by David Herman (Republic of South Africa) * Heavenly Treatment For a Heavenly People During our endless discussions there was always one common thread-- Kosovo was sacred Serbian land and Albanians would have to be killed or expelled. by Viktor Car (Canada-Croatia) * The Boli-Seller A Short Story The boli-seller would arrive the first Saturday of every month and settle down on our doorstep, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his turban. by Vallath Nandakumar (India) * Growing Up with Tobago We set up our tent in a field in the Crown Point area near to a tap, cooked over a fire, lay about in the sun or in the cool of the tent, all of us thoroughly and meditatively stoned. by Anthony Milne (Trinidad & Tobago) * DALIT LITERATURE: The Voice of the Downtrodden They carry brooms tied to their bodies so that they can wipe away their footprints. by Razi Abedi (Pakistan) * London Through the Magic Eye Even more curious is the schism between what the British see of the real world and what of the world is transmitted to them: No inhibitions at being examined at length, but a certain coolness at examining others' lives in such detail. by Raymond Ramcharitar (Trinidad & Tobago) * Another Day A Short Story I think about Latha. When was the last time I saw her naked? It is more than two years since we made love. by S. Anand (India) * Poem Something poetic there is about train tracks. by Raymond Ramcharitar (Trinidad & Tobago) * And So It Came to Pass And when He left, it was not sitting on the toilet of His Tennessee mansion, stomach cramping, eyes blurring, but blindfolded and alone before a CIA-sponsored firing squad, convicted of teaching school children how to read both Spanish and English texts. by Holly Day (United States of America) 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*
The Lady and the Tiger...
But Not the Truth
By David Herman
Both are accused kidnappers and murderers. Each unleashed a reign of terror during which men and women were tortured and killed for incurring their personal displeasure. She was the Mother of the Nation; he the Priest from Hell. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt. The Lady and the Tiger.
Their characters are so disparate, it takes a great leap of imagination to discern their similarities, but the very distance between them creates an irresistible magnetic charge pulling their fates closer together. The inarticulate Nieuwoudt, a loner, ex-member of a fraternity of cruel and robotic cops. Winnie, the stylish, charismatic ex-member of the royal family.
And yet it wasn't always so. Only a few brief years ago they were diametrically opposed representatives of two sides in a battle that was patently void of any gray area. He stood for the oppression of the country's majority by whatever means necessary; she waved the banner of human dignity. It was a battle I witnessed from the safety of exile in London. My contribution to the struggle lay in not buying South African wine.
In the mid-sixties I fled South Africa, a teenager, terrified of what I might face as a white soldier in the Apartheid Republic's army. Now I was back, keen to see how the new South Africa was dealing with its past on the eve of its second free elections.
The Christmas buntings were still up when I arrived at the airport, but they were wilting in the tropical summer heat. Good news was emanating from the transistor radios in every office. The invaders were being thrashed in the only battle that mattered: the cricket match against the West Indies.
It's late afternoon in Soweto. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are kicking off the 1999 election campaign in the dusty soccer stadium. Mbeki, Mandela's hand-picked successor, is not a rousing speaker and is delighted when his speech is interrupted by a tumultuous ovation. It takes a moment till he realises the crowd's applause is not for him but for a lone figure strolling slowly across the pitch. Winnie has arrived, fashionably forty-five minutes late. The throng toyi-toyis in delight. With much grinding of teeth, Mbeki acknowledges the interloper. "Viva the president of the African National Congress Women's League!" "Viva!" roars the crowd. In the first game of the season against the new establishment, it's 1-0 Winnie.
Meanwhile, ex-Special Branch Colonel, Gideon Nieuwoudt, is having less success with his PR campaign. Nieuwoudt has visited Zwide, Port Elizabeth, the home of slain anti-apartheid activist Siphiwe Mtimkulu. He has come to request a reconciliation with Mtimkulu's family. The ceremony is brief. Mtimkulu's son smashes a flower vase over Nieuwoudt's head. Mrs Mtimkulu smuggles Nieuwoudt out of the back door, avoiding the angry mob which has gathered in front of the house.
Lost in the melee of ongoing life are the amnesty decisions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "It's over, isn't it?" I hear 'round the grill at a braai, or barbecue, where South Africans hold their clan meetings. Long coils of boerewors, the local spicy sausage, washed down by copious quantities of Castle Beer, break the usual polite reticence and words spill freely into the warm air.
The hearings are over and the report delivered to Mandela amidst a furore of debate. But the amnesty decisions are only now trickling in and it doesn't look good for some of the players. But round the braai the talk is of cricket. And if it's politics you're interested in, it's still about cricket.
"It's a disgrace," said a black newspaper editor between bites on his wors. "The selectors have chosen only one black for the team, and he's the reserve. My eight-year-old son, a cricket fanatic, is proud to be South African and proud to be black, but he's supporting the West Indies."
The reserve is called the twelfth man in cricket. The twelfth man can field in place of an injured player. The twelfth man can run for an injured batsman but can not bat. And here's the rub. In the arcane game that is cricket, the twelfth man has another duty: he serves the team drinks during the tea break. Not exactly a revolutionary position for a black man in the new South Africa.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in South Africa in order to lay old ghosts to rest. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man of infinite patience, compassion and good humour was installed as chairman. The commission's brief was awesome, but the path to amnesty simple and straightforward. Perpetrators of crimes, some of them guilty of gross assaults on human rights, had to step forward, give an open and honest accounting of their crimes and provide a political motivation. The Commission would provide them with full amnesty in return.
Simple it would seem, till one runs into the likes of Nieuwoudt. He has the answers to a lot of questions, but he's not much good at telling the truth. One might try to stimulate his memory with a few pointed questions. How did you torture Mukuseli Jack? Where did you bury Siphiwe Mtimkulu? When did you shoot the PEBCO 3? Why did you let Steve Biko die?
Nieuwoudt denies none of these crimes associated with his name, but stubbornly refuses to tell the truth. He sticks to the cover-up stories concocted with his colleagues in the Special Branch. He resists breaking ranks, notwithstanding the risk that he will be denied amnesty.
Trivial you might think, unless you were the wife or the son or the mother of one of his victims. They have had to put aside their desire for retribution, have had to be prepared to watch the men who tortured and killed their loved ones walk free in return for acknowledging what happened.
Nieuwoudt has had five separate hearings in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during which he brushed aside troublesome questions with blunt disdain. Nieuwoudt was a ruthless interrogator and, by his standards, these enquiries are a cakewalk.
No one was putting a wet canvas bag over his head and holding it fast till he choked and begged to breathe. None of his inquisitors was beating him with a steel pipe and, Nieuwoudt certainly knew, he was not going to end up naked in the back of a pick-up truck with severe brain lesions, slowly dying, like Steve Biko.
Not wanting to see the killers walk free, Biko's family opposed the amnesty process. They took their appeal all the way up to South Africa's Constitutional Court. In some of the most gently understanding language one is ever likely to hear in a judicial process, the appeal was turned down.
The judges accepted the validity of the applicant's concern. 'The results may well often be imperfect and the pursuit of the act might inherently support the message of Kant that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."'
But in conclusion the judges restated the reasoning behind the amnesty process. They explained that there appeared to be no other mechanism to force perpetrators to reveal their crimes. Families of the victims would not have the truth they so desperately desired. Truth that would empower them while 'the country begins the long and necessary process of healing the wounds of the past, transforming anger and grief into a mature understanding.'
The judges reckoned without Gideon Nieuwoudt. They also underestimated the power and resolve of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Neither of them has much regard for the TRC or its noble aims. So, how did such a disparate couple come to occupy the same hotseat?
1977 is a crucial year. Winnie Mandela is the visible spirit of the ANC in South Africa. Nelson Mandela has spent more than a decade on Robben Island, serving a life sentence. After years of being harassed, tortured and held in solitary confinement, Winnie is banished from her home in Soweto and dumped in Brandport, a sandy desolate village in the middle of nowhere. She writes a friend, "The solitude is deadly. Social life is the nightly raids and funerals! Yet there's something so purifying about exile, each minute is a reminder that blackness alone is a commitment in our sick society."
Nieuwoudt's star, by contrast, is on the ascent. 1977 finds him in the old Synagogue in Pretoria which was converted into a court for Nelson Mandela's treason trial in the early 1960s. Nieuwoudt is one of the Special Branch Policemen standing accused that warm December day of the murder of Steve Biko. Biko it seems, was killed not because he was regarded as such a prominent enemy -- in fact the policemen involved knew little to nothing of the black consciousness movement -- but because he refused to stand during his interrogation. He insisted he should sit. Nieuwoudt was outraged by the arrogance of this black man who needed to be taught a lesson. As it turned out, a deadly lesson.
It took Magistrate Marthinus Prins less than three minutes to deliver his verdict: No one to blame. Biko had been eliminated, his death declared an accident. The police had lied, the district surgeons had lied and the magistrate's priority was not truth but support of the Apartheid regime. Nieuwoudt was on a fast track to promotion.
We cut to the mid-eighties. South Africa is in turmoil. The ANC's tactic is to fight the regime by making the Black Townships ungovernable. There are riots and killings. Winnie Mandela is back in Soweto and has become a formidable figure. In the Eastern Cape, Gideon Nieuwoudt is amongst the small band charged with restoring order. The government had been embarrassed by the publicity the Biko hearing received in the foreign press. Henceforth, victims of the Special Branch would either disappear or have their deaths laid at the doorstep of rival black factions.
Witness the case of the Motherwell bombing. Four black Special Branch colleagues of Nieuwoudt are blown to bits in their car in the little town of Motherwell. A police investigation concludes the bombing is the work of the ANC. Ten years later a cop breaks ranks and reveals Nieuwoudt was behind the bombing. Nieuwoudt applies for amnesty to the Truth Commission. He did it, he says, because he discovered the four had secretly joined the ANC. Wasn't he afraid the police bomb expert would identify the explosive not as Russian but as South African police issue? Not really: Nieuwoudt was the investigating bomb expert.
It also turns out that the reason for the killing was other than he claimed. The four black officers had been caught ripping off secret funds and threatened to expose the Security Branch of having killed a group activists if they were charged. Nieuwoudt, known to his colleagues as Mr Fixit, soon sorted it out.
Nieuwoudt was denied amnesty for the bombing. He faces twenty years in jail after conviction in a criminal court.
Amnesty could be granted to people already convicted of crimes if they met the commissions requirements of full disclosure and political intent. A perpetrator of a crime denied amnesty is left open to prosecution for their acts. Their testimony before the Amnesty Commission is not admissible in a criminal court.
By 1977, the Special Branch had more than its fair share of image problems. No longer protected by the apartheid courts, and now being offered the carrot of amnesty in return for full confessions, cops were coming forward and admitting to torturing and killing opponents of the old regime. But they were hedging their bets, admitting only to the more obvious crimes and hiding behind the old saw, "We were only following orders."
Nieuwoudt was feared throughout the Eastern Cape Townships. It was rumoured he was masquerading as a priest on his night-time visits to activists homes, hence the moniker, the Priest from Hell. Siphiwe Mtimkulu disappeared one night. He'd had a history of meetings with Nieuwoudt.
Mtimkulu's mother sat at the TRC hearings clutching a plastic bag with the only remnant she has of her son, a small piece of his scalp with some hair attached. Siphiwe Mtimkulu had been poisoned in prison, causing his hair to fall out. The poison left him confined to a wheelchair. His mother described what her son told after he was released from his first session at the Nieuwoudt clinic.
Siphiwe said he had been brutally tortured. He told his mother he had been starved for days and then chained naked to a rock at the seaside while Nieuwoudt and a colleague barbecued spare-ribs. They threw the stripped bones in the sand at his feet.
Nieuwoudt admitted to the TRC that he later murdered Mtimkulu, but he denied torturing the crippled student leader. He claimed that he drugged him and then shot him in the back of the head while he slept. Then, he said, he burned the body and scattered the ashes in a river. Mrs Mtimkulu does not believe him. Nieuwoudt claims he eliminated Mtimkulu because Mtimkulu was a danger to public order. Mrs Mtimkulu believes her son was killed because he had the temerity to sue the police for poisoning him. The TRC's amnesty decision is still awaited.
Nieuwoudt was the product of a strict Dutch Reform Church upbringing. His lawyer to the Truth Commission gently suggested to him:
"The church of which you were a member also decided at synod level, that the policy of separate development as it was termed by the Government of the day could be justified in terms of the Bible."
"That is correct," Nieuwoudt said, and continued, "The way I understood it is the following, that all measures should be used to protect the government of the Republic of South Africa and to keep them in power, and whatever methods would be used, would be justifiable."
While Nieuwoudt was going about his dirty business in the Eastern Cape, Winnie Mandela had become, to all intents and purposes, a war-lord in Soweto. She must have felt untouchable and, to a degree, she was. Protected by the Mandela name, she trod rough-shod over the black leadership. Furthermore, the authorities felt that Winnie was, in effect, an unwitting ally. Her reign of terror and the mayhem it was creating, not only in Soweto, but amongst the ANC leadership, was more effective than anything the Security Branch could devise. Winnie was out of control. With her husband in jail, she seemed to believe that she was the rightful leader of the resistance movement within South Africa and that anyone who challenged her was an enemy of the cause.
She inhabited an unsavoury world peopled by charlatans, petty thieves and informers, a world whose epicentre was the backyard of her home in Soweto, the headquarters of Mandela United Football Club. The team members were Winnie's foot soldiers, in a league of their own. They tortured and killed with impunity. There are theories and then there are theories regarding Winnie's transformation. It is said that she took to drink and drugs during the lonely years of isolation. It is said that the police broke her during one especially nasty and long period of solitary confinement.
In the rooms and outhouses of the Mandela compound, people were also tortured and killed. Their crimes? They had thwarted Winnie or one of her henchmen. The justification? If they upset Winnie they must be government informers. Two youths had revolutionary graffiti carved into their limbs and torsos and the wounds rubbed with battery acid. A pregnant woman was assaulted by Winnie and later assaulted again by a group of the 'footballers'. She had had the temerity to fall in love with one of Winnie's part-time chauffeurs who also happened to be one of Winnie's own part-time lovers.
I had watched Nelson Mandela and Winnie walk hand in hand out of prison when he was freed after twenty seven years in jail. My heart soared as they raised their clenched fists. I agonised during Winnie's trial and was pleased that she escaped, knowing little about the world behind those dark curtains in Townships like Soweto. Then, slowly, the universe of Winnie Mandela began to reveal itself to the public eye.
Bombshell after bombshell exploded. Winnie was subpoenaed to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She admitted nothing and was not asking for amnesty. This was during a special hearing into the activities of the Mandela United Football Club. There were eighteen accounts of murder, kidnapping and torture laid out before the Commission. In a full week of hearings, the world heard the stories of men and women who had suffered the same kind of fate at the hands of Winnie and her followers that activists had endured at the hands of Gideon Nieuwoudt and his colleagues in the Special Branch.
During six days of hearings, witness after witness told harrowing stories condemning Winnie. A father wept when he told how he has never forgiven himself for not rescuing his son when Winnie drove him by his house, badly beaten, before he was murdered. Archbishop Tutu had to deliver a solemn warning to the audience after one of the victim's mothers was threatened by Winnie's entourage in the washroom during a break in the proceedings. Winnie sat in the hall with her bodyguards providing her cool drinks and presenting her with flowers.
The last day of the hearing was Winnie's turn. It was her chance to soar above the squalid days of inhumanity and reclaim a place in the forefront of righteousness. Twenty years had passed since she was banished to Brandfort; ten years since the dark days in Soweto; three years since her husband took the oath of office as president of the new South Africa. Instead, she denied everything, dismissing those who had endured so much pain as merely people suffering from hallucinations and dementia. She had not asked for amnesty, and the TRC had no carrot and no stick for her. She dismissed her accusers as liars, lunatics and apartheid-era collaborators.
"Honestly, for me to have to sit here and answer such ridiculous allegations is great pain to me."
When darkness descended, Archbishop Tutu fell back on his last hope of redemption for her.
"I beg you, I beg you, I beg you please. I speak as someone who has lived in this community. You are a great person and you don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say sorry, things went wrong, forgive me. I beg you."
The hearing room fell silent. Winnie turned to her lawyer, then switched on her mike.
"I am saying it is true, things went horribly wrong. I fully agree with that and for that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware of the fact that there were factors that led to that, for that I am deeply sorry."
The Truth Commission's final report contained a damning indictment of her.
'The Commission finds that those who opposed Madikizela-Mandela and the Mandela United Football Club, or dissented from them, were branded as informers, then hunted down and killed.
'The Commission finds Ms Winnie Madikizela-Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC.'
Nieuwoudt has been denied amnesty in the Biko case. He refused to admit he killed the man and continues to insist it was an accident. If it was an accident, wrote the Commission, we have nothing to grant you amnesty for. Nieuwoudt is now open to prosecution in a court of law. It's going to be difficult to nail him on this one, since there is a twenty-year statute of limitations in manslaughter cases.
Gideon Nieuwoudt waits to face other days in other courts and, when he does, he will be alone and far from the spotlight of national interest. He might yet bring down a retired general or two, but they are past their prime anyway and the collateral damage will be minor.
Winnie is a seasoned fighter. Too many times opponents have swaggered into the neutral corner, waiting to hear her counted out, only to receive a stinging blow to the back of their own heads. On the day Nelson Mandela consigned her to history by marrying Graca Machel, Winnie was attending an emotional funeral for the reburial of the remains of ANC guerilla fighters.
With voting in South Africa's second free elections coming up in June, Winnie is the ANC's spearhead amongst the disaffected who have not gained empowerment in the first five years of black rule. This constituency relates well to her battle-scarred image. Her parting shot after each stop on the election trail is: "Vote for Thabo Mbeki. He is a much younger leader. He will get things done." Only Winnie would have the temerity to so nonchalantly dismiss a demi-god as her husband. The official Nelson Mandela biography, due out this month, recounts her love affairs with young men even after her husband's release from jail.
And the Truth Commission? If one looks at the roots of the TRC they are buried in the days of transition from apartheid. The Nationalist government was determined to protect its own and not lay itself open to Nuremberg-style trials by the new order. The ANC was keen not to provide a provocation which would leave parts of the old military and police forces with a clear motivation for not co-operating. The ANC also had its fair share of skeletons in the closet.
In essence, the Truth Commission sprang from an accommodation with evil and is now bearing the strange fruits of that compromise. The commissioners have struggled valiantly with the concept of truth, but the politicians and the country are less interested in truth and much more concerned with moving on. To that end the TRC has accomplished its mission. It might not have revealed all the facts, but it has provided the valve by which the pressures of political transition could be vented under a façade of decency.
Not a bad outcome when one considers the latest survey of the public's opinion of the TRC. 61% of blacks feel the TRC's decisions were fair, as opposed to 13% of white respondents who believe that. But, in any case, far more people are interested in what is happening on the cricket field. And here the news is sad. Makhaya Ntini was selected as the first black man to represent South Africa. In April, he was convicted in a magistrate's court of rape and within hours dropped from the South African cricket squad for this summer's World Cup in England.
The final word goes to Peter Storey, who was Bishop of Soweto during Winnie's reign of terror. He made the following statement at Winnie's Truth Commission hearing: "One of the tragedies of life, sir, is it is possible to become like that which we hate most. Somebody once said, it is not enough to become politically liberated, we must also become human. This case is about becoming human again and recognising the inhumanities which some of us were capable of because of the times we used to live in."
(David Herman was born in South Africa in 1950. He left in 1965 and has spent the past thirty-four years on the road. Along the way he won an EMMY for an independently produced documentary in the USA and farmed a 100-acre mixed dairy farm in Ireland. He is currently living in Holland with his wife and two children and is writing a novel about the struggle for truth during the dying days of apartheid.)
HEAVENLY TREATMENT FOR A HEAVENLY PEOPLE By Viktor Car
Yesterday I found myself staring in amazement at the front page of the Toronto Star where I saw the very same barracks where I spent five months back in 1986. I had been conscripted into the Yugoslav Army--my home state of Croatia was then part of Yugoslavia--and sent to Pristina. By some cosmic poetic justice, the very place where I once suffered hellish mistreatment and Kafkaesque denouncement is in flames, fulfilling my prediction thirteen years ago that the only way to stop the chain reaction of Balkan tragedies, with Serbs at the epicenter of each conflict, would be by military force.
Kosovo means the 'place of crows'. Hilly landscapes, barren meadows, poor villages, skinny cows standing in black mud that stare back at you like humans. Poverty is everywhere--barefoot children, horse-drawn carriages, people in worn-out clothes, muddy streets.
Being a Croat and an intellectual was not a popular profile in 1986. I was part of a so-called 'squad of the punished'. We worked twelve hours a day, carrying 120-pound bags of rice or potatoes, barrels of oil, beans, cans of beef. We unloaded wagons from dawn to dusk, walking in a slow procession, our eyes cast down on the heels of the man in front. In the evening four or five of us snuck out to the village store to buy some good Albanian brandy, and then drank it sitting on a plank resting across a couple of concrete blocks over a black dirt floor, occasionally chatting with the passing locals. I wore the Serbian uniform, by then a worn-out piece of green burlap, the clothes of a laborer. It was evident back then that nothing good was in the offing. The Serbian authorities were treating the Kosovar Albanian majority with relentless harshness. Often I heard from the Albanians, "It's easy for you Croats, you are part of the West. But us, who will ever know what happened here?"
Their kids went barefoot, skinny, big-eyed and open-hearted. Sometimes through the barbed wire we'd give them money to bring us brandy, and they always brought back the exact change. I gave them baksheesh for the candy, or cans of food. The locals appreciated these gifts, and sometimes in the village store they'd insist on buying us beer, little as they could afford it.
On Sundays I got to walk the village streets, along with women in shawls watching over their remarkably subdued children. The soil was black but the vegetation sparse, a barren land of poverty. The streets I walked were cobblestoned, lined with brick wall fences, making me feel as if I were walking in a maze. The silence was eerie, as if in anticipation.
Our squad shared a dormitory with three officers' drivers. Conscripts like us, but clean, they were tall good-looking guys who drove the colonels and generals around in army-issue Fiats. The drivers were well-fed, well-informed and hated having to share the same dormitory with smelly scum like us. They were Serbs, two from Belgrade, one from Novi Sad. There was an incident once--some Albanian kids threw a stone at one of the army Fiats in which Dragan, the one from Novi Sad, was waiting for his colonel. Dragan complained to the colonel and the next day all drivers were issued pistols and ordered to shoot at kids who threw stones at them.
From those very same barracks that I saw burning on the front page of the Star I used to slide through a hole in the barbed wire to sneak into Pristina. Returning to the barracks, drunk, on a dark Sunday evening, bending down to squeeze through that same opening in the barbed wire, I heard a dry metal click, the sound of old M-48 rifle being repositioned. I lay down on the ground, knowing that a Serbian guard, a shepherd from eastern Serbia, was on duty.
"Is that you Mirche? It is me, Viktor. Don't shoot"
"It's me, Viktor. Don't shoot."
Still no reply. Then his voice out of the darkness: "Come on in." But something seemed fishy, and I remembered some talk I had overheard among the guards about weekend passes for those who shot intruders. I crawled back through the hole, walked around to the other side of the camp and found another hole in the fence.
Later Mirche admitted to me that the sergeant had promised to let him go home for the weekend if he shot me. Mirche desperately missed the roast lamb they made back in his village close to the Bulgarian border, and he would do anything to go home again.
Later on, when I was accused of being a spy for the West, Mirche testified that he had seen me reading Time and Beaux Art, and that the night I came back drunk from a pub frequented by Albanian separatists he would have shot me like a stray dog, if he could. He also said I was a chauvinistic Croatian and that I was guilty of ridiculing the Serbian nation. Mirche was eighteen at the time, I was twenty-seven.
I had a Serbian friend in Kosovo, a farmboy with the most the most wonderful sense of humor, warm as a woolen blanket. We spent numerous mornings together, routed out of our beds at 4:30 only to wait till 6:30 to hoist the flag and have breakfast. We'd spend the time telling each other jokes and laughing uproariously. He was a pure soul and a faithful friend. When I was in prison he brought my letters, phoned my father, and it is to him that I owe my ultimate release.
Leaving Pristina by train I spoke for several hours with an old Albanian man who remembered World War Two. He asked where I was from. Croatia, I said, and added, 'This situation with the Serbs is no good'. He shrugged, his tired but clear eyes laced with wrinkles, his skin brown from the wind and sun. He didn’t say a word about what would happen in Kosovo. Instead he spoke about German uniforms with hand-sewn buttons, two loops over every button on the uniform, practically untearable.
‘Ah’, he sighed, ‘I wore a jacket stripped off a dead German soldier until 1955, God bless him.'
In November, 1986 I was transferred from Pristina to Krusevac, in central Serbia. There I tutored the commander’s daughter in math and literature. She got good marks in school, and I was fed nicely and allowed to stay late in the local pubs.
I enjoyed the cuisine, all those roasted peppers filled with white goat cheese, and finely chopped salads. Serbian hospitality went beyond the ordinary, in the Western sense of 'hospitality'. I spent numerous evenings with the CO's family, talking about Croatia, a world they knew nothing about.
There in Krusevac I also befriended a Serbian veterinarian my age who was also a conscript. He had studied in Belgrade, and some of his colleagues lived in Krusevac. Often we would visit them and be treated to excellent Serbian cuisine with copious amounts of wine. During our endless discussions there was always one common thread--Kosovo was sacred Serbian land and Albanians would have to be killed or expelled. As blunt as that, the only solution being to 'cleanse' their religious cradle. I heard this pronouncement from illiterate conscripts and from intellectuals, from young hotheads and from old babushkas with soft warm eyes. I heard it from my own Serbian relatives.
Some of my Serbian friends who had studied in Belgrade were familiar with articles I had published in the Zagreb University magazine that was also distributed in Belgrade. They liked my wit and anticommunism. I even met one fellow who kept clippings of the articles. They liked to discuss my ideas and would get very exercised over my inability to see the validity of their own point of view.
Sometimes, when the plum brandy was flowing freely, I thought they'd surely rise up and skin me for being a seditious Croat. But I was part Serb myself, and an intellectual, and so worth converting.
Sometimes I would try to point out what the world would be like if we all claimed the right to lands taken from us six centuries ago, but I never got anywhere with that argument. Instead, I was reminded that Croats would have to pay for their genocide of Serbs during the Second World War.
In Krusevac, central Serbia, where young people dressed in the latest Italian fashions, (they had no hopes of ever owning any other significant investments) I met a young woman and was invited to her house for dinner. Her father was one of the new capitalist entrepreneurs. He owned a fancy house and enjoyed excellent food--roasted peppers, eggs filled with paste of parsley, diced ham, French mustard, fine meats--meticulous Serbian cuisine that required lots of slicing and dicing, their way of expressing respect and appreciation to their guests. Later, over good coffee and brandy, the conversation got heated. They were impressed with my knowledge of Serbian history and literature, and surprised that I personally knew a couple of Belgrade writers who were big names at the time. I said that the younger generation of Serbian writers (by which I meant Serbian Jews like Danilo Kish and David Albahari) were quite progressive. I meant it as a compliment. The young woman responded:
"But, of course, we are superior to Croats in every way."
On such occasions you try to remain calm and civil, talk quietly and slowly, and leave in peace. After all, the meal had been excellent and these fine people had even cracked open some Croatian wine for me. So I smiled, begged their pardon and said, 'What exactly do you mean by "superior", my dear?’
And then I heard it all: Serbian history, Serbian victories, Serbian superiority, a people chosen by heaven itself. Walking back to barracks later that evening I felt scared, scared that the war would start before I had a chance to get the hell out of there.
MY SERBIAN RELATIVES
My mother is half-Serbian and I have relatives in Serbia. Some of those aunts kept buying me books and encyclopedias, including Le Petit Larousse in Serbian, Francophiles that they were. I visited them every other summer. Culturally and by nationality I was a Croat, not a Serb. My aunt in Belgrade taught history at a local college. She was determined to teach me the 'truth' about Serbia: its sacred myths, the illusions about Serbian grandeur and its lost territories and inherent superiority. Half-truths and distortions of historical facts in the most blatant form, these were essentially the principles of the Nazis, also a superior race with the God-given right to dominate others.
I liked my Serbian relatives--an emotional lot, madly Slavic, refined and vulgar. I loved their crazy dirty jokes, their openness in expressing their feelings. If you were a friend they’d give their life for you. I still dream about them--my granny, the raspberries, the watermelons, and the incredible warmth they gave me and their own children. I think about my friends from Belgrade University, smart, funny, well-read people. Yet, their inability to see things fairly and objectively, to accept other nations as their equal, made the present-day tragedy inevitable. Despite a virtually common language, their mentality was totally opposite to my own. All those dear funny people, not just the bloodthirsty thugs among them, fell for the idea of a Greater Serbia at the expense of their neighbors. Even back then it was painfully obvious to me that the Serbian military would sooner or later have to be eliminated.
Today, with bombs falling all over Serbia, I think about the gentle faces of those old people as they spoke about how all Albanians would have to be killed. Many an evening I spent trying to suggest to them that this is the modern world, that we don't have to kill to prove our worth, that personal value now is in our ability to produce, to manage, to work, that there is no example in the modern world of genocide paying off. But they always fell back on history, what the Turks did to them in 1389 and for six centuries afterward. And they would say, 'We may not know how to work like you Croats, but we can fight'.
The distortion of reality became particularly absurd when the Serbian military started instigating one war after another in that region. When their army attacked Croatia, my Belgrade aunt phoned me. I told her that we were being bombarded by Serbs and had to take cover in shelters. She dismissed what I said as Croatian propaganda. She said that it was not happening.
IN THE END
What happened next is history now: the wars, the exiles, the pain of friends lost, the tears of silent despair, the poverty and madness, the emigration, my forecasts coming true to a painful detail.
I saw a Serbian woman on TV, in a shelter, saying that she can’t believe this is happening at the end of the millennium. My words exactly, murmured in a shelter in Zagreb some eight years ago as we cursed the West for doing nothing to help us. We died while Austrians skied their Alps and in Switzerland the production of soft cheese went on as usual.
I am sick from it all now, sitting broken in this little room, half a world away. Cynic that I am, closer to Beckett than to Brecht, bitter and resigned, disgusted with this world and what it has done to me, I nevertheless feel like sending a thank you note to the White House for the effort finally being made, for the understanding finally of what must be done. It's so unlike 1991 when we sat in those basements during Serbian air raids, so unlike the Bosnian war and its quarter of a million dead, so unlike the repeated appeasement of the killers and the policy of looking the other way typical of the previous French and British governments.
What is happening now is 500,000 corpses overdue. Unfortunately, we hear scarcely a voice from the Serbian opposition denouncing the leadership for ruining their country, for turning them into the pariah of Europe. And, in all frankness, it is not just the leadership who are at fault; it is the Serbs themselves, the people who accepted the mass psychosis of the big lie, of historical defeats remembered as victories, of the myth of superiority.
I have lived in a Kafkaesque Yugoslavian landscape. Today I am glad that the principles of humanity are being applied in the form of laser bombs and cruise missiles, heavenly reminders for a heavenly people that they are no better than their neighbors.
(Victor Car is 39, a native Croatian, naturalized Canadian. Writing has been his hobby since his early teens. He studied civil engineering at the University of Zagreb and also edited a university magazine there. Some of his short stories have been published in Web zines, and one in the Canadian literary magazine Blood & Aphorisms. "Some people characterize my writing as 'powerful fact based on poetic fiction,' others consider it quite illiterate.")
by Vallath Nandakumar
When I was growing up in India my extended tribe, to speak in anthropological terms, included many people other than my friends and family. For example, there were maids who told me forbidden stories of ghosts and blood-thirsty yakshis that seduced married men, and also included the market-boy who brought our groceries, since my mother had no son to do this for her.
Other visitors included a gossipy vegetable vendor and a barber whose outmoded idea of coiffure for little girls was tight oily pigtails. There was also the lead-plater who came once a year, built a small furnace in our yard, and coated our copper vessels with a lead alloy, passivating the surfaces later with cow-dung water. An old Tamil woman from Nagercoil with faded blue tattoos on her forearm came once a year to roughen our kitchen grinding stones with a hammer and awl.
I call all these people my extended tribe because, although they were considered by us and by themselves to be socially beneath us and could never be invited to a family event such as a wedding or puja at our house, our intimacy with some of them was greater than what we enjoyed with our official friends. We did not have to put on any kind of pretense for them.
My mother maintained a public show of prim indifference to our neighbors' affairs but managed to extract all relevant gossip and news from the vendors and tradespeople. I wish now that I had talked to them more as well--what fascinating stories I could have related to you! They were not merely news-carriers, they had their own stories, touching our lives sometimes as briefly as an afternoon shower but nourishing the earth I grew up in. Here is one story, about our boli-seller.
Although my mother prided herself on being a good cook and was so hygiene-conscious that she would rarely buy prepared food from itinerant vendors, the boli-seller was an exception. A monthly visitor along with the barber and the rag-and-bone man, he would come wheeling his small cart loaded with large biscuit tins full of bolis, thin sweet pancakes that, when made right, are bright yellow, thin, flaky, and soft as chamois-leather. Fragrant with cardamom, they taste great plain or with sweetened milk.
The boli-seller (I call him that because I don't think I ever learned his name) would arrive the first Saturday of every month and settle down on our doorstep, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his turban. He reminded me of a teakwood figure, dark, strong and highly polished. His appearance and Tamil-accented Malayalam suggested that he lived in the nearby Western Ghat foothills and only came down to the plains to sell his wares. His little daughter about my own age accompanied him, and she too sported beribboned oily pigtails. Sometimes she had sour amla fruit wrapped in her skirt and would share it with me while my mother conducted business with her father.
My mother gave them watery buttermilk to drink in glass tumblers kept specially for people of 'lower station'. It may seem snobbish now to keep separate dishes for such people, but in those days my mother was considered quite liberal by many of her relatives who had a habitually condescending way of dealing with vendors and servants. I questioned her sometimes about the dishes. She said that, while we should certainly help the less fortunate, there is no reason we should not also enjoy the good things we have earned through our good karma. Besides, she said, such people may have diseases, though, now that I think of it, in that case surely the bolis themselves would have been contaminated.
The boli-vendor chatted with my mother while his daughter and I finished our games, and then they would vanish for another month. I envied her, for I fancied that she could eat as many bolis as she wished, whereas my mother would ration them out to us two at a time while they lasted.
One time the boli-seller raised his price. My mother became cross and accused him of taking advantage of his good customers.
"Sugar, cardamom, everything has gone up in price, amma. But I will reduce the price by five paise just for you this time."
But my mother did not want to hear of it and shooed him away. I considered his price fair. Mother always has to get a better deal than anyone else, I thought, annoyed that I might stop getting bolis now. The next day she attempted to make bolis herself, muttering all the while about monopolies and anti-trust laws. But the results were so terrible, the bolis coming out stiff as cardboard and covered with burn spots, that the boli-seller was soon reinstated as our official purveyor.
One day he came alone and my mother asked where his daughter was.
"She has become a woman, amma. She has to stay at home now and learn how to be responsible."
My mother congratulated him and gave him some sweets, saying that she hoped his daughter would become a strong and healthy woman. Since I hadn't 'become a woman' yet, I didn't know what the fuss was all about. But now that his daughter no longer accompanied the boli-seller I missed our chats and games. It never occurred to me to inquire where they lived to see if I could visit her. Not that I would actually be allowed to visit a boli-seller, but I could at least have asked.
"My mother tells me to be more responsible, since I have started going to secondary school this year," I announced proudly. "Which school does Kamala go to?"
"She will have to learn at the school of life," the boli-seller laughed. "I cannot afford to send her to any other school."
The summers and monsoons passed, and I grew up rapidly. The barber no longer came to cut my hair and it grew long and untrimmed, the grinding stone was replaced by an electric blender, and stainless steel and aluminum replaced our copper pots. Television took over as the main source of news. My mother's social life suffered as a result, but mine grew as I made friends in college and in the neighborhood.
Soon it was time for my wedding. My marriage had been arranged to a smart young man, an upcoming executive in a paint company in Bombay. And was I love-struck! I would stare at a picture of him dressed in a suit worn for some interview, and think how I would like that moustache to tickle my lips. My mother called me away from my reveries to help her with the wedding plans and menu. She had decided that in addition to the usual puddings she wanted to serve bolis, like the southern Keralites. So the next time the boli-seller came, my mother ordered a thousand bolis.
"Are you sure you can make them and bring them on time?" my mother asked anxiously.
"Of course. They will be fresh and extra tasty for the little amma," he said. He hadn't changed over the years, except for a few more grey hairs. "What is my little amma wearing for the wedding?"
I ran inside to fetch my jewelry and wedding sari. "What do you think?"
"Very nice." He nodded approvingly. "You will look like a little princess."
"When is your daughter Kamala getting married? Can she come for my wedding?"
"Didn't your mother tell you, little amma? She married two months ago and has gone away."
"Oh, no!" I said. "I wish you had told me. I would have liked to come and eat some bolis at her wedding!"
"Sorry, little amma. I did not invite you because I didn't think that big people like you would want to come. We had only a few relatives as guests." He said 'big people' without sarcasm, as if it would be as strange for him to invite us to his daughter's wedding as it would be for him to be asked to come and sit on our sofa. "Besides, we could not afford to serve any bolis. Do you know the price of sugar these days?"
Suddenly I felt ashamed--I had acted like Marie Antoinette.
"But perhaps I will get enough from this sale to afford bolis for her valagappu ceremony," the boli-seller said, smiling. "That will be in five months."
"You are going to be a grandfather!" I cried. I ran inside and got the antique silver baby's anklets my grandmother had given me before she died, to be given in turn to my first daughter. "Please, these are for Kamala's baby. Won't you tell her I asked after her?" I added a hundred rupee note from my savings. "Please use this to serve your valagappu guests bolis."
"Surely, kochamma, may God be with you. My granddaughter will be so happy to wear these." He touched the gifts to his forehead and hoisted his boli tin into his cart, and this time I saw how tired he looked and how old.
The bolis for my wedding arrived on time. They were the best I have ever had. Soon after the wedding I went away to Bombay to join my husband. In the rush of packing lunches, the suburban trains, and my own growing abdomen, I forgot all about Kamala and the boli-seller. My mother later mentioned in a letter that she hadn't seen the boli-seller since my wedding.
Almost a year later she got a postcard from Kamala with a thank-you note. She forwarded the card to me. It also mentioned that her father had died soon after my wedding. She, Kamala, gave birth to a baby girl shortly after that, whom she had named Kannagi, after the goddess with jewelled anklets.
I turned the card over and over looking for a return address, but there was none.
(Vallath Nandakumar was born and brought up in India. At the age of 21 he
came to the United States for graduate studies. He now works as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, where he writes short stories in his spare time. Inspiration for many of his stories is drawn from his experiences in the state of Kerala, South India. Email: email@example.com)
GROWING UP WITH TOBAGO
By Anthony Milne
For a long time now, blurred rum-drunken Great Race weekends in Tobago have been unavoidable annual attractions for Trinidad Warrahoons. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I was one of those Warrahoons. You slept where you fell and didn't know or care where you woke up. These were the Bad Lime.
A few will still remember the glory days of Crusoe's Drinking Team: Cooky, Agos, Ken and "Faster" O'Brien: friends, mutual bodyguards who would do anything for a joke and sometimes end up in a fight. Life, after all, was itself just a stupid joke.
If you felt well enough in the morning, you could get breakfast at Uncle's. If not, you had a couple cold beers first. What a contrast this was to the first time I went to to Tobago with my parents when I was three, in 1954, to stay in a rented house at Store Bay. The house was near the old tamarind tree that survived the transformation of south-east Tobago from village and pastureland to the site of a multitude of hotels and guest houses of every description. This is the relatively inexpensive side of Tobago. Go to Mount Irvine, Grafton Road, Pleasant Prospect and along the main road to Turtle Beach, and you'll find the real money.
I stopped being a Warrahoon when I went away to university in Canada. When I came back after my freshman year I was another person altogether. The Bad Lime showed up at Piarco to greet me, to hear about foreign adventures and Canadian rye whisky. At the airport in those days you could look through the louvres at the foot of the stairs to the Waving Gallery and see passengers going through immigration.
"Officer!" Cooky shouted when my turn came to pass. "Don't let that criminal through, he have drugs!" And the Bad Lime burst into laughter, cheering and shouting corroboration to Cooky's allegation. Back then 'drugs' meant weed or hash--in extreme cases mescaline or LSD. No one had heard of cocaine. The Bad Lime were rum-jumbies, swore by alcohol and despised the early experimenters. In Liberal Canada it was the cool age of mind expansion, peace in Vietnam, draft dodgers, those who had been to Nam and returned, long hair, the death of God and the Beatles. For me there was nothing besides the Beatles, John Lennon in particular. The Bad Lime didn't see or understand right away that I had reverted to the quiet literary creature I was at fourteen, or what it meant to have seen snow for the first time, never mind enduring a Canadian winter, or taken your first toke of hashish.
Now the beauty of the Trinidad countryside was suddenly revealed to me. Alone at the Caura River I said things to myself like, "This is the very beauty Wordsworth spoke about in his poems."
New friends turned up, Fam in particular, and Ian, Eliana and her sister. Fam was already working and had a car in which we sped up to JB's on weekends. Alcohol, the most dangerous drug in the world, was now anathema to us. We sat in Fam's car smoking and laughing deliriously, making acute observations on life. Once, we discovered Lord Vishnu lying face up along the Northern Range.
"We are prophets!" Fam shouted. "We are prophets!"
I was less excited, having just recited for his benefit part of a lecture from Religious Studies 102.
On the weekends there was JB's, the first discotheque we knew of, run by Johnny Boos who died so young. JB's with its whirling, flashing lights and heavy music. Soon I met Eliana, who had once talked to Lennon through her fence when he was staying with Abdul Malik, and amazed him with her cuatro. I met her in Tobago. Fam and Abry, and the blond Bajan Eddy went over for the Great Race weekend. We stayed away from the orgy. We set up our tent in a field in the Crown Point area near to a tap, cooked over a fire, lay about in the sun or in the cool of the tent, all of us thoroughly and meditatively stoned. Fam and I found Eliana and her sister, and paradise.
Then there was trouble. God knows how. I am careful beyond belief, but I hadn't been the buyer. We were summoned to the home of one of Fam's father's friends, a straight but practical and understanding man towards truant young men.
He had heard what we were up to. He implied that the police knew as well and stressed that we had very little time to correct the situation. We left thanking him, perhaps a bit more afraid than we needed to be. Nevertheless, we decided that concerted action was necessary. But not without one last ceremony.
The entire supply was fed to the sacred fire while we performed what we imagined to be an Amerindian ritual, gathering 'round the fire and inhaling as though we had just run a 100-metre race.
The blond Bajan and I stayed on after Fam, Eliana, her sister and Abry went back to Trinidad. Bage and I decided to break camp and see more of Tobago. The friendliness of the people was uncanny. They proudly spoke their minds without the inferiority complexes of Trinidadians, immigrant Trinidadians in particular.
We got on to a Public Transport Service Corporation bus bound for Charlotteville, where we never had been, passing Bacolet, Roxborough, Speyside on the way. We were planning to camp at Charlotesville beneath a bridge, when we were invited by friendy villagers to use the community centre. A day or two later we left to make the long journey to the Scarborough dock, then to Port of Spain.
That was just the first of many adventures in Tobago. The next summer I was back, renting a small Yamaha 50cc and staying with a friend who lived near a bakery. Utterly carefree after a gruelling year of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Philosophy of Literature, the wonderfully fresh local bread and butter meant putting on several pounds. In spite of this, in spite of the rain and the muddy tracks, I travelled into cool, high hills that I remember as if in a dream. Sometimes my old friend Derek met me there, and we rode pillion, laughing as we slipped in the mud, falling into ravines when we weren't hauling that incredible little bike over logs. We rode through forests with crystal-clear streams, and looked down on steep, rolling pastureland, the sea beyond, without a clue to where we were.
After college I was a dirt-poor articled clerk. I borrowed to buy a Yamaha 175 trail bike. At the start or end of study leave I often went to Tobago, by myself, camping at Blackrock under plastic. Once I got so attached to the villagers there that when I got home I had to make a call to the public telephone in Tobago just to hear their voices again. Another time I slept on tables under the umberellas at Mount Irvin's public beach, and once at almost deserted Englishman's Bay. One night I came to a place called Culloden, where the people spoke with an accent that sounded Jamaican but was impossible to understand.
After I started to work out of Tobago for Trindad Express in July 1981, everything was different. There were public affairs to cover, the Assembly, local and national elections, frantically filing my stories to Trinidad, always staying with a veteran journalist who covered Tobago affairs. But I still did some travelling on my own, and wrote about that as well.
A couple weeks ago I was back again, on holiday, and managed to get invited to a function at the President's house where he has was enjoying a working vacation. There must have been a sense of his having arrived in an island he was born in, and in a strange way I shared that feeling.
(Anthony Milne <firstname.lastname@example.org> was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in
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.)
THE VOICE OF THE DOWNTRODDEN
By Razi Abedi
In today's world dominated by the culture of advertisement, even the miseries of the worker are glamorized. Two thousand years ago when Christ tried to ameliorate the misfortunes of the unprivileged, the shepherd's crook became the symbol of the Messiah's mission. Today bishops still honor this tradition by wearing carrying a crook--made of gold.
All institutions ultimately serve vested interests. It is for this reason that the downtrodden of the earth have grown suspicious of all institutions and movements and insist on preserving their own identities. They do not want to be swallowed up by an ideology or a slogan. Such is the case with the movement called Dalit which started in Western India in the 1960s.
Dalit is the literature of the Untouchables of Maharashtra, of those who are looked down upon even by other workers. Dalit is Marathi for 'the spurned'. The term was first used for the Untouchables in 1930. It is a comprehensive expression which now includes Harijans (such as Mahars), Mangs, Mallas, Chambhars and Pulayas. Dalit is a protest literature against all forms of exploitation based on class, race, caste or occupation.
The Dalits are treated worse than animals. Their presence is usually banned from upper-class localities. Even then they are bound to hang clay pots from their necks so that they may not pollute the streets of the privileged by their spittle. They carry brooms tied to their bodies so that while passing through such 'upper lanes' they can wipe away their footprints.
Arjum Dangle gives a harrowing picture of their wretchedness in a poem entitled 'Chhavni Hilti Ha', ('The Cantonment Has Begun to Shake').
We fought with crows,
Never even giving them the snot from our noses.
As we dragged out the Upper Lane's dead cattle,
Skinned it neatly
And shared the meat among ourselves,
They used to love us then.
We warred with jackals--dogs--vultures--kites
Because we ate their share.
Dalit has not yet been acknowledged as a literature in its own right, and no reference to it is found in the standard literary journals of India. But its reverberations are now being heard all around the globe. Like the stories of Prem Chand, it creates characters of great sympathy and humanity, humbly asking for their right to civic representation, but no moral or political organization has the courage to openly associate with them. Recently we have found them turning up in the odd literary story or what has come to be known as the 'art film'.
Dalit should not be confused with Marathi protest literature, because its subjects are very different. For example, the short story by Dr. Surendra Barlinge, chairman of the Sahitya Sanskrit Mandal, 'Mepan Maze', deals with the topic of sex change, a subject which could interest only upper-class readers. Similarly, Padminiraje Patwardhan's story, 'Deepshikha', is about a beautiful talented girl, Brahamin by caste, who marries a civil servant.
No doubt these are stories that deal with genuine problems of modern life. But they are not the issues which interest Dalit writers. In their world women are casually stripped and molested, men brutally murdered, and this has been going on for centuries, generation after generation. These are Untouchables who invite death if they dare to quench their thirst from a common pond. Even the Brahamin's god is not their god. He does not accept their supplication. He is not even capable of feeling their misery. Keshav Meshram challenges this god in 'One Day I Cursed That...God', in these words:
Would you wipe the sweat from your bony body
With your mother's ragged sari?
Would you work as a pimp
To keep her in booze?
O, father, oh, god the father!
You could never do such things.
First you'd need a mother----
One no one honors,
One who toils in the dirt,
One who gives and gives of her love.
A homegrown movement of the Untouchables, Dalit is opposed to all notions of caste and class, but it also suspects the intellectuals of the left as well as Marxist ideologues who treat Marxism itself as a dogma rather than a science. Such people assume the role of Marxist pundits, and Untouchables cannot afford to trust pundits. The theoretical variety of revolutionaries cannot even imagine the predicament these wretched people live in. Namde Dhasal cries out:
This world's socialism,
This world's communism
And all those things of theirs,
We have put them to the test
And the implication is this--
Only our shadows can cover our own feet.
Their suffering is not just the suffering of the individual, and there is nothing romantic about it. Their problem is neither ideological nor philosophical. They do not seek poetic beauty. Similes, metaphors and symbols are not important. The reality of their life is too hideously shocking, beyond the capacity of fantasy or imagination. Their tragedy is universal, trampling them down and disfiguring their humanity. Narayan Surve makes an ironical comment on the champions of revolution and their rhetoric in his poem, 'Karl Marx':
In my first strike Marx met me thus:
I was holding his banner high on my shoulder.
The other day he stood listening to my speech at the gate, in the meeting. --now we alone are the heroes of history, of all the biographies too, henceforth...
He was the first to applaud, then
he put his hand on my shoulder and said:
'Are you a poet or what...
I too liked poetry
Goethe was my favorite.
Their bitterness is totally understandable. They have been subjected to the worst atrocities. A young man's thumb may be amputated just so that he does not become a better archer than a lad of the upper class.
These people see the class war that is going on at the global level as irrelevant to their cause. Class war is a long-term struggle. People like themselves have neither the time nor the patience to wait for the tide to turn. The verdict of history may come too late. Prabhakar Bangurde spurns such wishful thinking in his poem 'Comrade':
Don't be in a hurry for revolution.
You are still very small.
Your ability to resist
the atrocities, boycotts and rapes
that go on every moment
has become nil
Tomorrow's sun is yet to rise
sleep undisturbed until then...
This is their everyday experience that closely ties them to prevailing social conventions, justifying their appalling living conditions in the name of culture and tradition. They are particularly concerned about their daughters who must be married according to strictly imposed custom and lead respectable and pious lives. This must be hard to swallow when they see that 'they strip naked my mother, my sisters' and 'my own daughter's virtue is looted in public/ my eyes look on, my blood shakes'. These are lines taken from a folksong.
But Dalit poetry is not merely protest. There are also the eternal emotions of love and sacrifice reverberating in it, as in this poem, 'Mother', by Warman Nimbalkar:
Dark, dark slender body---this was my mother.
Drudged in the woods for sticks from morning on.
All we brothers, sitting, waiting, watching for her.
And if she didn't sell the wood, all of us slept hungry.
And one day she died of hard work and left them wailing, through not without leaving a sweetness behind her:
My eyes seek my mother,
I still grieve,
I see a thin vendor of wood.
I buy her sticks.
Consider this beautiful poem, 'The City', by Daya Pawar. It begins like this:
One day someone dug up a twentieth century city
And ends on this observation.
Here's an interesting inscription:
'This water tap is open to all castes and religions'.
What could it have meant:
That this society was divided?
That some were high while others were low?
Well, all right, then this city deserved burying--
Why did they call it the machine age?
Seems like the Stone Age in the twentieth century.
The Dalit are also burning with a desire for revenge. Their anger is reflected in 'You Wrote From Los Angeles', by Daya Pawar:
In the stores here, in hotels, about the streets,
Indians and curs are measured with the same Yard--stick.
"Niggers! "Blacks! This is the abuse they fling on me.
Reading all this, I felt so damn!
Now you've had a taste of what we've suffered
In this country from generation to generation.
But though it is the poetry of the oppressed, in it can be heard the echoes of a rebellious soul:
I'm the sea; I soar, I surge.
I move out to build your tombs.
The winds, storms, sky, earth.
Now all are mine.
In every inch of the rising struggle
I stand erect.
-J.V. Pawar: "I Have Become the Tide".
(Razi Abedi is Pakistan's foremost literary figure. He was chairman of the Punjab University in Lahore and has published extensively on the literatures of both East and West. His particular interest is the study of Urdu literature in the context of third-world literature and the literature now being produced in the West. He has also written extensively about education, specifically on its socio-cultural implications. Abedi is actively involved in the cultural and academic life of Lahore and is a member of many organizations in the city. He also writes poetry.)
London Through the Magic Eye
By Ramond Ramcharitar
Unnerving about London are the security cameras everywhere. Around Downing St, around Buckingham Palace, on the buses, in the seediest train stations. More unnerving is the apathy to them. The litigious British psyche, it seems, has negotiated a way around, or through, the cameras and their implications of interrupted privacy, sensory invasion, undefined uneasiness.
(Though--and this differentiation's recurrences in examining British/outsider relations, it seems, are infinite--the very unease is foreign: traceable to the American-inspired notions of inalienable rights attached to personal privacy.)
To the outsider--and for once, all outsiders, the American, the Third Worlder, the Easterner, the European--the casual surveillance is a truly alien object, initially invisible to the visitor, eliciting a kind of self-consciousness at first realisation, only later, and then only for some, clarified into a vague discomfiture.
In all likelihood, the others' responses divide at the Atlantic: American outrage at unauthorised surveillance; European resignation; Asian stoicism to statist intrusiveness. But for the Third Worlder, once detached from the phantasmagoria of American television, what remains at the prospect of being watched is a mildly pleasant relief.
Since the end of colonialism, what has defined the countries of the South (in Africa, the Caribbean), you must realise, is the absence of watchers. There remains no sense of ubiquitous authority or order. And of late, there's been an overwhelming sensation of the consequences--fantastic political corruption and thievery; the evil of ordinary men living in a society dissolving the notions that hold it together: whispers of devolution to a primal past. No cameras: nobody watches, nobody cares.
Such uncertainty is unknown here. There is the institutional continuity of the 1000-year history, of course, but something else: a centuries-old sureness which has osmosed into the collective life. England, to an outsider, is a place so sure of its existence, even the threat of invasion, psychic or otherwise--such fear as led America to enshrine rights of the individual--is unimportant.
Even the human, clannish instinct which rebels against threats to its existence has begun to atrophy, leaving an indifference to the smaller moments of history. So what if someone looks? Life continues--and hardly in the wretched state Orwell foretold. Life, in its way, even inverts the intimidation of being watched by unknown eyes. American counter-culture has long ridiculed the ethos of the inalienability, or even the desirability, of the wholly private life.
Surveillance has become, rather than an instrument of invasion, an instrument of perversion. Rupert Murdoch's US- based Fox Network and others have, in the past few years, made surveillance the absinthe of the jaded masses--with shows like Cops, Trauma, America's Most Wanted, Jerry Springer--where the viewer accompanies the law, or the host (the surrogate superego of the underclass), on their sundry invasions of homes, privacy, lives and often the liberty of the invaded.
We can only speculate on the morbid curiosity and stultified existences that fueled the industry, of course, but worse was to come. A few years ago, out of anonymity and without preamble or theoretical precedent, Economics student Jennifer Ringely trained a "homecam" on herself and, transmitting through the Internet, let virtually anyone interested into the minutiae of her life: her menstruation, her sex life, her sleep. The "Jennicam" phenomenon has now become a thousands- strong Internet industry, including sexual liaisons, childbirth, death: From my life into your home: Welcome.
(Paradoxically, it's unlikely that the average Briton [student] would entertain such a thing. Even more curious, though, the schism between what the British see of the real world and what of the world is transmitted to them: No inhibitions at being examined at length, but a certain coolness at examining others' lives in such detail.)
The most effective conveyance of Western civilisation anywhere is American television. Cultural generalisations, ideas, even self-images are formed in relation or opposition to the unreal (and even covert counter-cultural) imprecations planted in phatic situation comedies. An entire generation forms self-images from Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch. And every so often, whatever is left of the feminist movement rails about the impossible and frustrating standards engendered: everybody wanting to fuck Pamela Anderson Lee or Brad Pitt creates a culture of unrealism, detachment from the real.
Perhaps Britons' ideas of their lives are not so easily defined, but their indifference to the way they are seen begs the question: how do they see themselves? British television is a marvel of opposites--of sophistication/unsophistication, the sublime lying alongside the bathetic. It will nonchalantly show male frontal nudity (always riskier than female nudity), while maintaining enough reserve to essay a "serious" examination of the pornography industry (Sex and Shopping). Then in the same breath, show God's Gift (on BBC 1), a dating game for seniors: old geezers croaking out "Unforgettable", to a group of giggling grannies. And as the irony never comes, it strikes you: they're having fun.
The Game Show hosts, far from the slick, scripted badinage cued at their American counterparts, banter with each other like the office wiseass having a go at the company awards function. "And now here is the chairman to present the awards for...what was it again Delilah? Sleeping in the store room....no need, mate, let's just 'and it hover to Edgar...". Then Comedy Nation (BBC 2) features surreally funny segments like the Ducks of Doom, the League Against Tedium, and Buller, a 400 lb yobbo who knocked out a bull once, using his gangsta-midget friend, Mikki, in a matador get-up as a decoy.
Clearly, the dialectics of public communication (which invoke principles like of freedom of expression) elsewhere do not figure in England or figure with a radical difference. Freedom here is an operational concept, not a principle which generates ineluctable moral problematics--like the mythic overarching idea of American "freedom" does, and whose viability they neurotically and futilely attempt to prove. (Thus the existence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam; but to no avail: the insistence on principle is constantly disproved by national humiliations, succumbing to the fears of emotional immaturity like the Clinton impeachment.)
If television transmissions can be used as an indicator, Brits are a stoic bunch, satisfied for the most part with their lot. They see their dissatisfactions as part of their process, view them with resignation, if without bland Northern European lan, then with an interesting Anglo-Saxon roughness.
The argument, though, will hold only so much dialectical weight. Sometimes roughness is just brutality: In America, the governance of the principle of equality, rather than the dynamic of traditionalist hermeneutics, would have exacted a far more just price for the death of Stephen Lawrence than Anglo-Saxon roughness has done.
(Raymond Ramcharitar earns his living as a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. He has been published throughout the Caribbean and the United States. He has written a novel and a collection of poems. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.)
By S. Anand
It must be the birds that woke me. The sunlight makes filigreed patterns on the bed and wall. I turn over and see that Latha has already left for work. She always leaves before I wake.
Outside it is drizzling. On the street below, bright colored umbrellas bob up and down as fresh-faced children head for school. Grumpy middle-aged men jostle with well-groomed college students at the bus stand. The sombre notes of All India Radio's morning news mingle with sinuous morning Ragas announcing the beginning of another day. I stare up at the ceiling fan, its blades creaking with age, sending swirls of dust around the room. I find the dust immensely fascinating. On quiet mornings like this I watch the particles moving slowly in the sunlight, heading in no particular direction, going round and round in irregular circles. Sometimes I try to follow an individual speck in its peregrinations, to observe it settle on a table, bed or windowsill. But its life seems circumscribed by the shaft of sunlight, its journey always ending at the boundary of light and darkness.
I drag myself out of bed and into the bathroom. I look at myself in the cracked mirror, a wedding present. I see a brown face mottled with the traces of childhood small pox, a stubble of graying hair on each cheek, a wrinkled forehead, small dull eyes, a nose with no particular shape, thick lips. I open my mouth and look at my yellowing teeth and tongue. I suddenly feel sick. I probably have an ulcer, to have a tongue this color. Or cancer. I try to remember how I looked five years ago when I married Latha. I cannot recall looking any better than this. I wonder why she agreed to marry me. To be sure, it was an arranged marriage and I had a good job at that time. But she could have said no. She was well-educated and beautiful. She could have found a thousand men more handsome than me. True, I'm more broad-minded than most husbands. I have let her pursue her own career and interests. I don't mind her mingling with male colleagues. And even after I lost my job I have been very gentle with her, not allowing my own inner turmoil to burden her.
I finish brushing my teeth and go to the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee. Then I step outside to pick up the newspaper the delivery boy has left. I pull my easy chair over to the window and start to sip my coffee. Outside, the rush-hour hubbub has subsided. The only footfalls are from the odd office worker hurrying late to work. I scan the classified section, looking for any suitable job. For the past two months I have not found a single listing I could apply for, and today is no exception. Hydraulics engineers are not a hot commodity in today's market. I move on to other sections of the newspaper and take in my fill of yesterday's killings, riots, accidents and bombings.
A loud car horn jolts me awake. For a few minutes I am not sure where I am. Outside, the sun is blazing furiously. I can hear children returning home from school for lunch. I walk over to the bedroom window and look out at the neighbor's house. I can see directly into their bedroom. Around this time of day the wife has her bath and dries herself near the window. But today I am not lucky. The shutters are tightly shut.
I think about Latha. When was the last time I saw her naked? It is more than two years since we made love. Even before that our sex life was sporadic. I had come to feel that she was no longer interested. We talked about it a couple of times, but our talks didn't seem to help. And then I must have begun to lose interest as well. I am not the type to force myself on a woman. When Latha comes home from work she's very tired. Then she has dinner to cook. By nine o'clock she is fast asleep.
The cold shower clears my head. I stand under it for a long time, until I start to feel dizzy. I carefully step out and towel myself dry. I feel fresh now and ready for the day. I go to the bedroom and put on clean clothes. Then I go to the kitchen and eat the rice and vegetables Latha has left for me. After lunch I go out for my customary walk. As I lock the door I start to think about my previous job and my prospects for finding another. I wonder what has happened to all the resumes I sent out. Of course, I could take a government job, but I don't want to vegetate for the rest of my life doing nothing of any consequence. There must be plenty of multinational companies in need of someone with my skills.
I feel better now that I am out of the house. This time of day there is hardly anyone on the street and a pleasant breeze is blowing. A few steps down the street I hear some yelps from behind a big garbage bin. I walk around it to see what's happening. I find two dogs there in the midst of a frenzied copulation. I have seen the bitch before, a flea- bitten mongrel, foraging for food near this same bin. The dog is a newcomer. Then I notice something strange. The dog has mounted the female and is trying hard to consummate the act, but he is not able to do so. I move around to get a better view of the situation and then, like a hard slap in my face, I see his limp organ hanging useless as he tries in vain to quench his desire. I see the misery in his eyes, and I am filled with disgust. I rush back to the house and vomit.
Something wakes me from a deep sleep. Latha is standing over me, looking worried. She must have smelled the vomit in the bathroom. I tell her I must be sick. I do have a splitting headache. She brings me a tablet and makes me swallow it. Then she covers me with a blanket, turns off the light and leaves. I hear noises from the kitchen as she prepares the evening meal. Soon I hear the television. I lie in bed staring into the darkness. I drift off to sleep again and see the bitch cowering behind the garbage bin, her eyes glinting in my flashlight. I move closer to her, but she makes no effort to get away. I run my flashbeam over her ugly brown coat, torn by numerous encounters with other dogs. She wags her short stump of a tail feebly. On her leg there is an open wound with flies all around it. She looks up at me meekly.
I grip the long knife that Latha and I received as a wedding gift. In one movement I grasp the bitch's head with my left hand and with the other slice open her neck. Beside the flashlight lying on the ground I see dark blood flowing into the dust.
The birds wake me yet again. This time it is crows making a racket just outside the window. Beside me Latha is still asleep. It must be Saturday. I get out of bed and go to the window. There is a light mist, but no rain. By the garbage bin I see dozens of crows feasting on something. Others are squatting on electric cables overhead. I turn back towards the bed. Latha is still sleeping. I go into the bathroom and look at myself in the cracked mirror. Today, I think, I will shave.
(Subra Anand is a chip designer living in the Bay area of California. He grew up in India and came to the US for graduate studies in engineering. This is his first published story.)
And So It Came To Pass
By Ramond Ramcharitar
Something poetic there is about train tracks.
Something about the patience in the steady
parallelism; of the ablated shale and gravel lying
along the theoretical space between the tracks--
Something sad, like the existential green weed
defying the winter to challenge the grayness
between the outflung stations of the world.
Something joyous there is about the sudden curves
away from the endless straightness; the junction
Boxes sentrying the spaces between towns:
Something huge and furious there is
that rages through the untiring trains
and the souls racing toward their final end.
By Holly Day
And so it came that the Lord was not born in a manger in the middle of an empty field covered with a light dusting of the purest whitest snow, surrounded by angels and wise men and a barnful of docile beasts of burden with proud parents looking on, but was actually born in a noisy, overcrowded stable in the middle of a well-traveled desert on the outskirts of town just past the market where hookers tried to con married men out of their grocery money for something they'd get at home anyway, a group of muggers and thieves looking on, chaste for the day.
And so it came that the Lord Jesus Christ was not born in a noisy stable, cattle lowing in His ears, chickens cackling underfoot, drunk father passing out cigars to the assembled mass of poker players he owed money to, mother knocked out on home brew ("Yes I know God said there'd be no pain but it ain't you lying here, dammit, I really need something now") but was actually birthed underwater in a clear glass hot tub in Soviet Russia, mother nude save a white cloth draped across her forehead, proud father looking on worriedly, watching Son burst from Mother in a cloud of slow-moving blood, watching Son bob to the water's surface and take His first breath, His first scream, His first sip of Mother's sparse colostreum-yellowed milk.
And so it came that the Lord Jesus Christ was not born in the sterile confines of a twentieth-century first world hospital, white-clad attendants looking on and monitoring every breath, every heartbeat, every muscle spasm in and out of place, but instead was brought screaming into the burnt-out remains of a South American battlefield, streamers of blackened Spanish moss clinging to the dying pillars of napalmed cypress and magnolia, Mother stumbling running falling, Father pulling "Come on, come on, I can hear them they're still too close" Mother "The baby is being born now I can't" scarlet and emerald parrots pause cackling to flutter low over Couple huddle in canopying low-hung branches javelins snuffle out of underbrush tusks lowered towards oncoming soldiers jaguar leaves rotting carcass of deer bloating thirty feet above the ground to stand guard over labor pains breath coming too fast soldiers stopping at clearing to stand guns lowered at ease curious offering K-rations and rifle clips to Parents in homage of the Son.
Jesus Christ walked out into a world of poetry poverty depravity martyrs muggers mothers and The Bomb, holding His healing Hands out to the quietly pious stretched out on the racks of the Spanish Inquisition, the walking starving dead of 16th century Ireland and 20th century Auschwitz, the silently-suffering Cherokee and Creek losing blood en route to disease-ridden reservations, the children of the Bikini Island nuclear tests, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the AIDS-infected drug addicts dismissed and forgotten in the streets of Los Angeles and New York.
And when He left, it was not pierced through to a wooden cross, arms flayed wide to lure carrion, it was tied to a post set in a bed of lit faggots, the crowd screaming not "Set Barabas free!" but "Burn the heretic!" as a private confident and lover looked on, arms folded on chest, face set as stone.
And when He left, it was not at the torches of lunatic French patriots, but of a wasting disease in the middle of the ocean in the cabin of an abandoned plague ship, the only comfort sea gulls offering gobbets of raw fish and olives from far- away shores.
And when He left, it was not en route to Java or Australia, but roped between four crazed and blinded horses, whipped into a frenzy and pushed stumbling down the side of a steep hill.
And when He left, it was not by being drawn and quartered in the highlands of Scotland for the amusement of the English Royal family, but in searing holy agony on the streets of Japan, the last child pushed safely into a crudely- constructed fallout shelter before the twins hit the ground and the lightning goes up.
And when He left, it was not huddled beneath the falling timbers of the American consulate, but of an accidental overdose maliciously prescribed.
And when He left, it was not sitting on the toilet of His Tennessee mansion, stomach cramping, eyes blurring, but blindfolded and alone before a CIA-sponsored firing squad, convicted of teaching school children how to read both Spanish and English texts.
And when He leaves, it will not be lying comfortably in bed, reading a James Michener novel; it will be at the hands of a NeoNazi vigilante, a boy in a uniform fighting for his country, an antiabortion activist with a pipe bomb, a confident doctor with good intentions, a soused truck driver on his way home from work. He will not go quietly into that final night, but with as much doubt and pain and fear as any one of us, forgetting each previous walk with man upon rebirth, holding tenaciously at death to the belief and the promise that He will come back again to us, and again, and again, and again.
(Holly Day lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her son, Wolfegang, and her
cat, Calypso. She currently works as a music journalist for Guitar One and
XLR8R magazines, and was recently invited to pen the intro for the new
guidebook, Jimi Hendrix: Bluesman [publication slated for the end of 1999].)