An International Online Journal of Idea and Observation
From The Mad Treasurer's Grandson's Spectacles
A Novel, by Anjana Basu
It was a small insertion in The Statesman. They gave it an inch on the bottom right-hand corner of the middle right-hand page. "Freedom Fighter's Spec-
tacles Broken": that was the headline. Underneath it said: Yesterday, Padma Bhushan Moitra's spectacles, housed in the Moitra Museum in Amnaguri, North Bengal, were damaged through sheer carelessness on the part of a sweeper. Padma Bhushan Moitra was a noted freedom fighter, as well as Minister of Cul-
ture under the Gandhi Government.
Spectacles. That was one of the first things they told me about Padma Bhushan Moitra. How he'd stand there like a monolith, letting the light glint on his spectacles like a miniature interrogator's spotlight. They were thick round lenses rimmed in gold or silver wire, depending on whether he wanted to be discreet or ostentatious. I believe he had them made by Lawrence & Mayo.
I am looking at him now the way you would look through a pair of spectacles, but the way a short- sighted person looks at things, holding them close to her nose to catch the details. I am not a his-
torian, by the way, so my interest has no basis in scholarly research. Nor am I even a relative. But I was once almost a relative. I ran around with Padma Bhushan Moitra's grandson for eight years. At the end of that time the relationship fell apart, and it fell apart because Padma Bhushan Moitra cast such a long shadow. I saw the spectacles once on a rare trip to North Bengal. Shubho was still talking to me in those days. He took me reverently to the museum and almost made me cover my head before I crossed the threshold - after all; I was the family daugh-
ter-in-law who was visiting my revered elder's place of pilgrimage. We were met by the small dusty cur-
ator who quivered with awe when he saw Shubho. He conveyed us to an equally dusty, dirty glass case.
The glass was so furred with dirt that you could barely see the outline of something inside. There was a board next to it which probably said something about the history of the spectacles, but I had no time to read it. Shubho had me by the arm and was demanding a flat on-the-floor obeisance to the spectacles. For a moment, I couldn't take in what
he was saying. When I did, I found myself stretched flat-out on the dusty floor. The habit of obedience dies hard in a woman, even in a so-called Anglicised woman.
I got up, shook the dust from my sari and bit down on my feelings. "You believe in ancestor worship," I said to Shubho, "the way the Chinese did." He didn't understand what I was saying, but he had read about such things in those books that he bought so com-
pulsively, so he laughed. "You say such things, yaar...how about a cuddle?" And he engulfed me in front of the scandalised curator. "That's bad man-
ners," I told him, after I had extricated myself into the sunlight. "How could you do that?"
"My grandfather won't mind," he said. "In fact, he'd probably enjoy it." I had a momentary vision of eyes behind those spectacles, peering out through the fog of dirt. Beady, hot eyes, exactly like Shubho's. "It was my grandfather's ambition," he was saying, "to sleep with three women at once. So he went to Geneva for this operation...you know, glands, yaar...but somehow it bumbooed him. He died."
I didn't pay attention to what he said then, though later it was to echo in my mind. I was too hot and shaken and embarrassed - so embarrassed that I didn't even dare look at the curator. What I needed at that moment was to prove that I was respectable, a worthy almost-granddaughter-in-law to the man in whose honour the museum had been built.
Disillusionment about that worthiness was to come later, but then I just shook Shubho off and went back to read what was written on the board beside the spectacles. There was the date of a birth and the date of a death. There was also a long list of meritorious public works, of awards and the names of children and grandchildren. "He wore those very glasses when he came here to open this museum," the curator quavered at me. He had inaugurated the museum wearing those spectacles. Of course, the curator was wrong - the museum had been inaugurated after Padma Bhushan Moitra's death, but I didn't know that then.
I left the Museum and Amnaguri that afternoon. Shubho drove to Badogra and escorted me possessively onto the flight. The airhostess smiled at him with a shade more warmth than was required, silly bitch. In those days he was short and square, a cross between a teddy bear and a brick wall. He still had all his teeth and he looked like a German navvy with Roger Moore's forehead. People liked him when they saw him, women smiled at him. Take him, I said to her, silently in my head, daring her to, wondering whether I would mind if she did. I did mind when it had happened in the past. Possibly it was Shubho's ambition as well to sleep with three women at once and one of these days he was going to achieve it, with or without glands. The only thing I knew for certain was that he expected me to be one of those three women. If you could call that a commitment to a relationship.
Mrinalini would probably have died for a commitment like that; perhaps once I might have thought it meant something too. Instead, I fastened my seat-
belt, sank back into my seat and, when the plane took off, watched Shubho become a small speck in the glass of the porthole. Until the image ran with water droplets and, for no reason at all, I was reminded of the lenses in the dirty glass case. I hadn't heard about the glands and the three-woman thing before. Perhaps Shubho wasn't serious about it - perhaps it was just excitement caused by the fact that he was about to do something forbidden like humiliate me in front of the curator. His behavior certainly didn't improve our relationship, and it made me feel soiled.
I made up my mind that I would ask Shanto about what Shubho told me the moment I got home, because Shanto never said things for effect. And I did, that even-
ing, half an hour after I arrived. Even over a bad line I could hear Shanto was shocked. "My brother told you that?"
"Why? Wasn't I supposed to know?"
"Yes, but well, not till much later..."
"Why the secrecy?" I asked, my voice reduced to a tired croak the day beginning to catch up with me.
"He was afraid you wouldn't marry him.... Look, you've accepted most things about our family. You know what we're like... Hello, hello, are you there?"
"Yes," I said, "I'm still here."
"You sound like you're coming down with a cold or something. Why don't you go to bed with a nice hot cup of soup? My brother's coming down in a few days.... We can talk things over.... I'll call you tomorrow...."
At the climax of his life, at 70, Padma Bhushan Moitra was found dead in his bed as the result of the combined attentions of three whores and a host of goat-gland-bearing Swiss doctors. The servant, tiptoeing blindfold in with bed tea at seven and finding no relieving hand to lighten the tray, un-
veiled his eyes, discovered the corpse and alerted the police. A fleet of severe black cars flashed their red-sirened way to the chalet and erupted into official blue-coated men. The Chief of Police was confronted by the butler wringing his hands. "Sir, sir, such an unfortunate..."
The Chief shrugged himself out of his fur-lined coat. "Where's the body?"
"This way, sir. I assure you we haven't touched a thing.... Oh dear, so unfortunate...." The butler's voice trailed away as he opened the door.
The first thing the Chief noticed was the smell - an almost tangible stale greasiness, oozing coldly on the air. "Open those windows!" he snapped. The butler scuttled toward the windows, carefully avert-
ing his eyes from the bed. Cold sunlight sliced into the room and glinted on a pair of gold-framed spec-
tacles. A cuckoo clock hiccuped eight with an iron-
ical whir. It was a wide, well-gilt room carpeted in simulated mink. The rumpled bed was the biggest thing in it. On the marble bedside table bristled a black millipede. "See what that is," the Chief or-
dered his subordinates. "Be careful."
There was a tense pause. Then, "It's eyelashes, sir."
"Yes, sir. You know, those false ones women use."
The body was half out of the bed, lolling face downwards. They straightened it carefully. The pillows were smeared with vaseline. The Police Chief found the half-empty jar under the bed. While the forensic experts carried out their examination, he went into the adjoining bathroom and discovered dollops of pulped lipstick-smeared tissue.
No one could exactly state the time of death. The experts surmised that it was between midnight and two-thirty. To them it was a matter of grave em-
barrassment, given the fact that he was, after all, an Indian Minister of State, no matter how dubious or how internationally unimportant.
"It will be very difficult explaining this to the press," said the Chief.
"But is there a need to explain?" said his col-
league. "He is old, he died of heart failure."
"The Indian Government will be bound to ask ques-
tions. This is not an easy matter. The forensic department has assembled four different types of hair..."
"A blonde, brunette and a redhead?"
"Swiss doctors are matters to be ashamed of, com-
rade. It is a well-known fact that before this happened he had implants. I am told it was in all the Indian papers."
"Was it the goat or the monkey?"
"It obviously worked." The Police Chief sighed and perambulated once around the bedroom, his hobnails scuffing the mink. "It is very serious. The body bears evidence of at least three sets of teeth, traces of scarlet nail polish."
"Three women! He was ambitious!"
"And he was also a Minister of State."
"Come on, mon ami, cheer up. We must issue a state-
ment for the papers. I will help you write it."
India mourns the passing of Padma Bhushan Moitra. The 70-year-old Minister of State for Culture passed away peacefully in his Swiss hideaway yesterday. Doctors said the cause was a sudden heart attack. Padma Bhushan's family was informed. In Amnaguri, his eldest son glared at the telegram and wondered what to do about it. "Someone's got to go to Switzerland, I suppose."
"Why bother?" asked his wife. "Tell them to send you the ashes in a copper urn and have a public scat-
tering ceremony by the dam. It'll be good for your elections." She had other things to do. Straight after the telegram she went into the Austrian woman's room and unlocked a brass-bound chest. From its camphor interior she dragged out a bulky coat, releasing a flight of moths from the folds of the Russian leopard. They flapped dementedly around the room like bad memories and finally roosted in the cracks of the shutters. The coat was almost bald. "Thank goodness he didn't give it to one of his women," she sighed.
His second son received the news at the factory and went running to tell his wife. "Damn, I suppose they'll have taken everything out of Amal's wife's cupboard by the time we get there."
"But you did remove the emeralds when she left, didn't you?" he asked her worriedly. "Because if you didn't, Hari's bound to give them to his wife."
The third son took himself quietly down to the country liquor shop and was not heard of for the day.
As I far as I was concerned, Padma Bhushan's porn-
ographic death wasn't how the whole thing began for me, even though it might have been how the whole thing began for Shubho, since his world fell apart when his grandfather died. He came back from Amna-
guri to boast about his grandfather's death as if it were some great achievement, while I was looking for an explanation or consolation for being associated with a family like that. Shubho told it like the start of a Mickey Spillane or a James Hadley Chase - all we needed was for a gun-toting blonde to walk in and rake the room with flashes of machine-gun fire and leave dead cops all over the place. The way they related the death to me was deliberately obscene - let's show poor little Nandini exactly what kind of family she's getting herself in to. If I had been older and wiser I would probably have seen it as a cry for help - Shubho wanted attention from me and decided the best way to get it was to scandalise me. But he never realised that my story with him didn't begin with a death in Geneva. Nor did it begin as a kind of negotiation - though for members of the Moitra family life itself was a negotiation and there was no deal that could not be won and no person who could not be bought over. My story with Shubho began with the exit of a girl called Mrinalini from his life.
One fine day - why do writers always use that one fine day business? I don't know whether the day was fine or not - Mrinalini stormed into Shanto and Shubho's house in a flurry of red sari and temper. She was in her usual state of untidiness, her petticoat sticking out a palmsbreadth below her sari, with cheap plastic slippers flopping under-
neath. Today, they were red plastic to match. "Where is he?" she stormed as soon as she cleared the door.
"Who?" Shanto asked, knowing perfectly well.
"Shubho!" She was so angry, she was panting and her corals danced in a pattern of coils on her breast.
"Sit down, sit down," he said patting a chair. When-
ever Shanto saw her he wondered what his brother saw in her. She was so dark and fussy. Bits and pieces of her escaped all over the place, her hair straying out of its bun, her petticoat out of the sari, and she was forever trying to herd those bits and pieces back into place and never quite succeeding.
"I waited for him an hour and a half," she fumed, rearranging herself unsuccessfully.
"Where is he?"
Since the age of five, Shubho had thought he was a Casanova. Well, no, five might be a bit of an exag-
geration. He was seduced by the maid at thirteen, that I know for sure, since according to Shanto, they all were. Of course, if you are Padma Bhushan Moitra's grandson, I suppose it was inevitable.
Shanto and Shubho grew up with their eyes glued to keyholes, and Shubho was always snuffing around Grandpa's heels. When they were four and five, they would sit on the edge of the courtyard and watch the pretty starlet whores leaving grandfather's room in the morning. They called them the devika ranis, after an actress who was all the rage for her beauty and scandalous love life. Because Shubho had a year's advantage, he liked to act more knowing. "Look, look, see, that one's more swollen here," he would say, fumbling at his chest. Or, "That one's nose is like Sati Auntie's dog's. Grandpa can't have liked her."
Shanto told me that he consoled himself with the fact that their mother never liked Shubho. She always preferred him. Shanto was the one who got to rub oil into her legs when she sunned herself on the terrace in her bikini. Shubho, on the other hand, brought her flowers from the roadside and got slapped because the mud stained her dress. He brought her water in a glass, and some of it always slopped over onto her hand.
"Where is he," Mrinalini asked Shanto again. She was obviously getting fed up by his glassy-eyed silence.
"Have some tea," he said and got up to make it for her.
Shanto never said that he had loved his mother. It wasn't possible after what she did to them. All he said was that she loved him better, which probably made him more balanced in his attitude towards women. Shubho always ill-treated them and expected them to keep on loving him, despite it. In a way, he was getting back at them for all his mother's slaps.
Shanto gave Mrinalini her tea with a squeeze of lemon in it, and he served it in the chipped Satsuma cups that he found in the Thieves' Market. The tea and Satsuma combination obviously did something for her morale because she relaxed into the chair. "I wouldn't be so angry," she confessed, "if I hadn't bunked two lectures. I can't afford to keep bunking lectures for your brother."
"Who asked you to?" Shanto said.
A stray hair dropped into her cup. She fished it out with a finger. Looking at her, Shanto found it hard to believe that she and Shubho were an item. Every-
one cooed indulgently about them in Presidency. Shubho's friends told Shanto how the two held hands in deserted classrooms or were discovered clinched on the dusty library floor. Someone compared them once to bullock-cart wheels; two round forms rolling side by side. Shanto didn't think they belonged together. He thought she was just part of Shubho's Casanova image. De Sade was Shubho's role model, of course, I knew that now without Shanto having to tell me. In his head Shubho was the man who got all the women and made them run. He could take away a worker's daughter if he wanted without raising a storm in the tea estate. Padma Bhushan carried on the same way till the time of his death. Not that Shubho had the grandfather's style. All he had was the chip their mother had left him with and the bad habits he had learned from their father. At sixteen Shanto caught him mixing cocktails of rum and vodka to see how they tasted. "It's the alcoholic's blood," he told Shanto proudly and forced some down his throat. They were both very sick that night and the nest day their House Master sent them down for being drunk.
Shanto had a thousand and one stories like those about his brother, and he was sure Mrinalini didn't know half of them - he did his best to make sure that I was enlightened too. Mrinalini was the sort who'd get drunk on a glass of orange squash if you let her. The first time they all went out together Shubho brought her a glass of orange juice and told her there was gin in it. They'd gone to this res-
taurant with a view of the river, it had plate glass windows lined with high red-leather stools that were jammed together. It was very popular with courting couples in those days. You could sit and kitchy-coo for hours over two cups of coffee or a Limca. Anyway, Mrinalini squealed so loud when she heard about the gin in the orange juice that all the courting couples unglued their heads and turned to look at them. Then, after she'd taken a few sips, she started to teeter on the stool until it tilted. Shubho was a little slow to catch her, so she crashed on the floor and burst into tears in a welter of orange juice. At that point, the male member of one of the courting couples stalked over to them and said angrily, "You don't behave like that in here. This is a decent place." Mrinalini cried harder at that. Shanto offered her his hand-
kerchief, but she didn't seem to see it.
After a while Shubho picked her up and dusted her down. "You wait here," he said to his brother. "I'll put her on a cab home."
Shanto waited until he couldn't look another Limca in the face. Then he paid the bill and went home. Shubho staggered in somewhere around midnight. "Don't make a big deal of it," he told Shanto irri-
tably when he saw him glaring. "I had to see her home, didn't I? And soothe her up a bit."
"You needn't have asked me to wait. And why on earth did you have to give her that gin?"
Shubho paused in the midst of pulling his singlet over his head. "Who said there was any gin in it? I gave her straight orange squash. If she's such an idiot that she gets drunk on orange squash..."
Mrinalini got out of her chair. "I'm going to put the cup in the kitchen," she announced. "Shall I take yours?" And she did without waiting for an answer. After a while Shanto heard noises from his brother's room and went to investigate. Mrinalini was going through his drawers. She pulled out a pair of pajamas streaked with grey and made a face at them.
"You'd better put them back," Shanto warned her. "Shubho hates people prying into his things."
"These need washing," she said. "I'm going to take them to the washerman's." She rolled an eye over him. "Do you have something that needs washing too? Give it to me."
Her hair cascaded over her eye and she pushed it back impatiently. The other problem with Mrinalini was that she was always trying to take care of the two brothers, pushing her way into places where she was not always welcome. When their father was in town, she would sit at his feet, rubbing oil into them for hours on end "What on earth does that girl want?" he asked once after she'd spent the day ordering the servant around the house. "If you're going to marry her, Shubho, I'd advise you not to. She's not our class." What their class was, was debatable. Mrinalini, if untidy, was at least de-
cent. As far as Shanto could tell, she didn't have a history of alcohol and devika ranis. But she didn't have enough money either, she wore plastic slippers and Shanto didn't like the possessive gleam in her eye, as if she were already a daughter-in-law of the Moitra family.
"I don't need anything, thanks," Shanto replied. "My brother is the dirty member of the family. Perhaps he'll be glad if you keep him clean."
She flopped onto her knees and pulled out a few more pieces of dirty underwear. Everything Shubho wore next to his skin was a uniform shade of grey. As she shook out a pair of underpants, Shanto saw rusty stains caked on them. He thought they were blood at first, then something about the pattern caught his eye: the unmistakable print of a lower lip.
Mrinalini was looking at him with an expression that he thought was embarrassment. "Don't worry," Shanto smiled, trying to put some warmth into it. "I won't tell anyone."
The tears welled up in her eyes and bled down her cheeks. She dropped the pants, buried her face in her hands and rocked back and forth. Like everything else about her, she was an untidy crier.
"What's the matter?" Shanto asked. "Look, I won't tell anyone...."
She mumbled something into the palms of her hands. Shanto had to bend forward to catch it. "How could he do this to me?"
Shanto heard a scuffling in the other room and dashed off to investigate. Between rooms he reached an inevitable conclusion. The lipstick stains were not Mrinalini's. he found Shubho standing in the drawing room looking distinctly rumpled. He opened his mouth to say something, but Shanto rushed in. "Where on earth have you been? You were supposed to meet Mrinalini at the college steps. She's in your room."
"What did you let her in there for?" Shubho said angrily.
"Where were you anyway?"
"That's none of your business."
"Well Mrinalini's in there crying her eyes out, so you'd better make your alibi a good one. And who's been leaving lipstick stains on your underpants?"
Shanto had his hand on the door handle when he said that. Very slowly, Shubho turned to look at him. "Who told you that? Have you been spying again?" His eyes must have been blazing at a thousand watts.
Shanto began to back away. "Mrinalini was taking a couple of your things to the dhobi's. She's the one who found it..." Shubho cursed and swung out of the room.
Shanto heard a high babble of voices in the next room and decided he was best out of the place. He took a tram to visit a friend in Gariahat. When he came back Mrinalini was gone and Shubho was sprawled on his bed in his shabby navy dressing gown. His grin stretched from ear to ear when he saw Shanto. "I sent three of your vests to the dhobi with Mrin-
alini," he said. The bed was a mess of rumpled sheets and the room stank.
"I don't know how you get away with it," Shanto said.
"It's the philandering blood."
"You mind telling me exactly where you were this afternoon?"
"Amit and I went for a stroll by the river. He had some good hash. It didn't seem worthwhile rushing back. In any case, I got my screw for the day."
"How about the lipstick stains."
Shubho shrugged. "I told you, she and I have a no-strings relationship."
"You may think so, but does she?"
"She wants to marry me. Don't forget that."
"I'm not forgetting anything. But, considering you've been going around with her for almost six years, isn't it time you came to some conclusion?"
Shanto was itching to get out of the room. On summer days you could smell Shubho, rank and ripe in a good south wind. It got so bad, Shanto had to stay down-
wind of him, otherwise his asthma played up. He wasn't like that in Amnaguri, only in Calcutta when the two of them were together. Shanto thought it had something to do with the German in them, which made him extra careful when it came to his personal hygiene. Shubho thought it was just macho.
"You know Baba doesn't approve," Shubho said finally.
"But you can't just go around with a girl for six years and then drop her. She expects you to marry her. Why is she taking care of the washing other-
Shubho heaved himself over so that his dressing gown gaped and his stomach heaved and billowed like a pregnant whale. "I'll take care of that, little brother. I'll take care of that."
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Cal-
cutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been pub-
lished in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
AFTER THE DELUGE
By Anthony Milne
Arriving in bustling Caracas, you would never re-
alize--until you turned on the television or read the newspaper--the extent of the catastrophe that occurred on December 16th just 20 miles away on the north coast. There, where Venezuela meets the Carib-
bean sea, thousands still lie buried under tons of mud. The surface as it dries blows about in choking clouds of dust, down the throats and noses of homeless survivors and those who have come to help them.
Following Venezuela's north coast, 200 miles or so out of Simón Bolívar International Airport, the flight captain on the first BWIA flight allowed in let me sit in the cockpit to see what we could of the flood damage. Most of the passengers on that flight were Venezuelans, apparently coming home to see for themselves what had happened. It was Dec-
ember 29th, the day after Simón Bolívar had been reopened. Vargas is one of the smallest of Vene-
zuela's 30-odd states, and the area so savagely affected by the unprecedented deluge is just a tiny part of Venezuela, which occupies more than 600,000 square miles, the size of France and Britain put together.
At 5,000 feet it was difficult to make out details of the destruction. But there were huge, ugly brown tongues of mud in the valleys, broadening out like big brown beaches where they met the sea. Simón Bolívar, also called Maiquet, had been closed to international flights since the disaster, at an enormous cost in landing fees and other charges, and was now being used exclusively as a centre for rescue operations. Here the grim task of filling thousands of body bags was taking place. Some of the thousands who had been rescued, with their lives and virtually nothing else intact, were given shelter there or ferried to army barracks and other loca-
tions. Army aircraft had been flying in from La Carlota--officially the Base Aerea Francisco de Miranda--the military airport in east-central Caracas, bringing supplies and rescue teams.
But Simón Bolívar was still far from fully func-
tional, with parts sealed off and makeshift immi-
gration centres in use. Special buses at $6(US) a seat were being made available to incoming pass-
engers. The usual taxis and minibuses were not operational. The traffic was all one-way towards the city along the grand autopista through the moun-
tains. For a while the road had been made virtually impassable by huge landslides. The two long tunnels through which the autopista passes got filled with debris, and part of one appeared to have collapsed.
At last we got to the Chacao metro station and found the city about us humming along as usual. Most of the clean-up there was complete. Mud, water and tree trunks had been removed from the metro tunnels, and there was a smell of fresh oil in the stations. From Chacao I traveled a short distance along the Avenida Beethoven to the eight-storey Hotel Beethoven, a bargain accomodation at TT$150 (15,000 Venezuelan Bolivares) a night. It's located in an area of small shops, close-by shopping centres, car-repair garages and panaderias, whereyou can take your morning cafe negro grande and bread with ham and cheese or large biscuits of extraordinary taste and
design. The streets nearby are named after other musicians and artists, and the closest metro sta-
tion is Sabana Grande, where many bookstores are located.
The Beethoven is a fine hotel if you don't mind toilets that clog up and the occasional cockroach. And you couldn't ask for a nicer staff. So much so that I was a little homesick for the place after Hipolito Moona, a Trinidadian-Venezuelan friend, came to rescue me. A couple days later I found myself in a rented room in an urbanizacion of Cali-
fornia Sur, a short walk from the Moonas, in the home of Edgar Ganteaume Pantin, a retired electrical engineer in his seventies. His grandfather came to Venezuela after falling in love with one of the Caracas beauties you see on every street, metro station and shop in that town.
Meanwhile, what happened on the coast had given birth to vigorous political debates about whose fault it was, what was being done for survivors, etc.--all this in an election year. The National Contitutional Assembly has completed Venezuela's twentieth constitution, which created Venezuela's Fifth Republic and renamed the country the Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela after that South American hero of heroes, Simón Bolívar. The election for a new president, congress, state governors and other officials has been postponed from March to June or July. My host's, Senor Ganteaume Pantin's, son Fernando is a chavista hectically campaigning for a seat in the new Congress.
Thousands remain homeless weeks after the tragedy, their houses smashed by tons of silt, boulders, tree trunks and anything else torn away by rivers in flood during the deluge. The crowds of desplazados (displaced) wear hand-me-down-clothes collected by the Red Cross and other agencies, and are fed in makeshift emergency camps. But help is coming: President Chavez, who has shown a talent for weath-
ering adversity quite well, has a plan, states the daily El Universal, which is part of his policy to "conquer" Venezuela's south--an ambition vigorously proposed by the president long before he took office last year. The displaced--now to be called digni-
ficados--are being transported by aircraft southward and eastward out of long, narrow coastal Vargas as well as affected parts of Caracas and the nearby state of Miranda, down to the immense, underdevel-
oped southern State of Bolívar, which makes up a full quarter of Venezuela's total land mass. There they are being settled by the thousands in "regional development centres" and will be employed in the development of Bolívar at the minimum wage of 120,000 Bs a month ($1,200). Chavez's southern strategy, said El Universal, has simply been accel-
erated by the forces of nature."
(Anthony Milne <email@example.com was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University ofthe West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about ev-
erything else under the sun.)
By Miroslav Kirin
They told me to tell this story. To describe the
photograph with me, Darko (that's my name), in it.
As if I were, after all that I've gone through, able
to give a reasonable account of anything. It's been
a long time since I left my village, my country
doesn't exist any more, and in this no-longer-
existing country lives my older brother. His name is
Micho. Recalling that he lives in Croatia, and I in
Serbia, is painful for me. But perhaps I don't
actually live in Serbia. I do live somewhere, one
has to, be it Bosnia, Canada, Germany. It doesn't
matter. Life is miserable no matter what. If I were
dead I wouldn't be able to tell you this. Or perhaps
I would. When it comes to writing, words can come
out of the mouth of a dead man, and they never tell
lies. So perhaps I actually am dead. But I am still
able to tell my story.
Maybe I shouldn't bother you with the particulars
concerning the fact that my brother lives in one
country, I in another. It's a very common situation.
There are many more terrible stories. One of them
might be yours. Families split up, the husband takes
one path, the wife and kids take another. If a man
and wife come to an understanding, which is, you
must admit, pretty difficult, they stay together,
sharing the same burdensome path together. The story
of a family is like the story of a nation. The
house, following that simile, is a kind of state.
They both follow familiar patterns of misfortune.
Well, Micho never loved Mother, for she was a hard
drinker. He used to drink too, but he couldn't bear
to see her doing it. I myself loved her, I believe I
did, or at least I thought she was trying to protect
me from my abusive father who used to, because of my
roguish behavior, thrash me and forbid me to leave
the yard. Micho was older and was allowed to do
anything he liked. He knew how to talk to Father, he
could always find the right words. My own words only
enraged him. Words so easily depart from the mean-
ings we assign to them, playing devilish tricks
on us. What I am going to tell you now may be still
a little too hard for me to talk but...all right.
There's no way out: My father...perhaps, my father
is not my real father. My mother might have got
pregnant by somebody else. These things happen. And
I got the consequence of it, a father who doesn't
love me. I don't know why I'm even wondering about
this, probably because I yearn on some level to be
miserable. The deeper I sink, the better I feel.
You see now what words are for? You may as well
cover me with tar, the whole world is pitch dark
anyway. Feathers swirl in the air where snowflakes
used to fall. I'm all alone in a strange world, with
no name and no mother of my own. Perhaps she died
from alcohol. Maybe she was killed in the war. I
haven't see her, and I've been everywhere, a dis-
placed person. Horrid rumours have reached me.
I didn't believe them, they were too atrocious.
Mistakes are possible. And possibility brings hope.
Even when it is no longer possible. If a friend of
mine was killed, that doesn't mean that my friend
actually died. Someone's friend died, yes, but not
mine. God forbid. I can be deeply moved, for a
while, and then I forget. Who can bear to remember
all that suffering?
My guess is that Mother is probably still alive, I
just don't know where she is. Which makes her dead
in a way, because she's not with me. If she were
here I could at least take care of her, all thin and
shriveled, her face covered by a long black veil.
Instead, it is the world which takes care of me,
passing out packets of humanitarian aid, asking me
to report every month to their blue office. They
tell me to be patient. I can't go anywhere anyway.
I'm chained to my calamity.
It all boils down to the same wretched thing.
Sometimes the world is a monotonous wasteland,
sometimes a flat tyre gushing human blood. You set
out to find your fortune. Each encounter brings you
closer to a conclusion, but they all look alike, and
you fail to recognize yourself in any of them. You
have to reach the edge to realize you can't go any
further. After that you just go into free-fall and
If I were a believer I would set out to look for the
lost God. Something would draw me onward, some
bright vision. But I have never learned how to pray.
I do know how to raise three fingers, which was a
way to show some kind of loyalty to my comrades, but
I still don't know the meaning of the gesture. They
were all doing it, so I did too, and the houses
vanished in flames.
I'm so lonesome I could cry. All I do is sit in my
shack with one window and one door. Sometimes I take
a walk. I can't tell if I'm already half-blind, if
I'm losing my sense of smell, if my body parts are
withering away. I turned thirty yesterday. I remem-
bered just before I went to bed. But there was
nothing I could do about it. Get up and pour myself
a shot? I switched off the light and watched the
well-lit guard post outside my shack until I fell
asleep. During the night I woke up a few times. No
one was lying next to me. Not even a cat escaping
from the frosty night. At one point I thought I
spotted someone peering in at me. Then there was a
knocking on the door, but when I sat up in bed the
knocking stopped. Eventually I fell asleep and I
dreamed about my village, but it could have been any
I don't trust myself, never mind anyone else. In my
village, Slana, no one went to church. The building
just stood there amidst a godless people, to no
purpose. The only day it was attended was on Ascen-
sion Day when the lime trees are in bloom. When
ice-cream vendors reappear. When merry tunes are
played. We thought, what's the use of going to
church when life is so good? You need God when
things get tough--if you're lucky enough to know the
code words with which to address Him. If you don't,
you're out of luck. The village was ethnically
mixed. The Orthodox thought: If we go to church,
what will our Catholic neighbours think of us?
There's no Catholic church in the village except
for the chapel in the cemetery. It wouldn't be fair
if Orthodox could go to church and Catholics
couldn't. So no one went. Out of solidarity. Out of
And then, under cover of darkness, they blew this
place up. Just because it's ours, not theirs. And
then we burnt down each other's houses and slaugh-
tered each other's families. I have no idea whether
anyone's living in Slana right now. Some news does
reach me, but I don't know who's sending it. I've
lost confidence in words. I know what they are
capable of doing. I deeply regret what I've done,
but what's the use of my remorse? Who can I ask
for forgiveness? I know well enough that my neigh-
bours will never absolve me. It wasn't me who
burnt down Vesna's house, but I doubt she would even
talk to me now. I don't know who did it, but it
could have been me. Down deep we're all the same, us
Croats. This is what they think. I guess it's true,
because I think it of them as well.
Perhaps there is a God, but after all that has
befallen upon us, should we care? Perhaps things
might have been different, but they weren't. Life
goes on. Frankly, I no longer know what I've done or
haven't done, so how can anyone believe what I say?
And my disintegration has only just begun. I talk
nonsense, my hands tremble. Sometimes I forget the
way back to my shack. I spend entire afternoons
walking about aimlessly, through the neighbourhood,
trying to retrace my way down blind alleys. In the
twilight I end up again at the door of my shack. My
name is there, and it matches the name on my ID. A
sense of guilt lingers, but what is guilt but a
sense of togetherness in time of darkness.
What else should I say? Oh yes, you were interested
in that snapshot. I don't actually have it. You see,
Teach, Miro's father, made only one print, and I saw
it only once. It's rather difficult for me to remem-
ber it clearly, but I'll try.
Miro, Teach's son, was a little older than me. I
lived some three hundred yards from the school in a
one-storey house made of wood and brick. We played
together, so I guess we were friends. True, many
times I embarrassed him. What did I do? I played all
sorts of pranks, took my clothes off in front of the
girls, told them lascivious stories, made them
Even now I can't understand why. Perhaps it was a
need to extend the borders of my ordinary world. The
image of my father hovers like a ghost through all
memories of my childhood. I had to lie often, invent
stuff in order not to be thrashed by him. I wanted
to please that little god. Tell him what he wanted
to hear. And then, once the walls of my imagination
had been breached, I invented all sorts of stories
for any ear willing to listen and bear witness to my
One day I told Miro about a naked couple I had seen
in the meadow just a few hundred yards from the
school. He said I was a liar, because he knew that I
lied at every opportunity. Maybe he was right and I
did lie that time. Everything's mixed up now.
After he moved to Petrinja we no longer saw each
other save for a few brief encounters. I guess we
weren't such good friends after all. Real friendship
endures all hardships, doesn't admit defeat. I know
exactly what he's going to say when he sees the
ruins of the school where he spent the best years of
his childhood. His response is already burnt into my
memory. I have to live with it, day in, day out.
He'll hate me. I was there when it happened. I feel
responsible for all those burnt-down houses. But
what good is my remorse.
Let me finish the story of that snapshot. In the end
you're all alone, cornered like a rat. Well, it
happened one sunny summer day, probably around noon.
Everything is bright in that snapshot, our features
submerged in a brilliant haze. The two of us are
squatting next to each other in the middle of the
school yard. There's a wooden shack behind us. The
grass seems to have melted into the whiteness of the
ground. A hen is standing at the edge of the image,
silhouetted against the pale brown boards of the
shack. Miro's hair is neatly combed, unlike my own
which is rumpled, his blond curls glued onto his
forehead. His face is quiet, looks reserved with a
hint of irony breaking through the surface of his
well-behaved demeanor. Miro is wearing a white,
yellowish short-sleeved T-shirt with a small pocket
on the left side of his chest, shorts and yellow
plastic sandals. He's watching me stare at his
father's camera: my broad smile, teeth obscured by
the shade of my upper lip, my grin on the verge of
bursting into mocking laughter, or worse even. My
lop-ears are of the kind one sees at carnivals. My
eyes are narrowed in a broad smile. I'm wearing an
old navy T-shirt that belonged to my brother Micho
and long--probably my father's--trousers cut to fit
by my mother, a fabric of indeterminate colour ex-
tending down to my sandals. I am hugging my knees
and stretching my neck so that all the veins there
have become prominent.
That's it: the snapshot. But what puzzles me is
this: what are you going to do with it? Will it
somehow help you to make up for your own losses?
This is the end of the world, and we're both here
together. Would you rather go back and start all
Look at me, friend. This is where you'll find your
(MIROSLAV KIRIN was born in Sisak, Croatia, and lives
in Zagreb. He is the author of two volumes of poetry
and a collection of short fiction. His poetry has
recently been accepted for publication in Poetry
Magazine. He has also translated into Croatian the
works of American writers Paul Auster, Paul Bowles,
Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Siri Hustvedt, Bret Easton
Ellis, et al. "Snapshot" is part of his new collec-
tion of short fiction about post-war Croatia.
By Abbas Zaidi
The first of every month was a time of great tension and excitement on Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street. Those who had the money for their rents gloated over Khurram Pig's (everybody called him "Pig") abusive treatment of the more impecunious tenants. Some smart alecks, despite not being able to pay on time, got round Pig by relating to him some neighborhood sex story in which he could be a potential participant. But this time it was to be altogether different. It was the first of October, and every tenant was anticipating some fun. At the end of Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street--the entire street was owned by our landlord--a big stage had been carefully prepared and about a hundred seats neatly arranged. Khurram Pig had let it be known that there would be a lavish dinner preceded by devotional songs followed by a mujra of Multan's best dancing girls. He had also announced that the tenants could pay their rents on the seventh, a one-week reprieve. 'It is a great day in our lives,' he said, but he did not say why.
When I came out onto the street that day expecting some free food and fun, I found instead a commotion in which Baqir's voice was raised above all the others. 'I will burn the whole Multan University! I will burn the whole country if I have to! All these mother-fucking pseudo-intellectuals are just jealous of our beloved doctor! Bring me a man in the entire universe who is worth the dust off our doctor's feet!' he was yelling in his high-pitched grating voice.
I pushed a few spectators aside for a better view. All the tenants were there, along with a number of other people from the neighborhood. Khurram Pig was prsent as well, looking nervous, his Turkish fez tending toward the right side of his head. In the center of the crowd Shamsuddin, our landlord, sat in a high-back upholstered chair. Baqir was standing nearby as if guarding him. Shamsuddin had a serene look on his face and kept telling Baqir in a quiet voice to calm down. 'You can't change the world, my dear! Truth-seekers are always undermined. The Shias curse three out of the four pious Caliphs of Islam. The Jews disobeyed Allah again and again and pes-
tered every single one of His apostles. Look what happened to the Prophet Himself. People called him a false prophet! Allah's blessing be on him! Amen!'
'Amen!' Baqir shouted, along with the rest, while Shamsuddin's face oozed stoicism. 'You are a saint, but I myself cannot take it anymore! I have re-
quested you many times to migrate to America where they will properly honor you. This unfortunate country does not deserve a genius like you!'
'If every competent person leaves Pakistan, the place will collapse and the Shias will take over,' Shamsuddin replied patiently, his head bowed, his reading glasses resting in his cupped hands.
'Then you should lead a jihad against the Shias. I tell you...'
While Baqir continued his invectives I pulled Tahir, one of my roommates, away from the crowd to ask what was up. What he told me was this: Shamsuddin had obtained a Ph.D. by correspondence in the philosophy of science from a university based on some Pacific island. It was in celebration of that Ph.D. that this grand function was being staged. Shamsuddin had invited the Multan University professors and impor-
tant city dignities to the function, but none had shown up. Some professors had even called Sham-
suddin's Ph.D. a fake.
While Tahir was still telling me this, Baqir shouted, 'Down with the conspirators! Let us celebrate Doctor Shamsuddin's great academic victory!'
Khurram Pig told us tenants to hurry up, and we quickly sat down in the seats in front of the stage. Everyone else there were locals: laborers, sweepers, stray-dog killers, grass-cutters and drug addicts. They could not read a word, but the prospect of free food and fun had excited them beyond their limits, making the event very lively.
The promised musical shows never took place. Baqir made a lofty speech about Shamsuddin's genius and greatness for Pakistan. He would have gone on forever, but after a bit Shamsuddin raised his hand and Baqir abruptly fell silent. Then an old man, a janitor in a nearby factory, stood up and began praising Shamsuddin. 'Now we have our own doctor. We will not have to go to the city for treatment. I request our respected doctor not to charge us like other doctors, as we are poor. I wish he had become doctor before now and saved some of us who died before their time,' at which all the other locals applauded enthusiastically. Khurram Pig gave us tenants a threatening look, and we also applauded.
Shamsuddin said that he was too busy with his scholarly research to start a clinic for them ('Maybe some other time.') Then he talked for a long time about Pakistan's need for scholars, his fas-
cination with the philosophy of science, his four-
year stay in England, the ignorance of the Multan University professors, the Jewish-Shia conspiracy against Pakistan and Islam and, finally, his travels abroad where he had got opportunities to learn and teach. Whenever Shamsuddin paused, Baqir raised his hand and the local people clapped. Then Khurram Pig raised his own hand and we tenants did the same.
The food was modest but we fell on it like hungry animals. Then Baqir left the stage and slipped the linen cloth off a tiny brand new car parked nearby, an 800cc Suzuki. Everone oo'ed and aah'ed. Then a tractor appeared to which was attached a long, battered trolley. Baqir placed a flower wreath and a five-rupee-bill wreath over Shamsuddin's head and held open the back door of the car. Shamsuddin squeezed in, and Baqir assumed the driver's seat. Khurram Pig ordered the locals and the tenants onto the trolley, and our procession started towards the city center, Shamsuddin's car in the lead. Through-
out the journey Khurram Pig called out prompts to which we replied in unison:
'Who will outlive all?'
'Doctor Shamsuddin is the Lion, the rest are...?'
'Time and tide wait only for...?'
Throughout the ride Baqir's hand remained stuck out of the car window, making a "V" sign. The procession paused near the Multan University Staff Colony so that we could shout, 'Down with the pseudo-intel-
lectuals! Down with the conspirators! Down with the Jewish agents!' A number of professors appeared along with their families and some curious passers-
by. I slumped down in a rear seat of the trolley in order not to be seen.
Suddenly Baqir sprang out of the Suzuki and flung open its back door. With considerable grace Raiz climbed out as well, raised his hand in appreciation towards us, made a "V" sign with the other hand towards the University people, took off his wreath and threw it in their direction. Then he got back into the car and the procession started back to Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street.
The next day was Friday. In the late morning Khurram Pig herded all the tenants over to the mosque where a number of locals were already sitting on the carpeted floor. As was his custom every Friday, Shamsuddin was seated on a chair up on the podium. But even though the mosque's prayer room was full after our arrival, he did not start his sermon. Soon a few men arrived in the company of Baqir. Khurram Pig stood up and greeted them. They were strangers to me, but most of the congregation seemed to know who they were. Shamsuddin introduced them as local public school teachers. One of them, Haji Pervaiz, had worked with Shamsuddin in Borneo, and they had come to congratulate Shamsuddin on his Ph.D.
Shamsuddin then gave a long sermon which was actually a synopsis of what he said was his Ph.D. dissertation. He spoke both in Urdu and English. All the locals and most of the tenants were unable to understand a word. To me it sounded like a terrible muddle. But whenever he paused the entire congre-
gation applauded, prompted by the raised hands of Baqir and Khurram Pig respectively. Shamsuddin an-
nounced that in a month's time he would be going to the UK to discuss with the relevant authorities the possibility of setting up a Multan campus of Cam-
bridge University under his own rectorship. Finally, after the Friday prayer, Shamsuddin climbed down from his throne and retired to the Sufi Restaurant at the end of the Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street to discuss some academic matters with the public school people.
Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street was sit-
uated in the outer suburbs of Multan, an extremely backward village with very few civic amenities. There was no drainage system,and the Blessed Street was soft with filth. But it was entirely owned by Shamsuddin. He made good money in Borneo and with it had bought a piece of the Multan suburbs where he had constructed this little real estate empire. Baqir, his childhood friend, was from the same village as himself, a hamlet about four hundred miles from Multan.
There were fourteen double-storey houses on both sides of the Street. At one end was a small Aur-
engzeb mosque and at the other the small Sufi Restaurant, both owned by Shamsuddin. The general state of the dwellings was very bad: dilapidated rooms, ineffably dirty communal toilets, moss-ridden bathrooms. No one was allowed to use electricity after seven in the evening. Even so, it was con-
venient for some us to live there, as it took only a few minutes to get to the city center or the univer-
sity by bus or van. And the rents were very cheap.
Shamsuddin lived on the ground floor of one of the houses, and Baqir lived on the floor above with his wife. Baqir's wife observed complete traditional purdah. No one saw her face or even her hands, be-
cause she always wore black gloves. She led such a cloistered life that no one, not even a woman friend, was ever seen visiting her. Khurram Pig lived somewhere outside the immediate neighborhood, but he was present on the Street from morning till night. He was responsible for collecting rents and kicking out undesireable and deadbeat tenants, and he did so in the most disgraceful manner. He also kept all the rooms overcrowded by adding new tenants at will and by requiring existing tenants to move into other rooms, seemingly at a whim. The tenants were comprised of struggling students, underpaid clerks, unemployed youth from villages looking for jobs in Multan and scores of indigent nonentities. No unmarried woman or Shia was allowed even to be seen on the Street, and every new tenant was re-
quired to swear that he was not a Shia. But soon I discovered that most of the students there were in fact Shias, like myself.
Every tenant, especially those who were being kicked out of their dwellings, added to the stock of stor-
ies about Shamsuddin and Baqir. Those two, along with Khurram Pig, were always the hot topics of conversation. Like every other prospective tenant I had been interviewed by Shamsuddin in his library in the back of the Aurengzeb Mosque (named after the eighteenth century Mogul King who persecuted Shias). There were two glass cabinets filled with 'O' level books, dictionaries and texts on topics ranging from chemistry to literature. During the interview Sham-
suddin freely dropped literary terms, watching me expectantly each time he did so. I told him that despite being an English literature student at Multan University my grasp of the subject was not half as good as his own. He accepted me immediately as a tenant.
Every evening Shamsuddin's tenants and the locals gathered in the Sufi Restaurant because the elec-
tricity restriction did not apply there. That was also where Shamsuddin held court. He always had a book or magazine in his hand and talked incessantly about every topic under the sun. Baqir either ar-
rived with him or showed up shortly thereafter. He never sat on the same level as Shamsuddin and usu-
ally preferred to stand behind him. But at the slightest indication from Shamsuddin he pulled up a small chair and sat down, his hands locked together in his lap and his head cast down. Occasionally he looked up into Shamsuddin's face but only to support a point that his mentor was making, nodding in ap-
proval or shaking it to delore what Shamsuddin was criticising.
'I see innumerable vices about,' Shamsuddin would say, and Baqir would look around suspiciously. 'That makes me angry.' Baqir's face flushed and his lips began to tremble in anger. 'But then when I ponder on some finer aspects of life, like newborn babies or my own intellectual pursuits, I experience a great sense of happiness,' and Baqir's face glowed with happiness, his eyes shining ecstatically. 'But the point is that the Shias, being in the minority, cannot take over the government. That's why they are conspiring with the Jews to capture Islamabad,' at which Baqir's hands looked like someone restraining himself from doing some terrible violence.
'Can you not form an army of Islam and destroy them?' Baqir asked. And Shamsuddin would say, 'We must wait for the right time. Let their friends, the Jews, destroy the West and weaken themselves beyond repair. Then we shall deal with them all....
'In London I was solicited by many women. At times they entered my bathroom naked.' At which Baqir blushed crimson and could not even bear to raise his eyes. 'But I preserved my virginity. My personal philosophy of life is very rigorous,' and a proud, victorious Baqir shot us a victorious look and then stared adoringly at his master.
But Baqir was not merely a passive supporter. Some-
times Shamsuddin broke off in the middle of his homily, gave Baqir a meaningful look and his assis-
tant would take over for him.
'What,' Shamsuddin said one day after the Ph.D. procession 'can I say about the Multan University?' and glanced at Baqir.
'That third-rate university? Where the only thing the professors do is collect their salaries and have a nice time with the female students? And look at the Shias! They are taking over. This will become a Shia University.'
'But less than one percent of the teachers are Shia," I said. 'I know because I study there.'
Baqir stared at me furiously, but before he could say or do anything Shamsuddin added quietly, 'No, they are actually in majority. They pretend not to be Shias but actually they are working against Pakistan.'
'Yes they are hiding their identity!' Baqir shouted. 'Doctor Shamsuddin is right. How dare you challenge him!'
'Calm down,' Shamsuddin told him. 'He is new and does not know that the Shias are imitating the Jews' tactics.' Shamsuddin gave me a kindly look, and then Baqir smiled at me as well.
'There might be some Shias amongst our tenants!' Baqir said.
Shamsuddin darted a suspicious look at Khurram Pig.
'I shall kick them back into their mothers' wombs,' Khurram Pig shouted.
Shamsuddin laughed. 'Yes! The bastards!'
As the tenants before us did, we gave various names to the relationship between Shamsuddin and Baqir. At first Baqir was called 'Shamsuddin's dog' for his faithfulness. 'My friendship with Shamsuddin is the most beautiful thing that has ever happened in my life! I shall continue to serve him as long as I have the last drop of blood in my muscles!'
For his womanish expressions of love for Shamsuddin, we called Baqir 'Shamsuddin's wife.' Whenever we saw them together we whispered about 'the odd couple.' If one of them was absent we whispered that the wife/husband was missing. But that did not last long because Baqir was married, while Shamsuddin was not. Besides, Shamsuddin was thin, bald and clean-shaven; Baqir was well-built, hairy and had beard. Sham-
suddin was over fifty and Baqir was in his mid-
forties. Although Baqir's wife observed purdah and no one had ever seen her, some of us seriously and half-seriously speculated that, given Baqir's obsequiousness, Shamsuddin must be sleeping with Baqir's wife. For a while that idea became very popular with the tenants. But Baqir's demeanor in the presence of his wife was quite macho. Whenever he went out with her, he walked a few steps in front, the mark of male dominance, his head held high and his chest expanded, making him look like a very different Baqir from the dog-like sycophant we knew. We all respected Baqir's wife for being a purdah-observing woman, a mark of honor and pride for a woman in an Islamic society.
After the Ph.D. celebration we finally settled on a permanent name for Baqir: 'Shadow.'
'Why hadn't Shamsuddin married and why was he so much against the Shias and the Jews?' were the two questions that we Shias used to ask each other in private.
Twice a year Shamsuddin went abroad for 'research.' At that time Baqir would also leave town and go to his village with his wife. Shortly after the Ph.D. affair Shamsuddin went to the UK and Baqir to his village, and so we had Khurram Pig all to ourselves. To our amazement we discovered that he had a bach-
elor's degree in physics and liked to drink alcohol. Almost all of us tenants drank, so he became our comrade. Then, one evening while some other tenants and myself were drinking cheap whiskey with him, we made another shocking discovery: He was an Ahmedi! The Ahmedis were even more persecuted and more des-
pised than Shias. Under some circumstances Sham-
suddin might have tolerated a Shia; but having an Ahmedi on his Street was out of the question. And yet, there was Khurram Pig, working for him!
For as long as Shamsuddin and Baqir were away--about a month-- Khurram Pig joined us every evening, drinking alcohol and revealing secret after secret. He said that he had to pretend to be anti-Shia and anti-Jewish because he did not want to lose his job, even though Shamsuddin had not paid him a penny for years. But he was clever enough to get even by putting up tenants without keeping any records. He told us that Shamsuddin was once given a government-
sponsored 'backward area uplift scholarship' to study in London for a B.Sc. Some of his teachers and classmates there had been Jews and Shias. He spent four years trying unsuccessfully to get a degree while everyone else passed their own. He was sure he had failed only because the Jewish teachers were anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani. When he returned he did a master in science by correspondence from some foreign university and applied for a teaching posi-
tion in Multan University. The validity of his de-
gree was challenged by a competing candidate who happened to be a Shia. Shamsuddin's application was rejected and the other man got the job.
Khurram Pig also told us that Shamsuddin was married a long time ago, but soon after the marriage his wife eloped with a Shia. 'And now he says he goes abroad for research. Bullshit! He visits foreign brothels for sex, which he cannot do in this country,' Pig said. We all laughed, and so did Khurram Pig.
It was a month since Shamsuddin and Baqir had gone away. As the winter was approaching its coldest part and examination time was drawing near we, the stu-
dent tenants decided to go see a movie before buck-
ling down to our studies. Khurram Pig decided to accompany us to a late show. It was about one in the morning when we returned from the cinema. As our auto-rickshaw pulled into the Street, a taxi entered from the opposite direction. Shamsuddin and Baqir got out and, while the taxi driver was offloading their luggage, the two of them approached us. Sham-
suddin demanded an explanation for our presence on the street at such a late hour. We explained to him the circumstances for our unusual behavior.
'If I ever see you out again at this time of night you are out of here,' he said.
All of a sudden a very nervous Khurram Pig asked, 'Where is your wife, Mr Baqir?'
'You worry about your own!' Baqir shouted back at him.
Next day the entire Street returned to its ugly self. Khurram Pig became again the same malicious law-enforcer. On the third day after his arrival back from Cambridge, Shamsuddin called all the tenants together in the mosque and announced that his visit was a 'total success,' as the university had agreed to set up a campus in Multan. We students congratulated him and requested that he allow us to use electricity after seven because of our examin-
ations, and he graciously consented. Meanwhile it started to rain. It rained for the whole week--such an unusual event in Multan! The cold became unbear-
able. Even in late afternoon we all remained tucked away in our rooms.
One of those evenings Khurram Pig came to visit me. Besides my friend Tahir, two other students were also present.
'Do you know Shamsuddin and Baqir have quarreled!'
We were shocked. 'You are lying,' Tahir said.
'I swear upon Allah they have! I overheard them exchanging hot and indecent words. I bet it is due to Baqir's wife. You know, this time Baqir has not brought her back with him from the village. Sham-
suddin must have tried to molest her! Didn't I tell you Baqir is a wife beater? Many times in the even-
ing I hear her moan. I am sure that Baqir got sus-
picious of her and Shamsuddin having an affair,' Baqir said.
We did not believe him. But for days we did not see Shamsuddin and Baqir together. Despite the cold I went to the Sufi Restaurant to spy on them, but neither turned up. By now all the tenants knew what was going on, and the two men's failure to appear in their usual haunt confirmed our suspicions. One day one of the tenants did spot Shamsuddin and rushed to tell us. We saw a very depressed-looking man sitting in an armchair in front of the mosque. Next after-
noon we saw Baqir sitting alone on the pavement out-
side the Sufi Restaurant.
That same evening Khurram Pig told us he had over-
heard Baqir soliloquizing, "All the great books Shamsuddin reads, nothing is left for us! What kind of justice is it?" which puzzled us greatly.
A bit later we heard someone screaming in the street. As we rushed out we saw Baqir running about in the fog, beating his chest and head.
'Doctor Shamsuddin is dead!'
It was an unusually cold morning, but I felt my en-
tire body begin to sweat. This was for the first time a resident of the Street had died.
Soon everyone was out on the street, even the locals. We tried to console Baqir. 'It is Allah's will! Who can defy Him?'
'But why our Doctor? He was the gentlest man alive? Why him?' It was quite some time before Baqir calmed down. Two of the locals went into Shamsuddin's house and brought his body to the prayer hall of the mosque where we all saw his calm face for the last time. Later we offered the prayer for the dead. Then a tenant who worked in the transport office arranged for an ambulance to take Shamsuddin's body back to his village.
By now Khurram Pig had arrived. He offered to accom-
pany Baqir to Shamsuddin's village, but Baqir re-
fused, saying there were hundreds of people in the village who would look after the remains.
Two months later when Shamsuddin's brother came to dispose of his brother's property he told us that Baqir had joined some religious group and gone to Kashmir to participate in a jihad against the Indian army. We never heard from him again.
After Baqir left, a kind of depression settled over the Street. For hours on end we talked about the futility of life and the certainty of death. We praised Shamsuddin for his generosity, and Baqir as well, especially for his loyalty. But life goes on and eventually things returned to normal.
Late in the evening about a week after Baqir had gone, Khurram Pig barged into our room looking very distressed. He said that he had smelt something burning in Shamsuddin's house. 'Maybe Baqir did not switch off all the lights, or a heater even!'
We decided to check the house. We took as many tenants as possible in order to save us from a possible problem for breaking the lock without Baqir's permission. When we reached Shamsuddin's house we did not smell anything, but we were so worried that we broke the lock anyway and went in.
It was dark inside, and for some reason we were all very frightened. We switched on all the lights and began searching for smoke from one room to another. We found nothing amiss domwstairs, so then we went up into what we believed to be Baqir's apartment. The doors were all unlocked except for one, which we had to break open. We were immediately struck by some alien fragrance. 'A woman's room!' Khurram Pig shouted. We switched on the lights and saw that the walls were covered with maps and souvenirs from London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. There was a large poster over the double bed which seemed to be an advertisement for condoms available in many different colors. To one side of the bed, on the floor, were scattered female wigs in different colors and styles. In a corner there were several pairs of pantyhose. There was neither smoke nor any burning smell.
We were about to leave when Khurram Pig suddenly jerked open a cupboard, and panties, bras and mini-
skirts came flying down onto the floor. He pulled open another cupboard, and this time a bundle of some kind fell out. He ripped it open, and a cascade of photographs fell out: naked Chinese, African, Indian and Caucasian women. The last cupboard was stuffed with women's clothes. He rummaged through it and came up with a big album full of snapshots. He sat down on the bed with it, opened it and declared, 'Baqir's wife was more beautiful than a fairy!'
We all flocked around to see the pictures. They seemed to have been taken in front of famous tourist attractions all around the world. In each of them Baqir's wife was wearing a provocative dress: lean-
ing against the railing of London Bridge; posing in front of Singapore's Changi Airport, a Manila cas-
ino, a Bangkok nightclub, an Amsterdam bistro. In many of them she was sitting on Baqir's lap, and she seemed to wear almost as many different wigs as there were photographs, her face heavily made up with rouge and lipstick.
Then, as if he knew exaclty where to find it, Khurram Pig suddenly pulled a picture out from a hidden pocket in the back of the album. It had been taken in Trafalgar Square. In it Shamsuddin was sitting in Baqir's lap. Baqir's hand was on Sham-
suddin's head, holding a red wig in place. The smile on Shamsuddin's face was the same as the one on Baqir's wife's in all the other pictures we had seen.
(Abbas Zaidi <firstname.lastname@example.org>was editor of
The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and worked as assistant editor for The Nation, Lahore. "The Shadow" is part of an anthology scheduled for publication at the end of 2000.)
Notes from a Journal
By Thomas G. Fairbairn
My trip to the northern limits of the demilitarized zone would, I had hoped, overpower the egotistical urge to impose myself on these notes. And it did have some effect, for the charged environment at Imjinkak where the two titons--Western capitalism and Eastern, albeit Stalinist, communism--stand mano a mano and hurl insults back and forth from opposing loudspeakers on either side of the Imjing River, electrifies the atmosphere. Merely the endless, serpentine coils of fifteen-foot barbed wire stretching hundreds of miles along the Freedom Highway should have quenched my curiosity. I have never been able to abide the sight of barbed wire. But even as I stood between those two irreconcilable worlds and felt my eyes brim with sadness, there crept into my mind the memory of Changbalsan Mountain.
Changbalsan is right in the heart of this planned community, Ilsan, and is easily accessible by sub-
way. It is, truthfully, not much of a mountain but would, I knew when I first sighted it, serve my desperate need for sanctuary, a place where I could escape from the tedious horror of mad bus drivers, screaming cars, and the ant-like scurrying of 700,000 inhabitants. At the top of the mountain is a pagoda-like building, much like the one at Imjinkak, meant for meditation, prayer, paying respect to ancestral memories.
It was very early in the morning, and there was no one in the temple. Having gazelled my way up the mountain, I was happily exhausted. I slipped off my backpack and, using it for a pillow, was soon fast asleep. A few days before this, in my "Pooh" kinder-
garten class, one of the children, Sang, had slipped away from me and took a header off the stairs lead-
ing up to the play loft. He broke his arm in two places. My stomach heaved when I saw the bone in his tiny arm (he's the youngest of the class, only four) stretching the paper-thin skin just below his elbow. The previous night to my climb up Changbalsam, I had visited him in the hospital to meet his parents and apologize for having let the accident happen in the first place.
I never got the chance. The father, who could speak a little English, motioned me to follow him out into the hallway where he proceeded to ask my forgiveness for his son's behavior and for having caused me so much worry and pain. "He runees like lizardee!" he said, smiling and bowing.
In my dream in the temple on top of Changbalsan, I stand in an unfamiliar kitchen. Sang's parents are with me. In my hands I hold a large platter with a raised edge like those used for panning gold. In the pan, dashing from side to side, is a russet-coloured chameleon. I am explaining how the lizard has to be cared for, fed, kept cool, cleaned. I pick the crea-
ture up, using my fingers like a pair of pliers, and it shoots forth a stream of milky waste. As I bend down to wipe up the mess I glance along the linoleum floor, and there behind the refrigerator is stretched out full length a brilliantly coloured orange snake.
Then all three of us are standing outside in the yard. I am again holding the pan with the lizard in it. In front of us is a house under construction. I can see the foundation beams and the black shadow of the hole under the house which will become the base-
ment. The lizard flops wildly and is suddenly scur-
rying along the ground, heading fast for the dark shadow. Before anyone can react the foundation beams of the house shake violently and the ground beneath our feet trembles. From out of the black darkness there bursts a monstrous, Galapagos-size lizard that lunges and crashes like thunder into one of the sup-
port posts holding up the half-constructed building.
"There's no use!" I cry as I awake, my heart pound-
ing, my breathing coming in desperate gulps. I do not recognize where I am and remain disorientated while that scene of the monster crashing into the support post plays over and over in my head.
At the northern limit of the D.M.Z. where the Han River, flowing north through S. Korea, intersects with the Imjin River flowing south out of N. Korea, where both converge and ebb tiredly out into the West Sea, in my mind's eye the beast again rocks the foundations of the house. I stare through the coils of barbed wire toward the fake and empty apartment buildings which North Korea has constructed to convince the South Koreans how grand life is over there (the S. Koreans call it Propaganda Village).
A light rain begins to fall. The water gathers and hangs on the fish-hook prongs of the barbed wire and drop slowly like tears. I think, those are God's tears as He attempts to decide if this, like the dinosaurs, is just another failed experiment.
Sang, by the way, is fine. He's back home and, his mother tells me, darting through the house just like always. The veil has trembled but, for now, the foundation holds.
(Thomas G. Fairbairn left home in Canada when he was fifteen to hitchhike to Mexico. Later he emigra-
ted to the US, where he completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature. He has worked as a journalist in Toronto, Los Angeles and Winchendon, Massachusetts. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea, observing and recording the phenomenon of globalization, watching East meet West.)
THE BLUE GOD'S RIVAL
By Anjana Basu
By Kiran Nagarkar
HarperCollins India. Rs 150
It's the stuff Hindi films in the 1930s were made of: a beautiful princess declaring her infatuation for a god and refusing to go to her husband's bed. It's a tale of passion, poetry and tyranny in the true mythological style, and it was shown on screen with the full panoply of brutal husband dragging wife to bed by her hair and then finding himself impotent by an act of God.
The twist lies in the fact that this was actually a true story. The Rajput princess Meerabai was married into the Court of Mewar in the sixteenth century. She was only fourteen at the time. It was a highly suitable match, since both sides were equally royal, and it should have worked out as a triumph of marital politics. Instead, it ended in disaster when she refused to bear her husband an heir, declaring her undying fidelity to the god Krishna. The god was her lover, she insisted, and she celebrated that fact in a series of highly erotic poems that have often been compared with those of John Donne and the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.
Krishna, the Dark God, is arguably the most popular of the many gods in the Indian pantheon. He is the one with the peacock feather and flute, the herder of cows and stealer of hearts and souls, the one who woes the soul in highly sensual ways. The one who makes women faint with love for him and yet leaves no woman unsatisfied.
No one has ever paid much attention to Meerabai's husband in this famous story, since the Little Saint herself stole the limelight. And scholars have been far too busy studying her song poems to pay attention to what must have been a fairly unusual piece of history in any sense of the word--until Kiran Nagarkar decided to write a novel on the subject. As an author, Nagarkar has a history of firsts. He wrote the first official Marathi novel in India. He then decided to try his hand at English and wrote Ravan and Eddy, a book which created a small sensation in the subcontinent and was eventually translated into Marathi by a friend. The Cuckold is a very different kind of novel again. It was a project which raised many doubts from the outset, since no one had ever dreamt of writing a defense of Meerabai's husband. Apart from the fact that there is so much elaborate court literature from the period in which the novel is set, it was difficult to know how to proceed because of the subject matter. And of course that other sticking point--how do you make a saint believable, clothe her in flesh and blood and show her to be the family embarrassment she probably was?
The solution Nagarkar evolved was new to Indian writing, though it is one the West has seen in the novels of Mary Renault and others. He simply gave sixteenth century Mewar the language of modern-day India--not modern Indian English in all its Americanized and smart-Hindi slang, but a slightly formal version of the vernacular, just enough so that you could imagine the heir apparent of Mewar as a 1930s youth with a problematic marriage and a set of hostile relatives who happened to be politically powerful. Among these are a half-brother who feels he has the stronger claim to the throne. "I am the son of Mewars, the only family tree in Rajasthan that can be traced all the way back to the seventh or eighth century. Sometimes I think we have no present, only a past."
The Maharaj Kumar of Mewar is the narrator of the story, except in the chapters that recount his marriage to a green-eyed princess and the incredible things that occurred on their wedding night. He is a sceptic with no belief in either the past or present. All he actually knows is that he is in love with his wife and she is in love with a god. "You can get under the skin of a woman and perhaps become one with her. But slip inside a god and there's the devil to pay." The story is of the eternal triangle, "It was the stuff of bad nautanki plays. Man, woman and lover. Except that the last was an almighty god." Love breeds its own kind of politics, es-
pecially in a context in which the Muslim Mughuls were gradually imposing their rule on western India. The prince pits himself against the god on a moonlit night when the shadows make it hard to distinguish dream from reality. And he must also combat his brother's intrigues for the throne while keeping any eye on the ever-increasing Mughul inroads from the North, knowing that his days are numbered but that he must soldier on because that is his duty as a prince.
Gore Vidal is of the opinion that The Blue God's Rival combines the sensuousness of Lady Murasaki with the earthiness of Thomas Mann. The drama takes place against the stark desert backdrop of Rajasthan where, in order to compensate for the barrenness of the landscape, the colours are brighter, the men braver and the women more beautiful. For four cen-
turies the Rajputs were most revered fighters in India. Their courage in battle was legendary, as was the loyalty of their wives who refused to live on if their lords died in battle. Rajasthani history is filled with tales of mass sati and undying love. The English historian Colonel Todd captured the imagina-
tion of Victorian England with his Annals and Anti-
quities of Rajasthan. You can still walk through a Rajasthani fort and see the palm prints of dead queens on the walls, left there as they made their way to be burnt alive on their husbands' funeral pyres. You can also see the bathtub of the beautiful Padmini, who won a Mughul ruler's heart and as a result condemned her husband's kingdom to eternal war. Rajasthan is full of such stories waiting to be told.
Nagarkar does not use English words to describe Indian things--he keeps chunni, lota and mojari,
for instance, to retain the flavour of Rajasthan
and give mystery a local habitation and a name. He has the advantage of knowing that traditional Rajput life has not evolved very much since the sixteenth century, that Rajputs dress the same as they did then, mothers-in-law think the same and even cuck-
olded husbands have a set pattern of behaviour. Of course, this is perhaps because nothing in India ever really changes, or the more it changes, the more it stays the same.
The weakest part of the novel is the ending, since no one really knows what finally happened to the fated couple. We learn that Meerabai's husband was overthrown by his half-brother. But whether he was killed or swallowed by the burning sands of the desert remains a mystery. Nagarkar prefers to be-
lieve that the husband's divine rival intervened to transport him to another dimension. As the author states at the end of the book, his intent has not been to write history. "As for the rest, story-
tellers are all liars. We know that."
PETALS IN A CRYSTAL BOWL
By Anjana Basu
Beloved Witch Ipsita
By Ray Chakraverti
HarperCollins Rs 250
Say the word, "witch" and inevitably Macbeth's three crones materialize stirring a cauldron on a blasted heath. Pointy of chin, downturned of nose, with black cats and broomsticks thrown in for good measure. A hissy slithering of evil with newts bubbling in a hell broth to make things even nastier. For centuries witches have haunted fairy tales and history and, judging by last summer's Blair Witch Project, they still haunt our imagina-
tions as much as the vampires of Transylvania--
though with witches there is always the chance they might prove to be more real than you thought.
Of course, feminist sociology insists there is no such thing as the cone-hatted broomstick-flying purveyor of evil. Most witches were unfortunately poor, wise women, many of them healers, who were persecuted for their wisdom in a male-dominated society. Pace James I of England and his witch trials. There were marks by which, the Elizabethans believed, you could recognize a witch: by an extra teat on her body with which she suckled her paramour the Devil; by her familiar, a cat or some other animal with which she kept unnatural company and conjured up damnable spells. A witch, they claimed in a time when no one knew how to swim, could float, and so they threw suspected witches into deep water to see if they floated (meaning they were witches) or drown if they didn't.
There is a little of all this in Ipsita Roy Chak-
raverti's book. However, the book isn't a history of the socio-anthropological roots of witchcraft but the story of how a woman with the "right" back-
ground, a beautiful, intelligent arrogant woman, became a Wiccan and studied witchcraft's powers of healing and wisdom, along with its power to avenge and destroy. Her beauty and other assets, she in-
sists, are vital for a woman who aspires to become a witch in India, a place where witches--or dayans--
are otherwise victimized by jealous men.
Roy Chakraverti joined The Society for the Study of Ancient Cultures and Civilizations in Montreal, Canada, and became part of a group of women who met in a chalet in the Laurentian Mountains to pore over crumbling manuscripts that held occult secrets long forgotten and answers to questions few dared ask. She was formally initiated into Wicca by the Spanish head of the society, Carlota, of the red-gold hair, and commenced her study of what was once considered a valuable branch of learning, a cult that included Ishtar in ancient Sumer, Isis in Egypt and Mother Goddess Kali in India. She also began her study of the prophecies of Luciana, a famous noblewoman executed in the sixteenth century, and found many of them to be relevant to modern times, including one which supposedly refers to the divorce of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Luciana, she claims, was one of the bodies in which Ipsita's soul has resided over the centuries, and it was probably Luciana who guided herself to the chalet in the Laurentians and to her meeting with Carlota.
Ms Chakraverti makes no distinction between black magic and white magic--both are part of the Books of Knowledge. However, she emphasizes that the true Wiccan is a white witch whose spells are cast to benefit others.
Interspersed through her study of the ancient art are pages from her personal dairies and chapters from her autobiography. She writes about the death of her father, her uncle's attempts to take advan-
tage of her, her marriage and the birth of her daughter. However, she sees all this as a natural part of her study of witchcraft, episodes from past lives flowing into the present and giving it new meaning, though human relations, she insists, are not necessary for witches because they are set apart by their wisdom and learning. However, life is itself also the greatest of schools, the best laboratory for interesting experiments with the human species.
Time and again she encounters the mysterious X-
factor that forms part of her life, something that transcends science and reason. She describes en-
counters with Elvis and Indira Gandhi; with cor-
porates looking for quick answers and spells to solve their problems. But she also describes her work with the poor and neglected in the backward villages of India, saying, "If God forgets, the witch cannot." As proof of this she cites her clash with Jyoti Basu over the issue of the witches in Purulia. It is not, she maintains, her role to gaze into crystal balls to satisfy the vanity of those who believe the world revolves around them, those like the board director who wanted her to predict stock market trends for him or the ex-Rani who wanted a spell to prevent her daughter from marrying the family chauffeur.
She does slip in a spell or two so as not to dis-
appoint those readers looking for such. There is one, for example, to Daunt the Foe which consists of taking a fistful of clay or earth "from where no man or woman doth tread." The clay needs to be put into a copper bowl and moulded into the shape of the foe. She hastens to add that one should be careful when casting spells because what is once done cannot be undone. "My motto always has been, trouble not another until he or she troubles you."
There are moments of honest confession when the author says she has gone sceptically through life looking at everything and everyone with the analytical eyes of a hawk. To her own disadvantage, she says, she has often turned away from the extra-
ordinary, because she wants practical explanations. There are a few case histories, accounts of her work at healing souls, though these are touched upon lightly, too lightly perhaps.
She describes how she met influential women, among them the powerful Carlota in her blue dress with black fur trim at the neck and cuffs. She describes rooms lined with crystals and a large crystal bowl for scrying in. Surprisingly, much of her witch's tools consist of earth and roses and perfume. "Con-
juring, sleight of hand, ritual, magical objects, flowing robes--these were all tools of the trade at one time." A great deal of the book seems written to entertain. At any rate, the knowledge rests lightly, and there are perfumes and colours to distract the mind of the reader.
If there is a problem with the book, it is that much is left unsaid and much of it seems hurried, as if an editor said, "Don't make it too serious, people won't understand," just enough for people to chatter about at a cocktail party.
Roy Cahkraverti knows that it is unusual for well-
bred Bengali girls to become witches and acknow-
ledges her gratitude to her mother for allowing her the right to choose. After all, she says, every strong woman can be a witch in her own right, and that is perhaps the truest message that the book holds for the reader.
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