Dear Mr. Kees,
Thank you for taking the time and the trouble to respond to my mail. Mine was a principled stand, and frankly not one I had expected the ambassador to respond to directly. I was pleasantly surprised that you did. In a similar case in 2002 (I have enclosed my description), where the dress code had not been specified, my national dress which I always wear, was not found respectable enough for an ambassador’s residence.
In that case the deputy ambassador had written to say that an exception could have been made in my case. I do not want to be an exception. If my national dress is not acceptable in a formal event in my own nation as a general rule, then I do not want to be part of it.
You correctly describe a ‘lounge suit’ as being internationally recognized as a ‘dark suit and a tie’. Indeed that is how I too interpreted it, and that was the reason for my objection. I find many Bangladeshi men proudly adhering to the same dress code you describe. Unsuitable though it might be for a Bangladeshi climate, I have no objections to the dress itself. It is the brown saheb’s aspirations for whiteness (luckily Europe is no longer exclusively white) that I find somewhat pathetic.
It is not for me to be judgmental about their aspirations. But I am free to make my own choices of attire. I am proud to be a Bangladeshi and proud to wear its national dress. This is what I wore when I met Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam, and what I wore when I met your current prime minister and the two previous ones. It is also what I wore when I sat next to the princess at dinner. I suspect I would have been warmer in a suit and a tie in each of those occasions, but my choice of attire was a conscious one.
I find it disconcerting that the same dress code is unacceptable in my own country barring ambassadorial pardon. However, I thank you again for inviting me, and though I regretfully decline, I would welcome the opportunity to invite you and Mrs. Vonhoff to ours. You would be free to wear a lounge suit should you want to.
Warmest regards to you both,
She wakes up at five o’clock, washes utensils, cleans clothes, sweeps the floor and then gets ready for school. At school she has very few people to talk to and is often found sitting in a corner or being made fun of. If she is lucky, on some days her mother will come to pick her up. Otherwise she will have to crawl on her knees, as the wheelchair given to her by the government is broken.
Poonam is, however, determined to study and is learning to stand up on crutches given to her by a non-governmental hospital. If her family can manage $100 for an artificial leg implant in New Delhi, then she may even stand up on her own some day.
Amit Bhargava, India
When Amit’s picture was first published in the print version of the New Internationalist, several people wanted to help. Some wanted to send money. But helping was not such an easy matter. Amit had taken the original photograph over five years ago and did not have a specific address. Dhaka was over a thousand miles away. Luckily my friend professor Yogendra Yadav mentioned that he was from a nearby village. That was the encouragement I needed, and I decided to try and find Poonam. I headed out from Delhi in search of Yogendra’s activist friend Comrade Dalit Singh. Picking up Comrade Singh and his friend en-route, we continued to the village where we thought she might be. Activist networks can be fairly efficient, and Comrade Singh had done his homework. Through a schoolmaster who knew someone, who knew someone else. we eventually found her.
Things had changed over the last five years. Poonam’s father had died, but her mother had taken on extra work to make sure Poonam continued her study. She was in class nine (lower 5th in the old JMB system). She loved Amit’s photograph, even though all I had with me was a tatty photocopy. And she wanted the implant. My broken Hindi was being stretched, but we made friends.
Leaving money for the family with Comrade Singh, I went to the nearest major hospital. It was one that Yogendra’s family had setup and his sister was a doctor there. Explaining Poonam’s story, I went back to Delhi to meet Yogendra. Our friend Harsh Sethi the editor of Seminar magazine was also there. Harsh was somewhat of an expert on polio, and explained what the options were. I thought we’d solved Poonam’s problems.
Much had happened in between, and I hadn’t checked up on Poonam until recently, when I found out that they had miscalculated, and the money I had given was not nearly enough. Too embarrassed to ask me for more they had decided to try and raise the rest of the money themselves. I realised how my city life had alienated me from rural culture. I had forgotten how difficult it was to ask for more.
Today is ‘Pohela Boishakh’ the first day of the Bangla year 1413. I went out today to photograph the boishakhi storm, and gathered my first hailstones.
This is the month when farmers will harvest their new grain. This is the month when Chakma women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will throw water at the men they would like to marry. (http://www.drik.net/calendar93/apr.htm).
I hope it is a good year for Poonam.
Dhaka. Pohela Boishakh 1413
Lisa Botos from Time Magazine 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 editor 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 Amin 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 Amin, 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.