In the field of hope


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Category: Reflections Date: 30 Apr 98

Looking up in-between reading a book I could not put down, a book which made me neglect my work, stay in pajamas all day, order fast food for lunch, I though: Why do people love a good story, a well told story? And why am I swallowing words like this starved creature? Why do I contemplate an absorbing book like a sumptuous layered pudding of light crusts of jam and apricots, creamy chocolate, hot molasses on frozen chocolate, topped with cheesecake and fluffy whipped cream, so tempting I want to devour it all at once? Why do I read the end, nibble at a bit in the middle, close the book and pick a page? It’s an eccentric way of reading and I think some authors would coldly withdraw their books if they knew how their careful construction was being mutilated by my skewered reading of it.


I haven’t cracked it yet. I haven’t figured out how they keep me tense, breathless, engaged as if I were one of the characters, left pondering for many hours after the last fullstop, the end, over the lives of these fictional characters, as if they were real. A year or six months later even, these books are new again. (There’s a few I’m glutted on: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Three Continents, Bernard Mac Laverty’s Grace Notes, Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, Jane Austin’s Emma, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.)


There are so many reasons to read. Books make you laugh, frown, think. They are good company. They take you into worlds you might never enter in your lifetime. A pianist in troubled Ireland, a woman committing adultery in 19th century Russia, a family torn by partition after India’s independence. The great ones are made of stuff which affects us all - love, infidelity, pain, death. About the desires, ambitions, disappointments and hope of being human. By being brutally honest, they help you to be honest, warts and all, with yourself. They stretch your mind, add to your store of knowledge.


When I get tired of the artificiality of the plastic “hello, how are you, I am fine” conversations I have with a dozen people everyday, when I get tired of their defences and mine (you cant blame us - we are protecting our insecurities from other people’s judgment) I read fiction. In books people say what they think. And even if they don’t say what they think, we know why they say what they say. Here is honesty. A story with a beginning and an end which, if the writer is good, will always relate to you. A book is an escape from the battlefield we live in.


Join me in a tour. To be human is to battle. (Delicately dubbed “the fragility of life”.) We live in an open minefield, killing fields, where bombs explode randomly. Everyday there are casualties, prisoners. This territory is called Earth. Here, people cover up their true stories, barricade the doors to their real lives, and camouflage it with facades. To survive, to win, we need barriers, fortresses, fake stage props, because if we didn’t we’d have to confront the war.


No one is clear who the enemy is because the missiles come at us from all sides. The ones from above, the most powerful, can penetrate the most buttressed fortresses of wealth, fame and power with lethal unassailable weapons of death, and incurable illnesses.


But the shrapnel flying in around us also wound and kill. Look out. Here are some camps where people kill each other for money, jewels, food. Here is another where two camps strike at each other (using weapons of words and sometimes guns) because they have different coloured skins or have different names for their God.


In offices and corporations, the weapons are more sophisticated. Words and gestures are aimed and strategically fired. The victor uses the buckled back of the victim to climb the corporation ladder.


We live among the spoils of war. It is well known that soldiers in battle drink to forget, it’s the only way they can go on without succumbing to fear. We, too, try to forget that one of us may be the next casualty to illness, misfortune or death. A chance explosion will blow up some of us with heartache, disappointment, leaving the bitter taste of disillusionment in us long after the blow. So, like the good soldier, we too drink, or get addicted to food, or religion, get high on fame, power or drug to survive and forget.


The worst addiction is when, in a bid to be safe in this minefield that human-kind lives in, we go underground to the trenches, become boring, stop taking risks. Then we are barely alive, breathing mud.  The irony is that most of the time when people talk to us, we see the facade, fiction. And reality can be found in books.


But every now and then reality bursts out, like a boil, or a tender shoot. And when it does, there is nothing like the real thing. Life. Think about the lives of people around you and you will find a story worth telling. Just here is a young girl stoically caring for her elderly ailing parents. And there, a young man on a wheelchair practises everyday in his tiny yard until his arms are strong and he can move faster than any able-bodied man.


A drug addict kills his mother to dull the need in him. In the sunset by the sea, a girl wonders what went wrong, and whether she will ever love again, although everyone else can see that she will fall again, and will be loved, many times, such is her spirit.  A woman in Laventille comes home from a day of washing other people’s laundry for $40 to find her house broken into, the sewing machine taken out on hire purchase for $2,000 stolen. We leave her there standing stunned, while a sinking feeling follows her from her throat to her gut, leaving her hollow, her fingers clammy.


There, a mother looks for her long gone son in the eyes of every young man, although had he lived, he would have been almost middle aged now. Here, an old man looks sadly at the photo of his young lover, who left him for someone younger and more agile.


And look here, a woman who lives in a threadbare hack in a field in Chaguanas. She has never heard a national debate on poverty. Here there is no food, no television, electricity or lights. Her husband has left to feed his cocaine habit. Five children lie hungry and listless in the heat. They haven’t been to school for weeks. She gets angry with the youngest for saying “I’m hungry” and grabs the hands of the middle child, a 12-year-old with black eyes and a face that could be mischievous and clever, but is instead turning blank and angry and says let’s go. Shall we follow them?


There they go, in this yellow itchy heat, she pinched and thin, he following (obedient for now) across the fields of scratchy yellow/brown grass. They are begging for a ride into town. They cannot go into the nearby groceries because they’ve done them all. Here they are in a grocery in Port-of-Spain. She goes around asking shoppers (heaving with full trolleys, it is Saturday) for a can of sardines, a bottle of oil, candles, rice. She holds a sticky one dollar note and 25 cents, sticky from clutching, and asks please cash it for her, someone gave her the money for a soft drink. Once someone filled a basket for her. Perhaps it will happen today.


But look, in our wanderings we have arrived at the place where we are suddenly unexplainably wildly happy. In the middle of the battlefield we have found an area called hope. The compensation for being human is that everyone visits this place at least once. Here many magical, wild and beautiful things exist. Laughter and the birth of children. Love. Passionate and tender. Song. Most of all a soaring hope. That ultimately it was all worth it.


Good books often tell you what you already know deep inside you. More than all the human addictions and playthings to keeps the terror away, it is hope which helps us to rage against the dying of the light.


What is the worst thing about being human? Death perhaps. And the best? Light.

Consider Jeanette Winterson in Written on the Body: On death:

“I’ve thought a lot about death recently, the finality of it, the argument ending in mid-air. One of us hadn’t finished, why did the other one go? And why without warning? Even death after long illness is without warning.

“The moment you had prepared for so carefully took you by storm. The troops broke through the window and snatched the body and the body is gone. The day before the Wednesday last, this time a year ago, you were here and now you’re not. Why not? Death reduces us to the baffled logic of a small child. If yesterday why not today? And where are you?

“Fragile creatures of a small blue planet surrounded by light years of silent space. Do the dead find peace beyond the rattle of the world? What peace is there for us whose best love cannot return them even for a day? I raise my head to the door and I think I will see you in the frame. I know it is your voice in the corridor but when I run outside the corridor is empty. There is nothing I can do that will make any difference. The last word was yours.

“The fluttering in the stomach goes away and the dull waking pain. Sometimes I think of you and I feel giddy. Memory makes me lightheaded, drunk on champagne. All the things we did. And if anyone had said this was the price I would have agreed to pay it. That surprises me; that with the hurt and the mess comes a shaft of recognition. It was worth it. Love was worth it.”

Love was worth it. That is Wintersons’ final word on death.


And on light, let us look at these yellowed pages bound in old-fashioned blue hard cover, its spine blood red, with the simple title Gitanjali and name of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.


Here is Tagore’s verse on light:

“Light, my light, the world filling light, the eye-kissing light, heart-sweetening light! Ah, the light dances, my darling, at the centre of my life; the light strikes, my darling, the chords of my love; the sky opens, the wind runs wild, laughter passes over the earth. The light is shattered into gold on every cloud, my darling, and it scatters gems in profusion. Mirth spreads from leaf to leaf, my darling, and gladness without measure. The heaven’s river has drowned its banks and the flood of joy is abroad.”


When you wander into the field of hope (and you will, and you have many times in your lifetime as all of us do) you will recognise it instinctively. Nothing, not even fiction, can beat life in this field of hope. Here we will rage against the dying of the light. We will yet win the battle.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur