When I turned the final page, I was relieved and sad at the same instant; relieved to have finally let the fates of POWs take wings to better skies and sad to not be living an alternate life, altogether.
This exquisite work of Flanagan is so “terrifyingly beautiful” that it redefined both the words for me. I was surprised to find my mind working at two levels.
One level drew shudders – the ulcerated limbs, the beri-beri attacks, the cholera ridden bodies, the virulent lashes, the shitty camps, the fatal frostbites; their strangling hold was so difficult to visualize that I found myself keeping the book away several times to just get my hands and mind steady. Knowing somewhere at the back of my mind that this story is weaved with the solid knots of the author’s father’s first-hand experience of war days, didn’t help either. Above all the visualization, there hovered over them, like a nasty black cloud, the victims’ helplessness. Their best efforts, drawn from the deepest wells of reserve, were never enough to buy a single day of comfort. And the cloud was no passing cloud.
However the other level drew comfort.
‘The path to survival was to never give up on the small things.’
The cloud can darken the day but it cannot darken the spirit that throbs inside every heart; that spirit which is connected to a love somewhere. Inspite of the inhuman conditions, the prisoners held the flame of emotions aglow; keeping relationships, dancing madly, forging friendships, sharing heartbreaks, fighting trivial, crying together, helping gladly, nurturing hope and living a parallel life, elsewhere, far away, in their minds.
When life comes full circle and the war days are behind, each survivor remembers those days, with a certain tint of fondness since love, courage and friendship can sparkle even in a muck of inhumanity and death.
When life is killed everyday yet one wishes to live and when hope is crushed every hour yet one continues to hope, we see the greatest example of human courage. That courage, Flanagan, tenderly places amidst the sheets of this book.
For those who are interested, here is an article where Flanagan talks about the story behind this marvellous book.
[Image courtesy indiannerve.com]