Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Reflections : The Shattering of the Soul

How long does a good person remain good ? The true test of the goodness of a person may lie in extreme conditions that test it. They say the strongest of tyres are tested on the toughest of roads. Is your neighbour good, will he remain good to you in times of trouble ? Wait a minute, ask muslim widows who are victims of the Bosnian war. We don't get a very enthusiastic answer that we normally face. Most of us live under "normal" conditions, so it helps to assume an average goodness in the people around us. It's necessary too. However, in times of war, or war-like riots, the same human, acts differently, as if possessed by a war ghost. 
The book, "The Shattering of the Soul", which I just completed, captures this aspect of human nature. It captures the stories of war misery of 10 Bosnian muslim women, in a first hand account of their experiences on how the ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs during 1992-95 unfolded, and how their lives were changed overnight. All the accounts have plenty of the events in common, that makes it a little repetitive in detail. They would all say, roughly, “We had a house and a farm, and we grew our food. War broke out, we were invaded and looted. We fled. We want to go back to our roots, but what is left but ruins?”. 
But, if you read one story at a time, during train travels as I did, you see the common thread not just of the events, but of both evil and good in man. You see that all grief is similar to the onlooker, yet each grief is different for the victim. The feelings of the common people in a typical village are so different from the ones who might have initiated the wars, but the stories of war travel far and wide to create more wars and more misery. It is as if the ethnic war ghost is a virus that spreads like an epidemic. It spreads, not through touch or food, but through the shreaks in the voices and fiery red eyes of patients infected with hysteric rage. It causes a clouded vision of the world and makes you hate thy neighbour as your enemy. 
The Museum of Tolerance provides an online version of the book for free :
The book speaks of how the Bosnian families were protected by the Serbian neighbours of the same village, although it was Serbians who looted them. The Serbian neighbour would stand up for them, they would stop their Serbian soldiers and say, “This one here is a decent family. They don't have weapons. Spare them.” . Yet another would say, “Take my life before you touch that child”. Some others may not stand as upright, but they would smuggle cheese and other food supplies for their Bosnian neighbours. Some would warn them in time so they could go into the woods and stay for days, till the invaders came and looted their houses and went back. After the houses were devastated, some would at least call them for a coffee in the afternoon to their house. How many of us can manifest goodness in the face of threat to our lives ?
They also speak of how, in some other cases, the very same Serbian neighbours who were close until the previous day, would participate in the loot of the Bosnian house. Some said they had to point guns at their Bosnian muslim neighbours, because otherwise, their own Serbian clan would kill them. They would make the youth from the Bosnian families work like a slave. The victims mention how they were clueless that the very faces whom they met across the street everyday would land at their door, demanding to chase them out and loot their houses. 
Until then, they were neighbours who helped each other build their houses. The houses were built by the neighbours lending a hand to each other, except for the roof, which would be given to the professional. The houses that were self-built and built as a shared labour between Bosnian and Serbian families would be destroyed, looted, the doors and windows or whatever was left just taken away by the invaders. Families with children had to move over to Slovenia, leaving all property back in their village, travelling long distances, even having to bribe for their paperwork to move out. Mosques on the way would arrange some food for the children of the migrating victims. The stories distinctly recall, how it was all fine till one day when the war started and the news of war arrived in the village and neighbours become archenemies. 
Which of these two is true human nature ? How does one know which part of Man will manifest when ? I can't help but think of similar stories from the Gujarat Riots of 2002 or the exodus of North-East people from Bangalore in 2012. 
As the compiler of the stories admits, the book captures only the view of select Bosnian Muslim victims, there are no stories about Serbian or Croatian victims, which must be equally mentioned. But as the epilogue argues, that is not much relevant. "Human suffering due to mutual hatred is universal, and by presenting the suffering of some we are presenting the suffering of all". 
Sri Ramakrishna tells an interesting story about two brothers fighting for land. They were on either side of the disputed border and were quarelling at the top of their voice, about the patchy border. “It's mine”, one said. “No, it's mine”, yelled the other. Voices grew into arms, arms grew into bruises, bruises grew into attacks and soon they both dropped dead at the border. God, who was watching the fight from above, felt funny. “Well, whose land is this now ?” He asked. There were no owners left to answer. 
After I read the book, I felt like listening to A R Rahman's song from 1947 Earth : "Ishwar Allah Tere Jahan Pe". It's a beautiful song that captures the questions that would have, surely arisen in the minds of those war victims rendered homeless, with their souls shattered and their hopes killed. From the ruins of their houses and ashes of their families, some seeds of hope must have flown across the Slovenian border. They wanted to come back and they wanted to live. But they had to choose between the two. The ghost of war abandoned their villages, and now went to possess some other race, tribe or religion, elsewhere on earth. But they had to struggle, rebuilding their lives and houses in another distant land. This time, without a neighbour, to lend a helping hand. 
Like that song asks: 
So many screams, who will hear the voice of love ? 
So many dreams shattered, who will gather the pieces ? 
The song is verily a Prayer for Peace. 


  1. Coming here after quite a while! Profound. I will try and read the book. Virtue tested under fire as someone truly said reflects here. Mostly it's reaction to present circumstances - devas and asuras in the same individual - who comes to the fore depending upon the individual's present trials and tribulations. Of course there are individuals who transcend circumstances (i know for a fact the blog author is one from experience) but not all. Mostly human. Falliable and frail but kicking on in the illusions:-)

  2. Rahman (sic) "All my life i had a choice of hate or love - i chose love and iam here" - it reflects in all his appearances and his music mostly so great song choice

  3. I feel that the book has made a profound impact on you...for the first time, I somehow got a feeling that your words were quite the sense, not as fluent as in your earlier writings....(Please don't mind about the observation :-)
    War tends to have a numbing impact, especially when the rationale for the same beats logic. For us, from our privileged positions as onlookers, the truth never really hits home.
    It takes a narrative to concretise the experience, and then, we would probably look at our neighbour with a altered perspective. Which is why I think the parallels that you have drawn (closer home) tend to strike a chord.
    Can't help but think of Anne Frank.

    1. Yes. The onlooker, narrator and the victim have views that vastly differ in intensity. Swapping feelings about an event is not as easy as sharing knowledge about it. Probably one of the reasons we still go to war.

  4. I felt that this post is completely different from your earlier columns. Bottom line is people behave differently when under threat. Politeness is something that is exhibited during normal times very often.


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THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.