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Shahidul Alam writes to Shakthika Sathkumara - Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019

Friday 15 November 2019 - 8:00am

Shakthika Sathkumara (from Sathkumara's Facebook account)

It was on this very day, on PEN's Day of the Imprisoned Writer, on the 100th day I was behind bars, when I heard through the deafening shouts of other prisoners also trying to hear and be heard, that Arundhati Roy had written to me. That letter made a world of difference to me and to my fellow prisoners. It meant that despite what governments might do to us, despite their hope that we shall just curl up and be quiet, despite the many ways through which they try to buy our silence, we continue to speak, through words, photographs, cartoons and poems. I was strengthened, as I hope you will be, by the knowledge that there are countless others out there who continue to stand by our side. Come what may.

As I write these words, thirty-five thousand feet above the ground, I have no idea of how or when or if, you will get to read this, but the words are not just for you, Shakthika. They are for you, for me, and for free spirits everywhere who continue to value justice and believe in the dignity and freedom of fellow human beings.

We both know what it is like to be behind bars. To be deprived of freedom. To be denied the touch and the warmth of our loved ones. To be free to walk in the rain, to sing out loud, to hold a child. But what value is ‘freedom’ if it is not a freedom to be different, to question, to go against the grain? Our quest cannot simply be to return from this obscene incarceration, to a more comfortable confinement which lacks independent thought and expression.

It took time for Arundhati’s letter to reach me, but I knew it had been written, and even that unread letter nourished me and my fellow prisoners. I wonder what happens to unread letters? To the love, the warmth, the longing they carry. Words surely have a wormhole of their own and cannot be constrained by the physical limitations repressive regimes try to corral us with.

I hope that on Human Rights Day, the day of your next hearing, they will drop the proceedings that unjustly bind you. That you can return to work and to us knowing you have been vindicated. We will be there with you in spirit, as we are with you now. I used to feed sparrows in my jail cell. They had the freedom to fly in and out. I hope you know that even in these strange countries where we live and these countries that we love, where sparrows have greater freedom than poets and philosophers and artists who dare to think differently, you are not alone.

There are others in your island and others across the sea, who continue to raise their voice in solidarity. They raise their voice for justice, for freedom, for equality and for the right to think differently. They raise their voice for you.

With a warm hug,