Once she decided to banish love out of her life, her world turned upside down. She had never thought that later she would face any such problem that she won’t be able to solve. And trying to solve that problem, she would herself become a problem. She had never thought that in loveless times the flowers fade, the breeze turns into scalding wind, sadness engulfs the walls of your home and despite the cacophony of noises emanating from the courtyard, a deafening silence overwhelms you and takes possession of your heart like a cobra with its hood raised, whose hissing sets your very being on such a fire that neither the cold water nor the icy winds can ever extinguish. The heart burns, the cobra hisses, the fire rages and doesn’t die out. Whatever you do, it does not die out; it just refuses to die out.
She put her left hand on her chest and walked slowly towards the window. It was pitch dark in the street opposite. A municipal bulb, visible near the last corner of that lane near Zainab Massi’s [maternal aunt] house, looked like a lamp burning in a hut at the edge of a forest, which sometimes shows the way to the lost travellers. That bulb was surrounded by a silent darkness. A murmur could be heard coming from Uncle Arshad’s house, situated just opposite the window. Chachi [paternal aunt] Rashida will as usual be narrating the same old tale of Scheherazade to her grandsons and granddaughters. She would conclude with the words: “What a wonderful woman she was! How intelligent, quick witted and brave!” When she heard that story as a child, she had asked, flapping her eyelashes, “How come, Chachi?” “That is because instead of accepting defeat, she had decided to bravely fight the cruel king. God helped her succeed. Look children, it is an honour for the brave to die fighting. Then death ceases to be death, it claims the status of martyrdom and that is a very high status, indeed,” Chachi had said.
Chachi used to tell this story always on the last day of the week. This was her principle. The children waited for the story for full seven days, and then she poured it into their ears, drop by drop. That was why this story was very popular among the children. The next day was a holiday and she remembered how instead of flying kites, playing marbles or simply making noises on the roof with her siblings, she had spent the day engulfed in silence. The issue of dying while fighting bravely had got stuck in her young consciousness. She spent the whole day lying on the cot and looking into the sky. In her heart she repeated innumerable times what aunt had said. But she couldn’t figure out what was so special about dying while fighting bravely which earned such praise from Chachi. What courage Scheherazade had displayed that so overwhelmed the aunt that she was narrating her story to everyone? When she could comprehend nothing, she decided not to listen to the story of Scheherazade again and came down from the roof.
Great, Chachi! She felt the echo of conversation reach her ears, and a sigh escaped her lips. Your Scheherazade had succeeded in defeating death due to her narrative gift. But here life itself has been crushing everyone since centuries. I haven’t seen any Scheherazade who could prevail over it. Everyone is afraid of it, and can be seen bowing before it with folded hands. Death appears helpless in facing life. Death is kind and one’s own, at least, it doesn’t reject you. Rather it accepts one into its lap with a lot of affection. She felt like shouting at Chachi Rashida through the window and ask her to let go of the poor Scheherazade now, for god’s sake. To forgive that Scheherazade! The poor girl might have got tired of fighting death. Let her face life now. She should also know that there is a world outside the world of art, where there is hunger, there are worries, there is sadness, there is hatred, there are contradictions and…. And life is like the cruel king. And life doesn’t pay any attention to the narrative skills of the master storyteller. It has no interest in any such art. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that it’s not possible to trick it with any such art.
Life cannot be appeased. It has its own facts, its own assessments, its own canvas, its own brush and its own colours. Ideas too are its own and so it paints whatever catches its fancy: Upright, inverted, oblique, crooked, as she feels like. And the remarkable thing is that nobody can mould life the way one wants. ‘O.K. Scheherazade! If you ever come out of the discourse created by Chachi Rashida, I shall tell you what life is all about.’ The sigh emanating from her heart became an expression of her very being. Now in her eyes could be seen the innocence of an eleven year old girl, who takes note of the quickly lengthening shadows on a hot summer afternoon; one who has a small painting brush in one hand and a simple page, torn from a notebook, fluttering in the other.
She wanted to make a painting of the shadows; the shadows of the arches, walls, terraces and the attic of the house. The shadows that came down from the mulberry, mango, black plum and margosa trees growing in the courtyard and spread there in strange shapes, forms and directions. She used to watch the play of shadows while sitting in the centre of the courtyard in one of the arches of an old Baradari whose plaster was coming off. And her feeling of wonder used to multiply manifold when she would see an ill-shaped shadow emerge from the arch she sat under, and spread on the ground. “Do I look like this?” surprised she would wonder and run into the room. It was during those days that she thought of capturing the shadows in a painting. Perhaps in this way the shadows could be prevented from spreading and lengthening. But that day, her amazement knew no bounds when she saw a shadow in the middle of the arch, move strangely left and right with a yard long brush on a square shaded piece of paper. Do shadows also…? She thought and threw the painting brush away.
It was during those days that a strange accident took place which threw her into a never ending vicious cycle. All her later life was moulded into that cycle. And that cycle became her life cycle. She could never get out of it. Then she could see nothing. She closed her mind’s eye. All her innumerable little childhood joys were strung into an unending chain of tears. Unobtrusively she put that chain around her neck, never to take it off. And then that little girl metamorphosed from Mother’s Muni to Zohri, to Zohra Baji and finally to Zohra Aapa. Recollecting that transformation, Zohra felt a cold shiver quicken through her being. Wrinkles began to appear on her face, which expressed her innocent fears. Sad glitter of twinkling glow-worms began to flicker on her empty palms. A scene emerged in front of her gloomy eyes, a scene that had snatched the joy of breathing from her and had burdened a twelve year old girl with a load of centuries. When she tried to carry the burden, her shoulders slumped, her back bent double, her hands started trembling and legs turned shaky. But she couldn’t even complain against the burden.
She just kept laughing. To keep smiling in face of an extreme sorrow is also akin to defeating the grief. Implicitly, it was like victory over grief. But she learned too late that it was not so. Grief was a wrestler that displayed greater tricks when it was out of the arena. It was simply impossible to prevail over it. Now she left the window and sat in the chair. She untied her long black hair and resting her head on the back of the chair, closed her tired eyes and took deep breaths. “Life is a four-directional battle, Miss Zohra Sultan.” A whisper rose from somewhere close by. “How many opponents will you fight? You’ll get exhausted.” “This exhaustion is here since those days Professor Zaka, when I didn’t even fully understand the meaning of exhaustion.” She thought despondently, feeling the murmuring silence enclosed within the four walls of the room. How can I tell you, Professor Zaka? When the upheaval occurred, a good deal was buried under the rubble.
Long time ago, Professor Zaka, a dark night had swallowed the light out of my life like a cruel demon. The sleep had turned into a continuous wakefulness and dreams, into frightening dreamlessness. When a 12-year-old girl, rudely shaken out of her sound sleep by the frightening noises all around her, had chosen to plug her ears with her fingers. She had devoutly prayed to be blinded in both her eyes when she witnessed that horrifying scene. Finding herself defenceless and overcome by her vulnerability, she had accepted defeat and sitting near the mutilated bodies of her dear ones, had dipped her fingers in their thick blood and written a pledge on her own self. Crying, she had noiselessly run to the rooftop with Maya pressed to her bosom, to talk to God. Perhaps she had the illusion that God is nearer the rooftop. There is no barrier in-between, but this too was her delusion. She learned later that God is far away from everywhere. It is not so easy to reach Him. So she did not cry while giving the final bath and burying the blood-drenched bodies of her parents and three younger siblings. The dry dust flying into her eyes had settled on her eyelashes, spread on her lips and engulfed her very existence. Later, staring at the photograph of a terrorist, printed on the last page of a newspaper, she had tried hard to bring back tears to her dry eyes, the tears that got lost somewhere in the labyrinth of some dark alley on a brutal night.
Professor Zaka, the walls of that room used to be very pitiless and chilly where I, clutching Maya to my bosom, attempted to get rid of the questions written over the frightened open eyes of those mutilated bodies, and to find some sleep by hitting my head against the pillow. Covering both my eyes with palms of her hands, I used to vigorously recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi [a prayer from Quran]. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”, I used to admonish myself. Those days I used to feel very angry with God. I wished I would come face to face with Him and ask what type of a God He was who destroyed the world of the unsuspecting? Did He prefer those who haughtily roamed around freely, nonchalantly killing or injuring whosoever they liked, without any worry whatsoever? Pitted against them were people like us, who even after having been destroyed completely, kept on praying to You, talking to You.’
A car blew horn in the street below, she got up from her chair, shut the window and lay on the bed. On the wall facing her, was a photograph of twenty year-old Maya. Maya on whose lips a smile had spread out like flowering buds and life glittered in her eyes like a fountain in the hills. In her confident manner, there was an extraordinary openness. As if she will jump out of the photograph and exuberantly embrace her, “Aapa, Zohra Aapa, the blue sky, high snow clad mountain tops, adventurers conquering those tops and the determination visible in the eyes of those people, fascinate me. Aapa, let us also go to conquer some top. I wish to plant my Aapa’s flag on the highest peak of the world. Zohra Aapa, the Great! Zohra Aapa, the highest peak in the world, higher than the Himalayas, mad…” She turned in the bed and felt a sharp twinge of sorrow rise in her chest: “Wah Maya! How would you know of what brittle clay your sister is made of, how fragile is her being? It was for your sake that your Aapa transformed herself into something like the Himalayas. What else could she do?” “But Aapa you never revealed why we were so alone despite having so many relatives?” “Because we loved to live with freedom” she had smiled.” “That is okay. But, when our parents died, you were so young. Tell me, how you decided to live on your own?”
On this probing, a pitiless night buried deep in her heart stared at her ironically. But she was ready. Since long, she had prepared herself for this moment. So she spoke calmly: “Maya, you have always been stupid. You fool, how was I alone? My Maya was with me, so were Noor Chacha, Massi Khairan, and Chacha Rashid. There were Masi Zainab and Mama Tufail. And we were there. They all were there. We have been living among them all. They used to be here all day long. Leave that, Yaar Maya! The truth is that I didn’t like locking up our parental house and shifting somewhere else. Should I tell you the truth, Maya?” She became a bit sad. “You were so young; you do not know how our parents used to look after this house. They had supervised every brick that was laid in this house. They had carefully tended every leaf, every plant and every flower-bed with their labour and prayers. Then how could I desert this house and let others take its possession. Maya, this house is a place of worship for me, where love is a prerequisite and purity a duty; where you can respectfully pay your obeisance any time. Where you can worship and that is all.” Saying so, she tried to erase the image of that horrible night from her mind, when in that place of worship the blood of innocents was senselessly shed. That night, the cruel rite of butchering was performed; something, which was neither so ordained by God, nor expected as an offering by Goddess Kali. Perhaps, even she doesn’t demand such sacrifices any more. And God, He has been uninvolved from the very beginning, so uninvolved. Why should He require such sacrifices?
“What happened, Aapa?” Maya was troubled by the changing expressions on her face. “Nothing, my dear.” She had controlled herself. A smile was playing on her dust covered lips. “Then what happened, Aapa?” Detecting curiosity in Maya’s eyes, she continued slowly: “Then, your Aapa grew up, matured, became the most mature, maturer than our parents and she succeeded the mother, took over her kingdom. In her kingdom, she simultaneously performed the duties of the king, the queen and the slave. She ordered shut all the secret escape routes. She zealously protected the borders of her kingdom and began to enjoy life with her dear Maya Rani. Everyone was surprised; everyone was confident about the imminent collapse of the kingdom; everyone was waiting. Everyone spread rumours; because such things had not happened before. But as you say, your Aapa is stronger than the Himalayas, so everything went off well. (And… my Maya grew up. After a long time she breathed peacefully, holding Maya to her bosom.) Perhaps life would have gone on comfortably had Professor Zaka’s arrival not caused the upheaval. A little joy trapped in her heart for centuries escaped through some small crack and settled on the forehead of Professor Zaka. What? Completely oblivious of his presence, Zohra stared at him surprised.
“Zohra Sultan! Time is fast running out of your grip. There is only one path available to those obsessed with the quest for truth in this universe; it is that they surrender their true need to the care of some Mansoor without wasting any time. Why do you forget that you are not alone in this universe? There are some other equally headstrong people here, who are driven by the same spirit, who live with that spirit and love their selfless desire.” She saw that a ray of happiness was now playing on Professor Zaka’s chest.
“Zohra Sultan! Howsoever high your aim, it should not defy nature, otherwise, the aim does not remain aim, it grows into obstinacy. Those who go against nature suffer and cause suffering to others also.” “Professor Zaka, I don’t understand why you are after me? What do you want from me?” she heard herself speak. “I don’t mean any harm, Zohra Sultan.” She observed that the glitter of some unseen happiness shining in Professor Zaka’s eyes had suddenly begun to fade away. He bowed a bit to place the notebook he was carrying, on the table. And she observed that the little ray of happiness that had been glowing on his chest suddenly vanished. “I wish to draw you out of your self-created world where you have imprisoned yourself since ages.” “It is not like that, Professor Zaka.” The confidence in her voice had a ring of defeat to it. “Yes, yes, I know you regard this as your kingdom,” he spoke aggressively. “But without seeking your pardon, I wish to assert Miss Zohra Sultan that you are making a big mistake, a very big mistake.”
This was the moment when angry Zohra Sultan ordered him out of her world. Banished love out of her life. And taking Professor Zaka’s spirit as an illusion, she withdrew completely into her own little world.
But after this, the time sense began to go awry. The tastes began to alter and the moods underwent transformation. After moving at her own pace for such a long time she began to feel an innocent urge in her heart to stop, to rest which she tried her best to suppress with her strict rules and discipline. But she saw that the urge was growing like the bamboo. The system of her kingdom got disturbed within days, hours and moments. The eyes, on guard since so long, began to feel heavy because of the sleeplessness; the eyelids tended to close under the weight of some unknown burden. In her heart she felt such a pang that she was even afraid to name. “Is that all Zohra Sultan! How strange that you, despite being so courageous, intelligent, and self-confident, don’t know what is in your heart? Something that you long for, but can’t admit to yourself. Perhaps admission is defined as cowardice in your dictionary. But I would like to make this clear to you that there is limit to denial also. ‘If defiance crosses a certain limit, it results in problems.’” The words of Professor Zaka came from so close that she was surprised.
“Professor Zaka! Long ago I tried to make a painting of the shadows. But I was so frightened by my own shadow that the painting brush fell from my hand. But do you know what happened after that? On seeing the innocent blood of my dear ones, I dipped my finger in the blood and wrote a pledge on my very being. The surprising thing is that this scene didn’t frighten me but a strange defiance permeated every pore of my being I cannot get rid of, now. Professor Zaka! You are right this ‘kingdom’ was a delusion; I have no hesitation in admitting this. I am in love with you but, believe me, my defiance creates a wall between you and me, a wall made of such a mirror that I find myself standing on its both sides. On both sides, I find myself. In such a situation, I do not understand where you disappear. Now tell me, where should I go? What should I do?”
Far away, Professor Zaka was fast asleep in a room in the youth hostel, when something suddenly woke him up; as if the touch of a wing of some divine angel roused him, saying “Get up, Professor Zaka!” He got up, and yielding his fulfilled dream to his shortened sleep, went towards that part of the city where a girl, captive of a cruel moment and sleepless since ages, was standing on the crossroads, carrying the burden of defiance on her head.
In 1994 Shahidul Alam and Drik Picture Library launched a unique initiative which involved training children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists. Their progress since has been remarkable – now 16 years old, the ‘Out of Focus’ children are still learning but have had exhibitions, produced a photographic calendar and are now collaborating on a TV magazine programme for young people. Along the way, however, they have been thrown up against a world of money and opportunity, aid agencies and big business, to which people from their background never normally have access. The NI recorded a conversation about their impressions of this brave new world.
We remember the time we had to go to some UNICEF meeting or other with Bhai’ya (Shahidul Alam). It was in the Sonargaon Hotel. A huge, fancy affair, where we had trouble walking, where our feet kept slipping on the shiny lobby floor. A different world, the world of the rich. As if that wasn’t enough, Pintu had lost one of his sandals on the way there. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed inside in bare feet, but Bhai’ya told us that there was no need to worry, that everything would be fine. So we walked on that slippery floor and looked everywhere. Everything seemed so grand, everything smelled of money. People throw away so much money! In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool with almost-naked foreigners in it. We felt too ashamed to look at them.
When you have too much money what else can you do except go to a swimming pool to show off, to say ‘Look at the money I have – I go swimming in a big hotel’s pool.’ The rich and their airs! Coming out with their cars just to show off to us, to the poor, to those of us who don’t have cars. The way they look at us! And their talk: which is better, a white car or a black car? It’s unbelievable, the arrogance!
When we go somewhere people usually comment ‘Oh you poor deprived children’. Nonsense! If they grab all the opportunities of course we’ll be deprived. First they take everything for themselves, then they coo ‘Oh, you poor deprived child’. If we are not given a chance, how can we make it? Our speech, the way we talk is offensive to the bhadrolok, the upper class. ‘Oooh, your pronunciation,’ they sniff at us, ‘the way your language wanders all over the place.’
We are poor. But the fact that we have cameras and know how to take photos makes people uncomfortable. And so something simple becomes complicated. People who see us keep asking us ‘Accha, are these the cameras you use?’ But, you see, the camera’s not the point. The point is to take photographs. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks that the children of the poor should have cameras. Makes you laugh. Once Bhai’ya took some of our shots to the Lab for printing. The people at the Lab thought that one of the photos was his. ‘Take a look at Shahidul Alam’s work,’ they said. Well, it was actually taken by Iqbal, and when Bhai’ya told them so, they just shut up and wouldn’t say anything more.
Hamida and Rabeya have been abroad. The word has spread. That’s how they are introduced, as having gone abroad. We take photos. That is not our identity however. The point is who has gone abroad.
Yet another way to show off is English. You aren’t anybody if you don’t know English. As if the real thing, the only thing, is not the work itself, but whether you know English. It’s such a fashion to speak it. They say you have to know it, but what do the foreigners know? Shouldn’t all those photographers and all the other visitors who come here know Bangla? Nobody tells them ‘You should know Bangla’.
Through our photographs we want to change things. But lately the going has been tough. With the children of the wealthy it is enough that they take photos, but with us it seems that we have to prove ourselves by learning English too. What will happen to those English-speaking friends who also carry on the struggle? Will they learn our language and join us? Oh come on! Will they not join ranks with us? What then is our language of photography to be?
These comments were made during an informal discussion involving
Faysal Ahmed Dadon, Hamida Akhtar Bristi, Abul Kashem, Refanur Akhtar Moli,
Rabeya Sarker Rima, Sopna Akhtar, Shefali Akhtar Setu and Md Zakir Hossain.
It was recorded/compiled by Manosh Chowdhury and translated by Khademul Islam.