When Malcolm met Halima

Pencil sketches of Bangladesh by Malcolm Arnold

Malcolm Arnold’s tale is an uncommon one. This Australian man has been living permanently in Bangladesh since 2004. He is not a citizen of this country and has to pay to renew his visa every year. Earlier on he had spent around 10 years on a hill in Australia, just to be far from the madding crowd. At an even younger age he had left home just to draw and paint. And it is this Malcolm Arnold who had finally settled down in a small house with green walls in Sonadanga of Khulna town in Bangladesh. And with him lives Halima Begum of the village Perikhali, Rampal in Bagerhat.

Malcolm is now 74. Halima will be around 51. There is the age difference, they are from two different countries and religions and were brought up in very different circumstances too. One came from a well-to-do family in Australia, the other a near-beggar destitute from the village Perikhali. Despite such gaping differences, they are together. This was possible because of Malcolm Arnold’s passion for drawing. And because of Halima, Malcolm lives Bangladesh. His pictures depict coastal homes submerged in tidal surges, boats sailing by a thatched roof house, scenes from the hills.

Malcolm Arnold first came to Bangladesh in 2001 as part of an eight-member delegation. They had come on an official visit to work on a book. They went on a visit to the Sundarbans and on the way back decided to stop off at Mongla to learn about the NGO work there. They visited the port and jetties and arrived near Baniya Shanta.

Malcolm and Halima at their home in Sonadanga

In the meantime, Halima of Perikhali was an orphan, having lost her mother and father at an early age. Her four elder brothers were unwilling to take on her responsibility and mistreated her, sometimes even making her sit in a bucket of water. She started working as a maid in people’s homes and so didn’t get to study further than Class 3.

I no longer worry about myself. But I feel utterly helpless when I see this man who left everything to come here and live with me, fading away in this manner
Halima Begum

She was working as a housemaid in Khulna town, where she was mistreated too. Being a smart girl, she picked up a smattering of English from television and radio, though she couldn’t read or write the language. But she could speak and understand English fairly well.

She joined an NGO in Khulna with a monthly salary of Tk 3000. After the Sundarbans trip when Malcolm came to Mongla, the two met. He asked her about the place and they spoke for some time. He was a senior delegate on an official tour and she was a simple NGO worker. They exchanged addresses.

Malcolm had a penchant for the painting the poor and helpless

Malcolm went back to Australia. Halima’s husband had left her and she struggled to bring up her daughter alone in Badaban. In 2004 she was diagnosed with a serious illness. The physicians bluntly told her there was hardly any hope of her surviving. Halima grasped at straws, he had to live for her daughter Fatima. Suddenly she remembered that piece of paper with the address.

She wrote him a letter, with no real hope of any reply. But when the artist in Australia received the letter, memories of the Sundarbans and his fleeting acquaintance with that young woman came flooding back. Malcolm and his wife had divorced 14 years earlier and his two daughters Natasha and Netty lived with him. He made arrangements for his two daughters and then came to Bangladesh to ensure medical treatment for his friend.

It was then, while Halima was undergoing treatment that their friendship blossomed and turned into love. There was little hope of Halima recovering. But this elderly foreign artist friend stayed firmly by her side, telling her to keep faith, that all would be well.

Malcolm captures the people of Badaban with his paintbrush

And all turned out to be well. They live together now, dependent on each other. Halima’s granddaughter takes care of the aging Malcolm, even scolding him when needed. Halima got a new lease of life, but Malcolm has had to pay a steep price to stay back in Bangladesh. His funds exhausted and he took his wife Halima back to Australia to settle there. But he had to return to Bangladesh because of Halima. Halima needed to return to the land of her birth, to the banks of Rupsha where her daughter stayed.

And with love in his heart, Malcolm too has been living in Bangladesh for the past 18 years. He is now 74 and they are paying a high cost for their decisions in life. Malcolm is in poor health, suffering from diabetes, osteoporosis and heart ailments. He can no longer paint. He can no longer bring the faces of Bangladesh to canvas, no longer sketch people huddled in the cold at the Rupsha ghat in Khulna town. His old pictures too lie unsold.

An exhibition of Malcolm Arnold’s sketches at DRIK in 2019

He didn’t go to Australia last year because of coronavirus but that hasn’t caused any visa problems for his stay in Bangladesh. But now unpaid bills have started piling up, along with their monthly house rent of Tk 7000. The couple can hardly afford to by their essential medicines anymore. With the help of friends, Malcolm held an exhibition at the Drik Gallery in the capital city Dhaka in June 2019 where a few pieces of his work were sold. That was Malcolm’s last earnings.

Despite their wide differences, Malcolm and Halima had got together for better or for worse. That sense of love, dependence and respect is reflected in Malcolm’s pictures of Bangladesh.

Halima Begum said, I no longer worry about myself. But I feel utterly helpless when I see this man who left everything to come here and live with me, fading away in this manner.

There are quite a few of Malcolm’s paintings and sketches in their home still. If anyone is interested in these works of art, they can call +8801736676598. Who knows, with a little interest and enthusiasm from everyone, perhaps Malcolm will get back a little colour in his life.

* This report appeared in Prothom Alo online and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir