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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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 themand 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.
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.
In this charged work of autofiction, Bey explores her ties with the Algerian War for Independence, during which her father was killed.
“That was his war. Yes, it was a real war. His father, too, had had his war. And he had gone to it singing ‘The Marseillaise.’ Like him. And before him, his father’s father, and thus numerous generations caught in the often tragic snares of history.” These are the ruminations of Maïssa Bey’s unnamed female protagonist in her novella Do You Hear in the Mountains… as she rides a train somewhere in southern France. Originally published in 2002, the novella is a work of autofiction that explores Bey’s relationship to the Algerian War of Independence, during which her father was killed. The brief chance encounter of three strangers on a train begins a conversation that not only addresses the “often tragic snares of history,” as Bey’s protagonist writes, but also implicitly questions the process through which history gets recorded. The book serves as a porte-parole for a multiplicity of voices whose traumas have been silenced, in an excavation of untold pasts that bears the mark of a personal project.
Through truncated conversation, Bey’s characters slowly come to realize they represent different facets of a shared violent past.
“And there! We’ve come full circle! A pied-noir’s grand-daughter, a veteran, a fellaga’s daughter. It’s almost unreal. Really, who could have imagined such a scene? It looks like a television studio, gathered for a show by journalists in search of truth, hoping to lift the veil to shed light on ‘France’s painful past.’ All that’s missing is a harki. And especially, to emphasize this situation’s absurdity and strangeness, they should not neglect to introduce her not only as a fellaga’s daughter, but as herself obliged to flee her country to escape the fundamentalist madness.”
(The translator, Erin Lamm, provides notes that help the reader understand the terms that are left untranslated: a pied-noir, she explains, refers to an Algerian of French descent who supported French rule; fellaga is a derogatory term for an Algerian resistance fighter; and harki is the term used to describe members of the Algerian population who collaborated with the French army throughout the Algerian War of Independence.)
The veteran in the train car extracts the unnamed protagonist’s story from her semi-forcibly in an attempt to draw connections and make peace with his own participation in the French-Algerian conflict. Despite his attempts to “practice the culture of silence,” especially in relationship to his complicity in the war, his story also eventually comes to light. Through his revelation, the protagonist learns just how interconnected their histories are and she is left with both clarity and horror.
The protagonist’s feminist critique of violence is searing. Having fled Algeria’s widespread violence due to the Algerian Civil War that lasted from 1991 to 2002, an event that is occurring contemporaneously with the story, she meditates on her ironic refugee status in France: “Still, in this country, there are men. In every country, there are men. It is they who make it into a homeland. Who make it into hell. Or a country that’s nice to live in.” She relegates war and the project of nation to a masculine space and reflects on the patriotic tropes that serve as excuses for otherwise inexcusable actions.
Bey’s novella has just been published in the US alongside a collection of her short stories, Under the Jasmine at Night, in a single volume titled Do You Hear in the Mountains… and Other Stories. The book is part of a collection of Caribbean and African literature translated from the French and edited by University of Virginia Press as part of its CARAF Books series.
The short stories included in the volume examine the intersection of femininity and Franco-Algerian identity from a host of perspectives. It has been nearly two centuries since the French invaded Algiers in 1830 and began the process of establishing a 132-year imperial rule over their North African neighbors. It has also been over 50 years since representatives from both the French and Algerian governments signed the Évian Accords establishing the full independence of the Algerian nation. However, the legacy of French-Algerian relations remains murky and politicians, regardless of “side” or “position,” are reluctant to talk about decades of conflict and cultural exchange.
Bey’s stories address the manner in which these cultures have become mutually imprinted on one another. They take up the lived realities of immigrants who live in France, of Algerians who aim to negotiate the lessons of colonial history and subsequent independence, and of individuals who inhabit a space somewhere in between. From start to finish, the stories delve into the complexities of everything from love and domestic violence, to marriages affected by threats of repudiation and the corporeality of motherhood. They retain their gendered critiques as they explore a young girl’s first encounter with patriarchy, the role of rape in warfare, and the need to find spaces of sisterhood. Bey asks universal questions about the construct of race in discourses of immigration and about the cyclical nature of war. Her characters highlight our human need to connect with the past and to dream about the future. In doing so, each story accomplishes the feat of being grounded in a specific cultural reality and milieu while appealing to a broad audience.
The story titled “NOWHYBECAUSE” is a particularly compelling example of such an endeavor. It combines the innocence of its young, female protagonist with her curiosities about the world around her to reveal the limitations of growing up a girl in Bey’s Algeria:
Concrete examples, sentences to complete, according to social, moral, and cultural realities:
“Given that you are a girl…”
“The fact that you’re not married yet…”
“Seeing as he is a good catch…”
Let’s go back to childhood.
“So, can I go play downstairs with my girlfriend?”
(Pointing to my brother) “Why him and not me?”
"Because. You can’t. That’s how it is.”
The narrator reduces her relationship with her parents to this exchange of phrases and describes the slow realization that her brother did not face the same nowhybecause in his day-to-day. She also describes for the reader the process through which she learned to tell half-truths or to manipulate information to avoid the nowhybecauses. In a few short pages, Bey captures the reality of disparate gender realities and neatly times them to the “subordinating conjunction” her narrator disdains: because.
Lamm’s translation is beautifully rendered. The contents of the novella and the subsequent short stories may be sobering, but they provide a host of essential queries for the individual who enjoys a philosophically charged read. The edition is made all the more pleasant by its afterword, authored by Alison Rice, from the University of Notre Dame, who puts both Maïssa Bey and her writing into context for the non-specialist who wants to better understand Bey’s literary journey.
When representatives from Georgian publishing houses first visited the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of the 1990s, they could only dream that in 2018, some twenty years later, Georgia would enjoy the status of guest of honor. Nevertheless, to our surprise and delight, the dream has become reality, and now, as if seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel, Georgian writers and publishers find themselves face to face with the most important project in their history, the main event of which is only days away. This light will guide Georgian culture to the heart of Europe, showing it the way as it takes those all-important first steps toward calmer waters after centuries of stormy seas.
The sense of expectation that surrounds the presentation to be made by the country chosen as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair resembles the buildup to a great sporting event, and this year, our German colleagues have informed us, fairgoers are particularly excited. Everyone is keen to know the reasons behind the (some might say risky) decision by the organizers of the fair to give Georgia a platform alongside such heavy hitters as the Netherlands, France, Norway, and Canada.
Georgia will be the Guest Country at next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair. How will a country that remains almost completely undiscovered by the outside world cope with such a huge international project? Even more important, what does Georgian literature look like today? What did it look like in the past? And who are the Georgian writers worth reading, listening to, and maybe even meeting?
Perhaps one of the main reasons that Georgian literature, in spite of its long history, has never been widely read beyond its homeland is the unique three-script Georgian writing system, which was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. Georgian is written and spoken by only around three and a half million people in Georgia itself and fewer than one million emigrants. For the rest of the world, the language is almost completely inaccessible. From time immemorial, Georgians have regarded their language as a vital asset worth preserving at all cost, as was proven in 1978, during the Soviet period, when people came out onto the streets in huge numbers to protest the decision by the Soviet government to make Russian the official language of Georgia. They eventually forced the authorities to back down. However, such a unique asset comes at a price, and if Georgian literature is to achieve widespread popularity in the international arena, it is essential to support translation work with meaningful investment and promotion.
For Georgian writers, the Iron Curtain and the seventy-year Soviet regime proved to be almost insuperable obstacles in their quest for freedom from literary boundaries. During that period, it was essentially impossible to have translations and original writing published outside the Soviet sphere, and even within that sphere, publishing was always tightly controlled by the regime. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions, such as the twelfth-century epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that rare book that could not be hemmed in even by the almighty Iron Curtain, such was its genius. Considered not only the most important work in Georgian literary history but also a masterpiece of world literature, it has been translated into around sixty languages.
In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, foundations were laid for the construction of an independent publishing sector (until then, only state publishers had existed), and slowly this new industry arose from the ashes of the USSR while simultaneously establishing and developing business relationships with publishers across the world. Over the last twenty-five years, the publishing and literary worlds of Georgia have come a long way, maneuvering past many roadblocks on the path to development. Now the baton has been passed to a new generation of caretakers, young people with modern outlooks who are working hard to integrate fifteen centuries of Georgian literature to promote it to foreign publishers.
Georgian writers have always had a powerful influence on the nation’s consciousness, and this is as true now as it was in the past. They are present whenever civil society battles injustice, and they continue to support efforts to consolidate democratic values in Georgia. Writers also played an important role in the period immediately following independence: during those difficult years, as the country struggled to reappraise its values and free itself from the influence of Soviet ideology, there were times when certain authors were shunned by the authorities and ordinary citizens, when their freely written words and freely formed opinions fell on deaf ears. And yet young writers—and here it is particularly important to underline the role played by women writers—went on talking and writing loudly and stubbornly as they strove to break down taboos. It is of course impossible, in the space of only two decades or so, for the country to free itself entirely of the Soviet mentality and ideology that wormed its way into people’s consciousness so destructively for seventy years, and traces of that ideology still appear from time to time in both society and the political arena. That is why you will often see Georgian writers alongside NGOs and ordinary citizens at demonstrations and on TV screens and social media. In public debates, politicians have found writers to be some of their toughest and most feared adversaries. You may also have spotted a group of Georgian writers and publishers at our national stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, holding up banners that read, “We are writers and publishers from Georgia. We have voices. We have power!”, “Stop Russia!”, and “Russia is an occupier!” to protest Russia’s occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Samachablo and its ongoing policy of “creeping occupation.”
With all this in mind, it is only to be expected that the most difficult and challenging topics arising out of the process of transformation from Soviet Georgia back to independent Georgia should still be fully present in contemporary Georgian literature. Indeed, what we find in Georgian literature today are works that represent an original and unique synthesis of largely European values and national traditions. In a country whose first novel and earliest surviving text tells of the martyrdom of Queen Shushanik, and where the twelfth-century ruler Tamar was so powerful she was given the title King, it is no surprise to find fiction dealing with feminist themes and questions of gender equality. Meanwhile, in a country where even today you can find a Georgian Orthodox church, a synagogue, a mosque, and an Armenian Apostolic church standing side by side in the capital, Tbilisi (a city noted for its historical tolerance of difference), and which has been invaded over the centuries by nearly all the major powers—the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottomans, the Byzantines, and the Russians—it is equally unsurprising to find fiction about tolerance, war, and the importance of peace. At the same time, our writers have not forgotten to write about everyday life in Georgia, and you will of course also find in modern Georgian literature love stories, made all the sweeter by the times of hardship.
When we were choosing the authors to be featured in this edition of Words Without Borders, our main criteria were to show how original and varied contemporary Georgian literature is and to present a balanced selection of writing in terms of gender, age, and genre. For me personally, it was especially important to offer our overseas readers some interesting works of poetry alongside prose fiction, which tends to be the most popular genre independent of geography. After all, Georgia is often referred to as the Land of Poets! We have also taken this opportunity to present an excerpt from a work of Georgian nonfiction.
Thus, you will have the fascinating (I hope!) experience of becoming acquainted with the work of Naira Gelashvili and Teona Dolenjashvili, two female fiction writers from different generations, as well as with a piece of fiction by another important young writer from the youngest generation, Beka Kurkhuli. As for poetry, you will find works by two of Georgia’s most distinguished modern-day poets, Irakli Kakabadze and Lela Samniashvili. Finally, the fascinating Gela Charkviani has been chosen to represent the field of nonfiction.
Naira Gelashvili, born in 1947, is one of the most brilliant writers in contemporary Georgian literature. She is also an expert on German culture, a well-known literary critic, and a social activist. She quickly found a wide audience for her nonconformist writing at the very earliest stages of her career, and though she often received unwanted attention from the Soviet authorities as a result, she never stopped working, producing novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and children’s fiction and winning various literary prizes in the process. In 1994, Gelashvili founded the nongovernmental organization Caucasian House, which to this day strives for peaceful coexistence among the multicultural, multifaith peoples of the Caucasus. In recent years, several of her works have been translated into German, bringing her a significant readership in Germany. Here, we present an extract titled "Little Dipper" from her short novel, The Ambri, the Umbri, and the Arab, one of the most unusual love stories in the whole of Georgian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although it should be noted that the romance is merely the foundation on which Gelashvili builds an expansive universe. It is also worth noting that mythology—in both the cultural-traditional and the philosophical sense of the word—plays an important role in Gelashvili’s work, and the text we have chosen is no exception.
Teona Dolenjashvili, born in 1977, is one of the best Georgian writers to break onto the scene in recent years. She published her first book, the short story collection January River, in 2005 and since then has been awarded important literary prizes on several occasions. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and published in various overseas anthologies, and in 2008, her novel Memphiscame out in Italian. Her story “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” was chosen from her latest short story collection, Personal Christ, published in Georgia earlier in 2018. The story deals with a topic that has been widely discussed in Georgia in recent years: surrogacy. In 2014, a draft law imposing legally binding age limits of forty-one and forty-six for women and men respectively on IVF treatment was introduced into the Georgian parliament. The proposed legislation was met with an uproar in society, and thankfully its progress through parliament is currently stalled. “Meskhi vs. Meskhi” shows again how sharply attuned contemporary Georgian women writers are to the issues of the day and how powerfully they react to them. In addition to her literary achievements, Teona Dolenjashvili is actively involved in public life. At present, she is working on a project to build a modern seaport that meets international standards in the town of Anaklia, which lies on the border with the ancient Georgian region of Abkhazia, now of course occupied by Russia.
Beka Kurkhuli, born in 1974, is from the same generation as Teona Dolenjashvili but made his first appearance on the literary scene much earlier, in 1991. He worked as a reporter for several years during the wars that engulfed the Caucasus following the collapse of the Soviet Union, filing reports not only from the conflict zones—Abkhazia, Samachablo, and the Pankisi Gorge—created in Georgia by the wars against Russian forces but also from other regions of the Caucasus, such as Ingushetia and Azerbaijan, in addition to Afghanistan. Almost all of Kurkhuli’s books have won literary prizes. Here we present an excerpt from one of his most popular short stories, “The Killer,” from the collection The City in Snow, which was translated into Italian in 2018. “The Killer” deals with Georgia’s recent past, giving the author an opportunity to mold his professional experience as a war reporter into artistic form. The story depicts the lives of Georgian soldiers and partisans in Abkhazia during and after the Russo-Georgian war and describes the terrible effects of the war on ordinary Georgians and Abkhazians, who until then had been connected for generations by family ties, friendships, and shared territory.
Kurkhuli won the important Littera Prize in 2018 for his short story collection Skandara and Other Short Stories; Lela Samniashvili took the poetry prize for her latest collection, Thirty-Seven. Samniashvili is one of the most well-known and distinguished poets in Georgia. Her poetry is characterized by rigor and precision, while her poetic voice possesses a highly original sonority. She was born in 1977, and in 2007 received a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Oslo. She is the author of several prizewinning collections of poetry, and her work has been translated into English, Dutch, Italian, Azerbaijani, and Russian. Samniashvili is also active in the field of translation, and many Georgians know her as the translator of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. For this publication, we have chosen two of her most brilliant poems, “A Run in My Stocking” and “Military Drills.”
The poet Irakli Kakabadze was born in 1982 and is the author of four collections of poetry and one book of short stories. For several years he worked in the public sector, specifically at the National Center for Teacher Development in Tbilisi, a legal entity under the Ministry of Education and Science in Georgia. Following his first appearance on the creative scene, while still a civil servant, he rapidly made a name for himself as a passionate social activist and an indefatigable defender of human rights and freedom of speech, and these are precisely the topics he deals with in his work, which is noteworthy for its originality. Even while still employed by the civil service, he never shied away from harsh criticism of the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church, but eventually, due to the impossibility of reconciling his work for the government with his activism, he was forced to make what was, for him, an unbearably difficult decision and leave his homeland for Turkey. Kakbadze now lives in Istanbul. He owns a café called Café Galaktion, named after the great Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze, and spends the rest of his time popularizing Georgian culture throughout Turkey, teaching Georgian to ethnic Georgians living in Turkey and responding through his writing to controversies back home. For this publication, we have chosen Kakabadze’s poem “The Children of Beslan,” dedicated to the victims of the bloody confrontation between sub-units of the Russian Special Operations Forces and Chechen extremists in a school in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. We also offer a selection of Japanese tanka. Kakabadze uploaded a number of these short poems to various social media sites over the course of several years under the pseudonym Iaki Kabe, fooling many into believing they were the work of an unknown Japanese poet translated into Georgian. His tanka became so popular on the Internet that when they were published in book form, the book topped the national bestseller lists. To this today, interest in this side of Kakabadze’s work shows no signs of flagging.
Last, but definitely not least, we present Gela Charkviani—diplomat, pedagogue, writer, television personality, and showman. Charkviani was born in 1939 into the family of Candide Charkviani, first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia under Stalin, and thanks to his famous father was known as the Communist Crown Prince. (In 2000, Gela Charkviani’s son, the musician and writer Irakli Charkviani—the most eccentric member of Georgia’s underground scene from the nineties onward, who created alternative music that even today, after his tragic death, enjoys unprecedented popularity in Georgia—was given the nickname "The King," prompting Gela to joke that this made him both the son and the father of kings.) Eleven Years by Shevy’sSide (here excerpted as "Shevardnadze and Me: The Beginning")is Charkviani’s personal, professional, and political autobiography. More precisely, it is the autobiography of a multifaceted individual in a multitude of roles. He begins life as Communist Crown Prince and grows into a rebellious Soviet youth drawn to banned music and the urban underground. Later he becomes an enthusiastic proselytizer for the free world on the other side of the Iron Curtain (he was one of the few individuals who were allowed out of the Soviet Union, traveling to America in 1970 and taking courses at the University of Michigan), as well as the author of numerous policies reflecting social initiatives. From the 1990s onward, he worked as chief foreign policy advisor to President Eduard Shevardnadze, spokesperson for President Mikheil Saakashvili, and ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United Kingdom. Over the last few years, he has published a series of books, including his autobiography, excerpts from his notebooks, and other works of documentary prose, all of which have taken their rightful place on the year-end bestseller lists.
Understanding the historical, political, and cultural backdrop against which these authors, with their diverse worldviews and life experiences, are writing is important to making an unfamiliar literary culture a little less unfamiliar. Their appearance here constitutes a big step forward on the great journey of bringing Georgian literature to the world.
Poet Hiroaki Sato, whom Gary Snyder has called "perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English," reminisces about his collaborations with Ashbery.
Photo Credit: Seiji Kakizaki. John Ashbery and Hiroaki Sato in
September 1991, on the occasion of the publication of
Sato's translation of A Wave into Japanese.
Toward the end of 1973, I was about to move from my apartment on the Upper East Side to one in Chelsea when I received a card. To my surprise, it was from John Ashbery, saying he liked my translation just out, Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa. Not that I’d known him in person. It was my fifth year in New York, where I’d moved as soon as I finished my graduate studies in English and American literature, in Kyoto, and I recognized the name Ashbery only because it was in one of the books I bought here, such as Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, as I started translating Japanese poetry, though it’s possible that Michael O’Brien, the poet who had helped me translate Miyazawa, told me about him.
During the 1960s, Japanese college courses in English poetry stayed with safe greats: Sidney, Shakespeare, Herrick, Dryden, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson, Whitman. I’d read Pound because my poetry teacher, Lindley Williams Hubbell, taught “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” with notes that he mimeographed for us. Thanks to Hubbell, too, I’d read some Eliot, including “The Waste Land.” But even Hubbell, the 1927 recipient of the Yale Younger Poets prize for his Dark Pavilion, did not cover Beat poets, despite the fact that Ginsberg and others were all the rage in Japan around 1960, something I learned belatedly—only a few months ago, in fact—in writing about Kazuko Shiraishi’s book of poems in Yumiko Tsumura’s translation, Sea, Land, Shadow.
Ashbery had included his address, and it was, to my further surprise, on the street I was moving to. I wrote him at once to thank him. Was I also forward enough to tell him I’d be his neighbor soon and propose to meet him? Perhaps. Along with Spring & Asura, I had three other translations out that year: Poems of Princess Shikishi (a chapbook), Ten Japanese Poets, and a special issue of the Chicago Review, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poets. So, not long after settling down in the new apartment, I walked west, past just a half-dozen buildings, to see him.
That evening, when asked what I would like to drink, I said vodka—my drink since a few years earlier, when the two women who asked me to “teach” them haiku, Eleanor Wolff and Carmel Wilson, invited me to a restaurant called Napoleon. My college days in Japan just over, I wasn’t used to American restaurants with a battalion of liquor bottles or, for that matter, American etiquette. Thus, when Miss Wolff, asked me, “What would you like to drink?” I was at a loss. Quickly discerning my plight, she, who had spent her youth in Paris, summoned a garçon—and the garçon recited a long list of liquors. Confused, I meekly said, “The first one.” That was vodka. Thus it had become my drink during the soirées before each haiku session at either of the two ladies’ places.
Ashbery fetched me a drink. He didn’t drink himself, saying he was on the wagon. I got drunk fast. And what did I prattle on about? The art of translation! I was full of myself, to be sure.
In the following days, and years, when I stepped out the front door of my building to go to work, I’d occasionally see him, and when he happened to see me, he’d smile. Most often, I’d see him walking away. In those days, in New York City, dogs could drop their feces anywhere on the street and their owners weren’t required to collect them. Was he negotiating those hazards as he walked? I had read a story about Wallace Stevens: a woman who lived in a house on a street Stevens took every morning to his insurance company would sometimes see him stop and walk backward a couple of steps, as if rearranging the rhythm of the verse he was composing in his head.
I learned—probably from Robert Fagan, the poet who was helping me translate at the time and for a long time afterward—that Ashbery was the poetry editor of Partisan Review, and I sent him Ozaki Hōsai’s haiku, a batch of 150, all translated in one line. Hōsai (1885–1926) was among the haiku writers who started ignoring the two basic requirements of the genre: the form of five-seven-five syllables—defining the haiku as a verse form of three lines is a foreign invention—and the inclusion of a seasonal indicator, kigo. To my surprise again, Ashbery accepted the whole set, without comment, and published it in the January 1979 issue of his magazine. For a magazine to accept so many haiku at once may have been unheard of, before or ever since, in Japan, let alone the United States.
In the summer of 1982, Hisao Kanaseki, a scholar of modern American literature whom I knew arrived in New York under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency, to visit a dozen artists, Ashbery among them. Since Ashbery lived on the same block, Kanaseki came to visit me after interviewing him and said Ashbery told him that he learned about the genre haibun—a short essay-like prose piece written with a haikai spirit, usually accompanied by a haiku or two—from the anthology of Japanese poetry that I translated with Burton Watson, which had come out in the previous year under the title From the Country of Eight Islands. I was happy, then, to see Ashbery’s book of 1984, A Wave, include “37 haiku,” composed all in one line, and six haibun. A few years later, when a chance arose for me to write a book about English haiku, in Japanese, I included four of Ashbery’s haibun.
When that book, Eigo Haiku, with the English title, Haiku in English: A Poetic Form Expands, came out in 1987, the Japan Society had an event for it, and its auditorium was packed—clearly because of the popularity of haiku, but also because of Ashbery’s participation. And because of him, a New Yorker writer came and during the reception talked to me, with a small tape-recorder in one hand. But I evidently failed to say anything that would have tickled the suave readers of the weekly. Whatever she might have written didn’t make it to “The Talk of the Town.”
One day in 1989, Ashbery telephoned me to say he was in trouble: a Japanese professor who had invited him to Japan for a round of readings told him he couldn’t come with his partner, though Ashbery told the professor he’d happily pay for his expenses. So I called Kanaseki, and Kanaseki called the professor, and the matter was settled. Kanaseki had much greater academic weight in Japan. In a recent letter, Ashbery’s partner David Kermani, told me that the professor was “not a nice person” in Japan, either, so the two visitors took to calling him “Mr. T”—a popular figure in the U.S. entertainment business at that time.
So it was Ashbery, and his book A Wave, that I chose when the Tokyo poetry publisher Shoshi Yamada agreed to do a book by an American poet in my translation. My translation, as you can imagine, endlessly flummoxed the publisher’s editors, however much they were used to some of the more intractable modern Japanese poetry. Ashbery’s poetry, in stark contrast to his art reviews in New York and other magazines, was infamously “opaque,” or, as Larissa MacFarquhar put it in TheNew Yorker (September 5, 2017), of the kind that made readers wonder “why he had to go so far out of his way to contort his sentences, if ‘sentences’ was even the right word for whatever they were.”
There also was my cultural and literary deficiency. For example, I didn’t know that Sabrina in “Description of a Masque” originally came from Milton’s masque Comus (though I had majored in English literature) until my poet friend Geoffrey O’Brien pointed it out to me. I had thought the name referred to the heroine of Billy Wilder’s film of that title starring Audrey Hepburn. So I provided my translation of Ashbery’s “Masque” with half a dozen footnotes, though that was an exception.
Ashbery, who had lived in France for about ten years, said that when his poems were translated into French, he helped his translator. But I did not bother him with my translation. It wasn’t just that he evidently didn’t know Japanese, but I knew that once I started asking him questions, I would have drowned him.
I must add that I was particularly presumptuous in translating A Wave. At the time, I read somewhere an article about him—perhaps in the New York Times Magazine—that Ashbery worked for a set amount of time every morning, without fail. I decided to copycat him and tried to work on translating A Wave for a certain amount of time every day, regardless.
Nami Hitotsu came out in 1991. It looked more impressive, I dare say, than the original, from Viking. With 300 pages, it was three times heftier than the ninety-page original. Shoshi Yamada is famous for turning out beautiful books, and my translation was stylishly produced, with the cover design incorporating the sculptor Masaaki Noda’s painting “Inducement.” The book came with a pamphlet, a selection of writings on Ashbery—an essay Geoffrey O’Brien wrote for the book, as well as excerpts from commentaries by Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Charles Berger, and Anita Sokolsky. In my translator’s afterword, I contrasted Ashbery with Gary Snyder, who had written a blurb for Spring & Asura. To do so, I quoted the two poets’ autobiographical statements included in Paris Leary and Robert Kelly’s anthology, A Controversy of Poets, and ended with my translation of Snyder’s poem “Civilization.” In essence, I wanted to have Ashbery represent “culture,” Snyder “nature.”
When I received copies from Tokyo, I took a couple to Ashbery. During some chitchat, he asked how it came about that I translated a book of his. I told him that back in 1973 he had sent me a card complimenting Spring & Asura. He said he didn’t remember doing that at all.
A few weeks later, we had a party with him and several other poet friends of mine reading in Lenore Parker and Robert Fagan’s loft. My photographer friend Seiji Kakizaki, who had taken some memorable shots at the party for my first books eighteen years earlier, was on hand to take some good photos.
Nami Hitotsu was praised by a number of Japanese poets. Among them was Kazuko Shiraishi, who wrote a long review, concluding that through my translation she could see “one gleaming wave” in the offing of “mystery and maze.” But Nami Hitotsu didn’t sell—in fact, the publisher, Shoshi Yamada, lamented a few years later that of all the books it had published, Nami Hitotsu was the worst seller. It is still available from the publisher, if not from Amazon or any other bookseller.
I might have expected something like that. I hadn’t ask for a translation fee. And, knowing that it would cost a bundle if the publishers got involved, I talked to Ashbery. He agreed to skip his publisher, giving his personal permission for the translation and its publication free of charge.
Following Nami Hitotsu, there appeared two Ashbery books in Japan, as far as I can tell. One is Selected Poems of John Ashbery in the Shichōsha series of modern American poetry in collaborative translation. The series is based on the idea that if a translator and a poet work together, the result will be best—that a poet should be able to transform a mere translation into “poetry.” In the case of the Ashbery volume, which came out in 1993, the poet was Ōoka Makoto, a prolific literary critic who himself did a good deal of translation from French, and the translator the scholar of American literature Iino Tomoyuki.
(As I write this, I remember my vague puzzlement two decades ago. In 2000, when Ōoka spoke at the annual Sōshitsu Sen Lecture Series at Columbia University, Ashbery was in the audience and at the dinner that followed, and I wondered why. Now I know. Ōoka had worked on Ashbery’s poems.)
In 2005, Tomoyuki published a book of essays on Ashbery under a title that may be translated John Ashbery: Poetry “in Praise of Possibilities,” abundantly quoting Ashbery’s original poems, followed by his own translations. The established house Kenkyūsha, famous for its English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries, published the book.
Have these two books affected Japanese readers’ understanding of John Ashbery? That is hard to guess. Some may have found inspiration in the way he wrote; but Japanese poets have been writing in quite unconventional ways for a long, long time.
On September 3, 2017, the world lost John Ashbery, the pivotal American poet whom the New York Times hailed as "a tradition unto himself." On this, the first anniversary of his death, Words Without Borders pays tribute to this giant of American letters with work from three poets and translators working across varied languages and literary traditions. Fady Joudah contributes "The Poem as Epiphyte," a poem in conversation with Ashbery's poetics; poet Hiroaki Sato (whom Gary Snyder has called "perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English") reminisces about his collaborations with Ashbery, including the translation of the American poet's work into Japanese; and Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren, a personal friend of Ashbery and translator of his work into Spanish, considers what set Ashbery apart and his legacy vis-à-vis other poets, not only those from the US but abroad. May these "delicious few words spread around like jam" provide a fitting tribute to a true original who lives on through his work.
Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren, a personal friend of Ashbery and translator of his work into Spanish, considers Ashbery's poetics and his legacy vis-à-vis other poets in the US and internationally.
The Voice, the Voices
Unlike the Beat Poets (Allen Ginsberg in particular), poets of the New York School like James Schuyler and John Ashbery wrote to be read rather than heard. Frank O’Hara was a possible exception, and Schuyler also occasionally declaimed in public with tact and subtle authority, to notable effect. Ashbery, less accessible at the spoken level due to the length and complexity of his rhythmic sequences and the abruptness of his transitions, declaimed in a rather uniform tone, with soft, sometimes imperceptible emphasis, as if his voice were a supplement, an almost unnecessary accident in the process of the poem’s transmission.
In this way, he underlined the fact that writing is a vehicle for effects unrelated to the mimesis of the voice. The poet’s voice is no longer a literal one. On the page, it splits into many “voices.” But there’s more: the lines become autonomous, though not completely independent from the voice’s dramatic effects.
The poem has its “music,” the rhythms and pauses provided by line breaks and syntax. The “voices” lack neither substance nor emotion but aren’t thoroughly human. The poem is the voice of no one, the voice of things, not even a voice. It is a “[H]umorous landscape without music / Written by music,” “an almost inaudible piccolo,” “a visible soundtrack,” or a “quartet” in which the instruments take turns and their notes become intertwined. T.S. Eliot’s title, Four Quartets, similarly alludes to the prosopopeia—the personification—according to which the poem’s voice is composed of an instrumental chord. Each “voice” attaches itself to an abyssal body, lacking identity, in a state of becoming that embraces, accumulates, and combines turns of phrase, colloquialisms, and verbal strategies but also opens up a register different from conversation.
While this may be said of nearly all poetry, it is particularly evident in Ashbery’s work, since he resorts neither to oral demagoguery nor to an immediate, straightforward transparency of interpersonal feelings nor to a “sincere” or flawless communication.
Ashbery’s poetry is not confessional. While it may explore the impact of events and actions, it does not brandish biographical anecdotes (either in a veiled or explicit manner). Instead, ironic and serene, it skirts a mystery—the loss of any prior happiness. The witness to a previous situation “lands,” so to speak, in a new moment, but that which was contemplated and lived in the past has now been erased. The new moment has no memory, no sympathy for memory; it forces the witness to begin anew. Deprived of relics, he must embark on the next “chapter,” improvise new verbal actions in the void. His responsibility is to face the present moment, and he explains, in addition, why he can do nothing else. From the point of view of reading and writing, the verses do not represent a recovery in the face of forgetting; on the contrary, they expose forgetting and loss.
The length of some of the poems challenges the possibility of self-representation, of being present to oneself, of knowing oneself. It is impossible to reconstruct the advances and setbacks of a thought process, a dream, or a romance. These different versions and evocations of selfhood mingle; they contradict each other; they distort and erase. Both poet and reader find that they do not control each and every intertextual allusion brought into play by the preceding lines, nor can they follow each twist and turn in the ensuing ones. The attention afforded a poem—particularly a longer one—will be dazzling but intermittent. Neither the poet nor his reader can avoid getting lost, forgetting the fragments they’ve just read momentarily or forever. They find themselves in medias res, not knowing where they are. They dwell in an interrupted fragment made of words and books.
Each reading recontextualizes, equivocates, and burns poetic material in the daily sacrifice of other lives that respond to diverse circumstances and particularities. One does not read a poet, or even a poem. The poem can offer a “bite” of “pleasant intuition,” since in it we glimpse something unexpected that moves us, which we find interesting or beautiful due to a personal matter, or to experiences that prepare us for it. Aesthetic judgment, then, is subjective. The strength of our conviction makes it seem universal, but in fact it is singular. It is, then, an illogical universal.
Outbursts of irony mock the absurdity, blindness, and partiality of the pretensions of a purported lyric self, which splits in an instant, laughing at its own folly. Despite this, it does not dismiss the validity of its attempts but acknowledges the limits of self-control, in a poetic confirmation that things do not go as planned. An unavoidable disturbance undermines the reasons that would seem to lead to this or that conclusion. The ruins of these pretensions trigger a renewal of hope, in landscapes invented to conceal an absence, “wasted with eternal desire and sadness.” The poem displays a crisis of self-knowledge and of the possibility of communication: “Will they finally see us as we are?”—a mixture of acute rage and disarming humor.
The provisional lyric self laughs at its own inability to calculate, and at its forgetfulness. But this lack of memory is what makes writing possible, forces mistakes and conjectures to be made, hurried along by urgency and expectation. The poem comes to substitute that which does not become present, invokes an empty moment outside time, a rebellious moment outside speech. The poem is the symbolic sequence that implicates and betrays that moment, translates it while allowing it to escape, passes through it to leave it intact.
The humor directed at the self, the irony, the splitting of the lyric subject reveal the poem to be an ambiguous blessing, an opportunity for both sadness and happiness for receiving both bad and good news. The poem is a “tragic euphoria.”
Somehow, things work out, and fall into place. The “meditation” is testament to these unpredictable arrangements. The subject has no prior knowledge of who he is; according to the poem’s lines, he is one and many and nobody, a bundle of surprises and contradictions, and, furthermore, a mystery at risk of oblivion. Each signifier represents and at the same time obliterates him. In Ashbery, lines are sustained not by an I but by a “sigh.” The pronoun representing the subject can be an I but also and thereafter, especially in the longer poems, a you, he, she, we, or they. The poem is a colossus that speaks, a soliloquy that ousts the unambiguous I. Each pronoun serves as a provisional stepping stone for an obliterated subject.
The poem streaks by, like a “bad comet” or a vehicle with uneven wheels, spurred on by a “dream.” It streaks by without fulfilling its meaning, depriving us, in the end, of a satisfactory explanation. The poem, and the poet along with it, slips away, taking refuge in darkness.
The Tour de Force
The Ashbery poem is a succession of states, of atmospheres. Its course is established between vigorous blows, a flapping of wings, a “rowing towards you,” metaphors of diverse actions, isotopes that, overlapping, stay open a crack to let in the light. The act of maintaining that valve open entails a tour de force.
The muted background of sounds and repetitions, the insistences and pauses, the acceleration or elongation, speculate about a region of darkness. But the poem follows a blazing trail of light, always at a speed that renders its effort pathetic; it inhabits and homes in on the “back of the mind,” remaining there for a few moments.
This isn’t to say that the Ashbery poem is abstract. On the contrary, it consists of a set of verbal performances and panoramas for the spectator to behold. Although the meaning of the moment is stolen, the process is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” While it does indeed have fury and sound, it also contains a plethora of successive and accumulated partial meanings, always susceptible to suspended revisions, never complete.
Each phrase leads, through resemblance or conjecture, to a referent, to a state of things that in itself remains misunderstood. Each picture is inaccurate but not in the sense of any lack of artistry. It is precisely due to this artistry that the picture’s incompleteness can be exposed.
Somebody notes, scribbles down, and concludes each occurrence without achieving a distinct result, passing through it, carrying it out, as if crossing the street. The intentions are equivocal, availability is all that matters.
To “sing” is all that is left, all that can be done to precariously bore through the “back of the mind,” but it isn’t enough. It makes us neither transparent nor immortal. The poem is an occasional lookout tower, from which the imminent surrender of the self can be glimpsed.
The poet dreams while waking, through “a sail of some afternoon,” drifting between islands on a houseboat; he disembarks on one of them, holding onto the lines’ texture to avoid being crushed too soon against the shoal.
But in the end, words carry an “evil burden” that destroys anyone who utters them. Posterity or “stellification” is “for the few,” and consists, in any case, of a misunderstanding: readers believe they recognize an experience unrelated to that which led to the poem’s writing. It is a different experience, responding to different circumstances unique to the reader. The poem seduces precisely because of its lack of transparency.
The Messenger, the Message
Someone moves incessantly to remain in the same place, in life, in the backyard, at the back of the mind. The mind has two spaces and two doors, a house and a backyard, a front door and a back door. The furnishings in the house are conventional, the front door opens to guests, but the garden is rough, formless, a specter of fragrances and semi-deserted stillness.
From a daily privation, from an absence, from a “slamming door,” sounds a murmur that was always there but which before was impossible to hear. Otherness, the Other, a message, a self-sufficient messenger who is the message, a courier, an Indian runner, an angel is near, growing because no one takes possession of him, nor should they do so. That phrase, that angel-message, is “a breeze that’s pointed from beyond the tomb,” the speech of the dead, which is resurrected with them. It momentarily occupies a cave, a crypt—or the backyard—profaned by its conjectures. That phrase is the only way to achieve a half-presence; it participates ironically in the flirtation, invokes and maintains the Other, or otherness, at arm’s length, in a foreign skin. It seduces because it is beyond reach.
Some things, gestures, reveal themselves, but against an undefined aura or horizon; from the curve of a lens, a visible half, a hyperbola, is projected onto the still unseen other half, a complete vision of which is never attained. The backyard is an atmosphere, an available experience, a yet imprecise idea.
The poem is not ahistorical; it becomes a history as it is written, in that very moment. It therefore lacks the exemplary nature of a completed cycle, nor does it merely repeat the repertoire of formulas catalogued by an antiquarian, nor is it only critical of that history. It demonstrates a historical enthusiasm. It is a flow chart, a measure of the tide.
One should gain access through “hunches” to a position that is nevertheless impregnable, which cannot be conquered at a glance. It is necessary to focus on every minor detail because each one is eloquent, not for what it is but for what it implies. It betrays the circumstances of a feeling, neither foreign nor intimate, that can be glimpsed. The poem culminates neither in positive knowledge nor in any kind of moral. It is playful and rejects hierarches; anything can be worthy of consideration. It trains its attention on each detail through which feeling passes.
Ezra Pound identified three “kinds of poetry,” three ways in which poetry can be pushed beyond its meaning: 1) melopoeia, the charging of the words with musical, rhythmic, phonetic qualities; 2) phanopoeia, the use of visual images; 3) logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words,” the play of the mind upon all facets of verbal expression. Of course, all three of these aspects may be present in the same poem. The role and relevance of each is a question of emphasis, of stylistic inflection. Unlike Brazilian concrete poetry, for instance, Ashbery’s poetry is not essentially based on melopoeia. Unlike that of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, Ashbery’s poetry does not rely on image, even though it traverses many landscapes. His is a syntactic poetry, anti-logocentric in the sense that it regards its verbal materials—the figures and tropes that make up the poem as a whole—with irony.
For Pound, the work of Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue is a notable example of logopoeia. Perhaps something similar can be said of the painter Giorgio de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros (which Ashbery translated from the Italian), or of Wallace Stevens’ long poems. It seems to me that this is the tradition in which the poetry of John Ashbery is inscribed.
Ashbery writes, “the object of all this meditation will not/ Infrequently turn out to be a mere footnote to the great chain / That manages only with difficulty to connect earth and sky.” Poetry thus becomes “notes towards a supreme fiction” (in accordance with Stevens’ title) that “with difficulty” brings together the dimensions of “earth” and “sky.” The poem does not connect things already there, like the banks of a river. Edges emerge as edges only in the confluence effected “with difficulty” by the poem; dimensions that exist only when united, when brought into play through a precarious feat. The poem does not symbolize things that exist previously, that are not the poem itself. The poem is a thing, an allegorical artifact, the tunnel through which an occurrence passes.
One dimension, the sky, falls upon a deserted garden, and all that reveals itself in that space (also called “the back of the mind”), all that corresponds to the earth, acquires a hallucinatory being, of true and clear-eyed affect. The poet and the reader no longer seek in reality the illusion of love with which desire deceives them. The poem is the place where the real acquires the full range of its possible dimensions, even though their meeting is neither a known totality nor a final result nor a lasting object but rather a precarious alliance.
The poem makes use of its syntax while also questioning it. The subject is represented by alternative pronouns that transgress the rules of gender, number, and identity; the verbs, predicates, subordinates, and adverbial locutions function as pawns and tokens that displace and are displaced by the poem. Not even principles such as the logic of non-contradiction reign supreme. The poem’s being is autonomous though not independent from these principles, and it makes use of them for as long as they are of use, but its “thought” moves beyond contradiction through paradox or “conceit.” Ashbery considered giving his book Shadow Train the title “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.”
The poem recognizes no obstacle in itself; it is an excess, but it should, in its irony, recognize a pre-existing if unknown limit. At some point, the poem will pause, triumphant though defeated by fatigue; what matters is the road traveled, the precarious meeting between “earth” and “sky,” the space opened up, the occurrence identified by the poem, rather than the end product itself.
The human embryo has a special status because of its potential for development to a stage at which everyone would accord it the status of a human person.
—The Warnock Committee (U.K.), Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1984
Children born by artificial insemination will also be problematic, for their lives have developed as a result of the destruction of numerous embryos.
—Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia, Christmas Epistle, January 2014
Listen to Teona Dolenjashvili read "Meskhi vs. Meskhi" in the original Georgian
Marika dreamed the dream only a few times, but it always seemed to coincide with the most important periods of her life, and eventually it became for her a special sign, an intermezzo punctuating her existence. She would only become aware of this much later, however—after the first time, all she is left with are a few dreamlike images and a strange mood that follows her around for a few weeks, hanging in the air like a child’s swing rocking back and forth between sleep and the reality of the day.
The first time Marika has the dream, she is married and full of renewed hope. She is sitting beside Irakli in the car, and they are making their way hurriedly toward Mtskheta. It is a few days before Christmas, and Saint Gabriel has appeared in a dream to an elderly nun called Mother Paraskeva, promising that anyone who visits his grave before Christmas will be granted three wishes. And so, one more story begins with a dream. In this case, though, not exactly a dream, but a vision; a vision that has sent almost the entire country on a frenzied dash to Mtskheta, with the result that the narrow road from Tbilisi to the ancient royal capital is now clogged with a long line of cars filled with worshippers and dreamers.
Irakli and Marika, in their black Land Cruiser Prado, are part of the caravan. It’s been eight years since they started trying for a baby, and they have taken the nun’s dream as a sign that the Pool of Siloam has received its yearly visit from an angel of God. It is said that when the angel comes down and disturbs the waters in the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, those who bathe in it will be blessed with fertility.
They were among the first to leave Tbilisi, but it’s now the fourth day since their exodus from the city began, and they are still on the outskirts of Mtskheta. What’s more, nobody seems to know how many more days they will be stuck there. They crawl along the road at tortoise speed, buying food from roadside restaurants, wiping down their bodies with dampened handkerchiefs, and changing their clothes in the back seats of the car. An unending line of jeeps and sedans stretches out before and behind them. The wind is bitingly cold, and it occurs to Marika that they are like characters in Cortazar’s story “The Southern Thruway.”
When night falls, the curious dream comes to her. In the dream, she exists in another space and time. She sees a long, desolate road, illuminated by moonlight yet unfamiliar to her. A group of lepers and invalids is walking along the road, swathed in black cloaks. She realizes she is one of them: a beggar close to death. The dream is eerily silent, as if the sound blasting out from an ultrasensitive Dolby speaker system in a movie theater had suddenly been cut off. The wretched battalion plods slowly onward, heads bowed. All Marika can see are the soles of the feet of those walking directly in front of her. At the end of the road stands a cattle shed. She hears a disembodied voice shouting an order to enter, and she steps inside with the others. In the cattle barn there is a manger, and in the manger lies Christ the healer. He has the soft, gentle face of a child, and with a smile, he lays his hands on the head of each of them in turn, curing them of their ills.
When she opens her eyes, the highway really is illuminated by the light of the moon, although the silence is broken by the whistling of the cold December wind and the sirens of police cars on patrol. Marika’s neck hurts from sleeping awkwardly in the car. Images from the dream linger, preventing her from making a complete return to reality. For a moment or two, she stares vacantly at the line of cars packing the narrow moonlit road ahead of her. Then she shakes Irakli awake and tells him about her dream. She tells him she has seen Jesus. She tells him she’s sure it’s a sign that if only they can reach Saint Gabriel’s grave, they will for certain be blessed with a child. Irakli, exhausted from lack of sleep, nods his head, turns over, and mutters something unintelligible. He has never looked less like a potential father.
Marika doesn’t have to wait long for the first part of her premonition to come true. The very same day, Irakli spots an old classmate of his, Father Vasili (or Vaska, as he was known before his ordination). Vaska has a set of keys to the locked cemetery, and he opens it up and lets them sneak inside in the middle of the night. Unlike everyone else, Marika has the grave to herself for the entire night. She is completely alone. She feels special. She lies down on the grave, flat on her stomach, plants her face in the soil, and listens to her heart—or maybe it is Saint Gabriel’s heart—beating through the warm earth. It’s cold. Freezing cold. The big silver moon shines down on her head. There is magic in the night air, and Marika thinks she feels—no, she knows she feels—Saint Gabriel’s immaculate hand rising up from the grave and stroking her frozen fingers.
A long time passed after the night Saint Gabriel held Marika’s cold fingers, weakened body, and wavering soul in his hand, but the second part of her premonition never did come true. And the reason for that, in Marika’s opinion, was Irakli’s lack of patience, or more accurately, his lack of faith. Their long-awaited child had yet to make its appearance on Earth, and now no one knew if it ever would. After their divorce, Marika and Irakli were left with an embryo they had had fertilized in vitro and preserved in a test tube. It was the mother’s fervent wish that this embryo would one day become a living being; the father’s that it would never see the light of day. The decision was to be made by the court.
Marika opens the curtains to reveal a panorama of the city, long since wide awake. The uneven mass of apartment blocks, all with different numbers of floors, the original lie of the land underneath, and the old quarter, spread out like an amphitheater around the Tbilisi Basin, give the city a muddled appearance, as if it had lost its way at some point in the flow of time. It is a bright, warm September afternoon. Some of the city’s residents have yet to return from their vacations, while others are still being carried along by the light, carefree buoyancy of the summer just gone.
Someone on the floor above is trying to make her way to the end of Bach’s concert variations for piano. Marika’s neighbor, whom she has never actually set eyes on, gives private piano lessons to pupils from the music school from around one in the afternoon, and this is the time when Marika starts her day. Unskilled hands crashing down on piano keys and classical pieces full of mistakes have become her alarm clock, and they work every time. She opens her eyes, sits up, pulls up her knees until her feet are flat on the divan, and stares at the walls of the room absentmindedly, reluctant to leave the other world. The walls are white and completely bare except for a single photograph of Marika standing on a veranda, her elbows resting on a wooden railing. She’s wearing a short, flowery dress, her hair is down, and she’s laughing. High mountains form the landscape behind her. The shot has been set up so that her full body is visible against the backdrop. She isn’t shaded by the background, and you can even see the tops of the mountains. In short, it’s a successful photo,s all the more so since it was taken by Irakli rather than a professional photographer. Irakli is on the other side of the lens, the invisible string puller. If he hadn’t been there, the photo wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be hanging there on the wall, and Marika would probably be a completely different person than the one she has turned out to be. This snapshot of Marika’s past, and Marika herself in that space and time, smiling and happy, are Irakli’s creations.
The photo is also an accurate representation of Marika’s current state, for Irakli, the creator of her past, continues to govern her everyday life behind the scenes. The spot on the wall where the photo hangs is constantly in Marika’s line of sight, and every single time she catches a glimpse of it, she feels a twinge in her heart. It’s like a kind of self-consciousness, a constant awareness of something heavy and immutable, as if someone were whispering, “He left you, remember?” and “Don’t forget how unhappy you are!” over and over in her ear as a sort of personal memento mori.
“I’m so unhappy,” thinks Marika as she walks into the kitchen and puts the kettle on the stove. She pours some coffee into a cup, takes some cheese out of the refrigerator, and chews indifferently on a croissant she has warmed up in the oven. Her cat jumps onto the table out of nowhere and peers into the fridge.
After she separated from Irakli, Marika went out and bought herself an American Keuda kitten, and because the kitten immediately reminded her of Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, Bastet is what she called her.
Irakli hated pets. He thought they made their owners look like those childless couples who, resigned to their fate, substitute an animal for a human child and expend all the parental warmth they’ve stored up over the years on some primitive creature with pointy ears instead. Poor Bastet ended up on the receiving end of not only Marika’s stored-up tenderness, but also the whole drama of the divorce and its aftermath. It was Bastet who looked on with sympathetic eyes as her new owner sobbed for hours and Bastet who purred soothingly while licking away Marika’s hot tears from her wet fur.
The musical theme coming from the floor above has changed, and the melancholy Chopin melody being played now is like a river of viscous bile that quenches fiery passions and washes them downstream, soothing troubled hearts as it flows along by coating them in sticky resin. And yet the thought that occurs to Marika as she stands under the shower, namely that sooner or later all this will pass and become meaningless, brings her sadness rather than relief. How depressing it is that in the final game of love even hatred dies, leaving the players numbed, with nothing left to do but doze away the days in a soft, indistinct fog of unhappiness. And that’s when the forgetting begins. But Marika doesn’t want to forget. She doesn’t want to relegate Irakli to the past and wait for someone new. How could she ever be with someone else, someone strange and unfamiliar, when for as long as she can remember she has been with Irakli? When she has sacrificed so many years to her love for him. When their child already exists, fertilized in a test tube and frozen indefinitely at the preembryonic stage, a zygotic string of genetic code, in which sex, eye color, skin tone, hair color, facial structure, body shape, susceptibility to disease and even temperament are already set in stone. A tiny microchip storing a wealth of information. A life that came into being with Irakli’s participation and is now duty-bound to be born to save his and Marika’s love from being forgotten and vanishing without trace.
As Marika dries herself, she looks at the brightly colored decoration on the bathroom wall, carefully arranged to imitate the aesthetic of a Klimt painting. She and Irakli chose the decor together in a pretentious interior design shop where everything was supposedly laid out on the principle of coexistence between everyday life and art. The shop owner was dressed up like the curator of a gallery, and the salesgirl chatted as if she were a lecturer in the faculty of art history at some famous academy. In an obvious attempt to attract the nouveau riche, the product manufacturers had selected only the most famous works of art, the culmination of which was perhaps a toilet bowl decorated with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. That was the moment when Marika finally understood the true meaning of the slogan “Art for the Masses”: the freedom to make feces look refined by painting toilet bowls beautiful colors. After all, what could be more human than art that prettifies the banal process of defecation?
Irakli didn’t like the toilets. He didn’t think much of the bathtubs adorned with Chagall’s flying lovers either, and he barely glanced at the Picasso-style cubist mirrors and window glazing. The only thing he wanted was Klimt: still colorful, but not quite as brash as everything else, and much more suitable for everyday use. It was without doubt the most sensible choice.
A tune with a quick tempo is being played on the piano now. Marika doesn’t know who the composer is. It might even be an etude. The performer loses the rhythm, stops the melody somewhere in the middle, and goes back to the start. Another wrong note is followed by a short pause and then a renewed attempt at creating harmony.
Bastet has licked her plate clean and is sitting on the windowsill. The sound of the clock ticking in the living room reminds Marika that she is due to meet her lawyer in an hour. She pulls out a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt—practically the first things she lays her hands on—from her wardrobe, laces up her white canvas shoes, combs her tangled hair, and stares in the mirror at her face, with its baleful eyes and sunken cheeks, as if it belonged to someone else. Her clothes make her look like a little girl, but appearances can be deceiving, for her body has already started to decay and die. As if it weren’t bad enough that her womb is incapable of carrying an embryo to term, her cells are now gradually producing less and less estrogen. She’s already thirty-eight years old. Menopause may still be relatively far off, but her reproductive years are nearly over. She has four or five left if she’s lucky. Falling in love again (if such a thing is even possible) takes much longer than that.
Irakli is sitting in the foyer of the fertility clinic and writing a petition.
Petition by citizen Irakli Meskhi . . .
Lying on the table in front of him is a pile of application forms that people fill in to request the assistance of the clinic in passing on their genes to the next generation. He filled in one of those forms a while ago, but now he wants the clinic to disregard his previous request and put a stop to the whole process.
In front of him are a sheet of paper and a cardboard cup full of coffee. Behind him stands a row of giant fridges filled with frozen prezygotic embryos in test tubes. Human lives, some destined for birth, some not. Irakli thinks it’s a bit similar to being in a morgue full of dead bodies. Some destined for heaven, some not.
It’s utterly banal and utterly absurd at the same time. Humans are primates lost in an anthropological maze, who have been given an impenetrable genetic jungle to find their way through in place of the right to determine their own desires. A couple of hours in this large-scale industrial womb is more than enough to convince Irakli of that. Take this lesbian couple here, for instance, who have just walked in together with their surrogate: if their attempt at in vivo fertilization ends in success, three women, one man, and a test tube will have played roles in the creation of the child born in nine months’ time. And what about this widow here, face racked with grief, deliberating with the doctors on a preferred date for the birth of a zygote she has created using one of her eggs and her dead husband’s sperm and entrusted to the care of the laboratory to be stored in liquid nitrogen and frozen to minus one hundred and ninety-six degrees? If that zygote turns into a baby, it will have been created with assistance from the next world, no less.
Irakli feels sick. He wants to get out of this place as fast as he can and forget it even exists. Come to think of it, how the hell did he end up here in the first place? What on earth was he thinking, giving in to Marika’s nagging and willingly handing over his blood, sperm, and genes to this madhouse? He’s already convinced any child born by this method could never turn out normal. It would lack an eternal soul, like a creature created by a different god. Instead, it would have a plastic heart, and the ice-cold stare of a glass-eyed doll.
I hereby request that the embryo created through in vitro fertilization by myself, Irakli Meskhi, and my former spouse, Marika Meskhi, on June 30 of last year be removed from cryopreservation and . . .
He signs his petition and waits for the doctor. He still has a few questions. For example: has a surrogate already been appointed? If he wins the court case, how long will it take for the verdict to be put into effect? Will all the embryos be destroyed without exception, leaving no chance for the plaintiff to come up with some ruse and use his sperm to produce a child somehow or other somewhere down the line?
Irakli already has a real child. It is in Tatia’s belly, and more and more often these days, Irakli can feel it kicking as it pushes against the walls of its mother’s womb, saying hello to its daddy. It’s a miracle he has waited a long time for. It is his legacy—confirmation that he will live forever.
“There’s nothing more important in life than the desire for self-preservation,” thinks Irakli. “That’s what makes people fall in love with each other—the need to produce descendants. If not that, then what else?” Irakli recalls Schopenhauer and his Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes, and how it’s all just pure egoism—the meditation of the genius of the species on the individual who is made possible only through this man and this woman.
Anyway, Schopenhauer put it much better himself . . .
There is something quite peculiar in the profound unconscious seriousness with which two young persons of opposite sex who see each other for the first time regard each other, in the searching and penetrating glance they cast at one another, in the careful review which all the features and parts of their respective persons have to endure. In the meeting and fixing of their longing glances there appears the first germ of the new being, the individual striving with the greatest vehemence to enter the phenomenal world.
That’s exactly how it was for Irakli too: a meeting and fixing of longing glances on that beautiful evening when he first met Tatia. He remembers every detail of that day: it was August, Gega’s birthday. He was on his own, without Marika. Tatia arrived with her girlfriends. She sat on the other side of the table, directly opposite him. She smiled at him, running her fingers through her hair. She was perfect for him: ten years his junior, large breasts, smooth skin, healthy-looking white teeth, healthy-looking all over, in fact.
“A Gurian pear so ripe it would burst on a rock,” Irakli thought, remembering the line from Lebanidze’s poem as he led Tatia to dance and touched the soft flesh of her waist for the first time. A pair of wide, rounded hips curved out below her waist, and her golden hair (dyed, but so what?) tumbled down over her shoulders. She was a real goddess of fertility, and sure enough, in the glances they exchanged appeared the first germ of a new being, an individual possible only through this man and this woman.
Their relationship progressed easily. Marika didn’t suspect a thing. Irakli messaged Tatia whenever he felt like it. They spoke on the phone, went to the cinema, and spent evenings together. Every time Irakli laid eyes on her, his whole body tensed as the age-old alchemy set to work and large doses of endorphin and cortisol flooded his brain, rendering him momentarily speechless and thoughtless. Which was all as it should have been, of course, for what was growing between them was precisely that yearning for each other—that magnetic attraction—that was required by the future individual they were destined to create.
Had it been like that with Marika too? Irakli can’t even remember anymore. When they got married, they were practically kids. It all happened according to ritual: getting to know each other, meeting the parents, meeting the wider family, getting engaged, the wedding day, decorating the apartment, buying a car, visiting friends, days and nights, nights and days, one blending into the next. And no child. No new life, nothing to disturb the quiet and not much else to enliven their stagnant routine. He was comfortable with Marika, but he found her boring—she would never throw even a single pebble into the tranquil waters of their everyday life to break the surface, speed up the flow, and just occasionally generate a little turbulence in the mundane course of their existence. Tatia, on the other hand, was playful, restless, lively, emotional—cheerful half the time and sullen the other half. Her mood rose and fell like her chest when she was agitated and changed as quickly as the weather in March. Cloudy, stormy conditions would make him scared he was going to lose her, but that would only drive her into an even greater rage. Sunny days would inflame new passions in him, making him feel dizzy and drunk. When he was with Tatia, it was impossible to forecast what was going to happen. Nothing was clear. Nothing was obvious.
In bed, meanwhile, she was passionate, hot, wet, and lustful.
It wasn’t long before they found themselves in bed, although to Irakli it felt like an age between that evening in August when he had first caught glimpses of her suntanned body and the September night when he was finally allowed to view it in its entirety and put it to the test, taking her breasts between his hands and making her moan in several keys. He told Marika he was going drinking with the guys that night, and he was telling the truth, but Tatia and her girlfriends were there in the club too. They drank and danced, danced and drank, and Irakli felt like his entire body was about to explode, so intense was his desire for this woman. As he watched Tatia dance, he started to suspect all the other guys of wanting her as much as he did, so they left the club early. He walked her to her apartment block and then walked her upstairs to her door, and then she just happened to mention that there was no one else home.
They went in. Tatia poured glasses of wine. Irakli kissed her. Then he took off her bra, revealing her spectacular naked body. Irakli had lived with Marika for so many years he had no idea when she had last had an orgasm, or if she’d ever had one at all, for that matter. With Tatia, everything was different: her orgasms were as resonant as a nuclear explosion, as prolonged as the rainy season in Macondo, and as recurrent as the lives of a calico cat.
Marika had still been intact, but not Tatia. Irakli would never have countenanced falling in a love with a woman who was no longer a virgin, but Tatia told him it had broken during a minor surgical procedure she’d undergone as a teenager and explained that her mother had witnessed the whole thing and obtained written confirmation from the doctor. Irakli still had his doubts—he wasn’t stupid—but it’s much easier to believe what you want to believe than to betray your own principles or change long-held opinions.
Irakli looked over the written confirmation before they were married. It had been issued by a clinic in the provincial town where Tatia was born and grew up. Irakli could have gone to look for the clinic, if indeed it did exist, and even the doctor himself, despite the illegible signature on the certificate, but he wasn’t the type of man to stoop to such underhandedness. And besides, if Tatia had really wanted to deceive Irakli, she could simply have had her hymen sewn back up, but Tatia wasn’t the type of woman to stoop to such underhandedness either.
And so he was her first. He was the sculptor, the creator of her femininity and her sexuality, and under his direction, her body blossomed, opened up, and prepared itself for motherhood. It was only a few months later when she uttered those two magic words to him: “I’m pregnant.”
Tatia said the words as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. More precisely, she called them out from the toilet as she looked down at the strip included in the test kit and saw the two red lines confirming her pregnancy. When Irakli had still been with Marika, she had always been going on about how she thought she might be pregnant, and they would often go out to buy a pregnancy test and then sit together, waiting with their hearts in their mouths for the result, but the appearance of those two red lines was a miracle was never bestowed on them. Tatia, on the other hand, didn’t say anything about her suspicions, or when she’d bought the kit, or how she knew what to do with it . . . And then she announced the result as if it were nothing special, so nonchalantly that at first Irakli couldn’t believe that this great event—for which two mortals, Cupid, and all the gods in the universe had put in so much effort—had actually come to pass.
He was the happiest man in the world. He finally understood what it meant to be in seventh heaven. He wanted to let the entire world know that he was going to be a father, that soon his child would be born, his own child, with his genes and his surname and his facial features.
He left Marika as soon as he found out. It wasn’t easy—there were tears, fainting spells, histrionics . . . It was tough for him to get through those days, but he would have endured anything to have his pregnant Tatia by his side.
He and Marika divided up their assets fifty-fifty. He left the big apartment to Marika, and because the idea of a holiday home was especially attractive to a couple expecting a child, he kept the dacha for himself, along with a smaller apartment they also owned. The only thing they couldn’t sort out was the embryo they had created together. It never occurred to Irakli even for a moment that the procedure he had undergone for Marika’s sake—and to finally put an end to her constant whining—was also a future life, not just a mixture of sperm and eggs to be forgotten about whenever he felt like it.
On this issue, though, Marika was cold and insistent: she refused point blank to have the embryo defrosted. Nothing worked, neither entreaties nor threats. His attempt to pay her off also ended in failure. By nature, Marika had always been gentle and submissive, but now she turned into a real demon, replete with tail and horns. Irakli came to hate Marika and their shared past. He didn’t want to have to worry about whether a child of his was being brought up right under his nose, in the same city, and in the end, feeling he had no other choice, he decided to take the matter to court.
And now here he is, writing a second petition, this time to prohibit implantation of the embryo in the womb of a surrogate mother. He is in the camp that does not regard an embryo as a life. And anyway, it’s not even a proper embryo yet; until it sprouts hands and feet and sparks into life, it will remain nothing but a simple ruse, just one more experiment in a modern-day anthropological laboratory.
It’s getting dark now, but it’s still hot. There is no breeze to rustle the leaves on the poplars and spruces in the garden of the clinic. Irakli raises his head and looks out through the window. Beams of light from the lamps in the garden shine on the panes of glass, flickering on and off like fireflies, like unknown souls of the future on tracks of DNA. Soon the doctor will come back and take his petition from him. Irakli hopes they will accept this petition as quickly as they did the first one, so that he can be forever free of this place and the nightmares created here.
Marika is sitting in a café with two friends after meeting with her lawyer. Of her two girlfriends, one is married with kids, the other in love and happy, but they have arranged their faces into sad expressions in sympathy with Marika’s plight. She needs her friends now more than ever. Over dinner, they analyzed in excruciating detail the multifarious dimensions of Irakli’s contemptibility and Tatia’s sluttiness, but Marika isn’t interested in that. She doesn’t feel the need to insult and vilify her ex-husband and his new wife, and that wouldn’t bring her any comfort. All she wants is to secure her future, and for that, the support she needs from her friends right now is of the intellectual kind. She tells them all about her meeting with her lawyer and asks them how they think she should act in the courtroom, what she should say and what she shouldn’t say, but her girlfriends don’t really know how to reply. The only thing they know how to do is talk. They talk constantly, endlessly, and yet they never say the words Marika needs to hear.
“The most important thing to think about is what to do with the surrogate,” says Marika. “As well as the fee for the pregnancy itself, I’ll have to support her financially. She’ll need high-quality nutrition. Medical care. There’s no way I can do it on my salary, so I’m thinking I’m either going to sell the apartment and buy a smaller one or move in with my mom and rent the apartment out. That way, my mom can help with the baby, too.”
“Are you crazy? Don’t sell your apartment! You don’t really want to move in with your mom, do you?” asks Natalia, lighting a cigarette.
“I don’t know . . .”
“Yes you do. You know it would drive you nuts. And how would it help? Your brother’s there all the time with his wife and kids. I don’t think they’ll be very pleased to hear you’re moving back in.”
“And on top of everything else, you’ll have the surrogate with you! There’s no way Lasha will stand for that. He must have been furious when he heard about the whole thing.”
“Yeah, well, my brother has never understood me. Even less so now . . .”
“And does this surrogate woman really have to live with you?”
“It depends on the terms of the contract.”
“Anyway, surrogacy is completely weird,” says Sopo irritably. “How could you carry someone else’s child in your own stomach?”
“I know!” shouts Natalia in agreement. “How could you carry a child for nine months and then just hand it over, like a business transaction?”
“I’m sure it’s not easy, but it’s a very noble thing to do,” says Marika, trying to defend surrogacy. “It’s like taking someone else’s child into your home and giving them shelter. Looking after them and feeding them.”
“But they must start having maternal feeling toward the child at some point, though. After all, it’s living inside them.”
“The surrogate is just the vessel. Nothing more.”
“Oh, come on, Marika,” says Sopo, unable to conceal her exasperation. “I’ve been through pregnancy and I know all about it. You’re not just a ‘vessel.’ The child lives inside you. You are one and the same body. The surrogate’s genes might even get mixed up with the child’s. You better make sure you find out who she is and where she comes from.”
“Genetics has got nothing to do with it. All that happens is the embryo develops and grows in the woman’s womb until it’s ready to be born.”
“Why don’t you have another try yourself? One or two failures don’t mean anything. I know women who kept on going even after five or ten rounds, and eventually one of the embryos stuck.”
“The doctor said there’s no chance,” says Marika sadly.
The girls fall silent. And in the silence, they switch allegiance from Marika to Irakli. Compassion for Marika can still be heard through the silence, but only compassion, nothing more. Natalia and Sopo, like everyone else in the entire world, it seems, are supporters of “correct, decent, and natural” methods, and not the perversion of the natural order that Marika desires.
Messages arrive on phones, one from Sopo’s babysitter and one from Natalia’s boyfriend, and the girls excuse themselves, leaving Marika alone. She orders a coffee and observes a group of elderly ladies sitting at the table in front of her. It looks like the usual type of get-together. They probably started with a stroll in the park, and now they’ve come to the cafe for ice cream and cakes. They clear their plates wordlessly, gobbling down their cream cakes bite by bite and swallowing their soft, white ice creams with silver spoons. They jealously guard their desserts like children, prolonging these rare moments of pleasure with hedonistic zeal. Even if nothing is yet seriously wrong with them, they are old enough to be troubled by insomnia, colitis, weakness of the joints, and high blood pressure, at the very least. As compensation, they receive a tiny pension, comprehensive health insurance, and the false compassion of their younger fellow citizens . . . But what does it matter, anyway? In this country, being young and getting old are as miserable as each other—the only difference between them is the order they come in. First your parents care for you, then you care for them, and to make sure you don’t break the chain, to keep the cycle going, you must have a child. A child whom you will raise and who will be obliged in turn to repay the debt it owes you.
Marika recalls her most recent conversation with her mother. After that conversation, Marika realized her mother was ashamed of her. She didn’t reproach Marika, but Marika could tell she was hurt that things have turned out this way; that her daughter will not be able to repay her debt and complete the mission for which she was born.
“That’s the whole point of being a woman, isn’t it?” she asked, sounding almost heartbroken. “Why did it have to happen to you?”
They were sitting in the kitchen. Marika was drinking tea while her mother prepared dinner. A pie her mother had just baked was resting on a large, oval plate, still warm, filling the air with the scent of apples and cinnamon. Her mother’s sorrow—her lamentations to God and fate for making her daughter the weak link in a previously unbreakable genealogical chain, a defective link that has been poorly forged, a girl molded with too little fire and steel—was as much a part of her love for her child as the pie.
They really did have an impressively strong genealogical chain, which was not only made up of vague, dust-covered memories of ancestors’ names, half-remembered by Marika’s parents at random intervals, but also concrete visual proof that Marika had seen with her own eyes. In her grandfather’s large house, on a wall in a reception room on the second floor, was a drawing of her family tree, with numerous branches, boughs and twigs climbing all the way up to the nineteenth century. As a child, Marika would sit for hours under the tree, flitting through the shadows of the past . . .
She reads that Nikoloz had two children: Mikheil and Natalia; and Mikheil three: Margalita, Markoz, and Davit. Markoz became a monk, so his branch is short, but Davit produced five descendants, two girls and three boys. Of the patrimonial lines belonging to the three boys, Mikheil, Konstantine (that must be the Kostya she has heard so much about!), and Andria, only Kostya’s and Andria’s offspring are listed, the reason being that Mikheil’s wife Elizabed only gave birth to girls. Marika’s fingers wander between the branches to the start of the twentieth century. Plague, typhoid, famine, child mortality . . . Many of the branches on this part of the tree are leafless and bare. Marika tries hard not to overcomplicate things and lose track of her own direct line, and before long she finds her great-grandmother Agrapina, who bore her great-grandfather seven children. This must have been around the time of the Great Terror in 1937, for here the tree becomes noticeably thinner and the names of those who were exiled or shot have been written in faint pencil marks, although some unknown surviving family member has come along later and filled in the names thickly with a pen. Then it’s the Second World War, and here too, many branches have been chopped off midway. Lower down, some of the names are people Marika remembers. At last, the line reaches Marika’s own little life, and at this point, Marika, stupefied after coming all the way through this enormous genetic mystery in which she is so intimately involved, starts again from herself and works her way back up. Now she gives the names faces, clothes, voices and mannerisms. She imagines their lives, loves, and deaths, creating individual stories for each of them. It feels like resurrecting the souls of the dead, calling them up from their long-since-sealed coffins. And here they come! Some are skeletons, some have turned to dust, and some have no form at all, but still they come, each of them whispering the names of their children.
It is no surprise that among the multitudes of whisperers in this mass séance, Marika hears only male voices, for this is a patrilineal family tree on which daughters are listed only by their first names. It’s as if they never even existed, as if they were worthy of note only until they were baptized, and the moment that was over, they were hidden away with their chastity and purity, the barely audible swish of their long skirts and the veils covering their faces, and left to be forgotten. In this country, only men continue the family line. Only they have the right to bring forth new people and new eras.
Perhaps that was why later, after Marika had grown up, she began to think the gigantic patrimonial family tree resembled a giant phallus, a towering, erect phallus, hard as an oak, that has impregnated two centuries’ worth of women. The primary creative force, whose spermatozoa, shooting out by the billion, dropping like the leaves of the tree and scattering over the ground, have sired an entire family, an entire clan, the whole of mankind.
“And why you?” asks Marika’s mother repeatedly, sounding almost heartbroken as she sorts through a bowl of raw peas. Marika understands why her mother is so sad. A defective, faulty child reflects equally as badly on the mother, after all. It was probably a problem with her mother’s genes and chromosomes that caused the whole thing in the first place. Even so, she wishes she would shut up. Doesn’t she realize it’s just like those peas she’s sorting through? Most of them have smooth skins, but some have a dominant gene that has made them wrinkly and ugly. And yet her mother won’t shut up.
“Salome’s expecting her third. The Patriarch is going to be the godfather, but they’re in a hurry because he’s not well,” she says, pouring the peas into a pan of boiling water.
Who’s not well?” asks Marika, confused.
“The Patriarch. He baptizes all third-born children, didn’t you know? They really want to make it in time so they can have a child baptized by the Patriarch too.”
“What do you mean, make it in time? They’re worried he’s going to die before he baptizes their kid?”
“What’s Jesus Christ got to do with it?” Now it’s her mother’s turn to be confused.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Marika says quietly and then falls silent. She doesn’t bother pointing out that her mother’s tale has far less to do with the love of Christ than egocentric crowd-following. Her mother continues talking, mostly in half-muttered tones, and Marika can’t really blame her. Pregnant women and newborn babies are tantalizing topics for her, and she loves talking about them more than anything else. An endless stream of words pours out of her mouth, but all the while there are only two words written on her face.
Georgian poet Lela Samniashvili on the "fatal defect" of time, and the past in the present
Listen to poet Lela Samniashvili read "A Run in My Stocking" in the original Georgian
If I leave, you will always be tortured with the feeling
of guilt that you could not leave me.
But from where I look at it,
“always” seems so short, just like the past,
or the future. The future—
What do we know about it? There are precisely as many types of futures
as we want and even more that we may still wish to be.
It is heartfelt, this marvelous silliness
which smokes like the candle on this low table
in the manner of an alien idea of heaven.
What is in store for us if everything continues anyway?
Imagine the time lapse footage accelerating
a bud newly opening, the fading of its petals,
a chick fledging, opening its wings, falling to the ground,
losing feathers, its demise secluded
without a sound
its skeletal breastbone, barely visible beneath the grass
generations of ants crawling all over it
but now see the other shots too, this time in slow motion:
a child crying, the celebration of its birth,
how the hand of a doctor cuts the cord
then it is my aunt—on a business trip to Europe
with all her cheerful superstitions—
who leaves part of that cord in the Sorbonne.
A child—in an apron. A porridge stain.
A child—with a pacifier in its mouth.
A child—with a book, a child revising its verses,
and the mother whose lips silently follow the words of these verses,
words that move with her. Her face
beaming with happiness. Then the child grows.
She moves from one year to another. She swallows facts and events
like pills as the years go by.
Then she stands at a crossroad.
The distance to the horizon lengthens. Her breasts form.
Soon a baby will grow inside her
the fruit of love or passion.
Then you can speed everything up:
Now there are two old people, arm in arm, walking in a garden.
It is a short scene as they say good-bye. The flowers are fading.
Time actually resembles a run in your stocking.
Try, imagine the first creation of God—
the beginning of the universe—a singularity. Unfractured.
Containing within itself numerous shapes
of fragmentation without cross-section. And then a big explosion.
Atoms splitting. Countless eruptions,
the fragments floating endlessly, going everywhere and nowhere at once,
departing with endless inertia,
the impossibility of free fall,
attraction, repulsion, dissembling,
the fragments forming into new shapes,
stars, creatures, ideas, directions.
Entity—completely ripped to pieces.
Time is a fateful defect.
Like finding a run in your stocking.
Nothing can help it.
So now, plant two feet firmly on the ground
and look at how kindly this trash heap of a universe smiles at you
with all its rich resources
its secondary surpluses and its fast food
—brought to you by its charitable arm—floating down into the
guts of mankind.
Rich people throw scraps and the poor pick them up trembling
alternatively, clever people will pick up scraps thrown by fools
or would rather retrieve their own pieces and let them rot.
How can I say that I love you in this garbage pile?
This place allocated to us? If we succumb to
our parents’ will, and promise to try to elbow
our way through less, we will find this place—
the cleanest, purest place possible.
We will fill our studies, our work, our house
with the tattered rags of all the minutes and years
and we will marry, and we will have a child, and we will feed it,
and the stink of garbage will bother us less,
if we can just find the cleanest, purest place possible.
I understand parents. They want only the best for us.
And their care, their prayers are grasping at this nonexistent eternity
We will find thousands of talents and curses
granted to us by them, within us, the invisible line which
goes through the skin of generations and doesn't grow old,
because parents don’t know any other kindness—
they only know how to worry about their own flesh and blood,
they can’t spare any garbage for the bonfire
and with patience they bring us up, they wait.
Imagine a lion in the circus, still a new one,
before it has learned all the tricks,
but it can’t stop the growling in its throat.
And sometimes the lion tamer uses his whip and sometimes fresh meat—
sometimes a threat, sometimes an offering,
because in the end, he must put his head into the lion’s mouth.
Life tries to make us get used to being tamed,
it teaches us to breathe deeply amid the garbage.
How can I explain to you this love?
The love that eternally fights the wish to escape,
That love that wants to shout “No!”
To all the skills and disabilities
this bag of genes has inherited, that I didn't even have the right to choose.
I could not refine them anymore than I could if I was given the right to.
They strap our flesh and blood to this existence
it has nothing to do with our will,
it reins us in with pain antennas, with the alarm of suffering,
it won’t let us go anywhere, it doesn’t leave us any real choice—
leaving is so difficult and prohibited because
staying alive is tangled around it
I know there is the curse of god and the curse of being human:
of the god who turned into god
precisely by making this choice—
daring to be crucified, and being ready for it.
In the name of love at least.
He is god and is free of this fear.
As for me, who wishes to dare,
though I am laden with thousands of doubts, like a tree of fear,
maybe with more fear, with more feeling I could
hold onto this miracle.
But to be saved I found a child,
Our child, who comes
and looks into my eyes
and repeats these questions
with more persistence and curiosity.
She says that this is normal.
I tell her this is love.
Georgian writer Gela Charkviani describes his early days as an aide to then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Listen to Gela Charkviani read "Shevardnadze and Me" in the original Georgian
My relationship with Eduard Shevardnadze developed slowly and painfully, and our first business meeting ended in complete failure. An overseas delegation was due to arrive in Georgia, and I had brought for his approval a plan for the visit, which had been prepared at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He looked over the plan, grumbled, “I shouldn’t have to do this,” and then went on reading. I could not understand what he meant by “I shouldn’t have to do this.” Did he mean I was not to bring him this type of plan from now on? Or was it that the project had been poorly conceived? He found fault with every step of the plan, crossed entire lines out, and declared that the document was completely unfit for the purpose. His reaction was so unexpected and so confusing that I was unable to defend myself. I didn’t even manage to tell him that the project had been developed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though even if I had, I don’t think it would have made any difference; it was I who had taken the paper to him, and that meant it was I who was responsible for its quality. The shock of that first meeting stayed with me for a long time. From then on, even when I was certain I had dealt with a problem thoroughly, I found myself incapable of explaining my reasoning to him without becoming flustered. Another difficulty was Shevardnadze’s way of listening: for the entire time you spoke, he would offer no indications whatsoever—no gestures, no words, and no interjections—as to whether or not he agreed with what you were saying. I don’t know if this was a deliberate tactic or his natural manner, but I’m sure it had helped him to defeat a few rivals and climb a few rungs of the ladder in his time.
One more thing that shocked me is that he never mentioned my father. Not once did he ask how he was or what he’d been up to. They had both been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia, and one would have thought Shevardnadze might naturally wish to demonstrate solidarity with a fellow member of the club. Another reason this hurt me is that my father had fallen on hard times, and not long before, I had helped him to sell one of his three Orders of Lenin. Later, when his application for a military pension as a former member of the Transcaucasian Military Council was turned down, he was obliged to sell the other two.
During those early days, I felt a similar sense of awkwardness in my dealings with Shevardnadze’s entourage—the men who had followed him from Moscow and were now managing Georgia’s foreign affairs. Two of them made a particularly strong impression on me: Temur Stepanov and Sergei Tarasenko. I already knew Temur from afar, but over time we grew closer in spite of his short temper, and today I recall with great fondness the hours we spent in debate. I will also never forget the sunny day when they brought back his ashes from Moscow, and how we buried them in the soil of his native Tbilisi after delivering the eulogy. Sergei, meanwhile, had worked under Shevardnadze for many years as a diplomatic counsel. He was born into an average family in the Donbass, if I recall correctly, and at a young age had been recognized as a child genius. He was accepted into the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations despite a lack of personal connections and quickly mastered both English and the art of diplomacy. He worked in the Soviet Embassy in America and in the 1980s allied himself with the reformists in the new Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Tbilisi, prior to my appearance and for quite some time afterward, Tarasenko was responsible for setting up meetings between Shevardnadze and various accredited diplomats and foreign delegations visiting Georgia. He also acted as interpreter. I was never told anything about what went on at these meetings. The foreign visitors would occasionally go in to see Stepanov, but more often they were taken into Tarasenko’s office first, and then went with him to meet Shevardnadze.
One day in May 1992, I went in to see Shevardnadze and saw Mzia Chanturia sitting there. I knew her from Boris Dzneladze Komsomol City, just outside Tbilisi, where she had worked as director. Mzia told me the good news that James Baker was coming to Georgia. A visit by the U.S. Secretary of State was of the greatest political importance: it was a show of support for the de facto legitimization of the leadership, which was still considered to have usurped power illegally while the country was plunged into chaos. This process had begun with the arrival in Georgia of Hans-Dietrich Genscher from Germany and would continue after Baker’s visit with a visit by the prime minister of Turkey at that time, Süleyman Demirel.
Aware as I was of the importance of Baker’s visit, I also knew that tough times lay ahead—I could all too easily imagine the trouble Shevardnadze would give me as I tried to get him to agree on a program for the visit. I was not wrong. As soon as he finished looking over my proposal, he turned to me and said coldly, “Bring me Tarasenko. He’s a man of experience.” True, he was tough on Tarasenko, too, but not quite as tough. After making several remarks, he asked Tarasenko a question I had not been expecting: “What do you think, Sergei? Is it appropriate to have a joint press conference? After all, he’s still just a minister, whereas I’m the de facto head of state.” Tarasenko was accustomed to Shevardnadze’s jokes, which is probably why he simply smiled rather than offering a reply.
“Where’s the press conference going to be held, anyway? There’s nothing about that in the program,” he then asked irritably, looking over at me.
“I don’t know,” I answered calmly. By that point I didn’t really care, either. Sensing my mood, Shevardnadze changed the topic, which showed me that he was not entirely insensitive to my feelings.
I now believe that Shevardnadze’s unfriendly attitude toward me was due partly, if not wholly, to my stubborn refusal to work as an interpreter and my insistence on carrying out only those tasks I felt were suited to the head of the Department of Foreign Relations. I had told him directly on several occasions I would not interpret for him. I was fifty-three years old, and in view of my international contacts and theoretical knowledge, I felt I deserved a more serious role in the process of creating a foreign policy for independent Georgia. Interpreting was a young person’s job.
Baker’s visit finally convinced me I needed to change something—either find a suitable interpreter or stop being so stubborn and do it myself.
During the weekly meeting of the administration following Baker’s visit, Shevardnadze declared that the interpreting had not been of a sufficiently high standard and that this was all the fault of Gela Charkviani. Prior to this, Stepanov had let me know tacitly that if I continued to refuse to interpret, I would not be allowed to accompany upcoming delegations to Istanbul and Helsinki. Later, Shevardnadze took me to one side and told me he couldn’t care less who interpreted, but that I, as head of department, was responsible for ensuring that the quality of the interpreting was high. His words gave me food for thought.
I remembered there had been a young man of about thirty, a lawyer by profession, in the simultaneous interpretation course at the Foreign Languages Institute where I gave lectures on sociology during the 1980s. He had played an active part in class and asked questions in well-formulated English. Although I had forgotten his name, I managed to track him down. I called him up and he came to see me on June 17. We talked for a long time, and he agreed to my proposal; he even seemed rather happy about it. I told him I would be in touch and jotted down his telephone number. I still have his name in my address book, but now it is bordered in black. Dato Nadiradze was killed in front of the State Television Center in Tbilisi on June 24, 1992, one week after our meeting. As far as I know, he was the only victim of that particular clash. After that, I took on the role of interpreter alongside my other duties as head of department.
Tarasenko did not greet my arrival in the administration with a great deal of enthusiasm. He was a high-ranking bureaucrat from Moscow, and true to the stereotype, he had decided that we “local cadres” were a bunch of incompetent fools. But what did he know about me? He might have heard one or two kind words from my fellow Tbilisian Temur Stepanov, or even Shevardnadze himself, but they had evidently not changed his opinion of me as a “thick-headed hick.” Once again, I found myself in a situation I had faced several times already in my career. In the super-centralized Soviet Union, where nothing and nobody was allowed to leave the country without first passing through Moscow, a bureaucrat dispatched from the capital would never have contemplated the possibility that someone from the provinces might know more than he about Western culture. This was especially true when it involved an eminent diplomat who had spent years in Washington, D.C., and still saw Georgia as a province of Russia, even after our declaration of independence.
I knew it was only a matter of time before his arrogance would bring him down a notch or two. I had seen it happen hundreds of times before. All I had to do was wait for the right circumstances. And I did not have to wait long.
During James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko and I shared a limousine with the American diplomat Dennis Ross. Ross was around my age, highly educated, with an academic outlook on diplomacy. He had played a key role in the erosion of the Soviet regime, and, as a result, the Russians were less than well disposed toward him. He was aware of this fact, and took some pleasure in it, so much so, in fact, that he introduced himself to me as “the notorious Ross.” As we talked, we gradualy switched from Russian to English. He told me he felt he had come of age with his involvement in the student movement on the campuses of the University of California in the 1960s. Having learned this, I shifted the conversation around to the issues of those days, and started inserting in my speech the student vocabulary of the 1960s, including rare shibboleths—the identifying code words of the period. When I looked up at Tarasenko, he seemed confused. He tried to join the conversation once or twice, but ended up stuttering and mumbling. Although he never mentioned this episode to me afterward, his attitude toward me changed noticeably. A few years later, as I was chatting to Temur Stepanov—about what I can no longer remember—he told me that after James Baker’s visit, Tarasenko had said to him, “Your man Gela speaks English like a native.”
Listen to Irakli Kakabaze read his poem "The Children of Beslan (To My Children)" in the original Georgian
Georgian poet Irakli Kakabade remembers the victims and the survivors of the Beslan School Siege
Today is the First of September and
As the sun’s setting and rising,
The flowers’ budding and wilting,
The healing of open wounds,
This isn’t a school bell ringing,
It’s the bells of a church.
The mothers woke us up from our summer games,
But the fathers took our hands more sternly and
more proudly than never before.
The fathers left work for the market,
Carrying heavy bags and
All kinds of thoughts and rubbish
in their heads.
We left toys with wilted smiles on the beds,
Little sisters and brothers in the windows,
Grandmothers who had combed our hair and
Crossed us as we were leaving home,
To meet with God, or our first teachers.
Here, our empty, silent notebooks,
Here, our unopened books and flat, inanimate illustrations,
The red pens, which retain their strictness, but can’t express it,
A roster, read from the grade book with no answers,
Desks without purpose and
The boards, painted black,
On which is written our first, short history.
Here, our flowers for you, who
Were supposed to open the door of life’s wisdom for us,
But the flowers have chosen a better fate.
Again, light backpacks
Are hanging like crosses upon our weak shoulders and
Like sacrificial lambs,we make our way to the last class.
Don’t look at the road so often,
We won’t return from here,
We continued our summer games and
We are hiding behind September first.
Irakli Kakabadze uploaded a number of short poems to various social media sites over the course of several years under the pseudonym Iaki Kabe, fooling many into believing they were the work of an unknown Japanese poet translated into Georgian. His poetry became so popular on the Internet that when a selection was published in book form, the book topped national bestseller lists.
Irakli Kakabadze reads "Seventeen Poems by Iake Kabe" in the original Georgian
It’s been three years
Since my neighbor chopped down
The fig tree on the other side of the fence
It’s been three years since my peach tree hasn’t flowered
On this side of the fence . . .
I put my head under the water,
I hold my breath for a second,
I want to feel intensely
What he felt
when he took his life . . .
In my homeland,
Where priests and poets
A man’s life
Is worth less than straw . . .
In this world,
Amid such deep sorrow,
Oh, cherry tree,
You are my soul’s
Only relief . . .
It’s been one week,
The universe has been emptied,
The stranger no longer waits
At the bus stop in the morning.
There’s not a single footstep on the snow,
By my elderly neighbor’s house . . .
It’s white everywhere,
The snow covers everything, far and wide,
In my neighbor’s garden,
Only the reddish pomegranates
Glow and are covered in snow . . .
Oh, how I long, as when I was a child,
To sneak away from school to the forest
And exhausted from running,
For my mother to scold me . . .
In the tears of a child forced to flee,
Or in the smile
Of my country’s rippling flag?
It was May, loved
By my beloved,
But now from her young,
A peach tree is flowering in the Nagasaki cemetery . . .
The harsh river
Of our village,
Washed away the corpse
Of my childhood love
Like a wood chip . .
A single dream
Does not give me rest, but obsesses me—
Dressed in a white kimono,
I stand, a poet,
Before my country’s gallows . . .
Past my house, and
As I watched them, a thought obsessed me—
What in this world could be worth
The blood of these children?!
In winter, when
I sit by the fire and prepare tea,
The eyes of the boy
lying frozen on the sidewalk in Osaka
Won’t leave me alone . . .
It had rained,
The lilacs were rejoicing.
The place where blooms flourish
Is the abandoned grave
Of our village courtesan . . .
I remembered only
The one that did not bloom
In my neighbor’s garden
Heaven can be found right here,
Behind the door,
In the babbling of children . . .
Naira Gelashvili eavesdrops on the beginning of a star-crossed affair
Listen to author Naira Gelashvili read this story in the original Georgian.
I entered the tower. I didn’t stop in the front room, but took her to the second room. Here, long wooden benches stood on the right and left, and along the middle wall—a wooden bench, covered in bedding. A window was cut out of the fourth wall.
I was enveloped by a good mood, which I think came from her. I quickly turned to her, squeezed her cheeks, and asked:
“What’s your name, Little Dipper?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
"I’ll show you. Come here!” I led her to the window, which opened out onto the surrounding area. I had her gaze toward the sky. Earlier, when I was looking, alone, I had first noticed the Little Dipper. It was still there now, twinkling all by itself. “Look, do you see it?” She nodded.
“And what’s this?” I touched her neck where earlier I’d noticed a small cluster of pale birthmarks. She lowered her eyes. I could feel her trembling.
“What is it?” she asked quietly, her voice altered.
“What . . . it’s the Little Dipper. Didn’t you know you have birthmarks here?”
“I know, but I’ve only seen them in the mirror,” she answered, even more quietly. “How do you know?”
“It’s a secret. I feel bad you can’t see it. It’s nice to look at. An exact copy. Who would’ve imagined?” I suddenly bent down and kissed her on the neck. “I’ve been dreaming about this all my life, to kiss the Little Dipper. And look where I’ve found it.”
“You weren’t dreaming,” she told me quietly but emphatically (somehow she said a lot with these few words), and looked me straight in the eyes. Surprisingly, her expression melted. A kind of calm submissiveness was reflected on her softened face. I was fairly surprised at this, coming from someone who before had put up so much resistance. I sensed her anxiety, and she looked as if she were praying.
“What’s your name, for real?”
“Mertsia . . . that was the name of our doctor’s child. They wouldn’t let her play with us, and always locked her up in the yard. I think she was ill . . .”
“She was ill? With what?”
“I don’t remember . . . I haven’t heard the name since . . .” I was staring at her, “Mertsia, this is our cave, we are cavemen . . .We found a cave, and now we have to start living together . . . life, it’s good, isn’t it?” I was casting about, so I wouldn’t stop talking, because I was anxious, too.
“It’s good,” she laughed, and suddenly became buoyant.
“And yet, for this game, no, for this life, you have to forget everything,” I told her, and ran my hand over her hair . . .
“What do you mean, everything?”
“The city, the past, acquaintances . . . everything . . .”
“Oh!” She waved her hand. “I’ve forgotten, too.”
“Very good . . . What can you still remember?” I felt I was asking her something very specific with these words, because right then I remembered that I didn’t even know if she was married or not, or in general, who she was or who she had.
“What? What do I know . . . ?” She shrugged her shoulders. “I remember that . . . time passes . . .”
“Did you figure that out earlier, when you were sitting by the water, sad . . . ?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed quietly.
I took a dagger from the wall, then an old pistol, a “Berdanki” that used to belong to Aghato’s father-in-law, and put it on the windowsill. I raised the dagger, put my arm around Mertsia’s shoulder.
“My fortress, my land, my woman, my sword.”
“A fierce man from Shatili,” she laughed and moved away. I tried not to show that I noticed, but every time I touched her, she trembled. I thought she was probably very sensitive.
I set the dagger on the bench. Something was holding me back, and I didn’t know what. I hadn’t experienced this kind of confusion since I was a child, and I couldn’t explain it. It was all because of that joy . . . that she had followed me . . . as if she had no idea . . . but, why, what reason did she have? I thought if I’d had a Maggie with me, we’d probably have slept together already . . . but I couldn’t understand what was happening to me right now. When I’d entered the tower, I had felt desire immediately. But now I was simply feeling good (and it had been a while since I remember being in this kind of mood), but I wasn’t experiencing the physical desire I had earlier . . . When she went to the window and looked outside, I approached her from the back, wrapped my arms around her neck, and kissed her first on one cheek, then on the other. I should have figured out that my business was over. This kiss had a completely different flavor. I was kissing her without passion, with love, the way you caress children. She turned around, put her hands on my chest, and pushed me away. I put my hands on her cheeks again and barely touched her pursed lips. Then I moved my hands toward her earlobes, locked my fingers at the nape of her neck, and she shivered.
“Do you want me to make you happy?” I asked suddenly.
“Yes, I do.”
I threw down my nabadi. I put a sword by my head. I put a gun next to me, and stretched out on my back:
“Here, I’m dead. Bury me. You do like burying people, and digging graves, don’t you?” I put my hands on my chest and closed my eyes.
A lion lay in the tower,
No one was superior to him,
By his head, a stallion was tied,
Pawing the ground with his hooves
To the left stood a spear, its tip
Piercing the sky
To the right lay a sword, its edge
At his side sat his mother, crying
Over her child
And at his head sat a woman, her
Tears falling into the sea . . .
She spoke in a low voice. I didn’t open my eyes. Then she fell silent. I sensed her approaching me. She knelt down next to me on the nabadi. Her knees were touching my shoulder . . . She bent and barely touched my lips, and then she kissed my closed eyes . . . as if a butterfly had landed on my eyelids. Then she ran her hand over my forehead and temples . . . I was spent. She ran her hand over my cheek, paused on my shoulder . . . and gently squeezed it:
“Open them,” she told me quietly.
I didn’t move.
“Open your eyes,” she touched my eyelids, and lifted them.
I closed my eyes more tightly.
“Wake up, do you hear me, wake up!” Her voice became desperate. She bent down and pressed her cheek against my cheek.
“Aha! I caught you!” I shouted and put my arms around her.
She startled. I looked in her eyes, and it was as if tears were shining there.
“Eh! She believed it so quickly! She got into the mourner’s role so suddenly!”
“What were you reciting, ’Wake up, do you hear me, wake up?’ Do you know that poem?”
“No,” and she became sad again.
“It’s a poem by Gabriel Jabushanuri. He was a Khevsur. Vazha is wild about him. I think they’re distant relatives. He drives us crazy at work. Every time he walks by, he hurls out a verse, and the whole department knows it by heart. He was in love with a woman, Nzekali. She died young, and he has some good poems about her. I saw Vazha earlier. He was pretty drunk, stopped me, and shouted out the poem. ’Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,’ and he was rolling his eyes like a bullock. Do you want me to recite the entire poem?”
“Yes, I do.”
Even I was surprised I knew this poem by heart:
Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,
I’m coming to you, and
You need to greet me, alert,
I’ve looked for you so long,
I’ve called for you so long,
I’ve spent so much effort,
And you didn’t respond
I can’t be without you anymore
I have so much to tell you,
If you only knew,
I think it will take ten years or more
Wake up, decorate the coffin,
Call me to your side,
There’s room enough for both of us.
You do know, I have abandoned
People and the world,
The sorrows of
Passion and loneliness are trampling me,
Wake up, do you hear, wake up, now,
Aren’t you longing to be
“And that’s how he recited it. ‘God damn you, get the hell away from me,’ I told him. ‘I can’t stand this mourning and these songs about death. I can’t stand talking about the dead and death at all!’ What’s happened to you? Are you actually sad? Come on! You do understand I don’t hate this kind of stuff for nothing. What nonsense. You aren’t crying, are you?”
“It’s a harrowing poem,” she said, and her eyes glazed over.
“Of course it’s harrowing!”
“It’s a very good poem . . . he’s an amazing man.” And she added: “I love dead people.”
“Come on. I finally got you in a better mood and this poem’s ruined everything.”
“No,” she said and knelt down. She put her hands around my shoulders and kissed me. It seemed as if she were kissing me with great sorrow, with heightened feeling; as if her happiness were bordering on crying; as if we had little time left, and we had to make sure we managed to do everything. I was surprised again. I thought it was probably because we were in Shatili.
She was lying against my arm . . . I was holding her chin with my other hand, and kissing her slowly. I should have figured that I’d get into a strange situation: I wasn’t in a hurry to do anything. I wanted it to last like this, for a very long time . . .
She sat up . . .
Her dress had brown laces from her shoulders to her elbows. I slowly untied them. She was sitting and had her hands on my shoulders. First one arm was exposed, and then the other, and her dress slipped down and bunched up at her waist. I embraced her without looking at her. She was wearing nothing above her waist. That’s what I thought on the bus, too. I sensed that she was following and not following me at the same time. In the last second, she completely distanced herself from me. When everything was over, I embraced her again and tapped her on her back: “You, child, seem like you need tuning up in this business.”
She didn’t say anything. That meant I was right. This made me tense.
“Do you have a child?”
She nodded again, silently.
She covered her face with five open fingers.
“A husband? Do you love your husband?”
She shook her head, no. Then she said:
“I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that,” she shrugged her shoulders.
“Did he die?”
“Are you divorced?
I was quiet. Something cold and unpleasant came over me. I lit a cigarette. I lay down on my back, put my free hand under my head. I felt her looking at me a couple of times. I extended my arm and caressed her head.
“Who’s the child with now?”
“My mother and sister. She’s usually with them. They don’t trust me with her,” she smiled.
“What do you do?”
“Did you love him?”
“I liked him . . . he loved me.”
“Why did you break up? Stop shrugging your shoulders.”
“I couldn’t be with him . . . I realized I wouldn’t fall in love with him . . .”
“Why did you have a child?”
“Didn’t I have the right to?” she asked me, her voice cracking: she was irritated. Then she softened and added: “I couldn’t get rid of it . . . I had it . . . I’ll probably never be able to get rid of her . . . I hate her . . .”
“So then, you’re going to have a child every time?”
She laughed. She shrugged her shoulders again.
“I don’t know, I don’t know a thing . . . I don’t think . . . what I can’t do, I can’t do. I don’t think . . . I can’t do a lot of things . . .”
“What’s the child’s name?”
“Does she look like you?”
“I think so . . .”
We were quiet. I felt distressed.
“I can’t imagine you pregnant.”
“I couldn’t imagine it before, either,” she laughed sadly, and, in a way that was somehow equally sad, kissed my shoulder. “Do you know when I saw you for the first time?
“Last fall. At the end of November. I was at your workplace. I needed a book for a buddy, and thought Ida would have it . . .”
“Is Ida your friend?”
“No. She’s my sister’s friend. My sister told me to go to Ida, that she’d have it. Ida told me, ‘I don’t have it. Someone here has it, but I can’t ask him,’ and she nodded in your direction. You were sitting on a table, leaning against the wall, and looking out the window. You were smoking a cigarette . . . I don’t know why she couldn’t ask you. ‘He has such sad eyes,’ I told Ida . . . ‘Sorrowful?’ She asked me, and then mumbled under her breath, ‘Sorrowful, my ass . . .’ ‘Is he married?’ I surprised myself when I asked her this. She looked at me and answered: ‘A wife, children . . . and all in all, there’s nothing missing in his life.’ I’ve been thinking about you often since then.”
“What book did you want?” For some reason I was interested, and at the same time, I repeated Ida’s words in my heart. ‘There’s nothing he’s missing.’
“It’s a book by some German author. I think it’s about an underground water supply, if I’m not mistaken . . . about underground rivers. He apparently has very interesting ideas. I forgot the title. My friend was telling me about it.”
“Yes, I know. I have it. Who’s your friend?”
“A girl. Her last name is Bouleishvili and we call her ’Boulei.’ She’s curious about everything on earth and she talks about it in a way that makes you crazy about it, too. ‘The connection between water and the planets is a great mystery,’ she told me once. She’s copied and gathered everything that anyone has ever said about water in this world. For a while I was painting water all the time, and she kept telling me it was brilliant…”
“Yes,” I said to myself, “Water is everything, the beginning of everything.”
“Thales shares the same opinion,” she laughed.
I laughed, too. Suddenly her expression froze, then she opened her mouth. She even sat up.
“Don’t they say that Thales discovered the Little Dipper?”
“I remember. I read somewhere that they believe he gave it its name . . . it’s so strange.”
She lay down on her back, with her face toward me.
“I discovered the Little Dipper,” I said, and hugged her. I lifted her hair and kissed her neck. “And you can leave water alone, trust me, it’s not worth making your head hot about the stars, there’s no time for that now . . .”
“Really, yes?” she whispered, “And what is it time for now?”
I kissed her.
“For minutes. You have to collect minutes, at least a few minutes, so you can take them with you as a souvenir . . . when you up and leave this world. How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven. You’re forty-two, right?”
“How do you know?”
“I asked Ida.”
“Where were you last summer?” I remembered Ida.
“At the seaside. But I got sick . . . I was in bed for a whole month, and then in the hospital . . .”
“What happened to you?”
“I don’t know . . . I had a fever, and was weak . . . and then it passed. When I came to your work, I’d just gotten out of the hospital a couple of weeks before . . .”
No, of course, I was already in love with her. Maybe I was already in love with her on the way here. I have no idea; I don’t understand anything. I think my heart sensed something right away, when I looked at her for the first time . . . and that’s why I avoided her.
The translator thanks Lia Shartava for her help in translating this story.
In the end, one sentence awaits us all—death Joseph Brodsky
Because we are all murderers, he told himself. We are all on both sides, if we are any good, and no good will come of any of it. Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream
God inscribed my grief
On my sword
I killed the man I’d sworn to be a brother to
I used a sword on my brother
They are chasing me to murder me
They put a trap for me on the road
Listen to author Beka Kurkhuli read "The Killer" in the original Georgian
The sea was calm. It stretched far away to the horizon and cautiously touched the shore with a swishing sound. It glimmered calmly under the wide-open blue deep and alien sky. An enormous cluster of clouds sailed across the clear sky like a space shuttle reflected in the swelling sea.
He was swimming in warm, slightly ruffled waves. Then he dove, opened his eyes and saw the fragmented white rays of the sun descending into the dark-greenish, yellowish sea water. They were making their way to the bottom of the sea.
Suddenly he felt something long, and thin as a thread, pierce him under his left shoulder blade. Once, twice and three times and the sun hurtled down and spread its white rays at lightning speed across the sea and it struck for the fourth time under his shoulder blade. His heart stopped. “I’m dying,” he thought and started to sink toward the bottom of the white, illuminated sea, like a white harpooned shark. He tried to get back up to the surface. “No, I can’t. I am dying!” he thought a second time and began desperately to panic. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t even move his arm. “I’ve died, you motherfucker, I’ve died!” His whole body writhed, he moved his shoulders and immediately an unbearable pain shot through his entire body like fire. He had never been afraid of pain, but he certainly didn’t want to die, especially not in a thick, sticky, treacherous white sea that had stuck a needle in his back, beneath his left shoulder blade. “You motherfucker,” he said to the pain, to the whiteness that was strangely illuminated from within, and to the treacherous sea and to his own pierced heart. He struggled again, then paddled with his legs too.
The surface of the sea was visible far above. It was a long way away, but it was there. It was definitely there. He started moving slowly and after a while he surged out of the sea, shaking his head. Immediately his wide-open eyes, crazy with terror, encountered the hot sun.
He swam toward the shore. He swam through the thick white sea and he could no longer feel his heart. The shore was black and it wasn’t expecting anyone.
Gia Ezukhbaia, a six-foot-tall, former partisan from Nabakevi nicknamed Pshaveti, sat on a seat that had been ripped out of a Ford minibus on the first floor of the long, faceless, two-story former House of Culture in the village of Akhalkakhati near Zugdidi. He averted his face from the heat coming from the red-hot stove and listened to his wife complaining.
Gia Ezukhbaia’s wife was kneading dough in an enamel bowl on the long table near the tap. She cooked maize bread in an iron pan. She was complaining in time with the thudding sounds of the dough.
“I curse you because you didn’t make me happy, you made me unhappy, me and my children, you idiot, you idiot, if you wanted a life like this, why did you marry if you were going to make us miserable? Who will defend you, you wretched fool, who’s your patron and who’s grateful to you? Here’s your Georgia, let it help you now. I’m baking the last of the bread, look at my hands, I’m peeling every last bit of dough from my fingers. You made enemies of the Abkhazians, you made enemies of the Georgians, and now everyone’s trying to kill you. The whole family’s got to sleep behind three iron gates and our hearts explode with fear at every movement. At any moment someone could pour some petrol and set us and the children on fire. Is this any kind of life? We're half a kilometer from the Enguri River, the Abkhazians could be here in two minutes. How come you’re fighting in the war? Who needed your war and who have you hurt with your fighting?”
Gia Ezukhbaia wasn’t nicknamed Pshaveti because he was one of the cold-blooded Georgian partisans on the Enguri embankment and drank the blood of Abkhazians and Russians. It was more because he was very witty and he swore a lot, unlike Mingrelians. Now, though, he sat quietly, fiddling aimlessly with a piece of wood, and listened to his wife’s complaining.
“You should have stayed behind to mind your own business, in which case you could have gone to Nabakevi, picked a few oranges, some hazelnuts, you could have given them away, begrudgingly. The whole village of Gali goes there, and they don’t touch the villagers. People work, they earn some pennies. The Kishmaris even got a kettle.”
“Yes, sure, I’d slave for those bastards!”
Gia stoked up the stove with some wood and banged its door closed.
“They aren’t slaves at all. No, you’re the only one who’s here! It’s beneath your dignity. You say you’re a partisan but I’m frightened of going out because you owe money at the kiosk. The whole of the Gali region returns home and according to you, they’re all slaves. They return to their land, they build houses, they begin their lives again, they don’t do it for nothing. They’re not for the Russians and not for the Abkhazians. They move freely. As for you, stay here and kill people . . .”
“Stop your nagging! Shut up, I’m telling you I won’t go back there carrying Russian papers, and that’s the end of it.”
“Oh, yes, as if you’re Prince Tsotne Dadiani himself, saint and martyr. Even if you wanted to, who would let you return, you miserable creature with blood all over your hands. How many sins have you committed? Your children will be answerable for them. You know that, don’t you?”
”Stop talking like that, I’m telling you.”
“What shall I stop doing? What? Kill me too and that’ll be the end of it. I’m not afraid of anything anymore, I can’t take any more, I’ve already lost my mind. This bloody war is over for everyone, except for you and your friends, all drug addicts and thieves. The whole of Abkhazia and Samegrelo is after you, you’ll never be able to go back home now.”
“What is it you want, woman? What?”
“I’ve been telling you since this morning what I want. Don’t you hear anything I say? You only want to do what you want and you aren’t interested in anything else. But we both see what happens when you do exactly what you want.”
“Shut up and bake your bread. Don’t talk when it’s none of your business.”
“I bore you four children and you say it’s not my business? The eldest is twenty-two already, if you remember? The kids have seen nothing but war and trouble. Don’t they need to study, set up home, start a family? Never mind studying and setting up a home, your children are hungry, they haven’t got any clothes. He’s a fighter so he can’t help himself . . . . I wonder who it is you’re fighting with apart from yourself?”
Gia took some wood out from under the stove, looked at it, fiddled with it, then threw it back. He lit up a cheap Astra cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“You’ve got nothing to complain about, you live as you wish. I’m the one crying my eyes out, living with you. Why did I marry you, what was I thinking? My father was beside himself, don’t marry him, he kept saying.”
“Come off it, it’s not as if our getting married would kill him!”
“Even if he hasn’t died, I’d rather die myself if I can’t go to my own cousin’s funeral. You can bury me alive and that will be that. You won’t let me mourn my own flesh and blood, Gia Ezukhbaia, may God deprive you of any mourners on account of your sins against me.”
“Woman, you’ll put me in the grave with your nagging. Ugh.”
“Who’ll put you in the grave and who’ll kill you, you idiot?”
“I’m sincerely sorry I didn’t get myself killed but what can I do about it now?”
He felt a wave of shame in front of his wife. He knew she was right, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. His wife’s cousin had died and she lived close by, just a few houses away, but his wife couldn’t go to pay her respects because she didn’t have any shoes. She couldn’t go there to give her condolences when all she had to wear were her red and blue striped slippers. Gia racked his brains over where and how he could get her some shoes, but he couldn’t think of anything.
Gia Ezukhbaia came into this war rather late. The main action was taking place in Kumistavi and Sukhumi, which seemed a long way from the district of Gali. At first, he didn’t think the war had anything to do with him. Now that the guys from Tbilisi had rushed in to help the people of Abkhazia sort out their business, it was for them to put it all to rights, it was their problem. What’s more, Ezukhbaia, like most Mingrelians, didn’t have any time for the so-called State Council military units, especially after the events that had taken place not so far away in the districts of Zugdidi and Tsalenjikha. Hidden in Gali and Abkhazia, loyal members of the military and supporters of the first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, told tales about the cruelty of the putschists and the Tbilisi Military Council. They didn’t actually need to tell tales as Ezukhbaia’s native village, Nabakevi, was only a few kilometres from the Enguri river and the deafening sound of shooting from across the river was clearly audible, and they could see flames too, flying high up into the sky. So Gia Ezukhbaia wasn’t that surprised when the Tbilisi people went on to Abhazeti after Samegrelo, nor was he that upset about it. He didn’t consider himself to be on the side of the government’s army, much less think that the Abkhazians were on his side—he remembered only too well the confrontation with them in the summer of 1989, when he and some others rushed the Galidzgi Bridge with his double-barreled shotgun after the Abkhazians had ravaged Sukhumi University during entrance exams. They had thrown portraits of Georgian writers out onto the streets and killed Vova Vekua and some other residents of Sukhumi. Later, it seemed everything had calmed down, he became friendly with Abkhazians and he personally had no quarrel with Abkhazians about anything. After December 1991, the start of the civil war when the shooting and bloodshed began, the confrontations between citizens in Tbilisi were immediately echoed in Abkhazia.
The Abkhazians tried their hardest to remain neutral during the internal conflicts of the Georgians, but in spite of this, war broke out anyway in August 1992. By that time Gia Ezukhbaia was already forty-eight and he had seen everything and so he didn’t trust either side. In this time of mayhem and infernos, he, his elder brother and cousins tried to protect their homes, their mandarin and hazelnut plantations and property, and somehow he actually managed to do so, sometimes by cunning and sometimes by force. He didn’t get involved in anything else beyond that.
His heart first missed a beat when, between the fourteenth and sixteenth of March 1993, Russians, Armenians, Abkhazians, and North Caucasians invaded the outskirts of Sukhumi and the Russian Air Force bombed Sukhumi several times. Refugees started leaving Sukhumi and the people of Gali began packing their bags in anticipation of what might happen. However, as it turned out, the Georgians fought valiantly and Sukhumi was saved. After that, it was only a little while before the Ezukhbaias got involved in the war.
Events developed as follows. Gia Ezukhbaia’s childhood friend and classmate Dato Shervashidze arrived from Riga to attend the funeral of his old friend Pridon Marshania. Marshania was involved with the Mkhedrioni and had been fighting from the very first day of the war. Marshania was killed near Ochamchire during the operation to open the road between Ochamchire and Sukhumi. Pridon Marshania and Dato Shervashidze had several things in common while Gia Ezukhbaia was just a peasant, with his mandarins, hazelnuts, and cattle. As for Shervashidze and Marshania, they had been running for gangsters since they were kids, to Moscow, to Rostov. Criminals, drugs and so on. Then Dato settled in Riga together with his family, took care of his business and didn’t give a thought to Georgia for a long time, even after the war began. And now he’d flown from Riga to mourn his murdered friend. He had only just managed to get to Ilori from Tbilisi, to the Marshania’s two-story house where the bullet-riddled body of Pridon Marshania lay, no longer able hear the sound of the women’s keening reaching the sky.
The Ezukhbaias traveled to Ilori in two cars as it was very dangerous to travel by car in those days. They were stopped three times on the road from Nabakevi to Ilori, but as soon as those who stopped them heard where they were going, they were allowed to pass without any problems.
Gia Ezukhbaia and his elder brother were welcomed by the men who were bustling about in the yard, and the encounter between the Ezukhbaias and Dato Shervashidze was very special. They stood for a long time embracing each other as Gia secretly wiped away his tears then stared into Dato’s impassive face.
“Dato, brother, how are you, brother? What a place and what a reason for us to meet each other, isn’t it, oh, fuck it, fuck your mother.
“I fuck everyone’s mother, whores, goats, shameful bitches and rent boys, I’ll make those murderers spit blood.”
“What can you do, Dato, what do you want to do and what can you do? They're all bastards whether they're over here or over there.”
“The way they killed my Pridon Marshania, the way they bumped him off for nothing, those whores…”
“I tried so many times to persuade him not to interfere, not to get involved. What do you want to do that for, I said, these guys are motherfuckers and those are too, both sides are coming to invade us, why do you need to get yourself killed? It’s not our fight, these jackal politicians come along, make us enemies to one another, make us slaughter each other and then carry on their business. Meanwhile, we’ll remain blood enemies and all this’ll happen because of their politics and greedy stomachs. We simple people will be made to suffer. But he didn’t believe me. You couldn’t make him listen to anything. No, he said, they are brothers. What sort of brothers, committing such horrors as they did in Samegrelo? And who are the Abkhazians? I personally have no reason to fight with Abkhazians! All those poor bastards are my relatives and have the same surnames.”
Gia Ezukhbaia and Dato Shervashidze hadn’t seen each other for years and as usual, they stuck firmly together during the whole business of the wake and mourning. They drank, Dato did some drugs, he wept quietly, tears rolling down from behind his black sunglasses. He asked Gia about local affairs, then he lost interest and stopped listening to Gia’s Megrelian arguments and swearing.
“How are the children? How’s your wife?” he asked Gia quietly when at one point they were keeping vigil for Pridon Marshania while Gia’s elder nephew was reading Psalm 90 aloud to the deceased.
“She’s all right, I dunno really. How do you think she’d be, putting up with us?"
“You’ve got two boys and a girl, haven’t you?”
“I’ve got two boys and two girls. Both boys are called Dato, in your honor.”
“Come on, what do you mean, man, both brothers have the same name?”
“I call one Dato and the other one Data!”
“You’re one crazy motherfucker!” It was the first time Dato Shervashidze had laughed during these days.
The next day after the funeral, Dato Shervashidze dropped in on Gia Ezukhbaia, taking some gifts for his namesakes. The Ezukhbaias laid the table. Dato Ezukhbaia was silent during the whole feast and he even dozed off a couple of times, but his silence was eloquent. It was Gia who began to speak.
“When are you heading back to the Baltics, Dato? We’ll see you off. You need to be seen off properly, it’s the right thing to do. It’s a very bad time here now. Ah!”
The steady dull sound of gunfire came from outside.
Dato Shervashidze had been drinking chacha, 45 proof, but he suddenly sobered up and said:
“I’m not going anywhere from here!”
Gia’s older brother immediately understood and shook his head quietly.
“Come on, what are you gonna do? What the hell is there here for you? Don’t say this shit, are you crazy? Our dear departed Pridon Marshania didn’t believe me either and now he’s lying in the ground, God bless his soul. Can’t you see what’s happening in this place full of weeping mothers? What have you lost in this hellhole, you motherfucker?. . . Come on, buddy, if only I had some place to go like you do, I wouldn’t . . . ”
“So who will I leave Pridon with? Who will I leave you with? And what’ll I do then back in Riga? Arse around having fun? Fuck the Baltics, what have they got to do with me? Am I going to leave my brother lying in the ground, sacrifice him without any revenge and run away myself? Where should I run away to, Gia? Who should I run away from? Should I run away from these rats and whores? How can I run? And leave you just like that, will I? And what would you say then if that’s what I did, eh? Dato Shervashidze is one cold dude, he wants to do what he wants to do, does he do the right thing? Eh? You’d fucking curse me!”
“I won’t curse you! Just go, be well and I swear on the lives of all my four children I won’t curse you, I won’t call you a motherfucker. I swear brother, this older one . . .”
“No, you won’t do it, you won’t have to curse me. That’s it, I’m staying, it’s a done deal. If I go, it means I’ve chickened out. I’ve never run away from anything, you know that.”
“What about your wife and children? What are you going to do with your family? Are you leaving them in Riga or what?”
“They're OK there. What about yours here? Or your children aren’t children and your family’s not a family, how can they put up with this hell? Let them put up with it in Riga as well.”
Gia looked at his childhood friend with alarm.
“Sure, that’s all clear, but what are we going to do now, Dato?” the older brother asked Gia.
“I spoke to Marshania’s brothers who belong to the Mkhedrioni. I told them I was staying. They’ll help us with everything.”
“That’s no good, I don’t like having anything to do with the Mkhedrioni. They won’t understand us. The people in Abkhazia won’t understand us either, Dato . . .”
“Who gives a shit about the people! People are the same as the Mkhedrioni, what do you want from the Mkhedrioni, what’s wrong with them, the same people join the Mkhedroni, what makes you think otherwise? They don’t fall from the sky, they're one of us too. It was people who created that Mkhedrioni, they run to them first to inform on who’s got so many flocks of sheep and who’s kicking off what problems with who. I’m certain of it. Those shitfaces, whores …”
“I know all these troubles better than you, but all the same, I won’t go to them, I don’t like those people!” said Gia Ezukhbaia.
“OK, as you like, if you don’t want to, we won’t go to the Mkhedrioni. They can just help us get weapons. We’ll stay separate. We’ll call ourselves the Gali Battalion, I dunno, what does it matter?”
“Nothing matters,” Gia Ezukhbai agreed. He was thoughtful.
“Do you have a weapon?”
“Sure, we’ve certainly got weapons,” said Gia Ezukhbaia and averted his eyes from his pale wife, who was leaning against the dresser, her hands over her mouth.
“We’re getting together in Gali tomorrow at ten o’clock. There’ll be weapons waiting for us there too. There won’t be any problems regarding any weapon. I don’t want to argue about whether you’re coming or you’re not coming, you’ll remain my brothers until death.”
Gia Ezukhbaia’s older brother sat silently. He’d already made up his mind.
“Go to hell!” said Gia Ezukhbaia, his voice cracking.
“I’m off, and thank you very much for everything. My apologies to the ladies, I’ve caused you a lot of bother. God bless you.”
They kissed each other at the gates while parting.
“Fuck their mother, those whores who put my Pridon Marshania under the earth, fuck all their mothers . . .” said Dato Shervashidze, high on drugs, getting into the car and revving the engine. The lights from the fast-moving car danced around in the dark for a long time as the car rattled away over the potholes along the road.
At ten in the morning they met up in Gali. Dato Shervashidze came along at eleven, hardly able to open his eyes. And it started. They fought mainly in Ochamchire: Kochara, Tsageri, Kidgi, Tamishi,Tsebelda, Labra. During the first battle near Kochara, Gia Ezukhbaia couldn’t lift his head. He was lost amid the roaring and shooting. “If only I could be safe now, God, I won’t come back here again,” he said to himself with his head down in the muddy earth and his eyes firmly on the green blades of grass. His older brother came running up. “What’s wrong with you, you aren’t wounded, are you?” Pale Gia only managed to shake his head to say no. "Shoot now, or shame on you,” his brother told him quietly and then, bending over, he ran back to his position and sat down near a gray wall with peeling plaster which was all that remained of the abandoned, gutted farmhouse—and carried on shooting. Gia saw how the twinkling red-yellow flame emerged from the shaking machine gun in his brother’s hands. His brother’s face was calm and he shot round after round at steady intervals. He took careful aim and fired. “My brother’s strong, that bastard, he’s always been strong . . . ach, when will all this end and when will it get dark? Ach, Dato Shervashidze, where did you bring me and what you are you putting me through? Mother, what the hell is this! God, save me now and fuck anyone who would come back here . . . What have I got to do with the war and shooting and why did I get involved in this massacre? What kind of general am I, wretched me?” Then he lifted the machine gun above his head and pressed the trigger. Even in that atmosphere of roaring, the piercing, deafening sound of his machine gun hammered on his eardrums. The red-hot cartridge cases falling from the machine gun scattered around on the ground, producing a cold, ringing sound. “Ouch, when will this cursed thing be over, I wish it would get dark at least . . .” The sun continued to shine brightly and that day claimed many lives before the night fell.
In the evening when everything was over and they got back together, Gia felt very ashamed. He was especially ashamed in front of the young guys from Tbilisi who knocked back drinks carelessly and discussed with the locals the quality of local joints and how to get hold of some hash. “When a man of my age throws away his hoe and spade and picks up a gun, nothing will come out of this man,” he said out loud. The guys from Tbilisi smiled tolerantly and a bit ironically too. ”That’s nothing to worry about, uncle, at the beginning we all pissed ourselves in terror, that’s what happens at first,” said the youngest one of the Tbilisi guys, a baby face who couldn’t be older than his nephew. “Look at him, what can you say when this kid has to defend you, man . . . I can’t let on I’m scared stiff or these bastards will never let me forget it.”
“When we put an end to this disaster, I promise you some good Otobyia hashish!”
“Is it strong?” The youngest one’s eyes lit up.
The older Ezukhbaia sat at the foot of a tree, quiet and thoughtful as usual. He shook his head unhappily at Gia’s words.
“You’re over the top, Dato, it’s not good, you know you don’t need it,” he told Shervashidze.
Dato Shervashidze sat quietly on somebody’s rucksack, he was sweating profusely and could hardly breathe.
“He was chasing the bullet, this damned idiot,” thought Gia Ezukhbaia. “It all depends on the man, but Dato and his brother fought well even though they were in battle for the first time.”
“Pridon was everybody’s brother and we all loved him a lot, but you have to do things carefully and sensibly. Just following your heart doesn’t help get things done, but hey, that’s what you’re doing,” the older Ezukhbaia told Dato.
“He shouldn’t have got involved in this cock-up, those crooked politicians start something in their offices then good guys die on both sides and nothing happens to those at the top. They couldn’t give a rip whether we die or not, they’ll even use it to their advantage. He shouldn’t have got involved. If I’d been here I would have prevented it, but now what can you say to him, he’s pushing up daisies, it’s too late now,” said Dato Shervashidaze, his hissing voice sounding strange. Then he put his hand into his chest pocket and took out a piece of silver paper folded into four and turned his black glasses toward the guys from Tbilisi.
“Hey, here it is, but be careful, it has a kick, don’t overdo it.”
The youngest one of the Tbilisi guys approached him slowly, walking with a theatrical air and took it.
“Thanks. And you?”
“I don’t smoke that stuff.”
“Dato, perhaps you can get hold of someone there in Abkhazia, you’ve got some good honest, sensible people. Perhaps we can bring this bad thing to a close . . ."
Dato Shervashidze took out a cigarette and lit up.
“It’s not going to end now,” he said eventually. “Slavika’s already been killed in Kapi. He tried to help the Georgian priest in Gagra, the Russians had put a rubber tire on him and were going to burn him. He stood in front of this priest in Kapi and shouted, What are you doing, you whores? Without any gun and with his bare heart he covered the priest. The Cossacks killed Slavika after the Georgian priest in Kapi and burned both of them together anyway. Our lot, Abkhazians, said they would find those Cossacks. Where can you find those beggars, they don’t have any breeding or sense of race or home or honor? And Beso Agrba fights on their side, the Georgians set fire to his cousin in a tank near Gumista and he’s taking revenge. Dima Argun’s uncle was killed in Gagra, his blood relative, his mother’s brother, and he’s fighting against us too. The Mebonia lot, people like ‘sukhumski,' Tatash Chkhotua and Dato Gerdzmava avoided the whole thing from the very beginning. They’re in Russia, in Moscow. They phoned me several times, they were going to visit me in Riga. There’s yet more folk but they can’t make up their mind, what can they do, who would listen to what they have to say, fuck their mothers, the thugs. They've sold everything and it’s all sewn up.”
Gia Ezukhbaia listened to them quietly. This conversation made his body feel even colder. He held on to his machine gun with all his might and tried not to pay attention to his heart, which was sinking with fear. “I wonder what’s happening at our place, how they’re getting on at home?” he asked his older brother.
Gia’s older brother shrugged his shoulders and looked away to one side.
The following day, early in the morning, Shervashidze shot up, then they went out to the crossroads to a standpipe to wash their faces.
“Eh, what’s happening at home, brother, I wonder, how are they and what are they’re doing? They’re probably nervous and worrying a lot.” Gia Ezukhbaia repeated what he’d said the previous day.
“Why are you going on about home? How do I know what’s happening there. Whose house is it anyway?” the older Ezukhbaia suddenly started shouting furiously.
“Why are you shouting?”
Suddenly, there was the sound of ferocious shooting. The sound of gunfire was coming toward them very quickly.
The village was being attacked. The fighters dispersed chaotically, running to find the most advantageous positions that were relatively safe and tactically correct. Only Dato walked because he wasn’t up to running.
Gia Ezukhbaia together with Shukria Diasamidze from Batumi ran quickly to the very first courtyard and set up an ambush in the corner of an abandoned house with broken windows. Shukria Diasamidze sat close by, near the outside kitchen.
“Have you seen my people by any chance?” Gia Ezukhbaia shouted, pale faced and looking around. He was looking for his brother and Dato Shervashidze.
His question was lost in the noise of Shukria Diasamidze’s machine gun. Diasamidze shot one round and he shot carefully. Gia Ezukhbaia shot bullet after bullet to the opening at the end of the courtyard.
A bit later, a round of four bullets hit Diasamidze in the right side of his chest. A fourth bullet grazed his shoulder. Gia quickly ran up to him, sat down beside him, and stared bewildered at Shukria’s quivering face and the pink bubbles of blood appearing at his mouth. One bullet had gone through his lung. It was the first time Gia had seen a man killed by gunshot and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw how, even though he was already dead, for a few seconds Shukria Diasamidze kept pulling at the belt of his submachine gun and how the fingers of his right hand were convulsing.
Gia Ezukhbaia felt a weight lifted from him. He got up from where Shukria Diasamidze was lying and stretched, carefully avoiding stepping in the pool of blood that had suddenly spread all around. He then leaned the machine gun butt against his shoulder and fired the whole cartridge in the direction of the end of the orchard and then, while still standing, he replaced the cartridge and fired once again. He could hear the characteristic hissing sound of the bullets whizzing past him. Only yesterday, that sound was enough to freeze his blood in their veins, but now that no longer happened. It didn’t happen and that’s all there is to it. Neither the explosion of a mine nearby nor the soil that had fallen on him, nor the hissing sound of more frequent bullets, shot one by one, could make him lower his head.
The Willys drew up at the gates near the house with a squawking noise. People got out, then carried Shukria Diasamidze back to the vehicle.
“Makes no sense, he’s dead and done for,” a voice sounded.
They laid Shukria Diasamidze’s body carefully at the edge of the road.
“Get in touch with San Sanich with the walkie-talkie, he can come with the Gazik,” said one of them, running toward Gia, bending double.
A little later, the others rushed into the courtyard as well, including the older Ezukhbaia and Dato Shervashidze. They sat down at the foot of the tree. Dato Shervashidze insisted on getting up onto his feet several times. The Ezukhbaias tried to stop him by swearing and shouting, but it was already too late. Shervashidze fell down. He was lucky. The bullet had gone through his side.
Both the Ezukhbaia men rushed to Dato Shervashidze.
”See what he’s done, insisting on having his own way. I’m the son of a whore . . .”
“Come on, bring him here, what was he doing, the bastard, really he’s not all together . . .”
“Let me go, there’s nothing wrong with me, it’s a flesh wound!”
”Shut up or I’ll kill you with my own hands. It went through his flesh, son of a bitch.”
They forcibly shoved Dato into the nearby Willys.
“Take him, take him away from here! Who’s this crazy SOB, he’s been high since this morning and he can’t feel anything anymore. You’re the one who should be worrying about him . . .”
At the end of the day, impregnated with the smell of gun powder, Gia Ezukhbaia sat at the foot of the tree and smoked one cigarette after another and thought about the blood of Shukria Diasamidze from Batumi. He didn’t remember Shukria himself very well, he had only met him the previous evening and they had soon gone to bed and in the morning they had got involved in the fighting. He couldn’t help thinking about the pool under Shukria Diasamidze’s body, the blood the color of red wine, flooding like the sea. He had the feeling that that the man’s blood was his very own. Then he got used to it. He was no longer petrified with fear.
He got used to it. He got used to shooting, but he found it more difficult to get used to things other than shooting. For a week after the battle had erupted, he hadn’t been able to touch any food. He was hungry, but he felt no hunger. On the contrary, at the end of each day when he saw how the warriors gulped stewed meat and condensed milk straight from the tins or guzzled half-raw stolen pork, he felt sick the whole time. “How can those wretches eat among so many dead people, blood and gunfire?” But not long afterward, in a manner he didn’t even understand himself, he began to use the bayonet of his Kalashnikov rifle to eat stewed meat mixed with lumps of fat straight from the tin.