This peculiar quest began seven months ago in New Delhi, India. Something about the image of a 15-year-old Rohingya girl, Rahima, in a New York Times article titled I am struggling to survive: For Rohingya women abuse continues in the camps resonated with me.
She seemed deep in thought or perhaps despair. Her face was covered by a black niqāb not in piety, but almost in embarrassment and shame. She was hiding the apple of her cheek which had tooth marks of a Burmese soldier who had bitten into her flesh. The soldiers had kept her captive in a jungle and raped her all the while smoking methamphetamine to sustain the torture. They left her to die, but she somehow made it to Bangladesh. No one else in her family was “lucky” to escape.
I had an urge to meet her and write about her, but not an article of her travails. God knows there are enough heart wrenching accounts of atrocities on Rohingyas. I wanted to create a story of hope, healing and reconciliation through the medium of dance. It felt important to tell her story, not because of its barbarism or tragedy, but because Rahima could represent the struggles and hopes of millions of refugees. It could humanise them in ways that only stories can.
Her poignant image landed me in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and I moved from shanty to shanty in search of Rahima.
The cost of authenticity
What business does a fiction writer, without any organisational accreditation, have in such a setting?
Every modern humanitarian crisis inevitably attracts anti-social elements such as radicals, traffickers and profiteers. Moreover, the upcoming national election in Bangladesh makes Rohingyas presence a powder keg. The active role of Bangladesh’s army, no less than elite Rapid Action Batallion, demonstrates high-level security concerns. The entry to the camps is restricted to known aid agencies and trusted local partners. Through repeated and random checks, any foreigner without accreditation is detained and questioned. I didn’t have any authorisation and well-wishers advised me against the visit.
Despite that I travelled from India to Bangladesh to experience the ground reality. I spend the next two days lobbying in Dhaka with senior Bangladeshi bureaucrats, academics and journalists for facilitating access. Their advice ranged from practical to ludicrous. I even thought of going to the camps on my own. An acquaintance connected me to a local who could help.
“The intelligence agencies are keeping a tab on me, but don’t worry I will get you inside,” said one local businessman boasting of his political connections and affinity towards Indians. I was deeply uncomfortable, but this was my only realistic option on the penultimate day of the planned visit.
A well-wisher staked her reputation and arranged a meeting with a senior and thoughtful aid agency executive. I made my case and promised to steer clear of every possible pitfall- political, social, security and economic.
My belief and sense of idealism was challenged by this two-day long ordeal. I emptied my bucket of goodwill and favours. It made me question the necessity of my trip. As a fiction writer, data collection is not central to my work. I can take creative liberties denied to researchers. A voice in my head disagreed with this assessment. Deep down I knew this field visit was worth every trouble and inconvenience. All great stories are rooted in authenticity. No cost is too high for this ideal. On Wednesday morning May 16, I reached Cox’s Bazar airport, in search of Rahima.
Rohingyas are always running
It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the conditions at the camp. Rohingyas live in threadbare shanties kept together by no more than a few pieces of log and a tarpaulin. The stench of excreta in the open fields, summer heat, sweat and despair of more than half a million people with no sense of identity or legal standing lands a heavy blow on your conscience.
I saw young girls and old men take hurried steps up hilltops carrying 10 feet long logs on their shoulders. All with the intention of making their huts resilient to impending rain and flashfloods. Be it political persecution or ecological hazards, Rohingyas are always running.
I tried to help a young boy lift the logs up the first few stairs to his hilltop hut. This utter feeling of helplessness and grief made me shudder.
A torrential rainfall next morning made it difficult to continue the search. The path turned muddy and slippery with waste and soil flowing down the slopes. Mohseena, the translator, and I waded from house to house in search of Rahima. Rohingya women are confined indoors and married young to prevent Burmese soldiers from harassing them. This legacy of isolation continues in the camps and made the search even more difficult.
We moved from one community kitchen to another; one woman and child friendly centre to another to hear their stories. They covered their face, conscious of the presence of a man. They are not used to expressing themselves, but almost every story started and ended with extortion, loss of family members, rape or murder by the Burmese army.
An elderly woman recalled the loss of her husband. I asked the old lady about one happy memory at the camp and she responded: “Right after our marriage, I cooked a meal for him. He complained to me that it didn’t have enough salt. I think about those days and miss him.”
Another woman made an extravagant hand gesture and said, “Lohinyas” (machine guns) when I asked her why she left her three daughters behind in Burma. She was only able to find one daughter and son. So she came to Bangladesh with them and now she worries about their future.
Many Rahimas in the camps
A young mother sat inside her shanty putting a baby girl to sleep on a swing made of rickety wood. She married a young man in the camp and gave birth to her daughter 10 months ago. Her name was not Rahima, but she was a beautiful young woman with a shy smile. She was visibly struggling with baby care. I felt concerned about the thin piece of wood that held together the swing in which the baby was resting.
“What is it like being married, having a baby and living on your own?” I asked.
“It is overwhelming; I am trying to make sense of it,” she said. When we requested to take her picture, she first asked her husband for permission and then used a niqab to cover her head.
The five daughters of one Rohingya doctor peaked at me from a small hole in their one room shanty. The doctor told me how the girls missed home and kept asking: “Why are we staying her for so long? When are we going to go back?” He didn’t know how to respond.
I didn’t find Rahima in that melee, however, I came across many shy girls, young wives, hapless mothers and exhausted old women. This crisis has taken its toll on everyone. I discovered that there are many Rahimas in these camps – all of them with a tragic past, in desperate search of redemption and meaning.
It was pitch dark, that moonless night in Colombo. We sat on a rock, side by side, facing the ocean, but lost in our own thoughts. We were both looking for something perhaps an escape. The silence was broken by waves making a splash against the rocks. There were a few broken conversations and pauses here and there and then silence took over. A few scribbles on a piece of paper is all that I have left from that night:
The one sitting next to me, she wonders how I am able to write in the dark
She doesn’t realise, writing has nothing to do with seeing and all to do with feeling
What have words got to do with light
There is only one star in the sky tonight
One star is all I need to give me hope
The waves return to the shore unabashedly even when they are turned away
Just the way, I keep going back to my lost love for words
Even in its denial, love can inspire
The waves seem like a sea-dragon making its way to the shore, any moment now
And then suddenly it dissipates, just as its about to reach its destiny, Alas!
I don’t go to the ocean for the majesty of its view
I enjoy the solace of its sound
The story of the waves and the shore
One returns with love; the other sends it back asking for more
There is a lone bird gliding along the shoreline
There is lone me taking a flight of imagination
We are both off solid ground with nothing but the ocean as our companion
“Did you like it?” I asked her. “The silence.”
“I haven’t heard anything like it,” she replied.
My words will be lost to the world
Just like the waves will lose themselves to the shore, no matter
They will continue to make a splash and I will continue to write
2017 was a watershed year for me. I was able to shed the baggage of my past, lay the foundation of my future, identify values that speak to me, and finally undertake work that gives me joy and meaning. That sounds awfully positive; yes, but it wasn’t perfect. I failed at many activities, but I learned, I contributed, I travelled and I laughed. Here are some reflections and lessons.
I started most days by taking an hour to read/learn/exercise. It has had a positive impact on my life. Some impactful ideas such as Most Significant Failures, After Action Reviews have emerged from this practice. This curiosity for knowledge and self-improvement has also provided me with a framework for decision making (WRAP), storytelling (SUCCESS), and evaluation (time + resources = quality).
Besides practical knowledge, I learned about the value of having a higher purpose and meaning in life. A fascinating book, Man’s Search for Meaning, taught me that meaning can be created in the worse of human conditions, even as morbid as concentration camps. It’s this meaning that allows us to survive and thrive. That acceptance of our condition allows us develop a sense of equilibrium and lead a more forward-looking life.
I have been able to derive this sense of purpose from creative writing, continuous learning and contributing to my family’s well-being.
An internet-fast once-in-a-week allowed me time to reflect, write and read. The ability to slow down in a fast-paced and ever connected world is precious. It puts me in an environment where I can be creative and mindful. The more I continue on this path; the more creative I will be. Intermittent fasting, too, is a positive lifestyle development. It gives my stomach the rest it deserves.
These habits may seem small, but cumulatively they have made me more energetic and productive. A case in point is that I haven’t suffered any major and few minor sickness this year. I need to continue seeking more of these and mainstreaming them into my lifestyle.
- Mass gain: I was unable to gain body mass this year. Although, I was able to gain some body mass in the first half of they year, they were eventually lost. Back problems, food availability and my habits like intermittent fasting worked against this goal. I guess bulking is not for me because of the investments required. The idea of fitness I have is more comprehensive and includes flexibility and stamina. I need to give up on the dreams of bulking for the sake of more functional fitness.
- Morning bird: Failed to do this for the second year in a row, however, it is a goal work pursuing. Part of the reason is indiscipline and bad habit of late night phone chatting. I need to be more tough with myself on no-internet rule past 11 pm. Perhaps, switch off internet altogether and put the phone in the farthest corner of the house.
- Motivation: Broadly, it’s a deficit of motivation that’s has caused my failures. In order to achieve my goals, I need to tap into a source of greater motivation supported by ease of action and consistent triggers.
None of these ideas and insights came easy, however, they have given me immense confidence. I have had to do my homework, pitch and then slowly build them with persistence and patience. I learned one key lesson in the process:
Leaders are able to see value in an idea no one else can even imagine. It takes a great deal of courage, effort and patience to bring them to life. Its okay if others disregard it. We need to be confident, patient and let them emerge. That’s how you write novels, build companies and make the world a better place. Keep making connections, rope in contributors and turn them into reality. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, Anmol.
There are two separate visions with which I am moving forward. One is of an author. Someone who uses words and stories to inform and inspire. I love the challenge and he excitement of building a storyfrom scratch. As fulfilling as it is, it doesn’t offer financial security as a standalone activity.
The second is of a knowledge/communication manager in social development interventions. It obligates me to do an organisations’ bidding in return for comfort and security. Furthermore, I do learn from my colleagues and enjoy making a difference. However, it is not how I am going to make my mark and change the world.
Thus, I need to give both these endeavours weightage in 2018, until one becomes the obvious choice. I am signing up for another year of learning, writing and laughing #priceless
I have the answer; I know exactly what you should do. Before the other person is even finished speaking, we blurt it out. You know what happens next?
Our perfect solution is perfectly useless and worse the speaker snaps: “You don’t understand!”
Listening can be one of the toughest things in the world because it requires the one thing we all lack, Patience. As Warren Buffett says, “It’s simple but not easy.”
Active listening is actually active understanding. Sometimes that’s all you need to do, just listen intently. The speaker will gain clarity by virtue of articulating their thoughts aloud. The inconsistencies will automatically be filtered out, all because of your quiet presence.
Seek clarity: If a thought doesn’t pass your high-standards of clarity then by all means seek clarity with pointed questions. Let the speaker explain and feel heard.
Summarise: Go one step further. Summarise what was said in your own words and understanding. When you hear the response “Exactly” you will know you are on the right track. Watch how the speaker feels relaxed and grateful.
Only when you have done all of this, should you dare to propose solutions- even professional counsellors don’t claim to be problem solvers, why should you. Our role as friends, family and well-wishers is to listen and prod and gently steer our loved ones in the right direction. It starts with listening #priceless
I woke up with a start;
To the eerie silence of the night.
The cold breeze bit into my skin;
Swept away any semblance of warmth inside.
She is lost to my reality;
but her thoughts continued to haunt me;
On yet another sleepless night.
You can sit with a glass of beer and enjoy a performance (from a distance). Head home high and happy. The end!
Or, you can become engaged and experience the fear, anxiety and sheer brilliance of human effort. No longer are you an observer, but very much a part of the whole. Deep engagement that will leave you emotionally and physically exhausted, but fulfilled. You choose #priceless
“Am I worthy of her love?” a friend asked me. He didn’t think he was, after all she was smart, successful and stunning. And he wasn’t quite there yet- personally or professionally. Could he really stand in front of her boss or father with pride? It was a valid question.
“What if she turns into a failure?” I asked. “Would she be good enough for you?”
“It wouldn’t matter,” he said without a thought. “I like her for her kindness.”
There was his answer. He just needed to hear himself. Success and failure are inevitable. She, too, liked him for something more intrinsic. As long as he stays true to those values, the opinions of her boss, father and friends won’t matter. The real danger is losing himself in the quest for success.
And if you lose yourself, all the money, fame and power won’t be enough to keep her. #priceless
For a moment, I was worried, there were no words in my head. Would I return with an empty notebook? I shut my eyes and with darkness came the words. They didn’t need to be seen; they needed to be felt.
The sky turned into these breathtaking colours of purple and orange. I shut my eyes for a minute and when I opened them all the colours were gone. That’s life. We need to burn as bright as possible in the little time we have.
The guard kept trying to keep people away from the ocean as dusk set in. What a hopeless task he had. We will always be drawn to beauty.
There were so many happy looking couples here. I have always believed the ocean carries a charge. It brings people closer.
If you bring your woman to a beach, she will never fall out of love with you.
I am a little vary of waves. They are beautiful and dangerous just like a woman I knew. You want to enjoy them but not too much.
There is a lighthouse on top of the hill to guide fishermen back to the shore. We all need a lighthouse to guide us to our true values in rough weather.
Where do these words come from? I don’t quite know. Forget the world, shut your eyes and listen to something deep within.A young married woman made a heart on the sand. I didn’t understand the point of it. The waves would wash it away, I thought. I couldn’t be more wrong. Love isn’t about how long it lasts, but how it feels in that moment.
They waves they just keep coming to the shore and leaves nutrient-rich soil behind. Its a good template for life. Leave something useful behind, wherever you go.
Looking out the window of a plane taking off is a great moment to reflect. With the plane, you too can allow yourself to zoom out of your day to day struggles and see the bigger picture. The small dots you see on the ground won’t seem so important. Perhaps you will have an epiphany, may be an insight- if not at least the view will be nice #priceless