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They told me you were quiet. But I felt the rage in your silence. That when you spoke, they rose above themselves. I felt their fear. That they held you amid them. I felt their loneliness. They pointed to the Koroi tree where you would all meet. The banyan tree under which you spoke. Ever so powerfully. They pointed to the mud floor, where you slept. I touched the mat that you had rested upon, and I knew I had found the vessel that must hold your image.

Fig. 1. Sadia Marium (Shahidul Alam's assistant) holding up a straw mat with laser etched image of Kalpana's warrior Amena Mohsin - a teacher in the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 1. Sadia Marium (Shahidul Alam's assistant) holding up a straw mat with laser etched image of Kalpana's warrior Amena Mohsin - a teacher in the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

They had tried to erase you, your people, your memory. They had torched your homes and when coercion failed, when you remained defiant, they took you away, in the dead of night.

As an artist I have imagined. What might the tree that you may have leaned upon, when you had cried out the last words ever to have been heard from you “Dada moré basa” (Brother save me), have seen? Did a torn bit of fabric linger on a thorny leaf? Did the sweat of your palm leave an organic stain?

Fig. 2. Section of bark of a tree that Kalpana had leaned upon, on her last Journey, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 2. Section of bark of a tree that Kalpana had leaned upon, on her last Journey, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.
Fig. 3. A fragment of Kalpana's orna (cloth worn generally over the chest by Bangladesh -mostly Muslim- women), 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 3. A fragment of Kalpana's orna (cloth worn generally over the chest by Bangladesh -mostly Muslim- women), 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

What secret did the soil on your worn shoe hold, as it yielded to your weight and that of the military boots that fateful night? Did the muddy swamp, where the footprints had left their mark, know what the courts were unwilling to hear? Did the diary written in your own hand, with quotes and observations of a revolutionary who championed her people’s freedom, hold the words that would give a clue? Did the leaf by the bazaar where you had the altercation with Lieutenant Ferdous, silent amongst many human witnesses who were able to speak but stayed quiet or whose words were ignored, say what others couldn’t?

Fig. 4. Segment of Kalpana's mud-stained shoe, found by the water where she was last seen, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 4. Segment of Kalpana's mud-stained shoe, found by the water where she was last seen, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.
Fig. 5. The word ‘Action’ written in Kalpana’s diary, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 5. The word ‘Action’ written in Kalpana’s diary, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.
Fig. 6. The word ‘fear’ written in Bangla, in Kalpana’s diary, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 6. The word ‘fear’ written in Bangla, in Kalpana’s diary, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.
Fig. 7. Magnified view of leaf at bazaar where Kalpana and Lieutenant Ferdous had an altercation shortly before her disappearance, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.Fig. 7. Magnified view of leaf at bazaar where Kalpana and Lieutenant Ferdous had an altercation shortly before her disappearance, 2013, courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

The leaves burned as the soldiers stood and watched. The same leaves the paharis (hill people) weave to make your mat. The same leaves I shall burn, to etch your image. Will the burning mat hold your pain? Will the charred leaves hold your anger? Will the image rising from the crisp ashen leaves reignite us? Will you return, Kalpana?

You had reminded us that a nation that fought oppression could not rule by oppressing. That a people that fought for a language could not triumph by suppressing another’s. That the martyrs who died, so we might be free, did not shed their blood so we could become tyrants. That we who overcame the bullets and bayonets of soldiers must never again be ruled through the barrel of a gun.

That, Kalpana, is what binds us. That is why, Kalpana, you are not a Pahari, or a woman, or a Chakma, or a Buddhist, but each one of us. For there can be no freedom that is built on the pain of the other. No friendship that relies on fear. No peace at the muzzle of a gun.

For more than two decades I have waited, my unseen sister. For more than two decades they have waited, your warriors. Pahari, Bangali, men, women, young, old. Was it what you said? What you stood for? Was it because you could see beyond the land, and language, the shape of one’s eyes and see what it meant to be a citizen of a free nation? For Pahari, Bangali, Bihari, man, woman, hijra, rich, poor, destitute, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, animist.

These, Kalpana, are your warriors. They have engaged in different ways, at different levels, sometimes with different beliefs. Some have stayed with you from the beginning. Others have drifted. They have not always shared political beliefs. But for you, Kalpana, my unseen sister, they fight as one.


A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam founded the award winning Drik agency in Dhaka,as well as the Bangladesh Photographic Institute, Chobi Mela festival, Majority World agency and the Pathshala, school of photography. His work has been widely shown internationally, including at MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern London, Museum of Contemporary Arts Tehran.

Author’s note:

Indigenous activist Kalpana Chakma was taken from her home in the early hours of the morning on June 12, 1996, allegedly by members of the Bangladesh military and paramilitary forces, and has not been seen since. As a photographer, I have tried to produce tangible visuals of a scene that has been made intangible, through the passage of time, through the deliberate “loss” of crucial evidence, through the layers of bureaucracy that has allowed silt to collect.

The early photographs (2013) were taken using a Zeiss StereoDiscovery V8 Stereo Microscope – Plan S 1.0x objective and a Zeiss Axio Imager Z1 Upright Microscope – Plan Neofluar 5x objective. 405 nm fluorescence excitation. 420–480 nm fluorescence emission at the Queensland Brain Institute, in Brisbane, Australia.

The latter part of the work (2015) involved using a gobo made of the kitchen sieve that paharis use, to create a speckled light source. The RAW files were then converted to greyscale and then to bitmap images and then digitally screened. In the process, the 16-bit images were sequentially converted to 1-bit images. The bitmap images were then etched onto the straw mats using a laser beam of 10.6 μm wavelength at frequencies ranging from 0 to 130 KHz. Optimum gradation was obtained by varying the intensity and duration of the laser beam.