By Janet Hujon
This poem was also published in The Shillong Times in 2012. Janet, a Cambridge writer and Khasi from the Himalayan foothills of North East India which she describes as a 'helpless beautiful green corner of the world, that is slowly being asphixiated in a web of lies'. This poem is a tribute to the people captured on camera by Bruce Letwin working in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. Janet's first book of poetry 'Vessels and Visions' has been produced in collaboration with the painter Gail de Cordova.
I wonder if … they ever look up at the distant patch of sky
That cloudy mist of marble that soon slips out of sight?
I wonder if … the echoes of games they once played overground
Seem suddenly loud within the dark that wraps them underground?
And when they settle down to sleep, do nightmares haunt their rest?
Or is their slumber so profound
gift for the weary as it is for the just.
But then we’re told they’re lucky
Lucky enough to be small
For only supple limbs and joints
Can nimbly tackle twists and turns
In low-roofed airless caves
Whose weight they sense
Whose power they know.
No longer are they strangers
To the flexing of the earth
Which crushes if you’re lucky…
Maims if you’re not.
Daily goes this army
Where adults fear to tread
An untrained band of children
Just doing what they’re told.
But don’t you see they’re lucky
Lucky enough to have work
In these uncertain times,
In this worrisome age?
What would their plight be
If perhaps they’d been born
When the wealth of the earth
Is exhausted, sucked dry
Reduced to a scratch
In the bedrock of memory
Barely alive until birthed into speech.
So every new dawn they descend into night
Feeling their way into the womb of the earth
Where day after day they chisel and hack
At rock-solid walls, compacted vaults
Layered remains of primeval groves
That were deep and alive once long long ago.
No more will our forests break naturally down
They are dying to the dirge of the droning chainsaws
Sharks ruthless and frenzied in rich hunting grounds
Indiscriminate in slicing and tearing of flesh
With little regard for the difference between
A venerable elder or the sap-rising young.
The work of millennia undone in a day
A canopy benign slowly ripped into shreds
By those who can’t wait to gleefully seize
The fire that’s trapped in bituminous layers.
Laden with coal that is mined in the hills
Trucks cavalcade down to faraway plains
Juggernauts plying at their masters’ behest
Flatulent, distended, belching black clouds
Blackening our views, burying tomorrow.
Fires in factories they roar and they rage
Drunk with a sense of omnipotent power
Forked tongues of flame they lick the plate clean
Panting with greed still asking for more
Matters it not that in far distant hills
Is heard the hushed echo of another treefall?
Back in the hills other fires are burning
Glowing not leaping, red not enraged,
Caressing away the sharp bite of winter
Patiently cold in the encircling dark gloom.
Out-spreading fingers, brown, blackened palms
Tingling alive over well-tended embers
Comrades are squatting in circular huddles
Workers united in a fleeting coalition
Where friendship is free and ties are not binding.
Removed from the ground in a foreign air space
Cushioned in comfort a group sits, reclines
Fresh from a meeting with rituals replete
Unspoken thoughts, telepathic communion,
An imperceptible nod, a surreptitious wink
The deal has been struck, the proceedings are closed.
The world is their oyster, the promised land calls
The malls are well-lit, the hotels they are swanky
Where reality charms, rubbing shoulders with dreams
Uncaring of nightmares that are spawned underground
Where the integrity of labour strains hard for a meaning
Where the unknown, uncared mine a seam of survival
So a self-chosen few can live it up there.
So sometimes I think
Now wouldn’t it be better
If the tiger returned
In the dead of the night
He’d lick the wound clean
He’d flesh out the cut,
He’d bring back to life
Fallen heroes who served
Though all that they did
Was to stand tall and wait.
With ironic reference to a Khasi legend where a tiger almost successfully foiled mankind’s effort to fell the Great Tree whose spreading branches blocked out light from the sun and plunged the world into darkness. All day men hacked away at the trunk but every night the tiger returned, licked the wound and healed it once more. The tiger was betrayed … but that’s another story.