Thursday, November 21, 2013

The State: a short story

For a change from Prem Chand  read my short story: The State     

                                                THE STATE

The sculptor looked glum and lost.
‘Why’re you so quiet today?’ His wife asked.
‘Just like that.’ The sculptor’s whimper was hardly audible.
‘There must be something.’
‘No, nothing.’
‘There must be.’
‘I shouldn’t have made that statue of the leader.’
‘He’s a devil.’
‘What’s he done?’
‘Now, he’s got his opponents shot.’
‘Who told you?’
‘The painter. Ten were executed last week.’
‘Do you believe the news?’
‘I shouldn’t have made that statue.’ He whined again.
‘But he’s done so much for the people. Ten men is not too big a price.’
‘It’s not ten. God knows how many have been murdered.’
‘These are only rumours.’
‘No. That’s what we have been believing, forcing ourselves to believe. We were told that some counter-revolutionaries had been arrested and kept in quarantine camps, to ensure they created no problems. I myself visited one of those camps. They were all well looked after.’

‘That was only a ruse. In other camps they were treated like animals. God knows what’s happened to them. There must be thousands.’

‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure! I’ve known it all these years, but had never confessed it to myself. I was carried away by     slogans.’
‘But you yourself said that some people had to be suppressed.’
‘Yes, kept under check. Not murdered or tortured.’
‘What can you do now?’
“I want, at least, to undo the part I played.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I glorified the revolution, and the man who brought it about.’
‘There was nothing wrong with the revolution.’
‘But the man?’
‘There would have been no revolution without him.’
‘The revolution was necessary.’

The sculptor’s mind was in turmoil. A revolution had been a dire necessity. But revolutions had always been led by men filled with demonic energy; had always brought bloodshed and suffering with the promise, or on the pretext of ending greater bloodshed and suffering; had always got out of hand and followed their own reckless course. That was the dilemma of all revolutions. If the leaders had paused to weigh the pros and cons, there would have been no revolutions. Revolutions had never been created by men with soft consciences. But why did revolutionaries turn into dictators, fail to create that balance between anarchy and absolutism? This revolution had, however, given him the hope that it would not degenerate into an orgy of senseless violence. It hadn’t, in the beginning; had kept its sanity; but later things began to change. They heard rumours of arrests, interrogations, tortures, exterminations. Many people, whom he had known, disappeared mysteriously. But he had continued to believe in the fundamental humanity of the leader, in his commitment to freedom and human values. He had convinced himself that most of the stories of atrocities were false or inflated. Where he had been unable to convince himself, he had rationalized that some repression was necessary to stabilize the revolution. Naturally a few innocent people also suffered, which could not always be helped. Gradually, however, the face of the Revolution had become hard, and grim, and blind. Many members of the Revolutionary Council were dropped, then denounced, then arrested. And now ten leaders, who had participated in the Revolution, had been murdered in cold blood! Including the man who, he personally knew, could never have been disloyal to the ideals of the Revolution. He must assassinate the leader ― that was the only way now to wipe out his own sense of guilt. He would seek an appointment, carry a pistol, a knife, a bomb and kill him. But that was very difficult. They would search him thoroughly before allowing him to see the leader, if at all. He had to find a way out...

            The sculptor left his wife alone and walked away towards his studio.
At midnight he came to the square where the leader’s statue had been erected. The place was deserted. He looked towards the road more than a hundred yards away. An automobile was coming along. He sat down on the steps leading to the pedestal on which the statue stood. The vehicle came closer and sped along and soon disappeared from his sight. He looked all around for the policeman on his beat but there seemed to be none. He got on to his feet and climbed the stairs and stood face to face with the dictator.  How he had struggled to bring out that expression on his face, of resolute determination! It had been a labour of admiration, almost of love. Now the face looked inhuman. He felt sick at his own doing. But this was not the time to think of all that. He must get over with the job quickly.
He looked around once again to assure himself that no one was watching him, then he took a hammer out of his bag. He poised himself at a suitable distance, held the hammer with both his hands and swung it with all his might at the granite head of the leader. The sound of the hammer striking the stone seemed to reverberate from all sides, but the head stood intact. Only a few chips of rock from the crushed ear of the leader flew into the air. The sculptor received a terrible jolt on his shoulder joints. Angry, he swung the hammer thrice in quick succession, but the head remained where it was. He realized that it would be impossible to bring down the statue like this. He should have brought dynamite. If he could see the statue disintegrate in an explosion it would lessen the weight on his conscience. As it was, even if he hammered the statue the whole night he would do no great damage to it.

            Then, he saw the raised hand of the leader. He had thought for days and days to decide how the hand should be raised. He had studied dozens of photographs of the leader to discover the most characteristic manner in which he lifted his arm, and had finally chosen this posture, that, as he had imagined then, showed the leader beckoning the people to the Promised Land. He felt, now, that this raised arm was the most vulnerable to his hammer strokes. Lifting the hammer again he struck a blow on this uplifted arm. This time he had success; the hammer carried away the palm of the leader. Encouraged, he struck some more blows on the arm but without success. His whole body had begun to ache, quite exhausted by the effort…

            He heard the sound of an automobile speeding along the road and quickly walked down the stairs to shelter himself behind the pedestal and watch the automobile go its way. He looked around and sighted two policemen walking along the road. They were not coming towards him but it was no longer safe to stay on. He picked up his hammer and put in into his bag and walked home.

            Two days later he read in the newspaper; ‘Criminal attempt to deface and destroy the leader’s statue. Vigorous search on for the culprits.’

            Then after a few days he read that four persons had been arrested and they had confessed having attempted to demolish the leader’s statue. The authorities saw the hand of counter-revolutionary forces, and the police suspected a plot to assassinate the leader.

‘This is too much. They’re innocent.’ The sculptor told his wife.
‘How do you know?’
He had kept his escapade secret from his wife.
‘I know.’
‘But how.’
He narrated the whole incident.
‘Why did you do it?’
‘I wanted to undo what I had done.’
‘How could you?’

‘I enjoyed hammering at the statue.’ He remembered the painful jerks he had received. His joints still ached.

            ‘What use was it?’

‘It wasn’t. Had I succeeded I would have been happy. But perhaps there is no expiation for sins. I’ve only brought trouble on some more people. I must confess that I tried to demolish the statue, otherwise they will hang innocent people.’
‘It won’t help. They’ll hang you as well.’
This was quite true; he knew his attempt had only given the leader an excuse to liquidate a few more of his opponents. Nothing was simpler than to accuse them of a plot against the Revolution, hold a mock trial and murder them. His confession would not make any difference. But it would be cowardly to let innocent people die. He must try to save them.
For a moment he imagined himself rushing into the marketplace with a public address system, denouncing the leader, instigating people to revolt. He saw himself arrested within minutes and taken before a firing squad.
How easy it was to snuff out individual revolt! How inadequate he was… a mere artist! A mere sculptor carving out images. All his labour, his skill at chiseling stone into human form, seemed such a mockery in a world where human beings had turned into stone. This was not the time to chisel… was an artist really helpless against men of reckless action? That could not be. No one could ignore the voice of the artist. He would meet the leader and tell him why he had admired him once, why he was disillusioned with him now. He would tell him that in a land where even the artists were so stricken with fear, he could imagine the lot of the common people. He would put before him all the arguments in favour of the new freedom, and the need to carry forward the revolution with firmness but with compassion. The dictator would have to listen to him…
He built a labyrinth of eloquent arguments to be put before the leader.
            ‘I’ll see the leader,’ he announced his resolution to his wife.
            ‘Don’t be foolish,’ his wife warned him.
            ‘But the sculptor wrote to the leader confessing his guilt and seeking an appointment with him.
After a fortnight two plain-clothes men came to see him.
            ‘Sir, we are from the Department of Cultural Affairs,’ one of them said. ‘I’m sure you’ve read the news about the attempt to demolish the leader’s statue carved by you.’
            ‘Yes,’ replied the sculptor.
            ‘You also know that the culprits have been arrested and they have owned up this heinous crime.’
            ‘That’s a lie.’
            The man hesitated a little, but then went on as if the sculptor had not spoken.
            ‘The state views this crime,’ he continued, ‘with great seriousness. It is not merely an insult to the great leader and the Revolution, but also an act of vandalism no lover of art can approve of. And the state…’
            ‘Please listen to me,’ the sculptor protested.
            ‘And the state, being the patron of all arts, must act resolutely to put down all such acts of defilement, and award the strictest punishment to the criminals. The state…’
            ‘Listen to me…’
            ‘The state will, no doubt, do its duty. But at the same time, it expects people, particularly the artists who have always been staunch supporters of the revolution, to come forward to denounce this dastardly attack, so that the state…’
            ‘…so that the state is able to mobilize public opinion against enemies of the people. We have been sent here to request you, as also many other leading artists, to sign a statement condemning the attempt to smash the leader’s statue. We’re quite sure…’
            ‘…we are quite sure that you, being a great supporter and friend of the leader and the revolution, will not hesitate…’
            ‘I won’t sign any statement. Why don’t you listen to me?’ The sculptor was shouting.
            ‘Sir, we’ve orders to …’
            ‘I’ve told you I won’t sign any statement because I am the man who tried to smash the statue.’
            ‘Sir, we’re only obeying orders.’
            The sculptor gave up. It was no use talking to these people, who were no more than mechanical toys operated by remote control.
            ‘You can do your duty.’
            ‘Sir, we’ve orders to persuade you until you sign the statement.’
            ‘I won’t sign it,’ he shouted angrily.
            ‘Then, sir…’
            ‘I know. I’m under arrest.’
            ‘Sir, we’re only obeying orders. You’re not to move out of this house until…’
Two days later, the sculptor read in the newspaper that the four arrested men had been executed. He also read that the artist who had carved the leader’s statue had gone mad, shocked by the news of this attempt to destroy it. He was being well looked after and all attempts were being made to restore his wits.
            ‘I had asked you not to write that letter.’ The sculptor’s wife said.
            ‘I couldn’t let innocent people die.’
            ‘Were you able to save them?’
            ‘But at least I tried.’
            ‘What use was it?’
            ‘It eased my conscience.’
            ‘Did it, really?’
            He kept quite.
            ‘And now?’
            ‘Now!’ he said with a bitter laugh, ‘Now I’ll grow old and die in this house, or in a concentration camp. A mad man in the eyes of people, a sinner in my own eyes. Why did I ever support him?’
            ‘Let’s escape.’
            ‘There is no escape now. They won’t let us. They won’t kill us, won’t even let us commit suicide. They know they have thrown me into a living hell where I die a death of shame every day, every hour, every minute…’