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
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
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
A cup of yoghurt for dessert
Crushing the cup underfoot
The soldier smacks his lips
As it to ask
Life has no name or number
Inside the torture camp
Death is a headless corpose
A news without a headline
Unlisted lives drifting towards
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.