It is difficult to comprehend how much Kestutis Ptakauskas suffered in his life and how many times he was on the brink of killing himself. I look at him talking about these emotional experiences in an almost detached way and am struck by how he has endured so much and yet has the calmness of someone who had a normal life in suburbia.
Kestutis Ptakauskas from Lithuania was the overseas bonsai demonstrator at the Autumn Bonsai Festival hosted by Kat Rivier Kai from 27 to 29 April 2018 in George. Through his interpreter Julia from Sedgefield I tried to piece together his personal history and how it came about that bonsai saved his life. It was difficult to piece together and I hope not a lot was lost in translation.
It is a remarkable story that lead to him receiving the Order of the Rising Sun in 2017 from Japan for promoting bonsai in Lithuania. He is now the president of the Lithuanian Bonsai Association, director of Bonsai Studio and has organised the European Bonsai and Suiseki congress (2015) as well as the World Bonsai Exhibition (2016).
Kestutis was born in Siberia in 1957 where his father was banned to by the government of Stalin. He wasn’t a political activist but Stalin extracted “clever people” and send them to camps in Siberia. His dad worked there for ten years and met his mother when he was send to a second camp where women were also imprisoned. Kestutis and his brother was born there. The family returned to Lithuania in 1958, a year after he was born and Stalin died, and two years after the birth of his brother Vitautas.
Slowly the terrible story of his childhood unfolds when the family returns to the village of Lazdijai in Lithuania with nothing and is put up by another family. The area is devastated and there is no work. His father gets by and supports the family by working in gardens.
When Kestutis is three years old he walks with his brother down a lane when a tractor approaches with a trailer full of men. They stop next to them, the men jump down and grab them, throw them screaming into a sack and sets off to the forest. The two boys in the sack are dumped in the snow and kicked around. Then the men leave. They manage to escape and stagger home. To this day he doesn’t know the why of the event. He thinks it could have been former KGB agents who victimised returnees.
Kestutis loses his voice. He also struggles to walk. He recovers his voice before going to school but develops a terrible stutter. The kids in school taunt him and he is bullied. He endures this for eight years before he leaves school.
He pauses to light a cigarette. His voice is soft and - like traumatised people do – he look into the distance when he tries to recollect the facts.
After school he goes to college to study engineering. He obtains a certificate in 1978. But there is no work. He is send against his will to Afghanistan. He is the gunner in a tank on the frontline. I believe him when he says they sometimes wiped out whole villages when the order came to do so. He says orders were not questioned. “This war deeply wounded both my body and soul,” I think he says.
I cannot quote him directly because I don’t know if the interpretation of the translator adds anything to his words. But he looks me straight in the eye when he says he is by nature not a killer.
The horror is too much and a lot of his friends end up in asylums. He does not like dreams. After six months he is send home. His mother sends him to a shrink. The shrink says he must get himself a wife to care for him. Since then he does not like doctors. Eight years after the advice he does marry. She helps him through his depression and stops him from committing suicide.
The only way to sleep is by working himself to a standstill in a factory where they make moulds. Hy earns a pittance but he says compared with nothing it was enough to rock and roll. He is a broken man who clings to life but wouldn’t mind dying.
In 1998 a friend shows him a bonsai and his life changes. He says an inner voice told him that the tree will cure him. He buys the small ulmus and stares for hours at it when he cannot sleep. He starts his own business and works his fingers to the bone to make it succeed. He strips cars and sells the parts to Russians. And then one day whilst scavenging for spare parts he discovers a Japanese garden. I deduce that it is in a book. An inner voice tells him that this is his destiny and that such a garden would heal him.
In 2012 he starts his own garden. He finds an inner peace he has not known. He starts to build a Khoi dam. When the pond is about 3m deep, he falls into it and breaks his spine. Whilst the snow buries him he cries for help but no one hears. Eventually he sees a hosepipe that is connected to the kitchen. He shouts into it. His wife hears strange noises coming from the pipe but does not connect the dots. She discovers him when she takes him tea. The ambulance comes and has to hoist him out because he has no use of his legs. He is lame for three months.
His muscles go to waste. His rehabilitation is slow and painful. A book by a pilot who lost the use of his legs gives him courage. Eventually he can work again and with the help of neighbours he finishes the pond. And then when assisting them with the movement of arock he dislocates his spine again! This time it takes a year to recover. Kestutis has a plane to catch and he says he does not want the interview to be just of the hardships. He mentions highlights in his life as his book Morning Dew Garden, the Bonsai Museum he opened in 2006 with three Japanese gardens and his favourite Sakura trees. He says he is blessed with his wife Loreta and sons Vytautas and Tautvydas. He meditates in his Tea-house and teaches visitors not only to drink tea but to think with him about the Flowing Time and the value of a Moment. And the visitors come from far to experience what this remarkable man has achieved. He gives me a booklet. In it he says in his garden he spends time with his DAO which is also called Absolute, Brahman, Completeness, God and other names. Trees and gardens has helped me to lead a meaningful life.