21 December 2012

Of goldfish, ‘bowling’ and the incarcerations of our times


All human beings have questions. Some have questions that may sound strange to others and indeed may be quite unanswerable. I have hundreds and that probably indicates that my sansaric journey is long. Among the ‘strange’ and perhaps ‘unanswerable’ questions that I have is the following: What kind of prison notebooks do goldfish write and with what compassion do they eye our incarceration?

Prison notebooks? Well, the reference is to Antonio Gramsci’s political writings during the time he was imprisoned (1929-1935). Gramsci was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini. He was a highly original thinker in the Marxist tradition and is credited for the introduction of the concept ‘cultural hegemony as a means of exercising political control. He was not the only one who has suffered imprisonment and not the only prisoner who kept notes. One must acknowledge also that not everyone who has things to say have the language, the eloquence or the material necessary to articulate. Like goldfish.
I am thinking of a hot morning in Panadura. Court was in session. The judge had arrived. All stood and bowed. I was in a cell from where I could see the judge and the proceedings. With me were 15 others charged with conspiring to overthrow the Government through illegal means. Of the 16, 14 were arrested which having a discussion in a temple. The 15th was the chief incumbent of the temple and the last was an ex-bikkhu who was a student at Jayawardenapura University, who, unfortunately, had visited the temple a day after we were arrested and was picked up by overzealous policemen. Among our temporary cellmates were a couple and like all prisoners had a story to tell.

The woman had been working as a domestic aid, or housemaid, in Colombo. One day the man of the house had solicited sexual favours from her and upon being spurned, had attempted to rape her. It so happened that the woman’s husband had arrived right then. A rush of blood. A ‘crime’ of passion and the ‘master’ was dead. Charged with murder. The woman? Accessory after the fact of murder.
Their case was taken up before ours. They had a Court appointed lawyer. He was totally unprepared and said so. The judge was annoyed. He re-scheduled the hearing. Postponed by six months. I am not faulting the judge for I don’t know the intricacies of judicial process, the statutes and courtesies, what’s ‘normal’ and what’s not, but I remember being amazed and quite perturbed at how two people could be robbed of six months just like that.

The power to take away astounded me. They didn’t say anything. Neither of them had a name like Antonio Gramsci. Or Fyodor Dostoyevski. Or Nazim Hikmet. Or Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I don’t know what happened next, but I have not forgotten the expression in their eyes when the judge made his determination. Blank. Like goldfish. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about goldfish.
They are not like zoo animals. One feels for zoo animals, one sees their situation as ‘imprisonment’ because zoos are full of prison-trappings: cages, bars, containment etc. Goldfish are cute creatures and seem so, well, ‘contained’, I mean, ‘self-contained’. They are not like monkeys clinging to the bars of a cage as though they long to be outside. They just swim around, eat what’s given them, swim some more, eat, swim, eat, swim etc. They don’t maintain notebooks and don’t appear to have thoughts. They’ve committed no crime. They have not been charged in Court.

I like to flip scripts and see what happens. And sometimes I wonder if I am but playing a reverse-role in a flipped script. I wonder if the truly incarcerated is the goldfish or the person that ‘bowled’ the goldfish. I wonder if it is the judge or the accuse that pronounces determination, if it is really the accused who stands charged or if it is the judge. And I find wonderment sometimes in the numerous ways of incarceration, some by others and some by self. I realize for example that time is a trap, that we are incarcerated by calendars, week-planners, diaries and schedules. We are imprisoned by expectations, those of our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, associates as well as those we set ourselves. We are the prisoners of paper: we are trapped by certificates and contracts, jobs and relationships, responsibilities and the hard labour and tenderness of love. We are burdened by position, by skill-endowment and by our various poverties. We are prisoners of moment and timelessness and don’t have pen, paper or word to write the poetry of our incarcerations.
There is this difference between us and goldfish, between those who are ‘free’ and those behind bars. The latter category is made of visible, tangible boundaries. I am not sure this little detail makes a difference, though. I thought perhaps that we need to re-think the dimensions of infinity and the finite. This is what I came up with:

To the fish in the net
a single drop of water,
to the incarcerated
a sliver of sky,
to the guitarist
whose hands were cut off
a pick,
to the heart that said ‘no’
to a love that will not return.

But what of ‘incarceration’, as experience and act, as experienced and unknowingly inhabited, I wondered. And so, naturally, subjected to the dimensionalities of language, the trap that is word and its unhappy limitation, I scribbled the following:
And of prisons it was thus decreed
some would be bar-made and some unbarred
some to separate the free from the incarcerated
and some with lines erased,
yes so erased
that ‘free’ comes with query mark
and imprisonment is the worst kept secret
in the metropolis.
And of the former kind,
there are those who are bowled,
and those less picture-perfect.
The goldfish looks with compassion
and knows the futility of keeping notes
but we,
we eye one another with pity
and even empathy
keep notes;
we might as well collect mirrors
while we wait the clock-guard
to interrupt the monotony of delusion
if nothing else.
I am tormented by questions this morning. When we gaze on the prisoner with compassion do we bend the bars of the cage or make them stronger, I wonder. Will we ever understand that the barbed wire that contains someone is simultaneously a fishbowl that turns us into goldfish?



Dileeni said...

Malind, I find that you are a very sensitive person. In your articles and poems this fact comes out very clearly. Keep up the good work. All strength to your arm in 2013.