02 January 2012

All prisoners can break free

Jagath Marasinghe, friend, palm-reader, astrologer, philosopher, writer and political thinker, once related a prison story.  It was in reference to a question put to him about Ranjithan Gunaratnam.  Ranjithan, whose brother Premakumar was long thought to be the ‘Real Leader’ of the JVP and is said to be The Man of the breakaway group whose public face is Pubudu Jagoda, wasn’t anything like his brother, according to those who know them both.  Ranjithan was fluent in all three languages, a poet, an artist and a highly sensitive individual; he was not a thug and not given to ‘show’ (and tell).  Ranjithan was said to have been abducted, tortured and murdered by vigilante groups in 1989. 

Mare Aiya, as he is known to me, told me that they were both among dozens of young people rounded up, arrested and detained in the mid-to-late eighties.  They were all politically inclined, had lots to discuss and argue over during the long weeks of incarceration.  Mare Aiya had a literary bent and was one of several detainees who decided to put up a play or some concert, I really can’t remember.  Ranjithan, an engineering student at Peradeniya University, had helped with technical things, such as setting up a curtain which could be drawn and closed. 

I remember the story because it told me that human beings are made of something which is irrepressible.

Prisoners, political and otherwise, are like those who are un-incarcerated or shall we say less or differently incarcerated.  They are not one-dimensional.  They have their ups and downs.  They, like those ‘un-barred’ are also subject to the ata lo dahama, the eight inevitable conditions.  Prisoners are not idlers and the prison-industrial complex that defines the United States of America testifies to this.  They constitute ‘cheap labour’.  And yet, in working and non-working hours, common-time and solitary confinement, they think, they dream, the conjure worlds they like to inhabit, name colours yet un-named.  Like all of us.  Some, though, are more creative than others; some more irrepressible than the rest.  Some because they are more politically inclined and others because they are uncontained, regardless enthusiasm for the political.

A month ago, the Filipino political prisoner Ericson Acosta — former editor of the UP Collegian and a detainee for 10 months now at the Calbayog, Samar sub-provincial jail — was named as one of the three finalists in the prestigious 2011 Imprisoned Artist Prize in the Freedom to Create Award Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.  The finalists in the Main and Artist in Prison categories were chosen out of more than 2,000 nominees from 145 countries by a select jury that included Hollywood actress and filmmaker Daryl Hannah, novelist Salman Rushdie and ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, it was reported. The other two finalists are musician Win Maw of Burma and filmmaker Dhondup Wanchen of Tibet. 
I don’t know whether or not the choices are politically motivated, after all even that criminal against humanity, Barack Obama, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 
For example, English PEN, we are told, ‘was delighted to learn that Burmese poet and comedian Zargana was awarded the Artventure Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize in its inaugural awards ceremony. The receiver is Burmese and the giver European and that to me is suspicious, regardless of the winner’s credentials.  Winners of such prizes have tended to be objectors to regimes that NATO objects to, one observes. 
The point however is that there is no prison that can completely annihilate the creative urge, not of artists and not of those who would not have such tags.  Not now, and not then.  Here’s one story:
‘Italian World War II prisoners of war broke free of their imprisonment for six weeks in 1945 to unleash artistic skills inside St. Mary?s Catholic Church of Umbarger. St. Mary?s altar is surrounded by artwork created by the prisoners. Two historic plaques hang inside the church recognizing the efforts of the Italian prisoners. The stained-glass windows of the church were imported from Holland. A wood carving of The Last Supper adorns the altar of the church.’
I remember very often a man called Victor Jara, a Chilean Communist who wrote and sang for and among the working class of his land.  I remember how those who overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende in 1973 not only captured this singer but cut off his hands.  I know that Victor Jara’s voice didn’t die with him and neither did his lyrics.  I am convinced that whatever the crime, the criminal so labeled is never un-endowed with capacities to trip his/her jailor, legally. 
Faiz Ahmed Faiz spent many years in prison.  He gave life to the incarcerated, the objectors to incarceration and even the legally murdered, for example Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Nazim Hikmet of Turkey, probably the poet translated into the most number of languages after Pablo Neruda, also did prison time.  This didn’t stop him from writing the most beautiful and inspiring poetry. 
Life is not a freedom march but life does not forbid either.   We are not masters of our fate and neither are we slaves.  We are not fully free and neither are we completely imprisoned.  There is always space for poetry.  We can always paint the little piece of sky granted to wash our eyes of tears and memory. If nothing, prison walls and iron bars are as good material to construct ‘still life’.  Brecht wrote a long time ago that even in the darkest times, we can still write about the darkness. 
Ranjithan Gunaratnam wrote poetry while he was detained.  His brother is ‘at large’ and uses his freedom for other things.  Different people, different choices.  Mare Aiya lives.  Just lives.  That’s poetic too.