29 December 2012

Somethings get lost, some ‘lost-ed’

Years ago, as a young undergraduate, I was given a book by Arjuna Parakrama. It was called ‘Fire from the mountain: the making of a Sandinista’. It was the story of a rebel, the author, Omar Cabezas. It relates how Omar, at the time a student leader in the university is recruited by the Sandinistas and taken into the mountains to be trained to fight the guerrilla war against Somoza.

He relates the difficulties of transition from student activist to guerrilla fighter, the hardships, the depravations and the diseases that become part and parcel of the struggle against a dictatorship.
By the time I read the book, the Sandinistas had been in power for almost ten years and Cabezas had been stripped of all his positions following disagreements with the leadership.

This did not matter. It was a time of political turmoil. The nation was on the verge of slipping into what came to be known as the bheeshanaya by the Sinhala speaking sections of the population and ‘JVP time’ by those who led sheltered lives in Colombo and other major cities. It was a time when being a rebel had appeal to the youth, even if one was not in agreement with those who appeared to have a monopoly on things rebellious.
The details escape me now. The Sandinistas were later boxed in by the US-sponsored ‘Contras’ and thrown out, ‘democratically’, by the US-backed Violeta Chomorro. It took almost two decades for them to return to power. What I do remember is a poignant observation by the author about memorabilia.

Omar describes how new recruits, when they find the going tough, toss things out of their knapsacks. They would keep the little mementoes they’ve brought along and throw out food items. The veterans would pick these up, he said. This was followed by a fairly lengthy comment on the matter of keeping and throwing.
He relates how there are so many little items that remind a rebel of his home, his family, friends, places that had meaning and of course girlfriends; handkerchiefs, love letters, little ornaments and so on. He said that as time goes on, these things get lost, one by one, as the rebels move from place to place, as they camp and de-camp, as they fight and as they retreat.

At the beginning, the author says, the rebel would curse and be sad. Then ‘loss’ becomes a part of the day-to-day, and some losses make other losses seem trivial and grief over such losses scandalously self-indulgent. War is not a happy thing. It is made of blood, wounds, screams, dying and death. What is a token, a little ornament, signifying love or reminder of a moment of shared bliss when there’s a body riddled with bullets from which life is fleeing to a land called ‘Irretrievable’?
One by one, Omar relates, he lost all such tokens, all the physical signs of a life before life, a being before rebelling. He relates how after this begins the more lamentable ‘loss’, i.e. things that are not tangible, recollection of event, of personality, moment and their relevant casings of hue, temperature, fragrance and theme music.

This book was about the 1970s. The reading was in the late eighties. The recollection is happening, now, more than twenty years later. I’ve already forgotten the details of the book. I know the larger history, the narrative of who won and lost and when and why; but the nitty-gritty escapes me. That’s tragic, for history is made by the little things and by the little people although these are footnoted (at best) or deliberately ‘lost’ or ‘lost-ed’ by historian and ideologue.
On the other hand, remembering and forgetting, though structured by political project, is at some level a personal choice. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that narrative embellishment and truncation are not things that are limited to political history. Trinkets and such are lost and grieved over, but not only by the political activist or the rebel.

Life is a trek, from one universe to another, one university to another, city to city, one library to the next, wearing one cap today and another tomorrow, in a bus, a train and an overcoat, waving a flag now and a handkerchief later, a shuttle between smile and tear, mesmerized by dawns and thrilled by sunsets, a meandering over trouble-hills and happy-rocks, and in this journey, our bags are turned inside out; we toss things out and we throw things in.
The knapsack suffers with the traveler and is replaced by a new one or a container more suitable for the kind of baggage that is preferred at the particular time. We lament the loss of things that dropped out unnoticed and grieve over the precious little something that was thought to be dispensable at the time.

And in the end we come to a conclusion about things lost and things retained, things remembered and forgotten. Each of us, to a greater or lesser extent, revisit in our minds the places and people that have left their mark on our lives, go over terrain gone over before, and conclude that this and not that was what mattered and how, dammit, we were such fools to let go.
Some years ago I asked the following question: Isn’t it true that the most endearing of memorabilia are pieces from torn love letters and heart-soaked handkerchiefs?

Is this true? For me, it seems right now, this is what it comes down to. I didn’t see any fire from the mountain. I wasn’t a Sandinista. I walked though. Picked some flowers. Threw away some cans. Some songs I remember, some tunes I’ve forgotten. Certain fragrances take me to certain times and certain people. All charming in their own way, of course. Nothing, though, preserves history’s theme song and event-specific perfume as love-letter-shard and a heart-soaked handkerchief. At least to me.


Anonymous said...


Do you know where Arjuna Parakrama is these days? Any idea as to what he is doing?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

The last I heard he was in Nepal. He changed his name from Dr. Arjuna Parakrama to Dr. Hard-To-Find a couple of decades ago, I think!