Remember and Resist by Randhir Khare
Randhir Khare is a celebrated Indian poet, writer, artist, folklorist and teacher who is the recipient of numerous awards and honours and a visionary mentor to new writers in the sub-continent. He is presently writing his memoirs – One Life Is Not Enough. He is also a Founding contributor of Live Encounters Magazine
May 1974. Seventy-seven-year-old Iwakichi Kobayashi visited the NHK television studios in Hiroshima carrying with him a picture he had drawn titled ‘At about 4 p.m., August 6, 1945, near Yorozuyo Bridge’. It showed, in simple strokes, the havoc caused by the bomb. “Even now I cannot erase the scene from my memory. Before my death I wanted to draw it and leave it for others,” he said.
This single drawing inspired the television station to launch a programme, ‘Let Us Leave For Posterity Pictures of the Atomic Bomb Drawn by Citizens’.
The response to the request for pictures was met by a deluge of entries. Half came by mail and the other half brought by hand…mostly by old people who could hardly walk. The pictures were drawn with pencils, crayons, water colours, magic pens, coloured pens and India ink. Almost any kind of paper was used – drawing paper, backs of calendars, advertisement bills, paper used for sliding doors, the backs of scribbled paper used by children.
Nearly three decades later, memory was still fresh and strong. It defied the very force of forgetfulness and triumphed.
Mikio Inoue, one of the contributors, remembered, “It was when I crossed Miyuki Bridge that I saw Professor Takenaka, standing at the foot of the bridge. He was almost naked, wearing nothing but shorts and he had a ball of rice in his right hand…the northern area was covered by red fire burning against the sky.
“His naked figure, standing there before the flames with that ball of rice, looked to me as a symbol of the modest hopes of human beings.”
This is merely an example of some of the powerful memories that had arrived at the television station, frozen forever on paper. Later, they were collected into a book and published. I found a battered copy of the book at a sale in Delhi’s Darya Ganj in the 80’s.
The city at that time, I remember, was picking up its shattered pieces and trying to put them together as sensibly as possible after the riots. I was a new arrival. In fact, I had landed in the city the day Mrs Gandhi was assassinated and the riots had exploded. That day, we were driving along one of the main arterial roads of the Capital when we arrived at a major traffic intersection. A red light – so we stopped. Then it happened. We were ambushed by a mob of at least two hundred people that poured out from the pavements and turned itself into one giant howling mass. The driver sank his head on the steering wheel and began to shiver. Our car was not the target. Instead, it was the auto rickshaw next to us, driven by an old sardar. He sat stoically in his seat waiting for the end. And it came suddenly and brutally. All that we heard was a pitiful scream as the frenzied mob surrounded him. His bloodstained turban shot into the air above their heads…floating down like a festive streamer. Two days later, the dhobi’s son flew into the house to announce that he had stoned a ‘killer Sikh’. Then he proceeded to give me a graphic description of how he had mangled the man’s bicycle out of shape after that. His friends narrated other exploits.
A few years on, I found myself in Punjab, on assignment, to develop an anti terrorism awareness campaign for the State Government. This meant that I would have to travel throughout terrorist torn areas to expose myself to what people were really experiencing. I remember that day in the city of Amritsar. Fear hung in the air over people’s heads…in the marketplaces, the main streets and homes. Traffic policemen were sandbagged up to their necks, arms waving absurdly over their heads to conduct traffic. Anyway, there I was in a tense and frightened city that afternoon, sitting in the dilapidated studio of a local photographer. The man specialised in photographing victims of terrorist violence. It was lucrative, he told me. One just had to remain calm, no other investment. As a result of his ingenuity, the hole-in-the-wall studio was doing far better than the fancier and better equipped ones in the city. Even fear could not make him close down his studio. In fact, he claimed that terrorists were also his clients. ‘Aarey, they come here and get themselves photographed. I can tell that they are terrorists. All of us know.’
As for me, I knew instantly that I was in the presence of an unwitting witness. A Memory Man of sorts.
While I was there at his studio, a young ‘activist’ wearing the trade mark white khadi sari and carrying the trade mark jhola walked in, hauling in behind her a photographer on an invisible leash. The fellow was a veritable walking advertisement for Nikon…the brand name on a wristband, on a jungle green commando beret, on his shoulder bag, on his camera strap and on the camera case (which hid the camera).
‘We are from Delhi,’ said the Khadi one with an air of ‘power’ in her voice. ‘We produce innumerable pamphlets and papers which we circulate in thousands.’
Memory Man had got used to such preambles. He was interested in talking business. ‘So you want photographs of corpses. Well, I have a range. People of all ages…babies, children, young people, men, women, lots of photographs of only heads. You see most papers here have only space for faces so I tend to take more photographs of faces.’
‘Oh,’ said the khadi one, sounding disappointed.
‘But I also have others,’ he continued. ‘You name the place and the killing and the date, ‘I’ll give you what I have. But you must be as specific as possible. For example the Lalru killings and such like.’
‘Okay,’ she muttered, ‘there’s a bomb blast one. I saw it in one of the papers. It has one burnt leg in it…next to that a bunny rabbit.’
‘A bunny rabbit?’ he asked, scratching his head. ‘Oh yes, yes. A tame rabbit of a household during the blast. Yes I have it.’
‘Excellent. How much for a cabinet size?’ she asked.
‘That’s far too much. A little less please. See, we’ll be taking a regular supply of photographs of victims from you. Surely you can give us a concession. Please.’
‘I’m sorry. This is my business. What will happen when the killing stops?’
The khadi one looked at the Nikon man. The Nikon man looked at his Nikon safely tucked away, for consolation. Then he nodded. The deal was transacted. They left.
‘What does that man do with his camera?’ Memory Man asked.
‘It’s probably new and he doesn’t want to damage it,’ I replied.
‘Maybe there’s no camera inside the case,’ the man grinned. ‘I have known of such things to happen.’
Later, I presented the anti terrorism awareness campaign concept to the cream of Rajiv Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, using a blind man’s stick (that’s all that the department could muster) to point out specific displays arranged on a wall. I cringed when a department officer first turned up with the stick.
‘Sorry I can’t use that stick. It’s a blind man’s stick, can’t you see,’ I said to the harassed man.
‘Well what to do Sir, this is all I could find. But don’t worry, there’s no bell on it so no one will know.’
Bell or no bell, I used the stick for a while then gave up on it. After the presentation, one of the kitchen cabinet chefs said to me with an air of confidentiality, ‘that was good, effective. But then I can see that Goebbels needs Hitler as much as Hitler needs Goebbels.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I replied.
‘It’s a two way deal,’ he said, with a wink.
I felt as if I was walking around inside Kafka’s head, lost in a Bhool Bhoolaiya.
Lest I confuse you any further, dear reader, I’ll shut out these memories for a while. Just for a while, because all these memories are important to me. They keep my wounds open, keep me hurting, remind me that I’m alive, that I’m human. This charges me as a writer to go on resisting. If I allow these wounds to heal, I’d be giving in to forgetfulness, constantly wiping my slate clean and instead see history as merely a bundle of facts that exist –and it wouldn’t make a difference to me if those who wanted to meddled with those facts as and when required. I’d be one more of the mesmerised numbers who have become victims of those in power. A mere pawn in the deadly game of profit and loss. I’d be telling myself that the Gujarat pogrom has never happened, that caste wars and communal violence don’t exist, that the environment is not being pillaged, that indigenous, traditional and marginal people are not being displaced, that minority faiths, religious practices and places of worship are not at risk of being destroyed, forcibly adopted or brutally mutated, that everywhere I look I can see unity in diversity, that the raga of equality and free enterprise is playing full blast, that India is truly shining. I’d be preoccupied with myself and the security and progress of my own world. In other words, I’d be a progressive Lotus Eater. An abetting victim of political, social, cultural and religious whitewashers. Milan Kundera has put it eloquently in The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting. ‘The struggle of man against power,’ he says, ‘is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
Jonathan Schell persists in a similar vein by saying, ‘…of all the crimes against the future, extinction is the greatest. It is the murder of the future. And because this murder cancels all those who might recollect it even as it destroys its immediate victims, the obligation to ‘never forget’ is displaced back onto us, the living. It is we – the ones who will either commit this crime or prevent it – who must bear witness, must remember…’
To never forget, to keep the wounds open, to bear witness so that others never forget, keep their wounds open…resist the whitewashers…this, I am beginning to feel, is a desperate need. By saying this, I am also aware that I’d have a pack of purists who’ll pounce on me and take me apart, and ask me what right have I to demand that a writer play this role or that role or write like this or write like that…who do I think I am? God?
No, fortunately not. I speak for no one but myself because I think I know myself a little better than others know me. Most of the writing I am exposed to today does not reflect life as it really is. Its merely a presentation of cherries picked off a salad heap which contains chunks of fruits in varying stages of decomposition. I am not looking for opinions, I am virtually drowned in them. Nor am I looking for smart-ass jugglery of words which amount to verbal masturbation. Instead, I’m looking for stories, real stories. Stories of witnesses. Stories that come from all over the sub-continent. Stories that tell me about how people really struggle, how they live, their hopes, their loves, their innate
genius, their songs, their folk lore, their amazing capacity to survive. Stories that tell me about how those in power have time and again perpetrated bigotry, communal hatred, suppression of all kinds and have been party to the annihilation of human lives. Stories that prevent my wounds from healing. Stories that keep memory alive…and help me to resist power.
The poet Horst Bienek, in Time and Memory, says,
‘All that moves
can be changed
but not what is frozen
in our memory
this is meant to endure.’
© Randhir Khare