This fragment of a line by the poet Dennis Brutus from Nightsong: City – a poem about a South African city has never quite left my mind since I first read it many years ago. It is now just over two weeks since a bomb went off at the Erawan shrine at Chidlom, and the line keeps ringing right back at me. I have crossed the shrine many times, either by the Sky train or on foot.
It is weird how that incident woke me up to violence in a way that I never have experienced before. First of all, I had always assumed that violence always happens elsewhere, never in my own vicinity. It is always out there, affecting others, never me. But this time it was different. It had happened at a place I’ve stopped by to watch and admire. I particularly remember one evening when I had stopped on a crowded overhead walkway to watch a dance recital.
But on the night of the blast, for a long long time, fear was “immanent as sound from a wind-swung bell.”
By the next morning, there was a dramatic shift in my perception of the city. I wanted to look at it more deeply, beyond the impressions I had formed through a pale-view lens; the neat little houses and gardens and the cutesy aesthetics of teddy bears and hello kitties – so far from the ‘rag’ it had become for those brief moments. I was rudely awakened to the fact that small everyday violences had always existed and I had chosen to ignore them. The look in men’s eyes on the sky train, the swear word muttered when jostled at rush hour.
Tip of the iceberg. Rather, the heap of silken weaves that the city is in the outsider’s imagination. There are deeper, darker forces that we cannot, will not touch in our quotidian lives. I am now more aware than ever of these vast pockets of darkness.
Television channels spoke almost admiringly of the way the city went back to normal in a few days. But in strangers’ eyes something seemed to linger on, even though the eyes almost always darted away. In a bookstore I scribbled down these lines …
…the look of yesterday/clings to the eyes of passers-by/moments slip by/it’s more important to hurry/looking nowhere/looking nowhere.