by Anjana Basu
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Four Centuries from Zagreb
By Viktor Car
Chameleon Press. 6 pounds 50
9:00 a.m. The usual rush for the office, cars jammed bumper to bumper, negotiating for space. Every one has their finger on the horn and tempers are short. And then, at the last minute, the way seeming clear as the level crossing hoves into sight, the red bar descends and the siren begins.
The horns are louder than ever, fingers rigor-mortised it seems on them. But there is no hope. Once the bar is down is down you are stuck there for as long as the train takes, looking hopelessly across the tracks. Except for the children of course, the level-crossing children who can’t be bothered to wait. They swing under the bar and trapeze across the tracks. They continue to do this even when the train is in plain sight, the tracks vibrating and the rattling, juddering juggernaut bearing down. Death ,you think, is inevitable, but the lucky ones slip out like greased monkeys. And the people on either side stare.
That is how it is and has been--eyes on either side of a border confronting each other and in the middle the ones who manage to slip away and find refuge. Refugees are everywhere – the world is full of places where the level- crossing bar has come down and the people on either side, guns in hand instead of horns, are staring hard at each other. Barbed-wire level crossings, Berlin Wall level crossings and even those that shift every day, now it’s here and now it isn’t, and when it isn’t the train runs you down without warning. Kashmir, Bangladesh, China, Croatia and all those places that fell off the map when the USSR dissolved.
Viktor Car and Jaspreet Singh are both Canadian writers and they span dangerous worlds: Croatia and Kashmir.
Viktor Car’s Four Centuries From Zagreb is full of stories about his refugee existence. Flight from Croatia after solitary confinement in prison and then life in Canada with a wife and a growing daughter. Leaving behind him a book full of memories – like his mother’s goulash on a Saturday, browned onions, pork and a slurp of white wine. Or an incident when he was caught stealing a volume of Nietzsche by a woman in a bookshop who told him, “That’s what you learn in Croatia.” His friends aren’t sure whether that refers to stealing or to reading Nietzsche. They take him back to the shop when he returns eight years later, a successful professional who finds for the first time that he can fly back home from Canada without fears of being caught and put into jail. ‘On this rainy evening, still feeling jet lag, it seems to me it's been four hundred years since I myself left this city.’
People consistently identify him with his country of origin and its newly grown reputation for ethnic cleansing, while he himself is haunted by the people and the places he knew in a world before all that. ‘My whole system has become fragile. I have to watch out for everything. Alcohol destroys me. I only manage to sleep three or four hours a night.’
Car’s stories are not really stories in that sense – they are snippets of memory put together, reminiscences of things past and present. A mouse’s kiss as the author lies in jail looking across the border that separates life and death. Memories dovetail, one into another. A friend talks of searching for known faces in a field strewn with bodies after one of those Serbo-Croat encounters. He finds the corpse of someone he used to play soccer with and recognises him only by his knobbly knees. Even under heavy shelling the little Panonian villages still looked sleepy. Everywhere there were piles of rubble, burning houses, trees sliced through by shrapnel. ‘Canadian winds and copious amounts of wine erode the contours of Kaptol like centuries of rain.’ The past seems both unreal and unforgettable.
The style is taut, a combination
of sensuality expressed through textures set against urgency with sudden
flights of poetry. On a plane he reads a book on travel and discovers that
travellers are those who have no sense of self. Because they are constantly
on the move, they have no depth to them. The discovery unsettles him. In
Portugal he finds that the dead past and dead present fit comfortably into
each other. Ghosts can rub shoulders with each other over the centuries,
old cobblestones sharing champagne memories.
The Kashmir issue is similar yet different to that of Croatia. Ruled by a Hindu maharaja who gifted the state to India at the time of Independence, Kashmir’s population is predominantly Muslim, and from this arises all the problems of the State – since the Muslim subjects of the erstwhile ruler wanted Kashmir to be part of Pakistan. The issue has not been resolved to this day, and the State is plagued by terrorist infiltrations and shifting borders that make day-to-day life in a place once described as 'Paradise on earth' intolerable. And, on both sides of the border are people who feel that they belong somewhere else.
Jaspreet Singh grew up in Kashmir and ended up in Canada. His memories of his childhood are also those of staring across a barbed-wire border, though his 14 short stories, unlike Car’s are actually fictions rather than memoirs. 17 Tomatoes was first published in Canada and won the Quebec Writers' Federation Best First Book Prize in 2004. Jaspreet Singh is not a refugee in that sense and so does not have comments to make on moving from place to place. The Kashmir he portarys is a place that is divided by a shifting border, one day here, one day there.
It is seen, as he saw it, through the eyes of two growing boys. They are not refugees and they have an affectionate acceptance of the haphazard and sometimes dangerous life they lead. A girl is thrust abruptly into their class by a man who could be a terrorist or a spy. Throughout the day, she sits there nervously eating tomatoes while the two boys who watch her begin to fall slowly in love, tomato by tomato. ‘And Adi and Arjun promised her more gifts the next day: butterflies and answers to Mrs. Nargis's exams.’
Jaspreet Singh plays a game of handing on the torch in which minor characters from each of the stories move into other stories and situations where they play leading roles in their own dramas. Everything is interconnected, as India and Pakistan are part of the same land.
Some of the stories, like that of the Ganesh drinking milk, in "The Remover of Obstacles," are set in a time after Singh moved to Canada and are not really cross-border issues. "Hair" is the story of a young boy in love with a beautiful widow who is dealing with the discovery of cancer in her life. His language balances poetry with nuanced prose, while his characters balance the contradictions in their lives and their different viewpoints on states of being.
17 Tomatoes is a deceptively quiet book. On the surface the subject seems easy, but the complexities begin to surface as one delves deeper. In "The Student of Gardens," a major ties a Sikh boy to the cross ‘in the wretched garden of Issa Christ’ because the boy thinks he is in love with his sister and the major wants her to marry ‘a man who could guard her for life.’Not realising that the boy will lay down his life for her in his own metaphysical way. Identity reflected in tranquility – is that an issue?
Perhaps the stories are all about identity after all, belying Shakespeare’s 'What’s in a name?' There’s a poster for a Bengali film called Refugee currently plastered all over the Kolkata walls.It says: 'They took his family. They took his country. But they couldn’t take his identity.' In Singh’s stories, both the growing children and the grown soldiers, the majors and generals, find issues of identity hard to swallow. All they know is that there is a line of barbed wire dividing their country and to get across is easy for a cat or a child – especially when the dividing line runs through one's garden.
Bystanders on a level crossing border have a choice – they can move on and leave the tensions behind them. At least until they return to that crossing the next day and find that the children are back to their dangerous games of living on the edge.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, Black Tongue, has just been publish by Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)