Our integrity, our desire to walk our talk, faces the strongest assault when it is not us but the ones we love who have to pay for the consequences of our choices.
Recently, the world has been captivated by a blind man, a man who has shown how courageous one can be in the face of danger, danger not just to oneself, but to his wife and children, to his siblings and his parents. Chen Guangcheng has stood up to the might of the Chinese Communist Party, actively speaking out against their harsh policies. For this, he has been jailed, put under house arrest, his wife regularly beaten by local thugs. What makes him do want to do what he does in such a situation ?
For every Chen whose struggle leaps borders onto headlines, there are countless people who’ll die nameless, unsung despite having dissented similarly. Many could’ve chosen to lead comfortable lives, much like we do out here in the so called developed world, blind to the wrongs endured by the powerless and the weak, pillaging the earth in the name of development, freedom and happiness, pillaging casually, unthinkingly. Yet, at a great cost to themselves, some people chose to stand up. Why ? I think of the students who gave up their lives at Tienanmen Square and wonder how they could’ve demonstrated such courage. What makes them act the way they do ? How do they justify their actions to their loved ones who often bear a bigger burden, shouldering responsibilities with a shoulder to lean on.
Chen speaks of the authorities allowing his children to play in the hospital’s outdoor courtyard for a half hour each morning and evening. I think of Maya, who spends a significant part of her life unfettered, and how she might react to a sudden loss of freedom because of something her father did, something that she can’t even begin to comprehend.
The story of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles with his eldest son, Harilal Gandhi is well documented. Many years ago, when I watched Feroze Khan’s searing play of this struggle called “Mahatma vs Gandhi”, the scenes left an indelible mark. In one scene, a very young Harilal, tells his father that at least his father had something to give up, but he Harilal was born to nothing and has nothing to give up, can he at least acquire something so that he can give it up. In another scene, he cannot comprehend how his father could pick a distant cousin and not him, for going to Britain to study law. Harilal participated in the struggles of his father, but also wanted to be someone who could define himself in his own terms, not by the contours of his father’s shadow.
In many cases, the die was cast by a single action. That seemed to be the case of the posthumously famous Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. He wrote a poem critical of Stalin. He paid the price of that poem the rest of his life and eventually, with his life. A few months after reading that poem in some circles, he was arrested, tried and exiled to a remote area of Russia with his wife. I think of his wife, exiled for something she may not have believed in. What did their days feel like ? Do the men who commit actions with such horrific consequences pay the price by damaging the relationship with their loved ones ? Did Osip regret publishing that poem. When I read the poem, I can’t say I was moved by it. He has written better ones. What is it like to pay a hideous price for something that maybe you didn’t even consider your best work. In Osip’s case, he tried to commit suicide but failed. His sentence was reprieved and he was allowed to live in a larger city where he wrote several of his famous works. He even wrote some praising Stalin. All that wasn’t enough because he was soon sentenced to Siberia, where he died shortly after.
Communism has thrown up more than its fair share of stories of the fate of dissenters. But the free world is not without its share. One man whose story I cannot forget is Paul Robeson. I first read about him in a book called The Price of Dissent by Bud Schultz. Paul Robeson was a multi-faceted African-American genius who was an All American football player, a class valedictorian, a world class singer, an actor, a lawyer. He spoke out against the treatment of blacks in the US. He openly demanded that President Harry Truman speak out and do something about the horrible lynchings the African-Americans suffered in the South. Soon after, his troubles began. It didn’t help that he also supported Communism during the rise of the McCarthy era. His career was destroyed because of his struggles. He could’ve looked the other way and he’d have been fine and still famous because of his talents.
My current favorite poets, William Stafford and W.S. Merwin suffered in the US and they were not black. They were white and yet one was sent to labor camp and the other to a mental institution because they refused to fight in WWII; they were conscientious objectors.
When I had to make a decision recently, a decision that I struggled long and hard with internally, I lost sleep. I slept not more than 4 hours each night it seemed. The struggle included such thoughts as whether my lack of sleep was affecting the very decision I was making. How did these people sleep ? Did they sleep better once they knew that they had taken a fork in the road that they couldn’t return from or did they suffer the pangs of remorse and what-ifs to think about their decision.
Reading the poems of the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, I think he felt the pain every single day. For his ideas, he spent thirteen years in prison and another thirteen in exile. His separation from his loved ones and especially his country is writ large in his poems. Take this simple one:
The icebreaker leads the way,
our boat shudders in its wake.
I watch from my cabin porthole,
the sea is frozen solid white.
I come from Istanbul—
I grew up by the warm, salt sea.
We like our colors, light, and life clear-cut.
We have poppy fields,
but liveliest of all is our sea.
We never forget its fragrance.
I watch from my cabin porthole,
the sea is frozen
devastated. – The Icrebreaker, Nazim Hikmet
Shanthala discovered his poems on NPR, back in 2003. I read him often for a while, until Merwin and Stafford took over. Here are a few snippets of his poems:
I read a book,
you are in it;
I hear a song,
you’re in it.
I eat my bread,
you’re sitting facing me;
and you sit watching me.
You who are everywhere my “Ever Present”
I cannot talk with you,
we cannot hear each other’s voice:
you are my eight-year widow … – 22 Sept, 1945
In the corridor the man on the stretcher died.
They took him away.
Now no hope, no grief,
no bread, no water,
no freedom, no prison,
no wanting women, no guards, no bedbugs,
and no more cats to sit and stare at him.
That business is finished, over.
But mine goes on:
my head keeps loving, thinking, understanding,
my impotent rage goes on eating me,
and, since morning, my liver goes on aching … – 20 Jan, 1946.
Boy or girl,
I don’t want my child to land in prison at any age
for standing up for beauty, justice, peace.
But, my son or daughter,
if dawn is slow in lighting up the waters,
you will fight and even …
Clearly, being a father here today
is a pretty tough job.
It’s one a.m.
We haven’t turned off the light.
Maybe in half an hour or toward morning
my house will be raided again.
They might take me away
along with our books.
In the First Precinct’s hands,
I’ll turn back and look:
my wife stands at the door,
on the threshold,
her dress blowing in the morning wind.
In her full, heavy belly,
the baby flutters. – 1950.
All that I ask is that for peace
You fight today, you fight today
So that the children of this world
May live and grow and laugh and play. – I Come and Stand at Every Door
The haunting book, The Country of My Skull, documents the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I remember one father crying for his daughter who died in the bombing of a cafe. A missionary who came to fight against apartheid loses both his legs in another bombing. I was struck by that man’s harrowing cry to the Commission, that he came to fight injustice, not to lose his legs.
We rarely come across the internal landscape of these men. We know of their actions and their consequences, but not of their own internal struggles. If they were made more popular, would the rest of us find it easier to do what they did ?
The people I mention here are just a smattering of those who came to my consciousness right away. There are so many dissenters, people who stood up for what they believed in and paid a high price for them, I can’t even begin to list them all. And even if I did, there would a far bigger list of those who died unsung, unknown. Why did they do it ? Alfred North Whitehead, the famous mathematician and philosopher, said:
“The vitality of thought is in adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them. When the idea is new, its custodians have fervor, live for it, and if need be, die for it.”
Is it that or something else that moves these people ? I speak with the founder of the non-profit that I work closely with,, Magic Inc.. What made him exchange fame and fortune for the austere life that he now leads ? It wasn’t that he had no access to that world. He comes from a well-to-do family and graduated out of Yale Law School with honors. He says that he just couldn’t live with himself if he chose otherwise.
Don’t live in the world as if you were renting
or here only for the summer,
but act as if it was your father’s house …
Believe in seeds, earth, and the sea,
but people above all.
Love clouds, machines, and books,
but people above all.
for the withering branch
the dying star,
and the hurt animal,
but feel for people above all.
Rejoice in all the earth’s blessings –
darkness and light,
the four seasons,
but people above all – Last Letter To My Son, Nazim Hikmet
Do the men who commit actions with such horrific consequences pay the price by damaging the relationship with their loved ones ?