Monday, 5 June 2023

"I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive" - Stories from Cambodia

Phnom Penh in May is not hot. It's very hot, and very humid. Residents and visitors alike seek respite from the soupy atmosphere by spending time on the riverside walk, just a few blocks away from some of the city's main streets and the old market known locally as Phsar Chas

The riverside area has been cleaned up in recent years and now hosts good quality restaurants, bars and hotels. There are also many informal stalls close to the river. I stopped to buy cold water from one of the vendors, a smiling, silver haired woman wearing a brightly patterned blouse. As she handed me the bottle, I asked  how she came to be doing this work. Song Yeun said she had been selling goods in the street for many years. I asked her if she lived with her family, and unprompted, she began to tell her story. "I am 68 now but I became a widow at 21" she said. "My husband was an educated man and was killed very soon after the Khmer Rouge took over. My own family were farmers. I grew up in a village and managed to convince them that I could work in the fields. So I was spared". 

She referred to the Khmer Rouge as "the Angkar" a Khmer language word meaning "organisation" and the term that the Pol Pot led communists used to describe themselves. The regime held power between 1975 and 1979, dismantling civil society and brutalising the population with forced labour and summary executions. Estimates vary but the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, exhaustion or outright killing. Educated people were seen as particular enemies and many teachers, professors, doctors, writers and artists were murdered. 

Song Yeun's experience of agricultural work was no guarantee of being spared or surviving, but it gave her a better chance than many of those forcibly evacuated from Phnom Penh a few days after the Khmer Rouge entered the city. She continued "There were famous people in the work camps. The singer Pan Ron was there. I tried to help her but they killed her too". Pan Ron (also known as Pen Ran) was a prominent singer and songwriter who had great success in the 1960's and early 1970's. Her music was influenced by western rock and soul styles and some of her lyrics were deemed risqué for their time. As all things western were deemed unacceptable, this made her. particular target. She is remembered in a series of murals outside the Space Four Zero gallery in Palace Lane, Phnom Penh. Several of her recordings have been uploaded onto YouTube. 

Song Yeun went on to describe some small acts of resistance. "At night they would put spies under our huts to listen to our conversations. You could be executed for any criticism of the regime. We knew they were there and we used to pee through a whole in the floor above where they would be laying. They couldn't say anything or move as they'd give themselves away". She laughed at the memory, but then grew serious and said "We were starving and I used to steal small amounts of rice just to survive. If they'd caught me I wouldn't be alive now." 

The Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979 when Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, although fighting between various factions continued into the 1990's. After being released from the work camp, Song Yeun somehow made her way back to Phnom Penh, discovered that she had lost most of her family and had to find a way of supporting herself. "Some men asked me to be a prostitute" she said, "But I refused. I knew I could work. These days I have trouble with my legs and people say 'you are old, stop doing this job and just beg' but I won't do that. I want to keep working". 

I bought an extra bottle from her and continued along the promenade. A group of overweight western men in shorts and vests sat drinking outside a bar. On the opposite side of the river, close to the shore, I could see the makeshift homes of the Muslim fishing families. I looked back at Song Yeun. She sat waiting for customers and smiling at passers-by.

Monday, 10 April 2023

The Rose Garden Palace

The sign on the gate said, “Closed for renovation”. It gave no date for when the works might be completed. We got out of the car and Dev spoke to a bored looking uniformed security guard for a few minutes while I hung about unable to follow the conversation. The guard then disappeared through a small door set within the gate, emerging five minutes later to say he said he’d spoken to his boss and that we could go in.

The building under renovation was one of Dhaka’s most elegant - the Rose Garden Palace. It is said to be the result of an insult at a jalsa, a grand party, held in the Baldha Garden (today’s Botanical Gardens) in the 1830’s.  Narendra Narayan Chaudhury, owner of the garden mocked Hrishikesh Das, another rich Hindu zamindar (landowner) because of his low-caste status. Das was a banker who also dealt in brick and tile manufacturing and traded coal, lime and timber. He was so enraged that he vowed to build a bigger, better palace than Chaudhury’s and his Rose Garden became known for special musical performances attended by the city’s most prominent people. 

I was unsure in what condition I would find Das’ palace, but once inside the gate I could see that it had been better cared for than many other heritage buildings in Dhaka. The structure is intact and the decorative features on the façade in good condition. Gaining entry to the building was a step too far for the security guard’s boss and so I was unable to view the thirteen apartments spread over two floors.  There are (or were) two ballrooms, one at each level. The upper ballroom has what has been described as an “ostentatious dome”. Other internal features include decorative mosaics and coloured skylights, part of a design that combines western and local influences. 

"That's not a problem sir. It won't be allowed".

The rose garden that gave the palace its original name disappeared long ago, but the original marble statues have survived and there was evidence that some re-planting had taken place. The pond at the end of the garden had been drained, revealing large amounts of rubbish thrown from the high-rise flats on the other side of the wall. The guard said that there were plans to re-instate the pond. I asked him how they would prevent the neighbours from using it as a rubbish dump. “That’s not a problem sir. It won’t be allowed” he said.

Das’ extravagant lifestyle eventually brought him to bankruptcy and the palace was sold. Despite this he is not lost to history. A street in Old Dhaka still bears his name – Hrishikesh Das Road in the Sutrapur neighbourhood. In 1937 the palace passed to Khan Bahadur Kazi Abdur Rashid. Under Das’ ownership the building had primarily been used for entertaining, but Rashid chose to live there. He renamed his new home Rashid Manzil, and these words still appear on the façade.  He was a successful businessman with several interests including ownership of a publishing house. He was also involved in politics, eventually becoming a Member of the Pakistani Parliament following Independence and Partition. Rashid campaigned for the political rights of East Pakistanis (today’s Bangladeshis) and many liberals and social democrats spent time at the house discussing this issue. This culminated in June 1949 in the formation of the Awami League, a political party opposed to the governing Muslim League which many Bengalis believed no longer represented their needs.

In the 1960’s the palace was leased to the Bengal Motion Picture Studio Ltd. Several historical dramas were filmed there, the first of which was Harano Din (Lost Days), a 1961 film starring Shabnam and Ghulam Mustafa in the lead roles. Shabnam played the part of Mala, a snake charmer ‘s daughter who receives the unwanted attention of a rich landlord before finally managing to evade him. In 1989 the building was declared a national heritage monument and in 2018 was purchased by the Government. Plans were announced for the palace to become a museum, but the programme was disrupted by Covid, and it is not clear when the work will be complete.

After half an hour of admiring the exterior of the palace and trying, unsuccessfully to peek through the ground floor windows, the guard started to become uncomfortable. Not wishing to outstay our welcome we left the quiet of the garden to re-enter the noisy Dhaka streets, but not before thanking him in the usual way.

Sunday, 2 April 2023

The Hijras of Shyampur

It took a little time to find Miss Bobby’s home. It was behind one of Shyampur's main streets, down a narrow, litter strewn alley on a raised platform with several other houses. All of them consisted of a single room constructed from corrugated metal. I later learned that the platform is to protect the homes from the sewage that sometimes comes to the surface during the monsoon.

Miss Bobby was not feeling well. She sat on her bed, arms folded. Her hennaed hair was swept back and tied into an austere bun. She is the guru or leader of a group of Hijra (third gender) living in Dhaka’s Shyampur neighbourhood. She is also the founder of Susto Jibon – an NGO that focuses on health and human rights for third gender people. She greeted us with an almost imperceptible nod and said “hello” in English. Like Munaji in Delhi, she was at first a little cold and understandably suspicious but began to warm when I asked her about the NGO. She said, “I started it in 2000. I could see that the community needed somewhere to go for help and information. We began by offering advice on safe sex and giving out free condoms, lubricant and medicines. Our work has developed over the years and now we also do blood tests, run community workshops and teach craft skills”. 

Sanjeeda and Meryl (holding her pet dog)

I asked her about her own story. She said “I am 60 years old. I joined the community about 40 years ago and have been leading it for the last 15-20 years. I realised I was not like other boys when I was seven or eight. I didn’t need to tell my family as they could see it for themselves. They were not pleased. My father, who was a government worker would become very angry and beat me”. She paused briefly and then continued “I felt very sad and lonely but then I saw a group of Hijra performing in the street, singing and dancing.  I wanted to join them. Now I am the leader of that community”.

 While we were speaking two of her followers came into the room and listened to our conversation which was conducted in a mixture of English, Hindi and Bangla and with the help of a translator. Meryl and Sanjeeda are two of the 3-400 Hijras living in this area. I asked Miss Bobby if the neighbours are accepting of them. She said “We have been here for ten years now, and our neighbours do not trouble us. It wasn’t like this in the past, but today we are accepted and sometimes we are called upon to make peace between couples who are fighting or quarrelling”. 

Meryl and Sanjeeda also shared their stories. Sanjeeda is 36 and was born in Shyampur. Like Miss Bobby, she understood that she was different at an early age and although her parents were accepting of her, the neighbours were not. She said, “they would come to our house and say to my father ‘we don’t want your son to play with our children, keep him away’”. She continued, “my father is dead now. My mother lives with me”. She eventually found her way to the Susto Jibon office, and received help and advice.

I asked about her experiences at school, but she said “I only completed class one. I cannot read or write”. Like the other community members, Sanjeeda collects donations from shops and people in the street and performs and gives blessings at weddings and on the birth of a new baby. I wondered how people respond to their requests for alms. “Some people are kind and give money, but others shout at us and tell us to get work. We sometimes get attention from religious people. They say very bad things to us”. She added “I usually collect as part of a group, so I am not afraid”. 

Meryl plays up for the camera

Meryl is 42. She is of striking appearance. Her hair was pulled back, emphasising her high cheekbones and she wore a large bindi between her eyebrows. She was born in Old Dhaka, one of ten children in a family where the father had two wives. “My family were very kind to me and wanted me to stay with them, but I realised I had to leave and live with people like me” she said. We stepped outside onto the platform to take some photographs and she immediately began playing up for the camera, spinning around, covering her face with a dupatta and picking up her pet dog and cat saying, “they are my babies”. Sanjeeda looked on, amused, clearly the more reserved of the two.

Meryl is known for her singing and dancing, and she wanted to perform for us. She prepared by brushing out her long hair and applying fresh make-up, all the time feigning shyness and laughing. She then stepped down from the platform into the narrow alley, picked up the neighbour’s baby and began to sing and dance in time to Sanjeeda’s tabla playing. The neighbour was unperturbed, and the baby seemed to enjoy the attention. At the end of the song, Meryl joined Sanjeeda on the platform and Miss Bobby re-appeared. I left a “tip” with her, and we made our way to another Hijra household.

Paakhi Islam and her friends were waiting in a room at the top of an unfinished apartment building. The room is accessed through a shared courtyard and a series of staircases lacking bannisters. Chickens roamed freely in the yard below and a woman was cooking on the walkway of one of the upper levels. Paakhi is 33 and has been a member of this group for 12 years. Her story is like that of Meryl and Sanjeeda. She said, “When I was ten, I thought ‘I am a boy, but I behave like a girl’. My parents couldn’t understand me. I know my mother loved me, but my father would beat me. The neighbours were also a problem and would say ‘you are half woman, don’t come around here’”. She eventually found her way to Miss Bobby’s NGO, made friends and received help. Her mother is dead now and her father lives in Spain, but she has no contact with him.

Paakhi is better educated than most of the other group members. She studied until she was 16 and completed class eight. She has also worked in the fashion industry. Her height and looks have attracted attention and she has appeared as a model in a professional fashion show. Bangladesh is one of the world’s major garment producers, but modelling opportunities are limited, and she still collects donations from shopkeepers once a week. She also gives blessings and dances to supplement her income. 

Paakhi Islam, model

While Paakhi sat on her bed talking to me, several members of her group, cross-legged on the floor, chatted and joked with each other. They were very different from Miss Bobby, Sanjeeda and Meryl. Two of them, perhaps in their twenties, wore male clothing, had short hair and had not shaved for a couple of days. When I asked about this, they explained that they only wear saris when they go collecting. One of the group, Imran (not his real name), had a full beard and a white topi or skullcap, as worn by some religious Muslim men.  When I entered the room, he - (I use the word “he” because Imran describes himself as “a man”. If I were able to write this in Bangla, this would not be an issue as the same word is used for “he” and “she” just as it is in Hindi)- gave a nervous laugh and covered the topi with a scarf in the way that some women wear hijab. Palash said “I began feeling different between the ages of eight and ten. My family understood what this meant and that it was not good. There were serious quarrels and I understood I needed to live somewhere else”.  

I asked about his religious appearance and if he faces extra difficultires because of his faith. He said “Yes, I am religious. I like to read the Koran. But I know I am different. I used to collect money and dance at weddings with my friends, but I didn’t enjoy it and so instead, I opened a small pharmacy to support myself. I hope God loves me and will help me with my business”. He continued “I opened a second branch of my business in my village, but the religious people give me problems. When I’m in the village I try to behave like a man but sometimes I cannot control it”. He told me that there is a madrassa (religious school) in Dhaka that caters for third gender people and takes students of all ages and said, “I haven’t had any trouble from extremists, but there are groups that threaten our community and some people have been killed”.

Imran has bravely tried to overcome a major problem for the Hijra community – that of earning a living outside of collecting alms, dancing and giving blessings, or working in prostitution. I told the group about a scheme in Karachi, Pakistan where Hijras are successfully employed to recover the tax arrears of small businesses. In India there have also been programmes to employ Hijras (and lesbian, gay and transgender people) in the Delhi Metro system. They listened with great interest but then cast doubt on such schemes ever being implemented in Bangladesh.

I was curious to know if there were any links between Hijras and gay and lesbian people. Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh. Although the laws are generally not enforced there is strong social disapproval of same-sex relationships and in recent years, high-profile gay rights campaigners have been murdered. When I asked about this, the mood changed and all denied any link, explaining that “to be Hijra is legal, but these things are not. It is very dangerous for those people. We are not the same. We don’t know them”.

As I left, Paakhi and her friends asked me to visit again. In the courtyard one of her group asked me if I would spend a few minutes talking to a girl who lived on the ground floor of the building. She had not met a foreigner before and was curious about me. I spent a few minutes talking to her and was impressed by her English – she was just twelve but spoke confidently and with good pronunciation before shyness overcame her and she went back into her home.

Miss Bobby in yellow with Sanjeeda and Meryl

Friday, 24 March 2023

"Even if you are educated it is hard for Biharis to get work" - the Geneva refugee camp in Dhaka

"There's no space here. The children have nowhere to play or study and I have to cook in a small space under the stairs"said Shahana.  We were in her tiny home in in the Geneva refugee camp in Dhaka. More than 40,000 people live here in the dark, narrow alleys, in homes lacking basic services. Shahana was sitting on the steps that lead from a tiny ground floor room to two others of the same size. None of them have natural light. Fourteen people live in this house, including seven children. Her mother-in-law and her 97 year-old grandmother, Jamila, sat on the bed that fills most of the room, and her husband crouched down, talking to me through the narrow entrance to the floor above.

Early morning in Geneva refugee colony

Life in Bangladesh is often lived very publicly. It is not unusual to see people bathing in rivers or brushing their teeth in the street. In Geneva there is no choice and even the most basic human functions are carried out with little or no privacy. There are shared washing facilities and toilet blocks and water has to be queued for twice a day. Most of the residents arrived at the camp in 1971 after the War of Liberation when after a bloody conflict, what is now Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. Many Bihari Muslims had left India in 1947 during Partition, opting for what was then East Pakistan. Their mother tongue is Urdu and during the war, most of them supported the Pakistani army against the majority Bangla (Bengali) speaking majority. Some took part in atrocities but others were also victims of violence. Figures for the number of casualties on each side vary wildly and are the subject of much dispute. After the war, and into the 1990's, many Biharis managed to leave for Pakistan. This process has now ceased, due in part to sometimes violent opposition from other Pakistani communities.

"The teachers are not friendly. We have to pay them bribes to get the children admitted"

Even in the middle of the day the camp streets are not light and are so narrow that it can be difficult to pass through them. Nazma was playing with her small grandson in one such alley. She was born in the camp and looked older than her 50 years. Before the War of Liberation, her father had a good job working for the railways. Her husband runs a small shop and her son has a car repair business. I asked her about problems with the outside community. She said "We had trouble in the past, but we don't really have those problems anymore". Then she added "But it can be difficult to get the children into outside schools. When they realise we are Bihari, they don't want them". Mohammed Ashore, a barber aged 36, expanded on this. "The teachers are not friendly. We have to pay them bribes to get the children admitted". He lives in a one room home with his wife and two children. They pay 4000 taka a month in rent. According to the World Salaries website a barber in Bangladesh can earn between 5,000 and 12,000 a month.

Nazma and her grandson

Nazma understood the importance of education as a way of breaking out of the camp. "I want my grandson to be an engineer" she said "but even if you are educated it is hard for Biharis to get work". Shahana said that her 11 year old daughter wants to be a doctor but that "my 14 year old son is not interested and doesn't want to study". For many years it was difficult for Bihari children to attend state schools. The community did not have citizenship and therefore lacked ID cards and other official documents necessary to secure employment and to access services. This changed in 2008 when the Government acknowledged their right to citizenship, perhaps recognising that the majority of people in the camp were not even born in 1971. Despite this positive step, long-standing suspicion and prejudice is harder to overcome.  

The camp has a small bazar running through one of the wider streets. Residents go there to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, rice, paan and other consumables. They also go to visit the barber, get electrical items repaired and to seek advice at the office of the local community organisation. On the day of my visit a man selling rabbits from a wheeled cage was also trying to do business. I told my friend that rabbit was once a poor man's dish in the UK but is now served in expensive restaurants. He assured me that they were being sold as pets and not for consumption. 

Shahana, her mother-in-law and grandmother

"Yes, I am the malik"

Shabanah is 45 and was born in the colony. She was doing brisk business at her tea shop. I asked her if she was the malik (boss/ owner) and what she did before opening the shop. "Yes, I am the malik" she told me, then added "my husband works here with me" as she turned to look at, and indicate the man preparing snacks on a raised platform behind her. "I used to work in textiles, but I set this shop up three months ago"  she added. The shop occupies a narrow hole in the wall with a stall set up on the pathway in front. The monthly rental is 2,500 taka (about £25). I ordered a tea and as I spoke to her in my limited Hindi, a small crowd gathered, curious to know what we were talking about and in some cases, anxious to join in the conversation. She told me "My grandfather's name was Mohammed Miah. He came from Bihar but I don't know exactly where". She agreed with Nazma, Shahana and Mohammed Ashore that the main problems of living in the camp were access to good water, space and facilities for children and the generally poor living conditions. She has two children and I asked about her ambitions for them. "I want them to be able to recite the Koran in full" she said. She agreed to a photograph and covered her head in preparation. When I got up to move on, she refused to accept any payment for the tea, saying I was her guest. 

Shabanah "I am the malik"

Despite Nazma's assertions that relations with the majority community are now better, one exchange I had in the bazar showed that there is still resentment about the events of 1971. A middle-aged man approached me and asked where I am from. When I told him I am British he became very enthusiastic, praising the UK and asking me if I had been following the cricket series between England and Bangladesh. I told him  cricket isn't really my sport, but I knew that Bangladesh had done very well and had seen people celebrating their victory over England. His manner changed instantly and raising his voice, he said that he was not happy, didn't want Bangladesh to win, hated the camp and that I should go to the community association to hear the truth about 1971. Then he stopped mid-sentence, shook my hand and left.

Many residents of the Geneva camp have spent their whole lives there. Others have lived there for more than 50 years, under what they hoped and expected to be a temporary arrangement. The ongoing problems with lack of space, poor access to water and other services can only cause more resentment and frustration. In the past, there have been occasional clashes with the majority community, including at another camp in Mirpur, where in 2014 at least nine people were burned to death in their homes during disturbances. Despite this, the angry man I met in the bazar was not typical of the people I spoke to in the camp, all of whom were ambitious for their children and grandchildren and recognised the importance of education in securing a better future for their community. 

Children going to school inside the camp

You might also like "The landowner refused to pay us...we had barely enough to live on" - Delhi's Sri Ram refugee colony

Friday, 17 March 2023

The rag-pickers of Sylhet

It's the birds that you notice first. They are everywhere, perched on the diggers, sitting amongst the rubbish and circling above the forty or so, mostly women, workers picking through the waste. Several women are at the summit of the dump, looking for plastic and other recyclables. It takes a moment or two to realise that there are other workers further down, surrounded by the rubbish, almost devoured by it. And all the time the birds watch.

This scene takes place near Sylhet, capital of the Bangladeshi province of the same name. The city has many modern shops, restaurants and hotels but to the rag-pickers, (the generic term applied to those doing this work) it is merely the pace they go to sell  items they salvage from the dump. I spoke to Rubi aged 56. She is originally from Moulvibazar, just south of Sylhet and has been here for ten years. I asked her what she did before she began this work. "We were not a rich family" she said. "I had no father and my mother had to do farm work. Then I got married and I was a housewife, but we needed more income to cover the cost of food and accommodation so I came to work here with my husband". Her daughter Fahima also works here. "She's 12 years old" said Rubi, "I'd like to send her to school but who will pay for her books and how will we cover the money she earns that helps to buy food and clothes?"  They sell the plastic items they collect to a recycling company in the city. For one kilo of plastic they receive just 5 taka, about five pence. This is substantially less than the amount the rag-pickers I met in Rajasthan receive for the same weight. Rubi says that on a good day the family can make 200 taka (£2). One kilo of lower quality rice in Sylhet ranges from 55 to 70 taka. Basmati is definitely off the menu at around 350 per kilo.

Fahima is not the only child working here. Johir Islam is also 12. He said "I began working here two years ago. I have no father and I need to earn money to help my mother". He only completed first grade at school and is unable to read or write. Johir was working with another boy, also aged 12. We had just begun talking when a truck arrived carrying new garbage. The boys broke off, picked up their plastic sacks and ran towards it, hoping to find the best items before the other workers got there.

Apart from the odd pair of wellingtons. no-one was wearing protective gear. Rubi, who had by now been joined by several of her colleagues, curious to know what we were talking about, claimed never to have been injured at work. She said that she had never had a skin disease from handling the garbage, despite not wearing gloves. She seems anxious to emphasise this and the others nodded in support of her assertion. I had not mentioned specific diseases. Despite Rubi's claim, a recent report says that as many as 80% of child rag-pickers in Bangladesh have been injured at work, mostly with cuts of different kinds. It also mentions the prevalence of dog and insect bites and respiratory problems from inhaling chemical fumes and airborne dust. Eczema, itching and fungal infection are listed as being widespread amongst this group. 

Although Rubi and her colleagues denied having accidents, they went on to list the various hazards of their workplace. These included dogs, "rats as big as cats", needle sticks and occasionally, snakes. I had a close encounter with four dogs when I arrived. They ran towards me growling and showing their teeth before one of the older women chased them away. They retreated to watch from a distance but did not bother me again.

From time to time, the authorities issue statements about banning rag-picking and then go quiet again. But as Rubi asked "what will we do if this happens? How will we survive?". It reminded me of the occasional proposals to end hand-pulled rickshas in Kolkata and the subsequent protests of the ricksha men, worried that they will be unable to find alternative employment. Rubi's final words before returning to work were "I would like the Government to do more to help people like us. We want to educate our children but we also need to feed ourselves".

As I prepared to leave I saw that the boys had gone into the distance, searching for items away from the main dump. I also noticed Fahima amongst a group of older women workers. She was looking into the distance, perhaps wishing to be somewhere else. But she was in the garbage, picking through the city's  waste under a dark, grey sky, with the sickly smell of decay and under the threatening gaze of those birds.

You might also like The rag-pickers of Jhalawar

Saunaya Roy's book Mountain Tales gives a detailed account of the lives of a community of rag-pickers in Mumbai.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Night train to Chittagong

The carriage was full and two men were occupying our seats. "Those are our seats" said Dev (my guide) in English, forgetting to switch languages after speaking to me. "Speak in Bangla" spat back the older of the two men, annoyed at having to move. Dev repeated himself in Bangla and reluctantly, very reluctantly they moved.  Seats secured, the next challenge was to find somewhere to put the luggage. Just like the train from Kings Cross to Darlington there was insufficient storage space. After much moving of other people's belongings Dev managed to force my suitcase on to the overhead rack. It was some way from our seats and about one third of it hung over the head of those sitting below.  I spent the first hour of the journey convinced the full 16kg (according to airline check-in) would come crashing down on their heads before eventually relaxing and then worrying again in case it disappeared if I slept.

We had arrived early at the station and sat in the waiting room where we found one man already sleeping - full-length on the metal seats, smelling of alcohol and grumbling in his sleep. Dev recognised him as one of Sreemangal's misfits, born to a rich family but spending much of his time drunk in the street. He wore trousers that looked a bit like a set of my checked pyjamas, a filthy once-white shirt and a tatty tie. After ten minutes or so he woke up and began trying to charm two very small children, members of a Hindu family waiting for the same train as me. The kids looked a bit scared, edged closer to their mother and pretended to not be there. Giving up, he wished me "good morning" in English and went outside. 

The 11pm train from Sreemangal to Chittagong didn't have sleeper accommodation but it boasted a dining car. At least that's what it said on the side of one of the carriages. If it did have one, much of its business was being taken by dozens of vendors who invaded the train at each station selling water, juice, cooked food, crisps (or chips as they insist here), nuts, boiled eggs and other items. Most of the vendors were older teenagers who carried their goods on their heads and ducked past each other as they tried to cover the whole train during the ten to twenty minutes spent in every station. Inevitably there were younger vendors too. One very small boy selling water at 1.30 in the morning can have been no older than ten and possibly less. 

There were also vendors who remained on the train for most of the journey, selling tea and coffee made from a large thermos flask, tea bags or jars of Nescafe. They appeared every 20-30 minutes, calling out "tea coffee tea coffee" until about 4 am by which time most of the passengers were at least pretending to be asleep. I was tempted by the astonishing selection of items on offer and the not displeasing aromas, but having just recovered from a bout of food poisoning decided it was best to resist. 

The seats have been designed to ensure maximum discomfort

I find it hard to sleep on trains and flights and I didn't expect to sleep on the eight hours journey to Chittagong. My expectations were fulfilled. The seats are designed to ensure maximum discomfort. They are angled - too sharp to be able to recline and too far back to be able to sit upright. They are not adjustable. I tried various positions, including resting my head on the drop down table on the back of the chair in front, but again the angle of the seat made it impossible.  I took my shoes off to feel a bit more cosy (and because my mam always says your feet swell at night if you keep your shoes on - I'm more like her than I care to admit) - and then I put them back on. I put them on again because I couldn't put my sock clad feet on the ground without stepping in detritus including discarded pieces of food, tissues, a comb and some cigarette ends. There were also several plastic bottles that rolled underneath my seat when the train hit a particular speed. The latter explained the presence of a young woman rag-picker on the middle part of the journey. It didn't explain the presence of two pairs of Hijra who got on at different stations to collect "donations". 

Hijra is the name given to the various third-gender communities found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Traditionally they have earned a living from giving "blessings" to newborn babies or at weddings, often demanding huge sums. They can be seen in the street soliciting money from passers-by or from the occupants of stationary vehicles. People generally give them a small amount of money in order to avoid any unpleasantness. If refused or otherwise upset they can sometimes become abusive and occasionally threatening. The first pair were good natured and received small notes from many the passengers. I usually "donate" and they were very happy with my 50 thaka, (about 50 pence) even providing me with change from a 100 thaka note and giving me a blessing which consisted of tapping me on the shoulder twice. 

"Na? Na? What is this na?"

When the second pair got on, they had a harder time as people didn't wish to give again. This led to some sharp exchanges, culminating in one with one of a group of inebriated young me sitting behind us. He  refused to give, offering a short "na" (meaning no) when asked. "Na? Na? What is this na?" asked the very offended taller of the pair, with her teased back hair and heavy make-up. He continued to refuse and things quickly deteriorated, him suggesting she take part in certain sexual practises and her alleging that his wife entertained other "husbands" when he wasn't there. The rest of the exchange escaped me, but it went on for a few minutes until the Hijra, satisfied she'd had her say went off to the next carriage.

Around 4am things quietened down a lot, though there were still occasional murmurings from behind. I dropped off shortly afterwards but woke at 5.45 just as the light began creeping through the window. An hour later we pulled into Chittagong and my fellow passengers alighted in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Dev and I agreed to wait until last so as to avoid struggling through the carriage to recover my suitcase which was still there and still partially hanging over the heads of the people sitting below. At about one, he'd put his cap on, taken out one of those neck-rest things and a blindfold that people use on flights and gone to sleep. Or at least I thought he had. As we wheeled our luggage along the platform I asked if he'd slept much. "No. Not at all" he said. "I heard everything all night". "Oh" I said, as while avoiding the touts and taxi drivers, we stepped out of the station and into the Chittagong traffic. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

"What have you brought me?" - an encounter with the Bhand in Rajasthan

Just outside Pachewar in Rajasthan we came across an encampment. As we approached, we saw that a ceremony was taking place. I was unsure about whether we should enter, but an elderly woman signalled to a teenager and chairs were brought for us. The ceremony continued. A young, shirtless man lay in the centre of the gathering with a family member, acting as a priest, speaking over him. An elderly man sat at the side of the gathering, wrapped in a blanket, shivering. The young man, trance-like, made responses to the priest before convulsing and appearing to lose consciousness. Then, the priest covered his face with a cloth, and he quickly recovered, got up and moved away from the group.  The shivering man put down his blanket, apparently cured of whatever ailed him.

" eyes and ears are still good, I can see and hear everything..."


The old woman, the family matriarch, said that they were members of the Bhand tribe. She explained that their settlement was a temporary arrangement while they waited for a permanent location to be identified by the government. She added, “I don’t know how old I am, maybe 80, maybe more, but my eyes and ears are still good, and I can see and hear everything”. She claimed that her group was an extended family encompassing nine generations. Quite a claim, despite the Bhand often marrying young. My friend and interpreter, Vikas, later explained that she may have been counting different branches of the family rather than generations. He also explained the ceremony. The Bhand believe that the spirits of their ancestors, who they call pitrs, can help them in times of trouble. The ceremony was performed to assist the recovery of sick family members and the voice of a particular pitr was being channelled through that of the younger man. These spirits are mentioned in Hindu texts including the Mahabarata and the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Annual homage, or shrad, must be paid to them in order to retain their favour. 


During the days of the Maharajas, the Bhand were story tellers and entertainers. At important gatherings, they would act as acclaimers, announcing the arrival of guests, showering praise upon them and their ancestors. Some would maintain family trees for the nobility. They would also perform plays and dance. Although most of their work was for the wealthy, they would occasionally put on shows for the common people during important festivals. Today they perform their traditional work at weddings, large events and festivals.

"..the priest...told a story to his perfectly silent audience"


When the matriarch spoke, all present maintained a respectful silence, but then the man with the blanket began asking us for money. She silenced him with a look and then asked us what we wanted. I explained that I am a writer and was curious about her community. On hearing this, the priest (who was her son), stood up, donned a colourful turban and told a story to his perfectly silent audience. The gist of it was that the emperor Akbar once had his Bhand executed for some argument he had with Birbal – a poet and singer appointed as a Minister. The Bhand’s son took his revenge on Birbal by using his skills in poetry and humour.

Towards the end of the story, a smartly dressed young man arrived and interrupted the priest. He announced himself as Jelabi Lal. He spoke rapidly and made the family laugh. Then he asked us for money. At this the matriarch’s smile changed to a look of anger. She spoke sharply to him in Hindi, telling him to “chup raho” – “shut up”. He did as he was told and stood looking at his very stylish shoes. She then turned to me and said, “what have you brought me”. Thinking on my feet, I handed her the colander I’d purchased from the Gadia Lohar tribe settlement on the other side of the road. She examined it closely, turning it over and over before pronouncing it “good, very good”. It seemed like a good time to leave and we went back to the road, leaving her to admire her new possession.

You might also like The rag-pickers of Jhalawar

Sunday, 15 January 2023

The rag-pickers of Jhalawar

Ayaan said he was 14 but he looked younger, perhaps 11 or 12. He was small but clearly well-fed which may have been why he was riding a decrepit looking exercise bike at the side of the road. I asked him where the bike came from. “Over there” he said, pointing to a mountain of plastic items being sorted into different bags by two young women. The women were employed by Ayaan’s father who buys waste goods from collectors, known as rag-pickers, before selling them on to more large-scale dealers for re-cycling. 

The business occupies a large site, not far from the centre of Jhalawar, formerly one of Rajasthan's princely states and now a regional centre of more than 65,000 people. The two women sorting the plastic items - Rekha and Parvati - spend their working days bent over, causing them painful back ache. Rekha was a little shy, but Parvati was amused by my presence and laughed directly into the camera after I held it up to request a picture. Ayaan's father also deals in old tyres and two men sat on the floor separating the rubber into strips which would then be used to make different items. I asked Ayaan why he wasn’t at school. “It’s morning,” he said “I go to school in the afternoon. In the mornings I help my father.” The first part of his sentence was in English, the second in Hindi. As I left, I turned back and saw him standing arms folded, looking managerial and keeping an eye on the two women who were busily sorting and bagging. Rekha looked up at him and rolled her eyes before going back to work.


As many as four million Indians, most of them women, are employed in informal waste collection

Ayaan’s father buys his stock from collectors who gather discarded items from the street, from businesses and sometimes from garbage dumps. The collectors are widely referred to as "rag pickers". The name is similar to that given to the "rag and bone" men who collected unwanted household items from the streets of my north of England hometown during my childhood. The name came from their calling out "rag and bone" as they came through the streets, often with a pony and cart, alerting people to their presence. Indian rag pickers do not have the luxury of this form of transport and generally carry their finds on their backs.

As many as four million Indians, most of them women, are employed in informal waste collection. Their contribution to public cleansing and recycling is largely overlooked and poorly rewarded. The work is hazardous and exposes the collectors to infection, injury and in extreme cases risk of death. Saumaya Roy’s 2021 book Mountain Tales is an in-depth examination of the lives (and loves) of several families who make a living from sorting waste on a municipal rubbish dump in Mumbai. It follows the individual stories of the workers and describes in detail their work and living conditions. A few kilometres outside Jhalawar there is a rag-picker settlement of 35 families. Their makeshift camp is situated outside the city boundary, away from the residential areas and without running water or electricity.


I arrived at the camp at about half past ten in the morning. The residents were curious and perhaps a little suspicious about receiving an unexpected guest, but on seeing the camera began asking to be photographed. Some produced mobile phones and requested “selfies”. The volume of photographic requests soon became overwhelming and there was some jostling.  My friend, guide and interpreter Vikas called order, saying that we would photograph them in family groups, one by one. I also took some individual portraits, including of Eeran, a girl of perhaps twelve years. She wore her blonde-brown hair swept back under a headband and looked directly into the camera. Her expression was hard to read a mixture of curiosity and a half, almost sad smile.



Grandmother and grandchildren. Pardhi settlement near Jhalawar

"Criminal" by birth

A young man stepped forward and began to explain that this was a settlement of Pardhi people, an Adivasi, or tribal group, originally from Madhya Pradesh. The name Pardhi comes from papardhi the Sanskrit word for hunting, reflecting their former occupation. They were traditionally forest dwellers, skilled in the use of bows and arrows, swords and hunting traps. This way of life was curtailed by the passing of the 1971 Wildlife Act which outlawed hunting.It was not the first time that legislation had significant negative impact on the tribe. The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act enacted by the British colonial government branded 150 Adivasi groups, including the Pardhi, as “criminal” by birth. This may have been in part, an act of revenge, due to their having participated in the 1857 revolt against colonial rule. The Act not only gave the police sweeping powers against those covered by its stipulations, but also ensured they were stigmatised in Indian society. Although this legislation was overturned after Independence in 1951, the stigma continues today.


An unintentional impact of the Wildlife Act was to further impoverish the Pardhi. Their traditional way of life forbidden, they now earn a living through agricultural work, the sale of food and handicraft items, and in some cases, begging. Many Pardhi can be found in Mumbai including the women who attempt to sell garlands to tourists outside high end hotels. Others, like the group near Jhalawar work as rag pickers. 

"Sometimes the dealers try to reduce the price to 25 or even 23 rupees per kilo".


I spent some time with several members of an extended family group. One of the younger men explained that the people here collect plastic and glass bottles which they then sell on to dealers who sort and sell the items on to larger companies. In return for one kilo of plastic they will receive 30 rupees – about 30 pence. I asked him, “how many bottles do you need to make a kilo?” “One hundred” he replied before adding “Sometimes the dealers try to reduce the price to 25 or even 23 rupees per kilo. We can’t do anything about this, there are many rag pickers, and the buyers can pay what they like”. For a single glass bottle, the going rate is three rupees. The Pardhi seem trapped in this way of life. Many have no formal education and although they claimed to be sending their children to school, few complete their studies. The health risks associated with the work are compounded by widespread alcohol abuse amongst the men. Despite the morning hour, many of them smelled of drink. Some had slurred speech or were unsteady on their feet.


The excitement about being photographed was widespread but one family stood back. Their home was of slightly higher quality and appeared more robust than those of their neighbours. There were other differences too. It was a family with only one child – a boy of eight or nine years, cleaner and better dressed than the other children – and the father did not smell of alcohol. They lived on the edge of the settlement, as if they had made a deliberate attempt to separate themselves. It was clear that the boy wanted to have his picture taken, and as we left, his father called me over and I photographed the two of them. The mother stood to one side, watching before going back inside their home.


Wednesday, 21 December 2022

"We have three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got" - Baazi and the last Bollywood poster painter


"We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got"

I stood in Poster Stuff, a tiny shop in Mumbai's Chor Bazar, trying to decide which of two vintage Bollywood posters to  buy, Baazi or Albela  While I struggled to make my choice, Kaleem, whose grandfather started the business 22 years ago explained that only a tiny proportion of the collection is held in the store. The remainder of it is kept outside the city in Badlapur. I asked him if the shop has a website or a catalogue. "No, he said "We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got". Putting off my decision a little longer, I asked him how his grandfather had managed to acquire so large a collection. He said "He would get to know when a cinema was closing and then ask if they would give him their old posters. Most of them did not appreciate their value and were happy to hand them over. Sometimes he was too late and found that they had already been destroyed".

Kaleem is extremely knowledgeable about old films, although he said he prefers modern cinema. I ran through my list of 1940's, 1950's and early 1960's movies, and he was able to either locate a poster for me or to tell me that it had been sold or sent for auction. "A lot of our business is with overseas dealers" he explained. "We've even sold some at the big art auction houses in London. We also get approached by dealers and collectors to verify that posters are originals and not copies. The National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai recently asked for our advice". 

Chor Bazar is undergoing major change. Many of the old shops have been demolished and replaced by  new structures with residential units above. Some businesses will not reopen when the re-development is complete. I asked Kaleem about the future of the store. He said "If this part of Mutton Street is demolished, we have been promised a new store on the same spot". I hope that promise is kept.

"It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists"

I made my mind up and chose the poster for Baazi, a Hindi film released in 1951. It was the first crime noir film to be made in India and is acknowledged as a classic of the genre and influenced many films in later years. It was directed by Guru Dutt, who also starred in, wrote, produced and choreographed many classic Hindi films from this period. Baazi, which means "gamble" starred Dev Anand, Geeta Bali of Albela fame, and Kalpna Kartik. It was the second highest grossing Indian film of 1951. At least two other Hindi films, made in 1968 and 1995 bear the same name but tell different stories.

While I arranged to have the poster delivered to my hotel, Kaleem said "actually this is not a poster, but a painting. It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists", and pointed to the artist's signature. I had heard of Rehman before, but enamoured with the deep reds, blues and downward brush strokes of his work, I hadn't picked up on his name. 

Sheikh Abdul Rehman - better known as S. Rehman - began helping his poster painting father at the age of ten and has continued with this work for more than 50 years. His painting led him to establish friendships with Mother India director Mehboob Khan and Bollywood superstar actor Shashi Kapoor. He also worked with artist MF Husain, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group who was later forced to leave India following controversy over his depictions of female Hindu deities. A 2015 documentary film,  Original Copy, showed Rehman at work in his studio right behind the screen at the Alfred Talkies cinema. The German made film showed various aspects of his personality - a bit prickly, fond of robust language but with a good sense of humour.

Alfred Talkies was open for business but there was no warm welcome

Kaleem confirmed that Alfred Talkies still existed and was not too far from Chor Bazar,  so with my friend and guide, Ranjana, I made my way to the cinema in Grant Road. This area was once an entertainment hub with many single screen cinemas attracting large audiences for the latest Hindi films. Today few remain and those that do, tend to show re-runs of old movies rather than the latest hits. This part of the city also has a long history of prostitution. As we walked along the road in the early afternoon, many women were on the street looking for customers.  SM Edwards, noted in his 1924 book Crime In India,  that the Ripon Theatre, the precursor of the Alfred, charged a special rate to prostitute patrons - one rupee. This was four times the amount charged to other women. The writer Saadat Hasan Manto lived in this neighbourhood before Partition, writing screenplays and working as a columnist for various film magazines. No doubt several of his characters were inspired by the people he met in these streets.

The cinema stands at the end of Grant Road East, and before we reached it, we passed New Roshan Talkies, another single screen cinema. It is now closed, and at least externally, in poor shape. Despite this, it was easy to imagine its former splendour as the brightly coloured detailing and Art Deco influenced metalwork of the ticket windows has survived. 

Alfred Talkies was open for business, but there was no warm welcome. Just inside the lobby, three grim faced men, arms folded, sat on wooden chairs and told us we couldn't come in, take any pictures or make any films. This was backed up by a series of "don't..." notices displayed on the walls of the once very grand lobby. Stained glass, wooden panelling and several less off-putting vintage notices have survived, but unfortunately I have no photographic record of them. Ranjana explained we were interested in the story of the cinema and would like to have a peep inside the main hall. Despite her best efforts she received a firm "no". She tried again with the ticket sellers, one of whom eventually gave in and allowed us to look into the hall from the doorway, but once again warned us against photography and filming. Inside, the all male audience were watching the 1989 film Ram Lakhan. Tickets are priced at just 20 rupees, about 20p. Unfortunately this was reflected in the poor print and the appalling sound quality. All of the house lights were on, and the restless audience called repeatedly for them to be turned off, which they eventually were. We asked about seeing the balcony but were told it was closed because there were not enough customers.

We were soon bustled outside again and crossed the road to get a better view of the exterior. The cinema was built in 1880, originally as the Ripon Theatre, and the old name can still be seen, engraved on the windows at the upper level. It was one of the first theatres in the city to put on plays in local languages. In the 1930's, in line with changing tastes, it was modified to become a cinema and the name was changed to Alfred Talkies. It is now one of very few single screen cinemas in the city. Many of the older buildings on the opposite side of the road have been flattened and replaced with large, often ugly, "developments" that seem to threaten, rather than to attract. How long will it be before the art works from the Alfred become part of Poster Stuff's collection? 

Alfred Talkies - 174-180, Pathe Bapurao Marg, Grant Road East, Khetwadi, Girgaon, Mumbai.

Poster Stuff - 113 Mutton Street, below Qutbi Masjid, Ajmer, Kumbharwada, Mumbai

Friday, 9 December 2022

"The landowner refused to pay us...we had barely enough to live on" - Delhi's Sri Ram refugee colony

The narrow alleys of Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi are full of businesses catering to the long established Tibetan refugee community. Both local and foreign tourists come to visit the Buddhist monastery and to eat in the many Tibetan, Korean and north-east Indian restaurants. A short distance from here, there is a group of less-well known refugees. The Sri Ram colony is home to Hindus who fled Pakistan, not during Partition, but in 2010.

I came upon the colony by chance when visiting a neighbouring Akhada, where traditional Indian wrestling is practised. As I left I noticed an alley leading into a cluster of buildings resembling a village. I went in and although the residents were at first surprised to see a foreigner, they were welcoming and community leader Rajesh Solanki was sent for.  He looked to be in early middle-age and wore the brown kurtha-pyjama typical of rural Sindh in Pakistan. He explained that the people living here had come on a religious pilgrimage in 2010, and then refused to leave. They cited discrimination and religious intolerance in Pakistan, as their reasons for wanting to remain in India, and staged demonstrations at Delhi's Jantar Mantar to draw attention to their plight. 

The Colony is a hotchpotch of solid, brick buildings owned by better-off families and less permanent  structures consisting of metal sheets, tarpaulins and twigs. All of the homes have been built by the residents themselves. Several are unfinished, as many residents lack the resources to complete them. Despite this, there is evidence of ongoing construction and a group of women were laying down a courtyard outside their house. Most homes lack electricity or running water and toilet provision consists of communal male and female blocks. As the colony stands on the floodplain of the Yamuna River, there is a risk of flooding during the monsoon. There are also potential health hazards from mosquitos and from  sewage regularly pumped into the river.   

Some of the more entrepreneurial residents have established small shops selling snacks and sweets. Some of the houses have small shrines attached to them. These are referred to by the residents as "temples". There are displays of religious piety throughout the colony. The Hindu greeting "Ram Ram" is given in preference to the more secular "namaste" and symbols and pictures of various deities are displayed on the exterior of the buildings. Even the name of the colony is that of Ram Ji, the central character of the   Hindu epic,  The Ramayana. 

Chander's Hanuman temple

"The landowner refused to pay us the agreed amount. We had barely enough to live on"

Badal is 39 and from the Kotri district of Sindh. Solanki asked him to show me around and answer my questions. I asked what had caused him to leave the place where he was born and to remain in India.  He said" I owned eight acres of land in Pakistan. It was not enough to support my family and I entered into agreements with a larger landowner. The contract said that we would share the expenses of seeds, fertiliser and other items 50/50 with the landlord, and that we would also share any profits in the same way. We paid our share of expenses but when there was a good profit, he refused to pay us. We had barely enough to live on". Badal also lost his eight acres of land when they were seized by local gangsters. "There were too many of them for us to resist" he said "they were armed and had friends amongst the politicians. No-one would help us".

He used to sell telephone covers and other accessories, but now has insufficient funds to buy stock. He works occasionally as a day labourer but this pays little and is unreliable. His home is in very poor condition - only partially built - and all eight residents sleep in one small room. The situation was made worse by the death of one of his five children at the age of 20, leaving behind a widow and a small child, now being cared for by Badal and his wife. Despite this, he says he feels safer in India and is happier there.


"There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation"

One of Badal's neighbours, Chander, also from Kotri district, tells a similar story. He owned no land in Pakistan and worked as an agricultural labourer to support his family. Again, the landlord refused to pay the contract share and Chander felt he had nowhere to turn for help. The colony's overt religiosity made me curious about faith-based discrimination, or pressure to convert in Pakistan.  Chander said, "There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation. Even in the market. People we thought of as friends would say to us 'why don't you convert? Things would be better for you' ". Chander also has problems in India. He showed me the small Hanuman temple he built at the side of his house. It is collapsing as the land subsides, possibly caused by the sewage being pumped into the Jamuna River just a few metres from his home. "I can't afford to repair this and I'm worried the house will collapse too" he said. 

Two of the women residents told similar stories about pressure to convert. Janaki sat playing with two of her grand-children whilst she prepared a chick-pea dish for their lunch. "They would always talk about converting" she said. Janaki lives in one of the better quality houses. She still has family in Pakistan. Megha, perhaps in her sixties, stood outside her house, cuddling one of her granddaughters. She has ten children of her own - five in India and five in her home town,  Mirfazal Pakistan. She was worried about her daughter-in-law. "She had an accident six months ago and is still in ICU in the government hospital. They won't let me see her. I want to give her soup and nurse her back to health" she said. 

Janaki and her grand-children

Megha and one of her ten grand-children

" assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself"

Most of the children go to school outside, but there is some teaching goes on inside the colony. A single, windowless room is used for pre-school learning. When I visited, the children were enjoying snacks. I'd seen food provided in a village school in West Bengal, as a way of encouraging attendance. I asked the teacher if this was the case here. "Yes" she said "It's to encourage them to come. Not all of the parents are committed to pre-school learning, and my assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself". Resources appeared limited but she spoke enthusiastically and was clearly committed to delivering the best for the children. The teacher's and assistant's salaries are paid from Central Government funds allocated to supporting the welfare of women and children.

The older children have access to additional learning in a community hall built with funds from overseas donations. Teaching is provided by NGOs and volunteer university students. The room was clean and tidy. Charts with tricky algebraic formulations and maps of India and the world were displayed on the walls. There was also a row of sewing machines, provided by a charitable organisation and used for teaching tailoring skills.  Although not a formal school, many of the children come here for tuition. I asked some of them what their favourite lessons were. Jalram, aged 11 said, in English, "I like mathematics and Hindi".  Others gave maths as their favourite subject while one said "English". Some of them gathered around the maps, locating different cities and countries. 

More than a decade after their arrival, the situation of the Sri Ram residents remains uncertain. Solanki said "We are hopeful that the new law to assist victims of religious persecution will help us". He refers to the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act that provided routes to Indian Citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who arrived in India before December 2014 are eligible for consideration under the Act. Muslims are not included in its provisions. The application of a religious test resulted in sometimes violent demonstrations in various parts of India.

Despite their troubles, many of the people I met spoke about feeling happier in India than they had in Pakistan, and no-one expressed regret at having left. There may yet be a brighter future for Jalram, his friends and their families.

Jalram (hiding) and friends

Where did my dog go?

Some of the residents have opened small shops