Visions for A Grassroots Praxis of Technology

[From the concluding chapter of my doctoral dissertation “A Grassroots Praxis of Technology: View from the South”]

My work with the grassroots social movements of the U.S. South to the extent I have reported in my dissertation is by no means a conclusive work on the broader agenda that I set out to do in the field of computing. This is to say, the agenda to construct and practice resistance and accountability against hegemonic technology cultures of the world has always been and is going to be, a long term project beyond the scope of a dissertation. Perhaps, beyond the scope of the academy altogether — who are we to set the rules for how the culture we bet our livelihoods on gets dismantled? But at the same time, a liberatory future of technology should not be the burden of over-burdened community organizations alone. My work of helping build a local movement and helping sustain a regional one has been an exploration in finding the balance with which I can use both parts of identity — a technology scholar in Western academia and a community organizer from the Global South — to actively help build that future.

Specifically, in my dissertation, I have shared how I established meaningful research partnerships with two grassroots social movement organizations — -the local organization of Science for the People, Atlanta (SftP-Atlanta), and the regional movement of Southern Movement Assembly (SMA) — both based in the U.S. South. Although my work with these two organizations produced academic outcomes — both conceptual and material — my relationship with these communities has been rooted in my volunteer commitments of social movement work I did with them. Participatory action research, the primary method of inquiry that I employed for this work, gave me a unique opportunity to conduct community-centered research rooted in transnational solidarity over the cultural connection of the South.

In this blog post, in what follows, I want to share a synthesis of my dissertation, the key contributions I make, and the broader impact of my work as I see it. Next, continuing to reflect on my dissertation I share some of my personal takeaways from this work. I hope to channel these takeaways into my future work.

Summary & Contributions

I see the scholarly outcomes of my dissertation to be contributing to the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work(CSCW) and broader Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). CSCW research has long established the importance of understanding situated uses of information communication technologies (ICTs). To understand technology, we need to understand the dynamics of both its production and use. Understanding ICTs in use can certainly uncover the needs, purposes, and motivations of users — -as have been studied extensively with CSCW research on appropriation. That said, my focus in this dissertation has been to posit technology-use as a way of understanding the cultures of technology production.

This particular way of looking is not new to CSCW. For research within this discipline that particularly engages with modern critical theories this has been a long-standing project: what does it mean to rethink the technological object, to move away from “the myth of the lone creator of new technology on the one hand, and the passive recipients of new technology on the other?” In her foundational piece “Located Accountabilities in Technology Production,’’ Lucy Suchman suggests that “for technology designers and developers, the basic change implied by rethinking the technological object is from a view of design as the creation of discrete devices, or even networks of devices, to a view of system development as entry into the networks of working relations — including both contests and alliances — that make technical systems possible.” Reconstructing technology relations, as Suchman puts it in that article, was a call to action.

With my work and my dissertation, I see myself primarily as responding to this call. In many ways, my finding of the fact that modern ICTs create a division within communities of practice is something that we already knew. My findings confirmed this truth. We further knew that users have been working around these gaps — -by training themselves to gain more expertise, to catch up to digitization of work and workplaces. We knew that designers and developers of modern technologies have been trying to be more aware of these gaps and further mitigate them with more user-centered, participatory approaches to design. Makers and marketers of corporate technologies, too, have extended their efforts to bridge the “digital divide” (for example, with their distribution of devices among the disadvantaged people, or, building better internet access in rural areas). My dissertation does not negate the validity of these efforts in any way, but it does urge us to rethink the fundamentals of what we have come to know as ICT-mediated digital gaps in communities.

The work of reconstructing technology relations, as I established through my work, goes beyond providing token access to technology devices and the ability to appropriate or even create custom technology artifacts for organizational goals. I argue that it also urges designers, developers, practitioners, and users to examine technology-mediated exclusions as extensions of structural harm. In this way, I see my dissertation to be broadly contributing to ways in which CSCW designers and researchers can approach fraught technology relations in communities of practice that are also victims of structural oppression.

To do so, I took on a method that allowed me, as a researcher, to be aware of the ways in which power and privilege are intertwined with the position of a technology scholar. Participatory action research (PAR), as a method, allowed me to switch roles — between a researcher and an activist. It also offered me space to reflect on my own experiences with both technology and structural harm. I see this dissertation to be a contribution toward our methodological choices for how to reconstruct technology relations in communities. While PAR may not be the only way to conduct such research, the tools and practices that I mention throughout the dissertation can be incorporated in broader ethnography-based research in CSCW. Additionally, with my work, I posit (transnational) solidarity as a research ethic for researchers and designers who want to study and even help marginalized communities.

I further note that the work of reconstructing technology relations needs us to be first aware of the consequences of a fraught technology relation. With my first study with SftP-Atlanta, I contributed an understanding of exactly what is meant when we speak of modern ICTs being misaligned with liberatory goals. In that, I identified three core values — inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence — to be missing from the popular ICTs used by grassroots social movements.

With my second study with the regional movement of the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA), I contributed an additional layer to this understanding of the consequences of conflicted technology relations. I noted that with BIPOC communities organizing against structural oppression, and especially communities of the South, this conflict is often cultural. The framing of the culture, as this dissertation argues, is a particularly useful lens to look at technology-mediated structural exclusion. This study ultimately leads me to generate a theory for why using ICTs lead to exclusionary consequences even for communities that actively question structural exclusion. The theory suggests that these communities are often at an awkward intersection of technoculture of exclusion and technoculture of inclusivity. That is to say, while they need to rely on the ICTs and the culture of systemic exclusion they are often produced from, their adoption of ICTs also makes them inherit the cultural traits of ICT production. ICTs, much like other structural phenomena, reproduce their values in sites of their use. A key contribution of this study was the systematic analysis of structurally conflicted technology relations — particularly, in a regional community in the U.S. South.

Toward constructing a grassroots praxis of technology, that would address structural gaps perpetuated by technology, I further took a sociomaterial approach. That is to say, methodologically, I used a combination of material and discursive exploration of ICTs in the movement. Specifically, I organized three participatory workshops, collaboratively designed a handbook of movement communication, and contributed toward building a relational infrastructure for resisting ICT structures of a regional movement. A key contribution from this final part of my dissertation was the translation of a theory into practice — specifically, I worked on translating the theory of reproduction of ICT values I generated with my earlier study. I found the combined and iterative use of theory and practice to particularly be useful in surfacing the lived realities of ICTs. For instance, the theory I generated with the interview study only suggested that ICTs can reproduce their values onto the fabric of a community leading to complex implications for its culture. But it is only with the application of material and discursive practices of workshops and design that I could surface why such reproduction happens even in communities that actively stand against it. I posit that this is not only caused by values currently embodied by ICTs but also their enactment of ICTs is related to how the harm caused to them by technology systems and structures of the past. While this theory and the particular lived realities that the theory is grounded on can be seen as contributions on their own, I also present the overall sociomaterial approach as a useful technique for studying technology-use as a way to elicit hegemonic cultures of technology production.

Finally, I see my dissertation as an attempt in community-centered, praxis-oriented research. In this work, I am particularly committed to grassroots praxis, but beyond that, I see many opportunities for following a similar approach in community-centered research in CSCW with a commitment to a different base of theory and practice. In what follows, I share some of my personal takeaways from this dissertation and grassroots praxis in general.

Reflections & Visions for the Future

As a CSCW researcher and an individual committed to the cause of public accountability toward the hegemonic culture of technology, the most important thing I have gathered along the way is hope for a liberatory future of technology and society, for resistance to a hegemonic culture of technology is not only possible it is already happening. There is massive inequality on the side of resistance, we are outnumbered and over-exhausted, but we are here. The Southern Movement Assembly (SMA) frequently uses a slogan that goes “the seas are rising and so are we’’ — I have always taken several quiet moments to fully grasp the power in that slogan — all the countless times I have heard it. It speaks to the impossible challenge many communities — mostly indigenous, poor people of color living in coastal areas of the South — face against the rising temperature of the earth, the sea levels, and the climate capitalism driving it all. The slogan, “so are we’’ carries a stubborn faith in the power of the people, in their collective anger, because they are not only rising in number they are rising in their consciousness, visions, and strategies too. The consequences of climate change are more immediate and more fatal than the consequences of Big Tech in these communities, but if I had to take away a pearl of singular wisdom from the epistemologies of the South, it would be to never lose focus on the intersecting ways capitalism operates. Technologies of oppression are connected and mobilized, we who refuse to let them win have to be too. The slogan is also a reminder of the fact that no matter how big and overwhelming systems of oppression and erasure look like, the resistance can be just as loud and overpowering.

In my vision, a grassroots praxis of technology — one that I studied, designed, and theorized throughout this dissertation — will facilitate a carefully nuanced analysis of technology structures in the future. This future calls for a synergistic effort from both theory and practice — a phenomenon theorized in this thesis in the name of praxis. Portuguese economist Boaventura de Sousa Santos whose book “Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide’’ has substantively influenced my writing in this thesis, notes an ever-growing distance between theory and practice in the political Left. He describes in great detail how this distance has been well warranted, especially since “Eurocentric critical theory (and the political Left it founded) has not acknowledged: women, indigenous peoples, peasants, Afro-descendants, piqueteros, the unemployed, gays and lesbians, and the Occupy movement’’ — movements and social groups that —“dwell not in industrial urban centers but rather in remote sites, whether in the forests and river basins in India or up in the Andes and in the larger plains of Amazonia.” With this, Santos paints an important but frequently overlooked picture of the Global South and its deeply diverse epistemologies. While he sees the value in Eurocentric critical theory, he poses that it has perpetuated a deep discrepancy between what is stated in theory and what is happening in the field of liberation around the world — a discrepancy deeply rooted in the fact that these theories ignored the political existence of these global struggles. However, the disconnect between theory and practice has come with significant consequences for the political Left. For example, it has been largely failing at identifying what it is up against: is it aiming at replacing capitalism with a post-capitalist future, or is it attempting to replace neoliberalism with a type of capitalism with a more human face? I posit that the same can be argued for how we understand technology at the moment — our theories about technology getting detached from our understandings of contemporary technology practices carry the risk of this ambiguity too. Do we want to build technologies toward that post-capitalist future? Or do we want to replace one capitalist technoculture with another? As a well-documented example for the latter, we can take the trend of replacing the technoculture of product design with the technoculture of “design thinking’’ led by Silicon Valley . A grassroots praxis of technology — grounded in epistemologies of the Global South including the U.S. South — will urge designers, researchers, practitioners to take the former stance.

What does it mean to take this stance — practically and intellectually? In my dissertation, I reflected on what grassroots culture means for the regional movement of the SMA. Their commitment to grassroots praxis can be seen in the way they designed their movement structure, their mode of participatory decision-making, and perhaps most importantly how they stay ideologically open to form global solidarities. In my experience of the movement, they refuse to compromise on this commitment to grassroots culture for the sake of efficacy or political coherence. While the hegemonic culture of technology drove the movement to choose technical efficiency over inclusivity at times — the movement was fundamentally open to its growth beyond that pattern. A grassroots praxis of technology will similarly stay vigilant of the way the hegemonic technology culture may interfere with its commitment.

For this, we will need to sustain a culture of technology that prioritizes its own accountability, especially prioritizes to be held accountable by the people and communities hegemonic cultures have excluded for so long. A grassroots praxis of technology will be centered on community accountability. Accountability in this sense is not just an evaluation of how smoothly our tools function in communities, it is also an evaluation of whether our tools (and our designer selves) are needed in the community at all. My work with the SMA was a constant exploration in finding what works for the community — this required me to reject the belief often perpetuated in institutions of technology i.e. as technology scholars our only way to help communities is with new sociotechnical solutions involving novel artifacts. A preoccupation with novelty in technical artifice is both misguided and narrow-sighted. I was working with a community that carried wisdom predating industrial visions of the modern world — wisdom that was rooted in their survival against forced labor, migration, dehumanization of their core identities. Learning from how they relate to modern technology as well as what their technological imaginaries are proved to be more important and necessary than creating a novel technical “solution’’ in the name of grassroots design. Toward prioritizing community accountability, a grassroots praxis of technology will similarly prioritize marginalized cultures and their radical imaginaries over Eurocentric measures of technical efficacy and advancement.

The Role of Social Computing Technologies in Grassroots Movement Building

Grassroots social movement organizing is becoming increasingly dependent on communication technologies. In this paper, we ask: How can social computing systems support grassroots organizations in facilitating collective action through democratic participation? We did action research with Science for the People-Atlanta, both participating in the organization, making technology for and with them, and also studying their use of technology as they build up a grassroots movement. SftP-Atlanta is a social movement organization dedicated to building a grassroots movement around science activism.

The Atlanta chapter of Science for the People is a part of a broader national movement around radical practice of scientific research. SftP-Atlanta is built on a local community of scientists, researchers, and science enthusiasts. They all came together with the shared belief that scientific reasoning could be an extremely powerful tool to resist injustice. They believe activating scientific discourse among public would not happen without a re-imagination of the practice of science for the causes of social justice. Following the core values of SftP, the local chapter in Atlanta built their identity around a practice of science-activism that is inclusive, participatory, and accessible. Their plan of collective action toward this goal includes both short-term and long-term advocacy work. While their short-term collective action includes both taking part in activist events happening in and around Atlanta as well as organizing public-facing events to advocate for their cause of science-activism, their long-term collective action is a step-by-step process that was informed by methods of community-centered research.  

Grassroots movements are assumed to have spontaneous growth; however, from our research and experience in SftP-Atlanta we understand that this process requires intense planning and collaboration among all members. In SftP-Atlanta this collaborative process was supported by a combination of social and technological networks. SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical ecosystem is not monolithic, it is a complex infrastructure consisting of several online platforms (Google Tools, Slack, Facebook, the web platform that we co-designed), offline networks (bi-weekly meetings), volunteer activists, local norms and values, etc. Our investigation of the existing sociotechnical practices of SftP-Atlanta reveals that while the social computing technologies they chose to use served some of the instrumental purpose, they often lacked the social, moral, and political alignment with the causes of grassroots organizing. That is to say, while technologies were chosen with an expectation of being an “efficient” solution to some practical problems, the very choice of certain social computing technologies introduced new power relationships within the organization that were perceived as antithetical to the philosophical beliefs of the organization.

In this paper, we use Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of social action and the model of participatory communication theory inspired by Freire to make sense of the movement-building process of SftP-Atlanta. Freirean model provides a three-step, iterative process for sustainable movement building: forming a collective identity, moving toward collective action, and engaging in reflexive dialog. We analyze both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical practices in supporting the organization as they iteratively go through the phases of the Freirean model.

For instance, in the collective identity phase Google Drive was useful for the ten core members of the group who were researchers in different institutions. As the group grew and became more and more heterogeneous with different people with different comfort of technology, many members started feeling like Slack favored people who chose the platform to be used because they were already using slack for their jobs and excluded people who were not as proficient with technology which ended up reinforcing the already existing power dynamic within the organization leading to a conflicted identity. In the collective action phase, a task management feature of Slack was liked by many members that gave them a feeling of accomplishing something tangible. On the other hand in this same phase, when many events were being organized by SftP-Atlanta members shared how they weren’t comfortable with Facebook being the primary medium for events since their participation in the events were being broadcasted to their professional networks that they would not choose to share this information with. Finally in the reflex dialog phase, members pointed out how decision making through Slack was not sufficient since it did not adequately support the kind of transparency that a participatory decision making requires and as discovered in the identity phase it did not end up supporting the kind of equitable democracy SftP-Atlanta wanted to become. Our analysis of these tensions led us to identify inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence as three values desirable for sociotechnical practices of grassroots organizing.

With social movement organizing becoming increasingly dependent on social computing technologies (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, etc.) that were built with commercial values in mind, these conflicts become a default reality of movement building. However, these conflicts come with consequences that are not just ideological but also practical: how can a group democratically decide on issues when the decision-making tool that is supposed to facilitate that process disproportionately favors people who are more comfortable with technology? In our work, we provide a way of understanding and working around conflicts that may exist within the sociotechnical ecosystem of grassroots social movements.

You can read the entire paper here: (paywalled)

If you cannot access the paper from the above link, here is a freely downloadable preprint:

অপ্রেমের কাব্য

তোর সাথে আমার আলাপ কবে বা কিকরে কিছুতেই মনে পড়ে না। তোকে যখন ভাবি তখন কেবল তোর বড় বড় চোখদুটো মনে পড়ে – আর মনে পড়লে মনে হয় ঐ চোখ দুটোর সাথে আমার অনেক দিনের পরিচিতি। তোর চোখের সাথে আমার এই পরিচয়ের কোনও উল্লেখযোগ্য অতীত মনে পড়ে না – খালি মনে হয় – ওরা ছিল।

তোকে আমার এই চিঠি প্রেমের চিঠি। এখন দারুণ অপ্রেমের দিন। এইসব ঘোর অসময়ে মনে হয়, প্রেমের চিঠি একমাত্র তাকেই লেখা যায়, যার শরীরে অফুরান দয়া।

দয়া শব্দটা অদ্ভুত। বা হয়ত বাংলা ভাষাতে এই শব্দের এক অদ্ভুত প্রয়োগ ঘটেছে সর্বদা।  প্রভু তার ভৃত্য কে দয়া করেন। জমিদারের দয়ার উপর নির্ভর করে চাষির জীবন। গৃহিণীর দয়াতে জলখবার জোটে বাড়ির কাজের লোকের। তাও রোজ খাবার পেলে “ওদের” অভ্যেস খারাপ হয়ে যাবে, তাই পি সি চন্দ্রের নতুন স্কিমে তিন লক্ষ টাকা হেলায় দান করে এসে, সেই দয়ার পাটিগণিত কষতে হয় গিন্নিমাকে। আর দয়া করেন ভগবান তার ভক্তকে। আমার সীমিত ভাষাজ্ঞানে এবং অনুভবে লক্ষ্য করেছি দয়ার প্রবাহ মূলত একমুখীন – ক্ষমতাবানের ইচ্ছানুযায়ী, ক্ষমতার থেকে ক্ষমতাহীনের দিকে।

অথচ আমার আস্থা অন্য এক প্রকারের দয়াতে – ভাঙ্গাচোরা নারীদেহের দয়া। এ এক অদ্ভুত সঞ্জীবনী। এই দয়াকে সাহিত্যে লেখা হয় না, ইতিহাসে এর নাম পরাজয়। বছর দুই আগের এক দুপুরের কথা, তুই মনে করালি কত কত বছরের পর সেইদিন আমাদের কথা হচ্ছে। বললি, “ও আমাকে এখনোও ফোন করে জানো। মদ খেয়ে। ওর নতুন বান্ধবীর সাথে ঝগড়া হলে। ভোর সাড়ে চারটের সময় ফোন করে কাঁদে।” সেদিন তোর গলায় যে কষ্ট ছিল সেটা আমি আমার মধ্যে টের পাচ্ছিলাম – টের পাচ্ছিলাম আমার কানের লতিতে, ঠোঁটের কোণায়, বাম উরুতে, ডান স্তনে।

ভালবাসার অন্য নাম ক্ষয়? প্রতিটা নারী শরীরই কি আসলে শরীরের ধ্বংসাবশেষ ?

আমি তোকে সেসব না বলে জিগ্যস করেছিলাম, “তুই ফোন ধরিস কেন?”

তুই বলেছিলি, “কি করব বল? বুঝতে পারি ও কষ্টে আছে”

আমার আস্থা এই বেহিসেবি দয়াতে।

আমি আমার ছিন্নভিন্ন শরীর নিয়ে বসছি ইতিহাসের কাছে। ইতিহাসের এই ময়দানে পুরুষতন্ত্রের কাছে নারী শরীরের বারংবার পরাজয়। আমি প্রতিটি পরাভূত নারীর ঘন লোমে আস্থা রাখছি। আস্থা রাখছি বন্ধ্যা নারী শরীরের মাতৃত্বে, অগোছালো শাড়ীর নীচে পুরুষাঙ্গের গ্লানিতে, স্কুল-ফেরতা যে মেয়েটি কোনওরকমে ঢাকার চেষ্টা করছে নীল স্কার্টে  রক্তের দাগ, আমি আস্থা রাখছি তার আত্মবিশ্বাসে। আমার বিশ্বাস আমাদের এই অপ্রেমের কাব্যে।

এরপর হয়তো আমাদের হঠাৎ দেখা হবে কোনও মিছিলে। অসংখ্য মানুষের মুখ আর মুখোশ পেরিয়ে আমি খুঁজে নেব পরিচিত দুটো চোখ। মানুষের মুক্তির আকুল স্লোগানে গমগম করবে কলেজস্ট্রিট, আর সেইসব কোলাহলের মাঝেই ঘটে যাবে আমাদের গোপন সম্মেলন। ক্ষমতার বিরুদ্ধে অন্তিম সংঘর্ষে ঝাঁপিয়ে পড়ার ঠিক আগের মুহূর্তে, সখী, আমি তোকে জানিয়ে যেতে চাই বিপ্লবের কাছে আমার গোপনতম দাবীটুকু – একদিন, কোনও এক অসহায় রাত্রে, আমরা নিজেদের জন্যেও বরাদ্দ রাখতে পারব কিছুটা দয়া। সেইদিন, ইনশাল্লাহ, আমরা ঠিক ফোন কেটে ঘুমিয়ে পড়তে পারব পাশ ফিরে।

যে সব তুচ্ছ কারণে বেঁচে থাকা

যার কথা মনে পড়ার বিশেষ কোনও কারণ নেই, তার কথা মনে পড়ছে। বহুযুগ পরে তার গলার আওয়াজ শুনি সপ্তাহ দুই আগে। কথায় কথায় বলি, “খুব বেশিদিন বেঁচে থাকার কোনও কারণ দেখছি না।”

এটা কিছু নতুন নয়, সে নিজেও বহুবার জানিয়েছে তার জেলে যাবার পরিকল্পনা, উচ্চারণ করেছে আত্মহত্যার কথা। মৃত্যুকে নিয়ে আমরা দুজনেই বরাবর একটা আপাত বস্তুবাদী আবেগ থেকে আলোচনা করেছি। এটা লিখতে গিয়ে মনে হলো – বস্তুবাদী আবেগ বলে আদৌ কিছু হয় কিনা, হলেও তার কোনও তাত্বিক সংজ্ঞা আমার জানা নেই। তবু, এই যে যার কথা আজ মনে পড়ার কোনও কারণ ছিল না, তার সাথে আমার অনেক আলাপচারীতাকেই এই শব্দবিন্যাস দিয়ে বর্ণনা করা যায় বলে মনে হয়।

যার কথা মনে পড়ার কোনও কারণই নেই, সেই সে, তার অভ্যাসগত নাটকীয় ভঙ্গিতে বলে উঠল, “জানিনা সুচেতা। তোমার বাড়িতে যেদিন প্রথম গিয়েছিলাম তোমার সাথে আলাপ করতে, সেদিন তুমি একটা হলদে জামা পড়েছিলে। খানিক আলাপের পর আমাকে জিগ্যেস করলে আমি তোমার কাছে কাঁদতে পারব কিনা। আমাদের আলাপের মিনিট কুড়ির মধ্যে এই প্রশ্নটা তুমি করলে। আর আমিও বলে ফেললামঃ হ্যাঁ, পারবো। যখন মৃত্যুর কথা ভাবি তখন ওই মুহূর্তটার কথা মনে পড়ে। এই বিশাল পৃথিবীর অনন্ত কালের ইতিহাসের কাছে ঐ মুহূর্তটা কতটুকু ? অথচ মনে হয় এইরকম সব তুচ্ছ ঘটনার জন্যই বোধহয় মানুষ বেঁচে থাকে।”

এর সপ্তাহ দুয়েক পরে আমি সাইকায়াট্রিস্টের ঘরে পৌঁছই। বড় বড় জানলা দিয়ে প্রথম বিশ্বের নিরিবিলি পথঘাট দেখা যাচ্ছে। যা দেখলে মনে হয় এই পৃথিবীর একমাত্র সত্য হল পরিপাটি করে কাটা ঘাস আর রেশমের মত চকচকে রাস্তাঘাট। সেইসব মিথ্যের থেকে চোখ সরিয়ে নিয়ে আমি আমার অগোছালো তৃতীয় বিশ্বের যাপন উজাড় করে দিচ্ছি একজন সম্পূর্ণ অপিরচিত মানুষের কাছে।  হাসপাতালে তার পদ কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর। তার চোখ, মুখ, গায়ের রং, ময়লা রঙের শার্ট সবকিছু থেকে ঝরে পড়ছে সহমর্মিতা।  অনেকক্ষণ জলে ডোবা মানুষ বাতাসের সংস্পর্শে এলে যে ভাবে বেঁচে ওঠে, আমি তার সেই মায়াময় মুখের দিকে তাকিয়ে বিরামহীন বর্ণনা করে যাচ্ছি আমার জীবন, বীভৎস সব ভাবনা, রাতের পর রাত ঘুম না আসা, ভুতের ভয়, জেগে থাকার প্রতিটা মুহূর্তে আঘাতের ভয়, প্রেম, অপ্রেম, যাবতীয় দুঃস্বপ্ন যার থেকে পালাতে পালাতেই আমি তার ঘরের কোণার এই সোফাতে আপয়েন্টমেন্ট নিয়েছি। সে আমকে জিগ্যেস করল আমার শরীরের ইতিহাস, আমি তাকে বলছি নিজের শরীরের উপর অধিকার হারানোর ইতিহাস। বলতে বলতে হঠাৎ থমকে যাই, “I don’t know if I can call this one an assault”। কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর এতক্ষণ নোট নিচ্ছিলেন, তার কলম থামিয়ে তিনি এবার আমার দিকে তাকালেন; কি গভীর, দৃঢ়, অথচ মায়াময় তার চাহনি। আমাকে খানিক সময় দিলেন বিবেচনা করতে – নির্যাতনের দায় কার হয়? নির্যাতনের সংজ্ঞা কি? Assault এর বাংলা কি নির্যাতন? আমার sexual assault এর ইতিহাস, অধিকারহীনতার ইতিহাস, আতঙ্কের ইতিহাস, অসুখের ইতিহাস, আমার শরীরের ইতিহাসের কথা আমি কেন ইংরিজিতে ভাবি, কেন বাংলাতে না?

কেয়ার কোওরডিনেটর হয়তো আমার হতাশা আন্দাজ করতে পারেন। আমার মনোযোগ ফেরাতে কলমের ঢাকনা বন্ধ করেন, অথবা আমার নৈঃশব্দ্য এতটাই অসহনীয় হয়ে উঠেছিল যে কলমের সামান্য শব্দে প্রাণ ফিরে পাই।  আমার দিকে তার সেই সহজ, শান্ত, মায়াময় চাহনি অবিচল রেখে তিনি বলেন, “if it felt like an assault, it was an assault”।

যার কথা একেবারেই অপ্রাসঙ্গিক সেই তার কথা মনে পড়ে যায় – এইসব তুচ্ছ মুহূর্তের কাছে হঠাৎ একদিন আত্মসমর্পণ করব বলেই আমাদের এই বেঁচে থাকা। আমি কেঁদে ফেলি, আমাদের আলাপের মিনিট কুড়ির মধ্যে একজন সম্পূর্ণ অপরিচিত আত্মীয়ার কাছে।



এই যে বেঁচে আছি, এর থেকে আজগুবি ব্যাপার আর হয় না। মরে যাওয়া এর থেকে ঢের বেশি স্থায়ী আর বিশ্বাসযোগ্য। সত্যি কথাটা হলো গত একবছরে লাইন দিয়ে মানুষেরা মরে গেছে। এইটা দারুণ সত্যি কথা হলো। তার আগেও পাল পাল লোক রোজ অদৃশ্য হয়েছে, কিন্তু আমি তো কখনওই তাদের পাশে বসে চা আর প্রজাপতি বিস্কুট খাইনি। কখনোও সময় হয়ে ওঠেনি, কখনোও অস্তিত্ব। এই যেমন কোপারনিকাস যেদিন মারা গেল সেদিন আমার অস্তিত্ব হয়ে ওঠেনি, হাতে সময়ও যে অঢেল ছিল এমন নয়। অস্তিত্বের আগেও তো ব্যস্ততা থাকে, ঠিক মত না থাকতে পারা আয়ত্ব করতে হয়। রেওয়াজ করতে হয়। আসল কথাটা হলো আমি সেদিন হেঁইও হেঁইও করে না থাকা প্রাক্টিস করছিলাম। একেবারে আসল কথা হলো এইটুকুই।

গত শতাব্দীর যে মাহেন্দ্রক্ষণে এই চিঠিটা লিখেছিলাম, সেই ক্ষণ কবে লোপাট হয়েছে। আমিও সেদিনের পর থেকে খোলস পাল্টেই চলেছি। স্টেশনে নেমে পড়ার পর ট্রেনটার দিকেও তাকাইনি, আমি তাকাইনা। কোনোও যাত্রার দিকেই বেশিক্ষণ তাকাতে নেই, চোখ লাল হয়ে আসে।


শতাব্দী পার করে তবু আমাদের এই চলে যেতে থাকা, চলে যেতে যেতে দেখা, লাইন দিয়ে চলে যাচ্ছে মানুষেরা। আমাদের মানুষেরা। এতে কোনও রহস্য নেই। শুধু থেকে গেছে সবুজ ঘাস, ঝাঁকড়া গাছ, ব্রাউন কটেজ, তাতে সাদা সাদা পর্দা লাগানো জানলা, ড্রয়িংখাতার মত নীল আকাশ। অনেক দূরের এই সন্ধ্যেবেলায় আজ মনে হচ্ছে, কি ভীষণ রহস্যময় সেই সব থেকে যাওয়া!