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     Volume 6 Issue 15 | April 20, 2007 |

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Letters from England

Andrew Morris

Photo: Md. Sohel Rana Akond

Remember Madhabi Majhi? She was the girl who was allegedly thrown from a balcony in Dhanmondi last year and narrowly escaped with her life. Her story was charted here in the magazine, and the last we saw of her, she was safe at the BNWLA hostel, sitting up in bed, her spirits healing. I'd heard she'd returned to her village way up in the north, to be with her family, and decided to pay a visit.

Travelling up to Rangpur from the sleeping capital, Sohel, the BNWLA community support officer and I became instant friends. Chatting together all the way, we broke what must surely be the world record for a conversation in Bangla by a Welshman, clocking in at 6 hours 24 minutes. No insomnia that night, I can tell you: my poor brain was exhausted.

But we were up bright and early for the journey into the Dimla area, where Madhabi's village of Akaskuri awaited. Bumping along in our hired car, past leather-skinned farmers crouching in the hazy fields, cyclists wobbling along the road, tumbledown villages with women standing in winding queues for cut-price rice, and rickshaws fitted with loudspeakers blaring out public announcements. The sun floated heavily above, the air was sultry and still. The road narrowed, twisting and turning through a tree-lined countryside, with diamonds of light hitting the surface through the swaying branches.

Madhabi and her family
Photo: Andrew Morris

Eventually, the street signs gave out and we were reduced to asking passers-by where the girl lived whose legs had once been broken: you know, the fisherman's daughter? And finally, having followed their directions, the road tapered to a point where we simply had to get out and walk the last ten minutes, along a dusty path, into a village of bamboo huts, neatly-swept yards, a mischievous pie-dog, and an eager crowd of colourfully-dressed children awaiting our visit, long ago announced over the phone.

Asleep inside her hut in the mid-day heat, Madhabi's face broke into a smile when she woke up and saw us, and she walked unsteadily into our embrace. Her legs are on the mend, but it's clear the fractures were serious and they have not set straight. Nevertheless, the resilience and determination of this girl continues to amaze. Here, after all, is someone who was surely hurtling towards death, like her fellow-maid Moni. How do you live with that? How does a young mind cope with the full knowledge that another human being is prepared to hurl you from the sixth floor?

Not that you'd hear that from Madhabi of course. When we again press her on what happened that day, her usually bright little face assumes a stony mask and she says blankly “I fell”. A little elementary detective work establishes that the verandah up there on the sixth floor had a decent sized wall: pretty much the same height as this little girl. Quite a gymnastic feat to fall over it, I would have thought, but she sticks to her tale. It occurs to me that two girls falling upwards over a wall on the same day must be a first in the history of physics. Moreover, it's a story which contradicts the one she told the police when first interviewed at the hospital, in which she clearly talked of being “pushed”.

Discussing ways forward with the village people
Photo: Andrew Morris

A trick of memory perhaps? Let's not dwell too long on what, shall we say, incentives there may have been for this story to change. Despite the encouragement of BNWLA, the girl's family are curiously reluctant to press charges. We remind them that this restraint has implications not only for themselves but for many other girls in similar situations, but once again there is the distinct impression of other forces at play here. This is, after all, a poor family. Enough said. Meanwhile, medical records show cuts to the head and back of a third girl who worked in the same house. It's quite clearly not your ideal workplace…

But on with the day. We eat a snack of boiled eggs and chanachur, and look out across the fields. A running boy trails a kite high in the sky. A man with a huge sheaf of grass on his head walks calmly along a path, and cows lazily swat the flies away from their hot hides.

Then it's time for the gifts. A teacher friend of mine in England who has a class full of ten year-olds, including some of Bangladeshi origin, raised Madhabi's story as part of a course on citizenship. The kids responded with warmth and compassion, and so I'd brought with me a whole package of “get well” cards, letters and even an orange sari which a delighted Madhabi would later put on. We sit reading them, and translating some of the messages. Many of the kids have urged Madhabi to write back and share her news, little knowing that of course she has been denied an education and is unlikely to pick up a pen. Once again we encourage the family to send her to the local school, despite the impression that our pleas are falling on deaf ears. These villagers are confident in their own beliefs: they need take no lessons from city folk. It's interesting the way they refer to us both as “tumi” no urban hierarchies or sycophancy here.

Sohel, in his capacity as liaison officer, resorts to a topical metaphor, sitting there in a circle with these villagers who earn their living at the river's edge. By keeping her out of school, you are catching one fish and eating one fish a day, he explains. There is no possibility of improving things. But by sending her to school, you can increase your catch and begin to expand. Here, after all, is a girl who clearly has an active mind, who could go places. A lack of education can only condemn her to repeating the cycle of poverty in which her father and housewife mother eke out a living. But village opinions are tenacious and based on long tradition: a girl's role is to get married and provide children. It takes more than a couple of outlandish visitors from the capital to overturn millennia of prescribed roles.

Seen from one end of the telescope, the story remains depressing: a girl whose legs have not properly healed, still out of school, whose positive spirit is heartening, but scant compensation for the fact that her life options are pretty constrained by her circumstances and cultural context. But seen from the other end, here we have someone who miraculously survived a fall to almost certain death, now back with her family and at least out of mortal danger.

It's time to leave. One last hug and we set off back down the narrow path, two pied pipers with a whole retinue of village children trotting and dancing behind us as a send-off party. From a distance, we wave goodbye to Madhabi and her many sisters and promise to be back in the autumn.

That evening, back in cosmopolitan Rangpur, I meet an extraordinary eight-year old girl from a very similar background, but whose life has taken a very different turning, thanks to the vision of her father. But to find out more you'll have to tune in next week…



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