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Monday, September 19, 2011

a day in a life

I must have been about fifteen when I read 'A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn  .The story is set in a  Stalinist labor camp , designed to break its prisoners physically and spiritually . By replacing prisoners’ names with officialistic combinations of letters and numbers, the camp erases all traces of individuality. For example, the camp guards refer to Shukhov, as “Shcha-854.” The protagonist Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov does not passively accept this attempt to dehumanize him, however. He shows that the way to maintain human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he is, he insists on removing his cap before eating. This practice gives Shukhov a sense that he is behaving in a civilized manner. His insistence on his own dignity amounts to an underground declaration of war against the state that imprisons him .   The book impacted me strongly. For days I would think of Shukhov, battling the sub zero temperatures, hunger and the brutality of the system. With time the print blurred but what always stayed in some corner of the mind was an image of a cell- Ivan's cell. Whenever I would see, or enter ,a small room the image of Ivan's cell would raise its head and reality would merge with story.  Needless to say ,cramped spaces always left me feeling uncomfortable- like a prisoner in a camp.

The room is about 8ft by 6ft. It has no window-just a door .There is no furniture apart from  six wooden tables and benches. It can seat about eighteen ( three on each bench) but there are never more than twelve to fourteen of us. We are supposed to report at 9.30 'sharp' .  No one is ever late but also none reach before 9.25. In those five minutes we walk in ,sit and also take out our pens/pencils .There is a total absence of animosity , and also of any attempt to make small talk. I don't know if we greet each other -I don't remember it happening. At 9.30 the door opens for the last person .He/she enters with a sheaf of papers .The papers are given out and the test starts.  The test ends.The papers are redistributed amongst us so that we check each others papers .Scoring is done and the papers returned.We all fare pretty pathetically but no muscle twitches and no one winces .At 1' 0'clock the door opens, wider this time, and two guards enter with our lunch. Lunch is the same every month .We eat our lunch in total silence. Newbies to the system have been known to initiate conversation .They either do not show up  the next time or ,if they do, are also silent. Post lunch is another test. Same procedure. It is evening .We  leave.
I step out and look at the sky.Why did I never notice it earlier? Dusk seems to have never looked more beautiful. I breathe  in fresh air and smile at the man roasting peanuts in one corner of the street.  Solzhenitsyn's Ivan could never leave his camp at Siberia. I am out until the next time.This is a day in my life.