‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’: Circling back, looking closer

‘But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?’

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AFTER RECEIVING a confirmation email from the cinema manager of a posh mall in the metro that they will be showing the much-awaited film adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles for two consecutive weeks, I rushed to check my schedule to buy a ticket on its nationwide release the next day. 

I arrived at the cinema early, and got my ticket for the 6:20 pm showing. With no smartphone to utilize the free WI-FI while waiting, I decided to have a look at the latest book titles at the bookstore adjacent to the cinema. I saw Murakamis, Ishiguros, Gladwells, Leavs, Kaurs on the shelves while I was languidly gliding along the rows and rows of books. Then, I was greeted by Smaller.

It has been over a month now since I last finished reading the book the second time. Yes, that was not our first encounter.

In my attempt to start a conversation with Pat – who would turn out to be my senior high school best friend – while we’re waiting for our next class one crisp afternoon, I asked for the theme of the intriguing book she was holding. I was then sitting on the aisle seat behind her, on the second row. While our other classmates were busy throwing crumpled papers in the air, or talking about their treasured online computer game, or reviewing our lessons for the exam the coming week, I was hooked on the book’s front cover showing a face of a strange man in black background. Published in 2002 by the University of the Philippines Press, it’s the UP Jubilee Student Edition of Batacan’s novella.

“It’s about a serial killer in the slums of Payatas” she said. “The poor victims are pre-teen boys. Do you want to have a look?” Thrilled, I responded, “Sure, thanks!”

I flipped through the pages, glimpsed at the texts written on the back cover, and started reading the book.

Pile of trash. Small, pale, unmoving hand. Mangled corpse. Genitals removed. Peeled face. Mutilated beyond recognition.

It was as if I was taken to a familiar place in cinematic details that I couldn’t move. I froze for a moment. My classmates vanished. The noise transformed into silence. The walls of the classroom have been silently destroyed by the maggots coming out of the boy’s body. And just like that, my heart and my mind were in unison.

Equipped with a two-volume dictionary at home, I intently read each sentence. The author used words I’ve never encountered before. It was a struggle. It was new to me. It was gripping.

Transfixed, I still remember how I intensely tried to hide my emotions. I wanted to cry. Again and again, I reminded myself that it’s fiction, that there’s no way it’s happening; there’s no chance.

But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?

A pattern on the killings involving teenage boys which was allegedly done to sabotage the current administration’s war on drugs surfaced on the news. Some government officials, who because of the pressure to deliver and exhibit results to their bosses and to the public, purportedly plant evidence and falsely declare innocent, powerless individuals as the murderer, the perpetrator, the killer by conducting brutal tortures and wreak death threats. Some priests and authorities of the Catholic Church, who tell themselves that they carry the truth and that they serve as the guardians of the moral fiber of the society up to this day, ostensibly conceal their unrighteous acts, abuse minors and the weak, and improperly use their influence and power for their advantage.

With all these lurking on our plate, when are we going to wake up?

Frustrated that not so many people showed up in the opening day of the movie adaptation of Smaller, I searched for the Instagram account of award-winning director Brillante Mendoza for consolation. On that same day, he posted: “Film is an art and you cannot expect everyone to appreciate art. You just have to accept that this is the audience that you have. We cannot do anything about it.”

Literature and the arts bring us to places we’ve never been before. They show us perspectives that can shed light to some of the subtle, the hidden, and the unspoken ideas around us; that we may pause to look closer and circle back to the abhorrent fragments of our past to keep them from happening again.

We still have a long way to go but I hope that we’ll someday give time and investment to our quality locally produced films no matter how long or short or wherever the line is.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com. Opinion, IMHO on the 11th of December, 2017.)

The buried giant embodied in our trains

‘Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal… We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.’

IT WAS a blistering hot afternoon when my northbound Metro Rail Transit (MRT3) train stopped at the Santolan station longer than usual. It’s around 2:40 pm. I was on my way to work. The crowd was not that thick.

After 6 minutes, an announcement was made. I did not understand the message because of the static noise coming out of the speaker. Anxious, I closed the book I was reading. It was a holiday because of the ASEAN Summit 2017.

The train doors remained open. I looked outside to know what’s going on. Not again, I said. A few seconds later, the train’s door closed but I still wondered what had happened.

Accident

Later that day, I heard two of my colleagues talk about news on MRT3. After hearing the details, to my horror, I realized that the delay of the train operations earlier that day was not because of another glitch or a technical problem, but because of a serious accident at the MRT3 Ayala station.

Around 2:30 pm. Woman. 24. Fainted. Fell on the railway tracks. Severed right arm. Cut near her armpit.

I was shocked. I couldn’t utter a word.

At that moment, I remembered another appalling MRT3 incident that occurred in March this year. I was also on my way to work and about to get into the entrance to buy a ticket when I observed that the train was not moving. It was stuck. The entrance had been blocked. Lines of passengers were nowhere to be found. Confusion and chaos were evident.

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the passengers who was forced to get off the train earlier that afternoon, “Sir, what happened?” He responded, “A man jumped onto the rails.”

Why do such incidents keep on happening?

In a 2013 ABS-CBN report, Pinky Webb wrote: “MRT general manager Al Vitangcol said they initially planned to put up screen doors only in 3 MRT stations, namely Taft Avenue, Shaw Boulevard, and North Avenue, by the end of the year…However, because of the recent incident, they will eventually construct the platform screen doors in all 13 stations of the MRT.”

Four years later, not a single station has been installed with a protective barrier.

How many lives have to be lost for the MRT management and the government to seriously act on this? How many more limbs or arms should be injured for those in power to act on commuters’ safety?

Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal.

We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.

The buried giant

I understand that there’s no shortcut in getting funds for platform screen doors or other security and safety upgrades for our trains. But, isn’t it just a matter of prioritization, political will, and accountability?

It has been said that the transport system of a country is a reliable barometer of its advancement, growth, and prosperity. We should aim to be a model of efficient and safe transport systems and services like our other neighbors in Southeast Asia.

But while waiting for that time to come, I hope that we don’t forget our frustrations and challenge those in power to make a difference for the future of our country and for the prevention of suicide attempts and accidents involving our trains.

As what Kazuo Ishiguro write in The Buried Giant, which I was holding inside the train at the Santolan station: “For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

Let’s all recognize and courageously face our society’s buried giants one mist at a time.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com, IMHO, Opinion, on the 16th of November, 2017.)

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)

20. Elon Musk

“Thank you for your efforts on building a better planet despite all the criticisms, despite all odds. Thank you for weathering the storms. Thank you for being brave.”

I ADMIRE the man for his conviction, for standing up for his principles, for not listening to his idols and mentors on what he has to do, for having deaf ears on their never-ending opinions for him to stop innovating, to back out and forget the idea of challenging this world’s perspectives.

He makes it seem like his bourgeois status is irrelevant whenever he speaks, when he tries to explain things. His eyes glitter like the stars in space. 

But aren’t we tired of the congestion, of inhaling toxic gases everyday from petroleum-fueled cars? 

We are all witnesses on the rising effects of pollution to humanity caused by petroleum-fueled cars. There’s tons of health problems and issues that the governments of the world have to deal with for its citizens. Global warming is happening not because of the of nature’s processes, or the imbalance in the ecosystem. It exists because of our own actions. 

And so, he built Tesla, Inc..

It takes guts to build a company out of nowhere and get over the hump of the financial crisis in 2008. 

Wikipedia described Tesla Inc. as an “American automaker, energy storage company, and solar panel manufacturer based in Palo Alto, California. Founded in 2003, the company specializes in electric cars, lithium-ion battery energy storage, and, through their SolarCity subsidiary, residential solar panels.” 

When I first heard that company name years ago when I was still studying electrical engineering in the university, I remembered right away the inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla, who I look up to because of his genius and passion for science. As someone who wanted to work in one of the hardest and most challenging fields ever, he inspired me. There I was, imagining who I could become someday. I also once told myself that it’s so fitting that Elon named his company after Nikola Tesla because of his contributions. It’s a form of respect. 

All creatives works, all novel ideas come from those pioneers and thinkers who are courageous enough to question everything, to take the status quo head-on. They are those who do not dwell too much on the “now” but on what the future holds. We are where we are today because of the continued search of humanity for advancement and progress. But sometimes, we hinder each other, demotivate those who oppose us, those who are different from us, and tell ourselves that we are right without conducting objective examinations. Sometimes, we unknowingly victimize the creative genius in all of us. 

While it is true that owning an electric-powered Tesla car will cost you a fortune, still we should appreciate the attempt to turn this world upside down. 

I hope to meet Elon Musk someday. I hope to have coffee with him. I hope to finish reading all of the books that influenced him. And I hope to personally tell him: “Thank you for your efforts on building a better planet despite all the criticisms, despite all odds. Thank you for weathering the storms. Thank you for being brave.” 

12. Discovering that you are a creator, an artist

“Fail. Stand up. Discover the creator, the artist in you even if sometimes it’s scary.”

IF YOU see yourself as a creative, do not give up. If you believe that you are an artist, embrace and nurture your craft. If you think that every cell of your body directs you to do more, to work on your passion, to reach the farthest limits of your imagination, try. And if an idea pops up in your head out nowhere, while you’re brushing your teeth, while taking a bath, while pouring tomato sauce on your plate to make your special dish, while walking, jogging, or sprinting, while waiting for the one that you love in a cafe, Japanese restaurant, or on a bench somewhere, while reading a book, or while riding a bicycle, a car, or a seesaw in a park, listen.

The world is filled with people who call themselves artists and poets and writers but do not know when to listen and be brave enough to spend their time to give their art its own form, life, and space. They do not want to feed themselves with new perspectives. Everyone is born a creator but not all of us are courageous enough to face its inexplicable faces, its inescapable enigma.

Fail. Stand up. Discover the creator, the artist in you even if sometimes it’s scary. I know because it frightened me to write this.

But we both know that there’s no other way.