Monday, 6 June 2022

Picture Post 73 - An Art Nouveau Warehouse in a Porto Alley

Last week in Porto, each morning at 10.30, I had coffee and a Pastel de nata at the C'alma Speciality Coffee Room on Rua de Passos Manuel. This small cafe is tucked away on the ground floor of the Porto Commercial Athenaeum gentlemen's club, established 150 years ago and which today hosts occasional concerts and group tours. On my last morning in Porto I took a different route to C'alma and discovered a piece of the city's history.

Just a few steps away from my morning coffee, I noticed a single storey building with an art nouveau facade. The Depósito de Sola e Cabedaes is the former warehouse of what was once once an extremely successful shoe parts supplier. The company was founded in 1887 by Adriano Vieira da Silva, whose name is inscribed on the decorative tiles at the top of the facade. These premises were inaugurated in 1917 and are an example of late art nouveau. The design features floral flourishes, classical references with small pillars and discs, and stained glass windows, the colours of which brighten when they watch the sun. The building incorporated modern design ideas including skylights that maximised the use of natural light and air circulation equipment which helped prevent deterioration of the stock. This approach was carried through into service and the staff were known to be polite and knowledgeable.

Da Silva was born in Santarém in 1869 and came to Porto at a young age, initially finding work as a clerk. He went on to establish a successful business and to have a career in politics. He was a member of the Portuguese Republican Party and a close friend of its leader, and three times Prime Minister, Afonso Costa. From 1919-1926, Da Silva served as administrator of the Gondomar municipality, just outside Porto. 

The April 1917 edition of the Illustraçáo Portuguesa magazine marked the inauguration of the premises saying "we can consider today that this is the biggest and most complete (shoe parts supplier) of Portugal and all of the Peninsula". An extensive range of products was offered, including leather, suede, soles, glues, laces, buckles, waxes, polishes and insoles. The company was the main supplier for cobblers, leather workers, bag makers and other artisans. 

Over time low-priced competition from overseas and the decline of the tanning industry in Portugal impacted on the business and it closed its doors for the last time in 2016. The building appears to be well maintained with only a small amount of graffiti but stands empty, in a side-alley, waiting to be brought back into use. Similar premises in Porto are now serving as cafes, restaurants or cultural venues. I'd happily have my coffee and pastry in the old warehouse on my next visit.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

"We slowly lose our hearing because of the noise" - Stories from Bangladesh

Much has been written about Chittagong's notorious ship-breaking yards. Their appalling safety record and working conditions have been the subject of numerous documentaries. The owners, not welcoming this kind of exposure, no longer admit visitors. Dhaka's Karaniganj ship-repair yard is less well-known and attracts little media attention. This may be why I was able to enter unchallenged, look around, take photographs and talk to the workers, despite the presence of several managerial staff. No-one seemed perturbed by my being there, and there were no problems with photography. One of the supervisors even asked me to take his portrait.

I noticed the noise from the yard well before I reached the gate. Hundreds of small hammers chip away the rust from the ships' sides, releasing toxic particles into the air and damaging the workers' hearing. Other hazards include chemical fumes and extreme heat. Some of the men wore hard hats but most  worked without protective gear. 

I asked some of the men (I saw only male workers here, unlike at Mirpur)  about the lack of safety equipment and the impact of the work on their health. Ripon, aged 32 and a Dhaka native, said "When I first came here I had a headache every day. I'm used to it now and I don't get them anymore, but we slowly lose our hearing because of the noise". Shahin, a welder, aged 30, said "I have goggles and a mask but I can't wear them. It's too hot and it gets difficult to see". Like several others, he also reported having respiratory problems and headaches. Shahin had dreams of a better life. "I wanted to work in Singapore" he said. "An employment broker asked for $4,000 to find me a job there. I took a course in welding and then borrowed the whole amount to pay him, but he disappeared with the money and now I have a debt. I have a wife and two small children and life is very difficult". 

Many Bangladeshis work overseas and send money back to their family to pay off debts, to improve their living conditions, or to educate their children. Unfortunately stories like Shahin's are not unusual including in the UK. Last year the British Government published a warning about employment scams that target Bangladeshi nationals.

Back in Karaniganj, the ships are drawn up onto the muddy banks of the heavily polluted, and in places, foul-smelling Buriganga river. A few hundred metres from the water, behind the ships, there are small houses where many of the workers and their families live. It is here that new propellers are made. Visitors venturing this far need to tread very carefully as they pass red hot metal and open fires, trying not to breathe in the steam, smoke and sulphurous air, while avoiding areas of soft, sinking ground. None of this seems to trouble the workers or the children, or the goats and dogs that live, play and wander around in this area.

Some of those children are themselves employed here. One 18 year old painter told me he started work in the shipyard when he was 12. He was one of very few wearing some kind of protection - a thin scarf covering his mouth and nose. He removed it and asked me to take his picture. There are reports of children as young as five or six carrying out some of the tasks but I did not see this when I visited.  

Amidst the mud, noise and noxious fumes there are occasional scenes of beauty. I saw a young man climb down from a ship, his movements delicate and precise, like those of a dancer. As he descended he made shadows and shapes on the freshly painted, vivid red ship. He swung and stepped from one narrow wooden platform to another, manoeuvring by the rope used to secure the wood to the ship. Elsewhere groups of three or four men stood on similar structures, removing paint or adding an extra coat. Like their workmates, they make about $5 per day. A little further on, water poured from the rear of one of the ships. A labourer waiting close-by, appeared to be standing under the water - taking a shower fully clothed. But this was a visual trick and no water touched him.

A couple of hours in the shipyard was enough for me. It was hot, my head ached, my eyes were itchy and I'd pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to block the dust and fumes. Just before leaving, I was offered a drink at a small tea stall near the exit. I joined a group of workers, taking a break, drinking chai and eating snacks to give themselves a little more energy to complete their shift. They wanted to know my name, where I am from and what I was doing there. I don't speak Bangla but was able to use some of my limited knowledge of Hindi, which surprised and amused those who understood it. Many of them were not from Dhaka but had moved there to find work. Most of them had left school aged 10 or 12. They joked with each other and we spoke about football, films and family before they went back to work and I went back back to my hotel. 

You might also like "There is no work without hard work"  or The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalpur from the Stories of Bangladesh series.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here

Follow me on instagram at @adrianyekkes

Saturday, 19 March 2022

"There Is No Work Without Hard Work" - Stories From Bangladesh

"In Bangladesh, there is no work without hard work" said Omison, a day labourer at Mirpur, Dhaka. Just a few kilometres from the centre of the city, Mirpur is one of several places in Dhaka where goods are delivered for unloading and onward sale. All day, hundreds of labourers collect 30kg baskets of coal, place them on their heads and then walk up a steep narrow plank before emptying the goods onto a dark, dusty mountain. They repeat this process over and over again. For each load, a foreman hands them a plastic token. The tokens are collected at the end of the day and the workers are paid 3 thaka for each one which is less than 3 pence. A  cup of street tea in Dhaka costs between 5 and 10 thaka. 

Omison is not sure of her age, but thinks she is about 60. She wore a purple and orange floral print sari, part of which she pulled up to cover her head in the way many Bangladeshi women do when talking to strangers. I asked her how she came to be working as a labourer. She said  "I've been doing this work for many years. I can't remember exactly when I started. It's very hard but I don't want to beg". I asked about her family. She said, "I am originally from Jamalpur. My father was a farm worker and my mother begged in the street. I live alone. I don't have a husband and my son is dead." I pressed a little, still curious about why she is doing this particular type of work. "I didn't go to school" she said. "I am not educated. I tried to get work in a garment factory or in the home of a wealthy lady but they wouldn't take me. What else can I do?"

As I stood and watched, the endless line of workers moved up and down the ramp, their motion regular and unchanging like the workings of a clock and their moving shadows reflected on the side of the barge. They have a short break in the morning and another one for lunch when, for a few thaka, they can buy rice and watery curry from one of the stalls that have sprung up to serve them. The breaks are taken in shifts. The line never stops.

"I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep"

Most of the workers are men, but there are also several women, most of them younger than Omison, but at  a different location, I met another woman doing similar work. She said she was 66. Male or female, the labourers have similar stories. Most of their parents were day labourers either in rural areas or in the city. Most had either never been to school or had received only a few years of education. Despite this, they were hopeful for their children and the younger workers I spoke to claimed to be sending their sons and daughters to school. This does not mean that they will complete their education and many Bangladeshi children leave the classroom before they reach their teens,  to start work and to help the family survive.

All of the workers I met told me they suffer from headaches, back pain and problems with their knees and shoulders. Krishna, aged 30 said "I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep". I asked if they also had respiratory problems because of their exposure to the coal dust. All of them said the dust did not affect them. I hope that this is true but as Dhaka has recently been identified as having the  poorest air quality of any city in the world, it may be that they haven't noticed due to their constantly breathing in dust and other pollutants.

Most day labourers cannot afford to be ill. They are only paid for the work they do and there is no sick-pay. I asked how they had managed during Covid. Tinku, aged 48 said "It was a struggle. I have two children to feed. I had to buy food and pay the rent,  so I took a loan from an NGO". He is now making repayments at an interest rate of 15%. Omison had been able to stay at home. "Friends helped me" she said and then added "I didn't have to beg". She mentioned begging three times during our conversation. Financial security is precarious here and many live with the fear of having to ask for money in the streets. 

Dreaming of some other place

Bangladesh is full of surprises. In the midst of this hard labour, two Hijra, members of the country's third gender community, sat on the ground, one arranging the other's hair. They saw me, and start pulling faces and joking. They were quickly joined by two other Hijra who begin to dance, and to pretend to fight, as they staged a "scene" for the camera. They are also employed as labourers which is most unusual. I have met and interviewed several members of this community in India, but have never encountered or heard of Hijra working as labourers.

Beside the food stalls, there was, of all things, an ice-cream kiosk. A small boy, in a long-sleeved shirt and tatty shorts, stood a few feet away from it. His legs and feet were covered in grey dust. He slowly ate an ice-cream on a stick. I was certain that one, or both of his parents, were unloading coal. He briefly looked at the camera, but not in an excited or curious way like many children do. Rather, he had a detached air, as if he wasn't really there and was dreaming of some other place. He may well have been dreaming of better things, but the cruel truth is that when he reaches his teenage years, he is likely to be doing the same work as his parents.

You might also like The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur 

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes

Sunday, 13 March 2022

The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur - Stories From Bangladesh

I met Noor Jehan outside Kamalapur, Dhaka's main railway station. Not the Noor Jehan who was Pakistan's best-known actress and singer, but her namesake, who is one of the city's two known women rickshaw drivers. I asked her how she came to be doing this work. She said "I began six years ago when my drug-addicted husband finally left me. I need to support my two daughters and I want them to complete their education." Her girls are now aged 13 and nine and their photographs are displayed on the back of her rickshaw. 

"My name is Noor Jehan"

I went to Kamalpur, Dhaka's main station to admire the modernist architecture, and to look for pictures and stories. Kamalapur is a mini-version of Dhaka. Huge crowds flow in and out of the station. Hawkers, beggars and street kids take up residence under the external canopies, hoping to make enough money to feed themselves, and dozens of rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers wait, anticipating customers. At night (and sometimes during the day) homeless people sleep here. The mood is often raucous as the drivers tease each other or minor disputes break out between the other occupants. The drivers drink tea  purchased from a street vendor and drive a hard bargain with commuters and shoppers before setting off on their next journey.

In the midst of this activity I noticed a woman standing beside a rickshaw, with a small crowd around her. She wore a gamcha (worker's towel) as a hijab and held the handle-bars of an electronic rickshaw. I have never seen a woman rickshaw driver in my travels around India and did not expect to meet one in Bangladesh. Together with Liton, my guide and interpreter, I drew closer and we began to talk to her. She was small and quietly spoken and understandably seemed a little suspicious at first. We introduced ourselves and she said "My name is Noor Jehan".

I wanted to know how she became a driver, and how people reacted to her. This was only my second day in Bangladesh but I had already learned that if I stop to speak to someone, a small  crowd will gather, follow the conversation and sometimes try to add to, or dispute, the answers I'm given. The canopy at Kamalapur was no exception and very quickly a large group gathered, including other drivers, passers-by and a couple of Hijra, all of them taking close interest in our conversation. It was clear that this wasn't the best place to talk, so we hired her, and she took us for a drive around central Dakha.

 "I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Driving in Dhaka at four in the afternoon is not for the faint hearted. Actually, driving in Dhaka at any time is not for the faint-hearted. There are too many vehicles, not enough space and the rules of the road are interpreted very broadly. The rickshaw is a very fragile vehicle and when surrounded by cars, buses and overloaded trucks the driver and passengers are vulnerable. Despite this I love traveling this way, being close to the activity, and getting a different view of the street. But of course, I don't have to do this to earn a living. Noor copes with this every day.

She explained how the rickshaw system works. She rents the vehicle from the garage, for 300 thaka, per day, which  is about £3. By 4pm on the day I met her she had made 400 and so had only just cleared a profit. She would go on working until the evening while a neighbour looked after her daughters. 

I asked her how she managed to secure the job. "I needed work but didn't know what I could do. I thought maybe I could drive a rickshaw and so I went to a garage and asked to rent one. The owner laughed and told me to go away. He said the work is too hard for a woman and that I wouldn't be able to do it. But I didn't give up and eventually he agreed to rent an e-rickshaw to me". I wondered about the response of the other rickshaw drivers and how they treated her. "Some are pleasant and encourage me" she said, "others are not pleasant  and say bad things. It's the same with the customers". Shortly after starting our drive I saw an example of this less pleasant behaviour. While we were waiting at a traffic light, a man leaned out of a bus window, shouted something and leered at us. Liton shouted something back and the man quickly sat down. I asked him what had been said. "He was rude and asked us why we had chosen a woman driver. I told him to mind his own business" he said. From the expression on the man's face, I suspect it may have been something a little stronger than that. 

I asked if she was there were any other woman rickshaw drivers in the city. "I only know about one other" she replied. "I've seen a woman driving a rickshaw in the university area but I've never spoken with her". After twenty minutes we made our way back to the station. As we said goodbye we wished her and her daughters luck before insisting she accept the tip that she twice refused. "Remember me in your prayers" she said, "I am happy to work hard for my girls. I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Logistics for my trip were managed by Native Eye and Bangladesh Eco Tours.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Street photography, responsible tourism and finding Lahore, an interview with Amna Zuberi

Amna Zuberi is one of Pakistan's leading photographers. I became aware of her work during lockdown in early 2021, whilst traveling vicariously on Instagram. I purchased a copy of her book on Lahore, and on receiving it, was moved to write to her, to say how much it had lifted my mood, made me want to visit the city, and inspired me to pick up my camera after a period of despondency. Just one year later, we spoke on Zoom, Amna enjoying the afternoon sunshine in her Lahore garden, me looking out at a grey February morning in East London. Over the course of an hour we discussed street photography, responsible tourism and her book, "Finding Lahore". 

Amna began by explaining that photography is her second career. She graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore before working in corporate advertising, design and strategy. After ten years   she wanted a change. She said "I began teaching a graduate course but also had time to start exploring my own country. I picked up a camera and began taking pictures". In 2016 her work came to the attention of a publisher who asked her to contribute to a coffee table book -"Pakistan Heritage Cuisine - A Food Story" - which contains more than one hundred of her photographs. This led to further commissions, including "Drops of the Divine - A Story of Milk in Pakistan" and "A Reel on Karachi". 

"I do not want to look at the city in the way a tourist does"

Amna explained that "Finding Lahore" did not start out as a book "It was a personal journey in which I sought to better understand my birthplace". She had been photographing the streets of old Lahore for a number of years when her publisher threw in the idea of creating a coffee table book from this body of work. The result is both a superb photographic record of the quarter known as the Walled City, and a story in which the photographer expresses her love for the place. 

The project took six years and provoked her to think about her relationship with her home town and how it affects her photography. She said "I do not want to look at the city in the way a tourist does. I realised that I was dissecting Lahore in layers. In each decade, new layers are added - emotional, psychological and physical. I was doing the work to produce a book, but I was dissecting the city for myself, to better understand it". This comes through very clearly in "Finding Lahore" where she captures the Walled City's textures, colours, light and shade. The layers are exposed in the decorative details of an ancient door and the peeling paint in the mosque of Mariyam Zamani. The panoramic views of old Lahore reveal other layers, including physical, sometimes haphazard upward extensions of buildings, and social layers with laundry, day-beds and old chairs as evidence of life lived on the roof tops.

"I've got used to the curiosity and intrigue that comes with a woman walking with a camera around her neck in this part of the world"

There are also human layers to the city. I asked how the people reacted to their inclusion in her book. She said "Their reactions are diverse. I gave prints to some of them. The three gentlemen in the black and white picture taken during the winter were delighted. On the other hand, the young man dramatically flipping a puri was completely nonchalant. Some people want to talk, others do not." She explained about how she took one of my favourite pictures "I noticed a man laying down, asleep and raised my camera. He briefly opened his eyes and then closed them again, untroubled by my presence".

This reminded me of some of my own street photography experiences, and we discussed the moral dilemmas associated with this genre. There is a tension between wanting to capture, authentic, candid, truthful shots and not impinging on the dignity of people in the street. This can include what is sometimes called "the romanticisation of poverty". We agreed that there is nothing romantic about poverty and that photography can bring otherwise unheard stories to the attention of a wider audience. If a story is not told, then there is no possibility of bringing about change or at least increasing awareness. She added "If I ask for permission to take a picture and it's refused, then I accept that and walk away. But this rarely happens and people are almost always willing to be photographed".

I asked about her experience as a woman photographer in Pakistan. She said "I've got used to the curiosity and intrigue that comes with a woman walking with a camera around her neck in this part of the world." She spoke about a recent assignment in ultra-conservative Baluchistan. "Most women there are covered. When I got out of the car to begin shooting, I was so nervous that I was shaking. But no-one caused a problem. Quite the opposite, the market vendors were interested in what I was doing and one of them gave me fruit to eat on my journey home".  

"This is a stunning country. I am amazed at how much one country can have - some of the highest mountains in the world, beautiful beaches and the remains of ancient civilisations"

Amna recently posted some comments on social media, that provoked a lot of discussion about tourism in Pakistan. I asked her what had prompted this. She smiled and said "This is a stunning country. I am amazed at how much one country can have - some of the highest mountains in the world, beautiful beaches and the remains of ancient civilisations. There is huge potential for tourism here, but we need to manage it better, to plan and share information and find ways to limit the negative impacts that it can bring".

Although Covid has meant that there have been very little international travel for the last two years, internal tourism has been possible. Amna reported that six million domestic tourists visited northern Pakistan over the last year. Whilst acknowledging the welcome boost to the local economy, she pointed out that other factors need to be taken into consideration if there are to be lasting benefits, saying "Some places lack the infrastructure to deal with this influx. There are challenges with the quality of roads, having enough hotels or home-stays, places to eat and sanitary facilities. Visitor expectations need to be managed and local people trained in hosting, guiding and catering skills so that their communities can maximise the benefits of tourism". These issues are not peculiar to Pakistan and many countries struggle to balance  economic gains with protecting the environment, and resisting threats to authenticity as visitor numbers increase.

Covid also caused Amna to put some of her photographic activities on hold. As the situation improves, she is beginning to return to these projects. You can  follow her on instagram @amnazuberi

Copies of "Finding Lahore" can be obtained online from Liberty Books or from Amazon.

Thanks to Amna Zuberi for providing all the images used in this post. 

You might also like A City That Has A Bit Of Everywhere But Is Not Like Anywhere or We Want Our Films To Have Soul, To Be Memorable - an interview with Babitha Matthew - award-winning film director.

Monday, 14 February 2022

Best Reads of 2021 Part 2 Contemporary Indian Fiction

This is the second of two posts on my favourite reads of 2021. This time I focus on contemporary fiction by writers of Indian heritage. My selections include four first novels, all of them by women writers and a third novel by a prominent British-based writer. The stories are set in Kolkata, Kashmir, Uganda, Punjab and London, but their themes are universal.  They address some common issues - loss, expulsion, rejection and displacement, but also hope and strength in the face of adversity. I am grateful to the reviewers of  The Scroll for drawing my attention to these and several other memorable books during 2021.

Much has been written about the partition of India, particularly about events in the Punjab. Less well known, is the equally violent and devastating partition of Bengal. Victory Colony 1950, Bhaswati Ghosh's first novel, is set in the aftermath of those events, when continuing inter-communal violence caused many Hindus to leave what was then East Pakistan, and is today, Bangladesh.

Amala, and her younger brother, Kartik, arrive in Kolkata's Sealdah Station having fled their home in the hope of a safer future. Within moments of their arrival, they lose each other.  Kartik disappears and Amala reluctantly accepts help from Manas Dutta, a young volunteer, who takes her, together with several other new arrivals to a government refugee camp. This is Bijoy Nagar, the Victory Colony of the title. The refugees receive little official help and some feel no more welcome in India than they were in Pakistan. Manas and his friends help them find work, supplement their meagre rations and try to provide medical assistance. Some of the women take on low-paid piece work and others become the prey of would-be abusers.

Manas comes to admire Amala for her tenacity in trying to make the best of her situation, and over time he begins to feel affection for her. But his mother cannot accept her son's relationship with a woman from a different social class, or caste and Amala becomes the focus of her prejudice. Can the young couple's relationship survive the many pressures placed upon it?

References to Bengali culture add context to the story. These include descriptions of typical Bengali dishes made in the camp and in the Dutta family home, and the regular "adda" sessions in which groups of friends (and sometimes strangers) debate and argue about ethics, politics and culture.  The author has a background in journalism and has written for The Wire and Times of India. She lives in Canada and is currently writing a book on Delhi.


A Death in Shonagachhi is also set in Kolkata. The story takes place in the city's red light district and opens with the murder of a young woman employed at Shefali Madam's Blue Lotus brothel. The killing sends fear through Shonagachhi but does not deter Lalee, a friend of the murdered woman from wanting to become an "escort". This would be more financially lucrative, but no safer, than being a brothel girl. 

There are several strands within the book. Lalee's regular client, Tilu Shau, a poverty stricken writer of erotic fiction, falls in love with her, and wants to help her escape from prostitution, but she seems disinterested. Lalee gets her wished for "promotion" but becomes ensnared in a bizarre, abusive religious sect where her life is placed in danger. Throughout all this, the largely disinterested police carry out a half-hearted investigation into the murder, prompting the women of the neighbourhood to carry out mass protests. This strands come together in the  final scenes which whilst tense also have moments of humour.

The author describes the realities of life for women in Shonagachhi, through the character of Lalee. She became a prostitute after being sold by her drunkard father. Despite this the family still look to her for financial help. At one point, her brother arrives from his village, asking for money to pay for repairs to his house and for medicines for their mother. He eats and drinks in Lalee's room - without putting his lips to the utensils - and when he leaves he walks "...with his head bowed, determined not to see any more than the track of dirt that led to the main door". He is ashamed of his sister, but happy to take the money she earns from prostitution and to eat the food paid for by it. Money and power is a recurring theme in the book, with the women of Shonagachhi producing vast amounts of wealth, but for those controlling and exploiting them, rather than for themselves. 

Rijula Das is from West Bengal and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand. A Death in Shonagachhi is her first novel. It won the 2021 Tata Litrature Live First Book Award and was also long listed for the prestigious JCB Prize.

Shalini is 30, unmarried and drifting in a job that does not interest her. She is convinced her mother's death is somehow linked to the sudden disappearance of a Kashmiri salesman, whose visits to the house ceased a decade earlier. She is also the central character of Madhuri Vijay's first novel, The Far Field, winner of the 2019 JCB Prize, Times of India Fiction Award and the Tata Literature Live First Book Award.

The novel switches between scenes from the earlier life of Shalini's affluent but dysfunctional Bangalore family, and her impulsive search for the salesman - Bashir Ahmed - in Kashmir. Her mother rejects her middle-class friends and contemporaries in exchange for an unlikely friendship with Ahmed. As their friendship develops, the author explores several themes including class, belonging, loneliness and mental health. Over the years of their friendship, the political conflict in Kashmir heats up and eventually erupts in violence.

Shalini takes off for Kashmir, knowing only the name of the village that the salesman may have come from, and not even knowing if he is still alive. She receives help from a Kashmiri Muslim family who open their home to her and help her to reach the village. She again receives help and hospitality, but despite being 30 and from the big city, she is naive. She can only see what seems to be a simple, idyllic, rural life. She takes too long to recognise the tensions, secrets and lies that surround her there, as much as in Bangalore. Her naivety also extends to the risks of the military presence in Kashmir and eventually brings danger to those who have helped her. 


China Room is Sanjeev Sahota's third novelThe main story revolves around Mehar, a fifteen year old girl married to one of three brothers, all married on the same day in Punjab in 1929. Together with the other brides - Harbans and Guleen, her days are filled with chores and at night they share the "China Room", so named because of the plates stored there. Each night they wait to be summoned by Mai, their harsh mother-in-law, to go and sleep with their husbands in the hope of becoming pregnant with a son. The girls don't know which brother is their husband as they see them only after dark and are veiled in public. Mai refuses to tell them who's bride they are, but defiant Mehar thinks she knows.  But does she really and if she has made a mistake what will the consequences be?

The late 1920's saw a period of significant unrest in India and a sub-plot of the story  revolves around the Independence Movement and it's different and rival factions during this time. Issues of caste-discrimination are also examined within this context. 

The other part of the novel is set in 1999, and is the story of an unnamed 18 year old male heroin addict, sent from the UK to spend time in Punjab with his uncle's family. His aunt, who is worried about his influence on her children does not want him in the house, and he moves instead to the now abandoned farm where Mehar lived seventy years previously. He forms a friendship with Radhika, a young and independent woman doctor and they become the subject of local gossip.

China Room was long listed for the 2021 Booker Prize. His second book, The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the 2015 prize. Not bad for someone who did not read a novel - Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children - until he was 18 years old. He lives in Sheffield and since 2019 has taught creative writing at Durham University.

Neema Shah's first novel, Kololo Hill, is based on real life events from the early 1970's when dictator Idi Amin gave Uganda's long-established Asian community just 90 days to leave the country. They were allowed to take only what they could carry and those who resisted were subjected to theft, physical and even sexual violence by Amin's soldiers. Amin accused them of sabotaging the economy, and claimed to be implanting a policy of "Africanisation" that would give Uganada back to its African citizens. 

Kololo Hill is the story of one Asian family impacted by the expulsion and its aftermath. The characters respond to the situation in different ways. Motichand, the head of the family, is in denial and retreats to his whisky bottle and vintage Hindi film songs. His sons Pran and Vijay make plans to secure the family's future abroad in ways that may or may not be legal. Asha, Pran's wife of just a few months worries about her elderly in-laws, her family and their future. As the deadline for departure approaches, the situation deteriorates and they become subject to curfew. More and more of their neighbours leave, sometimes without saying goodbye. When night-time attacks on the remaining Asian residents come close to home, they realise it is time to leave. The tension builds as they leave the house to travel to the airport, risking robbery and worse en route. 

The relief at escaping Uganda soon dissipates as the family face new problems in London.  They find it hard to adjust to reduced circumstances and also encounter various levels of racism. This ranges from it being suggested that better paid jobs are not really suitable for them despite their language skills and qualifications, to more overt behaviour. Asha trips and bumps into a man in the street and is told to " Just go back to your own country".  Despite this, she finds work, makes friends and does well, but Pran seems resentful of her success and pines for Uganda. Asha begins to question her marriage. 

Neema Shah was born in London. Writing is her second career, having previously worked in marketing and brand strategy. Her grand-parents moved to East Africa from India in the 1940's and she spent several school summer holidays there with them. 

Kololo Hill was my favourite fiction read of 2021.

You might also like Best Reads of 2021 Part One which features a re-discovered novel set in  Berlin, a tragedy based on a true story from Cardiff, crime and political intrigue in London and a homeless detective in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Best Reads of 2021 Part One

I had hoped to begin traveling again last year but other than a few nights in Kent, Covid kept me in London. I tried to use my time profitably by beginning to learn a new language, producing a small book of pictures and stories from my travels, and of course, by reading. I spent many happy hours - and quite a lot of money - in London's bookshops, especially Foyle's flagship store on Charing Cross Road, Daunts on Cheapside and Stanfords in Covent Garden. I also bought several books from The Book Corner, an excellent independent book shop in Saltburn-by-the-sea, that kept me supplied with reading material during the various lockdowns. This post is the first of two detailing my favourite fiction reads in 2021. 

Anthony Quinn's London, Burning brilliantly re-creates the mood of  the city during the chaotic late 1970's. The story is set against a background of strikes, rubbish-filled streets, IRA bombings, National Front marches and the collapse of old political loyalties in the dying days of Jim Callaghan's Labour government.

There are four main characters. Hannah Strode, a young reporter with a talent for uncovering corruption, and Vicky Tress, a policewoman at the beginning of her career, work in different worlds but face similar challenges of dealing with casual sexism and patronising attitudes to women. Freddie Selves is a brilliant but philandering and unlikeable theatre director, while Callum Conlan, a young Irish university lecturer becomes a victim of prejudice and circumstance. The fears, hopes and romances of the four play out against the political backdrop, with their fate coalescing around the murder of Anthony Middleton, an ex-spy and hawkish Shadow Cabinet member. Middleton is clearly based on real-life politician, Airey Neave a member of Margaret Thatcher's inner circle before she became Prime Minister, and who was killed in a bomb blast.

As well as the 1970's political references, Quinn reminds us of the cultural mood of the decade, with passing references to World of Sport and Dickie Davies, John Travolta's white suit, the Deer Hunter movie and Punk Rock. One of the minor characters attends a Clash concert. Although the action takes place several decades ago, the main themes are topical - a changing political landscape, the threat of terrorism and the hypocrisy of the elite. But perhaps there is hope. Towards the end of the book, Freddie shares the following thoughts "When you behaved decently and put others before yourself people liked you. And when you behaved like a prick people resented you. It wasn't such a difficult principle. But it seemed to have taken him most of his life to grasp it". 

Trevor Wood's One Way Street is the second in a trilogy of crime novels set on the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Homeless military veteran Jimmy Mullen, has a habit of getting drawn into the city's underworld. This time he is drawn into the search for the suppliers of a dodgy batch of spice that appears to be behind a series of drug-related deaths amongst the city's teenagers. 

As in the first novel, Jimmy is ably (well, more or less), assisted by his two friends - Gadge, an alcoholic IT expert and teenager Deano whose search for his missing brother is one of the main strands of the plot.  These characters are further developed in this story, as are those of several of the supporting cast, including Kate, the daughter Jimmy hasn't seen in years and his extremely tough probation officer, Sandy, who knows when to step in and when to feign ignorance. 

Jimmy is a tough character, sometimes given to violence, but despite this, he also has a more vulnerable side and we see him struggle with PTSD, following active service in the Falklands. The city makes a perfect stage for Wood's writing. I enjoyed the local references to Dog Leap Stairs, the Crown Posada pub and Brighton Grove, all of them real places, and all of them familiar to me from my student days. Wood perfectly describes the Crown Posada as "...a proper drinker's pub. Great beer, a handful of old men at the bar who looked like they'd taken root, and a snug in the corner if you wanted privacy". I also enjoyed the scenes set in the local library where Gadge helps Jimmy look for evidence on the internet. I especially liked the no-nonsense, but heart of gold librarian who allows Gadge to charm his way back in to the library after having been "banned...for attempting to fart the national anthem..."

Trevor Wood describes himself as "an adopted Geordie" after having lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years. The first book in the trilogy, The Man On The Street received the CWA New Blood Dagger award. The follow-up,  Dead End Street, was released earlier this month.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz wrote The Passenger in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom that finally made clear Nazi intentions towards the Jews. It is the story of Jewish businessman Otto Silberman who flees his home to escape the violence and who is quickly abandoned by his non-Jewish wife, his friends, colleagues and business associates, several of whom take the opportunity to divest him of his belongings.

He goes on the run, taking one train after another, traveling around Germany in an attempt to find a safe place, a friend or acquaintance who is willing to help him. He attempts to cross the border into Belgium but is sent back to continue his journey to nowhere. Silberman's shock at his transformation to pariah status was the shock of many middle-class German Jews whose ethnicity and, or, religion was incidental to them until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. He may have been successful and respected but he is now  reduced to the letter "J" stamped on his papers.

There are many eerily prescient moments in the book. At one point Silberman, reflecting on his situation says "If only I'd gotten a visa earlier on! But who could have foreseen any of this..." Yet the writer does seem to have foreseen where things would lead, and has Silberman say "Perhaps they'll carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won't get bloody and our banknotes won't get damaged" before going on to say "These days murder is performed economically". He could not have known that this was exactly what was to happen just a few years later.

The author's own story is tragic. He was born in Berlin in 1915, left for Oslo in 1935 and then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He wrote two novels including The Passenger before he managed to settle in England in 1939. When war broke out he was interned as an enemy alien and then shipped to Australia with many other detainees. He was allowed to return to England in 1942, but his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, and all 362 passengers were killed. He was just twenty-seven years old.

In Lottie Moggach's Brixton Hill, Rob is serving the last few months of a seven year prison sentence for an initially unspecified crime. His preparation for freedom includes being allowed out to work in a local charity shop during the day, before returning to the prison at night. To be certain of his impending freedom, he must stay out of trouble, prove he can be trusted and not make contact with outsiders other than the staff at the shop.  The manager treats him with disdain and Rob spends most of his time sorting through unwanted belongings, preparing them for sale. 

A chance encounter on Brixton Hill puts his freedom in jeopardy. An attractive woman, Steph, "walking expertly in high heels," trips and literally falls at his feet. He helps her up and then over the following weeks continues to bump into her. They begin to form a connection but in order to maintain it, Rob must avoid telling her where he really lives. He must also ensure that the prison authorities do not find out. But is it really a coincidence that he regularly sees her, and is she really everything she says she is? Steph also has something to hide and although Rob is incarcerated in a building, she is a prisoner of circumstance.

The descriptions of prison life are detailed and believable. Drugs, suicide, violence and the impossibility of being able to trust anyone all feature strongly. The horror of sharing a small cell with a stranger is perfectly illustrated by Rob's dislike for his loathesome cellmate, Marko. Marko is addicted to trashy TV shows, sneers at Rob's books and constantly looks for an advantage or hold over him. He is so annoying that Rob admits to having been happier when he shared with a quiet, polite character, who left him in peace, but who he eventually discovered, was in prison for having stabbed someone to death. 

Both main characters have something to hide, something to lose and a desire to escape their surroundings. The uncertainty about how they might achieve this is maintained to the final pages. Tense, engaging and full of authentic scenes from south London, Brixton Hill is a contender for my favourite fiction read of 2021. 

Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men is based on the true story of a murder in 1952, in Cardiff's docklands. A Jewish woman, Lily Volpert (Lily Volacki in this story) was found in her shop and Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor becomes a suspect, is arrested and put on trial. The evidence against him is flimsy and circumstantial but an overtly racist police investigation and a series of dishonest witnesses combine to frame him. When his unsympathetic defence lawyer describes him as "Half child of nature - half semi-civilised savage" the outcome of the trial seems inevitable.

There are many moving scenes in this story, especially those in the condemned cell as Mattan awaits the outcome of his appeal application. His develops a relationship with his jailers, some of whom try to calm and encourage him as he veers from confidence to despair. The scenes of him waving through the prison bars to his wife and sons are particularly affecting.  

The story includes some rich background detail as Nadifa Mohamed describes the diverse make-up of Cardiff's Butetown during this period, with a cast of characters that includes Somalis, Yemenis, Jews, Italians, Poles, Africans and people from the Caribbean. The story provides a glimpse of daily life amongst these largely male communities and their clubs, bars, cafes and boarding houses. Many of them were seamen, some of them settled in the city, others waiting for a ship and a job. Some of the men married local women as did Mattan. We are also given Mattan's back story - his childhood in Hargeisa, British Somaliland, his time at sea and his experiences in various ports. 

The author makes interesting use of press cuttings and quotes to tell the story but also had access to someone who knew Mattan. Her father knew him in when they both lived in another port city, Hull, part of the same Somali community. Many British port cities are, or were, home to long established and sometimes relatively large numbers of Somali and Yemeni seamen. It is estimated that 1,500 Yemenis lived in Cardiff in the 1920'a - half of the city's ethnic minority population at the time.

The Fortune Men was deservedly shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. The author previously won the Betty Trask Award for Black Mamba Boy, based on her father's life in Yemen in the 1930's and 1940's.

Look out for Best Reads of 2021 part two, coming soon!

Monday, 10 January 2022

"We want our films to have soul, to be memorable" - an interview with Babitha Mathew, award-winning film director

"I never thought or believed I would make a movie" said Babitha Mathew, director of the upcoming Malayalam language movie Pyali, when we spoke recently via zoom. 

Pyali will be the Kerala born and based director's first full length feature film. It tells the story of two Kashmiri street children and their daily struggles living alone in a Kerala slum. Older brother Ziyah, aged 14, takes responsibility for the care of his little sister, five year old Piyali as he attempts to make a living, keep her safe and realise her dreams. In India (and elsewhere) many unaccompanied children are drawn or forced into organised begging and at one point Pyali asks her brother "...who are beggars?" Ziyah, determined they won't beg, answers "beggars are those who take money and food from people without doing any work, but we aren't like that. I go to work, right?" The story was written by the director's husband, Rinn AX.

"I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word"

The film took five years to complete. Babitha explained "we spent two to three years to find a producer before Sofia Varghese of NF Varghese Pictures came forward. There was also an extensive search to fill the lead roles. We needed actors who both looked, and could act like, Kashmiris, who are often a little shy and reserved". Pyali is played by six year old Barbie (also known as Arravya Sharma). Despite her age she is an experienced actress and has been in more than 100 ads and a Hindi language TV serial. I was astonished when I learned that Barbie does not speak Malayalam. Babitha explained "I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word. She grasped things very quickly. Barbie is a born artist and extremely professional. She understands continuity, different camera angles and many other technical matters".

George Jacob plays Ziyah and is new to the film industry. He was born and grew up in Dubai and was unfamiliar with the lives of street people.  Before filming began he was given training in how his character would speak, behave and respond to his surroundings. Babitha recounted how he was sent to buy a pair of chappals, the open sandals worn by many Indians. "He had only ever worn shoes and came back with a very nice pair that cost 6,000 rupees (almost £60). I took him back to the shop and bought some for 200 rupees. He wore them from then until filming was complete". 

I asked her about the difficulties or special responsibilities of working with children. She explained "this is not a children's film, but the lead actors are children. That means we had special responsibilities which we took very seriously, ensuring that they had proper breaks and enough rest time".

"I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more"

I asked her how she came to be involved in the film industry. "I always loved movies," she said "I studied Business Management and then worked for various corporates for six years, but film was always my main interest, and I spent most of my free time watching movies. I was curious about how films are made and began to do my own research. I taught myself about everything to do with film, such as script writing, directing and camera work". She continued "I never had the chance to help on a film or to do a course - I learned film-making by doing it". In 2016 she decided to quit her corporate job - "I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more. I couldn't do anything while working"

Her story is unusual as is the fact that she is a female film director. Even today, few women are found behind the camera in the film industry. Babitha said "many people have been surprised to see a female director".  She is also a mother. Her daughter was born five years ago, but this did not mean taking time off. "I started making Pyali when she was just a few months old. I held her with one arm whilst directing with the other. I called action whilst feeding her". She acknowledges the support both her and her husband's families give, how proud they are of her achievements and how difficult it would be to manage without them.  

"All creative discussions begin and end with an argument"

Her husband, writer and interior designer, Rinn, is also passionate about film. Babitha said "He has written stories since childhood but had never showed them to anyone. When I read them I realised that they would make  good movies". They also worked together on Kiss, an award winning short-film which they made in 2014. It considers inter-generational relationships, the passage of time and loss. Kiss was shown at various festivals, including the prestigious Pune Film Festival  and introduced the couple's work to a much wider audience.

I asked how it is, living and working together, and if artistic differences cause problems between them. She laughed and said "we talk about film all the time. We often disagree on how to do things and all creative discussions begin and end with an argument. But we complement each other and this helps us to do our best work". She also says that being married to and living with her creative partner means they can talk about their work at any time - "there's no real division between work and home life". 

They are currently working on another full-length film featuring just one character. In the meantime, Pyali has already won two Kerala State Film Awards and is generating much interest both in India and overseas. Due to Covid it is not yet on general release, but the world premier may take place next month. The trailer indicates a beautifully shot film, sensitive portrayals of the main characters and an engaging storyline. I asked Babitha what she wants to achieve with her work. She said "We want our films to have soul, to be memorable". Initial responses indicate that Pyali fulfils both of these ambitions.

Please note all images in this post were provided by Babitha Mathew.

You can see the trailer for Pyali here.

You might also like A city that has a bit of everywhere, but is not like anywhere

Thursday, 6 January 2022

"A city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere"

I first met Manjit Singh Hoonjan, owner of Calcutta Photo Tours, in 2017. I booked his early morning Mesmerising Markets tour and for three hours I experienced the crowds, colours, sounds and smells of Kolkata's vegetable and fish markets. He helped me engage with people, gave me the back story to the markets' activities and I came away with some great pictures. Since then I've made a point of repeating the experience whenever I've been in India. We spoke recently on zoom and I took the opportunity to get the full story of Calcutta Photo Tours.

"Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine"

Manjit started taking pictures at a young age and was given his first camera for his eighth birthday. "It was an Agfa click 4 with a plastic body and took black and white pictures" he said. He was delighted with it but recalls "I went on a school picnic and took several photographs. One of my classmates also had a camera. Her pictures were in colour and attracted more attention than mine". 

He did not have a colour camera until the age of 17 but by that time his work was already attracting  attention. College Street is the centre of the book trade in Kolkata and like many other students Manjit went there to buy textbooks. On one visit he saw a notice bearing the word "Silence" on the street lamp post, close to the exterior wall of a hospital, under a poster for the film "Kab Tak Chup Rahungi" which means "how much longer will we remain quiet". He wanted to photograph the two notices together and to enter The Telegraph newspaper's regular photo competition. His father borrowed a camera from a friend, bought film for it and Manjit took two shots before returning it. He then had to  wait for the friend to use the rest of the film and have it developed. The pictures were chosen for publication and he won a prize of 250 rupees which he used to open his first bank account.

After completing his studies he spent some time working in, and then managing, the family print and graphic design business. In his spare time, he continued with photography and an American friend suggested he start running photo walks in Kolkata. At the time most photo tours tended to concentrate on whole regions and lasted at least a couple of weeks. After a few years of running the walks in his spare time he decided to close the family business and to concentrate on photography. When I asked him about his family's reaction to this he said "at first they were worried and pointed out that tourism, the main source of business for the walks, is seasonal, but when my work started getting a lot of media attention, they became very proud". 

"I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there"

He recalls his first ever client "A Dutch woman sent me a message saying 'I am booking this tour and I hope you will be there'". He too had concerns and remembers thinking "I'm getting up at 5 a.m. will she even be there?". They both turned up and since then his decision to concentrate on photography has brought great success. Trip Advisor lists the tours as one of the most popular things to do in Kolkata and his work has been featured in National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph,  the Guardian and other high-profile publications. In 2018 his Durga Puja pictures were seen by millions when they were exhibited outdoors on London's South Bank as part of the Thames Festival.

The Hoonjan family have been in West Bengal for three generations and have a strong connection to Kolkata. Despite his Sikh heritage and religion Manjit considers himself to be deeply connected with Bengal. He said "When I started some people queried how a Sikh could really know Kolkata but more recently a Bengali friend said that I am more Bengali than he is". I asked him what inspires his desire to show Kolkata to others. He explained "It is a city that has a bit of everywhere but is not like anywhere". This is reflected in the range of tours he offers. The Culture Kaleidoscope tour reveals the religious diversity of Kolkata and also includes a visit to India's only China Town. European Calcutta concentrates on the colonial legacy of the city and Mesmerising Markets shows the day to day life of some of Kolkata's key workers. All include short breaks for chai and snacks - important elements of any day in India - and the telling of stories related to the tours. 

I asked Manjit about how people respond to the tours. He said "Sometimes they become emotional, particularly people who have not previously left the tourist trail and who are having their first glimpse of real, day to day life in the city. A Chinese family who came on the Cultural Kaleidoscope tour were delighted to be able to speak to locals in their own language. One member of the family said they felt so happy they had goosebumps". My own favourite comment came from a group who had begun their tour of India in Kolkata with Manjit ."They told me I had spoiled their trip because later guides had not been able to equal their time with me". In my case, that first early morning walk in the markets led to Kolkata becoming my favourite Indian city and one of the places I've missed most in the last two years of being unable to travel. 

Please note all photographs in this post were provided by Manjit Singh Hoonjan.

You can follow Calcutta Photo Tours on instagram and on Facebook

For more details of the tours and booking see Calcutta Photo Tours

Sunday, 17 October 2021

More Travels With My Camera

American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt famously said, “it is more important to click with people than to click with the shutter”. I agree with him. For me, a photograph is often the culmination of a longer exchange with a stranger who initially interests me because of their face, clothing or activity. This exchange may be short or can develop into a more sustained connection. There are people in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi that I clicked with on my first visit who I now seek out each time I return. 

This could be because I am a lover of stories. Some of my best pictures have been taken after or while hearing about the lives of others. People will often reveal intimate things about themselves if someone shows interest, even a complete stranger. In return the photographer may be asked to share their story and when traveling I am often questioned about my family, work, and financial and marital status. 

My curiosity has led to unexpected experiences. I’ve been asked to sing in Hindi in a barber shop in Lucknow and also by a group of sweepers in a Mumbai street. I’ve been quizzed on Premier League football and the British Royal Family by tipsy agricultural workers in a remote part of Myanmar. In a Kolkata street quite a crowd gathered when a vendor refused to believe that I don’t have a car. His parting shot was: “if you don’t have a car then you are not from London”. 

Next week, my new exhibition, More Travels With My Camera, opens at the Jeannie Avent Gallery in East Dulwich, London.  It includes photographs taken in Cuba, India, Myanmar and Peru between 2017 and early 2020. In early 2020 international travel became almost impossible and is only now, beginning to recover. Myanmar has seen violent and ongoing political upheaval and in Cuba there have been the first anti-government demonstrations for thirty years. It may still be some time before it is possible to revisit some of the people pictured in More Travels With My Camera. Until then I hope my photographs will bring their stories to a wider audience.

More Travels With My Camera opens at the Jeannie Avent Gallery, East Dulwich, London SE22 9EU on October 21st and runs until November 2nd. The gallery will be open every day from 10-5 and 10-6 on Fridays. 

The images featured in this post are from a book produced to accompany the exhibition, also entitled "More Travels With My Camera". It contains 36 full colour pictures and the stories behind some of them. Copies will be available for purchase at the gallery during the period of the exhibition or by emailing