By Vaddey Ratner
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
Under the Khmer Rouge regime, the term sala (‘school’) was used as a euphemism for secret torture centers set up throughout the country. The most infamous of these was S-21, or Tuol Sleng, a former elementary school in Phnom Penh where Pol Pot’s security police tortured and murdered over fourteen thousand prisoners, including women and children. Prisoners were made to confess their alleged crimes, leaving a mountain of dossiers penned before death.
You’ve asked me for my real name. What do I want with real names when fake ones have saved my life? I have many.
You ask how I became a cripple, this creature with bean-sprout legs tucked beneath my rump like a burly toad. You laugh at the ingenuity of your description. What is my history? What is my crime? How have I betrayed you? The Party? The vision?
You know, comrades, you can kill a person with too many questions. For all your talk of communes, collective goals, forging a unifying history, you’re obsessed with the lives of individuals. Facts can kill with their banality.
I wasn’t always a toad, you ought to know. From the moment I began to toddle, my father, the dance master of our village theater, had in mind that I should perform in the Ramayana. Soon I’d become a seasoned dancer, dancing the minor role of a monkey-clown. I would leap, jump, somersault, and cartwheel across the stage, wearing a green mask made from papier-mâché. My father goaded me and nurtured me more than any other student, and in time I became Hanuman, the White Monkey General in Prince Rama’s army, who represents Good. I became known from village to village for my acrobatic skills. Quickly I grew arrogant, inflated with adolescent pride. I could whip you, my father threatened, and he often did.
One day I ripped off my Hanuman mask, and throwing it to the ground, told my father I wanted to be Ravana, King of the Demons. I told him I wanted it because the role was more athletic. I wanted to choose who I was. If I could not be Ravana, I demanded, then I would not dance!
Oh, yes, I defied him, the dance master—and in his eyes, his art, his god—and I was kicked out of the theater and cursed by the whole performing community. But I’d reached that age when I needed to abandon my hobby anyway—to pursue a more serious path. His dance was child’s play. I took up writing my own version of the Ramayana. I gave myself endless roles—my many selves.
As I thought out the details of my story, my own version that would rival the classic text—I’d leap on my narrow bed, and pretending it was a stage, dance my favorite scenes of the Ramayana. In the battle between Good and Evil, in which Hanuman and Ravana fight each other, I flipped and jumped, inventing my own moves as I went. As Hanuman gained the upper hand, I balanced precariously on the knee of the kneeling Ravana, my jeweled dagger bearing down on my archenemy. And in that moment I thought, What if I switch characters? As Hanuman, I’d been fighting with every intention that in the end Good would always triumph. But what if I shifted loyalty—became King of the Demons instead? What if he were the one holding the dagger over my head?
Why not! I told myself. This is my dance, my story, and there’s no father to tell me what I can and cannot do. I would be both Hanuman and Ravana, and my greatest battle would be with myself. I am Good, I thought. But if I fought and killed, wouldn’t that make Good and Evil one and the same? What separates us, when we commit the same acts?
I needed to know, and the only way to find out was to let myself be conquered by my enemy. So I submitted—I became him. If in the end I returned to myself, I would have final victory.
I did a backward flip off the bed to transform myself from Hanuman to Ravana. My back hit the floor, and I heard something snap. I thought it was the bed—a broken spring or crack in the frame. When I tried to get up, I couldn’t move my legs. I tried again, and pain shot up my neck and spread through my head. I lay very still, and waited for help.
Dance, like any other art, is a form of worship, you see. One false move can break that fragile link between you and your god. I lost my legs.
What’s the point of all this! you say, a club to my skull. I must confess my crimes. I don’t know what you suppose them to be. But this much I can say: you are wrong to think that you might come out of this experience unchanged, a complete whole, uncorrupted. You ask anyone, any of our people, and he’ll tell you, this is our karma. War, revolution, death and insanity—all this is our karma. But all karma is—is one wrong move. Our glorious utopia is a mistake, comrades.
If we live through it, we can never go back to what we were. Perhaps there is no good or evil—only transformation. Maybe Ravana wasn’t always vile, but transformed by a tale not told, overlooked in the bigger story. If we survive, we’ll discern that our worst enemy is ourselves. Some of us, comrades, kill in order not to be killed. We use this excuse to exonerate ourselves.
As for myself, my Hanuman self, I’ve never been the same since I switched sides.
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she and her mother escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, is a New York Times bestseller, finalist for both the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award and the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award, and is being translated into seventeen languages. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.