Friday, October 16, 2009


During dinner with Tanzim tonight, I revisited the topic of Sufia - the only "story" that I had successfully completed here in Bangladesh, way back in 2005.

I explained to him that since my return two years ago, I had been avoiding seeing her again. There was a lot of miscommunication after my return to Singapore, and I feared that she no longer thought kindly of me.

Before I left, I had given her 6,000 takas - the most that I could afford at that time. I had somehow given her the impression that more money was headed her way, and I had been told by my friends in Dhaka that she was upset I had not followed up on my promise - a promise I may have made accidentally by nodding to a sentence I did not understand. Throughout my six months there, she never asked for money.

So I have been back for two years, and I never went to see her. I did see both her and Yasmine, from a rickshaw or a CNG as I passed by the same stretch of road, but never had the guts to visit. But it was important for me to see that she was still there.

While I spoke about her, it was clear to me that this was something that I needed to do. On a whim, I dragged Tanzim along with me as a translator.

When she saw me, her eyes did not widen with surprise, as I had expected. Neither did she did fly in a rage, as I had feared. She got up and came towards me, as if I had been there to see her the day before.

"Yasmine is dead," she said. Tanzim had to translate those words for me, and, momentarily confused, I could not believe what she said.

Yasmine was killed two months ago by a hit-and-run at 5am in the morning along the street she called home. She was brought to the Dhaka Medical Hospital, but it was too late. She is now buried in the same Azimpur graveyard as her brother.

Sazzad, the grandson, is now seven years old and attends a free school down the road. He claims to remember me, but I somehow doubt it.

They brought out the photo album I had given to them before I left.

"You print a new photo of Yasmine for me. And frame it."

It would be the least I could do.

I went back and dug out all I had written about Sufia in 2005. Sufia's story was something my instinct told me to continue, but my head needed to justify it first. I am now so judgmental of photographers who do nothing for their subjects, that I simply could not continue with the work until I figured out what the hell it meant.

And then I realised, that there really wasn't more to it. I want to photograph Sufia not because I have some great moral lesson to share with society, not because I want to raise awareness about her plight or to show how the homeless live. I don't know who will see the pictures, or what I will do with them.

I want to photograph Sufia because I don't want her to disappear. In a city where the homeless are not seen, where you could be here one day and gone the next, I want to make sure that she is immortalised.

I re-read the post I wrote about her in 2005, and came across an anonymous comment I do not remember reading:

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?

I'm sorry to be harsh, but that is a really stupid question.

When the NTU team came last month, one student had asked me a similar series of questions, all of which were egging me to tell him that he had just arrived in a country where the people are "poor but happy".

What is with this obsession to find a silver lining in the lives of the poor? Is it guilt? Do we feel better about ourselves if we could at least believe that they were happy?

I had told Sufia something similar in 2005. Sure you're poor, but I spent so much time with you and there is so much happiness here. Those rich people passing you on the streets? They don't seem to have as much joy as you do.

Sufia cocked her head to one side with a pitying gaze, and asked me a question I will never forget.

"Who wants to be poor?"

Sufia and Grandson

Sazzad is even more adorable now.