INDIA | Shagnik Chakravarty
There was an image I had seen in a newspaper that kept haunting me for many days. A child lay upside down on a sea coast somewhere in Europe. I turned the pages and moved on to other things but that image didn’t leave my mind.
Newspapers and TV channels bombard us with daily tragedies that happen all around us: a massive bomb blast killed 38 people and injuring 40 more in Pakistan, a sudden landslide flattened another 3000 households in Nepal. What effect do such calamities have on our minds? Maybe, we just share a moment of despair and lament at the plight of humanity for a while. Tragedies seem to happen in remote places, in other people’s lives. If the news is more sensational, we’d possibly talk about it with friends in school and ponder about the suffering. Nevertheless, it is soon forgotten.
Bigger catastrophes like the earthquakes in Japan or the terrorist attacks in Paris gather much more attention. Somehow, the story of 130 people killed in the Paris attacks gets greater importance than the deaths in the Haitian earthquake where 300,000 had died and yet the pain of a poor Haitian is as deep and heart-breaking as that of a Parisian killed in a nightclub in the middle of a concert. Numbers are blunt figures that do not allow us to discern the deep emotional agony behind them. Every life is embedded with many others. When someone dies, it impacts so many more people. The pain inflicted on them is beyond words.
The thing about pain is, we do not actually understand it until it comes and stings us. That is, until a public tragedy becomes almost personal. What would happen if the person we love the most died in one such tragedy, leaving us crippled for the rest of our lives? It is here, I believe, that creativity plays a very important role, imagining the pain of others and making us experience that pain through stories. As Einstein once said, imagination is more important than knowledge. It is that understanding of the pain of others that drives us into some kind of action, however small that might be.
The more effective stories grow out of empathy and not sympathy. When we sympathise someone, we express pity for an unfortunate person from our own privileged position and then buy that person suffering in the cold a blanket, perhaps, so that we can feel good about ourselves. Empathy, on the other hand, brings us closer to other people. After all, who knows, someday a similar catastrophe might strike us. We must learn to share the sufferings of human tragedy, because it is not they or us but a common unifying bond of humanity and the threat of pain that links us all.
While the image of that dead child on the Lesbos coast refused to leave me, I tried to use my imagination and creativity to understand the pain of the Syrians running away from their country in search of a shelter anywhere in the world. I knew nothing about the place I wrote about, neither their culture nor the people or the details of their everyday lives. Finally, there was a short story I came up with, inspired by that very haunting visual. The story is not based on the child, but his mother. The child did not even get a chance to experience life. It is she who has to bear the ultimate pain. Survival is her greatest challenge. The story that follows illustrates the way I tried to comprehend the agony of the mother undertaking that fated journey. I tentatively titled the short story, “Wages of Happiness”.
Wages of Happiness
All eyes were turned on her as she stood there quivering. She now had nothing left in her life. Her only hope, her sole reason for living, was now coiled up, lying upside down, lifeless, humbly in the sands of the Lesbos coast.
The Greek army men surrounded her. So did some of the refugees. She was stone cold. Anguish had overwhelmed her. It was simply too much to be expressed by tears. She did not cry. A rusty old Greek lieutenant in high leather boots whispered to his comrade “She must weep or she will die”.
Previously, she lived with her family in Damascus. A simple family of three- mother, father and daughter. During this time, ISIS, the terrorist organisation had gradually started dominating their country. Inevitably so, the horror of terrorism struck them. Zainab’s husband, Imtiyaz, was the victim of such a misfortune. There was a sudden terrorist seizure in his office where four heavily-armed people, their faces covered with black cloth, indiscreetly started firing. One such bullet of terror hit the back of his neck. Imtiyaz’s heart stopped instantly without even understanding why his life had to end like this, suddenly.
Terrorism had reached an intolerable level in Syria. It was now a personal story of the households. After this heavy loss, Zainab decided that to safeguard her daughter’s future, she had to flee. What was left for them here anyway? With a bag on her shoulder and despair in the soul, she set out, leaving everything behind, knowing that the place was doomed. Holding her daughter’s little hand tightly, they started walking. They walked until her feet bled, and nevertheless, they kept on walking until they reached the Syrian coast. The little girl kept on asking her mother where they were going. Zainab didn’t answer and then the girl too stopped asking questions. They just kept on walking.
The coast was an escape from a life forever condemned. There, they found an agent who took away all the money she had with the promise of ferrying her across to Europe. She believed him because she had to believe in somebody. With her child unaware of the dangers ahead, she stepped into the raft which was perhaps meant for 10 people but now there were almost 30 desperate people like her clinging on to the boat, endangering each other’s lives. From there they embarked on the ever-dangerous journey. They set for the Grecian coast, their voyage marked with a myriad perils and life- threatening situations. In the darkness of the cold night, she could see nothing except the frightened faces of her fellow passengers praying to Allah and could hear nothing except the ominous sound of the waves threatening to engulf them all any moment. The surging waves almost submerged their rubber boat. Both of them reached an unknown island, unconscious. Zainab recovered, her daughter did not. Water in her lungs had made her sleep perpetual.
It was ironical more than sad. She came here to secure her daughter’s future and now, her daughter had left her in this seemingly endless chaos. What would she do now? She was alone, thousand miles away from home, in a foreign land with no money, no jobs, no friends, nothing.
She wandered aimlessly along the sandy shores for days until the army gave her a unique identity number and a temporary shanty near the refugee centre to stay. Honestly, she did not have any hopes in life anymore. Life seemed like a meaningless long struggle now. Nevertheless, she went and stayed there for a week wondering what she would do next. She condemned fate, for it had only given her thorns. She tried to hide her pain among the other immigrants who were inflicted with the same degree of sorrow.
A week later, the superintendent of the refugee centre came into the large common hall and announced the names of refugees who were immediately being transferred to the Budapest Immigration Centre. Zainab heard her name being called out.
So, with a broken heart and an absent soul, she set off for Hungary. She got a train ticket from the officials and the next morning she packed what little she had in that shanty and left for the station. The station, unsurprisingly, was furiously crowded with dejected homeless refugees. An air of desolation prevailed. It’s really hard to fit into an environment of woeful people. It makes one’s grief feel indifferent. With her personal calamity in mind, she got into that dreadful train.
It was a really long and arduous journey. Besides, the train was seriously overcrowded. She could barely rest herself on her back-pack. Definitely, it was nothing like the agony inflicted on her by circumstances. She did not care where the train was taking her and why. Pain was all she wished for. A recurring sense of loss and guilt had enveloped her. Strangely, she blamed herself for all this. An introspective suspicion always haunted her. After eighteen hours of intense contemplation, she was ordered to get off the train in Budapest along with everyone else.
Zainab reached the Budapest Immigration Centre and was designated another identity card and a room to stay in. Everyone around seemed quite content. There was food, there was water, there was everything. Even in this brief moment of relief, she could not help but cry. She cried like she had never before. Whole day, she did nothing else but weep. The sorrow of her irreparable loss finally got to her. She couldn’t do anything but break down completely. She lived in stony despair for too long and now, it all came out through paroxysms of weeping.
Three days went by. Not a smile on her face yet. The earth might absorb all the moisture after a thunderstorm within a few days and look dry, but deep down, it does remain wet. Likewise, that gloominess had now perforated her soul. She spent her time all alone, made no efforts to make new friends. Maybe she had now prepared her mind to live alone. Sadly again, before she could settle her mind in Budapest, another call for transfer came. This time from a very small unknown town in Hungary called Karcag.
It was a pleasant town with laurel and olive trees around. Small flowers bloomed here and there. Her mind and soul finally got a chance to lighten a little, though, not for long. She had been recruited there to work as a household cook.
From there on, life became steady, although broken. She cooked food, washed dishes and also ate with the family members. Everything had apparently become normal there. Yet, amidst all this steadiness, a tormenting fit of remorse always swept through her. She did all her work but she did it only as an imposition to substitute her original life, and not out of will. A mere formality for existence. Misery and misfortune was inextricably linked to her soul.
This went on and on for years. Everything around changed before her, but her mind did not evolve. It remained there in Damascus, in that small house of three. Her happiness lay in watching their regular TV show while eating dinner with her beloved family.
Thus, we may say that although she survived, she lived a more pitiful life, a rather meaningless one. Such a survival is a liability to the person. More than property damages, such attacks impact our soul way more deeply. One such attack destroyed hers. Many more like her still remain in our society, trying to withstand a world of recklessness and devastation. She still cooks food for the household. Her life was shattered into pieces in a matter of days. Yet, innocent Zainab tries to find happiness, after all the wages that she had to pay for it.
Shagnik Chakravarty is a fiction writer from Mumbai, studying in year 11 at Wellington High School, in Wellington, NZ.