Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
This collection of early stories by the celebrated Chinese author shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.
In the title story of Yu Hua’s The April 3rd Incident: Stories, the narrator hears his family and friends whispering about something that will happen on April 3rd. There is no reason to suspect that this event is any more nefarious than a birthday party, but the narrator immediately starts entertaining ominous thoughts about the conversation he has overheard. The sense of a plot against him becomes so intense that he ends up leaving his hometown on a train. His destination is not necessarily any clearer than the mess he leaves behind, but at least, he thinks to himself, “he was now moving farther and farther away from the plot.”
This and the other early stories collected in this volume were first published by its author—now one of the most celebrated Chinese fiction-writers of his generation—between 1987 and 1991. As Yu Hua’s first published fiction, they show a much more experimental and daring literary ambition than later (and currently more well-known) works, such as his novels To Live (1993) and Brothers (2005). Reading The April 3rd Incident, it is possible to see Yu Hua “moving farther and farther away from the plot.” Only in this case, the “plot” that these early stories seem keen to avoid is the narrative one, the ordering of events in a story according to a conventional structure of beginning, middle, and end.
When he wants to achieve a certain effect, or experiment with narrative form, Yu Hua goes beyond what many of his predecessors both in China and abroad were practicing. Yu Hua’s early writing has often been compared to the works of Kafka, a natural parallel, considering the sharp feeling of restlessness in Yu Hua’s prose and its repertoire of lonely, alienated protagonists. It would be just as easy, however, to think of such writers as Kawabata, Barthelme, or Borges in comparison. More important is the overall impression that Yu Hua is jumping, even clawing, at postmodernism. This spate of early stories shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.
The brilliant “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang” shows Yu Hua at his most experimental. The story begins with a young man who lives in the town of Smoke. He enjoys wandering the town alone, and one day he meets an “outlander” who tells him a story about ten “time bombs” that were buried in Smoke back in 1949. The outlander himself heard this story ten years earlier from a fisherman on a bus.
“Ten years ago,” the outlander says to the narrator, “That’s to say, May 8th, 1988.”
The narrator corrects him: “You mean 1978.”
“If it had been 1978,” the outlander says, “that would be twenty years ago.”
After the initial contradiction in dates, this story starts switching quickly from third person to first to back to third again, narrating the lives of the outlander, the protagonist, and the Nationalist officer who planted the bomb. Their stories share so many elements that they become the same story—a trauma of confused actors and causes. One of the characters begins to feel the presence of a small, imaginary girl in his heart. “The sound of her breathing was so minute, it called to mind the furrows formed by the wrinkles on my face.” Another character receives a corneal transplant from a girl who died after being struck by a truck driver from the People’s Liberation Army. A third character visits a different dead girl’s father and sees next to her bed a detailed pencil drawing of the Nationalist officer. None of the bombs explode—at least not on scene. As anchors of the different timelines, the bombs are a reminder of the limits of human action and intention.
Anything we may expect from a plot washes away in the shifting voice, leaving behind a handful of vibrant motifs. Unexploded ordnance, especially in areas that experienced intense World War II-era bombing, is a kind of time device in itself, keeping past conflicts present, unseen but still capable of killing. The alienated characters who live alone, in apparent danger of split identities and random accidents, feel reminiscent of a post-Mao China in which the artist grappled with new creative freedoms; it was a liberating but also vertiginous and highly self-conscious time. And finally there is love, a strange counterpart to Yu Hua’s other themes but a natural subject for any young writer.
The difficulties and dangers of love in fact propels the drama in all of these stories, and often seems to infuse the strongest moments of Yu Hua’s writing. “Love Story” is a traditional narrative about a high school couple traveling outside their city to an abortion clinic. The boy is cruel to the girl, and forces her to sit far away from him and to accomplish “her business” quickly and alone. In this story, too, the narration alternates between first and third person. The meaning of this splintered perspective is not clear until the end, when we realize that the boy has been thinking back on this incident after ten years have passed. He has now married the girl, but no longer wants to be with her. “Neither of us can give the other any surprise at all,” he complains. It is a simple argument, but far-reaching: The boy’s memories are controlling his present. The girl’s response is equally simple. “In all the time I’ve known you, there’s just once you’ve been a wreck,” she says. “When was that?” asks the boy, thinking of the abortion. “Now,” she responds, speaking to the gap in their remembered experience.
Love is also conjoined with fear in Yu Hua’s writing—fear of persecution, accident, and disruption. From the young boy of “Summer Typhoon,” who fantasizes about his physics teacher’s wife while struggling to predict a potential earthquake, to the truck driver of “Death Chronicle,” who runs over a beautiful young girl and, while trying to save her life, is mauled to death by her townspeople with iron rakes, hoes, and sickles, Yu Hua’s characters all suffer physical consequences of their love. The man with the invisible young woman in his heart allows his mind to stray too far and apparently causes the death of the invisible woman’s living counterpart. Then, when the young man himself steps out to buy curtains one day, he too gets hit by a car: “I heard the crisp snap of bones breaking and felt the blood in my veins thrown into chaos, as though a riot had erupted.” Yu Hua emphasizes the danger of stories born from love, as a story may confuse and overwhelm love.
Allan Barr’s translation appears stilted in places, but this could be the result of Yu Hua’s own style, which overreaches occasionally in pursuit of an effect. In the opening paragraph of the collection, for instance: “Sunlight had sneaked in through the window . . . a skein of sunshine reached my pant leg; the little splotch of leaping light made me think of a golden flea.” Yu is also fond of the unexpected simile: “Rosy light sprinkled itself everywhere, like fresh blood, and the sun fell slowly like a punctured balloon.” Elsewhere the translation is flawless. “Death Chronicle” in particular is a superb achievement: the rambling, matter-of-fact narrator sounds right out of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It is difficult to translate prose from an ideographic language like Chinese, as the rhythm has to be invented anew, but Barr walks the right line between symbolic imagery and lively English, while sometimes suppressing the former in favor of a flowing style.
For readers familiar with Yu Hua’s work, The April 3rd Incident will reveal the strong, even violent artistic tendencies that Yu Hua has since moved away from, as well as inklings of the more politically informed novels he has written since (Chronicles of a Blood Merchant, Brothers). There are no explicit political themes in The April 3rd Incident, but it is remarkable how Yu manages to infuse even such nondescript details as names, dates, and songs with political significance simply by his manner of description. In the title story, for instance, the unknown event that will take place on April 3rd feels urgent because of its tacit reference to student-led protests that led to national uprisings, such as the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the June Fourth Movement (1989), even while the surrounding story has nothing to do with politics. Yu Hua deftly confuses his timelines to make the present feel just as historical and ill-remembered as the past, so while the residue of the Cultural Revolution can be felt everywhere, and while new love erupts everywhere, the present does not become a more privileged ground for truth.
© Andrew Hungate. All rights reserved.
This selection of writings is by no means or intention a full and general picture of Vietnamese literature. The reading choice returns/moves toward the presences, the ruins, and the enduring silences of writers-in-between, the hyphenated writers, the writers who hide themselves, the writers of unshareable struggles. The past, the present of the past, the present. North, South, the North in South, the South in North. Inside and outside. Here and there. Vietnamese and English. The fallen and the risen. The stopped and the continuing. The staying and the leaving and the returning. The life and the death. A stirring to erase the binaries of underground-surface, official-unofficial, male-female, young-old. A condition of the dropped context. A latent resistance to the fear of uprooting from a context and the uncertainty of all contexts.
Silence, among Vietnamese authors, seems to have become a compelling tradition, a seduction, even a kind of ritual of self-discipline: who can stay silent the longest? But writing has proceeded to overcome the prison of space-time, resisted its imagined fate. Those who have completed the journey. Those who are still fatigued. The should-have-been-writers. Those who write without the toil of lifting an utterance. It would seem that all are excellent in their abilities of silence, in accepting to exile themselves with an unchosen silence.
And so, like the life of much literature consumed (by whom?) in silence, Vietnamese literature often relies on reader-companions: those who keep hold of the books in cataclysm, those publishing ventures that give enduring and hidden beauties, those translators who preserve through releasing new lives. I have the vague revelation of Vietnamese literature’s physical body with its broken fragments preserved through their wandering. Translation is a wandering, is wandering together. Those who have written—who have been silent—who are writing—continue to translate themselves and be translated inside their readers, even after death has finished the body, even when the books have been ground to dust, with the voices, the dreams, the delusions all torn to shreds, to be able to transform and imagine the adventures inside an “endless universe.”
Trần Dần's novel Những ngã tư và những cột đèn (Crossroads and lampposts) was written in 1966, with the book living in exile and lying in dust for forty-four years until its first appearance in 2010. Một giấc mơ (A dream) by Dương Nghiễm Mậu, a Northern-born writer who moved South in 1954 and quietly lived the rest of his life there after 1975, was written in 1962, first published in the South in 1966; and only now, in 2018, can the book quietly return to another life, after the writer has passed on from this one. The newborn of Trần Thị NgH’s first collection was halted halfway in its upbringing by the fall of Saigon, then republished outside of Vietnam after decades and reappeared only recently inside the country. Bùi Ngọc Tấn's books were ground to powder by the government, and still his love for life and his writings endure. And the younger ones, Đinh Trường Chinh, P.K., Pháp Hoan, Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên, drift more or less calmly between places and languages where nowhere is their home. Each writer bears a weighty history, of the country and of their own. Their writings now uttered, their tongues now untied, their lives might remain quiet.
The questions and the vulnerable mình//bodies exposed here across these pages: for what reason do we continue to bear our human body/fate in this devastating life, when the ghost of the war is always there, when solitude and separation are unavoidable? Is there a place to be shared among uprooted beings? Can love and joined bodies resist the destruction of time, age, fate, and death? Can “the speaking feet” hold the memory of our lives in the end-stopped journey, to transcend to an “endless universe”?
One persistent debt that in no way can be paid in the lurching of my reading: What Vietnamese literature do I read? Who is reading Vietnamese literature? Reading to understand. Reading to never be able to understand. Reading to escape. Reading to never be able to escape. An endless process of translation and retranslation. Reading as a person inside, and at the same time, with translators, as those always outside a language, an utterance, a people, an earthwater, a frame of circumstances. Those who are outside while being inside and those who are inside while being from outside meet each other at a fragile point: Vietnamese.
In the terms of a translation, perhaps holding to the images of inside and outside does not serve so well, in this century of diasporas and transnationalisms, where movements of bodies continue to disrupt any possible settling of context inside and outside of which I may call myself. For those on the inside (of a literature, of a language) can always be more deeply inside, while those outside have no idea how much more outside they could be. The translation wanders with, not necessarily into, not necessarily across, not necessarily toward, and in its wandering creates a possibility of reading that can fall into step with the moving bodies of the world. And so the questions of how to read, how to read a translation, how to read Vietnamese literature in translation pose alternate chances for engaging in the contextualized decontextualization of the between.
An abyss opens, there are some ones who together look down into the immensity.
© 2018 by Nhã Thuyên and Kaitlin Rees. By arrangement with the authors. All rights reserved.
In Ariel Urquiza's short story, a young man is forced to deliver drugs on his mother's behalf, but after arriving at his clients' party, he finds little motive for celebration.
“What do you want?” Gabriel asked when he opened the door.
“I’m Jonathan,” he said. “Renata’s son.”
“Wow, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve gotten so big, you’re almost as tall as me. Come on in. It took you a while, I was just about to call you again.”
Jonathan took a package wrapped in brown paper out of his backpack and handed it to Gabriel. The entry hall featured a gold-framed mirror and a number of marble sculptures. Through a rectangular arch, Jonathan could see part of the living room and hear voices.
“Let’s see how good this shit is.” Gabriel opened the package, dipped a finger in the powder and put it in his mouth once, and then again. “Did you have trouble finding the house?”
“No, it was easy.”
“It took you so long I was starting to think the cops had stopped you.”
“You live here now?”
“I wish. A house in Condesa like this? No, it’s my friends’ house. They were having a party and ran out of blow. When they called I didn’t have a single gram on me, can you believe it? There’s a lot of demand for product these days. I’m sorry if I yelled at you, I was a little high-strung when you called. It’s just that I told your mom she should call me as soon as she arrived from Peru. Hey, is she feeling better?”
“My mom?” Jonathan asked, distracted.
“Didn’t she have the flu?”
“Yeah, so she stayed at the hotel.”
“Knowing Renata, she must feel pretty rough not to come herself. Tell her hi for me and that I’ll call her soon to settle up. Well, come in. Unless you have to go take care of your mom.”
“It’s fine, I should let her rest.”
“Then come on in and have a drink. You look awful, kid.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, our hero with the vitamins has arrived,” someone said as Jonathan entered the room. He couldn't see who, he was a little overwhelmed—the house, the strangers, the Rivotril. He even received applause.
But what he saw was not his idea of a party. There were no more than six or seven people in a room so big that his house in Arequipa would fit inside it several times over. Three sofas formed a U in the center of the room, surrounding a pile of pillows. Each sofa was different, as if each guest had brought their own from home. Jonathan sat on the only one that was unoccupied.
“What are you drinking?” Gabriel asked.
He sat staring at him.
“Beer OK with you?”
“Yeah, sure, a beer, thanks.”
Gabriel passed him a Dos Equis and went to the kitchen or wherever he was weighing and cutting the coke he was about to sell to these people. Electronic music played faintly, as if it were coming from somewhere else. He felt like he was in a museum despite the fact he had never been to one, but something told him they were just as opulent and sad.
“What’s up, Gabriel!” a blond kid yelled. “What’s taking you so long with the refreshments? Or are you snorting it all yourself?”
“Bring it on, Gabriel! What else are we paying you a fuckload of money for,” another guy said. He looked like a clown. Hair à la Christopher Columbus, red pants, tight yellow shirt, gesticulating wildly with a glass of whisky in hand. Going on and on, occasionally caressing a pretty girl with uneven bangs, and the whole time the blond kid, who is dressed in all white, laughs at every stupid thing this clown says.
It’s not that Jonathan cares what these people do or don’t do. The truth is that he doesn’t care about anything anymore. He came to deliver the goddamn blow and that’s all. From here on out he has no plans. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to do it with. He’s alone in the world and the world is a dream, on fire. He’ll need lots of beer to put this dream out.
Everyone seems to have forgotten he’s there. The excitement of his arrival has worn off. So he watches them all as if through a window. Strange people, really strange people. A slightly chubby guy, for example. With brown curly hair. Lying on one of the pillows on the floor like an Arab sheikh, explaining reincarnation in great detail to an anorexic girl. She’s all hunched up, her vertebrae showing through her blouse, mesmerized by what the guy says. The girl with the shaved head sitting on the rug next to the wall is even stranger. Staring sideways at a tapestry on the wall next to her, rocking back and forth. And on the sofa to the right of where he’s sitting, a dude sleeping totally naked, his ass in the air, face down on the pillow.
The only person who seems to realize he’s there is a woman leaning against the doorframe where Gabriel disappeared. She appears to be above it all, fifty years old, hair pulled back in a chignon, dressed for a party. This was a party, of course, he’d forgotten that for a moment, but she was the only one dressed elegantly. And she was looking at him. He felt self-conscious so he downed his beer. The woman wasn’t paying any attention to the clown in the yellow shirt. She didn’t care that the police had pulled him over and that his Rottweiler had jumped the cop and been impounded. The dog. And that he had to pay its bail. In Las Vegas, the day after marrying a girl whose name he couldn't remember and who left the hotel with all his cash. The fact was, none of this was of interest to anyone since it happened to a guy wearing a tight yellow shirt, cowboy boots, and red trousers.
As soon as Jonathan finished his beer, his head was in a different place, he couldn’t shake his negative thoughts, one image after another, so awful that his stomach churned.
The woman with the chignon approached him and sat down.
“Why are you crying?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m not crying, it’s allergies.”
She looked at him the way a kindly aunt might.
“I was thinking of my family in Peru,” he lied. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them.”
“Are you new to Mexico?”
“No, I’ve been here a few years already, though I go back to Lima once in a while.”
“You like it here?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t gotten to see much.”
“Come, I’ll show you the house.”
The woman led him up a staircase to the second floor. They walked down a hall lined with doors on both sides.
“My son and I live alone now, but once upon a time my in-laws and all their children lived here. All six of them, my husband was the youngest. And other relatives and friends were always visiting, back then it made sense to have such a big house.”
The woman stopped in front of a door.
“Trotsky spent the night here,” she said, and stepped aside so he could take a look. The wallpaper was peeling and the carpet was worn, as if no one had set foot in there for years. “You don’t know who Trotsky is, do you?”
He shook his head.
“I told Margarita to air all the rooms,” she said to herself, entering the room opposite. “Come in. This was my husband’s study. He died five years ago, but I’ve kept it just as it was when he was alive.”
The walls were lined with shelves full of books.
“What did your husband do?”
“He was a doctor. And a historian, an amateur one. He wanted our son to be a doctor, or an engineer like his uncle. But Ignacio’s calling is art. He’s a wonderful graffiti artist, his work’s all over the city.”
“Your son is downstairs?”
“Yes, the blond dressed in white. My husband would have been displeased to see Ignacio wasting so much time having fun, disregarding his future. But then I think, what good did it do my husband to spend so much time learning? He was never happy, he was always worrying. So I let Ignacio have all the parties he wants. I’d rather he has fun at home than go out who knows where.” She paused to brush a wisp of hair out of his eyes. The old lady was a coquette. “You look sad. Do you miss your family? Or is it something else?”
He didn’t answer. He was on the verge of crying again.
“You remind me of a boyfriend I had in college. He was two or three years older than you when he was hit by a bus. I was one of the passengers. Or the coach. I don’t know what you call them in Peru. He was waiting for me at the bus stop. Well, let’s go downstairs, I’ll get you another beer.”
On the stairs Jonathan heard some reggaeton and started to feel a little better.
“Did a lot of people go home? Gabriel told me there were a lot of people here.”
“Yes, most of the guests left. The party was really the night before last. More than fifty people. A lot of them were still here last night.”
Downstairs the mood had picked up. They had been filling their nostrils with the blow he had delivered. Everyone was totally high. Everyone except the naked dude, who was still passed out on the sofa. Even the girl who had been rocking herself in the corner was chatting animatedly.
Gabriel had been looking for him. He pulled him aside and handed him a wad of bills. He’d give him the rest in a few days, he’d call his mother on Wednesday.
“I’m heading out. You are, too, right?” he asked, but he said no, if he didn’t mind he’d stay a little longer. Gabriel didn’t think it was a good idea.
“Don’t listen to him,” the woman said. She was eavesdropping. “You can stay as long as you want.” So Gabriel waved good-bye to everyone and the woman walked him to the door. Jonathan sat down on the same sofa. He couldn't be bothered to get himself another beer.
He tried to pay attention to what was happening in the room to prevent himself from thinking about anything else. Anything else was his mother, the hotel, the worst day of his life. Worse than all the times his stepfather had beat him as a child, even worse than the time he found the sonofabitch kicking his mother on the floor, and, blinded by hate, sunk a knife into his belly. He wondered if everything that had just happened in the hotel was some kind of poetic justice; he couldn’t get the image of his mother out of his mind, her skin gray against the white sheets of the hotel, and he tried everything in his power to get these thoughts out of his head, even listening to the idiocies the clown was spouting without the glass of whisky in his hand, now he was holding a platter full of blow. He was even more of an imbecile than before, the coke had gone to his head.
“At the end of the day, this is shit,” the moron was saying. “Good shit, I won’t deny it, but all it does is make us feel like we’re invincible, like we can change the world, when the truth is that we can’t change a thing.”
The clown had put the platter of coke on his head, like a waiter carrying a tray, and the mere sight made his heart race.
“We should be smoking opium by now,” the clown said. “If we keep going we won’t sleep for a month. Plus, coke is so over. Opium makes you wise, it opens your third eye.”
Stop talking shit, he thought, nothing could make you wise, and I’ll open your third eye for you if you don’t put that platter down on the table.
“What do you think about calling an end to this White Age, a symbol of Western decadence?”
They were all listening enraptured as if he were some kind of genius. Right then the clown threw the platter into the air, spilling all the cocaine on the floor, and started laughing.
Once again he felt like crying, this time out of anger. He looked around the room for the woman, who knows why, perhaps because she was the only sane person in the place, but he didn’t see her. So he stood up, snatched a beer bottle off the floor and struck it against the side of a table. He grabbed the clown from behind, holding his head in one hand and pushing the broken glass into his neck with the other.
“Don’t waste it, you motherfucker,” he said. “You have no idea what my mother had to go through to get you your coke. Shut up and listen! My mother brought this coke into Mexico in her bowels, you understand? One hundred and thirty capsules. And because one fucking capsule burst, my mother is dead, and she can see this all from heaven and she sure as hell doesn’t like what she’s seeing, you faggot. So you better snort it all. Snort it up along with these girls’ pubic hairs, that’s how you’re gonna snort it. Because my mother died for this shit and I can’t even afford to have a funeral and give her the burial she deserves. No! Shut the fuck up!” The naked guy had woken up and was asking what was going on. But no one answered him. No one even blinked. “I had to get drunk and cut my mother open with a knife, you understand what I’m saying? I cut her open to get all this blow that you’re tossing around in the air like it’s flour. And then I had to leave her body in the hotel room because I knew that if I didn’t deliver this fucking shit they’d come find me and kill me.”
Now the clown was on his knees, begging for forgiveness, the edge of the bottle against his carotid, pretending to cry for mercy, while the pretty girl with the bangs and the anorexic one vomited on the carpet.
“All so you and your stupid friends could have this fucking party. You heard me, get this blow off the floor and start snorting it now. And the rest of you snort everything that fell on the table. Let’s go! I want to see you all snorting!”
The woman appeared and asked him to let the clown go. He did, but first he put a foot on his shoulder and shoved his head into the carpet. Then he grabbed his backpack and walked out the door, slamming it behind him.
Night had fallen and it was cold as he wandered out into the dark.
"Resabios de una fiesta en la Condesa" © Ariel Urquiza. By arrangement with the Mertin Agency. Translation © 2018 Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
Marcin Wicha discovers that choosing the right urn for his father's ashes is a process fraught with nightmarish options that could wake even the dead.
“Please choose an extension number or wait to be transferred to the front office,” and the voice of Louis Armstrong on the phone:
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world!
I wonder who chose this song.The manager of the crematorium? The answering machine retailer (“I have something suitable for your sort of business”)? It's conceivable that the sweetly hoarse golden oldie is number one on some mourning playlist—incidental music most frequently chosen for the cremation ceremony.
This trope often appears in American comedies. Ashes in a bag, a box, a biscuit tin. The mortal remains in a little vase on the mantelpiece, in a kitchen cupboard, on the windowsill. “What do you keep in this?” “Grandma.” A flurry of hilarious hijinks ensues. Gag upon gag explodes. A cat knocks the urn over. A drunk party-goer mistakes the ashes for cocaine. Finally the climax: the ritual of scattering the ashes, always in windy weather, so that the playful breeze can blow the gray cloud straight into the mourners' faces. Later—an orgy of sneezing, coughing, and brushing down clothes.
We used to watch many dumb movies together.
I came home, where he no longer was. My mother's friends had gathered, there was general commotion.
“On the Warsaw or national pages?”
“Are you allowed to keep the ID card photo?”
“Would you happen to have a bit of cream? Normal milk is OK if you don't.”
The management of the cemetery. The crematorium. Life has been divided into a series of tasks to be completed. The feeling of helplessness caught up with me a few days later, as I was leafing through a glossy catalog of urns at the funeral parlor.
All the models looked like a cross between a Grecian vase and a Chinese thermos flask. They sparkled with glitter. They shimmered with chrome. They were gold, white-gold, malachite, and black. They had ornamental handles and grips. Some looked like old-fashioned preserving jars with wire clips. Others resembled Winnie-the-Pooh's honey pots. Plastics dominated, but the range also offered natural stone (apparently nature has off days too).
And—obviously—crosses. Carved. Painted. Stuck to the side. Protruding on top (like a miniature of the Giewont mountain). Of course, there was also the inevitable crown of thorns, Mother of God in half-profile, and the Pensive Christ. Poor Dad. A nonreligious Jew, completely uninterested in issues of faith, ended up outside the target group.
The alternative was a flower—a white lily or a fading rose. According to the funeral industry, Poland was inhabited by two kinds of people: Christians and members of a florists' cult.
I flipped through the catalog, the funeral parlor boss was getting impatient. Under her gaze, I finally chose a model. It was slightly less decorated, its shape was a bit simpler, and even the white rose looked rather discreet.
Later, for a few hours I deluded myself that it was OK. But it wasn't. Dad would never have agreed to a receptacle like this. It's vile to disregard somebody's sense of aesthetics just because they're dead.
My father's taste defined our lives for many years. His verdicts were impetuous and definitive. We lived in an aesthetic minefield. In time I learned to avoid the traps, and as I carved a safe path, I felt our sense of complicity grow. We became brothers-in-arms in this war against the whole world.
The thing was: Dad wouldn't let ugliness cross our doorstep.
We lived in a state of siege, the Amish of the visual. The political system was against us. As was the economy. And the climate. A half-inch outside our apartment door, an oil-paint dado and terrazzo flooring began. The elevator with the melted buttons was waiting, along with the block of flats. The landscape of late socialism.
When talking about the people we loved, laconic diagnoses are out of place. What concerns our loved ones should be complicated and unique. In fact, it was simple and unremarkable. Simply put, there are people whose day can be ruined by the wrong-colored plug. Who prefer to stay at home than go on holiday to a seaside guesthouse where the carpets are repulsive. Poor wretches tortured by expanses of plaster finish.
Yes, yes, I know. Taste is a category of class. It sets out hierarchies and divisions. It reflects our aspirations and fears. It allows us to put on airs, to lie to ourselves, to cheat. And so on.
At least in terms of the urn, I had my way. In the orphaned address book, I found the number of a sculptor Dad had worked with once. I called. I explained the issue. The funeral was in two days. The artist listened to me unsurprised. He thought a while.
“I made flower boxes for a church in Ursynów. If I take off the legs, it'll be perfect . . . ”
And so I buried my father's ashes in a black granite cube. The name and surname were carved into one side. Font: Futura. Majuscule. Two times five letters, elegantly justified, just as he liked. I was bursting with pride. The urn was beautiful. The problem was that the only person who could appreciate that, the only person whose opinion mattered to me, was already dead.
From Jak przestałem kochać design. © Marcin Wicha. Published 2015 by Wydawnictwo Karakter. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Marta Dziurosz. All rights reserved.
The author remembers how his father asked for American cookies from the hospital bed, and how, after a tumor claimed his life, no one ate the oranges in the garden.
In memory of José João Serrano Peixoto
The day begins to stir and things around me begin to stir a little also. I open the shutters. The flowers in the vases lift themselves toward the slender light that bathes them. The light skims low over the earth, like a plague stretching out and galloping, advancing like a wave that never retreats. Little by little, tiny movements begin to stir in the hanging branches of the trees. Behind the whitewashed wall of our back yard, the olive trees stretch into the distance. The sparrows in the sky begin to waken. Time is light, Dad. And you come with the sun, banishing night, bringing with you the morning, like when it was Saturday and you would come and get me out of bed and, on our way to the vegetable patch, I would gradually wake up. And we would pick and eat some oranges or peaches, depending on the season. If it was raining, we would pull on rubber boots and I would follow you along the muddy paths between the plants dripping with rain. If the sun was in the sky, I would follow you to the top of the vegetable patch and, from the tank, we would make the water run down between the rows, fresh, clear water running over earth, and on its descent we would divert it into every thirsty square you had planted. And it would seep slowly into the pores of the earth, slaking the fire that consumed it within. We could feel the burning earth beneath our feet. Clumps of earth: cinders. Water running down between the rows, like the purest blood. And we would unroll yards and yards of hose until it reached the trees you had planted; serenely, a little round lake would form at the foot of each trunk. That winter when you were still here, Dad, no one ate the oranges in our garden. The boots stayed where we left them, between hoes and seeds, as if at any moment you might open the door and pull them on once again. I know you can’t. I feel as if I am the only one who knows, but cannot tell this terrible secret. I feel stranded in my pain when the morning sweeps across the sky, across the whole world. The morning you longed for and which came without you. The morning we went to fetch you from the hospital, so that at last you could leave it, as you had longed for so many times. Dad, I see the nomadic singing of the sparrows and I know; I see the newborn day and I know; I see the pureness of the dew on the green earth and I know. I know and still I wait.
Morning came and I left our house. I closed the doors and shutters; darkness. I locked in the shadows. I rummaged in my pocket, deep like yours, and with the keys that were yours and are still yours and that you left us, I double-locked the door of the back yard. I locked in the ground covered with leaves that fell for you; the peach trees, grateful for spring, also covered with leaves; I locked in the armlike branches of the plants, clinging silently to the walls; the henhouse, the rabbit hutches, the dovecote, already lifeless, already emptied; I locked in the washtub and the olive grove and the lemon tree which no longer provides lemonade for afternoon refreshments. I locked the yard door and, in the van, I left. Nobody ventured into the streets I passed through, only the whitewash and the sun and the houses remained in the place where we had known them for so long. I drove fast, fleeing the streets and the houses; fast, unlike that other sleepless morning when they made us drive slowly, you with us for the last time, slowly suffering the plodding journey and people people people behind us.
Dad, the streets I used to take to go to school, my schoolbag on my back, the yellow schoolbag you gave me. The streets I raced around on my bike, and someone would tell you that I was going too fast, the blue bike you brought home one day, on my birthday, in the van. The bicycle and a football. I haven’t forgotten, Dad. I drove quickly through the streets I know and will always know by heart. Engraved on my memory. And I went past the school, and at the entrance to, the exit from our own piece of earth, I stopped. In front of those iron gates that close every day to separate us from each other, in front of the tall, thick whitewashed walls, I heard the bells chiming softly in the breeze, in the silence. The white cemetery, only white, its outlines only black. I held the gate, cold like all things that exist and separate us, made of iron much stronger than our failing flesh, our flesh too weak to conquer and yet always struggling on. I went in.
I went in and, far from the morning, the sun bathed itself in cool obscured light, like sunset. And I passed down the line of tombstones, moss clinging to their marble. Inside me, you know, the constant pain the constant pain. You know. The chapel ahead of me drew closer in the slow monotony of my processional footsteps. The cypresses whispered their accumulated laments. And I walked as if my body was no longer with me. Bodiless. Immaterial and yet with my own inconvenient weight, above ground. I reached the chapel and went around it and there I caught a glimpse of you, Dad. In the distance, the shape of your stone bed, your last one, your simple altar. I followed a path between the graves, always looking at you. Walking without looking, following a line, looking at you, shining between the sleeping. Dad. Closer to you with every blackbird that glides above us; closer to you with every cloud that meets the weary sky. With every silence in the wind. I came to where I know you are, to where you lie, or where you lay; to where you are, under a glass bell-dome of crystallized time, of time that doesn’t pass, of marble. It has your name on it, Dad. Your momentous name, Dad. Written forever, like the clouds, like the things that don’t die. And your enameled face stared up at me from the photo on your gravestone. You haven’t seen me for a long time. We stared at each other and I know you wanted to speak to me, to ask me. I told you the news of my sister’s little girl who still asks for you, who can already say grandpa. And I saw a smile in the parenthesis of your gaze. Beneath your name the day you were born and the day you died. Do you remember when I brought you here? The silence, the mourning, and I wanted to carry you. The hearse stopped. The rain stopped. And I wanted to carry you. All the things you did for me; you made me, and I could only carry you. I took one of the handles, and your weight told me father things, and I crossed a wide expanse of time, and I left you on two planks over the grave, for you to be lowered down with ropes. And the earth on top of you, the earth falling on top of you, the earth. On top of you, the weight of your gravestone, no cross, the weight of the earth, of all the mornings. Wisps of grass grow around you, Dad. From you the cypresses reach blackly upward. Before leaving, because you know very well the visiting times, Dad, you know very well that if I stay longer the nurse will come and send me away and scold us both; before leaving, I said I can do it, Dad, I will build as you built; these arms are your arms, these arms are your arms, Dad. We looked at each other again. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad, I’ll be back. And you watched me walk away. And the constant pain, the constant pain. Together we wept. You know we did.
The van goes with me. It is carrying me now. Spring is here, Dad. Through the whole morning that still exists, like a gaze that you still hold, as long as the space between earth and sky, fresh and luminous as ever, smoothly luminous just as this spring is soft and the whole morning through. If only I could fall down and rest for as long a time as you, Dad.
Blind, in the earth, chest damp with sleep, in the night. So many decades and centuries, serene statue submersed in a clean fountain of drinking water. Angel impervious to fatigue, between flowers, between flowers, between fields and plains. Oh, Dad, if only I could fall down and be your enameled portrait, the reddened tones, the blood of your enameled portrait stuck to the marble. Dad. Here there is only sleepless time. And the light that now punishes the dry earth. And what passes blandly on for having passed so many times before. This road that goes with me, this road that carries me. This road that brought me here and now takes me away from you. This light that grabs hold of me with arms of light and won’t let me go and won’t let me go and compels me to follow. And I carry on, Dad. I carry on as if there was no will left inside me. But you know that there is. I inherited my willpower from you. And from here, from the indifference of it all, I remember our locked-up house. Yes, I’ll be back, Dad. I’ll be back to clean out the yard and tidy up the vegetable patch. From here, I remember your face in the country where you dwell, that immense white-black country, your face following me, lost, lost, needing me, lost in an archipelago of graves and grief and morning still. Dad. Your voice goes with me within me. I’m listening, Dad. Like when you’d call me over, when you’d take my hand and place it on your tumor-ridden belly. Blotches. Your deformed belly. Lumps. And in your innocent words, blotches and lumps, you were telling me that you were getting worse, that you wouldn’t get better. And I always lied to you, I always lied to you. Our sad, sad gazes. Dad. Like in the hospital, you asking us for American cookies. Maybe I’ll be able to chew them, because the food here just rolls around my mouth and does me no good at all. And us looking for them everywhere and people laughing, Dad. American cookies like the ones you used to eat at the fair in Estremoz, when you would go there with your mother and brothers and sisters. Dad. Your voice, the faint tremor in your breathing, my mother and I watching you, we who knew you, going to fetch you from your room, we who knew you, helping you to the bathroom. Dad, even this you couldn’t manage, and we who knew you, we held you by your arms, we carried you. The faint tremor in your voice, the failing strength in your legs. Your voice, Dad, which is my voice, reminds me of all this. All of it is fixed in the perpetual funereal morning that holds me tight and stops me from ever forgetting.
And I neither want nor can forget what I once felt from your gaze. I stayed in the silence of the winter you embraced. There is no spring without imagining new grass from the words new grass spoken by you; there will be no summer without imagining the sun from the word sun spoken by you; there will be no autumn without imagining the deep oblivion of the word death spoken from your lips. This is why, Dad, hanging in the air, the silence from you is to suffer, in the time that goes by, in the air, in the time that no longer goes by. Time does not pass, sustained by the lie of little falsehoods that merely change places, that merely follow one after another, lying but leaving their trace, rustling their way on little rat’s feet between the shriveled dead bushes and lush green ones. Then the sun rises from the last dusk that died with you, and the breezes mimic the true breezes that once touched your face; even the clouds and the stars are not the same: they are nothing but lies replacing lies at every moment in time that does not go by. We need you to make time go forward. We need your gaze to guide us if the rain pulls us back. Dad, having your memory within mine is like carrying a grudge, it’s like carrying a sack on my back with a grudge against this world that cruelly punishes us, this world that tramples on the other world where we could have lived together, the world we will always be proud of and which we loved and will never forget.
© José Luís Peixoto. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2018 by Robin Patterson. All rights reserved.
In Mishka Lavigne’s play Haven, the famous writer Gabrielle Sauriol has died in a car accident on the Pacific coast. Her only survivor is her adult daughter, Elsie. In this scene, Elsie attends her mother's funeral.
I’m in mourning.
That’s what one says, right?
That’s what one says.
My sincere condolences.
My most sincere condolences.
All my sympathy.
Sincere . . .
Tha . . .
I shake hands because it’s what one does.
I shake hand after hand
so many that I start wondering which one is mine.
Here lies Gabrielle Sauriol—not . . .
Gabrielle Sauriol lies in the Pacific Ocean now.
I’m in mourning.
I’m wearing black.
I shake people’s hands.
I say thank you
because I’m polite.
I’m a well-brought-up girl.
The well-brought-up daughter of Gabrielle Sauriol.
People tell me:
You need to take the time to come to terms with this.
“Come to terms with it”
as if this were a legal dispute.
A piece of me is missing.
We’ve gathered here today to pay our respects to my mother.
“There are some moments that are beyond us.”
That’s the first sentence on the first page of Haven.
But you knew that.
Everybody knows that.
This here, now: this is a moment that’s beyond us.
We all know that the writing of Gabrielle Sauriol speaks
better than I do.
We all know you’re here for her
and that I
I’m here for a Gabrielle Sauriol you don’t know.
That’s not my mother
the Governor General’s Award, the Man Booker Prize, and all the others
the honorary doctorates
the millions of Twitter followers
the articles in all the magazines
the appointments as writer in residence
that’s not my mother.
My mother is someone else.
I never knew my father.
It’s always just been her and me.
No other family besides her.
she was the one who read with me late into the evening
pressed right up together in my little bed.
She was the one who knew how to light a fire in five minutes on the stopwatch
those times we got on the road to go to seedy campgrounds
in St. Something on Whatsit
in the Whatever Valley
by the River I Forget What It Was Called.
She was the one who cried
every time she heard Neil Young’s song “Helpless.”
She was the one I clung to as tightly as I could
when I swam in the Pacific for the first time.
My mother isn’t here.
But you know that.
everybody knows that her remains aren’t here today.
she’s being shaken up by the tide
eaten up by the deep-sea creatures.
That’s not what you came here for.
You have to read Haven to understand grief.
a mother loses her daughter
and I’ve . . .
it’s the same
it’s nearly the same.
In the novel, the mother gets to see the daughter’s body
in order to really understand that she’s no longer living in that body.
In the novel, they bring her daughter’s body to her
they prove to her that her daughter’s gone.
I sound like I’m in my classroom.
That’s not what you came here for.
Thank you for coming to honor the memory of my mother. For information about any posthumous tributes you’d like to pay to her, please contact Mr. O’Neill, the lawyer for the publishing house.
Have a good rest of your day.
From Havre. © Mishka Lavigne. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Neil Blackadder. All rights reserved.
In a sleepless night, an old man remembers how he and his wife have spent a lifetime speaking the language of feet.
One sleepless night typical of the old and insomniac, Mr. Thuyết suddenly remembers the eyes of his daughter when she was three or four years old. For decades, he has kept that evening in near-complete oblivion without once recalling the eyes of the child who was always attached to him, the eyes of the child who would lie with her head in his arms, listening to his stories. Some forty-odd years have passed. He thinks in silence. Then slightly turns in his bed. The bedside lamp feebly projects sallow light onto the white mosquito net over the adjacent bed. The bed of Mrs. Thu, his wife. The sound of her regular breaths could be heard clearly from his side. Thanks in part to the clear desolate night. Peaceful. Quiet. Almost to an absolute. Wonder what time it is. Must be past midnight. Lord. If only it were daybreak already. He lies still and thinks of his daughter. She is over forty years old now. More than a decade older than he was when he and his wife first had her. She has passed the midpoint of a human life. And I have nearly reached the end. Life is truly like a horseshoe dashing by a window. The little girl Phương then is now a mother of three, about to have in-laws, up to her neck in business at the market, her hands relentlessly working on the fruit stalls, now spraying water, now fixing the display, now measuring the fruits on the scale before gathering them into a bag for the customers. Day by day immersed in noise, the ceaseless buzz of air and sound. She has divorced her husband, a sleazebag, and single-handedly raised the children. Once again he whispers to himself: How chaotic, the human life.
He feels for his daughter. He recalls the days of her childhood. And so the memory of that evening rushes back, the evening when she lies with her head in his arms, listening to his stories. Her eyes emerge, gathering all that is associated with her. It is a summer evening. Mrs. Thu, his wife, has to be present at the bureau to listen to the reading of the news. Every Thursday evening, all bureau staff members must convene and listen to the news reading. She takes her bicycle and leaves. It is only him and little Phương left. He is employed by the marine services, which provides a reliable excuse for not following the state-governed hours, so fortunately he can stay home. The father and daughter eagerly wait for mother to return. To then play house. Draw dogs and pigs. Then finally storytelling time. The fairy tale of Tấm Cám. Or the tale of Thạch Sanh with the singing instrument, tính tịch tình tang, who rescued the princess from the dungeon and returned her to the pavilion. The little girl has heard the story many times and yet she still asks about the goby of the maiden Tấm, or the snake emperor beheaded by Thạch Sanh’s hammer, while he ceaselessly waves the handheld fan for her. Then suddenly the little girl stops asking. He goes on telling the stories while the girl lies motionlessly. A moment later, she is already drowsing in bed with limbs relaxed, eyelids slowly closing. He raises his head slightly to look at her face as she enters sleep. The thing that sticks to this day, the thing that resurges suddenly tonight in his memory, is little Phương’s eyes. The half-closed eyes, with pupils growing slightly smaller. Her immaculate eyes suddenly turn sleepy, growing smaller and smaller until the eyelids closed shut. The little girl has gone to sleep.
The eyes of the little daughter have returned to haunt him. Now that he has grown old, he recognizes that is how people enter sleep, in absolute isolation even if some loved one is right beside them. Like how people enter the realm of death. Utterly alone, no matter how many others are around. Drifting off. Drifting off for a night is no different than drifting off to never wake up again. No one can intervene. No one can help. No one can offer company. Even the closest, most beloved ones. Solely alone. He fears that moment. The lonely moment of entering that realm. Like how he now fears the long nights of old-age insomnia, which makes it difficult for him to enter sleep alone.
Sleeplessness often brings worrisome thoughts. He recalls the house that belonged to his parents when he was tiny, burned down long ago by Westerners during the land reform era, after its gardens and yards had already been divided among the peasants; his parents were not permitted to reclaim it even after the error-rectification campaign began. He remembers the early sun showers of the rainy season, the days of running out to the front yard to catch tilapia swimming upstream and the bubble-like eggs of leaf frogs that would appear overnight as a blinding white surface, the eggs clinging to the corners of the family’s water tank. And whenever the leaf frog mother would detect human presence, she’d dive down into the rainwater that filled the tank, her glistening brown legs lengthening against the crystal clear water as a swimming champion. An enthralling series of events.
His parents passed away long ago. The house is no more. The garden and pond have changed completely. Whenever he revisits quê, he dares not return there, where the placenta from his birth is buried. It makes him mournful. After all, the people who got their shares of the house, the briefly legitimate owners of the estate, have either died or moved elsewhere. The house has gone through countless owners and their descendants. They do not know who he is now, just as he does not know them. Such matters, like the stars, share a common truth of change. It is harmless to keep a childhood home in the imagination. That house shall live until the day he dies.
He fears death. Death spares no one. The only comfort is that everybody has to eventually die. He sorrows. For he knows it awaits him and his wife, too. He has once said to her:
“Dear one, you must die after I do. You, dear one, are too considerate.”
He has already thought about his death-day commemoration. Sometimes the two of them still call each other dear this, dear that. Occasionally they even address each other as comrade. It was how they spoke all through their vivid youth’s moments of excitement and affection. For instance, when she wakes up from her own bed, she softly approaches his bed, lifting the veil to slide in and lie next to him. He turns around to hold her tenderly as she rubs her body against his, from the feet all the way to the shoulders, where she rests her cheek:
“Comrade, how did you sleep last night?”
“I slept so hard I couldn’t tell heaven from earth.”
Then she turns to lie on her back, parallel to his body. He takes the side of his foot to softly touch the sole of her foot. Feet that speak. The silent language they shared throughout the young years is etched in their memory. She knows exactly what to do. She knows he would like her to lean her leg against his. She does as he wishes and waits for the next command. His foot again touches her other foot. She obediently shifts her foot to the edge of the bed, her two legs now forming a wide angle. For the last decades of their companionship, she has done the same. Just like when she was twenty years old. But unlike when she was twenty years old—when he would place his hand between the widely splayed legs, and she would lie in the ecstasy of waiting—now she gently takes his hand and holds it in hers, “Come on, what’s the point . . .” Her two hands softly say so. He understands and leaves his hand in hers. Both have absorbed the potency of time. The days of youth seem to have passed just now. Honeymoon nights and days lasted for years. Her sliding gesture remains entirely the same, though without the luminous eagerness of desire. But it is still full of loving compassion. Still profound and obedient, absolutely belonging to him, intimate with him. Still the same language of the body, even the soft touch of the foot. Though both bodies have turned distorted and unshapely to the devastating extent that neither dares to look at each other in that moment. They never used to sleep in separate beds like this. Like other inseparable couples, they spent every single night wrapped in blissful intimacy. She was always the one who turned out the lights and went to bed after him. While undressing to change into her plain or patched-up night clothes, she knew that behind the bed’s translucent canopy he was entranced by her body—young, lean, and bursting with life. Many times, despite the cold, she would wear nothing and nakedly slide into him. She knew he was waiting for her. Under the cotton blanket, lying on his side, also completely naked, he lifted the blanket to welcome her in. His warm body embraced her wholly, transferring his warmth to her. The two of them sensed all the beauty and fire in each other’s body. How marvelous it is to be young. The youth have time on their hands. They have health. They do not overthink. They surrender everything to each other in hard times. And together enter heaven.
There were days when they did not enter heaven together. Their romance began when he was twenty-seven and Mrs. Thu was twenty. Her family did not sanction their marriage because he belonged to the landowning class. But nothing could stop a twenty-year-old woman in love and beloved for the first time. She lied to her mother that she had already surrendered her body to him and thus could no longer marry anyone else. Her fabrication convinced her parents that the damage had been done. Her fabrication made him understand her grave sincerity. Filled with love and gratitude, he held her and lifted her off the ground: “Don’t make false charges against me now. You’re quite skilled at defamation. We must cure this habit of making slanderous accusations against one’s comrades!”
Not only was she ready to cure this slanderous habit once her parents gave her permission to marry him, but she urged his family to quickly facilitate the engagement and wedding ceremonies. They made love during the daytime and he could not get over how unfathomably marvelous she was. A mixture of embarrassment and desire. She cried. Cried out of joy. He held her and called her an unexploded ordnance, which made her laugh.
Only once before the wedding. She said she obliged because she did not want to be a slanderous accuser. Because he called her an unexploded bomb. After all, the wedding took place only about ten days later.
Honeymoon. Life after the wedding was a honeymoon week that lasted years. Times were hard then. The concept of vacation did not exist in anyone’s thoughts, including the newlyweds’. But they didn’t need much. Only a space of their own. To close the doors and be entirely free with each other after work. That space, two hundred square feet, with floral ceramic tiles that, despite looking infested with scabies, were constantly cleaned to a shine, was equal to all the world-famous tourist destinations put together. And more. For the sum of all renowned and sublime landscapes might not be paradise. But here was paradise, within their embrace. He once called her his heaven and when she dismissively pouted, he added that he knew the gate to paradise and he had the keys. And she rewarded him with a trip to heaven. Only then did he understand what wholeness in life meant. It must be lived in pairs, wives and husbands. He felt sorry for separated couples. He could not imagine that couples could sleep separately, refraining from relations. Such life would no longer be life. It couldn’t be called life if there was no intimacy in bed. Intimacy is a great gift of creation. What would his life be without the love of his wife, without that girlish body, that womanly body of hers. These things amplified their love. Even well after they reached their fifties.
When he visited older friends, he knew the couples slept separately. Each one had their own bed. It was nonchalantly mentioned in passing, like a fact among the elderly. He felt sad for them. Sorry for them. Is that all that a human life amounts to? One starts out alone. Growing up, one acquires a partner. During old age, one returns to being alone even in the presence of another. This phase of aloneness is preparation for eternal separation. One dies alone. Just like how one goes to sleep alone. He resists this narrative. No, although he and wife have aged, he refuses to sleep separately. Doing so would mean admitting that life is over, that one is about to die.
He does not speak but she understands him nonetheless. After a whole life together, with children alive and dead, having shared joyous, sorrowful and hard times, they don’t need spoken words to reach an understanding.
The two of them still sleep next to each other, still rubbing their feet against each other’s, still hearing each utterance of the body, still speaking to one another in that silent language, though only to reminisce about distant memories. They no longer remember the last time they made love. Once, they both wanted to try again. Almost like an outbreak of resistance. And an excuse to record the exact date of the ending. That was all. But they shouldn’t have done so. Shouldn’t have at all. Because they failed. Although the two tried their best, they failed miserably. A ravaged landscape and a ravaged city! They knew they had been ripped away from each other’s embrace.
She ached for him when she came home from the market, seeing him half-awake and half-asleep in the armchair. He was resting his body on the frayed rattan chair, his eyes drowsily gazing at the blank television. Once one starts to stare at the blank television, its opaque gray screen suddenly transforms into a dead eye. Two living eyes gaze at a single dead eye that casually gazes right back.
She hands him a pack of snacks. She picks up snacks for him the way a mother picks up snacks for her kids. He asks her:
“Do you remember that time we both had dengue fever and afterward, this old man here carried you back home on his bicycle from our quê?”
“Yes I do. I remember. That time you made this old woman here have that bowl of phở, isn’t it?”
“Those days were miserable, weren’t they.”
Those days were miserable but now, in retrospect, they become delightful, beautiful memories. That time, on their way back from their quê as their bicycle passed a phở restaurant, the two of them inhaled the delicious and seductive aroma, felt a craving, and decided together to get some phở. But they rummaged through their pockets to find only three hundred đồng. Enough for one bowl with brisket, well-done. No more. Who would have it? She told him to eat because he was emaciated. He told her to eat. She said then neither would eat. Let’s go home together. But he knew that all these years, she had endured austere measures, stifled cravings, stomached blandness to serve her husband and children. He softly raised his voice, forcing her to eat. She obliged. He even reminded her: You should eat the first half of the bowl as it is, then add lime and chili to the second half. That way you’ll almost get to eat two styles of phở. She obediently stepped into the restaurant. He waited outside on the sidewalk with the bicycle.
Holding the pack of snacks she gave him, he recalls stories from those old days. He feels for himself. He feels for his wife. His compassion gets even more acute when he sees her going through all the trinkets in the old chests, the worn clothes and rags. She pulls out a cube-shaped thing so tightly wrapped in a plastic bag that she can’t even tell what it is. It turns out to be a pair of Soviet Union soap bars, the 72% kind. She holds them out for him to see:
“Look at this. I’d entirely forgotten this. This is the soap we were allowed to barter for after we imported gelatin for the Canned Fish shop.”
Combing the cabinets and sifting old documents is her favorite pastime. When she comes upon their marriage certificate, she exclaims and innocently asks:
“Why would someone doodle on this?”
They both closely look at the line scribbled in purple ink on the margin of the yellowed sheet, which seems authored by a chicken’s digging feet. It says: Triple-beamed bed frame: 01. Mosquito net for two: 01. He abruptly exclaims:
“It’s the tradesfolk’s writings. We had to bring our marriage certificate to the tradesfolk and get their permission to buy the mosquito net and the bed. Don’t you remember?”
After this memory came back, the old couple quickly decoded the inscription on the birth certificate of their daughter: Potty chair: 01. They had to bring the original birth certificate to the shop to buy one potty chair with a lid from the tradesfolk. And they were allowed to buy only one.
Life was grueling but wonderful nonetheless. When people are young, they easily overcome everything. Especially when one has a life companion to share the good and bad times. The fervent love in the past is now substituted by intense compassion, since they have missed out on most pleasures in life except for their love. The passion and blind devotion are no longer. The ending is near. The old couple understands they are about to separate forever and refuses to acknowledge it. They refuse to sleep separately like other old couples. Still lying next to each other, with unspoken words, the silent language of the body. Even if only to invoke distant memories. This is clearly an intractable resistance to the rule. Afterward, both turn their backs against each other to enter sleep. It is unclear when this habit of lying with their backs against each other’s was formed. Perhaps it is the scent of time, lingering in layers on their skin, within their love. And myriad other inconvenient things. For instance, their biological clocks are now entirely out of sync: she could fall asleep as soon as her body meets the bed and she gets up very early, around three or four in the morning, whereas he is the opposite. He sleeps best when she is awake. When she is deep in sleep, he is wide awake and struggles to lie still so she can sleep. That is not to mention his snores. The snores which, in her good mood, she describes as something only she could withstand. And so, during her nearly fatal bout of sickness, she had to sleep separately, which was the beginning of the one person per bed situation that lasts to this day. And both feel better now that they get to sleep alone. There is infinite freedom to toss and turn, freedom to think, freedom to stay wide awake, freedom to snore and to get up to urinate at night, without any worry about bothering the other.
Despite having slept separately, she still occasionally slides into his bed for a while, before she goes to sleep or at dawn when she wakes up. In order to rub her body against his. To listen to the language of his feet and respond in the language of hers. Then each returns to their own bed. Lying completely still. Or speaking randomly about whatever comes to mind. It often happens to be something in the newspapers. For instance, tonight, after the lights have been out for a while, and it seems both have fallen asleep, he suddenly says to her:
“The television just broadcast the news of a new universe forming about thirteen billion light years away from earth.”
She might be asleep, for there is no response. He mutters to himself:
“Thirteen billion light years. How terrifying. Who knows what lies beyond those thirteen thousand million light years? Let’s call it another universe. But what about the one beyond that ‘other universe’? And beyond that one too? And beyond? There must be something else outside the edge . . . ?”
In the next bed, her breaths rise and fall without disturbance.
Lying curled in his bed, he thinks about the endless universe.
“Vũ trụ không cùng” © Bùi Ngọc Tấn. In Người chăn kiến (The Ant Herdsman) (Trẻ publisher, 2014). By arrangement with the author's family. Translation © 2018 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.
In the US, Thanksgiving is this month’s major holiday, but for others November opens with the second and third days of the celebration known collectively as the Day of the Dead. Those days—Halloween, All Saints’ Day (that much-missed, exquisitely timed holiday for Catholic trick-or-treaters), and All Souls’ Day—prompt our consideration of the departed, as well as contemplation of our own mortality. We’re marking the holiday with writing that explores different reactions to loss of a loved one.
The pieces here portray bereaved adult children in the aftermaths of their parents’ deaths. All four narratives focus on the determination to mourn in a way reflecting both the deceased and their survivors.
When his father dies, designer and writer Marcin Wicha channels his grief into a search for a fitting receptacle for the older man’s ashes. The garish, sentimental options ("All the models looked like a cross between a Grecian vase and a Chinese thermos flask”) would misrepresent not only the life of the dead man but his rigorous aesthetics as well, aesthetics ingrained in his son. Wicha’s creative solution reflects both their shared taste and the artistic heritage he spends his own artistic life honoring.
Playwright Mishka Lavigne portrays the gap between a celebrity’s public profile and her only child’s private experience. A famous author runs her car off a coastal road and is ejected into the ocean. At her funeral her numb daughter, Elsie, teeters between accepting the formulaic “condolences” of the title and rejecting the well-wishers’ idealized images of her absent, withholding mother.
From the funeral home we head to the cemetery, where José Luís Peixoto’s grieving narrator travels through familiar streets made stark with loss. Struggling to imagine a life without his father, incredulous at the sad turn of events, he walks the city of his past. His destination is the one place they cannot leave together.
While the other authors mourn within social conventions, Ariel Urquiza’s devastated young man is denied the comfort and distraction of ritual. Arriving at the end of what seems to have been a multiday party fueled by wealth and cocaine, he delivers a fresh supply of the latter to the confused host, who was expecting the young man’s mother. As he moves dazedly through the gathering, assailed by the inane chatter of a braying fool in ludicrous attire, his frayed nerves finally break, and the ensuing confrontation reveals the brutal truth of why he assumed his mother’s place.
The work here supports the adage that all people mourn in their own ways, and bears witness to the indelible mark the dead leave on our memory.
© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A Different Context
I first came to know another side of Vietnamese poetry, outside of the formal education system, through “virtual encounters” and friends in distant places, writers and works on internet forums like Talawas, Tiền Vệ, Evan, Gió-O, Hợp Lưu, Tạp Chí Thơ, and overseas Vietnamese publications passed from hand to hand between friends inside the country. The circulation of these publications over many years even now tends to be associated with what in Vietnam is (not just) humorously termed “transmitting poisonous cultural products.” At that time (2005), when I was timidly sending my own compositions to some online journals, the atmosphere of new poetry on those forums had reached a boiling point. Something extraordinary, unstable, even chaotic, as if a revolution were about to erupt. The storm was flowing out of Saigon. Young poets and new poetry groups. Mở Miệng (Open Mouth). Ngựa Trời (Praying Mantis). Photocopy publishing. Resistance literature. Postmodernism. The writing of the ’80s generation. After leaving university, and to a certain degree while writing for various newspapers, I encountered yet another side of poetry: works and writers promoted in the state-run media. The stark contrast between these two sides can be captured, concisely and conclusively, in the contrasting dualism: orthodox/unorthodox. Photocopy publishing and works printed overseas, Internet forums labeled “unorthodox” that were blocked in various ways by the cultural censorship authorities, and diverse issues and emerging literary trends ignored or criticized in the orthodox domestic media. An oppressed literature, lacking acceptance: small, strange and marginalized voices, underground presences that were at the same time truly radical and experimental, appealing to me as manifestations of the effort to renovate art and freedom of expression. Hidden currents flowing under the surface, secret and concealed things, untamed, rebellious and disorderly, unorthodox compared to those things that were clearly revealed and were on display, presences that were controlled, curtailed, orderly, orthodox.
And yet, I had the feeling that after the exhilarating crescendo of rebellion and debate in the early years of the new millennium, the creative atmosphere petered out within just a few years, it became silent and deserted, stagnant and exhausted, a time of “losing the rebellious creative context.” I began to get involved with literature at that awkward, inconclusive moment: the recklessness had dissipated, but a genuinely new context of Vietnamese literature had not yet become clear; there were only lone voices, short-lived stirrings, leaving me with a sad feeling that Vietnamese art and poetry had just let a real opportunity for change, a fierce determination to contribute its voice, slip through its fingers. I found myself dangling between two sides: not belonging anywhere, swinging back and forth between two yawning chasms, at risk of being sucked into an abyss.
That artistic context is pushing me once more, like a participant wanting to see themself in a multidimensional mirror, standing in front of a vast ocean, at the place where the waves are breaking, the waves of the past and the present crashing down. Would I now be able to sketch out more clearly the context of unorthodox literary and artistic voices in contemporary Vietnam, and more specifically, the context of underground voices in the poetry of the Post-Renovation period, those absent presences that are the topic of my interest here? Permit me to open a parenthesis: I tentatively use the designation Post-Renovation for the period from the 1990s until now, both to insinuate the alienation of so-called Renovation in Vietnam and to chip away at the dominance of this term in the popular cultural discourse of the country. Frankly speaking, as a young person with only flimsy experience of life and literature, I do not aspire to persuade my readers through an overview of the situation, supported by various statistics, descriptions, and sociological analyses of poetry. My overriding desire, within the limits of my own understanding, is to elicit attention and reflection on the context we share. The exploration of the context of [self-]vanishing presences in the poetry of this period, therefore, does not aim to stitch together the outer garments of social, cultural, and political events clothing various movements, various phenomena, various authors and their works, but rather to pay closer attention to the knots in the narratives, the weaving of poetry texts into larger sociocultural texts, all of them interacting and colliding with each other, like the motion of electrons and the nucleus inside a molecule.
Expecting that things exist in parallel, I don't want to put underground poetry into a concrete conflict with mainstream poetry, equivalent to the simplistic dualism of unorthodox/orthodox. Instead, I would like to hypothesize that the wall that seems to divide these two separate worlds is only temporary. In its “static” sense, underground poetry is unorthodox, in opposition to the official orthodoxy connected to the control and backing of the state through the Literature Association, the state publishers, and the official media on literature and the arts. But in its “dynamic” sense, which I see as more significant, the diverse creative, publishing, and interpretational activities of underground poetry are a counterbalance to orthodox poetry, as an endeavor of cultural criticism by artists on the margins; this criticism may lead to opposition and even heated confrontations with those things promoted by the state, or it might reveal a seemingly aloof attitude in those pushing back against the commercialization of mainstream literature, or both of these perspectives at the same time. I had more or less relied on terms such as revolution and innovation, or revolutionary innovation, even while questioning the extent of their applicability to this school of underground poetry. Perhaps my concern is this: In Vietnam, what is the context in which movements of ideological and aesthetic consciousness occur? And within this context, how do writers and artists position themselves and their works?
I want to emphasize that the analysis I provide below on the context of this movement is not intended to advocate for an explanation of underground poetry according to “special” local circumstances, and it is even less an attempt to abet prejudices that more or less suppress the phenomenon of “underground” poetry—which seems in Vietnam to be synonymous with “abnormal”—as simply being the inevitable consequence of “abnormal” and “special” socio-political circumstances. It would be too narrow-minded to view the existence of contemporary Vietnamese underground poetry as simply a kind of evidence of a dark side, representing the voice of helpless victims. It might also be too narrow-minded to understand the Vietnamese literary context only through attaching such wretched terms to the body of Vietnamese literature as (post)war, (post)colonial or (post-)totalitarian. More than that, these analyses try to put underground art and poetry back into a relationship with orthodox art and poetry, like a common pairing in every time and place that Vietnam can also share. Therefore, in my attempt at a discussion, the issues arising from this underground poetry should not be seen as an exotic flavor more or less designed to appeal to those far away, as a modish way of being modeled on (discourses about) a “prefabricated” context in non-Western countries, Third World countries, or postcolonial countries/former colonies, but rather as a potential means of interrogating the participation of poetry (and of poets) in their (local and historical) context, a place where language can expose wounds to the air, and require a progressively less fearful examination. And perhaps, if I can take this further still, by locating underground poetry in its context, or by attempting to make visible these absent presences, I see this work of mine as both an effort to decontextualize poetry in order to reimagine a critical and renewed literary community and as a way to share the story of Vietnamese literature today.
Post-Renovation: The Demand for a New Public Space
The attempt to identify the various factors that transformed the ideological and aesthetic template of the Post-Renovation period requires us to refer back to the Renovation period itself. Here, I pay attention to the alienation of the term “Renovation”; the decline of the role of orthodox forums and the creation of new spaces for new cohorts of writers; and imagining a possible community. I would like to acknowledge various analyses of basic conditions that lead to the affirmation of what Václav Havel refers to as “the power of the powerless” as something far removed from the State system, the formation of un- or semi-official public spaces—stemming from the demand to expand civil society—and the emergence of critical independent intellectual qualities in Havel's post-totalitarian society, interpretations that evoke valuable parallels with contemporary Vietnam.
Renovation and Post-Renovation
The excitement of the Renovation period with regard to literature can be said to have begun with the Sixth National Party Congress in 1986, leading to a climax lasting around a year during 1988 and 1989. This brief period of time, as short as the “Beijing Spring,” raised many issues that were discussed publicly in the state media, for example creative freedom, the democratization of literature and art, and independence from politics. Afterward, this climax rapidly turned into an anticlimax due to the reimposition of restrictive policies. The beginning of the decline can be said to be the Literature Congress of 1989, when the writer Nguyên Ngọc, one of the Renovation pioneers, left the position of chief editor of the Văn nghệ (Arts and Letters) newspaper. During the Seventh National Party Congress in 1991, General Secretary Đỗ Mười affirmed conservative thinking on literature and art, “repurposing” the definition of Renovation: “Our literature can only be Renovated in the correct direction, serving our cause of socialist-oriented Renovation, under the leadership of the Party.” While the term “Renovation” remains popular in propagandist discourse and in discourse influenced by propaganda about the achievements of the “open door” cultural policy, a series of paradoxical events demonstrated its degeneration, revealing the difficult contradictions between the imperative of speaking the truth and living in the true situation of the country on the one hand, and the continued stifling grip of a single ideology on the other. Books were banned or barred from publication. Their pages were carved up . . . It is impossible to give a full account of the multiple tragedies of the politicization of poetry, the lasting repercussions and fates once thought to have been relegated to history. The banishments: those imprisoned just for circulating the poems of Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm, like Hoàng Hưng; those who could not accept the Communist regime, like Nguyễn Chí Thiện; and the countless Southern poets who had been soldiers of the republic and were incarcerated under the new regime, such as Tô Thùy Yên, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, and Trần Dạ Từ . . . The overseas writers who were barred from entry, and the ever-growing list of Vietnamese writers and journalists receiving the annual Hellman/Hammett award, given to writers throughout the world suffering political repression or human rights abuses. This was also a period of international upheaval, including the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the reduction of Soviet and Eastern European economic assistance to Vietnam in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the strong opposition following the Tiananmen Square trauma in China, and Vietnam's normalization of relations with the United States in 1995, accession to the WTO, and the arrival of the Internet . . . all impacting art in Vietnam in various ways. In the disappointment over Renovation (that critics such as Lại Nguyên Ân, Phạm Xuân Nguyên and Đoàn Cầm Thi have shared in various interviews and comments), in the alarm over the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European model, and the diversification of foreign ideas, those working on art and literature seemed to be standing in front of a half-open door ambiguously labeled “Post-Renovation,” none brave enough to find out what was actually happening on the other side of the door. The writer Phạm Thị Hoài, a writer born during the war, experienced life in North Vietnam as a young person, then emigrated to Germany and founded and edited the Talawas forum. In one article she looked back on her own literary activities, reflecting on the relationship between writers and their eras, describing the collapse of hope in the Renovation and (borrowing the name of a short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp) naming this Post-Renovation period a time “without a king”:
The Post-Renovation period was a time of strange voids, absent authorities, carriages with neither locomotives nor drivers. They kept on rolling, mostly sluggishly, until they ran out of momentum, through downhill stretches where they hurtled along at terrifying speeds, into steep ascents where they slowed and traveled backwards. The prestige of the old ideals, dogma, and essential spiritual values had been abandoned, but the void left behind had been sealed off, without giving way to a new prestige in its place. The guiding apparatus of the Party and of state control had lost its effectiveness, but a new operating system had not been permitted to accede to the throne. The top-down organizational structure was no longer effective, but a bottom-up union of individuals had not yet taken shape. Neither in previous decades nor in the Renovation period had Vietnamese writers taken individual initiatives and aspirations as a starting point to develop independent groups that could compete with the prestige of the organizations appointed and sponsored by the authorities.
I admire Phạm Thị Hoài's profound and candid summary of the broken and disappointing relationship between the writers and the political institutions, which had its source in the literary and artistic life during the war as well as the ideological crisis that resulted from the prolonged “subsidization” of the creative sector in Vietnam. This centuries-old arranged marriage, with the institutions taking the role of husband in a male-dominated society, had been shattered, but the yoke of both history and the present is so heavy that it is as if, in a collective unconsciousness, literature is still yoked to its status of either obsessedly serving or resisting ideology, more or less continuing to maintain this strained relationship. But at the same time, I think that the “strange void” of the Post-Renovation period so sensitively perceived by Phạm Thị Hoài is not just a void of creative thinking, where the unified literature and art “under the leadership of the Party line,” according to the unitary ideology of wartime that persisted into the Renovation period, faces crisis and collapse, but that void might also become a playground for destruction and regeneration, an arena for the flow of ideas and aesthetics, a place where the aspirations of groups or individuals can manifest and collide with each other. The final knell for the so-called Renovation has been sounded somewhere in Vietnam, even though prominent individuals of this period still continue on their course in one way or another.
The mechanism of “subsidized ideology” has broken down, and the power of the orthodox literary forums has been shaken. During the Renovation stage, writers and intellectuals, beginning with those deeply associated with the war such as Nguyễn Minh Châu and Nguyên Ngọc, (once again) while demanding freedom for the arts, remained steadfast in their belief in institutions, a belief that was intensified when Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh met with art and literature delegates at the beginning of the Renovation period, in October 1987. This meeting is recognized in literary and artistic circles as symbolic of the excitement of the Renovation period. The declaration of the “loosening” of literature and art by the head of the Party leadership in this meeting is seen as the launching of the movement of literary and artistic renovation, and was widely reported in the media. But only a brief couple of years later, the direct relationship of the artists and progressive intellectuals with the authorities and the leaders of literature and the arts seemed to have weakened and their role had fewer opportunities to manifest itself.1 The Văn Nghệ periodical of 1987-1988, with the writer Nguyên Ngọc at its Secretary-General, clearly reflected the transition from an official organ of the wartime government to an important forum for writers and intellectuals, with new debates and literary experiments, something both writers and readers had been expecting for many years; leading up to the present, especially for the majority of young people, this periodical has gradually become an anachronism, the image of an outdated ideology, resistant to change and no longer worth worrying about. I think it would be fairer not to view these orthodox forums simply as propaganda agencies on literature and art. Perhaps, due to their commitment to ideological unity, they had to reconcile propagandistic aspects with the demand for truthful literature and art, a genuine demand that nearly always pushes any writer to a position that is distinct from or oppositional to the orthodox ideology of the state, particularly in those countries where the institutional model has not yet accepted pluralism.
Internet Forums and New Spaces to Play
When the State’s Renovation pipedream is met with scepticism and the rules of the forums governed by privileged orthodoxy are no longer suited to creativity, this will surely lead to a demand for new types of literary spaces, like a kind of self-awareness of Vietnamese literature about its own development. I think it is necessary to look at the contribution of online forums and magazines as well as websites, personal blogs and social networks in the formation of these alternative spaces for play. It is necessary to mention the establishment and blossoming of overseas online literary magazines, run by exiled scholars and writers, in which a different outlook on a cross-border and global Vietnamese-language literature can be envisioned and grounded, regardless of the different directions and operating philosophies of each magazine, as typified by Talawas, Tiền Vệ, Hợp Lưu, Tạp Chí Thơ, Gió–o, and Da Màu. (Such websites have largely ceased or scaled back activity; of these, only Tiền Vệ and Da Màu are updated daily.) I want to emphasize the effort to digitize works that had been lost or suppressed in orthodox versions of literary history within the country, the support and encouragement of new literary trends, and in particular the effort to resurrect literary debate in these forums. The Talawas Bookshelf and the Da Màu Bookcase acted as an open repository for the readers to freely consume books and materials that could not be officially disseminated within the country, particularly the records of “an inheritance of loss” (to borrow the title of a novel by Kiran Desai), such as Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm or Southern literature under the Republic. A series of debates and questions revolved around topics prohibited in state communications, such as literature and politics, sexuality in literature, Southern literature, Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm, writing about war, feminism, human rights, cultural censorship about banned events, expurgated works, and so on. Self-publishing and the “Saigon school of photocopied poetry” in the first years of the new millennium became a new brand of publishing, thanks to significant encouragement: the explosion of applause on Talawas for the self-publishing of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, a series of Saigon “photocopied poetry” works and authors introduced on Sunday Talawas, interviews of poets and readers on the topic of photocopied poetry on Tiền Vệ by the poet Trần Tiến Dũng in 2005, and many other articles. Many literary theories were introduced to Vietnamese readers for the first time. Certain online experiments appeared, for example visual poetry, and multimedia poetry. Clearly, when the mainstream, in the form of state media and commercial communications, doesn’t support individual experimentation and is required to be a vehicle for propaganda, then these experimental forums, despite constant firewalling and scrutiny, along with blogs, personal websites, and pervasive social networks opening up cyberspace and political emancipations, have paved the way for diverse perceptions and practices. The attempt to create this unofficial public literary space, to recall the idea of Václav Havel, was also an attempt to create a literary civil society as a kind of theory and practice of “living in truth.” Of course, there were misgivings, for instance regarding the transformation of literary spaces into political spaces, when outbursts of political protest in poetry seemed to drown out experiments and aesthetic debates. When literature is absorbed into polarized opposing ideologies and general human rights issues, then attention to its essential nature and to more private voices may be ignored or even suppressed. This suppression, like all suppression, struggles to guarantee these emancipations.
But it seems as if at some point, hopes were kindled about reconnecting Vietnamese writers scattered in all directions and about a vision of contemporary Vietnamese literary life different from common conceptions of a literature long and heavily dependent on the state, closely tied to the “duty” of serving politics and propaganda: a democratic literature taking shape and endeavouring to keep pace with “world literature” outside.
A Nongeneration Generation
This transformation, that was/is going on slowly in overlapping waves, is often described/denigrated using the terms “self-criticism" and “resistance.” The effort to self-criticize and to “speak the truth” during the relaxing of regulations during the Renovation period, and the demand to “do normal art,” eventually led to confrontations over freedom of expression. The term “self-criticism” ultimately came to sound like a form of compromise. The term “resistance,” with the sense of dissident political views, become more prominent. (The critic Phạm Xuân Nguyên remarked that the term “resist” was originally used by overseas Vietnamese authors to refer to writers inside the country who expressed attitudes that didn’t conform to the official direction and line, breaking with the socialist realism aesthetic of that time; those inside the country referred to this as “Nhân Văn 2.” Later, “resistance” was often used to refer to the general literary phenomenon of diverging politics, not specific to those inside or outside the country.) But what followed after? Works banned for being “politically sensitive” perhaps only attracted a superficial tumult. Direct engagement with (the topic of) politics, to recall Sartre's (perhaps now outdated) thesis on engaged literature, may become a reagent for self-respect and courage on the part of the poet, but it also carries the risk of turning literature into a local product sample, perhaps mass produced and of questionable quality. And what happened after that? The unitary ideology that the state wanted to maintain through compulsory education had more or less become alienated, self-degraded and mostly just empty propaganda as far as many young people were concerned. Commercial media encroach on literary experimentation. Anxiety over political censorship and self-censorship parallel an equally great challenge: the power of censorship and seemingly invisible pressure by the market and the mass media. When Vietnamese writers are able to pursue a “normal” literary life, and it seems as if the limits of freedom extend infinitely, it may be that the bonds are harder to recognize, and therefore easier not to see. The deliberate choice by writers and artists to marginalize themselves formed a collective chorus of protest in the critical transition during the initial years of the Post-Renovation period, creating the need for a new effort on the part of the individual: to exist independently, often solitarily. But how to be an independent individual?
Older authors, identified with or influenced by the model of subsidized culture, were splintered by their choices in living and writing, either continuing in the role of “obedient children of the regime,” or maintaining the illusion of renovation, searching for a way to “do literature” while in the pincers of the (a)political discourse of the authorities regarding the arts, or falling into disillusionment, cynicism, and silence. A small proportion became protestors, demanding an end to equivocation in popular discourse, for instance by “making literature free as long as it doesn't touch on politics,” and were rapidly eliminated from official playgrounds. Younger writers growing up in a postwar, globalizing Vietnam, especially in cities like Saigon and Hanoi, demanded the renewal of literature and a “settling up” with the past. And perhaps there is now an even younger group still, those untroubled by the so-called past—of literature or history, with the option of choosing a “rootless,” adventurous, meandering, and ambiguous mindset.
Is it possible to place hope in a younger group of authors, typically described/denigrated a little too neatly in the term “new generation”? I want to insert a note of doubt here. The word “generation” always conveys the excitement of a shared change, companionship, and coming together, in a tangled time of the old—the new, a time bursting with debates, manifestos, rebellions. But when those who used to rise and fall together in waves of literature and literary groups begin to splinter off, terms of classification and identity gradually become lifeless and exhausted, and we only see a few people toiling away in cramped and isolated spaces, giving rise to the sensation of a poetic life that is undeniably cramped and stagnant, or a feeling of being adrift, outcast and alone. For instance, should we file Nguyễn Quốc Chánh with the “postwar generation,” or set him with the “generation of young Saigon poets,” or simply as a loner in the shadows? Is age important: do we have to speak of those born in the ’70s or the ’80s? We sense the disillusionment and self-criticism of a cohort of writers, the sense of loss and rootlessness of another cohort, and the deep disconnect and awareness of individual independence of the rising new class, but it is difficult to lump them together under the term “generation,” in the illusion that a collective change is taking place. What it comes down to is that poetry does not have generations, or that this is a non-generation generation, just a mass of individuals, and these rootless individuals, adrift, seeking a place of refuge in some community, are perhaps always on the outside.
A Possible Community
The anxious concern and distant dreams about the possibility of this community are strongly related to whether writers and readers can gradually erase separation and ambiguity, clearing away the detritus obscuring the portrait of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, by both listening to the voices of living poets and tending to dead souls.
This community will be even less possible if malignant tumors of the past keep on intruding, two large tumors that seem to have been erased from orthodox accounts of literature and the arts: the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm movement in the North and the legacy of the Southern literature under the former republic. The official reprinting of some poetic materials that were considered to be underground in the past, and the concurrent official recognition of poets who suffered due to the Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm affair—such as Lê Đạt, Trần Dần, Phùng Quán, and Hoàng Cầm—through State prizes for literature and arts (in 2007, when Trần Dần had already passed away) have more or less made them more known to readers today (although for poets, whether or not to accept recognition by the state and the legitimacy of these awards is also controversial). But this relaxation is still not sufficient. Southern literature remains an unknown territory. Many writers of “the past South” and all the “dark” and “gloomy” compositions of wartime literature are still cast aside. Traditions have been broken, and literary wounds have never been opened up and healed, thoroughly and unambiguously, so that writers and readers could step forward in literature with a clearer past. The past, in a certain sense, engages deeply with the contemporary in its essential traumas. Therefore, from time to time, a need to look back and reformulate a more balanced history of literature, based on evidence rather than intuition, emerges.
This community will be even less possible if there are still geographical divides in the way that contemporary Vietnamese literature is viewed, more precisely the Hanoi-Saigon divide (not Ho Chi Minh City as indicated on the maps, a name that seeks to erase history and the past using the name of the victor of one phase of history) and the domestic-overseas divide. There is a mythical Saigon, and an attempt to revive that myth, among writers and readers here: not just as the former Pearl of the Orient, the most modern city in Southeast Asia, but also the myth of freedom in publishing and in literature and the arts, with the flowering of movements and groups before “reunification” with the North. Saigon has become a symbol of alternative culture in the first years of the twenty-first century, a space of marginalized and unorthodox poets, of opposition and refusal, and of efforts for innovation and creativity. Hanoi, the land of “a thousand years of civilization,” possesses another myth, a label that I consider not completely justified, equating it with the space of power, a conservative and stagnant place where orthodox poets keep a tight grip on literary circles, with little room for exploration. The divide between Hanoi as the center and Saigon as the margins, like the domestic-overseas divide, seems up till now only to signify a prolonging and deepening of the sequelae of a harsh separation, a massive historical trauma that is not yet fully understood. This divided past still pervades the present: the migration of Hanoians to Saigon in 1954, the evacuation of Vietnamese in Saigon to California, Australia and many other places, the long period with the two regions under two regimes (1954-1975), and the fratricidal wars, “the winner” and “the loser.” Can literature and poetry participate in the effort to heal and eradicate those walls?
This community would be even less possible if those divided pairs become fixed terms, frozen statues. Until now, many people still default to the idea that contemporary underground poetry in Vietnam only includes, or is equivalent to, the term Saigon Young Poetry, like the brand of a rebellious early twentieth-first century movement. This perspective exposes a geocentric view of culture, which only pays attention to the geographical location of alternative movements. In reality, these geographic boundaries have been broken, blurred by authors, texts, and readers coming together in cyberspace and in underground-independent publishing networks rather than in locations where they may temporarily reside. So-called contemporary Vietnamese poetry has expanded its scope, not just inside Vietnam, but also across borders, associated with Vietnamese communities that are keeping Vietnamese writing alive in many places throughout the world. One more unjust and misunderstood aspect on the part of the reading community is the identification of underground poetry with “dissident poetry”: poets bearing the brand of dissident, those raising their voice to demand freedom and democracy rather than the themes of literary exploration, and literature as a means of fighting rather than of sharing fresh insights.
By overcoming these divisions and preconceptions, acknowledging the oppression and the oppressed, contemporary Vietnamese poetry might open up richer and more abundant spaces, with a clearer sense of hope for a more critical and sharing community. There, regardless of idealized expectations, writers and readers would be able to do away with the artificial division between literature and politics, to eradicate the subordination of writers to the authorities, and to come together in a normal literary community, a place of creativity and interpretation that is passionate for the criticism of rigid norms and corrupted aesthetics.
Yet Another Context
The collision between poetry, individual poets, and their context, and the attempt to envision a community, prompt me (plural) to interrogate the potential participation of poetry (in politics): can poetry and writers become dynamic actors, or is their role just determined by the pressure of their so-called context? I don't know whether it is possible, in societies where the demand for political action by the masses seems more urgent than the demand for literary creation, to contemplate a successful connection between literature (distinct from propaganda) and politics? Is resistance itself a form of innovation in a certain context and vice versa? Can individual and collective practices mirror each other? I still persist in considering that the political dimensions of language are different from calls to march in the streets, and that writers seem to have no way to justify their existence apart from their own individual experience and practice, their own words.
I had wanted to observe more closely the trap in which writers in Vietnam are stuck. The pressure they are facing seems to originate not only from their preoccupations as writers, but also from the eagerness of the readers, the citizenry, for writers to cease taking pleasure in “pure” aesthetics and wordplay, and to participate in “transforming life.” I don't know if this can be seen as a consequence, but over the past decade or so, many prominent poetic identities seem to have chosen to disappear, to fall silent, leaving behind only unsettling questions and a feeling of loss on the part of the readers, when they seem to see writing poetry and pursuing a life in poetry as futile pursuits, and when they themselves are spinning in circles, or being spun around, by questions of responsibility and participation. I think more about the right of poets to be silent and to disappear. The poets will say: I write for readers in the here and now, not for some illusory future. The poets will also say: even if I don't (write in order to) shut my eyes and cover my ears, to escape or to sketch illusory hopes, I still want to believe that poetry has no social responsibility other than to seek its own path to self-emancipation. Does literary writing, and do those who write it, have to be attached to something, or can they choose not to adhere to a narrow framework, to remain homeless and even to play with the nihilism of having no refuge at all, when being anchored hinders personal creativity? I imagine an individual poet looking into a strange mirror, seeing only a twisted face, multiple images canceling each other out, buffeted by the waves of endless events and voices, and striving, as a solitary individual, to retrace their steps in order to identify the point at which they become a part of the world reflected in that mirror, and how to preserve their true face.
I believe that the pulse of literature and of poetry is always vitally linked to the time and space in which it exists, but poets may beat to a deeper pulse still: in their soul, in their reading, in their encounters, in journeying and wandering through cultures, in their dreams of reviving long-forgotten pasts, in discovering hitherto unseen visions of the present in a ray of fragile hope, and in attending to the possibilities of language. I want to persist in clinging to this cherished aspiration when I endeavor to observe, and to a certain extent understand, the absent presences in contemporary Vietnamese-language poetry, with the humble expectation that the true face of this poetry will gradually be unmasked: Poetry cannot just be the continuing testimony of those suffering from ideological conflicts during unfortunate periods in the history of a people. I imagine that the process of peeling back that mask has been and is going on, in the shadows, with no little pain, its direction unclear, with the detritis of the past and the present, of ideologies and literary attitudes, and perhaps there isn't any other way.
Poetry can locate its relationship with its time in its own distinct experience of language, and the interrogation of the condition of language, in turn, can perhaps shape the poet. A concern with interrogations of language posed by these poetic practices, therefore, prompts my caution regarding the myth of the earth-shattering potential of dissenting poetry in Vietnam, frequently reduced to mere political protest poetry, (supposedly) attracting overseas opinion and being a more exploited genre, while aesthetic interrogations are perhaps diminished or set aside. When placed in the wider context of the “outside world,” Vietnamese literature might, in panic, sink like a stone, and it cannot hope for an equal conversation if it doesn’t bring new voices and unique poetic identities, if it only knows how to come like a faroff flavor of political variables.
I don't know if it is overly ambitious to raise the possibility of creating a different image of postwar Vietnam, a different image of a dissident Vietnam in the Renovation and Post-Renovation period, a more expansive image of Vietnam with the diverse literary trends of the present and an as yet unknown projection. In poetry, the process of dismantling a monopolistic ideology and taking part are occurring simultaneously, and the existence of underground poetry, and of absent presences, is not in fact in opposition to orthodox poetry, “state poetry,” and “state literature,” but aims to stimulate individual poets and poetry in general. The condition of being marginalized, whether as a deliberate choice or not, can nourish an emancipated grammar of poetry, and can actually empower those who submerge themselves in the life of language. These are individual voices, endlessly seeking to share and sincerely cherishing the hopes of a community of their own.
1. A series of articles about these events appeared openly in the media. Worth mentioning are Hai ngày đáng ghi nhớ mãi (Two Unforgettable Days) in Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) on the 17th of October 1987—Record of the two-day meeting of Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh with around 100 writers and artists on 6 and 7 October 1987, Đồng chí Tổng bí thư Nguyễn Văn Linh nói chuyện với văn nghệ sĩ (Comrade Secretary-General Nguyễn Văn Linh speaks with writers and artists—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters), 17-10-1987), Hồ Ngọc: Cần giải quyết đúng đắn mối quan hệ giữa văn nghệ và chính trị (The need for correct solutions to the relationship between arts and letters and politics –Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters), 21-11-1987), Nguyễn Quang Sáng—Những điều cần cho văn học (Pressing issues for literature), Nguyên Ngọc—Cần phát huy đầy đủ chức năng xã hội của văn học nghệ thuật (The need to bring into play the social function of literature and art—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) 31-10-1987), Nguyễn Hồng Phong—Để văn nghệ ta có được nhiều đỉnh cao và phong phú (For our arts and letters to have abundant peaks and richness)—Văn Nghệ (Arts and Letters) 5-12-1887)—cited in the volume of Lại Nguyên Ân and Nguyễn Thị Bình (collated and edited): Đời sống văn nghệ thời đầu Đổi Mới (Literary and artistic life in the early Renovation period), unpublished. Documents supplied by the researcher Nguyễn Thị Bình.]↩
Introduction to un \ \martyred: [self-] vanishing presences in Vietnamese poetry, forthcoming 2019. © 2018 by Nhã Thuyên. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by David Payne. All rights reserved.
A piece of furniture in an unusual location sparks a series of interrogations.
a velvet chair
standing by itself
on a highway
a chair standing by itself on a highway
means its life is over
a life of ups and downs
before it was brought here
and left beside the grass
it was laid down squarely
thanks to a final gesture of love
with all four legs standing against the asphalt
this whisks an image to my mind:
a wandering soul who leisurely sits here
between the passing cars
and the mud
but surely no soul can be so foolish
as to come and sit on a torn old abandoned chair
on a dark cold rainy September afternoon
on a lightless highway
to give the chair
a little consolation
I conclude as follows:
there exists such a soul
it’s just that he, or she, is
The author thanks Kaitlin Rees for her assistance with the translation.
“Cái ghế giữa xa lộ vào một buổi chiều mưa” first published in Tiền Vệ (www.tienve.org). © P.K. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by P.K. All rights reserved.
A Vietnamese woman visiting her ex-husband's family in Denmark remembers the many men she's loved in her life.
At fourteen I fell in love with a man, a writer, older than me by thirteen years, already with a family. He resembled a young Anthony Perkins, that guitar-playing wanderer who roams the forest and happens upon the doe eyes of Audrey Hepburn in the foliage. At twenty-one I lost my virgin body to a person who specialized in the old lục bát verse, older than me by fifteen years, also like Anthony Perkins, also with a wife, an army officer with an overbite, penetrating eyes and a voice that stirred emotion like Nguyễn Đình Toàn in his radio program Musical Themes that ran Thursday nights at 11pm. After that worthless memory, I continued to have romantic relations with various married men, each one further from my generation, completely driven by circumstances, in no way planned. Following the officer was an aging writer devoted to new Romanticism, meaning he had a gift for description of narrow and elaborate twentieth-century spaces and detailing the surreal mental states of ageless characters. At this point, the objects of my love changed nationalities. Verdelli was cultural attaché of the Italian Embassy in Saigon, older than me by seventeen years, with a wife, two children. A statue with Mediterranean skin, a voice like Julio Iglesias, and a complete collection of Modigliani and Buffet, unfortunately all reproductions. It was the swanlike necks of women in those paintings that drew him to mine. I eventually grew tired of the shadows that haunted such adventures, and in sober reflection now, I can see the products of Western trends at that time. I left the city for the lonelier countryside because I thought I was mature enough to be away from the messiness of big cities. But it was in the countryside where I encountered yet another writer, older than me by twenty years, with a wife and a flock of children to raise. As it happens, this man was a great love, even with nothing attractive about him except for his silence. It was that mute thunderstorm of his that captivated me like nothing else.
In the middle of that thunderstorm, I decided to make a family with an undergrad student, younger than me by two years, the only unmarried man among all the men I had known; but of course, in the end it was me who turned him into a man with a wife. The marriage was supposed to be an escape, but it sheltered me for barely a year, perhaps because I was so used to those haunting shadows of a third person―I couldn’t manage without them. All these men I mention, with the exception of this last one who became my husband, had one thing in common: they could sit with me until the end of time without ever indecently proposing something more. The time of my virgin body’s surrender to the lục bát officer was nothing more than an accident on both sides; I had just finished reading Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and he had imagined me as Odile from André Maurois’ Climats.
But what’s the point of picking back through this rubble of memory? I'm currently swaying on an express train called Thalys on my way from Gare du Nord in Paris to Amsterdam. The train has already passed through Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Schiphol, and is about to enter Amsterdam’s Central Station. I've given up trying to imagine the family I’m to meet and the town of Hoorn where I'll stay for two weeks. Đỉnh had been among those carrying ceremonial gifts to the bride on my wedding day: the only encounter I had with the relatives of the husband I would soon divorce. April of ’75 had sent everyone roiling in all directions; I would never have suspected that twenty-four years later I’d be invited to spend the holidays with Đỉnh in Hoorn, twenty miles north of Amsterdam.
He and his wife are there to welcome me at the station. They are gushing with warmth. Đỉnh’s hair has grayed and he has grown a belly. Đỉnh’s wife is heavyset, with a kind and untimid manner. They stop by an Asian supermarket on the way home from the station and pack their car with who knows how much food. Seeing Đỉnh stagger back to the car shouldering a heavy bag of rice, I do not have the feeling that I’m in the middle of a tulip-metropolis.
The family resides on a newly-developed block toward Enkhuizen. There are no bare red brick walls, no white window frames, no such iconic features of Dutch homes. The two rows of houses painted in bright and cheerful colors seem out of place with the overall aesthetics of the town, while children with different skin color play together along the paths between houses. It was a Dutch ship that had rescued Đỉnh’s family along with fourteen others who fled the country by boat from Vũng Tàu. They were brought to Hoorn, where more Vietnamese people started to cluster over the course of ten years, growing a small shared community. The smell of Vietnamese food clings to every item in the house. I am uncertain about using the familial pronouns of address or not. Đỉnh’s wife prompts me. “Auntie, just go on upstairs to take a bath and get yourself ready for dinner with the gang. Let me get the kids to show you to your room.”
Đỉnh’s two kids, a boy and a girl, both school-age, speak Vietnamese with a Dutch accent. I am suddenly aware of myself, standing there, planted in the middle of the living room at my ex-husband’s family’s house after twenty-two years of divorce. How strange life is.
It’s a lively dinner, for the most part filled with questions from Đỉnh.
“We over here heard nothing of your divorce. After ’75 everyone was just trying to watch their own back. My cousin’s side of the family were all Communists and we were the enemies who fled the country; we didn’t dare keep in touch. But recently, my wife went back to Vietnam to visit and found out that you and my cousin had had a daughter who won a scholarship to study Arts Plastiques at the Sorbonne. We also heard that you two called it quits not long after the wedding?”
For ages just trying to make ends meet, I hadn’t taken time to look back. Đỉnh’s questions are now pushing me in reverse: a bouquet of white daisies in one hand, the train of my wedding gown in the other, checking all the doors of the restaurant at the Continental, searching for one that led to a back alley. He had intercepted me: “Where are you trying to go? The bathroom’s over there.”
Caught in my runaway act. After the wedding, I stubbornly refused to sign the marriage certificate.
“It’s just a piece of paper, it doesn’t mean anything,” was my excuse.
“It does mean something,” he stressed every syllable, “at the very least it binds your legs from sneaking out the back door.”
Not even a year could pass before I tried making another escape. He smiled with naive certainty.
“Think you could manage on your own with that belly?”
I could manage. In those years when everyone was going hungry and my friends were all weighing the matter of a sea-crossing, I was able to secure a job at the library in the Health Service. I sent my daughter to daycare and worked nights decorating wooden shoes with an electric pen. When she was nearly school-age, my husband reached out to share something.
“I want to get married again.”
“So get married again. You’re still a healthy young man.”
“But I need you to sign an application for divorce.”
“We don’t have marriage papers but you want divorce papers?”
He lowers his voice, “Ours is a case of social marriage. Everyone knows I have a wife. Do you know how many guests we had to our wedding, plus all my family you met in Phú Yên? The local authorities will not recognize my marriage to another woman until I have divorce papers from my first wife.”
We sat together to fill in the application but stumbled over finding a convincing reason for our divorce.
“I probably couldn’t write: The scene of my wife sitting in darkness and lecturing about the absurdity of physical pleasure after every occasion of sex is unbearable to me.”
Obviously he still had a sense of humor. After much consideration, we agreed on a reason: conflicts over the child’s education. Poor child: only six years old and no idea she was the token excuse in the divorce of her parents.
The People’s Court of Phú Nhuận was a villa with a French-style pebbly yard, perhaps confiscated from one of the wealthy families who were among the first to abandon everything. The Honorable Trần Thị Bi, wearing a long-sleeve silk button-down and black silk trousers, was sitting behind a desk placed in the villa’s front room, which must have once been the foyer. To her left was a small room with nothing besides a piano. While my soon-to-be-ex-husband was talking privately to the Judge, I crept into the room, quietly closed the door, sat down at the piano, and hit a few keys at random until someone stormed through the door.
“SHHHHH! Don’t you know this is a courtroom?”
I stood with a shy smile just as I was called in for my turn to meet the judge.
My tidy legal marriage. When we were leaving the court, my ex-husband turned to me and whispered, “Let me come back to the house and clean it for you one last time.”
The two of us walked downtown, stopping for a drink at Le Givral before turning down Lê Lợi, the part of the street with bookshops that had once been the most bustling place for old books lovers. He bought me a brand-new boxed set of Wagner’s biography and collected works, a beautiful black cover with golden lettering, which even if I had the money for, would be impossible to find in any of the modern book stores at that time like Xuân Thu, Đoàn Thành Lực, Khai Trí, and so on. After that he walked me back and cleaned the house as he suggested.
A cackle springs from Đỉnh’s throat and then, as if overcome with excitement, he pounds his fist on the table.
“My oh my! Oh! Had I known, I wouldn’t have carried that ceremonial tray at your wedding! I see now how foolish I was, just doing whatever I was told.”
Đỉnh’s wife flashes a weak smile and reproaches him. “Auntie is just kidding around and you believe her? Indeed you are still foolish!”
“OK, no more questions,” I say. “Anyway, I am your ex–sister-in-law. After twenty-four years now I think I have the right to say what I want.”
“Ex- but not expelled. We invited you here on holiday because we still see you as family. And besides, your daughter is still our niece. In the end, memories always become more exaggerated to be more . . . stylish.”
I know they imagined I was just having a laugh during our meal. And we did laugh. We drank German beer, ate Dutch cheese, and, for dessert, watched a videotape of Paris by Night 44 by Thúy Nga.
The two of them have taken two weeks off work just to care for me. Every evening they gather at the table to decide on the next day’s agenda of entertainment and excursion. Through the couple I meet a middle-aged doctor who gave up medicine when coming to Holland and turned to politics, an ethnically Mường Vietnamese man, formerly a member of the Communist Party, who now makes a living as an electrician and sings with a church choir three times a week, and the well-bred son of a communist general who had crossed the Trường Sơn mountain range to the South on foot but whose name I have now forgotten, who went to work as a laborer in Eastern Europe and then fled as a refugee to Holland after the fall of Communism there. So complicated. I keep silent most of the time, holding my tongue for fear of revealing my own political biases, not knowing which side Đỉnh’s family was on. I linger on in Hoorn, fascinated by the canals and duckweed shores and beautiful houses that seemed to be straight out of fairy tales rather than places you met this or that person. I need an unblemished reputation to come back and work in Vietnam, to be able to go visit my daughter next year without worrying about political threats to my life.
There’s one afternoon when the rain does not let up.
“OK, today we stay home and rest, save up some energy, and tomorrow we’ll go catch oysters in Oude Nieuwland. And then we’ll have oysters on the grill—so fresh! So good! And you can meet the whole Vietnamese community hard at work collecting shrimp and oysters in this civilized country. No need to be a bride in Phú Yên to have such an experience.”
“Sure!” I slip out of the house with an umbrella in hand and wander over to the small nearby supermarket, where I see the words KORTING in red. It is the season of discounts. With people on summer holiday, the stores are nearly empty and summer clothes are about to be put away to make room for fall fashions. The rain is coming down in torrents. I move under the post office’s awning to wait out the rain. From the parking lot marked PARKEER on the left, an old man opens his car door and hurries directly toward where I’m standing. He smiles as if to introduce himself then says something in Dutch. Smiling back at him, I point to my ears and shake my head to show I don’t understand. Thinking I’m deaf, he raises his voice and utters the sentence again, word by word. I say, “I don’t speak Dutch.”
He lets out an ah and then asks again in English, “Finding some shelter from the rain? It’s not supposed to rain this much in the summer!”
“Do you want to cross to the supermarket? I’ve got an umbrella and can walk you there.”
“No, no, thank you. I’ll stand here for a bit then keep driving. I just don’t like driving in this rain.”
I say that I agree, driving in the rain is dangerous. After that I’ve run out of things to say. The two of us look out through the thick curtain of rain. I glance over. The man is surely old. His hair is white, his arms and legs are somewhat lumpy, his skin is freckled, his bony collarbone sinks down between his shoulders, but his back is straight and he has a sense of fashion: orange dress shirt, ochre waistcoat, checkered red and brown jacket.
The Dutch must dress with the brightest colors in the West. Take a seat somewhere around Paris’s opera house to people-watch as the crowds emerge from subways after work and you will see gray tones all over. Everyone in Paris wears a serious expression and steps with long, fast strides—nothing like the people of Vietnam who, in spite of toiling away their lives, still laugh and chat and drink noisily and dress casually. Though most people in the West do seem to have a kind of breathless passion, with not a few couples in the heart of Paris kissing as if it were their last chance before the end of the world.
While my thoughts were jumping between Dutch clothing and French kissing, the old man has found an empty bench alongside the post office. He motions for me to come sit. It’s then that I realize there’s something amiss with his wrinkled face: an exquisite set of teeth, sparkling white and in rows straight as corn. Surely fake. Thinking back to the toothless mouths of some old Vietnamese men, I feel they are much more charming than those with some foreign object stuffed into their mouths, every night having to spit it out, put it in some chemicals, then snoring into the night between gum-clasping lips. The thought strikes me as ridiculous. The falling rain, the umbrella, sitting here theorizing about teeth. But that constant attention from Đỉnh and his wife had been getting on my nerves, and just sitting here, not doing anything, feels so satisfying. The old man stirs as if he has something to say. And sure enough, after a little while, he starts to talk.
“My house is over by Ijsselmeer, not too far from here.”
“Being close to the lake in the summer must be nice and cool, but does it get cold in the winter?”
“In winter the water freezes and people come from all over to skate on the ice. Cold but fun.”
“At your age and still driving without a problem, you must be in great health?”
“I just drive around from my house to town and then back home. Still got my eyesight. But going by bicycle is just too much for me.”
“My mom says that the old usually suffer from one of four fateful misfortunes: forgetfulness, immobility, blindness, or deafness. She confesses she is lucky to have the fourth, which seems the least miserable; getting old, what’s the need to hear this or that. This year she'll be ninety-six.”
“I just turned seventy. Lucky I’m not yet suffering any of the four.”
Just seventy years old? I consider that he’s aged quite early, surely a life of struggle. But why think about age if someone appears to be perfectly fine? I let out a yawn and cover my mouth. The rain is subsiding but I still haven’t made up my mind about what to do next. The old man asks, “The rain’s letting up, if you’re going some place close to here I can offer you a ride.”
I say I’m going to walk around the lake, then fumble through my bag for a set of recently taken photos.
“I took some photos around the lake a few days ago.”
He slides the photos one over the next, and abruptly stops.
“Oh, it’s my house!”
He lets out a joyful chirp, pointing to the third house on a block of romantic looking houses down on the path that runs along the water’s edge. The sun setting in the right corner of the photo reflects its fragile golden rays on the red brick walls, illuminating the flowers on the patio.
“Oh my!” I was head over heels for these houses last week when I stood beside the lake.
“But in high tides it’s a nightmare. The water licks at the doorstep and it feels like the house could submerge. If you want to come see it, let’s go.”
Buoyantly, as if I were just offered a job after months of unemployment, I take the umbrella and walk him to his car. He also seems excited with a little pep to his step, hands shaking the car keys.
“The rain’s over, don’t bother with the umbrella!”
The car smells of whisky. I tremble when imagining a car accident, two bodies of two different races, different ages; then, in order to get the corpses out, they have to cut the car in half. Đỉnh and his wife bewildered, wondering who was this old man that the damn ex–sister-in-law wound up coupling with in such a short stay. I'm sure they'd give up guessing. The car stops in a parking lot. We walk around to the block of houses I’ve seen before. The old man says, “It’s impossible to sit and enjoy yourself on those benches that are still wet. Come on in and have a cup of tea with me then go wherever you want to go.”
Was it wise? I don’t know anything about this man and vice versa. But him being seventy years old, what kind of games could he even play? I was stronger, I could hurt him. I could knock him over the head and then do whatever I wanted; in the dark of night I could push his body into the lake. And in winter, the water frozen, people would come to skate and discover a rotting corpse wearing a yellow waistcoat and a checkered jacket under the translucent ice surface. Thinking it over, it wasn’t just a mute thunderstorm that the sixty-year-old countryside writer was able to give me. The old man unlocks the door, then stands still, inviting me to enter. My eyes do a sweep of the room, looking for traces of other family members. I find none. I’d heard that many Dutch people have won the Nobel Prize, this old man must have won the Nobel Peace Prize. The room is neatly arranged. I’m surprised not to see more antiques in the house for a man his age. Besides one giant sound system and some enormous shelves stocked with tapes and CDs, the room appears furnished totally in white, a bit plain, but also formidable with fiery colored abstract paintings on two of the walls and lamps hiding in unexpected corners leading to more rooms of the house. Not inviting me to sit, he leads me out to the porch where we can watch the afternoon sun, heavy after rain, sinking delicately into the lake’s sparkling surface. It’s beautiful beyond words. We sit on the porch and sip tea; behind us, a CD in the living room echoes the dripping notes of a piano. It seems set up in a way, but it works.
I returned twice more to that porch at the old man’s house, then told Đỉnh and his wife that I would be extending my stay a bit longer than planned.
“Người đàn bà ngồi” © Trần Thị NgH. In Lạc Đạn và mười truyện ngắn (Stray bullets and ten short stories), first published by Văn Nghệ (California, 1999) and republished as Nhà Có Cửa Khóa Trái (Locked in) by Phuongnam Books (Saigon,2013). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Kaitlin Rees. All rights reserved.
What begins as a meditation on love soon meanders past a lighthouse, past an ox with broken horns, until it reaches consciousness.
I liberate the captive herd within me
I summon back the fossilized kisses
If things have souls then things bear static souls
Hungry birds are building nests in space
Affliction gathers in the handkerchief of a bride on her wedding day
We kidnap fear by the sharp-edged tongue of a knife
The sound of your crying purifies the darkness
A sacred place is where I begin an entrance
Each grain of sand is the carcass of a dried star
Distilled in the deep pool of tears
Dissonant music lingers in the bodiless ear of the present tense
Truth is the wafting shadowy zone of doubt
The night deepened
The toiling laborers continued beating moon rock
In the rat-hole quarters
Cheap dreams have no anchor to hold
They float together straight down pipes after an unseasonable rain
If the sheep become authors
They will write about their innocence being lost
Excessively preoccupied with petty calculation
While in trees with a tribe of orangutans
Naturally admiring the moon in ascent behind mountain tops
The loneliness in a dark corner contorts a self-constructed pain
I welcomeparty a friend from afar at the first break of light
The wind blows across the sky of Brothersisterhood
Buddha never speaks precisely about Truth except for when the Sir is protecting silence
The lunchtime napping people are evolving a dreamy fountain of energy
Buddha is assembling a labyrinth of love exclusively reserved for evil
Your heart infuses my heart with a consoling word packed with spring bounty
Not a fresh flower remains on the Sunday morning eating table
Dusty rain beyond the garden makes a pair of hands far exceed cerulean
Pass me along to the lighthouse and burn me bright like fire
Let me become the jagged underground rocks that rupture a boat in the night
Let me grow like the flecks of light breeding in the deranged brain of a man
Let me chant while watching my standing legs battered and buried in the hurricane
The mutual affection in a couple of supine beings asleep beneath a shadowy patch of orange trees
Amorous feelings in repose and a summer of increasing heat
In the cluttered tunnels of stacked sensual flesh
They search for each other beneath scalding bellows of a ruminating ox with broken horns
Indulge yourself in the food of breasts teeming with life
Netting hope throughout the jungle with a web of sound
Carry the wandering songs of those romancing strollers within
Entangled fresh flowers climb up the roof where the spring rain flutters
In a midnight dream this spring
The East was a river skin of visionary sleep
I sense I am a lethargic carp lost in thought
Drifting with the stream and gulping stars as they take shape
The universe can be constructed out of the dried skeleton of a mythical deity
This morning a steamroller’s pulverized dust billowblurrs every place
As hundreds of planets open their delirious eyes plunging head first into each other
The bloated vigor in every desiccated vein of the late harvest flowers
Everything around us is blindingly present
A rose a gripped cinder a hand a scythe
A clenched diamond can be launched into each corner edge of the present
Time putrefies with its abiding richness!
All people should self-immolate their faces and on them search for light
Humans will be mutually set free upon entering the final judgment day
All saints should be too
If people could live one thousand years then there would remain neither guilds of saints nor of the woeful
The conscience is a grain of sand in the shoe of Consciousness
Only those with true digression step in hoping search for home
"Những mảnh vỡ" © Pháp Hoan. First published in Pháp Hoan, Lịch mùa, AJAR press, 2016. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Kaitlin Rees. All rights reserved
Trần Dần’s novel, Crossroads and Lampposts, is set in Hanoi in late 1954 and 1955, immediately following the withdrawal of the French and the takeover by the Viet Minh under the terms of the Geneva Accords. Duong, the main character in the novel, is under suspicion of being a collaborator with the former French regime. In this excerpt from chapter three, Trinh (aka Com), Duong’s wife, talks about life under the new regime and her husband’s state of mind.
August 1965. Trinh recalled: at that time, my husband’s mood fluctuated wildly. Mrs. Hoa found work for me carrying sand on the bank of the river. In the morning I went to work, while my husband took his pole and basket and went to catch frogs. In the afternoon my husband usually arrived home before me, but he just left the rice pot there, waiting for me to come home and do everything. There were times when we didn’t eat dinner until 8 or 9 o’clock. There were times when my husband threw the plate of rice out into the yard because I came back after the close of the market and couldn’t buy anything to eat with it. I think that with the stain of being a collaborator and being under suspicion over the gunshot incident, my husband became temperamental and easily angered. Sometimes he paced back and forth in the room, mumbling to himself, exactly like a person fated to die. Sometimes he would be happy, whistling loudly through the house, then he would suddenly sit down dejectedly. There were times when he would be sitting on his own and I would come in, and he would be startled and jump out of his skin. The hardest thing was his irritable disposition, which was quite harsh. My husband still thought that Mrs. Hoa had tried to get me to report to the local authorities about what happened at home. If I had talked back to him, then the sound of slamming doors would have filled the house, so I bit my tongue. In our neighborhood, only Mrs. Hoa was good to me, she still came by for a chat. All the rest of them avoided me. Most importantly at that time, when so many compatriots were going to the South, every day Mrs. Hoa looked after the pigs, planted vegetables, and went to the market, going from one lane to another urging people to stay. Mrs. Hoa was facing great difficulties due to the case of her husband: his name was Thap, and he had written her a letter to tell her that he had the misfortune to be shot in a very critical place, meaning that he would never be able to father children. Thap wanted Mrs. Hoa to find another husband. Mrs. Hoa hid the letter and didn’t tell her mother-in-law. The soldier who had been the target of the unsuccessful assassination attempt that other evening revealed the story, so Mrs. Hoa’s mother-in-law found out about it after all. The two women went all the way to the hospital to find Thap, but he had already left. Afterward Thap wrote another letter, urging his mother to find another husband for her daughter-in-law and stating that he would only return home when Mrs. Hoa had remarried. Mrs. Hoa regularly encouraged me to attend the ward meetings and to forget about my sorrow. She said: “You look really sad. Whenever I see you, your eyes are red.” So I listened to Mrs. Hoa and requested to join the activities of the fire-fighting team of the ward each evening and on Sundays. I was an enthusiastic participant, so little by little the neighbors stopped shunning me. But the most difficult thing of all was the situation at home. Whatever money my husband made from fishing, he drank it all away. For two months in a row he didn’t give me a single cent. I had to spend all my personal savings. When summer came, my husband again became entangled with that woman Lily and ran up a debt at Tinh Bop’s café. He would spend around fifty to seventy thousand each time, running up a new debt before the old one was fully paid off. That shameless Lily wouldn’t wear a thing, summer or winter, and would leave the window open in order to lure customers into her brother’s cafe. At every ward meeting, Mr. Bug-eyed Trung said that the tank soldiers had again raised their heads there and that swarms of butterflies were again flitting around a whore. But in reality it was just the packaging of a whore while the contents belonged to the French Deuxieme Bureau. He said it was politics disguised as debauchery. He made those insinuations so many times that the neighbors knew exactly when he was referring to my husband, to Hoong’s gang, to Ngoc, the royalist soldier, and to that woman Lily and her brother. One evening my husband also came to the meeting. As the neighbors listened to Mr. Bug-eyed Trung, they turned their heads to stare: as they looked at my husband, he laughed weakly. After returning home, he sat smoking one cigarette after another for I don’t know how many cigarettes, his face deathly white like a corpse. Then he mumbled “O Buddha of Infinite Light” over and over, to no effect. But I could see that Mr. Bug-eyed Trung was completely right. The destructive and depraved actions of the clique of puppet soldiers from the former regime had to be stopped. If not, we would have a disorderly city, an epidemic of hooligans and thieves, prostitutes, gambling dens, and broken families.
After we went to bed, I said these things to my husband. I talked about how Mr. Bug-eyed Trung kept telling him to mend his ways, but he kept on acting depraved. If Mr. Bug-eyed Trung didn’t speak out, then his clique would foment disorder everywhere. Immediately my husband gave me a kick. I fell out of the bed onto the ground. My husband shouted: “Stupid fool! What clique is that?” I went to the other room and lay there crying to myself. I had been pregnant since the spring. Thinking of my unborn child, I cried all the more. At midnight my husband arose and angrily got dressed, then left somewhere, pushing his bicycle. He didn’t return until the following morning. My husband treated me very brutally. He had a vicious temper. But he was often dejected, and he often laughed bitterly to himself. We were newlyweds, but our house felt like a funeral home. When the 300th day was approaching and the port of Hai Phong was about to be closed, knowing that that woman Lily would soon go to the South, my husband abandoned our home for 3 straight days and nights to be with her.
From chapter three of Những ngã tư và những cột đèn. © Trần Dần. The novel was written in 1966 and first published in Vietnam forty-four years later by Nhã Nam, 2010. By arrangement with the translator. Translation © David Payne. All rights reserved.
These translated, cut-up and reassembled Vietnamese texts are by Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên, originals by Nguyễn Quốc Chánh (“Syndrome,” “Fucking Skulls Open”), Bùi Giáng (“Sương Tỳ Hải”), and Nhã Thuyên (“taste of waters”).
birds one by one penetrates a gap, disappearing wings disappearing songs, beaks remain, cut open one another’s eyes, napes, death lies in wait on a bowed branch, a forest of guns bulges out of soil sockets, weapons shielded under fatbergs, bullets lie deep in the brains
don’t know how many times i lie with my face down on sand my eyes gently ajar looking at a sunrise looking til i notice a mutation from red to black it is no longer a scintillating crimson aura it turns into a flickering black hole, it haunts, the blood in my body begins to accelerate & the finest red blood corpuscles hurry down towards my energy center my cøck warms and hardens my cøck is about to weep my lucky cøck is ecstatic my hands dig into sand my belly touches sand my mouth gapes open for sand & my rump reels
we wanted to sleep, sleep incessantly through infinitely sleep, sleep past lives in damp chave-chasms of perfumed earth, sleep by a green grass zone and see ourselves as herbal beings beside the green grass vault
we have found in the deterioration of flesh and bones a spiritual liberation
and we sleep again, sleep endlessly through hours, increments, sleep ceaselessly while sky floats, sleep as a game with time, sleep longly messily like midday infants ensconced in cots, datelessly in perfumed pregnant air, in the home of living sound waves,
living in our waters, my waters, there is no other way but to be buoyant, several thousand kilometers of coastline, what else to do, i say to chàng,1 i have not yet known what it’s like to truly be buoyant, chàng and i, have we ever been truly buoyant, a dwarfish ferry ride connect the streets to an island too small to infinitely lose oneself in, streets again soon, worry again then forget, how to possibly forget, but being infinitely buoyant to what ends, laughter from the throat springs up out of nowhere, to simply be buoyant, to relish in the taste of water here and elsewhere, to make peace, to stop resisting, so that no endings occur, so that i know whether water is salt or fresh, or bitter salt fresh, is my body salt or fresh, or ultimately tasteless, i make a slip of the tongue, tasteless, and abruptly staggered and grieving, tasteless, is the most desperate state, condition, fate of water, is closure, is a non-adjective adjective, a bastard adjective, an orphaned adjective, a self-drowning adjective, a dead adjective buoyant in oblivion, i do not cease from astonishment, i am confounded like a fateless adjective, then, does chàng have to select an adjective closer to sea or closer to river, that bitter salt fresh taste is it the fate of river or sea?
1. translator’s note on the Vietnamese word chàng /ṯɕaːŋ˨˩/
1. pron. second-person (“you”) or third-person (“he”), used to address a male, literary
2. n. chisel
3. n. flying frog]↩
In this surrealistic piece, a sleeping man wakes up to find a visitor watching him.
He comes to find me on a day I don’t remember, by the time I’ve gotten up he is already sitting on the other side of the table to watch as I eat my breakfast. He does not say a word as I stir the coffee, the spoon’s collision with the side of the glass making a dispassionate clang. I’ve been sleeping for a while, not sure how long a while, he must have arrived as I was dozing off, coming softly without a sound. As I burrowed into the dark, I imagine he was taking a stroll along the nearby streets, walking slowly, with short regular steps, the footsteps so soft, without hurting a single dry twig, without leaving a trace in the fine powdery soil, then circling the neighborhood, then perhaps passing my door, once and then many times and almost stopping, probably pushing the door open to take a stroll in the small garden, crouching over a cluster of flowers, every once in a while gazing at the window, waiting for me to get up. Now he sits silently across from me, I smile as a show of greeting. He keeps silent and I wonder whether he lives far away or somewhere in the neighborhood. There is something very familiar about him, as if he’s known me from the childhood days I was still wearing pants with crotch holes and I have been seeing him daily since then. “Have you forgotten me already?” He’s probably about to ask that question. “How could I forget, we are so close.” “You’ve been waiting for long? Sorry then.” “Just been sleeping and sleeping, I didn’t think I’d have to sleep any longer. Here, have a cigarette. Anything strange on your end lately?” “Strange on my end? I’m still so-so, so-so, as always. You seem different than before, what are you up to now?” “Not up to anything, how about a couple drinks with me to ease the boredom.” “You’re bored? You’re bored? You’re bored? You are with me and you are bored? You are with me and you are bored? You are with me and you are bored? Bored . . . bored . . . bored . . . bored . . . bored of what, what is boring you? What do you do? Huh . . . huh . . . huh . . .? You’ve forgotten about me . . . forgotten about me.” He silently sits across from me, I look for a cigarette to light. An invitation to join a friend’s baby’s one-month birthday is open on the table. After having a child he looks noticeably different. I brought the little girl a set with a white sweater and pants, and a matching hat, socks, and gloves. I insisted on putting the clothes on the baby and took her into my arms. I praised my lover for getting the right sizes. Next year we will have a wedding ceremony. I wanted to share with him this private joy of mine. In the house painted bluish-green, I placed the little child in the rattan cot covered in white veils and rocked the cot lightly. “I was born once, too, right?” He remains silent, the cigarette has shed its first body of ashes on the table surface, the coffee cup has about a sip left. “I was born once, too, right?” The little child in the cot slightly stretched her two legs, raising her two hands wrapped in white socks to rub her face. I told my friend’s wife, “Remember to trim the child’s fingernails or she might scratch her face and since she’s a girl, we ought to preserve it for her or else, if she turns into a leftover woman, she might hold a grudge against her parents. Her eyes are gummed up, you should give her drops.” Now I said, I would like to have a little child to carry in my arms. Hey would you like that? He keeps silent. Before my friend’s wife gave birth, I said I would be the child’s godfather if it were a boy, don’t know why I prefer boys to girls, but my friend ended up having a girl so I did not get to be the godfather. “Do you prefer boys or girls?” During the birthday celebration meal, I got to meet a couple of good friends. “How come you look so sad?” A friend took a picture of the child as I was holding it in my arms. I said, “At the end of the year I’m getting married and having a boy, and we shall become in-laws.” I petted the baby. “Be good and I’ll let you be my daughter-in-law, alright?” Someone spoke up, “But that wouldn’t be right, it’s fine for the wife to be younger than the husband but not the other way round.” “Oh, right, why is that the case? I shall make my boy do it then, if he refuses he is not my boy.” Everybody laughed. “Do you agree with me?” He kept silent. It wasn’t long after the wedding with everyone’s good wishes that their first daughter came along, chubby and adorable. I was born once, too. She is now one month old, then she will grow, she will be like me, she will get married and have a family. She might become my daughter-in-law. Then she might have a child of her own. I fold the letter four times then dispassionately crumple it in my right hand before throwing it in the bin by the table’s leg. “Please have a drink with me.” The paper ball makes a sound as it skims against the edge of the bin and falls to the attic floor. I bend down to pick it up and a pushpin pierces my ring finger—the ring was bought by my fiancée. How did that pin get here? Lucky no one stepped on it. “You’re wearing shoes, aren’t you?” A bit of blood oozes from the fingertip, a sensation of mild pain. I squeeze the finger with the other hand, hoping the blood stops flowing. I daub a drop of fresh red blood on the white sheet of paper where I had previously smeared two mosquitoes, now dead and dry. At the top of the sheet is written: “My beloved Quyên, I have been dying to write you since . . .” This is a letter I intended to write long ago but haven’t gotten round to. “How horrible of me, you know, intending to do something then procrastinating. You see that letter there, my lover could have died and I wouldn’t even know.” I smudge the drop of blood into a fat smear. “These two mosquitoes bit me so I had to kill them, no other choice. I was once born. I was once born. How about you? You must have been waiting for me a long time. I’ve been sleeping since I don’t even remember when. Such a pleasure it should be to sleep so much. Everybody probably assumes that. Not true. No. So much time for hallucination. So much time for terror. So much time we cannot forget, cannot leave behind. Right, I’m sitting across from you now. Why you? Why me? Why am I not an object like a table, a chair? Why am I not you? If I were you I would not have come here. I already consider myself a discarded thing. I’d like to close my eyes and sleep some more. Until whenever, and perhaps not wake up, never wake up again.” He kept sitting in the brown chair. Quyên once sat there. How come she doesn’t anymore? Where did she go? Dũng once sat there. How come he doesn’t come around and invite me for a drink? And the same for my other good friends. My younger brother once sat there. What has he been doing and why has he not returned to let me lecture him before I turn on the stove to make eggs and toast for him? Such a shame. How come my parents . . . neither, right, neither of them, has sat in that chair. Ever . . . I hunger for sleep. He’s about to get up, his left leg touches the chair’s leg. Just slightly. He puts his hands in his pockets and stands up. “Where you going? You think I’ve been cold to you? No. No. No matter how things are between us—especially after I’ve woken up—full of anger, hate, revenge, competition, we’re still the same. Still . . .” He turns his back on me. A wide stern back. He looks in the direction of the bookshelf. Ancient sages are still lying silently there. “Who would you like to meet? Confucius, Nguyễn Du, Goethe, Du Fu, Faulkner, Hồ Xuân Hương, Lê Quý Đôn . . . it’s impossible to list them all. You know them. You know them too well.” He turns to the right and slowly starts to walk away. “That’s a piece of ephemera from my mother, you want to take a look?” He keeps quietly strolling around the room. I light another cigarette. It seems the calico cat is sunbathing on the porch, playing with the yellowed leaves that fell last night. On a branch of the pomegranate tree a magpie-robin is singing, perhaps a familiar guest is calling at my door. He circles around me. Why doesn’t he sit down? Why is he walking in circles? Why is he still silent? My hand glides across the table, across so much dust, why is there all this dust? I look for the duster. I hung it by the closet but it’s not there. The birdsong sounds slightly off. If there were a slingshot to shoot a rock at it, it would fall and quiver to death. Magpie-robins are hard to nourish, they often swallow their own tongue to commit suicide. Right, why do birds let humans cage them up as decorative pets? Why do humans let brutes command, instruct, and discipline them with power, leather whips, the daily grind . . . Who moved the duster? Or is it he who took it? The duster has feathers from the rooster’s tail whose magenta softness recalls a precious shade of silk. Quyên’s shirt had peacock feathers with round mirrors glimmering like silver. Could it actually be he who took it? I’ve been sleeping. Who would enter this house other than him? What did he take the rooster-feather duster for? He hurries back. He must have known I was thinking nasty thoughts of him. But who could guarantee he isn’t nasty? He’s got to be nasty one way or another. Why won’t he talk? I stand up and walk to the drawers, stick my hands in and start stirring around, could I have put it in here? If I’m going to leave the house now, the first thing I should do is have a quick pee, wash my hair, and comb it a little to look tidy and clean. I should have climbed the rope a few times after waking up to be more alert. But the rope tied to the sea-almond tree broke after last season’s rain started to rot it out. Too bad I didn’t listen to the shop-owners’ advice. What would I say to them now? It’s my fault. That rope was enough to hang myself. It was good enough. I stick my hand in the drawer and scare the cockroach which ends up running straight into my shirt sleeve. Unacceptable, such filth. This wingless kind of cockroach smells horrific, its resin flowing all over my arm, disgusting. I brush it from my body. Where’s it going to go? How is it going to escape death? Who escapes death? I rip off my shirt. “Excuse me.” It’s disappeared. Heavens, my body smells terrible, I must take a quick shower. I steal a look at him to check whether he shows any signs of irritation. Absolutely none. “Ah, before I went to sleep, I had placed the duster under the headboard to shoo away the mice.” I hurriedly turn over the straw mat covering the bed and take out the duster. “My wandering memory causes me such pains. Who could love me, who could pity me, everybody has come to hate me. Why do you still come here, why can’t I act? I allow myself to become powerless, fortunately, otherwise, if I had a sharp spear in my hand, I might . . .” He lightly shakes his head. Does he know I intend to murder him? I take the duster and brush the dust off the table. Clouds of dust materialize in the air. I have known him since long ago. I was once born, too. Why was I born? Why do you still come here? I would like to sleep. He turns his face toward me. I hang the duster in its old place, and sit still. Outside in the garden the sun is up. A child is playing there. A few flowers are blooming. Please don’t pick them. Flowers here are rare, people cherish a variety called Swine Feces and marigolds. Swine Feces feed on dog shit. Marigolds are fertilized by money and appearance. If I had said that out loud they would have strangled me long ago. His hand is still here. I know it. Hey little child, little child, please sing out. The dust zone fades slowly from dark gray into pink as soft light floods in. “Whose child are you?” “I am Daddy’s child.” “If that's so then go sleep with your daddy, you’re not allowed to sleep with Mommy anymore.” “I am Mommy’s child.” “Move away then, Daddy will not go to work to buy bread for you anymore.” I covered my face and wept. “Who gave birth to you?” “Mommy.” “Who gave birth to you?” “Daddy.” “Not true, you crawled out from the earth, right, you crawled up from beneath the ground, do you know where that is?” “No.” “Touch your own head. See? That day I was feeding the buffaloes, I heard some child crying so I lit a lamp and saw you crawling out from under the buffalo’s dung, I took you in so Mommy could charitably wash you. Mommy was lazy and did not wash you properly so you have buffalo dung all over your head. Now go over there, heavens, so filthy, smelly, covered in buffalo dung, how could anyone bear you.” I covered my face and wept. “Oh poor child, poor child, Daddy was kidding, come here and let me hold you.” I brushed my eyes red. I was once born. “Where do you come from? “Mommy’s belly.” “From where exactly?” “From where exactly?” “Who gave birth to you?” “Mommy.” “From where exactly?” “From where exactly?” I covered my face and wept. I was once born. “Daddy gave birth to you. Daddy gave birth to you by the armpit, right here, right. You were in my belly until you grew, then I took a knife and made an incision, I inserted my hand and pulled you out by the leg. That was all.” I was once born, too. Like everyone else, like everyone else right? Back in those days I already met him and saw in him something beautiful. I cried and laughed. I had fun with the other children, picked flowers, caught butterflies, played catch, went swimming in the river. “The jar of candies is too high to be reached. The guava is too high to be picked. Why would a child want to act like an adult. Stop it. Stop it.” His innocence receded and turned into ambitions. I grew up. He grew eager desires. I grew up. He burst into growth with tempting mysteries. I was born, my mother birthed me. Like everyone else. Right. My parents gave birth to me. My grandparents gave birth to my parents, my great-grandparents gave birth to my grandparents . . . one could retrace the lineage like that, but who was the first human being? Who gave birth to humans? The supreme being gave birth to humans. Who is the supreme being? Who is the supreme being? Who birthed the supreme being? I was born. My children will be born. Until when? Why do birds have wings whereas I don’t? Why can fish survive in water whereas I can’t? Why do chickens lay eggs whereas my wife gives birth to human beings? Why do dogs eat feces whereas I eat rice? Why do buffalo and cows graze whereas I don't? Why don’t I have the woolen fleece of sheep? Why do I have to wear clothes? I shall ask no more. Why don't humans eat each other? I want to sleep forever in my parents’ embrace. But my ancestors have died. My father died. My mother died. My brothers scattered. The house was set on fire. The villages and fields were emptied. My kinsmen killed each other . . . I want to be a dog. I simply want to be a dog to eat the dog-meat stew with noodles and bamboo shoots boiled in broth, or drink some wine with grilled dog doused in the golden hue of turmeric. Right? Right? Right? He is standing up now. The sunshine is overwhelming. He is walking firmly now. “Do you know what I wanted to do then? I wanted to love a young woman. Damn it, why love?” The rising sun lingered over the country street. She walked from the direction of dawn to the school gate, her diaphanous shirt looked as delicious as white marble. Her red lips summoning sugary persimmons to be bitten by the teeth. Her hair long like a stream of silk. Her footsteps melting diaphanous strands of cool light. Look. She is looking my way. I love you. I love you. Why are you smiling, ripe amber sea almond? Why are you running, flame tree branch? Why so silent, pale marble? Why so still, luminous lake surface? Why so rosy, sunshine? Why? Why? Why? Why do I love you? Look at the hesitant way she goes. "I love you." "I love you, too." Feet are swiftly moving on water. Why has everything become ordinary around me? My mother died. The house was burned down. Villages and fields were emptied. My people of the same uterus killed one another. My kinsmen killed one another. I want to be a blueish-green stone to be thrown across the stale pond. He came to me with an aura of sadness and later turned blithely distant. Why did he come? I will marry you, I will share my life you. Look, she is approaching and leaning her body on my lap. Why do rose petals open a shy smile? Why does the silvereye sing? Why is light bright and beautiful? Why are leaves green and fresh? A small house enveloped by shrubberies, with a brick-tiled yard. The house shall have a porch for me to sip tea and rest in the afternoon. But why is there only one body? But why are there only guileless impulses? He came with a snide aura. I want to beat him to death now. Night falls slowly over an illusory zone where traces of light will start to glow. I watch as he floats off in a numb daze. He is still beside me. He walks forward. He is still around me. He is silent. Night has fallen weary like salt dew on an early winter morning. Slowly fading, darkening, fading then dissolving. He stayed there, so why did he come? Why does he keep coming? What is he exactly? Now he is again sitting across from me. What do my limbs do? What does my brain do? Am I still me? My child will be born, my grandchild will call me grandfather, my great-grandchild will call me great-grandfather . . . He keeps walking forward into a languid nothingness. He is ever around me. What did he come for? Why do I have to face him? Why does he remain silent? "Who are you?" I want to scream aloud. I want to sleep. I want to sleep and never get up. Night has fallen. Night is here. I have been bearing an evil intent since childhood to someday secretly carry a weapon and hide in a dark corner—in the street where life goes by. As each figure would step forward, I’d firmly grab them by the collar and murder them one by one. I ponder and consider practicing to make the execution more rapid and skillful. When should I lie in wait? How should I hold the knife in my hand? Surely the knives or other weapons currently available are not worth using. My weaponry must be different, for sure. How should I grab each of them? I don’t want them to have time to utter a cry or a breath. Where in the body should I slay? Decapitate or stab the heart, the stomach, the legs? I think after I finish the task I will walk alone through the streets they walk. How I would enjoy the satisfaction. I will anoint myself the hero and no one knows that I am filled with human sins, that I carry them alone and in the name of these sins I will have an excuse to die. But not right now. Perhaps due to the presence of this evil intent, I have been carrying my body through endless stupor. For the past twenty years, I haven’t slept at all. I have imprisoned myself in a world of stupor. Someone once pointed at my face and said: The bastard without a family. Without a god. Without a nation. I open a smile and start to sing. That was high praise for the newcomer. I call out my name and face the one who speaks. I show the palm of my hands and invite him to join a short outing. Each time I go out, I wear a rose-colored shirt, a yellow headscarf, a mauve pair of palace shoes. I invite my company to wear a bluish-green tunic, a bucket hat, a red pair of shoes. I will invite them to walk with me to a market. The market is always crowded, I say: “You are invited and you are now the host. Do you think the market is familiar to you? There are the usual logs, rice, fish sauce, fruits, plants, birds, meat, seafood. You have passed by and spotted all these, haven’t you?” “Yes, so why did you say this is a novel place? If it weren’t novel, why would you take me out here? Aren’t these things available everywhere?” “I did not say that. I have been here many times. I like the place and like to guide visitors here. But it all depends on your eyes. Your eyes give the correct vision. My eyes are like ghost eyes! So, can you see?” “Yes, of course, I will start. Starting with the night-blooming jasmine logs: highly flammable, keeps the coal going, great scent. These are straws and dry grass collected from the recently harvested fields, they could be woven into warm nests for winter. These large pots of flowers, such fresh and strange flowers, gorgeous colors and aromas, these marble-like white flowers. Let’s go to a restaurant. These types of cakes. Let me treat you.” “I am not hungry.” “Have some candies then. Let’s go to the rice restaurant, such white rice, sure to be aromatic and sticky.” He jabbers on. I want to say to him: This market is strange. Those logs are simply arms and legs bound together and dried to death. Some limbs are naked, some are covered in shreds of former clothes. They come in all sizes, fit for women, children, adults. Hairs have been gathered and piled into mounds like straw, coming in Eastern European brown, Central Asian black, or short and black, typical of South African hair. People have made a bizarre thing. They severed lips and stuck them onto rib bones that have been split into thin ingots, turning them into flowers to be inserted in skulls, the branches and leaves are made of ears, of skins. Those long slopes of lips carry traces of young women’s lipstick. Of old women’s withering. Screaming and weeping curves of lips . . . The guest takes me to a restaurant, my brother starts eating a cake, which I see as eyes. The guest bites hard into the eyes covered in viscous blood. The fruits he eats are fresh red hearts and kidneys that still retain their brown shade. The rice is dry bones, finely ground. All products at this market are processed human bodies. Cut, chopped and scattered. Countless wars have occurred, and continue to last! Countless jail cells, prison houses, concentration camps—places all over the world where human bodies are abandoned like herbal plants—seem to have been transferred here for this market, this society, to process and sell. But these sins, who committed them and who is responsible? Certainly no one thinks they themselves are. If so why should I not kill them off one by one? Erase this extant society. Then in the name of innocence and guilt, I make the world . . . Twenty years on my body, twenty years of stupor without a single second of sleep, and minute by minute I grow to hate everyone around me, every arm of friends, relatives, villagers, people from all horizons who relentlessly reach out to hold me, to convince me to forget the vengeance, rage and rebellion in me. That is why their lives were eliminated. The key thing for humans to survive now is to be conscious of the loneliness surrounding vengeance, rage and rebellion. Throughout these twenty years I have witnessed and contemplated death. My mother was shot. My sister was decapitated. My cousin was buried alive. My friends suffered the same—but it was the friends themselves who killed each other. My relatives were besieged in a zone where bombs and bullets were dropped. My tribe has been rendered alien from itself, commanded to take guns and knives to kill each other, my country is divided and scattered. And world fraternity has rotted at the hands of vengeance, borders, skin colors, ideals. On Earth countless people scream. With thoughts burdened and tortured by days and months, I carry my body among strangers whose eyes are covered, whose backs are turned away. I loved a woman and pleaded. Dear Quyên! Please carry me out of the past—carry me out of vengeance, rage, and rebellion and teach me to love people the way you love me, carry me back to the old house where I was sheltered with you. That way I wouldn’t have to kill people then kill myself, that way would I still be me, and you still be you? Night is here. Devils and angels are dating in dark corners. Hey dear. Hey dear. Why is it no longer you? Why is someone else sitting across from me? Why is it him again? Why is it him again? Where is he from, how long is he staying, and where will he go? Where will I go? He got born. I also got born. Night is here. Then day will begin. Then what? He is going in circles. “Do you hear sounds coming from the garden? Do you see something in the garden?” Has the magpie-robin already flown away? Where did its song go? I am about to cry again. How to make the paper kite fly a little higher, where is the wind, how to fly a little higher, where is the wind and why has it not blown yet? I want to sleep, I want to sleep and never get up. Get up for what really? Get up for what? He is still sitting across from me. “I know you too well, but why do I keep having to see you? Do others see you often like I do? Is everyone like this?” I guess so. It is highly likely. Why not? Everyone sees him. Everyone has to see him. Who has died, why is the music so mournful? Has the child who plays in the garden left? The young man who swings around the guava tree and forgets his book is returning. He is walking off without looking back. He is in such a hurry, perhaps he has a date with his lover. Where is Quyên at this hour? I want a cup of coffee. The cigarettes have run out. There is an old man coming with a cane, and a funeral passes. What unknown fortune lies within the footsteps? He is still sitting here. I remember now. When I die with my arms let loose, they will bury me in the ground and plants will grow. And then what? Where will I go? Where is paradise? Where is nirvana? I was born. Like everybody else. It is him. It is him. I know him. I know his name. But I can’t call out his name. His name is . . . is . . . “What is your name? Your name is . . . My name is . . . born in the year . . .” He has come to me since the day I was born. I want to kill him. But the knife I thought I was holding in my hand turns out to be his. My hand is his. I thought I could stab him but in fact I have stabbed me. I know his name. I know it well. “What is your name? Do you speak? I will scream.” He remains silent.
“Một giấc mơ” © Dương Nghiễm Mậu. From the short story collection Sợi tóc tìm thấy (A found hair strand). First published 1966 by Những Tác Phẩm Hay Press, Saigo; republished by Tao Đàn Press 2018. By arrangement with Tao Đàn Press. Translation © 2018 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.
In this book of essays, Ugresic juxtaposes reflections on the fate of her country with observations on everyday life in America.
When Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, invited Dubravka Ugresic to serve as a guest lecturer in the fall of 1991, the timing was fortuitous, to say the least. Ugresic’s homeland, Croatia, was caught up at that time in a virulent nationalist movement that demanded independence from the crumbling Yugoslav Socialist Republic and was part of a surge of separatist insurgencies which would soon lead the whole region into open conflict. In the following years, the Yugoslav wars dismembered the former socialist state, killed an estimated 140,000 people, and displaced millions. Ugresic left to teach in the US months before the world started to hear the expression “ethnic cleansing” in connection with the war in the Balkans.
But escape came at a price. As Ugresic writes early in American Fictionary, “At the time I didn’t know that horror cannot be erased by distance.” Regular phone calls to her mother in Zagreb, who had to hide in a bomb shelter several times a day, kept the trauma front and center in the author’s head. Soon she was watching on American TV as the destruction overtook Dubrovnik and Sarajevo as well. Being thousands of miles away only heightened the unreality of the unfolding catastrophe: “A whole country had been reduced to an encyclopedia entry and, like Atlantis, it moved into the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.”
Partly to keep herself sane, one suspects, Ugresic started writing a weekly column about her experience for a Dutch newspaper. The columns, which provide the basis of this book, took the form of a fictional “dictionary” that juxtaposed Ugresic’s reflections on the fate of her country with observations on everyday life in America. The texts were first collected in a book in 1995 as Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, a glib title (imposed by an American editor) that telegraphed everything that was arguably most dubious about Ugresic’s original conception. The new edition that is now being published by Open Letter Books revises the original text and appends a long coda in which the author looks back on the events of 1991–92 from the perspective of twenty-five years later.
Many of Ugresic’s observations on American life read as slightly too familiar humanist critiques of US capitalism. She baldly declares, for instance, that “Americans shop as though they were taking an important exam.” It’s the kind of generalization that appears too often in the early pages here, where long passages about plastic organizers and muffins strain under the metaphorical weight Ugresic assigns to those modest signifiers, and where we’re also brought up to speed on America’s “dictatorship of happiness” and “culture of the self.”
Fortunately, American Fictionary becomes much more incisive when Ugresic narrows her satirical lens. She is scathing on the blithe condescension her status as a European fleeing a war-torn country elicits in many of the Americans she meets. The intelligentsia comes off worst of all: one American journalist confidently decides for Ugresic that “As an East European writer and intellectual you surely have far more interesting things to talk about than literature.” An editor from a top publishing house tells her, “You write, how can I put it, ‘literary’ literature. From a moral standpoint it would not be right to publish something like that now that your country is at war.”
A poignant, unrequited love underlies Ugresic’s frustration with her host country. One of the best entries in this “fictionary” is the chapter “Yugo-Americana,” which describes how American popular culture saturated the Yugoslavia of her childhood. She and her friends may have been dutiful Pioneers, but Eastern Bloc ideology was no match for Esther Williams at the local movie house and Peyton Place on TV. “Esther, of course, had no idea that her shapely swimmer’s legs had symbolically kicked shut the door on an uninvited guest—Soviet Socialist Realism.” Such memories make it all the more painful when Western media coverage of the Yugoslavia crisis conforms to the hoariest prejudices:
The television shots of desperate, wretched, disheveled people, their eyes wild, dovetail perfectly with the Balkan stereotype. And no one seems to ask why so many of these desperate people have a decent command of the English language.
Here, as in the rest of the book, the translation by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać fluently captures the lucidity and dry wit of Ugresic’s reflections.
The coda, where Ugresic reconsiders her experience at the time from her present perspective, foregrounds her second main theme, which is actually one of the best reasons to read her book. Because in its new guise, American Fictionary is the story of how a cultivated European in her middle years becomes an honorary New Yorker. A “permanent émigré” after the events of the early ’90s, Ugresic ultimately settled in Amsterdam. But she returns regularly to New York and seems right at home there. In a feat of imaginative sympathy, she can perceive the vendors who used to clog West 14th Street with their costume jewelry and off-brand electronics as spiritual kin to the peddlers of her native Zagreb. Later we find her scouting out the best Chinese dry cleaners and seamstresses and chatting in Russian with the Bukharan Jews who run a Brooklyn hair salon. At the book’s close, she enjoys a contemplative moment, building to epiphany, on Roosevelt Island’s aptly named Meditation Steps—Roosevelt Island, which once housed, she reminds us, “human refuse,” petty criminals, prostitutes, the mentally ill.
There is a bitter irony attendant on the author’s honorary New Yorker status. Watching the Twin Towers collapse on TV, Ugresic responds to 9/11 as a personal trauma: “I felt the whole world was crumbling. From that moment on, anything was possible, moreover everything began speeding up.” Flash-forward through the ensuing decade and a half, with its cavalcade of atrocities and their effects on thinking people around the planet:
We have all grown accustomed to scrambling to our feet, mentally brushing off the dust, thanking whoever each one of us thanks that we have survived (again!) and moving on, while forgetting the next second what just happened.
The implication is unmistakable: the Yugoslav Wars were a preview of our fracturing twenty-first-century world.
Uneven but bracing, American Fictionary led me to ponder what Ugresic calls the “protective shields of indifference” most of us adopt when faced with terrible events taking place somewhere just over the horizon. Reading it, I thought of the centrifugal forces pulling Europe apart in 2018; about Syria; and about Myanmar’s Rakhine State. I thought, in short, about a lot of people who will never be lucky enough to find their own Roosevelt Island Meditation Steps.
The Brazilian-Argentine writer's novel resists drama. It resists the impulse to exaggerate, maybe even the impulse to tell stories.
The literary world has a growing tradition of books about failing to write. This has a lot to do with the rise of auto-fiction: how long can an author write about herself, really, without bringing up writer’s block or how much she hates her work? Mostly, the only person getting disappointed in these novel-failure novels is the writer. Maybe there’s a contract about to be broken, or an opportunity getting squandered, like the Fulbright in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or the Guggenheim in Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel, which might be the peak of the form.
In Resistance, the Brazilian-Argentine novelist Julián Fuks takes the auto-fiction of failed writing a step further: his protagonist, Sebastián, disappoints both himself and his brother as he struggles with his book. The stakes involved in his effort go beyond literary ambition. Like Fuks, Sebastián is the child of two leftist Argentine psychiatrists who fled Buenos Aires during that country’s dictatorship. Shortly before they went into exile, Fuks’ parents adopted an infant boy, as did Sebastián’s. We learn this from the novel’s first sentence: “My brother is adopted, but I can’t say and don’t want to say that my brother is adopted.” This sets the tone for the whole book: Sebastián is trying to write about his brother’s adoption, but he has no idea where to begin.
Fuks, or Sebastián—let’s say Sebastián, since he’s the narrator—spends the whole first chapter searching for a better way to say, “My brother is adopted.” Eventually, he settles on describing his brother as an adoptive son, less because it sounds right—even he admits it barely sounds different—than because he needs a phrase. Otherwise, he can’t start the book about adoption that his brother asked him to write. It’s less an ask than a plea: “That’s something you should write about one day, about being adopted. Someone needs to write about that.”
Sebastián wants to write the book his brother needs, but it becomes rapidly clear that he can’t. He’s too self-conscious, and too aware that “this is not just a story, not just his story. This is history.” The history here is double: first, there’s the story of the hundreds of children stolen from political prisoners during the Argentine dictatorship, for whom the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo search and march to this day. Second, there’s the story of Sebastián’s own parents, leftists who adopted Sebastián’s brother months before they went into exile.
Sebastián understands that his brother is not a stolen child; how could a subversive couple, a couple with guns hidden in their house, receive a baby from the junta? And yet he wants to believe otherwise, to “insist on a probable lie, against all evidence, the idea of my brother as a disappeared grandson.” That idea brings him closer to history, and to historical trauma. More importantly, it takes him away from his own family. Writing about Argentine history, Sebastián admits, is easier than writing about his brother.
Resistance never turns into a novel about Sebastián’s brother. Not really. For most of the book, he’s an infant, or he’s a teenager locked in his room, or—in a few chapters—he’s throwing parties and starting fights. He never speaks, except reported dialogue, though at one point Sebastián asks, “How can I not let him speak, attribute even the smallest phrase to him in this fiction?” But that’s what happens. Sebastián retains total control over the story. He resists, in other words, writing a book about his brother, the adoptive son. Instead, he writes a book about himself, the adoptive—adopting? —brother.
So Sebastián, the writer-character, has failed. What about Julián Fuks?
Resistance earned high praise upon its publication in Brazil, in 2015. It won both the Lusophone Saramago Prize and Brazil’s Jabuti Prize, and, before it was done, earned Fuks a Rolex Arts Mentorship with renowned Mozambican novelist Mia Couto. Luckily for Anglophone readers, it found its way to an excellent translator. In Daniel Hahn’s version, Fuks’ prose is calm, lovely, with an almost tidal effect: it carries the reader effortlessly along.
Fuks is a master of structure, too. He uses variation beautifully, both across the novel and within a paragraph or passage, exploring the subtle differences of meaning in some of the novel’s most loaded words: Argentina, adoption, resistance. In one of the novel’s best chapters, Sebastián defines and re-defines his own failure. First he’s failing to write about his brother; then he’s failing to write to his brother; finally, he is failing because he is writing without his brother “here, resting his hand on the back of my neck, pressing with alternating fingers, so gentle, so subtle, to guide me where to go.”
Fuks is just as careful in writing about the Argentine dictatorship and its aftermath. This makes Resistance particularly important in the English-speaking world, where stories of Argentina’s Dirty War tend to be dramatic, sometimes extreme. Take Nathan Englander’s Ministry of Special Cases, which puts a political disappearance at the center of what is essentially a screwball tragedy, or Carolina de Robertis’ Perla, a tearjerker about a young Argentine woman who was, in fact, stolen from political prisoners and given to a right-wing family to raise. Both novels use disappearance as theater, not as human fact.
The comparison might be unfair: Englander and de Robertis write in English, for an American audience. But that makes it all the more important for that same audience to read Resistance, which avoids drama at every turn. Sebastián wants to be dramatic, but Fuks won’t let him. He forces his protagonist to pay attention instead to the quieter trauma of exile, to admit that even if his brother were a disappeared grandchild, “this wouldn’t give his life meaning… It’s me, not him, who wants to find a meaning, it’s me who wants to redeem my own immobility, it’s me who wants to go back to belonging to the place where I’ve never actually belonged.”
So Resistance resists drama. It resists the impulse to exaggerate, maybe even the impulse to tell stories. Writ large, that’s the project of auto-fiction. Don’t make the character who might be you look good, or bad. Don’t make his life bigger than your own. Fuks never does. Sebastián’s missteps are constant but tiny. Most of them are internal and minor. We don’t even know if his novel is as bad as he fears. At the very end of Resistance, Sebastián carries his manuscript to his brother’s door. The reaction he gets will tell him—and us—whether his novel is a failure, but the reader never finds out. In other words, there’s never quite an ending. The novel resists even that. It’s a brilliant last move, and one that makes Julián Fuks, unlike his poor protagonist, an absolute success.
A popular image of Mongolia is that of clear blue skies, wide open steppe, and nomads on horseback. Conversely, Mongolia has recently garnered international attention as a site of rapid urbanization and high air pollution. These images, though both true to some degree, are incomplete. The reality for many people in the country is less starkly divided. People move through and across rural and urban spaces frequently throughout their lives, engaging in both settled and nomadic modes of living.
Mongolian literature reflects these intersecting lifeways as authors draw on themes of mobility and stasis, space and confinement, isolation and social obligation. Mongolia has a rich philosophical, religious, and political history for literature to draw on as well. Elements of Buddhist dogma, shamanic animism, socialist realism, and avant-garde surrealism commingle in tales of transformation and rebirth.
In “Aquarium,” Ölziitögs Luvsandorj explores the inner world of a woman who has been transformed by a mysterious circumstance as she observes the formerly unseen aspects of her family members’ lives from her corner of their apartment. Erdene Seng’s “Solitude,” set in the mid--twentieth century, details the self-imposed isolation of an old man who refuses to leave his nomadic encampment when his wife relocates with the rest of their community to a recently constructed town. In his story “Vengeance,” Norov Dalkhaa weaves a Mongolian Buddhist folk legend that dogs have the reincarnated souls of humans into an urban parable of sex, jealousy, and violence.
All three of these stories also use aspects of nomadism and settled life to explore the gendering of space and mobility. Ulziitugs’s unnamed narrator attempts to make sense of her position in her family from a space of total confinement—an aquarium within an urban apartment. In Erdene’s “Solitude,” an elderly woman lays out the freedoms that settled life would afford her husband, but he rebuffs her, demonstrating a clear split in his mind between masculine and feminine freedoms. Meanwhile Norov’s male lead, Demchig, takes his lover’s dog out of the domestic space of her apartment and on to the road to engage the creature, and through it his former romantic rival, in masculine violence.
The stories in this collection paint a complicated picture of Mongolia, exploring the realities of nomadism and settled life alike as they play out in the psyches of the characters and their relationships with one another.
Dalit literature has emerged as an integral part of a larger political movement that offers substantive and detailed protest against the entrenched system of untouchability, or the socially institutionalized system of caste-based hierarchy and discrimination, in contemporary India. It traces its modern history to the early 1970s with the foundation of a literary-activist collective called the Dalit Panthers, whose members wrote primarily in Marathi—the language of Maharashtra, the home state of nationalist leader and foundational Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar. Dalit literature has in recent years become a powerful and influential vehicle for the articulation of the voices of India’s most oppressed classes in a number of languages, Hindi prominent among them.
Dalit writers use fiction, autobiography, and literary criticism to actively rethink constructions of caste, race, religion, and gender, constructions that extend backward in Indian history but that have all been distinctively refigured in the postcolonial political context and that continue to shape day-to-day social and political identities. In the process, they reshape the very literary genres and interpretive procedures used to evaluate those same literary texts. In the past fifteen years, the national language of Hindi has become the site of increasing vibrancy as prominent writers and activists conversant in a number of languages compose their narratives and critical writing in Hindi, in conversation with other Dalit work directly in languages such as Marathi, or through translation, including from and into English.
Kausalya Baisantry, for instance, has written her autobiographical account excerpted here in Hindi even though she grew up speaking a local dialect of Marathi. She announces at the start of Doubly Cursed that she chose to write in Hindi in order to be the first Dalit woman to write her life story in the national language. As the title suggests, her account details the life of a political activist working against the twin injustices of caste-based discrimination and misogynistic patriarchy, a perspective even more insightful given that she came into consciousness in the early years of the social reformer B. R. Ambedkar’s campaign for both Dalit and women’s rights leading up to Independence in 1947. The scene included here offers a humorous glimpse into the new technologies of playback sound made available to Indian citizens in the 1930s both in the cinema hall and at home. In Hindi, Baisantry conveys a knowing but wry ambivalence over her family’s attempts to modernize, an ironic stance translator Christi Merrill decided to signal by italicizing key terms that in the Hindi are transliterated directly from English—“phonograph record,” for example. (Baisantry's piece also incluldes a number of Hindi terms; these and others from elsewhere in the issue are defined in the glossary that follows this introduction.)
Several of the short stories featured here similarly reflect on the uneven promises of Western-style progress made to the Dalit community in the years following independence. Mohan Das Namishray’s story “Our Village” begins at its tragic and dramatic height when a young Dalit woman is paraded naked through the village center by the son of the local thakur, ostensibly as punishment for her husband’s failure to repay his debt of 500 rupees. In the story that follows, we see members of the Dalit community filing police “reports” and attempting to use the judicial system inherited from the British to petition for their rights against the entrenched feudal code upheld by local authorities. We also watch as a pair of idealistic journalists come from the city to report on this tragedy, dropping in stray phrases in English—again, transliterated into Hindi—to sound sophisticated and upper-class. Likewise, Anita Bharti’s story “The Case of the Quota Candidate” plays on the expectations a group of teachers have of a new colleague, guessing whether she is upper-caste like many of them or a “kotewali” who fulfills a mandate from the federal government reserving a percentage—the English term “quota” becomes “kote” in Hindi—of positions for “backward” castes. Suraj Badtiya’s short story “Gujji” tells of a young man from an untouchable family tagged with an unfortunate, caste-tinged epithet: "Gujji” refers to a traditional recipe for preparing sausages, sold at his family's pork shop. He decides to throw off this casteist slur by pursuing an MBA and the post of marketing manager at McDonald's, where the very same terms considered so polluting in traditional society are deemed sophisticated and forward-thinking when rough equivalents are uttered in English.
Certainly English maintains a curious, much debated position in the Indian literary scene more generally given its historical association with British colonial power. As a global lingua franca, it serves as a link language both within India and internationally, and in the case of Dalit literature has occasioned transnational conversations both within elite circles in India and abroad about work written originally in vernaculars like Hindi, Marathi, or Tamil. The prominent Indian travel writer and literary reviewer Pankaj Mishra lists Laura Brueck’s English translation of Ajay Navaria’s short story collection, Unclaimed Terrain (Navayana, 2013), among the “best books” of 2013 in The Guardian (November 23, 2013) for the way it hints “at the as-yet unrevealed depth and diversity of Indian literatures,” his review giving the English-language version a wider audience than it enjoyed in Hindi.
In this special issue we have included the recently published, semi-autobiographical story “Fragmentation” that Ajay Navaria based on his first trip out of India—to Greece—which itself was occasioned by the international circulation of this translated short story collection. “Fragmentation” is exemplary of the existential unease of Navaria’s protagonists that runs throughout almost all of his fiction, and also presents important perspectives on the Dalit author, translated in a world beyond caste, but not, as he discovers, beyond other forms of hierarchical ordering. This self-reflexivity is very much in conversation with other works of Dalit literature becoming increasingly popular in the West, including those mentioned by Mishra in a recent review in the New York Review of Books (December 21, 2017) of Sujata Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017):
The range and intricacy of Dalit experience can be grasped by English-language readers through the works of scholars and critics such as Anand Teltumbde, Gopal Guru, and D. R. Nagaraj. Daya Pawar's pioneering autobiography Baluta, which describes caste violence in Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in a fine English translation in 2015. Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan and Vasant Moon’s Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography are eye-opening memoirs of impoverished Dalit childhoods in the mid-twentieth century, while Ajay Navaria’s stories in Unclaimed Terrain turn an ironic gaze on the recent emergence of a Dalit middle class through affirmative action and economic liberalization.
The further irony is that Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain, like Valmiki’s Joothan, and all the work in this special issue are themselves translated by scholars invigorated by the daring literary experimentation and anti-caste critiques. In her translator’s preface to Joothan, the University of Toronto English professor Arun Mukherjee writes movingly of the ways Valmiki’s account made her rethink her own upper-caste privilege and also forced her to reconsider the colonizer/colonized binaries that reigned in the field of postcolonial studies.
Dalit activists too understand the importance of translation in providing an opportunity for their work to circulate more widely. In forming an alliance with English-language readers, Dalit writers are able to call into question some of the dubious moral stances guarded by the indigenous elite in the name of preserving tradition. This strategy follows in the footsteps of Ambedkar who, in the decades leading up to independence in 1947, began writing appeals aimed specifically to foreign readers, in such a way that called into question the elitism of the Congress Party, especially its claim to speak for all Indian subjects in demanding independence from British rule. In "A Plea to a Foreigner," Ambedkar argued explicitly that "what the foreigner who chooses to side with the Congress should ask is not whether the Congress is fighting for freedom. He should ask: For whose freedom is the Congress fighting?" All the Dalit writers featured here follow in this Ambedkarite tradition and use their writing as a tool for reflecting openly on how crucial terms such as “rights” and “freedom” might translate into daily action. Like the work of English-language critics listed by Mishra, this approach situates these literary translations in a broader activist context that all the writers featured here engage in.
We draw from an exciting and extensive list of important works, and have generally focused on pieces written in Hindi that supplement what is already available in English translation. We have purposely chosen work that represents a range of political perspectives and genres, from writers who themselves are known for their range. Among the work that Mohan Das Namishray is known for is a four-volume history written in Hindi on the Indian Dalit Movement (Radhakrishna, 2013). Kausalya Baisantry is one of the activists interviewed by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon in their history of the Ambedkarite movement focusing on women, published first in Marathi (Stree Uchav, 1989) and in Wandana Sonalkar’s English translation as We Also Made History (Zubaan, 2008).
Dalit literature represents some of the most meaningful, socially engaged narrative voices in India today, and its international appeal is growing as well. Each of these writers has a keenness of vision we are excited to share with this English-speaking readership.
Note on italicization: We use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s strategy of italicization for words that appear in English in the original texts to show the long-standing imbrication of the colonial language of English and Bengali. In the stories in the issue, this approach also shows how these colonial instruments of power are used by the local indigenous elite.
Arey: An expression of mild disbelief: “Seriously!” or “Come on!”
Ashtami: A Sanskrit term for the eighth day of the lunar fortnight, which is considered auspicious in Brahmanic Hinduism.
Basti: A settlement; often tightly-packed areas where the poor and disenfranchised live.
Bhaiya: Brother, a common term of friendly address.
Bhajans: HIndu spiritual songs.
Brahmins: Those who rank highest in the caste system (according to the Brahmins themselves).
Dalit: Once an insulting term literally meaning ground down into dust, “Dalit” has been reclaimed by the lowest castes as an empowering alternative to “untouchable.” We have left it lowercase when it is used as a description by a non-Dalit, and uppercase when used by a speaker self-referentially.
Darshan: Sight, most often used in a ritual sense of taking in the vision of a deity (and conversely, the deity taking in the vision of the devotee).
Dhedh, Chamar: Leather-worker caste names. The invocation of these terms reveals much about the ongoing idiom of untouchability. Because working with dead animals is considered polluting, anyone in the leather-working caste is c.onsidered polluted.
Dhol and mridanga: Double-sided drums played by musicians in “folk” traditions, and sometimes also by those with classical training in one or more traditions.
Harijan bai: Gandhi suggested that all untouchables be called Harijan—literally, people of Lord Hari and therefore God—but B. R. Ambedkar and his followers rejected the term for sounding decidedly patronizing. “Bai” is often a respectful term in Marathi and Rajasthani used when referring to a woman, but is sometimes added to a title to clarify that a person is female.
Haveli: Often referred to as a “mansion” since it is built of solid materials such as stone and is home to the most elite family or families in the village. Because it is usually a multi-room, imposing structure that houses multiple generations, the women segregate themselves in the inner sanctum while the men occupy the outer rooms where they entertain visitors and conduct business.
Kambakht: A mild curse word usually used as an adjective, for someone deemed unfortunate or wretched.
Kardhi with seviyan: Kardhi is usually made from a heated yogurt sauce with spices and thickened with chickpea flour; seviyan are noodles, also made from chickpea flour.
Khadi: Homespun cotton fabric, popularized by Gandhi as a symbol of nationalism in the late colonial period.
Lathi: Literally a bamboo cane used to drive oxen and punish enemies, but symbolically considered a sign of power. Used in English-language newspapers in India.
Ovi: Metrical Marathi poetry traditionally sung by women.
Panchayat: Traditional village council consisting of five voting members.
Puja, Naagpuja: Common term for Hindu worshippers venerating a deity, in this case the divine form of the cobra.
Sadhu: A Hindu holy man who takes a vow of asceticism and renounces worldly concerns.
Sala: Standard Hindi for a sister’s husband, and so by implication a person who sleeps with one’s sister. Used quite commonly as a form of abuse. The variation Salo is even more colloquial.
Samadhi: The place where a corpse is cremated or buried; also, the state of passing into the next realm
Sasur: A respectful term of address for a father in law, that can also used as a form of abuse for an old man. In this case, the variation Sasuro is even more colloquial and disrespectful.
Savarna: With caste, i.e., the opposite of “outcaste” or untouchable.
Thakur: Both a title and a caste name; refers to the lord of the village. Sometimes considered a petty king.
© 2018 by Laura Brueck and Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.
A frustrated wife and mother finds life in a fishbowl instructive in this story translated from the Mongolian.
I've been in here for exactly one year. My once fair and delicate skin, the envy of all the other ladies, has hardened into scales mottled with red and pink splotches. A year, exactly one year. People have thought that I have been a fish for exactly one year. Regardless of what other people say, what really matters to me is that three hundred and sixty-five days have passed with the children I bore playing with me as a pet.
When I bought this aquarium I didn't realize I was preparing my own casket. Of course, if I had known, I would have chosen a bigger one. I am an inherently anxious person. Even beyond the little aquarium, this room feels like it is closing in all around me. Though everyone says this room, the office in our four-room apartment, is quite spacious and bright, it is stifling me. Even my homeland in the vast Mongolian steppe, praised in song and poem as endlessly vast, is all too small for me. The one thing I need now more than anything, more than anything else, is more space.
Though I wish for more space now, when I bought the aquarium I could never have foreseen all that God had decided to set before me. An aquarium. Despite all of my wishes for space, all I have is this small vessel. I first awoke as a fish when my daughter decided to decorate the aquarium, placing all of the beautiful seashells that I had gathered over the years in the tank one by one. The tiny shells that I had collected from my lake by hand were now ten times larger than I. I panicked and cried out. I rushed about, scared to death. As I was pacing, my daughter giggled and tossed a shell over me. A mother's fear had become her daughter's delight. My God! What have you done! But no, no, in truth this was not His work. God doesn't concern himself with this kind of thing. Ah, God wasn't involved in this from the start. This was all Gregor Samsa's work. It seems as though I love Samsa even more than Kafka himself. When I was a child I used to love Quasimodo. Maybe that is why I'm so strongly pulled to Samsa. Either way, Samsa is . . . oh I don't know, I don't know. While I sleep I hear Samsa's name whispered in my ear throughout the night, until I awake. But I'm a woman, and vehemently squeamish, so instead of a centipede he's made me into a scaly, goggle-eyed fish. Of course, he must have taken into account my intense fear of insects.
I do have one other difference from Samsa. My family does not know that I've become a fish. I have been declared missing, and the police have instigated a thorough search. My poor husband has poured all of his wealth into finding me. Every night he drinks alone, whispering my name. I can tell that he is crying. Weeping. This knowledge does little to comfort me.
I have no complaints about my siblings. Before I would see them only once in a while, at Lunar New Year's celebrations, for example, but now they all come over nearly every day. They have created a schedule, taking turns visiting and taking care of my two children. Two of my older brothers even came and took my husband aside to interrogate him next to the aquarium. They conspired in hushed tones to investigate my poor darling. The elder of the two said that he thinks my husband may have killed me. They decided to mortgage their own houses to fund their investigation. When I heard that, my eyes filled with tears. People say that fish have no tears, but that is a complete lie. There are so many people in my life who love me. When I think about how ready they are to do anything for me, my tears subside. There are a lot of things like this that calm me. Though, of course, there are many more things that unsettle me. The only person who takes care of me is my daughter. She always used to demand that I buy her a pet fish. But she's only six years old, so she doesn't know to adjust the water's temperature.
Also, one time instead of food she put black ink into the tank and nearly killed me. Sometimes she goes without feeding me for two or three days at a time. Still, I've never starved. When Samsa transformed me into a fish, he must have taken starvation into consideration, as my need for food has disappeared completely. It's just the memory of how I could have never gone two days without eating as a person that keeps me jumping for the fish food my daughter brings me.
Yes, my transformation into a fish has been a metamorphosis for my family as much as it has been for me. After twenty years of striving and struggling, my husband has fallen from grace. In other words, he spiraled into a long-term depression over me and totally gave up on his work as an executive. Secretly, this was really, truly, good news. He embraced our daughter, and sat down right next to the aquarium. He told her, “Daddy is home, and from now on I'll be with my kids all the time. I won't go back to work.”
Our son stopped misbehaving. He never used to listen to anything I said. I couldn't deal with that willful, foul-mouthed twelve-year-old at all. If I told him “Come straight home from school,” he would linger. If I told him, “Fine, stay after school and play,” he would come straight home. His stubborn temperament used to drive me nearly insane. But he is no longer like that. Not one bit. My daughter likes to talk to herself while she sprinkles mealworms in the tank, and I heard her whispering that my son has started taking off and polishing his muddy shoes and putting on indoor slippers when he gets home from school. Moreover, he then goes on to wash his hands and sit down for supper, quickly finishes his homework, and walks the dog. He has started taking care of that dog just as I used to take care of him. He stopped quarreling with his younger sister. With that, all of the ruckus, the crying and bawling he used to stir up, fell silent. I once even heard him demand of his father, “Let me comb my sister's hair.” My daughter has totally changed as well. Every day she passes the time talking to her fish (dear me, I mean to say her mother). Before, she spent every day clinging to the hem of my dress and pouting, demanding candies and fruit. She would ignore whatever tasty treat she already had. No matter what nice treat or toy she had, demands would stream out of her mouth. It wouldn't make a difference if you gave her ten pieces of candy or ten bags of it, either way she would tell you that it wasn't enough. But now, she refuses to eat whatever few pieces of candy her relatives give her out of compassion, instead collecting them for some reason. To my delight I'm finding that all of these metamorphoses have been transformations for the better. At first my aquarium felt dark, chilly, and cramped, but lately, as I have become accustomed to it, it has come to feel less confined, less dark, and less cold.
After three months had passed, I totally forgot my regret about not buying a bigger aquarium while I was still a human. This little, bell-shaped glass bowl came to feel spacious and deep. I have been pleased to become intimately familiar with each edge and corner of my glass bell jar. No matter where I look, everything on the outside of the glass is clear. I was placed on the schoolwork table in the middle of the children's room, so no matter where I look from within the jar I can see my daughter or my son.
I am touched to see how my husband spends his days, to see him helping our children with their homework, to see him comb our daughter's hair, to see the canvasses from his art lessons with our son. In the evenings he tells the children our favorite stories until they fall asleep. I can tell when his grief from missing me overtakes him from the sound of his sighs. But curiously they never speak of me among the three of them, and, except for my daughter, I have never heard them say “Mother” once. I don't like that one bit. But what can I do? Everything is out of my control.
Once I swam up to the very top of the glass jar. I peeked out from the water, pushing as far as I could toward my daughter. I hoped maybe she would recognize me. But it was an idle hope. She gazed at me, not understanding. She earnestly pleaded, “Golden carp, grant my wishes!” Then she whispered these three wishes. “First, return my mother who was taken from me! Second, give my mother my collection! Third, I want to sleep in my mother's arms again!”
It felt as if my heart crumbled. Yes, even fish have hearts.
She never once asked her father about me and never cried about my absence, so I didn't worry. But . . . my poor baby . . . she thought I had run away with someone, but though I racked my mind I could not find the reason why. The collection she mentioned was all of her candy.
I pity my daughter tremendously. But a fish is just a fish. I can't talk to her. Anyway, think about it, what if I did talk to her? What if I told her I'm sorry and tried to explain the situation? Then what? That's it. Truly nothing would come of it. Eh, most people can't handle more than their own share of sorrow. So what is the difference between telling her and not telling her?
Ask yourself, do aquarium fish think? You might laugh at the idea, but those tiny creatures are sad. They mope about, feeling lonely, but of course you are grinning ear to ear when you look at them. I have been truly sad, lonely, and bored. But the most, most, most unfortunate, most tormenting thing is the fact that nobody knows. I pass the days trying to get used to the depression, loneliness, and unusual suffering. I didn't really strive to acclimate, but it is in the nature of all creatures to get used to their circumstances. I stopped feeling pity for my son and daughter, and for my husband. No matter what, they are learning how to live without me; it is clear that they are getting used to this strange kind of separation.
One night, eight months after my transformation into a fish, my husband came home with a dear girlfriend of mine. The children had been sent to stay with my one of my older brothers. My girlfriend sat down on my daughter's tiny bed and . . . well, they had sex. I was totally shocked to see my husband so eagerly, aggressively doing that with someone other than me. But the most interesting thing about the situation is that it did not make me feel jealous or possessive. Truly, one of the differences between fish and people must be that fish never feel jealous of others. Only humans are possessive.
After that, they told each other so many lies. When my girlfriend said, crying, “I don't love my husband,” my husband replied, “I know. I've known all along.” Back when I was a person, not a fish, there's no way he could have known something like that about one of my friends. From the way my girlfriend was talking, you would think that my husband is only the second person that she's slept with. “Don't lie, he's more like the fifteenth man you've slept with,” I exclaimed hotly. Of course, I did not see that with my own eyes, that's just the consensus from gossip. They didn't hear me. There are no creatures on this earth as deaf as humans.
If you listened to what my friend was saying, you would think I have some kind of secret lover. “If you think about it they are probably together now,” said my only friend in the world, without a hint of sorrow on her face. Then my only soulmate in the world jumped up and made his desire to have sex again known with a strange grunt. In response my friend readily agreed, giggling in a way that proved that she was never really my friend after all. I spent the night unable to ignore the noises they made, the scratches they left on each other's backs. My husband had totally changed. No, rather, he was a completely different person. As dawn broke, I thought about this and sighed.
One morning after my son finished his classes he wrote a poem in his diary. It was a poem about a tree. Once he finished writing he read it softly aloud. Suddenly he tore that notebook up into tiny pieces, scattered them about, and ran off. My daughter picked up those scraps of paper and spent the rest of the day throwing them up in the air above herself like confetti.
Only when he tore up his notebook and left it in such a state of disarray did I understand why he was angry so often when I was human. My God, I had decided to make him into a mathematician. I swam around from morning until night brooding over what he would have wanted while I was a human, thinking, hmmm, is he acting like this because he wants to be a poet?
Later my son came in from outside with an odd, exhausted look on his face and sat down looking about for a moment. All of a sudden he jumped up and approached the aquarium. He seemed to have mischief on his mind. Then he took the watercolor paints out of their container and one by one started pouring them into the water. So I flounced about, fleeing from jets of horrifying red, green, and yellow colored poison. My son amused himself at my expense until my rescuer, my little daughter, came in.
Suddenly . . . ah yes everything happens suddenly now . . . suddenly I realized how incredibly tired I am. A whole year has passed. Fish don't do much, but I am truly exhausted. I am worn out from watching all of the things I shouldn't see. Witnessing the secrets of the people close to me with these fish eyes has led me to feel worried, ashamed, afraid, and regretful in front of them.
Everyone has two sides. In truth, it is usually sufficient to show just one of those two sides to the rest of the world. People find what is good and attractive about themselves and in order to show off just that one side they make those qualities into a mask. Though everyone has another, totally different, side, in order to face other people, you have to wear that mask. Is it really necessary to take that mask off and show the true face underneath? With these last deep thoughts, I am happy to find that I am not a normal fish, but a meditative fish. At first, being a fish appealed to me. To be without responsibilities, to live for no one but myself. Loving no one and never being jealous, never annoyed or angry with anyone. Blaming no one and being blameless in turn. People should have lived like this in the first place. I have been brooding like this, worrying for my own sake, as well as for everyone else's sake. Oh dear. But . . .
In the aquarium my days and nights as a fish are becoming simpler and simpler, slower and slower. At the beginning everything felt like a new discovery. No longer. I've already become accustomed to the same old story, same old life. As soon as a person . . . (No, a fish. Well, but a person regardless. Of course I'm still a person. A human. Though I'm talking about fish, in truth there's no difference.) As soon as people get used to something, they grow tired of it. We tend to make the mistake of thinking that we are uncomfortable with things that we are not accustomed to, but truly to become used to something is to become sick of it.
I awoke, not in my glass jar, but lying on my soft couch. As I woke up, everything that had occurred came rushing back to me. I tried to convince myself that it was all a dream. My husband was at work. My son was getting frustrated and hurling insults at me. My daughter started begging for candy and fruit. My girlfriend was calling me, giggling about how she loves her husband even more now than she did before. As for my husband, he was just the same as before, continuing to meet my needs and wishes. Even in sex he maintained his courteous and gentle disposition. However, I started dealing with my son totally differently.
I stopped trying to drill math into his head and bought him books of poetry instead. Life went on, but our lives were different than before. Life seemed more delicious, and my son seemed more introspective. A person who regains what was once lost wishes above all to never lose it again. I started to think that our lives were heading in a good direction. One day I told my husband that I wanted him to tell me everything that had happened while I was gone, without leaving out a single detail, though I already knew everything that had happened. Ah well, are these people really people? My fate is not to live as a fish. But what was I hearing?
I was truly taken aback to hear my husband's story. My brothers had been extorting money from my spouse. They threatened to have him thrown in jail and to take custody of our children themselves. They threatened to take all of my wealth and put it in their own names. My husband was forced to leave his job, because they would come to his work every day and start a racket. My husband began to weep openly as he told me that his spirits had fallen so far that he had turned to drinking alone every night.
He told me that every day when our daughter came home she would sit in the bathroom and cry, whispering “Mommy, Mommy.” As for my son, not only had he decided to become a mathematician, he dedicated himself fully to pursuing those studies. In this way, my husband told me about all of the things I knew and didn't know had happened. The only thing he did not mention was what happened between him and my girlfriend. Nor did I ask. I knew without his having to say anything.
I was so offended for my husband's sake by my horrible, mean-spirited brothers that I wept for a long time. My aquarium was small but I thought I had seen everything that had happened. It had felt like the aquarium's four glass walls were the four corners of the earth, and I could see the horizon from eight directions. But! An aquarium is just an aquarium. There are other aquariums in the world. I could not see the life going on outside of those three rooms of mine. There is so much beyond our four-room apartment, so much . . . So much that I cannot speak of.
As the knowledge of my brothers' behavior sank in, I cried tears of indignation. Once I calmed down I asked my husband, “Did you leave anything out of what you just told me?” Of course, I did not expect a reply. It was just a question I need to ask. But how did my husband reply?
“I slept with your best friend! That is how this chapter ends. That is all there is left to the story.”
As the words left my husband's mouth, I found myself becoming despondent. I already knew as much. I was hoping my husband would lie to me and not utter the truth. But! He is an honest man. So though I did not search for the truth, nor did I wish for the truth, I think it is more practical to acknowledge the truth than to ignore it. Everything I had seen in secret was a lie. This, this is real life.
Maybe I was not asking to find out about what had happened with everyone else, maybe I was asking to decide something for myself. He asked me, “Do you miss the aquarium?” I thought about this for quite some time, before deciding to become a fish again. “The aquarium, though small, is nice,” I told Samsa.
© Ölziitögs Luvsandorj. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sainbayar Gundsambuu and KG Hutchins. All rights reserved.
After years of abuse at the hands of their higher-caste neighbors, a Dalit community takes action and finds sweet revenge.
Definitions of Hindi words may be found in the glossary.
A haze of shock and terror swam before the eyes of everyone in the village. Women began to shriek. A look of outrage welled up in some pairs of eyes. Jaws clenched in anger. Even those whose elderly eyes had gone dark felt something untoward had happened. The village erupted in chaos. Kabootari’s cries of distress were drowned out by all the noise.
This very village, which until today had not so much as seen Kabootari’s face and had heard no more than the gold bangles jingling on her wrists, had now seen her naked as the day she came out of her mother’s womb. Her husband’s younger brother, mother, and sister had gathered there. The children from the neighborhood, and the elderly and young men and women too. Most of the women who saw all this had shrieked and run away. A few were peeking out. Mothers had rushed to hide their own daughters. They had closed the doors in their homes and fastened the chains. The procession coming toward them was led by a gang of good-for-nothings and bums. As they watched, each person’s eyes revealed a range of emotion. From shame to a heightened awareness of their own fascination. Mistrust and even outrage boiled up from inside. In everyone’s eyes it seemed as if Kabootari’s body had started to melt like ice. Each part of her was laid bare. Her self-respect lay broken apart and scattered.
Eighty-year-old Hariya heard the noise and stared, rubbing his eyes. He made an effort to recognize the hazy silhouette. This indeed was Chamiya, his grandson’s wife, the one everyone called Kabootari. There was not a shred of clothing on her.
But how had she become naked?
His elderly eyes wrinkled even more in his astonishment.
Four of the thakur’s lathi-wielding henchmen stood nearby. And the thakur’s middle son sat close. Hariya’s head lolled. His whole body began to quiver in outrage. He was like an old, worn-out horse whose body was being whipped over and over but still refused to run. His old bones had become paralyzed. He looked up at the sky, eyes brimming with tears. The sky was still there. Just as it had been. He imagined that it might fall to earth. And shatter. But the sky did not fall. Nor did it shatter. The tree was still there in its place in Dhuliya's meeting square. Just as before. Not a single leaf stirred. This was a study in the language of terror. Chamiya in the front and the henchman behind her, those good-for-nothings and shirkers. The procession of the naked was headed in his direction. Expose someone’s naked body, in the end you only expose the nakedness of your own mind. He listened. One of the henchmen was saying, “Salo, Dhedh Chamaro, you strut around, staring us down.” Another henchman took a turn, “Now you’ll have to shit and piss in all of your own homes, Sasuro.”
Then the thakur’s middle son roared: “We’re going to expose all of you women like this Kabootari. It’s the only way to set you straight.”
Now they had marched quite close. Hariya planted his lathi in the ground, hoping to stop them. The thakur gave this upstart a curse and shoved him, “Out of the way, old man, I’m going to rip you a new asshole with this lathi.”
Seeing Hariya fall to the ground, Kabootari shrieked, “Dadduaa . . . !”
But her shrieks were drowned out by all the noise. Hariya was her husband’s grandfather. She paused for a moment. She looked at Hariya lying on the ground with tear-soaked eyes. But they continued shoving her forward with the lathi. The procession of the naked had moved on. The dalit basti was left behind. The thakur’s midde son held a rifle in his hand. He fired it two or three times. As soon as the bullets flew everyone hit the ground. The smell of gunpowder filled the air.
The procession meandered through the entire village. This was no display of freedom on parade but a living embodiment of the feudal elite landowners’ naked morality. She was crying and they were laughing, spitting. Not upon the immodesty of their own culture stripped bare but upon this delicate woman. She was the Lakshmi of their homes, the Sita, the Parvati, the Saraswati, and innumerable other goddesses. In each of their homes they did puja to these clay figures but were mocking the living Chamiya, who was sobbing and distraught. Their women stood at their windows and doorways looking at the solitary woman whose very self had been torn apart. Inside themselves they had neither pity nor qualms. Because they themselves shared the same savarna caste as their men.
As evening fell, Kabootari returned home. Her body naked as before. The door of the house was open. There sat her husband’s mother and father, next to the cold stove, wrapped in a blanket of grief. In the earthen courtyard, her husband’s sister had dug up a pile of dirt with her big toe. Her husband’s brother lay inside, facedown on a cot. And her husband’s grandfather was alone, still in turmoil, muttering tearfully in his small room. Terror-stricken eyes watched Kabootari come inside, but no one possessed the courage to meet her gaze. Everyone lowered their eyes in shame. Kabootari had been marched naked through the village while they all watched and no one had been able to do anything. The bonds of family and the instinct to protect one another, where had it gone? They’d all become mere gawkers. And as gawkers, they were powerless.
After Hariya, Harphul was the head of household. He was Hariya’s eldest son. What would he manage to say to his own son in the end, when he returned from the city?
The stove was cold and the coals that lay inside it were already dead, and Harphul’s whole body had also gone cold. It was the fiercest month of summer and his body was growing cold! The sound of Hariya coughing and muttering could still be heard coming from the inner room. Not a single lamp or candle had been lit in the house. Darkness spread slowly. And with the darkness, silence.
The night was half over, but there was no sleep in Kabootari’s eyes. Over and over she could feel the fingers and palms of rough hands touching her body. She still felt naked, even after she had dressed. It was like the skin on her body had become her clothes and vultures were ripping it apart. Chunks of flesh in their strong talons and their beaks smeared with blood.
She remembered how a week earlier an order had come from the thakur’s haveli. “Your husband went to the city, taking five hundred of my rupees with him. Now you pay down your man’s debt by working in our fields.” At the time she’d talked with her husband’s brother and been forbidden to go. One day passed without incident. The next day she’d gone outside the village to collect firewood. She’d hoisted a bundle onto her head and was walking back home when the thakur’s son saw her alone in the road and stopped her. He was on horseback. Sultan Singh drew his horse close and said, “Look here, Kabootari! Either you come straight to our fields and get to work right now . . . or else we’ll get the work out of you the way we always do from you Chamars. After all it was your husband who borrowed from us. True, the principal is his, but you’re the one who can pay back the interest.”
She knew quite well what the thakur’s son wanted from her. Sultan Singh had said things to her before on the walk back to the village. A sudden fierce strength came into her legs. Like a deer, she bolted. Her body was suddenly soaked in sweat. When she got back to the house, she threw her load of wood down on the earthen floor and went into the inner room, where her sweat-soaked body collapsed in a heap on a bare cot. Under her weight, the cot let out a groan. But who could hear the voice inside her? It was ready to scream. Her eyes filled with tears. She wanted to cry her heart out, but who could she talk to here? It had been three weeks since her husband had gone to the city to look for work.
That night she had strange dreams. Sometimes a writhing python held her body tightly in its grasp. Sometimes the snake hissed at her unendingly. Sometimes it seemed like heaps of scorpions were crawling over her body. Sleep flew from her in terror in the middle of the night and she remained awake until dawn. In the morning her husband’s sister asked, “Bhabhi, what were you murmuring in the night?” What could she tell her about what she saw in her dreams, the python, the snakes and scorpions? By midday she’d already forgotten about the terrifying snakes she’d seen the night before, but at the thought of leaving the house to collect firewood outside the village clouds of apprehension began to gather. She vigilantly looked up and down the road. As she walked, she’d come across people walking alone or in pairs. As soon as she saw someone, she’d cover her face with the end of her sari. It was almost eleven. The sun above, hot sand below. She was wearing rubber sandals on her feet and those too were hot. The wild area was a full two miles outside the village. When she arrived, the wind was blazing hot. The area itself wasn’t anything special. There were only a few dozen trees left scattered over twenty or so acres. Most of them were neem trees, then there were some mango and jamun. Most of them had been burned up in ovens. The branches and the dried-out cow patties billowed smoke as they burned. There was scarcely a stove or any gas to be found in the village. Not even in the thakur’s house.
The shadow of the trees blocked the sun’s rays. It felt good. It was a little less hot in the shade. A little way off she could see a woman grazing eight or nine cattle. Seeing her alone in the wild gave Kabootari some courage. She set down the head ring used for carrying loads and began to collect dry twigs under the tree. Of course how could two women avoid gossiping and chatting with one another in the lull of the afternoon heat? The woman who’d been grazing her cattle nearby saw her and came near. Kabootari heard her footsteps on the dry leaves and looked up. The woman was standing right there. For a few moments, they just stared at each other. Both were fair-skinned, with sharp eyes, but there was a difference in their ages.
“Whose wife are you, girl?” There was an air of superiority in her voice. Kabootari was quiet, unsure what to say. After a few moments the woman asked again, “Why won’t you tell me the name of your husband?”
“Sampat,” she said finally, with difficulty.
The woman standing across from her repeated, “Sampat!”
“You’ve come from the dalit basti, then?” was her next question.
Kabootari could only manage a small “yes” in reply.
“Aha, I see, that chamar who has ten books?” Her voice was getting louder.
“Yes,” Kabootari confirmed in a near whisper.
“The one who took five hundred rupees from the elder thakur and moved to the city, you’re his wife,” she concluded.
Kabootari felt as though she had a boulder on her chest. “Yes,” she replied in a wounded voice.
The silence between them lasted for a few minutes. Kabootari started sorting the larger and smaller twigs.
“Do you know”—her voice was getting louder again—“how Thakur will collect on his debt?”
Kabootari heard the suggestiveness in this mysterious question and retorted, “How will Thakur collect his debt?”
The woman smiled faintly and said, “Thakur won’t let any of the capital or the interest go. He’ll extract every last paisa out of his debtor. Starting with his new wife, before anyone else.”
“What?!” burst from Kabootari’s mouth.
“Yeah, haven’t you understood yet? Has Thakur called you to his house to work?”
Now there was no superiority in her voice. She asked the question slowly.
“Thakur sent a messenger,” Kabootari finally blurted out.
“Did you go?” was her next question.
They both inched closer to one another. They started to talk openly. There was no coldness in their conversation. The woman said, “How long can you hold out and not go? How long can you stay in crocodile-infested waters without . . . ? You know, I also said ‘no’ for a long time.”
“And then what?” Kabootari asked with growing interest.
“Then one day I started saying ‘yes.’” Her voice came from somewhere deep inside. “Since then I’ve been the half-wife of the elder thakur.”
“Half-wife . . .” Kabootari’s mouth hung open in surprise. Her eyes teemed with unasked questions.
“Yes, half-wife.” Her voice was getting stronger.
“My husband had taken a loan from Thakur five years ago to buy a bullock. But God had another idea. The bullock died after a month, it was even said that Thakur shot it.”
“What?!” Kabootari was shocked.
“Yes, just four or five days later Thakur sent a messenger ordering us to pay back our debt. But how could we pay it back now? So Thakur put us both to work. Me in his house and my man in the fields. How long could we have held out?”
“So Thakur went after you . . .” Kabootari managed to ask her first question.
“Yes,” she answered and after a few moments asked, “But your husband hasn’t found any work in the city yet?”
“It’s been twenty days. There’s been no letter, I don’t know what has happened,” Kabootari said in a worried voice.
It was the hottest hour of the afternoon, the sun was on their heads. Kabootari had by now gathered a bundle of dry firewood. First she folded a piece of cloth into a head ring, then lifted the load of twigs on top. “OK, sister, I should go now. My sister-in-law will be waiting for me at home. It’s time to make roti.”
It was two miles from the wilds back to her house. She set off on a dirt road. Each time someone on a bicycle would ring his bell behind her, she would move to the side. There was no one else on the road. She’d gone about half a mile when she heard some familiar voices behind her.
“Hey girl, stop.”
She turned and looked behind her. She saw Thakur’s middle son and four of his buddies. She froze. Now they’d come close to her.
“Why did you refuse to come and work in our fields?” Thakur’s middle son bellowed. He had a rifle on his shoulder.
Kabootari lunged to run away like her feet were on fire, but he caught her hand.
“Let me go.”
Gripping her load with one hand, she tugged her other free. Her bundle of firewood tumbled to the ground. “Why won’t you let me go?”
She bent to pick up the firewood but the thakur’s son grabbed her again and said, “Move along. Starting today you’ll work in our fields. What, you’re not going to pay off your husband’s debt?”
“I didn’t take a loan from anyone! The one who borrowed it will pay it back.” She moved again to leave. The boy’s buddies surrounded her and laughed shamelessly.
“I’m telling you again to go to our fields to work or else . . .” He grabbed her arm again.
“Or what will you do?” Kabootari retorted and pulled her arm free.
“A chamari mouthing off to a thakur, you bitch?” Suddenly he swooped down on her like a hawk. The thakur’s son fell on her first, but there were five hawks and she was alone. In a moment they had ripped the clothes off her body. She screamed and cried, but they stripped the clothes from her body and left her there naked in the middle of the desolate road. When she tried to run she was blocked by a lathi.
“Go back to Lahana now. When people see you like this they’ll spit on you.” The thakur’s son roared like some kind of wild animal.
When she heard him say the name of their village her heart rose up to her mouth. Dark shadows clouded her eyes. She sat with a thud in the middle of the road to the village. What could she do? How could she get away from them? Where could she run? For a while, she just sat right there. Then they all started prodding her body with their lathis.
“Come on, get up, otherwise we’ll stick these lathis into you,” thundered the thakur’s son.
“I bow at your feet and pray to you. Please give me back my clothes.” With these words Kabootari cried a river of tears. She started wailing. Her naked body was being scorched in the heat of the afternoon, but her fine hairs stood on end. Her whole face was streaked with tears. But her heart was just like stone. It was frozen. The thakur’s buddies laughed and prodded her body with their lathis. Finally they got her up and forced her naked body on toward the village.
First they came to Johar, then Bitore, then Lahana. They paraded her naked body all around her village. A few followed behind them like dogs. They forced her to perform this show until nightfall. The thakur’s middle son prodded the strange procession along and when evening came this woman who’d turned to stone managed to slip home.
The neighbor’s crowing cock signaled dawn. Chamiya hadn’t slept at all. Her eyes were bloodshot and her limbs heavy her mind full of fury and her body still swollen with pain. But it wasn’t only Chamiya who was in such a state. So was everyone in the house. They couldn’t even manage to speak one word to one other. They were each one utterly alone, having retreated inward. Everyone wondered how another day could have dawned. At least in the darkness they wouldn’t have to show their faces to anyone. If only the dark of night would return and the village remain enveloped in a blanket of blackness.
“Bau . . .” Chamiya heard a voice. It was her mother-in-law, Santo. She was still lying down. She had fear in her heart. What if Chamiya had done something to herself in the night? Then, suddenly coming to her senses, she went toward Chamiya’s small room. There was a sliver of the dawn’s light there.
She quietly called out again, “Bau . . .”
She came close and peered. Chamiya was prone, her eyes open. Santo hesitantly moved a little closer and called out again. Chamiya was silent, her eyes trained upward toward the ceiling.
“Bau, what happened to you? Say something, won’t you? Curse us, throw your shoes, gouge out my eyes. We all saw you stripped naked; we witnessed your shame.”
As she said this, Santo’s voice became thick with grief. Her voice was husky, and her eyes full of tears; then she started to sob. Seeing her mother-in-law cry, Chamiya sat up. How long would she continue to block the flood of tears? Finally, the dam broke. The sound of the two of them sobbing first reached Chamiya’s sister-in-law, then her brother-in-law. Both cast their eyes downward. Seeing Chamiya and their mother weeping, they too began to cry. Outside, her father-in-law’s and grandfather-in-law’s eyes were also wet. But for now they gathered the strength to keep their tears from falling.
As the sounds of this collective weeping grew, panic broke out among their neighbors. Everyone knew what had happened the day before; some had even seen it all with their own eyes. What if something unthinkable had happened in the night? People came running to the house with this thought. Hariya and Harphul were speechless. A crowd was forming in the meeting square; first came the women, then the men, then the little children and older girls. The same words were on everyone’s tongue. “What happened yesterday was terrible. Nothing like that has happened in the village before.”
Now all the women were trying to squeeze into Chamiya’s small room. Those who’d already gone in were crying, and the eyes of the women and girls who were still outside started to fill as well. There was a lot of chatter among them.
One old lady was saying to another old lady, “Kabootari must have done something.”
“No, Auntie, she’s very courageous,” slipped off another’s tongue. “If she weren’t, by now she’d have drowned herself in the well.”
“But something bad has happened to her,” said a third.
The sound of weeping still emanated from inside. A young girl spoke up—
“I bet no one ate anything last night.”
“Go, have a look at the stove,” an old woman responded quickly.
The girl dashed off to the verandah and took some of the ashes from the stove into her hand; they were cold. There was no wood, nor any dirty dishes nearby. Tongs, bellows, and a griddle were leaning against the earthen wall. The girl ran back to the others and said in a saddened voice,
“No Auntie, they haven’t cooked anything.” Then the old woman asked ruefully, “Then what could they have eaten?”
Someone else spoke up, “Who can even think about swallowing food at a time like this?”
“But they should have some roti now. They’ve gone hungry since yesterday,” said the girl once more.
Some women who’d been in the room came outside. All of them emerged with wet eyes. They gathered with the others near Harphul and Hariya. Most of them were offering consolation. Suddenly, a young man blurted, “But how long will this go on? Yesterday they stripped Sampat’s wife, today they’ll parade someone else’s wife or sister naked around the village!”
“But what can poor people ever do?” an old man asked, sitting down next to Hariya.
Then a middle-aged man said, “We can do a lot together, if we all want to.” This emboldened the young man, who now shouted in a louder voice, “We should go to the police and file a report!”
“Don’t go to the police. This is a village matter. We’ll settle it here,” advised another.
“Let’s get the community leaders together and decide what we should do. It’s not good to act in haste.” A few spoke up who agreed with this. Further discussion was put on hold. But everyone’s minds were burning up with rage. The young ones clenched their fists. The old ones urged them to have patience. A little while later the crowd began to disperse. Even though none of the men had thought to pay any attention to the matter of roti, in the meantime a few women had gone back to their homes to light their stoves to cook food for Chamiya’s family.
Once again they were alone in the house. It was as if broken glass coursed through their veins. Hariya was still in his room. He was not in the mood to come out. How much strength did the old man have left? How long had he been rambling around the whole village on these legs? He was the oldest person in the village’s dalit basti. His old eyes had seen the most deaths. Whose bier had he not hoisted with his own shoulders? How many eyes had he wiped free of tears, how many had he offered consolation? But today he could not so much as console himself.
Harphul was even more distraught. He was only twenty years younger than his father, but the events of the previous day made him want to sob like a child. When the son reaches adolescence he becomes his father’s equal. Harphul often sat with his father and smoked the hookah. He’d spoken his own mind and listened to his father’s opinions. But just a few days after the birth of Sampat’s younger brother, their parents had died in an accident. Since then Dada Hariya had always managed to buoy his spirit in the face of countless challenges, but this time who knows why it felt as if his heart could not sustain the shock. He remembered just two years ago, when the older brother had married Chamiya and brought her home. At the engagement ceremony in front of a full courtyard, Harphul had said, “Sampat, I’ve just seen a pretty little kabootari bird for you. Such a fair-faced bride.” And from that day, Chamiya’s name had become Kabootari. Not just at home, but outside as well. The neighbor women too would call out, “Kabootari!” when entering the house. The brother and sister-in-law teased her roundly. But that’s how Chamiya was. She had come, anklets jingling, from her maternal home. You could hear the sound throughout the village. Distant aunts and uncles teased Sampat, “Look dear, a pretty bird has alighted in your hand! Don’t let her fly away!” Sampat just listened to everything and stayed quiet. At home he’d spice it up when he’d repeat everything to Chamiya. Hearing all this, Chamiya’s face would redden with embarrassment. When she’d leave the basti, her jingling anklets would attract everyone’s attention. Today there was no jingling, only silent tears.
A little while later the neighborhood women came, bringing food. They went inside and tried to cajole everyone into eating something. But no one so much as picked up a single roti. Finally, defeated, they left the roti sitting there and returned to their own homes.
Then, a little while later, the men returned to the house. Mostly the elders. They kept trying various ways of making sense of the situation. Some women sat near Chamiya. They kept trying to explain high-caste versus low. Over and over, they told her the story of village tradition. From the very beginning the thakur’s family had thrown their weight around in the village. They did not avoid talking about this either. Insults were soon streaming from one or two mouths—“The worm-eaten old motherfucker won’t even leave his eldest daughter-in-law alone . . . he’s hardly a man. He’s an out-and-out devil reborn as a man.”
Chamiya was listening quietly to what they were saying. Now and then a sob escaped her. Her eyes were bloodshot from so much crying. “Here, daughter, eat a little roti,” someone said. But Chamiya had no appetite, nor did the older brother and sister-in-law, or anyone else in her family. She hadn’t so much as had a drop to drink. It was as though her body’s connection with hunger and thirst had been broken.
The afternoon passed amid a constant state of agitation. People kept coming and going from the house. Many people offered the same advice: Sampat should be called back from the city. But Harphul forbade it. “What if as soon as he came back he started a fight with the thakur? His blood is hot, fanned by the winds of the city. How would he be able to tolerate this? We are the ones who live in the village, and we understand village customs. We’ve learned to stay silent. We continue to tolerate even the cruelest atrocities. But he would not be able to stand by and watch all this silently. There would surely be trouble when he got back.” Most of the other elders agreed with Harphul. But the young people did not. Over and over they argued that they should send a message to Sampat calling him to come home right away. Arey, all this happened to his own wife and he won’t even get the news? This was definitely an atrocity, punishable by law. After Sampat came back, they could decide how to respond. But first he had to be given the news. The pressure on the elders to call Sampat back from the city was mounting. They were weak, this was true. But they shouldn’t just acquiesce to all of this. They were uncertain about what to do. Fear and rage filled their hearts.
By nightfall they had made a declaration: “We are going to fast. We will undertake a hunger strike. Our samadhi will be constructed right here. We will not eat even a single grain of wheat.” People in the village would take up their cause only after they were dead. They had endured the tyranny of the thakur for generation upon generation. No longer. This was their call for unity.
The news spread throughout the village. It was on the tongues of all the children. Furrows of worry sprang up on the foreheads of the elderly tucked away in their rooms. They dejectedly clamped their mouths down on the hookah pipes, but the hookah tasted astringent this time. The elderly women remembered their youthfulness and chatted among themselves. After the previous day’s incident none of the daughters-in-law nor any daughters in their prime were allowed outside. There was no one in Dhuliya’s meeting square. Darkness had fallen. No lights or lamps were lit there. Today it looked haunted. The door to the sitting room, to which Dhuliya had the key, was locked shut. And Dhuliya was lying in his room. In front of his eyes was swimming a picture of the tyranny of three generations of thakurs. It would be difficult to find a single man whose back had not been scarred by the whip of the thakur or his agents. These scars were testaments to their ferocity.
There were very few women of their caste who had not been summoned by the thakur’s lathi-wielding henchmen to visit the haveli. One by one each body endured all that was unwanted. That was why they had the girls’ palms slathered in matrimonial turmeric and sent to their in-laws at such a tender age. The girls who came to this village from outside as daughters-in-law had to endure this twisted, dire fate for the first two or three years. This was the tradition of the village from the beginning.
The news was bound to reach the haveli by nightfall. Each and every man living in the haveli came to know that there would be a hunger strike in Hariya’s home starting the next day. But this had absolutely no effect on these people. For their part there was nothing but heaps of abuse tossed in the direction of Hariya’s family. The agents and henchmen mocked them.
At ten o’clock the silence in the village was rent by shouts, “Sampat has arrived! Sampat has arrived!”
As soon as the youth in the neighborhood heard this, the embers buried in their hearts suddenly blazed anew. A crowd gathered inside and outside Hariya’s home. Just then another thought occurred to them, that yesterday’s incident had been published in the newspaper, and when he read it he would of course have come racing home. They were all desperately eager to see the newspaper. But Sampat had the newspaper and Sampat’s family surrounded him. On the one side were the women of the house and the other side was his grandmother Ma; Mangali and Suresh stood facing him. Harphul’s eyes were still downcast. Everyone was weeping, ever so gently.
The crowd poured into the house. Someone from the neighborhood brought another lantern. Hariya couldn’t take his elderly eyes off Sampat. He was the one who told Sampat the most about what happened. Sampat realized that no one in the house had so much as torn off a single mouthful of bread since the previous day. The roti on everyone’s plates had gone stale. Seeing and hearing all of this, Sampat lost control.
“If you let yourselves die, what difference will it make to the thakur? There won’t be any less food in the dishes on his table. There won’t be so much as a single damaged brick in his haveli.” No one interrupted him with even a sigh. Everyone understood Sampat’s pain. What Sampat said next was only fitting. “And the truth is that that you people have been dead all along. If you weren’t already corpses, how could you have just kept staring at my wife’s naked body?”
Hariya’s voice could be heard rising up, “My grandson is right. We are all dead.”
Several voices cried out. “Sampat’s thinking is fine for the city.” The crowd erupted in whispered debates.
There was still the question of roti. Birmo Tai scolded them again, and everyone acquiesced. It was not long before the crowd began to dissipate. Two or three women went to their homes to make food once more. It was the middle of the night. The cook stoves were warmed up again. There were expressions of happiness and satisfaction on the faces of the women cooking. Someone brought onions, another vegetables, and someone else sugar. Twenty-five or thirty roti were done in no time. Everyone sat down together and ate.
Much of the night had passed. But there was no sleepiness in Sampat’s eyes. Chamiya was the same way, lying beside him. No sleep came over her. The kerosene in the lantern had been used up. It went out all by itself. It was dark everywhere. Sharp claws emerged from the darkness and he was fighting, grappling with them. But the number of claws kept growing all around him.
It had gone this way for ten years now, with him battling the village traditions the thakur and the brahmins had banded together to make up. The temple and the haveli were the main symbols of these injustices in the village. The temple belonged to the brahmins and the haveli to the thakur. The rest of this village was in the clutches of the Banias, Kayasths, Yadavs, Kurmiyas, and Rajputs. And the dalit basti was divided up so all of them had control over some part of it. The prosperous castes bequeathed upon themselves the right to turn each and every man, woman, child, and old person into a commodity. A commodity they used whenever they wanted and discarded when they were through.
As soon as morning came Sampat had one conviction. There was a police report to file. He kept saying to Chamiya, “Hurry up, go to town. Tell everything to the police at the station there. What the thakur’s middle son did with you. The name of each and every henchman should be in the F.I.R.” And Chamiya, terrified, got ready.
Outside in the bare-earth courtyard Harphul was explaining: “Sampat, remember someone will just rewrite your ‘report,’ and even if your report is taken down by some decent ‘inspector,’ you think it will ruin the thakur? I’ve heard the thakur’s reach goes all the way to the chief minister.”
Sampat exploded in rage. “Bhaiya, the thakur’s reach could go to the chief minister or even all the way to the prime minister. This is tyranny we’re living under and her report needs to be filed with the police.”
Hearing the argument from his own room between father and son, Hariya grabbed his lathi and came running. There were several folks with him. Harphul protested once more. “But who owns the police? They belong to those in the village who have strength in lathis.”
“The police are to serve everyone. They have the responsibility to keep every single person safe.” Sampat had scarcely finished speaking when Hariya cut in.
“Yeah, Sampat, you should definitely go get a report filed.” Hariya minced no words in making his decision.
As soon as Harphul heard this it was as if his body had been lit on fire. He retorted in a loud voice, “So now grandfather and grandson are going to start a revolution?”
“The revolutionaries today fell asleep when they got into Parliament and the Legislative Assembly. We only want to do something against the tyranny and injustice clamped down on us.” There was still anger in Sampat’s voice. At which the crack in Harphul’s voice only became more pronounced.
“Those who are weak cannot do a thing.” He wanted to say something more.
“Bhaiya, how much longer are we going to remain weak? How much longer are we going to live as slaves? You don’t know what Dr. Saheb Ambedkar has taught. You have only heard his name. We have a program in his honor every April 14. He has said, ‘As soon as the slaves sense their slavery they will break the chains of slavery themselves.’”
Chamiya sat inside ready to go. She was smoldering inside. Sampat’s nephew Suresh was also ready. Santu was quite apprehensive. Harphul’s mind was entangled in a dilemma. Six or seven of the people gathered in the bare-earth courtyard were ready to go to the police station. Of them four were youths. The rest were middle-aged. Despite not wanting to, Harphul had had to prepare himself, and despite wanting to, Hariya could not go. The reason being that the police station was in town, and the town was a full eight miles from their village. He did not have the strength to make the full sixteen-mile trip there and back on foot.
A bone-quaking furor rose up in the village’s dalit basti over the matter of all of them going to town to file a report against the thakur. Only Birmo did not object to her son going. She herself was willing to go along with him. She was a widow, and he was the only son in the home. The thakur had had Birmo’s man killed ten years earlier. She had not been able to file a report against him. But today she was ready. The report would be written for the past and the present. Old memories had been stirred up from someplace among her long-dormant wounds.
Two villages fell on their way. When they saw so many people heading toward town in such a hurry some people asked about it. Without hesitating they said, “The thakur’s middle son stripped our womenfolk naked. We are going to town to file a report against him.”
They started staring at the three women trying to discover which of them had been stripped naked. Chamiya was in the front, and after her Birmo, and then Ramkali.
Now it was ten o’clock. The rays of the sun shone down like liquid fire. The sand beneath their feet was becoming hot. The breeze had disappeared. They were covered in sweat. There were a few “tubewells” along the way, but no one touched a drop of the water. Everyone was driven by the same fixation: get to town as soon as possible and file a report against the thakur. That mad obsession had become a source of strength. They were not one or two or three, but thirteen. A fire had been lit in them, inside and out. The sun inside them that had dawned when Sampat returned from the city had now grown even stronger than the sun outside, and it made them restless.
The police compound was in the center of the town. Underneath a tiled roof were bare walls, splattered with ugly red paan stains. There were bloodstains too, here and there. Somehow the walls had turned black. Ahead of the police station was a bare-earth courtyard with plants and trees, where a temple had sprung up around some stone deity. Just in front of that stone image stood someone with head bowed, his fleshy frame clad in a uniform. Facing him to the north another body in a uniform was lying facedown on a bare rope-strung cot. In a room as large as the courtyard, a third uniform was berating someone across a table. A fourth uniform was standing in the corner shoving dark ras gulla sweets from a clay cup into its mouth. Facing south, a fifth was peeing into a gutter. All in all there were five officers posted to the police station in this town and of them one was in a chair. And he was fully discharging his “duty” to scold some rustic sitting across from him. When that police officer looked up suddenly and saw eleven people entering the police compound he bellowed, “Arey! How did they get in here? This is a police station, not a stable!”
Sampat was the first to enter. So he replied, “We have come with the understanding that this is a police station and not a stable.” Hearing Sampat’s retort the officer was a bit thrown. “OK, OK, tell me what brings you here.”
They all began to file into the grand room, which at their arrival suddenly felt small.
“We have to write a report,” Sampat said. At this the uniform was even more thrown. “But what happened? Or is it that you’ll just write a report?”
Now Sampat grew heated. “We are not going to write it in the wind, we are living under tyranny.”
“What tyranny, hurry up and say,” the officer said impatiently. In the meantime three uniforms entered the room, shoving people aside. Seeing that the inspector had entered, the secretary rose to his feet. Now the inspector sat down in that chair and began cross-examining. “What is the issue?”
“Inspector Saheb, we have come from the village of Lahana.”
“Is that so,” the inspector said softly.
“This is my wife,” he said, gesturing in Chamiya’s direction.
“Be quick and explain why you have come here, bringing your whole household along with you.”
The inspector was also starting to get annoyed.
“The middle son of the thakur of the village of Lahana stripped my wife naked in front of the whole village,” Sampat spat out at last.
As soon as he heard him name the thakur of Lahana, the inspector’s eyes began to twinkle. Suddenly from his mouth came a question.“What caste are you?”
“Then what do you want us to do?” the inspector asked in a mocking voice.
“Take down our report.” Sampat requested again.
For a moment the room was silent. Suddenly the inspector’s voice boiled up. “Get out of here! Go back the way you came! No report is going to be written for you here.”
Sampat and the others had not expected to receive such a reply from the inspector. Nevertheless, Sampat said with a restrained voice, “Inspector Saheb, the thakur’s middle son has committed an atrocity against us under the law. Please write the report on our behalf.”
As he was saying this, Birmo’s son blurted, “Inspector Saheb, you have to write the report.”
Once he heard this the inspector fumed, “And who might you be?”
Birmo stepped forward from the crowd and said forthrightly, “He is my son!”
The inspector raised his eyebrows.
“And which field did they dredge you up from?”
“We are not from any field, we live in the village,” Birmo replied flatly. The inspector seemed completely jolted by this. He looked at each and every person in turn. At last his gaze came to rest on Chamiya.
“You are his wife, no?” the inspector asked, gesturing to Sampat.
“Yes,” Chamiya answered.
“The thakur’s middle son stripped you naked. Now you want to be stripped naked again?”
“Inspector Saheb, what kind of nonsense is this?” Sampat interrupted.
“Inspector Saheb, our daughters are being stripped naked and paraded around the village and you . . .” This time Harphul spoke up. He couldn’t bear the way the inspector’s talk was flitting about like a renegade kite.
“So now you, too, have to butt in. Divan-ji, kick these blackies out of here.”
"Inspector Saheb, this behavior of yours is not right." Sampat flared up.
"Who are you to start teaching me about my behavior?"
"Inspector Saab, you need to fulfill your 'duty.'" Birmo's son stepped forward, his temper flaring.
"Saab-ji, you either lock us up or take down our report." When did Birmo ever hold herself back?
At this point the inspector’s temper had completely boiled over.
"Divan-ji, bring me my stick. I'm going to have to bring these sisterfucker Chamars to their senses. " As soon as he said this he rushed at them. Then a second official came at them with his fists. The remaining three picked up their sticks and ran to strike them. By this time all the commotion woke up the fifth uniformed man. He saw all the fighting going on in the compound and leaped into the center of it like a monkey.
A strange din of cries and suffering rose up in the police compound. A crowd gathered around. Word got out that the Chamars from the village of Lahana were being beaten, and anyone in the crowd who was Chamar, Khatik, or Valmiki ran to their bastis.
All eleven villagers had sustained injuries. Their clothes were torn. Birmo, with Chamiya and Ramkali, had not been spared. They had their hair pulled and were beaten without any pity. The most seriously wounded were Sampat, Harphul, and Birmo's son. All of them were locked in the back of the compound where Divan-ji kept his water buffalo. It was saturated with the smell of manure and urine. They were all inside the pen, and outside the inspector was raving, "Sisterfucker Chamars, now you’ve taken to talking back! If I don't ram my stick up each of your assholes my name isn't M. P. Tyagi!"
Afternoon was waning. Those who had left the village had not yet returned. Their statement had not yet been taken. Waves of worry traveled throughout the basti. Hariya was seated outside in the dirt-floor courtyard. A Kisani sent one of the children for news several times, but what could Hariya say? He himself was staring down the road for five of his own to return. How many people had come and gone? Half an hour, maybe a full hour had passed sitting, speaking, chatting. Again and again he’d been surrounded by people who clustered together before leaving alone. His mind became more distressed. Passing the sorrowful hours was more difficult. Whom could he talk to? With the bare walls, the earthen courtyard, or the stove that hadn’t been lit for three days?
He had been born in this village. Reached adolescence and old age, too. Now one day he would also be burned on the wood of this village’s cremation ground. But what did this village offer him and others of his caste? Time after time, living a life of insults and humiliation, he had grown to feel something along the lines of hatred for this village. The thakur’s people continued committing atrocities against people of his caste generation upon generation, treating them like slaves. This morning Sampat had said it best: they’re dead, they’re slaves, and there’s no concern for the welfare of slaves. About half his life had passed before Independence and half after. But this village had seen no particular changes. Same old traditions, same old customs. His grandson had indeed received a pass for the tenth class. But what had happened, what had he gotten out of it? Five years had passed and all he had managed was a pass on ten books. He hadn’t even gotten so much as a peon’s job. Several times he even went looking in the city, but heard of nothing anywhere.
Now take the matter of Birmo’s husband. Ten years back the thakur had him killed. And do you think that to this day the police were able to apprehend the murderer? A far-fetched dream. Ten people from his caste had been allotted hundred-yard plots of land each, and the thakur had worked with the village head to write his name on the deeds. Even before that they had been the thakur’s own purchased slaves, and still were. How many people in the village must have owned land? Neither land, nor a house, nor a well, nor a tank. To this day they had to drink water from the dirty pond. In the village there was not a school, or a dispensary, or even a doctor. In the end, what was in this village? In the end just a haveli and a temple, and they had no use for either of these.
The temple was new, but the haveli was quite old. Hariya still remembered the story, even now, that his father had told him one day. When this haveli had been built, a man from this basti of their caste had been offered as a sacrifice. But the thakur’s oldest boy was as gentle as a cow. He never so much as even glanced in the direction of any of the sisters or daughters of the village. There was all sorts of talk about him. Some said he had become a sadhu, some tell the tale that he drowned in the black waters of the Kali River. He was upset by his dad’s bad habits. The thakur had his own kind of religious devotion, that’s for sure. He’d even mount his own son’s wife. His agents said the oldest son saw this deed with his own eyes. Bas, that was the last straw. He didn’t spend even a single night in that haveli again. The poor thing came by himself and left all by himself. His wife lay down on the rail and gave up her own life. But the thakur’s middle son was following right in his dad’s line. The same thing about the youngest. He studied in the city. Lived in the hostel. The thakur sent him heaps of money so he could enjoy himself in the city. Not that the thakur had any shortage of money. His land stetched across five villages. He was merciless in extracting payments. If you were short just a single cent he’d tan your hide. Like father, like son, and his son after that.
It was now evening. The fog in Hariya’s thinking started to clear. He looked and saw Hukmi standing there before him. He was asking about the matter with his son. Not much after that along came Ramotar asking too. Then the Kisanis as well. And some more folks from the village gathered. Someone brought a glass of chai for Hariya.
Just then a hubbub started up in the basti. The sound of crying could be heard in some of the homes. Everyone stood up and ran toward it, leaving Hariya behind. Hariya stood there in astonishment. Something or other must have happened in town. Could be the police had locked them up. Or maybe the thakur’s people . . .
A peddler came from the town with his bangles. He recounted the whole story from the beating to the lockup. He added plenty of salt and pepper, spicing up the story as though he had seen the whole thing with his own eyes. But he had not seen a thing. Another bangle-peddler he had met buying bangles from the same store had told him.
The villagers spent the whole night awake, contending with the predicament of the eleven villagers who had not returned from town. Along with Hariya’s cold and mournful hearth, now the stoves in several other houses were not lit either. Grief spread throughout the basti. One by one each home was overcome by a strange desolation. If cats started howling or fighting with each other, irritated men and women would immediately run after to hit them. And the fighting cats would sprint off with a great leap, dogs bounding after them in attack. In faraway fields the buzzards called. The dogs were also howling, sending shivers through the bodies of the villagers.
It must have been nine o’clock in the morning. All eleven people appeared. Hariya was alone in his room. One by one he regarded the people who came with Sampat. There were wounds on Sampat’s and Harphul’s hands and torsos. But they didn’t want to talk to Hariya about it. What would be the use in telling . . . Hariya was old. How much his body had already been broken. Hearing about the incident at the police station would only make him sadder. But the question that came bubbling up in Hariya‘s mind needed a reply. Hariya asked no questions. "Bas," he only said, “I know. Your report was not taken down in the police station.”
Sampat was surprised to hear Hariya say this. He even asked, “But how did you know?”
“I’m going on eighty. I know a thing or two.”
“But Dadda, you were the one who said that we should go.” There was a question in his voice.
“Yes, I said that. Only because we should at least try. Trying is our job.”
Sampat was thinking. What Dadda said was a big thing. Hariya was a complete rustic, and illiterate, it was true, but he was speaking from his eighty years of experience. Whenever Sampat started any kind of work, he always got help from his Dadda. He had not even glimpsed the faces of his mom and dad since childhood. Ever since then his parental love had come from Hariya. Hariya himself had sent him to the city. That very first day he had said to him, “Sampat, now there is nothing in this village. Nothing except unpaid labor and disrespect.” Dadda understood it exactly. What was there for his caste in this village? From the beginning they’d lived on the margins of the village. And it was the same situation even now. Who in the village besides him could read? Who had the courage to do so . . .?
The incident the day before between the people from Lahana’s dalit basti and the officers from the police station in town did nothing to lessen the villagers’ resolve. If anything it had strengthened it. And the outrage against the thakur and the police had grown even more intense. They had found a path for resistance. They had been shut away in the police station since the previous afternoon. Outside in the town people realized that eleven Dalits had come to the police station to file a report against the thakur and were pummeled by the police and locked up inside the compound. There was a sizeable dalit population in town. Few of them were educated. Some were employed as civil servants. Ten or twenty phoned everyone they knew from Lucknow to Delhi to get them out of jail. The head of the opposition party lived in town. And come evening their bail had been posted. By night they were out. Each had received medical attention. There was a demand that the police inspector be suspended. They had left town the next morning intent on doing something to help. A report against the thakur had been recorded.
Come evening the village panchayat had gathered again at Hariya’s home. Everyone who had gone to town the day before was at the panchayat. Birmo even sat there behind her son, the end of her sari draped over her head. The past two days had been holidays for all the servants and wage laborers. Two days earlier it had been Sunday. Four or five people from the village worked as peons in the city. It was decided their advice and suggestions should be sought as well. There had been several incidents in the village involving the thakur, but the panchayat had not gotten involved until today. This time a fierce resentment had boiled up against the thakur. Those people from the city would also arrive from the city the next evening. People had been sent to inform them that very morning. Today Hariya had not said much. Whatever he had to say he felt he should save until all the members of the panchayat were present. He didn’t want to lighten the matter in his mind by talking about it now.
In the morning people came from a newspaper in the city. A boy of twenty-four and with him a girl. Both were wearing jeans. A camera was hanging from the girl’s shoulder and the boy had a long leather bag. For them the village was exotic and for the villagers the two were just as exotic. Especially for the women, as this was the first time they had seen a girl wearing jeans and leaving her hair loose.
The two had to walk an entire eight miles from town to come to this village. They were exhausted after coming all the way by foot. Their throats were parched, and their eyes were caked with dirt and dust. They had to find someplace in the village where they could escape the mud. The pantlegs of their jeans were as soaked as their feet. When they reached the meeting square, they breathed a sigh of relief as if they had summited Mount Everest. Four or five children stood near them, stark naked and bursting with curiosity. A little farther off someone was driving an ox cart, goading the ox’s rear legs. A woman who had come along carrying a load of fodder on her head kept staring at them. The young man who had come from the city was named Anupam and the young woman was called Monika. Both were trainees. Monika had a craving for a cigarette so she pulled out a packet from her bag, found matches, and was just about to light up when Anupam elbowed her, signaling her not to smoke. “Monika, people in the village don’t look kindly on a young woman smoking.”
“OK, Baba, I won’t have a smoke,” Monika said, her face screwing up with a strange expression.
“We were sent to this village to do some reporting on this terrible incident,” Anupam said, all puffed up.
“OK, OK, I know, we didn’t come here on a whim. Oof, Baba! An entire eight miles on foot!”
A faint smile appeared on Anupam’s lips. He added, “You must not have walked eight miles altogether in your entire life!”
“Yeah,” she answered. Then blurted out in English, “Oh no, Anupam, it’s impossible!” Returning to Hindi, she added, “Our newspaper is going to have to open an office in this village if the bureau chief says so.”
Suddenly both of them burst out laughing. The two of them had trudged along for a while, exhausted. By then two or three people had approached them. The number of curious onlookers began to grow. Two or three people came near and so Anupam explained the purpose of coming. After a moment of silence one of the individuals in the group blurted out the question, “Do you people want some water?”
“Yes.” The answer came out of both of their mouths at the same time. A moment later a child emerged bringing water in a lota. They drank until they were no longer thirsty.
The heat from the burning rays of sun had been rising. They both were sitting on a loose cot in Hariya’s bare-earth courtyard. They noticed the cups of chai being drunk out of broken glasses and really felt how poor the village was. By this time other villagers had joined them. Women veiling themselves with the ends of their saris were sitting on the mud walls. Monika took her camera out and started to take pictures, which only increased their curiosity. She took two or three of Chamiya alone. Everyone’s sights were trained on her. There were no rings on Monika’s fingers or ornaments on her ears, nor bangles on her wrists. All sorts of questions welled up inside each of them. Until now Anupam had written down all the questions. He asked, “When did this incident take place?”
“On Tuesday.” Harphul replied. Chamiya sat silent.
Monika asked, “What was his name, I mean who made her” (she gestured toward Chamiya) “naked?”
“The manjhala of the thakur, that one.” Harphul said.
“'Manjhala meaning' . . .?” Anupam wanted to clarify.
“The middle boy of the thakur, younger than the oldest,” Sampat explained.
“But why did he make her naked?” Anupam asked the next question. There was silence for a moment between them. In the crowd every single person thought: What answer to give? And Hariya replied, “The women of my caste have been made naked at the hands of the thakur since long before. They keep dishonoring them. It has become a village tradition, this.” As he said this, Hariya’s entire face from his wrinkles out began to flush in anger. A curious struggle started up in the shadows of the countless folds on his face. After Hariya finished talking, the people’s buzzing grew. “Absolutely, one hundred percent true,” a few voices called out.
“Was there ever an incident like this before?” Anupam asked.
“Of all the people in this village, my grandson’s wife was the first to be stripped naked. Some of my daughters and daughters-in-law were stripped naked in the haveli. In the light of day and in the dark of night. How many names do you want? The whole village has endured this. We won’t speak the names of the womenfolk, but we all know well.”
As Hariya finished talking a strange silence floated in the air.
Anupam asked the next question. “I heard that your side took out a loan from the thakur.”
“Yeah, took it. A five-hundred-rupalli loan. My grandson went to school from the time he was five years old and passed tenth grade. Because of that, he was sent to the city to work and have a career.” Hariya’s voice swelled once more.
“There’s a school in this village then?” Monika asked the question.
“No.” Sampat answered.
“Courtyard-badi . . . ?”
“A what-badi?” someone asked.
“Where women of the village can study,” Anupam clarified.
“Na,” Hariya spat out the answer.
“Adult center . . .? Where grownups and the elderly can learn to read,” he explained once more.
“No such thing in our village.”
“Dispensary, doctor, . . .?”
“Where would that be here, where man and beast drink from the same trough?” Hariya cut in.
“From where?” Anupam asked.
“From a filthy pond,” someone said.
Anupam and Monika felt completely helpless at the thought of it. What stratum of village had they entered? Broken-down homes surrounded them, with people wearing worn and torn clothing, bare naked children covered in dirt. Women covered in long veils. Monika and Anupam’s astonishment was boundless. Sampat had also given his account of the incident that had taken place yesterday at the town’s police station. They had even taken pictures of those who had sustained injuries. Prior to leaving, Monika had taken Chamiya aside and asked four or five questions, such as whether the thakur’s son had sexually violated her, how many hours she had remained naked, who was present when this incident took place, and so on.
Monika and Anupam also went to the thakur’s haveli. They were going to do this right. One man went with them to show them the way. The ruts in the village roads were filled with water. After a while, the path gave way to fields. Monika was glad to arrive in the middle of these fields after the atmosphere of such stink. The man was walking ahead and she was falling farther and farther behind. Suddenly Monika seemed to be assailed by a memory.
“Why Anupam, don’t you know, it was only last month that sixteen pages of advertisements were published in our paper.”
“Yes, I know,” Anupam answered as he trudged along.
“And all this. In this village not a single change has taken place. It means all these government announcements, advertisements, what is it except . . .”
And Anupam finished her thought. “It’s all been for show, and the truth is what you see right here before you with your eyes. And there’s a real difference between truth and lies.”
“But so many villages?” The question was Monika’s.
"Have you seen anything that justifies the two years you've put into reporting? The more time we spend in these villages, the closer we get to the truth. Otherwise it's just glamour . . . Newspapers and magazines sell nothing but scandal, liquor, ministers’ corruption, the commissions demanded by people like Harshad Mehta and police connections to customs on smugglers like Daud Ibrahim, with everyone feasting on which women were sold where, who stripped them naked, who raped them, how many people did it, the forces of which police and submilitary.”
“There’s that.” Monika agreed as she walked along. Suddently the man who came with them stopped, pointed to an old building, and said, “Babuji, this is Thakur’s haveli. Take care as you go. Downright ferocious that man is, ferocious.” He stood right there where he was and they made their way in the direction of the haveli.
There were about a thousand families in the village of Lahana. The roots of the many traditions flowering here ran as deep as the village was old, their blossoms emerging from branches neat and sturdy as the pads of a prickly pear. One could see that the village and those living in the village were indelibly marked by caste division. The village was split in two parts. In one part lived the upper castes and people from backward castes such as Bahmin, Baniya, Thakur, Rajput, Jat, Tyagi, Yadav, Gujar, Kayasth, and Kurmi. In the other part, the outcaste and dalit groups such as Chamar, Chaamad, Valmiki, Khatik, Taili, Saini, Nai, Julahe, Khatbune and Maniyar. In one part of town silver dishes and long, winding hookahs; in the other, broken-down houses, rope-strung cots, clay hookahs, brass and bronze dishes; the women in one cinched twenty lengths of cloth around their waists into flaring, full-length ghagharas and veiled themselves in orhni with sparkly silver gota borders, while the women in the other part wore old, torn hand-me-downs. There was a Hindu temple and a drinking well on only one side of the village. There was an old, dry riverbed in the dalit part some called a “talab” that was—at least in name—a pool of water. Animals and humans used to bathe here together and would drink the water. The outcastes had no fields to farm. The cremation ground was in both parts of the village. The upper-caste cremation ground was separate from the outcaste as if the dead still observed the birthright of upper caste and outcaste, clinging to caste in their hearts as they returned to dust. Anyone who was born in the village quietly let their children know what caste they were, what their lineage was, what profession, who were on the side of the exploited and who the exploiters.
There were ten Chamar homes in the basti. Their traditional occupation was to remove the carcasses of dead animals. They also ate the meat of those animals. Whenever an animal died in the village, Siriya was the first to hear the news. He was seventy years old, the oldest of everyone. Kisna told him regularly the news right from the start of the evening panchayat. Siriya had heard about the incident four days earlier. This was how the news was sent to all the homes of the Balmikis, Khatiks, Telis, Sainis, Nais, Julahes, Khatbunes, and Maniyars.
From that day on, none of the women went to the thakurs’ havelis. They did not set foot in either the fields or the wilds. It was the children of the basti who were the most excited. They set up imaginary debates to pretend they were taking part in a panchayat like the one that would be held that evening in Dhuliya’s meeting square, using a gibberish language with one another. There was no child in the basti who hadn’t heard the news about the panchayat.
For children like this, the panchayat was nothing but a thing of wonder. They maintained a healthy curiosity about which older folks did what. Sometimes at panchayats there would be jokes and fun. Women and children were not allowed to take part in the panchayat but sat quietly listening nonetheless. Sometimes they would make the excuse of filling a hookah or of serving water, but today at the panchayat no women were turned away, nor were any children. It was because of this that the children had become even more excited.
Just as night began to fall, people began gathering in Dhuliya’s meeting square. Space had been arranged for women to sit on one side, and men on the other. Two lanterns had been requested, filled with plenty of oil. Four or five hookahs had been set out as well. They put cow-dung cakes in the clay oven and lay a burning ember on top. It did not take long before the cow-dung cakes had been lit.
First Harphul got up and spoke. “Panchayat members, that daughter-in-law you brought here three years ago from Hingna Village on Tuesday was stripped naked in front of the whole village by Thakur’s middle son. Now that the esteemed members of the panchayat have gathered, you need to tell us what we should do.”
Just then Kisna spoke up, “Harphul, she’s not only your daughter-in-law, she belongs to the whole village. Her honor is the honor of the village, the whole community.”
“The whole village considers her honor to be our own, so why did such a thing happen?” someone said.
“Yes, this is true,” some people agreed, and whispering broke out among the women. “That’s right, it doesn’t matter whose house our sister is a daughter-in-law in. That dog rubbed the honor of the whole village in the dirt.”
Birmo sat in front of them. Angrily she muttered, “The old guy’s taken a torch to everyone. I’m seething so much I could take a sickle to father and son.”
At this, there was a general uproar across both the men’s and women’s sides. Kisna’s voice could be heard from the middle of it, “Stop all this racket so that we can make a decision!” The Panchayat quieted down after that.
“In my opinion we should strip naked his womenfolk too!” said Hukmi, who was sitting in the corner.
“Stop talking nonsense, Hukmi! Are you crazy? What is so different between our womenfolk and their womenfolk?” Hariya spoke up from the middle.
“The old man is right,” a voice rose up from among the women.
Suddenly Birmo spoke in glittering anger. “We should set fire to the crops in Thakur’s fields.”
Hariya flashed again. “So we’ll destroy all the grain too? And then what?”
“Then what else should we do?” Ramotar stood up and asked.
This time Siriya spoke up. “We cannot act rashly. Whatever we do, we’ll agree on it as a panchayat.”
Now the head of the Kisanis spoke. “We should go at night, and burn down Thakur’s haveli.”
“Oh, so we’ll all just get away with it then?” Harphul retorted.
“We should take his animals to town and sell them,” someone else said.
“That would be stealing,” a voice emerged from among the elders.
“We should poison those useless, half-starved animals of his,” shouted someone, in a near frenzy.
“That’s an even worse idea,” said someone else.
“Then what should we do, Bhaleramji?” Girdhari Valmiki stood up and asked.
“Drown ourselves, old man.”
Hariya’s white mustache quivered.
“What is there left to do but to drown,” said another voice.
“You useless kambakhts! You call yourselves men! We stood there watching while our daughter-in-law was stripped naked! Didn’t you feel the slightest bit of shame? Now no one should say anything at all, no one. If we had set everything ablaze would anyone have stopped us?”
Silence descended on the panchayat, hearing what Hariya had to say. It was as if each person had become a statue. The tobacco placed in the bowls of the hookah had burned up. Outside, the burning cow-dung cakes in the clay oven had turned to ash. No one had smoked the hookah that day. Both the lanterns had burned out. A feeling of panic spread among the men and women in the panchayat. The lanterns were swinging to and fro, and there was no more oil. But no one, man or woman, left.
Everyone just kept sitting, like before. Hariya burst forth again, “No one move from their spot. I don’t care if it’s dark. We don’t need to see anyone’s faces.”
After some silence, Parsa made a suggestion. “We should go to the city.”
“But what will we find in the city?” Chidda interrupted him.
Harphul finished Chidda’s thought. “What’s there for you in the city? No suitable work, no place to live. You’ll live in slums, you’ll wallow in the garbage like pigs. Kaliya’s boy went last year. It was a disaster.”
Sampat had been quiet until now. Suddenly he stood up and exclaimed, “There is a lot of opportunity in the city, but not everyone makes it. But we should try making our way in the city.”
“Look at how much you tried, son. Tell us, what did you make of it?” There was anger in Harphul’s voice.
“But bhaiya, there’s no untouchability, none of this caste business in the city.” Sampat made his case again, which seemed to convince the people his age.
“The caste sickness is everywhere. In the village—and in the city.”
“But it’s not as bad there as it is here,” Birmo interjected in a sweet voice.
Then someone suggested, “We should hear Chamiya’s thoughts on the matter, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes, that’s right. That poor girl must be the most upset,” someone said from the darkness.
Chamiya burst out crying. Her sobs rang out and pierced the blackness, rattling the hearts of everyone there, men and women, young and old. Hearing Chamiya cry, Sampat’s heart became heavy.
Birmo and Ramkali tried to console Chamiya, but the more they tried, the more she sobbed.
Her voice sounded soaked in tears and dejection. “Bhaiya . . . there’s no one here in this village to stand by me. The thakurs stripped me naked and everyone just stared . . .”
It was as though everyone had been bitten by a snake. No one spoke for a long time. Then Hariya made an ultimatum that turned the mood around. “Now stop all this crying, that’s over now. Everyone has said their piece. If I say something, will you all agree?” Hariya was quiet for a while. He was the eldest in the village, and today he’d been made head of the panchayat. He spoke again in the darkness as though reaching out for the beating hearts of his people. “If I say something, tell me, will you all agree?”
“Yes, we’ll agree!” All the men and women sitting there called out in one voice, like a cry of victory.
Hariya finally made his decision. “Then we should move to our own village."
“A new village . . . our own village!” everyone repeated, shocked.
Silence spread through the panchayat, as though people had had the wind knocked out of them all at once. No matter how ramshackle their homes and land, how could they leave them? Hariya had thrown them into a strange ethical predicament. Silence descended for some time, but Hariya finally broke it. “So now you’ve all lost your tongues. Look, if we stay here we’ll just keep on living as slaves. After all, you can’t pick a fight when you live in the same water as the crocodiles. What else can we do? We have no other choice. The bones of half the people in our basti have grown old and brittle.” Hariya paused for a moment. A few coughs echoed.
"We need to get out of here. The rest of you do as you please. Now that is my intention. There is no point in living in a place where no one respects any of us." Hariya said this and no more. After that, the panchayat was full of whispers. Everyone started offering their own pieces of advice and counsel to the panchayat.
Just then Birmo's voice swelled. "My old man is saying it right. We all need to get out of this place. There's nothing sacred about staying in such a place."
Half the night had passed. It was pitch black darkness in every direction. But the people heard Hariya's decision, and as they got up from the panchayat it was as if there was suddenly light wherever they looked. What a curious thing it was! An eighty-year-old man had shown everyone the path of revolution. The same man who for eighty years had honored every single tradition and custom.
The next day the sun rose, touching the door of every house. The darkness had faded. They felt possessed by a new strength. They had to look for new land by the Kali River. It was four miles away. And then the town was four miles beyond that. The highway was another mile. It was a desolate place. But they would have to settle there.
The villagers spent two days in turmoil, deciding which things to sell what and which to keep. Most people had taken out a loan from the thakur. Some had borrowed a hundred rupees, another two hundred, others fifty. Some borrowed from the moneylender in the village. They had to repay him too. A mud hut with dirty walls. An empty seed sower. An empty broken-down box. A pile of cow-dung cakes. One person had a calf and another an old bull. Not a single cow or bull could be seen in any doorway. Certainly there had to be chickens, goats, donkeys, and dogs. This was near the dalit basti. Whoever they sold something to took this into account.
Two days were spent in this kind of hustle and bustle. The dealing commenced. The village's moneylenders arrived first. Then two henchmen from the Rajputs. The people in the basti kept a watchful eye on them, as if they would try to buy their women. Some of the Kayasth families tried bargaining. But there was no reluctance in the minds of the dalits. Hariya was the first to make a deal on his home and storeroom. Now there should be no doubt among people in the basti. No one should end up thinking he had made a decision and then gone back on it.
On the fourth day, as the afternoon wore on, suddenly the district legislator, Kureel, arrived. He was also from a dalit caste. But he had become a state minister with the thakur's help. Everyone looked at him as if a rabid dog had slunk into the basti. No one offered him water or chai. No one so much as said "namaste." He was left absolutely alone as soon as he entered the village. Two rifle-toting men were with him for security. Two or three dogs were tagging along. Every so often the dogs would look at him and start barking. Beads of sweat glistened on Kureel's forehead, so he took out a handwoven handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. But just as many beads of sweat reappeared. He emerged from Dhuliya’s meeting square, but those who noticed him continued to ignore him. It was at this very square the previous year he had stood and made a load of promises. He sold the people in the basti dreams of gold. Today he had become a minister, but to the people in the basti he was worth no more than a cowrie shell. The basti folk were looking at him as if they wanted to say to him, "You sisterfucker. You've gotten so involved in politics, you've forgotten your own people."
Just then Kureel caught sight of Kisna walking in front of him. He knew Kisna well. This was right where he used to meet the people in the basti during the elections. He called out to him.
“What is it?” Kisna asked in a halting voice.
The esteemed minister had at the very least not hoped for such a thing from him. Controlling his voice he asked, “Is Hariya at home and that Chamiya . . . ?”
“Go and see for yourself,” Kisna gave a two-paise reply.
Kureel took this badly as well. He started muttering, “What has happened to everyone? No one knows how to talk properly.” So he set off toward Hariya’s house on his own. Both rifle-wielding men followed him. When people saw Kureel walking with his security detail toward Hariya’s home they followed after them. When Hariya heard their footsteps, he looked up and saw some politician wearing a sparkling white khadi outfit. He tried making out who it was with his hazy eyesight.
“Who is there, bhaiya . . . ?” he asked Kureel as he stood right in front of him.
“Arey, Dadda, it’s Kureel . . .” the esteemed minister said hesitantly.
“Kureel who?” Hariya asked again. And with that it seemed as if the blood had washed out of Kureel.
He gathered up his courage and pressed on. “Dadda, I am Kureel, B. L. Kureel, the one you elected to office last year.”
“So you’re the Kureel who won the election with our votes and went off to Lucknow.” There was anger in Hariya’s voice. In the meantime, Sampat, Chamiya, Harphul, and everyone else had joined them.
“But now we don’t have anything left. We have sold everything we owned. The only thing we have left is our faith. It wouldn’t be of any use to you.”
Hearing Hariya’s sarcastic words made Kureel’s throat go dry. He swallowed back his saliva and said, “Dadda, the chief minister sent me here to help you people, to see to it that you got justice.”
“The Lord Govennor must have sent you himself. You probably have brought loads of rupees with you. What, to cover the bare-naked body of my daughter-in-law? No, we don’t need any help from the government or the police. We will help ourselves.” Hariya flatly spurned Kureel.
In all his ten years of political life, he had never been so disgraced as he had that day by Hariya. He suddenly felt like he was drowning in shame. These paltry, barely surviving people suddenly had a fire lit in their eyes. He could not meet their gaze and backed out of their home with the rifle-wearing men in tow.
It was Sunday. They just had to forge ahead. As soon as the sun came out it would get hot. Therefore they wanted to complete at least half the journey before sunrise. Everyone had packed the night before. The caravan that would leave this village to build a new one had come together. Today no one had a single goat or chicken. They had broken-down cots and worn-out clothes. The women carried pots and pans and nursing babies. There were little children, gripping the fingers of their uncles and aunts. They had to make the journey as well, and all on foot, on little legs. All the Siriya, Chamar, and Valmiki families were there. The Valmikis had their pigs and dogs with them. No one had bought them. Their women walked in the back. There were also two Saini families and one Badhai. The barber was by himself. He carried with him a steel box with his razors. There were five families of Kumharas. They had ten donkeys. Today the donkeys were loaded down with baggage.
When these one hundred and fifty or so families left the village of Lahana behind and moved toward the Kali River, they had no horses or elephants with them. Nor did they have any carriage or buggy. They had no princess’s litter. They had no supplies. As they came out of the village on the dirt road their footsteps kicked up dust. It turned into a cloud that rose in the air, visible even from the rooftops of the havelis. The thakur and his middle son came downstairs, mocking the caravan. A few of his henchmen and their wives also clattered down from the upper floors of the haveli. The women were vexed and grief-stricken at their departure. Now who would deliver their children and cut the cords? Who would scoop up the cow dung and pat it into cakes for fuel? Who would give them massages? Who would whitewash their houses every year on Holi and Diwali, and who would wash their clothes? The milkmaid who was considered the thakur’s “half-wife” was also among those at the haveli. All the women had come downstairs upset, but she was the most aggrieved and had remained upstairs. Her name was Chanda.
While some people were abandoning the village, other people were celebrating. They sat ready to pounce on the deserted village. They made plans to use the dalits’ mud houses. One person was going to open a chicken farm there, and someone else was going to tie up his livestock. And someone else was going to make a godown for wood and cow-dung cakes. Different people, all with different plans. This is how it must have always been in this country. Invaders have conquered and looted the Shudras and the Dravidians, and now again they would make a new Harappa or Mohenjo Daro in this uprooted dalit village.
The Kali River was dry. It was narrow but stretched for a long way. The bushes cast shadows. The sun burned the earth. Trees were sparse. The ground was uneven, but it wasn’t rocky. They made their camp. There was no sign of shelter, but nevertheless they stopped in this very place to take a rest. Hariya’s old legs were exhausted. Everyone’s bodies were covered in sweat. They were desperately thirsty. Their lips were cracked. Their eyes were burning red from the sun and the heat. Suddenly Sampat’s glance fell on some brick buildings some distance away from them. “Dadda, look over there, there are some brick houses.”
Hariya tried to look. He couldn’t see anything but whiteness ahead of him. But Harphul saw it.
“We should go that way,” said Sampat.
Everyone was ready. Old, young, those in their prime, headed in the same direction, and before long, they had arrived near a work camp. There were twenty or thirty families of laborers in the work camp. They were mostly Parthiyas, who would pile wet earth slurry into molds and lay them out to dry to make bricks. They had come from Rajasthan. There were also a few families of Kumharas, like their own village potters. There were many women and children among them. That day, their boss was there at the work camp, though he normally lived in the nearby town. When he saw the men and women approaching the work camp with their children he couldn’t make sense of it. Hariya, Harphul, Kisna, Ramkali, Birmo, Ramotar all were there. They stopped when they got close to the work camp.
“Where have you all come from, and what is going on?” asked Rahmat Ali, the boss.
“We’ve come from the village of Lahana,” Sampat answered.
“Ya Allah! In this heat!” exclaimed Rahmat Ali, concerned. Then he asked, “Are you all Dalits?”
“Yes, we’re all Dalits,” answered Sampat again.
“It was your woman who . . .” he started to ask, but hesitated.
The villagers were quiet.
“Look bhai, you need work and I need laborers. Could Almighty Allah ever forgive me if I didn’t help you in such a such a situation?”
By now the other laborers in the work camp had gathered. They were staring at the newcomers with a strange expression. They had heaps of questions in their eyes. So many laborers, and without even a summons? The contractor who transported the laborers was surprised as well. Then Rahmat Ali spoke again. “Bhai, from today on they’re going to work alongside you.”
The work camp was set up with water. There were a few hand-pumps installed. The water was brackish from some pumps, and sweet from others. In this heat, both were fine. It may have been brackish, but it was still water. Women had now emerged from each of the huts, which were spaced five to ten yards apart, and stared at the villagers with curiosity. They talked together, then started working the hand-pumps. The exhausted and parched people from Lahana—old and young—pounced on the water.
Now the caravan that had come from the village slowly started to spread itself out around the work camp. Coming here, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was no thakur anywhere near them. Nor countless haremlike havelis where dalit women would be brought under duress. There was sky above and land below, their own land where they could live with dignity.
Chamiya experienced a sense of freedom for the first time. Open land, where you could sit, lie down, or go to the wilds as you wished. There was a small lake nearby. This place was narrow, not much wider than the bed of the Kali River, with mounds of earth here and there, of various sizes, where the children played cops and robbers. The day that they came from Lahana all the men and women gathered in a panchayat. What were the things a new village needed?
“A temple,” said one person.
Right away someone else cut him off and said, “We’ll need to build a school before a temple.”
Hariya nodded his head in agreement, “Yes, we should build a school. A place where our children can study and become something.”
“What else do we need?” someone else asked.
“The village should have a doctor,” someone else replied. Everyone agreed with this.
They were sitting on a large mound of earth, smeared with dust and dirt, the plans for the future village etched on the palms of their hands. Sweat gleamed on their foreheads. But on their faces glowed satisfaction. Their strength redoubled, returned, and doubled in this new place.
© Mohan Das Namishray. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Brueck and Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.
Erdene Seng's short story reveals the fate of one stubborn member of a community in transition.
Our people began to move from our homeland at the beginning of spring. Old man Dash would remember that day for the rest of his life. Dash sat by the pile of firewood near his ger. He watched as, almost like a spring mirage, a mass of animals and carts moved haphazardly along the near side of the southern mountain, with horsemen galloping in all directions. Dash saw this and muttered sadly, “My poor homeland, my poor homeland,” blinking his watery eyes. Spitting again and again through the gap between his front teeth, he patted the front of his boots with his skinny yet sinewy arms.
Gripping a weathered dish, his wife came out from inside a squat little lean-to, made of a short wall of black wooden poles and roofed with bark, and shouted “Snubnose, Snubnose!” As soon as she shouted a fat scruffy gray puppy came out from behind the ger, bounding under the housewife’s feet, its tongue lolling. Dash ignored the friendly Snubnose, and looked with indifference at his humble wife, the front of her skirt hanging down unevenly.
“Granny, look at the southern mountain. It is like they are fleeing a war.”
His wife sighed and shaded her faded old eyes with her hand. “So, while they are busy preparing to move, we are sitting here doing nothing,” she said.
Depressed, he said to her, “If that is how you feel, gather your things and follow them.” At that his wife entered her home, muttering to herself.
“My poor homeland. What are they thinking, what kind of people would reject their homeland after living here for forty years? They say together we will settle, we will settle. The pasture’s grass will not be enough, the animals will never graze well in the new pastureland, the cows will never give milk, and their summer milk quota will certainly be short. They say that we should live in one concentrated spot, in modern buildings with electricity. Where are these modern buildings? And what can I do . . . Even my dull wife seems to be talking nonsense as well.”
After he finished scarfing down the food from his dish, Snubnose came over to Dash, tail wagging, but Dash kicked the dog with his roebuck winter boots. Snubnose, offended, fled his owner's temper with a plaintive yelp. During the past year, the brigade members of the collective discussed settling in the new pasture near the collective center, and moving from the original pasture, which had good grazing land but was on the other side of the mountain and river from the district center. Dash did not want to hear anything about that.
At first he won the old folks to his side. In every meeting they protested and condemned the involuntary move from the security of the waters of their homeland to new pastures. But as more days and nights passed, the discussion over whether to move or stay began to break down, especially when young members began to tell fairy tale stories about going to a new area and establishing a city of houses with glass windows and milking their cows by electricity.
Sometimes he wondered why he should be different from the others and began to give in. But when he was trotting down that well-known road, he knew he was too accustomed to his old life, and he remembered the happiness he enjoyed in his native pasture. In his youthful travels he lived through a lot of hardships, and he roamed and explored the earth. When he came to this land, he had no place to sleep and no livestock to herd. After he arrived, he bought a horse to ride and met his wife. As the years passed, he was able to change the cover of his ger from gray to white, and had a life where he was not forced to chew only the remainder of the bone. When he thought about this, he swore again and again to himself that he would not leave this plentiful pasture which treated him so well, until he died and returned to his home in the earth. It seemed to him that the others did not think about this at all. Even people his own age were not wise enough to care about their home pasture.
Although the members of the collective tried to convince the stubborn old man, he said “OK, OK. I will stay here and keep guarding my pastures. I will take care of my few personal head of livestock, and I won’t make trouble for you. And I will survive somehow.”
It continued this way until spring came and the neighbors began to move, one after the other. From time to time his wife would mutter to him, “How can our family remain here alone?”
“My silly woman, you became human by the grace of this land. If you like, go yourself. I will be fine, with or without you,” he shouted. He refused to give in. Forty years she’d been married, and she had trusted her husband’s strength when he was young and his wisdom when he grew older. But now she could do nothing except mutter to herself.
That day, the brigade’s last few camps were moving. Old Man Dash sat by the firewood all day, sobbing, “Poor homeland, my poor homeland,” as he saw them off.
A few nights passed. The old man’s heart was comforted by the fact that he had remained in his homeland. But his wife was boiling over looking at the emptied pastures, without a single living thing, no families or animals. She pounded the mortar and pestle, and in the evening she gathered the livestock. Then there was nothing more she could do. She tried to work hard and had no choice but to stay and wait silently to see if the stubborn old man would change his mind and give in. Occasionally a traveler or a mail truck would pass by the pasture by the near side of the southern mountain, or a herd of horses would appear from far away. There was nothing more in the pasture to be seen.
After a long time summer came, and with it, rain. In the middle of July, the old man had to go the district center to fetch flour, grains, tea, and tobacco. His wife became angry, which had never happened before. “I won’t remain here all alone.”
The old man was so upset he thought about taking a hobble and halter to the woman. “If that is so, my swollen-eyed old thing, fine. Then go yourself.”
The old woman put the thick felt saddle pad, the saddle, and the old leather saddle cover, which was worn and had holes in it, on her horse. She tied the bag that was her bridal gift to the saddle with leather thongs. She struggled to get on the horse to go to the district center, trying to bend her knees and straighten her back, her feet kicking the leather cover. When she came to the collective center she was exhausted from riding and saddlesore.
At the collective center, her former neighbors met her and took her to the settlement of their brigade. New wooden houses were there, built in rows, and she saw a corral for milking, a half-covered stall for the calves, and so on. She saw there was a place here where everything was orderly and unthinkably clean, and she was greatly awed and fascinated by what she saw. Her former neighbors urged her to join them.
She decided to race home in her sheepskin deel, and, for the first time, fight with her husband. Snubnose the puppy, who greatly missed his mistress, greeted her by running and playing about and licking her lap, where he smelled milk.
But the old man greeted her with a dark expression. While the wife was away a two-year-old calf was killed by a wolf. She used this opportunity to rebuke the old man repeatedly. She repeated ten thousand times how well their former neighbors now lived.
When she did so the old man sat down in his usual way in the place of honor with a thump. “What do you know? You know nothing. Would the cattle become fat when people are living in houses? When fall comes, the animals will be lost. They will experience this disaster, then they will all see.”
The old lady opened her bag and took out a package of tobacco and threw it front of him. “It is very unpleasant for a living being to be isolated from relatives and friends. If you are going to be like this, I will have to go alone,” the old woman said to the old man.
The old man laughed sarcastically until his sides hurt. “Do it. Does this mean that you will throw me away now, when you are so old that your jaw hangs down to your knee? When hell freezes over! How far will you get without me?” he mocked. The old woman looked away from where he was sitting. She went to put away the things she got from town in their chest, and walked away muttering without saying anything else.
A few nights later the old man returned home from a nearby mountain, where he had gone to gather some sticks to use with a post for a fence. But he did not see any smoke coming from the chimney. When he approached the ger, Snubnose did not come to greet him. “She doesn’t even boil tea,” he said in disgust. But when he entered the ger, the old woman was not there. The chest at the end of the bed was almost empty. Just then he realized that the saddle and bridle were not in front of the ger.
“Damn it! What the hell is going on?” And then, like someone who lost his strength, he sat down with a thud on the bed, breathing heavily, not knowing whether to be angry or to laugh.
Erdene Seng, “Gantsaardal,” in Naran togoruu (Ulaanbaatar: Ulsyn Khevleliin Gazar, 1972). By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © 2018 by Kenneth Linden. All rights reserved.
In "Vengeance," Norov Dalkhaa weaves a Mongolian Buddhist folk legend that dogs have the reincarnated souls of humans into an urban parable of sex, jealousy, and violence.
Listen to Norov Dalkhaa read "Vengeance" in the original Mongolian.
The black dog's large brown eyes drew Chuluun's attention. They didn't seem to be dog's eyes at all. The dog stared at Demchig, not even moving when Chuluun waved his hands and feet at it. Uzmee looked as fragile as fine china as she sat next to Demchig. Each time he touched her hair, or touched her beautiful white hands, or touched the food and drink on the table, the black dog's hackles rose and its lip and whiskers quivered. But it never let out a growl. Occasionally the dog's gaze would drift up behind Demchig, to a picture affixed to the center of a tapestry adorned with a ceremonial blue silk scarf.
Although the dog's whiskers and eyebrows, even its eyes, expressed a decisive fierceness, a slight smile about the lips made it seem harmless. When the dog looked up at the portrait of the deceased, its pupils dilated and the fierceness in its eyes softened. After a moment, the dog started, and its pupil quickly contracted to the size of a needle's eye. It resumed glaring at Demchig with a piercing gaze full of fire.
These were not the eyes of a dog. These were human eyes. Dogs don't have eyes like these. Chuluun knew well that even when dogs beg for food or affection, or when they protect their owners and become aggressive, they never have eyes that look like this. As Chuluun glanced over at the dog, a chill went down his spine. Not knowing what else to do, he put a little bit of brown sugar in front of the dog, who sniffed it deeply. But again it pierced Demchig with its horrible glare. Chuluun pulled the dog close to himself.
“Look at that dog's eyes,” Chuluun whispered as he shook his fist at the dog.
“Let's go,” Chuluun whispered.
“If my daughter and son-in-law separate, there's no way I can keep living comfortably in this house. All I'll have is this poor dog to keep me company. I've waited desperately for you to come with me and now there is nothing to fear. Surely you will come with me?” Uzmee said softly.
“Of course I'll come,” Demchig said, laughing heartily. He rubbed her eyelash with his thumb. Demchig was truly convincing when he went on to say, “I wasn't just waiting around for your husband to die like a buzzard waiting for a field mouse.”
“You are afraid for no reason. You weren't afraid while he was alive—” Uzmee started, but Demchig interrupted her.
“Never mind that, darling. Now whenever I come over, you never let me leave,” he said as he caressed her. Struck by a bittersweet memory, the woman bowed her head slightly in shame.
“You wish,” she whispered softly.
“We have to do something about this dog. Is there a muzzle?” Demchig said.
“What are you going to do?” the woman exclaimed.
“The dog needs to get used to me. Otherwise . . . well, just look at those eyes.”
“I know . . . how frightening.”
“OK, quickly . . . Find me that muzzle!”
“But I . . .” the woman hesitated meekly.
“It's OK my dear, just be patient for a couple of days. Together you, me, and this puppy will be a family; soon the dog will even be bringing us our slippers. It will never even utter a growl.” Demchig grabbed the dog. The woman fetched the muzzle and showed him how to put it on the dog and shed a single tear. Demchig and Chuluun left the woman.
Demchig went straight home from there, but he didn't bring in the dog. He put some things in a duffel bag and threw it in the back seat next to the dog.
“We're going hunting. Hunting at night can be nice,” Demchig chortled.
He is talking about making some money by giving people rides along the way. And he prefers his partner to be a dog, rather than a person, Chuluun thought. But Demchig went straight to the edge of town instead of going through downtown, where all the potential passengers would be. Chuluun wondered about that. The dog with the staring gaze sat in the back seat. Every so often he would catch a glimpse of its flaming eyes reflected in the rearview mirror. A shiver went down his spine.
They left the city and drove off the road for a while, stopping at the edge of the forest. Chuluun wondered why they stopped there, but didn't ask. He didn't like to ask questions. He had an unusually cold, bad gut feeling. But he didn't move, didn't say anything. He just sat in the passenger seat.
Demchig took the dog and the bag out of the car and brought them into the headlights. He tied a wire leash to the dog's neck and pulled. The dog resisted and Demchig kicked it, causing it to jump. He pulled the dog through the snow and tied it to a spruce tree. All of this unfolded in the bright gleam of the headlights. The dog refused to make a sound until Demchig's kicks broke its ribs. Tied up there, the dog looked beautiful. It stood tall like a lion with a chest full of fur and a short tail, ears standing up half a foot. Though it was favoring its injured side, it stood firmly, its eyes blazing like fire. The leash came loose, but the dog stood still, though not for the hope of love or mercy. Demchig took a rifle out of the bag, assembled it, and loaded it. Then he propped it on the open door and aimed.
Those two fierce eyes . . . I'll shoot them out, he thought.
Right as he thought that, he heard a low growl. Chuluun watched that brave animal standing, ready to die. Demchig fired, and the dog's legs spread out below it out in four directions. The blue light in the dog's angry, blazing eyes guttered out. Demchig jumped up with a knife in hand. He ran up to the dog, laughing to himself, and cut the wire leash. He cut off the dog's tail and muttered, “be reborn as a human.” With the bloody knife and his bare hand, he dug up snow and threw the dog in the hole, poured gas over the carcass, and lit it on fire. Afterward he sat and shivered in the car. He furtively opened a bottle of vodka and began to drink. The glass clinked against his teeth. Wiping the sweat off his brow, he let out a long sigh.
“Poor Uzmee, I took vengeance on your husband!” Demchig screamed. They turned off the headlights and stayed in the car for a while without making a sound. The brave dog’s blood soaked the snow, his corpse smoldering.
Finally Chuluun asked, “What will you tell Uzmee?”
“I won't be seeing her,” he answered.
© Norov Dalkhaa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sainbayar Gundsambuu and KG Hutchins. All rights reserved.
In this short story, a taunted shopkeeper's son finds his scorned background is his entree to a corporate career.
Although his name wasn’t Gujji to begin with, he was Gujji now. Before he was even aware of it, it was as if his ears had absorbed this slur on his identity. First given to him in school, the name had already cooked through by the time he was a boy in the alleys of the neighborhood, much like the sausages boiled and hung from his family’s shop. When we’re raw, we’re free to trim our identities—their shape and size—to our liking. But what do we know then? Meaning, it takes time for rawness to give way to maturity. And how mature was Gujji at that age?
His mother and father bequeathed him the name Ramdas, to mark him as one of their own. But family resemblances can also provoke unwanted feelings. Gujji’s older brother was named Shyam, or Shyamal, for his evening-dark skin. His little sister, Suman, also dark, was frequently called Kallo. Names like these help us form a picture of the person. But Ramdas’s name wasn’t linked to any sign of his outward appearance. His makes for a different story altogether.
I’ve often said to Ramdas, “Yaar, you really need to write down everything that’s happened to you.” Hearing this, he’d whip his head around. “Are you joking? What do I possibly have to write that’s worth noting down? It’s not like I’ve done anything great in my life.”
Do we need big reasons to write about ourselves? Don’t small ones count too? I’ve often wondered if some social logic doesn’t underlie how we measure the distance between big and small. “Writing all this also wouldn’t feel entirely true,” he’d then said, staring straight at me.
I knew the reason for his gaze. See, I always believed I knew Gujji. But I was only fooling myself. Is it even possible to know another soul? I’ve tried countless times to come to a better idea of what I am. What I’ve found is that, after brooding over my heartbroken dreams, I become a god. In those moments, the world appears full of cunning, and I feel completely alone—as though everyone else were selfish, and I their slave. It depresses me. But strong emotions always depress us—that’s what I think. When the time comes to step down from my imaginary pantheon, I suddenly find myself scheming, barking a cruel laugh. Then I’m a demon. What I really am, though, is hard to say. Is it even in my power to know all this? And if not, how can I claim to know Gujji, I mean, Ramdas?
Well. Without making any claims, I’ll take you into his world: where Ramdas became Gujji, and our friend Gujji went from an MBA to marketing manager at McDonald’s.
His family was evicted from their home near the Red Fort and moved here to this resettlement colony in Delhi. In other words, not by choice. The government was on a campaign to “sanitize” the city, which meant families had to be ripped from the slums they’d built there and dumped here on the outskirts of the capital. Some kind of international games were about to take place. From the perspective of cleanliness, filth had to be eliminated wherever it lay. They compensated Gujji’s family by giving them thirty-two and a half square yards of land. Gujji’s father’s sharp mind then proved its worth when he seized the neighboring empty plot too. Even today, a ramshackle house still stands on the stolen property. Since there’d been no allocation, the house didn’t have a postal address. Babu Ji wasn’t the only one to act cleverly: many others did exactly the same thing. That’s why many don’t have postal addresses to this day. This practical outlook was something they all had in common, a strategy they’d adopted to get by—much as financial insecurity forces a man to make his own path. If he can’t, he’s beaten down by poverty. That’s the way of the world, and a life skill you need if you’re going to survive.
Many other Rajasthanis lived in the colony, including members of Gujji’s own caste. They came from all over, like the pig-rearing Valmikis and leather-tanning Chamars. They didn’t have many houses between them, but they combined what they had to form a block of their own. What was officially Block A of Sundarpuri Mohalla was commonly known to outsiders as the lower caste’s ward. But talk to an insider, and you’d learn that, along the edges of this same “lower-caste ward,” higher castes had formed several blocks too. Similarly, the different castes dined and intermingled peaceably, though I’ve never seen them work side by side in their struggles outside the ward.
In Blocks B and C it was easier to find a smattering of houses from all the castes. On that side of the road, several houses also belonged to Muslim families. The Kureshis, Sarafis, and Ansaris built a mosque, from which they sounded the azan like clockwork each morning. A small road ran between the mosque and lower-caste blocks, dividing the two communities. The road traveled independently until it was swallowed by a bigger road, where it gave up its identity for a chance to become a part of the wider world. Is erasing one’s identity to attain greatness immoral? I debate these questions constantly.
On the big road was a school for children from the far-flung countryside. Directly opposite was a police station emblazoned with the chest-puffing slogan “The Delhi Police Are With You!”, signs that generated a pleasant, if false, sense of security. At the station's corner, a few flower carts and mobile shops lined the road. They concealed a small animal hospital that lay hidden behind them like an eclipse. How did Gujji ever become a McDonald’s manager coming from a place like this? You must be on the edge of your seats.
Gujji was in class six when he and his family settled down in the mohalla. His older brother Shyamal was in the eighth, which meant that they both had to reenroll in school. Gujji’s family shared the work of rearing pigs, and also owned a small shop selling pork. People from all over the mohalla came to purchase the food in secret—regardless of whether they were Brahmin or Bania. It’s true: the Muslims hated this.
This shop played a central role in his naming. The first step in his journey from Ramdas to Gujji. Gujji, in case you didn’t know, is a dish, made by mixing pig meat with pig blood. Nowadays, multinational companies rebrand it as “hot dogs” and sell it for quadruple the price. Those who once turned their noses up at gujji can now be found chomping down on these hot dogs at modern, genteel foreign establishments.
But at Gujji’s (a.k.a. Ramdas’s) shop, the country brand could be bought for mere pocket change, to be eaten at leisure on the road. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share the recipe. And, with your kind permission, switch from saying “pig” to “animal,” as I’ll be referencing the word ahead. More importantly, this is what Dalit society calls it.
Keep in mind: killing the animal isn’t all fun and games. If you’re not careful, it’ll butt you seven generations back. The animal’s so strong that even if you stole the strength of Bhim and Ali, you still couldn't hold it down. Which is why a special technique's been created to catch and kill it. That’s just how the animal is; maybe it can smell you as you circle it. Even now, not much research has been done on its power of smell. Is it stronger than a dog’s? All this to say—the animal won’t allow itself to be caught easily.
Sometimes, it will even injure the inexperienced animal catcher. While defending itself, it never lowers its head. Stab it, and it won’t stop charging until it’s dead. Once it finally dies, it lets the entire neighborhood know with a gut-wrenching squeal: oowwee!! Cooperation is essential to take its life. The fainthearted are likely to flee: the scene is no less harrowing than two humans in combat. Self-preservation: that’s why the Dalit kills. Not because he wants to. Because he has no other choice. Because of an appalling, tragic lack of power.
All three of them—Ramdas, Shyamal, and their father, Mohan—would work together to slaughter the animal for the shop. Two carcasses lasted up to two days, maybe three. A knife would be thrust into its side. Blood gushed out in a torrent. Sometimes, when its feet weren’t properly tied—even with the knife sticking out of it—the animal still managed to break free. Then it was hell to catch, and wrought considerable havoc, splashing blood all over the neighborhood. If it happened to slip out past the mosque, both sides leaped for their clubs. That’s why the animal is only slashed after it's been firmly tied down.
During the knifings, Gujji would stand ready with a round pan. Once the blood started to spill, he’d thrust the handle downward, like collecting water from a tap. If he ever slipped up, Babu Ji’s palm would land with a loud crack against his cheek. “Kutta ro baccha! Son of a bitch! Focus!” he’d flare. Ramdas spent a long time rubbing his face after that.
An entire pot would then be filled with the animal’s blood and carefully stored in the house. The animal would be chopped into pieces, divided into its respective parts, and sold. It's unnerving how cold the animal feels after it dies, how peaceful. In a collection of pieces—the liver, ears, lips, feet, neck, tongue, and nose. And how terrible, too, its blood continuously dripping from lumps of flesh. It is a corpse, after all: an animal corpse. By morning the blood has thickened and browned, like a cake. Green pepper, garlic, masala, and ginger are then chopped and mixed in. The intestines, after a thorough cleaning, are stuffed with the spicy bloody mixture and knotted on both sides with string. Water is heated in a pan, and the cucumber-shaped intestines tossed inside. They are safe to eat once boiled. Finally, they’re cut into patties and sold. That’s what you call gujji. Others have modernized the technique; today, “hot dogs” are consumed in Europe—and increasingly, in India—by customers who happily slurp the juice from their fingers.
Ramdas’s classmates often lingered by the shop on the way to school. They knew all about it, the gujji hanging there. Ramdas occasionally brought his lunch from home. And what do you think was set out for him? Gujji. He packed the pieces into a plastic thali—though his older brother Shyamal refused to touch the stuff. Maybe that’s how he avoided the same fate. Ramdas also inherited a second legacy: his father’s wits. He traded gujji with his classmates in exchange for their finishing his homework in class. The Jat and Yadav children all too readily went along. Over time, his name changed from Ramdas to Gujji. If his name hadn't been recorded in the school roster, he might have forgotten it altogether.
He shared several similar anecdotes with me from his childhood. My heart trembled when I heard them. Sometimes, hatred engulfed me too. They were heartbreaking scenes in which he was painfully alone, with no one to help him. I’d wonder: does society torture all Ramdases this way? Not everyone is lucky enough to study and become a manager. To move up in life you need willpower—an innate drive, not to mention a supportive environment.
Sometimes Ramdas was forced to take a vacation from school or dragged out of class to graze the animals. The animals roamed freely across the nearby fields, feeding on shit. Since the neighbors’ homes didn’t have toilets, they used the land as a public defecation ground. What was a public source of humiliation for the humans became a convenient source of food for the animals. Ramdas had to care for the animals throughout the day, which is why he brought food to last the day from home. Surrounded by their stench, the blistering heat, and the dry dusty wind, Ramdas gulped down the mush of meat and roti. The animals grew familiar with his movements, and he theirs. Sometimes, when they were feeling sportive, they lifted their snouts for a playful joust. That’s when Ramdas came running with a holler, scattering them in all directions: Huror hoh! With a long, thin, spiky bamboo cane in his hand and a dirty visor tilted over his brow, Ramdas looked nothing less than an ancient warrior as he marched through the field. A small warrior, baked tobacco brown. Though in reality he performed the duties of a shepherd, no one wanted to label him as such. There are all sorts in our society who refuse to call pig-rearers shepherds, though their work is exactly the same. To this day, neither Gujji nor I can understand it. These were the same people who once abused the so-called untouchables because they were cow herders, the same people who ate pig just as they ate goat and cow. How did that animal, which they scorned in public, turn into a lip-smacking snack in private?
It wasn’t until class ten that Ramdas began to escape this work. By then, he’d also gotten out of collecting raatab, or pig food, from weddings. On the second day of weddings, his father would send Ramdas to fetch the feast’s leftovers from a drum or right out in the open. He’d balance one end of a bamboo cane on his shoulder while his older brother Shyamal or his father carried the other. Two empty buckets swung between them, which they used to carry the slops to the animals—leftovers akin to the scraps given to his community to eat. As he trudged forward, bowed and sweaty under the buckets’ weight, sometimes a blast of the unwanted food’s fetid stench rushed up his nostrils, causing him to buckle and gag. But did his father ever give Ramdas a chance to catch his breath? Babu Ji’s palm hung ready to swing at his face with the usual curse. Fear and powerlessness silenced him. The animals gobbled up the leftovers with happy snorts.
To afford the raatab, Babu Ji saved for days. He even cut down on work to keep an eye out for weddings. Where else could raatab be purchased so cheaply? Ramdas’s family competed with the two other families who also spent all their time tending the pigs. At four in the morning, Ramdas, Shyamal, and his father set out to collect the leftovers. Occasionally, a fight broke out between the families over the rights. But Babu Ji was a prudent man—he’d settle with someone at the house of the family far in advance. Then it happened that one day Ramdas threw down his pail, in full view of the public. His father had instructed him to fetch raatab from a nearby mohalla. Babu Ji waved the staff he used for driving the animals. "Suar Ro Baccho! Get a move on, you swine! So long as you're a part of this caste and household, you’ll do this work!”
Ramdas disappeared for two days. When Babu Ji found him and convinced him to come home, Ramdas seized his chance. “Mai padhno chahun . . . I want to study! I don’t want to do this work . . . ” Fearful that his son might bolt a second time, Babu Ji never sent him to another wedding. Instead, Ramdas voluntarily accompanied Shyamal to scavenge spoiled produce tossed out in front of the mohalla's main vegetable shop—that too before daybreak. Shyamal and his father also bought chaff, or “burada,” which was winnowed from the wheat flour of households’ unused rotis. The thresher placed the dry rotis in a large drum and soaked them in water. This was another of the animals' favorite meals.
Sundarpuri Mohalla was the one place where those who'd received an education read about the Buddha and Ambedkar, and their many sacrifices for the Dalits. They collected donations and built a small Buddhist monastery. It had a large dais, on top of which the statue of an awe-inspiring, serene ascetic was installed. This was the first community festival Ramdas had ever seen. He and his family were invited as well: the father of Ramdas’s classmate, Gautama, came calling at their door. “Mohan, Baudh Vihar mein 'Murti Sthapana' hai . . . the installation ceremony is happening at the Budh Vihara. Please bring your children.” Even Ramdas’s father attended. On the platform, the Valmiki, Khatik, Chamar, Dhanak, and Bandara communities sat together for the first time. Sermons were held every Sunday, in which Ambedkar’s life story was told and conversations were held on the Buddha. For Ramdas, the monastery became a very special place. Bantay Sudantu, who lived at the monastery, often spoke passionately about the need to educate their children. Ramdas felt a change begin to unfold inside himself.
Meanwhile, his nickname had caught on at school. Even the history teacher, Alok Jha, and the P. E. teacher, Dahiya, frequently called him Gujji. “Aabay Khatik, why don’t you tell your old man to bring us some gujji, huh?” Or, “Gujji, there’s a wedding in the neighborhood today. They’ll need someone to pick up the slops.” These words buried Ramdas in shame. He recounted how, in class seven, when he and the other lower-caste children failed to do their homework, the teachers forced them to squat and loop their arms behind their knees to grab their ears. Or how they’d place a pen or pencil between their fingers and squeeze their hands tightly. These punishments were unbearably painful. They each cried alone, but they all felt the same pain inside . . . a shared pain . . . Ramdas never once saw this happen to the Jat, Gurjur, or Brahmin children.
In class ten Ramdas emerged with the highest grades in the district. The children from the other castes seethed with jealousy. That man who’d become a principal from the Chamar community came to the school to award Gujji in front of the entire assembly. An instance of the community honoring and celebrating one of its own: self-recognition between many. Principal Deenadayal called Ramdas over to his office. “Congratulations, Beta!” he said. “You’ve lifted the name of the entire Dalit community. Now give your studies everything you've got … we’re counting on you to become the next Baba Saheb Ambedkar.” That day, the principal reminded him exactly of Bhantay Sudantu. Back at the monastery, the neighbors also congratulated him heartily. They said to Babu Ji, “Mohan, make sure this boy keeps up his studies. And don't you worry about a single thing. He’s the pride of our community, the pride of the Dalits.” That day his father’s chest swelled four times as wide.
Ramdas also succeeded in passing class twelve with high marks and went off to college. Only four other Dalit children accompanied him: from the Chamars, Rajesh and Anil; among the Valmikis, Balvant; and from Ramdas’s caste, the Khatiks’ Dhanik Kapil. A large number of Jat, Gujar, Yadav, and Brahmin children also graduated, but few decided to continue with college. One entered an industrial training institute, while another opened a business and barely budged from his new shop. College, meanwhile, provided Ramdas with his first true taste of freedom. He filled his lungs with the open blue sky. Our inward-looking Ramdas never compromised on his studies. He'd managed to free himself from the experiences of collecting raatab and catching pigs for gujji. But even today, these words haven’t loosened their grip on his family, society, or the mohalla.
Even at college Ramdas kept cooking gujji, though less frequently. Sometimes, from the corner of some room, a “Aabay, bring us some gujji,” followed afterward by a cackle, collided with his ears, jolting his entire being. “I must make myself better.” With these words, he strengthened his resolve. Ramdas finished his BA and enrolled in an MBA program.
By this time Ramdas had completely changed. He stood before the world a new man. The way he'd once looked at life, the futures he'd once dreamed as a child—all gone. New dreams flexed their wings. Ramdas had only to board his flight into the sky. The sky unfurling toward the horizon called out to him. He felt the call resounding deep inside.
After getting his MBA, he wanted a job at a well-known multinational company. His specialty was marketing. He mailed out his resume. Three times a week he went to a cyber café, searched for jobs on international websites, chatted on the Internet, and returned home. Since college, he’d started tutoring children in the neighborhood, a habit he kept up till then. Through tutoring, he'd managed to cover his school expenses and educate children from the Dalit community. Dalit and Muslim children were the only ones who came for lessons. In his free time, he read books at the local Buddhist monastery or the Delhi public library. Then, one day, a letter from McDonald’s arrived in the mail.
Now that he had completed his MBA, he finally began to feel that he faced the world as Ramdas, both in name and being. During his program, he hadn't encountered a single person who’d call him “Gujji.” He was now Ramdas, MBA holder. Management Specialist. Not Gujji, the sausage-eater, pig-feeder, raatab fetcher. Just Ramdas. He held his head high, pushed out his chest. His tan skin began to shine . . .
Ramdas's interview with McDonald’s had come. There was an opening for manager. He felt like the post was meant for him: he was the only one who could fill it. He’d seen the advertisement and filled out the form from the newspaper. This was his first interview. How he lived, dined, dressed, spoke—no one could have recognized him now.
He arrived at headquarters at exactly 10 a.m., anxiety mixed with excitement. It was all he could do to control himself. When his name was called, he rose. As he rose, he found himself flying. Somehow, he creaked open the door and peeked inside.
“May I come in, sir?” he asked in English.
“Yes, come in,” a gravelly voice echoed from within.
With a deep breath, he took his first step into the room. Then, all of a sudden, an unbelievable explosion clapped against his ears. "Gujji? You? Here . . . ?”
Inside . . . his eyes settled on a man with glasses. Ramdas recognized him immediately—one of his classmates from school, two years his senior: Rajiv Dahiya. Here, too, his past and background rose against him: two slaps landed resoundingly across both cheeks. He dragged his feet forward . . .
“Yes. Please sit, Mr. Ramdas,” a man said, waving to a seat. The interview continued in English.
“So, you’ve done an MBA,” another fat, flabby man said from the center. “We’ll start by introducing ourselves. I’m Sanjay Tiwari. This is Rajiv Dahiya. With us is Mister Ansari, Mr. John, and this is Mr. Adler. Haan, So, Mr. Ramdas, please do tell us a little about yourself. ” Ramdas summarized his academic career, hobbies, and interests. They each asked him a question. He answered them all with deep confidence and enthusiasm. The interview lasted half an hour.
“OK, Mr. Ramdas. You may go.”
“Ham aap ko inform kar denge,” another interviewer said, shuffling some papers.
As Ramdas exited the room, sadness overcame him. The members of the interview board had seemed so genuine. They hadn’t asked him anything about his past. Still, he couldn’t help but fear the unknown . . .
(He didn’t know that back in the room, everyone on the review board was considerably impressed by Ramdas’s knowledge, his well-prepared answers, his ease and poise. Everyone, that is, except Rajiv Dahiya. He told them all about Ramdas and did everything he could to prevent Ramdas’s selection. Sanjay Tiwari said, “Mr. Dahiya, Ramdas’s background will be all the more useful to us. He’ll take a greater interest in how the different dishes at McDonald’s are made. It will be good for business.” Mr. John agreed. “Yes, Mr. Tiwari, we should appreciate that boy." How Gujji had struggled to get there . . . Ansari didn't object. Seeing everyone against him, Rajiv Dahiya said—“Sir! I simply cannot work with him! If he’s selected, then I, I’ll resign today!” Silence blanketed the room. They all tried their best to change his mind, but . . .)
Ramdas grew exhausted replaying the interview. His head felt heavy. He wanted to forget it had ever taken place. In his dreams, he couldn't help but feel that deep down, maybe he was still Gujji. Scheduled Caste: Gujji. Lower caste: Gujji. The pig nanny . . . At night he'd suddenly jolt upright. Sometimes, the fear was so great he’d call out in his sleep, “No, I’m not Gujji! I’m Ramdas, MBA Graduate. Educated . . . Even after I’ve gotten so many degrees, why won’t they look at me like another human being?” He’d get up to grab a glass of water to wet his dry throat and vow to end the caste system for good.
Ramdas was at home the day the letter came. He opened the envelope with shaking hands. Inside was a single page, which read: “Congratulations, Mr. Ramdas. You’ve been selected for the position of marketing manager. Please indicate your acceptance at your earliest convenience.” He could hardly believe his eyes. He reread the lines again and again—those lines that had transformed his very being. He was no longer Gujji. He was Ramdas. Educated, human just like everybody else. Ramdas.
“Gujji” © Suraj Badtiya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by John Vater. All rights reserved.
Even though it is a private institution, Arya Balika Vidyalaya receives funding from the government. The school, therefore, is obliged to adhere to government regulations. One dictates that all the reserved posts in the school must be filled through the appointment of reserved category candidates. Regardless, for the last two years, the reserved post for a T.G.T. (Trained Graduate Teacher) for science has remained empty. The new semester is supposed to begin in April. The school principal and the management committee have been interviewing S.C. (Scheduled Caste) applicants only to reject them, citing reasons of academic incompetence in their report: “Since it is a question of the students’ advancement, we cannot employ an underqualified teacher. Thus, we request permission to appoint a candidate from the general category.” The State education officers have chosen to remain mute on this issue; they neither deny nor grant this request. Perhaps they do not want to get embroiled in controversy.
The school has once again invited applications for teaching posts in the new semester. This time around, the Education Department has sent a Dalit education officer to serve on the interview committee. Twenty-two applicants are contending for the post of the science TGT.
The committee interviewed each of them by turn. Mr. Paswan of the interview committee was especially impressed by the fifteenth candidate, Miss Geeta. Geeta recited her academic achievements: she held an M.Sc. (Masters of Science) degree (First Class) from the University of Delhi and an M.Ed. (Masters in Education) from Jamia Milia Islamia. In light of these achievements and if she so desired, she could very well have chosen another career and earned thousands of rupees, but her passion for serving the society through education had inspired her to become a teacher.
As her interview drew to a close, Mr. Paswan asked her, “Miss Geeta, I would like to know if you think education has empowered Dalit society.”
Geeta replied, “Yes, I believe that education is the road to empowerment. Without education, human beings are no better than animals. Education is linked to social position and social position is linked to power in an astounding manner.”
She answered all interview questions with similar confidence. After her interview ended, Mr. Paswan said to the principal, “In my opinion, Geeta is very well qualified for this position. I think she is the ideal contender for this post.” The interview committee thought it only fit to accept his suggestion—Mr. Paswan, after all, was from the Education Department. They accepted Geeta for the post and sent her an appointment letter. All Geeta had to do now was to take care of some formalities—fill out some forms and provide her certificates. She took care of these tasks before the semester began.
It was Geeta’s first day at her new job. The first impression is most important, she thought. She decided to wear a beautiful Gujarati saree with dark metal bangles and a long black bindi on her forehead. Anyone would assume that she was from an educated and prosperous family. She entered school and greeted the principal with a namaste. The students were quite excited to hear that a new science teacher had finally joined the school. The teachers were curious about the new arrival as well. The principal introduced Geeta at the morning assembly while also declaring that she held an M.Sc. degree from the University of Delhi and an M.Ed. degree from Jamia Milia Islamia. “Geeta-ji has won several competitions at school and college levels. I am confident that she will prove herself to be a great teacher. I request that you give her your complete support.”
The principal then invited Geeta into her office and handed her the class schedule. She had a free period before her class began and decided to visit the staff room. A couple of teachers were already sitting there, engrossed in their work. Geeta began reading the high school science textbook that she was carrying with her, unaware that she had become a point of great discussion.
In line with the custom in most schools, the teachers at this school were divided into two groups: the quota group and the nonquota group. Mrs. Sagar led the quota group, while Tara Dholakia led the nonquota group. The new teacher had an attractive personality as well as an M.Sc. degree from Delhi University; no doubt she was a nonquota candidate. Mrs. Dholakia went around congratulating her friends, celebrating the new member who had joined their ranks. The teachers of the quota group were dejected at the further increase in the nonquota group. The first hour thus saw both celebration and mourning and the bell rang to announce the second period.
Miss Geeta gathered her things and entered Class 10. In the meanwhile, a few nonquota teachers, whose hearts were collectively soaring, immediately launched into a discussion.
“Do we have more information on Miss Geeta?”
“We should ask for her surname, that will tell us.”
“Arey bhai, she is an M.Sc. from Delhi University and a First Class at that. There’s no need to ask for her surname. She is definitely a nonquota candidate.”
“She walks and talks like she could be Punjabi, you know.”
“I love the way she smiles.”
“I'm certain she used political influence.”
“Oh forget it, this is none of our business. We are here to teach, not to meddle in the affairs of other people.”
Third period began. The staff room lay empty now. A few teachers from the quota group came together. Beset with sadness and distress, their conversation continued.
“Arey, just look at how elated Mrs. Dholakia is. I think this new teacher is from the general category. No wonder they are jumping with joy.”
“But this was a reserved seat. How did she manage to get it?”
“Several candidates applied for the post in the last two years but they did not pick anyone.”
“They just don’t want Dalits to move forward.”
“We are discriminated against despite being well qualified.”
Fourth period began. The reserved category teachers gathered up the sadness in their hearts and left for their classes. Miss Geeta had just stepped out of her classroom when she bumped into Mrs. Sagar. She immediately apologized in a very polite tone. In response, Mrs. Sagar introduced herself, “I’m Kamla Sagar, Hindi T.G.T.” Miss Geeta took Mrs. Sagar’s hand and squeezed it with a deep smile on her face, which left Mrs. Sagar thoroughly pleased. She realized that the new teacher was very pleasant. She was not even disturbed like most people are after hearing my surname, she thought to herself. She steadied her happily beating heart and went to class. She was experiencing a pleasurable sensation—could Miss Geeta be one of us? She wondered how she could find out for sure, because if Miss Geeta turned out to be a general candidate, it would be a matter of much ridicule for Mrs. Sagar.
Lunch break started after fourth period ended. The school began to echo with the students’ din. The staff room was ringing with the teachers’ voices. Miss Geeta tried to sit next to Mrs. Sagar, but Mrs. Dholakia invited her to take the seat next to her. Geeta couldn’t refuse. Naturally excited, the women showered Geeta with questions. “Where are you staying?” “Do you own a house or do you rent one?” “Do you like the school?” “How many siblings do you have?” “What does your father do?” etc. Geeta slowly made her way through each question. She told them she had a brother and a sister and that she was the youngest. Her father was a high-ranking official in the government. They owned a house. The nonquota teachers were thrilled to hear that, exactly as they had thought, Geeta was from a prosperous and well-educated family. Mrs. Tara Dholakia was eager to know Geeta’s surname, but she was interrupted by the bell announcing the end of the lunch break. They all spotted the principal outside the staff room and quickly left for their classes.
Fifth period began. Nobody had yet managed to determine if Geeta was a quota or a nonquota candidate. Both sides were wondering how they could figure this out. Asking her directly would be an uncouth move. And Geeta replied to indirect questions with roundabout answers. A few minutes into fifth period, Geeta and Mrs. Sagar ran into each other again. Geeta again extended a smile toward Mrs. Sagar, as if trying to tell her something. Mrs. Sagar did not catch on. She was telling Geeta about her family. Mrs. Dholakia saw Geeta and Mrs. Sagar chatting affectionately and was seized with a sudden suspicion. “Is she a quota candidate?” she thought to herself, “If not, why is she engaged in such an animated conversation with Mrs. Sagar despite knowing her surname?” The next instant she thought that maybe Mrs. Sagar had not revealed her surname. “Yes, that must be it,” she told herself, satisfied.
Geeta, however, could not contain herself any longer. She finally told Mrs. Sagar that they had the same surname. And that she was a staunch Ambedkarite Buddhist at that. Mrs Sagar burst into jubilant laughter as soon as she heard this. She felt like she had conquered a fort. She squeezed Geeta’s hand in excitement and was giddy with happiness. She could not wait to tell her group that Geeta was their very own.
As soon as sixth period began, Mrs. Sagar and her friends began speaking in excited whispers. They gave each other the news about Geeta while singing her praises.
“She is so clever and beautiful.”
“You see, even in our community there are people whom you cannot label Dalit at first glance.”
“We should be grateful to Babasaheb, thanks to whom we are here today. If not for him, we would still have been lying at the bottom of the well.”
“We should warn Geeta. She must remain wary of these people.” All the teachers from the quota group began introducing themselves to Geeta.
Seventh period began and the nonquota teachers found themselves in great distress. Tara Dholakia said to the rest, “Arey, this one turned out to be Mayawati!”
“Yet another quota candidate!”
“It’s amazing . . . you really can't tell by looking at her.”
“They’re everywhere, these quota candidates.”
“What is the future of this nation now?”
Seventh period was ending but there was no end to this discussion. There was a rush of activity in the staff room as soon as the period came to a close. The teachers began to pack up, as it was time to go home. Mrs. Sagar was packing her bag when she heard Mrs. Dholakia declaring, “I have already instructed my son to look into the girl’s surname before he decides to get married. You can’t really tell anymore by just looking at a person, you know.” Mrs. Sagar was filled with rage at these words. She cried out, “When will you stop cursing the quota teachers? There are fifty of you in this school and only five of us!”
Geeta, who had finished teaching by now, entered the staff room. It took her no time to realize that she was the cause of the argument that was underway. She had been scrutinizing all the teachers since morning. She could see that a day that had started well had become increasingly tense after the news of her being a quota candidate came to light. She had made the decision to teach in a school after refusing several other jobs only because she thought that caste would not be a bone of contention here. She had hoped to educate her students about caste discrimination. She had grown up hearing about how teachers had the power to craft the nation’s destiny. But this place made her feel like teachers were only crafting caste. All these jibes made her blood boil. She raised her voice. “What is the meaning of this incessant talk about caste? And you call yourselves teachers? Dronacharya lives on in every one of you!”
Geeta’s roaring words gave encouragement to the other teachers from the quota group, and their rage knew no bounds. Layers of built-up resentment began to come apart one by one.
“We are no less than anyone!”
“Do we make less than the others?”
“You add up to just three percent and still you rule over us. The days of this domination are long gone!”
“We work as hard as anyone else. Why don’t you try try it sometime?”
“You managed to cut off Eklavya’s thumb through deceit. Try deceiving us now!”
“Try being born in our place and accomplishing as much as we have!”
Further emboldened by this show of solidarity, Geeta challenged them, “You think we are underqualified? Want to compete with us? I dare you to meet me in competition. Let’s see who emerges the better candidate!” Her face was radiating confidence. The nonquota teachers were stunned into silence. Nobody had ever called them out like this before today. It seemed like Mrs. Dholakia suddenly came to her senses. A fearful realization began to dawn on her: the situation was escalating and the results could be terrible.
At that point, the last school bell rang.
© Anita Bharti. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Swarnim Khare. All rights reserved.
Activist Kausalya Baisantry recalls the ambivalence that greeted her Dalit family's attempts to modernize their life in pre-Independence India.
Translator’s Note: Italics indicate words the author transliterated from English into Hindi. Parenthetical comments are the author’s.
Definitions of Hindi words may be found in the glossary.
When my parents finally, after six girls, saw my brother come into this world, their happiness could not be contained. Back then they were of a religious mindset. They resolved to start celebrating the birth of Ganesh-ji by observing Ganapati in the home each year for five years. They were devotees of Shiva-ji and Krishna-ji. They also had their own gods and goddesses, and did puja to deities like Mirabai, Khandoba, Devdulla, Vaghoba. They performed Naagpuja at someone or other’s house on Naagpanchami. That day they would draw an image of a he-cobra on the wall. After sprinkling a line of dhaan (unhusked rice) in every home, someone would fill a pot with milk and put it in the corner in the belief that Naag Devta would come drink it. People from our basti would go into the wild and place milk in a hole or burrow. Starting in the morning the snake charmer would take his cobra and roam around the basti playing his reed bina. Women would worship the cobra.
In our basti people celebrated the Ashtami of Shri Krishna’s birthday with lots of fanfare. Many beautiful Krishna figurines were sold in the bazaar. People bought them and brought them home. Baba also brought a pretty nice figurine home with him. Our courtyard and house had been cleaned and whitewashed a day or two ahead and the house decorated with colorful paper strung from bamboo poles. The walls were hung floor to ceiling with pictures based on old tales. A figurine of Shri Krishna was placed on a wooden chouranga (a type of stool) for puja, and Ma made five kinds of different dishes to eat. That day, my parents observed a fast which they broke only after Shri Krishna’s birthday ended at midnight. They suspended each of the five dishes with rope and then strung this in a wooden frame in which a Shri Krishna figurine was hanging. This was referred to as his swing. Another puja took place at midnight. The women sang songs of Shri Krishna, and the men folk sang bhajans while they clanged cymbals and beat the dhol and mridanga. The singing went on all night. The boys of the basti wandered around stealing the dishes hung here and there in the swings and would run away as soon as they were glimpsed. Shri Krishna had stolen butter and curds in this same way.
The next day in the evening, after we did puja to Krishna, all the people in the basti joined in a procession singing Krishna bhajans and submerged Lord Shri Krishna in the Friday pond.
The people in our basti also celebrated Divali-Holi and worshipped Shiva-ji. During the days of Shivaratri, some people set out for the Shiva-ji temple in the mountains to take darshan of the image there. Often these temples were far away along impassable mountains. They wore yellow vestments and carried a special type of long swing, which was called a khaya. Shiva-ji drank bhang and became intoxicated, so people would drink lots of liquor and cry out like him. They were not sure if they would be able to return from such an inhospitable land, that’s how they thought. When they arrived at the station or bus stand, all their throats would join together to raise a huge cry. The women sang Stuti Gita to Shiva-ji. Now none of these rituals are observed. Most untouchable people, and especially Mahar folk, converted to Buddhism along with Baba Saheb.
Ganapati Puja was regarded highly in our basti. In Hari Master’s home, Ganapati Puja was maintained for ten days. Ma and Baba had each made a vow to honor Brother, so they kept up this puja for five years. For ten straight days Baba and Ma bathed and washed at daybreak and made modak for Ganapati by dissolving lumps of unrefined sugar in real ghee, grinding chickpeas, and mixing it all with flour. Ganapati was celebrated with great fanfare and with beautiful decorations in Sitabardi, Mahal Dhantoli, and other places. Seeing the decorations, we also did up our homes. The children in our “line” came to help with the decorating. On each of the ten days, Ma arranged some program or other. Rangari and Agribhoj Kaka set up for Antyakshari, debate games, and things like that for the Chokamela Hostel boys. Sometimes songs were sung and other days gramophone records were played. Ma was in a really expansive mood. She bought a gramophone with her “fun money.” Agribhoj Kaka, Rangari Kaka, Ma, and Baba all went together to buy it. For fifty rupees they were able to buy eight records and His Master’s Voice gramophone. Ma really took a liking to two records of songs by K. C. Dey: “Teri gathari main laga chor musafir jag jara” and “Baba man ki ankhain khol.” Ma’s voice sounded so very sweet: “Would you wake the thief traveling in your bag” and “Baba open up the eyes of your mind.” She sang this bhajan often. She prepared the ground chickpea flour to make seviyan for the kardhi at the house itself, all the while singing “ovi.” Ma really loved music.
Rangari Kaka taught me how to put on the gramophone record. As soon as the gramophone came on, people in our line would come and sit. The room filled with people. Sometimes they demanded that we put on the gramophone. I myself would put the key into the gramophone and place the needle on the record with great majesty. I felt as if I were doing a mighty deed.
There were a few people in our basti who couldn’t bear our advanced ways. Among them were our relatives, who could not understand why we were getting educated. Ma ignored them. They used to band together with others in the basti and pester us. They threw stones at our home during the Ganapati festivities. Sometimes they went so far as to throw the pestle for grinding spices. We kept quiet. Baba would tell Ma to sit down and stay silent. Baba used to say, These people are fools. No need to bother mouthing off at them. When our clay tile roof began crumbling to pieces, Father would replace the tiles after coming home from the mill each evening. But they didn’t consider this a setback and our studies went on as before.
There was no work for the riffraff in the basti, and they were not educated, so the only thing to do was misbehave. Some squinted, wounded at the sight of others’ progress. It only incited them. They lived to discover sparks of love between the boys and girls in the basti and did whatever they could to find where the two lovers met, where they’d go. They’d grab the two and bring them back in order to shame them. The parents of the poor lovers punished them with a beating. They would walk with their heads bowed low, now that their family pride had been dragged through the dirt. Those gundas! No one ever mouthed off to this type of vagrant’s teasing for fear of getting beaten up themselves. They’d write really dirty things using the names of the lovers in chalk or coal on the walls of the bathrooms in the basti. Some were offended. Some thought it was funny. This was the work of boys who managed to pass only the third or fourth level of school. Ma had a lot of courage, and Baba had endless patience. They did not give any credence to those loafers. Sometimes Ma hurled abuse at them when they attempted to bother us. Those boys, they were afraid of Ma. She was terrifying.
Baba’s nephew really burned with jealousy when he saw us. He begged our family to arrange a marriage between his younger brother and me, but Ma refused. Ever since then he kept finding ways to torment us.
One time I was coming from the home of my father’s sister. My bua lived in a different line from our basti. Ma had sent me there on some errand or another. When I was coming back from her home, I saw a band of gunda-like riffraff gathered against a wall playing cards. Someone in that group lived on my line and was extremely well-mannered, a married man with two children. He came up to me and threw his arms around me, holding me close. I used all my strength to push him off and then slapped him twice. I came home and recounted the whole incident to Ma. Ma turned into a firestorm and charged off to his home to tell his wife that she needed to rein in her husband. He was a polite boy but that band of loafers had riled him up. It grew late that night but still her husband hadn’t come back home. Ma went again and again to see if he’d returned. A fire was raging in Ma body and soul. She went to his home first thing the next morning. He was so scared seeing her that he fell at her feet, begging for forgiveness. Ma didn’t respond and neither did his wife. They just kept hitting him with shoes. The girls of the line were like his sisters. He shouldn’t have behaved this way. From that day forward he was too ashamed to show his face. As soon as he saw us he would bow his head and duck inside his home.
Some of the gundas and others who wanted to impede our progress had already made up their minds to bother us. Baba’s nephew was ahead of everyone in turning people against us.
I learned to ride a bicycle at school. Bicycles were available for rent for one anna per hour. Sometimes I would rent a bike to ride to my sister’s home or to one of my friends’ houses—Nalini or Prema. The boys from the basti would suddenly jump in front of my bicycle so that I would fall and give them a good laugh. Outside the basti too the boys from upper-caste families would burn for us: “There’s a Harijan bai riding along! Just look at that brain, her baba is a beggar, and she’s riding a bicycle!” They’d say this and then also try to make me fall from the bicycle. Even upper-caste women who considered themselves in the know would laugh in a derisive manner to see me riding a bicycle. They also seemed surprised that we, children of an untouchable laborer, could attain so much learning.
When I started going to college, Baba bought an old lady cycle from some man because my college was fairly far from home. Then a completely new bus service started up. The service was very infrequent and I did not have enough money to pay for the bus ticket. I biked to college every day. Then people in the basti and outside of it kept finding some way to shower me with taunts.
One time I was returning home from college. I saw a crowd in the courtyard. I got really scared that something unthinkable had taken place. I cut through the crowd and slipped inside our home. Baba was searching for something in his iron “boxe” while a young man about twenty-five or thirty years old in a nice pant-shirt stood outside. I had never seen him before. I asked Baba what the matter was, what was he looking for? Baba told me that the young man in pant-shirt standing there, he is saying that he is a police sub-inspector, and someone filed a report at the police station saying that the cycle you are riding is stolen and this inspector is also saying that we people are also in possession of a pistol without a license. I told Baba to put away the boxes, that I was going to speak with the inspector. I said to the inspector: “How do we know that you are an inspector? You should first put on your badge before coming here and you should show us a warrant in our name.”
The inspector was a well-mannered man. He said, "I want to say something to you people." He reprimanded the crowd and told them they should move on. Everyone left. We invited him into the house and asked him to sit in the iron chair. We explained the environment in the basti to him and told him that we sisters were all studying, which is why some of the riffraff and some of our relatives, whose nature was prone to getting riled up, couldn’t bear to see us progress: this is why they looked for ways to torment us. He was understanding. He himself was of the Teli caste. Their society was also backward, this is why he knew. He listened to what we said and understood the people in the basti were harassing us. He said that if anyone harasses us again to let them know. He himself would ask around and intervene. Seeing him come inside our home, the people in the basti were terrified, and never harassed us after that. After a few days this gentleman was transferred to a place called Umred. Whenever he returned to Nagpur, we would meet. One time he brought his wife and mother to our home.
Our relatives became even more vexed after this incident. They searched for more ways to bother us. Ma’s paternal cousin passed away, so Ma went to Amaravati. Baba fell ill with malaria fever. The fever was so high, and still he sent us to school. A few days earlier a Bengali boy came to live in the basti. He had taken a room in someone’s home. He was doing some odd job in the office of the Army. We were literate people and when he saw this, he wanted to call us his family. He kept coming by and saying Namaste to our parents. “How are you?” he would ask. We did not show any special interest in him. That is why he too became vexed. Our relatives and that illiterate riffraff teamed up together and trained him in their ways. Seeing that Baba was ill and no one else was at home, they came to the house. They asked Baba about his fever, but he was slumped over, eyes closed, like he was unconscious. They stole a photo of me that had been hanging on the wall. Who knows how long it was afterward before anyone realized that photo had been missing.
He had a photographer make a photo of himself sitting with my photo. In the photo I am in a pose of writing something and he is standing behind me. My sister Kasturchand and I were going to the park from school when he came running up to us and presented the photo. I was startled to see it. He began walking ahead of me and dangling the photo in front of me. I don’t know how I summoned the courage: I pulled my chappal off my foot and slapped him across the face! He sort of cowered, but still he kept putting the photo in front of me and babbling something. One boy saw this. He rushed over and grabbed him while I hit him a few more times on his back with my chappal. That boy rushed him far away. My sister stood there silent and afraid. That evening when we arrived home, I told Ma everything. Ma flared up in anger, but what could she do? She showed great courage in sending us to school and said she herself would silence them if they bothered us again. Ma scolded my younger sister for saying nothing. She had also wanted to give that no-good badmash a few slaps with her chappals. All this did nothing to keep the peace with our enemies. They wrote a petition in court and had someone write a love letter in my name, which they presented in court. It was a false case, which is why that Bengali boy was not ready to stand as petitioner, nor would any wakil represent him. The case was rejected. That gang was so enraged they squandered their days chasing after a hearing. Afterward the Bengali man understood that he had made a big mistake. Maybe even felt some regret. Now he was no longer to be seen with the riffraff. He looked solemn. A few days later he left the basti. We didn’t see any way to get out of the basti, because we did not have enough money to build another house anywhere else. If we were to go anywhere now, our wish was to live in a nice place among the educated, so Ma would say, Learn to read and write, certainly our condition will improve and such wishes will be fulfilled.
Many days later my parents sold whatever jewelry they had, sold the old house in the basti, took out a loan, and bought a piece of land in Ramdaspeth. There were lots of well-educated people nearby. Most were Brahmins.
© Kausalya Baisantry. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2018 by Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.
Um mmm mm ma oh oh oh . . . oh Mama . . . oh Mama . . . oh Mama . . .
I woke with a start when I heard the noise.
“Oh my god . . . oh my god . . .,” the sound of a woman crying, or maybe being beaten, was floating in the air. There was a fair amount of light in the room, but nonetheless I turned on the side table lamp. Just at that moment I turned it on there was a final Aah! and then complete silence.
It was my second day in Greece. I was staying on the second floor of the Revisit Inn, the place you come back to. It was in a quiet neighborhood, far from the crowds of old Athens. The whole area was residential, with just a couple of hotels, and this one was of a middling size, really more of a large house, or an inn as its name suggested. There were three floors, each with five rooms; every room was quite clean and tastefully furnished.
I looked at my watch. It was 2:30 in the morning.
I was disturbed by the voice, and so sat up in bed. Then I walked around the room, trying to determine whose voices these were and where they were coming from, but to no avail. I checked the door to my room. It was locked. I peered out onto the balcony. There was only darkness and the distant sound of some dogs barking in the street. There were a few stray dogs on the streets of Athens, but not many, and they looked quite healthy and strong in stark contrast to the feeble stray dogs in India.
Had it just been a dream? But that voice . . . in such distress . . . drowned in pain . . . could it really have just been a dream?
I decided I’d mention it to Angela in the morning. Now, I should sleep. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time. My ears were pricked for the slightest noise. My restlessness and apprehension grew each time I turned over. I shouldn’t worry Angela by telling her. Maybe it was just a delusion, or because I was half-asleep … plus, what would come of telling her anyway?
Then I heard someone flush the toilet in the next room. It gave me comfort in the dead quiet of the night that someone else besides me was awake. A short while later I heard another flush.
Angela’s room was right next to mine. She was in 206 and I was in 207 … so was it Angela who was awake at this hour? I got up and went to the door. I gently turned the brass-plated door handle, opened the door, and stepped into the hallway. I glanced under Angela’s door, but it was completely dark. I started to tiptoe back into my room. That’s when I happened to look over at room 208, and saw light shining out from under the door.
Yes, then I remembered, yesterday morning when I checked in I’d seen a middle-aged couple emerging from this room. I’d said hello to them, and they had smiled in return. Recalling this, I smiled.
“Oh, so even at this age Madam was crying out!” I returned to my room and calmly went back to sleep.
Chai was the only thing available in the hotel, and you had to order it. The Yugoslavian woman Sanya at the reception desk would bring me the chai. She seemed a couple years older than me. About forty years’ worth of kohl streaks were smeared across her white face. Nonetheless, her body was still slender and quite energetic. The two shapely legs that flashed under her miniskirt were evidence that she took good care of herself. She brought chai and two digestive biscuits at 7 a.m. This was my breakfast. She came briskly clacking down the hallway and as quickly was gone again.
Angela woke up today, as always, at 11 a.m. She called me to say good morning. The intercom in the room was only for contacting reception, so we had to talk on our mobile phones. From the outset she had explained to me that unless it was urgent, I should not wake her up before 11. I tried very hard to sleep until 7, because I had a bad habit of getting up at 5 or 5:15. One thing I liked a lot about Europe was that people liked to speak, and listen, very directly. Both in anger and in love. Otherwise they won’t talk to you. Maybe they consider softhearted sentimentality to be unnecessary speech. They do not put up with any misconceptions or let them fester.
Angela called again a little while later and I went downstairs. There was a small lobby downstairs with a small bar, some sofas, and an LCD TV hanging on the wall that seemed to be on all day and night. The manager of the hotel, Adonis, was sitting at the reception desk. He was a fifty-or-so-year-old Greek man, tall and well-built.
Adonis asked me in his deep voice, “Did you sleep well?” This must have long been an automatic greeting of his, because every morning when he asked this same question of every guest he’d sweep his hand across his bald head.
I generously said, “Yes,” but then thought about it and smiled and added, “except for the noise coming from the husband and wife in 208 at 2:30 in the morning. Their cries woke me up.”
“208!” The manager’s eyes widened in surprise. He opened the register and checked something.
“There must be a misunderstanding. That room is empty. The guests who stayed there yesterday checked out in the afternoon, and no one else has checked in as yet."
I was taken aback, and reacted in disbelief. “How could that be?”
Adonis laughed and said, “You must have had a really good dream, after all you’re still a young man … I used to have dreams like that too once upon a time.”
“No, I got up and went into the corridor. That’s when I saw that a light was on in the room.”
“The light must have gone off in a hurry,” he laughed again.
Annoyed, I retorted, “You’re taking this very lightly.”
“Yes, because it’s impossible that anyone was in the room,” he said amiably, blind to my irritation.
“Adonis, please understand, I also heard the toilet in that room flush twice.” There was surely some tension in my voice, some of it was real, and some in an effort to convince him. It appeared that he noticed this time.
He responded calmly, “Of course you heard this. The walls of this guesthouse are made of wood, not cement, and if anyone flushes anywhere above you, below you, near or far, it will sound like it’s coming from the next room.”
This time he didn’t smile but closed the register, got up, and walked toward the laundry room.
Had it just been my imagination? Angela stepped out of the lift and Adonis said something to her. She was Ennis’s cousin and had booked the room for me.
“Why are you making trouble, Philosopher, telling this wrestler here scary stories?” Angela walked over to me and said, gesturing at Adonis. My desire to tell Angela the details of the night’s events faded.
We left the hotel and spent the whole day walking around old Athens. The alleyways there were narrow but clean, and it didn’t stink anywhere. The bazaars were full of people, but miraculously there were no bumped elbows or other collisions, and no one startled us by laying on the car horn. The stores and showrooms glittered. There were a lot of Bangladeshis operating small roadside kiosks that sold things like cigarettes, lighters, chocolates, and peppermints. Many Bangladeshis had settled in this city, and the Greeks had maintained their distance from them. The Greeks think that these people eat dogs instead of mutton, and that they also feed it to the diners in their restaurants. They think they have no ethics. Most Greeks avoid them and their restaurants—maybe this is true for all South Asians. And it is not just the Greeks but most Europeans. It made me think of the Biharis who had come to live in Delhi and the ways Delhiites treated them. Athens may have bigger crowds and more grit than Stockholm, but there was still much less than in Delhi. Everywhere in Athens were walls adorned with graffiti by nameless artists. The whole city was like an art gallery. When we got tired we went to rest on the remains of an ancient building in a vast park near the Acropolis.
Angela had already asked Ennis about my interests, and he had said that I was not as interested in ruins as I was in people: in their conversations, their mannerisms, and their interactions. This is why she had shown me around the bazaar and the other crowded areas of the city.
As the day turned into evening and I saw the Greeks laughing and eating and playing among the glittering storefronts, I could no longer believe that Greece had gone bankrupt. You could not see poverty, fear, looting, or struggles over money anywhere. There were a few beggars, but they were Roma, or gypsies. When Angela heard this she laughed and explained that Greeks rented their houses and buildings and enjoyed them without a care. The government was bankrupt, but not the citizens. There was a lot of corruption here, too.
“Ennis told me, ‘Dev is a really strange man,’” Angela said, looking at me sideways. “You are definitely peculiar, but your lecture yesterday was really outstanding. There are a lot of people here too who believe in reincarnation. Your argument, and your explanation, were really great … tomorrow I’m going to take you to meet one such person, my friend Calista. I told her about you … no, no, but I should say that she herself asked is there some Indian guest coming to visit you," and I was surprised. How did she know? She is very excited to meet you; however, she is even more peculiar than you.” Angela smiled. “And to tell the truth what we need even more than her is her car, without a car we’ll go bankrupt ourselves riding around in taxis … we’ll be fleeced,” she joked and winked.
As I listened to her talk, my mind wandered, as was my habit. When it came back I said to Angela, “I’m not sure yet myself about all of this, but I believe that the truth has a thousand faces.”
My speech that she had been praising had been arranged by the Society of Philosophical Thoughts in Athens, to which I had been invited, all expenses paid. They were hosting me for two days, but I planned a seven-day trip so that I could see Athens and other nearby places. Angela lived in a village not far from Athens. She made arrangements at her own cost to stay in Athens for the week to show me around.
The so-called egoism and selfish lifestyle of Europeans, as it was understood in India, was in reality just the opposite. Here I’d seen so many helpful and empathetic people and families. They just cherish their individuality, nothing more, they have a desire for privacy … which is the very thing that is so rare in India.
Angela and I had been together since 11 a.m. I had forgotten about what had happened the night before, but when we returned to the hotel that night, it all flashed before me. Her room was first, then my room. Curious, I walked a little further along and saw that the lights were off in Room 208. I returned to my room and stood aimlessly at the door. Then, across the hall, a strange old man emerged and walked very slowly past me and down the corridor. His shoes made a soft squelching noise, as though they were waterlogged. He was a peculiar old man, with disheveled salt and pepper hair and he walked as though he were asleep. When he walked past me I detected a fishy odor.
As soon as I put the key in the lock on my door, there was the sound of a door opening, and I stepped back with a jerk. “I should be more careful,” I said to myself. This sound came from about ten feet away. I crept quietly in its direction.
I heard the sound of a man and woman laughing. When I casually passed in front of Room 210, I saw a middle-aged man and a young woman so absorbed in an embrace that I smiled. I wished I had a companion like that here with me! Angela had so far expressed no interest in being anything other than a friend. She was a beautiful young Greek woman but very reserved. She had an unearthly golden tone, as if she might turn into some bronze idol, every limb measured out and sculpted, a long neck and large eyes. Her voice also sounded like she was in some kind of amorous embrace, soft and voluptuous. She had said that she was single, without any boyfriend, but so far she hadn’t made any first moves.
I walked a little further down the corridor but it was a dead end, so there was nothing to do but return to my room, and there was only one path to get there. I headed back. Those two were still oblivious to the world around them. The man was tall and sturdy, and the girl was significantly shorter and more delicate; he was grasping her hair and his head was bent. They hadn’t noticed my coming and going. Those two were in their own world, far removed from this one. I was behaving like any normal Indian, peeping on someone else’s private moment. That old man who’d shuffled down the hall, unseeing, was the better man. I felt a wave of guilt.
Back in my room I changed my clothes and lay down. After a little while I went to YouTube and started listening to my favorite thumris, “Yad Piya ki Aaye,” “Hai Ram,” “Ye Dukh Saha nahi Jaaye” . . . I liked them best in Begum Akhtar’s voice. There was Wi-Fi in the room. Then I listened to everyone from Bade Ghulam Ali to Shobha Gurtu to Rashid Khan. The sweet accusations of my older sister Narmada and my five-year-old niece played in my mind along with the thumri.
“When will you find a wife, brother . . . when will you bring me an auntie, Uncle?”
“Didi, let me know if you meet anyone like me or whom I might like!” I’d say “Then there can be a wedding!”
Didi would cry.
I wanted to explain to my sister that a relationship isn’t based just on what we think or how we live, it’s also about how the other lives, and it’s important that she live with some purpose.
Narmada Didi said in a sad voice, “Dev, that’s not the kind of relationship they attribute to kismet.” Silence descended upon us after that. I thought, let’s see how long we can keep up these performances.
Worn out from a long day, at some point I fell asleep.
“Oh oh oh . . . Oh my god oh my god . . . charrr marrr charrr marrr . . . huf huf . . . you devil!”
I was woken up again. I looked at my watch, it was 2 a.m. I sat up right away and turned on the bedside lamp. I could still hear the voice, the sound of someone wailing . . . continuously … like someone was being beaten . . . “ah ah ah” . . . suddenly there was the sound of laughter . . . this too was a woman’s voice . . . I put my ear against the wall of Room 208. The headboard rested against that wall. The voices were both coming from that very room. For the next ten minutes the sound of someone crying and then someone laughing continued so I quietly left my room and stood outside the door of room 208. There was a light on inside. The voices could be heard clearly in the hallway as well, much as they could back in my room.
Now that I’d investigated, my mind was somewhat at ease. I wondered if I should knock on the door and pull back the curtain on the whole mystery. But what if some guest had come today? It would be rude and humiliating. After all, Athens was a tourist spot. I stood there for a while longer and unabashedly took pleasure in those cries. When they subsided, I tiptoed back into my room and lay down. I could see the full moon from my balcony, and the moonlight glittered. I turned off the table lamp and tried to go back to sleep. Again and again those lustful voices, still ringing in my head, broke my concentration, what must that girl be like? She must be a real wild one. So why was she laughing? Maybe she was a professional and had to…
At some point I fell asleep. I don’t know how long I was out when it felt as though someone was tugging on my big toe and shaking me. I opened my eyes, and standing across from me was a strange, beautiful young girl, whose blue eyes gazed at me lovingly. I lay motionless and acted like I was asleep. She stepped closer and came to the head of my bed.
She just kept on staring at me. She had yet to say a word. She was wearing the kind of clothes a gypsy woman might wear. She wasn’t perfectly still, but swayed slightly, like a curtain in a light breeze. It wasn’t Angela. She looked at me with a fixed gaze, and I at her from hooded eyes, less than half open.
“You’re afraid of me . . . do not be afraid.”
Even though my hair stood on end out of fear, I feigned anger and shouted, “Get out of here! I don’t want anything from you!”
She kept on staring, unflinching … and those blue eyes were hypnotic. They added to her beauty; she had a sharp nose, triangular face, golden hair, and a thin frame, medium height.
“Go away, I’m not that kind of man!” I finally said to her.
“Take me away from here, back there.” Without turning around, and still watching me, she backed away toward the door and left. As soon as I couldn’t see her anymore, I sprang up and ran to the door of my room. I couldn’t believe it: the door was unlocked. But I had locked the door myself, I was sure of it. I tried to remember. Had I heard the sound of the door opening or closing? No, I was sure I hadn’t heard anything.
I stood at the door for a few moments, then opened it quietly. There was no one outside. I went to Angela’s door: surprisingly, there was a light on inside. I tiptoed over to Room 208; it was dark. I didn’t hear anything. I went back to my room and looked at my watch. It was 3 a.m. I was wide awake. My eyes stayed open, alert, the whole night, and it wasn’t until daybreak that I finally fell asleep. At 11 a.m. Angela called and woke me up. I hung up when she said good morning.
I started to obsess again about the incidents of the night before. The lock on the door was automatic, meaning that when you closed it from the inside it locked itself. So someone outside could open it only if they had another key. And there was an extra key down at the reception desk. I got dressed and went down to the lobby. Adonis was sitting at the reception desk. At first I didn’t have the courage to ask him anything, but fear and restlessness made me bold.
“Good morning . . .”
He responded indifferently to my polite greeting. It was clear he was not pleased and had no interest in talking because today he didn’t ask me anything about how I’d slept, which was his usual habit.
“Did anyone check in to Room 208?” I asked.
There was rancor in Adonis’s voice, “Why . . . did something else happen?”
I asked again politely, “Yes, could you please tell me?”
He looked at the register and said, “No . . . it’s still empty.”
When he said this a storm erupted inside me. So what had happened to me last night? Was it all really just a dream, or a dream inside a dream? That can happen, I know. Or am I struggling with some psychological problem? Is this some psychosexual issue, or was what I saw actually real? So many questions churned inside me. Who was she: a living girl, or a dream, or some spirit? Why did she tell me to take her back there? There? But where?
Threading my fingers together I asked, “Where is Sanya?”
Now there was pure contempt in Adonis’s voice, “Her shift is from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.” The flame of his contempt singed me.
When I saw Angela come downstairs I sat back down on the sofa. She started chatting with Adonis. I could see the changing expressions on her face. She kept motioning with her hands like she was explaining something to him. Adonis’s expression was perplexed.
“You’ve been bugging him again today, or what?” she came near and said to me. “What’s your problem?”
I didn’t answer her. Only when we left the hotel did I say, “Maybe I should change my room.”
Angela nodded her head. She took out her phone and started speaking to someone in Greek.
“Your room can’t be changed right now. The hotel is full and the only empty room is 208. Do you want that one?” Maybe Angela had been speaking with Adonis. “What’s the matter, will you tell me?”
“It’s nothing . . . just at night I hear sounds of a woman crying, screaming, laughing and talking, after 2 a.m.” I decided it was OK to tell Angela this much.
“Hmm . . . look, there could be some confusion . . . I’m not sure but it could be that at night Sanya and someone else . . .”
I looked at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“After Adonis leaves . . . or maybe he participates too, or it could even be a business necessity. Look, a lot of tourists come to Athens, there’s an economic downturn and the hotel’s business . . . you understand, don’t you?” Angela shrugged her shoulders and a sparkle lit up her big eyes for just a moment, and then was gone again.
The theory about Sanya didn’t sit right with me; there must be some other explanation. Finally I blurted out, “But at night it’s dark in that room . . . it’s got to be something else.”
“I don’t have anything else to say . . . I don’t believe in these things . . . but Calista does. Didn’t I tell you already? I had already told her about you, and yes, she asked for your room number. She believes in such magical, mystical things.” Angela went on speaking, saying that her friend was a very intelligent girl.
“She was at the top of both her undergraduate and graduate class in philosophy. Then she abandoned her studies and joined a group that practiced magic and sorcery. They’d summon the souls of the dead, and who knows what they asked them, but, as far as I understood, it was things like where we come from, what happens after we die, where we go . . . etc., etc. Now she doesn’t do any of that. Lately she’s learned to play the flute very well and has just been doing that for the last two years. She’s unique . . . and so are you. Do you want to meet her this evening? You can ask her about all this.”
As Angela was talking I remembered Örebro and the day I spent with Innis, and that old Roma woman and the astonishing things she was saying. I thought Innis was a very peculiar and eccentric guy, and he’d formed a distinct opinion about me too. He’d often ask me some really strange questions and his eyes would always sparkle like he was talking with a man from some other planet. He’d called me peculiar several times. Most of his questions had to do with the future and he’d always seek a prophecy like there was something specific he wanted to hear. When he was waiting for my answer surprise would stand at attention in his eyes like an alert soldier leaning forward on his lathi.
He was a support for me because despite having lived in Stockholm for a full year, I still didn’t speak much Swedish, and Ennis helped me quite a lot with this. When it was time for me to go to the market, I’d call him and he’d always immediately say, “I’m coming now, Dev.” I would tell him to meet me in the evening.
He was about ten years younger than me and about a foot taller. He was finishing his degree and also worked part-time in a restaurant. All the young men and women in Stockholm worked part-time jobs, and the surprising thing was that no one considered any kind of work beneath them. So there was no discrimination based on work, in fact quite the opposite. Those who worked were considered self-sufficient, and there were all kinds of jokes made about the “indolent” students who only had to study. The majority rules, I thought, smiling . . . thinking, seeking, and understanding transforms into points of view and mentality.
My being Indian fascinated Ennis. He’d even said that he really wanted to go to India, to go to the land of snakes and mystical holy men. I was proud of being Indian, even though I was currently living in Europe, I only ever wanted to settle in India, but why? Why this passionate attachment, this sentimentality?
Here’s the amazing thing . . . a truly strange coincidence. Ten years ago, when I was twenty, I had the same intense desire to go to Greece. In those days, I was pursuing a degree in philosophy.
Ennis wanted to see the land of the Buddha, Gosala, Mahavir, Ajita Kesakambali, Kabir, Guru Nanak, and Ravidas. He wanted to see the Taj Mahal, the temples of Tamil Nadu, and the first church in Kerala. I wanted to touch my forehead to the land where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and the great doctor Hippocrates once walked.
Much later, I’d learned that Ennis was ethnically Greek but had been born in Sweden, in a city called Örebro. He was the only child of a Greek father and a Swedish mother. He had a number of relatives who lived in various towns in Greece. The way we met was also a coincidence. I had been allotted an apartment in a hostel and Ennis had his own house in Stockholm. Our paths wouldn’t normally have crossed.
In truth, in my life I’ve gotten great joy from coincidences. These always filled me with a kind of life force and made me full of hope . . . they made me optimistic that something new, helpful, meaningful, energizing, or interesting would happen.
My flight from Warsaw, Poland, back to Stockholm had been canceled due to technical problems. So the airline made another arrangement. I had to deplane at the Frankfurt airport and from there catch another flight to Stockholm. It was on this flight from Frankfurt to Stockholm that I met the six-foot-five Ennis, as our seats were together. He had big blue eyes, long eyelashes, a sharp nose, an oval face and long neck, and broad strong shoulders. He was like a beautiful Greek messenger of the gods, to whom anyone would be attracted at first glance. His face resembled Angela’s, of course—they belonged to the same family and shared the same blood. He was in the window seat. As soon as I sat down next to him we started chatting in a rather formal way, but we’d become good friends once we disembarked in Stockholm. We both liked each other right away.
He took to calling me Dave instead of Devdutt because even after trying very hard he couldn’t manage to say Dev and I called him En, which was his nickname. I only learned that his origins were Greek after about three months of our meeting every weekend. As was my nature I never asked En anything personal . . . I didn’t like dancing in anyone’s personal or familial space. If someone wants to say something about it himself, that’s a different matter.
There hadn’t been any snow since October had begun. In India the big issues were poverty, illiteracy, healthcare, casteism, corruption, and communalism, but here global warming was the political preoccupation. Everyone was worried about how late in coming the snowfall was. I frequently heard people saying that this was a real problem and that until other countries in the world started treating this as an environmental crisis, it wouldn’t improve at all. Even the newspapers were full of stories about concerns over weather patterns and the environment instead of stories about murders, rapes, or robberies. I would joke with Ennis and say, “There are greater tragedies in life than a lack of snow,” because he always blamed other problems on the lateness of the snow. The train was late because it hadn’t snowed yet, the price of vegetables had risen because no snow had fallen, etc. I would tease him so much that he would laugh sharply and say, “Dave, you’ll never understand.” Then I’d remember India’s caste system. Papa often said that Europeans couldn’t understand caste, that it was a thing outside of their experience and ability to comprehend.
We’d left on the morning train from Stockholm to Örebro. I also got a return ticket, and together it was 38 euros. En had a rail card in his pocket, which he could use to embark.
We’d had our morning coffee and were walking through a bazaar in Örebro. We came upon an old woman sitting across from us. Mischief sparkled across her pale, puckered face. There was such a sparkle in her slate-colored eyes, it was like someone had heated her up and she was gleaming. Maybe it was the flame of her experiences or her struggles.
I didn’t understand anything she said except for one word: Indian. Indian means from Bharat. She wasn’t speaking Swedish, that much I knew. There weren’t many people on the road, it was nearly empty. There was one shop, near which she sat, legs outstretched, endlessly looking.
She had a bright, multi-colored scarf tied around her head, and woolen gloves on her hands, black tights, and a dress that looked like a salwar from her neck to her knees and a thick overcoat. She was big and wide and white like snow. A small snake with its hood expanded and several dots were tattooed on her wide forehead. Her nose was sharp and her lips were thin, like all Europeans.
As I always did, I reached in my pocket, took out all the kroner coins I could find, and put them in front of her on her mat. I would only help out old people and young women in this way. I figured that old people couldn’t work hard any longer to earn money, and that at least if young women could manage in life by begging, they wouldn’t have to resort to selling their bodies.
We listened to the old lady, then moved along. After walking by a few shops, we turned left into a small alley. We walked a little way down the alley before I asked En what she’d said. He told me that she had said that Athens, the Green Capital, was calling me, and that it’s there that I’d encounter my fate. When I heard this I laughed. En didn’t. He was serious and there was this surprise in his eyes that there always was whenever he was with me. “How did she know you have an ardent desire to travel in Greece?” His voice was hollowed out. “Why did she say Greece?” he fumed.
Now my attention was on this too, and I turned and ran back the way we came, toward where the old woman had been sitting. En ran behind me calling out, “Dave, Dave!” But I didn’t stop. I went to her shop, but she was no longer there. Then En arrived. We ran together then, from this alley to that alley, this road to that road. Surprisingly we didn’t tire from running. A strong wind started to blow. En shouted at me to go back home—"there’s a storm coming, there’s going to be heavy rain, this is how the weather is here, it changes, it can be totally unexpected." But it was as though I couldn’t hear anything; there was a different storm raging inside me. I had to find this old woman at any cost, to know why “Greece” had come out of her mouth. Running alongside me En tried again and again to explain that she must be a sorceress, a Roma, a gypsy, she knows mantras and spells, she could hurt us . . . and running after her was a bad idea. After ten or fifteen minutes of running we were both tired and sat down on two chairs we found outside a shop. Behind the glass windows you could see some people doing their shopping. Here, all the shops had sturdy overhangs to protect you from snowfall or rain.
The wind was picking up. Then En yelled, “Dave, there she is!” I looked in the direction of his pointing finger and there she sat under a shop’s awning, like before with her legs spread out before her, eating a grilled sandwich. She was entirely protected from the wind and rain there. Now we were standing in front of her, taking a few moments to catch our breath. Just as before, she didn’t pay us any attention.
“When will I go there . . . to Athens?”
It was like she didn’t hear my question. She kept on eating her sandwich calmly as though she was unaware of our presence. I repeated my question twice but she remained engrossed. I quickly took a 10-kroner note out of my pocket and tossed it into her lap. Now she raised her eyes to mine, but did not lift her head, and peered into my eyes for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes while she bit into and chewed her sandwich. When she finished, she wiped her hands and mouth with a napkin. She picked up the note and handed it back to me. I told her to keep it. But she didn’t put her hand down. Defeated, I took it back.
“When will I go?” I asked En so he could repeat it and ask her in her language. But she heard my question, and before En could speak she answered me directly, “When fate calls you.” Now she was speaking in Swedish. En was explaining this to me in English, “You’re going to get your wish to go to Greece, but it won’t just happen like that, you’re being summoned.”
“How do you know this? Who is calling me?!”
At this question she fell silent, then looked at the sky and said, “Go . . . it’s going to rain.” A few moments later it started to pour. “I can only say as much as the spirit instructs me to.”
“But I don’t believe in fate,” I said to En so he would repeat it to her. But she answered, in a voice dripping with scorn and ridicule, “Fate doesn’t have anything to do with what you believe … it moves to its own rhythm, just like I did in my youth.” She smiled slightly at that. Maybe she also understood English.
En asked several questions about himself, but I couldn’t tell from En’s face what he was asking or if he was actually getting satisfactory answers. I just wanted to know why she said Greece specifically, but she wouldn’t answer me.
She eventually got sick of En’s incessant questioning and shouted, “Go on, get out of here! And you . . . ” She looked at me and said in a soft voice, “Come and meet me here in November. Then whether we meet or not, please revisit if you want to know more.”
The third day after returning to Stockholm from Örebro there was an invitation to come to Greece in my email inbox.
It was the last week of October and I was in Athens. The rain was suddenly so heavy that Angela and I ran to the hotel when we got out of the taxi. The taxi couldn’t drive down the lane the hotel was on as it was one-way. We were coming back from a fabulous dinner. We had been on the third floor of Savas Restaurant. From there we had a head-on view of the Acropolis, sparkling, bathed in light. By chance the moon above the Acropolis was full, and it too was sparkling. This meant that tomorrow was Purnima.
Angela’s friend Calista had come especially to meet me today. She was also a poet, she explained. The restaurant was empty. We were the first guests. At my request, Calista took out her flute and without any objection started to play. She played continuously for about ten minutes and all three of us were transported, and forgot where we were. A kind of hypnotic intoxication enveloped us.
When Calista finished playing all the restaurant waiters applauded first. Then we clapped too. In the meantime a few more guests had come into the restaurant. A newlywed Punjabi couple sat just behind us. They too demonstrated their appreciation with applause.
“Dave, do you know the meaning of the name Calista?” Angela asked. I shook my head. “Most beautiful . . . enchanting beauty,” Angela said in a grave and conspiratorial voice. In truth, Calista was extremely beautiful and still, like a lamp with an unmoving flame. I looked at Angela and asked, “And what does ‘Angela’ mean?”
“A woman of God . . Devkanya, Devstri . . . Devpriya,” Calista answered in a serious voice instead of Angela. And surprisingly, Calista called me Dev, not Dave.
I didn’t know why Calista seemed so familiar to me, like I’d met or seen her somewhere before. With her triangular face and small blue eyes, Calista was so beautiful and innocent that any young man would be attracted to her, would fall crazy in love with her. She was some kind of dream girl. That night she was mostly quiet, but when she spoke it was like a babbling brook. Over the course of the couple hours we spent together I learned that she was unusual in every way. She did not like meeting very many people. Most of the time she kept busy studying or playing her flute. Her father was no longer alive and her mother owned about fifty houses in Athens, which she rented for lakhs of Euros every month.
“Dave, if Calista were dressed in a nomad’s outfit, she’d look like one, no?” Angela suddenly said as we were getting out of the lift in the restaurant. When she heard this she smiled, “It’s on account of my blood, no?”
“What do you mean?” burst spontaneously from both our mouths, but Calista didn’t say anything further on the topic. She just kept smiling.
Before me floated the image of the girl from the night in my room, her face, her eyes, her golden hair, her clothes. Without a doubt she looked almost just like this.
We paused when we got to the hotel lobby. Angela stood near the gate and shook the rain from her coat. On the opposite wall the television was on. Two men sat on the sofa drinking and watching something or other, but neither of them was looking in the television’s direction. We were heading toward the lift when Sanya emerged from the laundry room. She avoided my gaze, and said hello to Angela. When we got upstairs, Angela said good night and went into her room.
Now I was standing once again in that spot where I’d stood the night before. I remained there for a few moments. If all the rooms were occupied, then why wasn’t there any noise at all here now, not even the slightest, and why did the yelling and screaming start at night? I took a few steps forward and arrived at the dead end. There was no noise anywhere, no kissing couple, and no old man. Feeling a little mischievous, I walked to Room 210 and rang the doorbell. After a few moments the door opened, and there stood that same skinny girl, her eyes full of questions.
“Please excuse me, but do you have a lighter?” Suddenly I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Her eyes showed no reaction. “Wait a moment,” she said and closed the door. A little while later she was at the door again with a lighter in her hand. Now I groped around in all my pockets, but I didn’t have any cigarettes because I didn’t smoke them.
“I’m sorry, maybe I forgot my cigarettes in my room,” I said and started to go back, but she said, “Please keep it,” and held the lighter out toward me.
I took it from her. “Thank you.”
About a half hour later someone knocked on my door. I looked at my watch. It was about 10:30. I got up, opened the door, and Sanya was standing there. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe that girl had complained about me.
“Can I come in, Dave?” she said forthrightly as she walked into my room. She sat down in a chair, her pretty legs gleaming under her skirt. She pulled a packet of cigarettes out from the pocket of her cropped jacket and asked, “lighter?” I picked up the girl’s lighter and gave it to her. She lit her cigarette, took off her coat, and set it on the table opposite. Underneath, she had on such a short, tight almond-colored blouse that it seemed it would cut off her breathing above her navel.
“Adonis told me that you’re having some trouble here at night. If you want, I can sleep with you here at night . . . just sleep.” When she said this she smiled for the first time. “Maybe being alone for so many nights has gotten you down.”
“How many euro?” I pushed ahead to learn more about this mystery.
“Maybe you didn’t understand. Nothing—this is just to help you out. I don’t do anything like that.”
I was surprised. Can someone go this far to help someone else? I wanted to test it, and said, "OK, I want to go to sleep now." She asked for ten minutes and exactly ten minutes later she was back, carrying her gown. She went into the bathroom and changed her clothes. I found all of this exciting. Now we were both on one bed, under one blanket.
“May I put my hands and feet on you?” I asked ten minutes later.
She smiled. “For just your hands and feet I’ll take fifty euro, that will disturb my sleep somewhat.”
I shifted and pressed against her. A little while later I asked about her true intentions. She smiled and said, “Maybe you forgot, but I said I didn’t do this and was just trying to help you. Is that clear?” Now I understood that Europeans set limits. A refusal meant "no more." I turned away from her and went to sleep and indeed I slept really well that night. Sanya got up at 6 am. She changed into her clothes and looked at me.
“Thank you,” I said to her.
She turned and said, “I hope you had a good rest.”
I nodded my head in gratitude, got up, and handed her fifty euros. Quite forthrightly she said, “No, Dave, that was just a joke, and in truth, while I do need money, that was just a favor.” I felt an even greater debt of gratitude toward her and said, “I want to give you something.”
Sanya thought for a moment and said, “OK, but only give me twenty euros.” I admired her clarity.
The next two nights also passed in peace, without any noise or interruption. I slept soundly and woke up refreshed. In those days, Angela, Calista, and I explored doggedly. Besides Athens we went to Cape Sounian and Delphi. Calista walked very close to me. Much of the time she held my hand as we walked. I didn’t know if she was interested in me, or in the fact I was Indian—who knows, maybe it was both—and I started to realize that Angela’s presence had started to irritate me. This started to show in my behavior and so Angela started giving us more time alone. Most of the time she tried to arrange it so that just Calista and I could explore. Saying that she had this or that to do, Angela would leave us together.
One afternoon in Delphi, when Angela was still sleeping in her hotel room, Calista said that her great-grandmother on her father’s side had come from India and was a gypsy. “I haven’t told anyone here. But you and I are so alike.” I had already told her about myself in detail. Roma people here are in the same condition that most of the poor Dalits, backward castes, and tribals are in India. After realizing this about each other, we talked and talked over those four days.
One day early in the morning we went to Myrtos beach. Calista was driving. It was about two hundred miles from Athens, approximately seven hours by car ferry and along a road flanked by thin grasses. Even though it was a pretty exhausting journey, we were both exhilarated, like a couple of teenagers. It had been my fervent wish that Angela not accompany us on this trip, though I knew that such a long drive would be difficult for Calista alone. I told her what I was thinking and she smiled and said, “Truly, I won’t get tired, I’ve sipped the nectar of the gods!”
“Me too.” I couldn’t figure out why I had this kindred feeling every moment I spent with her.
Myrtos Beach was truly beautiful. We walked and walked until we reached a distant spot where we were alone. As it was the end of October and a cool day, there weren’t many people on the beach anyway. There were many small rocks where we were. “Come, rest for a bit.” There was a cement bench between two wild shrubs tucked away in some rocks. We sat down and stayed like that for a long while, who knows how long, without speaking to one another, but were we really silent? The ocean’s blue water came to rest on the beach before rolling out again in waves that were sometimes small and sometimes powerful.
Then Calista put her nose up in the air and started to sniff. Her face was tense. I was going to ask her what was wrong when she suddenly leaped up and jumped on top of me. I didn’t know why and was alarmed. She had one hand on my shoulder and her chest was close to my face. With her other hand, she hurled something far away. I looked toward it, and was still confused for several moments. A black snake was lying there. It must have been three feet long. It fanned its hood and looked at us before slithering away into the grass. She explained that this was a very poisonous species of viper, one which usually comes out when it’s warm, although it wasn’t on this day.
“How did you know there was a viper on the rock behind my head?”
She smiled and said, “I smelled it.” Then she went on, “Now let’s keep going. It’s getting to be evening, and in the evening the seawater turns an even more peculiar color.”
That night we stayed in a hotel there, in the same room, but nothing happened between us. I was afraid she might have the wrong idea about Indian men, but what she was thinking, I don’t know. She didn’t give any indication that I could make a move. We spent the night like two separate islands on the same bed and returned to Athens the next day.
Now the time to leave Athens had drawn near. It was my last night. I would return to Stockholm on a 9 a.m. flight the next morning. Angela and I ate dinner promptly at 8 o’clock and came back to the hotel. Adonis was at the reception.
“Is everything OK?” he asked with a smile. I answered, “Thanks to your kindness.”
He smiled, so I said jokingly, “Has a guest checked into Room 208?”
He smiled in a knowing way and answered, “No one yet, please say a prayer!”
Angela and I each went into our own rooms.
By 10 o’clock I’d packed my bags and gone to sleep. Ufff ufff, hamf hamf, oh Mama, oh my god, please please … aah aah oh Mama… hahaha! This noise woke me up. I thought it was a dream, but no, the voices continued. I remembered that Adonis had said that no one had checked into Room 208. Since I was leaving the hotel tomorrow anyway, I made up my mind that I would go and investigate. I opened my door and went to Room 208. The voices were coming from inside, though it was dark. I considered this for a few moments, then knocked on the door. But there was no commotion inside, and the voices continued unabated. In a kind of frenzy I knocked loudly on the door again but the noise of the voices from inside was continuous. I went to stand in front of Room 209, and there were the same intoxicated voices, then I moved to 210, where I’d borrowed the lighter. I was shocked to hear there too the same crying and laughing voices. I ran back toward my room and stood at Angela’s door. There was a light on in her room and the voices were emanating even more loudly from inside. I nearly beat down Angela’s door but it didn’t open and the voices didn’t stop . . . now they were echoing through the whole corridor . . . humph humph ahh oof leave me please, I love you. Angela’s room was right next to the stairs. I ran down the stairs and straight to the reception.
The hotel’s main door was locked and Sanya was sitting on a sofa near the bar, asleep. I tiptoed over to her and sat down next to her. I stayed alert for a while, but here there were no voices, and who knows when sleep seized hold of me. I woke in the morning at 6 a.m. I sprang up and went to my room. All my luggage was just as I had left it. I got ready right away. A little while later there was a knock on the door. I opened the door to find Angela there.
“We should leave at seven,” Angela said without meeting my eyes.
I nodded my head yes, then started to close the door, when she muttered, “I’m sorry I couldn’t open the door last night, I take medicine at night and then fall into a deep sleep…” I closed the door and went into the bathroom.
Days fly by. These days did as well. At this moment of leaving the Revisit Hotel, I wondered whether the whole world was like an inn where people keep coming and going; there’s no single owner, just travelers, and in between all this coming and going there are so many different types of tumult. When I went down to the lobby I found Calista sitting there already. Calista came along with Angela and me to the airport. As we walked through the airport, Angela stopped a way back as though lost in thought. Calista and I kept walking, up to that point beyond which only passengers may go. At this last moment she sprang and pulled me into her arms. I had also begun to have feelings for her, and so kissed her lightly on the cheek. But she drew me close and kissed me on the lips.
“Take me away from here and back to India with you,” were Calista’s last words, just as they had been of the gypsy girl that night in my room.
“I’ll bring you soon, my dear,” I said and pulled her into my chest. She gulped, and tears glittered in her eyes. She turned and ran away, over to where Angela was standing. Now they were both waving good-bye and I was wondering who it was who’d come into my room that night . . . why Angela didn’t open her door . . . whose voice it was at night crying and laughing . . . was the old gypsy woman in Örebro pointing me toward this destiny?
I shook my head and set all these thoughts aside and began to walk toward my gate, but then it seemed to me that Calista was everywhere I looked. I turned and looked toward where Angela and Calista had been standing. There was Angela, smiling. Calista wasn’t there. Had she gone home so quickly? Where did she go? Hiding my surprise and bewilderment I hoisted my backpack and walked back over to Angela.
Her expression was open, questioning. “What’s up?” like a flower, blooming from her lips.
Quite worried now I looked all around her, like Angela was hiding someone behind her back who would all of a sudden jump out and stand before me.
“Speak up, Dev, say something . . . what do you want to say?!” Angela stepped forward and forcefully grabbed my shoulders.
“Calista . . . where did Calista go?” There must have been a kind of submissiveness in my eyes. I read as much in Angela’s.
She patted my head and looked at me sympathetically.
I repeated my question. “Where is Calista?” Hearing my question a second time, Angela hesitated, then said quietly, “What Calista?! When did you meet Calista?! . . . there has not been any Calista with us, Dev!” Then she said with a tone of understanding, “Go, before you miss your flight. We’ll talk on the phone. Forget this loneliness, Dev, find someone for yourself.” My glance scattered everywhere, but there was no Calista. I started to walk again and there was Calista’s image everywhere . . . It seemed like someone had come close and whispered in my ear, “Take me back with you.” Then I remembered what Angela had said, “Calista has learned a lot of magic and such, she’s quite strange.”
“Nonsense, I don’t believe in these things.” I kept walking. I must be more vigilant. I must not allow this fragmentation, I told myself, and walked on.
© Ajay Navaria. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Brueck. All rights reserved.
In this fictional account of the last days of a long journey through Europe undertaken by Cavafy in 1897, the Greek poet's struggle against conventions, social and personal, takes center stage.
The Greek poet C.P. Cavafy is a writer who elicits ambiguous reactions. He seemed to follow a conventional path in his writing in formal terms, while at the same time confronting moral taboos with his erotic themes, often tinged with suggestions of homosexuality. Conventional as they might sound at first for a reader more attuned to avant-garde experiments, the intense poignancy of his poems places him among the ranks of the extraordinary.
In What’s Left of the Night, a novel by Greek writer Ersi Sotiropoulos which takes Cavafy as its protagonist, the poet’s struggle against conventions, social and personal, takes center stage. The book, which was translated into French in 2016 and received the Prix Méditerranée for foreign fiction, is a fictional account of the last days of a long journey through Europe undertaken by Cavafy in 1897. At the time, he had already published some poems and essays in journals and newspapers, a practice he continued throughout his life, eschewing book publication, but he was not widely known.
This is a coming-of-age novel, told through a layering of parallel themes and stories, centered around three feverish days that the poet spent in Paris. This was to be his only visit to the French capital, but Cavafy would always regard the city as a decisive place in his development.
The story itself is quite simple, almost plotless in action terms. Cavafy is on the last leg of a European voyage he has made with his brother John. They are in turn-of-the-century Paris, where the Commune is still a recent memory, the Dreyfus affair is polarizing the nation, and artistic ferment continues to electrify. Gone are poets like Rimbaud and Verlaine and Symbolists such as Redon and Moreau, yielding their place in the avant-garde to the Impressionists, Cézanne and Picasso. Surrealism is in the air. Einstein is dealing in relativity. Freud and Jung are writing about the discovery of the unconscious and the importance of dreams.
In this context, Cavafy’s transgressions seem small and personal, but they split the armature of the somewhat inflexible poet. Cavafy himself realizes that he is naïve and also comes to realize that this naïveté is something that he needs to shed in order to shoulder what is at that point the burden of his unrecognized genius. In fact, Sotiropoulos brings her protagonist to muse frequently on the comparative differences between himself and the writers who live in the world. Rimbaud, the poète maudit who stopped writing at twenty-three, functions as his alter ego, his shadow in Jungian terms: “The question, he thought, is who can produce better poetry? The one with the quiet life, bent timidly over his desk, his mind fired by desires and the most wild imaginings, fantasies he knows will never become reality, or the other, who rushes at life with gusto, who taunts life like a foolhardy warrior, daring it, betting his very existence in a game of heads or tails?”
Similar doubts were addressed by Cavafy in his work, in a manner which suggests that he strived to move beyond the either / or of action and morality, contesting and destroying artificial and inauthentic polarities.
Many years after his trip, he would write in his Ars Poetica: “Also care should be taken not to lose from sight that a state of feeling is true and false, possible and impossible at the same time, or rather in turns. And the poet—who even when he works the most philosophically, remains an artist—gives one side. . . . Very often the poet’s work has but a vague meaning; it is a suggestion: the thoughts are to be enlarged by future generations or by his immediate readers: Plato said the poet’s utter great meanings without realizing them themselves”.
What were the transgressions that he needed to initiate and experience in order to complete the parallel journeys of art and individuation? In one sense he was a “mama’s boy,” still tied to the Greek notion of filial devotion, despite the fact that he and his brother referred to their mother as “The Fat One.” But there was also a broader issue of family honor and pride: after his father died, the family’s financial circumstances plunged, and with it their social standing. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, he and his mother make a social call on former friends and social peers. Toward the end of the call, other people in the drawing room make their way to another room, apparently invited to stay to dinner, while Cavafy and his mother are left alone, too déclassé to remain part of their former tribe.
Although this change came late, Cavafy had to come to terms with it in a way that was beneficial rather than poisonous, using it as a means to shed some of the stifling social values and compartmentalization of people with its suffocating rigid morality. Sotiropoulos suggests that this didn’t come easy, however. Despite their own class fall, Cavafy castigates and deprecates his brother John for buying a lovely red kerchief for Rozina, a governess, with whom he is in love, because the woman is of the wrong social class. He comes to recognize his snobbery in this stance and apologizes to John, but still cannot bring himself to ease John’s way with their mother about it; in fact, he adds duplicity to his sins as he lies to his brother about his promise to do so.
The Greek Orthodox ban on homosexuality wars within Cavafy with the ancient Greek exaltation of the self-contained male in myth and legend as well as its cultural acceptance of homoeroticism in literature and art. At a certain point in the story, he feels himself entranced by a Russian dancer (or so he imagines him to be) who is part of a visiting ballet troupe. Cavafy does not engage him, speaking only a line or two about reservations in Paris, all the while despairing of his own timidity. His fantasies and desires raise to a fever pitch. One night at the hotel where they both lodge, he finds the dancer’s door and squats there for three hours with his ear to it, listening to the muffled sounds of what he is sure is lovemaking. He finally rips himself away, overcome with the fear of discovery and jealousy of the unseen and perhaps non-existent couple, and runs to his room where he scourges his body with a loofah: “He stood in front of the mirror and stripped off his shirt. He plunged the glove into the basin and rubbed himself vigorously. . . . He hadn’t given in. Not this time. His rules had helped. He felt almost relaxed. Just now he would like to read a good poem, or to write.”
Decades later, Cavafy would write of his time in Paris and understand that it functioned as a counterpart to his childhood city, Alexandria. Paris was an irreplaceable catalyst to his maturation. Although he realized how different his poetry would have been if he had been brought up there, it would never be Alexandria for him: too much of the grounding of his poetry would center on memories. Alexandria formed his early consciousness of the world. Paris represented a Valhalla and a Hades—a plunge into his unconscious, deep and often scary, but rich in the treasures of communion and self.
Cavafy’s life-affirming mantra in the closing chapters of the book encloses within itself: “abandon. . . .abandon. . . . abandon. . . .abandon.” Not four times, but many, many more, the words reveal themselves as a sacred chant that celebrates, purifies, and then transcends the pedestrian existence that the poet sees as his life.
Sotiropoulos infuses the most intense episodes of this decisive séjour with a surrealistic flavor, a dreamlike flow that unveils ideas and truths not found or not understood in the conscious world. Surrealism thus becomes a privileged perspective above reality. In clear opposition are the majority of scenes in the work, barring the erotic, told in an almost-monotone, somewhat opaque. It is as if the surface of the novel doesn’t extend an invitation to the reader, and resists depth, as perhaps the surface or persona of Cavafy. I believe this reserve kept me from enjoying the book as I might have. The character of Cavafy is rarely appealing: he comes off as petulant, and selfish, although by the end of the work and his journey much of that has changed.
With the caveat that I read this book only in translation, I found the writing to be beautiful, flowing and sensual, with an extreme mastery of rhythm, particularly in the erotic musings and scenes. Unfortunately for this reviewer, the novel in its entirety was a case of not enough, not soon enough, for sustained interest.