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Entering the 'Third Dimension'
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
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
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.