Poet’s quest for enlightenment
Peacemongers By Barry Hill UQP, 676pp, $45 (HB)
BARRY Hill and I share at least one thing in common: an abiding admiration for Indian poet, novelist, philosopher and playwright Rabindranath Tagore. Born in 1861 in Calcutta (now Kolkata, West Bengal), Tagore died in 1941, a few months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
A friend of Albert Einstein, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, Tagore was one of the world’s great public intellectuals, an early leader of India’s nationalist movement and, in 1913, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also wrote what are now the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.
Hill is best known as an award-winning poet. Peacemongers is his first major prose work since the acclaimed 2002 biography Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. This new book is an involved and meandering meditation on the author’s search for spiritual meaning, and also an exploration of the genesis and foundations of peace.
It begins with Hill’s pilgrimage in India to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha supposedly received enlightenment under the bodhi tree, and finishes in Nagasaki, one of the two Japanese cities destroyed by atomic bombs in World War II.
Towards the end of the book Hill also gives due recognition to Australian writer Wilfred Burchett, the first Western journalist to report on the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Within 48 hours of arriving there, Burchett had written what Hill terms “his world-shattering story” that, a month after the atomic blast, was published uncensored on September 6, 1945, in London’s Daily Express. Burchett’s explosive piece ran under the headline “The Atomic Plague” and opened with the words: “I write this as a warning to the world.”
As well as poetic musings about his travels to India and Japan, in Peacemongers Hill intercuts reflections about indigenous and other Australians and also about his father, a Melbournebased peace activist and a union man who is a presence throughout this relentless and, to my mind, sometimes pretentious book.
What I do find fascinating in Peacemongers are all the details about Indian judge Radhabinod Pal, from the High Court of Calcutta, and the role he played in the war crimes tribunal set up in Tokyo by the Americans in 1946. Indeed part six of the book, titled Reason and Lovelessness: Tagore, the Tokyo Trial and Justice Pal, is alone worth the price of this well-produced and finely illustrated tome.
This especially applies to Hill’s analysis of Pal’s unequivocal dissent from the tribunal’s majority decision and his reasons for rejecting Japanese guilt. In fact, Pal’s lengthy judgment, the only one that dissented absolutely, was suppressed at the time. It was published only in 1953 in Pal’s massive work International Military Tribunal for the Far East: Dissentient Judgment.
As Hill reveals, Pal was one of the three token Asians (the others were from China and The Philippines) belatedly appointed by General Douglas MacArthur to ‘‘balance’’ the 11 Westerners on the bench. Pal’s appointment was complicated by the fact officers of the Indian National Army, led by Gandhi’s rival for the presidency of the Indian National Congress, Subhas Chandra Bose, were on trial for fighting with the Japanese in Burma.
It is intriguing to learn that the handsome Pal, who hailed from East Bengal, arrived in Tokyo a little after the trial had begun. Moreover his attendance at the trial, which ran for 2½ years, was the least of all judges save one. This was the Australian president of the tribunal, William Webb, who regularly returned to Brisbane.
The controversial thrust of Pal’s Tokyo judgment is that all nations involved in the carnage of war, victors and vanquished, were culpable. Thus he argued that the ‘‘so-called trial … obliterate(d) the centuries of civilisation which stretch between us and the summary slaying of the defeated”. Indeed, if criminality were the main issue, the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and especially on Nagasaki, he argued, was one of the greatest crimes of all. Such atomic blasts, Pal poetically concluded, had “never occurred on earth before — nor in the sun or stars”.
While all of the rich information about Pal is undoubtedly worthy of record, I find Hill’s conceit of having Tagore’s ghost at the Tokyo trial to be coy and unconvincing.
Apart from most of the material about Pal, Hill is at his best when he writes directly about Tagore and especially about the poet-philosopher’s multi-layered stories of knowledge and epiphany, and about Buddhism, Hinduism and Zen. Yet despite his quest to overcome selfimportance, in the main Hill’s often solipsistic mediations reveal a writer still caught up in selfregard.
As it happened, when I first opened
For Jessica, a Quaker. One year I said I didn’t Want to be arrested. Back too frail to be man-handled. I settled for the dawn peace-vigil: Candles flickering in the police horse’s eyes. War can make cowards of poets. This year I didn’t want to protest Under anti-SAS slogans. Those young blokes might have been sent to Mt Sinjar To fight their way up To show the way down For the stranded women and children: Just the kind of war heroes we want. Now, from my retreat near Swan Island I hear that they stood on the hands Of my friends, stripped them And dragged them along the ground Took a hessian bag Put it over their heads Stood on their backs Said they would kick a head If it so much as opened its mouth. Words fail me when I think of that war Let alone try to imagine its peace. mongers the book’s saffron yellow page marker indicated page 9 of part one, which is titled Slippery Buddha. Straightaway my eyes fell on the following sentence: “He walked adrift, feet splayed and astray, like an elephant that had lost its trunk.”
What on earth did this mean, I wondered. It was not an auspicious beginning.
Often the material Hill quotes is much more lucid, powerful and penetrating than his own text. Bearing that in mind, I will end by quoting from the Dalai Lama’s exegesis on the Heart Sutra.
This ancient Buddhist text is something to which Hill often refers in Peacemongers, as well as in a separate seven-page author’s note positioned inside the book.
So here are some lines from the pen of the Dalai Lama:
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, left, with Mohandas Gandhi, top; Japanese wartime leader Hideki Tojo at his war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1948, above