Celebrated Scottish poet Tessa Ransford emailed me about Japanese poet Bun Hasijume – ‘Poet Bun Hasijume had a narrow escape from atomic bomb attack in Hirosima during Second World War. In case you are going to Japan try to make a visit to her too’. Tessa’s email instigated the interest and curiosity of the writer inside me towards of Bun Hasijume like never before. On 26th September, at the inaugural dinner hosted by International PEN following its 76th Congress Seminar, I ended up asking a group of Japanese poets gathered for dinner – ‘Will I get lucky enough to meet Poet Bun Hasijume today?’
The modern day’s popular Japenese poet Chikae Taniguchi, in a while, provided me with an opportunity I had been looking forward to many days. I was finally standing face to face with the poet who had invaded my thoughts for a while now. Small statured and fair with a hat donned on her head and powered spectacles gracing her eyes – it seemed my speech had left me briefly after meeting her: I just kept staring at her visage. Hasijume on the other hand looked up into my eyes with her scintillating smile. She was born in Hiroshima in 1931 that made her a 79 year old septuagenarian. However, her outer appearance defied her actual age; she did not look a day older than fifty to me. I could not contain my surprise as my tongue finally fumbled for the words: ‘Are you Bun Hajisume? Really??’
Her scintillating smile turned more dazzling as she replied – ‘Yes that is me.’
‘It seems you have left half your age behind at your home’, I joked trying to lighten the atmosphere. My effort was paid off. We laughed in chorus – poet Chikae, Bun (the poet) and me.
‘Can you spare a little of your valuable time for me? I would be grateful if you could share your horrifying experiences brought about by one of the most inhumane and horrendous act of mankind against mankind?’ I finally mustered up enough courage to ask her. The catastrophe had befallen on mankind before I was born. Although I do have some vicarious insights to the senseless display of power and agonizing terror that followed World War II, I nevertheless wanted to add as much as possible about it to my repertoire. And here the Lady Luck had finally given me a chance to meet a living legend who had first handedly endured, weathered and survived all the senselessness. I got become like a greedy child standing in a chocolate store, wanted to know all that she had to offer.
Her smiling eyes lost their sparks to be replaced by icy emptiness. Her countenance got deadly serious as she uttered, ‘I do not like to remember that time.’
Perhaps she discerned the disappointment that must have replaced the erstwhile happiness my face had donned on hearing her response. She quickly salvaged the situation as she offered – ‘My English is not that good. Hence, I shall not be able to tell them all. However, my memoirs of that event have been translated and published into English. I shall bring that for you.’
I nodded my “yes”. The fellow poet Chikae clicked us both in a photograph. After having our dinner together, we called it a night.
Two days later, I got an opportunity to meet Bun again when she paid her second visit to the Congress. She handed me a small book called Fellow Humans! Let us Foster Love & Wisdom – From Hiroshima consisting of her memoirs and poems. Its blue cover signified peace – the same aura of tranquility that Bun was oozing ever since I had met her. The curiosity to flip through the pages of the book got the better of me. I was physically present at the program for the evening but my mind wandered towards the pages of the book. I took an early evening off; I rushed to the place of my accommodation, took the book out of my bag and finally turned the pages.
Bun, born at Hiroshima, was 14 when the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima of Japan on August 6, 1945. The wartime Japan had an edict to follow: the entire able bodied male had to serve as soldiers in the Army while all women had to work in different offices located at their respective cities, towns and villages. Although a high school student that time, Bun had to work in a Postal Saving Bank as warranted by “Student Mobilization Labor Scheme”. She writes in her memoirs “… On the sixth of August, 1945, I arrived at work after 8 o’clock and was standing by the window on the second floor of our concrete building when there was a sudden flash of light so bright I thought the sun had fallen at my feet. A thousand rainbows all at once seemed to explode in my eyes. I must have lost consciousness immediately. When I came to, I found myself sitting in the middle of the room next to the central pillar. In the event of a bomb attack, we’d been taught to lie down on our stomachs to prevent injures to the abdomen and intestines, and to protect our eyes and eardrums by pressing our middle and forefingers over our eyes and covering our ears with our thumbs. I tried to do as we’d been taught but it was pitch-black and there seemed to be no room to stretch out.”
The more I read, the poignancy of her words bound me even more, and my curiosity got heightened up with each passing page. She continued – “When my vision began to clear, I gently removed my hands from my head; they were covered in blood. Remembering the First Aid Bag in my desk, I got to my feet. To my astonishment, desks, chairs and bookshelves had been thrown all over the room and lay in a heap on the floor. I eventually found my desk among the rubble, and had just bandaged my head when someone yelled, “Get out, everyone, quick!”
In the same instant she could witness her friend and colleague weeping on the floor- all bloodied and bruised while requesting her to take her to the nearby Red Cross Hospital. Her voice was feeble and choked. It was a Herculean task for her friend to make that request. When Bun Shan looked outside, all she could see was Inferno — the land outside was all ablaze with the fire from hell.
Let me iterate Bun Shan’s words ad verbatim (to the gamut of my ability) here. She further writes, “The hospital was thronging with people: people covered in burns, their face oozing and swollen the size of pumpkins, and skin trailing at their feet or hanging in tatters from their outstretched arms; people desperately trying to push their eyeballs or intestines back in place, or, lacking the strength to do even that, walking about with their intestines hanging out; people burnt so black and raw it was impossible to identify their age or sex. I was just as if I’d steeped into hell.”
Her words were flowing in the book like an idyllic river irrespective of her blood curdling and heart wrenching tales they told. The book was strangely hypnotizing in spite of all the blood sanguine they spoke. I kept turning the pages as if in trance. I stopped only when I had finished reading the last word from the last page including four poems. I finished satiated as a writer but emotionally drained as a normal human being. The time was past 11 pm. I tried to sleep but that night my slumber had a mind of its own as it eluded me for a long time. Instead the gut-wrenching events depicted in the book and the picturesque portrayal of agony and terror pulled me down in the vortex of pit black dizziness. The vivid yarn of distortions and desperations I had right after finishing my reading took away my calm for the night, the ghosts therein haunted my mind and the flashes of past invaded my sleep. I started remembering her poems:
The Young Boy
Here on the outskirts of Hiroshima
In the military parade grounds overgrown with grasses
At a quarter past eight
A young boy
Has he come looking for insects
So early in the morning?
A flash of light strikes the boy
Turning him into pillar of fire
Instantly reduced to charcoal
He falls to the scorching ground
Legs splayed, arms outstretched
Black, hollow eyes glaring up at the sky
Mouth gaping upwards in a silent scream
Is he calling out for his mother?
For his brothers, sisters or friends?
Or screaming in agony?
Not one single tooth
Or fingernail even, remaining
Still the blazing inferno continues to burn
The Charred remains of the young boy.
(From Fellow Humans! Let us Foster Love and Wisdom – from Hiroshima, translated by Susan Bouterey P. 1)
Lying among the piles of bodies
Scattered all over the playground
Kazuko hears her father calling her name
His voice comes closer and closer
He stops at her feet
But her burnt, festering eyes
Cannot see him standing there
Her arms and legs are lifeless.
Kazuko cried out too
But no sound will come
From her seared and swollen throat.
The sound of her father’s footsteps
And his voice
Gradually fade away
Into the distance
Tears stream down Kazuko’s cheeks
The only sign she is alive.
(From Fellow Humans! Let us Foster Love and Wisdom – from Hiroshima, translated by Susan Bouterey P. 1)
I kept staring into oblivion trying in vain to assess the depth and profoundness of pain and suffering her poems resonated. The slumber that had eluded me for long finally overtook me without my knowing.
Bun Shan had lost two younger siblings in the atomic attack: a brother and a sister. Bun and her mother survived grave injuries. The physical and emotional repercussions of the barbaric genocide have haunted her for long. It continues to haunt her to this day. She suffered from a disease named Collagen. She was told her days on Earth were limited: a month at the most. That incident shaped her as a poet as she started to pour down all the burden of all her dejections, pessimisms, trauma and emptiness within into words. Fortunately, she outlived the timeline given by numerous years. As the life rolled on, she got married, had kids and a family of her own. Being a mother and homemaker put a balm on her physical, mental and emotional wounds. She gradually stopped writing during the time making the writer in her take a backseat. Years after, her son came to know about her bitter yet vast experience of Hiroshima bombing and coaxed her to utilize that experience. She decided to give in to her son’s idea and resolved to resume writing her experience no matter how gruesome it was. Her resolve was made for two reasons – to tell mankind how precious human life is and to make her contribution, albeit a small one, to save the world from another catastrophe like the Hiroshima atomic attack.
She wrote poems, essays and an autobiography in her second innings as a writer. Her first book was published in 1985 AD titled, “The Youth Who Turned into an Insect”. The book revolves around the atomic attack and unimaginable hardships people had to endure then after. Her anthology of second set of poems had been published in 1990 to be followed by her collection of essays in 1993. She has also published a book titled Memoirs of a Fourteen Year Girl’s Experience of the Atomic Bomb.
I had a chance meet with her in another program the next day. I felt at more familiarity with her this time. Hence I was feeling at ease to start a conversation with her this time around. I checked her out carefully, the outer serenity of her face defying the ravaging tumult of atomic attack within her. She was a soft spoken woman of few words – I had a lingering feeling that it was a gift given to her by despoil and annihilations that the war left behind.
I told her – ‘I read it, all at once, all in a breath – it was unpardonable.’
She smiled her bewitching Sakura smile once again before thanking me.
‘Your writing is immensely powerful. Having read your nightmarish experience, I have started loving life even more. I have started liking dream filled human eyes more than before. How to tear love filled human hearts into smithereens with a bomb! No, I’m not able to do so ‘, I said.
‘May no one be able to do so ever.’ She embraced a silence yet again after the short yet succinct response.
I let her revel in that profound serenity. Thought – She still needs limitless tranquility and meditation after all the chaos seen in her life, after all that she has undergone.
About the Writer
Bhisma Upreti is an award winning Nepali poet and essay writer. He has published 16 books of essays and poetry. His works have been translated into English, Japanese, Korean, Serbian, Slovenian, Hindi and Tamil and have been appeared various international literary journals, magazines and anthologies. He lives in Kathmandu with his family.