Farish had talked of situations “so full of all qualities of
loveliness and purity, such new regions of high thought and feeling?
that to the dwellers in past days it should seem rather the production
of angels than of men.” Madras Christian Instructor and Missionary
The Baroque music in the forests of Bolivia, did indeed sound like the
production of angels. Cecilia had brought us all over during the “VI
Festival Internacional de teatro Santa Cruz”. The church itself was
quite beautiful. Helmut’s comment, “At least the church did something
good”, rang in my ears. I see this beautiful land, one of the few in
South America where the indigenous people haven’t been largely
decimated. I see extermination of their religion, their language and
struggle to see how it was all dressed as civilization. I see the
ornate walls of the grand church and listen to the untold stories
screaming to be heard.
Thousands of miles away, a young Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif,
gives up the ‘respectable professions’ chosen for him and decides to
be a story teller. The third Pathshala alumni to be selected for the
prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass tells an ordinary story. One of his
growing up. But at a time when the only stories told are those told by
the conqueror, it is time the story tellers changed.
Santa Cruz, Bolivia
30th April 2007
I had arrived to this world at just past noon on an overcast, rainy day some seventeen years before the new millennium. Following my birth, my mother moved back to our ancestral home in provincial Comilla. My real growing up was to start there. This move would lay the foundations of the person I would become. Like any other boy of my age, growing up in a small town, everyday carefree life coupled with a complex web of friends and family made up my world. Meandering over wishful thoughts of flying airplanes, riding bikes at will, kicking battered footballs under the incessant rain, and later trying to make excuses to my mother were all an integral part of this time. I grew up with cousins and uncles all around me. This developed a close-knit relationship with my family and deeply instilled in me a feel of collective being. After completing my middle schooling in Comilla, as I was pushed between the honking horns and blinding lights of the capital, Dhaka, I left behind the easy life of small town settings, but something came with me. A sense of belonging to the people, the place, the innocuous values of small town life — the closeness of it all — came bundled with the person that was to start a new journey in the city. It was hard. The days of pace and nameless acquaintance was fixated with forgetfulness. Homesick for my mother and sister, the nights were crossed with bouts of restlessness. To make the best out of such a turbulent time, my uncle admitted me to a photography course. While the medium had not appeared in any formal mode before, growing up in a visually explosive country with riots of colors all around, it instantly grabbed my attention. In fact, more so than the formal academics, which experienced a roll of turbulence along this time, as days of frenzied fermentation of variant frames were followed by equally fantastic nights of soul searching within those ‘newly discovered’ worlds. Sounding as tacky as one might, but seeing everything through a new pair of eyes is how I felt! Even before I had started to look with my own eyes at the unsettling, new environment of the city revolving around me, I was peering down a looking glass that was to be the lens. It gave me a wider, yet probing look, and one may say, meaning, to the lives in trepid spin within and beyond my periphery. The common place humdrum of daily activity suddenly imposed a rather ‘larger than life’ frame upon me. Call me idealistic but to me life must hold more meaning than just a fat paycheck, the proverbial suburban home, and the prescribed way to the promised, prescribed happy life. To me exploring my dreams — the ones that were born and not imposed — and realizing it — by pushing the very boundaries of reality and imagination — as far as possible is the path to self-actualization. I often ask myself — ‘do we try to create a mirror world when we take a picture?’, ‘do we want to see something that might have passed us by otherwise?’ Well, I think we do. And I have come to believe that that is the singular, yet important, reason I am drawn to photography. It gives me time and space to a stand, maybe even suspended in motion, to search and delve into myself and my surroundings. Till now, and in the coming frames, I explore the dreams that are yet to be born.
Munim Wasif. Dhaka
“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
With the characteristic swinging movement of the head interspersed with pendular oscillations that is characteristic of India, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Nepal, Madhav Lohani at the GMG counter in Kathmandu replied, “The flight is on time, but one hour delayed.” While similar, the movement has different meanings in these countries, but the wisdom of Mr. Lohani’s statement removed all ambiguity.
The 12:20 flight which had been rescheduled for 20:20, was now scheduled to depart at 21:20. The TV monitor meanwhile still kept up our spirits with the 20:20 departure time. I was meant to have been traveling on the Biman flight earlier in the day, but that flight too had been cancelled. No one from Biman had been on the counter to explain, so I only learnt of the news when a friendly porter confided in me. Had Mr. Lohani been there, surely his head would have nodded while he said, “The flight is on time but one day delayed.”
My friend also arranged for me to meet the station manager, and his generous embellishment of my CV with appropriate gesticulations convinced the official that I was an important passenger. In a country where VVIPs lurk under every blade of grass, the station manager was not going to take a risk, whether the plane was ‘on time’ or not. The plane from New York had never arrived the previous day, the hapless official explained. He himself had only been informed an hour ago. He left with my ticket, my porter friend in tow. The necessary endorsement was done, and my friend returned with my ticket, with appropriate scribbles on the backside. He refused bakshish, but helped me through the reverse journey through security. On the way to the taxi, he did whisper that the Biman salary was very low. After nearly twenty years in service he was still hired as a daily worker and received no pension. Having convinced himself that I was important, he felt, I could perhaps make a difference. The right word to the right ear. He didn’t quite believe my answer when I explained I had no such powers.
I had no way of knowing why the flight was delayed. There had been no announcements, and certainly no one at Biman had felt the need to explain or apologise, but one can guess. Rahnuma, on hearing I was trying to catch a GMG flight had sent a warning SMS. Yesterday’s GMG from Delhi had been delayed from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. Even then it had arrived at 2:48 in the morning rather than the ‘expected’ 1:48 am. “The flight had been delayed, but was not on time.”
Harun ur Rashid of GMG did under siege from enraged passengers admit their flight had been grounded, as had another flight the day before. Predictably, the ‘on time but delayed’ flight, became an ‘on time but cancelled’ flight. We made new friends on the microbus taking us to the hotel. Biman jokes appear to be the new fad. The fact that GMG had asked Biman to come to their rescue brought the house down. Our choice today of rescheduled GMG or Biman flights was particularly ironic.
Apparently the chief adviser had been flying on the GMG flight from Delhi. The traffic jams every time a VVIP passes through the streets are things we have reluctantly become used to. Roads may be dug up, barriers placed, a meeting arranged in the middle of a busy street or an office unexpectedly closed, for some reason that the public would never be informed about. Public servants never considered themselves the servants of the public. Elected representatives never felt the voters had entitlements. Who will remind our VVIPs that it is the taxes paid by all those people, bumped off planes and stranded in hot streets that pay their salaries? Lack of accountability is a dangerous disease. A government that has come in with the express intent of establishing accountability and transparency needs to set a very different example. Not the message one gets on hearing “the election is on time but two years delayed.”
Stop Press: As we prepare to board the coach for the airport for the now ‘confirmed’ flight at 4:00 pm, Sweta from the hotel intercepts us by saying, the flight is not confirmed and there is at least another two hours delay. It might be a long two hours!
It was 1985, when Jun Jun and I came over for our first trip to Nepal. I had nearly died of hypothermia in our trip to the Everest Base Camp, and Jun and a Japanese explorer had saved my life. My subsequent trips to Nepal have been marked by other drama. As I left for the airport yesterday, Navaraj, the tutor at Pathshala from Kathmandu reminded me that I was going to a new Nepal, one no longer under the rule of the king. Sapna, the human rights lawyer we interviewed in Kathmandu today, remarked wryly, that it was a Nepal ruled by many kings. With the Moaists now in government, one hopes that at the least the violence will go down. Too many lives have been lost.
The killings and disappearances in Nandigram in the largest democracy in the world, and the recent killing of the Adivashi Garo activist Choles Ritchil in the most brutal manner imaginable – “Choles’s two eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed , nails of 3 fingers of the right hand removed, left hand thump finger nail removed, two palms had holes, upper right hand had severe wound, several blood stains on the back part of the body, in both thighs middle part there had been two holes, back part of the body had several black marks, several deep marks of wounds on both lower legs, there had been black marks on feet, no nail on thump of right foot, all fingers of two hands were broken.” – by the much lauded new regime in Bangladesh are worrying signs. With conventional media under threat, bloggers become the lonely and marked whistle blowers.
Majority world photographer and All Roads winner from Guatemala Sandra Sebastian is one of many activists in search for solutions.
I couldn’t believe that passers-by weren’t killed when a shooting occurred between drug traffickers on a busy day in one of the principal avenues in Guatemala City. Two presumed drug traffickers were murdered in their car, which had lots of AK-47 bullet-holes. There were hundreds of bullet-holes all around the avenue. The walls of a school and a bus stop where many people usually sat, were also riddled. Unfortunately two men died, but it could have been a massacre. How many people have to be killed before something is done?
I wasn’t the only astonished person. I took the picture because I want to document and leave a testimony of the time I live in and show the danger that ordinary people face. In the last year alone (2005) more than 5,000 people were killed in street violence in a country of 13 million people. The reasons? Delinquency, organized crime, drug trafficking, poverty, broken homes. I want to talk of the inefficient justice system and the impunity with which some operate. I want to point to the consequences, and hope people can understand and search for solutions.