How fast things change without even a moment for me to try and comprehend it all. In January a photojournalist from Australia who volunteers for Operation Smile came to Guwahati. He had contacted me about working with Pratyasha as a part of his PhD work. I won't and probably shouldn't go into the details of his project but during his time here not only did we talk about everything under the sun but he took a whole lot of really amazing photos. We focused on the kids that were going to school and tried to get shots that could somehow convey in a sensitive way how they are kids like every other child in the world, they have the right to education and they have a whole lot stacked against them in achieving that. Part of his vision was to take a (seemingly) simple shot of the children with their mother standing outside their home.
On the photographer's last Sunday in town we handed out each participating family a copy of their photos for their approval, obtained their informed consent to use the photos and then let them keep the prints. We asked Khasitan's mother what she thought of the one of her and Khasitan standing at the door of their home. She looked at it sternly and at first I thought she was not going to give us permission to use it. When she spoke, the earth felt like it shifted under me. She said that this picture is really important to her because it proves that she has an established existence here. She said it gives her identity, that this is her home. She said she would show it to the police if they came, because the families there are often accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In no way does the picture of her prove her nationality but to her it was of great importance. It gave her a face, a 'name,' a proof of her life there. She slipped it back in the envelope. Her piece of photographic history that meant more to her than I could have ever imagined. It was only then that I started to process and recall the other families, each photographed in front of their shanty homes now armed with a photo to say "I was, am and will be here..."
No more than three days later I met the photographer in the morning in Lakhtokia for one last time before he headed home. As I reached the tracks it was immediately clear that the police had come through and razed the slum. Things were in cinders everywhere, smoke hung in the air. All the homes had been taken down, kicked down, collapsed. A few days prior to that, the families must have known it was going to happen because Lismore had noticed them slowly taking things apart and they told her what was going to happen. I found him all the way down by the flyover. Where there had just days prior stood the homes of some of the families he had photographed, was nothing but the families themselves lost in a haze. It was all gone in a moments time. Some of the families had buried their few possessions in the ground for safe-keeping. The only thing left to show what was once their home, was a picture. A photo to say "We were, are and will be here..."
Khasitan's home was initially not affected by the razing but after a few weeks even hers was gone. Last night the photographer emailed me with some of his final photo selections and all of these memories and emotions just overwhelmed me. It is so different in Lakhtokia right now and it has been since that day. Every week kids come and go between the slum and their respective "villages." Some of the families take their homes down during the day and rebuild a flimsy cover at night to sleep under. So many have just gone to other places. It's not the same there but it still is. And so, we still are and will be here.
(iphone photo, obviously not a professional. Maybe someday soon I'll be able to share the amazing images he took)