When we left Dhaka at 5 am the city was fast asleep like a child that had collapsed exhausted after a restive day. Gone was the hyperactivity the tooting of horns, the traffic cops, the cycle bells of the million rickshaws, so synonymous with Dhaka. The sleeping incorrigible child lay swathed in an inky mist. Not much different from the Pettah or Fort in Sri Lanka before dawn.
As we moved out of Dhaka over the Buriganga bridge, the city was slowly coming back to life. The wayside stalls were lighting their hearths and rolling out the paratha dough and the vegetable sellers were struggling with bags piled high on their bicycle carts. We were stopped at the bridge. My first thought was that it was a security check. This wasn’t, it was to pay a toll.
Buri in Bangla means old and Ganga is river and I wondered if it was an old man river or an old woman river as my mind wandered to Paul Robeson and the famous Ol’ Man River— the song of the African Americans toiling away amidst the uncaring flow of the Mississippi river. Many a song has been sung by boatmen toiling away here too. Rivers have flown entwined in the lives of the Bangladeshies – at times the giver, at times the destroyer – but that’s another story.
We drive along a newly resurfaced, neatly marked road, and the view changes. Flickering lights glow in the dark on the right side of the road but there are no visible houses and I cannot figure out the lights. “Those are brick kilns,” explain my friends.
The little village we turn into is fast asleep too. Sitting on the verandah of our hosts house the conversation turns to when the first Black and White TV was installed in this house. Villagers had flocked from miles to see this new fangled box with moving pictures.
Just before sunrise we walk across the courtyard of fruit trees. The starfruit tree had unpicked fruits on the ground. “Those are for the parrots,”explains our host. As the mist starts to lift slowly, we walk across the field.
The sun when it makes an appearance is majestic — a fiery ball across the fields. I remember a similar sunrise I saw on the A 9 driving towards Killinochchi earlier this year, but one never tires of these magnificent displays of nature.
A little boy, starts following me –obviously drawn to the camera. A little sign language and he is very happy to be photographed.
On the small lane in front of our hosts house, people stop – a little curious, looking at me and the camera. First they speak to me in Bangla, as yet again I’m mistaken for a Bangladeshi. “Here’s a stange one, she looks Bangla but can speak only ektu, ektu ( a little).”
I ask whether I could photograph a woman first in my broken Bangla – Ji, ji ( yes) and after her the men too lined up in front.
Then it was time to check out the photo and assess it on the view finder. The photos might not please my tutors but I had loud approvals of “baloh, baloh”– good in Bangla. I try to remember my photography lessons, side lights, framing properly but then decided the decisive moment was what I wanted to capture – photographing to remember the smiles and laughter of a friendly encounter with a bunch of happy villagers.
Robin is setting up a net to play badminton with his friends. Looking down at them from the road higher up, I focus my camera on them. They quickly gather and hold a pose for me. Peering into my lens, I remember how similar this is to the boys I photographed in Jaffna. In a jiffy the boys are all up on the road with us, wanting to be photographed more -the pair of sunglasses a must for the Bollywood look. …
The men and women hang around, having forgotten where they were going when they met me and we have a conversation liberally sprinkled with sign language. I tell them I am from Sri Lanka and Shah Alam says knowingly “Ah, Sri Lanka, Baloh, baloh” and nods his head. Language they say shape our thoughts and interaction – so do we communicate even in monosyllables because Bangla and Sinhala have so many common root words? Anyway, it is an amazing feeling of being welcomed and accepted in a strange village. The camera no doubt was the catalyst, the ice breaker, but with my few words of Bangla and their quick grasp of what I was saying we were communicating. A much warmer engagement than the empty rhetoric of so many of our daily “Hello, How are you?” greetings.
Alam gestures with his hand up towards the sky and asks whether I will go back to Sri Lanka after this visit or will I come again to see them. I wish I could have said in Bangla “I’ll come back.”
HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09]
By Lera Boroditsky