives. It was in their tears that I found how much love she had given. Some whispered in disbelief, some wailed out loud. Choton, Shireen and Zafrulla were distraught. Khala had not yet been told. Naila was like a rock. It was she who had to break the news. She knew Nasreen the fighter, was not going to win this one. Torn up inside, Naila kept calm. As I watched inside ICU 1, I could see our fighter losing the one fight she had never prepared herself for.
Reading her obituary in the Guardian today, I remembered that it was in the same ICU where we had kept vigil when Rashed Khan Menon had been shot. I had photographed another fighter Jahanara Imam, who had been waiting outside with us. Years later, Rashed Bhai had recovered, but I had written Jahanara Khala’s obituary in the Guardian. Police brutality and cancer had taken their toll. That day I had sat with Rahnuma next to where Khala had waited and quietly held hands. It rained, as it had done when my father died and for all the deaths I could remember.
Back in Dhanmondi, Friends had arrived from far away lands. People had come from the villages. We all stood in disbelief. As I walked out of that room heavy with sadness, I heard peels of laughter from the garden. Jamila, not sure of why her mother was not there, or why there were so many people, was playing with her friends.
Her mother was called “Happy” by her friends. At her funeral in Ghazipur, Happy’s friends sang songs of remembrance. They spoke of her courage and her ability to love. They spoke of her tenacity. I thought of Jamila and remembered how Happy had changed the lives of so many others, and felt it was through Jamila’s laughter that Happy should be remembered.
1st May 2006. Dhaka