Returning to India grew to be like a second homecoming. Touchdown was nearly always Mumbai - which for a decade I knew as Bombay - and each time, as the aircraft powered forward, dipping towards the runway, those snapshot glimpses of an uneven terrain crammed with shanty dwellings would resume in my view. More and more this struck me as a symbol of why I was there in the first place, for it was perhaps the most extreme lifestyle interface one could imagine: high-tech jumbos gliding past squalid slums. Neither existence could touch the other … and one certainly did not want to.


Through my porthole I could see a multitude of small lights – yellow, orange, white – glittering and shimmering in the evening mist. A Summer wonderland perhaps? As the landing speed reduced, I noticed the lights were spread over undulating ground on either side of the runway. A few years later I would walk amongst that myriad of tiny lights, to realise it wasn’t evening mist, but smoke from a thousand small cooking fires, that I saw on my first arrival in India. The runway was in effect a long flat valley, between crowded slums.


When offered an assignment which allowed free licence to write about life in Bangladesh, I jumped at the chance: this was what my dreams were made of. At the time I was working with schools in India and was asked to make a side trip to Dhaka, to study, write and photograph the workings of development projects, within the capital and in rural areas to the South, West and North of the city. My February-March stay was to last for a month, before temperatures began to hit oven-like proportions.


I had stumbled on Waffles - the best backpacker’s in Singapore – and after a few weeks graduated to a room with a scenic view of Bugis Mall. The place was a comfort zone after a hot day’s work, and the long-stay inmates became my family. They belonged to one of two clans: teachers or deep-sea divers. Each night teachers swapped stories of classroom mayhem, while divers weighed in with near escapes from the deep; always with their early-model mobiles close by, waiting for the call out, to some distant oil rig.


So here I sit, not long after the crack of dawn, astride an old wooden chair, positioned dead-centre, with a microphone on a tall metal stand in front of me. To my left, with jet-black hair and dressed like a queen in a beautiful azure and white, sequined saree, sits the school’s director and principal, Dr Mabel Aranha; a somewhat formidable figure, attending her final Republic Day parade, before retirement. To my right a considerably more jovial character, the white-mustachioed Mister Mirchandani .....


My first wife was a fantastic lady. She talked a lot! Not quite sure why we parted, though talking may have tipped the scales. Other people were often amazed, not only by the number of words that could be aired in one or two minutes, but also the variety of topics that would often be tackled. As years went by, she honed her ability for both speed and subject range: delivered together, mixed all in one pot. I grew used to it, but newcomers would quite often stagger away, in a head-spinning aura of dizziness!


I was seated on a slim wooden bench inside a hot, sweaty, bamboo shed, with what seemed like 100 eyes gazing at me: this strange-looking creature from the West! Once things settled back to what I judged might be almost normal, I uncased my camera and began to photograph proceedings, which in turn set of another round of bubbling interchange. After things settled again, my eye – and my camera lens - were drawn to a particularly attentive young girl, seated towards the rear ...
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