In the terrifying new world order, Cairo is a place where people walk about with microchips in their heads, where everyone laments a green Egypt that never was, and where scientists warn against "unsafe levels of nostalgia" that come from hearing strains of old songs. Such is the premise of Ahmed Naji's dystopian novel, Using Life, fluidly translated from Arabic by Ben Koerber and just published in the US by the University of Texas Press. The story is a rich, wild ride narrated by Bassem Bahget, a forty-six-year-old looking back to his youth just before Cairo's destruction by violent sandstorms and earthquakes. Surprisingly, though, it isn't the novel's critique of authoritarian regimes, but all of the fucking (to stick with the translator's term of choice) the protagonist gets up to that led the Egyptian government to charge and convict author Ahmed Naji of "violating public modesty." The trial and sentence condemning Naji to prison sparked protests in Egypt last year and brought his work to the attention of the foreign press and PEN America, which led an international campaign for his release. The attention and praise the book has since received, including a rave review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, are inevitably connected to these circumstances, but now that Using Life has been published in English we can see that they are fully earned by the author's exceptional work.
Though tempting for readers unfamiliar with Egyptian politics to assume that Naji's case is about enforcing Islamic values, it's more complex than that. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Egyptian constitution, and the escalation of arrests and prosecutions under President el-Sisi is in defiance of Egyptian law. As Naji remarked in an interview, "the moral code in Egypt is closely tied to the structure of power." Indeed, Naji is the first writer in Egypt to receive a prison sentence for his fiction since the January 25 Revolution of 2011, and his arrest rallied the Egyptian and then the international literary community to his cause. What we see here is an authoritarian regime stoking fear and self-censorship among those who would speak out against the government, not a guarding of Islamic traditions.
Naji's raucous celebration of Egyptian popular culture, Arab history, sex, and youth plays out in the contested urban spaces of Egypt. The story opens with young Bassem, a filmmaker in his twenties who's just trying to smoke some hash, fuck, and hopefully make it across town without vomiting on the minibus, but all the while Cairo bears down on him. "Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere." After Bassem is hired by the secret Society of Urbanists to make documentaries about city planning and the architecture of the Egyptian capital, he quickly becomes bound up in the battle by members of the Society over the future of his city.
The struggle between liberalism and authoritarian rule plays out as a question of the future of Egypt's capital between powerful figures in the Society of Urbanists. Ihab Hassan (a character that plays tribute to the literary critic Ihab Hassan, an expat Cairene who championed postmodernism) argues that Cairo should be reformed through a revitalization of its neighborhoods, through a democratization of space, while the soul-sucking, gorgeous centenarian Paprika demands Cairo be wiped out to make room for a new order. It is Paprika who rules the day and it is from the bizarre new world that the older Bassem writes to us.
In Using Life, questions of architecture and city planning come up throughout, a footnoted account of the nineteenth-century mobile capital of Algeria's storied prince Abd al-Qadir being just one delightful example of the theme. The unsettling illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany serve as brilliant complement to this question: is Cairo Bassem's lifeblood, or is it eating him alive like an undiagnosed flesh-eating bacteria? Throughout the book, the Egyptian capital is like a beast clawing at Bassem's skin, insidiously infiltrating his lungs. It is a city that might rear up and lash out at Bassem at any moment, that holds him hostage in its traffic jams, and that presses such despair on Bassem it shapes even his intimate relationships. There is Reem, a woman whose identity is subsumed by religion and then by her love for another woman, and Mrs. Spoon, a sexy older woman. But of the women he fucks, it is Mona May, Bassem's elusive objet petit a, that readers will find most vividly rendered.
The novel describes Bassem's sexual relations in explicit terms. With every "fuck," "dick," and "pussy," the author reclaims the centuries-old Arabic literary tradition of speaking frankly about sex. In Using Life, Naji puts that tradition in conversation with innovations like illustrations, tangential footnotes, and a fluid time structure. The result is a book that infuses new urgency and excitement in the Egyptian, and now international, literary world.
At thirty-two years old, Ahmed Naji has already been working in Egypt's vibrant literary scene for over a decade. His blogging, critiques of the Egyptian regime, editorial work, and genre-blurring novels have earned him a devoted following in Egypt. Naji completed Using Life on the eve of the 2011 Egyptian "January Revolution" that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak, and the novel reflects the tumult and pressures of that era. After the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with "indecency and disturbing public morals." The indictment, prosecution, conviction, and ten months Naji spent in jail all stemmed from a reader complaint claiming that the sex and drugs in that chapter gave him heart palpitations. The trial hinged on whether Using Life was fiction or nonfiction, a question the Egyptian judiciary spent months investigating. Had Naji himself smoked hash and eaten out a married woman (Mrs. Spoon), or was that a fiction? Naji has called the trial "Kafkaesque." Rightly so. After such a conviction, one has to ask: what is fiction?
"I'm not a writer with a message," Naji has said. "I'm more of a writer with questions." As too many governments in the world bends towards authoritarianism, one can only hope Naji will keep using his considerable gifts to ask those questions.
In this excerpt from the novel Shaheb Bibi Golam, Bimal Mitra examines issues of family loyalty, conflict, and guilt when a young man enables an older woman’s alcohol addiction.
It was late. Who knew where Bhootnath could buy liquor at this hour? He had no idea where the shop was. There was just one place where he might get it. Perhaps Jaba’s family cook was there right now, squatting on a brick by the road with an earthen pot, and singing his favorite devotional, Radha, you disgraced woman . . . But how was he to travel that long distance at this hour? And then, all of a sudden, Bhootnath bumped into Banshi.
“Where are you off to at this unearthly hour, Shala-babu?” Banshi inquired.
But Bouthaan had instructed Bhootnath not to tell anyone, not even Banshi. Bhootnath could not think of a response. “Where did you spring from, Banshi?” he asked.
“Chinta is down with fever again, Shala-babu. Master-babu is away. So I’d been to doctor Shashi. But what about you?”
Bhootnath felt slightly embarrassed.
Banshi continued, “I know where you’re going, Shala-babu. Chhoto-ma has been looking for you all evening. So I was wondering, Chhoto-babu is still somewhat unwell, he has been staying home at night. Why does Chhoto-ma have to send for Shala-babu then?”
“Chhoto-babu hasn’t been going out of late?” asked Bhootnath, taken aback. He had had no idea.
“You think he can even get out of bed?” said Banshi. “He barely manages to visit Chhoto-ma once a day and then collapses in his own room. The doctor’s forbidden him, you see. He said no getting out of bed till you’re completely cured. You won’t believe the way he looks, it’ll make you cry, by god!”
“Has he stopped drinking?”
“You think anyone can give up that poison? Take me for example—since Chhoto-babu took to his bed, I have been mixing his drinks. I dilute them with a little water, Shala-babu. But still I feel I’m killing him. The doctor has said many times that he won’t live if he keeps drinking. But who’s listening? He’s been drinking just like before, and I pour out the poison myself. Some mornings he walks to the window and gazes outside. Babu isn’t so drunk during the day, but as soon as it gets dark—get the ice, bring the bottle! Just as well he doesn’t have the strength to visit Notun-ma’s house. You think he wouldn’t have gone if he could have? That slut has him under her spell . . .”
Pausing abruptly, Banshi said, “By the way, did you know that Notun-ma was here the other day? You haven’t heard?”
“When? I had no idea!”
“How would you know? You were asleep by then, it was late at night, Nathu Singh told me secretly. He said, Banshi, Rupodashi’s daughter Chunibala is here. Wants to see Chhoto-babu. Should I let her in?
“I thought, Chunibala’s here to meet Chhoto-babu because he couldn’t go see her all these days. What if babu hears and creates a scene? Wait, I said, and ran straight to Chhoto-ma. She had just finished her puja rituals. She flew into a rage as soon as I told her. You know how pleasant she is normally, but she changes completely when she loses her temper. She said, Can’t you get the whip from Chhoto-babu’s carriage and give that ogress a couple of lashes. If you can’t, call Nathu Singh. I’ll tell him.
“She frightened me. Chhoto-ma said again, Can’t you do it?
“I told her, Chhoto-babu won’t spare me if he finds out, Chhoto-ma.
“But I am in charge in this house. Do as I tell you. Whip her till she bleeds.
“I said, It’s just that I can’t hit a woman, or else . . .
“Don’t you call her a woman, she’s a witch. Call Nathu Singh if you can’t do it. All of you will lose your jobs if she so much as sets foot inside the house, I’m warning you. And if you can do as I say, neither you nor your sister will ever have to worry for money in your life.
“By now her screaming had brought Mejo-ma and Boro-ma out of their rooms.
“What’s the matter, Chhoto?” Mejo-ma asked.
“She convulsed with laughter when she heard.
“She said, You amaze us, really. A man’s character is like silk—]there’s nothing pure or impure about it. You overdo everything. I’ve seen Ranga-ma and Mejo-korta—if I took everything to heart I’d have hung myself by now.
“Boro-ma said, Really, Chhoto-bou, you make too much of a fuss over everything.
“You won’t believe it, Shala-babu, but I went . . . I went to the gate at that hour of the night with Nathu Singh. Notun-ma had come in her new car. Seeing me, she said, How’s Chhoto-babu, Banshi?
“I said, He’s a little better now.
“Is he taking his medicines?
“Take me inside, she told me.
“What could I have said? I lied. I said, Babu has forbidden us to let you in—I swear, Notun-ma, he said, if your Notun-ma comes don’t let her enter, I don’t want to see her face.
“Notun-ma thought for a while. Then she asked, Did he really say that?
“Of course. Why should I lie? What would I gain by lying?
“Well then let him say it to my face. Let Chhoto-korta ask me himself to go—I’m not leaving before that. I didn’t choose this path on my own, it was he who led me to it.
“You won’t believe the trouble I was in that day, Shala-babu. The maid’s daughter had become a queen, why would she give up so easily? A house in a posh area like Janbajar, four maids of her own, three servants, a car—she had achieved the impossible! What more did she want now? But these whores are always after these things. As if she couldn’t sleep at night because Chhoto-babu wasn’t well!”
“Did she leave eventually?” Bhootnath asked. “Did Chunibala go?”
“You think I waited to see? What choice did she have? I just told Nathu Singh to lock the gate and walked away. I don’t know what happened after that. I had other things to worry about.”
“What do you have to worry about?”
“How could I not be worried? What if Chhoto-babu found out? He would raise hell. Who would help me keep my job? I would have had to go back to the village with Chinta and starve. It’s not like I have land back home that I can live off. I have to think of these things, Shala-babu.”
“But then Chhoto-ma will never let you go, Banshi, you’ve done so much for her.”
“But who’s going to listen to Chhoto-ma, Shala-babu? Chhoto-korta himself pays no attention to her, never mind anyone else in the household. Here you are, going out at this hour to buy liquor for Chhoto-ma . . .”
Bhootnath recoiled as though he had stepped on a snake. “How did you know, Banshi?”
Falling into step beside him, Banshi said nonchalanatly, “Who’s going to tell me, Shala-babu? I’ve worked here long enough to be in the know of everything. Do you think the neighbors will know what’s going on rather than the servants? Neither Chhoto-ma nor Mejo-ma knows the things I do. Not even Chhoto-korta or Mejo-korta. We find out everything—who’s spending the night in whose room, when a doctor sneaks in, when the midwife is brought in stealthily, medicines, illnesses, everything. Only last year a crowd had gathered on the road outside early one morning. Police, constables, an uproar, kites and vultures circling—and what were they staring at? Why, a day-old baby boy, dead. We know everything—who tossed him out, from which room. But we are servants, we don’t need to be involved in such things. The police came, interrogated us, we said we know nothing, that was that.”
Suddenly Bhootnath asked, “Banshi, do you know why Chhoto-ma wants this horrible stuff?”
Banshi was quiet for a while. Then he said, “By god, Shala-babu, you’re a Brahmin, I can swear by you, I worship Chhoto-ma like a goddess. I can sacrifice my life to make her happy. That’s why Lochan and Madhusudan-kaka are jealous of me, they say, you must have been her son in your previous life. But being someone’s son isn’t everything, is it—do all sons take care of their mothers? The mother must be worthy of being a mother too. Babu went to her room the other evening. I had gone to fetch him because Chhoto-ma had asked me. I eavesdropped on them.
“Chhoto-ma asked him, Are you planning to go there again?
“Chhoto-babu had not yet had a drink that evening. His head was clear. He said, What business is it of yours if I go?
“That’s his way of speaking, you know.
“Chhoto-ma said, Don’t go. Can’t you stay back instead?
“I wasn’t born in a family where the men cling to their wives’ gowns, Chhoto-bou.
“Chhoto-ma appeared to be thinking. Then she said, I’m not asking you to do that, but you can still stay back.
“Am I supposed to sit here and gape at you?
“Don’t gape if you don’t like it, look away. Let me serve you.
“I heard Chhoto-babu laugh. Contemptuously. A little later he said, Do you really know how to serve, Chhoto-bou?
“Give me a chance.” Chhoto-ma said.
“I am not your loving son or one of your gods, I’m a man, a flesh and blood man. Are you capable of serving me? Think it over.
“I heard Chhoto-ma say, There’s nothing to think over. Hindu women do not have to be taught how to serve their husbands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed again, that same contemptuous laugh. He said, I’m not that sort of husband, Chhoto-bou. The men of this family learn to drink even before they’re born. They’re raised by maids and servants. They’re not allowed into the women’s chambers once they turn nine or ten. They have kept women as soon as they come of age, they compete to see who’s the more decadent, who can nurture more sycophants. It’s not within your capabilities to serve and please such a husband, Chhoto-bou.
“Why don’t you see whether I can or not?
“Chhoto-babu answered, It’ll be a wasted effort Chhoto-bou, it will never work. Wives cannot do these things, no one married into this family has succeeded. Not just this family, no one married into the other families—the Duttas, the Mullicks, the Seals, the Seths—has either tried or succeeded. It’s too much trouble. Only they can, those other women, they know the tricks of the trade.
“Chhoto-ma seemed to be on the verge of tears. She replied, I’m begging of you, you’ll see, they couldn’t succeed, but I will. All of them are from rich families, but you have brought me here from a poor one. I can do it. I will do everything you ask me to. I will dress up exactly as you want me to. I will talk just like you want. I will take care of you in every possible way.
“Will you be able to sing?
“My father taught me to sing. If you like the songs I know I will sing them for you.
“Chhoto-ma said, I’ve never danced but if you arrange for lessons, I will. I can do anything for you.
“And drink? Can you drink? Like Chunibala does?
“A short silence. No one spoke. Chhoto-ma probably hadn’t expected this from Chhoto-korta. I was speechless too. How can a husband say such a thing to his wife? Liquor and poison are one and the same thing, how can a man force it on his wife? But then Chhoto-babu is not really human anymore. All those hours he spends with Notun-ma have sucked it out of him. But my Chhoto-ma is blessed, she’s a goddess. And the way she responded was worthy of someone I think of as my mother.”
“What did she say?” asked Bhootnath.
“She said, I will. I will drink. I can even drink poison with a smile if you give it to me with your own hands.
“Chhoto-babu laughed and said, but that’s not the right way. Far from my handing you a glass, it’s you who will hand me mine, Chhoto-bou.
“I will. If my drinking can keep you at home, I will.
“I felt a chill run down my spine, Shala-babu. Imagine Chhoto-ma taking poison while we watch. I told myself, at least there was one person in the family I could respect with all my heart, but now I would lose her too. My heart broke. I thought of going into the room to stop her, to tell her, that poison will kill you, Ma. But I was born a servant, I cannot cross the line.
“Chhoto-babu left. I was about to walk away too in the dark, but Chhoto-ma called out for me. I went in.
“Go and fetch your Shala-babu,” she said.
“Right now? I asked.
“Yes, right now, she said. Tell him it’s urgent. He must come at once.
“That was when I fetched you. So I know everything. You cannot hide anything from me.”
Bhootnath said, “But I don’t even know where to buy it, or how much it costs. Bouthan just gave me ten rupees.”
“I have the keys to Chhoto-babu’s liquor cabinet,” said Banshi. “Chhoto-ma asked you so that I don’t find out. But I wouldn’t get her the poison if I were you, Shala-babu.”
“Do you think I should return the money to her?” asked Bhootnath.
“Yes, that would be best.”
“Let’s go back then. That’s best—let me return the money and tell her I can’t do this.”
“But don’t mention me, Shala-babu,” said Bhootnath. “Don’t go telling her I told you all this.”
Bhootnath went back the way he had come. “No, Banshi, how can I do that?”
Bhootnath walked through the darkness and once again climbed on to the hidden veranda leading to her room. The light was on, as usual. Chhoto Bouthan was lying on the bed, her face buried in the pillow. Her elaborate hairdo had come apart. Her thick golden chain gleamed on her shoulder beneath the electric bulb. Meanwhile the incense sticks had almost gone out. The doll seemed to glare at him again through the glass doors of the cupboard. Chinta was nowhere to be seen. Stopping at the threshold, Bhootnath called out, “Bouthan.”
Chhoto Bouthan's head shot up at once like a startled fawn's. Getting out of the bed and adjusting her sari, she said, “Is that Bhootnath? Have you brought it?” She walked up to him. “Give it to me.”
Bhootnath stood in silence.
“Well? Give it to me,” Chhoto Bouthan repeated.
“I haven't brought it,” Bhootnath told her directly.
“Why not? Are all the shops closed?”
“I didn't go to the shops.”
“Why not?” Her surprise knew no limit.
“I can’t get it for you, Bouthan,” said Bhootnath. “Here's your money. I can't possibly get you that poison.”
Bouthan stiffened, and looked at him piercingly. “So you can't get it for me?”
“Don't ask me to, Bouthan,” he said.
“What's the matter Bhootnath, why this sudden change of heart?” She took his hands in hers. “What a mad boy you are, has someone said something to you?”
Bhootnath softened. He seemed on the verge of tears. “Why must you drink?” he said. “Is it meant for humans? Only those who go to hell drink.”
“Why, Chhoto-korta drinks,” said Chhoto Bouthan. “How do you suppose their shops would run if no one drank?”
“Let the others drink, but not you, I won't let you, never. You'll die if you drink.”
Chhoto Bouthan burst into peals of laughter. “It would be just as well if I did, Bhootnath. What use is it to be alive when your husband won't even look at you? Still, I want to see if I can lure him back. I've read in the Mahabharata what women did for the sake of their husbands. I'm not trying to emulate them, but let me try what my husband has suggested. No one dies from drinking.”
“Are you desperate to die?” Bhootnath asked, suddenly.
“No, Bhootnath, just the opposite. No one wants to live the way I do, though I don't object to dying for the sake of my husband. But I cannot bear this existence that keeps me neither alive nor dead, Bhootnath.”
“But what if Chhoto-korta still doesn't mend his ways? What will you do then, Bouthan?”
“Don’t worry, Bhootnath,” Chhoto Bouthan said, “I won’t blame you. I won’t blame anyone, I’ll accept it as my fate. But never mind all that, you don’t have to worry so much for me. Even the horses here have people to worry for them, but wives are cheap, a dead wife can be replaced by a living one, but replacing a dead horse is expensive.”
“Then promise me you won’t drink too much, Bouthan.”
“How is that possible? I’ll drink as much as Chhoto-korta wants me to. I’ve given my word, I’ll do everything he wants me to do.”
After a pause, Bhootnath said, “But why did you have to make a promise like that?”
Chhoto Bouthan laughed. Then she asked softly, “You love me very much, don’t you, Bhootnath?”
Bhootnath’s ears reddened with embarrassment. His mind reeled. He lowered his eyes at once and was unable to raise them for quite some time.
Chhoto Bouthan was not the least bit flustered. She said, “You do know it’s a sin to love another man’s wife, don’t you?”
Bhootnath was about to protest.
Chhoto Bouthan continued, “But then if you really love me, get it for me. If you can get it tonight I’ll be convinced that Bhootnath really does love me.”
Bhootnath didn’t pause a moment after this.
© Bimal Mitra. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story details a young boy’s friendship with a prostitute in a poor Calcutta neighborhood.
We lived in a single room in Hari-babu’s bamboo-and-tile house. Several families lived in the same building. One room was occupied by a bangle-seller and his wife. His name was Keshab. I addressed him as Keshab-kaka.
As soon as water flowed in the pipes every morning, everyone would line up with their pitchers and bowls and cans and buckets near the tap, and quarrels broke out between the tenants.
My father would tell my mother, “We can’t possibly live here. These people behave like barbarians. We must move soon.”
I cannot say why we never moved. I think it must have been because we were poor, because my father had no money.
Across the road from our house was a rice warehouse, and next to it was a godown for gur, opposite which stood a municipality tap. A screaming and jostling crowd would collect water from this tap every day. I had even seen women fighting with one another.
Thus we spent a year in that house, from one June to another.
It was in June that we had left our village home. Back in the village, Kali and I had built a hut at the edge of the bamboo grove, next to a thorn apple bush. Kali, who was stronger than me, had carried several bundles of berry leaves and branches. What a perfect hut we had made, the two of us, just like a real house. That’s what Kali would say. He had fixed an abandoned bird’s nest to the thick branch of a tree. He had said that nocturnal woodpeckers or lapwings would lay eggs in that nest in the middle of August or on the moonlit nights of September.
It hadn’t been possible for me to check on all this, for we had moved from the village in June to this house of bamboo and tiles.
I kept recalling the hut on the edge of the bamboo grove in the village, which Kali and I had built with so much care, and of the bird’s nest fixed to the branch of the tree—had the woodpecker laid eggs in it on a moonlit September night?
This house in Calcutta was far too constricted, far too congested. I sat in the tin-roofed veranda in front all morning, watching the neighbors line up for water, the gur being unloaded from a bullock-cart to the warehouse, a young wife gazing at the road, just like me, from the window of the two-story house on the corner. Sometimes I bought chhatu at the Bihari man’s shop on the main road at the head of our lane. The main road was full of vehicles. I had never seen a single horse-drawn carriage in our village. I could never have enough of seeing them go by, but my mother wouldn’t allow me on the main road for fear that I would be run over.
A row of houses of bamboo and tiles, just like ours, stood a little further away, at the other end of the lane. I visited these houses sometimes. They were kept neat and clean and were well-appointed, with mirrors, dolls, glass showcases, and pictures on the walls. Each of the rooms was occupied by a woman. I visited all of them—usually in the early evening, sometimes in the morning too.
One of the women in those houses was named Kusum. She loved me very much, and I loved her too. I spent much of my time in Kusum’s room. She chatted with me and asked about our village. She belonged to a place called Bardhaman. But now she lived in this room.
Kusum said, “I love you so much. You’ll come every day, won’t you?”
“I love you too. I do come every day.”
“Where is your village?”
“Ashshingri, in Jessore.”
“First time in Calcutta?”
Kusum would dress up elaborately every evening, putting a teep on her forehead and some sort of flourlike powder on her face. She would do up her hair too—how well it suited her! But she wouldn’t let me stay in her room at this time. She would say, “Go home now, my babu will come.”
The first time I heard this I asked, “Who’s babu?”
“No one you know. You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I would be upset. I would say, “Let the babu come, I’ll stay. What can the babu to do to me?”
“No, go away. You mustn’t stay. Be a darling.”
“Who is this babu? Is he your brother?”
“You won’t understand. Go home now.”
I was very curious to see who Kusum’s babu was. Why did she tell me to go home?
I did see him one day. A portly man with long hair—he was holding a packet of food of some kind. At the shops they gave you food in packets like these, made with dried leaves. We didn’t have leaves like these in our village—if you bought murki or jilipi at Hari’s shop, he wrapped them in lotus leaves.
Unwrapping the packet, Kusum handed me a large kochuri, saying, “Here you are, eat this on your way home.”
I bit into it, it was delicious. I had never eaten a kochuri like this in the village. The kochuris that Hari made were fried in oil and nowhere near as delectable.
Delighted, I said, “Lovely! And what’s this flavor?”
Kusum told me, “It’s heeng. This is a heeng-kochuri. Go home now.”
Kusum’s babu said, “Who is it?”
“The son of the tenants opposite the tap. Brahmins.”
Turning to me, Kusum’s babu said, “Go home, khoka, go home now.”
I thought of asking, “Why can’t I stay, what’s wrong with my staying?” But when I looked at Kusum’s babu, I didn’t dare. He seemed a bad-tempered sort who might hit me. But since then, I waited as a rule till Kusum’s babu arrived, greedy for my heeng-kochuri. But would Kusum hand me two kochuris before anything else every every time?
Kusum’s babu would say, “Oh, I forgot. I’d meant to get a couple of khasta goja for him. I’ll bring them tomorrow, I promise.”
I wasn’t afraid any more. I said, “Don’t forget, all right?”
Chortling, Kusum’s babu said, “I won’t, I won’t.”
Kusum said, “Go home now, khoka.”
“I won’t go now. Why can’t I stay?”
Kusum’s babu said something in response, I couldn’t quite understand what. Kusum told him angrily, “What a thing to say to a child!”
When I went home I asked my mother, “Have you ever eaten a heeng-kochuri, Ma?”
“I have. So large, and it smells of heeng.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Kusum’s babu brought some, he gave me one.”
“Naughty boy, haven’t I told you not to go there? You mustn’t.”
“Because. You shouldn’t be going there. They aren’t good people.”
“No, Ma, Kusum is very nice. She loves me so much. Gives me heeng-kochuri every day.”
“Don’t you show me your heeng-kochuri! Don’t you get enough to eat at home? I’m warning you not to go there.”
I didn’t go to Kusum’s room at all for the next two or three days. But I couldn’t stay away either. I went back, without telling my mother. Kusum asked, “Why didn’t you come?”
“My mother has warned me not to.”
“Then you’d better not come. She’ll scold you.”
“That’s why I didn’t for two days.”
“But now you’re here again.”
“Because I love you.”
“Oh, my darling. I hate it too when you don’t come. I miss you so much.”
“So do I.”
“It’s all my fate. I’m worried about your mother scolding you.”
“I shan’t tell her. I miss you if I don’t come. I’d better go now.”
“Come in the evening.”
* * *
Fulfilling our pact, I went to Kusum in the evening. When Kusum’s babu arrived, he said, “So here you are, chhokra. Why did you go missing these past couple of days? I’d brought khasta goja for you, but obviously fate didn’t mean for you to have any. Give him a couple of kochuris, will you?”
“Bring the goja tomorrow.”
“I shall, master Brahmin, glutton Brahmin. I’ll bring some amriti and jilipi as well tomorrow. Ever tried an amriti?”
“I’ll bring some tomorrow, you must come.”
“But don’t tell anyone. If my mother finds out she won’t let me come.”
“Does your mother scold you for coming?”
Kusum intervened quickly, “Never mind what he says. He’s a little boy, don’t take him seriously. Go home now, khoka. Here’s your kochuri. Eat it on your way home.”
“No, I’ll finish it here and have a glass of water, or else my mother will find out.”
“I shan’t give you water here. Drink at the tap by the road.”
“Kusum’s babu said, Why won’t you give him a glass of water here? What harm will it do?”
Kusum told him harshly, “Be quiet. I cannot serve a glass of water to a Brahmin’s son. That’s my punishment in this lifetime. It’s bad enough that I give him food with my own hands.”
I was very upset with Kusum. Was I not good enough for her to give me a glass of water? As I was leaving, Kusum said again and again, “Come tomorrow morning, all right?”
I didn’t reply.
The next morning I found Kusum slicing vegetables. She said, “Come, khoka.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“What! Why? What have I done?”
“You said you couldn’t give me a glass of water. You didn’t, yesterday.”
“Is that all? Sit down, khoka. You won’t understand. You belong to a Brahmin family—we can’t serve you water. Understood? I’m making achaar, want some? It’s not done yet. I’ve only just added the gur to the kul . . .”
And so Kusum and I were friends again. I forgot all my anger and hurt as soon as I was handed the kul-achaar. We sat and chatted for a long time. Then I went into Makhan’s room, next to Kusum’s. Hundreds of dolls adorned her room. On a wooden shelf lay apples and mangoes and litchis and many other amazing things all made of clay. A perfect apple! A perfect mango!
Makhan said, “Come, khoka. Don’t touch all those clay toys, sit down here. They’ll break.”
“Why do you smoke?”
Makhan said with a smile, “Listen to the boy! People smoke, don’t they?”
“Do women smoke? My mother doesn’t. My father does.”
“Listen to him. Those who smoke, do.”
“Kusum’s babu will give me khasta goja.”
“Really? How nice.”
“Where’s your babu?”
Makhan giggled, covering her mouth with the end of her sari.
“Hee hee, just listen to the boy, the things he says! Hee hee . . . Kusmi, come listen to what your boy’s saying . . .”
Makhan seemed older than Kusum. Kusum was the most beautiful of them all. She addressed Makhan as didi.
Kusum came in and led me away to her room. She had told me not to go into anyone else’s room. In truth I only went in the hope of getting something nice to eat. But I had no idea when the other women’s babus could come. So disappointment awaited me in this respect. Taking me into her room, Kusum scolded me. She said, “What do you have to talk about with them? You’re a little boy, you’re not allowed into the other room, stay here.”
“I want to go to Prabha . . .”
“Why? What for? Who knows what you’ll say there. Silly boy. So greedy for food. Didn’t I just give you kulchur?”
I said in a tone of pretended astonishment, “I didn’t ask for anything. Ask Prabha.”
“All right, no need to go to Prabha.”
“Can’t I go just once? I’ll be back in a moment.”
To tell the truth, the real attraction in Prabha’s room was not so much food as it was a parrot.
The parrot would say, “Ram ram, who is it? Go away, kakima, kakima.”
Whenever I entered it would say, “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
“My name is Basudeb.”
“Who’s there? Who’s there?”
I laughed. It was such fun listening to the parrot prattle. He sounded exactly like a human. “Who’s there? Who’s there?”
Outside the room, Prabha asked, “Who’s that in my room?”
She was cooking. She came running with a ladle dripping dal. I asked with a smile, “Are you going to beat me up?”
“Oh, it’s the mad little Brahmin. I was wondering who it could be at this hour of the afternoon.”
“Don’t you have any kulchur? Kusum gave me some. Delicious.”
“Kusum has a rich babu. I don’t, do I? How do you expect me to make aamchur and kulchur?”
“Kusum’s babu will give me a goja to eat.”
“And why not? He’s dedicated that huge shop of his at the crossroads to Kusum. Never mind them. As they say, you’re so vain, I could die . . .”
I told her apprehensively, “Don’t be angry with me, Prabha.”
“No, why should I be angry? Just sad, that’s all. I’m a one-man whore too. We didn’t just sail in here, you know. I left home at fifteen when my luck ran out.”
“Why did you leave home?”
“Why tell you all those sad tales? What will you make of them? Wait, my dal’s burning. Words won’t fill my stomach.”
“Should I go?”
“Come into the kitchen.”
Prabha was dark, quite plump, with a mole like a black hornet on her nose. She gave me hot jilipi and muri to eat one day. She didn’t have too many things in her room besides the pet parrot in the cage.
Prabha was cooking a broth with the chalta fruit. The chalta slices were being moistened in a marble cup. I hadn’t tasted chalta in ages, not since we’d left our village. The trees lining the pond in the field would be bursting with ripe chalta at this time of the year.
I asked, “Where did you get chalta, Prabha?”
“At the market. Where do you suppose?”
“They look delicious.”
Prabaha didn’t reply. She went on cooking.
I said, “Where are your parents?”
“This sinful mouth cannot answer.”
“Won’t you go home?”
“Your home in the village?”
“I’ll go home to hell.”
“Do you get kul in your village? We have so many kul trees.”
Prabha did not respond. She carried on cooking. A little later she covered the clay oven she used for cooking with an upturned bowl, made tea for herself, and sipped it from a glass around which she had wrapped the end of her sari. She didn’t ask me whether I’d like some. Not that I drank tea—I was only allowed the cream off the top.
Prabha began to tell me about the cows in her village home, how much milk they gave, and how the pond next to their house was full of fish. She would never see all this again.
Then Prabha did something extraordinary. She asked, “Want to have a little rice and chalta?”
I said apprehensively, “I do. But Kusum mustn’t find out.”
Prabha asked, laughing, “Why are you so afraid of Kusum? What if she finds out? Eat now.”
I had barely mixed the chalta broth into the rice when I heard Kusum’s voice, “Is the little Brahmin with you, Prabha-di? I’d better send him home, he’s been here a long time, he doesn’t live here.”
I ran to a corner of the kitchen to hide, my hand still smeared with rice. Kusum entered before Prabha could respond and saw me. She said, “What’s this? Why are you in a corner? Are you hiding? Who’s this rice for?”
Turning to Prabha in surprise, she said, “He’s a child, Prabha-di, he doesn’t have his wits about him. But have you lost yours too? How could you serve him food?”
Prabha said, subdued, “He kept talking about the chalta, so I thought, a little rice with the . . .”
“No, shame! Come with me, khoka. We already have a lifetime of punishment to deal with, I’m not going to increase my burden of sin by feeding a Brahmin boy. Come . . . do you have food on your fingers? Have you been eating already?”
I answered shyly, “No.”
“Come with me, let me rinse your hands . . .”
As Kusum was about to lead me out, Prabha said, “Poor thing, you didn’t even let him eat. He’d barely begun . . .”
“No, no need to eat. Come.”
Kusum proved stricter with me than even my mother. I had to abandon my meal and come away. Taking me to a corner of the yard and pouring water on my hands, she said, “Why are you such a glutton, khoka? Don’t you remember you’re not allowed to eat there? Shame on you! I’ll give you kochuri in the evening. Don’t ever go in there to eat. You at least are a child, but she’s not, how could she serve a Brahmin’s son . . . really, the things people do . . .”
Naturally Prabha couldn’t hear any of this. She wasn’t even nearby.
I said, “Don’t tell my mother, all right?”
“Can you imagine me telling your mother? I have better things to do.”
“She’ll beat me up if you tell her.”
“You deserve it. That might stop you from being so greedy.”
When I returned home my mother asked, “Where were you?”
“There on the road.”
“You didn’t go anywhere else, did you?”
But one day I was caught. It was Kusum’s fault. She told me, “Come khoka, let’s go for a walk. Will you come with me?”
It was late afternoon. Not very sunny. When I saw we were crossing the tram lines I said fearfully, “My mother doesn’t allow me to cross the main road. She’s told me not to.”
“I’m with you, don’t worry.”
Crossing the main road, we went a little further on and entered a slum. The houses stood on either side of a narrow lane. The building we entered was also full of women, there wasn’t a single man among them. One of the women said, “Come Kusmi, it’s been so long. God, it’s not like we don’t have man-friends but does that mean you must forget us?”
With a glance at me she said, “Who’s this boy? He’s very sweet.”
“He’s from a Brahmin family. Lives in our lane. Follows me around.”
“How nice. Sit down, khoka.”
“The boy’s a glutton. Give him food and he’ll be happy.”
“Ah but what do I offer you? I have kul-achaar, want some?”
Without a thought I blurted out, “I love kul-achaar.”
Kusum snarled at me, “Is there anything you don’t love? So long as it’s food. No, he has a cold, he mustn’t have achaar. Never mind.”
I was heartbroken. Kusum didn’t let me have the kulchur. Where was this cold of mine? I love kulchur so much.
After spending some time in this house, we went to another one. They too asked several questions about me. I was given homemade haalua in a bowl. Kusum didn’t let me eat this either. Apparently I was suffering from indigestion.
Kusum escorted me back across the tramlines shortly before evening fell. A tram was approaching. I said, “Wait, Kusum, I want to see the tram.”
“It’s getting dark. Your mother will scold you.”
“Oh, the boy’s so bold.”
“Why did you say that, Kusum? Why didn’t you let me have the kulchur?” They wanted me to.
“You’re a child, what do you know? People have dangerous diseases in those neighborhoods. You think I’ll let anyone serve you food? You think you can eat anywhere you want to? You have no idea. Do you know what disease some of them might have?”
“What does ‘man-friend’ mean, Kusum?”
“Nothing. Where did you hear it?”
“Weren’t they telling you?”
“Let them. What’s it to do with you? Such a naughty boy.”
Before sending me on my way, Kusum said, “Come, he must have got the kochuri by now. I’ll give you some.”
“Yes. I’m hungry.”
“Is there ever a time when you’re not hungry? If I ever ran into your mother I’d ask her why her son is so greedy.”
“So what if I am? You’ll give me the kochuri, won’t you?”
“Has he brought goja?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you give me goja tomorrow?”
“How dirty this lane is, my god!”
“Will you give me goja?”
“Yes yes I will. Now just take the kochuri and leave me alone.”
That evening Kusum walked me to the municipality tap and left. I told my mother the truth. I’d been to Kusum’s house, and she’d given me kochuri. My mother scolded me soundly and threatened to tie me up. She did tell my father at night, but he didn’t seem to be listening.
* * *
I got a fever the next morning. I had to stay in bed for four or five days. An ancient doctor examined me and prescribed medicines.
My bed was laid next to the window. One afternoon I discovered Kusum on the road, peering at the house opposite ours. Makhan was with her. She was standing two houses away.
I called out, “Kusum . . .”
Turning round, Kusum saw me. Calling to Makhan, she said, “This house, didi, here . . .”
My mother was at the municipality tap. Kusum and Makhan came up to the window.
Kusum asked, “What’s the matter with you? Why haven’t you come?”
Makhan said, “Kusmi’s dying of anxiety. What’s happened to the boy, she keeps saying. So I said, let’s go find out.”
I said, “I’ve had a fever for five days now.”
Kusum asked, “Where’s your mother?”
“Go away, Kusum. If my mother sees you she won’t let me visit you anymore. I’ll come as soon as I’m better. Go now.”
They left. But Kusum was back on the road the very next day. Very softly she said, “Can I come?”
My mother wasn’t home. I knew she was at Baidyanath’s shop to measure out the dal. She had left a short while ago, telling me before she went, “Make sure the cat doesn’t get chhoto-khoka’s milk; I’m going to get some dal from Baidyanath’s shop.”
Beckoning to her, I said, “Come.”
Standing outside my window, she said, “How are you?”
“Much better. I can have rice tomorrow.”
“I brought a couple of oranges. Want them?”
“Don’t forget to eat them.”
“Come over when you’re better.”
“My father said I can.”
“I’ll come again tomorrow. All right?”
“Come. But don’t come up to the window till I say so.”
“All right. I’ll wait quietly on the road. Do you know how to whistle?”
“No. Come when I wave.”
Kusum came on schedule the next two afternoons. One day she brought Prabha along too because she wanted to see me. I shan’t lie, Prabha gave me a couple of oranges too. I hid them beneath the pillow, and ate them when my mother wasn’t in the room, tossing the pulp out through the window.
I went to Kusum’s house twice after getting better.
Then something happened, which led us to leave our house in Calcutta and go back to the village. One day, while my mother was opening a bottle of soda water, a shard of glass went into her hand. There was blood everywhere, spurting out of her wrist. Everyone came running. Bipin-babu from the corner room put some sort of medicine on her arm and bandaged it. But her arm did not heal, getting worse by the day. She couldn’t cook anymore, and would cry in pain every night. The doctor visited regularly. My maternal uncles were well-off. When they found out through a letter, one of them arrived and took all of us away to their house.
It was the middle of July. The taal had begun to ripen on the trees. There were many of these trees by a huge lake next to a field in the village where my maternal uncles lived. I remember picking up a ripe fruit from the ground the very first day.
My mother’s arm healed here. In the middle of September, we went to our own village. We couldn’t go to Calcutta anymore. My father also wound up the establishment there and came home.
* * *
A long thirty years later.
I lived in a boarding house in Calcutta, working as a clerk. My wife and children lived in the village house. On a holiday, as I was chatting with my college friend Sripati, he said, “Last evening, you know, while walking down Premchand Boral Street, painted faces on both sides—horrible!”
“I’ve seen them too. I have to take the same route. But I see them differently. I know them very well. I used to visit their homes quite often once upon a time.”
My friend exclaimed in surprise, “You!”
“Yes, I! I swear!”
“Rubbish, I don’t believe it.”
“Very well, come with me. I’ll prove it to you.”
About fifteen years ago I had found my way to Nandaram Sen Lane and visited Makhan at home. Neither Kusum nor Prabha was there. Makhan was the only one in the group still to be living in those houses.
I took Sripati to Nandaram Sen Lane. Makhan was still there. Her hair was quite gray, and she looked like a witch, with toothless gums.
When she saw me Makhan said, “Come in. How are you?”
“Do you recognize me?”
“Oh my god, how could I not. You grew up right in front of our eyes. By the way, I’ve tracked Kusum down.”
“Where? Where is she?”
“She works as a maid at a boarding house on Shobhabazar Street. The first building on the left. A dilapidated two-story house next to the temple. They’d taken me to the temple the other day, that’s how I found out.”
With Sripati in tow I found the boarding house. It wasn’t evening yet. I asked the cook in the kitchen downstairs, “Where’s your maid?”
“She’s gone to the market, sir, she’ll be back soon. Why?”
“I have to talk to her. Her name is Kusum, isn’t it?”
A little later a tall thin woman—a typical maid—entered through the front door and appeared in the kitchen. The cook said, “These gentlemen are looking for you, Kusum.”
I stared at the maid in astonishment. Was this what the beautiful Kusum of my childhood had turned into? She may not have been as old as Makhan, but still, Kusum was an old woman now. She couldn’t be described as anything else. I remembered her face, but this aged woman had nothing in common with it. If the cook hadn’t told us, I’d never have known it was the same Kusum.
Kusum looked at us in surprise too, asking, “You’re looking for me? Who sent you?”
“Makhan, the landlady from Nandaram Lane.”
“I see. But why are you looking for me?”
“Come over there. There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Let’s go into the dining room.”
In the dining room I asked, “Don’t your recognize me, Kusum?”
“We used to live on Nandaram Sen Lane. I was eight. My parents were tenants at the barber’s house. Remember?”
Smiling, Kusum said, “I remember. So you’re the mad little Brahmin? How you’ve grown. Are your parents alive?”
“No one’s alive.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Sit down, my dear, sit down.”
After we had chatted for a while, Kusum asked us to wait and disappeared somewhere. A little later she came in with two packets of food and handed them to us.
I hadn’t remembered. But as I was about to eat, I did. Four large pieces of heeng-kochuri. At once I remembered Kusum’s babu and the heeng-kochuri. I was reminded of the boy thirty years ago and his greed for kochuri. Kusum must have remembered. Or not—I didn’t know. As I ate the kochuri, my mind took me across the dusty gap of thirty long years directly to the spot on Nandaram Lane next to the roadside municipality tap, in front of the gur warehouse, where Kusum was still a young woman of twenty-five, and her babu still came regularly with a packet of heeng-kochuri.
Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In a chance encounter in a train station, a divorced couple forced into proximity and reflection on their marriage in this story by Subodh Ghosh.
What train is this, so late at night?
The breathless, tired train rolls into Rajpur Junction in the dark, misty rain, against the cold wind, and rests at the platform.
The train has probably journeyed from the banks of the Ganga. One can still hear the whistle of the steamer on the river, not so far away, the same steamer that has transported a crowd of travelers to this bank and then, sighing at the lightening of its load, moved back to the other side.
The train engine, waiting at the platform, continues to pant. The service boy busies himself in the first-class waiting room, quickly wiping the table, the chair, the bench, and the mirror clean with a towel. The cleaner brushes the leftover litter out of the room with big sweeps of his broom.
Even though this train, which starts from the bank of the river, is short and has only a few passengers on board, there are always at least a couple of people traveling first class: some distinguished trader from a sugar mill in Katihar or an overseer of some tea estate returning from Darjeeling; some such gentlemen can be found aboard, besides the customary group of tribals and porters.
Today, however, the passengers who get off this worn-out train and scurry for shelter into the first-class waiting room are neither from sugar factories nor from tea gardens.
Leaving her suitcase and bedding to be brought in by the coolie, a Bengali woman walks down the platform briskly, through the drizzle, and is the first to enter the waiting room. She is wearing a delicate ulster, made of Kashmiri wool, and a pair of small “Jewish-style” turquoise earrings. Her hair is done up in a bouffant, very British.
The second person to enter is also accompanied by a coolie, similarly carrying his suitcases and bedding. He is bespectacled, has a shawl draped around his shoulders, and is attired in indigenous clothes: a Bengali man.
A man and a woman, traveling by the same train, taking shelter in the same waiting room: this is the only relationship that they share, if any at all. He might stay for a couple of hours, she for three or so, waiting at this wayside halt for another train before going different ways.
Yet, surprisingly, as soon as they enter the room, they are taken aback on seeing each other and then they sit, frozen in shock, as though in a painting. They are, perhaps, unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared, as though they were escaped criminals now facing a new court of law, having eluded the witness box earlier. Tiny droplets of water sparkle wordlessly on Madhuri Ray’s overcoat. Shatadal Datta, too, forgets to wipe his wet spectacles.
This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, not a court of law. There is neither a judge nor a lawyer, neither witnesses nor rows of unblinking eyes of a set audience. There is no third person here to demand answers, acknowledgment, or attestation. However, this close proximity to one another is apparently unbearable to both. Perhaps they think of leaving, perhaps they should have left.
Shatadal walks down to the door and calls out to the coolie.
Madhuri’s things lie scattered on the bench; Shatadal’s lie piled on the table.
Shatadal Datta will have to ask the coolie to take his luggage out immediately, but where? He does not know. Overcome with embarrassment, what he does know is that he must get out of that waiting room; perhaps go to the unfurnished lodge nearby, which is not as brightly lit, where there is no fear of losing his composure on coming face to face with a nebulous silhouette of his past. No coolie shows up in response to Shatadal’s call. The service boy comes around and says, “Sir!”
He has to respond. Shatadal Datta saunters toward the door again. The spitting rain sprays his face as he looks outside. He turns back to the table, and standing by it, tries to think up a reply.
He quietly ponders the situation, and angry with his own behavior, he waits, quite still, perhaps trying to summon some resolve. Agitation is futile. He has no need to escape from the room just because of the presence of the other person. There is no point in surrendering to such weakness.
“Yes, sir?” The boy waits for orders.
Shatadal Datta calmly pulls a chair up to the table, sits down, and asks the boy to get him some tea.
Madhuri Ray takes off her pashmina coat, rearranges her things to make some space on the bench for herself and the coat, then sits down quietly.
Shatadal Datta and Madhuri Ray: two co-passengers, sitting at the Rajpur Junction waiting room, awaiting the next train. There is no other relationship between them.
There has been no relationship between them for almost five years now, but they had shared something earlier, for seven long years. The signs of a brewing liaison had been clear twelve years ago. Madhuri Mitra, a very pretty, unmarried young woman, was Shatadal’s sister-in-law’s friend. The place was Ghatshila, the time was Phalgun—early spring—the eleventh month of the Bengali calendar, when fragrance and celebration fill the honeycombed boulevards. Madhuri Mitra and Shatadal Datta’s relationship had begun suddenly, under the afternoon sun one day, when they had gone out on a trip together.
There is no doubt that within a year of meeting they had fallen irrevocably in love. Their love had been legally registered—they had made no mistake there. Within seven years of their marriage, however, the bonds of love between Madhuri Datta and Shatadal Datta had begun to weaken. So they had willingly and legally ended their registered relationship and separated from each other.
Who knows how they had concluded that their love was no longer strong enough? When they realized that they had drifted away from one another in their feelings, they decided that it would be meaningless to continue pretending to be husband and wife for the benefit of society. Instead of playacting, as in a theater, they had bade each other farewell. Neither had stopped the other.
The love that had blossomed with the essence of the honeycombs in Ghatshila early one spring could not last more than seven such springs. How had that fierce love that had led to marriage dwindled after their union?
Both of them had real, empirical proof of it. One day Madhuri had sat immersed in a book in her room while Shatadal packed his clothes in a suitcase in another room. He was leaving for Bhubaneshwar for a week to supervise an archeological survey. Madhuri had not come out of her room, not even once, as he was about to leave. Shatadal had found the sunshine that had crept in through the window that early winter morning and spread itself out on the floor absolutely meaningless.
The early winter morning, however, was not the only thing to blame. Later that year, in spring, one Sunday evening had also wrought havoc in their lives. Madhuri, like every other week, had dressed up that evening as well, ready to go out, waiting in her room. Shatadal had remained in the other room making sketches, with intense concentration, of the foundations of temples from the Chalukya dynasty. He had forgotten all about the evening plans. Madhuri had looked out of her window at the sky and thought how meaningless it was for the setting sun to color the clouds crimson. It was merely a tease. Soon darkness would envelop everything. Why did the sun play these tricks, then? It would have been so much better if it set all at once, swiftly.
Bit by bit they had both realized from other such instances that the love between them was lost. Or, who knows, perhaps these indicators became prominent because the love was lost? Perhaps they would have discovered the answers if they had tried. Maybe they did try, or maybe they did not. Either way, no one could be blamed for knowing or not knowing. Perhaps they had both knowingly remained silent; perhaps they had consciously stopped trying.
Maybe they had both fallen in love anew with other people, rendering their spring in Ghatshila a lie, or perhaps that old spring had lost its fragrance, forcing them away from each other in new directions. One had moved to a late autumn evening, and the other, to a full-moon monsoon night. Neither, therefore, was angry or sad. Either they had both been right or they had both been wrong. They could not blame each other.
They had not blamed each other. They had hated each other, they had not been able to forgive each other, but only deep down in their hearts. When they had been unable to contain their feelings within themselves any longer, they had moved away from one another: without blame, without slander. They had gone to the courts and ended their seven-year-long relationship.
Shatadal had heard within a year of their separation that Madhuri had married an engineer named Anadi Ray. Madhuri too had read in the papers that Shatadal Datta, teacher, had remarried. His new life partner, Sudhakana, was a teacher too, at a crafts school in Calcutta.
These new life choices were, presumably, informed choices, presumably governed by love. No matter what people said, Madhuri knew that she was happy with her husband, Anadi Ray. No matter what people said, Shatadal too knew that he was happy with Sudha.
On this cold, quiet night, therefore, questions and speculation on the relationship between Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta are irrelevant and unnecessary. They have closed that chapter of their past and had moved in entirely different directions. There is nothing between them anymore.
This, however, is not about their past. It is about their present.
Why are these two people, who had with the help of the law ensured that they need not see each other, suddenly facing their past—and their present—in this wayside waiting room at this ungodly hour? This sudden encounter is a ridiculous conspiracy: entirely impermissible, completely intolerable. They cannot really forgive this night but they cannot register any complaints or objections either. If only the woman were not Madhuri, if only the man were not Shatadal, if only they were just two other strangers waiting in that room! Common courtesy would then have dictated that they introduce themselves to each other. Madhuri Ray and Shatadal Datta, however, belong to other people now; there is no relationship between them. They sit silently, thus, in the waiting room: helpless, imprisoned almost, their hearts full of hesitation and discomfort.
Shatadal’s thoughts sink at some point in this wordlessness, his tired eyes droop, and, without realizing it, he falls asleep. When he opens his eyes he comprehends that he is in the waiting room: Madhuri is sitting on a bench at some distance, her unblinking eyes staring at the wall, disinterestedly.
Shatadal does not turn his gaze away. His eyes are impatient, eager to see her. But what is there to see? What is there to see anew?
Madhuri has never worn that cloud-colored crepe sari before. Shatadal has never before seen Madhuri allowing the loose end of her sari to almost kiss the floor. Earlier, Madhuri had mostly dressed in cottons or handlooms when going out. Her hemmed folds and pleats used to whisper a strange, exciting swishing sound. She used to apply a drop of extract of the night jasmine. And so, as Madhuri walked next to Shatadal, she was transformed into sensations of sound and smell. There are no remnants today of that sound or that smell. Madhuri is sitting now, sculpted as though by a new artiste, in new colors, with new adornments. Shatadal had never stared at Madhuri in such a clandestine way before, never gazed so surreptitiously and so greedily at something forbidden. He realizes that this sculpture is not the one that he had once known. She is different, almost difficult. She is the engineer Anadi Ray’s wife, Madhuri Ray.
Shatadal finds some relief from his unreal thoughts, his uncomfortable musings, after a while. He slowly shifts his attention back to his own needs. He retrieves a towel and a cake of soap from a small leather box, a pillow and a bedsheet from his carryall, and puts them down on a reclining chair.
There is no need for Madhuri to look directly at Shatadal. She gazes, instead, at the Shatadal reflected in the mirror. No, not deliberately. It’s just that Shatadal’s image can be seen in the mirror. Even though unwilling, she, too, cannot quite control the craving to steal a glance.
Madhuri can see Shatadal’s reflection going about his business smoothly. He winds his watch and puts it on the table. Madhuri realizes that this is not the watch she knows. It has a black leather band, the kind of black that Madhuri never liked. To respect Madhuri’s taste, Shatadal had never worn a watch with a black band before. She notices his new ring. The pillow cover is new too: colorful, floral. Madhuri had always known that Shatadal preferred plain, white pillowcases over bright, embroidered ones. She concludes that this is Sudha’s handiwork; she must have worked on his tastes.
Shatadal goes to the bathroom with his towel and bar of soap. Madhuri turns her eyes away from the mirror and looks at all of Shatadal’s little household things on the table. She finally gets the chance, as it were, to investigate what lies there.
But Madhuri probably does not know exactly what precious object she is searching for among all the items that lie scattered on the table. She looks at each of them carefully for a while. They are all new: no memory of their life from five years ago taints these things. She should not have been so curious.
If Madhuri had looked in the mirror now she would find her eyebrows—beautiful like painted brushstrokes—crinkled in envy! She is not looking in that direction, though, but at Shatadal’s things. Three of his cases are open, his watch, wallet, and spectacles lie on the table, his ash gray flannel kurta is on the hanger, its gold buttons glittering in the light. He has left everything exposed to a stranger he has no relationship with. His things could get stolen, but he seems unafraid of that. Just as the man’s behavior is extraordinary, so too are the woman’s gestures: extraordinary. Nobody has asked her to watch over his things with so much attention.
Madhuri turns away as soon as Shatadal reenters the room.
She glances at the reflection in the mirror again—this time she can see him more clearly. Shatadal has grown lean. Perhaps his teacher-wife doesn’t pay much attention to his health. Yes, she has not seen him for five years, but she knows that look on his face: Shatadal would never have appeared so worn-out if he were not hungry.
Madhuri’s assumption is not wrong. Shatadal opens his lunchbox and sets the bowls out on the table. He sits down to eat. He is about to raise his hand to ask for something, but then he changes his mind. He walks with a glass to the pitcher in the corner of the room.
Madhuri had never imagined that the sight would cause her so much pain. She is not prepared for this feeling. It strikes her without warning.
She turns her gaze away from the mirror and angrily looks at Shatadal. The surprised turn of the nape of her neck, the soft creasing of her eyebrows, her aggrieved eyes: all seem more natural than her previous reserve.
Madhuri says, “What’s all this?”
Shatadal, taken aback at this sudden question, looks at Madhuri, surprised.
Madhuri says again, “Just a word or two, if not more: that can’t be a sin.”
Shatadal’s grim expression softens. “No, no sin at all,” he smiles.
Madhuri stands up and walks toward him. Her soul feels liberated finally, after those crushing moments of unbearable silence in the waiting room. Shatadal’s easy laugh breaks through the wall of Madhuri’s somber, troubled heart. She takes the glass from Shatadal’s hand, smiles, and says, “Sit over there.”
This is the waiting room. Not their former house on Cornwallis Street. It isn’t Madhuri’s birthday either, the day when she had taken Shatadal away from the noise of the celebration to a secluded room and served him a meal in private.
Madhuri pours water out of the pitcher into the glass, puts it on Shatadal’s table, and starts serving the food from the bowls on a plate. Her bangles strike the glass without a care. The quiet past—from five years ago—wakes up with a start to this tinkling sound. They no longer look like two co-passengers on a train. They appear, in that moment, like two fellow-travelers, companions, journeying this world together: and their life’s course seems free of all obstacles. Madhuri’s fingers have thinned, but she still picks the food with them gingerly as though they are delicate forceps: an old habit. She stands very close to Shatadal. In the silence of the room, Shatadal can clearly hear Madhuri breathing. The loose end of her sari slips off her shoulder and caresses one of Shatadal’s hands. Madhuri does not notice. It is neither strange nor abnormal: she has no reason to notice.
“Looks like none of this food is homemade.”
There is a hint of disapproval in Madhuri’s words, which Shatadal does not take long to understand. He knows that Madhuri has forever been against food from restaurants. Trying to defend himself, he says meekly, hesitantly, “Yes, I bought these from the Katihar bazaar.”
“Where are you off to?”
“You stay in Calcutta these days?”
“Yes. And you?”
It would, perhaps, have been better if they had not started this conversation. Madhuri loses her composure, her hands tremble. Shatadal’s question makes her conscious of her present identity. Recoiling from him, she says in a low voice, “Rajgir.”
After this they run out of things to talk about. There is nothing else that requires an answer. One of them is going to Calcutta, the other to Rajgir. They are only two travelers, traveling by train—not the same train, not even in the same direction. Yet, for a moment, in their mistaken, misled hearts, they had come really close to one another. For a moment they had felt it was decent and appropriate to do what others considered downright indecent and inappropriate.
Perhaps because there is no other subject to broach, Shatadal asks, “You will be taking the train to Patna, I suppose?”
“Yes. Finish your food.”
Madhuri forces the words out breathlessly and moves away. Indeed she will have to leave by the train to Patna. She is not going to stay in this waiting room forever. She looks at her watch, slightly worried. Then she goes back to her bench.
The food is spread out in front of Shatadal. The light from the bulb is reflected by the glass, the water looking like melting fire. Perhaps Shatadal feels awkward and ashamed again. However, there is also hatred in this shame, and bitterness. How could he knowingly, consciously have believed the charade to be true even for a moment?
He impatiently gets up from his chair, wraps the shawl around his shoulder, stretches himself out on the bigger chair, and lights a cigarette.
He cannot eat. Why though? He does not try to find an answer to the question.
The waiting room turns into a waiting room again: two strangers with no relationship between them, two travelers waiting for two different trains, counting the moments. The train, however, does not come, nor does a third passenger enter this room. The boy arrives, tray in hand, ready with the ingredients for some tea: one teapot, one jar of milk, one bowl of sugar, but two cups.
The boy puts the tray down on the table and leaves. Shatadal looks at it thirstily, but turns away from it the very next moment, feeling helpless.
There are two cups on the tray. What terrible mockery! What made the boy bring two cups? Shatadal had not asked for two cups.
Drinking the tea seems impossible now.
Even though she does not look at him directly, Madhuri can see quite clearly with her mind’s eye that Shatadal has not touched his food. Perhaps he will not have his tea, either. The boy is a complete idiot. Had he poured the tea, the man would not be sitting there sullenly now. Why is he so sullen anyway? This is not Madhupur, nor is it his uncle’s house on that Christmas Day.
Shatadal and Madhuri had been visiting Shatadal’s uncle’s house in Madhupur on Christmas Day that year. The unwelcome incident had taken place on the very first day, almost like this present wordless protest. Shatadal had pulled a chair out and sat under a jhau tree in the garden, throughout the morning, without drinking his tea. There was a reason behind his remorse: why had a servant served him his tea when there were so many people in the house, including, and especially, Madhuri, who should have done it? Everyone had felt awkward when the reason was discovered. Madhuri had been at the receiving end of all their scolding. Shatadal’s aunt, another of Shatadal’s uncles, even Shatadal’s elder brother, a man of few words, had said, “When you know Shatadal is displeased if you don’t take his tea to him yourself, why did you . . .”
This is a waiting room though, not Shatadal’s uncle’s house. It no longer becomes Shatadal to mope like a husband—hurt, proud, angry.
Yet this misplaced hurt-pride-anger seems to touch the interiors of the waiting room. Like a scene from a play being performed on stage, this make-believe episode, too, is gradually coming alive with its demands for respect, for hurt-pride-anger. There is no one here to chastise Madhuri and remind her of her duties, but when she pays heed to a voice from deep within, it sounds like a reminder.
“Why aren’t you eating?”
There is something gentle, tender, almost like an appeal, in Madhuri’s words.
Shatadal quietly replies, “I’m not going to eat all this now at this hour.”
“Drink your tea, then.”
“Yes, I’ll have some tea. Won’t you?”
The shadow of a smile lights up Madhuri’s face. “Was this supposed to be for me too?”
Shatadal smiles, stiffly. “No, it wasn’t. But since the boy has brought two cups by mistake . . .”
“Then I should drink a cup of tea, shouldn’t I?”
There is no hesitation or restraint in Madhuri. She laughs as she says this.
“Well, that’s what I think. It’s not really the boy’s fault, is it?”
“No, there’s no point in blaming the boy.”
They both turn somber again for a few minutes. Indeed, there is no point in blaming the boy. Madhuri’s words are, perhaps, tinged with regret. Maybe she wants to say, Why should it be the boy’s fault? The fault is in the stars. Why else would we be caught unawares on a stormy night in this waiting room full of conspiring?
Madhuri either has no strength left to keep sitting quietly or she wants to surrender herself to this conspiracy. She stands up, walks to the table, and pours the tea, with her own hands, with the same dexterity as before, as readily as ever.
Shatadal rises as well. He draws up another chair to the table, close to his own. Turning to Madhuri, he asks her to sit.
Madhuri does not object. Today she cannot find her old headstrong self anymore to say no. And because of the mistaken, misled hearts of a man and a woman who have no relationship between them, the waiting room at Rajpur Junction, turns, little by little, into a married couple’s secret nest of sentiments. Even if the world begins to realize what is going on, it poses no impediments to their passion. Madhuri sits on the chair next to Shatadal.
Shatadal sighs contentedly after the first sip of his tea: clearly, it is not only on account of the flavor. The tea now includes Madhuri’s touch; it is supposed to quench his thirst.
Shatadal says pleasantly, “It was really uncomfortable seeing you look so serious all this time.”
Madhuri laughs. “Maybe you were feeling uncomfortable, but I alone know what I was going through.”
“Were you frightened?”
“Tch. Afraid of what?”
Though their conversation begins with smiles and laughter, toward the end the exchange is weighed down by a touch of regret, of pity. Madhuri’s words are an acknowledgment of their anguish, and Shatadal’s are thick with consolation. The past is the past. What is there to be afraid of today?
When someone dies, it is easy to think of them fondly, to forget their mistakes, to amplify their virtues. Perhaps Shatadal and Madhuri are judging their dead past with a similar tenderness today. That history of fear, hatred, and doubt seems to have been reduced to ashes in its own flames: it has been carried away by the wind. That past seems like a beautiful night—seven years long—studded with some faint and some magnificent stars: how soft its afterglow is today. To think that that sky is lost forever brings too much pain. They don’t want to believe it; they would like to have it back.
Madhuri looks at Shatadal and says, “You have lost so much weight.”
Madhuri is holding her cup of tea. Shatadal looks at it and admonishes her. “Why are your fingers in such a state?”
“They’ve become so horribly thin.”
Madhuri smiles, embarrassed, and tries to hide her hand behind the loose end of her sari. Shatadal errs—perhaps because of an uncontrollable urge. He loses his sense of propriety, takes Madhuri’s hand, and covers it with his hands. Madhuri does not object.
It is all so strange! They realize after all this time that the garden they had rejected after seven years is still green: they had walked away from its thorns, not its shade.
Shatadal suddenly seems to have discovered an unknown truth. Turning toward Madhuri, he says, “You look just the same, Madhuri. Your face has not changed at all.”
Everything has changed, only her face has remained unaltered. Everything has gone, only that face which he had once loved has stayed as it was. Is this possible? Either his eyes are lying or his imagination is making a mistake.
Abandoning all deceit and pretense, Madhuri’s face reddens with embarrassment. Not like the flushed face of a young girl being courted for the first time, not like the bashful face of a coy bride on the first night in the bridal chamber, but like the face of a woman being greeted reverentially by her husband after a long separation.
This is not a bower of courtship, not a bridal chamber, not the home of a married couple. This is the waiting room at Rajpur Junction. Yet Shatadal and Madhuri, two travelers, sit side by side, as though they have been journeying through life forever, just like this, together, as though they had never parted.
They finish their tea. Madhuri asks, “Where is your uncle now, your father’s younger brother?”
“He has built a house in Dehradoon. That is where he lives now.”
“She’s married now. To Ramesh, who else? He has got a good job at the Secretariat in Delhi.”
Shatadal has been holding Madhuri’s hand in a tight grip, as though an elusive bond from five years ago is within reach at last. He holds her hand between both of his, so as not to lose her again.
“Do you believe, Madhuri?”
“That I have not forgotten you? That I cannot forget you?”
“Why would I not believe you? I can see it in your eyes.”
“Have you been able to forget me?”
Madhuri shuts her eyes, preparing herself, perhaps to blind the realities around her, to blind the eyes of the society, and then answers him. Their heads come closer as she leans toward Shatadal. Two dots of moisture come to life in the corners of her eyes, like a pair of pearl drops.
Shatadal puts his arms around her, drawing her head to his chest.
“You have to tell me, Madhuri. I won’t let you go without knowing.”
Madhuri suddenly becomes restless, as though a burning agony has grabbed hold of her. She pulls herself free and stands up. An iron bell can be heard clanging outside, breaking the silence of the cold. The mirror starts shaking, as though, unable to stand the audacious transgression of these two people, the waiting room is shrieking in pain. The passenger train for Dhulian arrives. People can be heard rushing about on the platform.
“He’s supposed to be on this train!”
Madhuri runs toward the door in distress.
A third traveler enters the waiting room. His face lights up in joy on spotting Madhuri—Madhuri Ray’s husband, Anadi Ray, has finally seen the light of an inn on a night with no moon to show the way.
Madhuri’s face brightens too, though it is still slightly colored by some melancholy: the light from an overworked lamp is usually smoky.
This is enough to perturb Anadi Ray. Going up to Madhuri, he fusses over her, asking, “Do you feel all right?”
“Yes, I’m quite all right.”
“You’ve had a long wait all by yourself, haven’t you?”
“What could I have done? The trains are running very late, or else I would have arrived two hours ago.”
Anadi Ray enthusiastically spreads out a bedding roll. Madhuri stops him. “Let it be, there’s no need.”
“You should lie down for a while, Madhuri. You’ll feel better after some rest.”
“Let it be! How much longer are we going to be here anyway?”
Anadi Ray is not to be deterred. Taking a shawl from his suitcase, he folds it and carefully wraps it around Madhuri’s shoulders.
Shatadal has been watching them in silence from his chair. This is a scene from a farce, vulgar and cruel. He could not continue sitting for long. He walks to the door hurriedly and looks out. Returning to his chair he starts fidgeting with his things needlessly. His soul is restless, trapped, as though, in a prison. He looks for a sanctuary or an escape route.
He really cannot stand the sight. The shawl seems to hug Madhuri’s weary, traveling soul with a hundred affectionate embraces. This good fellow, Anadi Ray, is glowing with pride. His face is so lively. And that woman, Madhuri, is like a mythic woman pretending to participate in a ceremony to choose her husband, but eventually choosing the man who abducts her and takes her away on his chariot. Shatadal looks on helplessly like a vanquished rival weighed down by the humility of defeat. It’s impossible to bear the pain.
But he could easily leave. Why does he stay to endure this suffering?
He cannot go because of that one urgent longing, to hear Madhuri’s answer to his question. Shatadal can leave victorious and happy if he can only hear Madhuri say that she has not been able to forget him.
But will he get a chance in this lifetime to hear those words?
Anadi Ray looks at his watch. It is probably time for their train. Madhuri wraps herself in her overcoat. The coolie arrives—the train to Patna is approaching.
Madhuri is standing next to her husband. The coolies swiftly lift the luggage on their heads and pause. In a moment they will leave the waiting room at Rajpur Junction empty. Shatadal feels as though Madhuri has set this house of wax on fire before leaving.
Was the sky they had above them for seven years entirely a lie? Can it really be forgotten? You can make a break but can you be free? Madhuri will not answer these questions, there will be no opportunity.
It would be best if Madhuri could walk out of this room with her husband, smiling. But she can’t.
The coolie leaves, Anadi Ray walks on ahead, but when Madhuri reaches the door, she pauses before disappearing for the last time, drawn to this house of wax by some imagined attachment. Turning to look at Shatadal, she smiles to take her leave. “I’ll go now.”
Shatadal tries to smile but fails. A mass of confused hurt-pride-anger, accusations and demands want to make themselves heard. But where is the time to say so much? So Shatadal only wants the answer to that one question, to know once and for all.
“You’re going without answering my question, Madhuri.”
The smile fades. Madhuri looks at him in wonder and asks, “What question?”
“Have you really forgotten?”
Madhuri does not reply. Perhaps she has indeed forgotten. She has not been able to forget their seven shared years, but she has forgotten what was said seven minutes ago. Have the laws of the universe changed so drastically that she has to forget everything? Shatadal cannot understand.
Madhuri says, “I have to go. It’s getting late.”
One rude blow seems to shatter all his curiosity. Shatadal remembers that Madhuri has a final destination, she cannot be late. He had delayed her for seven years, he has no right to hold her back a minute longer now.
Crestfallen, Shatadal replies, “I see. You won’t give me an answer.”
Madhuri says calmly, “I should not.”
“It was an unfair question.”
“I understand!” Shatadal jumps out of his chair abruptly. His besotted mind is so befuddled that he is finding it hard to understand anything, he has to try repeatedly. Turning away, Shatadal says abruptly, “Go then, but there was no need for this drama.”
Bitter words. Madhuri’s face hardens instantly into a frown. She ponders silently but smiles the very next moment, just like before. Perhaps because of that imagined attachment, Madhuri prepares not to burn down this house of wax but to inject a note of acceptance, of happiness.
Flashing a glance at her wristwatch, she says, “Bring Sudha to Rajgir for a holiday.”
Shatadal is unprepared for this. “And then?”
“Then I will see you off on the train when the two of you leave.”
“You will get a chance for some drama, too. That’s why.”
“What will you gain from it?”
Madhuri laughs. “Nothing at all. Maybe I will also get needlessly angry then and say something you’d rather not hear.”
Shatadal gazes at her eyes steadily for a few moments and then says, “I see.”
He says it quite loudly and then breaks into a laugh. The meaningless hurt-pride-anger and demands have finally identified themselves for what they are and have given way to a burst of laughter. Shatadal has finally understood.
Staring at his watch, Shatadal realizes without looking up at the door that Madhuri has left.
Madhuri does not set this house of wax aflame. Instead, she lights it up with the echo of her laughter. It rouses Rajpur Junction from its slumber. The signal is given for the next approaching train. The train to Calcutta is here. Not on this side of the platform but the other one. Heaving his luggage up on the coolie’s shoulders, Shatadal Datta also leaves hurriedly.
The two different trains will go in two different directions. After the brief tumult, what remains of the night at Rajpur Junction will be quiet. There will remain no witness to the supreme test inflicted in the privacy of the waiting room on the relationship between the two travelers.
There is still some evidence left, though one might not notice it immediately.
A tray sits on the table inside the waiting room, with two empty cups on it. Two people had arrived from unknown places, quenched their thirst side by side, and left. Before Rajpur Junction goes back to sleep, the boy will wash the cups, wipe these dry, and put them away. One cup on this side of the cupboard, and one, perhaps, on the other.
© Subodh Ghosh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Somrita Ganguly. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, a man visits Calcutta after his father’s death and seeks out a courtesan he knows who has fallen on hard times.
Devdas was exasperated after spending six months at home following his father's death. No pleasures, no peace, an entirely tedious existence. To add to it all, constant thoughts of Parvati, whom he remembered no matter what he was doing. And his brother, Dwijdas, and Dwijdas's devoted wife aggravated Devdas's agony in no small measure.
His mother was in the same predicament, all her joys having died along with her husband. Life without freedom was becoming increasingly intolerable. She had for some time now resolved to spend the rest of her days with other widows in Kashi, but she could not go till she had arranged for Devdas to be married. Her constant refrain: Get married, Devdas, I want to see you married before I go. But how could this be possible? Not only did their religion not permit a wedding so soon after a death in the family, but a suitable bride also had to be sought. No wonder his mother was overcome by regret sometimes at not having allowed the marriage between her son and Parvati when they had wanted it. One day she summoned Devdas to tell him of her decision: I cannot bear it here any longer, Devdas. I wish to go to Kashi for some time. Devdas was of the same opinion. I agree, he replied. I can bring you back after six months.
Yes, that's best. When I'm back, after your father's last rites are complete, I'll get you married and then go away to Kashi for good.
Concurring, Devdas escorted his mother to Kashi and then departed for Calcutta. There he spent three or four days looking for his old friend Chunilal. His friend was not to be found, having moved houses and disappeared. One evening Devdas remembered Chandramukhi. Should he not meet the dancing girl? He had not thought of her at all following his father’s death. Embarrassed by his own neglect of her, Devdas hired a carriage and appeared before her house soon after dusk. After he had called out her name several times, a woman's voice answered from within, She isn’t here.
Devdas moved closer to a lamppost and asked, Can you tell me where she has gone?
The woman opened a window to look at him. Are you Devdas, she asked?
Wait, let me open the door.
Come in, she said.
The voice appeared familiar, but he failed to recognize her in the darkness. Do you know where Chandramukhi is, he inquired hesitantly.
With a smile the woman said, I do. Come upstairs.
Finally Devdas recognized her. Is it really you?
Yes, it is. Have you forgotten me completely, Devdas?
Upstairs, Devdas discovered that Chandramukhi was dressed in a plain white sari with a black border. She was wearing no ornaments besides a pair of bangles. Her hair was disheveled. In astonishment, Devdas said, It is you. Looking closely, he found that Chandramukhi had become considerably thinner. Were you indisposed? he asked.
Smiling, Chandramukhi responded, Physically, not at all. Make yourself at home.
Settling himself on the bed, Devdas observed that the room had changed. Like its owner's, its circumstances seemed strained too. Not an item of furniture remained—the spaces where the cupboard, the desk, and the chair had stood were empty now. Only a bed remained, its sheets dirty. The paintings had been removed from the walls, but the nails were still there, as were the red cords in one or two places. The clock still hung on the bracket, but in silence. Spiders had spun webs to their heart's content. In one corner, a dim glow emanated from an oil lamp, enabling Devdas to see the room in its new appearance. With a mixture of surprise and unhappiness he inquired, Why this wretched state of affairs, Chandra?
Smiling dejectedly, Chandramukhi said, Who says it's wretched? My luck has turned.
Not understanding, Devdas said, And what has happened to all your jewelry?
Sold it, too.
Did you sell the paintings as well?
Smiling, Chandramukhi pointed to the house across the road. I gave them away to Khetromoni there.
Gazing at her for a while, Devdas asked, Where's Chuni-babu?
Can't say. He went away after a quarrel two months ago, never came back.
Devdas was even more surprised.
Don't people quarrel?
They do. But why?
He was here as a middleman, so I threw him out.
Middleman for what?
For jute. Is it so hard to understand? He got hold of a rich man, two hundred rupees a month, a box full of ornaments, and a guard at the door. Do you understand now?
Devdas understood. He smiled.
But I don't see any of it.
You would if they were there. I sent them away.
What was their crime?
Nothing much, but I didn't like it.
After a great deal of thought, Devdas said, Hasn't anyone else been here since then?
No. In fact, no one has been here since you left. Only Chuni would turn up now and then, but that too has stopped for two months now.
Devdas stretched out on the bed. Sunk in thought, he was silent for some time. Then he said, So you've closed up shop, Chandramukhi?
Yes, I am penniless.
Without responding to this, Devdas said, How do you propose to survive?
As I told you, I've sold my jewelry.
How much can that have got you?
Not a great deal. I have about eight or nine hundred. I've deposited it with a moneylender, he gives me twenty a month.
Twenty was never enough for you.
It isn't enough now, either. I owe three months' rent. So I've decided to sell these bangles, pay all my creditors, and go away.
I haven't decided. Somewhere cheap, a village perhaps, where I can survive on twenty rupees a month.
Why didn't you go earlier? If indeed you do not want anything here, why did you have to prolong your stay and get deeper into debt?
Chandramukhi lowered her eyes. She searched for an answer, embarrassed for the first time in her life at having to say what she was about to. Well? Devdas said.
Sitting down diffidently on one corner of the bed, Chandramukhi slowly began her story.
Don't be angry. I stayed here in the hope of meeting you before leaving. I kept thinking maybe you would visit me once more. Now that you are here, I will make preparations to leave tomorrow. But can you tell me where I should go?
Devdas sat up in astonishment.
In the hope of meeting me? But why?
A whim. You hated me so much. Perhaps because no one has ever hated me quite so much. I don't know if you can remember now, but I do, clearly—you had my attention from the day of your very first visit. I knew you were a rich man's son, but your wealth was not what attracted me to you. Many others had been here before you, but in none of them did I see a spirit such as yours. And you hurt me as soon as you arrived—your behavior was undeserved, uncalled-for, and unsuitable. You kept your face averted in disgust, and farcically left some money for me at the end. Do you remember any of this?
Devdas was silent. Chandramukhi continued, You have held my attention since then. Not out of love, and not out of revulsion. Just as one cannot forget something new, I too could not forget you. I was afraid, on my guard when you came, but I hated it when you did not come. And then I don't know what madness took hold of me—I began to look at everything differently. I changed so much that I no longer remained who I was. Then you started drinking. I hate it. I think it’s disgusting when someone gets drunk. But in your case I would be upset, not angry.
Stopping, Chandramukhi put her hand on Devdas's feet. Tearfully, she said, I am a nobody, do not be angry with me. You used to be so harsh with your words, brush me aside with such revulsion, and the more you did that, the more I wanted to go to you. Then you would finally fall asleep . . . but let me not get into that, I don’t want you to get angry again.
Devdas said nothing. These new revelations troubled him. Covertly wiping her eyes, Chandramukhi began to speak once again. Do you remember the day you spoke to me about how much we put up with? Humiliation, disgrace, torment, persecution—I was so upset when you said this that I stopped everything that very same day.
But what will you live on? Devdas asked.
I told you already.
But what if he cheats you out of all your money . . .
Chandramukhi showed no signs of worry. That’s not impossible, she said calmly, but I've considered that likelihood too. I will ask you for some money if I get in trouble.
After some thought, Devdas replied, Very well. Now make your arrangements and get out of this place.
Tomorrow. After I've sold these bangles. I'll meet the moneylender.
Taking five one hundred-rupee notes out of his pocket and putting them beneath the pillow, Devdas said, Don't sell the bangles, though you should meet the moneylender. But where will you go? To go to one of those holy places?
No, Devdas. I have no faith in holy places. I don't want to live very far from Calcutta, I'll find a village nearby.
Are you thinking of working as a maid for a decent family?
Tears welled up in Chandramukhi's eyes again. Wiping them away, she said, I am not inclined to. I will live independently, in my own way. Why should I put myself through that? I have never had to endure physical suffering before, and I cannot face it now. Any more might tear me apart.
Devdas smiled wanly. But if you remain near the city, he said, you might give in to temptation again. The human heart cannot be trusted.
Chandramukhi's expression changed now. Smiling, she said, That is true, the human heart cannot be trusted, but I won’t give in to temptation. I realize that women always desire certain things, but since I have chosen to give up the things I desire on my own, I’m no longer afraid of anything. Had I given all this up on an impulse, perhaps a little more caution might be necessary, but I have not felt a moment's regret in all this time. I’m quite happy, you see.
Still Devdas shook his head, saying, Women are far too fickle, far too untrustworthy.
Chandramukhi stepped close to him. Devdas, she said, taking his hand.
Devdas looked at her. This time he could not tell her not to touch him.
Her eyes brimming with affection, her voice trembling, Chandramukhi drew his hands into her own, saying, It's our last day together, don't be angry today. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.
She gazed at him for a few moments before putting forth her question: Has Parvati hurt you deeply?
Why this question?
Chandramukhi was not discouraged. Quietly and firmly, she replied, I have a reason for asking. I will not lie, it hurts me when you suffer. And besides, I think I know a great deal, I’ve heard you say many things when you were drunk. Still, I do not believe that Parvati betrayed you. On the contrary, I believe you have deceived yourself. I am older than you, Devdas, and I have seen a great many things in this world. Do you know what I think? I think it's you who are mistaken. I do not think women deserve this reputation for being fickle and inconstant. It is men like you who praise them, and men like you who criticize them too. You can say what you want to without any consequences, but they cannot. They can’t express what’s in their hearts, and even when they do, not everyone understands. They are incoherent, and silenced by men. And yet their infamy only grows.
Pausing, Chandramukhi continued in a clearer voice, I have been in the business of love for a long time, but I have loved only once. I cherish that love. I’ve learned a lot, you know, love is one thing, and infatuation, another. These two things are often in conflict, and it’s men who create the conflict. We are far less attracted by beauty than you men, which is why we do not lose our heads in an instant the way you do. When you come to us and declare your love, expressing it in so many different ways, with so many different words, we stay silent. Often we feel embarrassed or afraid to hurt you, so we hold back. Even when we are repulsed by your very appearance, we cannot bring ourselves to say we do not love you. Then begins the whole charade of love, a mere show, and when it ends, the man says in a fury, You lying slut! That is what everyone hears, that is what everyone believes. And still we remain silent. We suffer so much, but no one seems to care.
Devdas did not reply. Chandramukhi gazed at him in silence for a while and then said, Perhaps a tenderness develops between man and woman. The woman thinks, this is love. She performs her duties quietly and resolutely, provides all the support she can in times of crisis, and you men praise her to the skies. But possibly even at this time she has not learned the alphabet of love. And then, at some dark hour, when she feels an indescribable agony in her heart—Chandramukhi cast a piercing glance at Devdas—that is when you scream, Traitor! Shame!
Suddenly Devdas touched Chandramukhi's mouth with his hand.
What's all this, Chandramukhi?
As he slowly removed his hand, Chandramukhi said, Don't worry, I'm not talking of your Parvati.
Original text in public domain. Translation © 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
Acclaimed writer and translator Cécile Oumhani introduces our December issue featuring contemporary writing by Tunisian women.
What do Tunisian women write today? It is now almost seven years since the people of Tunisia put an end to dictatorship. And it is over sixty years since Tunisian women obtained a status women in neighboring countries are still dreaming of. What could be achieved at the time of the Arab Spring was in many ways the result of the high degree of involvement of Tunisian women in all areas of public life. The urge to write immediate testimonies about the unprecedented events of 2011 has certainly eased as years have gone by. Have these changes affected women's writing? If so, how?
When a country overthrows a dictatorial regime that has lasted for decades, the whole society is reorganized in depth. Relationships are redefined at all levels, collective as well as individual, public and private. The perception we have of ourselves, where we are in the world, in time and space, is also completely altered. It is not just the future that offers new perspectives, as we take the present in our own hands. The past also appears under a different light, as it is re-evaluated in the context of a new freedom of expression.
Whether they are men or women, writers are keen observers of the world around them. Human passions, the mechanisms of power and oppression at work in their society hold few secrets for them. Writers will sometimes be so perceptive that they almost foresee events before they actually unfold. This is apparent in some novels published before the Tunisian revolution, where the events of 2011 seem to be already in the making. The vision of a possible future underlying a novel is especially striking, at a time when writers had to contend with censorship and develop strategies of circumvention.
The writers here present astute portraits of Tunisia just before and after the Arab Spring. They reflect the intensity of long pent-up emotions and the anguish born with times of uncertainty. These texts were chosen from today’s Tunisian literary scene, with some writers expressing themselves in Arabic and others in French.
Emna Belhaj Yahia had almost finished writing her novel Jeux de rubans (Game of Ribbons) when the revolution broke out. The main character is a middle-aged woman, free from the constraints of traditional Tunisia. She moves between her old mother, whom she takes care of, the companion she chose after her divorce, and her adult son. She grew up after women gained access to public life and became a university professor. Now in her fifties, she is struck by the growing number of young women wearing headscarves, at odds with the lifestyle and values women of her own generation treasured.
“El qâtil” (The Killer), Emna Rmili's short story, captures the many terrible times that people were gunned down as they demonstrated. Narrated by a policeman aiming his weapon at a demonstrator, it is a vivid and cruel evocation of the repression that led to the fall of Ben Ali in a matter of weeks.
Les intranquilles (The Restless), Azza Filali's novel, covers the year 2011 and ends with the election of the constitutional assembly at the end of October. She depicts several characters with different social backgrounds as they are confronted with the changes around them. An old man arrives in the capital looking for work. Another man is haunted by the time he was tortured at the Ministry of Interior, before he spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to an Islamist party. A corrupt banker is seeking to hide his practices during the time the former regime was in power. In the episode appearing here, another man visits a dermatologist whose clientele is rapidly decreasing in the wake of the revolution. Azza Filali describes a changing world with biting irony and insight.
Noura Bensaad is well known for her exquisite short stories. Set in Mediterranean atmospheres, they retain a dreamlike quality. She is attentive to her characters' aspirations and disillusionments in a social environment she suggests in faint touches. She gives us “L'étranger et la vieille dame” (The Stranger and the Old Lady). The stranger is observing a mysterious dimly-lit scene in a street, where he comes across an old lady and has a brief vision of a couple passing.
In addition to these fiction writers, the issue presents two poets. Ines Abassi's poetry powerfully delineates emotions and the outer world, blending them together into personal inner landscapes. Beyond the light of a Mediterranean city, she also suggests the darkness of the past, only to celebrate life, desire and resilience.
Amina Saïd's poetry embraces past and present. Beyond a specific sense of place, it questions our passage on earth. It erases borders between sounds and silence, colors and darkness, the diurnal and the nocturnal, highlighting timeless, hidden currents, underlying our selves, as well as the memory of trees.
An unheard-of process is still underway in Tunisia. It will still take a long time for past wounds to heal and for Tunisian citizens’ dreams to come true. A period of such deep change will undoubtedly remain a source of inspiration for writers, just as their words on the page will go on questioning past, present and future. Countries have always needed that back and forth movement between the inky mirrors of literature and a reality that is constantly in the making.
© 2017 Cécile Oumhani. All rights reserved.
Arunava Sinha introduces the four stories in our December feature exploring Bollywood’s debt to Bengali writers.
India's Hindi film industry is the largest in the world in terms of the number of films released. Derivatively named Bollywood (B for Bombay—now Mumbai— where most Hindi movies are made), it produces movies placed everywhere on the continuum between the avowedly commercial—complete with the song and dance routines that American filmmakers have warmed to in recent times—and the uncompromisingly cerebral. This range has developed slowly: in its early days, there was essentially only one kind of film, aiming to be both intelligent and entertaining (an intent that has made a slow return during the past two decades).
Although the films were made in the state of Maharashtra, where the predominant language was—and still is—Marathi, Hindi was chosen as the language for obvious reasons. For one thing, it had—and still has—the largest number of native speakers among all languages in India. Moreover, even among those who did not—and do not—consider Hindi their mother tongue, comprehension levels are high. Of course, Hindi films themselves have contributed to this spread of the language, but there was, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, little doubt that it was the language with the greatest commercial potential for cinema in the country.
Even before the film industry developed, the literatures of India were thriving. Given the multiplicity of languages spoken and written in the country—which makes India more like a Europe than a US—fiction, poetry, and essays were being written in at least ten languages: Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and, of course, Hindi, besides English. Of these, Bengali literature had arguably made the most strides, propelled in no small measure by the towering genius of Rabindranath Tagore—India's only Nobel laureate in literature.
With a rich pool of published works, Bengali fiction thus became an obvious source of stories for Bombay's filmmakers. This also had something to do with the fact that several of the directors and scriptwriters in Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century were from Bengal. Calcutta, the center of Bengali literary activities, had also developed its own cinema (the Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray is considered to have been India's best filmmaker), and Bengali stories were thus being used by films in at least two Indian languages.
The tradition continued for several decades, with novels and short stories by a number of Bengali writers being made into Hindi films. Among these writers were, besides Tagore himself, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Bimal Mitra, Subodh Ghosh, Samaresh Basu, Mahashweta Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Banaphool, Ramapada Chowdhury, and Sankar. Of this group, Chattopadhyay has been a perennial supplier of stories—albeit inadvertently—to Hindi films. Although he died in 1938, his novels continued to be filmed nearly seventy years later.
To represent this steady flow of Bengali literature into Hindi cinema, we have selected four works—two short stories and excerpts from two novels—to present in English translation. The four pieces of fiction are from different periods, as are the corresponding films. They are:
Sahib Bibi Gulam, directed by Abrar Alvi, 1962
Based on Shaheb Bibi Golam, Bimal Mitra (1912–91), 1941
Bimal Mitra wrote several long, sprawling novels detailing elaborate sagas of personal and social relationships in specific sociocultural contexts. In this case, he depicts the life of a woman who is made to marry a much older husband in a feudal Bengali family. She tries to rescue her husband from his addiction to alcohol and courtesans, only to fail and eventually turn into an alcoholic herself. Her life is interwoven with that of a young man from a village who comes to work on the estate. These events are unfurled against the backdrop of India's freedom struggle and reforms in Hinduism.
Listen to a song from the film:
Amar Prem, directed by Shakti Samanta, 1972
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's bittersweet story is narrated by a young boy who befriends a prostitute in the neighborhood and innocently gathers details about her life, her clients, and her lover without having any idea of what is really going on. An entire segment of decaying feudal society comes alive in this sharp portrait. It was made into a mainstream commercial film which shifted the focus to the romance.
Watch a scene from the film:
Ijazat, directed by Gulzar, 1987
Based on “House of Wax,” Subodh Ghosh (1909–80), circa 1960
Seven years after their divorce, a couple have a chance encounter in the waiting room of a railway station. Each of them has remarried, happily. Their meeting evokes strange sensations in both of them, which have nothing to do with romance or love but more of a reassertion of possessiveness. Breaking the ice isn't easy, but once it is broken, a simple question–have you forgotten me entirely?–hangs heavily in the air. It isn't answered directly, but the story conveys the resentment that both experience at the fact that their former spouse is happily married. The film added another layer to the story with the husband's tale being not of a happy second marriage but a failed relationship.
Watch a scene from the film:
Dev D, directed by Anurag Kashyap, 2009 (earlier Hindi versions: 1936, 1955, 2002)
Based on Devdas, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876–1938), 1917
Devdas and Parvati, both from Brahmin families, are childhood friends who discover when they grow up that they love each other. But Devadas's parents reject the idea of marriage, because of socioeconomic differences between the two families. Insulted, Parvati's father arranges for her to marry a rich widower. Devdas goes to Calcutta from the village and meets the courtesan Chandramukhi, who falls in love with him. Devdas is not in love with her, and his relationship with Parvati is never to be consummated. He begins a slow alcohol-fueled journey toward suicide. Beyond the overwhelming personal tragedy here, the novel really explores the social and familial equations that led to this situation. However, the tragedy of Devdas has become something of a symbol for unrequited love in India's cultural imagination.
Watch the film trailer:
Of course, the adaptations are not slavish imitations of the original works, often using the novel or story as inspiration rather than a text frozen in stone. Even though the majority of Hindi films are now made with original screenplays, Bengali literature, including genre fiction, continues to be a source for Bollywood filmmakers. For instance, Director Dibakar Banerjee has made an edgy crime film titled Detective Byomkesh Bakshy derived from the many novels and stories featuring the sleuth, written by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. Banerjee, who has snapped up the rights to all the stories in the series, is likely to make more films featuring the detective. Besides Devdas, several of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels have inspired Hindi films, among them the 2005 adaptation of Parineeta, directed by Pradeep Sarkar. Earlier, Mother of 1084, Mahashweta Devi's searing Bengali novel about the mother of a killed Leftist revolutionary was made into an acclaimed film by the arthouse director Govind Nihalani. Even if it is not as intense as earlier, Bollywood’s relationship with Bengali literature may not end anytime soon.
© 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Emna Belhaj Yahia, women debate freedom of dress and choice in contemporary Tunisia.
So here we are, Chokrane and I, as she’s leaving school, as I’m leaving the office. Still crushed by the disorderly memories of a sleepless night, I suddenly notice as she walks toward me, something very simple about her clothing, something I hadn’t thought of before, something that requires no explanation, no commentary: the free affirmation of liberty. The way she wears it, it’s just a way of exercising creativity that concerns only her. A free act, we must agree, when it does not detract from someone else’s liberty. That idea intoxicates me a little but, for no apparent reason, also evokes my mother’s apprehensions. What if Frida wasn’t wrong? After all, nothing guarantees that eventually those in favor of this clothing style will not try to impose it on everyone. It’s happened elsewhere. But is that a reason to preemptively forbid something to those who have forbidden nothing, simply because people who look like them were found at fault in other places? I don’t know, but I would prefer an alternative approach: take it one day at a time. If tomorrow we really feel that danger is on the horizon, if Frida’s fears prove to be justified, and if these people start to try to deprive us of liberty, I will be as concerned as my mother, and Chokrane will be on our side. For when she replied to me, yesterday, “I’m wearing what I’m wearing because I feel like it,” I saw, in her gaze, the staunch defense of a liberty that, in all sincerity, one cannot claim solely for oneself. Today, I express her reply in my own fashion: long or short, wide or narrow, the only becoming clothing is that of a free person. Furthermore, yesterday I noticed that she also had a glimmer in her eyes and I surmised that, had she been lying, it would have gone out immediately. I know that glimmer. So Chokrane will be on the same side as me and with Frida, I am sure of her righteousness, I would be willing to bet on it. And on the strength of our love. What other choice do I have?
Chokrane is neither fake nor prudish, she surprises me, she is herself, with no limits other than those that she willingly sets for herself, we quickly tumbled into the mystery of love, gestures of passionate moments, intense moments, without fear and without shame—and I have no complaints.
It’s been almost a year now since she earned her master’s degree. Waiting to find a job, she enrolled herself in a master’s in mathematics and at the same time tutors high schoolers preparing for the baccalaureate. Some of the money she earns helps to pay for her driving lessons. When I go to pick her up at the end of those lessons, I find that she bears an odd resemblance to an Indian tourist, all she’s missing is a large red dot between her two eyebrows. It’s because she rolls back her headscarf, making it into a large headband at the top of her forehead, at the edge of her hair and above her ears, which, uninhibited in the open air, seem bigger than they actually are. I feel as though I’m watching a woman disembarking an airplane just arrived from Bombay or New Delhi.
“Is that how Indian women wear their hair? The red dot would go nicely with your scarf-turned-headband. And they have big ears like you.”
“It’s because when I’m driving, I hear better when I lift up the fabric. I take in better what’s going on around me, the sounds and the distances, and even the words of the instructor sitting next to me. But when he saw me uncover my ears, he immediately started swearing that I was under no obligation to do so.”
“What does he care?”
“He probably wanted to make sure I knew that the driver’s manual didn’t require anything on that front. I think I’m going to change instructors. There are signs for driving schools on almost every street.”
“He talks nonstop, going on and on about how his daughter refuses to wear a headscarf, as if I’m supposed to have an opinion on it! I told him that was her own business, then I quickly started asking questions about traffic, the people overtaking me on the right, the difficulty of changing speed, but he kept coming back to his problem with the headscarf and the grief his daughter gives him.”
“What a pain!”
“On top of it, I don’t like to be lumped in with every woman who wears a scarf on her head. The relationship to the body, the way of reacting to peoples’ words, of adopting certain characteristics, it’s so different, so subtle, from one woman to the next, that in the end no one resembles anyone else. And I, in any case, intend to do as I please. Just look at me and Dalel, we’re worlds apart.”
“But you were following in her footsteps when you decided to cover your hair, sweetheart!”
“So what! That was more than four years ago. Since then, we’ve each followed our own path. She’s become a purist and a proselytizer. She and her husband would veil every woman in the world if they could.”
Chokrane pauses, brushes aside a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes, then continues:
“I’m glad that so far they’ve only had boys because I would have felt really sorry for their girls.”
“Don’t worry, Dalel’s sons will take up the task of putting women in their place!”
“You don’t know that, maybe they’ll be nothing like their parents.”
“True, but there’s still a chance. Look at me, I have red hair like my mother, I’m fidgety and fickle like my father, an explosive combination, don’t you think? What about you?”
“I have my mother’s spirit and my father’s black hair, just as dangerous.”
“Are you sure you have your dad’s hair?”
“Well then, you have no need to cover it up with a headscarf, since it’s the hair of a man! Or else, if you still want to hide it, tomorrow we’ll go to the souk and I’ll buy you a nice chechia.”
“You make a good point. Come on, let’s go right now.”
And our banter continues like that, and even if our little stories don’t sound like much of anything, they sound like us. We have our horseplay, our quips, we react to what reaches us of the world’s whisper, with its scenes that, real or virtual, come and go before our eyes, we inhale our city’s air, respond to what calls to us. And I squeeze my Indian girl with her big ears, and with her I feel like an explorer, though, unlike my parents, I didn’t study abroad, I was never interested in other worlds, and have no intention of becoming a globetrotter. I, the son of Frida the Redhead and Nader the Fugitive, now have something better to do than roam the Internet, smoke cigarettes, and upset my mother, in order to express my existence. I have a heart and a body capable of enjoying of each moment, devouring life, gulping down the crisp air.
Chokrane suddenly remembers a story that she thought of during the night, before going to bed. She tells me on the spot, before she forgets again, just to prove and illustrate, she says, the prudishness of men of former times, the ones we see in the black-and-white documentaries she was talking about yesterday.
“I heard it from my mother who heard it from the heroine herself, her great-aunt. She had seven or eight children with her husband, lived all her life at his side, without either of them ever seeing, I mean really seeing, the other’s private parts. She even had a long nightshirt, with a hole in the necessary place, to facilitate the task.”
“What task?” I burst into laughter, grip the steering wheel and brake abruptly, which makes Chokrane, sitting next to me, jump in her seat. We giggle like hyperactive children, then she asks me to get moving again. What on earth is this story of the hole in the nightgown? It’s incredible. I would have thought Chokrane’s modesty would keep her from recounting such details. But no! How wrong we can be.
From Jeux de rubans © Emna Belhaj Yahia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
In these three poems, poet Amina Saïd inquires into life, death, and the nature of memory.
I did not choose to be born
but I must accept life accept death
I didn’t choose the day the hour the place
or the era of my arrival in the world
nor the name I bear
nor my sex nor the color of my eyes
but to predict the future yes I wanted that
I hope and despair at the same moment
I have strange dreams that drive sleep away
I have moments of long silence
then words push each other onto my lips
it is painful not to be heard
and yet my speech is not deceitful
it is part of the world’s grief
I must keep a lucid vision
speak the language of the soul
which is light and wisdom
or stupor and confusion
will silence me forever
I was born a woman my speech
is part of the world’s grief
this tree can have forgotten nothing
is that why they cut it down?
this sturdy tree that centuries
had skimmed across
that fertility had not tired
they made its silvered peak touch the ground
its oil will no longer brighten our rooms
with its gentle light
no wise man rejoices
those who did this could not decipher
the omens that many wounds
had chiseled in its bark
like a secret script
and they did not see that the nearby spring
is still singing or that a leafy shoot
is already budding from the stump
what can they see then
by keeping their eyes shut?
a door that shuts
can also open
so I left my dark prison
stunned by sunlight
I needed to look once more
at the earth that made us
from which they want to uproot us
the spring air carried scents of pine
of tamarisk of hot sap
come from the shimmering plain
I made my way along the citadel’s
winding streets beside silent houses
when some women approached me
pitiful in these desperate days
who all spoke at once:
they carry off our flocks
attack our orchards steal our horses
burn our harvests there’s no end to it
each side sends spies
the council met again
no negotiation to end the war
has led to anything the cities that
were still our allies yesterday fall one by one
then in a cacophony of moaning
the way a disaster is announced or
a dreadful omen they said:
the sacred tree has been uprooted
© Amina Saïd. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.
Ordered to shoot a protester, a Tunisian policeman struggles with his conscience in this taut short story by Emna Rmili.
The boy’s chest is mouthwatering, it’s luscious, that boy’s chest, provocative, in fact, under his simple striped shirt—damn! What’s making me focus on his chest? Since yesterday the orders have been absolutely clear: we will shoot. I look down at the weapon at my side, and feel like I’m standing on the edge of an abyss. But the law is the law . . . I reach out my hand to the weapon, touch it. It fills my hand. We will shoot. We’ve all heard the code words we had been told to listen out for: “Utter determination, utter determination.” The front lines have tear gas canisters, but the magazine full of bullets is on me: I’m behind the front lines, tucked out of sight of the mobile phone cameras, my weapon polished to a high shine, gleaming blackness. I can’t get enough of the way its bright black light shines.
I said: “But sir . . .”
He frowned. “We will shoot! Did you not hear the order?”
I saluted sharply.
“No one saw you.”
I saluted again, my body rigid with tension, all of these shitty days my body’s been tensed up like a tight fist . . . I saw them strangled, I saw them wounded, I saw them felled by rubber bullets—some got back up on their feet, but others didn’t. I saw them trampled underfoot by those young conscript cops: how do they survive that? They must have nine lives! “We will shoot,” he said. How can I keep out of sight of the mobile phone cameras? It’s as if the ground were sown with them, and the sky too—shit!
“How can you let them shoot that kind of footage? Where are your eyes? You deserve to be struck blind and deaf! You want them to burn me alive in the palace or slit my throat at the Ministry of the Interior? Man up! You can do it—what’s the matter with you? You’re freaked out by that bunch of little upstarts? Are you men, or what?!” My brain is burning, I have to dig up every last grudge against them just to carry out these orders . . . meanwhile they’re swarming at us like locusts, waves and waves of them. We will shoot: it’s an order. God protect us. I look down at my weapon dozing in its leather holster at my right hip, within hand’s reach, while I press myself back into a corner that faces out over the mouth of the broad sloping avenue. According to the reports that just reached us the crowds are massing in the square by the Ministry of the Interior, and then they’re heading on out into the main street, towards the security forces’ headquarters.
“What we’ve been through with them recently, the way they’ve been wrecking the country, it’s exhausted our patience: we’re done. It’s over.”
There was something completely arid about the boss, his rigid frown clamped onto his desiccated face; his eyes and his cigar blazed.
A question burst out of me:
“Are we to kill our own children, sir?”
He shot me a look so fierce and full of rage it seemed to slam me against the floor.
“We will kill the enemies of the homeland!”
The words rattled through me, snapping all of my senses awake. As their meaning took root, strange fumes seemed to waft through me. Enemies of the homeland? But the orders were clear, and the code words definite: “With utter determination, with utter . . .” Here they come—the sound of them diffuses through the space around me as I glue myself back into this corner, my weapon close at hand, my body a tight fist of stinking sweat and choking fumes. That bastard! Enemies of the homeland . . . We will shoot, we’re out of patience and we’re out of tear gas, and he’s in his striped shirt, leading the way with his chest, right at the front of the lines of people, offering up that chest. His muscles carve a clear line beneath the faded stripes of his shirt, and there are clouds in the sky, and an icy wind blowing. Where does he get all that heat from, on a day like this? He’s coming closer; why do I have to see you, of all people? Out of all the hundreds of chests on this freezing afternoon, I saw yours . . . Does the hunter single out his pigeon from the flock? Does he say “This one, and none of the others”?
“If, one day, a people wants to live . . . ” My eyes are focused on the muscles of his chest, and on that little bit of bare flesh exposed at the neck of his shirt, peeping out as if to affirm the youthful vigor and strength of his body. And my weapon is at my side. Who is he? Who might he be? A schoolboy? A student? A teacher? Someone without a job? A car salesman? A grocer? A butcher? Our national anthem says, “Let no one live who has betrayed Tunisia, and let no one live who does not serve in her army.” I’m in her army, my weapon gleams darkly, and I keep one eye on the man who I have just saluted and keep my mind on the code words, and on the ribbons and epaulets indicating his rank. “And let no one live who is not in her army”—the orders have all been exhausted. That was a lethal look he shot at me when I blurted out my questions:
“Will we kill our children?”
“Our children, you call them? Those saboteurs? Those masked gangs? Those stray dogs?”
I had no more words to say. My tongue shriveled in my gullet: how rash of me to have spoken out like that! The boss is the boss. I’ll be retiring in two or three months—I’m twenty years older than him: when did he suddenly get old enough to have that rank? I begrudge ending my long years of service this way. After enduring the burning heat and freezing cold of distant roads, sleeping in trucks in the middle of nowhere, on miserable iron bunks in cramped urban barracks and desolate rural training camps—did all those long years of toil have to end in blood? Killing our children? The question had rung out despite me, asked by neither my tongue nor my mind, but by my heart. His roared reply had shaken the walls of the room:
“They are ENEMIES OF THE HOMELAND!”
All I could do in response was to shake my head, my aching pounding head that feels now like it’s being hammered into by thousands of nails, as he advances, his chest filling his striped shirt, white, red, green, white, red, green, and my finger on the trigger, and I shrink back, drawing myself in tight to this sharp little corner that faces down the hill. He’s approaching, drawing closer and closer, it’s an order, you’ll have to do it, he’s getting closer, we’re out of patience, we’re out of tear gas, are we going to let them burn down the country? The boss said:
“A few sacrifices for the homeland are unavoidable, what matters is the homeland.”
And then, “Tunisia matters more than anyone,” and suddenly my mind was awash with the homeland, its villages and towns, streets and cities, its wells and seas, the eucalyptus trees lining the roads, the poppies reddening the edges of the fields for miles on end, the cafes teeming with people morning and night, the dams perched between the mountains and held in the green plains’ outstretched hands, the splendor of the hilltop palaces from Tabarka to Hammamet, barefoot little ones heading to school, dodging wolves on the way and giving a fearful, chipper greeting to a passing police car . . . And he’s coming closer and closer, with his strong alluring chest: Who is his mother? Is his father alive? My finger is pressing the trigger, and I am jammed against this stone on top of this building looking out over the sloping street . . .
© Emna Rmili. Translation © 2017 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.
Set in post-revolution Tunisia, this excerpt from Azza Filali’s novel follows an anxious man to a dermatologist’s office.
It must have been 5 p.m. when Jaafar walked into the dermatologist’s office.
“The doctor won’t be long. Have a seat.”
A head shot up from behind the desk, a fair-haired young man with freckled cheeks. “I’m his secretary,” he added. Newspapers lay scattered on a table; Jaafar picked one up and settled in a chair . . . Yet another new rag!
“I wouldn’t bother, it’s the same as all the others.”
The boy contemplated him from behind the desk: “The cover story’s about those journalists that were attacked by a bunch of Koran-thumpers and that kid who was hacked to death. You must have heard.” He swallowed: “His poor mother lost her mind. She wore the hijab, but the shock was so great, she tore it off! They say she was naked underneath!” Jaafar stared at the newspaper, and the boy gave a polite cough: “Page two’s heavy going! I’d ignore it if I were you: another diatribe on the dividing line between politics and religion . . . Because of the dividing line, they’ve split the page in two.” Jaafar glared at him.
“Sorry, I’ve read them all,” the secretary mumbled. “There aren’t any patients these days, you’re the first today.” He vanished behind the desk; only a tuft of frizzy hair was still visible. “People don’t have time to look after their skin any more! With prices skyrocketing, the roads blocked, and all the fanatics praying in the streets . . . If you want my opinion,” he ventured, “fifty dinars is too much to pay for pimples! No one ever died from an outbreak of acne!”
Jaafar started pulling on his fingers one by one. The boy was a real motormouth and the waiting room was abnormally empty . . . there was a lingering odor of air freshener, with a top note of lily-of-the-valley. Jaafar took out a handkerchief and held it to his nostrils.
Behind him, the boy was prattling on: “The doctor’s great, but he ought to have dropped his prices! This revolution has damaged the medical profession; all the doctors in the building are complaining.” His tone turned authoritative: “As you can imagine, it’s mainly women who come to see him, but with more and more covering themselves from head to foot, dermatology’s no longer a cash cow!” Jaafar grabbed his coat; blondie went on, all worked up now: “Do you know, I conducted my own little survey! One day, when I was here on my own, I called up every patient I know well, and out of twenty-five, I counted sixteen new hijabs! I didn’t tell the doctor, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news.” Jaafar rose abruptly and headed for the door.
“Where are you going? The doctor will be here any minute now!”
Jaafar pulled a face that he hoped resembled embarrassment: “An urgent meeting I’d completely forgotten!”
The young man insisted: “To think he’s coming all the way from la Soukra, just for you! I’m the one who’ll get the blame, as usual.” Amid the freckles, his distraught eyes implored Jaafar, whose finger was on the elevator button. Behind him, the secretary gasped, pressing his hands together: “Won’t you wait a little? The doctor will be here any second; someone’s just called the elevator, it’s bound to be him . . . Please, monsieur!” Jaafar hurtled down the stairs like a madman. In the lobby, a man in studiedly casual dress came up: “I am Doctor Abdennadher. Are you by any chance the man who was waiting for me?” Defeated, Jaafar nodded.
The two men entered the elevator. Seeing Jaafar return, the young blond secretary smiled blissfully, as if beholding the Messiah. The doctor opened his office door and ushered in his patient.
“How can I help?” he asked, putting on his white coat.
“I have a mark here, in the middle of my forehead, which is getting bigger and bigger. Just where my head touches the ground when I pray.”
“Let me take a look at you.”
He showed him to a chair beneath a lamp that he directed onto Jaafar’s forehead, then he pulled on a pair of gloves and explored the grayish patch with his fingertips, prodding the crevice where the skin had become scaly. He removed a few flakes with tweezers and placed them in a small bowl.
“Could you have banged your forehead?”
“No, unless I’ve forgotten.” Jaafar fidgeted in the chair: “My wife’s convinced it’s because of the prayer mat, the one I brought back from Mecca . . . it’s pure polyester. I replaced it with a wool mat, but the mark’s still spreading.” He was silent for a moment. “Why did you ask me if I’d banged my forehead?”
“Because skin has a memory, it stores life’s knocks in its folds, then brings them out again little by little,” said the practitioner calmly. “In the meantime, I’m prescribing two lotions, one to stop the itching, and the other to protect you from the sun. Apply them regularly and come back to see me in one month.” He held out his hand to Jaafar: “Lamjed, my secretary, will take your payment.”
In the waiting room, a patient sat snoozing. The aforementioned Lamjed stood up from his desk and came to speak to Jaafar: “It’s good you came back, the doctor would have been so disappointed to miss you. That’ll be fifty dinars.” Seeing Jaafar’s surly expression, he lowered his voice: “I did warn you, the boss had to raise his prices . . . to keep up with the cost of living.” The boy’s tone became haughty: “It’s not his fault. Blame the crazy folk who are happy to spend fifty dinars on their skin! To think that yesterday on the television they showed people without running water, who have never seen a tap in their lives . . .” Jaafar pulled out his wallet. The young man stashed the money behind the counter: “Shall I book you another appointment?”
“I’ll phone,” said Jaafar.
Outside, the afternoon was drawing to a close . . . too late to go back to the office; Jaafar slowly walked back to his car. As he started up the engine, he frowned: fifty dinars, goddamit, that secretary was right, and that doctor boring him witless with all his nonsense about skin memory; furious, he slammed his foot down on the gas.
From Les Intranquilles. © Azza Filali. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.
Two poems by Tunisian poet and translator Ines Abassi explore language, selfhood, and emotional intimacy.
Song of Clay
Night unfolds around my image in the mirror
while I gather up corpses of letters
that have died from excessive speech.
I choose a few letters
and greet them with spectrums of color
and the heavy breath of desire
until language’s gate opens before me.
And I see
the aleph full of pride:
the dance of a sacrificial gazelle.
The nūn with its wailing:
a crimson mouth, spellbound
by the names of love.
Then the aleph again, this time
Thus, the word anā—I—is drawn in the air
with a swarm of words around it.
the gluttonous paths that devour my footsteps,
the December air that plays with the faces and trees
while the rain washes red-brick houses.
It creates, from my childlike language,
a blue ladder that stretches to the sky.
the bread of the hungry kneaded with sweat,
the night of a lover tossing and turning
in a bed of bewilderment
the meowing of a cat on a February night,
a ballad lost in a field of song,
the music of an oud with wounded strings,
and the beat of ancient drums
in the forests of Africa.
the sound of a spear
splitting the air
as it flies toward its prey,
and the eyes of the prey turning
to meet death head-on.
am a mare the color of hazel
that went down to the river
without the compass of the wind and trees.
am the jealousy of the lover,
am stolen splendor on a darkened street:
afflicted by color, sun, shadows,
and what I cannot see.
am a field of grain hungry for sun,
and the wailing of an olive tree
a hundred years old
cut down by a blind ax,
and the hissing of the fire
kindled by the last Native American
who clung to the land beneath his tent
as he died,
and the rush of the water at the river’s end
in cascades of light . . . anā.
I am the child’s lisp as it says “Papa”
for the very first time.
am the daughter of clay, and its mother.
But whenever I stand there, in your hands,
I am nothing more than your child . . .
Exercises in Loneliness
A wall of frail desire:
I leaned against it
and lapped up the blood flowing
from the wound of the rose
that was scratched by the air,
a she-wolf of your love.
The smell of your blood guides me
toward the light.
The fear that hovered over our encounters
with its feathered wings:
you slung it over your shoulders
but never took flight.
Fear is your face.
Fear is your trembling voice
when you ask me: Where are you now?
Fear: your smile,
the way you walk,
your very body
in the narrow spaces of farewell.
You’ll cross five forests on your own, after Havana.
Five forests and then I’ll die,
you say to yourself,
before I see the freckles that will cover your face
after all the suns
you’ll lie beneath.
And with a single fearful keystroke
you delete all the emails,
which had been chiseling the crystal of our mornings
like thirsty birds pecking
at the water of words:
You deleted all the letters that grew
on the edge of the desert—rasping, desirous.
Fear: the way your voice
quivers with doubt
when you hear the bracelets of my joy
ring through the hallway
that separates one encounter
when you stand before my mirror,
when you lie down lazily
beneath the sun of your tedious life,
years I cross
breathing in deeply
my own scent,
years I cross with tepid fear.
as I pass through you
in a boat with two oars
that devour the salt of the life you lived before me.
the words “my life, my everything,”
words you spoke to draw me in,
a heavy lid of love
that I would later turn into a carpet:
I lie down on it
on those weekend nights
becomes a long torment for the self.
“أغنية الطين” and “تمارين الوحدة” © Ines Abassi. Translations © 2017 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. All rights reserved.
A stranger follows an old woman through a city’s streets at night in this charged work by Tunisian master of the short story Noura Bensaad.
“What do you know?”
“What do you hear?”
“What do you see?”
“Where are you going?”
“Where my feet take me.”
The stranger walks through the city. He comes across an old lady. In her quivering gaze, childhood flows like a river in reverse. She smiles, grabs him by the arm, and whispers in his ear:
“Do you know where I’m going?”
“No, I don’t.”
She murmurs, even lower, so low that her voice is no more than a sigh:
“I’m going where she won’t be able to get me.”
“Her, of course!”
And the old lady turns, indicating with her finger a point in empty space.
“But there’s no one there!”
“There is. She’s there. She’s evil, she scares me.”
And he understands.
“Yesterday she got my husband, but she won’t get me.”
In her eyes there smiles the child she once was. She continues on her way, hunched over her shadow as if gathering it. He watches her draw away. Perhaps he should help her carry it. The shadow has grown heavy with the weight of years. He counts the lampposts separating her from the end of the street: one, two, three, four, five, six. A bicycle passes, ridden by a man bundled in his overcoat.
Ding, ding, ding! he proclaims gaily, but nobody hears him. With night fallen, everyone has tumbled over to the other side of life, their minds drawn on by dream.
The stranger looks to the old lady again: she’s made it past two more lampposts. A cat leaps out, as if from the very wall, its tail stuck in the air. It pads toward her and sits on her shadow. She stops. He hears her cry out:
But the cat doesn’t move and continues to cadge a caress:
“Meow, meow, meowwww!”
So she yells:
“Let me go!” and the understanding cat moves just enough to let her pass with her shadow.
She continues walking, taking small, hesitant steps. When you’re that old, each step is a struggle, one more moment snatched from life. She bears so many years on her broken back, but in her mind she is a child again, running to hide.
The stranger decides to follow her. He’d like to ask where she’s running to for sanctuary. Eight lampposts separate him from her. He doesn’t rush, he’s got plenty of time to catch up. The old lady only has three left to reach the end of the street.
A man and woman approach, a couple intertwined, his arm around her shoulder, hers around his waist. As they reach the old lady, she straightens as much as she can, and looks at them, but they don’t see her. In the wan light of urban night, her hand rises and extends—it’s a slow gesture. An abyss separates them, but just when she believes that she can touch them, the man and the woman are already distant. And so the thin, wrinkled hand falls back alongside the body that seems to slump even more. The stranger stops and moves aside. The two beings clutched to each other appear to form a single whole: enormous head and body stuck on four legs. They don’t see him either, for love is blind to everything that isn’t it. The stranger notices the tears running from the woman’s eyes that the man collects with his lips.
The old lady has reached the end of the street, which she must cross in order to proceed upon her way. She stops beneath the semaphore. A little man, blood-red color, indicates that one mustn’t cross—danger! Then he turns to green—danger passed. With small, hesitant steps, she begins her long crossing, dragging with her her shadow that sticks to her like glue—sole remaining companion of a life worn out. Her face is lit by the lampposts on the opposite side of the roadway; her shadow lengthens behind her, stretches out, as if ready to detach itself, to flee? but she sees nothing other than the white lines beneath her feet still separating her from the life-saving sidewalk. Suddenly the blinding light of two headlights approaching at full speed. The stranger would like to cry out instead he tells himself that the old lady won’t have the time to dodge. Then the infernal squealing of braking wheels. In the night, the impact of a car violently hitting a body reverberates like an expected ending.
"L’étranger et la vieille dame" © Noura Bensaad. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.
In thinking of Polish poetry after the Second World War, a characteristic tone of sharp-eyed moral clarity often comes to my mind. Czesław Miłosz exemplified this school of writing, and codified a canon of like-minded writers in his influential 1965 anthology Postwar Polish Poetry. That book included giants of Polish poetry such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who confronted the traumas and injustices of that country’s 20th century with spiritual honesty, righteous judgment, and— sometimes—rage.
Rage was the weapon of choice for Ryszard Krynicki during his poetic coming-of-age in the late 1960s and 1970s, a generation after Miłosz. Previously little translated into English, some of his best works are now available in two major books published this fall in the US: his 1977 collection Our Life Grows (New York Review Books, translated by Alissa Valles) and Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014 (New Directions, translated by Clare Cavanagh). Together, they offer a compelling portrait of this powerful and unique poet.
Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, his family was settled in the “reclaimed” territories of western Poland that had been broken off from Germany and emptied of their pre-war populations. Born in a nonplace and brought up where the past had been wiped clean, the poet seems to have nursed a sense of otherness throughout his life.
Krynicki was still a boy in 1956 when the dark days of Stalinism came to an end. As a young man, he watched promises of reform and liberalization give way to sclerosis, finally descending into outright depravity in the watershed year of 1968. That March saw massive anti-regime protests in Warsaw violently suppressed by the government, which blamed the uprising on “Zionist” agents. A nationwide anti-Semitic campaign ensued, driving much of Poland’s remaining Jewish population out of the country. Then in August, Poland joined the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, helping to crush the nascent pro-Western reforms of the Prague Spring.
The very next year, Krynicki published his first major poetry collection, Akt Urodzenia (meaning both “act of birth” and “birth certificate”). He was one of a generation of poets and intellectuals disgusted by the events of ’68 and scornful of moral equivocation and political compromise. Krynicki would spend much of the 1970s causing trouble and getting into it. He battled with censors, published underground editions, endured police harassment, and in 1976 was finally banned from even being mentioned in print.
In 1977, he published Our Life Grows with an émigré press in Paris. Many of these poems had been mangled by Communist censors, but in the NYRB edition they appear in their unexpurgated form. I found them shockingly raw: Our Life Grows felt like a beam of fury focused squarely at the brutality, stupidity, and double-speak of People’s Poland. The collection includes landmark works like “Our Special Correspondent,” a poem so ideologically incendiary it got Krynicki’s editor fired by the authorities, and “Posthumous Journey (III),” whose litany of political and literary dissidents, its mocking reference to Stalin, and allusions to violent suppression of striking workers was the cause of Krynicki’s complete print ban in 1976.
As well as politics, the collection explores themes of spirituality, love, and the social and cultural role of the poet in the twentieth century. Krynicki circles around a familiar repertoire of structures, themes, and images. Formally, he seems to favor three types of poem: mid-length, reflective works; extremely short and aphoristic ones (sometimes even a single line); and long, often very political tours de force. His recurring images include animals like axolotls and snails, human anatomy like brains and blood, and the tools of censorship: sheets of paper, card indexes, red pencils and, of course, the censor himself, who at times appears as a character in the poems.
Krynicki’s imagery is always powerful, if sometimes baffling. Valles does an excellent job of keeping these difficult images tangible and concrete, as in this example from “Much Simpler” (featuring the aforementioned card indexes):
fingerprints circulate in unfathomable space
card indexes faded, were burnt or shredded
your you is astonished at your I
nothing’s for sure took the elevator down
while everything’s possible
was laboring up the stairs
Readers of Polish poetry expecting something closer to the philosophical detachment of Miłosz or the wry gallows humor of Szymborska may find this collection jarring. Krynicki’s poems are darker, stranger, and more mysterious.
A fuller, more nuanced picture of Krynicki emerges in Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014. The late poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak once described Krynicki’s oeuvre as “moving from excess to ascesis.” In this collection, we watch this transition as it happens, and Cavanagh’s translation maintains a remarkable (and beautiful) unity of voice, even as Krynicki experiments with new themes, imagery, and forms, including prose.
The work in Magnetic Point reveals a huge range of influences. Krynicki often dedicates poems to other poets or refers explicitly to others’ poems. He is a translator of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and the German tradition shines through in his work. A period of engagement with East Asian poetry has borne fruit in the form of, among other things, numerous references to the Japanese master poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Krynicki’s own experimentation with haiku.
His later work also develops his ambiguous relationship to geography and history, both in Poland and abroad. Unlike his contemporaries Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, Krynicki did not choose emigration to escape Communist rule. But that does not mean he felt at home—his 1987 poem “This Country” states in its entirety:
In this country? Yes, I stayed in this country.
Exile comes in many shapes
Spirituality is often a current running powerfully through these reflections. For instance, in the prose poem “A Stone from the Village of New World” from 2005, Krynicki describes accidentally finding the remains of a Jewish gravestone:
I found the stone in a yard overgrown with weeds and bushes, just after buying a run-down house in the hamlet of New World: I’d picked it more for the auspicious name than for the place itself. Exiles like me—from the East, from beyond the Bug River— settled here after the war. Germans had lived here before, they left a moldy scrap of a 1936 newspaper in the attic and countless broken medicine bottles.
I’m not asking when and how it ended up here, or who committed this atrocity. I only want to preserve it from further destruction, I seek a refuge more lasting than my weak letters. I don’t know what to do.
While Krynicki’s anger seems to subside over the course of Magnetic Point, it is clear he has lost none of his desire to challenge simplistic narratives and to ask difficult questions. In an author’s note to Our Life Grows, Krynicki writes, “In my time I dared to oppose Zbigniew Herbert, [saying] that the drama of language should not obscure for us the tragedy of the world. I thought I was right—I was wrong.” Yet even at this mature stage in his career, Krynicki’s suspicion of the power of language remains. It seems fitting to end on one of the last poems in Magnetic Point, which address this skepticism and shows that perhaps the Krynicki of today is not so different from the Krynicki of Our Life Grows:
Sweet, innocent words,
sweet, full sentences,
from sweet, gently
(Nowy Świat, July 8, 2004, B.)
A group of Sami herders and their reindeer undertake their dangerous spring migration over Norway’s northern tundra to an island off the country’s coast.
Soon the journey north will be complete. The destination is the island. The terrain is rocky and steep but conceals herbs and grasses that are good for the animals, salt-rich growth they need after the long trip from the inland’s snow-covered lichen plateaus.
It’s daytime. The people are resting. Soon they’ll see the ocean.
The nights have been long and arduous. They had been waiting for milder weather to be followed by frost and snow crust. But the early spring stayed cold, dry, and lovely, so the snow remained deep, giving easily. A condition that meant hard work for people and animals. Yet they had to leave. The animals were becoming restless. Instinct was driving them north. The herdsmen had camped with the reindeer the last few weeks. They’d remained alert to everything happening, their attention constantly focused on the distant clang of bells. Anxiety for what might be stirring frequently drove them to the tent opening with the monoculars. Any dispersal within the flock signaled the animals were beginning to move north, which meant quickly breaking camp.
One evening they left after sundown.
Nine nights and days have passed since then. The hard-packed, glittering crust never emerged. Instead they’ve struggled their way through loose, heavy snow, fighting a hard battle against the deep, white, and soft element. At times their snow scooters and fully loaded sleds became completely stuck. The head of the household, for his part, traveled on skis. Up at the front of the herd at first with the lead reindeer following on a rope. But the last few days, he has kept behind the flock. The reindeer were moving along nicely, directing themselves. Alert and energetic, he has followed the animals. Exhaustion occasionally overwhelmed his limbs and made his movements uneven, stiff. Still, he’s tough and he knows it. He demands from himself exactly what he knows he can render.
The final parts of the journey have been somewhat easier. They’ve left the evenly rolling plateaus with deeper snow for the higher mountain regions. Here the landscape is sparser, more windblown, naked without the twisted dwarf birch trees that livened up the milder country they left behind them. Here the mountains are bare, a promise of spring to come.
Up until now everything has gone well. All the reindeer are still with them. What remains of their journey now is to cross the open sound toward the island. They’ll need to reach their destination before the current appears again. At three in the morning it should be possible to swim the animals over. If they don’t make it during the half hour the swirling water rests, difficulties can arise. Animals can die. It’s happened before. Many times. Most recently last year. At that point the animals were so depleted after the bitterly cold winter just before Christmas. The pastures had been thoroughly iced over. It didn’t even snow until well after New Year’s. The journey to the ocean drained the last bit of strength right out of them. Forty animals drowned. The people will never forget it.
This year, though, everything looks bright. The animals are fat and vigorous, their pelts glossy. The females are pregnant. Hopefully, they’ll calve on the island. This year the people don’t dread the swim. Just a tingling excitement––no fear.
The last part passes quickly. Almost too fast. The familiar plateaus are now behind them. Their feet will not touch the lichen landscape again until autumn. The island is a foreign place. Its people are not their own. They have only a handful of relatives there. The summer place isn’t their home. Not completely.
They settle down for a short night and breathe the sea air. Everything smells so different.
The time is near. Everyone is prepared. They’re a large group and everyone knows their tasks. The children as well. It all goes smoothly. Soon the herd is inside the barrier that two of them have hauled and set up in advance. Two small boats bob out on the water and a third rowboat waits close to shore. A relative sits on the thwart with the oars ready to hand. Water drips from the oar blades. The man in the boat knows what they expect of him, these Sami folk. He has done this every year since he has learned to handle a boat. The head of the reindeer-herding family approaches the water. The lead reindeer ambles tamely behind him, bound to his master by a rope and many years’ teamwork. The herd follows them. A pair of year-old calves stop and turn to scrape with their forefeet at the stony slope, but soon they trot after the other animals––trusting. The head of the group soon approaches the water’s edge, climbs into the boat; the islander takes a few strokes, at first a bit hectic and fumbling, but then long, powerful strokes. The reindeer starts to swim, follows the boat and follows its master. One by one the animals set out and the herd glides forward atop the surface of the still, smooth sea.
This is a solemn moment for those standing on shore and watching. Most of the group have remained behind. There are just a couple of men in each boat. No one says a word. For a long time, the people just stand there, motionless. Finally, they sink onto the fine sand, dig out the tobacco, the matches, exchange a few words––easy, smiling words. Their eyes follow the bobbing pelts. They cast quick glances at each other. Steadily drawing away is everything of significance, everything upon which their life depends. Out there is life itself. They know this half hour before the herd reaches the island is a fateful one. They’re painfully aware of it. They don’t relax yet. They’re at the mercy of the sea, that capricious element; at the mercy of fortune or misfortune, chance or fate. They wait.
The herd has made it almost halfway across. The boatmen have hauled a year-old calf into the boat. It looked like it was beginning to swim in a ring, like it had lost its sense of direction. Otherwise, the glossy brown, antlered mass slides forward––steadily forward.
On the mainland, a tobacco pouch circulates between hands. Suddenly a boy leaps up, swift, speechless. He shields his eyes with his hands. The others stand up as well. What is it? What does he see? They strain their eyes. It’s so far away. They can’t be sure. Can it be . . . no, no, it’s not possible. The boy curses. Desperate oaths. What else can he do––sit here on the mainland and watch. Watch it happen. The women pray to God, stutteringly, brokenly, then wordlessly. They turn away and turn back again. Both want to see and don’t.
The men in the boats have long been aware of the enormous threat approaching them. The ship. It was the head of the group who spotted it first. Saw the large hull gliding along before they were halfway across the sound. Stood up in the rowboat, waved his cap, calm, sure they could avoid it. Knew the pilots guiding ships through the sound here are local people, people who understand, who will grasp what’s about to happen, should know, should understand. React.
But the ship shows no sign of turning.
He waves his cap more and more frantically, waves with both arms now, standing on tiptoe in the boat to make himself more visible, shouting. In vain. Of course he knows they cannot hear him. Gives the order to row hard, row with everything you’ve got, but at the same time gives the order to hold back, row slowly. There’s no way they can win.
And the ship steams forward. Comes closer and closer.
It is completely silent in the other small boats. They’ve seen what’s coming. They slowly move the oars, take a couple of strokes. A complete stop will bring confusion to the herd. They’ve seen it before. They saw it last year when the animals were exhausted. They lost their sense of direction and began to swim in a ring––round and around until their strength ebbed and they sank to the bottom.
They take a couple of oarstrokes. Right now it’s fine. Right now there’s hope. They’ve quit waving their arms. Anyway, it’s too late to get the ship maneuvered off.
The ship bears the Norwegian flag. They all see it. Wonder at it in the midst of their despair. A blue hull. It glides slowly, slowly forward. Glides past them.
Then come the waves, these violent forces they have expected and feared. To begin with, a small roil. The boats rhythmically rock with the first easy swells. The animals as well. They don’t seem to react. Then the waves sharpen, surge. They strike the rowboats, whip the men in the face. With wool mittens they wipe salt water from their eyes, are able to see again and find the reindeer at the front are already struggling, casting with their necks, stamping at the white foamy spray, trying to turn. Everything happens so quickly. All at once the columns are broken. The rhythmic movements are gone. Antlers lock together. Reindeer bumps into reindeer. Each fights in its own direction. The goal is no longer obvious. There is no goal. Only the desperate preservation instinct. Chaos.
The surges roll high and choppy. Continual.
In the boats there’s not much they can do. The head of the household hauls on the lead reindeer. Bids the rowers: row hard now, row for all their worth. Stay on course, stay on course no matter what. He jerks and hauls at the rope, but the reindeer will not turn. The animal pulls in the opposite direction, it’s still strong, still has energy. There’s no point. Some of the animals are already lost. They don’t know how many. The man drops the harness, there’s no way to restrain the struggling animal. They concentrate on hauling two year-old calves into one of the rowboats. Exhausted and terrified, the calves lay and float with the waves close to the boatside.
Disheartened, they recognize that the herd has formed a pattern in its fight for survival. A pattern they’ve seen before. A terrifying pattern. The animals are swimming in a large, disorderly ring. They know the ring will eventually tighten. Yes, they know it. There’s nothing they can do. The ring closes in the depths.
They continue to row toward the island and can only hope that some of the animals will follow. With tired relief, they see that parts of the flock have actually broken out of the deadly circle. Yet many animals still remain behind them. It hurts too much to watch. They row. Fix their eyes on the animals following behind––the strongest. At least these shall be saved. Must be saved.
The waves are no longer so white and foamy. They’re subsiding. Soon the current will return to the sound. That can also be a struggle. Too much time has passed. Can they do it?
They will! They’ll overcome the rest!
They continue to row, trembling with sorrow and rage, shaking their fists at the blue hull receding into the distance. But they don’t know if anyone can see it.
© 2017 Laila Stien. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Boundaries between the possible and the impossible in everyday life dissolve in this short story by Gunnhild Øyehaug.
The day I saw a person disappear through the side of a moving bus, just glide smoothly through the side, I was very surprised. I’d gone into town to buy fresh meat for dinner. That day it was raining violently, rain poured down the bus window where I sat, thick runnels of rain, like someone pouring transparent paint from the bus roof, making it difficult to distinguish what we were passing––granite, yellow leaves on November trees, a tunnel mouth, street lamps, all of it flowing together. A small river that wasn’t usually there flowed along the road, and the narrow stream that normally picked its cautious way down the far slope was now gushing from the street parallel to the main road, like all the water had entered a panicked state, rushing forward with all its pandemoniac hydraulic force. The bus wasn’t moving especially fast, but the windshield wipers raced back and forth, and it was as I shifted my gaze from the dissolving world outside the window back inside the bus itself that I saw a person get up from their seat, like any person wanting to get off, take a couple of steps forward, and disappear through the vehicle’s side.
I got off four stops later and I turned around to see whether that same person could smoothly materialize out of the air wherever and keep on walking, but there was no one else at the stop except for me and two other passengers who had exited at the same time and who left in the opposite direction. I was approaching the duck pond, which I saw had been filled up, what once had been a slope down to the pond was now just a mass of water into which the sidewalk smoothly transitioned. It sometimes happened with this kind of rain, sometimes the water would swallow the whole sidewalk, forcing all the children going to and from school to walk in the street for about twenty yards. At the moment a sliver of sidewalk remained, on the pond ducks navigated the thin, high reeds, they suddenly had a little lake in which to paddle. I wondered what it would be like to have the habitual boundaries of your life suddenly change like that, suddenly expand, just imagine, for example, if my house acquired another floor, I thought, or if the living room grew by three yards before returning to normal, would I think, how great, now I have three extra yards to try out, or would it just make me uneasy?
When I got home, I regretted not stopping at the school to pick up the kids, it was still a little early and I had planned on working. But I started to picture them tumbling into the duck pond, they’d be holding hands and one would slip and pull the other with them, and neither of them could swim. I paced anxiously through the house, going back and forth to the window, until finally I saw two rain-soaked figures coming up the hill, and when they entered the hall I had to hold them close just a little bit longer, to feel that they were here, the two of them, and that nothing had expanded into anything unknown, aside from the fact that I was mother to them both, perhaps. I thought about it again as I was cooking dinner and preparing to fry the meat, it wasn’t something I tolerated well, the smell of raw meat and blood. It’s a smell, I told my husband as he sat slicing carrots at the kitchen table, that we’re not meant to recognize. It’s a nauseating, body-concealed secret. We all have it inside, of course, but it’s not something we want to know anything about. My husband nodded. It reminded me, actually, of how a body writhing in birth smells. The smell that permeates the birthroom––flesh, blood, fat, amniotic fluid. It gushed out of you with the baby, everything you had inside, nothing you could do to hide it. You smelled. You transcended your human boundaries. And what happened? You smelled. Everyone in the room had been enveloped by the smell of my body’s insides, it was terrifying, and concise. The meat, sizzling now in the butter, had sealed itself again, had formed a fried crust, and that’s how it is, I thought, with everything. Things open and they close again. Blood now bubbled from the meat as it fried, with relief I turned the piece over.
It was twelve days before Christmas. When the kids were in bed and my husband back at work, I walked around, tidying up and listening to a Gregorian choir sing Christmas songs. I lit a candle on the living room table; a Christmas star, perforated with a pattern meant to resemble snowflakes, hung in the window and cast a prickled shadow on the ceiling. I moved the rocking chair next to the table beneath the Christmas star, intending to sit there and read, perhaps. I had my back to the window and was arranging couch cushions when suddenly I heard a slight cough. It came from the rocking chair. I spun around, convinced that someone had teleported into the rocking chair, maybe from outside, maybe from another dimension, what did I know, and that person now sat in my rocking chair coughing. But the rocking chair was empty. I glanced mistrustfully at the Christmas star, as if it had something to do with that cough. But the Christmas star placidly continued to throw its prickly pattern on the ceiling. I took my book and sat on the couch instead, but something was off, I couldn’t relax. When I turned toward the window again, someone was sitting beside me on the couch. It was Alice. Alice told me she’d come from the Beyond to inform me that her brother had departed this life and come to her. Also, he’d told Alice everything I’d done to him once, I’d seduced and abandoned him. I hadn’t understood the fact that he just wasn’t the type you could treat like that. He was a sensitive guy with a complex nature, plus he was engaged, a fact I had known. That was a chaotic time in my life, I was twenty-five back then, I heard myself explaining to Alice, I wasn’t myself, that was just how I behaved back then, he wasn’t the only one, it was like I was trapped inside a big, diabolical clown that was somehow myself, I wanted to be loved and I wasn’t, I said. Doesn’t matter, Alice responded. I wish he weren’t dead, I said. Wishes are balloons, Alice said, and death waits with a needle. I covered my face with both hands, I had expected this moment, I had expected my sins to catch up with me, I just hadn’t thought it would be today. I looked up and Alice was gone. The Christmas star was still doing its thing, prickly pattern on the ceiling, etc. The rain, which had stopped while Alice was there, suddenly gushed down, a river ran next to the sidewalk, there was no one outside, the asphalt was wet and still, the street lamp stood there and realized, but said nothing. What happened next was unbelievable: I walked through the wall like I’d never done anything else, like walking through walls was as easy as swimming, and it was, actually, the wall felt like another fluid element, just like I was a fluid element. And then I crossed the asphalt to the nearest street lamp, climbed to the light globe, and entered the lamp’s interior. Why I did that I have no clue, but it had something to do with my need to illuminate, to just be a lamp, to light the way for others, to simply fill up with light, to perform one single function: light.
After a quarter hour’s lighting it occurred to me that this wasn’t right, I needed to go back inside to the kids, they couldn’t be left alone at night, what had I been thinking? I tried to pass back through the wall, but it had closed. My expansive ability had obviously run its course. I ran around to the other side of the house and tried to open the door, but the door was locked, of course it was, I had locked it myself. But beneath the mat was the key I had set out for my husband. The kids were sleeping safely in their beds and hadn’t noticed that their mother, for a few minutes at least, had transformed to a street lamp. And that’s how it should be, I told myself when I stood brushing my teeth a little while later, and it seemed as if, with these bricklike words, I was intuiting something important about life, something that depressed me on the one hand and cheered me on the other, as if I’d discovered the card to play when I felt myself pressed into a corner, when life’s peculiar ability to be both good and bad forced me to choose sides. I just hoped future days would not be like this one and that my sudden expansive ability wasn’t one I had acquired.
© Gunnhild Øyehaug. First published in Dreamwriter (Kolon, 2016). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Merethe Lindstrøm brings to life a mother’s terror when she is robbed at knifepoint as she holds her infant daughter in her arms.
One time she was threatened with a knife.
When other people talked about terrifying experiences, they always said it happened so fast. But this didn’t happen fast. It took its time. She was riding the metro home from a girlfriend’s. She was carrying the sleeping child. That was the reason she chose the seat next to the door. She was bearing a weight and wanted to sit down so her daughter could sleep in her lap.
The car was empty. It was late at night, too late to be out with a three-year-old. She could have taken a taxi, but they lived near the T-bane station. She regretted her choice after she was on the train. She had waited at an above-ground station along one of the eastbound routes, they had been the only people on the platform, but just as the electronic voice over the loudspeaker announced that the doors were closing, a man appeared, he grabbed the doors, which were almost shut, and forced his way inside. The train started, the man took the seat directly across from Karin, his face was turned toward hers. She looked out the window, fervently wishing she was still standing on the platform.
Then they went underground.
She felt the train pick up speed in the tunnel, she felt it pitch, and when she looked up again the man was holding a knife.
She had glanced up quickly when he entered, noticed that he wasn’t exactly short, had formed a general impression of his appearance. But it was fuzzy, lacking in detail. Now it was difficult to see him at all, her terror, like a solid pane of clouded glass, obscured him. He was just a face, a hand, and the knife. A stranger’s empty voice.
Earlier that day she had been to one of the public outdoor swimming pools west of the city, she could still feel the sun, her skin was warm, almost burned, she had stood together with her daughter in the shallow pool, listening to the distinct, endless soundtrack of different voices, they could have been inside a drum, it was as if the soundtrack was exerting a vague, even pressure on her eardrums. The heat was perpetual, solid, like a roof above her, something pressing down. The sense of numbness in her legs, the prickling sun. Right then she could have been half awake, she was convinced she slept, part of something, dreaming the same perpetual dream. The pale cement around the pool, a faded yellow color, and a defined field with something that resembled bluish mildew; the largest pool was located up some steps, built into the upper plateau. It had windows in its cement walls, the water was darker there, and every time someone jumped off the diving board, which was between five and ten meters high, you could see through the windows as they broke the water’s surface. Others swam or stood upright, some simply floated, allowing themselves to be jostled by the water’s perpetual motion. The whole day, outside in the heat, she had the same feeling, of being asleep.
The knife wasn’t pointing directly at her, the hand holding it rested on his hip, next to his jacket pocket, ready to conceal the weapon if necessary. She was convinced the knife was enormous, and it was not more than two feet away from her daughter’s spine. Karin recognized this, she sat stiffly, as if on a cold surface, like she had sat and changed into her bathing suit on the shadowy steps earlier that day, his glance might have belonged to a gynecologist, a prison guard, someone with authority. And the terror she felt was old, maybe from her own childhood. That feeling of helplessness. Even if she had never felt so helpless before.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
What do you have in your purse? he asked.
I want whatever’s in your purse. Karin felt her daughter’s head shift, pressed it carefully back against her shoulder, and began a rocking motion with her upper body.
No, she thought. He has to understand. She was sitting here with a child.
One time last year she had woken up and noticed how silent it was, it was barely six o’clock, it was never so silent at that time. Hilde, her daughter, liked to come into the bedroom early, she lay there carrying on little conversations with herself. Karin had walked through the apartment to her daughter’s room, noticing as she entered the bitter, cloying smell of vomit, and had seen the soaked blanket and pillow. She had pulled the blanket off Hilde, had felt her daughter’s burning skin, had stripped off the girl’s pajamas. Hilde’s body, white, naked. The feverish, racing heart as Karin bent down to listen. Karin had shouted that they had to hurry.
He slammed the window shut above them. Hilde shifted her head but didn’t wake up. Karin sat motionless. The back of her daughter’s neck was damp, she sweated during sleep. Karin’s face was next to the girl’s hair, it still smelled. He repeated that he wanted whatever was in her purse, she shoved the object forward, when he grabbed it the knife came closer, it was pointed directly upright now, if she lost her grip on her child, if her daughter fell back even a few inches, it would pierce her neck. Karin clung tight. She couldn’t put the child beside her on the seat, Hilde would wake up and be frightened. A hot surge in her throat, she had to swallow. The nausea appeared so suddenly. When it vanished, she felt calmer.
He inspected her purse, did a thorough job of it, unzipped a pocket, some objects fell out, her address book, a comb, the tissue package, a small bag of gummy fruit she had brought for Hilde. He opened the pocketbook, found her credit cards, her money, she had money, just a little over five hundred kroner, she was relieved there was something to occupy him. She caught a glimpse of their passport pictures in the front pocket, herself, her daughter, both staring wide-eyed at the same point, the way in which the pictures had been taken, from head on, made it look like the subject was approaching the camera.
Your cell phone, he said.
She thought it was in her purse.
But it wasn’t, he held the purse open, he had inspected all the compartments. Her terror returned, just as quick and sharp, she realized that she had put her telephone in her jacket pocket, it was right beneath her sleeping daughter.
She needed to move. She wondered if it would wake up the girl and cause her to cry, thereby putting them in even greater danger.
They had driven the car to the hospital early in the morning, her husband maneuvering through the still empty streets, she had held her daughter in her arms the whole way, one time Hilde threw up on her shoulder. They stopped in front of the emergency room entrance and carried her inside, through the hallways, up to a counter, and then to an examination room where other people took over. She remembered things that were said, etc. They examined Hilde and put her in a bed. For a while Karin was together with her daughter, holding her hand, later she and her husband were sent to a waiting room.
They were each left to their chair and their thoughts about what might happen.
A whole night spent with that thought.
The man was not content. She had to get moving.
She slid her hand beneath Hilde, was able to unzip her jacket pocket while rocking her daughter and whispering something soothing. She felt the cell phone’s smooth surface and grabbed it.
Her daughter slept on.
He inspected the telephone. Closely, like a convincing repairman. The cell phone was expensive, but not entirely new, she wasn’t especially attached to it. Nothing but a tool. Still, there was something intimate about the way he held it in his lap. It was the SIM card he was after. At first she didn’t understand why. It seemed irrational, everything he had done so far had had an odd sort of logic she could follow. The knife was in his hand while he worked, she didn’t look right at it. It was a knife, there was nothing more she needed to know, she tried not to see it.
He fiddled with the small object. Removed the battery and SIM card. He had another card and tried to replace hers with his own.
She tried to breathe, it felt like she couldn’t quite breathe right, like she couldn’t quite exhale, not just due to her fear, but due to the weight, the child she held. Outside in the pool she had felt the weight as she shifted her feet, she was standing in the water to catch Hilde, who jumped off the edge. It was a rhythm they had: her daughter directly above her, the smile when she launched. Karin’s outstretched arms. The smooth, slightly chilled body. They could go on and on.
They had pulled into a station and he was more alert now. Sat back up, pulled the knife to where it wouldn’t be visible. The brakes squealed. The empty, underground station.
They came to a halt. Maybe half a minute. Someone could come running through the doors and catch sight of her, of him. The electronic voice: The doors are closing.
The doors closed. The train started again.
The child woke.
One time during the night at the hospital she had needed something to drink, suddenly she was so terribly thirsty. She was standing at the soda machine next to the entrance where they had first entered, when a woman was shown through the door, she had no visible injury but her face had this expression, or it was more of an impression, that Karin had never forgotten. The woman was sobbing so that you could not hear it, it was more like a hiccup, like she might have lost her breath, soundlessly she was led into another room, like being led out of this world, Karin had thought.
They had driven home again several days later, through the same streets, but midday this time. Hilde had sat in Karin’s lap, healthy again, talking about food and a new backpack.
It had all gone smoothly.
She was way too vulnerable.
On the train, Hilde was trying to sit up. Confused, bothered by the light. It’s OK, said Karin, you’re just a little tired.
She tried to coax the girl back into a resting position. Her daughter twisted away from the shoulder where she had been lying. There was no way Karin could stop her from seeing the man sitting across from them. Hilde turned away, rubbed her eyes. Trusting. They had stood at the window in the pool wall, looked beneath the water, she had lifted her daughter so that she could also see. It was the light inside, she suddenly remembered, that let them see everything so clearly. She had never imagined it could be so clear. They had stood and peered inside.
The knife was still partially hidden at his hip where he had concealed it when they had entered the station. Hilde wasn’t alarmed. She was thirsty.
You can’t have any water now, Karin said. Her terror was a thin thread in her voice. She had to let her daughter slide onto the seat, the girl was too restless, she did not want to be in Karin’s lap.
He didn’t like that, he held the knife erect again, closer to them both. Hilde repeated that she was thirsty.
The moment she had registered the knife, Karin had glanced at the emergency brake, the small handle beside the door on the opposite wall of the train, the red handle with the white engraved letters. Emergency brakes were always mounted, although the only ones who seem to use them were kids who pulled them for the fun of it. The emergency brake was useless now. How would the train driver reach them? But she kept her eye on it. It seemed logical.
One time she glanced out the window, the tunnel outside widened a bit, it looked like there were open areas in the corridors, and she thought it should be possible to see something, it might even be possible, but after they had passed she had no idea what she had seen, what she was seeing.
Do you have anything else? he asked.
She saw his eyes, registered the fact they were inspecting her, glancing toward the empty seats behind her, he wanted more, a watch, she thought, or a piece of jewelry, a ring. She had nothing, she never wore a ring. Karin shook her head. She said sorry, she regretted it, it felt like he had a right to ask her for something and that she had let him down. She had exposed herself to this possibility, to his anger. She had interpreted it as anger when he entered and drew the knife. But he wasn’t angry. His emotion no longer resembled anger. What was it then?
He was calm.
Guilt, didn’t he feel any guilt?
She felt guilty, she had taken the T-bane so late with her daughter, she had sat right here, she wasn’t invulnerable, who did she think she was. Other people experienced things like this, she thought. That woman’s face, her expression, the one who had entered the hospital that night. What was visible on her features: something that had happened.
Calm, you were supposed to remain calm. The bag of gummy fruit still lay on the edge of the seat, they had bought it at a kiosk in the pool area where they had spent several hours. The bag balanced there, on the hazy divide between earlier that day and this very moment, now, as she sat here. A cool, defined lunacy. The rattle of the train scooted the bag forward, when it fell the gummy fruit would land at their feet.
He tucked the shell of her mobile phone in his pocket. His face was closed, she saw him better now. He was young, the light, streaked hair, the long fingers. She ought to remember how he looked, but why would she ever want to do that. She just wanted to forget him.
He shifted, scooted sideways to the other end of the seat, he was no longer directly across from her, he still held the knife, but it was not pointed toward her. Did he smile at her daughter, see that she was becoming frightened. Perhaps there was indeed a kind of admission on his face that a child was present, but no, his face remained closed, concentrated. Hilde seemed confused, she sought his face for acknowledgment, Karin tried to see with her eyes. She saw what Hilde saw.
She thought: Where’s he from, who is he.
They had almost reached a new station and Karin understood he was preparing to do something, he had finished his business, Hilde was sitting next to her, the girl’s legs stuck out over the seat edge, the tips of her white jogging shoes pointed toward each other, the metro was still underground. Then Hilde began scooting off the seat. Karin realized, knew, that the knife was level with Hilde’s chest, her small chest, her jacket that said Hello Kitty. The cunning logo depicted there, her narrow arms, the knife Karin saw so clearly now. It was an atypical, serrated knife, not especially large, smaller than a kitchen knife, but with a wider blade, meant to pierce deep, cause damage.
She grabbed her daughter to pull her back onto the seat, but the man grabbed Hilde’s arm and stood. Karin didn’t dare to retain her hold, terrified of what resistance might mean. Her daughter slipped from her arms, just like earlier that day, when she had stood on the edge of the pool, trying to grab her daughter, but losing her grip so Hilde continued down. For a moment Hilde was underwater. Visible there, her dark hair, the top of her skull.
She knew he was not listening, realized that was not how these things worked, but still he let go. By chance, or because he had never meant to hurt them anyway and because other passengers were waiting when they pulled into the station. The door opened with a conspicuous thud––later, when she began taking the T-bane again, she would always remember it, that thud always caused her to wince––he let go of Hilde, who was crying now, he headed onto the platform toward the stairs. Vanished.
The other passengers came in, sat down. The train began to move. She glanced out and they were still in the tunnel, she could see her reflection. Those windows into the clear water, where she could see inside the pool. What she saw through these windows now could be a darker, deeper water, a pond or a lake. Just darkness, no movement, no variation, a nothing through which they moved. Or maybe they had stopped. The feeling of sleeping that she had while standing outside in the pool, the glittering light, the sedateness, the whole still-standing day, in contrast to now––is this how it feels, waking up, she thought, is this how it is.
© Merethe Lindstrøm. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
At first glance, this month's issue may seem not merely at odds with our usual approach, but completely contrary to it. Why is a magazine specializing in international literature translated into English publishing an issue of writing from the US? In fact, this issue is not a departure but a continuation: in demonstrating the vital importance of reading and learning about the world outside our borders, it confirms the renewed urgency of our efforts in the face of disturbing political and social trends.
Public discourse in the US has been marked in recent months by growing anti-immigration sentiment and rising nativism, reflected in government policies aimed at curbing entry and increasing deportation. In response, we’ve compiled this issue to demonstrate the wealth and variety of literature produced by international writers living in the US. The writers presented here all came to the US from other countries and continue to write, and publish, in their original languages as well as in English translation. Their work contributes to the literatures of the lands and languages that defined them before they immigrated; but it also expands both our sense of literary creativity and our understanding of life within, and without, the boundaries of the US.
The eleven contributors hail from as many countries. The length of their residency in the US ranges from months to over twenty years, and their biographies vary widely as well. Some fled oppression and persecution, and several have been or still are hosted by the International Cities of Refuge Network and City of Asylum programs. Others came to the US for the reasons so many have over the years: to find employment, religious freedom, a safer environment, a better life. Several teach in US universities, and one spent ten years as a cabdriver, but all have continued to work as writers. We're pleased to present the results of that labor here.
Peruvian journalist Marco Avilés opens his evocatively titled “I Am Not Your Cholo” with a scene from his visit to a high school in Maine, where he has been invited to talk about his experience as an immigrant. He disarms the (possibly anti-immigration) students with the tale of an American couple who moved to Peru and started a restaurant, then adds that many other Americans have followed: the largest number of immigrants to Peru are from the US. His audience’s surprise—"Wasn’t it Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future?”—provides a starting point for a searing interrogation of skin color and privilege, both in the US and Peru, and how that combination both drives and impedes the essentially human impulse of migration.
Ezzedine C. Fishere’s “Bahaa and Shareef Escape to New York” illustrates the violent homophobia of his native Egypt. Head over heels in love and tired of living a lie, Shareef wants to come out. His lover, Bahaa, balks, reminding him that coming out—to “their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages”—would be nothing less than suicidal. In an impulsive move, Shareef announces their relationship on Facebook. When his sister calls to alert him that someone has hacked his account and posted “disgraceful” things, he proudly tells her it’s no hack, then makes the post public, with immediate and devastating results. It’s a wrenching look at the dangers of being openly gay in Egypt and a cautionary tale about the destructive power of social media.
Osama Alomar’s concise fictions are renowned for their brevity and wit. His sly moral fables and political allegories, often featuring speaking animals or inanimate objects come to life, swing from anger to wry detachment, bitterness to irony. Coded to elude censors, they reflect both the repression of free speech and the ingenious circumvention thereof. Alomar left Syria for Chicago, where he drove a cab, sometimes with his translator riding shotgun as they worked on his texts between fares. He’s now in Pittsburgh as a resident at the City of Asylum.
Hiromi Itō emerged as a leading Japanese poet in the 1980s and relocated to California in the early 1990s (“in the year the Persian Gulf War started”). Her poem “Roadkill” recalls her first confused days in the US, struggling with language and idioms. Itō’s perplexity at the term “roadkill” (“But why does roadkill end with kill / And not killed? / It has been killed, it isn’t doing the killing”) leads to a catalog of the corpses she sees on the roads and makes a powerful connection with the casualties of the war.
Chinese poet Zhang Xinxin’s life has been shaped, and derailed, by politics, from the Cultural Revolution that interrupted her education in childhood to the events of Tiananmen Square, which stranded her in the US. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband. Her wry “After the Inferno” recounts how, strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance following a serious car crash, she was inexplicably compelled to discuss comparative versions of hell and the afterlife with her bemused husband. She finds his Western system wanting—“Your hell has a design flaw”—and details why the Eastern belief in reincarnation is far superior. (Happily, this position was not immediately put to the test.) The conversation is an amusing snapshot of an incongruous moment, but also a reminder of the multiple lives she’s already led, and the cultural differences she navigates daily.
In 2013 the poet, activist, and blogger Tuhin Das was targeted by fundamentalist militant groups in Bangladesh. When police responded by combing his writings for anti-Islamist statements to use against him, he went into hiding, then fled his country in 2016. His defiant poem “The Assassin” testifies to the persecution and terror of his previous life and suggests the relief his current safe harbor provides.
Burmese writer and activist Khet Mar also fled her country, in her case after years of persecution, arrests, torture, and imprisonment. She now works as a journalist for the Radio Free Asia Burmese Service. In “The Sound of Snow,” she recalls a night in her home in Maryland. Awakened by trees banging against her window in a powerful late-winter blizzard, she flashes back to memories of police brutalizing peaceful student protestors in Myanmar. Howling winds turn into screams of pain; as the storm blankets the landscape in white, bloody images turn her vision red. “All we wanted,” she reflects, “was to put an end to the cycle of violence and misery.” The blizzard will eventually taper off, but will the repression in Myanmar follow suit?
Most artistic expression is strictly policed in Iran. The novelist Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar defies these restrictions, addressing inflammatory topics including women’s rights, revolution, the war, political and social crises, sex discrimination, and sexual violence. His “A Slice of Darkness,” in which the torture and ominously detailed interrogation of a writer leads to a horrifying result, suggests why his work is banned in his native country.
On a lighter note, Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera riffs on Julio Cortazar’s “Casa Tomada.” It’s not the first such homage (or even the first to appear in our pages), but Herrera adds a dog and children to the mix, throws in a surprising new character, and stirs in his own mordant take on the events. Herrera’s usual territory is the Mexico ravaged by drug wars and government corruption; here his characters battle a different but equally insuperable opponent.
Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou offers a different sort of homage to his fellow Francophone African great, the late Mongo Beti. In a dusty park in Beti’s native Cameroon, a visiting writer is accosted by a voluble street person. The crazed man is known for reading aloud from, fittingly, Beti’s Story of the Madman, but soon turns from the text to hector the narrator; his unhinged tirade strikes a surprising nerve. Mabanckou left Congo for France in his early twenties and has spent the past fifteen years teaching literature in universities in the US. He is currently a professor in the department of French at UCLA.
Journalist and novelist Ibtisam Azem grew up in the Palestinian Territories and now lives in New York, where she is a correspondent for the Arabic daily al-Araby al-Jadeed and co-editor at Jadaliyya. In an excerpt from her second novel, The Book of Disappearance, a man remembers his grandmother and his childhood in the divided city of Jaffa. Family stories entwine with history as the narrator laments: “We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin.”
These writers, and others like them, open channels of communication and dialogue to places that politics may marginalize or close off. Literature transcends geographical and political borders; thanks to translation, it can overcome language barriers as well. These writers have crossed all these borders, demonstrating the power of translated work to enlarge our worldviews and enrich our sense of literature, and humanity.
© 2017 Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A woman whose world suddenly expands. A journey toward the island that takes a tragic turn. A knife pulled on a train. Each of the stories chosen for this feature presents us with characters in the midst of what are to them life-altering situations. Written by Norwegian authors recognized as masters of the craft, each story also captures, in different ways, but with equal precision, life’s essential experiences. That is to say, though it is important to emphasize that each situation is particular to the individual characters’ experience, not to mention their cultural context, what emerges is a sense of general human struggle, as the individual or group confronts, among other things: the loosening of familiar boundaries; how fateful our reliance upon chance can be; the way we struggle to make sense of events; the various ways in which we slip through or struggle on or simply hope to survive the day.
Recently, I asked each writer, Gunnhild Øyehaug, Laila Stien, and Merethe Lindstrøm, to reflect upon the art of the short story, upon their own particular style, and upon what inspired them to write the story at hand. The authors’ reflections are woven into a general introduction to the stories themselves and accompanied by a reflection on each story’s translation.
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug appears in Øyehaug’s latest collection, Draumeskrivar (Dreamwriter, 2016). It is a story about the way in which familiar boundaries, both inside and outside of ourselves, expand and contract. The story is typical of Øyehaug’s style, which the author describes as a “mix of both poetry and comedy, tragedy and reflection, simplicity and analysis,” as a woman whose name we never learn reflects on a series of surprising and potentially terrifying life experiences. Although the story is truly short, it provides an intense glimpse into the narrator’s life, giving us a clear sense of who is speaking. In this way, the protagonist is also typical of Øyehaug’s narrator figures. As the author remarks, in direct contrast to the stated wisdom of Gustave Flaubert, who famously maintained that “an author must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere,” Øyehaug’s narrators have “forgotten to think about the ‘visible nowhere’ part.” Instead, they remain visible and accessible throughout the story so “no one has to wonder what they are doing.” The narrator is a tangible presence, someone who constructs the narrative from the stuff of their experience, focusing rather upon what happened than why it happened. This strategy allows for surprising plot twists, events well outside the bounds of everyday experience, that seem at home within the story’s body while still making room for interiority.
Even when confronted with the unexpected, there is a sense that the incredible events before us have indeed taken place, until, before we know it, our own understanding of what is possible, both within the story’s framework and outside it expands to accommodate the unfathomable. It is an idea the narrator anticipates in a humorous way in her discussion of birth, and the unsettling, we might say aromatic, experience of a physicality that is both miraculous and entirely natural.
The short story, of course, is its own particular art form and every author brings his or her own innovations to the table. As the Norwegian writer Tor Ulven, best known for his poetry and short prose, once described the genre: “Short prose gives me the possibility to write concentrated texts from three lines to three pages. It has a compression that resembles poetry, but also a flexibility and an openness that resembles history.” Much like a handwork, a sculpture maybe, that takes shape according to the tension, the compression of whatever is being presented––a movement, plot; a slice; an overview, life––in the hands of the working artist. For Øyehaug, the short story allows her to “swoop in and swoop out again.” It is the ability to depict a whole life through one or two situations. As Øyehaug reflects: “I like how I’m moulded into a thought or a reflection or a feeling just long enough for me to be transformed.” Like her narrators, Øyehaug also betrays herself, her presence, when she adds that, in creating these stories.
For Øyehaug, the inspiration to write this particular story came when she thought she saw a person slide through the side of a moving bus. It was this illusion that prompted her “to tell a story about possible and not-possible life-expanding situations.”
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien appears in the author’s first short story collection, Nyveien (The New Road, 1979). In the story, we encounter a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. Within the story itself, place names, either in Norwegian or Sami, are notably absent: It is simply the journey toward the island that this particular group of Sami reindeer herders is undertaking, a journey the group makes every spring and one, too, that is instinctual to the reindeer. Everyone in the group, including the children, know their tasks: jobs they have performed over years or a lifetime. This sense of habit, of pursuing a familiar course, is conveyed in the story’s opening sentence: “Soon the journey north will be complete . . . ” As the story unfolds, however, we find that much of the group’s success depends upon chance. Although this year the herders are optimistic about their chances, they also know tragedy can strike for many reasons: a shifting current, a lack of resources, the moment cultures (the minority Sami and the dominant Norwegian) collide.
The short story, in addition to being its own particular art form, can also prove an artistic calling. For Stien, writing short stories turned out to be just that. At the time she was composing the stories that would appear in Nyveien, Stien believed that she wrote short stories “because I had limited time at my disposal for each writing session, I had two small children.” However, as the children grew up, Stien discovered she was a short story writer by nature: “I discovered that, for my part, it was short stories no matter how long a stretch of time I might have to sit in peace and write.” In fact, she compares her experience to that of Anton Chekhov, who early on discovered “that his temperament or disposition wasn’t suited to long lines, that is, to the novel.” It was, according to Stien, a recognition in herself of a need to “‘retune the instrument,’ that is, to give it a new sound, another voice, to try to shape it. The idea of remaining in the same world, both with respect to characters and their voices, seems to me intolerable.” The challenge, according to Stien, then becomes to express what is essential in a compressed arena where so much is left unsaid and the story’s atmosphere often bears much of the content. And when it comes to creating particular atmospheres, Stien is a recognized master. As the Norwegian writer Bjarte Breiteig notes, Stien’s style is “based on everyday Norwegian speech patterns. Incomplete sentences, hesitations, clumsiness, and clichés bring warmth and life into Stien’s stories [. . .]––everything in an environment full of snow, darkness, and great distances.” Stien’s stories achieve both familiarity and distance, an idea we also find in “Journey toward the Island,” as the herders continue their familiar journey, where a dark fate––itself tragically not unfamiliar––awaits them.
The events of the story, it turns out, stem directly from the author’s own experience. Stien, who was preparing to study Sami at the University of Oslo, made this same journey from Finnmarksvidda to Magerøya with a group of Sami reindeer herders in 1970. As she remarks: “Something happened at the end of the migration and it was something that shouldn’t occur. That’s what I convey in my short story, but I take it a little farther than what took place when I was present. I describe what almost happened, what could have happened, what was on the verge of happening . . . ”
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm is taken from the author’s short story collection Gjestene (Guests, 2007). The story, like the others in this feature, dwells upon the unexpected, this time from the vantage point of a terrifying robbery: a knife pulled on a woman and her young daughter when riding the subway at night. In the context of this crisis situation, the story provides a picture of a woman trying to make sense of her day’s events, also in light of her previous experience. As Lindstrøm explains: “I thought of how different parts of one day might reflect each other, some of it peaceful, some dramatic, but how we integrate everything when we look back, how thoughts form, weaving everything together, as we are trying to find some meaning and context.”
“Under” is written in Lindstrøm’s typically understated prose, which avoids even quotation marks, giving an interiority to the exchange of words and, in this case, a trapped sense to the atmosphere. It is a controlled narration, rather like controlled breathing, once again that sense of compression, of being frozen in place before a terrifying reality, even as the woman’s thoughts, in the midst of her crisis situation, wander––in search of sense, among other things. As such, she moves among similarities and dichotomies: light and dark; open and closed; windows that permit sight and those that do not; another terrifying situation and its aftermath.
“Under” is the short story in the hands of a practiced artist, where we again see displayed the balancing act between compression and openness, the arena where every word counts. As Lindstrøm remarks of this balancing act: “The form is challenging because it wants less, which seems like a paradox as you write. You become so aware, you change just one word, a phrase, and you have changed it all, and the story might say something very different from what you intended.” Interestingly enough, we see these same deliberations in the protagonist’s mind as she ponders how a single movement might alter everything, how shifting in her seat beneath her sleeping daughter, for example, will affect the knife-wielding man across from them. The result, in this moment and in Lindstrøm’s stories in general, is an atmosphere the author describes as “immediate and acute.”
The inspiration to write “Under,” we find, also emerged from a real-life crisis situation. As Lindstrøm explained: “At fifteen my son was threatened with a knife, together with his friend he was stopped outside the Nationaltheateret station and they were held there for quite some time, people walking by, not seeing or wanting to see.”
And so we have it: an expansion, a journey, a knife. The writers here offer the hallmark feature of every well-written short story: a punch to the existential gut.
© 2017 Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Marco Avilés grapples with questions of difference and discrimination for immigrants in Peru and the US in this essay from his book No soy tu cholo, published in Peru by Debate, an imprint of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. An earlier version appeared originally in Ojo Publico.
An American couple relocated to Lima and opened a hamburger joint in one of the city’s culinary hotspots: the formidable Calle Dante, in Surquillo, a neighborhood full of popular chicharronerías and right by the eighth block of Avenida Angamos, where the samurai Toshi Matsufuji runs one of the best ceviche places this side of the universe. The competition is stiff, but Justin and Brandy Wiley seem pretty optimistic. Their restaurant is called PapiCarne, and they write in English on their social media profiles. What are two gringos doing serving up hamburgers in the Mecca of Latin American cuisine? One Sunday morning, Brandy picked up the newspaper at breakfast and Oh my God, its food critic had devoted a review to them.
I told this story one Friday in early spring, at a high school in a well-heeled town in Maine, about four thousand miles from my country. The Spanish teacher had invited me to one of his classes to share my experience as a Latino immigrant in the times of Trump. Many students, he warned me, sympathized with the President’s anti-immigration policies. In other words, I, a brown-skinned Latino, was going to play at being special visitor to a room of school kids who probably didn’t even think I should be there.
There were five students in the classroom: two girls, and three boys; all white, and with hair that spanned a spectrum from blond to chestnut. They looked at me with typical teenage suspicion, as if saying “You want my attention, you’re gonna have to work for it.” The PapiCarne story broke the ice.
“Two gringos opening up a restaurant in Lima,” I said, “is as ballsy as a Peruvian telling the folks at NASA how to reach the Moon.”
It wasn’t the best metaphor, but we all had a little laugh.
“Machu Picchu is Peru’s Disney World,” I went on, showing them a photograph of a young couple kissing in front of an Inca wall. The image was to drive home my point that four million tourists travel to Peru each year. According to Peru’s National Migration Office, a quarter of them come from the US, and many of them decide to stay there and put down roots in the land of the cholos. Which is exactly what happened in the case of Justin and Brandy, founders of PapiCarne, who spent their honeymoon in Lima and fell in love with the place.
“And do you know how many of your compatriots have ended up living in my country in the last few years?” I asked the class.
Silence. The kids listened on, nonplussed. A whole bunch of Americans go to Peru and stay there to live? Wait a second. Wasn’t it the Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future? You bet. Migration is human. One in every ten foreigners living in Peru is gringo –according to the International Organization for Migration–, and the mere mention of these statistics is sacrilege. The United States is the country that sends the most immigrants to Peru; more than Spain, Chile, and Argentina.
“And how hard is it for someone to become a resident in your country?” another teacher auditing the class asked.
“There’s paperwork to do, just like here,” I told her, and then I turned to the students. “But do you know what the big difference is?”
“First, if you guys ever decide to go to Machu Picchu, you won’t need to get a visa. Whereas if a Peruvian wants to visit Disneyland, he or she will need one. And, judging by what I’ve seen each time I’ve had to go through this process, there’s a better chance you’ll be denied a visa than granted one.”
Second difference. If one day those kids decided to move to Peru, no Peruvian would label them immigrants. They’d call them gringos, just like they call Europeans gringos. Gringos, but never immigrants.
An immigrant is anyone who moves to live in a country that isn’t theirs, the dictionary states. But, in practice, the word “immigrant” is only ever used in one sense: to describe those who move from the south to the north. That is, to label the Latinos, the Africans, the Asians, and all those who come to live and work in the so-called developed countries. Latinos would never use that word, unless we’re referring to ourselves in exile.
“In Peru we simply don’t have political rhetoric against Caucasians like you,” I told them, “nor do we have a crazy president tweeting that he’s going to deport all the gringos.”
For us, the world is a huge house full of rooms with locks on the doors. Being born white in a “developed” and wealthy country affords you the privilege to move with freedom in that labyrinth where others live hemmed in, with no way of leaving their countries. Doors open to you when you’re American. You don’t need as many visas as a Latino does and you can move anywhere you like without carrying the stigma of being an immigrant.
So what did the food critic make of the hamburgers at PapiCarne, that American joint in the belly of Lima?
Brandy Wiley opened the paper that morning and read a pretty friendly review: “A new fried-food joint with East Asian influences has just opened up and deserves at least a couple of visits,” Javier Masías had written in his column. “Surprise,” Brandy wrote on her Facebook wall, before adding on the business’s fanpage: “Thank you for a wonderful 3 weeks, Lima! We are proud to bring our food to such a wonderful and supportive city.” She wrote it in English, of course, and I guess that plenty of us are in agreement about one thing: the people of Lima are incredibly welcoming to immigrants. With foreign immigrants, I mean. With those dark-skinned immigrants who come from the faraway Peruvian Andes and jungles, like me, the picture isn’t quite as pretty.
Next I shared the jacket for my book De dónde venimos los cholos (Where we cholos come from) with the students. How do you explain to a group of teenage gringos what a cholo is? Trump has made it easy for me. A cholo in Peru, I told them, is like a Latino in the US: someone with dark skin who has come from far away, from the south, from the mountains.
The students wrote down questions on little slips of paper and now it was my turn to face the firing squad.
“Why don’t you move some place where there are more Latinos?” one of the kids had asked.
“My wife is from Maine,” I responded. “I guess if she were from another country, from Chile, say, I’d have probably moved there.”
Would things have been different somewhere else? From my own experience, in any Western country, be it the US or Peru, things are pretty much the same for people with dark skin. If you’re a cholo in Lima, there’s a good chance they won’t let you into this cinema or that nightclub and that some woman will shout filthy Indian, mountain goat, lowlife at you. It’s happened to me.
I waited for an awkward comment, but none came. The next question was about my favorite dish. When I finished telling them about ceviche, the teacher handed around some popcorn, apple juice, and a plate of donuts. Then, bathed in the friendly vibes that food never fails to generate, we said good-bye. Only one of the five students came up to shake my hand. He was tall, golden-haired, and sort of mild-mannered. In his eyes I saw something like understanding. Perhaps he’d become more aware of his privilege.
One winter’s afternoon, my wife and I went to the movie theater to see I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an essay by the black writer James Baldwin. The movie contains images depicting what it’s like to be a black person in the US. If you are black and drive a car in this country, you have a higher chance of the police stopping you and, oops, shooting you dead. You also have a lower chance of finishing school, going to college, or getting a good job. The movie shifts back and forth in time, covering the years of slavery up to Obama’s inaugural term as the first black president. It’s powerful stuff, full of footage of dead black leaders, black men and women being kicked into submission, black men and women humiliated by white people. Halfway through the movie, the most interesting part was no longer on the screen, but was happening in the seats around us. Many of the people in the theatre were crying. It was hard not to shed a tear on seeing photographs of Dorothy Counts, one of the first black teenagers to enroll at a white school in North Carolina.
Photo credits: Don Sturkey. Courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.
When the lights went up, dozens of people were still wiping away their tears. In the theater, there were only two black people. They weren’t crying.
My high school chewed up cholos and black kids and spat them out. The final image of Dorothy Counts reminds me of the bullying of a black classmate of mine nicknamed Bemba, which means Big Lips. One look at him and you just knew he wasn’t doing so good. The insults, the blows, the spitting in his face had begun to take a serious toll on him. You only had to go up to him and look him in the eyes, you didn’t even need to insult or hit him, and he would tremble with fear. I remember his nickname. His mouth. His puny body. But I can’t remember his name.
Life wasn’t any simpler for the cholos. Cochachi was like a lost soul. He walked around skirting walls, hiding his cholo face. Back then, I should have made a stand and shown some solidarity with Bemba and Cochachi. I should have taken those blows with them, at their side. I, too, am a cholo. And yet, I chose the quickest route to an easy life. I hid. I never told anyone where I was born, or that my parents and grandparents spoke Quechua. I never invited any of my buddies over because I was terrified they’d work out my origins from my house. Worse still, they might discover just how poor I was. Perhaps even poorer than poor Bemba. More cholo than Cochachi the cholo. These were my ghosts.
My father was old-school and wanted me to study to be a doctor or lawyer. When you’re poor, the degree you choose isn’t always an obvious expression of your talent or what you want to be in the future. Your degree is your ticket out of poverty. But I didn’t pay him any mind. I applied to San Marcos to study journalism. San Marcos is the old public university in Lima where the poor can get a free education without agonizing about not having any money. It is also perfectly representative of the extreme realities of my country. My sister Zoila had graduated a few years before and my head was full of her adventures. She and her friends had edited newspapers, organized poetry readings, fed the miners who came to Lima to protest and who’d set up their tents to sleep in San Marcos because that’s what San Marcos was: a great big open house.
I was poor, but not as poor as a lot of my college friends. G. came from a jungle town in the middle of nowhere and lived at home with a few family members. One morning he showed me the soles of his shoes, riddled with holes. The next day I brought him a pair that I didn’t use anymore. He returned the favor by introducing me to Henry Miller, Gabriel Celaya, Rainer Maria Rilke. I immediately got the reading bug and spent all my free time between the library and the bars around the university, listening to poets.
When I finished my first year, my father insisted that I apply to a private university and switch to a law degree. He was going to do whatever it took to pay the fees. I was his youngest child, his only son, and he, a doting macho. One morning he accompanied me to register for the entrance exam to the Católica, that prestigious, "liberal" private university, where the real paupers studied thanks to scholarships. We traveled by bus for an hour and a half on the Z line, from San Juan de Lurigancho, the working-class cholo "barriada" where we lived, and then walked the last stretch along Avenida Universitaria. It was one of the few times we really spoke cholo to cholo. How were we going to pay the fees? He was almost seventy, had retired some time earlier and was still running a local store, where I also worked in my free time. I didn’t want to be one more burden to him. Maybe I could get another job? To him, this proposal sounded disrespectful. Not a chance.
The Católica looked so perfect from the street: the pristine redbrick walls, the freshly cut lawns, students in summery outfits driving in and out in their cars. The sight of that campus with its flock of privileged students conveyed a reality far from our own. It was intimidating. I took a deep breath and told my father that this university wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be a lawyer either. “Dad,” I said, “you just have to trust me.” He didn’t insist. We shook hands, as if sealing a deal, and said good-bye there on the street. I walked to San Marcos, read in the library for a while, and that evening went looking for my friends to celebrate.
In San Marcos I could be poor and cholo and I didn’t have the pressure of hiding or explaining myself because most people’s stories were just like mine. I felt at home.
During my first few months as a reporter for El Comercio, Peru's largest daily, I had a colleague who would sleep at the paper on the weekends. He’d arrive at night, pull a pillow and a blanket from his backpack, and curl up under his desk. We were both interns and had to work like dogs to ensure the editors would extend our trial period. I was quick. He was a martyr.
A rumor was going around that our paper only hired graduates from private universities, in particular those in Lima and Piura. The fact that the pair of us were there only partially disproved this myth, because most of the journalists and editors from the previous generation came from private universities. At one point the myth must have been reality. It was 2000. Dictator Alberto Fujimori was on the run. His partner Vladimir Montesinos was behind bars. The times were changing.
The demography at El Comercio was interesting: I’d never seen so many fair-looking people in one place. It wasn’t just their skin; their eyes, their hair, and even the surnames of many of my colleagues sounded different. In San Marcos, my fellow students had surnames like Huamán, Huamaní, Ticona, Ascona, Choque, Chate, Atoche, Calixto, Chahuayo. At El Comercio: Pinilla, Miró Quesada, Del Solar, Cisneros, García Miró, Abramovich, Salem, Larrabure, Swayne. The moment I’d joined the paper, I’d crossed the border from one country into another. Both were called Peru, but they had nothing to do with one another. To which did I belong?
I’ve never been too bothered about clothes, but in those first months as a reporter I wanted to burn my entire wardrobe. I looked at my clumpy shoes, my faded pants, and I hated them because they were my poor clothes, my San Marcos clothes, my cholo clothes. I could no longer hide as I had done in school. I studied my colleagues of the same age: how they dressed, the brands they chose, the cargo pants, the North Face jackets. And then I’d go to those stores, but I never bought anything because it seemed ludicrous to pay so much for so little. With my first intern’s paycheck, I bought myself eleven volumes of Basadre’s La Historia de la República in a second-hand bookstore.
The next day I was back in the office loathing my shoes, my wire-frame glasses, my T-shirts with their stretched collars. I never told anyone (except my wife), when I finally decided to write my story, but I felt so poor, so cholo, so worthless. The only privilege I had (and back then I didn’t even really realize it) was my education. Not the journalist’s degree I’d earned, but the far greater number of books I’d read compared to my colleagues. I noticed it when we chatted, when I read their articles, and when they commented on mine.
I guess if I had been more aware of that advantage I would have been able to make more of it. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. One day I quit the newspaper. Yet again, I felt like I was out of place. I was tired of having to prove, every day, that despite coming from San Marcos, despite being cholo, despite being poor, I was worthy of that job.
It’s strange to grow up thinking that some things aren’t meant for you, that they’re not suitable or that you don’t deserve them. Stranger still to realize that you’ve spent your whole life telling yourself the same thing: this private university isn’t meant for you, that overseas master’s isn’t meant for you, this job isn’t meant for you, that girl isn’t meant for you. The voice never lets up. It’s there, even now that you live in the United States, reminding you that, for many, your skin and your origin are your disadvantage.
Is it so hard to see the privilege when you’re the privileged one? Is it so hard to see that if you’re born with white skin, with a “good surname” and with money, things will be easier for you than for the rest? For starters, if you enjoy those privileges, you don’t have that constant voice in your head telling you: You’re cholo, you won’t get the job because you’re cholo, you can’t come into the club because you’re cholo, they’re working you harder than the rest because you’re cholo.
Three radio hosts on Radio Programas del Perú had a call-in with a San Marcos student one late summer morning in Lima. The kid was the representative for a group of students who had taken over the university to protest against the fees imposed by the new dean. The dean and the students hadn’t managed to resolve their differences by ordinary means, in faculty meetings, and now the problem had turned into a real public headache. The student’s surname was Huamán, and that’s not an insignificant detail—it gave away his indigenous heritage. Those of the radio hosts—Del Río, Mariátegui, and Carvallo—likewise gave them away as white. Two starkly different worlds were coming together to talk. And they just couldn’t do it. The interview wasn’t an interview; it was a lynching:
—And what’s the proposed increase in fees for these people you’re talking about? Del Río, the presenter, asks.
The student explains that it’s between 60 and 200 soles, around 20–60 US dollars.
—Sixty soles per semester, Del Río repeats.
—In other words we’re talking about 10 soles a month, Mariátegui chips in.
—10 soles a month, Del Río reiterates. That’s what—10 cents a day? How much are we talking?
The student doesn’t respond.
—You really mean to say that we’re here discussing this because you don’t want to pay 20, 30 cents a day? Seriously?
The presenters speak in the tone you might use to chide a child. One of them even laughs at the student.
I’m not sure which part of this mistreatment machine enrages me more. Perhaps the purely hypothetical possibility that, in another time, that nervous and aggrieved student could have been me or a friend or one of my sisters. I don’t know how many times, while studying at San Marcos, I went out protesting for the same reasons that kid had. Back then, like now, the journalists and authorities branded us terrorists. Never have they said the same of students from the private universities, and nor will they ever. The label only works one way, in the same way that the label of immigrant used by gringos against Latinos only works one way; that is, to mark out the poor, the cholos, the darkies.
The hashtag “#I Attend San Marcos and I'm No Terrorist” went viral on social media over the days following the interview. Many students and former students from San Marcos shared it as a reaction against the stigma laid upon us by those who have the “privilege” to not have studied there. If you study in the Católica or in the Universidad de Lima, for instance, you will never have to prove that you weren’t responsible for a crime that, in Peru, can land you a life sentence.
Social scientists could dissect that interview in a lab, analyze its every detail. And yet, as in any other tale of abuse, it doesn’t matter so much what the aggressors actually said. What matters is who they are.
Three radio journalists mistreating an interviewee.
Three full-grown people mistreating a kid.
Three privileged white people mistreating a cholo.
I saw similar scenes of bullying at my high school. Many people who enjoy privileges don’t realize just how privileged they are. On top of struggling with all their “disadvantages,” cholos of all colors and nationalities also have to assume the job of explaining their privilege; that is, how the attributes bestowed on them by the grace of the Holy Spirit work in their favor: for having been born where they were born and for growing up in the family they grew up in. If we don’t explain this, if we don’t complain to the privileged classes, they will go on imposing their points of view and their ways. They’ll eat us alive, just like they ripped that student apart. This is why I took the time to go to that school in Maine and talk with the students. That’s why I’m sharing my story here.
Three white, privileged people sitting around a table in a radio studio do not guarantee a plurality of voices or respect for anyone who doesn’t share those privileges. In countries that are as wildly different from one another as Peru and the US, democracy still doesn’t exist in either: we know the rules, their promise of a just and tolerant world, but we’re still a long way from that utopia. This is why we, as the least privileged in society, have to keep up the daily fight, to enter those spaces we still don’t occupy, where our voice isn’t heard as clearly, where our skin isn’t looked upon with the same respect.
We cholos, Latinos, and immigrants have come a long way and carry a complex history with us. The story of where we come from isn’t our disadvantage, as we’re told, and as we tell ourselves. On the contrary, it is our strength.
This essay originally appeared in Ojo Público and comes from No Soy Tu Cholo (Debate) © 2017 Marco Avilés. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
Two men in a devout Muslim community face drastic consequences when they publicize their relationship in this excerpt from a novel by Egyptian writer Ezzedine Fishere.
Shareef can’t believe how much he loves Bahaa and how little he cares about the consequences. This love was maybe his last chance to get a good grip on his emotional security and self-confidence. But to do that, Shareef knew he had to do something else—he had to come out of the closet. The problem was that Bahaa wanted to keep their relationship secret, something that Shareef grumbled about constantly. And, over time, Shareef’s grumblings turned into rejection, then rebellion and, finally, crisis.
The crisis started the day after Mother’s Day, when the family celebrated Shareef’s mother’s sixtieth birthday. She tells Shareef that she’s got a bride for him. He’ll propose to her and they’ll get married after he graduates, she says. Shareef tells Bahaa he can’t keep living in the closet and he needs them to come out once and for all. Bahaa looks at him for a long time—he knows Shareef’s serious since he constantly brings it up—but this time, from his tone of voice and the look on his face, he senses something’s different. Bahaa objects and tries to make Shareef understand that it’ll be suicide and that it’s not just about him but about Bahaa too, their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages.
But Shareef’s determined. And Bahaa keeps objecting. He tells Shareef he’s looking at the situation through his own eyes, not from the perspective of his lover. Bahaa takes Shareef by the shoulders and, laughing, says he has to stop playing leading man and try to see things from someone else’s point of view. But Shareef’s not listening. He defends himself and his idea passionately, not leaving any room for argument. Bahaa understands his choices: either give in to Shareef and head off on this potentially dangerous adventure or back out calmly then and there. That’ll be painful but he’ll live. And Shareef will eventually understand why he couldn’t go along with it.
There’s a third option they talk about a bunch of times: leaving Egypt and settling down somewhere else, probably New York. Bahaa thinks it’s crazy when Shareef brings it up for the first time. How are we going to get there? It’s not that easy. How will we even get a visa? And work? Where would they get the money? What’ll we do in New York where we don’t know anyone? At the time, Shareef gave only vague responses: he’s got some friends who’ll help them; he has some money; a new life, freedom; and just think about it, New York! Shareef brings up the idea from time to time but he drops it as soon as Bahaa protests.
They don’t agree. They keep talking about it for eight days, face to face and on Whatsapp. Bahaa knows it might be the end of their life in Egypt, but he also understands that refusing would be the end of his life with Shareef.
And he doesn’t want to lose Shareef. Maybe because it’s the only relationship he’s ever had. Maybe because it brought him the stability he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Maybe because Shareef, despite his self-centeredness, makes him happy. Maybe because with Shareef, he found some measure of happiness in the middle of his otherwise difficult life.
At the end of the eighth day, Bahaa tells him he’s not convinced but he won’t give him up. He’ll go along with it but only if they get ready to leave right now. They’ve got to have an emergency plan in case the situation explodes in their face. And that was that.
The catastrophe spread so quickly I don’t think they could’ve grasped the repercussions at that moment. They decide to come out first to their inner circle. Shareef posts two lines on Facebook, only for close friends. He writes that all love is legitimate and that he and Bahaa are lovers and that the freedom to choose is the right of every individual, even if the majority disagrees with this choice.
He and Bahaa sit waiting for the response. No one comments for several minutes but then private messages pour in asking questions. The two re-explain what Shareef wrote, and that’s when things start getting out of hand.
One of their friends asks why they think anyone cares about their sexual life. Or if they want to embarrass them by pretending to be some kind of heroes. And why right now, in the middle of the unfinished revolution? Some friends say it’s political—and stupid—since all they’re doing is serving the Muslim Brotherhood by disfiguring liberalism by linking it with sexual deviancy. Shareef responds with something about freedom and not giving it only to some people. But his friends say that freedom has limits in every society and these are its limits in Egypt at the moment.
Some of his gay acquaintances send alarmed messages. Why’d you do this? Why’d you expose the world’s hatred and open the gates of hell on us? Why are you being so narcissistic? Do you want to be famous? Do you want asylum in a foreign country on the backs of those of us forced to stay in this swamp?
Like that, of the dozens of people they thought were their closest friends, only very few defend their right to choose. And they, too, quickly disappear and cut off contact with them, even on Facebook. Everyone’s finished with them, thinking that all they’re doing is trying to get famous, that they’re not only acting capriciously but also putting themselves and their friends in danger.
That’s when Shareef flies off the handle. All of a sudden, he grabs his telephone and, with two taps on the screen, he changes the audience of the announcement from “close friends” to “public.” Without even asking Bahaa. And things get even crazier from there.
Bahaa’s screams of protest and his uncharacteristic anger last a minute or two as Shareef’s Facebook page sits quiet. Then the messages start coming. Without stop. “Friends” announce their shock at Bahaa and Shareef while others regret trusting them. Some wonder if they’ve secretly been raping children or preying on kids. Supporters of the ruling Islamists condemn them, as expected, by the hundreds, with abuse and threats, condemning them to hell. And then come hundreds of “virtuous” revolutionary youth who denounce them, wondering about the nature of their “plot” against the revolution and whether they’re “pawns.” That’s how their announcement was quickly turned into yet another battleground for the political conflict raging in the country. As for the personal angle of their announcement, it’s pretty much ignored.
Shareef gets a message from Jihan, his former “beard,” and she writes just one word: “despicable.” Then Tamer, Shareef and Bahaa’s boss, contacts Shareef and gives them the choice between submitting their resignations immediately or getting fired. Tamer says he has twenty-four hours to decide and tells him not to come to work no matter what. He’ll collect their things and send them to them. He’s totally unrelenting.
Bahaa’s furious at Shareef. Making a decision like that on his own is a crime in and of itself. It reflects either a pathological self-centeredness or a hidden contempt for Bahaa, a conviction that he’s nothing more than a piece of flesh. Bahaa tells him that if it wasn’t for the circumstances, he’d leave him immediately. Shareef’s angry too and tells Bahaa he’s only proving he doesn’t understand how deep Shareef’s problems are. But they don’t have time to keep fighting. Things get totally out of control a few hours later when their families get involved.
Shareef’s sister is the first to call. Clearly upset, she tells him that his Facebook page has been hacked and that whoever did it posted some disgraceful things there to harm him. Shareef smiles and tells her the page wasn’t hacked. She’s quiet for a while and then asks in a broken voice: “What do you mean it wasn’t hacked? Did you see what they wrote?” Shareef responds mechanically that she must mean what he posted about his relationship with Bahaa. She’s silent for a long time and then stutters: “Yes . . . but . . . really?” And he replies: “Yes.” Then she asks him: “Have you gone crazy? What’s this? What are you saying? You? Shareef?” He tells her again: “Yes.” She keeps asking questions, disparaging him, incapable of believing it. Maybe he’s made a mistake, maybe there’s some kind of treatment, maybe . . .
He tries to keep calm and respond patiently as she stammers on. She then says something about the family. Hasn’t he thought about his mother, father, relatives, them, and even her? “What’s this selfishness? This is a nightmare. You’ve gone insane. What’s happened to you? May God destroy the revolution. This is what we got from it. I can’t believe it!” She breaks out in tears as she hangs up.
His sister’s reaction was a tame preview for how the rest of the family reacted. His father has the same message for him but he’s cruel, harsh, and violent. That, in addition to the slap across his face. His father tells him in a grave, melodramatic voice that Shareef is no son of his and that he’ll renounce him unless he not only backs off this nonsense and declares his Facebook page was hacked but also deactivates this “cursed” page and finds a treatment for his “abnormality.” As far as his father’s concerned, the atmosphere inundating the country poisoned Shareef and all his son wants is to be different from everyone else. Shareef’s relatives then disappear and not just from his Facebook page. His family completely abandons him.
The most painful response comes from his mother, who doesn’t even acknowledge the situation. It seemed like she’d aged years as she became all gloomy and her face looked dried out. She didn’t call him so he went to see her. She comes out of her room a half hour after he gets there with a glassy look on her face like she doesn’t even see him. She asks him about work and if he’s eating well, about his apartment and if it’s clean, and then nothing. When he tells her he wants to talk about something sensitive, she gets up and says she’s tired, that she doesn’t have the energy for sensitive subjects. She pats him on the shoulder somewhat tenderly and leaves, going back to her room.
The response of Bahaa’s family was much simpler. They call him to the house and when he gets there, he finds them all waiting for him. One of his brothers asks if what his “boyfriend” wrote on Facebook is true. Bahaa nods shyly and that’s when the three brothers beat the crap out of him until their father says it’s enough. They stop, leaving Bahaa crumpled on the ground with bruises on his face, arms, and legs. His father gets up, spits on Bahaa, and leaves. His oldest brother tells him that he’s kicked out of the house and it’s forbidden for him to come back, call, or even return to their neighborhood. If he does, they’ll turn him in to the police on some cooked-up charge and get rid of him and his filth forever. He then tosses a bag of his clothes in his face and tells him to get out. During all this, his mother hid her face in her veil so no one could see her tears.
Of course, there’s a campaign of support for Shareef and Bahaa. People they don’t even know and they’ve never met before take it upon themselves to defend their right to choose. At first, Shareef and Bahaa are dazzled by hashtags like #TheRightToChoose and #InSolidarityWithBahaaAndShareef. Famous bloggers, revolutionary leaders, writers, and media types join the campaign and many ask to interview them in an act of solidarity. At first, the two agree. Some of these famous people come and take photos with them and put them up on Instagram and other social media. Then they disappear, except for some comments from time to time reaffirming their solidarity.
Shareef and Bahaa expected most of this, if not the campaign of solidarity by opportunists. But expectation is one thing and experience is something else. It’s easy to say “My family will cut me off” or “they’ll be disgraced and they’ll toss me out like garbage.” But when that really happens to you, you feel this silence, this coldness, this alienation between you and your mother. The sharpness surprised them, as did the sharp pain they felt.
They didn’t expect it. They didn’t know how it would feel. And what’s more, they didn’t get any satisfaction from coming out. Even Shareef—and this whole thing started because being in the closet was his own personal crisis—even he didn’t feel any catharsis. Instead, it was the opposite. His feelings of oppression, isolation, and self-incrimination only increased. These were simmering inside him all the years he lived in the closet and masqueraded around. He was thinking that coming out would put an end to these feelings but it only brought them out in the open. The sense of isolation and oppression closed in on him everywhere he went: on the street, at work, and even on Facebook.
A deep silence settled in on their life. It enveloped them and isolated them from the world, almost like they were in a fish tank. Their professional life is over after they’re fired. Shareef tells Bahaa not to worry since they can create their own business and concentrate on clients outside of Egypt. And Bahaa doesn’t say anything. His anger at Shareef prevents him from talking openly about it. He’s devastated at what’s happening and that prevents him from stirring up anything between them.
At any rate, their social life collapses. No friends, no acquaintances, and no family, of course. No one. Shareef isn’t all of a sudden part of the “gay group”—neither is Bahaa—and now they’re not part of any group. They go to Left Bank in the middle of this storm and when they walk in the door, the place goes silent. Most of the people there know them but they get completely quiet when they see the two come in. And those who don’t know them get quiet since they’re surprised by this sudden wave of silence. Ahmed Eid, our common friend, is nice to them, as always. He takes their orders and brings them a plate of fruit gratuit. But the tension in the place overwhelms everything and after five minutes, Bahaa says he can’t stand it anymore so Shareef pays the bill and they get up to go, ignoring Ahmed’s polite protests.
The silence weighs on them. But then the real catastrophe happens. And it takes only a few minutes. They’re in the apartment one evening and, at exactly ten o’clock, there’s a bang on the door. Bahaa gets up to see who it is and when he opens the door, two men grab him while a bunch of people, including some neighbors, rush into the apartment. The two are arrested and taken to the police station to stand before the public prosecutor the next morning. And the police do what you’d expect. The two weren’t raped, thank God, but they were beaten and humiliated much worse than ever before or since. Pictures of them on their way to the station spread online. And there are other pictures of them almost naked, probably right after they were beaten and their clothes stripped off at the station. They’re transferred to the prosecutor in the morning where they face a number of charges, including depravity, abomination, and immorality.
The public prosecutor is sympathetic to them. He says it’s the neighbors—the owner of the apartment in particular—who got the police involved. The police weren’t thrilled about arresting them but the owner and the neighbors said they’ll break down the door and deal with Shareef and Bahaa themselves if the police don’t do something. So the police and prosecutor figure they’ll keep the peace by arresting Bahaa and Shareef. That’s when the prosecutor issues the investigation and arrest warrant.
The case was all over the papers, and with pictures. Shareef and Bahaa were shattered by it all—the arrest, the detention, the prosecutor’s “investigation,” the medical examiner, and all the stories and coverage. And worst of all for them was having it come from their neighbors, who they’d always gotten along with.
Lucky for them some NGOs get hold of the story on the night of their arrest and send lawyers to help them before the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides to release them on bail until the trial and tells their lawyer to stay in touch with him while they’re out. The lawyer gives them keys to his own apartment and then goes to their place to get their clothes and all the personal things that the police didn’t seize or destroy, most importantly their passports. The next morning, Shareef and Bahaa buy tickets to New York on different airlines and the next day they leave Egypt for good.
From كل هذا الهراء [Kul Haza Alhura’a]. Published 2017 by Al-Karma Publishers. © 2017 Ezzedine Choukri Fishere. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jonathan Smolin. All rights reserved.
A family must learn to adapt when their house takes on a life of its own in this playful homage to Julio Cortázar by Mexican author Yuri Herrera, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.
&°°° couldn’t be happier. @°°° couldn’t be happier. The twins *~ and #~ couldn’t be happier. Roanoke, the dog, was less enthusiastic, but agreed to lie in a corner of the laundry room, which elegantly hollowed out a spot as he circled half a dozen times until finding the ideal position.
When the sun really beat down, the windows would darken and the temperature cooled. When the traffic outside was very loud, white noise was released to eclipse it. When it rained, the roof seemed to interpret the drops, amplifying or silencing them until they didn’t sound threatening.
One day when *~ and #~ were running around the house, *~ tripped over his shoelaces and fell. Before his forehead could hit the corner of a table and tear his skin or knock him out, the table moved a few inches back and *~ hit his hands just hard enough for him to learn his lesson but not so hard that he hurt himself. From that point on if the children didn’t tie their shoelaces immediately after putting on their shoes, the shoes would remain sort of suctioned to the floor. The house was learning.
It absorbed odors, cleaned up spills, modulated the light to favor a person when they looked in the mirror.
One night &°°° awoke to the noise of someone attempting to open one of the living room windows: she could make out the sound of the sash being moved. She shook @°°°’s shoulder and in a very soft voice told him that someone was in the house. They got up, &°°° went to check on the twins, and @°°° went to check on Roanoke. Roanoke usually leapt up to give warning at the slightest sound in the night, so something must have happened to him. But @°°° found him curled up in his corner, the wall bulging out over him protectively. On smelling @°°°, Roanoke raised his snout for a moment and wagged his tail in recognition, but showed no sign of wanting to get up. Then &°°° came to tell him that the twins were fine. And they went to peek into the living room.
The intruder had managed to open the window and was attempting to climb in. @°°° ran stealthily to the kitchen and tried to grab a knife from the wooden block where they were kept but was unable to budge it even an inch, not that one or any of the other knives. Terrified, from there he saw &°°° standing in the living room doorway and the man’s body halfway inside the house and said to himself, “the house doesn’t know how to determine what’s important.” Just then he heard a loud crack and watched as three steel tentacles emerged from outside the window, beneath the pane, and in a flash reached into the house, seized the intruder, squeezed until his bones cracked, and hurled him back out.
The house knew how to determine what was important.
They began to grasp the implications of the house’s learning ability on the day that *~ jammed a pencil into one of #~’s legs. &°°° was quick to treat the wound and @°°° took off his belt to give *~ an educational lash, just one so that *~ would not forget that what he’d done was wrong, but on his taking a step toward the offending twin, the floor tiles moved and @°°° fell to the ground. Still not comprehending what had happened he stood once more, and again the floor tiles brought him down. &°°° tried to approach from the other side but the moving floor would not allow her to do so. Roanoke, on the other hand, walked calmly between them, sat down beside *~, licked his face, and lay down with no fanfare.
The next thing that happened was when @°°° saw a fly lollygagging around his head. He tried to shoo it with a swipe of the hand but the fly buzzed even more aggressively around him. So @°°° stood up to clap it between his palms, and no sooner had he opened his arms to gather speed when he heard the crash of dishes breaking behind him. He walked to the kitchen and saw that all of the glasses had shattered on the floor, as if they’d been pushed from inside the cupboard.
Next came the door. &°°° returned from the street, furious for any or all of the multiple reasons why whatever it was that the world was becoming might infuriate a person. The unbreathable air, the unbreathable people, the distance, the dead birds, the living cockroaches, the lists she was making of all this on her way home. &°°° slammed the door on entering and the moment she slammed it the roof tiles rattled as obviously as the obvious rattling of a roof might be; but it was not seismic: it was quaking with rage. &°°° backed up, while calling @°°°, #¬, and *~, opened the door, took a step backward, out of the house, and as soon as she had done so the door closed and the roof stopped rattling. &°°° remained standing there at the door for a few seconds, then tried to open it but the door would not give. She banged it and shoved it while motherfuckering aloud, with no luck. Defeated, she sat down on the ground and looked at her shoes crossed below the ankle, thinking not about them or about the house but about how tired and how tired and how very very tired she was. And from thinking so much about her tiredness, her breathing slowed and her body relaxed and suddenly but with no foofaraw the lock clicked open at the door, which &°°° walked through and closed gently.
From then on they began to tiptoe around the house, taking only baby steps, and if there was some other argument brewing they kept quiet about it, swallowing their anger until it passed. Around that time they also began to take detours before coming back, or went out on any old pretext and returned much later, all so as not to be ill-judged.
One day when the four of them were out on the street, they came across a beggar. @°°° tossed him a coin and the beggar said Thank you sir, nobody’s given me anything today, today of all days, and @°°° said What’s so special about today and the beggar said It’s my birthday sir and @°°° said Ah, and the four of them continued walking, but suddenly @°°° stopped and said I have an idea. The idea had come to him because he now spent a good deal of his day thinking about how to behave in order to control the house’s reactions. He took the entire family to a cake shop, they bought a cake and went back to where the beggar was. Here, this is for you, @°°° said, handing it to him with a spoon. Then they sang happy birthday and began to clap rhythmically, the twins jumping up and down with each clap, Eat it, Eat it. Such a racket was made that more people gathered around the beggar, and everyone clapped, took photos of him there on the ground eating his cake and then showed them to one another.
They returned home happy and self-satisfied, almost as though they had eaten the cake themselves, and didn’t have any trouble opening the door. They walked in, sat down in the living room in silence, happy to have found the way to come and go with no trouble. They looked at the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, and then they looked at each other in pride.
Roanoke decided then that he wanted to go out to pee. He walked to the door and as #~ got up to open it, the door opened on its own, Roanoke went out, and the door closed on its own. The others were stunned for a moment, then laughed and went to look out the window. Roanoke had finished peeing and was taking advantage of the afternoon, living large: he sniffed a bush, he gazed at the power lines, he chewed on one paw. &°°° said I’m going to get him in, and turned the doorknob but the doorknob wouldn’t budge @°°° tried it too, even #~ and *~ tried it, but no luck. They went to the back door but couldn’t open it either, or the windows.
Outside, Roanoke had flipped himself belly-up on the grass and was scratching his back with primeval glee. So high-quality were those windows that Roanoke couldn’t hear the racket made by &°°° and @°°° and #~ and *~, desperately hurling furniture against the glass.
"Casa tomada" © 2017 by Yuri Herrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.
A local madman in Bonanjo, Cameroon, regales a stranger with stories about his country’s history, and his own, in this short story by Congolese author and 2015 Man Booker International finalist Alain Mabanckou.
“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find”
—Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
Tall, thin, profile like a flatfish, bushy eyebrows, gray beard, prominent red eyes, he stands with a book in his hands: The Story of the Madman . . .
I'm told he often reads long passages from Mongo Beti's novel aloud to a loyal audience. I hadn't noticed the presence of this strange reader till I heard his spluttering cough.
He's staring right at me now. His ragged clothes trail on the ground of the park in Bonanjo, a poor district of Douala, as he slips the novel into his pocket. I start to feel afraid. He moves toward me and speaks to me in a deep voice, like some disgraced prophet from the pages of the Old Testament:
“Voyager, I am the master of Bonanjo, the oldest orphan, the last survivor of the caravan, the seeker of Africas, the man they call mad, proof of the fickleness of men, possessor of a third eye, more powerful that Cain's ever was. I've seen you pass this way these last few days, I've wondered what you're after. I know you've come to spy on us. Let me speak, then, for speech can never be spied on. We hide it away deep inside us, like Mount Cameroon over there, yielding her secrets only to those who climb her with a humble heart.
“You think I'm just some madman, a piece of crap. I may look like a little black dot, but don't forget—the little black dot has the final word. I'll tell you one thing. Douala's not going to open its arms to you like some street girl schlepping along the sidewalk in the Rue de la Joie, over the far end of Deido. This is Bonanjo, this is my patch. This district belongs to me, every inch of it. You thought you could just wander into my chiefdom without seeing the chief, did you? Is a great man a little man? Who are you trying to kid? I'll tell you one thing: I'm the keeper of this land you're tramping over. That's why I sit here from dawn until dusk, beside this monument to the memory of soldiers and sailors who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. Come close to the statue, look at the soldier, see how the rains have filled up the pool around him, carrying along the rubbish that fouls my chiefdom. Oh don't worry, the kids love the rain water, even some adults do. They wash their cars with it all along the main street over there, close by’s my friend Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling, the young magician-cum-saint-cum-healer, a man who can turn a snake into a rat, a cat into a tiger, take my word for it, I know what I'm saying, don't you go polluting my mind with all that stuff about Descartes and those other guys who've come between you and our view of reality. Cameroon is Cameroon! Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling's no charlatan! He knows every single one of the ninety-nine plants to cure a cough, night poison, slow poison, rheumatism, internal and external hemorrhoids, low sperm count, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, period pains, those worms in your groin that nibble your spermatozoids and keep your wife from getting pregnant. He can cure all that, believe me. Once, before witnesses, he even said to a crippled man: Rise up and walk! And the crippled man rose up. And the crippled man walked! And the crowd applauded. The tourists were amazed. Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling is one of my most loyal and humble servants. And if God calls me up to heaven one day, to sit on at his right-hand side . . . yes, that's what I said, his right-hand side . . . I'm leaving this land to him!
“Voyager, my territory starts at the Avenue General de Gaulle. It stretches as far as the Camp de la Valeur, past the Lycée Joss, the port, Douala train station, and the Marina crossroads. I've posted lieutenants all over Bonanjo, they report any suspicious movements to me. Some of them have seen you taking photos, writing in a notebook. You people who've traveled abroad and experienced the culture of Whites, all you believe in is what white men have written. You know nothing of the spirit that moves as the wind, that heaves with laughter, mocking your snow-bound education, washed in bleach, smoothed by the hot iron of alienation . . .
“Voyager, I am Doualan, proud of my lineage, proud of the glorious flame I have carried for centuries. My ancestors came from the Congo. The faces of these my brothers and sisters carry the mark of wanderers, the murmur of the shoreline, the acute and the grave accents of a language which connects us to our past, our exodus. Anyone who, like us, gives hospitality and reveres fraternity and tolerance, is welcome here. I will not let you go without hearing who I am and what I want you to tell people who live beyond these borders. My name is Ewalè. You may also call me Keeper of the Doualan Records. I live out of doors, in the street. The word roof means nothing to me now and I've even forgotten the pleasure of stretching out on a comfortable bed with clean sheets, fresh with the scent of Omo. It's no big deal. The Chief must live outdoors so he can see if the devil comes in the night to terrorize his subjects. Here I can keep watch on all the Doualan files, especially those of my sector, Bonanjo. I decided to in the street the day my wife, Hermina Coura Tcha, who was Togolese by birth, left this world for the next. She took our unborn child with her. It felt like injustice, but I told myself it was the will of God, that I should devote myself entirely to governing my Bonanjo territory. Stunned by this twofold sorrow, I started to cackle like a hyena, chasing after people who were invisible to ordinary mortals. My house felt too small to contain the multitude of turbulent characters who could have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Mongo Beti. I didn't want to live in it anymore. Besides, I knew I would become chief of a chiefdom: I was reminded of it in my dreams and in the course of conversations with people who were invisible to ordinary mortals.
“At first I roamed the streets of Deido and lay down by the trees in the temple of Nazareth. Once I had been duly enthroned by the Doula Gods, with all the chiefs' agreement, I handed my Deido territory over to my friend Rico, alias Credit Gone West, a hunchback with whom I'd kept on neighborly terms, and every now and then, quietly and calmly, we hold meetings to discuss matters arising in our respective territories. In this way we can settle any disputes in a spirit of perfect harmony.
“I know what's going on in the outside world. I've seen the boats set sail, or enter the water, at the port of Douala. That's where I've found most of the books that have taken me on my own journeys, without ever leaving Bonanjo. I've talked with Cervantes's Don Quixote while stroking the beard of Garcia Marquez's patriarch, Buendia. I've even seen a fisherman round here, Santiago, straight out of Hemingway. I've dreamed of Venetian gondolas with Luis Sepulveda and his old pal who liked to read love stories. I've traced the flight of Baudelaire's albatross, so cruelly treated by the crew with their hearts of stone. I've poured with sweat as I hauled in nets with fishermen from Victor Hugo. And one more thing: to make my peace with my ancestors, I've traveled to the Congo with André Gide . . . .
“Voyager, no trace will be left of your passage in the streets of Bonanjo, unless you kneel at my feet. 'He's nothing!' Is that what you think? 'Why should I bow down to him!' Is that it? Hear my cry: Ekié! Antsi! Wèèèh! Look across at the horizon, and ask yourself why Mount Cameroon has stayed silent since the dawn of time. You turn up in this country, in this town, on my territory, glutted on comfort, borne on wings of smug conceit, pectorals puffed with prejudice, strutting from street to street with your pencil in your hand, on the lookout for some little incident so you can make a note of it and give one of your readers a thrill. Get the hell out of here!
“I'm not your ordinary madman. Write that one down, spell it out in black and white, or you'll be cursed to the end of your days. I'm a chief, I'm the real McCoy. Is a great man a little man? I'm the only one who's here after dark, talking with the hero who founded the town of Douala. My ancestors are like the Buendias, the builders of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The history of my town is long forgotten now, alas. I know my ancestors, though, and I want you to remind your readers who they were.
“During my nocturnal discussions I hang out with one Rudolph Douala Manga Bell, descendant of the founders of this town. A true rebel, product of the German system, no less. Naturally, with his legal training, he looked back over the protectorate treaty his grandfather signed with the Germans. Rudolph would go on to protect our land, to oppose the abuse of rights, of power, and the attempt by Europeans to redefine property rules in the land of his ancestors. As I see it, Rudolph Douala Manga Bell was the first Cameroonian nationalist. His struggle was national, not ethnic. Dead, killed, murdered. Those cowards the Germans hanged him. What a sad and terrible day, the Eighth of August, 1914. They delivered him up to a shameful death hanging from the branch of a mango tree. Whenever I visit that dreadful place, I break down and weep. The autumn leaves chant their funeral prayers and birds take flight from the crown of that ill-fated tree, whirling in a maelstrom of grief. I fold my arms behind my back, and scour the earth for the marks of the instruments of torture the Germans used to put an end to the life of one of my most glorious ancestors . . .
“Voyager, the hanging of Rudolph taught me a a bit of wisdom I'll hand on to you: you can hang a man from a tree, but you cannot hang History with him. Every rope on earth tied end to end would still be too short to strangle History. Rudolph Douala Manga Bell is still here. He sees us. He shows us the way. He hears me now, speaking to you. No, don't look back, you are not worthy even to meet the gaze of that most illustrious man. Go and visit The Pagoda, on the other side of the Avenue General de Gaulle. Take a closer look at the house my ancestor Rudolph called home, built by the Germans in 1901 for his father, Auguste Manga Ndoumbé. We gave this country a deputy in the French National Assembly, Alexandre Ndoumbé Douala. It was those same Germans who later tore up and threw out the agreement made with my people. Obviously we should have kept our own land, and the Germans should have stuck by the terms agreed in the protectorate treaty. What drove them to try and change the face of our town? Was it just greed? They even created a ghetto, which we now call New Bell, where they rounded up the Doula Manga Bells, keeping Douala for themselves!
“Voyager, go take a walk by The Pagoda, behind you. Look at it closely. I fear it will fall down one of these days, though it looks so solid, towering over the monument across the street, that was built to honour those who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. That house is in danger, I can tell. There's nothing I can do, I'm alone against the world. When I speak they take me for a loudmouth, a weirdo, a character from The Story of The Madman by Mongo Beti, which I do sometimes read out loud to those who have ears and can hear.
“I've got my eyes on that place, I know one day The Pagoda will crumble and fall from ingratitude and neglect, and we'll all be to blame. My ancestors have still not found their rest. Nor will they, till The Padoga becomes a 'historic monument,' or better still, a heritage site valued beyond the borders of this country. Alas, voyager, we've been waiting forever for that to happen. There's no inscription outside The Pagoda recording this episode in our history. It just looks like one more administrative office, the provincial residence of some prefect or other. Which is why, voyager, you scarcely even noticed it as you passed. You crossed over to the other side, because the soldiers and the sailors who fell in the 1914–18 war have a bright, shiny memorial, a fountain and a green space, Bonanjo Park . . .
“Meanwhile, The Pagoda stands waiting. Waiting, first, for Cameroon to acknowledge its place in its history. Charity begins at home. It's still waiting. It knows that if Cameroon won't credit the role it played, no international authority is going to rescue it, or even put a coat of paint on the steps at the main entrance. One day it will just fall down, the building that once proudly housed the first ever movie theater in Douala and proudly hosted the paintings and sculpture of the young Hervé Yamguen.
“The Pagoda will watch the centuries pass, and treasure the memory of those who once believed in this city as a realm of freedom, a door onto the world. Voyager, if no one will listen I'll choose to die in the rubble of that building, to give my life as a sacrifice. Then I'd know I wasn't the crazy one; it's the ones who claim to be on the side of reason who've done nothing to get this place the status of historic monument. Off you go now, forget this place, or else write it down and do something to help us . . .”
The Madman of Bonanjo is crying now. His arms hang loose by his sides, his eyes trace the flight of a crow as it skims the rooftop of The Pagoda. Without a word he moves a little way off and takes out the novel by Mongo Beti, beginning to read aloud at the first page to a small but impatient crowd.
I must go now. I throw my notebook on the ground, and set off back to the Hotel Ibis, less than a thousand feet away. At the hotel reception, I take the clippings from the national press from Marc Bessodes, as I do every evening. He must wonder why I'm looking less jovial today. I go straight upstairs to my room, no. 610, and begin to write down the words of the Madman of Bonanjo. I wonder if he'll ever read them.
"Le Fou de Bonanjo" © Alain Mabanckou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Stevenson. All rights reserved.
Reckoning with the loss of his grandmother, a young man inquires into the nature of memory and cultural identity in this excerpt from a novel by Palestinian writer Ibtisam Azem.
Listen to Ibtisam Azem reading from "The Book of Disappearance".
It is close to midnight now and I feel so tired I cannot fall asleep. Do you remember that evening when I slept at your place in Jaffa, a month before you moved to live with my parents? I was tossing and turning and I had gone to the kitchen to drink water. You must have heard me since I kept shuttling between my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. You came out of the dark, your voice preceding you, and asked me if I wanted mint tea. As if you knew, without even asking, that I wasn’t able to sleep in the room next door and that I was staring at the silence. Silence and not quiet. Quiet entails some peace of mind, but silence is like waiting for the unknown. I smiled even before seeing your face because I’d heard you. “That would be great.” We drank together without saying anything. We sat watching the silence in and around us. That was the first time I felt you were tired of life. We sat for a whole hour and drank the entire pot of mint tea, cup after cup, saying only a few words about the taste of mint. You said that sometimes it has a rancid taste. I disagreed, but ever since you said that, mint began to smell a bit rancid to me. When I look back at your life, I am surprised that you didn’t tire of life until you reached your eighties. Or perhaps you did but I never noticed. What am I tired of? Why do I feel so tired? You once said that a human being dies when he loses hope and the taste of life. Did you say all that or am I imagining it? “Good Night, grandson,” you said in a night-calm voice and went to bed.
“Mad. She’s mad.” That’s what Mother said about you when she discovered that you’d bought and prepared your own shroud. “How did you know?” I asked her. Your grandma told me. She always referred to you using “she” and “your grandma.” I rarely heard her say “my mother.” You bought your shroud ten years before you departed. Ten years. Can I call your death anything but a departure? You could’ve stayed longer with us. Your presence brought us together and gave our lives a special flavor. You were my only remaining grandmother. My father’s folks left him with his uncle and were forced to flee to Jordan. But they never returned. No one knows what happened to them on the road. Perhaps in one of the massacres? They were worried about him because he was so little. So they left him with his uncle until they put things in order in Amman. But no one heard anything from them. They went and never came back. When we used to go on school trips to the Galilee, or any other place, I used to wonder: Should I tread lightly? Was I walking over the corpses of those who had passed through and who were decimated? Was I walking over a land that was made of decomposed bodies? When I walk in Palestine I feel am walking on corpses. Those images of multitudes of people leaving in terror are always on my mind. All my grandparents had died except for you. Do we breathe in the decomposed corpses? What are we going to do with all this sorrow? How can we start anew? What will you do with Palestine? I, too, am tired. But whenever I wake up in the morning I remember you and smile. And I say, just as you used to, “God will see us through.” Then I listen to Fayruz: “Yes, there is hope yet.” Because her voice translates what you used to say, with a slight variation. I think that’s what you meant by “God will see us through.” But is there really any hope?
Perhaps our presence could no longer give you hope or that zest? Perhaps you departed because life became bland, as you used to repeat in that final year? Because people wither and die when they can no longer savor life. You said you didn’t want to inconvenience anyone after your death and that’s why you bought the shroud and everything else. You even put the funeral expenses in a pouch with the shroud. But later you gave the money to charity after mother started sobbing when she found out about the whole thing. And after one of the neighbors told you it wasn’t right, religiously speaking.
Your initial reaction to the neighbor was a roaring laugh. You said, “Am not going to wait for nitwits to tell me what’s right and wrong. They barely come up to my hip and have the balls to issue edicts.” Speaking of nitwits, do you remember that afternoon when you were sitting with Um Yasmeen in your courtyard and the proselytizing sheiks came to tell you about faith and religion? One of them said with an idiotic smile, “Hajja, you have to wear the veil. You made the pilgrimage and you will be rewarded greatly for that. But a veil and a long gown would suit your age and your faith better than this cloth which exposes more than what it covers. Do you want to be like Christian and Jewish women?” You shook your head and let him finish. Um Yasmeen was red in the face and was about to storm off. You gripped her hand so she would remain seated next to you. As soon as he finished, you asked her to take off her shoe. You took it and stood up to beat him with it.
“Ten of you aren’t worth the sole of Um Yasmeen’s shoe.” You spat on him and yelled, “Go away you worthless imbecile. I never want to see you or any of your kind in this neighborhood again. By the holy Kaaba, which I visited, if I see you here again I’ll pluck your beard. Get out, both of you. So now Um Yasmeen is an infidel because she’s Christian? What kind of nonsense is that? Since when did God give you power of attorney? You losers have no manners and no sense.”
You both burst out laughing. And the nitwits never dared set foot near you again. You said you saw her eyes well up. When you told me the story, you said, “Where were our prophet Jesus and his mother born anyway? Shame on these people. That’s not the type of religion I learned from my folks. These idiots now claim to know God better than we do? They are Godless. There weren’t any problems even between us and the Jews like there are today. The problems started with the Zionists. This is what my father told me. Your ma’s grandpa, he was a partner with a Jewish man named Zico. They were friends. But when the Zionists came, they kicked most people out, slaughtered them, and took everything. They ruined everything and then sat perched above the rubble, my boy.”
I feel tired. I always felt tired. I don’t know why. Is this what you felt as the years piled on? I asked you once when I was little if you were scared of the soldiers, police, or of Jews, Ashkenazis in particular. You said, “No one is scary, grandson. And if you are ever scared of someone, just imagine them naked and you’ll see how most people have disgusting bodies and they look funny when they are running around naked.” Then you gave a loud chuckle.
Sure, it was pretty funny, but this trick didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because I myself was forced to undress many times. You remember the first time I went abroad to France?
At the airport they interrogated me for a long time and weren’t satisfied with a regular search. They took me to a room and left me in my underpants. My breath mixed with that of the person searching me and whose device was making noises as it roamed around my body. That was the first time I thought of my skin as a sort of clothing, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have used that device on my bare skin. I started to sweat and you know how I hate that. I couldn’t smell my body or my own odor anymore. I was sweating like an exploded water pipe.
White, snow white, is what I felt when I was naked behind the curtain in that room. Not that pure snow white, but that of snow mixed with wet sand. I could see the steam coming from the security personnel’s bodies and I was sweating. We had nothing in common at that moment except animal instincts, separated by soft gloves. Gloves touching my body as if I were nothing. A mere sacrificial lamb . . .
I tried to see our city, Jaffa, your city and mine, the way you see it. I tried to walk and talk to houses and trees as if I had known them a long time ago. As if they were your old neighbors. I would greet them and clean the road if I saw a stray piece of paper in its streets. This is our city and these are our streets, you often said. You always picked up paper if you saw some. Do you remember when I threw away the paper after I unwrapped a piece of chocolate you bought? Remember how angry you were when I, still a child back then, insisted that it was good because it was the Jewish neighborhood? I told you their streets were clean and ours dirty, so why not dirty their street? You said that if I loved Jaffa I must look out for it even if it’s in their hands. You said their neighborhoods were part of our city even if we weren’t living in them. I didn’t understand what you meant. I only understood later.
Cities are stories and I only remember what I myself lived, or fragments from your stories and what you lived, but these ties have been severed. I remember their stories very well. The ones I learned in school, heard on TV, and read and wrote in exams in order to pass. I had to tell their stories to pass high school and college. That’s why I remember them like I remember my ID number. I know it by heart. I can recite it any minute. I memorized their stories and their white dreams about this place so as to pass exams. But I carved my stories, yours, and those of the others who are like us inside me. We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin. We inherit the sound of laughter just as we inherit the sound of tears. Ah, your memory pains me.
They say that my laugh resembles yours, but not Mother’s. Was Mother’s laugh like her father’s? Poor Mother. All she knows about her father is that he left. After they opened the borders with Egypt, she mustered all her energy and went to Cairo to see him. He had gone there after leaving Beirut. But he died a week before she arrived. She met half-brothers and half-sisters there, but she didn’t feel they were her siblings. She said some of them had the same eye color as her, but they spoke with an Egyptian accent. She was upset they didn’t speak her Jaffan dialect even though their mom was from Jaffa. Perhaps she was jealous of their having grown up with a mother and a father while she was raised fatherless. She didn’t say much more about that visit. She came back sad and crestfallen. Her father had left before she arrived in Cairo. The father who was displaced from Jaffa before she was born. When I asked her once about her date of birth, she said she didn’t like to think of it because it was the year of the nakba.
I recall some stories from your memory. The stories I read, heard, or the ones you/I made up when you were tired. It seems to me that the most beautiful stories are the ones we make up. They are the most astounding and horrifying. What we live is truncated. Even what I lived is truncated in memory. As if my memory is a glass house full of cracks that are like wrinkles but still standing. We can see through it, but something is muddled. “Muddled” doesn’t mean an unclear view or that both viewpoints are equal. These are the lies of those who write in the white books we have to read. It is muddled because the pain is too great for us to hold on to the memory. We store it in a black box inside our heads and hearts, but it pains us and gnaws at us from within. And grows rusty day after day. Yes, rusty. I wonder at times why I feel all this sadness? Where does it come from? I realize soon thereafter. Your memory pains me and burdens me. I feel so alone in Jaffa.
I met Ariel today, but I didn’t stay too late. Just before midnight I said that I had to leave because I was going to Jerusalem the next day for work. It wasn’t true. I don’t know why I wanted to leave. Maybe I was bored or wasn’t interested in recalling that time when we first met. Not because it was a bad memory or anything, but for no particular reason. I don’t know why I felt, as I heard myself speaking Hebrew, as if the voice coming out of my throat was not mine. It just comes out and speaks Hebrew on my behalf while I am there inside myself, looking and not knowing what I am doing to it and to myself. I cannot stand this voice any longer. I felt alienated. This is not the first time I have had this feeling. But it was intense and completely overwhelming me this time. I can’t take it any longer and am running out of patience with them. But how many times have I said this before? I said it and I spoke calmly or screamed, but they only see themselves. They hear, but they don’t listen. Is Ariel really any different from the rest?
I hear a tumult outside. I’m remembering you a lot tonight. Tata? Are you here? I called to you, but you didn’t answer. Maybe it’s my fault that I can’t see you. Perhaps I should look carefully. I went back in and closed the balcony door. I had gone out to call you. You used to say that balconies are the best thing about city houses. I’m listening to one of your favorite songs, Um Kulthum’s “Do you Still Remember?” I feel so cold, as if it’s mid-December. White cold. White like pure snow that will soon be sullied. White, like this white city.
I wish you were here.
Missing you is like a rose more thorns than petals.
From “Sifr al-Ikhtifa” (The Book of Disappearance) by Ibtisam Azem, Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2014. With the permission of the publisher and author. Translation © 2017 by Sinan Antoon. All rights reserved.
Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar conjures the transformative powers of imagination in these seven works of microfiction.
Thieves of Youth
A strange thing began to happen in the country. One morning, some young people woke up and found they had become old men in their eighties and nineties. Day after day, the number of those losing their youth increased, and the entire population was struck with an awful terror. People were afraid that the country would turn into an old age home. In the midst of this terror, researchers began to study this unique phenomenon. After painstaking efforts, they had solved the mystery, but they didn’t dare to announce it publicly. They kept it confidential until the day when the results of their investigations were leaked to the press, revealing, to everybody’s shock, that a number of elderly high functionaries had stolen the youth of those young people, adding it to their own ages, and distributing what was left to their closest family members and associates. The report indicated a heated competition among the oldest functionaries to steal the largest possible amount of youth from the young in order to get the most enjoyment out of their lives.
Everyone was deeply shaken . . . As for what was left of the young people in that country, they decided then and there to escape to another country where there were no thieves of youth.
From the porch of my house looking out on the main street, I saw the ideas like birds circling over their owners’ heads. Some of them were black and others white. After a little while, winds of cyclonic circumstances carried the birds away in a storm, and their owners too. It spun them up together in a whirlwind that only disappeared after a long time had passed. When it did, the birds soon went back to flying . . . but over the heads, their distribution and arrangement was different.
Strong spent most of his life living in a fabulous palace equipped with the most modern heating and air conditioning system and all the finest and most luxurious gadgets and accessories.
One spring day, he felt very bored, and so he decided to leave his house to see the city and get to know how the people lived. He put on his nicest clothes and fancy cologne and set out for a stroll, exploring the streets and alleys of the city, an amazed expression on his face. But after wandering for less than an hour, he developed sunstroke and returned to his palace, carried on people’s shoulders, swearing never to go out again in the spring, insisting that it was absolutely the worst season.
In Union . . .
“Come on, friends. Come together . . . come together . . . close ranks . . . close ranks!” The leader of a school of fish spread over a vast area far out in the sea shouted with his loudest voice, watching in terror as three enormous sharks approached.
Waves of fish stretching and moving everywhere instantly contracted and thickened.
The leader shouted again: “In union there is strength.”
Voices of support rose behind him. The compact mass of fish watched the sharks carefully as they approached, gliding confidently. Tension reached its peak at the moment when death passed just in front of them, but nothing happened. The fish sighed in relief, watching as the three predators calmly dragged the huge net of terror away with them as they went.
But only minutes later a big fishing boat appeared above. Its experienced sailors threw their giant net over the great school, snaring them easily.
Community of Dust
A floating particle of dust was annoyed at the cleanliness of the house where she lived. She said to her friends irritably: “I haven’t known rest in this house for as long as I can remember. Its owners are so enamored with cleanliness it’s unbelievable! I’ve forgotten how to lie down on furniture or shelves or old magazines. . . Stability and settling down has become, for us, the community of dust, an impossible dream. We drift through the air like vagrants without homes or dignity . . . we must demand our rights!”
“Yes . . . Yes, we must demand our rights!” All of them shouted in unison.
A few days later the owners of the house left on a three-month sightseeing trip. The dust particles were overjoyed and began a slow descent day after day, until everything in the house was covered in white.
When three months had passed, the owners came back to their house and did a thorough cleaning, leaving not a single dust particle. They didn’t sleep until they had thrown every last one out into the garbage in heaps.
A Story for Children
At eight in the evening, after he had eaten dinner, my eight-year-old grandson came running to me, eagerly asking me to read him a story before bed. He’s my only grandson. I love him a lot and I never refuse his requests, and so I turned off the television and went to my library to get a schoolbook containing stories for children. I sat the little one down next to me and opened the book to one of the stories at random, and began reading:
“It is said that a young man in the prime of life woke up and opened his window onto the giant sea of humanity. He saw women who took pride in their manliness . . . and men who were proud of their femininity. He saw germs and insects sitting regally on thrones, and miserly rich people carrying their fortunes to the grave and, there, getting more enjoyment from them than at any time previous during their lives. He saw the prophets and the saints enter hell through the widest gate, and Satan and the great criminals enter heaven, surrounded by songs of glory and praise. He saw maternal tenderness never growing tired of slaughtering children in icy blood, and the four seasons leaving the earth to have one strange, indescribable season take their place. He saw countries refuse to celebrate their independence days, crowning traitors as national heroes. He saw the dry land invade the seas and oceans so that their creatures slowly died, and sterility was the tyrannical lord of the world. He saw the past, present, and future like three drunk friends reeling as they walked, left and right . . . forward and back. . . running into one another . . . fighting . . . stabbing each other . . . losing their memory. He saw the skies raining gold and the people burying it so deep in the ground no human hand could reach it, then going back to their homes weeping from the weight of poverty and deprivation. He saw love’s emaciated body soaring with two huge wings of hate.”
Finishing this sentence, I looked at my grandson and saw that he had fallen into a deep sleep. I closed the book and put it on the table, then I carried the little one to his bedroom and laid him on the bed with great care. I put the comforter over him, kissed his forehead, and went back into the living room to watch the exciting evening movie on TV.
The Tears of the Phone
I woke early that morning to the sound of anguished crying. When I hurriedly turned on the light in my room, I saw that the telephone was wet with his own tears. I asked him why, and he answered me, saying: “for many months, no ring has shaken me, no device has tried to call me . . . what’s happened to the world? I’ve been destroyed by loneliness.”
I thought about the problem for a long time, until suddenly an idea flashed through my mind. I went out into the street and called my own phone number, and immediately went back home. I found the phone glowing with happiness.
Ever since, I call myself from the street every day.
© 2017 by Osama Alomar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Osama Alomar and C. J. Collins. All rights reserved.
Japanese poet Hiromi Itō meditates on dislocation, violence, and shifting terrains of language in this narrative poem.
It was the year the Persian Gulf War started and came to an end
I came on my own to California
I had no roots, no family with me, I felt like I could do no wrong
One day someone bewildered me by asking
What brought you here?
Translating it literally, the question sounded like What transported you to this place?
It wasn’t someone specific from somewhere, just a random person
What transported you?
The wind? An airplane?
I thought, it’s true I was transported here
But it’s also true I came on my own
I couldn’t summon up the words quickly
Back then, I couldn’t catch what people were saying
Even if I did, the idioms they used were unfamiliar
I couldn’t convey what I wanted to say
So I mulled the meaning of the question what brought you
Until I understood the words brought here
I wondered, what did bring me here?
And this was my reply
(But by the time I thought of this answer, the person who had asked was gone
So I’ve been repeating this answer to myself ever since)
To see a coyote
To listen to the sounds of the dark night
(A long time ago, I read a poem by the Owl-Woman of the Papago Tribe
In the great night my heart will go out,
Toward me the darkness comes rattling
In the great night my heart will go out)
To research spells
To observe rainclouds
To kill a coyote
But I was possessed, I meant to kill but was possessed
I became preoccupied with sex, it was all I did, I had to have a man
If one was there, if he was erect, I had to have him, my vagina opened and closed
I swallowed his penis
It didn’t matter if it was night or day
It didn’t matter if others were there or not
He’d enter me quickly in the clumps of glass
Flip up my skirt
I was possessed by the coyote
Not because I wanted to, not because of sexual desire
I wanted to confirm through bumping bodies together
Through crying out aaah (it hurts), aaah (it hurts)
Where I was
That I had worth
Where I was
That I had worth
(I felt as if I was nowhere, I couldn’t imagine I was worth a thing)
I did the same thing over and over, over and over
I was confused about sex, I did it, confused
I’d forget how for a moment when trying it with someone new
I had to remember and try my best
To drive out the coyote that had possessed me
To kill the coyote I’d driven out
There were lots of corpses on the road
On the freeways and on the small side roads
Some on their side, some squashed flat
Someone told me
That’s called “roadkill”
I remember where I first heard that, I remember the voice
I remember the way it pronounced the English word but
I forgot the speaker’s name
It wasn’t someone specific from somewhere, just a random person
This is how the word is used:
“I saw a piece of roadkill in the street”
“Roadkill’s something you get used to seeing in America”
“You know you can eat roadkill? There’s a cookbook about it”
But why does roadkill end with kill
And not killed?
It has been killed, it isn’t doing the killing
Even though it’s just like the words School Kill
But doesn’t imply any malice
To be more precise
ROADKILL = Animals fatally struck by or run over by vehicles on roads and freeways
To translate it more precisely
ROAD WHO KILLS = The road who kills animals, fatally striking them down or running
them over with vehicles on streets or on freeways
The road, kills
I, we, road, kill
I, we, road, kills
I am, we are road, kill
I am, we are road, killed
I am, we are road, killed dead
I watch, we watch with open eyes as
I am, we are torn to pieces and scattered in the wind
Here is some of the kill I have seen on the road
Opossum: White face, eyes closed, mouth open
Skunk: Dead ones can be detected miles ahead from scent alone
Raccoon: The tail was the only sign of what it was, the rest was a lump of meat
Rabbits. Squirrels. Deer. Crows. Hawks. Dogs. And cats. Two at once.
Something I couldn’t identify, like a tanuki, two at once, big and small
A mother crossing the road with a baby in her mouth, I guess
(The remaining babies must have died alone in their den)
And a coyote
Legs splayed, strength gone
Original shape destroyed, covered in blood
The road kills, kills and kills, kills completely
It was the year the Persian Gulf War started and came to an end
That I came here
To catch a whiff of the coyote’s scent
To observe rainclouds
To listen to the sounds of dark night
To stay awake through the night darkness
To eat the flesh of the coyote and wear its pelt
The roadsides were decorated with yellow ribbons for victory
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill
The corpses on the road and roadsides
Raised their voices in unison as they returned the volley of violence
Raised their voices in unison as they returned the power of death
Author’s note: This poem contains quotes from the Wikipedia article “Roadkill” and A. Grove Day’s The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians.
*Translator’s note: In a 1997 incident that rocked the Japanese nation, a fourteen-year-old in Kōbe committed two murders. In the first, he cut off a fellow student’s head and stuffed a note signed (in English) “School Kill” in the victim’s mouth.
© Hiromi Itō. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.
Iranian author Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar depicts an imprisoned writer’s experience of psychological and physical torture.
He felt he was standing on darkness.
There was no sound. It was dark and quiet everywhere. He couldn’t see anything, he was blindfolded. He was just standing there, waiting. For a long time. For hours. It was as if he had always been standing there. Time had protracted and from beneath the blindfold it had seeped into his eyes, his ears, his head. His body was filled with silence and darkness.
His hands were tied in front of him. The prison guard had held him by the arm and led him here from the solitary confinement cell, to this room. They had walked down a long corridor that turned right and became even longer, darker. He had walked on his heels, limping. The guard had brought him as far as this room and he had left. And the heavy steel door had closed with the reverberation of metal, behind him, inside his head.
Now, darkness was before him. Face to face. He was standing on it. He felt as though it was pushing him from behind. He could smell a rotting cadaver some distance away. He sensed there was someone in the room, but there was no sound. The soles of his feet were swollen and raw. He couldn’t stand properly. He was still in pain. His knees were bent, his back was bent, his neck was bent. He wanted to sit, on the floor, to lie down on his back, on his stomach.
Before throwing him in solitary confinement, they had tied his legs to the bedpost and whipped his feet with a cable. He had screamed. Loud. As loud as he could. He had heard that shouting would reduce the pain. But his pain had not diminished. His feet had swollen and there was still pus and watery blood oozing from the cuts. In his cell, he had walked, groaning and in pain. One step, another step, slowly, carefully, and he had gone around and around . . . moaning. He had heard that if you don’t walk after a flogging, your feet swell. They had swelled.
He felt there was someone there, but there was no sound. They had told him that after the whipping and solitary confinement, it would be time for the interrogation. The waiting room. The regret room. Haji Saeed’s room.
Time seemed to have stopped. He didn’t know whether it was day or night. He was cold.
He heard the rustle of a sheet of paper. Soft, swishing. The silence had been so profound that he couldn’t tell where it had come from. From everywhere. He heard someone getting up. From a chair. A soft reverberation slowly moved toward him. It sounded like slippers shuffling on the floor. Then it was quiet again. He felt someone was watching him. For an instant he clenched his fist around the darkness.
Darkness said, “What’s your name?”
The voice echoed louder in his ears. His lower lip quivered and from deep inside his throat he said, “Morteza.”
Darkness shouted, “Louder!”
A dark hand slapped him. Hard. Unexpectedly. His cheek burned, he reeled and fell on the floor, on the dark. His ear was ringing. Silence had disappeared. His hands bound, he turned and leaned on one shoulder to try and get up. But he couldn’t. He fell back. This time he struggled using his shoulder and his elbow and managed to sit up on his knees. His left ear was still buzzing. Darkness grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled him up. He stood, on his heels. But his knees were bent. His back was bent.
Darkness gripped his neck, shoved him to one side, and pressed his face against a cold concrete wall. It felt coarse.
“Nose to the wall!”
Then, scuffing his feet, he slowly stepped back. The wall smelled of mold.
From a distance, Darkness asked, “Why did they bring you here?”
The voice sounded older.
He said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? . . . I see . . .”
It was as if Darkness were nodding to confirm his own words.
“Why do you think they brought you here?”
He remained quiet.
“What kind of work do you do? What’s your job?”
The voice was kinder now.
“You write . . . I see . . . with the right or the left hand?”
He wondered why he had asked that.
“With the right. But I’m left-handed.”
Darkness read the text aloud, “‘When the photo of a political leader is printed larger than the size of a stamp, the danger of dictatorship is certain.’ Interesting!”
He thought there must be one of those large pictures here, too. Much larger than a stamp. In a wide wood frame. There must be one. They have hung it on the dark. They have hammered a nail into the dark and they have hung the frame from it.
“Who is this Nabokov? Do you know him? . . . He has such a difficult name.”
He said nothing.
“Oh, and sometime ago, I think it was in an interview . . . What was it you wrote?”
He could hear sheets of paper being shuffled.
“‘I will not submit to censorship!’ Really?”
He didn’t know what to say.
“Did you . . . write this?”
He said nothing.
The voice had moved closer.
“I asked you a question: did you write this?”
And Darkness grabbed his head from behind and slammed his face into the wall.
His face smashed into the coarse concrete. For an instant the darkness turned red.
His nose had gone numb. When he touched it with the back of his bound hands, he couldn’t feel it. He felt something warm above his mouth and a slimy wetness slowly trickled down over his swollen lips.
“Why didn’t you sign the paper they gave you?”
Again, his lower lip quivered.
“Because what they had written was not true . . . ”
He tasted blood.
“I wasn’t there . . . I don’t know those people. . . I told them, ‘I am neither a spy, nor . . . ’”
“You don’t know them? Is that so? . . . How about illicit affairs? Are you claiming you haven’t had any?!”
“You have to fess up to one or the other . . . it’s your choice. You will sign and . . . that’s all there is to it. And you’ll get out.”
He remained silent. For a long while. Then he murmured, “I can’t.”
There was silence. Then Darkness quietly said, “You can’t . . . I see . . .”
Suddenly, he heard the sound of boots coming toward him. Only then did he realize there was a second person in the room. Perhaps the same prison guard who had brought him there. It seemed Darkness had motioned to someone standing to the side, waiting for an order.
Without realizing how, he was torn from the dark with a single move and hurled to the floor, and the boots started kicking him mercilessly from the left and the right, in the ribs, in the face and legs and back. It was as if two people were beating him.
He was writhing in pain and rolling on darkness. Again, as if with the gesture of a hand, the boots stopped and moved to the other side of the room.
Then all went quiet again . . . he was lying on his side, clawing in pain at the dark. He felt the fragment of a chipped tooth on his tongue.
There was a beep!
With his tongue, he pushed the fragment to the corner of his lips.
“For the love of God, Morteza! . . . Have pity on me . . .”
It was Mehri’s voice! He tore his head from the floor and turned toward Darkness.
“Do whatever they say . . . for the love of God, Morteza . . . give in . . .”
She couldn’t stop crying.
“I’m dying of grief, Morteza . . . have pity on me . . .”
There was another beep and Mehri’s voice was cut off.
“The poor thing is so worried about you.”
His heart was pounding. Again he heard the rustle of sheets of paper.
“Now . . . if you want to sign this, get up and come over here.”
He leaned on his elbows and hoisted himself onto his knees. But he remained in this half-crouch.
“Do you want me to help you get up?”
He could still hear Mehri’s voice. “For the love of God, Morteza . . . you’re killing me with grief . . .”
His head was down. He could smell the dark floor. With the tip of his tongue he moved the tooth fragment between his lips and . . . he spat.
Again, as though with a motion of the dark hand, the boots approached him and . . . a hand grabbed him under the arm to help him stand, but he pulled his shoulder away. He didn’t want to get up.
The one wearing boots, perhaps a prison guard, must have glanced over at Darkness, wondering what his next move should be, waiting for orders . . . and Darkness must have waved him off, because he went and stood to the side.
Silence again. He had an itch above his lips. His head was hanging and his face was close to his bound hands. He could still taste the saltiness of blood in his mouth.
He heard the soft clink of a metal object.
He didn’t know what was making that noise. It sounded like two pieces of metal tapping against each other.
The silence grew deeper. All he heard was the occasional clink! . . . Clink!
He heard a chair’s bones creaking and from deep within the darkness the slippers moved toward him.
He was trying to lean on his wrists and get up when the treads of the plastic slippers came to rest on his fingers . . . and pressed down . . . so hard that his bones were about to break.
Again, he heard the metal object. This time it was close. Next to his ear.
“You . . . have to learn . . . that when you are told to sign . . . you will sign.”
“No matter what . . .”
The sound resembled the metal tips of a pair of pincers snapping. Or pliers.
He could feel the pungent smell of tea rose cologne that had blended with Darkness’s sweat.
“Which hand did you say you write with . . . the right?”
The bones in his hand were breaking.
He felt the chill of the metal object . . . pliers or pincers . . . on the tip of his middle finger.
“You have to learn to sign whatever is put in front of you.”
He pressed the tip of the pliers under his fingernail . . . it hurt.
“You will learn . . . everyone learns . . .”
Darkness pushed harder … the pain sharpened. He felt a burning sensation under his nail.
“You all learn fast . . . very fast . . .”
The tip of the pliers bit into the tip of his nail. His finger was shaking. He felt his nail separating from his flesh.
“Did you hear how she was begging you?”
Gradually, his hand, arm, and shoulder began to tremble, too.
“Did you hear how she was weeping?”
The pain of the nail as it separated from the finger spread throughout his body.
“Why? . . . Why are you doing this to yourself, Morteza?”
His breath was short and rasping.
Darkness slowly tugged on the pliers. He felt his nail ripping out from the root.
Silence returned. His entire being had become that finger and that throbbing nail.
Softly, he said, “But you will learn.”
And he yanked off the nail.
He felt his shoulder splitting from his torso . . . and all that darkness suddenly flooded his gaping mouth.
© Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.
A near-death experience prompts an argument between a couple on the nature of hell in this piece from Chinese author Zhang Xinxin.
It wasn’t the first time that Steve and I had talked about the next life. But this time I actually bared my soul. The red and blue lights of the police car were flashing. The ambulance siren wailed. I was strapped to the stretcher, my body all mashed up. But my mind was intact, and I was fully conscious—to the extent that I was talking to Steve about the most inappropriate thing. About to face death, I could have asked my lawyer-husband to make sure the insurance company paid up, or about life insurance, or about changing my will, but there we were, talking about the next life. He’s Catholic, and Catholics don’t have a next life.
When I heard him say he hoped his soul could go to Purgatory, I found myself floating about in my Eastern myths, where the soul leaves the body, and is reincarnated as another human or animal. But before reincarnation, you must pay for your sins in this life. Naked and barefoot, you must climb mountains like blades, cross seas of burning fire, descend into pans of hot oil, and be cut in half by the mighty saw. The raging fire, the hissing oil, the knives, the saw, the torn flesh, the fresh blood! The proper name for my purgatory was “Hell.”
The curious thing was that when Steve talked about his Purgatory, his face softened and his anxiety became anticipation, as though he could hear the shepherd playing his flute in the green meadows far away. He said his Purgatory was a resting place for the soul on its way up to Heaven. Not that he’d get there, he added, he’d be going straight down to Hell.
Oh, hell . . . the juddering ambulance had snatched one of earth’s monsters—me—and was hurtling across lanes of traffic, screaming emergency. I was being shaken about like a batch of goods on a delivery truck. I couldn’t see anything of the human world outside the window, but I could feel Steve’s grip on my hand, so soft, so tender, and I could feel him fighting off grief, determined to hold on to my life.
“You know, Steve, your Hell has a design flaw. The soul gets stuck in there forever. There’s no way out.”
With a drip feeding into the back of my hand, I was at the entrance to the operating theater. I went in, I came out, and as soon as the breathing apparatus was removed, my conversation with Steve about Hell resumed.
“Look at my Eastern Hell, Steve. Before the exit from this world there’s a big bowl of tea. You drink the tea and then, when you come out of this world, you remember nothing of your previous life. You become a human. Or a cow or a horse that does as the humans tell it to do. Or a pig, that humans will eat if you killed too many people in your last life. Or you might turn into a creepy-crawly without any legs, and have to move about on your belly, if you told too many lies. Or you might be a bird . . . ”
“I want to turn into a bird . . . ”
“OK, my blackface King of the Underworld will commend your current whiteface life, and in the next life you’ll turn into a bird.”
“There is no next life here. Sweetheart, you’ll go up to Heaven.” Steve saw the color coming back to my face, and gave a sigh of relief. “But I’ll be going down to Hell. I’ve known it since I was a little boy. I was a bad boy."
“Oh? How bad?”
“I lied to the priest. I scribbled in marker all around the world, did graffiti on boats, in cars, in airport lounges. When I got angry I lashed out at my little brother, beat him up until his howling filled the sky. And I masturbated, when I was six . . . ”
“Whoaa! Did anything come out?”
“What do you think?! But it felt good, real good! Oh, I was dyslexic, and couldn’t read until I was ten . . . ”
“An Einstein! A genius!”
“Shut up! I was sent to a special school. I spent all day with a bunch of bastards, and after school got the same bus home with the kids from the school for the mentally disabled. My mom and dad were sick with worry! They sent me to see a psychiatrist!”
“Excuse me! I wasn’t seeing some bogus shrink, but a psychiatrist, a famous Harvard professor. I was the youngest patient in the cuckoo’s nest!!!”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! . . . ! . . . ! . . . !”
“What’s so funny? Is it my tortured childhood that’s got you rolling around? Or are the painkillers turning you nuts?”
A wandering soul must have rapped on my skull, and brought me to my senses.
I stopped laughing, and let out a long sigh, “You know, compared with what I was like as a child, you were as good as gold.”
Steve looked at me. In the fluorescent light of the monitor, my body covered in plaster, with tubes sticking out all over the place, I must have looked a sight.
“Steve, we’ve been together all these years, but you probably don’t know the real me. Street urchin in the Middle Kingdom’s capital city, Nazi Red Guard, Prisoner in Siberia, nuclear war pawn in Sunzi’s Art of War. That’s who I am. And Death’s Assistant too. I’ve had so many reincarnations in my lifetime: as a cow, as a horse, as a dog; as a pig that deserved to be eaten because I had blood on my hands; as a snake that crawls on its belly (although I was born in the Year of the Snake), because I told so many lies . . .
“Do you think what I’m saying is mad? Hey, I’m not Marco Polo boasting about the East in his prison cell. My Chinese GDP is racing ahead of yours. I’m the Girl-Homer with her eyes wide open. Dearly beloved, the last friend I shall see, as you sit by the bed in which I lie dying, won’t you listen to my odyssey, my Classic of Mountains and Seas?
“Oh yes, you said you’d like to be a bird in your next life. In fact, a little bird really did come into my life. Don’t be afraid, Blue Eyes, don’t be afraid, come closer, a little closer, look closely into the black pupils of the eyes right in front of you."
From《我 Me》[Wo Me]. © Zhang Xinxin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Wang. All rights reserved.
Tuhin Das reflects on a writer’s struggle against censorship in Bangladesh and the power of words and empathy in difficult times.
Listen to Tuhin Das reading "The Assassin" in Bengali.
I give you these lines
For you deserve them
Many years later you will come to know
Someone wrote these for you one day.
I write when a dark night
Has gathered over Bangladesh
My writer friend is afraid
A mournful clock by his bed
Rings out suddenly
He wakes up
His eyes bulging in terror
One word escapes his lips, "assassin."
Yet he is a poet or novelist
He could have spoken of the stars
Which show us the way even in the dark,
He could have spoken of a singing bird
Nesting in a tree by his house
Who's singing in search of a companion,
Of the moon which showers resplendent beams at night,
Or of the lover who waits somewhere far away.
He didn't speak of any of these
All he said was, "assassin."
For he had forsaken the soul, spirits and divine messengers
He had summoned god to the courtroom as the accused
To declare, not all emptiness creates space
I had heard
The sound when he slammed the door
On the face of blind faith
What he wrote injured Islamabad and Istanbul,
He could not visit his ailing mother
He had to go many days with just one meal
In my imagination I heard his pleas
For a slice of bread
Because death was waiting for him
In disguise on the road.
Beasts of prey were sniffing the air
To hunt him down.
Like the saltwater flowing in the ocean
His blood is agitated today
Like the shadow beneath the light, his thoughts
Have cooled today
I felt it too once
For I too was on the run
To escape the fundamentalists' swords.
I had waited for another summer
Thinking at first of going to the mountains
Or to say good-bye to the sea
Surely they wouldn't look for me in the mountains or by the sea.
But no, I went into long hibernation
For a succession of days—seven months, in four cities
Like a refugee in my own country.
A singer lived in the room next to mine
I would hear him sing at dawn every day
Across the wall
Like the bird at the tiny prison window
Who perches on the sill to whistle
And brings reminders of days of freedom
The song would make me think
How beautiful the world was.
I felt I had to thank him
But despite these thoughts
I never did meet him
For I was afraid, what if he
A well-wisher was death-bound then
Lying in bed with cancer
I couldn't pay a visit
Or even stand for a few minutes in silence
By the grave.
Still we couldn't stop writing
Neither I nor that terrified writer
In whose nightmares the "assassin" came
To knock at his door.
Splinters of light were embedded
In our hearts like shrapnel
Even if we were to be buried and stoned
We would not be deflected
We would fly the white flag of peace
Not a black pennant eulogizing a false god
We would shout
If our throats were slit we would whisper
Our chain of words would reach the next generation
Even if they had to flow along a river of blood.
And a kingfisher would alight
To sit by our dreams.
© Tuhin Das. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In this short essay, Burmese activist Khet Mar finds herself caught in storms raging in both the US and Myanmar.
Listen to Khet Mar reading "The Sound of Snow" in Burmese.
I woke up one late night in March to the sounds of howling wind and tree branches banging on my bedside windowpanes. As I rose from bed, lifted the curtain, and looked outside, I watched the saltlike snow as it hissed across ryegrass in the backyard lawn. There was an extraordinary blizzard moaning down the streets of Maryland with nothing to stop it but a few ash trees planted by the roadsides.
I didn’t have to go to work in the early morning. But, I didn’t feel like crawling back into bed. Instead, I closed my eyes for a few minutes. My mind was transfixed by the awful banging coming from the windowpanes. I was unable to think of anything else except the similar sounds that woke me up one rainy December morning a year earlier. That night, thoughts of cracking gunshots and a pool of blood had bothered me. Tonight was a little different.
I sat at my desk and signed in on my computer. Some breaking news about Burma was still unfolding on the social websites. Just like December, the news in March was tainted with a loud crack and the color red. But, this time, the loud crack came not from a gun but from police cracking human skulls and bones with their billy clubs. This time, I saw not the the red of blood flowing from the bullet-ridden head of a woman farmer but that of red armbands worn by riot police and militant thugs. I saw horrifying images of armed men who were brutally beating back a crowd of students peacefully demonstrating. The officers were barking out orders while police and armed thugs violently assaulted the students and onlookers. Terrified students screamed and wept as they ran for their lives.
As these sound of ear-splitting shouts of agony in my native land came back to me, the only real thing I could hear at that moment in my neighborhood in Maryland was the endlessly falling snow. The only color I could see through my window was the white of blankets of snow. Tree branches, rooftops, cars, roads, everything I could see was submerged beneath the heavy snow.
Although the physical world around me was white, the emotional world around me was red. While snow was striking the windowpanes, my ears could only hear the sound of screaming and crying from a distant land.
How could these men with their medieval mindset drag, punch, slap, and batter young girls their same age? How could I forget their ugly faces contorted with hate and anger as they dragged the young girls away? These questions boggled my mind. My blood boiled.
The students had done nothing more than protest against a so-called National Education Act, a law that had been drawn up unilaterally and guaranteed neither equal opportunities for all students nor uninterrupted pursuit of education. They were not even demanding the law be repealed, merely asking for it to be amended. When their request was turned down by the authorities, they expressed their disappointment with peaceful demonstrations. Should their nonviolent action be considered a punishable crime and subject to a brutal crackdown by the authorities? Should those who asked the armed men not to use force against the students also be considered criminals and then cruelly beaten and arrested?
The police and the armed thugs who failed to respect citizens' rights of freedom of expression were also the victims of a failed education system. The whole country had fallen victim to a political system that could not provide a decent education for its citizens.
The blizzard was expected to continue throughout the night. As the night sky grew darker, the barbarity that rained down over the former capital city would finally subside. The wind had not let up and the snow continued tapping at my windowpanes. I was powerless to do anything but clench my fists, angry and hopeless, and wait for the blizzard to end.
The blizzard might give in by the crack of dawn, I thought, but our collective suffering would not be over anytime soon. All we wanted was to put an end to the cycle of violence and misery. We no longer wanted to hold our breath, clench our jaws, and wait for the worst. All we wanted was peace and human dignity.
The sounds of a wild blizzard in the West would subside and a clear blue sky would reappear soon. And though it seemed nearly impossible, I dared at that moment to hope that my motherland in the East would also see a light that would shatter the many injustices that had subdued my country for far too long.
© Khet Mar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Maung Maung Myint. All rights reserved.