Chingiz Aitmatov—Kyrgyz Writer
(From an essay series by Daisaku Ikeda in which he reflects on his encounters with various world figures.)
In the autumn of 1937, when he was eight years old, Chingiz Aitmatov boarded a train at Moscow's Kazan Station with his mother, younger brother and two younger sisters. His father came to see them off.
Meeting with Chingiz Aitmatov in Moscow (July 1990)
"Why are we leaving?" Chingiz wondered. He couldn't figure out why his father was suddenly sending them all back home to Kyrgyzstan. His father, a respected figure in his community, was a leader in the newly formed Kyrgyz Communist Party. He had come to Moscow with his family to study.
But the Stalinist purges, which are said to have claimed the lives of tens of millions, had begun. Sensing danger, his father was determined to ensure the family's safety.
Young Aitmatov's father walked and then ran alongside the train as it began to pull out. His children innocently waved good-bye to him, unaware of the significance of the moment.
Mr. Aitmatov remembers that the day was September 1. He recalls it every time he passes Kazan Station. "Father, you knew that was our final farewell . . ."
In Kyrgyzstan, the Aitmatov family lived as virtual outcasts in the remote village that was their home. When his mother asked the Party what had become of her husband, she was told he was in prison without permission to write or receive letters. In actuality, he had already been shot, just two months after their farewell at the station. He was only 35 at the time.
Many villagers assumed that since their father was being punished, he must have done something bad. There were times when the young Mr. Aitmatov didn't even want to tell people his last name. But there were some, like his elementary school teacher, who did not allow their vision to be clouded by the swirl of events. One day this teacher said to him: "Never look down when you say your father's name. Do you understand?" These words became a lifelong treasure to him.
"That teacher gave me courage," Mr. Aitmatov says. "He taught me to hold fast to my humanity and to place utmost importance on human dignity . . . Even now, my blood boils whenever I see someone being demeaned or insulted."
I first met Chingiz Aitmatov in Tokyo in 1988, when he was traveling around the world as a standard-bearer for perestroika. The moment I shook hands with him, I intuitively felt that here was a man of lion-like courage. His solid build exuded strength and warmth as if a blazing furnace burned within him.
Mr. Aitmatov was born in December 1928, the same year as myself. "Our generation," he says, "experienced war when we were young. We have seen what terrible suffering war causes and the starvation and grief war brings. We have also seen how people rise from the ashes of destruction in search of the light of a new age."
When World War II began, the Aitmatovs' lives grew even more difficult. They lived in a dilapidated shack. Mr. Aitmatov's mother was frequently bedridden, and Mr. Aitmatov had to quit school at 14. But since he excelled in reading and writing, he was chosen to be secretary of the village council.
The task he hated most was delivering the army's notices of soldiers killed in action. When he appeared at the homes of those who had loved ones at the front, they would peer at him with frightened, anxious faces. He would take out of his bag a piece of paper that bore the seal of the Russian army. He had to read out the brief message.
The mothers would give a heavy sigh that he said sounded like a mountain of stone collapsing. That sigh was filled with a rush of sorrow and grief: "Ah, I will never embrace my dear one again!" The young Mr. Aitmatov dared not look up at the bereaved, but he could not leave, either. Nor could he comfort them. All he could do was stand there, while an unquenchable anger rose in his heart.
When Mr. Aitmatov was a boy, there was an incident that angered him to the core. His family had a cow, Zukhra, that they depended upon for milk. It was practically the family's only possession. But one morning Mr. Aitmatov discovered that Zukhra had been stolen! The entire family felt as if the earth had given way beneath them.
"How dare someone steal the cow that was our sole hope! What more suffering must my mother endure?" The young Mr. Aitmatov's heart was filled with rage. "I will find the thief and kill him." He borrowed a rifle from a neighbor and set out.
As he tromped through the snow, wild-eyed with anger, he came upon an old man on a donkey. The old man was clearly very poor. It was customary for young people to greet their elders, but Mr. Aitmatov was beyond civilities. The old man spoke to him instead.
"Hold on, young man! You're not going off to kill someone, are you?"
"Yes, I am." Their eyes met. The old man looked at Mr. Aitmatov with a warm, gentle gaze. The boy told him the whole tale. After hearing him out, the old man said: "I understand how you feel. My heart and even my bones ache to see you in this state. But young man, you must not kill, not even in your mind. No matter who it is.
"If you return home and forget about killing, you will be blessed with happiness. You may not notice it at first, but happiness will come to dwell in your heart. You may think what I'm telling you is just a lot of foolishness right now, but trust me and go home. All right? Someday you will understand what I'm telling you. Now, go home!"
For some reason, Mr. Aitmatov did as he was told. Loud sobs wracked his body as he made his return journey.
Suffering gave strength, depth and breadth to the boy's spirit. Through his encounters with many people, he acquired practical wisdom. He learnt from the lives and examples of people who lived by the sweat of their brows.
Reunion in Luxembourg (June 1991)
After World War II, he graduated from the Kyrgyz Agricultural Institute. Nonetheless he found himself increasingly drawn to literature, so at the age of 27, he entered the Institute of Literature.
At 29, the French author Louis Aragon praised his novella Jamilya as the most beautiful love story in the world. His works have been translated into many languages, winning him fans around the world.
"The responsibility of a writer is to bring forth words that capture, through painful personal experience, people's suffering, pain, faith and hope. This is because a writer is charged with the mission of speaking on behalf of his fellow human beings. Everything that happens in the world is happening to me personally."Mr. Aitmatov knew nothing of his father's fate for decades. When his mother died, some 30 years after they had said farewell to his father at the station, Mr. Aitmatov had her tombstone engraved to say that they both rested there.
Twenty years later, his father's remains were suddenly discovered. A mass grave containing 138 bodies, identified as victims executed by Stalin in 1937, was uncovered. Among the remains was a piece of paper pierced with a bullet hole, a written indictment with the name of Mr. Aitmatov's father, Trekul Aitmatov, clearly legible.
After 54 years, Mr. Aitmatov was finally reunited with his father.
His heart cried out in anguish for his father who had been framed by false charges and murdered by lies, and for his mother who had endured all and died, never knowing what had become of her husband, and who had allowed him, her son, to study after the war, telling him not to worry about her or the family. His heart surged with hatred toward craven liars, toward the lust for power and domination that drove them to insanity.
And his heart burned with anger toward all those who would inflict such pain and misery on mothers and children.
Mr. Aitmatov declares: "In the end, what is right? What should be the standard for distinguishing between right and wrong? I have to believe that it is love for our fellow human beings, a love that wishes all who have been born on this planet happiness and freedom. No ideology or national structure is more important than this. And it is when people love that they become true heroes."
Mr. Aitmatov is an ally of all who wish to see a new age in which the solidarity of mothers triumphs over the evils of power.
[Courtesy, January 2004 SGI Quarterly]