Seam of survival

They say that every picture tells a story and the photographs of miners taken by Bruce Letwin in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya do just that, says Janet Moore in her tribute to the people

 

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

A 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 you 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 mined in the hills

Trucks cavalcade 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 tree fall?

 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 and 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.

 Afterword

 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.

 

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