Dear Honourable Commissioner
25 January 2019
A short story.
This news item is fact:
On 3 April 2015, the Dhaka Tribune reported:
Permission is now required to portray the police in film, on television and in other visual media, police authorities announced yesterday. Negative and comic representations of the police convey the wrong message and confuse the viewing public, Additional Deputy Commissioner (media and public relations) Jahangir Alam Sarker of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) told the Dhaka Tribune.
What follows is fiction.
Dear Honourable Commissioner,
Some people have contacts. Tap a few numbers with their fingers, and they can reach the ears of authority. Or if they’re burdened by one or more degrees of separation, they can call others with access to power.
Others, like your humble servant here, lack such reach. I appreciate the problem of pedigree; in the conventional sense, I am a nobody. But I have a plan and, should it work out, I shall become a somebody. And there will come a day when I shall not have to write this sort of plaintive appeal to someone in your position.
Today, I require your assistance. Pardon the boldness with which I write these lines.
Some weeks ago, I read in the newspapers that permission will now be required for portraying the police in film, television or ‘other visual media’. For a minute or two, I wasn’t sure whether words on a printed page constituted visual media. But I thought not. You must have meant YouTube.
The news placed me in a quandary. I had just finished writing a short story that included a police character – actually, two. So what, you must be saying, a story isn’t film or television or even YouTube. But, sir, I wrote this story with great ambition, fully intending to turn it into a script. Everyone knows there is no money in writing short stories. If you’re one of the literary elite, the newspapers might ask you to write for their Eid supplements and you get some cash, varying according to your prestige. When you’re an unknown, you’re out of luck. It’s well known, though, that those who write scripts for television drama and serials can make a lot of money.
Let me start with some basic details. I understand that one cannot approach the police without proper identification.
My name is Mohammed Aminur Rahman; national ID number: XXXXXXXXX6753. Father’s name: Latifur Rahman. Mother’s name: Anowara Begum. I hail from Waruk Bazaar, Shahrasti Upazilla, Chandpur District. I finished my Higher Secondary Certificate from Victoria College, Comilla, and completed a BCom from there as well. I started work with Teletalk in Comilla and was transferred to Dhaka when I was 25 years old. I am married to Saleha Bibi and we moved to Dhaka together. We managed to find a flat in Arjotpara. I work in Badda, and she works at an Aarong shop in Lalmatia. We currently have no issue, though change is imminent on that front.
Though I work in service, my real passion is writing stories. As mentioned above, I am an aspiring TV and cinema writer. I write short stories now, and once they are published, I shall convert those stories into screenplays and pitch them to the TV networks. By which time, I should have developed a small fan club, since my books will come out timed for the Ekushey Boi Mela. Rest assured, dear honourable Commissioner, I am fully in tune with current trends and intend to make maximum use of Facebook and Twitter to advertise my books.
This plan will only work if I get your assistance.
Can you imagine the feelings that swirled within me upon reading the news report about the necessary permission? I could have given up that story I was working on and started a new one, but I had already written a decent draft. My first reader, my dear wife Saleha, gave it her seal of approval. One weekend, after watching three or four serials on TV –both Hindi and Bangla – she came to me with a look of disgust on her face and said, “Your writing is much better. The story you wrote is a lakh times superior to this rubbish on TV.” Her praise is something to take very seriously. She has a degree in literature, while mine was in commerce. It would be a total shame to throw away such a story.
So, I waited for the newspapers to print an official notice from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP).
And I waited.
And I waited.
Every day, over the last few weeks, on the way home from Farmgate to our flat in Arjotpara, I trudged over to the hawker’s stall and, despite enduring the annoyance of the man and his cronies, I looked through all the major Bangla and English daily newspapers. I simply could not find the official notice. There were many postings for tenders (asking for bids for constructing police outposts, officers’ messes, policewomen’s barracks), for jobs (computer operators, cooks, even weightlifters and greasers), and there were other proclamations from other government departments – but not the official notice I was expecting from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
After seven days of browsing through his newspapers and putting them back, the hawker banned me from his stall. I then started visiting another hawker’s stall in Mohakhali. This time it took three days for him to ban me. I am surprised by how keen the eyes of these vendors are. I look like ten thousand other customers; how did he know it was me coming back to browse through those newspapers?
But it’s hard to blame the hawkers for their disrespect. I too work in customer service, at a mobile phone operator, and I know I wouldn’t stand for someone coming and rummaging through our goods day after day.
Who do I blame? I beg your pardon, sir, but alas, I am forced to say that the blame must fall upon the DMP. I say that with utmost respect, sir. My fear is that if I say this, it could be portrayed as a negative portrayal of the police. But, sir, you are the ones who submitted a press release to the newspapers about such an important new directive, and you failed to put out an official notice as an advertisement. Yes, I know that the original news report noted that letters had been sent to television, media and film companies. But I do not yet have any connections there, so I have no access to the details that must have been spelt out in those letters.
The lack of connections is, of course, a serious problem. My dear wife Saleha has always insisted that side by side with my writing, I should start to build connections. But she and I have a difficulty, perhaps an impossible one; we are from the mofussil. We do not yet have many connections in the city. One day we shall, but I have always insisted to dear Saleha that product must come first. So, I have put in my vim, vigour and all energies in writing the stories. Once we have a good product, appreciated by readers, connections will surely follow.
Dear Honourable Commissioner, by sending your official letter only to a small coterie of people, you are forgetting people like me. I am sure that there are others in my situation. But I could not believe that the DMP would overlook us. It must have been an oversight by some low-level clerk in your office; they must have failed to send out the official notice to the newspapers. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting move. In that case, the official notice must have been distributed through your own organisational channels. I decided that it was time to stop harassing hawkers and get right to the source: I would visit a police station.
That thought actually came to me while I was on the Number 6 bus, coming back from Notun Bazaar to Farmgate. This one had diverted via Gulshan 2 and was traveling past the Gulshan police station.
I noticed the cars outside the station, on the road and the footpath, covered with what looked like decades of dust. I swear they looked like the ones I had seen ten years ago at the same spot. I can understand that in your work you need to impound some vehicles, but why not have a lot somewhere else where such cars could be parked, away from the public eye? They are such an eyesore. But then I do understand that beautification of the city is not the concern of the police. Sir, you would probably admonish me that if my sense of decorum was that disturbed, I should take my complaint to another department. Surely there’s some department concerned with city beautification. But clearly after living in our city where beauty is rare to come by without looking very hard, my sense wasn’t offended all that much. We come to accept many things.
When the bus stopped at Agora, I jumped off. It had just occurred to me that we had just passed by a police station where I could inquire about the new policy.
I walked in and approached the desk. I had a clipping of the aforementioned newspaper article (two, actually; one in Bangla, one in English). I showed them to the officer on duty and asked for the form.
“What form?” he asked.
“The form that must have been produced as part of this regulation.”
He read the story again, and pointing to the relevant paragraphs, said, “Letters have been sent out.”
“I understand that. But that was just to a few companies. What about the rest of us? Where’s the form for the rest of us?”
“There is no such form.”
“How can you be sure? Every regulation must have some form. That is dictated by centuries of tradition. You have forms for filing a General Diary, right?”
“You have forms to register a newspaper or magazine?”
“There are, but we don’t handle that.”
“There must be forms to apply for the approval of a film from the Censor Board, right?”
“Yes, but the Censor Board will have those.”
I insisted that since this was a regulation from the DMP, there must be a form available from the police. Perhaps it had not yet been circulated through the channels. Could he ask someone else? He was not pleased with my suggestion, and after some back and forth, where I reminded him of his duty and the declarations of the police to serve the citizenry, he sent for someone.
While I waited, I looked around and tried to remember something about this particular station. I voraciously read the newspapers – though Saleha has forced me to cut down our three subscriptions to one – filing away in my head stories that might come into use someday. I think I could remember a story from 2006, in the months before the Fakruddin-Moinuddin caretaker government.
There had been some type of scuffle at the Shooting Club where Niketan meets Gulshan 1, and some of the sportsmen had gotten into some fisticuffs with some policemen. The newspapers had carried accounts of the men being beaten mercilessly by the police. They were apparently beaten with tree branches, lathis and hockey sticks. On the soles of their feet, on their arms, on their legs and backs, and even on their heads. This was retribution for laying hands on the police. They were even threatened with death by crossfire. The news wasn’t particularly surprising, but one thing had caught my eye. Hockey sticks. It was a revelation to me that the police stations stocked hockey sticks. Upon further inquiry, I have learned that the police have hockey leagues, but is there reason to stock the sticks in the thana? Is there even a field nearby where they can play? I was then reminded that hockey sticks had entered our daily parlance in the 1980s with the rise of goondafied student politics. It was strange that something with such sordid origins would have graduated to the realm of the police, or perhaps it was just the result of the stockpiling of hockey sticks confiscated from the student goondas.
I thought again about those newspaper reports of the beatings at this very police station. Such reports might provide a ‘negative portrayal’ of the police far more than a movie or TV show could. Dear honorable Commissioner, perhaps you might release a regulation requiring prior approval of newspaper articles about the police. But filling out forms, waiting for permission, etc might take too much time from the daily news cycle. Perhaps then you might consider having a police officer resident at every newspaper office. In Iraq, the Pentagon had embarked on a policy of embedding journalists with their troops. You might take a leaf out of their playbook and reverse the situation: embed police officials inside the media offices.
The officer on duty beckoned me and said, no, there is no such form. “You might try the Post Office; they carry many forms.”
I looked at my watch. There was no way I would make it to a post office that day.
It took another two weeks before I was able to find time to visit a post office during open hours. When I entered the Tejgaon office, stepping away from the sun outside, I felt relieved to be inside this cavernous old building. It would provide a few minutes of shade. I faced the wide counters but could not see a single person serving behind any of the windows. There were half a dozen people working at their desks. I approached a window, waiting for someone to notice me. I waited. And I waited. The employees at their desks even cast glances in my direction a few times, but they did not budge from their chairs. I eventually waved a few times before I caught someone’s attention. With a raised thumb, he pointed to the corner.
The only door I could see was marked with a sign, probesh nishedh: entry prohibited. Was I really supposed to go in there? Sir, I am a dutiful, obedient follower of laws, rules and procedures. How was I to go through that door? Then I noticed a few men walking in and out of that door who didn’t appear to be postal employees. I followed one man who was about to enter. And after waiting for others to be taken care of, I was finally able to talk to someone.
“Form?” he asked. “What form?”
I showed him the press clippings.
No, he had not heard of any such forms. Why would they carry police forms? He asked me to go to a police station.
I said I had and it was they who had directed me here.
He cursed under his breath. “Then the only thing to do is to go straight to the top. You have to go to DMP headquarters.”
Dear Honourable Commissioner, my distress only grew worse. It had now been two months since your regulation was released, and I was no closer to finding the official notice or the form. You may appreciate my urgency when you realise that there was a delicate personal matter at stake. You see, my wife is expecting, and it was now four months before the baby would arrive. I knew that once the baby arrived, it would be extremely difficult to pursue this approval of my story from the police. I had to complete this task urgently.
I decided to take a day off and visit the DMP HQ. Alas, my fate. The day would have to fall on the day of an opposition march to the headquarters and an attempted blockade. I could get nowhere near the building. I waited for hours for the blockade to clear, but the opposition activists and the police faced off against one another for all those hours. Then the police let loose with tear gas, and everyone dispersed. I had a keen sense that this was about to happen and had beat a hasty retreat towards Ramna Park. I took lunch at an eatery on Topkhana Road and returned to DMP HQ. There was the acrid smell of the gas still in the air and I had to take the handkerchief out of my pocket and breathe through it. I made it to the gate of the building but there remained a small cordon of police constables and they would not let me in. Everyone seemed suspicious. They directed me to the Ramna Post Office instead. I said I had already visited a post office and was looking for a form that only the DMP HQ might carry. I could not budge them.
One police officer said, “We are digitised now. Try the website.”
But sir, Saleha and I are constrained with our finances and cannot afford a broadband connection at home, though I do have a computer where I write my stories. I realised that I would have to visit an internet café. Thankfully, these were open in the evening and on holidays as well.
I usually go to a cybercafé in Farmgate, but when I arrived this time, the power was out in the building. I looked for another cybercafé. I looked around the hundreds of signboards and located one across from where I stood. It was one of those cybercafés with tall booths. You know what goes on inside those places. I signed in and went into a booth. The computer seemed more battered than the ones in the café I used. But the connection seemed fast enough.
I launched a browser and found the DMP website. I scoured every link from the menu, but my search proved fruitless. The only form I could find was for police verification of one’s identity. I even browsed through the press release links but couldn’t find one about the new regulation. Then I found myself distracted by the page about unclaimed bodies. What hell had I entered now? This was sad beyond belief. There were photos of bodies in various states of decomposition. Some bore signs of torture, no doubt from criminal gangs. Our police forces would not tolerate torture. I believe there’s even a high-court order banning torture.
I had to move my mind away from those images. Perhaps absentmindedly, perhaps not, I searched through the browser history. As I had suspected, the prior users had mostly been looking for pornographic material. I read a couple of choti stories. You must understand, sir, it was merely to distract myself from the gruesome images of corpses. But as a writer, I have to admit, some of the writers showed a keen sense of detail. The dialog, however, was atrocious, as usual.
My heart was sinking. I didn’t know how I would be able to find a copy of the official DMP policy and form. In the end I realised that I would have to make my own application form. Hence this letter. Please find below the draft of an application form seeking approval for depicting police characters in a fictional story Perhaps you may consider this as a template to create your own form (if you don’t have one already).
1. Title of story:
2. Plot summary:
3. Description of police characters:
4. On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being very negative and 5 being very positive, please choose where your police characters fit in that range?
5. If your scoring is 1-3, please clarify your intention (100 words). If your scoring is 4-5, you need not explain; it is self-explanatory.
6. On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being very comic and 5 being boringly serious, please choose where your police characters fit?
7. If your scoring is 1-2, please clarify your intention in 100 words. Please avoid using academic language. If your scoring is 4-5, please clarify why you have chosen to cast your characters in a boring and serious register. If your scoring is 3, you need not explain; it is self-explanatory.
Please sign and submit to the nearest police station.
Dear Honourable Commissioner,
I appreciate that the draft form might require some modifications. I am certain that there are more qualified personnel in your department to undertake such a task. I offer the draft in the spirit of volunteerism, as an act of citizen support for the esteemed police. Once you approve this form and circulate it for distribution, I will be the first person to fill it out. I would have filled it out right now, but it seems it might be wasted effort to do so without prior approval.
Your humble servant, but also your fellow citizen,
Md. A. Rahman
~Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator, originally from Bangladesh, now resident in California. His first book, Killing the Water: Stories, was published in 2010 by Penguin Books India. His second book, a translation of Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins India. His fiction, nonfiction, and translations have been published in such magazines and anthologies as Papercuts, Oakland Noir, Brooklyn Magazine, Scroll India, Dhaka Tribune, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today and Wasafiri.