Ethnic Cleansing of the Kafirs
By Abbas Zaidi
In all the languages spoken in Pakistan, Kafir means "Infidel" and Kafiristan means "Land of the Infidels." (Kafir also means "infidel" in Arabic.) Yet, ironically Kafiristan in Pakistan is believed to be a paradise located in the northwest part of the country: lakes, waterfalls, green forests teeming with wildlife, snow and a mellow sun.But it is not just the place itself that fascinates; it is the women of Kafiristan, part-fairy and part-human whose beauty, as the story goes, can make a man lose his religion. "When a Kafir woman drinks water, you can see it streaming down her throat. One can count the veins on her body," is the standard text regarding the Kafir woman's delicateness. They are believed to be whiter than white. But who are these Kafirs?
The advent of the Kafirs in Northwest of Pakistan--what is known now as the Kalash Valley consisting of the Birir, Bumboret and Rumbor sub-valleys--and southern Afghanistan, predates the birth of Islam by several centuries. As of now, the Kalash Valley is a part of Chitral, a very large administrative region in Northwest of Pakistan. The Kafirs are believed to be descendants of the warriors who arrived with Alexander the Great and decided to stay on. Historically, the Kafirs have remained an isolated ethnic group who were left undisturbed by both the Muslim rulers of India and by the British Raj. Many Western historians during the Raj were surprised to find the Kafirs' physical resemblance to be so similar to their own that they proudly declared that they and the Kafirs were of the same stock. As such, the Kafirs were allowed to freely practice their ancient customs, including ritual alcohol consumption, promiscuous dancing and ritual free sex.
The tragic watershed in Kafiri history came towards the end of the 19th century when in South Afghanistan their population was decimated in the name of Islam. The Afghan ruler at that time declared that either the Kafirs would be converted to Islam or be wiped off the face of the earth. The Afghan campaign was a total success, and the dawn of the 20th century did not see a single Kafir living in Afghanistan as a Kafir. Even the names of their villages were Islamised.
The Kafirs on the other side of the border were spared genocide due, one might suppose, to the Raj. In 1947 the Raj ended and Pakistan came into being, but the Kafirs continued to lead their lives as they had lived them for centuries. The legends about the beauty of the Kafir women and the landscape continued in a quasi-Orientalist mode. Every so often one heard about someone marrying a Kafir woman and bringing her home, though no one ever actually saw one. (In the legends and tales about Kafiristan the Kafir men are significant by their absence.)
It was only in the early 1970s that the people of Pakistan began to hear about the Kafirs in the national media, when Kafiristan was facing famine. Thanks to then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a tragedy was averted and he became the Kafirs' hero.
But then came the CIA-sponsored Afghanistan jihad and Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini challenged, inter alia, the US, the Arab monarchies and Pakistan's military dictatorship. Pakistan's progressive religious groups also became inspired by the Iranian Revolution and started planning in terms of a revolution for Pakistan too. They were a curious mix of Islam and Marxism. Some of them were extremely anti-American and anti-Soviet; some of them preferred the atheistic Soviet Union to the anti-Islamic United States and had their socialist friends in Afghanistan; and some of them pro-Khomeini, and Khomeini had challenged the US as no one had ever done before. Hence, the Iranian Revolution unfied them into an anti-American front. They called the Afghan refugees of those days "the absconders" and the jihad-wagers "the CIA agents."
General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan's longest-reigning dictator to date, was the enfant gate of the Saudi Royal Family, with a proven track record of loyalty to his masters in Jordan as well. The US needed a strongman in Islamabad to offset pro-Iranian and anti-American sentiments and to oppose the Soviets on its behalf. Hence it became vital to divide Pakistan along sectarian lines. Only the Deobandi-Wahabi (see end note #2) version of Islam could produce the desired results. So, in order to out-Khomeini Khomeini, the General introduced his own brand of Islamisation. That same year Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hange, with the full blessing of the US government. 1979, that annus mirabilis, marked the beginning of the end for the Kafirs.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan provided a multi-billion-dollar "aid" package in order to help Pakistan intensify the Afghanistan jihad. General Zia called upon the nation to go one step further than the Government in bringing Islam to every nook and corner of Pakistan. As a result, countless Tablighi (proselytizing) parties confronted every Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistani preaching the Deobandi-Wahabi version of Islam. Coincidentally, that year saw klashnikovs and heroin begin to penetrate every nook and cranny of Pakistan. The Kafirs got the first taste of things to come when some Tablighi zealots illegally occupied a large cultivated piece of their land in Bumboret and built a mosque.
What happened after that is not hard to discover. The Afghan refugees and the Pathan Tablighi parties (now known as the Taliban) seized nearly 70 percent of Kafir land during the period 1981 to 1995. They built mosques and seminaries where, in addition to learning the Koran by rote only, students learn the arts of war, techniques that are used against India in Kashmir and against Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities within Pakistan as well as against "infidels" elsewhere. The first fruit of the Afghanistan jihad for the Kafirs was the decimation of the Kalash forests and wildlife by the Afghan refugees. As the vegetation grew sparse, the Kafirs' cattle met the same fate as their forests, and the traditional Kafir means of livelihood was irreparably destroyed.
Once the Afghan refugees and the Tablighis became entrenched in Chitral, the forced conversion of the Kafirs began. Gun-toting Tablighis made it clear that in order to go on living in Pakistan (Pakistan means "Land of the Pure") the Kafirs must convert to Islam. For the Kafirs any place beyond the Kalash Valley is as alien as Mars. The kidnapping and forced marriage--and hence forced conversion--of the Kafir women to the Muslims, mostly Tablighi Pathans, continues to this day. These women are not allowed to see their relatives unless the relatives also convert. It is no secret that many of these women are sold at auction. Men are circumcised against their will. The Tablighis carry klashnikovs as a matter of routine and have killed many Kafirs who resisted conversion to the Tablighi Islam. No Kafir is allowed to carry a gun.
The poverty of the Kafirs has also been a big factor in their conversion to Tablighi Islam. Within the Chitral society they are completely ostracized for being "Kafirs", a term that illiterate people (and illiteracy in Chitral is the norm) understand to mean "infidels." The government does not give loans to Kafirs; the police and the judiciary have never taken any action against the appropriation of Kafir land by the Tablighis. The only source of income for the Kafirs are the Tablighis who lend them money at high interest. Since the Kafirs cannot pay off these loans, the only course left for them is either to convert or surrender their properties to the Tablighis.
While electricity, available through gasoline generators, and tap water are available to every Muslim in the Kalash Valley, and loudspeakers relay azzan and Koranic recitations throughout the day, there is not a single Kafir house that has electricity or a water tap. Their living conditions are indescribable. The Chitral winter is Siberian. The mosques and seminaries have heaters and warm water. The Kafirs' houses remain dark all winter, and they have to melt snow for drinking water. They cut wood to make fire. Their houses are actually large single rooms that remain shut for the six months of winter. Humans and animals live in them together. One can only imagine the stink and the lack of sanitation. There are no toilets. In summer, people use the open fields to relieve themselves; in winter they relieve themselves inside their houses, the same as their animals. One finds human and animal waste everywhere.
There is not a single hospital nor even a minor dispensary in the whole of Kafiristan. The Tablighis have 4x4 jeeps, but few Kafirs have any kind of vehicles. Many Kafirs have died, when basic emergency aid could have saved them, such as during childbirth. The Kafiri diet is basic and monotonous, and one rarely sees either a male or female Kafir who looks physically strong. The women's veins show plainly because of their malnourished state. Their characteristic long necks are dirty, and you only have to come close to one to know that they seldom get to take a bath.
Needless to say, Kafir culture is now nonexistent, thanks to the Tablighis. In the 1980s it was thought that the Kafirs as a distinct cultural group would become extinct by the end of the century. But they still linger on, though their number now is no more than two thousand. The government of Pakistan takes great pride in having established the Kalash Foundation "to preserve and propagate Kafir culture." But the facts speak otherwise. It is true that the Kalash Foundation has somewhat slowed the steamroller of the Tablighi Islam. But it has not done anything positive for the Kafirs. No effort has been made to give their language written documentation, and there does not exist even a single standard text devoted to Kafiri culture.
Visitors to the Kalash Valley have to pay a toll to enter. The toll ticket given to the visitor is jokingly called "the zoo ticket." The Kafirs and what is left of their culture have been preserved merely to cater to the tastes for the exotic of generals, bureaucrats, politicians and foreign dignitaries. Thanks to the Kalash Foundation, the Kafirs have become little more than anthropological artifacts. The World Wildlife Federation has been crying blue murder over the fact that only five thousand tigers remain in their natural habitat. Who cares that only two thousand Kafirs remain, despite a captivity-cum-protection program supposedly accorded them by the Pakistani government?
Meanwhile, the Tablighi are pushing to convert these few remaining pagans, and it is unlikely that the Kafirs will last very long into the 21st century. Kafir culture will end up--like so many indigenous cultures elsewhere--in the "cultural centers" of the big cities under the oversight of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. One may surmise that in future the converted Kafirs and their progeny will be engaged in fighting Indians, the religious minorities of Pakistan and "infidels" elsewhere. Meanwhile, in order to edify and entertain their audiences, Muslims employed by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs will stage exhibitions of Kafiri culture, dressing up and posing as the Kafirs whom the government and the Tablighis have systematically eliminated.
1. I felt forced to write this piece after reading "The Islamization of the Kalash Kafirs" by Akbar S. Ahmed in his book Pakistan Society (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1986). I was appalled to read that the author, "the Margaret Mead of Islam" did not even once touch upon the destruction of the Kafirs. He does mention the "formidable social, and psychological pressures resulting from being viewed as 'dirty' nonbelievers by aggressive and powerful neighbors," but ends his chapter with a high note of optimism that everything for the Kafirs will be all right in the course of time. Maybe he could not appreciate the true nature of the situation because at the time of his writing he was an important member of General Zia's bureaucracy.
2. A word about the Tablighis and their version of Islam. Within the Sunni sect in Pakistan and India there are two major sub-sects: the Brelvis and the Deobandis. The Deobandis are very close to the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia in their literalist interpretation of Islam. That is why the Deobandis and the Wahabis work side by side, from politics to jihad. The ubiquitous proselytizing groups in Pakistan and elsewhere are overwhelmingly Deobandi. The Deobandis believe that except for themselves and the Wahabis all other sects of Islam are heretical and must be exterminated. In the 1970s in Pakistan it was chiefly the Wahabis and the Deobandis who succeeded in having the Ahmedis declared non-Muslims, a declaration later constitutionalised by General Zia, himself a Deobandi. The Sipa-e-Sihaba of Pakistan and the Taliban of Afghanistan are Deobandi who are financially supported by the Saudi Royal Family. It's interesting to note that within Sunni Islam the Deobandis and the Brelvis are not found anywhere outside India and Pakistan. The creation of these two sects was one of the masterstrokes of the Raj in its divide-and-rule policy.
3. The Kafirs have become the victim of Tablighis Islam. Islam, however, is a religion whose God--Allah--by His own claim is, inter alia, the Beneficent, the Benevolent and the Merciful. Allah strictly forbids Muslims to carry out forced conversion.
(Abbas Zaidi <firstname.lastname@example.org>was editor of The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and worked as assistant editor for The Nation, Lahore.)
THE PRESIDENT IN HIS
By Anthony Milne
VENEZUELA'S charismatic and determined president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, who turned forty-five on July 28th, is a man in a hurry with a mission conceived at least seven years ago.
He was elected president in December, 1998 at the head of the Polo Patriótico (Patriotic Centre), a coalition of four main parties. Sworn in for a five-year term in February, 1999, Chávez promised a "peaceful social and democratic revolution" to clean up forty years of corruption and mismanagement that has left oil-rich Venezuela in economic crisis. This is a tall order, one that only a Napoléon or a Bolívar might aspire to. Chávez is too smart and pragmatic to believe he is a reincarnation of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), called the Liberator, Vene-
zuela's greatest national hero. But he religiously invokes Bolívar's name and visionary achievements: the freeing of most of northern South America from Spanish imperialism and the compilation of theo-
retical and practical notions for statehood on the new continent.
Chávez hadn't said anything about Venezuela's claim to three quarters of Guyana until a fortnight ago, when Venezuela complained that Guyana was carrying out exploratory drilling in Venezuelan territorial waters off the delta of the Orinoco. There was a build-up of Venezuelan troops on the current border with Guyana, and a Venezuelan aircraft entered Guyana's air space without authority. Chávez has denounced the terms of the 1899 Paris treaty es-
tablishing the current boundaries and opted for a new bilateral initiative begun in 1966. He has promised not to use violence to settle the issue. A UN representative has been appointed to oversee the negotiations.
On Saturday, July 24, the 216th anniversary of Bolívar's birthday and the day before Venezuela's new Constitutional Assembly was elected, Chávez and some army officers removed the Liberator's sword from a bank vault and marched with it to the house near Plaza Bolívar, not far from the Congress, where the Liberator was born.
Chávez has devised what he calls the Bolívar 2000 Programme, aimed at alleviating the Venezuelan crisis, and he wouldn't mind if Venezuela were renamed the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela". He must see himself as another liberator, determined to free Venezuela from forty years of "democracy and stability," since the ouster in 1958 of Venezuela's last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, now old and ill and living in exile in Madrid. Pérez Jim-
énez's departure was followed by the establishment of a provisional government which prepared Venezuela for the establishment of constitutional democratic government, with universal suffrage and elections by direct and secret ballot and proportional represen-
tation for minority groups. The main parties which took part in that election were Acción Democrática (Democratic Action), social democrats led by Rómulo Betancourt; Copei (Christian Socialist), led by Dr Rafael Caldera; and the Union Republicana Democrá-
tica (Republican Democratic Union), led by Dr Juvito Villalba. Also taking part was the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (Communist Party of Venezuela) and a representative of the Junta de Gobierno (Governing Junta).
The presidential candidates and political parties agreed to a pact called the Punto Fijo (Decided Purpose), the name of Dr Caldera's, the Social Democratic leader's, home. They agreed to respect the results of the election and to collaborate in running the country. Rómulo Betancourt, of Acción Democrática, was elected president of the new democratic Venezuela.
Elections under the Punto Fijo pact continued for forty years. Critics say its original high purpose eventually declined, becoming a pact between the two main political parties, Copei and Acción Democrá-
tica, to hold on to power, with alternating adminis-
trations. It is this manipulation of the political process and lack of real democratic choice that Chávez and his supporters (who make up about half of those who voted) say has led to corruption, mis-
management and clientships on a scale that has left oil-rich Venezuela in virtual bankruptcy, with eighty percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Transparency International, the world-wide, non- governmental, anti-corruption organisation, agrees. In a 1988 ranking of 85 countries, Transparency International found Venezuela was among the ten most corrupt. Oil money provides about half the income for Venezuela's annual budget. This once was used to provide social benefits for the poor, but so much money has been siphoned off by corruption that there is now little left for social programmes. This has helped make the traditional politicians unpopular, opening the way for Chávez, an outsider with no connection to the traditional parties, capable of cleaning up the mess, or so his supporters maintain.
THE PROBLEM ADDRESSED
TODAY there are 11 million registered voters in Venezuela in a population of 23 million. About half of these failed to vote in either the presidential election of December, 1998 that brought Hugo Chávez to power or in the election to select the now con-
troversial National Constitutional Assembly. They may or may not support Chávez, or the opposition, but their refusal to vote remains an enigma to political commentators. One theory is that these people have become disenchanted with all politicians and elections. It is part of Chávez's task to re-
inspire them, as it is of an urgently needed rein-
In the presidential campaign Chávez declared openly that he would reduce the number of government min-
istries and the size of the public service, meaning greater efficiency but more unemployment as well. Even so, Venezuelans feel they are seeing more action, with more government officials visiting towns and villages all over the country.
Journalist Carlos Barrera, writing in El Universal, Caracas's best and most popular newspaper, about the huge task Chávez faces, blames Venezuela's economic crisis not only on maladministration and corruption but also on "governments too cowardly to take hard decisions". The problem of leadership is profound, says Barrera. The spirit of patriotism, solidarity, integrity and social sensibility have unfortunately been replaced by egotism, hypocrisy and complicity. The creators and core of the new movement led by Chávez are thousands of people scattered throughout the country, "deeply disoriented and confused", who have found a way to channel their frustration and rage at traditional government authority, both corrupt and inept.
"They are the least guilty, most long-suffering, and represent a significant proportion of the Venezuelan population", says Barrera. "There must be a start now to addressing their causes, since it is the ruling elite, especially those in political and management roles who are responsible for the grave situation in which Venezuela finds itself today".
The last 20 years in particular have been a time of continuing impoverishment and socio-cultural re-
gression. Venezuela's political class has been unable to administer public funds with even a minimum of probity and efficiency. Brutal inflation and a debased currency have resulted from poor financial and revenue policies, aggravated by squandered income and corrupt patronage made worse by clumsy and ill-timed policy shifts. Barrera agrees that successive administrations of the two dominant parties, Acción Democrática and Copei, during the last 40 years have proved incompetent and lacking in a sense of mission and direction. "This has undermined Venezuela's quality of life, a country once practically without inflation, proud of its solid, stable currency, the bolívar, with a consolidated and expanding middle class, where 80 per cent of the population now faces impossible poverty". He maintains that the administration of President Rafael Caldera, brought to an end by the Chávez presidential victory, was responsible to an enormous degree for these problems.
The deterioration took place during the last five years of Caldera's term of office, leaving health care, education and personal security in crisis. Unemployment increased from 6 to 11 per cent. From 1987 to 1991 average annual inflation was 42 per cent. At the end of 1992 the exchange rate was 80 Venezuelan bolivares to US$1. Today inflation is rampant, with the exchange rate at 600 bolivares to US$1, and declining.
Nor does Barrera spare Venezuela's private sector, which he feels has been equally responsible for the dilapidation. "For real development, private invest-
ment must be constant, vigorous and sustainable. If just half of Venezuelan capital stocks sent abroad were reinvested in the country, the economic situa-
tion would be greatly enhanced". He notes that there have been valid excuses like "legal uncertainties", "exchange risks", and "political instability" for export of capital. This is evidence of reasonable self-defence rather than a ruthless export of capital indispensable for development, but "no nation prospers if its citizens don't believe in it". Venezuela's ruling class has been inhibited and fearful, demonstrating a lack of interest and leadership, as if the problem were someone else's.
Not as enthusiastic about President Chávez's interventions since he became president is Luis Moreno Ocampo, president of Transparency Inter-
national for Latin America and the Caribbean. Ocampo has warned that, "It is not enough to throw out old overlords just to bring in new ones. If the history of democracy has taught us anything at all, it is that an active, participatory society is more im-
portant than charismatic leadership".
Chávez supporters would argue that Chávez, with his "bolivarian charisma," recalling the original ideals of the Republic, is doing his best to inspire Vene-
zuela's people, giving them the self-confidence to take hold of their democratic institutions and work towards economic development. Critics say he just wants to be dictator. Ocampo suggests that, no matter who is elected president of Venezuela, the ideal direction is for political parties to rep-
resent competing opinions and interests, following the rules and working towards making the state more efficient and accountable in the use of public funds. "The major effort is up to Venezuelan cit-
izens, but the global community", he adds optimist-
ically, "including multinational corporations, multilateral organisations and non-governmental organisations like Transparency International, can provide critical assistance".
During the campaign for the Constitutional Assembly, Chávez appointed another body, the Presidential Constituent Council, to gather ideas from various sectors: the military, business, party people and human rights activists among them. He has criticised Venezuela's rich elite and promised to reconstruct Venezuela's political system to make it more demo-
cratic and accountable.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY
THE National Constitutional Assembly proposed by Chávez is the new president's most daring and imaginative initiative on which most of the reform he wants depends. Its life and role were carefully organised.
First, there was the referendum in April this year asking the people if they wanted a constitutional assembly to initiate reform by writing a new con-
stitution for Venezuela. After a majority voted in favour of establishment of the Constitutional Assembly, a National Electoral Council was appointed to supervise the election of the Assembly and the campaign that would lead up to it. It was a hectic campaign, fought in the Congress, on television and radio and in the newspapers. Caracas's streets were strung with banners proclaiming the virtues of this or that candidate, and posters were stuck on walls everywhere. There were street-corner meetings with candidates' speeches punctuated by sedate Venezuelan castillanos or joropos played by small string bands while couples danced on the sidewalks.
President Chávez was reprimanded and fined during the campaign by the National Electoral Council for too openly supporting candidates he wanted in the Constituent Assembly. The president shrugged this off. The fine was quickly paid by supporters, and Chávez continued to do as he pleased. No one could tell him what he must or must say, he declared, or interfere with his freedom of speech. The election of the Constituent Assembly took place on Sunday, July 25th, the day after the anniversary of Simón Bolívar's birth. Chávez supporters, known as chavistas, took 121 of the 128 seats to be filled.
The Congress went into voluntary recess and lent the congressional buildings to the Constitutional Assembly. All went well at first. The Constitutional Assembly is to complete the new constitution--which is to revise the roles of the president, congress, courts and local government for greater efficiency and accountability--within six months. Insiders say the first of many articles has not yet been ap-
proved. The opposition has added cynically that, at this rate, writing the new constitution will take at least a year. Perhaps the Assembly has been too busy with other matters--dealing with the Supreme Court and the Congress--which were not part of its orig-
inal mandate. The Constitutional Assembly says its work has been interfered with by the Court and the Congress and that it has had to respond.
The Supreme Court took the initiative to declare that the Assembly didn't have the authority to do some of the things it was doing, then changed its mind and gave its support. This led to the resig-
nation of the Court's president Cecilia Sosa, said to be a determined reformer herself, on Tuesday, August 24th. The Supreme Court, she declared, had "committed suicide" the day before when it changed its mind on its previous decision and declared that the Constitutional Assembly had acted lawfully when it gave itself powers to remove judges from office and overhaul the courts. Venezuela's courts are said to be as corrupt as its political institutions, and thus have been targeted by Chávez for immediate action. Sosa also criticised the Congress and op-
position political parties for caving in to the Constitutional Assembly. On Thursday, August 26th, the US State Department entered the debate, express-
ing concern that democracy in Venezuela might be threatened by constraints placed on the Congress by President Chávez's supporters.
Provoked perhaps by Sosa's statements and worried by the actions of the Constituent Assembly which on Wednesday, August 25th, ordered the Congress not to pass any laws and curtailed its powers and duties, opposition members of Congress decided that the Congress must reconvene to debate the issues. On Friday, August 27th, when they tried with their supporters to enter the buildings lent to the Constitutional Assembly, they were blocked by chavistas. This led to riots outside the Congress, with security forces trying to keep the warring parties apart. Chávez's peaceful revolution sud-
denly turned violent. The Assembly, presided over by Luis Miquelina, a Marxist philosopher now in his eighties who is one of Chávez close advisers, has declared itself for the time being the nation's supreme authority, curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court and Congress. This outraged the opposition, who declared that the Assembly had exceeded its powers. Chávez replied that only this kind of radical action will root out the widespread corruption and mismanagement that has brought Ven-
ezuela to its knees. The work of the Constituent Assembly has thus become highly politicised, with only very limited input from the opposition.
According to the overall plan for reform, when the Constituent Assembly completes the new constitution meant to restrict corruption and make administration more efficient, there is to be another referendum. Assuming the new constitution is approved, which seems likely, new presidential and congressional elections will be called after which the new Con-
gress and President will be installed to run Chávez's new Venezuela. If the new constitution is by some chance rejected in the referendum, it appears the old one will remain in effect. In this way Chávez has put his job and reputation on the line.
Chávez's critics, some for their own political purposes, some out of real concern, remembering the attempted coup he led in 1992, see him as harking back to the age of caudillos, intent simply on making himself a new dictator. On the other hand, they say paradoxically that he talks a lot but does nothing--manifestly untrue in the light of events.
On Thursday, August 26th, the US State Department expressed concern that democracy in Venezuela might be threatened by curbs put on Congress by Chávez supporters. State Department spokesman James B Foley said actions by the Constitutional Assembly would "affect the strong tradition of democracy in Ven-
ezuela". Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil producers, and most of its production goes to the United States.
Venezuela's population of 23 million, with 11 million voters, is at least 90 per cent Roman Catholic. 500 priests, 200 of them Jesuits, cater to the needs of the faithful, and the Church, led by the Archbishop of Caracas, Msgr Ignacio Antonio Velasco, wields power and influence in its own right. The warring political factions, pro- and anti-Chávez, agreed on August 27th at the end of a turbulent week to allow the Church to intervene and act as conciliator. By Saturday, August 29th, Pres-
ident Chávez was himself in a conciliatory mood, saying that the opposition had nothing to fear and that he had no intention of becoming dictator or undermining democracy, though Venezuela's problems did indeed have to be addressed with drastic action.
Meanwhile, the political action continued. On Sunday, August 29th, the Congress, with a small opposition majority, threatened not to approve two planned trips abroad by President Chávez, one to Panama one on Tuesday, the other to Brazil on Saturday, September 4th. The Congress also threat-
ened to withhold approval for budget payments for several items. Chávez responded by announcing that the Constituent Assembly would meet in emergency session to exercise the Congress's right to approve disbursal of funds. Opposition leaders said this would amount to a coup d'etat. Kenneth MacKay, special US envoy to the Americas, delivered the United States' second statement on Venezuela. "Our concern is mainly that the dramatic reform taking place should occur within a democratic framework", he said as August drew to a close. He added diplomatically that he wasn't sure whether the Constitutional Assembly was acting as a democratic institution.
One Venezuelan political commentator has maintained that Chávez is already the only power in Venezuela but has sense enough not to make himself an actual dictator. This commentator maintained that the Venezuelan population, in spite of the country's history, has a deep disdain for dictatorial rule.
CHÁVEZ THE MAN
HUGO Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28, 1954 into a simple family in the town of Sabaneta, in the south-western state of Barinas, where the plains roll away from the foothills of the Andes. His father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, was elected gov-
ernor of Barinas in November 1998 after his son entered politics.
When he came of age, Chávez entered Venezuela's Military Academy where he obtained a university-
level degree in Military Sciences and Arts, engin-
eering branch. It was at the Military Academy that his passion for the ideas of Simón Bolívar took shape. He graduated as a second lieutenant on July 5, 1975 after achieving the highest marks in courses he took as a member of the armed forces. He then did a graduate degree in political science at Simón Bolívar University, just outside Caracas, and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1990.
Posts he held in the armed forces brought him into contact with communities where he was able to ob-
serve social and political conditions at first-hand. He also cultivated an interest in the arts and has put his own hand to writing and painting. He is a baseball fan. His dark complexion, high cheek bones, and narrow eyes mark him out as a mestizo (mixed Amerindian and Caucasian), though more Indian than European. However, race is almost totally ignored in Venezuela. Most people are mestizo to varying de-
grees, with a relatively small African influence. The great majority of Venezuelans look more or less like Chávez.
On February 4, 1992, Chávez, not yet 38, led a midnight coup against the corrupt administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Thousands of rebel troops attacked Caracas and three other cities. The presidential palace, Miraflores, was assaulted with rifle-fire and mortars. Witnesses have said that a rebel soldier had a clear shot at President Pérez, who was making his escape in an underground walkway, but lost his nerve at the last moment. Fifteen sol-
diers and many civilians were killed before Chávez and his men were overcome by loyal troops and sur-
rendered. Chávez spent two years in prison then was released.
The failed coup was not entirely ineffective. Nor were anti-corruption seminars for judges and pros-
ecutors organised by Transparency International in the same year as the coup . President Pérez was sub-
sequently indicted by public prosecutors, removed from office, and convicted of misuse of public funds. He was still under house arrest when he was elected to the Senate in 1998, thus gaining im-
munity. Venezuelan presidents don't just roll over and die, and this will no doubt be as true of Chávez as any other.
Pérez's successor, the veteran Rafael Caldera, was never accused of being personally dishonest, ac-
cording to Transparency International, but he was unable to free Venezuela from the corrupt practices of the traditional political parties and their clients.
If Chávez's reforms work, Venezuela should be on the way to the peace and prosperity it deserves, finding a new place in the world community. With an area of 916,000 sq km, Venezuela is the size of England and France put together, with only 20 per cent of their population. Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product in 1994 was US$53 billion. Principal exports are pet-
roleum and petroleum products, as well as aluminium and steel. Agriculture and food processing are also important, as are the production of textiles and clothing, machinery and transport equipment. Tourism is also a major industry, especially in the Carib-
bean resorts of Venezuela's north coast. Half of Venezuela's exports go to the United States, most of the rest to Germany, Brazil, Japan and Cuba.
If Chávez makes his dream a reality Venezuela could in time become a significant player in Latin Amer-
ican and world trade and politics.
(Anthony Milne <email@example.com was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University 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 ev-
erything else under the sun.)
Letter from Calcutta
Bridges and Trees
By Ellen Larson
"No Nile, no Egypt...." So sang the fishermen as they
rowed up the misty river, setting their nets in the
gray hour before dawn, wrapped to the eyes in thread-
bare robes against the cold. "...No Egypt, no Nile."
Abdul Rahman Mohammed, sitting at the edge of the
water behind the policemen's barracks in a cramped
Cairo suburb, saw them every morning as he washed. He
was a long way from Aswan in Upper Egypt, where his
mother, his wife, his son, and infant daughter lived
in a mud-brick house, but the fishermen and the river
were the same. He cupped his hand, dipped it into the
water, and thought--Far away to the south, Nouzha is
reaching into the water, washing herself just as I am.
Maybe that little ripple was caused by the movement of
her hands. An ibis floated out of the sky, contracted
its graceful wings, and settled onto a half-submerged
and rusted wheel rim a little way from shore.
Later, neatly dressed in his black winter uniform,
with matching beret, gaiters, and boots, he joined his
comrades: slim young men sporting narrow mustaches;
naive young men straight off the farm; undistinguished
young men fulfilling their military obligation at the
lowest level of service. Together they clambered into
the back of an open truck (the cattle truck, they
called it as a joke) and bounced along the roads to
the spacious Cairo suburb of Maadi.
As it neared the first post, the truck slowed. Mahmoud
Abdul Moneim and Mohammed Ali Mohammed hopped off,
while Ahmed Ali Ibrahim and Ahmed Saied, whom they
were relieving, scrambled up. The young men laughed
and hooted as Ahmed Saied's rifle strap snagged on the
sagging tailgate and he was forced to jump off again.
The driver, Ahmed Behnassoui, grinned at them in the
rearview mirror and revved the engine. Ahmed Saied,
struggling to unhitch himself, had to run hard to keep
As they picked up speed, Abdul Rahman reached out in
the midst of his laughter and hauled Ahmed Saied into
the truck, making sure the young man didn't stab him-
self with his bayonet. Abdul Rahman was older than
the others--he had chosen the security of a second
tour, small though the pay was, rather than the un-
certainty of looking for work as a laborer in Cairo,
or the assured poverty of returning to his village--
and thus had the responsibility of providing moral guidance. His name, one of the hundred names of Allah, meant "servant of the merciful," and he neverforgot
his duty to live up to it.
When the truck reached his post, Abdul Rahman hopped
down nimbly, holding his rifle high on his back. He
gave a gallant wave to Ahmed Behnassoui as the truck
jounced over the bridge and rumbled away. Samir, his
new partner, yawned and wandered a few paced up the
road. The young man placed his rifle butt on the
ground, folded his arms on top of the barrel, and
closed his eyes. He would not wake up until something
worth watching occurred at one of the grand villas
across the road. Abdul Rahman, stretching his limbs,
walked over to the bridge, placed a hand on its stone
parapet, and inspected its foundation. His post was an
old friend, and he liked to spend a few minutes each
morning remaking its acquaintance, although he didn't
expect to learn anything new.
There were policemen at all the major intersections in
Maadi, as well as at other importantlocations--rail-
road crossings, mosques, schools, and of course, bridges. Abdul Rahman's bridge carried Mostafa Kamil Road, the main market route, across the canal and into the Maadi souk. Abdul Rahman was proud to have a post of such importance, and prouder still because of the unusual beauty of the place.
The canal had run parallel to the Nile, two kilometers
inland, since the beginning of memory, carrying ir-
rigation water to the narrow strip of farmland on
the east bank of the River. It was eight meters wide,
two meters deep, straight as an arrow, and had steep
banks. Like most canals in Egypt, the water was motion-
less, unless a breeze rippled its surface, and reddish-
brown. Like most canals in Egypt, it was dotted with floating islands of water hyacinth, muchto the annoyance of the bargemen, who had to pole through it, and the farmers, whose irrigation ditches it clogged. But what made this particular stretch of canal special was its eucalyptus trees. Their smoothtrunks stood like pillars on either bank, their sturdy branches holding up a leafy canopy that shaded the waterway--a silver-green colonnade running through modern residential Maadi as the mighty boulevards of stone had once run through the temples of the pharoahs. Although there were many trees and gardens in Maadi--the foreigners and rich people who lived there
could afford the luxury--none were as beautiful as
Abdul Rahman's eucalyptus. They had been set in the
ground as saplings some six or ten years previously,
and Abdul Rahman had it on good authority that the
great Gamal Abdul Nasser himself had ordered their
After admiring the trees in the morning light, and
checking for traffic on the canal, Abdul Rahman turned
his attention to the little area at the east end of
the bridge he considered his territory. Who knew what
mayhem the policemen on the night shift had created in
his absence? He liked to keep the ground swept clean,
but the others didn't care where they threw their bits
of paper, cigarette butts, and rubbish. He liked to
keep the tin drinking cup in a recess of the parapet,
but he often found it down by the canal on a jutting
rock, or even lying on its side on the muddy bank.
Abdul Rahman always shook his head at this; this new
batch of policemen seemed more careless than the last.
A horse clip-clopped over the bridge, its harness
bells jingling, pulling a flat-bed wagon piled high
with sweet potatoes. Fruit and vegetables--tomato,
okra, mango, and cucumber--from the outlying farms
were brought to the souk every morning along this
route. Abdul Rahman greeted the driver cheerfully and
folded his arms across his breast to watch the rig go
by. The dark red horse stepped eagerly, looking very
flashy in his green and red harness. The low sides of
the wagon were painted green and red and yellow. The
colors reminded Abdul Rahman of his childhood home,
far to the south: green for the lush fields of sugar
cane and berseem clover, red for the dark Nile mud,
and yellow for the sun and the sand.
After picking up the stray bits of trash, Abdul Rahman
rearranged the loose stones and pieces of broken mason-
ry to suit his fancy. The previous night had been
cold, and the policemen on duty had lit a fire for
warmth, moving some of the larger rocks to make a
little hearth. Abdul Rahman, however, liked to keep
the largest stone, which was shaped like a boat, at
the foot of his favorite eucalyptus tree, where it
made a comfortable seat. So, as on most winter morn-
ings, he had a little struggle shifting it back into place.
Not that he spent much time sitting down! For most of
each day, he remained on his feet, as ramrod straight
as the trees, standing close beside the bridge, greet-
ing such passersby as he knew, sometimes walking a few paces down the road to stretch his legs. But for a little while each day, usually after midday prayers,
Abdul Rahman liked to take his ease, and at such times
he liked to sit, and feel the bark of the eucalyptus
against his back. At such times he watched the reflec-
tion of the trees in the canal, and studied the goings-
on of the insects clinging to the long grasses bobbing
by the water's edge. He moved only to wave a slow hand at the passing canal boats at such times,content to watch the pilots wave back with equal tranquillity. It was at such times that he knew he would be signing up
for a third tour.
At midday, year in and year out, rattle-trap donkey
carts trundled by, operated by pairs or trios of
rag-tag children. At each villa along the road, one or
two of the children would leap off the cart and dis-
appear into yard or entranceway, returning with bags or cartons full of garbage, which they would pile onto the high-sided carts. Abdul Rahman did not greetthese children cheerfully. He sniffed to show his disdain,
and shouted at them in a loud voice if they came too
near when he didn't want them--and in a louder voice
when he did. In the later instance, they would approach warily, take what bits of refuse he gave them with feigned terror, and scamper away. Abdul Rahman would sniff again. They were the zebeleen, the garbage
people, and socially inferior. They lived in the City
of Garbage, by the Hills of Mokkattem, and had no education, no religion, and no law. But they did a
good job collecting the garbage, year in and year
In the late spring, when the days grew hot, and then
sweltering, the policemen put on their white summer
uniforms, with matching white berets. Born and bred in
the furnace of Upper Egypt, they did not mind the
heat. Only when the holy month of Ramadan, during
which they took neither food nor water from dawn to
dusk, occurred in summer did some of them suffer. They
would sit swooning, their heads fallen forward on
their knees, sweat beading on their sallow faces. But
while others sagged, Abdul Rahman would stand at his
post as usual, alert and cheerful, greeting the gar-
deners and the tradesman as they passed by on their
bicycles or with their push-carts. He didn't try to do
too much, and kept in the shade of the eucalyptus
trees, but it was his pride to be upright and smiling
when his younger comrades were limp and fainting in
the scorching heat.
And it was his delight during Ramadan to say a prayer
and take the first sip of water after the canon was
fired at sunset. The food he carried with him for
iftar, the break-fast, was no different than what he
ate during the rest of the year--bread and white
cheese, with perhaps a pickle or two--but it always
tasted better during Ramadan. And there was a generous
lady who lived in the flat-topped villa across the way
who never failed to send out a plate of delicacies for
him and his partner during Ramadan: tangy apricots,
spicy rice cooked with raisins and sweetmeats,
molukhaya, and omali, which slipped down the throat so
easily at the end of a meal. Those were happy times,
which matured into happy memories to savor in the
As the memories collected over the years, Abdul Rahman
began to notice that some things were changing, and
not all for the better, he thought. When he had first
come to Maadi, the children had celebrated the holy
month by dancing along the roads after iftar in
groups, swinging their Ramadan lanterns and singing.
But as time passed, the streets became empty in the
evenings, as the children preferred to stay indoors
and watch quiz shows on television, while their
parents continued the feast till dawn, and then slept
the day away to shorten the fast.
Abdul Rahman frowned on all such shirking of duty. He
tried to make the long trip to Upper Egypt to see his
family at least once a year, to bring them the little
money he had saved, and to help with the harvest. He
fathered two more daughters, and Nouzha began to keep
chickens. But the cost of the train ticket went stead-
ily upward, and one year he did not go, entrusted the money to a friend making the trip south. After his
little son died, he went even less often.
At the end of his fifth tour, the captain called him
to his office and told him it was time to depart the
police force and return to his family. But Abdul
Rahman knew the money he was able to send them was the
most he could hope to make, given his lack of skills
and the fierce competition for even the most menial
jobs. Also, although he did not say so, he quailed at
the thought of leaving his life at the Mostafa Kamil
bridge. So he stalled the already endless process of
completing his paperwork, and shrugged when his
sergeant stared at him hard and said he had heard
Abdul Rahman was leaving. He clung to his routine,
determined to wait the situation out. After a few
months, the sergeant ceased his comments and took his
presence for granted. After a year, the Captain
stopped asking Abdul Rahman if he had gotten his
discharge papers stamped yet.
Time drifted by, one day, or month, or year much like
the last. But in one memorable year, on a day in late
summer, word filtered down to the policemen that the
government was going to fill in the canal. The fields
on the east bank of the Nile grew nothing but tall
apartment buildings now, and the people in them had no
use for brackish irrigation water. Pipes, filtration
units, and sewer systems were much better for them.
Modern technology was turning the desert, far from
Cairo, into farm land. Maintaining the canal--the
yearly dredging and the upkeep of the secondary
ditches--was too expensive for so few farms. Abdul
Rahman was sick at heart at the thought of the coming
destruction, and thought-- This would not have hap-
pened in Gamal Abdul Nasser's day.
For many weeks, Abdul Rahman stood mutely at his post
and watched noisy, ugly trucks bring in sand from the
desert, and teams of barefoot, gray-garbed workers
--workers such as he might have been had he not
been a policeman--shoveling the sand into the empty
canal. In his waking dreams, he pictured the eucal-
yptus trees lying stricken on the ground, their
broken branches scattered on the road, and felt tears
streaming hot down his narrow face. His youthful
partner told him he cared more for the trees than he
did for the ladies, and laughed at him when he could
But when the canal was filled in, and the work crews
left, the double row of eucalyptus trees still stood.
Grass grew quickly in the shallow depression that had
been the canal, and bushes were planted that would
bear tiny red and yellow flowers in spring. The
following year, and every year thereafter, children
came to play on the shady lawn, and families picnicked
there on Sham El Nassim, the spring holiday named in
honor of Smelling the Breezes. Abdul Rahman's life,
after months of dust and noise, returned to normal.
But there were two differences. First, to get a drink
of water, he had to walk down a side road to the
public water urn (a red-clay vessel shaped like a
headless, narrow-waisted woman with a flat rock on
top to keep the animals out), and second, Abdul Rahman
kept his post by the bridge alone.
The filling in of the canal had been swift and
painful; other changes occurred so slowly and gently
that he didn't notice them until they were complete,
at which time he could only shrug and accept them. One
day he realized it had been a long time since he had
been able to make the trip to Aswan, and although
relatives brought him news of his family, they seemed
very far away, and he did not think of them so much
anymore. His mother had died, and their little farm
had been rented out. Eventually, Abdul Rahman took a
second wife, a young woman crippled from polio who was
the sister of Ahmed Behnassoui, the driver. For two
years they lived in a room hard by the policemen's
barracks, from which he still caught the cattle truck
each morning. But then the young woman died, and he
moved back to the barracks, and did not look for
When he had been young, Abdul Rahman had giggled and
whistled along with the others when a girl of ques-
tionable virtue walked by, although even then he
had felt guilty about it. "Taali, zibadi!" the bold
ones called, if a girl's skirt showed a bit of plump
white calf: "Come here, white yogurt," they called, or
worse. Then they would whistle and hoot as she has-
tened away. But eventually Abdul Rahman conquered
the demon within him, and stopped participating in
such games. One day he spoke harshly to a young
policeman he caught behaving so, shaming him into
silence. In his heart, he did not like to see a girl
immodestly dressed, or walking alone down the road,
but he knew it was none of a policeman's business.
He had to remind himself of this more often than usual
the autumn the Generous Lady's granddaughter came to
visit. She was very modern, and it was hard for Abdul
Rahman to keep the disapproval from his face when he
saw her going out with the boys from college, or sit-
ting on the chaise lounge in the yard wearing her
shorts. She was disgracing her grandmother, he thought. He said nothing, but spent much time shaking his head, his usually cheerful countenance fixed in an unhappy scowl.
That year during Ramadan, the granddaughter sometimes
brought Abdul Rahman his iftar plate. He always
thanked her humbly, but she was very ungracious, as if
the task she was forced to perform was beneath her. He
was surprised, therefore, when one evening she spoke
"I've always wondered something," she said coldly,
eyeing him condescendingly. "What do you do here?"
"I guard the bridge," said Abdul Rahman politely.
The girl looked at him with large, intelligent eyes.
Then she looked at the greensward between the trees,
and at the road that crossed it. It was set firmly on
the ground. "What bridge?" she asked.
Abdul Rahman shrugged, and for answer placed a hand on
the stone parapet that still bordered the road for
eight meters. The girl looked at the parapet, un-
impressed, and went back to the villa. Abdul Rahman
shook his head. Modern girls, with their skimpy
clothes and lack of respect, were a far cry from the
girls of his youth.
When each autumn turned to winter, he wondered if the
weather was not getting colder year by year. As he
grew older, it grew harder to keep warm in the cold
months, although he wore all the clothes he had under
his black wool uniform. The other policemen made fun
of him, calling him "clothes store," but what could he
do? Most things grew harder each year. Most things, in
fact, except fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
That grew ever easier. Keeping up with his youthful
colleagues did not.
The open cattle trucks were replaced by large blue
trucks with blue canvas tops, but the tradition of
saving the brakes for emergencies still held, and
Abdul Rahman's hop off the tailgate was not as spry as
it had once been. There was a new driver, too, who had
little sympathy for him, and sometimes played games
with him, much to the delight of his boyish comrades,
who thought it was a good joke that such an old man
kept amongst their ranks. Their laughter was not
pleasant, but Abdul Rahman endured it with good humor.
One day he tripped in a pothole while scrambling after
the truck and fell hard, breaking his arm. That was a
difficult winter, for the arm was slow to heal, and
never worked quite right again. But the captain spoke
harshly to the driver, and to the men who had been on
the truck, and Abdul Rahman had no further trouble
with them. Yet this saddened him, for he knew they
were separated by a barrier he could no longer cross.
But the basket man, his red and green woven wares
piled impossibly high upon his head, still liked to
pass the time of day. He never failed to assure Abdul
Rahman that his bridge was a fine location for peddling
--such a nice shady intersection. Likewise the knife-
sharpener, who trundled by on Tuesday afternoons
pushing his heavy hand-cart, always stopped to speak
with him--although he talked exclusively about the
growing stiffness of his legs, and what medicines he
was taking to bring about the return of his youthful
vigor. One day Abdul Rahman thought to mention that
the doctor had said there was something wrong with his
kidneys, but the knife-sharpener seemed quite wounded
at this invasion of his territory, so he did not bring
it up again. Besides the peddlers, Abdul Rahman always
enjoyed exchanging greeting with the street sweepers,
women of his own age dressed in black, who appreciated
his trees and his politeness. And the latest gener-
ation of zebeleen children still appeared every
day, shouting at each other as they scampered from
villa to villa. They tore past Abdul Rahman in their
efforts to keep up with the lopsided donkey cart,
while the lucky driver laughed and beat his little
gray donkeys--noses to the ground as they strained--
all the harder.
The Generous Lady across the way did not leave her
villa any more. She suffered from a mysterious com-
plaint that involved daily shots from a visiting
pharmacist, limited movement before noon, and a
preference for hushed whispers. But she did not forget
Abdul Rahman. At least once a week, even when it was
not Ramadan, she sent her servant, Nabila, to him,
laden with a sampler of tasty foods as well as advice
on how to avoid a cold that winter, or how he should
stay in the shade next summer. When the government put
the new sidewalks in, they broke the water urn on the
nearby side road and did not replace it, but from then
on Nabila brought Abdul Rahman water in a plastic
bottle every day, and he felt himself very well off
In the evenings, Abdul Rahman liked to hobble down to
the River behind the police barracks, where he would
sit on a rock, and enjoy the close of the day.
"No Nile, no Egypt...." So sang the feluccamen,
sitting curled at the bases of their tall masts, as
they carried the tourists up and down the river at
sunset. Their white sails swept out graceful arcs
across the deep blue sky, reminding him of the wings
of the ibis he had seen in his youth. "...No Egypt, no
Nile." On a clear night he could see the pyramids of
Giza behind the tall palm trees across the river:
unconquerable monuments to the past.
One morning in mid-winter, Abdul Rahman was slower
than usual in getting up. He was tired, because he had
been too cold to sleep, and he could not pass water.
He struggled to pull his boots on and get to the truck
before it left. "Don't go," said a colleague, concern
evident in his eyes, but Abdul Rahman would not con-
sider that. Helping hands lifted him onto the truck,
and when he arrived at his post, the driver came to a complete stop and stayed there until Abdul Rahman was safely on the ground.
He did not have the strength to stand, but it was
without regret that he lowered himself onto his
favorite rock, and leaned his back against the gnarled
eucalyptus. Mercifully, the air was still, and he was
not uncomfortable. He closed his eyes, and when he
opened them, it was midday, and warm. He closed his
eyes again and enjoyed the heat of the sun on his
face. He opened his eyes and watched a pack of school-
boys hurry by, carrying books and satchels. It was mid-afternoon. Time seemed to be passing rapidly.
He closed his eyes.
At the end of the day, the setting sun shot red and
yellow rays through the treetops and touched his face.
He opened his eyes and looked around. The rich light
enflamed the poinsettias that grew head-high along the
stone parapet, and they glowed as if from an inner
source, throbbing red and gold. He slid sideways off
the rock and slumped onto the ground, face downward.
He thought that he had come to his final resting
place, until strong hands pulled at his shoulders,
shifting him around so that he was half sitting,
supported by the rock and the tree roots.
"What's wrong, ya Hajj?" came an anxious voice. He
smiled at the words; he had always been a little sad
that he had never been on the Hajj, and the use of the
honorific--although still a little premature--pleased
him. He opened his eyes to see the Generous Lady's
granddaughter--now a married woman and a mother her-
self, he had heard--kneeling beside him.
"Nothing is wrong, lady," he said.
Her eyes were as intelligent as ever, and he saw she
understood what he meant. "Can I get you anything, ya
Hajj?" she asked.
He thought about it. His mouth was dry. "A glass of
water," he suggested.
"Nabila!" The granddaughter's voice was sharp with
He closed his eyes again, and opened them when he felt
the granddaughter's hand behind his head, and the
glass at his lips.
He took a sip. It tasted very sweet. He licked his
lips, refreshed. He looked up into the granddaughter's
face, and smiled faintly.
"Don't cry, lady. I am not worth your tears."
The granddaughter shook her head. "You are our life's
He heard no more.
The Generous Lady turned over in her bed when her
granddaughter told her what had happened, and as
Nabila rushed off to prepare herb tea, tears gathered
on her puffy pink and white face and wetted her
pillow. The basket man, when he heard the news the
next day, said, "By the grace of Allah the beneficent
and the merciful," and, out of respect, sat for a
while on the boat-shaped rock--until a passerby woke
him from his reverie demanding to buy a basket. The
zebeleen children stopped and stared in awkward
silence, and then, remembering the consequences that
awaited them if they lingered too long, raced away
after the donkey cart. Abdul Rahman's Captain shook
his head, and signed an order dated six years pre-
viously directing him to remove the non-existent
Mostafa Kamil bridge from the list of police posts.
The eucalyptus trees stand there still.
Ellen Larson <firstname.lastname@example.org>is a freelance writer and editor currently living and working in Cairo, Egypt. She has published short fiction, essays and reviews in the USA,Egypt and on the Net. Her first short story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. Her novel The Hatch and Brood of Time was published by Savvy Press <http://www.savvypress.com/hatch> this past summer.
OF SMALL, SKIMPY THINGS
By Anjana Basu
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Little black dresses have become all the rage. Skimpy things slung on spaghetti straps with a rucksack toted behind. Or skintight jeans. Any-
thing goes as long as it is little or leggy or skintight. It's a pale imitation of the glitz of Bombay and Delhi, but it is there nonetheless and the sparkle is brightening by the day.
They crawl out of the woodwork at theme parties, even at Gariahat Crossing, balancing precar-
iously on stilettos--though mercifully some of them have taken to the new block heels. The more enthusiastic are the ones who look sixteen, with their age smudged under bright stop-sign red lipstick. You wonder whether teenagers were ever so skinny or whether this is a new anorexic gen-
eration. The diehards, of course, mouth the old phrases about Calcutta being conservative, but they are presumably looking in the wrong places. This new Calcutta boasts theme parties, tequila nights in the Salt Lake marshes, Checkpoint Charlie meets Rambo on New Year's Eve. It's the out-of-towners who tend to notice the differ-
ence. They walk in, blink and say, 'Whatever happened to Cal?'
But we were talking about clothes. One New Year's Even out in the open with the temperature dropping, in the middle of the thatched huts and the dressed up durwans toting rifles, sways a glittering lahenga and bare midriff. This chick is not even feeling cold, though perhaps the heat of the night is at work at 2 am. There are little bootpolish blackened asexual beings that later turn out to be Vietcong clones. Two of them are boogying with a skimpy dress and a backpack. In the middle of a Park Street disco one bright young thing changes her clothes thrice. No, not out on the dance floor--that would be too much for Calcutta to take, but in the ladies'. She slips out of the little black dress into a tunic and gold lame skirt and a little later into a bodysuit, for no apparent reason. She also has an apparently male bodyguard with her in a bustier. And because she's a bright young thing with connections, the whole room gapes.
Forget the bright young things and think of the young men who are going in for ethnic chic. They waft into auditoriums in long flounced kurtas trailing yards of dupatta behind them. 'No, not dupatta, uttoriyo,' expostulated a Bengali director in anguish. Anyway, these dupatta- uttoriyos now have an Aki Narula tag attached to them--the more so since he left Calcutta for Delhi. His black tunic, black pre-pleated dhoti and black boots for the dacoit-of-the-Chambal at-the-wedding look is all the rage. Or even his nine-yard pleated shawl which tops a simple crinkled tissue kurta at one thousand rupees a yard. If the bright young things are black and skimpy, the male things are voluminous and expensive.
Tarun Tahiliani beckons from a corrugated card-
board wrapped rose. The spring collection, the summer collection, all yours for a few casual lakhs. Suddenly Indians have acquired such disposable incomes that designers are doing clothes for summer and winter. Most Calcuttans attend fashion shows very seriously. Everyone's heard of Tarun Tahil-
iani's attempts for Jemima Khan, but figuratively speaking, most clothes aren't designed for the audience. The bright young things may be into thousands but haven't quite graduated to the lakh stage unless Daddy can be persuaded to shell out for a wedding in the family.
The problem, because with Calcutta there is always a problem, lies in the city's pragmatism. Most de-
signers will complain that the beautiful people of Calcutta refuse to wear a fortune. Or that a fortune for a Calcuttan is a few thousand rather than a few lakhs.They will be quite happy supporting Tarun Tahiliani or Ritu Kumar copies turned out expertly in a little place in Tivoli Court. Or they will discover sweatshops in Elliot Road where designers pick up their out-fits and churn them out for the public after adding a few colourful stitches or altering the set of a sleeve. Or, 'I discovered the tailor Ritu goes to. He's in an alley behind the Bangladesh High Commission. If you give him a design, he'll turn it out for a fraction of the cost.' The fraction of the cost turns out to be between four and six hundred, if you can per-
suade your informant to give you exact direc-
tions, which in most cases are rarely forth-
coming. No one wants to part with their ex-
quisite copier, their master tailor or their secret designer.
Most mothers might be fretting about the dis-
appearance of the sari, 'If people go on dress-
ing like this, what will happen to the sari shops? They'll all shut down!' A disco in Bombay has banished the sari from its portals and it is certainly true that most designers have been unable to find anything rivettingly new to do to the sari. So they have pleased themselves by introducing smoky trails of cloth from flowing harem pants or sarongs and calling them dupattas, even though all those billows probably amount to six yards of material. Trailing the end of the sari in front is very Star TV but will not do for the local wedding, unless it is worn in true Gujarati style. But, even then, the sari is not the stuff fashion history is written on. The thrust is on power dressing. The new woman of substance, even if she is only eighteen, dresses accordingly. What older, more substantial women are expected to wear, is out of the syllabus. The young-old Indian woman has to prove how liberated she is by bursting out of her trails and veils. The loose-draped, unstructured look could be a throwback to the days of yore when garments were not stitched. Mothers would favour it. 'Mother, this is a return to Hindutva. Please ignore the teeny weeny blouse. See how well covered I am.' But billows are, on the whole, out except for men and except for Muzaffur Ali's Lucknow courtesan styles. All over India the look is short and skimpy.
What's most glamorous about fashion is not the clothes but the fact that it's displayed on human clothes horses and human clothes horses have recognizable faces. All the fashion magazines are splashing those faces. They're talking about how they move and how choreographing the show has become a fine art. Everyone goes to the fashion shows to watch those gorgeous girls from Bombay trailing all over the place. Close up, you can see the wrinkles where the clothes didn't quite fit and no one had the time to take them in with a needle and thread. One of the models had a lipstick-smudged T-shirt and someone's skirt was too short, so she tugged it down as she went back up the catwalk, so obviously even the models are bothered about skimp--or perhaps they're just bothered when they get to Calcutta. A fashion academy, NIFT, has opened its doors in Calcutta where enthusiasts can learn to make do with too little or too much cloth and some Calcutta designers have even been known to make an impact on faraway Delhi. Who knows, in a little while the streets will be sporting short skirts and long legs and the elders will roll their eyes heavenwards and long for the good old days of the 1970s, or whenever it was, when the only thing they had to worry about was bell-bottoms.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Cal-
cutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
CONTEMPORARY URDU LITERATURE
By Razi Abedi
SEARCH for identity has been the dominant theme of Pakistani literature and distinguishes it from Urdu literature being produced elsewhere. Like many contemporary writers in the world, the Pakistani writer is primarily concerned with the problem of identity. But, beyond personal iden-
tity, he is also concerned with the problem of national identity. Pakistan was created through a well-defined and deliberate effort and its gensis lay in the assertion of a distinct iden-
tity within the vast complex of Indian cultures. The basis for its existence was the two-nation theory. After political separation from India the question that naturally perplexes our writers is whether they have created a national literature which can be distinguished as Pakis-
In the three decades of its existence, Pakistan has produced a rich variety of sizable liter-
ature of some merit. Creative genius has found expression through regional as well as Urdu literatures. The very experience of indepen-
dence, including the effort that went into the struggle for achieving it and the consequent excitements and disillusions, seem to have released energies expressing the national spirit that apparentary had lain dormant for centuries. Not that the national spirit had disappeared from the sensibility of the people, but that it moved only a few exceptionally creative minds and was not a national phenomenon till modern times. Now the entire nation seems to be in-
volved in the national drama. Our writers are exercising this sensibility and trying to define it. A lot has been written in Pakistan about the Pakistani sensibility, directly and indirectly, from religious, cultural and aesthetic points of view, and it is still a live issue in Pakistan.
Perhaps fity-two years is not a sufficient period of time to develop a palpable national identity. Americans, Canadians and Australians, virtually after centuries of independent nation-
al existence, are still struggling to assert their distinct characters. We in Pakistan are still struggling to assert our own.
Three basic factors must be taken into account when considering Pakistani literature:
1. Pakistan was not created merely as an eco-
nomic venture. It was not seen as an affluent colony created by Indian Muslims. It was rather an assertion of a distinct Muslim nationhood within India.
2. Once Pakistan was created relations with India became strained, and ultimately the borders with India, political as well as social and cultural, were sealed.
3. In Pakistan, immigrant Muslims did not obliterate the local cultures, as happened in British colonies where entire local civilisa-
tions were sometimes wiped out of existence. Here the immigrant culture, which brought a very rich and strong tradition with it, had to deal with the local cultures which were almost as rich, strong and deep-rooted.Another important factor was that Muslims had always considered themselves aliens in India, even though it was a country which they had ruled for more than a thousand years. They always looked to Mecca and Medina as their true home, and their literature sang of the beauties of Persian flora and fauna. They used the meta-
phors of the Persian Gull and Andaleeb or of the Arabian Tigris and Euphrates and the Lala of the desert. They had no use for the Indian Ganges and Jamuna or the local beauties of nature. They could not sing the praises of India or anything Indian.
It was different with Pakistan. Pakistan was their own land, representing their achievements and aspirations. It was their home and they wanted to sing of it. Thus, in Pakistan a sense of national identity was very strong. Here it was not so much a question of transplanting a culture from one land to the other. The chal-
lenge which the new nation faced was to build on foundations of past traditions a new world based on fresh aspirations and ideals. In the midst of this confusion and controversy the Pakistani writer began producing an indigenous Pakistani literature.
Urdu literature has always been a literature of protest. It may be a protest veiled in meta-
phors, as in the work of Ghalib and Mir, or it may take the satiric form of a Sauda or the overt ironies of Nazir Akbarabadi, but it has always spoken the language of protest. Since 1857 its subject has been predominantly political, as in the exhortations of Hali or the rebukes of Akbar, but always looking for a new compact. Two movements were launched by the British to combat and depoliticalise Urdu literature. One was started in 1800 in Fort William College, Calcutta. Its object primarily was to train British Civil Servants in Indian languages, law, history and customs. The liter-
ature that resulted was essentially romantic and the emphasis throughout is on style. Motifs from the old romantic lore were freely used, and these promoted medieval optimism. The stories are written according to a given framework, following the pattern of the Arabian Nights and were designed to make us feel that however miserable life may be at present, all will be right in the long run, under the guidance of a special Providence.
The other movement was launched under the aus-
pices of Anjuman-e-Punjab in 1865 in Lahore. It arranged the famous poetic symposium (known as Mushaira in Urdu) actively patronised by Col. Halroyed, the Director of Public Instructions for Punjab. This movement was meant to encourge ‘poetry of non-sectarian character...aiming at moral instruction, and presenting a natural picture of feelings and thoughts’. Description of the beauties of nature was defined as the main object of this new poetry. It was obviously another attempt to pursue the aims of Fort William College and to divert Urdu literature into harmless, optimistic and submissive chan
nels. The literature which ultimately emerged was represented by Iqbal who conceived of literature and politics in terms of a spiritual renaissance. The salient features of this movement were the denunciation of the mater-
ialism and depravity of the West and the greatness of our ancient cultural heritage. These two strains to varying degrees still reverberate in our contemporary literature.
Josh and Hafeez continued this tradition in their own, at times in divergent, ways.
An offshoot of this anti-Western tradition was the Progressive Movement, which produced a lit-
erature of protest against the old values and the tyrannies of the dominant classes at the time. Faiz, Raashed and Manto represent this trend, though Manto later dissociated himself formally from the movement. Protest and the quest for a new social compact go side by side in all these writers' works. Till independence, our literature, dominated by such vociferous Progressive writers, not only expressed the pain and consequent anger toward prevailing social injustices but also introduced a note of opti-
mism about the outcome of the popular struggle against oppression. The Progressive writers had been brought up in the classical tradition, but they had an acute awareness of prevalent ills which could not be comprehended or expressed in terms of the old ideas or through conventional forms, though some tried to do so. The language and general poetic structure and imagery in the poetry of Faiz, for example, are conventional but convey new ideas. The motif of his poetry is love--not the mystic idea of love (Ishq) any more. Here Ishq stands for a commitment to socio-political ideals.
Partition came at a time when the Progressive movement was at its highest point. Independence brought in its wake a mad dance of death in the form of communal riots all over India which caused an unprecedented upheaval and resulted in the transfer of population on a mass scale. The misery caused by man to man in all forms of fan-
aticism, greed and brutality became the theme of post-independence literature. The hopes that independence would bring a better life were frustrated. Instead, unrest, selfishness and exploitation reigned. The poet cried out:
We have been plunged into darkness again,
The bells of the morning have deceived us.
Thus, starting with complaints and protests and then after a concerted and determined effort, a goal had been achieved which now seemed lost to confusion. Ever since, our writers have been trying to find their direction.
The search has taken different forms in dif-
ferent writers. Some have found their niche in revivalism. This trend has led Intezar Hussain to old folk-lore and to the local interests and customs of his native province--the United
Province--in India. He also attempts to revive the purity of the language. Others have gone to the roots of local cultures, to the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. There have also been serious and systematic works, such that of Qur’at-ul-Ain Haider in Aag ka Darya (The River of Fire), in which she explores the streams of Indian culture which as far back as a thousand years ago. Jafer Taher, on the other hand in Haft Kishwar (The Seven Lands) attempted to write an epic based on his descent from the Middle East.
Many others see themselves as belonging to a civilisation which is essentially Western and who write primarily in English. Even among those who who write in Urdu, there are many who in translation would sound as European or American as any Frenchman or New Englander. Many of our writers are highly trained in modern Western disciplines. Some, like Abdullah Hussain in Udas Naslain (Lost Generations) seek the solution of our problems in Western liberal traditions, and their work echoes the great literatures of the West. Russian and French traditions of social realism find expressions in the works of writers like Sa’adat Hasan Manto and Shaujat Siddiquee. In contemporary Pakistan one finds all the popular philosophies, movements and fads from all over the world. Traditionalism, symbolism, imagism, existentialism, impressionism, progres-
sivism are all here. Pakistanis have attempted everything from the old-fashioned epic to the theater of the absurd.
Though the tradition of drama actually has not flourished here and we have only a few names to mention in this field, such as Agha Hashr and Imtiaz Ali (for his famous Anarkali), recently some good plays have been written by Ibrahim Jalis and Zia Sarhadi. Some amateur young play-
wrights have also shown promise, such as Sarmed Sehbai. Nowadays, much of this dramatic talent gravitates towards television where some good plays are produced, sometimes adaptations from world classics but most of them original.
But there has also been a reaction against the concern with collective social problems, so much emphasised our poetry since 1857, and espec-
ially in the Progressive movement. This reac-
tion has taken the form of emphasizing the individual over the collective, the particular over the universal. As a result the great tra-
dition of ghazal has been revived. Ghazal has traditonally been considered as almost synon-
ymous with poetry itself. An impressionistic poem composed of mutually independent verses of two lines each, connected solely in form, ghazal has served as good vehicle for the communication of all sorts of ideas. Verses in the same ghazal may variously express erotic, mystic, didactic and political ideas. All Urdu poets have written ghazals, but the tradition of Mir, our great master of ghazal, has been revived in modern times by Nasir Kazmi.
Though ghazal is still the most popular form of poetry in Urdu, other genres have also developed and flourished. Geet was the first of them. Originally written in Hindi, geet is a short lyric, expressing erotic ideas and meant to be sung to the accompaniment of music. It has become very popular in popular music, and the film industry has promoted its rapid growth.
The city of Lahore has played a vital role in promoting these as well as other new trends and ideas. Following Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow, Lahore has been the centre for Urdu literature for the last one century. The soil of the Punjab is fertile not only for agriculture but also spiritually and intellectually. Gandhara art, a beautiful blend of Indian and Greek cultures, along withthe Buddhist academy at Taxila, are are examples of Punjabi artistic liberalism. Lahore can equally boast the classical Shalimar gardens built on a pattern of geometrical symmetry, as well as the romantic Bagh-e-Jinnah, modelled on the concept of beauty in a state of nature.
Between these two extremes Lahore and its people live in a world that is simultaneously classical and romantic--a tradition of ideal flexibility, adaptability, liberalism and creative spontan-
eity. It is no accident that the Punjab gave two religions to the world (the Sikh and the Ahmadi). Significant religious and political movements chose this land for the propagation and practice of their doctrines. Religious scholars like Maulana Maudoodi and Ghulam Ahmed Pervez are among them. Two extreme Islamic fundamentalist-cum political movements, the Ahrar and the Khaksars originated and died here before the birth of Pakistan. In the world of literature, Hali and Azad started their movement for new poetry in the last century in this city under the auspices of the Literary Association of the Punjab (Anjuman-e-Punjab). Great painters like Chughtai, Allah Bux and Sadequain worked in Lahore and rose to eminence in the art world. Bare Ghulam Ali Khan, Roshan Ara, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali and many others enriched Indian classical music, and their melodies can still be heard in this city. Last but not least, the Muslim demand for the state of Pakistan was passed here in 1940, and history has recorded it as the Lahore Resolution. The Lahore Literary Forum, known as Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, which led the new trends in Urdu literature for decades, was founded here just before independence. Not for nothing is this called the Land of God's bounty.
Wherever you go poetry is with you. It is in our bones and is as essential to us as breath. You can find verses inscribed with flowery patterns expressing the most intimate feelings, religious or philosophical truisms, erotic outburst--all of these on the inside and outside of rickshaws, taxis, buses, restaurants, cigarette kiosks and in commercial advertisements. No social function is considered complete without a poetic recita-
tion. Religious ceremonies, social gatherings, gay parties, marriages and even death itself requires poetry. Mushaira is the most popular example of poetic recitation in which the poet and the audience equally and vociferously par-
It is not wholly correct that the addiction to poetry is a remnant of a feudal past, since our folk tradition also abounds in it down to the lowest classes of our society. Poetry is even more popular than music, and connoisseurs can be heard lamenting that people have no ear for music and that a song is appreciated more for its words than for its melody. Even modern industrial Pakistan is being consumed by the poetic. We now have a sizable body of poetry which has as its subject the new situations created by industrialisation. There seems to be no threat to our indigenous poetry from the modernisation of society, though a significant change in its subject matter, structure and the general tone is already discernible.
Ghazal still continues its popularity. However, new experiments are also taking place. Free verse, prose-poem, adaptations from the rich folk tradition and from contemporary literature around the globe abound. New trends have espec-
ially become visible since the India-Pakistan war of 1965. Attempts are being made to break the conventional linguistic barriers, and the vocabulary as well as the syntax are being rudely shaken. These trends have been incorpor-
ated into a school headed by the poet Iftekhar Jalib and his disciples, but its echoes can be heard far and wide, and many young poets, con-
sciously or unconsciously, are following this trend. Strange, outlandish metaphors verging on the absurd, and language rudely shaken out of its ordinary usage are features of this new mode of writing.
Urdu literature has also addressed the forms of humour, travelogue and biography. But in the last few years it has been especially devoted to translation. Hundreds of poets from all corners of the world have been translated into Urdu. But thematically there has been a radical change here. Since 1874, led by the Anjuman-e-Punjab, English romantic and Victorian poets have been translated and in some cases beautifully assim-
ilated into our classical traditions. This pro-
cess received generous official patronage and encouragement. National independence caused a break with this special relationship with English literature. At the same time, partition put up a barrier to Indian influences. Instead, we have become more open to influences from all around the world, particularly from the Third World. Large-scale translations are now being made of writings from Africa, Palestine, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Indochina. Chinese and Russian literatures have become freely available in recent years. We realize that many litera-
tures exist in the world and that New York, Moscow and Peking are more accessible and closer to us than Delhi, Lucknow and Bombay. At the same time, translations from our own folk tra-
ditions and regional literatures are also be-
coming popular. Our contemporary literature is a literature of exploration. The young writer is looking for a new world.
Along with experiments in creative literature, explorations are also being made in the field of literary criticism. Every new literary work appears with a preface attached. Every writer views his work as the start of a new movement for which a proper critical climate has to be created. This practice of writing long exhor-
tative prefaces started with Hali. But the new critical atmosphere is charged with controversy. There are those who, like the critic Hasan Askari, believe that tradition must be rooted in religious faith and that for any sound litera-
ture to exist a sound metaphysical underpining is essential. Other critics adhere to the dia-
lectics of Marx, while still others like Wazir Agha relate literature to the soil and believe that all great literature emerges from the land, both in its physical aspect and in its social and cultural traditions. In the larger context, we have among our critics religious reformists as well as absurdists and pure aesthetes.
To sum up, there now exists a vast literature of sufficient merit which is clearly Pakistani, smelling of the land and expressing the aspira-
tions and anxieties of its people. It is vital, dynamic and emplorative, and scarcely any dog-
matism, and this too augurs well for its future.
(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 particu-
lar 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 that city. He also writes poetry.)
Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lahiri
THE TRUTH RETURNSThere is a certain set theory currently prevalent about the way Indian writers are supposed to write. Most of it centres on the two words 'magical realism'. Magical realism, flagged off by Rushdie with a nod at Marquez runs through Red Earth & Pouring Rain, Shadow Lines and Hullabaloo in the Guava Tree. In fact, for a while, it seemed as if magical realism was the only style in which Indians were allowed to write. Then Arundhuti Roy came along and substituted prose for the realism bit but kept the magical; Vikram Seth changed his form with each new opus.*
Jhumpa Lahiri is the latest Indian writer in the news. And while she might sound a little like the latest Indian flavour of the month, the the truth is that she writes a deceptively understated, unobtrusive prose. More than Roy's, it does form the 'skin that clothes her thoughts'. There is talk of her 'elegant' style but 'ironic might be a better word. There is also another important departure from the Indian-Writing-in-English school or, as it has been called here, the Indo-Anglian school: Lahiri does not write 'Indian English', a fact that is probably due to her education and upbringing. Unlike the rest, Lahiri is London-
born and Rhode Island-raised, which not only accounts for her style but also gives her writing a different slant, one that puts her closer to Bharati Mukherjee in its preoccupation with Indians stranded abroad and struggling to fit in.
All Indians when they die go to London or New York. That statement is truer now than it used to be twenty years ago when 'abroad' was the place you went to get your degree and the 'foreign returned' stamp without which your career and your existence in any of the major Indian cities was precarious. But despite having been born abroad, Lahiri has a strong sense of her roots. She is aware of the struggle that takes place when people try to replace an traditional way of life with a modern one in a country not one's own. As far as she is concerned, the more one tries to change, the more one remains the same. America gets in the way and the old relationships and old ways of life come under threat. The narrator in the story 'The Third and Final Continent' makes it a point to visit his son in the New World and speak to him in Bengali, 'things we sometimes worry he will no longer do after we die'. Indians are aliens in Lahiri's stories, people stranded in a country and a culture that is not their own but which demands conformity from them.
These stories are about encounters--between Americans or Indians and Americanised In-
dians in America and encounters between Indians and Indians in India. The title story, 'Interpreter of Maladies' is set in Puri and describes an encounter with an Indian tourist guide by an Indian couple who are en-route to the Sun Temple of Konarak. The couple are Bengalis who have left their roots behind, and their sons have never been to India before. The wife discovers that their guide, a Mr Kapasi, also acts as translator to the local doctor in his spare time and is convinced that he has the ability to interpret maladies, i.e. diagnose the causes of illnesses. She eventually unburdens her soul to him in a time and place that until then had become totally alien to her.
Many of the stories take place in times of absence: absence from a spouse, from a place, or from a loved one. Mrs Sen needs to learn how to drive but cannot do it while her husband is present. Mr Pirzada, separated from his family in Dhaka, keeps his watch permanently fixed to Dhaka time. Miranda has an affair with an Indian man in the absence of his wife. In the absence of electricity a young couple struggle to come to grips with the loss of their baby and their failing marriage, confessing things to each other that they would never have done if the lights were on.
Lahiri does not paint pretty pictures. Nor does she promise great things to come, a magical revelation that transforms everything and makes it right again. Her canvas is the details that make up the reality of every-day life. This is her first published collection, and it holds a promise of even more interesting explorations to come. It also perhaps signals the end of a literary fad, but as to that, who knows?
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
By Anjana Basu
Awake When All the World is Asleep
By Shree Ghatage
An English critic once dismissed the short story as a typically Indian form--something that no publisher is really interested in printing--and therefore something that no serious modern writer is really interested in exploring. There are, of course, exceptions to this sweeping statement. Short stories appear in magazines, run in contests and are collated in collections. But the form is practised nowhere with such seriousness as in the Indian subcontinent and by those Indians who have moved bag and baggage with their culture to other parts of the world.
Shaila has returned to Bombay for her father's sixtieth birthday party. In the linked stories that follow, Shree Ghatage renders an India that can only be revealed first by leaving, then by returning. This is Ghatage's first published collection of stories. She lives in Canada and moves between her two worlds in the currently fashionable manner. But her creative dilemmas do not yet concern the problems of reconciling two different cultures. She touches upon this topic briefly only once, in the opening story in which she tells her parents that she intends to marry a Canadian called Simon. To which her mother replies, 'I want you to think very carefully before you reject this culture which is so much a part of you to establish that you "and nobody else" have control over your life.'
Ghatage's stories are about control. They are set in Bombay, though unlike Vikram Chandra's stories, here Bombay is not an essential character in the stories. They are in essence stories of the ordinary days of Indian life that take place in a thousand and one cities across the subcontinent: a daughter coming from Canada to confront her parents' traditional views of life; a villager whose wives always die; the dilemma of an adopted daughter; twins who, when confronted with infidelity, realise they will never meet each other again. Fragments of the way things are and were. Ghatage looks for the unexpected truths that lie hidden behind everyday life and tries to portray them without overstating them or resorting to an exotic bag of literary tricks.
The stories are based firmly in character and in a dramatis personae who reappear again and again from previous stories, sometimes even before we realise that they have done so. Her style is poignant with a dash of humour. The twist in the tale comes subtly, understatedly, often so much so that you have to read the passage a second time before the meaning of the deeper truth sinks in. Her language is intricate, touched with occasional poetry, though the writing remains confident and forceful. Sometimes the stories need more time than they are given and the pace seems forced, as if the writer were working under the constraint of a word limit or as if she had suddenly thought of a better idea. Her revelations are not earth-shattering, nor is her style especially eye-catching. Her writing, in fact, verges on the commonplace at times, adapting itself to the diurnal issues on which her collection centres. But that is her strength and has much to do with the success and promise of this book.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)
Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts
Meets Southern California
By Holly Day
Jesus is standing in the soft shoulder of the Ventura Freeway, impatiently scanning the horizon for oncoming traffic. The tops of His flip-flop-clad feet are burning up from near-constant exposure to the sun, the bottoms swollen from walking all day over blacktop and concrete. He considers taking His flannel shirt off and just carrying it, but decides being a little warm is much better than being completely sunburnt. "There is no such thing as gridlock," He suddenly says out loud. "There is also no such thing as a lunch rush-hour." He bites his lip and looks nervously up at the sky. "A car will be coming to pick me up shortly," He tries. "It will rain soon."
It seems to be getting hotter. Summer insects trill happily in the waist-high yellow grass as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky, burning away the last traces of the early-morning fog. Jesus sits down by the side of the road and wipes the sweat off His forehead with the edge of His shirt. His fingers drag along the sand beside Him, impossibly feel damp gravel beneath the cracked topsoil. He grins at something somewhere in the sky before enlarging the now-damp scratches in the ground. Water seeps into the hole, fills the hole and over the side some. It is cool, sweet, and soon Jesus is back on His feet, walking along the road once more. He reaches into His pocket for the empty pack of cigarettes and finds that, amazingly, there is still one left.
He finds he also has exactly one match left. "I promise I'll quit tomorrow," He says as He lights the cigarette. Smoke rushes into His lungs, fills them completely from the very first drag on.
The hills are high enough here for Jesus to see over the smog, to actually see the smog as a thin yellow strip separating the city from the sky. It's not as bad as it used to be, He reminds himself, but it could still use some work. The ocean glitters white and sapphire in the distance, appearing impossibly close. He cuts diagonal across the road in order to get a better look, and is nearly mowed down by a badly-dented, white '67 Chevy.
The car screeches to a halt inches from Jesus. A scared-looking girl with dirty blond hair and a bad complexion is yelling something at Jesus, but He can't hear what she's saying through the closed windows. He smiles, waves, and walks over to the driver's side of the car. "Hello there," He calls out pleasantly, tapping lightly on the rolled-up window with His knuckles.
The woman rolls her window down. "What are you, fuckin' nuts? Didn't you see me coming? For chrissakes, what are you doing walking around up here? You're going to get yourself killed!" She beings to roll her window back up, then stops halfway. "Say," she says. "You're not wandering numbly away from the scene of a terrible accident or anything like that, are you? I mean, should I be concerned?"
"Nothing like that," Jesus says, still smiling pleasantly. "I'm just trying to get a ride back to town, that's all. I walked up here, and now I don't feel like walking back down."
The girl snorts and shakes her head. "Crazy! Sounds like something I'd do." She reaches over to the passenger's side and flips the door lock up. "Get in," she says. "I could use someone to talk to."
Jesus climbs into the vehicle, ducking low to keep from hitting His head on the door frame. The inside of the car is much cooler than the road outside, the air-conditioner running at a sputtering full-blast. The floor of the car is littered with debris from six or seven different fast-food restaurants. "Excuse the mess," the girl says, shrugging half-embarrassed, half daring Him to say something negative about her lifestyle. "I'm on the road a lot, don't get much chance to eat at home."
"Hey, doesn't bother me a bit," answers Jesus, struggling with the seatbelt. "I'm just happy to be getting out of here." He suddenly realizes He has no idea where He is supposed to go.
"Well, I'm going all the way past Malibu, so I can drop you off just about anywhere. Just tell me when to stop." She reaches across to the seat behind Jesus and produces a black pouch full of cassette tapes. She drops it on Jesus' lap. "Here," she says. "You pick something."
Jesus stares blankly at the pile of homemade tapes on front of Him. He tries to read a few of the labels, but can't make out the cramped scribble-handwriting no matter how hard He tries. He gives up, pulls a tape out at random, and hands it to the girl. She squints at the tape, grunts, looking as though Jesus has perhaps failed some sort of test, and pops it into the tape player.
"You can drop me off in Malibu," Jesus says after a bit. "I really don't have a destination. I'm just kind of traveling along the coast, exploring, I guess." He glances sideways at the girl, is relieved to see her grin.
"Crazy!" The car is going very fast now, whipping around the sharp turns going down the hill. "I'm Sheila, by the way. I'll be your captain, pilot, copilot, and stewardess for the duration of the flight." She laughs maniacally, both hands wrapped firmly around the rubberized steering wheel. Jesus grips the strap of his shoulder harness, watching the speedometer soar up to fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty.
"I'm Jay," He manages, a little weakly. Yellow hills flash by at a frightening speed, the ground quickly rising and falling beside the car like the filled-in lines of an oscilloscope. He can feel the whole car wobble every time the wheels hit a small rock or dip into a pothole in the road.
Jesus is standing in the soft shoulder of the Ventura Freeway, partly shaded by a withered magnolia scrub. Sheila stands by her car, hands on her hips, talking wildly to no one in particular. "If you drive slow, the car overheats, dummy!" she suddenly shouts, kicking the right front tire of the car. "Ouch!" she says, collapsing on the ground, holding onto her injured foot. "You fucking asshole car! Fuck you, car!"
Jesus has had enough. He walks over to where the girl is sitting and squats down next to her. "Hey," He says. "It's okay. You just got to let the car cool down a bit, and then we can drive some more. It's okay."
"We need water!" Sheila snarls, whirling on Jesus. "We don't have any goddamn water to put in the car. We're not fuckin' goin' anywhere!" She brushes the loose hair back from her face and glares at Jesus angrily. "What're you lookin' at?"
"You're getting a sunburn," says Jesus, softly, patiently. "Your face is all pink, and your eyes are a little puffy. You should get out of the road and sit in the shade. I'll push the car to the side of the road and join you in a moment." Without waiting for her to respond, Jesus gets up and walks around to the driver's side of the car. He opens the door and turns the wheel to the right. In the rearview mirror He sees Sheila get up and obediently walk to the magnolia tree. She sits on the ground beneath the tree and watches Jesus push the car over to the shoulder of the road and up the shallow slope of the hill a little ways. He rolls down all of the car windows and opens the rear hatch.
"Sorry I yelled at you," Sheila says when He comes back to sit beside her. She has begun drawing a series of pictures in the dry earth with the sharp end of a stick, little whirls and stick figures and a three-dimensional box. "I just hate cars, that's all. I like to drive fast because the faster I get to my destination the less time I have to sit in that damned car."
"I prefer walking, myself," Jesus says. He picks up another stick and pokes it into the dirt. The stick stands upright by itself for a few seconds, then slumps back to the ground. He tries again in another spot with the same results.
"What are you doing?" asks Sheila, putting her own stick down. She leans in closer to Jesus for a better look.
"Making a better tree for us to sit under," answers Jesus, trying yet another spot. This time the stick stays upright for nearly a full minute before imperceptible shifts in the sand cause it to fall over again.
"You're a nut!" she says, clapping her hands and laughing. The color on her face has faded from pink to a light tan. "Oh, that's wonderful." She leans back a bit and pulls her knees up to her chest. She reaches into her shirt pocket and takes out a pack of cigarettes. She lights two cigarettes and passes one over to Jesus.
Jesus takes the cigarette gratefully. It seems to have grown a little cooler, but that could have something to do with His present state of inactivity. He wipes clean the pictures of stick men and flowers and scribbles with the bottom of His shoe and begins a new sketch, wavy lines and perfect circles. He takes a deep drag on His cigarette and closes His eyes for a moment. Then He opens them.
"There was this guy I knew, a long time ago. Pete. Pete Myers. Went to school with him until his parents moved to another city. We kept in touch for a little while, then I got lazy and stopped writing." Jesus takes another long drag from His cigarette, pauses sufficiently before continuing.
"Pete and I used to ditch school all the time together. We'd get stoned first thing in the morning and go hang out at this little patch of overgrown farmland at the edge of town. There were almost enough trees there to call it a forest. The whole time we were supposed to be in class, we'd be playing War, and Urban Commando, and GI Joe. We had these big sticks that we'd pretend were guns, have little pieces of bark for knives and pistols. Fuckin' fourteen years old, and we were still playing War."
"It sounds like fun," says Sheila softly. She rests her head on the tops of her knees and stares out at the hills in the distance, at the far-away ocean, listening.
"Yeah. It was. Anyway, one day we were out there, making idiots of ourselves, when we came across this girl lying in the middle of the field.
"She was about our age, maybe a little older, wearing blue jeans and a ripped-up T-shirt, and she was all curled in a little ball around a real gun. We thought she was dead at first, but she sat up real quick when we poked her and pointed the gun at us and said something like, 'Don't move, I'll shoot,' or something like that." Jesus shakes His head and absent-mindedly sketches out a stick figure with a top hat in the dirt.
"Turned out she had gone out there to kill herself. Something about her parents getting divorced and fighting over who would get custody of her, and some guy or another dumping her the day before, and her dog or cat getting run over by a car--a whole bunch of shit. Oh, and she was flunking some class or another as well. She had come out to the middle of our field to shoot herself, got scared, then decided to just lie there and will herself to die. She'd already been there a full night and part of a day when we showed up."
Jesus pauses and leans back against the stunted tree, watching Sheila out of the corner of His eye. Her eyes are still fixed on the ocean in the distance, the cigarette dangling between her fingers, obviously forgotten, a good inch-and-a-half of ash clinging to the end. Jesus draws a picture of an A-frame house next to the figure with the top hat, followed by a crude picture of a dog with big teeth. It is getting darker, the air growing even cooler. Crickets chirp in the long yellow grasses behind them. He is beginning to think He should have told the fishing story instead, when Sheila suddenly leaps to her feet.
"And what?" she shouts. "Then what? This isn't a story, dammit! What the hell happened to her? Did she kill herself? Did you all end up having sex together? What?! What's the fucking point?!""
"There's no point, Sheila," Jesus says. "I guess I just felt like talking about someone I used to know, and someone I didn't really know at all. I'm pretty sure the girl didn't kill herself. People don't usually want to kill themselves. I think a lot of people kill themselves because they think they're supposed to. All they need is someone to come along and tell them they don't have to."
Sheila comes back over to sit beside Jesus. After a few minutes, she leans her head against His shoulder and whispers, "How did you know?"
Jesus wakes up to early-morning sunlight pouring in through the cracked windshield of the '67 Chevy. The girl in the driver's seat moans, fighting hard against consciousness. Jesus reaches over and brushes the thin blond wisps of hair from her face with His fingertips.
"Jay?" She creaks her eyelids open and stares at Jesus through gummy lashes. "You're still here," she says, smiling, suddenly becoming fully awake. "Wow."
"Of course I'm still here. We got water in the car now."
Sheila turns the key in the ignition, and the car roars to life. "Someone stop by while I was asleep?"
"A truck driver pulled over late last night. He offered to give us a tow, but I told him we just needed water."
Sheila nods sleepily and turns the key in the ignition. The engine starts right up without sputtering or rattling, as it always will from this day forward. "Nice car," she murmurs, patting the dashboard, and pulls out onto the road. The dying tree that provided them with shelter the day before has grown taller overnight, dark green leaves and fleshy white magnolia blossoms unfurling like tiny flags in the muted light behind them.
"Did you sleep all right? Sheila asks Jesus, passing Him a lit cigarette. Jesus thinks about refusing, remembering His promise to the other He, then decides to be polite and takes the cigarette. She continues without waiting for Him to respond. "I've fallen asleep here more times than I care to count," she says. "There aren't any springs in the seats." She punches the side of Jesus' seat lightly. "It's all foam rubber. My idea," she adds, beaming proudly.
"Very nice." Jesus shifts position, somewhat anxious. He is supposed to be some place else right now, and the car is not going in the right direction. At least it doesn't feel like it is.
Sheila notices His discomfort. "Hey," she says. "I appreciate you listening to me last night. I'm not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers in the first place, and I'm especially not in the habit of telling complete strangers my life story. I think I really needed someone to listen to me last night, and I'm glad I ran into you." They are at the bottom of the hill now, almost to the beach. "Can I buy you breakfast or something? I'm starving, so we've got to stop for food anyway."
Jesus isn't really hungry, but Sheila seems so eager to feed Him. The California coast stretches out before them, the Malibu peninsula far away and barely visible through the thick early-morning fog. A few surfers dot the clear green waves, bobbing like ducks just above the waterline. Jesus rolls down His window and breathes in the cool moist air. He can smell the rotting seaweed on the beach, the sweet sea salt, the faint trace of cities in the distance. He almost asks Sheila to stop the car right there, let Him out so He can walk the rest of the way.
"Look!" Sheila says, pointing to a little wooden just around the next corner. She pulls the car over to the side of the road and screeches to a dusty halt. "I wonder if it's even open yet. Have you ever eaten here before?" Jesus shakes His head. The smell of lard and potatoes frying reaches Jesus through the thick fog, hung there in front of Him as if trapped. He is suddenly very hungry after all. "Come on!" Sheila calls, climbing out of the car, gesturing for Him to follow her. "This place is great!"
The stand is located as close to the edge of a cliff as safely possible, ruling out possible mud slides and floods. Waves crash loudly against the bottom of the cliff, hollowing the rock face a little each time they attack. There is already a small cave dug into the rock, barely visible from where Jesus is standing. A bleary-eyed fry cook greets the pair from inside the stand. "Man, are you two up early!" the cook says, grinning. "I just turned the stove on a couple minutes ago!"
"What do you feel like having?" Sheila asks, pulling her wallet out of her pocket and quickly rifling through the faded bills inside it. "Get anything you want."
Jesus scans the menu, mouth watering. At this point, everything looks good. He settles on a large rare hamburger with onions and green peppers ("At this time in the morning, man? You're crazy!") followed by a strawberry milkshake. To assuage His guilt at spending most of Sheila's money, He quickly heals a cluster of deep acne scars on the right side of her face. The miracles are coming easier, He notes, somewhat surprised. Sheila orders herself some sort of standard breakfast sandwich and an orange juice.
They sit at a wooden picnic table overlooking the ocean. Directly below them the waves strike the cliff face with such force that jets of sea spray splatter the couple lightly. Off in the distance the last dolphins of the morning go through their acrobatic routines one more time before heading off to hide in deeper waters.
Jesus is halfway through His burger before He hears the child crying. Sheila notices it first.
She puts her drink down and walks over to the edge of the cliff. "Did you hear that?"
Jesus gets up and stands beside Her, peering down into the ocean. The sound is louder now, impossibly rising above the racket of water smashing into rock. No words, just one almost continuous wail of terror, the voice warbling now and then as though the screamer was swallowing massive amounts of water.
An arm, a small black head, a bright blue windbreaker. Jesus sees the boy, stares uncomprehendingly for several seconds before realizing He's looking at a child. "Oh my God," moans Sheila, clutching at Jesus' arm. "We've got to do something!"
"Get the guy at the stand. Tell him to call someone, the police. Hurry!" Jesus shakes Sheila, a little too roughly. She pulls away from Him and stumbles towards the little shack. Jesus watches her retreat for a moment before turning back to the struggling child.
You can save him, says a little voice in Jesus' head. You could just climb down there and pull the kid out and carry him back up the cliff with you. Hey, You're the Messiah, right? Jesus shakes His head until His ears buzz. "There's got to be a better way," He says out loud. "There has to be." He lies down flat on the rock and inches as far as He can over the edge of the cliff, face down, trying to get a better look at the situation.
The child has both arms wrapped around a rock now, clinging desperately for his life. Jesus tries to get a look at the boy's face, tries to catch the child's attention, but there is too much confusion below. You can save him, the voice says again. He looks around, sees Sheila waving her arms excitedly at the bleary fry cook, looks back at the churning waves just beneath Him, at the small white hands fighting to keep a hold on the smooth wet rock. The morning rush hour has just begun, the winding road behind Him gradually filling with compact cars speeding towards both pleasant and unpleasant destinations. No. He has been here before.
"I'm sorry," he says, then repeats himself, shouting this time, "I'm sorry! Please," and His voice trails off. The child seems to hear Him, turns to face Jesus full-on, and it's not the face of a child down there, not even the face of a human being, it's something so bright and powerful and beautiful that Jesus is momentarily blinded…. A test. Another fucking test.
When His eyesight returns the child is gone. Sheila is staring down at Him uncomprehendingly. "Hey, man," she says, finishing off the last of Jesus' strawberry milkshake. "Are you all right? Are you, like, an epileptic or something?"
"I'm fine." Jesus climbs slowly to His feet and brushes the sand off His clothes. "I'm just fine."
(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].)
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