21 Days of Staring Down Death: Diary of a Hunger Strike
One activist’s drastic protest fiercely divided my country—and his own family—on whether he was a hero or a fool. I had to meet the man who was putting his life on the line for strangers.
In the beginning, it was a spectacle. Who could believe that in Trinidad, a country where so many seemed resigned to the recession of justice, to the intractability of corruption so overt that headlines read like punchlines, that there could be a sane man willing to die on principle? For strangers. At first, no one believed it. But as the days went on, 53-year-old Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh — educated at Oxford University, trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (the West Point of England), professor of literature, writer of children’s books — remained stubbornly seated at the doorstep of the prime minister’s offices, his body wasting away. People started to believe.
I’d first heard about him on Day 9, a Thursday, and by Sunday I’d flown from New York to Trinidad, back to my country. I wanted to meet a man professedly willing to die for other men. I wanted to find where such heroism took root in an ordinary man. What I found first was his mother.
Wayne’s mother looked down at his body laid out in the blaze of the Caribbean sun. The muscle had shrunk back so much, and so quickly, that the skin pooled like melted wax at the joints and hollow belly. The pulse, close under the soggy flesh, pumped laboriously where it was visible at the junction of shoulder blade and neck, its rhythm one of a fish gasping just shy of the water’s edge. A network of veins twisted across his frame, a body turned inside out, tiny ropes that seemed all that held him together. She stood behind him. “I don’t want him to see the pain on my face,” she explained.
In just under two weeks Wayne had made the transition from a man who was living, to a man who was dying. No food. No water. An extreme hunger strike. Sustenance had been wrenched from his body cruelly and without warning. The shock of it turned life against its owner, and he was being devoured from within. It must have been excruciating: the hunger, the thirst, the fiery cramps in his gut, “but he don’t say nothing about it, never complains one word,” his mother said.
He lay on a makeshift gurney on the side of the two-lane road. There were no sidewalks, the cars passed within feet and sometimes swerved around the bulge of onlookers that gathered daily. A row of four or five women stood holding black umbrellas along the length of his body, trying with limited success to keep the sun off of him. Ringing them tight, jostling and stooped like vultures, were the press. They flashed their cameras and thrust their mics, interrupting the reverential hush with a cacophony of wordless mechanical whirs and clacks.