[This essay by Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. first appeared in Chimera (February 1996) and was later republished as the introduction to a reissue of his 1992 novel Killing Time in a Warm Place. Our next post will feature an extract from that book].
KILLING TIME IN ’73: AN ESSAY ON PRISON LIFE by JOSE Y. DALIDAY Jr.
I was arrested by military intelligence agents close to midnight on January 2, 1973. Like a true Pinoy, I had gone home – after largely staying away for the past several months, the first months of martial law – to visit my folks for the New Year; this, despite a rumor that the place would be raided or “zoned” – sosonahin – Kempeitai-fashion. Home to me then was a community of squatter shanties in Old Balara, a stone’s throw from the university where I had spent much of that freshman year studying Mao instead of math.
There were about eight of them; my father woke me up as gently as he could, and I found myself staring into the barrel of a carbine. I was being arrested, they said, for violation of the anti-subversion law. I thought they were exaggerating; I wrote manifestoes and such, and I was 18; I was a flea. But they took me to a waiting car – as big and as black as a hearse – and then they moved on to the next house which, much to my surprise and chagrin, turned out to be a safehouse used by another activist, an old high school classmate of mine. Of all the places, I thought – and then they tossed him into the rear of the car beside me. (Years later, Cecilio – released – would take to the hills and die in a firefight down south.)
There were more untimely reunions at the holding cell in Camp Aguinaldo, where we were taken and deposited. Instantly I recognized a brown sofa; I had seen it last in a “UG” – underground – apartment that had obviously been raided and pilfered of all things usable. An adjacent room called the “exclusion area” was where the interrogations and the beatings took place. We were talking about Rey Vea (now dean of the University of the Philippines College of Engineering) and about how lucky he was to have avoided capture – only to see him trudging into camp, the catch of the day.
A few days later we were trucked off to a new “detention” site – the Ipil Rehabilitation Center in Fort Bonifacio. It wasn’t a bad-looking place, when it was new and when there were only forty of us (that number would reach 200). It was a motley crowd we made: senior scholars and professors (William Henry Scott, Zeus Salazar), would-be politicians (Orly Mercado, Jojo Binay), religious (Fr. Jose Nacu, SJ), journalists, teachers, workers, students, bums, reputed killers, and the perennially lost, even among the lost. The women were put in their own camp beside us, and married couples and lovers met with a barbed wire fence between them. People spoke in careful whispers, knowing or believing that someone, somewhere among our ranks was the dreaded “ajax,” our slang word for “agent,” the government’s and our jailers’ ears.
We soon settled into what I suppose was a typical prison-camp, River Kwai routine, starting with reveille and mass exercise first thing in the morning. We did calisthenics the Chinese tai ch’i way – the People’s Liberation Army way, we would say to encourage ourselves. The food was good, at the beginning: a lump of rice, a thick slab of meat or fish, vegetables, and a banana (later, we would have to grow mustasa in the garden, and depend on supplements brought in by family and friends). Much of the day was spent doing whatever one pleased: reading books from the small library, playing chess, bodybuilding, learning a trade. A few of us inclined to drawing and painting formed an artists’ group; I would use my lettering skills to wangle permission from the sergeant to talk across the fence with a girl I had a crush on, in exchange for making a poster announcing more rules. We sat on benches in the evening and watched the Marlboro sign in the Guadalupe skyline. Sometimes, it almost seemed serene. There was terror roaming about the country, and it would reach us with every new incoming batch, and now and then someone would get picked on by the guards and beaten up (the only time I’ve been thankful for having been hazed and thus prepared by my fraternity); but for the most part it was a quiet life, especially for those of us who had been constantly on the move or on the march, before we stumbled.
For a couple of months and for wobbly but flattering reasons (a joke then as now) I was moved along with a busload of other people to a maximum-security, fortress-like prison within the same headquarters, and mixed in with common criminals, the spillover from Muntinlupa (or was it a waystation?). We shat in the same transparent toilets, with nothing but a towel to mask the action; the common areas were walled with chicken wire, and everything had to be visible to the guards, who patrolled us from above on catwalks. We ate at the same tables, but the OXOs and the Sigue-Sigues deferred to us – the may pinag-aralan, the book-learned – affirming, even in prison, the persistence of degrees. And frankly I don’t think we minded it, especially when they lunged at each other with sharpened spoons as they would now and then, while we watched TV (“Brian’s Song”) and while the guy in the next bunk – a Comp Lit professor reputed to have Soviet (vs. our Maoist) attachments, painted a gray and very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of his Army-issue mess kit against a pale pink background, on a canvas and with oils he was privileged to bring in. I thought this too hoity-toity, and amused myself and others by sketching the comrades’ sneakers on oslo paper (to a nineteen-year-old, that does for wit). The professor, I would later hear, struck a deal with a gallery, and was thereby able to support his family from where he was. So this art – we also painted matches and matchboxes and sold them as souvenirs on Sundays – became our version of Muntinlupa’s bottled ships.
Most of us would eventually be released under one amnesty or other. My own deliverance walked in straight out of Kafka: one day in August, an officer arrived with a sheaf of papers, among which were mine. I was taking a shower when I heard my name being called over the PA system: “Dalisay, to the guardhouse!” The news, at the guardhouse, was always either very good or very bad. The officer looked at me and said: “Dalisay, are you still here? We have nothing on you. Pack your bags and go home.” I had been in prison for most of 1973 – seven months and four days – not bad, by martial-law standards.
Some of us rejoined the struggle and went Cecilio’s way, or were salvaged in the sewers (and still some survive!); others returned to the university, which I, by the roundabout way of public relations (for a government ministry, no less) and scripting formulaic movies about the fall of the Filipino high and mighty, have done; and quite a few of us flew off to the United States and parts beyond – astonished, no doubt, by the extent to which a life could be complicated further.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.