Dhaka Diary: Living in the Urban Jungle and Writing with Light

“That was fun, wasn’t it” Photograph© Chulie de Silva

These were special children from a UNICEF-supported ‘Protection of Children at Risk’ (PCAR) project. The children from Dhaka and Barisal are now under the care of two NGOs – Aparajeyo-Bangladesh and Padakhep Manabik Unnayan Kendra.

Launch will come soon and we have to get onboard. If I am given something to carry, I will have enough to buy breakfast. Barisal Launch Terminal, Barisal, Bangladesh, 2010. Photo: Md. Mohasin Hossain, 12

They grew up in poverty-stricken destitute families where survival was an ordeal.  Every day was a challenge, another lurking threat, in a hostile environment where they were beaten and ill treated by step parents, aunts, uncles, and employers. Facing great adversity, they took stock of their suffering and thought that they could do better on their own living in the streets. They slept on piers, carried heavy luggage to collect some money for food.  “I slept, ate and lived in the streets,” says thirteen year old Md. Foysal.

The cameras and the photography training gave them an opportunity to explore their more sensitive side.  Tell their stories with their photos, under the expert guidance of two equally sensitive tutors, Habibul Haque and Tanzim Wahib of Drik. The children blossomed as they learned to write with light (‘photography’, etymology of, from photos  light, and graphos writing).  Their joy at holding a camera and learning to use it is palpable. They bravely opted to go back to the streets/slums where they lived and they wrote their stories looking for beauty and truth, Many focused poignantly on other children trapped in poverty as they were.

Seven-year old Ayesha has no idea whether she lives is a good or a bad environment. She is in a place where leather is tanned. Fish and chicken meal is a byproduct of this process but the tanning pollutes the environment. Hazaribag Tannery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 2010, Photo: Shahin Alam, 15

Translating into English with my colleagues at Drik their short narrative biographies, I could see that the sorrows in their short lives were plentiful. “Did we suffer because we were poor?” asks another thirteen year old Labony.


Kazi Labony. Photograph© Chulie de Silva


My mind races back to our magical childhood growing up by the sea at Hikkaduwa or with my grandparents and aunts and uncles in Panadura where love and care were bountiful.  My father was not rich by monetary terms but he was rich in loving. We were never slapped or caned and I specially rejoiced at his ruling on no Sunday school  — much to the dismay of the strongly Buddhist clan in Panadura – five days of school was enough and Saturday and Sunday were days for play. The only warning I used to get was that he would cut off my pony tail if I was naughty, and that was enough for me to toe the line.

That love and a happy childhood has sustained me through many difficult times in adult life and I wondered how these scars of childhood would affect the lives of these children.   I saw in their writings a deep sadness at the way life has treated them but also great fortitude and many wanted to put the bad times behind and move on. When troubles come they face it them with courage almost as if they out-stared it so that “Trouble” begins to regret that it ever bothered them and goes off to find itself a more acquiescent target. The children luckily found their way into the “Drop in Centres” run by the two NGOs.

Many of the labourers in our country do not stop their work when they get tired. They are allowed to relax only after finishing their work. I took this image of a tired worker taking a short break on the way back home from Sadarghat. Photo: Md. Foysal, 13

Yesterday evening at the launching of the “Living in the Urban Jungle” exhibition and the book launch at the Grand Ball Room of the posh Sonargaon Hotel, they  entered the world of the rich they had glimpsed from the other side of the street.  Yesterday, they were the shining stars, praised and honored.  They proudly pointed out their work and were disappointed when I couldn’t speak to them in Bangla.

I wish I could have told them of Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority and how the lives of many have improved but that work is ongoing and for us too in Lanka there is much to do still to improve the lives of poor children. But instead I told them that their photos were infinitely better than any of mine. Labony’s face lit up and she said “Thank you” in English. Pretty as a picture, I wondered how anyone could beat her so much for her to run away and question why Allah sent her to this world.

Just now the world is theirs, the applause is theirs. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

“I want to be a photo journalist,” “I want to teach photography to other street children,” “ I want to have a beauty studio and a photography studio,” they said in a short video shown at the launching ceremony. Just now the world is theirs, the applause is theirs.  They were being interviewed, photographed. The cameras have opened the doors to a new world for them. They are like “Cinderellas” on a spree. Their appetite for photography whetted, they are rearing to do more photography.  They are all dressed up but the ball will end soon once the exhibitions (gallery and mobile in both Dhaka and Barisal) ends. Can the fairy godmothers still hover around them and smooth their path to more learning to prepare them to be the photojournalists they want to be ?  Will their wish come true that many others they know are in similar circumstances can also be helped?

“Please don’t despise the street children, given a chance they can do well” pleads Foysal. I for one will never be able to look at the street children of Bangladesh without their pain in my heart.

I sell newspapers here. These children and I play with this clay tiger and dream about the real ferocious ones and our future. Photo: Md. Roni, 14

See also: From the other side of the fence by Shahidul Alam who asks “Empowerment can only be explored where equality has previously been denied. How then does one approach exploitation? How does one undo wrongs when one is on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence?”

Dhaka Diary: Immersing in the Durga Puja

Paying homage to Goddess Durga. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

You must go see the Durga Pooja, “said Reza.
No, you don’t go. It’s too hot, humid and crowded and you are still coughing,” said Lisa.
Go, you have one life, live it to the full,” said the bearded guru.
Join me at 11 am, and we’ll go to Dhaka University. It’s not so crowded” said Shumon.
Don’t take a lot of money with you, there are a lot of pickpockets,” warned the Guru
Always, take a bottle of water,” said Zaman . … plenty of advice for me sitting on the fence, wondering should I go to the puja should I stay.

In Bangladesh, Durga Puja is the biggest Hindu festival, and today, 17 October, is the last day of the festivities. Many throng to temples and then carry the statues of their beloved goddess Durga  to a river or waterway for the last ritual immersion in water.

My  new untraveled path has many dragons and beasts  and  a few have been keeping me largely indoors in Dhaka.  So what better day  to slay my inner dragons and venture out  in one of those ubiquitous rickshaws than  this day  when thousands rejoice at Goddess Durga’s win over the evil Maheshasoora the demon.  The day for paying homage to the warrior Goddess.

My knowledge of Durga is scanty.  I turn to a friend who says Durga literally means fortress in Sanskrit and is sought after for victory in life or in any given task. The feminine principle in Hinduism she is associated with dynamic movement while the male principle is associated with the still silence of enlightenment.

DrikNews quoting the Bishuddha Shiddhanta Panjika, the Hindu religious almanac says “this year the goddess Durga arrived on earth in a palanquin and will return on an elephant. Though the palanquin symbolises rough weather, the departure on an elephant indicates a good harvest.”

More searching on the Internet and I discover that Durga is an extraordinary powerful goddess in the Hindu pantheon of gods. She is the Mother Goddess and as such it is believed that she has  manifested herself as Goddess Mahasaraswati, Goddess Mahalakshmi and Goddess Mahakali.

Interesting  also to note from Wikipedia that these  are the active energies (Shakti) of Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra respectively and without these goddesses the male gods will lose all their powers and would not have the energy to lift a finger!!!..There’s more — the three forms of Durga further manifests in three more forms each, and thus emerged the nine forms of Durga, which are collectively called Navadurga or Nine Durgas.  Thus it is this Navadurga that are famously worshipped during the Autumn Navaratri or Durga Puja.  

As we ride the rickshaw to the Dhaka University grounds to see the festivities, I ask Shumon “Will people mind If I take their photographs”.  He laughs and replies “Not unless they have a beard and a cap,” and then adds “I studied at a Madrassa for my HSC for two years but I love to learn about other religions.  I go every year to the Durga Puja.

Red is the colour of the day. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Goddess Durga statue is beautiful, voluptuous as all goddess are and dressed in red.  The red apparently is to signify that she is always busy destroying evil and protecting people from suffering.  Most devotees have a touch of red in their clothes – some more than others.  She is astride a tiger in most of her statues and is another symbol of the unlimited power she posses.

Then there are the eighteen arms — I think many of us women have wished for just one more pair so you could do the multitasking we are supposed to do as mothers and working women.  Here Durga’s hands represent the combined power of the nine incarnations.  In this statue, I see her with the trident and the evil demon cringing at her feet.  All the weapons she carries in her hand such as a mace, sword, disc, arrow, and trident convey the idea that one weapon cannot destroy all different kinds of enemies. Different weapons must be used to fight enemies depending upon the circumstances. And these enemies are not physical ones but they are our attachments to possessions (thanha in Buddhism), avijja (ignorance), ego etc which must be destroyed.

The five days of the Puja are known as Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and  Dashami.  “Each day is special in its own way and today is Dashmi, and the day of the Sindur Khela,” says Shumon.  I am embarrassed about how little I know of Durgha puja although therer is a big Navaratri puja in Sri Lanka. “Today is when married women pray to the goddess with vermilion, betel leaf, sweets and smear each other with Sindur as they bid farewell to their Devi,”  says Shumon adding that only married women can have the red smear in their hair. 

Sindur smears. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

There are bells to be rung, sweetmeats and colourful bangles to be bought and even a bubble blower that delights the child in many of us. 

Bubble blowing. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Better job mantra. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Making a little money on the side. Photograph©Chulie de Silva



Glass half full in Dhaka

First view of Dhaka . Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My mother laughed and said. We used to call you clumsy, and now look where Clumsy is going.  I had just told her I was going to work in Dhaka. I was the Clumsy in the family and it has not been easy for me to shed that label within my family.  As the plane taking me to Dhaka starts descending and I see the outlines of some partly submerged land, I think about the labelling of Bangladesh.  Maybe I am at last getting to the point when I will shed the label and I suppose so will Bangladesh too.

 All I had to say was I was going to Dhaka and many of my friends were aghast!!!  –Who would CHOOSE to go to work in Dhaka? one asked. Well, ME for starters, I said but that wasn’t good enough.  There was the water, typhoid, dengue, road accidents, high crime rate (well we have all that in Sri Lanka too), and my sister dear screamed all the way from Brisbane “What’s with you – what happens if you go there and die – (well,  I could die in Colombo too).  In the middle of all this the sons, Nickie and and Mike Udabage from Sydney said “it’s exciting go,” and then my ears picked up when Indrajit Coomaraswamy in a meeting looking at South Asia said Bangladesh is the happening country.

I watched closely my face pressed to the window like a child, the partly submerged land, next the neat lego box like buildings as we descend. Is this the happening country?  Cyclically, every seven years, I’ve changed course, taking that untraveled road. Was Dhaka going to be my new adventure?

Digital Bangladesh? Woman chats while companions prepare lunch on the pavement. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Down on land, I see much has changed for the better since I last visited in 2006, but much remains the same too. … it is still a teeming vehicle packed city. Cars, brightly painted rickshaws, street vendors, and the women in bright salwars — vehicles weave in and out from what looks like impossible situations. I will no longer grumble about Colombo traffic. It is a teeming city, bursting at the seams, – a tad difficult for us islanders who are used to lesser crowded cities to take in. But this is very much the Majority World – a new label attached by Shahidul Alam to replace the tacky branding of the colonial masters like the “Third World,” “LDCs” etc .

The Drik Photo Library where I am attached to is the orgnaisation that Shahidul Alam formed 21 years ago. It has certainly come of age in style, its ethos intact and yes, very much an exciting happening organization to be in. Started as a homely business addressing social injustices, raising civic awareness through creative visual storytelling, the parent organization Drik has spawned Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, the teaching arm; Chobi Mela, the international photography festival; Majority World, photo library and DrikNews, the visual news agency to form a unique media institute whose reach and impact has gone beyond the Asian borders to Africa, Europe, Latin America and Australia.

At Drik I am warmly welcomed – so many familiar faces as I’ve long been an admirer of the company. I am literally plunged into the world of the thinking creative photographer. Six International student interns – interestingly 21 years old too, present their work before departure. They could have done their internship in the States I hear, but decided on Dhaka after a presentation made in China by Shahidul Alam. Having battled with the usual trials and tribulations in a new country, Shen Shen pluckily says “I turned my misfortune to fortune.” Then there were the goodbyes to the ones who had been with Drik and were moving to better paid jobs. Incredibly, this is seen not as a negative but as a plus for the organization that their products are moving ahead to better paid jobs.

From left Shahidul Alam, Francis Duleep de Silva, Rahnuma Ahmad and Fabiene. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Among the welcome/farewell dinners I meet Fabiene working for her PhD from Brazil. She is quite at home in saree and Salwar lives outside the city, travels by local transport and is learning Bangla. Rahnuma, my friend, the learned anthropologist raises her eyebrows and looks at me knowingly and says I should try travelling with Fabiene.

The two Danish students and I sit through presentations of the Pathshala students. We don’t understand the language much, but the photographs the will to document social ills, the hot discussions that follow are impressive. In the last month alone two students have won international awards, keeping the Drik flag flying in the photography world.

As I am taken around and introduced I discover that Drik’s different departments are hives of activity. The AV department was just going off to do documentary films on child marriage in Nepal, India, Pakistan about the time I joined. These films were being put together skillfully using still photographs and voice cuts of interviews. By last week I was lucky enough to sit with them while the captions were being done on the heartbreaking story from Pakistan. We don’t have this issue in Sri Lanka, of girls being given in marriage as young as 12 years. But here parents are often driven by poverty and community pressure to do so.

I am delighted when I get to sit with the team selecting photos taken by early teenagers in yet another interesting and worthwhile project. These kids have not held a camera two weeks ago. Yet, after their training the images they have produced are strong

Learning by doing. Open air classroom. Photograph©Habibul Haque

The final selection for the exhibition that will follow is tough. This is the follow on project of a successful “Do you see my world.” project where UNICEF is partnering with Drik. Inside me, my heart cries out as I work with two colleagues to prepare short bios for these kids who have seen the dark side of life at such a tender age.

Balanced focus. Photograph©Habibul Haque

Then there is the Chobi Mela the International festival of photography that I am here for. It promises to be a visually amazing collection of 27 Print exhibits, 19 video installations and many mobile exhibitions that will tour the country taking the work to the wider public.

Alam sees this unique exhibition as a birthplace of ideas, a platform for debate. As has been said for Majority World, another project developed by Drik, other festivals have something to show. Chobi Mela has something to say.

As I communicate with artists, visitors, journalists I meet online Dick Doughty, Managing Editor of Saudi Aramco World. He writes, I am drawn back to Chobi Mela not only because in it there is a quality of animus, a strong spirit of social engagement, but also because I think Shahidul has been a catalyst for something extraordinarily important – a nascent “Dhaka School” in documentary photography that has only begun to articulate its messages. I feel privileged to have my rather passing association with it all.

My office at Drik is also the library and I am surrounded by books on photography, some autographed, some not but all are fascinating. I pick up one at random as my IT colleague fixes my Internet connection. It is the “Amerasia journal, vol.34, no.1 focusing on the Majority World. It quotes from a 2004, blog piece of Alam titled Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit. “Culture glides through people’s consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the counter currents.

Alam is the Managing Director who cycles to office rain or sunshine. As I witness the first heavy downpour that floods the street and Drik offices he shrugs it aside saying “poshla brishti” – passing shower, wait for the real thing. When the real thing happens a couple of days later it is one of those infamous “depressions in the bay of Bengal.” It rains, no pours heavily for two days, roads are flooded. I stay inside snug as a bug. But Alam has been out in the rain with his camera and sends all staff a photo.

Leaf in rain. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld.

Alam not only defines the Majority World by what it has than what it lacks; he sees beauty when I see muddy flooded streets. There is a lot learn.

The glass is definitely more than half full.


Positive & Strong Princey Mangalika on HIV/AIDS

Princey Mangalika. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik

Princey Mangalika. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

 “I can tell a married woman living isolated at home that she can get infected with HIV/AIDS,” was Princey Mangalika’s clear message at the mobile and gallery “Portraits of Commitment” exhibition held in Sri Lanka August 2007.

A stay at home wife who had never held a job Princey had no idea what AIDS was.  Her  husband a hotel worker had gone  abroad to work for a German man in 1994.  It was only after his return in 2000 that he fell seriously sick and a hospital test revealed he had AIDS. Ostracized and hounded by the villagers Princey found him after a three day search in a temple in Colombo crying hysterically. His mouth was burned from the poison  he had taken and although doctors had fought to save his life he had died that day of poisoning.

When Princey’s house was set on fire by neighbours she took her two children and sought refugee with her parents.   For her, the nightmare was not yet over.  When finally she had her own HIV test, it showed she was positive. 

She is now the President of the the Lanka Plus NGO formed to help HIV-positive people  with the assistance and support of Dr.  Kamalika Abeyratne who herself was infected with HIV virus from a blood transfusion.

  When I finally came face to face with this remarkable lady she was more petite than in her portrait. Dressed in a white Kandyan saree  and sporting the red aids ribbon badge,  she had arrived after the opening ceremony of the exhibition.   

It was a pleasure to talk to this confident, effervescent lady.  Some of her thoughts and views are captured in this interview I did for the  short film produced on the Mobile and Gallery exhibitions by Pathshala Institute of Photography, Bangladesh.

Q:Princey,  tell me how you feel  to  see your portrait among all the others here?  

Princey:  If you look at all the photos here, most are living with HIV.  There are no differences in the photos, all are alike, and I am amazed as to why society is so fearful about this [AIDS]  

Q: In your opinion what message can this exhibition convey? 

Princey: I feel that if the younger generation takes a closer look at these photos with a good awareness they will be terrified as this is not a disease that is visible externally.  This I hope will make them conscious and wary of the dangers of unsafe sexual behaviour. 

Q:  How can we use exhibitions like this to really reach the young and convey the message? 

Princey: If the message is passed on to the young generation by people like me it becomes much more significant because the society does not understand or know much about what HIV or AIDS is. They have only heard of AIDS and think AIDS patients are disfigured and ugly.  So if programs are made using people like me living with HIV to convey messages they will be more successful.  Maybe then it might become easy to find a solution to this problem.  

Q:  You are now willing to come out in the open and take this messageBut the early days wouldn’t have been easy for you.  Can you tell me how it was then? 

Princey: When attention focused on my husband, he did not have any privacy or confidential rights.  There was a breach of confidentiality by the minor employees of the hospital when we went to seek health care.  Quite unnecessarily we had to face attacks and innumerable difficulties.  This was hard and I suffered enough overcoming these hurdles.  I have had to face every difficulty that life has to offer.  So there is nothing new that can happen to me now. I have overcome these barriers and come a long way in life with patience and will power.  I am happy about this.  In future if there is anything I can do, I hope to do it well. 

Q: How will you carry on with your work

 Princey:We have to give correct information to society about HIV and AIDS—what is HIV, what is AIDS, how it is transmitted and how it is not transmitted. Undoubtedly this message needs to go the younger generation.  Till they marry youth needs to be cautious about their sexual behaviour or delay sex till marriage. Pre- marital relationships, sudden or casual relationships shouldn’t lead to sex.  My advice to husbands and wives is to live life trusting each other totally – it is not enough one partner being the trusting one – the trust must be mutual. 

W.S. Prasanna, the Tuk-tuk driver, explains to commuters how a stay at home wife can get  HIV/AIDS  at the Pettah bus stand, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

W.S. Prasanna, the Tuk-tuk driver, explains to commuters how a stay at home wife can get HIV/AIDS. Pettah bus stand, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Photograph © Chulie de Silva

A novel way to spread the HIV/AIDS Message 

The mobile and gallery exhibitions featured large, sensitive portraits of South Asians who have made a commitment to change the course of HIV/AIDS by the renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam and insightful interviews by Karen Emmons illustrating the diverse forms of compassion and roles that leadership can take in confronting AIDS. 

The photographs highlighted the realities and emphasized the positive directions people are moving in order to rise above difficult situations. Each story centered on a different aspect of the disease, a different reason for committing to help others .

The “Portraits of Commitment” exhibitions were made possible through the World Bank’s Small Grants Youth Initiative program organised by the World Bank Sri Lanka office  in partnership with the exhibition producers Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, and the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development of UNAIDS. The  book by the same name was commissioned by UNAIDS.