52 Portraits: The paan seller

IMG_6434In Old Dhaka, a contemplative street vendor with sad eyes sells tobacco from a hole in the wall. Buy a single cigarette and use his lighter, for only ten taka, or order paan and spices wrapped in in a betel leaf. If you ask, he’ll add in the white chalk paste to give the paan an extra gritty texture.

52 Portraits: Mutual curiosity

Supercool rickshaw guy

A couple of weekends ago we stopped in traffic on our way to Sonargaon, just outside Dhaka. Just as I looked out the car window and through my camera lens I saw this rickshaw driver peering in at me. Curiosity is often mutual between bideshis and locals, and I love how gently he seemed to acknowledge this as he held up his hand to wave for my photo.

52 Portraits: King of the kids

Shah JahanOn our recent trip to Srimongal, we stayed at the Green Leaf Guesthouse, where the tour guide Tapas (pronounced Taposh) also runs a small part-time school for street kids. He meets them around town, asks them about their stories and those of their families, and offers them food and clothes in exchange for them agreeing to come to his school. My friends and I helped out in one of the classes (well, two of my friends, who are teachers, helped out while the rest of us awkwardly stood around trying not to get in the way) where we met Shahjahan.

Shahjahan was that kid who’s impossible to ignore – partly because he’s cheeky, full of energy and a bit uncontrollable, but mainly because he’s miles ahead of the rest of the class. In our English lesson, he was chatting away in full sentences while the rest of the class concentrated hard on some key phrases.

He was carrying an old nokia phone, and at one point had it confiscated because he was causing a ruckus with another boy. It turns out that he had the phone because he’s ‘in charge’ of rounding up the kids for class. When Tapas has spare time he organises a class by calling Shahjahan, who then somehow finds the other kids around town and magics them into school. He’s got a charisma that can’t be taught – a natural leadership that puts him at the centre of the room no matter where he is. He proudly tells me that he’s named after the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal – ‘shah’ means king. King of the kids.

But despite the winning smile and all the bravado, Shahjahan has it tough. He, his mum and baby brother and sister were homeless until not long ago, and he spent a lot of time hanging out with his auntie and cousins at the train station, sometimes begging. But he soon learned which trains went where, when they arrived and which carriages contained which seat numbers. He came up with the idea of helping people by offering to carry their bags and take them to the right spot on the platform – 10 taka (15 cents) here and there means he can now support his family.

This is a blurry iphone photo, and it hardly counts as ‘photography’, but it’s of a great kid with a memorable smile. As we got on the train Shahjahan passed up our bags and we gave him a bottle of juice to say thanks for his help – flashing a big smile, he said he’d share it with his family. He’s a smart kid. I hope he can help them make a better life.

Old Dhaka in the rainy season

The monsoon is nearly over. Here are a few snaps from Old Dhaka on our last trip downtown.

(hint: click on a pic to view as a slideshow)