4th of August: a team of ‘humans’ leaves Dhaka in the early hours… destination a ‘popular’ place in Faridpur. Sightseeing? That and more…

Trust me when I tell you that the visiting friends from Italy (a Comms. colleague, a holding-it-just-fine journalist and a how-do-I-put-it photographer) did taste a bit of Dhaka traffic even though all that they did was to touchdown, get terminal clearance and pick us (Jamal and Hamid – names we picked up along the way) up from home to leave the city.

Am I using too many appositives and brackets? Well, let me tell you why… (Ok, so many dots too! And brackets again! Sorry):

Sex workers are put in brackets. They are the appositives we utilize just like the vehicle of a metaphor and then forget it much like the ones lost amidst dots. This red district (this time I did not see any red lights though) is put comfortably away from the center of the town and just on the bank of a raging river Padma (‘Padda’ is how it’s pronounced here).

But this would be our finding only hours later – into the jolly good afternoon brimming with bright natural lights, strong mini-waves breaking into the newly put concrete base that now saves Faridpur town from erosion. No, it wasn’t for the women in brothels. And the children! The concrete dam is to save the town. The women and the children just got lucky.

Curious eyes dart stare from all direction. They do recognise ‘Jamal’ from ActionAid Bangladesh. But he is not their subject. The Italian friends are – the beedeshis. And I could almost pass by with no one even noticing – or so I wish. Here is my first encounter, easy as it may appear. But ‘Skinny’ written on this child’s shirt was too much for me. Jinia (right, in the first photo) wouldn’t let me go without some more shots with her friend in several points in this brothel.

Yes, we are at the CNB Ghat brothel in Faridpur.

We come to know that late afternoon or early evening is when clients start gathering inside the brothel. If you have a camera and a permission to shoot, anyone would wish for a bit of ‘action’. So, here we are roaming around the brothel, a series of tin-shed huts built along the dam – a straight line from an aerial view, I bet. Inside them, humans – waiting, resting, decorating, regenerating – for a better life.

Such a remarkable contrast: if you are standing on the concrete blocks, on your left is the raging river with purifying water inviting you for a cleansing ritual and on your right would be T.S. Eliot’s resonance of “one night cheap hotels” with the “muttering retreats”.

These women were not allowed to wear sandals in public. They went barefoot. What an ingenious means of segregation! They were not allowed to wear anything else than saree too. Local musclemen would extort them out of their fees. Alive, they wouldn’t be cared. Dead, they wouldn’t be buried. Stigma? Embargo? The words sound great!

A decade back, the empowering REFLECT approach united the sex workers within their district. Adult literacy programme followed. After graduation, women formed their own alliance ‘Loko-kendra’ and opened bank account to start a savings scheme on their own. Now the two Loko-kendras (and two self-help groups) have elected leaders who lobby with local administration for their rights and demands. A lot has changed since then. There’s no bar if a sex worker walks in public in flip-flops or wearing salwar-kameej. A strong internal network tackles any cases of extortion. And the sex workers have got their own graveyard now.

But the children?

This little girl keeps on turning up everywhere. She lives with her mother here. It is a rule that children aged 3 and above must not live within the brothels. Rule is one thing and reality another. Narrow lanes of the brothel are their playground. The bamboo structure connecting hanging toilets are their sport. Turning deaf ear to what is going on around them is the art they’d like to master. Doing whatever it takes for a better life is a risk they’d bargain for.

What was a ‘day care centre’ in 2003 became a boarding house in three years. But this can only accommodate 25 children (who we’ve met another day) and I have seen 30 more who would qualify as ‘children’ living inside the brothel. But a start is a start – a solid one surely. A full-fledged building for the children of sex-workers is under construction, thanks to the LEADR project.

This may appear ‘exclusive’ to your eyes in that they’d live not inside the civil borders but separately in a protected facility. But these children now attend government schools, where they sit together with ‘regular’ children and are getting educated with enough scopes for overall healthy growth. They had already competed in national cultural platforms and won awards.

Besides the STAR (Societies Tackling Aids through Rights) project that ran for around 3 years beginning in 2005 and worked mostly on raising awareness on HIV and safety measures. The 2007 anti-steroid campaign has seen success in considerably lowering its reckless use by sex workers. ‘Jamal’ sounded glad when leaders (now aged and ‘obsolete’ in the eyes of the clients) in the brothel have shared these with us. He feels proud to have united the sex workers in an empowering way and becomes happy when the groups move up to local administration themselves to settle any issue or claim entitlements.

Meanwhile in front of us, around us, afternoon happens.

In that precarious moment when you wouldn’t know between if you’d call it afternoon or is it already evening, a boy hangs from his favourite joint. This is his idea of a good time – a perfect pose for this camera to start working again. Light, the ‘absolute’ friend of any Hamid with a camera, weighs in.


Do we become more human with every picture we take? Less so? Do we become a distant memory of our own wishes? Do we reduce ourselves to a machine, resorting to the usual ways quoting ‘all is well with the world’?

It was time for me to gather the beedeshis scattered in at least three points of CNB Ghat.

The ever so silent photographer is on a photo-experiment; the widely read journalist understands the human condition so closely and is such an attentive listener; the communications colleague getting to the heart of the matter with the help from the women and ‘Jamal’ of course. ‘Jamal’, a name I still use to call him with my admiration for his work and as celebration of the great memory of human company we all shared.

I see women on the bamboo structures making calls on their cell phones. I see men barely crossed their teens sizing up their view. I see children washing feet and their rubber sandals branded Bata and slowly huddling around safe joints. A day in the brothel is about to start. It’s written in the air. You could almost catch it and put it inside your wallet. Or, you could still feel unhappy about the imaginative similarities drawn and go on.

But for us, that day, evening creeps in…

Already hurting over a separation from the people who had two eyes just like us, who had dreams and aspirations just like us, who would shed tears if hurt just like us, I understand it’s time again for “measuring out” life – maybe not in “coffee spoons,” which wouldn’t be proper – but measuring it is must.

And then time to bring in the lights to Nazrul – the national poet made witness to all the transactions.

The rebel poet, hung on the wall, watches in silence.