Monday 6 November 2023

"This peacock tattoo will take me to heaven" - The Gadia Lohar of Rajasthan

My first encounter with the Gadia Lohar was short and unexpected. On the road from Delhi to Churu in Rajasthan, camera in hand, I got out of the car, to stretch my legs. A man working at the side of the road jumped up and ran towards me, shrieking, whooping and shaking his ample belly from side to side. My driver, Naresh, horrified, told me to get back into the car. It was my first time in India, so I did as I was told and we drove off. “What was that about,” I asked him. He replied, “He has some problem sir,” and left it at that. He later explained that the man was a Gadia Lohar, a nomadic blacksmith. Lohar is the Hindi word for blacksmith, and gadia means cart - their means of travel, and their home while on the road.

Gadia Lohar woman winding the bellows, Pachewar

The five vows of the Gadia Lohar

Until 1568, the Gadia Lohar were a settled people, producing weapons for the Maharana of Mewar's army. In that year, Maharana Pratap Singh was defeated by the invading Mughals at the Battle of Chittorgarh and was forced to flee. In a show of loyalty, the Gadia Lohar also left, vowing not to return until Chittorgarh was retaken. They also vowed not to live in a house, sleep in a bed or draw water from a well and began to live the life of itinerant workers. Pratap Singh never did retake the city and they remained nomadic, traveling from place to place on their bullock carts in search of work. In 1955, Pandit Nehru visited Chittorgarh and in a filmed ceremony, released them from their vows. Despite this, many Gadia Lohar are still not settled and live in makeshift camps, at risk of being moved on with little or no notice.

Rajasthan has many diversions and I forgot about the man at the side of the road, until during one of the covid lockdowns, I discovered the Netflix documentary India's Forgotten PeopleDeana Uppal, a reality TV contestant turned actress and filmmaker, curious about the Gadia Lohar, befriended a group camped near Jaipur. Her film shows their problems, traditions and way of life. It also exemplifies the widespread discrimination they face. In Jaipur, when she asks about meeting them, she is warned that the Gadia Lohar are dangerous criminals and should be avoided. She later discusses their plight with officials, who although polite, fail to address any of the issues she raises with them.  

"It is hard to make a living from this work"

More recently, I met Gadia Lohar communities in Rajasthan, in Deboli and near Pachewar. The Deboli group were camped on rough ground in the centre of the city. A couple were working at the entrance to the camp, the woman winding the bellows while her husband did the hot work, heating the metal. They then worked together, wielding hammers to mould the red-hot items into shape. They toiled without protective gear, in thirty-five degrees of heat, inhaling the thick smoke from their small furnace. They make tools, knives and other kitchen implements for sale in the street, but cannot compete with the cheap, mass produced items available in the markets. An elderly man, one half of a married couple who came to speak to me said, "We are skilled but these days it is hard to make a living from this work. Our ancestors produced weapons but today people don't want the things we make." 

He put on his best turban for a photograph, Deboli

The Deboli group had an additional problem. They claim to have lived in this location for many years but admitted that it is an unofficial settlement. The authorities want to develop  the site and have told them to leave. He also said, "Some people have already gone to the new place, but it is not big enough for all of us and there is not enough money to build houses for everyone." Those that remained were living in tents, some large enough to accommodate an extended family and their cart. One resident proudly showed me his family's gadia, “It is fifty years old,” he said as he pointed out the brightly coloured, hand-painted decorative patterns on its sides.  

Before I left, I photographed the elderly man and his wife, but not before, at his insistence, he put on his best turban, replacing the gamcha (workers' scarf) he had been wearing when I arrived. His wife pulled her dupatta (scarf used to cover head and shoulders) further forward on her forehead and pointed out her bhanvaria (nose ring) and tattooed earlobes to me. Once ready they stood side by side, very formal, him extremely tall and her, petite. I also took individual portraits of them.

Gadia Lohar woman in Deboli, wearing the bhanvaria (nose ring) and traditional jewellery

"This peacock tattoo will take me to heaven"

I met Shankar Gadhia Lohar at a tea stall in Pachewar, a village of about nine thousand people, one hundred kilometres from Jaipur. He invited me to his settlement where he lives with his extended family, just a few kilometres away. Shankar makes kitchen utensils and small ornamental items which he then sells at the side of the road. I bought a colander from him for 50 rupees (about 50 pence), which came in useful when I visited a Bhand community on the opposite side of the road. 

Shankar is not the only craftsman in the family. His older brother, Hanuman, is an accomplished metalworker whose work has attracted awards and media attention. He has a workshop on Pachewar's main street where visitors are offered tea and snacks, but where there was no pressure to buy. His wife and daughter-in-law work with him and at the time of my visit, his children were quietly doing their homework after school. Hanuman concentrates on producing art works and I came away with two small pieces - a camel and a snake. 

One of the older women in the settlement had facial tattoos. I asked if they had a meaning. "No, no, they are just for fashion," said one of the younger men. On hearing this, the woman, who until that point had been silent, became very animated and contradicted him. "They protect us against misfortune," she said, "and this peacock tattoo will take me to heaven." She also explained that the jewellery Gadhia Lohar women wear, acts as a deterrent to the evil eye. When she finished speaking, Shankar introduced her to me as his mother.

Hanuman, Gadia Lohar artisan, Pachewar

"I used to work as a day labourer to pay for my schooling"

While Shankar's mother was speaking, Sangram Singh Gadia Lohar arrived. We drank tea together and he spoke about his efforts to secure educational opportunities for his community. He said, “I used to work as a day labourer to pay for my schooling. I completed higher secondary education and then worked for an organisation that trains people in community development. I started an open-air school for our children, but it is difficult to get regular attendance as most of the parents are uneducated and do not understand why school is important.” He also spoke about the difficulties of finding somewhere to settle, and said, “I have worked very hard to persuade the authorities to give small parcels of land so that we can build our own houses. The problem is that although we are told we can build on the land, we do not receive documentation. This means we can be moved on at short notice.” 

Sangram said, “Our traditional way of life is no longer sustainable. The young people need to be educated, to develop new skills, or to adapt our traditional craft in the way Hanuman and Shankar have.” While he was speaking a small boy came out of one of the tents. After playing with a tyre for a few minutes, he opened his father’s toolbox, took out a hammer and began hitting a charpoy (day bed), imitating the adults working nearby. I asked his father if the boy will go to school. He smiled and said, “I don’t know.”

"Will he go to school?" I asked.

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Saturday 30 September 2023

The last of the sworn virgins - Stories from Albania

Gjyustina Grishaj was taking the washing in when I saw her. It had not been possible to contact her in advance and so, together with my guide and interpreter, Saimir, I'd taken the risk of just turning up. This involved balancing on narrow logs to cross streams, climbing boundary fences and taking at least one wrong turn before we reached her home, amongst the Albanian Alps in remote Lepushe. 

She wasn't expecting us and there was no guarantee that she'd be willing to talk. I needn't have worried as she welcomed us with smiles and waves, invited us onto the porch and offered water, blueberry juice and raki. It was a little odd meeting Gjyustina in person as I'd seen her a few months earlier in a short BBC documentary, The sworn virgins of Albania. The programme, made by Gjyustina's film-maker niece focused on the almost extinct practice in northern Albania, of women taking a vow of chastity and living as men. Only a handful of Burrnesha  (the Albanian name for this phenomenon) are still alive.

The tradition originates from the Kanun, a set of social codes and laws developed during the Ottoman period and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo well into the 20th century. It dictates the strict patriarchal nature of society, with all wealth inherited by men and asserts that women are part of a family's property. It also placed many other restrictions on women including being forbidden to smoke or wear a watch, vote, buy land, socialise with men or do certain jobs. 

These rules did not apply to the Burrnesha once they'd taken an irrevocable oath of celibacy in front of village or tribal elders. They were considered male, with the same privileges as men and could take the role of head of a household. Most would wear men's clothes and some would take a male name. They would also be required to do hard physical labour normally undertaken by men. Breaking the vow was punishable by death. However, there were some circumstances that allowed a change of heart if the reasons for taking the vow no longer existed.

Motivations for becoming Burrnesha varied. In families without a surviving male child, it would allow a woman to inherit the family's wealth. It was also a way to avoid an arranged marriage without dishonouring the groom's family, or for a women to avoid marriage more generally should she wish to remain single. In extreme circumstances, a daughter may be required to become Burrnesha in order to continue a blood feud with another family if all the male members had already been killed.  

"I decided to become the man of the family"

Gjyustina explained how she came to the decision to become a Burrnesha. She said, "I was the third of six children, two boys and four girls. When my father died of a heart attack, the oldest boy and the oldest girl had already married and left. Someone needed to step up and take responsibility. I decided to become the man of the family, to make sure that my siblings would be well educated and to support my mother." She knew about the tradition of the sworn virgin from books in her father's personal library. She said, "My father was a teacher. I liked reading and he had a lot of books, including the Kanun." 

I wondered how her family, friends and the other villagers had reacted to this decision. She said, "I made my vow in front of my family rather than the villagers, but they knew and they respected me for it. My mother and my older, married brother tried to dissuade me. Mother was particularly opposed to my decision and said 'No, you cannot do this, you must marry, otherwise you will be alone.' They also tried to get  my younger brother to make me re-think my decision. The older one told him to make my life as hard as possible so that I would give in, but I'd decided what to do and to accept whatever my destiny would be." 

I asked her about the consequences of taking the vow, other than from being forbidden marriage and children. She said, "Our family was very poor. I did agricultural work, chopping wood, anything. I devoted my life to hard work for the good of the family." She added, "I earned very little and we had to stand in long queues to get food and other things. There was never enough." For most people, queueing for basic items, sometimes for hours, was a significant part of life during the communist period. In her book Free, Lea Ypi writes about the practice of leaving a stone to mark one's place if another queue was forming for some other item. A whole etiquette of queueing was developed to manage such occurrences.

"Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back"

It has been suggested that becoming a sworn virgin was a way of women obtaining greater freedom and escaping restrictions, especially in remote rural communities. Gjyustina dismissed this saying, "I knew another Burrnesha who said that we have to work much harder than the men to be accepted. Yes, we are considered to be like men, but everyone knows we are women." The Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare was even more direct in his introduction to Elvira Dones novel Sworn Virgin, where he wrote, "This...custom...presents a loss as a privilege, and offers subjection in the guise of freedom." Dones' book tells the story of a young woman trying to revert to her previous life after taking the oath. 

Gjyustina, was quiet for a moment and seemed to be considering whether or not to speak, and then said, "Despite the hardships, I've never regretted my decision. I am happy." She continued, "There are many unmarried people but being Burrnesha is different. It's a gift from God. Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back." She added, "But sometimes I get lonely. It's very quiet here when I don't see other people. Without the chance to talk it's like being in prison." 

She still has relatives living nearby. She said, "They come to see me and are happy to help but I never require anything from them in return for what I did." Like many Albanians, she also has relatives living abroad. "I have a sister in Italy," she said, "I spend a few weeks with her every year. I can speak Italian. I also have a brother in America. He sometimes comes to see me. I wanted to visit him in New York but my visa application was refused." 

"No-one else will do this, I will be the last one"

In the BBC documentary, she spoke to her niece about plants with medicinal properties, gathered from the surrounding area. I asked about this and she led us to a large shed at the side of her property. She explained that she'd used it as a small shop when running a guest house from her home. Unfortunately the guest house and the shop are now closed as since covid the number of visitors has decreased. Inside the shed she had several kinds of wild flower for making tea, as well as medicinal plants and mushrooms, all gathered locally. There were also maps showing hiking routes and bottles of different-flavoured homemade raki. "My father knew a lot about plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms," she said, "When I was small I would go into the mountains with him to collect them and he would explain their uses. He had books about these things too. Of course, I was little and I wouldn't remember what he'd said, and once I lost the plants he'd asked me to look after when he went further up the mountain.  We had to go and look for them again." 

A wooden crucifix hung over the shop doorway and another one on one of the walls. There were also a few family photographs, one of which particularly caught my attention. It showed a woman wearing traditional clothing, including the loose white headscarf still worn by many older Albanian women. She is surrounded by two men and a small boy. Gjyustina noticed my interest and said "That's my mother and father and my two brothers."

Gjyustina Grishaj is 58, the youngest and possibly the last sworn virgin of Albania. She knows of two others, older than her and who prefer to live privately. I asked her if she thought that in the future other women would take the vow. Her response was clear. She said, "No-one else will do this, I will be the last one. Many Burrnesha did this to keep their families from poverty but things are easier here now. Also, people's attitudes about helping others and about family responsibility have changed. I felt I had to do it. Today people feel differently." We left her waving at the front of her house. I looked back several times and she was still there, waving each time I turned.

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Tuesday 19 September 2023

"You had to be careful about everything" - Stories from Albania

There are many empty homes in Valbone, northern Albania. Some are occupied for a short period each year when the owners return from working overseas, while others, seemingly abandoned, have begun to crumble. While photographing what I thought to be an abandoned house, two women emerged and came towards my guide, Saimir and I. The younger of the two greeted us and indicating the slightly stooped woman at her side, said, "Zoja would like to invite you into her house." Zoja, a tiny woman who wore the loosely tied white headscarf, typical of many older Albanian women, smiled generously and gestured for us to follow her. 

The austere-looking house was set back from the road, overlooking an almost dry river bed and under the shadow of the mountains. Saimir and I, removed our shoes and went inside. The younger woman gave her name as Zarya and explained that the house had been built for military personnel during Albania's 45 years long communist period. When the regime collapsed in 1991 the place was left empty. Inside I immediately noticed and commented on how cool and comfortable the temperature was compared to the rising mid-morning heat. "The walls are very thick" said Zarya, "they keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they are sometimes damp because of the condensation." 

We were shown into a simple, but charming living room, furnished with a heavy 1970's style suite and coffee table and a few small kilims (traditional rugs). The dark brown and orange furniture contrasted sharply with the clean, whitewashed walls. A piece of hand-made lace lay on a small set of drawers, and herbs and berries collected from the mountains, had been placed on top of it. A larger piece of lace that my grandmother would have called an antimacassar lay over the back of one of the chairs. "My friend made some of these pieces," said Zoja as she led us into the kitchen where two other women were sitting and who greeted us with smiles and "hello" in English. The room was filled with the buttery aroma of byrekas being prepared on the stove. 

"My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists"

I asked Zoja how long she'd lived there. She said "I've been here for the last twenty years. My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists who built soldiers' houses on it. After they left, I came back and moved in. I am 80 now and a widow. I have six children. Two live abroad. Another son disappeared somewhere in Greece. He might be dead. I don't know what happened to him." Zarya added "Her other children live close by and see her regularly."

Zoja continued, "My husband died eleven years ago. He spent time in prison during the communist period. He was sent to Spaç, where he was tortured and lost an eye. I had to do hard agricultural work to feed the family." The telling of the story was clearly affecting her and she paused, trying to compose herself. Spaç, in a remote part of the Mirdita region, was the most notorious of the network of isolated prisons and forced labour camps established under the old regime. Prisoners were subject to hard physical labour and torture, including mock executions, sleep and food deprivation, being fed very salty food and then denied water as well as being beaten and then having salt poured into the wounds afterwards. Sentences of ten or even twenty years were not unusual and people were often re-arrested immediately after their release.

Perhaps to divert Zoja a little, Zarya asked if we had other questions. All of the women present were wearing different levels of Islamic clothing. I asked how people had managed to maintain religious practise under the old regime, as in 1967, communist leader, Enver Hoxha, declared Albania an atheist state. Most mosques and churches were demolished and anyone discovered or reported to be practising religion was imprisoned. "It was very difficult" she said. "It wasn't possible to dress like this then. Everything had to be hidden. We even changed the way we spoke. After someone died instead of expressing hope that the dead person would go to heaven, people spoke about the health of their relatives. It was a very dangerous time."

"You had to be careful about everything"

I asked Zoja if there had been anything good about the old regime. She said "Everyone had a job and agriculture and industry operated well. But behind it all, there was something very bad. You had to be careful about everything. There were many spies who would listen to and report conversations. Sometimes people who had a quarrel with their neighbour would take revenge by making up stories about them and reporting them to the police." 

As well as people who voluntarily reported their friends, neighbours and even family members, the regime had a huge network of spies. Even very small infringements could get you sent to prison and your family ostracised. Ways of dealing with this included being creative with language. In her autobiography  "Free: Coming of Age at the End of History," Albanian professor of Political Theory, Lea Ypi, remembers her parents talking about an uncle taking 20 years to graduate from university and eventually realising that "university" meant prison and the 20 years of study was his period of incarceration. This level of fear and suspicion must have a lasting impact on society and despite the seeming openness of most Albanians, there are still hints of the old fears. I asked a local why so many Albanian cafes and restaurants play deafeningly loud music. "It is to prevent us hearing the conversations of others," he said.

In Albanian culture guests are treated with high regard and are considered to be under the protection of the house. Despite our entreaties for her to sit, Zoja remained standing for the duration of our visit. "I must stand to give respect to my guests," she said. Before leaving, I asked if she would let me photograph her. She agreed and I took a number of shots, both inside and outside the house. As we left, she asked us to return, blessed our families and stood waving from the step.

Photographs of Zoja and external scenery by the author, internal details by Studio SB

Monday 21 August 2023

"I was so happy I couldn't sleep" - Stories from Cambodia

"I was born at the end of the Khmer Rouge period, so I have no memory of it" said Kimleng Sang, acclaimed Cambodian photographer and popular tour guide. He continued, "My parents spoke later on about having to work very hard and not getting enough to eat. We were not allowed to eat fish, chicken or meat, only boiled rice. People would sometimes take papaya or banana roots and make a soup, but it was not permitted to eat the fruit." 

So strictly were these rules enforced by Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge regime, that when Kimleng's father secretly caught a chicken in the forest, his older brother didn't know what it was. "My father told him it was a special kind of rat," he said, "because eating a chicken was enough to get you killed if anyone found out." A favourite trick of the Khmer Rouge was to question children who were less likely to realise the implications of their answers and could inadvertently cause whole families to be summarily executed. The family were farmers, and better equipped than many to survive the forced labour, but they lost at least three relatives - a cousin, an uncle and one of Kimleng's grandfathers, all of whom disappeared and have never been found.

"The worst job I ever did"

The Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979, having managed to kill or cause the deaths of up to two million people in the preceding four years. Over time some semblance of normal life returned, but the family still struggled. Kimleng explained, "Although we owned some paddy fields and grew rice it was not enough for us to live on. When I was 14 I left home for Phnom Penh and took a job as a security guard and gardener for a rich family. They had been living in France, but returned in 1993, when the first elections were held after the departure of the Khmer Rouge." This was one of several jobs he would take, including unblocking toilets, driving and later on, working in a garment factory. He describes the latter as "the worst job I ever did. I worked from six at night until seven in the morning making clothes. I was tired all the time." For these long shifts he received $45 per month, $15 of which was his contribution to a shared rent, leaving very little for food, clothes and other expenses. 

He realised that his lack of education was holding him back. "I saw that city life could be good and that if you were educated you didn't have to work as hard as the people in the village," he said. "I left school when I was 13, and only completed grade five. I couldn't read or write even in Khmer but I had a friend who was a teacher who helped me become literate in my own language and also taught me English."

"I fell in love with photography"

In 1999, Kimleng returned to his village and told the family he didn't want to work as a farmer. Instead, he bought a tuk-tuk, drove local customers and began to meet foreign tourists. One tourist would help change his life. "I met many foreigners, including several who came for photography. I worked as their driver and helped to carry their equipment. In 2005 or 2006, I drove Canadian photographer David Bibbing during his stay in Cambodia. By this stage I was paying close attention to how the photographers worked and David noticed my keen interest. A year later he came back and surprised me with the gift of a simple digital camera. He helped me to use it and I fell in love with photography. When he gave me the camera I was so happy I couldn't sleep."

Kimleng went on to meet more photographers and received advice on lighting, technique and composition. He began combining his love for photography with his transport business and promoted himself as "the tuk-tuk photographer." By 2015, he had become successful enough to employ a driver which meant he could spend more time talking directly to his clients, explaining cultural matters and helping them get the pictures they wanted. "This made my service better and also provided a job for someone else," he said. 

I asked what it is that makes photography so attractive to him. He said "I especially like photographing people and love interacting with them, but I also enjoying taking pictures of nature." I recently spent three days with him, photographing life in villages close to Siem Reap, where he now lives. His affection for the people was obvious. He knew many of the villagers and took time to ask about their lives and families, listening intently to their stories. He also has a lively sense of humour and enjoyed making them laugh. His connection to the people and landscape can clearly be seen in his work which deserves an even wider audience.

Due to his own early experience, Kimleng strongly believes in the importance of education. During the covid lockdown, he started a school for village children to learn English. Unlike other schools in Cambodia, it does not require fees, but to fund resources, the pupils collect plastic items which are then sold for recycling. He explained, "this helps us to buy learning materials and also contributes to a cleaner environment, clearing the village of discarded items". The teachers are volunteers from overseas  and teach the class online. "We are very grateful to our overseas friends who help us. We would like to develop the school further, perhaps with a resident volunteer teacher who would come and stay with us." Anyone interested in helping with the school can contact Kimleng directly through his social media links, listed below. 

You can follow Kimleng on Instagram and find more details about his photography tours on his website.

For more stories from Cambodia see I used to steal small amounts of food just to survive and I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit

The photographs featured in this post were provided by, and are used with the permission of Kimleng Sang

Thursday 20 July 2023

Beside the Buriganga

"Look over there on the other side of the river," said Mukal. "I grew up in a small house behind that tall blue building and my school was near the other, smaller yellow building you can see just a short distance away. After school and at weekends we would play in a small park nearby and sometimes swim in the river. The park is gone now. It's become a rubbish dump. The water wasn't filthy then and it didn't smell. People still drank from it. In the watermelon season we would swim out to the boats bringing fruit from Barisal. The workers would sometimes give us a watermelon which we'd take ashore and eat immediately". 

"How long ago was this?" I asked. "About twenty years" he replied. "The streets were not filled with rubbish, and I don't remember this amount of dust. It was a good place to live but it's all lost now."

As we walked along the riverbank, we waded through discarded household items, rotting vegetables from the market and other detritus. We passed a small boy, perhaps eight years old, maybe less. He was collecting plastic items from the garbage to take for recycling in return for a few taka*. He was alone.

Mukul had a persistent cough and regularly cleared his throat by spitting out phlegm in the street. "It's the dust," he said. As we turned to go back, he bought a bottle of water to combat the dryness. In the car, he took the water in three gulps and cleared his throat again. He opened the window, spat and threw the empty bottle out. As we pulled away, I noticed the small boy again. He'd seen the bottle hit the ground and was coming to collect it.

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* taka = Bangladeshi currency. 100 taka = approximately £1. In Sylhet, collectors reported receiving 5 taka for one kilo of plastic. 

Friday 30 June 2023

"I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit" - Stories from Cambodia

"I've heard of England but I don't know where it is" said Chai. This 63 years old  Buddhist monk had asked me one of the standard questions asked of travellers, "where are you from?" We were sitting in the compound of a monastery in the Cambodian countryside, about an hour's drive from Siem Reap. It was late afternoon and the gentle breeze both lowered the temperature a little and warned of the forthcoming evening rain. Other monks sat smoking in the shade. One of the younger ones crossed the compound to where we were sitting and climbed into a hammock to listen to our conversation.

When we arrived, Chai was cleaning his teeth with a stick. He was extremely slim, gaunt even, his ribs clearly visible under his exposed right shoulder. His shaved head emphasised his lack of weight. His chest, throat and chin were tattooed. I asked him if the dots on his chin had a meaning. "It's for protection" he said. Many Cambodians believe that tattoos can ward off evil spirits or bad luck. We would return to this theme of protection and belief a little later.

I encouraged him to tell me about his life. He said "I was born in Battambang province. My family worked on the land. I never went to school. I cannot read or write. When the other monks read scriptures, I just follow them and join in the prayers. I got married when I was 22 and I have three children. I became a monk when I was 58, after my wife died. I couldn't live with my children and so I came here".

We were briefly interrupted by the arrival of an elderly man chewing zucchini seeds. He squatted down beside us, smiled and followed our conversation with curiosity, looking directly at whoever happened to be speaking. He was barefoot, wore only an old pair of trousers and had draped a krama, the traditional checked Cambodian scarf, over his shoulder. His teeth were stained red, the tell-tale sign of excessive consumption of paan - an Areca nut slaked with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf. It acts as a mild stimulant and is popular across south and south-east Asia. When chewed it releases a bright red liquid that permanently stains the teeth and lips. If mixed with tobacco it can cause cancer of the mouth. Our visitor shared his zucchini seeds with us, then after a few minutes, took a cigarette from Chai and went on his way.

The monk returned to his story. "I joined the army when I was 17 or 18. I wanted to support Sihanouk against Lon Nol. I didn't like Lon Nol and I was against the coup. Later on Sihanouk joined forces with the Khmer Rouge and so I ended up fighting alongside their soldiers." I was intrigued by Chai having been drawn into the Khmer Rouge forces, not by choice, but because Sihanouk formed an, admittedly shaky, alliance with the communist group. I asked him to talk about that experience, but he seemed reluctant and I let it go.

His few sentences about the war hide the complexity of Cambodian history during the 20th century. Sihanouk ruled as Monarch from 1941 until 1955 when he abdicated in order to participate in politics more directly. In the same year, his party won a general election and he became Prime Minister. He then ruled the country under various titles until 1970, when he was deposed by the National Assembly led by Lon Nol. Sihanouk spent the next five years in exile in China and North Korea during which time he began to back the communist insurgent Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge eventually defeated the government forces in 1975 and took control over the country. Then began four years of extreme brutality and repression, causing the deaths of up to two million people. In 1979, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot and his regime were forced out, but his troops continued to fight in remote parts of the country for the next several years.

I asked Chai about the mark between his eyebrows. He said "In 1982 I was involved in the fighting against the Vietnamese, somewhere near the border with Thailand. I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit. I was unconscious for almost two days but I didn't die thanks to the blessed scarf I wore and which protected me.  I woke up in a Thai hospital where I was looked after by French doctors". He sat in silence for a few minutes and then asked if I wanted to photograph him. I did, and he kindly stood for a series of pictures.

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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 after receiving help and advice, joined the community.

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 said, and then added, “I usually collect as part of a group, so I am not afraid.” 

Meryl plays up for the camera

Meryl is 42 and 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. His friend 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 Imran 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 said, "there is a madrassa (religious school) in Dhaka that caters for third gender people and takes students of all ages. 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. Paakhi explained 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

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