Gowanus: Autumn, 1997

GOWANUS

An International Online Journal of Idea and Observation

Autumn, 1997


From: Moldova

"Country Roads," a short story by Mark Budman


From: Trinidad

"Confessions of a Left-Handed Trinidadian Cook," By Anthony Milne


From: India

"A Betting Man," a short story by Vallath Nandakumar


From: Brunei

"Confucianisn, Islam and Democracy," by Abbas Zaidi

"Cloning: Will Pharoahs Rule Again?" By Abbas Zaidi


All GOWANUS works are Copyright by their respective authors.
(c) Copyright 1997, GOWANUS


Country Roads

By Mark Budman


On that summer day of 1978, in the southwestern corner of the Soviet Union known as Moldova, to be late meant court- martial.

Sitting behind the biker, holding on tight to a hot chrome bar, his knuckles turned white, his body sweating, itching, and aching in unlikely places, Michael Zelinsky felt on the higher level of consciousness like a French aristocrat about to be guillotined, and on the lower, down-to-earth level, like a fish about to be gutted. Dust stuck to wet stains on his uniform, accumulating layer upon layer. He had quit wiping off his face ages ago.

The biker had offered him a ride to the bus station. The building was just a concrete frame, rough, windowless, completely open on one side, with a long wooden bench along the back wall. Dirty words, mostly in Russian, were abundant, carved into the wood of the bench, painted on the walls, and penciled across cheerful propaganda slogans. Heat poured inside wave after wave, unresisted. A smell of urine and rotten garbage hung in the air. A Moldavian woman in a short- sleeved pink dress with two big patches of sweat under her arms was selling tickets. A silver coin on a thin brass chain nested comfortably between her plump breasts.

Michael approached her, staring at beads of sweat on her round peasant face, at her tanned, generously exposed neck. He opened his mouth, then closed it, and returned to the bench. He was hopelessly and helplessly lost. He was considering either committing suicide or taking off his army boots and hiding in the bushes until the end of time.

Another motorcycle came to a screeching halt in a cloud of dust and blue nauseous smoke next to the station. This second biker was a short, unassuming man in his fifties, with a skin so tanned that he almost looked like an Arab. He wore a dirty white undershirt, brown baggy pants, and plastic sandals on his bare feet. Unde duc?" he asked Michael in Moldavian.

Michael hated that language ever since he had been forced to study it in school. He and the other Russian-speakers would mock the Moldavian teacher, a retired Army veteran, until the man was screaming and hammering the table with his fist. Then they stopped for a short while, only to repeat the whole ordeal later. They called him a tsaran, a peasant, the name reserved for all Moldavian-speaking Moldavians, regardless of their occupation and intellectual abilities.

"Going to my base," Michael replied in Russian.

"Aha," said the biker. He thought for a moment, and said in Russian, with an unexpectedly mild accent, "where is your base?"

"I don't know. I'm lost."

"Okay," said the biker, and spit on the ground. "There will be no more buses today," he said.

"I got to get to my base tonight," said Michael. "If I don't, they'll court-martial me."

"Aha," said the biker and sat down next to Michael.

Besides sweat, he smelled of gasoline, onions, and sour wine.

"I'm on leave. Yesterday they gave me a ride to Kishinev, on an Army bus," Michael said. "I got to get back tonight. But I don't know my way back. I thought it's some place around this village. I took a bus to here, but now I'm stuck. I don't know what to do. Shit, I don't know what to do."

"Aha," the biker said. He pulled out a cigarette from behind his ear, put it in his mouth, but did not light it. "I can give you a ride to Kishinev," he said.

"I need to get to my base," said Michael.

"You're a lieutenant," said the biker. "How come you don't know your way?"

"I'm a reserve officer. I've never been in this area before. And they don't give us maps. I thought I'd find it. Shit."

"Aha," the biker said. He thought for a while, staring at the fringe on the bottom of his too-short pants. "I know two bases around here. Does yours have just tents or are there real brick barracks there?"

"Tents," Michael said. His heart pounded inside his chest as if it wanted to jump out and shout, "Help me!"

"Both bases I know have tents," the biker said.

"Are you pulling my leg?" Michael said.

"What leg?" the biker said. "They both have tents. If you want to, we could try both."

Earlier that morning Michael and his wife Olga had kissed on the floor of their one bedroom apartment while their six- month-old Vera crawled over them acting as a chastity belt. Michael was already dressed in his generously-wrinkled khaki uniform and high black boots of the roughest artificial leather imaginable. Instead of socks he had to wear portyanki, pieces of cloth wrapped around his feet to prevent blisters. Vera was pulling on his khaki epaulet adorned with two tiny yellow stars.

"I could write you a bulletin," Olga said again. A "bulletin" was a doctor's note.

"I told you, they won't believe me," Michael said. "Sick or not sick, I have to be back tonight. It's my turn to be the regiment's duty officer. Anyway, only Moldavians write bulletins."

"I don't know about you, but I'm really sick," Olga said. "I'm sick of your wargames."

"You're acting as if I had a choice," Michael said.

Actually he did have a choice. His friend had told him about one clever draft-avoiding technique. "They call extra people just in case. So if you have enough guts not to show up in the first place, they might have a sufficient number of heads a>


Transfer interrupted!

chael did not have enough guts.

The night before, after Michael and Olga had made love one last time, and lay stark naked, their limbs interweaved, listening to the jumps and howls of Kolka the Idiot who lived upstairs from them, Michael was the happiest person in the whole capital city of Kishinev. Today, expelled from heaven, he was descending ever lower and lower, and there was no end to his descent.

"Here's the camp," the biker said. He stopped his machine on the top of the hill, pointing to khaki tents below lined up like a bunch of ugly cousins. A horde of vehicles of all sizes was parked nearby. The setting sun blazed fiercely in their windshields.

"Is it yours?"

"I don't think so," Michael said slowly.

"Okay, that leaves us only one choice," the biker said.

They drove without saying a word, the wind throwing buckets of dust in their faces. Then a muffled clap of thunder hit Michael's ears. A great inhuman force pulled the bar from his hands and threw him into the air. He hovered there for what seemed to be a long, long time, but instead of seeing his life pass before him, as he was supposed to do according to everything he had read, he just thought pure and virgin nothingness.

He finally landed properly, thanks to his karate reflexes. He felt almost no pain. The biker lay on his face on the side of the dirt road. The bike's wheels were still rotating. Michael slowly inched his way toward the man on the ground. "Are you okay?" he asked in a coarse voice. He felt something warm and moist on his own forehead, but was afraid to touch it. There was almost no pain.

As if waiting for the question, the biker turned on his back and then sat up. "The damn tire blew up," he said, turning off the ignition. "Are you okay?" he asked in turn.

"Yes."

"Then help me. I need to get the bike to that tree."

They dragged the lifeless thing for about fifty meters. Then the biker produced a chain and a lock from a hidden compartment inside the bike. "Let's go," he said when he was done chaining.

"Where to?"

"To the second camp, where else?"

They walked for a while before Michael dared to ask, "How far is that?"

"Not far."

The young night had already arrived. Illustrious stars shone like czar's jewels, too bright and unfit to dress up the simple country skies. The moon looked at home, however, with its broad and smiling peasant's face. The dirt road, surrounded on both sides with immense vineyards, just went on, and on, and on. Occasional lights from the distant houses looked unrealistically inviting. Dogs barked somewhere. Michael did not dare to check the time. He hoped his watch was broken from the impact of the crash. Perhaps he could use the accident as a feeble excuse for his lateness.

"What's your name?" he asked the biker after a while.

"Nicolae."

"My name's Michael."

Nicolae walked with a slight stoop, even though he was far from being tall. But he moved fast, in a relaxed, athletic manner. Michael's portyanki came loose, and his feet were rubbing against the harsh insides of his boots. "Wait," he said, and sat down right in the middle of the dirt road. He pulled off both of his boots. His feet stunk beyond the limits of human endurance. His portyanki were a tangled mess. He wrapped them around his feet again and was about to begin the painful process of putting the boots back on when Nicolae stopped him.

"Let me show you," he said. He sat down next to Michael, and wrapped the cloth in a couple of swift and accurate moves. Then they walked some more, and they saw the lights.

"Puzheni," Nicolae said. "The base is very close to here."

They walked on the village's empty street, along the row of accurate little houses. Not a single human soul greeted them, only the dogs barked viciously from behind the high wooden fences, and a stray black cat ran across the road right in front of their feet. They made it all the way through the village, until the houses began to get sparse and the lights became almost nonexistent. Then they saw two men in their path. One of them held an empty bottle in his hand, by the neck, like a weapon.

In Moscow, where Michael went to school, street fights were very common, especially in the big parks like Sokolniki and Ismailovo. That was one of the reasons Michael took karate for two years. He never was a great champion, just a middling student. In Kishinev the fights were less common, but happened often enough.

"Buna sara, good evening," Michael greeted the men, trying to keep his voice steady. They did not answer, just moved a little closer. A wine aroma, thick and sour, enveloped them.

"Got a smoke?" the man with the bottle asked in Russian.

"I don't smoke," Michael answered. Nicolae stepped ahead and said something in Moldavian that Michael did not understand.

"Fuck you," the man with the bottle said. Then the other one, without saying a word, hit Nicolae in the face. Nicolae's head jerked back, but he remained on his feet. Michael stepped towards the man who had hit Nicolae and, forgetting all the karate lessons, smashed his booted feet into the man's leg right below the knee.

The man collapsed on the ground like a fallen tree, with a roar close to that of thunder. The other one, shouting something in Moldavian, made wild clumsy motions with his feet and hands. He dropped the bottle and hardly kept his balance.

Michael swung his right hand at him, and the man turned around and fled. He fell, got up, and ran again. The first one still lay on the ground, clutching his foot and shouting obscenities in both languages.

"Let's go," Nicolae said, gently pulling Michael by the sleeve away from the fallen man. Michael's teeth were chattering even though the night was hot. "Sons of bitches," he said. They walked some more, silently. The night was full with aromas of summer earth. Bugs sang in the international language of love.

"Drunken sons of bitches," Michael said again. "They should be exterminated, damn drunkards. They should have their balls cut off. They should be shot. They should be hanged. They should..."

Nicolae was silent.

"Does it hurt?" Michael asked.

"No."

"What do you do for living?" Michael said about a hundred meters later.

"I'm a kolhosnik."

"A farmer, huh? And I'm an engineer. Do you have kids?"

"Got three."

"I have one. A girl. She's the best girl there is."

They walked some more. A dull glow appeared behind the horizon.

"You know," Michael said, "I never had a Moldavian friend before."

"I knew that," Nicolae said.

"How did you know?"

"I know. I saw you."

"I'm not prejudiced. By the way, my roots are here. My ancestors lived here ever since the Turkish War. That's almost two hundred years. Impressive, huh?"

"Here we are," Nicolae said.

In a valley below they saw an entity, a giant beast, emitting noise, and acrid smells, and waves of overheated gases. The beast stared at them with scores of moving blazing eyes, its tentacles waving frantically, its body shuddering.

"Is this your camp?" Nicolae asked.

"I don't know. Let's get closer and check." "I can't get closer. Civilians are not supposed to."

"Then wait for me, please. I'll be right back."

Michael ran down to the gates of the compound. A sentry armed with an AK-47 stopped him.

"Is it you, Ivanov?" Michael asked.

"Aye, sir," the man answered, letting him through. Michael ran inside, toward the guard's tent. Nobody was there but a small reddish dog who licked his boots delightedly. Michael ran to the officer's tent, followed by the dog. Inside the great tent, under a dim bare bulb hanging from a post, four men were playing cards on beds covered with rough woolen blankets.

"Look who's here," said one of them. "Michael fucking comrade Zelinsky. And we thought that you deserted."

And they all laughed.

"C'mon guys, what's happened? Were they looking for me?"

"Sure they were. They even called the military police. With dogs."

"Dogs?"

"Oh yeah, dogs. Here's one of them," and the man pointed toward the small reddish creature who cringed before them on the dirt floor. Michael's feet gave out, and he sat, almost fell down, on the bed.

"Relax, buddy," another man said. "Karpenko took your place. Nobody cared. Nobody has even noticed."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I am," the same man said. "Just don't forget you owe him. A bottle of nice wine would do," he said."

"You play poker?" the first man said. "Care to join us?"

Michael took some cards in his shaky hands. His head was empty, like the wine bottles that littered the tent.

Above them, on the top of the hill, Nicolae lit a cigarette, and sent a puff of smoke toward the deep, empty skies of his homeland.

(Mark Budman is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. His short fiction and poetry have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Mississippi Review, Midstream, Beyond, Thoth, Highbeams, Rictus, Knightmares, and Anthology magazines. He is a finalist of several Writer's Digest fiction competitions. His poetry is included in the anthology of the best American magazine poetry of 1995/1996. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and two daughters. His home page: http://www.geocities.com/athens/delphi/3220)


CONFESSIONS OF A LEFT-HANDED
TRINIDADIAN COOK

By Anthony Milne


One evening in a Port of Spain bar an extraordinary young woman looked my way and said: Do you cook?

I immediately began a lecture on the joys of creole cooking and my theory that the male Trinidadian creole (I actually meant French-creole, local white, in the broadest sense) is often a fine cook. I cited the culinary talents of my grandfather, uncles, and male cousins and said that I too had inherited the gift.

I had missed the point, of course, and the opportunity. I lack the killer instinct. I am too theoretical and impractical, too caught up in my own cloudy, imaginative world, too absent-mindedly insensitive. A lazy, left-handed procrastinator, my short-term memory is appalling. Many years too late I see she was asking: Will you cook for me? And I would have, of course.

But I really do have some hereditary culinary talent, enhanced by experimental inclinations which spring naturally from that cloudy imagination of mine. I needn't go into detail about the special dexterity required of left-handed cooks, since every single kitchen utensil is designed for those who work from the other side.

My father claims to have taught my mother to cook, though I have never seen him create anything more original than a fine pair of toasts. Somebody else, I understand, taught her how to drive. In the end she chose the cook over the driver. She doesnt regret it. My father's father, when he took a break from prosecuting people for tax evasion, made excellent black-beef stews, with plenty of burnt brown sugar. He was still cooking well into his eighties. His buljol and souse were unparalleled.

My uncle Terence, when he is not drawing deeds or preparing briefs, is an absolute master in kitchen, especially with morocoy, quenk or lappe. I once got into trouble with the environmentalist lobby by quoting his recipe for stewed morocoy. Four or five of my male cousins are excellent cooks. One of them has helped manage a restaurant, another is a chef in one of London's best hotels.

Another uncle, a hunter as well as a cook, built his own large, two-burner, stainless steel device to cook big soups and wild meat. He kept it in the garage and worked there while he imbibed and played Wagner records at a volume way above the legal limit.

My aunts, of course, are all superb creole cooks. What I would have done without my aunts I will never know. Theirs has been an undying, always forgiving, welcoming, belly- filling love.

I myself am nowhere near as talented as my uncles and cousins. But black-beef stew I too do well, sometimes with dumplings, sometimes with many other things. I can roast a fowl, seasoned uniquely, though I am really a flesh person, not a bone person. In this way I am unlike most members of my family. When they are through with a chicken leg there is nothing left. No trace of bones, feathers, nothing. I can make a reasonable pelau, though the rice may sometimes turn out too soft or too grainy. It's a matter of timing. The best cooking is done slowly. As the French say: Avec de la patience on arrive tout. Often I am too hasty. The blood rushes to my head. Another creole trait. It has got me into trouble in other ways. Ask the Four Roads, Diego Martin, police.

My fried bakes are something to behold, and often to taste. I make a good cup of coffee, and I dont mean instant, which I never use. Otherwise I survive on oats, unboiled, with raisins, sugar, and milk. I doubt anyone in Trinidad has consumed as much raw oats as I have. It is one of the few foods I eat that is really good for me. I detest all greens and most fruits, especially when ripe. In my early youth, I am now ashamed to say, I slaughtered an immense number of birds, lizards, crabs and other creatures with a Diana .22 air rifle. Some of these creatures I plucked, cleaned, fried carefully, and devoured. I can tell you there is very little flesh on a ground dove or bluebird. But, being close to the bone, it is sweet. Keskidees I never tried. I will one day soon if they persist with the racket they make outside my bedroom window at five in the morning.

Once or twice I have taken the life of a ramier or manicou with a shotgun. I kept a small snake once and used to strike down mabouyas with a broom to feed it. I wouldnt do this again. The truth is that I now find it almost impossible to kill. I make an exception for mosquitoes, big cockroches that fly into my bedroom at night, and fat rats. When I have had enough of them I carry out a pogrom.

My pacificism has reached the stage that I won't even go fishing. This is only partly out of principal. Mostly it is a matter of emotion. I am terrified at the thought of suffering and the finality of death. My own and others. This includes plants. I have seriously thought of starting a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants. No one thinks they have feelings. I dont know why.

This does not mean I am a vegetarian. I tried it once but the withdrawal symptoms, the need for cooked flesh, were too great. Like my desire for a daily dose of rice. Let someone else do the killing and dressing. I'll do the cooking. I became a vegetarian partly out of necessity, when I was a student. The philosophical impetus came from a reading of the Mahatama's autobiography. But he was celibate and ended up eating only fruit and nuts. That was going too far.

In fact, as a home-body I have an interest even greater than cooking: plants. Especially wild, exotic plants found in the forest. Everyone laughs when I tell them about my potted timarie. They stop laughing when I tell them that people in Holland pay quite a lot for what they call the "sensitive plant".

The word timarie is French-Trinidadian patois: Ti-Marie, from the French Petite Marie, "Little Mary". Some distant realtive of mine must have thought its tiny leaves, closing when touched, looked like praying hands. If I had any entrepreneurial spirit I would start a timarie farm and export the best of them to Amsterdam. But without any business sense, I follow the timarie's example and merely pray to win the lotto.

My timarie is just one of a number of selected plants I keep. Though I don't sweep or cook as often as I should, I think I've inherited my maternal grandmother's green thumb. She must have got it from the long line of St Kitts planters she was descended from. A couple hundred years ago, one of them, a Miss Burt (their family name) married a friend of the great Dr Johnson. Her husband, a physician, spent most of his spare time writing a five-volume poem on sugar-cane.

When I told a colleague I liked going into the bush to find wild plants, he said I was one in a million. That may be true, but not in this instance. There can't be only half of another person like me in the Republic.

Avid orchid collectors often risk thorny undergrowth, mapepires and tarantulas in search of specimens.

All plants come originally from the bush. They were all wild till somebody tamed them. Then botanists produced hybrid versions. The undiscerning eye looks at the forest floor and sees only tangled weeds. Look more carefully, distinguish them individually, and you find the most beautiful things.

I have a shrub with pale green leaves that turn silver in the sunlight. I don't mean the familiar little shining bush, though I have one of those too. A man in Tamana, describing the mysteries of the hill, told me there were trees with silver leaves. I knew right away what he meant.

I like ferns too. Many kinds are found all over Trinidad, especially at high elevations such as along the road to Maracas. If you go high enough, up to El Tucuche, say, above 2,000 feet the air and vegetation change abruptly. I got a miniature balisier there which thrived well in the garden but hardly ever flowered.

At the Aripo savannah there are curious specimens, like the tiny insect-eating sundew and a rare little ground orchid with yellow flowers. I broke all the rules and took home one of these orchids. It did well till its pot fell over one day. At Fig Walk, deep in the Matura Forest there is a tree like a banana you probably won't see anywhere else. A friend and I once walked so far into this forest we had to overnight. Luckily, there was a clear stream nearby full of fat crayfish, and nothing crawled over us while we lay in the bush, trying to sleep.

The next day an old hunter said he often slept in the forest, curled up between the the big roots of a mora. My friend walked out of the forest the next day carrying a young fig tree. I took it to a botanist as an excuse to see and talk to her, and we fell in love. But I was never sure whether she preferred the fig tree or me.

People in Trinidad judge plants, trees especially, for their usefulness and tradition. When you build a house you must have an orange, a mango, and a zaboca. These are all fine trees, but if I ever have a house I will plant a flamboyant first.

I like growing trees in pots. I can't claim to know much about bonsais, though I have a book about them. I have a banana tree in a big pot in the verandah and a magnificent flamboyant in a much smaller pot. Also a small palm, and a frangipani I've thought of planting out at the family plot in Lapeyrouse. (For some reason there are frangipanis in cemeteries all through the West Indies.)

Have you ever been into a field of flowering coffee trees? The air is filled with the sweetest scent. I kept a coffee tree once. It lived for years but didn't get taller than three feet and never flowered.

One of my favourites is the bois canon, with a long, slender white trunk and leaves that look like crumpled hands when they fall to the ground and turn brown. (A man from Guyana told me it is called conga pump there. In Jamaica it is called the trumpet tree and makes a weeping sound before a hurricane hits). I planted one recently in the deep window box in the verandah. It is still small and the landlord doesn't know, so don't tell him. Someone warned me it was bad luck to plant a bois canon but I decided to chance it.

My tulsi bush, which Hindus consider sacred and plant beneath jundi poles, should keep evil forces at bay. It is also meant to keep away mosquitoes, though I can't testify to this.

Also in my window box are two vines, a creeping plant with white-veined green leaves, and a pau pau tree about six foot tall. I don't think it will get any bigger. A concerned aunt advised against leaving it there. She said pau pau trees use up a lot of oxygen. I told her I don't need much.

The pau pau tree has flowered, but there is no sign of fruit. It may be a male. The usual advice in cases like this is to cut off the top and place an upside-down container on it to stop water running down into the trunk. This will change its sex. But that is the last thing I would want to do, so we are both likely to remain childless bachelors.

Also on the verandah is an old bougainvillea with white and purple flowers. It was there when I moved in. It grows on the burglar-proofing, with a little training, and is forming an arch over the gate.

Looking after these plants, watering them, pruning them and watching them grow, means I have little time for other household chores. But I don't think you can die of dust and a bowl of uncooked oats, raisins and sugar is wonderfully nutritious.

(Anthony Milne (anto@fm1.wow.net), was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)


A BETTING MAN

By Vallath Nandakumar


Mohan felt the coolness on his damp body as he walked through the dark passageway from the bathroom into his bedroom. Selecting a clean white loincloth, and a shirt with buttons down the front that he could easily remove in the temple, he finished dressing.

His mother was in the gods' room doing her daily 9 am ritual of offering bananas and parched rice in silver dishes to the gods. "Did you dry your hair properly, Mohan?" she called out mechanically.

"Yes," Mohan answered with a trace of impatience, although water was dripping in tickling streams down his neck.

"Well, take an umbrella. The sun is too hot. And remember, if you go to the temple, to break a coconut for Ganapathi."

Umbrella! Mohan disdained to reply to his mother, and with a jaunty upward flick of his ankle, he folded his mundu up like a kilt, put on his sandals, and walked out into the hot April sunshine.

His grandmother and her brother were sitting on the porch. Mohan paused to let his eyes adjust to the brightness outside.

"Where are you going in this heat, Mohan? Don't you have exams to study for?" his grandmother Kalyani Amma demanded. She was a dignified old woman, past eighty, but her eyesight and hearing were still sharp. And her tongue, thought Mohan. That was the sharpest. She was the matriarch and the ruler of the Konnath family, even though her brother Krishnan Nair was the titular head, the karanavar.

"I have to do things," Mohan muttered evasively, and hurried down the porch steps to the little shelter over the gate to their yard.

His great-uncle Krishnan Nair said nothing. An old man with a long white beard, he never took any interest in family matters, being concerned solely with his poetry. "Visual poetry," the critics called it, and it seemed to just play on the peculiarities of the Malayalam language and the stringing together of syllables. But he was famous. Mohan sometimes reflected that he seemed to not live in this world. Although the Konnath family wealth had dwindled in the last few generations, there was still enough left to support the family, the income being eked out with the help of people like Mohan's father. Most of the paddy fields and fruit orchards were managed by Mohan's uncles and other grand-uncles, since Krishnan Nair did nothing as worldly as estate management. The world must have poets too, he would counter lamely in the rare moments when he chose to respond to his sister's criticism of his lack of interest in family affairs.

Mohan decided to take the long way to the temple, avoiding the potholed and dusty main road with its open lorries and horse-drawn carriages. His friends were loafing about outside their 'club', a tiny room which they had rented out from the shopowner Pillai in front. Pillai sold bananas, cigarettes and fresh lime juice, and bantered with the boys when he was between customers.

The club room was sparsely furnished, with a rough table with a surface covered with carved initials and doodles, a couple of benches and a chair or two. The club's recreational equipment consisted of a couple of worn packs of cards, a cricket set, and a soccer ball. The main entertainment value of the club lay in its members, however, who could always be assured of finding a friend to chat with if they managed to escape there from under the watchful eyes of their parents. In addition, the room was tucked away from prying eyes, and was thus the ideal getting-away place for teenage boys trying to assert their independence. Mohan looked around quickly to make sure that none of his relatives were on the street, and asked the shopkeeper for a cigarette.

"And a piece of peanut candy." The peanut candy was essential to remove the cigarette's smell before he reached home.

"Four annas," the shopkeeper said. "When are your exams?"

"In four weeks," said Mohan, putting his cigarette into his pocket. "Plenty of time to study," he added defensively, even though studying was the last thing that would have occurred to the shopkeeper, who had not even studied up to his 10th standard.

Mohan peered into the dim interior of the club room. His friends stopped their heated card game. "Come on over and join us for a while. We have some details to discuss about tomorrow's match. You are playing, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course," said Mohan, walking over. "I hear Velan's hand has healed, and he will be their goalie."

"I know," said one of the boys. "And we have to have a seven-a-side game. Many of the other fellows are studying for their high-school exams. Mug-pots," he said scathingly. "Can't rely on them."

"Going to the temple?" another boy asked with a sly smile. "Are you going to see your goddess?"

Mohan started, and the others roared with laughter. He hadn't known that they guessed his secret passion for Parvathi, and that he went to the temple every Friday morning to catch a glimpse of her. Friday was the day unmarried girls went to the temple of Siva and Parvathi, the gods who blessed marital bliss, and his beloved-from-afar dutifully went to pray to her namesake goddess for a good husband.

"She won't even turn around to look at him," the boy with the sly smile teased. "Poor Mohan".

"Oho?" Mohan replied, stung. "What do you know," he added, smiling mysteriously and squaring his shoulders.

"Well, if you two are such a hot item, prove it," his taunter challenged. "Bring back some jasmine flowers from her. After all, jasmine is the flower of 'love'". He imitated a coy girl as he said 'love', and all of them laughed again. Like jackasses, Mohan thought disgustedly.

"Bet!" he said aloud. "If I bring it back, you must pay for my cigarettes and peanut candy for a month. Otherwise I will pay."

"Agreed," nodded the other, grinning, and they shook hands, while another boy 'cut' their hands apart with his own to seal the wager.

I am a total fool, he thought moodily to himself. She will kill me if I ask her for jasmine flowers, and I will look like an idiot in front of my friends. Or worse, she will act surprised and tell me that she had always thought of me as a 'good friend' or a 'brother', and embarrass me. She might never speak to me afterwards. These thoughts occupied him until he reached the temple.

On arriving, Mohan took his sandals off, let down his folded loincloth and entered, just remembering to take his shirt off. He did not want to get caught by the temple manager for entering with a shirt. Men had to approach the god without vanity, with breast bared. Too bad women don't have to remove their blouses, he laughed inwardly.

He did however get a chance to satisfy his curiosity in the mornings, when he went to the bigger Vishnu temple early every day, before sunrise. The red light of dawn would just be breaking, and he would walk to the nearby river, and swim in the men's kadavu by the red laterite stone steps. The water would be cool and quiet, and when he looked towards the women's side, he could often see them washing their clothes and bathing with their breasts bared. Of course, he was just curious, he would tell himself, suppressing a pang of guilt, as he dried off and put on clean clothes for the temple. It is because our society is so orthodox and sick that people gossipped even when I talked to a girl, he would think vehemently. This in the land of the Kama Sutra, the great treatise on sex and love! Look at the West, where boys and girls freely interact! He felt sure that the boys in the West did not constantly think of girls' bare bodies. Of course, he wouldn't want everyone to look at Parvathi's hidden charms.

The brief swim in the river always left him refreshed for the whole morning. His grandmother told him she was impressed by his dawn temple visits, even though she was an old woman and knew the ways of the world, and had guessed that piety was only one of the reasons he was so regular. Although she dominated him mercilessly, Mohan could in fact deal with his grandmother better than with the rest of his largely female family members.

The temple smelled of burning oil and camphor, and he heard the buzzing beat of the edakka drum showing that the main morning ritual had started. Mohan stepped over the high granite step into the inner courtyard and stood aside with folded hands, waiting for the door to the inner shrine to open. The temple was crowded, and he felt hot. In between muttering prayers, he let his eyes wander while he searched for 'her' in the crowd. Suddenly the door opened and displayed the statues of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvathi, decorated with flowers and illuminated with oil-lamps. A little boy rang the big bell furiously, just as he, Mohan, had as a little boy whenever he had managed to secure that privilege. The priest circled the image with a small plate with burning camphor, and passed the plate to the worshippers so that they might touch the flame to their eyes and pray. May our egos be burnt up like the camphor, leaving nothing behind but the brightness of true knowledge. Mohan closed his eyes and prayed to the Gods for success in exams, and then for strength, wisdom, and knowledge. He murmured the Sanskrit prayer asking their blessings as Parents of the universe, as inseparable from each other as Word and Meaning.

Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. "What, Mohan? How are matters with you? We haven't seen you at our place for many days!" He looked around to see Parvathi's aunt, a kindly old woman who frequently came by to his place to gossip with his own grandmother and mother. Parvathi looked on and smiled agreement with her aunt.

"Uh, yes," he stammered, and looked at Parvathi. She was looking divine, he thought, in her cream muslin sari with the green border, and he continued to stare at her figure.

"Well?" the aunt asked again. "When are you coming?"

"I will come by this morning," he said, his chest constricting at the thought of the bet he had made. "Will you be home?"

"Where else can we be? Be sure to come. Leela has made some new sweets, and you must taste them. Take some prasadam," she added, referring to the sandal paste from the priest, and drew a mark on his forehead. She and Parvathi left to finish their worship. Parvathi paused to glance back at him, and their eyes met for a moment before she turned away.

Mohan's gaze followed her until she disappeared round the corner. He was about to leave too, when he remembered the coconut for the elephant-headed Lord Ganapathi, the remover of obstacles. He walked to the offerings counter, and asked for a coconut.

"One rupee," the dour man at the counter told him, and handed over the coconut. He had a thread crossing his chest, signifying that he was of a high caste.

Mohan took the coconut and went to the shrine of Ganapathi, where he paused a moment. He meant to pray for success in his exams, but another silent prayer came unbidden to his mind as he dashed the coconut against the granite stone. It broke into many pieces, which a little boy standing by picked up and took to one of the temple buildings. He himself picked up a couple of pieces, for his mother would be sure to ask him for a piece of the god's coconut.

On the way out, he saw the gray temple elephant swaying to and fro, and when he approached, the elephant held out its trunk to him. Mohan placed one of the pieces at the end of the trunk, which quickly disappeared into its cavernous mouth. The elephant blinked and held out its trunk again, but Mohan shook his head and walked out, putting on his shirt and sandals.

He walked to his father's house, his mind still on his last prayer. His father lived very near the temple, and visited his mother in the evenings after dinner, spending the night at her house. Mohan himself belonged to his mother's family, and his uncles were his father-figures, to train him and discipline him and guide him in the ways of men. Mohan was, however, very close to his own father, and went there almost every day.

His father was on the porch reading the paper, and put it down when Mohan came. Mohan fell into a reclining canvas chair, and his father called out to his sister to bring some water. Mohan greeted his aunt and gulped down the warm ginger water, and proceeded to tell his father all about his trouble with his class notes and the difficulty of getting books from the library at exam time.

"I may be able to send for books from Madras, if you give me a list of what you need," his father said. "And if you get good marks in your high-school exam, you know that I want you to go to Madras and study for your degree."

"Oh, no father, it is too much trouble to get books from Madras," Mohan protested. "And I don't know whether I want to go all the way there to study. I don't know anybody there, and Madras is even hotter than here."

"Nonsense. You must get your degree in a good university. You are a good student, if somewhat easily distracted, and you must make the most of your life when you are young. Have you been practicing yoga like I asked you to improve your concentration?"

Mohan did not like the idea of leaving his soccer friends, and especially Parvathi, he told himself. Who knows what would happen if he left? She might marry someone else, and even though she was only fifteen now, he would be away for three years, and she was sure to get a hundred marriage proposals by then. And he felt happy where he was: his parents were nearby, he had his friends for company, and he led a carefree life, punctuated only occasionally by the intrusion of any conflicts or responsibilities.

Neither did he want to broaden his mind. After all, everything there was to learn by traveling could be learned in his own town. He supposed that he took after his great-uncle Krishnan Nair in that respect. But there was a sense of inevitability at the whole thing. His life was beginning to move with a momentum that he could not stop or even direct.

He left his father's house and made his way to Parvathi's, stopping on the way to buy some flowers. He decided that he was going to give her some flowers, even if he couldn't get her to give him any. She was in the garden when he reached there. Barefoot and reaching high, she was pruning twigs from a hibiscus bush, while her blouse stretched over her figure. The sunlight falling on her bare midriff highlighted the fine downy hair on her skin and blurred its outline. Mohan stared as long as he was able, and then called, "Parvathi!"

"Mohan!" she exclaimed. "So you finally made it here. You haven't forgotten me after all!"

Mohan flushed in confusion, and felt sweat breaking out on his palms and under his arms. He tightened his grip on the flowers in his hand. Parvathi laughed, and Mohan flushed again.

"You know my father wants me to go to Madras to study at the University," he said. "I don't want to go for three years."

"Of course you should go. You will do very well," she said encouragingly. "And won't you be back for vacations?"

"I suppose so. But ...," he stammered. "What will you do in that time?" The pressure of his yearnings propelled the question from him. It floated in the air between them like a piece of thistledown, and Mohan willed his mind to blow on it and urge it towards her.

"I will wait for you," she said suddenly. Her tone held a faint surprise, as if he should have known that already.

Mohan's bewilderment at this set his mind spinning. What does she mean, he wondered? She was even a minute ago laughing at him. For a moment he wondered whether she was teasing him. But he shook off his racing thoughts and, seizing the moment, walked up to her.

"You must wait," he said mustering up all his confidence.

With that, the knot in his stomach unraveled itself and his anxious sweat dried up. All the fears and doubts that he had been living with disappeared like a pinch of dust would in a puff of her breath. It was suddenly as if he had known her to be his for years, or maybe through many past lives.

"Give me the flowers from your hair as a symbol of your commitment. I will give you these." He handed over the yellow marigold flowers he had just bought, still damp in their banana leaf wrapping. They were slightly crushed and their scent was strong, and he wasn't sure whether they were the type girls wore in their hair, but he didn't care about all that any more.

Without a word, Parvathi removed the flowers from her hair and held them out to Mohan. She seemed to hold her face out to him along with the flowers, and suddenly Mohan felt a madness come over him. He gripped Parvathi by her shoulders, and planted a kiss clumsily on her nose and lips. It was his first kiss. Then, snatching the jasmine flowers from her, he turned around and walked away without waiting to see her expression.

Outside he pulled out a single flower and stuck it behind his ear, tossing the rest away. He only needed one.

His friends saw his jaunty walk when he passed them, although they did not notice his flower.

"So, did you get the flowers? I don't see any," his betting friend called out.

"No, I didn't get anything," Mohan said. "Cigarettes and candy on me for the next month." He then lit his own cigarette openly, and with Paradise in his stride, sauntered home.

(Vallath Nandakumar was born and brought up in India. At the age of 21, he came to the United States for graduate studies. He now works as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, where he writes short stories in his spare time. Inspiration for many of his stories is drawn from his experiences in the state of Kerala, South India. email: vallath.nandakumar@amd.com)


CONFUCIANISM, ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY

By Abbas Zaidi


Recently Malaysia and Singapore saw significant academic activities devoted to Confucianism. The University of Malaya in Petaling, Jaya sponsored a seminar called "Islam and Confucianism: A Civilisational Dialogue." More than a thousand academics, intellectuals and students from Malaysia and abroad participated. The purpose of the seminar was a better understanding of "Islamic and Confucian civilisations."

At the seminar's end it was unanimously declared that the participants had learnt a great deal about the fundamentals of each other's religions [sic]. According to one luminary, "Such a dialogue will help check some of the myths and stereotypes that colour the relationship between the two communities". Another observed, "...[T]he dialogue brought together successfully two ancient and important civilisations, Islamic and Confucian, in a meaningful dialogue bereft of any animosity or religious chauvinism." Unanimous agreement was reached that Islam and Confucianism are both compatible and complementary and help to keep the Chinese (the Confucian community) and the Malays (the Islamic community) in harmony.

The second event took place in Singapore, where a Harvard Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy, Mr Tu Weiming, delivered the Wu Teh Yao Memorial Lecture. The thrust of Professor Weiming's talk was a rejection of the idea that human rights are a fundamentally Western concern. Confucianism, he said, has made a fundamental contribution to the concept of human rights. He added that the dominant intellectual discourse today draws on the ideals and achievements of the European Enlightenment, whose main thrust was a drive to explore, to know, to conquer and to subdue; hence the reaction of socialism, feminism and environmentalism. The Professor went on to criticise the East Asian nations for exhibiting the Enlightenment's materialistic mentality: an ethic founded on growth, development and exploitation. But then, in virtually the same breath, he declared that the best system for realising Confucian values in the modern world is the modern democratic state. Said the Professor: "The highest Confucian values could be better realised in a really democratic society instead of a dictatorial or authoritarian system...."

The problem with the Malaysian seminar was that it focused on the significance and stabilising quality of a theoretical superstructure without giving due consideration to its social genesis. East Asia is the world's fastest growing region. But its growth is economic rather than spiritual/religious. This growth represents the march of capitalism, and in capitalism things begin and end in terms of economic prosperity. There is nothing wrong with prosperity as such, but experience has shown that in the capitalist social arrangement money eventually becomes the god and money-making the religion. In the wake of the post- welfare world of capitalism, religions like Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism will be allowed to exist only as long as they operate as rituals within the parameters prescribed by capitalism and do not challange the capitalist scheme of things. Church, mosque and temple are fine as long as they offer harmless weekend therapy.

As long as East Asia remains prosperous, there is no possibility of conflict between the Islamic and the Confucian civilizations (though it is not clear whether the word "civilization" is apt in this context). Let-sleeping-dogs-lie is the word as long as peace based on economic prosperity prevails. Hence, whether the two "great religions of the East" have a "constructive dialogue" or not is really of peripheral importance. But once economic prosperity starts to ebb and poverty and unemployment increase, there will be a clash between groups of people who will espouse any slogan for their cause: religion, race, son of the soil.

Religious systems are a matter of convenience; they might provide diversion or "spiritual" relief in a tense, monotonous or ruthlessly competitive socio-economic capitalist arrangement, but they cannot be a substitute for the true faith of capitalism. History substantiates this. Malaysia's and Singapore's own experiences are especially relavent. The bloody "race riots" in the late 1960s occurred without refernce to whether or not Confucianism and Islam are compatible; they occurred because the two countries had become stuck in economic quagmires. The Chinese community believed that the Malay community was usurping its economic opportunies, and vice versa. Here Pakistan's experience is worth noting: that country is almost 100 percent Muslim, and there is only ideology (Islam) operating there. But Pakistan is the scene of one of the bloodiest clashes in recent world history, and all the fighting parties have been Muslim. The reasons: poverty and unemployment.

As long as Malaysia and Singapore continue to enjoy an economic boom, the social compact will appear to work. But once a downturn sets in, it could be a different situation. Malaysian and Singaporean leaders have recently been warning their peoples that their economic advancement must not falter or else the social fabric of their nations would be threatened. A Malaysian friend recently told me of a fear common amongst Malaysians that in the wake of an economic decline Malaysia might turn into another Bosnia.

Professor Weiming's also argument fails on intellectual grounds because, while he condemns the dominant Western discourse, he himself appears to be a part of that discourse. He operates on the supposition--intrinsic in the Western idea--that the West's concept of human rights is superior to any other. But the question is not whether or not the Professor's assertion is true. It is whether the present-day ethic of human rights is intrinsic to the Confucian system as well. The answer is no, it is not.

Human rights do not exist in vacuum. What we know today as human rights are based upon Western ideals of democracy. Those same Western values are themselves profoundly affected by and bound up with excessive individualism, aggressive profiteering and ruthless competitiveness. The Confucian system has nothing to do with any of those values. Similarly, "human rights" is a concept alien to Confucianism. You cannot find a single statement on human rights within the Confucian discourse. Confucianism does not plead for rights but for duties and responsibilities, and those purely on the personal level. The fundamental issue in Confucianism is personalistic: the Superior Man versus the Inferior Man. Confucius sharply contrasted the Superior Man--whose standard is moral principle--with the Inferior Man, whose standard is individual profit.

Capitalism, the prevailing ideology in the West, is exploitative; its goal is profit irrespective of the social costs or benefits. It is a system based on individual self- interest without recognizing any sense of duty to the community. The welfare state was just a temporary strategm in the face of Soviet socialist ideology. Now that socialism is a dead letter, the very idea of the welfare state has become anathema. The reason that non-governmental charitable organizations exist is because capitalism is not capable of creating such institutions. They come about as the result of individual efforts, and some of them (like Greenpeace) now end up being dubbed post-Soviet leftists.

But profit meets only those needs that can find expression in terms of money. What, where, when, how and for whom to produce are all determined by the profit motive alone, whether or not such activity proves detrimental to the welfare of the community as the whole. To say, therefore, as Professor Weiming has, that Confucian values can best be realised in such a democratic society instead of in an authoritarian one, simply makes no sense. Confucianism originated, grew, flourished and has been influential in the East, where democracy has been an alien idea. Confucianism is by its nature feudalistic. It is typically Eastern in being personalistic (as opposed to individualistic) and family- oriented. Confucius' ideal is a sage-king, not a democratic politician.

For Confucius a ruler is nothing if he is not ethical. In the Eastern culture (China being a prime example) an absolute ruler (called "dictator" in the West) will attain divine status if he is truly benign or visionary: Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Z.A. Bhutto of Pakistan, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Deng Xiaopeng of China are a few notable examples.

To maintain that only a democratic--i.e. a "Western" democratic--system is capable of sustaining true Confucianism not only discredits the history and achievements of the Confucian legacy to the East but is a transparent attempt to rob Confucianism of its very roots and make its validity dependent on a Western rational. A purely Western concept (however good it may be in its purpose) can not be the sole standard by which to judge an intrinsically Eastern ideology.

There is nothing wrong with trying to join two different ideas into a unified perspective. But it should be done honestly and realistically. Confucianism and Islam can indeed co-exist peacefully if the right environment obtains. But there is nothing about them that would inevitably make them natural bedfellows. As well, Confucianism and democracy can learn a great deal from each other, but they do not need each other to succeed.

(Abbas Zaidi edited THE RAVI (1985), Government College, Lahore, and INTERFACE (1991), University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, before working as Assistant Magazine Editor, THE NATION, Lahore, where he tried his hand on every journalistic genre. At present he is based in Brunei with Shazia ("who determines my heartbeat") and two kids. Zaidi believes that in life--as in history and eventuality--it is chance, and not planning, that makes a difference.)


CLONING: WILL PHARAOHS RULE AGAIN?

By Abbas Zaidi


There is an allegory amongst some tribes of indigenous people (called orang asli) on the Island of Borneo about how the gods destroyed an ancient world when a master physician was on the verge of creating a human. Why? Because creation is their (the gods') domain, and only theirs. Now that Dolly the sheep has been successfully cloned, cloning of humans is expected to be next. This time, however, it is not a god or gods who has interfered with creation but the superpowerful head of the world's only remaining Superpower. Were the Soviet Union still in existence, we would be seeing an all-out race to clone humans, or even superhumans. Instead, we see a general outcry against human cloning and a ban in the US specifically by President Clinton, each offering basically two sides of the same argument: humans should not play God--"should not" either because they ultimately cannot, or else because they will necessarily and (self-)destructively fail.

President Clinton justified his decision by citing vague but "serious" ethical questions that the cloning of Dolly posed. Dr Ian Wilmut, the midwife extraordinaire who cloned Dolly, adds what has been dubbed the "intuitive" argument. Says the Doctor, "All of us would find [cloning] offensive."

That man should not play God is a religious/moral argument: an immortal game played by mortals has the cards stacked against it. However, in a world in which religion does not usually play a dominant role, cloning is not finally going to be an issue for clerics to decide. It will, though, raise serious questions in political, legal and intellectual circles if scientists succeed in cloning not only living people but major figures out of the past. What would be the status of such recreations?

For example, if science succeeds in cloning long-dead pharaohs, when these pharaohs grow up and come to know that Egypt used to be their undisputed kingdom, will their claim of legitimacy be honored? Or will they end up as just a band of young (read: modern) and old (read: ancient) pretenders? Will the argument of modern anti-absolutist political theory hold any water for them? Pharaohs were born to be almighty, and they die almighty. The ancient Egyptians believed that after death the pharaohs would continue to reign whether resurrected within their tombs or elsewhere. The bottom line was that a pharaoh could not be anybody but a pharaoh.

But now the new pharaonic CV will state: Born a Pharaoh, died a Pharaoh, reborn/cloned a Nobody: a pharaoh without pharoahness. A cloned pharaoh would be like a tiger that feeds on grass; a lion that bleats; a Mike Tyson who excels only at badminton.

Cloning of humans could even mean the negation of history, the lilliputianisation of those who could once move heaven and earth [could bruise the heel of Achilles]. After all, the clone of a great historical figure or athlete cannot be expected to achieve even half the greatness of his or her original. You can, as Shakespeare said, thrust greatness upon someone, but it cannot be genetically engineered: You might be born the first child of a king, and hence ultimately become king yourself: you can inherit kingship, but [not the king himself]. Shakespeare could not beget another Shakespeare; Casanova's father was not known to be a fraction of what his child became famous for; and Shahjehan, India's great emperor and builder of Taj Mahal, could only manage to sire a weirdo who caused the fall of the great Mogul Empire. Genetic features such as intellect and physical strength do indeed get passed on to succeeding generations, but not unchanged.

In the surreal world of cloning, the heroes of the past could end up as clowns or at best their own vanquished shadows. A cloned Saladin, a Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington would at best be objects of transient curiosity. We might find a militant Mahatma Gandhi marching in a BJP anti-Muslim rally; the Shah of Iran studying theology in Qum; a gay Freud condemning early 20th century psychology as anti-feminist; Dr. Goebbels a guest of honor at a Holocaust commemoration; James Joyce an illiterate laborer; Arnold Toynbee an office boy; Nietzsche a workshop mechanic. In a Manhattan bookstore Joe McCarthy could be signing his best-selling History of the Capitalist Witch-Hunt of Socialists in America: 1950-54. We might see Rabbi Lenin and Ayatollah Rushdie locked in a struggle to take over Jerusalem, while Karl Marx is making his fortune on Wall Street.

Cloning of humans would turn everything upside down, with the result that the world and the future history of mankind would suffer a total and permanent mutation. If Dr Stephen Hawking is any reliable clue, in the distant future computers will write the history of their preceding species, Homo Sapiens, and wonder why such an advanced species decided to write its own obituary.

Historically, every great scientific advancement has been considered a scientific impossibility until it was brought to fruition. Until early in the present century, most respected scientific authorities spurned the very idea that a human foot would ever touch the soil of the moon. Now, just a few decades later, those nay-sayers enjoy the intellectual respectability of a band of cobblers discussing metaphysics on their lunch hour.

Just because cloning of humans is not taking place at the moment does not mean it can not or will not happen. "Cloning is not yet fully ready for use on human cells" (Scientific American editorial, May 1997) does not mean "A Scientific Impossibility" or "Never!".

The reason the issue of human cloning has invited such wholesale condemnation is because of the deep moral issue it raises. As such, it has become a succes de scandale as offensive as the Freudian Id. But the question is not whether human cloning is possible (the fact that the developed world has imposed a ban is itself deeply significant); the question is: what will be its consequences when it inevitably becomes a reality.