Thursday, 1 March 2012

People: Vietnam Memorial ~ a close encounter of the human kind

THE VIETNAM Memorial at Washington D.C. is serene, stunning, almost surreal at that early hour in 1987. Its polished slabs of stone are etched deep with a roll call of the dead and missing. Designed by Maya Lin, it is stark and lyrical all at once.

I’d read reams about the war before I chanced upon the memorial, watched films about the trauma that the overseas conflict had caused a generation of Americans. I even met a 35-year-old draft-dodger who refused to talk about the war ~ or watch any war movies ever again. But at the site, I found nothing had prepared me for the monument.

As shafts of sunshine stroked the slabs of black stone, my eyes stopped at a single rose at the foot of a slab, a lighted candle spluttering to its end, the bunch of flowers wilting in the August glare.

Looking at the wall, I saw myself reflected in the polished stone – as if the past and present were being symbolically yoked together in a single moment.

I suddenly felt a gentle hand at my elbow, as a refined voice said, ‘Did you lose someone in the war, dear?’ I explained my Indian origins and my tourist status to the 70-plus couple, who’d saved for years on their Mississippi farm to make the pilgrimage to the site of national mourning. Their son had never returned from Vietnam.

‘Could you help us, please?’ he asked, sharing his eyes against the midday glare later. ‘We don’t know if he’s missing in action… and the names on the slabs are too tiny for us to read.’

So, I asked them for his name. I scanned the inscribed slabs, but his name wasn’t there. With relief, we flipped through the huge books atop stone pedestals that listed all of those who hadn’t been identified among the dead. And we came upon his name. I read it aloud to them.

It was with hope in their hearts and tears in their eyes that they returned to the American deep south.

As I watched their retreating backs, I thought over that chance encounter. And how it means more to be human than to be Indian or American. In that instant, I no longer felt like a complete stranger in an unknown land.

*      *      *

Years later, I discover that the The Memorial Wall is made up of two 75-metre-long gabbro walls. These walls are sunk into the ground, with the earth behind them. At their apex, they are 3 metres high, but taper down to 20 cm at their extremities.

Disbelief floods through me when I learn that the reflective stone for the wall came from Bangalore/ Bengaluru, where I now live. The stone was cut and fabricated at Barre in Vermont, before being shipped to Memphis, Tennessee, where the names were etched on. Finally, photo-emulsion and sandblasting completed the process. The negatives used in the process are in storage at the Smithsonian Institution.

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