Saturday, February 19, 2005

“When darkness comes, we go to sleep.”

I wrote the following after a emotionally exhausting shooting day. My project on the street family is almost finished, but I fear that the effect they'll have on me has just begun.

She hasn't stopped asking me to bring her to Singapore. She knows I'm studying, and only 21. She told me, she'll wait till I get myself a job and my own company so I can get a visa for her. She says she'll wait. And of coruse, write letters in the mean time.

What on earth will her address be? Mirpur Road, the zinc roofed tent under the tree next to the Rubbish Dump along Dhanmondi Residential Area Road 7? I don't know.


It is a difficult line to keep behind, the line that distinguishes reality and myth, that changes lives into stories. How do I tell the truth of Sufia’s life, without turning her into a statistic – another analogy to be used to elicit temporary pity and sympathy – how do I prevent this?

Hers is not a story to be forgotten, for the simple fact that I have met her, and I have known her, and she has combed my hair and let me into what she called her worthless existence. And for anyone reading this, she must be the same to you. Do not insult her pains and sorrow by allocating her a space alongside the rest of the people whose lives serve simply as a contrast to yours.

Intelligence is etched along the lines of her face that has bore too much sun, and in the lines next to her eyes that have seen too much. She knows she is poor, it is a fact not worthy of discussion. She needs money, she wants to buy a house, and a license to drive so she can work again.

In the two weeks that I spent with her and her family on the street, the only emotion I have seen on her face is that of silent resolution – a sort of grim determination to make it through the day, to finish the routine so she can sleep to awake to another day.

But in our longest conversation ever, the face which I thought could only show strength broke into pieces. I had thought it impossible for her eyes to show more sorrow than it already contained, but I was wrong.

When she was about to leave her son at the hospital, he asked, “Mother, where are you going?” And she said, “To get you a doctor.” And he leaned his head on her arm, an only son seeking solace in his mother.

She told me, she had thought he was resting, that he was relieved the way a child is grateful for his mother’s comfort when he falls down. And suddenly she was there in that hospital room for a second time, her whole body shaking as she told me, no, he was not resting, he was dying. And soon, Shahuddin, 28, was dead.

It is impossible to understand a mother’s grief, and to think that I do would be to insult Sufia. And so I looked as Yasmine, her youngest daughter, whose mental capacity did not allow her to understand why her mother is crying. I was looking for hope, but Yasmine’s uncomprehending eyes showed none.

How can a woman like her sing and laugh? Why have I had the privilege of seeing her smile, when she has so few of those to give? In her generosity to me, she had fooled me to think she had managed to keep her spirit free of sorrow. And while I had initially saluted her for that, I realized how impossible that was.

Her tragedy is that this sorrow is not her own. In the faces and the eyes all around me here, I see the same story of loss, pain and hopelessness, repeated till it disappears into a vague fog that you can’t touch and see.

Yasmine is 12, and the only words she can say are guttaral noises only her mother comprehends. She does not understand the concept of hygiene, and flys into a rage when she is unable to express herself. Scars are scattered haphazardly across her wrists, which she shows me with a wide smile, the same smile I see on children’s faces when they present their first drawing and painting.

I wonder, what would she say if she could speak? Will she tell me how sad she is? Can she even understand her situation? Am I allowed to pity her if she does not pity herself? What will she say when I tell her that millions of children around the world do not have to drink water out of a hose, that they have houses where they keep their books and toys and hot water to bath with every night? Does she even realize that there are other types of existence?

This is a girl who has been invisible her whole life, someone society chooses to ignore. This is why her happiness depends on the amount of attention she receives, and why she constantly clamors for the focus of my camera.

I thought I had found a family who could show me how happiness comes easily to those who do not have much. That the answer to life was basic existence and contentment. It’s true, in their world, that happiness is cheap and easy to come by. But happiness is not contentment, and it never will be for them.



Anonymous said...

How do you define 'contentment'? Is it your definition that decides or designates whether or not they are content or does the family have their own understanding of contentment?
I think it's rather judgmental to to say they have not experienced or do not know what is contentment.

Ghim Lay said...

Girl I don't know what to say. But what you wrote really touched me.

JC said...


Jess said...

I am using the family's own definition of contentment. People who are contented will not constantly talk about leaving their situation, wanting a new life, a new house, more money. They will not call their life "not living", and not constantly ask me to help them in various ways so that they can leave their home on the street.

And who the hell are you?

Anonymous said...

Someone you've been chit-chatting with. =) But, again, just because you're working in a 'third world' country, which by many has been defined as 'poor' or 'lacking access to resources,' does it always mean people there are discontent and unhappy?