In the second week of October, I traveled around the streets of Dhaka and all the way up to Mymensingh with a talented photographer and (former) human rights activist, Jannatul Mawa.
The experience was one of those that make you pause for thought. After all, if you know me at all, you will realize that despite some short intervals of self doubt, I mostly occupy an incredibly dominant space and can be termed a regular chatterbox. I’m extremely opinionated, and if possible, even more intolerant of views unlike my own than most people are.
The organization I have been recently consulting with needed a writer and photographer to travel around the country and document the Government of Bangladesh’s pilot education programme called “Each Child Learns.” (If you want to find out more about this, I suggest you consult the UNICEF Bangladesh website.)
Mawa apa, as I call her, in order to showcase her seniority, and I found ourselves in the thickets of a frenzied disarray of a trip which had us traipsing around various corners of Bangladesh. As luck would have it, she had just returned from touring with her photography exhibit, “about employers and employees,” she said.
If I am opinionated, Mawa apa stirs the soup from which opinions are formed. I found myself, at regular intervals, in wonder about the source of incredible energy which allows Mawa apa to control whatever room she walks into. In her short kurti and Ali Baba pants, she can speak as passionately about the NASA space center as she can about the food in Delhi (which she doesn’t quite love).
We shared a number of cups of tea, and she spoke about meeting Taslima Nasrin at her exhibit recently in Delhi, and being amazed by Nasrin’s popularity with the youth of Delhi. “They even know her on the streets,” said Mawa. “I miss the buildings of Delhi too,” she said.
The road back from Mymensingh to Dhaka is filled with regular pot holes.
Mawa apa is an avid backseat driver, and in turns she cajoled our driver to drive slowly, and then berated him for not having the foresight to plan for gas money. We drank coconuts and ate bananas off roadside vendors at sporadic intervals. Once in Mymensingh we documented classrooms and spoke with teachers, at the end of which we were presented with the most wonderfully hand-cooked lunch of mustard hilsa, spinach and lentils over rice.
I tell you this without any preamble.
I saw Mawa apa for about 20 hours on end over two days, and after we ironed out an initial misunderstanding over who was supposed to make reservations over transportation, we quickly cemented our budding friendship over vanilla icecream and fried chicken after a lengthy meeting with program directors at the Department of Primary Education in the Government of Bangladesh’s offices.
She confided how worried she was about introducing her adolescent daughter to the conversation about birds and bees, and recalled stories of working in the field with various writers. A ferry had almost capsized on her and a writer once, when they were in the small islands of Barisal. The incident sounded freakishly scary.
“That was the one trip where I liked the writer,” she said. Her eyes twinkled.
“I am never happy with the photographs I take for human rights organizations,” she said.
We hailed down a CNG powered baby taxi to give us a lift back to our respective houses that first night.
As we parted at the leafy boulevards next to Elephant Road, Mawa apa said, “I want you to be happy. I want you to find someone who makes you happy.” She was perturbed by my single-ness.
“Men always disappoint me, and then I repel them before I disappoint myself,” I replied candidly. I’m used to such questions. With my “right age for matrimony” and reasonable looks, I get questioned about my marital status frequently, after all.
“But having a house all on your own, without any hired help,” she said. “I admire your tenacity.”
I don’t think she used those exact words, but in my memory, the flurry of the CNG belied this reality.
We were attempting to avoid the traffic jam at Jatrabari the next day.
Every once in a while she cursed the dark light and lamented a lost photo opportunity.
Outside, the traffic of Bangladesh meandered in the haphazard manner that Bangladesh is infamous for.
A couple of days later, I flew out to Thailand. It is only recently that I have come upon the photographs taken by Jannatul Mawa, which had her traipsing across various countries across the world.
The series is aptly called, “Close Distance.”
These are powerful images. They play upon the power dynamics that are negotiated daily amongst the matrons of Bangladeshi houses, and their often exploited female employees.
I have no wonderful words of wisdom, but I find that these portraits draw sharp questions about economic platitudes, and in them are numerous cul de sacs, as these images present with us the reality that some relationships do not need speech to become pronounced, but every time they are pronounced, their retreat back into the void where they remain unaddressed in the multitude becomes even more uncomfortable, particularly for those of us who work in this field, who are in the business of trying to shift the gears on poverty related issues.