The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
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We will not be silenced

By Mike van Graan

Let us remind you”

They say

These new tyrants

Grown deaf with their own propaganda

Drunk on the spoils of incumbency

And their patrons’ gifts

Blinded by the arrogance

Of too-long

Too-much power

It is us who brought you freedom

If it were not for us

You would not have the right to write

What you like

To say as you please

To insult us with your poems

Your naked paint

Your twisted tunes and

Crass cartoons

Show some respect”

They say

These bloated 1994 pigs

Ten years late to the Orwellian trough

Fast having made up for time lost

Caricatures of that which once they said they loathed

Would have us silent

In the face of betrayal

Would have us genuflect

To them as lords

When first they promised they would serve

Hear this

You thieves of dreams

You robbers of hope

Who seek to balaclava your looting

With radical rhetoric

That springs hollow from

Your empty hearts

Your false smiles

Your crooked tongues

Ours are freedoms we carry in our hearts

They were not yours to give

They are not yours to take

The freedoms written in our hearts

Will find expression

On the streets

In our workplace

On our stages

In the voting booths

So make your hay

While your sun goes down

For soon our onward march

Will footnote you to history