They sing in harmony. Rhythmic tunes with simple lyrics. The lilting songs and the dance-like-footsteps have a deceptive beauty. The metal sheets balanced on their shoulders may weigh tons. Bare feet on slippery clay weaving through scrap metal, is dangerous at the best of times. In pouring rain, and with the loads they carry, the smallest slip could spell disaster. They gently sway in careful steps singing to stay in synchrony. It is a song of death.
shipbreaking-magazinet1PDF in Norwegian Magasinet
dagbladet-nyhetPDF in Norwegian Nyhet
“You wouldn’t have the time” he’d said. It was a polite conversation. Salahuddin, the cousin of Jahangir Alam, had rung me to thank me for helping him get an ambulance at the Apollo Hospital in the elite Bashundhara Complex in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, 250 kilometres from the port city Chittagong. Despite the hospital’s motto of “Bringing healthcare of international standard within the reach of every individual,” it was understood that all patients were not equal. Jahangir and his family had been waiting for over five hours. The hospital was for rich people and Jahangir, a worker at Ziri Subeder Shipbreaking Yard was undeniably poor. Even though the money had been paid, Jahangir, on his deathbed was not going to get the same treatment the other VIP patients at Apollo were given. Eventually the presence of a pesky journalist taking pictures had enough nuisance value for the hospital to dredge up an ambulance. Jahangir would arrive at a cheaper, less equipped hospital in Chittagong, in the early hours of the morning. Knowing I was interested in the plight of the workers, Salahuddin had rung to tell me there had been another accident. A worker was in hospital and they were going to amputate his leg. He felt my presence might save the man’s leg. I was due to go to London the following day, for a brainstorming meeting with Amnesty International. Going to and from Chittagong that day would have been difficult. I had things to do before leaving. Salahuddin was right. Even though I knew that my presence might perhaps have made a difference to a man’s life. I didn’t have the time. We never have the time. Not for some people.
The working conditions at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are well known. It is the usual story. In order to get the ships, the Bangladeshi shipbreakers pay the best rates to the ship-owners. To retain their profits, they pay the workers the lowest rates in the world, and provide virtually no safety. Workers die and suffer injuries on a regular basis. Some receive modest compensation, others don’t. According to workers, many deaths are simply not registered with the bodies being ‘disappeared’ by the owners.
I had wanted to do a story on the shipbreaking yards for some time. When Halldor Hustadnes of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet approached me I was immediately interested. I rescheduled a short assignment in Manila so that we could work together for the entire period. A loophole in the Basle Convention was allowing ship-owners to continue dumping ships with toxic waste with abandon in majority world countries that had little regulation.
The new International Maritime Organisation, convention was about to be ratified, but environmentalists felt it would not result in better conditions for workers. Norwegian ship-owners, who benefitted the most from loopholes in the convention (like the ships not being declared waste, and therefore not falling under waste jurisdiction), were a powerful lobby. Even Lloyds the insurers, who register and control the world’s shipping, felt the new convention would not have an effect.
We were hoping our story, timed to appear before the ratification of the convention, would bring attention to the plight of the workers. Getting access to the yard was going to be the main stumbling block. My student Sourav Das, put me in touch with Wahid Adnan. Adnan had good links with Rahman yard. We had been told that the Norwegian ship UMA was berthed at Rahmania yard. The slightly different name might just have been due to a mistake in communication. There was a ship UMA near Rahman yard. This was a breakthrough. Adnan managed to get me in, but though it was the right ship, it was the wrong yard. UMA was going to be broken at Royal, the yard next to Rahman, where we had no access.
So we started with the access we had, and worked our way across the porous beach. It was a Friday. The weekend in Bangladesh. We utilised the absence of the manager to bluff our way into the ship. The abundance of asbestos, the open chemical store, the sacks of Potassium Hydroxide pellets and other toxic chemicals left unprotected, were all fairly visible. One of the workers talked of the films they had been shown about how asbestos was toxic, and had to be buried under concrete and that workers needed to wear protective clothing. “But that was just a film” he said.
Shujon was the smallest of the workers. With marigolds dangling from his ears, he insisted on being photographed. He behaved like a child, though we found out he was older than he looked. Only wealthy Bangladeshis have birth records. And with most children being malnourished, looks can be deceptive. Shujon was a helper. Hirolal, the cutter he was helping, didn’t look much older than him. They were cousins. Shielding his eyes from the intense heat with his hands, Hirolal, broke down larger pieces of metal into more manageable shapes. Shujon cleared the debris, oblivious to the sparks that flew around him. Both boys wanted to find work overseas. Singapore was their dream destination. I didn’t tell them that Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, often found themselves in similar bonded labour. At least Shujon and Hirolal had a dream. The contractor came over and started beating up Shujon. He needed to get on with his work. We were getting him into trouble and kept our distance.
Early the following morning I saw Rubel, bailing out the water from a lifeboat. Rubel was 14 and had been a ferry ‘man’ since he was 11. His mother didn’t really want him to be doing risky work, but they needed the money. We left before sunrise, before the manager arrived. Rubel was well into his day’s work.
That night when the manager had left, we went back into the yard and slept with the workers. We were guests and had the luxury of having a metal sheet to ourselves for a bed. They sung for us that night. Not the pop songs that we heard on television, or the Tagore songs that the wealthy elite took as a sign of culture. They were haunting songs of longing and parting. One was a song about visas:
With a two day visa
To this false world
Why did Alla send me
Why send me here
With the pain of seeking comfort
He sent me on my own
What game did he play
What game does he play
” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke
“Oh you are going to take pictures? Let me put on my sincere smile. Don’t manage it all the time.” He chuckled, as he stroked his belly. I should have been awed by a man who had propagated the idea of the geostationary satellite. Arthur C Clarke was the author of one of the most significant books on science fiction, and has inspired the names of lost dinosaurs and spacecraft. I had not been sure what to expect. But he quickly put me at ease. “I’ll protect you from Pepsi.” He said, stroking the Chihuahua that curled up on his lap. “He fought a hound.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke who died early morning on the 19th March 2008 at a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since the 1950s. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
I turned up at the designated time of 9:00 am at 25 Barnes Place in Colombo 7. I remember peering curiosly at the satellite dish through the bushes. Not too many people had a VSAT in their back garden in those days. Fittingly, it was the year 2001. I was in Colombo conducting a workshop for World Press Photo. I had also hoped to photograph Chandrika for my story “Women Leaders of South Asia”. It was going to be a busy trip. These are the times when you mobilise your friends into action. My friend Nalaka Gunawardene had arranged the appointment with Clarke. Chulie de Silva had finally pegged down an appointment with Chandrika. Sir Clarke was skeptical about my prospects for photographing the president. “Do you think she’ll see you at 4:30?” He said and then went into this funny tale of how Chandrika was always late, and always charming, going into great detail on the vegetarian meal the former president had served that day. The Science Fiction visionary was also good at short term predictions. Soon before the appointment, Chandrika’s secretary called to express her regrets.
He was childlike in his enthusiasm and insisted that I read the book on Polar bears he had just been given. Then he brought out the email by his friend Swarch the holography expert who had sent him 3D images, “including some nudes” he mischievously added. Then came out the hardback copy of Lionel Went’s book with original prints. The conversation flew in all directions. Blue and green lasers. Stereo images. Aerial photography. His ISDN connection. The Video Live Link which he’d used to communicate with Japan’s head of IT. “Must get Nalaka to get all these photographs scanned by you,” he said as he brought out piles of 35mm Kodachromes. We were like kids in a junk shop. It was hard to imagine that I was with the octogenarian king of Sci Fi as this genial man scurried around his large library. “Don’t go to the swimming club,” he suddenly said out of the blue. “It’s only for the posh. Until recently they didn’t allow natives.” I was flattered by the camaraderie.
Nalaka had asked me not to tire him too much, so I didn’t push the picture taking, instead we played that morning. Our workshop was taking place at the Galle Face Hotel. On the last day of the workshop, all I had was a public lecture. The flight was at night, so I had some free time. I had just walked out of the hotel onto the nearby roundabout when this red Mercedes pulled up. Sir Clarke wanted me to go with him to his club. I watched him play a vicious game of table tennis. Then we went back to Barnes Place and of course I took some more pictures. “Glad I won both games,” said a playful Clarke.
There were things we never got to talk about. His failed marriage. The Sunday Mirror accusation that he was a paedophile. He was cleared in the formal investigation and The Sunday Mirror later printed a retraction. He was to receive his knighthood from the Prince of Wales during the prince’s visit to Sri Lanka, but Clarke had felt it would be inappropriate given the scandals. He was made a Knight Bachelor later, on May 26, 2000.
Here was a man who had consistently come up with some of the most innovative ideas in modern telecommunications. The technologies he foretold have become integral parts of modern living. His stories have inspired entire generations. In 2001: A Space Odyssey as the supercomputer HAL is being switched off, with his logic completely gone, HAL begins singing the song Daisy Bell. One might see this as speech synthesis, but Clarke saw it as that twilight zone between humans and machine, as the human face of artificial intelligence. Nalaka and I were scared of losing the author’s insight. Despite having written over 100 books, and published over 1000 articles, the anecdotes, the wit, enormous wealth of knowledge, the joy of life of this remarkable man would disappear with him. This was the man who had believed, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Despite his youthfulness, he was getting old, and both of us knew the clock was ticking. He had wanted me to scan the photographs. We wanted to peer into his mind, for the stories behind the images.
Last year, while I was in Sri Lanka for another assignment, Nalaka arranged for another photo shoot. A slightly more official one. Pepsi had died. At ninety Clarke could no longer play table tennis. But his mind was as sharp as ever. That was the last photo shoot that Sir Arthur was to feature in.
I had asked him for two autographs. One for my friend Maarten of World Press Photo and one for my mother. My regret was not that I didn’t have one for myself, but that like so many unfinished projects, the stories behind those photographs he had wanted me to scan, will never now be told.
It was in the foothills of the Himalayas that he was born. In a bullock cart amidst a snowstorm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh’s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, the frail old man shrunken with age, but with a heart as wide as the ocean, and a mind as young as the children that he loved, Golam Kasem, nicknamed Daddy, died at the tender age of 104. The single storied yellow building at 73 Indira Road, with its unkempt garden, was home not only to Bangladesh’s oldest photographer, but also the first Bengali Muslim short story writer.
Born on the 5th November 1894, Daddy lost his mother shortly after birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography the way many young men take up many things, to impress a young girl. She had promised to cook for him if he could develop a film that others had failed with. Kasem embarked with the same trait for disciplined research, that he maintained till his death. He went round the studios of Mednapur to find out the method that would win him his meal. He never talked of what the meal was like, but did describe how he used a hardner to prevent the emulsion from peeling off. Saving his bus fare to school to buy a brownie camera, he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. And importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, amidst old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918. The harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used.
Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses. His spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. “Her first dance” is a delicate photograph of a child amidst a twirl, centre stage with her family as an audience. Strong portraits of his friend a teacher and the calm portrait of his grandmother belie the fact that he was an amateur, who took photographs for fun. He sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for Drik’s 1991 calendar.
The founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his house in Indira Road where the club was housed. Regular visitors included poet Sufia Kamal, painter Qamrul Hassan and photographer Manzoor Alam Beg. His letters were hand-written, each one numbered, and the envelopes often made of recycled newspapers or book wrappings. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club were unusual events. Photographers who would abstain from many local competitions would submit those small 4″ x 5″ prints. And they were proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme. And Daddy would always sing.
The room next to his bedroom was his darkroom. A red plastic bowl stuck under a light bulb, his safe light. He mixed his own chemicals from old tins of chemicals. Often I would get a SOS. The same neat handwriting, asking for potassium ferricyanide or some other chemical that he needed for his latest experiment. Photography was his passion. Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he kept his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor driven models, his preference was for a simple manual SLR, “preferably not too heavy” he would add with a mischievous smile. That is not to say he was shy of technology. I remember him holding up his thick glasses to read his first Email from his grandson in Canada. He asked me to come back the next day, and as I parked my bicycle by his rose garden, he was ready with his answer, again written in his neat handwriting. He was fascinated by Email and used it regularly, and curious about how the message would get through the ether.
He was fiercely independent. He cooked his own meals, fed his dog and his cats and did his own shopping. Until recently, he would even go on his own to a house down the road and guide himself up the stairs to meet a lady friend whom he occasionally visited. Rarely would he talk of himself and it was only in passing conversation with the late Mr Nasiruddin that I discovered that Daddy was the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat, and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter, and short stories for general publication. His last manuscript, a simple manual on photography, sadly lies in my hands, unpublished. He had dearly wanted it printed before he died. The proofing was complete, the photographs selected, but ‘matters of consequence’ allowed other projects to take precedence. His last note, urging me on with the publication, will forever haunt me.
Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. “My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins.” On Friday the 9th January 1998, the body finally said no and the mind took wings.