The Naive Radical

Torture Camp – A translation (Written by Ajith C. Herath from a Political Detention Camp)

Awaiting the next moment

With hopeless dejection

I did not wish

To be the first or the last

There was no escape

From that fearsome blow

However low the head was bent

All conscious thought disappeared

The very first hour inside the torture camp

Sorrowful memories of the past

Pain that pierced the very flesh

Deathly moans

Distorted shapes and bright colours

A terrifying jumble of dreams

The utter helplessness of humanity

Was the one other thing in this nightmare

The only friend here was death

Yet even he showed no mercy

The faint moans were slowly fading

For the third time just before dawn

The young woman brought in last night

Cried out

I KNOW NO ONE

Death before betrayal

Curses instead of pleadings

I salute you dear sister

With this final teardrop of mine

Soaking into my blindfold

Incentives, bonuses

A cup of yoghurt for dessert

Crushing the cup underfoot

The soldier smacks his lips

As it to ask

Who’s next?

Life has no name or number

Inside the torture camp

Death is a headless corpose

A news without a headline

Unlisted lives drifting towards

Unlisted death

Many are the times I’ ve escaped

In frightening nightmares

Yet I am still here!

The very thought terrifies

As my final testimony

All I can say is that

The many killed here

Had a human face.

I translated this poem from Sinhala after the leader of the radical student group at University challenged me to do it. The 0riginal version was published in a Sri Lankan Newspaper in 1991 if memory serves me right. I started University in 1990, coming from a strict Buddhist School in the Hill Country with a very little exposure to Socialist Politics. If I claimed to write poetry, then I should be able to use that skill for the good of many was the argument offered. Everything I had written up to that point was deemed worthless because it did not serve this purpose.

Like many of my generation, I lived through the radical uprising of the late 80s early 90s, but was too young to play any part in it. Random curfews were declared at short notice, people taken from their homes in the middle of the night never to be heard of again, bodies left burning at major intersections with friend turning against friend and neighbour turning against neighbour. The major impact on my life was my University Entrance exams being postponed for 3 months with schools being shut for most that final year. I kept myself distant from the rest of the goings on. I must be one of the few people from that time who can safely say they did not see a single burning body. It was by choice.

All that was until I went to University. I was told I came from the privileged classes, that I did not understand the pain and suffering of the oppressed masses, questioned about my lack of exposure to the Russian Classics and asked to prove that I was worthy of being part of the elite inner circle of the Student Union. I joined because I wanted to make a difference and help people, but somewhere along the line, that became transformed into a quest to prove that I was completely aligned with the leadership’s manifesto. Don’t ask me how it happened. I blame it on my sheltered upbringing and my naivety. Whatever the reason, I busted a gut trying to live up to an ideology that wasn’t mine.

By the time I left University, I had read all the Russian Classics, bankrupted myself donating all my earnings to the cause and given myself an ulcer from missing too many meals waiting for the comrades to turn up for lunch. I remained unconvinced that the Socialist Ideologies were my cup of tea. The final break happened when I refused to act as a recruiter for the female alumni. How could I convert someone else to the cause when I was still doubtful. So I was kicked out……It wasn’t the end of my political explorations, but that is a different story altogether.

This poem is one of the few souvenirs I kept from that time. Whatever my reasons for doing the translations, I did not want it to be forgotten that this really happened in our time; that almost an entire generation was wiped out for no real reason……..Young people who might have made a difference to our country.

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