<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 108 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 6, 2003

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Entering the 'Third Dimension'

Sanchita Islam

Today was a hectic day starting at 6.30a.m. as usual. For some reason I feel compelled to rise when my phuphu wakes for prayer. Can't imagine getting up at that ridiculous hour in London but over here it feels perfectly natural. The blue skies were unusually smothered in white cloud. The absence of sun makes Bangladesh dull but physically more comfortable, easing the profuse sweating that occurs as soon as I step outside. Life in London seems so grey compared with the multi colour brilliance of this country. Sitting in my yellow cab I see a whole new world. The infiltration of multinationals, the erection of flashy new apartment blocks and then familiar scenes of incredible poverty. A child with a shaved head, he was so small I only saw his eyes and his two nostrils peering up at me. He was standing on tiptoe - I could tell. 'Afa, ' he cried, I didn't wait for the second cry and gave him some money. And then I saw him do the same tap on another window-- he wasn't so lucky this time.
I was told a story at the Sheraton, by one of the actresses who appeared in the play held at the British Council for International Women's Day, she told me about child prostitution in Bangladesh, how kids are pimped by their fathers' encouragement to sell their bodies for Tk.2. The current exchange rate is 91 Taka to the pound. Sick world if it's really true. I say this because when I relayed the story to my cousin, who lives here in Dhaka city, he refused to believe it. 'Propaganda' he retorted bluntly. Perhaps it's easier to refuse to believe and shut our eyes to the unsavoury things that go on in our world. I have seen, with my own eyes, countless children roaming the streets of Dhaka alone, maybe abandoned, and that's sickening enough for me. Despite this sickness I still marvel at the sheer resilience of the people here.
I noticed today that people in Bangladesh give you time, offer you a glass of water and greet you with a smile. This is especially true of the women. I visited a woman who helps train village women create pretty nakshikantha. She showed me the hand-dyed silk that they use and offered me two bananas as she explained one of the stories embroidered on a small silk sheet. Through the delicate weave of thread we see young couples fall in love and get married, the husband tragically dies and in her grief the young bride kills herself. In the final scene they both go to heaven walking hand in hand into the surreal blue sky. Quite magical and simple. These village women are real artists but of course terribly poor. I bought one nakshikantha and perhaps some of the taka will reach these women, though somehow I doubt it. There are thousands of NGO's in Bangladesh and only a small proportion of them are legitimate. Set up to help the poor but often conceived to exploit them instead.
I noticed another thing--hardly anyone here is overweight. Probably because they can't get enough food. But although the kids might be hungry they walk tall and proud in their bare feet. There is something fearless about their expression. I can well believe that Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world or so the statistics say. I learnt another statistic that there are at least 2 million street kids in Bangladesh. Most of them live by the roadside. A girl with a tattered dress was sitting by the curb playing with an empty plastic soda bottle. She was totally engrossed in her game. The dust from the passing traffic didn't seem to bother her. Two grubby kids had somehow got hold of a can of something. One boy drank the juice from a tiny punctured hole, the can looked huge in his hands. I could tell he hadn't eaten in a long time. His friend waited patiently for his turn. And this scene took place in the midst of beeping, filthy traffic. Kids live amongst these nasty cars, they live in the dust, the heat and the danger --all for a few taka to feed their mother, their brother or their baby sister. I see that a lot, a tiny kid with a tiny baby slumped in tiny arms with outstretched palms waiting for a paltry hand out. As I bought grapes, pomegranate, apples and oranges I felt eyes staring at me from all directions. 'Bideshi' (foreigner) heard one of them say. Have learnt to ignore their stares now but there was one man I couldn't ignore. He was so dishevelled and neglected in his appearance. His skin bathed in dust, his eyes bulging, his mouth pleading, his clothes made from sack like material. Gave him money of course and instead of snatching it and walking away like most of them do he raised the taka to his forehead and thanked me with a dignity I had not seen before in other beggars.
Sometimes I think the rich want to perpetuate the divide to make them feel richer. I've seen the indifference. It's as if the poor just don't count. Imagine not counting in the world. We would all like to think that we were born to serve some purpose, that our life is not totally meaningless. And when I see these wretched poor leading such a hand to mouth existence I wonder what kind of life is this, what hope is there? When I experience a similar sense of worthlessness seeing their suffering makes me pause because despite their hardship they don't entertain notions of suicide, they carry on. I've felt their resilient spirit. A spirit so strong it makes me feel ashamed when I yield to moments of self-pity. My problems are peripheral compared to theirs. My problems don't exist. A kid wearing nothing but a pair of pants rummages through rubbish thick with flies, a girl in an ill-fitting dress carries a bag half her weight with a spring in her step. I would never consider myself rich but I am filthy rich compared to them. I am rich in the opportunities I have tasted and the life that I lead. That much is clear. And back home even the homeless in London are richer than the homeless here.
It was on International Women's Day that I heard something in a speech that made me think. A beautiful Croation lady stood up, as glamorous as a movie star, she said that most people are living in the second dimension. We sit and eat our dinner and then an image of a starving child appears on TV, we look up and think 'How awful?' for a second or two and then return to the more urgent business of eating our dinner before it gets cold. She said that coming to Bangladesh was like entering the third dimension and that it was only by coming here that she really started to learn. For me it is the only place where I feel my eyes are wide open, that I am seeing for the first time because that's what Bangladesh is, visceral, vivid and intense-- it is the third dimension.



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