In late July, after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he criticised the Bangladesh Government, award-winning writer, photographer, and human rights activist Shahidul Alam was taken away by law enforcement officers. Bangladesh was bubbling over with protests at that time, as students had taken over the streets to protest against deaths on roads. Alam was reportedly tortured and detained for more than 100 days. One bench at the court did not hear his case, saying it found it 'embarrassing;' other benches delayed the process, another declined to proceed without giving reasons.
Shahidul was one of the five cases PEN International selected on 15 November, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Renowned Indian writer and activist, Arundhati Roy, wrote a letter addressed to him, expressing her concern, anguish, and anger over his imprisonment. PEN Centres around the world campaigned for him.
Soon, the court granted him bail. Charges against him remain.
In this response to his friend Arundhati, Shahidul thanks her - and yearns for a future without injustice, a future that is peaceful.
It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.
Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time.
I imagined other letters. The one Shiv Viswanathan had written when Binayak Sen had been sentenced for sedition, or the one Rahgu Rai wrote asking that I be freed. But this one was not to a prime minister. It had been written for me. To me. There are no pigeons in Keraniganj, and sparrows are perhaps too small to carry letters. As I fed them from my window, I could imagine one carrying across a tiny wad of paper, carefully tied to its feet. Paper I would unfold gently, smoothing the creases. It would have been a letter I had read before it was written.
I could read your letter, not because I remember you sitting across your wooden table in your open kitchen. Not because I remember you rubbing noses with Maati Ke Laal as she interrupted our chat, insisting on not being ignored. Not because of Sanjay’s book on Kashmir, which we had opened together. My reading relied on our shared legacies, on our collective griefs, on the struggles we both face as autocrats rule our lands. You have Kashmir and we have the Chittagong Hill Tracts. You have ‘encounters’ and we have ‘crossfire’. ‘Goom’ we both share. We both live in what are called democracies, though we know we lack voice.
Your book weaves complex characters, the absurdities and the beauty that is India. It finds the calm within the chaos. A moment of kindness, within the grotesque injustice. I look around me and see hijras in the high security cells in Surjamukhi. Occasionally they walk out, their bright saris, glowing amidst the drab clothes of other prisoners. They remind me of your Anjum. Of your Saddam, as I see Koutuk da feeding the cats, making his way to those pretentiously named jail buildings, Jamuna, Meghna, Korotowa and Padma, seeking out the one that might have missed its meal. As I speak to prisoners falsely charged, and left to rot in a legal system that lets people be forgotten, and the Sharbahara man Tipu Biswas, his eyes glowing with passion, insisting on justice even in jail, I am reminded of your Musa, defiant against the odds.
It was here in Keraniganj that I met Badal Farazi, wrongfully charged by Indian courts, and eventually sent to Bangladesh. Ten years in jail for a crime, the courts knew he could not have committed. My government too scared to speak against this utter wrongness of Indian justice. Too scared to upset the big brother. Keraniganj was where top terror Joseph had been. Released through a presidential pardon, whisked away in the middle of the night and sent overseas. In my case it had taken six attempts before bail had finally been granted. They had tried to block my bail just as they had tried to stop me from sleeping on a bed, or getting access to a doctor. Even after bail was granted, they had tried to prevent my release. But we triumphed in the end, and we held hands and sang songs as I left the jail gate. The case still hangs over my head and the threat of bail being withdrawn is the threat they hope will silence my tongue, my pen and my camera. But the ink in our pens still run. The keyboards still clatter.
Yesterday we were in Dhakeswari Mandir. It was Taposh and Haimanti’s daughter Riddhi’s ‘mukhe bhat’, her first solid food. As they lit candles and circled the tulshi plant, I wondered if they would dig up the temple because they had heard of a mosque underneath. One more mosque to add to the 500 our prime minister has promised using Saudi money.
They swore in the new cabinet yesterday ‘I will faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter according to law: That I will bear true faith and allegiance to Bangladesh: And that I will not allow my personal interest to influence the discharge of my duties as a member of Parliament.’ Given that their very means of being there was based on an election where every rule had been flouted, the constitution abused, to protect their personal interest, this oath was particularly perverse. A slap on our face with sandals, a terrible insult in South Asia. They will sit in their duty-free cars, flags waving. They, the biggest lawbreakers in the land, will sit on boards of banks and schools. They will pass the new laws. They took their oath as a mother of four was writhing in hospital, gang-raped by party faithful, for having the audacity of voting the ‘wrong’ way.
But yes, Arundhati, the tide will turn, and the nameless, faceless people will rise. They will rise against the entire state machinery, now reduced to servility. They will rise as they did in ’71. They, who never clamoured for muktijoddha honours, who never claimed benefits for their children, who never wore Mujib coats in public. They, their children and their children’s children, will rise to bring back the core principles they had fought for. We will have secularism. We will have democracy. We will have social equality. We will win back this land.
I’ll see you in Dhaka. A humongous hug awaits.
Dhaka. 7th January 2019
Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”
This letter was first published on shahidulnews.com