An International Online Journal of Idea and Observation

Winter 1999


From: Vietnam

Sister Hanh

by Ly Lan

From: Greece

by Vasilis

From: India

Booked for the Booker
by Anjana Basu

From: Pakistan
The One and Only
by Abbas Zaidi

From: Pakistan
by Abbas Zaidi

From: Trinidad & Tobago
A review, by Anthony Milne

All GOWANUS works are Copyright © by their respective authors.
Issues may not be archived on any machine and may not be used for any commercial purpose without written consent of the publisher.
 (c) Copyright 1999, GOWANUS

                                                                SISTER HANH
                                                                                  By Ly Lan
The fish-egg tree is no longer there. But who cares about a fish-egg tree? And who cares about him? His name is Moi, it's both his first name and his last name, and it's also his home and homeland. He is Moi. Jack Miller has never been anybody.


Yes, call out to him so that he's someone recognizable, someone having a past. So that all the chaos waking him every night is not merely nightmare and the dim figure in his dreams luring him back here is not just illusion.


Call out to me! Why do you only stare, folks?

He looks at the adults and children gathered around him and suddenly feels frightened. It might all have been a lie, this past of his. But, no, how could all of it have been just a dream? Evening Market Alley, the fish-egg tree, Sister Hanh, Brother Beo--all of its stories imagined by a guy who is really Nobody? The looks he's receiving express just one thing: curiosity. Who is this black boy? Why is he here?

If he stands here long enough, a policeman might start to question him.

He walks away, his black face showing bewilderment. Two little boys rush into their house, shutting the door behind them. He is not hurt anymore by such reactions. At the moment he is floating in an unreal world, asking himself a question that is of no real importance at all: Who is he?


He keeps going, like a sleepwalker. Is the call he hears only in his imagination--the name and home he only made up?


He stops and stares at the young man running toward him.


Ah ha, it really is you? Yes, it is! And it's me. You! Me!

"Beo, you still recognize me?"


Beo punches his shoulders, wipes away his tears. They embrace and walk down the alley together. People open doors to look at them. A woman says: "Just imagine! It turns out to be Moi."

Her child says, "What is Moi?"

Moi first appeared at Evening Market Alley sometime in the early 1970s. He and Beo began collecting the rotten vegetables Mrs. Bay threw away after market. They were both parentless and homeless. There were lots like them during the war.

In the afternoons they climbed the fish-egg tree, plucking its fruit for their lunch, then napping on the branches like monkeys. The fish-egg tree was in front of Sister Hanh's house. Sister Hanh was just a schoolgirl then, the only girl from the Alley in high school. The others had all quit school to become baby-sitters or domestic cleaners or clerks, until they got married.              

When there was a wedding in the Alley, both adults and children gathered to share the newlyweds' happiness. Hanh would stand near the fish-egg tree, watching the bride in her rose-colored wedding dress shyly climb into the flower-strewn car. A romantic notion took root in Hanh's mind: One day a gentleman would come to ask for her hand, spirit her away from that winding dirty muddy alley, and take her to a place bright with happiness. She couldn't imagine what that man would look like, but she was sure he would be a genuine gentleman. She kept herself pretty and virginal in order to be worthy of such a man's love.

The bride was gone, and the people returned to their boring jobs. Beo and Moi collected the unexploded firecrackers to play with beneath the fish-egg tree.

"The bride and groom must have gone to the restaurant."

"No, they are going straight to the bridal chamber."

"You don't know anything. First they have to kowtow to the ancestral altar."

"Well, one day I'll get married myself."

"You? Marry?"

Hanh can't help bursting into laughter when she hears this debate. She's doing homework at her table by the window. The boys look up at her. They love Hanh better than anyone else in the Alley. She sometimes gives them food and always smiles at them. This means a lot to two street boys, one of them black, who live on rubbish.

"Sister Hanh, when will you get married?"

Hanh's cheeks burn with embarrassment, but the boys keep up their questioning:

"Will the groom arrive in a deluxe car?"

"And all your friends and relatives will be treated at the Grand Restaurant, won't they?"

"I wish I could be in the wedding party."

Something is smoldering in Hanh's heart. She says, "You will both be invited to my wedding party."


"At the Grand Restaurant?"


"But the guard won't let us in."

"You'll have my wedding invitation to show them."

"You promise, Sister Hanh? You promise you'll send us your wedding invitation?"

"I promise."

Beo has a pretty good business now at a corner of the crossroads not far from the Alley. He started out with bicycle repairs, later he managed to repair motorbikes, and now he can even renovate second-hand Hondas. Beo is as black as Moi because he stays out in the sun all day. The corner is his workshop as well as his home. But a streetcorner has no address. And, after Moi left for the USA, neither he nor Beo could read or write well enough to send letters to each other, so there has been no contact between them since.

Beo takes Moi to his "home." A small crowd has gathered there. Beo introduces his friend.

"My wife. My kids. Do you still speak Vietnamese?"


Beo laughs and declares in a loud voice: "This is my best friend, Jack Miller, American!"

The crowd regards Beo with awe, and Beo looks around at his neighbors proudly: Che, a barber whose shop is just a chair and a mirror hung from a tree trunk; Su who sells used clothes on the sidewalk; Thap the fruit vendor. Kim Thoa sells cigarettes, old Chanh sells balloons, and their children sell lottery tickets or polish shoes or scavenge rubbish. They are all very honored to meet Moi. Once in a while they see foreigners in their huge shoes passing by this muddy corner. Their self-respect prompts them to make themselves as invisible as possible to avoid being turned into tourist snapshots of colorful foreign poverty.

But all of a sudden a foreigner, an American, comes and sits among them, a living embodiment of all the myths they've ever heard about America.

"Jack, where do you live? In New York or California? Is your house a one-hundred-story building?"

"What do you do in America, Jack? You must be very rich. Ky from our Alley is only a dishwasher in America, but he has dollars to send home every month."

"Jack, where are you staying? In a hotel? Fifty dollars a night? Wow, that can feed us for a whole month!"

Everyone looks at the American visitor with admiration.

"You come back here, stay in a hotel, eat in a restaurant, you're lucky, Jack!"

He asks them to call him Moi, but everyone objects. They want their friend to be Jack Miller--American. They've had enough of Su, Che, Beo. Who needs another Moi?

Beo's four-year-old says, "Uncle Jack, please take me to your hotel to see the soft bed."

The other kids noisily ask to go too. They want to pass through the automatic glass door.

Moi looks down at them with tears in his eyes.

"Then, we're off to the restaurant."

"Are we invited too?"

"Yes. All of you are invited."

"Five-star restaurant, Uncle Jack?"

"Five-star restaurant."

The whole corner is stirred up with excitement. Moi watches it all with a sad smile on his dark face.

The two rubbish boys Moi and Beo waited for the day they would get to eat at the Grand Restaurant. They longed as much as Hanh for the man who would come to make her a bride. At last he appeared: a gentleman with a good job, a senior-high-school teacher. Every time he came to take Hanh out on his Vespa, the children stood on both sides of the alley staring at their pretty virgin sister. She always smiled at them when they waved their dirty hands in greeting. Then they dived back into their dream in the narrow alley.

"He's quite handsome."

"And he loves Sister Hanh very much."

"He will marry Hanh and hold a party at the Grand Restaurant."

"And send us their wedding invitation."

But when would the wedding be? His parents came to see Hanh's parents. The wedding date was arranged. And the prospective bride and groom were making arrangements about the nuptial party.

Hanh said, "We're inviting Aunt Phuong, Uncle Tin, Beo, Moi..."

"Who are Beo and Moi?"

Hanh explained with her charming smile. Her fiancé stared back at her doubtfully, not knowing whether she was joking or going mad. But it was not a joking matter. He crossed the two boys' names off the list.

"My guests are respected people in society. What would they think if they were seated next to those rubbish boys?"

Hanh's voice was soft but not less decisive.

"If there were only two guests at my wedding, I would prefer that they be those two boys."

"You are mad."

"Those boys are the only ones who really want me to be happy."

"What about me? Don't I want to bring you happiness?"

"Then, please give me the pleasure of seeing those children treated as well as our other guests."

"You're crazy!"

She might indeed have been crazy. There were quarrels then every time they met. And always over the two rubbish boys! Beo and Moi didn't know anything about it. They were busy saving money to buy a silk doll for her wedding gift.

The five-star restaurant is crowded this evening. Mr. Miller hasn't booked a table in advance, so there is no room for his party. No problem, though. They rush off to a floating restaurant illuminated by colored lights. The waiters are dressed neatly in white and wait on them politely and patiently. These strange customers noisily demand a second menu. The waiter brings it. Beo and his son excitedly study the bill of fare, but it's the same. Beo's wife proclaims without a glance at either menu:

"I want chicken."

Kim Thoa prefers roast dove, then discovers seafood. Wow, there are swallow's nests too. Drinks? Of course, cola. No, I'd like fresh orange juice. They have imported wine? Fantastic!

The children jump up and down on their seats, screw their heads in all directions, stare at the customers at other tables. When the restaurant begins to slowly float down the Saigon river, the children all stand up on their chairs to see the brightly flickering lights of the hotels and restaurants on the riverbank. They embrace each other in glee, then turn to look at the other side of the river, trying to pick out of the landscape their Evening Market Alley. Then, along with the other customers, they cheer, drink and eat and shout and throw full cans of beer into the river.

When the ferry returns to its dock, the whole gang staggers out onto Nguyen Hue Boulevard, singing and laughing. They pay no attention to the angry glances of people on the street. Kim Thoa leans against Moi, her breast pressing hard against his arm. She sings all the way to the hotel. Once inside, the children immediately jump up and down on the bed and fight one another for the pillows. Then they race into the bathroom, turn on the hot water, climb into the bathtub and begin carrying on so noisily that the hotel maid comes round to complain.

At last Beo has to ask the children to go home. But go home where, they say? The corner at the Evening Market Alley?

"Please, Uncle Jack, let us stay here just for one night. I'll sleep on the floor by the foot of your bed," Beo's son begs.

Moi looks at them with moist eyes. His expression is always dull, half pain, half pity. Beo shoos all the children out to the elevator and says good night to Moi.

When Moi comes back to his room he finds Kim Thoa lying naked on the bed. A smell of some cheap, pungent perfume fills the air. She whispers, "Make love to me, Jack."

He laughs a quiet, ironic laugh. Kin Thoa repeats it again, this time more urgently: "Jack, love me."

He's no longer laughing, but stands watching her with his dark, expressionless face.

"Jack, do you look down on me?"

Jack collapses onto the bed like a puppet whose strings have been dropped.

"Why should I look down on you? We share the same fate. In America, I'm just a black boy, with no home, no parents, no education, no job, no future, nothing at all. I came back here to look for my childhood dream. I like you very much, Thoa. But I've already spent my last dollar."

Kim Thoa lies motionless, but her body is on fire with the wine in her blood. She looks in awe at the flowery curtains on the windows. The pink lamp shade on the bedside table, the pot of roses on top of the TV set, the fridge, the paintings on the wall--they're all exactly as in her dream. She takes Moi's hand. "Jack, don't make me stand in the street tonight. All my life I've dreamed of lying in the bed of a gentleman."

Moi touches her dark hair, then her cheek. "Then, sleep well," he says.

He closes his own eyes. Inside his head he sees the figures of a little black boy and his friend Beo--two rubbish boys of Evening Market Alley. After picking the fish-egg fruit for their lunch, they take a nap on its branches like two monkeys. The noise of a Vespa screaming out of the alley wakes them. They get down from the tree and crawl over to the window of Hanh's house. Sister Hanh is sitting inside, her head buried in her arms on top of the table where she does her home work, her face hidden by her long black hair.

The boys ask in almost a whisper, "Sister Hanh? When will your wedding be?"

Hanh looks up and pushes back her hair. Her eyes are red, but she manages to produce a smile on her pale face. She reaches out and places one hand on Beo's cheek and the other on Moi's.

"I don't know. But you both are sure to have an invitation when I do."
(Ly Lan <lylan@hcmc.netnam.vn> was born in Binh Duong, grew up in Sai Gon, graduated from the University of Hochiminh City and now does teaching, writing and translating.)

                LOOSE   JOINT

                               By Vasilis Afxentiou

Up top, Charlie's eye seemed glued to the joint stuck between his fingers. He hesitated, undecided.

Meanwhile, down below, Satan was grinding his teeth. He strutted back and forth in his gloomy fissure, the deepmost part of His blaze-lit, sulphur-reeking sovereignty. His rust-chaffed face, nostrils flaring, glared up and sneered, snorting and chuffing and casting bandeaux of spume.

He raised His yellow-brown hands imploringly. "I crave for the Inquisition, the Children's Crusades, the sprightful witch hunts, and those two sublime mushrooming obfuscations. Ah, those were the days, My lackeys."

Lately He had been having these pricks of elation, pangs of notorious jubilance. He spied on Charlie and other mortals above--mingled in crowds, snooped and eavesdropped to locate the source of these novel affections--but he soon wearied of the humans' pointless prattle and skeptical attitudes towards Evil. Instead of the old-fashioned rash rage and fury, He found them poring over Freud and Hawking.

He spat.

Had He not racked and abused them sufficiently over the eons? All that spleen and spite gone to waste. He expected from them the vilest, blindest passions and malevolence. Instead...He got winked at.

"Inactivity is what's doing it."

"But idle hands are the Devil's workshop," a red-eyed demon puffed back.

"See!" He hissed. "Even the laws of darkness are being confounded!"

Inactivity was moderating His eternal animosity down to mere resentment, downsizing His hostility to the scruffy level of His gamy clientele.

"Business is going to the dogs," He snarled, and the gargoyles rattled nigh His clacking hoofs.

All the slithering things hissed and sputtered, defecated and slobbered down in the blistering guts of the earth.

"Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" a scaly imp fumed.

The underworld fell silent.  Satan swelled up and let fly a jet of hot gore on the apprentice demon.

"We never use the word 'ought' down here."


Still vexed, Satan came topside once again to meddle and pry.

He found himself smack-dab in a mid-August scorcher. Crickets were popping like corn in the heat, bursting in the thistles and pines and toppling to the ground without knowing what hit them. Lizards scurried for cover at the Evil One's approach. A ruby dragonfly flittered and dipped almost directly into His path, then vaulted out of view. Clouds of metallic blue butterflies dispersed from their waxy gold perches and rippled over his head.

He emerged from the gates of Hell, a sandy stretch favored by skinny-dippers on the Aegean island called Esperanza. On both sides the beach stretched level and regular for more than a kilometer. Then it wormed inland, finally rising in a smooth curve to meet the foot of the isle's single distant mountain, a precipice hanging like some broad highway above the sea.

He pulled his horns in. Sucked up his tail. Shucked off His scales. Then He metamorphosed into the angel He once was. His lips formed a big pout. "God it's hot," He said, His new voice almost as raspy as a man's.

"You called Me?" a tumult thundered from the sky.

The Old Man stood like an ancient Atlas on billowy white clouds.

"O Lord!" Satan fidgeted with his nakedness. "Excuse. Just a figure of speech."

"Didn't we agree for You to rule from below and I from above?"

Got to humour Him--got a hell of a temper, Satan thought.

"Are You trying to make the surface Your domain as well?" the Old Mighty roared, and a sirocco ruffled Satan's delicate red curls.

The wind blew harder, the clouds tumbled like bowling balls. God looked down at the sprawled naked bodies, mere mites on a Titan's golden scimitar, He thought, examining the crescent of shoreline that seemed to become lost in a sea of azure blood. He recalled how immaculate the blood of Mother Gaia had been. How all shores had once resembled this one. It was sad to see the same seas so despoiled. Oil spills. Radioactive canisters swaying like cobra heads beneath the crushing depths, waiting to ejaculate their poison into living things. The life He had created.

In the beginning Earth had been a crunchy fresh apple, beads of dew still clinging to it. Mankind was tucked safely away in His heart of hearts. Even the touch of the musk rose on His toes had been a consolation to Him back then, made Him sigh with pleasure, compassion and grace.

He recalled how the animals, trees, shrubs, birds and butterflies of every hue, the kelp and starfish, had rushed out of Him exactly as He imagined them. The tiny and the huge together. Then lastly, man, the crown jewel. He entered their lairs and grottos and dreams and saw Himself in them.

And it had come to this.

Had entropy worn Him down?

He felt a great void open up inside him. Had it perhaps all been a Divine mistake?

"Might I have not passed on my own boredom to my creatures?"

"You say something, Lord?"


A hideous ripping noise made Satan start. He screamed, froze, then thawed down to a jellyfish and oozed back up into his angel shape. "Why, oh, why did I ever take this job?"

A mistake, a moment of weakness, frivolity, God continued to ponder to Himself, which the mortals have inherited. The forbidden fruit of knowledge became their mantel of wisdom.

The snare of the deity, God thought on reflection, had been His utter lack of a wholesome awareness of Evil.  He feared that, thanks to his His own ignorance, goodness's child had been a child of His loneliness, not of His Love or His Law, but the product of a moment's yielding to His yen for experimentation, curiosity and the simple restlessness of His youth.

Seven billion years, not seven days (how mortals simplified His grandeur to their own measures!) of maelstroming, taming and smithing a universe for the coming of life: strange, nebulous, breathtaking. All to prepare it for His new companions. Another five to hone the Earth to the exact proportions of humankind's needs.

He had begun as if playing a game. But Creation had welled up of its own, overspilling itself, demanding independence, like silver-white elvers leaping from a broken water bag. Cunning eyes, wily grins, pesky faces bespoke tenacity and aptness and survival. It was less a course of action than happenstance.

Back then He had been overwhelmed by it.

"Oh, so long ago."


"Toad turds to the three hundred and fifty days of sunshine. It's not September even."

"Who said that!"

"Don't, Lord," Satan said, thinking that modesty can be overdone. Then he turned to the human. "Button up, Charlie."

There was an odd light in God's eyes, a sign that made Satan sorry He'd spoken at all.

"That's what the sign said. Over the airport terminal six years ago when I set foot here--'Three hundred and fifty days of sunshine.' It's just their lousy luck"--Charlie glanced at the Other and gestured toward the sprawled tourists, "to be here the fifteen days it's going to douse."

"Six years, Charlie?"

"Weather was different then, a paradise." The youth's face suddenly became well-defined. A shaft of sunlight passed through a rift in the clouds and shone on it. He had round brown eyes, light-brown hair and a slight growth of beard. He might have been a Kentucky farmboy. "Who were You talking to up there?"

"Hear that, Lord?" Satan said. "Things were different." Then to Charlie, "To God. I was talking to God. In fact, I may have just saved your ass from eternity."

"Strong shit, ain't it?" Charlie sucked on his roach until Satan could see only the whites of his eyes.

"Is that mortal smoking hashish, Lucifer?"

The heavens boiled with white-grey fury. The clouds radiated red flashes against the silver and blue of the sky. The thick plumes puckered squarely over Charlie's stoned head. Satan almost peed in his pants.

He could taste the hot, moist air of a killer storm brewing. No backing out now, He thought. He hadn't come up here to save souls. New blood was what he wanted, and it was pooled in Charlie's veins and genome. Mine be humanity, He prayed. Revive remorse for the slumming life, arouse compunction about avarice, coveting and civil strife; contrition for good ol' false pride, bipartisan morass; and just sit back and make room for the guilt-beset, shame-ridden hoards.... If Charlie could only keep his flappers fused.

He pulled himself together. For Hell's sake.

He had come to realize it wasn't that mortals didn't pay Him no never mind. They merely dreaded more the evil in themselves and what it can do to them than what He could dish out in the next life. They feared more for the here and now than for the great beyond. Today they wanted community, a New Order, brotherhood, prophylactics, justice for Rwanda. And it all started with the sprouting of those hippies and then, more recently, when that Tipler fellah was tipped with the inside dope--straight from Up There.  

He needed old-fashioned, unequivocal down-home Gospel sinning. Sin-anxious mortals, that's what he wanted. None of this doubt-eradicating, Cosmos-probing, high-tech-for-high-peace stuff.

"Our mysteries are Ours," He grunted.

No yuppie yo-yos shouting, 'Make business not war,' or, Greenpeace greenbutts yodeling, 'Be true to blue.' He wanted the greenback to read In Arms We Trust and, by gosh, the Wall put back up. "He's been getting all the kudos," He griped under His breath, "and me all the barbs."

His tawny cheeks and almond eyes, half-hidden by gorgeous lashes, turned toward God. "Lord, You know mortals smoke hashish. Shoot up horse--begging Your pardon--heroin. Sniff coke and crack, swallow uppers and downers, and all those pretty-coloured pills in between. "Omniscient that You are, You are aware that they drink or dope themselves to death, or smoke to waste, or eat themselves to the grave. Men mortals whore and women mortals adulterate. Men fornicate with men and women with each other and--You must know--today sex before wedlock is free and as common as promiscuous sex in the institution of marriage."

The clouds hovered, undecided, over Charlie's stoned skull. This time he hardly noticed. But Satan felt a burst of anger for His eternal unease. He shut His eyes tight, then opened them again.

"Lord, jails are so full they're spilling their trash back into the streets. Policemen, lawyers, politicians, doctors, even" he hesitated, "people of the cloth are turning their attention elsewhere...."

"What are You getting at?" God roared, the smoldering joint still locked between comatose Charlie's fingers.

"Your churches are half-filled on Sundays. My churches--bars and casinos and dives--are packed every day and are worse than the jails at night. To every one of Your temples there is a thousand of Mine, Lord.

"What am I getting at?" Satan glanced at Charlie and behind His back crossed His long, carefully manicured fingers. "I should be getting more than I bargained for, Lord. I mean there's no distinction between down there and up here any more. It should of been like too much for one of Me to handle. But, Lord, it ain't!

"Something somewhere along the line is going wrong. People aren't trespassing, aren't violating the Law, whether out of simple spite or ignorance or just plain disregard for guilt. Remorse they do know, but even that they're rationalizing. Sin is just one more abstract concept added to the long list of paradoxes We've been ladling out to them through the millennia. Irrelevant to the educated, is what I'm getting at. And the world is more exposed to sophistication today than ever before. Or maybe," He tossed the bait, "just maybe now, Somebody is not doing Their share of the work."

"Are You accusing Me of backsliding?"

A lethal violet light sprayed static electricity into the surrounding air. Sand devils hopped and danced, whirling over the stupefied naked bodies. Then wind rushed by, the advance guard of something more treacherous. Out at the horizon a monstrous tidal swell rose to the height of an Alp. The wind drove itself like spikes into Satan's back, knocking the breath out of Him. Cloud and sea massed into one grim platinum entity. Charlie threw back his head, his jaw agape, and whined like a stricken dog.

He's had it, Satan thought. There's no stopping Him now. His ego is the biggest, and He's gonna blow it, along with poor stoned Charlie. I got to buy time or I'll lose him: The one and only soul left who's in true conflict between Good and Evil, not yet lost to perfunctory worship or gross indifference. My last chance to revamp afresh My realm.

"Lord," whispered Satan, "this mortal is a prize unlike any other."

"What are You talking about? He's getting high like all the rest, isn't he? What's so special about Charles Emmanuel Woodsmith? I am going to strike them all down."

"I don't care about the rest. They aren't headed for down below anyway."

"They are certainly not destined for Paradise."

"But Charlie, Lord, just may be."

Satan scooped up some sand and dumped it on His nakedness. "I've been trying to tell You all along. There're more people dying today than ever before, yet the souls that come my way are fewer and fewer. And I'd wager the same thing's happening in Paradise."

"Well, the last century has certainly been a lean one. I assumed they  were ending up with You. There must be millions unaccounted for...."

"Billions! Earthquakes and floods in Asia and the Americas, famines and epidemics in Africa, skirmishes and major wars everywhere..."


"Nope. I checked."

"Then, where?" God asked, and a southerly wind blew.

"Since the end of the second Great War, hitting a peak back in the sixties and leveling off in the early seventies, some force has been tampering with good old-fashioned clear-cut Good and Evil, Lord."

"But the Rules were set down long before that."

"You know that, and I know it. But is it possible those black holes, those 'event horizons' they recently discovered, not to mention that malarkey about flower power, could have sucked them up?"

Satan darted a glance at the wavering Charlie. "What happens if they stop crediting Us for the moral ultimates, instead deify Jung, the media, Sagan, The Physics of Immortality? How can faith and fear abide in the face of all that enlightenment, this flash flood of knowledge and initiation into everything that once were Our secrets alone? Why don't they burn scientists and journalists any more?"


The sea rose up and rushed in great heaves. The earth trembled and jiggled like a flabby midsection. The clouds tumbled together in gigantic flashing orbs, eclipsing the sun and filling the sky from one horizon to the other.

"It's awful!" Charlie cried.

Hold on, babe, Satan silently urged. Just a little longer. Don't turn into a pillar of salt on me.

He turned toward God again, "Ok, ok. But what if?"

"You already know the answer."


God nodded, and the ground beneath the human throbbed.

"Oh, poor Kid. Not the Wood again."

"You would prefer Nemesis, the Great Deluge or Sodom and Gomorra? Religion is the child of faith. No faith, no religion. No religion...and man is next. Are You ready for a totally unfettered humanity?"

"Are We?" And Lucifer let out a long moan.

"So, Charlie is the last believer."

"The only honest believer left, my sources tell me. But he's doing his damnedest to go bad. You witnessed it yourself." Satan pulled himself together. "Let him battle it out on his own, Lord, not like the Other One. Let's see who wins the tug-o-war over this final one human, fair and square like. I even take back what I said about Somebody not doing Their fair share."

"He's a teacher, isn't he, some kind of language teacher? Has a way with children? Unpretentious chap, a bit of an oddball. Doesn't quite fit in with the others?"

"That's him. So, we got a deal?"

"Of course."

"Shake on it?"

God eyeballed Satan sternly.

But the heavens smiled. The clouds made themselves scarce. The afternoon sun reigned again over the beach covered with bronze bodies. Charlie stopped holding onto the sand to brace himself against another quake. He squinted up at the sun and realized that it must have all been a hallucination. He looked around. The fiery-haired, violet-eyed angel waved to him from a cave entrance beneath the overhanging precipice, blew a kiss and flashed him the victory sign. Charlie winced at the bounce of the angel's haunches, rubbed his stinging eyes and saw that he was waving at empty space.

"Never again," he said, and passed out.

He dreamed that he was playing five-card stud with two sleazy-looking dudes, one of whom wore a robe of gaudy silk. The other gazed back at him with an imperious Mr. Spock look. The hand that had been dealt him was as rotten as a hand can get. He felt cheated, a no-win situation, his birthright gone, his natural joy and peace left naked to his enemies.

(Vasilis Afxentiou  has worked as an engineer, technical specifications writer and, for the past fourteen years, English as a Second Language teacher. His writing has appeared in Greek Accent, National Herald (Proini), CrossCurrents, 30-Days, Key Travel News, Greece's Weekly, Athena Magazine, and online in The Domain, Ibn Quirtaiba, Cosmic Visions, ThinkB, Aphelion, Dark Planet, Basket Case BORNmagazine, Aspiring Writer, ThinkB, Appalachians, Newwords, and Zine in Time. He has also written a weekend travel column for The Athens Star.)



                                    By Anjana Basu

The whole world, we are told, is on fire with the glories of Indian writing. Vintage press recently published Indian Writing in English under the guest editorship of no less than Salman Rushdie. Indian authors have been featured in The New Yorker on the occasion of the nation's fiftieth year of independence. And, of course, the world has sat up and taken notice of Arundhuti Roy's cheekbones while applauding her record-breaking Booker prize.

This would seem to be a fertile, happening period for Indian letters, with the dollars and pounds spilling about everywhere, just waiting to be scooped up by hard-writing authors. But back India itself, that mythical, much-exploited country currently in the grip of an economic recession, the author who writes in English and who doesn't happen to be an Indian ex-pat or have the right literary connections is a struggling, resentful creature.

Take the Roy case. The moment The God of Small Things hit the headlines, thousands of writers started snowing under her agent, David Godwin,  with book projects and piles of bulky manuscripts. The reason for this was that they had read in the newspapers how Godwin had been shown the Roy manuscript by a friend and had rushed in a state of literary fervour to sell it to Flamingo. Quite possibly he did so. But now he resented being buried under all this bumph and didn't have time to deal with all these hysterical Indian intellectuals he had never even heard of. At his prompting, the papers quickly backtracked and announced that Roy was a unique phenomenon and that not every Indian author could hope to make that grade or to aspire to have an agent of David Godwin's exalted status.

For, the one thing every Indian writer in English has come to realize is that he or she needs an agent. You may not need one if you are an Indian writing in English in India for Indians, but who wants to be that? No one reads such an author, unless that author happens to have high scandal value like Shobha De.

Every year at one or another of the book fairs in Calcutta or Delhi, Indian publishers get together and announce that the coming year is going to be a landmark one for the Indian publishing industry. So-and-so has merged with an English publishing house just to encourage new writers; David Davidar talks about how Penguin India is on the lookout for promising reads. Euphoria, as in the David Godwin example, quickly rises and word spreads quickly in the English-writing community, to be followed almost immediately by depression, because nothing really has changed.

 As a result of the recession, the price of paper and newsprint has risen. This makes books expensive to produce and to buy. No matter how much Penguin India or HarperCollins want to encourage new writing in English, they cannot afford to publish a book that will not generate instant sales. As a result, most publishers stick to the tried and true. They publish known names, celebrities, or Indian-language authors who have managed to translate their own works into English or make the transition from a native language to English, as Kiran Nagarkar was able to do in The Cuckold.

Or publishers just stick to known quantities. That's why the best-selling author in India for a while was not Vikram Seth of Suitable Boy fame or Chandra, of Red Earth and Pouring Rain, but the scandal-mongering Shobha De. Everyone was already familiar with her catty Hindi-English style from her days as editor of the film magazine Stardust. She's a glamorous ex-model who looks good on the back of a dust jacket. These dubious qualities made her the perfect author for Penguin India to promote, and their gamble paid off. It didn't matter that the literary pundits wasted many columns of newsprint denouncing her. The masses wanted Shobha De. She was even interviewed in the Tatler.

Given the hard economic times, publishers have to make hard decisions about what sort of books they will bring out. Non-fiction devoted to subjects like political history is usually safe. Short story collections are doubtful because agents are wary of handling short stories abroad (in England the genre is thought to be churned out mainly by Indians). So, a short story writer must have some kind of established reputation to get into print. Someone like Ruskin Bond is safe because everyone enjoys his nostalgic tales about life in the mountains of Dehra Dun and because back in pre-history, in the 1960s, he was once shortlisted for the Booker. After Bond, though, the pickings get slim.

Next, publishers must decide which novels to publish. A lot of novels produced by well-known Indian authors have blown up in their publishers' faces. Upamanyu Chatterjee's The Last Burden failed to make a dent even though his English August went on to become a movie and he was lauded as one of the future greats, on the scale of a Vikram Seth, whose A Suitable Boy the British press voted the successor to George Eliot's best work. Ashok Banker, who wrote Byculla Boy, a mawkish story about his own boyhood, publicly blamed Penguin India for mishandling his book and thus depriving him of the success he should have had. Banker did in fact possess all the required ingredients for a hit: He had given up an advertising career in order to write thrillers and went on to produce the script for A Mouthful of Sky, a serial on the lines of the film I Know What You Did Last Summer, currently being aired on the Star TV network.

As a result of the Banker failure, publishers are warier than ever about bringing out novels by no-name authors. Their mantras are: cut back on production runs, publish only what has the right stuff to sell or will sell on the strength of the author's name alone; if we must publish a novel, let's get the rights for something that has already been successfully published abroad. IndiaInk, the house which originally printed The God of Small Things in India, has announced that it will only take on one new author a year. Alan Sealy's East of Everest, shortlisted for this year's Booker, is the second of their efforts. The third is whispered to be a first novel by Ruchir Joshi, who shares some of Arundhuti Roy's connections.

'Ian Jack is in town', runs the whisper through Delhi, and everyone goes haring mad for an interview because of the shortage of local publishers. Pinning Ian Jack down could be a short cut to getting into print. After all, everyone has heard of Granta. And Ian Jack actually has Calcutta connections: he was once married to a Bengali and he has haunted the city for a long time. So, despite the divorce, he obviously still has a soft spot for Calcutta. A Calcutta-based friend sees this chance to get ahead in the race and sends his essay on Satyajit Ray to Granta. Many promises are proffered, but Granta is already loaded with Arundhuti Roy material, so the Cal literati and with them the rest of India go muttering off into corners.

Another reason for the getting-published-abroad fever is the fact that only about thirty percent of the Indian population read English. There was a time not so long ago when no one read an Indian who wrote in English because, following Independence, it was seen as an infra dig or pretentious. One poetry publisher was famous in the 1970's for publishing Indo-Anglian poetry, but the unkind said the poetry sold only because of the sari bindings: women matched their drawing room upholstery to the books and bought up whole shelffuls. Back then, the only indigenous English writers one heard of were Nayantara Sahgal and Khushwant Singh who wrote about partition and the problems of adjusting to a post-Independence India. Both are still writing, both are still known names, but neither are news any more. Khushwant Singh hosts a TV chat show and flaunts his reputation as a dirty old man because he learnt a long time ago that sex sells. RK Narayan, with his tales of Malgudi, is in a league by himself, beyond praise or blame, and has a select host of followers in England who hope that he will one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was a friend of Graham Green and belongs to the days when Indian writing in English wasn't a rage. This rage is actually very recent. As recent as Salman Rushdie. And it started abroad, not in India.

Meanwhile, the older Indian presses like Jaico go on churning out reprints of Indian myths or sensational novels that are sure sells. You pick up one of these books and the shiny board cover splits in your hands while the cheap bold print leaps off the already-yellowing pages. Of course, those who write about sex and sodomy claim that, while they may not be Shobha De, they can still turn a pretty rupee by writing this kind of rubbish because the cheap novels sell fairly well without straining the grey cells.

Everyone else goes on jostling to develop 'connections'. Consider the case of novelist Anita Desai's daughter, Kiran Desai. The mother promoted Kiran's novel Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard in New York City, with some help from her agent and the press, supported by Rushdie's own plaudits about the novel in The New Yorker where he announced his revelation that every budding novelist should be seventeen, attractive and have a famous mother.

Indian writers also try to beat the odds by writing the way foreigners think Indians are supposed to write. Magical realism, started by Rushdie and continued by Vikram Chandra, is a popular style for this reason. The rest of them are turning out stories about large extended families, peppering the prose with slangy Hindi phrases in an attempt to produce something akin to the way Indians actually speak English, a kind of writing that no foreigner would be able to understand without heavy editing. The protagonist is usually a thinly veiled portrait of the author (Arundhuti Roy's success has encouraged this sort of narcissism). The narrative technique is linear, evolutionary and episodic, probably because these writers are forcing themselves to write to suit what they think the publishers want.

A few publishing houses are even asking would-be authors to pay for getting into print, knowing that there are always people desperate enough to do this. Some foreign publishers of this genre--Minerva Press is one such--have set up offices in Delhi, hoping to tempt such writers. After all, they say, even Byron self-published. Writer's Workshop, a small press in Calcutta which used to champion good budding authors, is now charging to publish their work, even though in the past all they offered by way of compensation were writer's copies.

A recent book fair held on the British Council grounds, was an admitted failure but was typical. The devaluation of the rupee has put most books out of the reach of most readers. They have to save up just to buy one or two important books from the main book fairs held each year in major Indian cities, and the books they buy there will be foreign novels and best sellers rather than the local Indian product. As a result, the would-be Indian novelist in English still has a long way to go and that long way begins with getting hold of an agent, or, failing that, a godfather like Salman Rushdie.
(Anjana Basu  does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)

                     THE ONE AND ONLY
                                                 By Abbas Zaidi

Montgomery College with its gothic buildings, huge watchtower and statues of eminent British professors of yore, was a fading reminder of the days of the Raj. The most prestigious section of the College was the English Department. Its post-graduate English Literary Circle was a forum for feverish activity every Wednesday afternoon when General Zia's martial law policies were criticized under the guise of a literary symposium. People from other departments as well as litterateurs from outside the College came to participate. It was put about that martial law intelligence personnel also attended the weekly sessions in order to keep an eye on possible subversives. But that did not deter the Circle's president or Professor Muhammad, the department chairman, from keeping it going.

One Wednesday, Professor Emeritus Dr Ali Hussain delivered a lecture on "King Lear's Edmund and the Lust for Power". It was a scathing criticism of a "power hungry adventurer" as "ruthless as he was ungrateful to his benefactor". Dr Hussain was given a thunderous ovation. His audience hated General Zia because he had overthrown and hanged an elected prime minister who had also been his benefactor. 

The lecture was followed by the reading of a poem composed by one of the students.

But for Rajmi the only person in attendance who mattered was Nina, his latest heart throb. It was scarcely a week since he had fallen in love with her.

When the lecture was over he went to the canteen with his friend Ikmal.

'What will happen when Nina gets married?' Ikmal asked. 'You know she's engaged to an army captain'.

'I will write her a letter in my blood,' Rajmi said, wiping his eyes with the bottom edge of his T-shirt.

'Why don't you tell her how you feel?'

'Do you remember last semester when I proposed to Nurul? The way she reacted . . .?'

'You should have proposed to her sooner,' Ikmal said.

'She told me that a flying officer wanted to marry her.... But it's my own fault. I should have been more forceful.'

'What about Beena, the love of your life who sprinkled roses when she spoke? You pined for her. You were determined to marry her.'

'Weren't her eyes like two little buttons?'

Ikmal stared into space, closed his eyes, opened them and fixed them on Rajmi again. 'What about your fellow journalist Wajida who gives you such seductive looks?'

'She has no shame! Look at the wrinkles on her face. She's my mother's age!'

'And yet you were drawn to her because of ... her spectacles.'

'Yes,' Rajmi admitted. 'I've never seen a woman wear such bright red frames. Her eyes make me feel like they're going to shoot me like a pair of bullets!'

Over the next few days surgery was performed on the English Department. Professors Muhammad and Hussain, along with President Ikmal, were arrested by the authorities on "irrefutable proofs" of their "conspiracy and treason." Three days later the Lahore Summary Military Court sentenced them to six-year sentences at hard labor. Seven lecturers known to be Professor Muhammad's close friends were transferred to the hinterland.

Rajmi was lucky. He was only expelled, and his part-time proof-reading job with The Lahore Bulletin was not affected. He simply began working as a full-timer. The salary was small, and his pride was hurt. But he had no choice. His dream of passing his MA and getting a job as an English Literature lecturer was smashed.

He was assigned to the morning shift. Every day he traveled to the office in an over-crowded Bulletin bus along with other Grade-3 employees like himself who could not afford a vehicle of their own. Every afternoon the same bus carried them back home. He worked evenings as an assistant to his uncle, who supplied gas canisters and catering services to various government institutions.

One afternoon he found that the Grade-3 bus had broken down and that Grade-3 employees would have the honor of travelling with Grade-1 journalists and officers from the Editorial, Magazine and Administration sections. It was well known at the Bulletin that some of the Grade-1 officers only took the company bus for the snob value. The mere sight of that huge, air-conditioned Mercedes Benz was awe-inspiring. The Grade- 1's occupied less than one fifth of the available seats.

This particular morning Rajmi was the last to board and contentedly stood in the crowd occupying the aisle. The front half of the bus was occupied by male and female Grade-1's, the middle by male Grade-3's and the rear by female Grade-3's. The sun was almost directly overhead, so he could see the reflection of those sitting in the front seats in the windscreen. He saw a face there whose gaze seemed fixed on an object outside the bus. She almost seemed to be in some kind of trance. She seemed very beautiful and at the same time so ethereal that for a moment Rajmi thought what he was seeing must be the work of an artist.

'How come I have not see her before?'

He forgot to get off at his stop. Then the sun and the bus changed their orientations and there was no more reflection on the windscreen. The bus pulled up and some passengers got down. Because of the crush Rajmi could not see who they were. But when the bus started up again he was able to see every woman in the front of the bus. The one whose reflection he had glimpsed was not among them.

The next day was his day off. All morning he walked around in a daze. His mother asked him to go with her to his uncle's house, but he made an excuse. At midday he went into the office. The Mercedes Benz was parked nearby. He got into it. There was no one inside. He sat close to the windscreen and stared into it. She was not there. But he kept gazing at the screen, and suddenly there she was! Some people started coming out of the office, and had to get off the bus. He sat down on a nearby bench, hoping to see the woman herself, but she did not appear.

After that he began seeing her image in every reflective surface: windscreens, shop windows, even the Grade-3 bus windows. His tea and lunch breaks were spent in the Mercedes- Benz. His obsession was starting to affect his work, but he was lucky: His colleagues covered for him because they believed he was a martial law victim.

One night he realized that this woman, whoever she was, was the one he had been waiting for: his perfect mate. For the first time in his life he felt that he was living every moment of his existence to the fullest, and yet he also felt strangely disassociated from the world around him.

He tried every method to find out who she was, but no one at the Bulletin knew anyone who fit her description. She seemed to have appeared in his life out of nowhere and then to have disappeared just as mysteriously. He had always thought that he was strong enough to exorcise the damnedest of ghosts, 'But this heart of mine! What am I to do with it?' He decided that to love was to wander in a desert of hopeless, helpless futility.

One day he read a "money-back-guarantee" advert in the Bulletin that claimed, 'If I cannot get your wishes fulfilled, you will be reimbursed in toto'. The author was a Professor Beg who had recently retired from the English Department of Montgomery College. Rajmi knew him. The Professor had spent a good deal of time in Indonesia where, he claimed, he had learned black magic and necromancy. Following his retirement he had set up a "consultancy" to help make people's dreams come true. Ordinarily, Rajmi would have ridiculed such a person, but his obsession had rendered him helpless. He found himself knocking at the Professor's door.

After listening to his story, Beg went into a meditation for a while, then chanted something black-magical, and after talking to some invisible creatures said, 'You did not see an actual woman. Actually--if you don't mind my saying so--you were hallucinating. The woman was just a figment of your imagination. That's not so unusual for a very fanciful person like yourself, especially given your recent history. I would advise you to forget her once and for all. However, I can provide you with a method used by the aboriginal tribes of Indonesia which will be of great help the next time you find a woman you would like to be yours. But I warn you! It is not for the faint-hearted'.

'I will do anything!'

The Professor continued, 'The most powerful love magic used by the aborigines of Borneo is to find the corpse of a virgin who has just died. You take a candle, a matchbox and a bowl with you. Go at nighttime. Once you have found the dead girl, put the flame of the candle under her chin and keep the bowl below the flame. Do not let the flame touch the chin, and do not take your eyes off her face. Soon a few drops will trickle from her chin and fall into the bowl. Don't worry if some wax also drips into the bowl because wax will not affect the strength of the potion. Keep that liquid with you at all times and sprinkle it on the woman you want to be yours. She will love you more than you can imagine.'

The Professor did not charge Rajmi for the consultation. He said he would be compensated enough by seeing the happy results of the magic.

Outside the city was one of the largest graveyards in the country. It was spread over miles and freely spawned stories about evil spirits and ghosts. There was no human habitation near it. Rajmi began reading the newspapers very carefully and frequenting the graveyard.

One evening his uncle asked him to take a load of gas cylinders to the Lahore Women's Club. Since the Club was a hangout for wives, daughters and female "friends" of civil and army bureaucrats, his uncle gave him strictest instructions to deliver only the freshest cylinders whose reliability was beyond suspicion.

But Rajmi believed that someone connected with a Club woman was behind his ruin. So the cylinders he delivered included two of the oldest and rustiest, which in a few days' time resulted in a gas leak that killed a young woman--a colonel's unmarried daughter--and brain-damaged several who survived. Fortunately, the tragedy was considered an accident.

Hundreds attended the funeral, Rajmi among them. The young woman was buried in a remote corner of the graveyard. According to the newspapers, she was just twenty years of age.

It was a moonlit night and midwinter cold. The graveyard was surrounded by a variety of trees that had silently guarded the graves for ages. In the moonlight they looked like prehistoric creatures. Porcupines, cats, dogs, foxes, mongooses, snakes, insects and all sorts of other animals were roaming about looking for a corpse to feed on. Some animals were planning their ritual battles with rivals over territory or females. A mongoose and a cobra were sizing each other up before formally starting mortal combat.

As soon as Rajmi entered the graveyard, the animals all fell silent. They had no experience of any human intruding at such an hour. Rajmi kept to a cautious yet rapid pace, feeling the animals' eyes on him as he passed. When he reached the grave site he looked around and thought, 'How many told and untold stories are buried in this necropolis! How many beauties and virgins are now just dust and ashes!'

He was properly clothed for the cold and had all the implements he needed: candles, matchbox, lighter, a bowl and a spade. He was also carrying a thick stick in case he had to confront a dog or other animal, human or inhuman.

He started digging. The earth was still soft and easy to penetrate. The moment he struck the coffin the trees around him shook violently in protest, waking the sleeping birds in them. They called out in confusion, but none dared to venture forth in protest or curiosity. The sound of spade hitting coffin also sent four-legged animals scurrying back to their burrows. Only an old mongoose boldly snuck up to the top of a nearby grave and stood on his tiptoes to watch what was happening.

It took less than an hour for him to dig deep enough to reach the lid of the coffin. He found a stone slab nearby and placed it next to the coffin. He put the bowl and a big candle on it, then lit the candle. The coffin was not locked and opened easily with a creaking sound. Suddenly all the animals plunged deep into their holes, appalled by what they were seeing. The trees stopped shaking and the birds fell silent.

Rajmi was oblivious to all of this. In the candlelight he saw a corpse wrapped in white cloth from head to feet like an Egyptian mummy. He hesitated to touch it. He had heard since childhood about the retribution dead people sometimes took immediately after their burial. He had also heard of horrifying shapes the dead could take on when their graves were disturbed. 'What if she was a sinner during her life? What if she wasn't really a virgin?' With a trembling hand he uncovered the face and with the other raised the candle.

The candle immediately fell from his hand and went out. His heart was pounding like a hammer against his chest and he was shaking all over as if her were having a fit. He fumbled for his lighter, relit the candle and raised it to her face again. She was the woman in the windscreen! He closed his eyes tight, then opened them again. But there was no doubt about it. 'Who created you?'

She did not answer, but her face shining in the moonlight was answer enough.

'It cannot be the same God who created everything else! It must be a special God, a God of Gods!'

He threw the bowl aside, gently moved her body to one side of the wide coffin and carefully inserted himself beside her. He touched the soft cheeks that even in the moonlight still shown as pink as if she were still alive. He drew his fingers along the curve of her eyebrows, gently touched her chin, her ears, her aquiline nose and long smooth neck. He reached down to feel her hands and feet, took her thick dark hair in his hands and let it slide through his fingers like silken sand. He gently opened her eyes. They seemed lost in some deep thoughts, staring up into the midnight sky unblinking as if lost in an ecstasy of some dream being enacted there.

There appeared to him a procession of all the women he had been in love with, passing as if in review before him and then melting into the dark recesses of the graveyard like falling leaves. He kissed the dead woman's eyes, eyelashes and lips. He put his hand inside her shroud and caressed her shoulders and breasts. He had been told that a dead body was cold, but hers was not. He kissed her lips again, then kissed her shroud. 'Why have I been chasing shadows all my life? There is no woman for me but you. Only you. My one and only!'

He put his thumb over the candle's flame and pulled the lid of the coffin closed.

(Abbas Zaidi <manoo@brunet.bn> 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.)

                              TIME TO WRITE OFF
            AUNG SAN SUU KYI?
                        By Abbas Zaidi

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Myanmar military regime in the middle of 1995 was hailed by Western political analysts, commentators and diplomats as a "triumph of democracy" made possible by their unrelenting pressure on the generals ruling that country. Those Westerners anticipated a quick emergence of democracy in Myanmar, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, replacing what they called a military dictatorship guilty of repeated human rights violations. Western political analysts expected an imminent Marcos-style exit by the Generals in the face of an irresistible "people's revolution".

But the approach taken by the Southeast Asian nations (better known as ASEAN) was more cautious. Like the West, they also claimed credit for Suu Kyi's release, attributing it to what they termed ASEAN leadership's "constructive engagement" with the Myanmar military regime. Also like their Western counterparts, ASEAN leaders hoped for change of the guard in Myanmar's political establishment.

A few days after Suu Kyi's release, I submitted my "Letter From the Far East" column to the Pakistani newspaper The Nation ("Suu Kyi's Release and Myanmar's Future," 30 July 1995). I applauded Suu Kyi for her attitude and statements following her release and called her "a great political realist who believes in evolution and gradualism", someone who had "total humility" and no "delusion of self-importance".

Initially she talked about "national reconciliation", and her statement that "as far as I am concerned, dialogue means everything is open to negotiation and discussion" was very encouraging. However, I also warned that the Western claim that the generals had acted out of a position of weakness was a tenuous one and that, despite the claims of victory being voiced by both Western and ASEAN politicians and pundits, the release of Suu Kyi did not in itself mean much. I predicted that she would: (1) turn out to be an ineffective political figure, and (2) the only viable solution for the political impasse in Myanmar was a power-sharing agreement between herself and the Generals.

Time has validated my suspicions. Now that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have not in three years been able to rustle a single leaf in the political landscape of Myanmar, would it be too much to write her off politically?

There is more than one reason for answering in the affirmative.

To start with, since her release Suu Kyi's personal character has been shown to be something less than mature. On the one hand, she has preached patience to her supporters and indicated that she is willing to have dialogue with the generals about the political future of Myanmar ("Everything is negotiable"). But, whipped up by assurances from the West, she has also reacted negatively to the idea that in future the army might have a constitutional role. "That is unacceptable", she says.

In her strategy vis-a-vis the Generals, Suu Kyi probably thought that she could wrest any concessions she wanted simply by her alternating smiles and frowns. She probably forgot that she was in fact a powerless "Queen of the People", the West's favourite appellation for her. But whatever her theoretical political power, from day one she was no match for the Generals' military hardware and personnel. By presenting a recalcitrant--dare we say "dictatorial"?-- attitude toward them she has rendered no service to the cause of democracy in her country, and in the process she has lost a great deal of credibility.

Why has Suu Kyi not been able to read the situation more accurately? Perhaps because she has relied too much on external forces, i.e. the West: high-sounding pro-Suu Kyi coverage by Western media that portray her as a freedom fighter; the sudden and entirely unjustifiable award of a Nobel Peace Prize to her; condescending Western threats to the Myanmar Generals to relinquish power in her favour or "face the consequences". With all these supporting her, Suu Kyi started giving it about that the generals would soon cave in. That was a blunder on her part astutely exploited by the Myanmar regime: the Generals have successfully portrayed her as a Western stooge who has spent most of her life in Europe and has even married a Westerner. Hence their propaganda that such an alien cannot be allowed to rule Myanmar.

Suu Kyi's weekly speeches from her residence (attended by only a handful of supporters) have been more of an I-am-still-alive exercise than anything of significance. The impression she creates is that of a grande dame, not of a genuine political leader.

Another crucial factor that has contributed to the strength of the Generals and the undermining of Suu Kyi is the economic situation in Myanmar. American attempts to put an economic embargo on Myanmar in order to force out the Generals have met with strong opposition from countries like Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The economic growth rate in Myanmar has been steadily increasing, and countries like the US have not been able to halt new foreign investment.

It is important to note that despite vociferous Western propaganda, no claim regarding economic mismanagement on the part of the Generals has been credibly made. Moreover, the present regime has made peace with its neighbours and resolved most internal insurgencies by ethnic groups. With the economic house in order and a state of peace prevailing within the country and on the borders, it is unlikely the people would rally around Suu Kyi enough to place her in office at any significant cost to their own economic well-being.

The call for a "people's revolution" from the neo-imperialist countries of the West is too unreal for even an illiterate Asian to digest. The US and its allies have killed more revolutions and destroyed more democracies than they have helped create. Supporters of a "people's revolution" in Myanmar conveniently forget that revolutions are not made in diplomatic chambers or by threatening resolutions. Revolutionary leaders have never succeeded by standing on the shoulders of imperialists and cold warriors. It is the people of a country who bring about a revolution. That is why the Shah was overthrown despite a wholesale Western campaign against Ayatollah Khomeini. That is also why today the US-supported Chiang Kai-shek regime is scarcely mentioned and Ho Chi Minh has prevailed. Besides, the Myanmar Generals are themselves sons of the soil. They are not CIA transplants who amass fortunes in foreign banks and safely flee the country when the political scene becomes violent--or are physically eliminated like Pakistan's General Zia, the best American "friend" in the history of South Asia.

Politics is like a game of cricket or a golf tournament where anything is possible. But if Suu Kyi continues in her present ways, relying on her Western well-wishers and political patrons to look out for her, one of these days I may find myself writing a political obituary for the pretty darling of the West  and Queen in Waiting of the people of Myanma aka Burma.
(Abbas Zaidi <manoo@brunet.bn> 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.)




        By Tomás Eloy Martínez
          Translated by Helen Lane
        384 pages Reprint edition (August 1997)
        Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679768149
                                                      By Anthony Milne

"IF THOSE in power have the right to imagine a history that is false, why shouldn't novelists attempt with their imaginations to discover the truth?" asks Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez. In his part of the world, he declares, "documents often were falsified by Governments". This was true during the Falklands war between Argentina and Britain, when a "completely false history based on propaganda was generated as a pretext to pursue a war". It was true too during Argentina's "dirty war", when thousands of citizens the government didn't like simply disappeared.

Martínez has met the challenge of imagining the truth and stepped into the limelight with his novel Santa Evita. In the last two years the book has sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and been translated into 36 languages.

According to Caleb Bach, writing in the magazine Americas, published by the OAS in Washington, Martínez's book, a "spectacular critical and commercial success", tracks the "bizarre peregrination of the corpse of Eva Duarte de Perón", first wife of late Argentine President Juan Perón. It is a "magical mix of fact and fiction" which reveals the historical and psychological realities of Argentina".

Martínez is a veteran journalist who was born and brought up in Tucumán in Argentina and has spent important periods of his creative life in exile. Perón's rise to power in the Forties and rule in the Fifties, as well as his return from exile and resumption of the presidency in 1973, has been Martínez's particular obsession. His first novel, La Novela Perón (The Perón Novel) appeared in 1985 and dealt with Perón's earlier career, shared with wife Evita.

Martínez wrote the book in Washington DC on a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Center, drawing on years of research and using journalistic techniques. He imagines what the distorted truth of the Perón era was. The later Santa Evita too is a "meditation on truth". The technique of mixing fact and fiction, Martínez says, was inspired by his fellow-Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges, now dead. "My novel would not have appeared but for Borges," he admits. "But then he has influenced the breadth of modern literature."

Martínez traces the genesis of Santa Evita to a documentary film he saw at the National Archives in Washington. "I was looking at footage of an artistic festival on January 22, 1944, at Luna Park Stadium in Buenos Aires," Martínez explains. "That's where Evita first met the Colonel. She managed to seat herself next to Perón. At one point she leans over and says something, but there is no sound and you can't read her lips, so I asked myself what she could have said."

He imagined an exchange in which Evita says, "Coronel". Somewhat distracted Perón responds, "Qué hija?". Evita then says, "Gracias por existir" ("Thank you for existing"). The imaginary phrase has appeared in another novel and two biographies of Evita.

MARTÍNEZ was born in Tucumán in 1934. His uncle was a major stockholder in La Gaceta, the biggest newspaper outside of Buenos Aires. Martínez's family hoped he would one day head the paper, but he dreamt of literature. He wrote his first story "by chance" at the age of seven. Having spent far too long one afternoon at a travelling circus, he was punished by being banned from going to movies and reading books. He collected postage stamps and, to pass the time, wrote a "fantastic adventure that occurred when I entered a stamp from Mozambique which bore the image of a jungle full of monkeys". His parents were so impressed the ban was lifted.

As a teenager he had stories published in La Gaceta and won a poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He also wrote headlines at the paper for foreign stories and proofread. Martínez entered the University of Tucumán to study law, but didn't do well and his father gave permission for a transfer to the School of Letters. He took a degree in Spanish and Latin American literature, then went on to the University of Paris to take his Masters. Back in Argentina he got a job as film critic for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación and wrote his first book, Structure in Argentine Cinema. Favouring European film, his reviews annoyed local distributors for Hollywood films, who removed their advertisements from the paper. Martínez was asked to leave.

He then taught at the Universities of La Plata and Córdoba and wrote seven film scripts with Uruguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos. Martínez returned to journalism, editing the literary publication Primera Plana from 1962-69. In 1965 he created an evening television programme for television called Telenoche. In 1967 he invited Gabriel García Márquez, then unknown, to Argentina after the publication of the Colombian writer's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He published a cover story about Márquez in Primera Plano.

IN 1969 Martínez went to Paris as correspondent for Editorial Abril and the following year was asked by the Argentine magazine Panorama to interview former President Perón, then in exile in Madrid. Perón agreed to tell him his life story. By then Evita had died, Perón was remarried to María Estela Martínez, known as "Isabel", who succeeded Perón after his second stint as president in the 1970s. In the attic of their home in the Madrid suburb of Puerta de Hierro was Evita's embalmed body. Present during the interviews until Martínez objected, was Perón's secretary, José Luis Rega, steeped in the occult and known as the "Sorcerer". There was a confrontation and Perón asked Rega to leave. Rega didn't forget this. After Perón returned to Argentina, Martínez poked fun at Rega in an article and was forced into exile in Paris. Afterwards he moved to Caracas where he worked as a journalist. From 1984-87, after the fellowship that allowed him the write The Perón Novel, Martínez taught Latin American literature at the University of Maryland. He then got a Guggenheim Fellowship, visited Argentina and Mexico in the early 1990s, and set about writing Santa Evita in an apartment in Highland Park, New Jersey.

Living in exile provides both advantages and disadvantages. "I miss the conversations in the cafés with friends and the intellectual passion of the people," Martínez says. "But here in New Jersey I have the peace necessary to write." He sees things more clearly from a distance. "At home we are always preoccupied by minuscule problems like which minister is going to fall tomorrow instead of the big things that really matter." Now he's at work on another novel but doesn't like to talk about it. "It's bad luck to tell about a novel that isn't written".

(Anthony Milne <anto@ttemail.com>  was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the 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 everything else under the sun.)
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