I'm Sorry, Choles Ritchil
[Daily Star, April 6, 2007]
I'm sorry, Choles Ritchil. I didn't believe the evidence of your body. I kept thinking the torture report was a hysterical invention. So much damage to one corpse, it seemed impossible. No, it is impossible. Isn't it? It must all be lies. Those human rights groups, we know they always exaggerate -- just to get foreign funding and create a bad image for Bangladesh.
I'm sorry, because I couldn't find the courage. We're all so invested in getting out of the AL-BNP strangle corridor, we're so euphoric that the godfathers are being arrested, we don't want to upset the process by drawing attention to your case. Must be an aberration, somebody got a little too enthusiastic. Anyway, let's move on. For heaven's sake, don't make a fuss.
I'm sorry, because I couldn't find tears. How easy it was to dismiss your face on that poster. You look nothing like me. You have what my classmates so crudely called "chinky eyes". No one in my family has ever married anyone who looks like you, and even if we did we would make sure you converted to our religion. You see, you don't really exist. This is a country for Bengalis, not anyone else. Now you realize that, slowly, surely.
I'm sorry, because I read Nirmalendu Goon's poem with a stony heart. Then I busied myself with translating it. E-mailing friends and asking, What is Chuniya village? Is Goon being sarcastic about March and "freedom"? Is "elegy" a better translation than "requiem"? Distracting myself with aesthetics, anything to blank out the memory of those pictures.
I'm sorry, because when a blogger posted the report, somebody else complained about the gruesome picture. The picture was quietly removed to page 2. A nice disclaimer was added: "Warning: Graphic Photo". Anything to protect our delicate sensibilities. How inconsiderate of you to die with so many wounds.
I'm sorry, because I said to a Pahari friend the other day, "Welcome to shadhin Bangla", and she replied, "Ami tho Bangali na, how am I shadhin?" I laughed and dismissed her. Oh these people! They will never be satisfied. What do you want anyway? Land rights? Your Language? Parliament Seats? Ministries? Quotas? Autonomy? Come on, that was for us, that was 1969. It's 2007 now. Don't you remember what Sheikh Mujib said? "From today you are all Bengalis." And some of you are now dead Bengalis, that's equality.
I'm sorry, because I know how this will go down. There will be outrage. NGOs will issue memorandum. Bloggers will buzz. Newspapers will write. Thrithio Matra will debate pros and cons. Seminars will be cranked out. And always, some "hero" filmmaker will make a documentary and win awards. Then, just as quickly, we will forget. Amnesia is our gross national product.
I'm sorry, Choles Ritchil. You lived and died protecting the Adivasi people and Modhupur land you believed in. You were gentle and nonviolent, and we paid you back in a different coin.
I'm sorry, because I'm a citizen of a nation that after 36 years fails to see you as anything more than a nuisance. My class, ethnicity and religious privilege (and army family) gives me insurance to write these words. You don't have any such protection -- naked to the world, to Eco Park, and to our vengeful fury.
But don't think you're an agacha on our national boto brikkho. When there are visiting dignitaries or sports events, your people are very useful. You sing, you dance, you wear exotic, colorful clothes. A readymade National Geographic tableau. "Hill People of CHT". "Gentle People of Modhupur Forest". Ah, the permutations are endless.
We want to keep all of you in a museum vitrine, and bring you out on special occasions -- when we need a dash of color. But please don't demand your rights. And don't even think of raising your voice. Etho boro shahosh! You see what happened to Choles. Don't make us be sorry again.