Monday, August 30, 2010

The Witness

I can’t stop talking about the war. It has been more than a decade, but the war had taken roots in my soul. I have no explanations, but only my testimony. My memory does not fail me; I can call to mind how cold and grey the morning was when I lost my right thumb, I could tell you the numbers of all the inmates I shared my bunk with, the names of the hostile guards who wielded whips while we slaved under the harness. But these recollections curiously enough bring neither pain, nor deliverance. There was disease and morbidity both inside and outside the prison camp, yet none of us could throw ourselves at the fence and end it all. 

At night I dreamt of a patch of dry land, some sunshine, and maybe a pair of warm shoes. Working in the mines was unbearable during the winters; the chill seeped into our skin and rattled our bones. A few of us looked about for opportunities to wound ourselves- not dangerously, but enough to guarantee us some rest. As you know, every regime has its loopholes. It was then that I had severed my thumb; a blow that had been a trifle too hard. 

One day, J. sought me out and offered to share a cigarette. I knew that he had sacrificed his share of bread for this singularly rare luxury. Good old J. with his sparkling teeth, spotless hands, and his weakness for the better things in life. He told me that the human spirit was far too resilient to die and then he added, but here there are only enemies or rivals, and you can die if you don’t become a witness. A witness was necessarily a survivor and I survived because I believed in miracles. Yet, there was the task of remembering, and it became my sole concern, my only vocation. Even though one day started to resemble the other, I adamantly resolved to remember. None but the prisoners felt the pain and the immediacy of the war; those outside had been served anesthetics it seemed. The kingdom was gently erasing public memory and recollection became the prisoner’s legacy. 

I returned home once the war was over; yet returning is never the same as recovering. Other survivors talked about guilt and responsibility, but I never felt anything other than the need to confess and be absolved. The miracle I was waiting for had happened, but I became more confined than ever before. 
I am reminded of a certain poem whenever I look at the moon. No, not the one that talks about shivering stars in a fractured sky. In this poem, a man stands near his window looking at the city, at the moon, unable to escape the prison of his apartment, his body, and his mind.
There’s the moon
in my room’s window.
I balance it on my thumb
and try to flip it over.
It does not turn
but still, my thumb
is not broken.

Perhaps the night bothers him, and the moon is but a coin. I, too, am trapped- but my thumb is broken.

(The lines quoted are from a poem by Leonard Cohen, published in The Spice-Box of Earth).

Anurima Sen (PG-II)

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