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Himal South Asian Volume 14, Number 1, January 2001 Dixit, Kanak Mani Jan 31, 2001

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 so
teftftftft"
January 2001
meena alexander in conversation with prem poddar
POETRY • FICTION • REVIEW • EVENTS
 7:30 p.m.
Radisson Hotel
Kathmandu
Your comfort is our concern
Tjfc
TRE FU8 .CAFE
Waterfall
Garden
It's the attitude that makes all the difference. At Radisson, we believe in "Yes I Can!" We
have customized our services and facilities to ensure that you enjoy while relaxing in
total comfort, the many sights of Nepal. So experience the difference with Radisson
Hotel Kathmandu, where the hospitality is genuine; where people are helpful & courteous
I not because its their job, but because its their nature.
KATHMANDU ■ Radisson Hotel Kathmandu
RO.Box: 2269 ■ Lazimpat, Kathmandu, Nepal ■ Tel: 977-1-411818, 423888
Fax: 9777-1-411720- E-mail: radisson@radkat.com.np
www.radisson.com
www.visitnepal.com/radisson
or contact your travel professional
* Owned by Oriental Hauls Led.
K
•»w iummillNllli'    m
:   ft.ft ft"7
 Vol 14 No1
January 2001
COMMENTARY
Riots, rumours and refugees
The great escape
The table waits
COVER
Literature, live
by Susan Chacko
Questions of location
Meena Alexander in
conversation with Prem Poddar
Hybrid and Holy grain
by Vikas Menon
The assassin and his lover
by Afsan Chowdhury
A birth in the family
by Sunil Nepali
Caterpillar song
by Matt Donahue
Passport Photos
reviewed by M. V. Ramana
Cross word puzzles
by Sanjeev Mohan
& podicowma
a'mauon
try [South Asia has in the 16
often ate sidelined in mainstream print We beg^
Wears ha \o been belied g
tave had no : along with our   New Year g ;nper
-    number. This issue brin.. i you a callage of genres
 Editor
Kanak Mani Dixit
Associate Editor
Thomas j. Mattiew
Copy Editor
Shamij V.C.
Contributing Editors
Colombo Manik deSlva
Islamabad Adnari Rehmat
Nftvrjajfl Mitu Varna
Prabhu Ghate
Toronto  Tarik Ali Khan
Editor, litSA
Anmole Prasad
Layout
Chandra Khatiwada
Indra Shrestha
Bilash Rai {graphics)
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Contributors to this issue
Afsan Chowdhury, formerly Himal's contributing editor from Dhaka, now lives in
Patan, Kathmandu.
Kousar Bukhari is a journalist from Srinagar.
Matt Donahue is a writer who, until recently, was working in Sri Lanka. He now
lives in Pennsylvania.
M. V. Ramana is Research Associate, Centre for Energy and Environmental
Studies, Princeton University.
Patricia Hoft is based in Kathmandu.
Prem Poddar teaches at Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark. His latest work
appears in Translating Nations, a collection of essays on postcolonialism which
he has also edited.
Sanjeev Mohan is the pen name of a writer from Bombay who is currently
completing his PhD thesis on aspects of Indian writing in English.
Sunil Nepali is a writer living in Nepal.
Susan Chacko is a biophysicist in the Washington DC area.
Vikas Menon is a poet living in New Jersey. His work has appeared in
TriOuarterly, Brooklyn Review, APA Journal and the e-journal Monsoon.
ubicrlptlo
i year 2 years
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www, himalmag .com
 INDIA* NEPAL •BHUTAN
RIOTS, RUMOURS
AND REFUGEES
EVEN AS the 10th round of ministerial level
talks to resolve the decade-long refugee dispute
between Nepal and Bhutan moved towards an
encouraging consensus, Nepal's peace was
shattered at year-end by civil strife and violence
in parts of the country. Protests against Indian
establishments and movie halls screening films
featuring Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan,
animated by rumours of unspecified origin,
provoked a police firing which killed five people,
while retaliatory mob violence and arson
caused extensive damage to property.
There was an organised flavour to the
uncharacteristic turn of events in a country that
has been relatively free of the kind of social
conflicts that have proliferated among its
neighbours. There is latent bigotry and an
undercurrent of racism and intolerance in every
society and, in this instance, there were foot
soldiers of various causes readily at hand to
exploit the circumstances. In the feast of street
politics that ensued, Nepal suffered, and its
reputation took a beating.
There is no shortage of those who would
have benefitted by cashing in on the frustration of the public over the incompetence of
successive elected governments in the past 10
years. Democracy has just not been able to
deliver development, rather it has institutionalised corruption. Joblessness and inflation
have gone out of control. In the general climate
of despondency, particularly among the youth,
there were many who cynically cashed in: the
Congress factions, the nine leftists, the ultra-
right, the Maoists, communal chauvinists.
The chain of events point to well orchestrated mischief. The programme on which Hrithik
Roshan was supposed to have expressed anti-
Nepal sentiments was aired on 14 December,
but the rumour itself surfaced more than 10
days later. And as events progressed, the
rumour and all that it represented, lost its
salience as other grievances and complaints
came to be ventilated.
In the subsequent political encashment of
the situation, neither India nor Indians figured
even remotely on the agendas of the various
parties. Within the ruling Nepali Congress,
the anti-Koirala faction found it to be an
appropriate moment to initiate no-trust procee-
.:?! T-
dings against the prime minister, who in turn,
engrossed himself in thwarting the challenge
to his leadership. Meanwhile, the nation's
calamity so troubled the nine-party left combine
that it called a two-day strike to coincide with
a lucrative phase in the tourist calendar, in the
immediate aftermath of fairly severe economic
dislocation.
Sadly, the news relayed out of Kathmandu
by the media had no place for the many
nuances of the troubles in Nepal, and in this
the culpability of the Nepali media cannot
be denied. The daily newspapers, particularly
in the initial phase, gave a great deal of
prominence to the many incendiary statements
that were being quite freely expressed, failing
in the process to both distance themselves from
the original rumour and ascertaining the
authenticity of the purported statement that
fuelled the protests. But this cannot condone
the conduct of the international, particularly
Indian, media, which is ostensibly richer in
experience and certainly richer in resources.
In the haste to break news, little attention
was paid to the events in their unfolding detail.
With all the debris cleared and the body count
taken, the clear fact is that all those who were
killed were Nepalis and the property damaged
was by and large of the Nepalis. And after
the police firing, the rioting took on an
indiscriminate character. But the Indian media
found it unnecessary to report the change in
situation from day to day. With its one-sided
emphasis on the anti-Indian angle and its
exaggeration of the magnitude of the trouble, it
only contributed to adding to the tension in
Nepal and keeping alive the antagonism
towards India.
Doubtless it was this that emboldened a
senior functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party
to engage in revanchist vituperation and great
Kathmandu
street scene.
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
 THE SECRET OF KATHMAlNI/u
tHepalhas eight 'World Herit,dge sights and has won tzoo Heritage
Awards. One for the MedievalCityof'Bhafcgrpwr andrt/ie other for
'Dwarify's Hotel'.
Tke. niagnificie.nt buildings of
'Dwarika's with the. most intricate
Oood and ierra-c otta pori<b of the
st craftsmen and every piece of
odd worf^an original, and centu-
old.
TO first class standard and delude rooms,
including aroyal suite and 4 other
suites, each beautifully furnished with
traditional, textiles an£ unique custom
■made, furniture and individually
decorated with hand carved windows
and a character of bits own but having
one common factor-a very spacious
Bathroom owith oversized: Bathtub,
separate 'WC and shower, twin vanities
and dressing aria. 'Every piece of
furniture hag been designed and made.
in the in- house  zvorbcsliop.
M 'Dwarika's the splendor of the
9dalla art and architecture is fgpt
alive. The complex incorporates the
multifarious features of 9{epal's
Heritage into one inimitable
'7 . .     "   '
property.
■#••■ ■■
HOTEL
Battisputali, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Tel: 470770,473724 Fax: 977-1-471379
E-mail: dwarika@rabs.com.np
Welisite: http ://www. rfwarikas .com
KiqjHNAKfAN
Thuarika's Hotel, a winner of'SbAblbOi
Heritage Ttward now offers you not only
the secrets of Hepalese art, architecture and
hospitality But 'Kjishnatpan a special
Hepalese restaurant in a historic and
Beautiful setting.
Here, local chefs prepare ceremonial feasts of 6 to 20 courses for an
honoured guest from the finest meat, vegetables, grains and lentils, all
blended with aromatic spices, purified oils and saffrons.
'Krishnarpan invites you to capture a
moment of history of rife and ancient
culture, to dine at tables with
centuries old lattice Woodwork served
on years old traditional plates, Bowls
atidglasses by charming hosts and'..;>
hostesses dressed in different ethnic
t wear.
A Living Tribute to the Architectural and Cultural Heritage of Nepal
Come share a mystical experience of the past
with us at Krishnarpan!
**
 "ftft'ftftift- ftftft-ft"-? :>. ft:
power nostalgia, going so far as to settle scores
with an Indian prime minister now 36 years
dead. That he subsequently retracted his
statement does little to minimise the damage,
more so because of the veiled threat he held out
against Nepalis in India. Clearly, there is no
dearth of provocateurs on both sides.
The long-term consequences for Nepal are
difficult to guess. The economy has been
severely affected, as much by the loss of
commercial property as by the loss of tourism
revenue. Politically, while there has been no
scramble to appropriate the tension, there has
been little enthusiasm about condemning the
events. None of this makes for a hopeful
prognosis about social and ethnic relations.
Most alarmingly, what began as an expression
of antagonism towards Indians now threatens
a hill-plains rupture.
But it is not all a tale of unmitigated gloom.
The events of the past few days thrust into
the background the news of a possible breakthrough in the Nepal-Bhutan refugee deadlock.
The fact that Bhutanese refugee groups themselves welcomed the agreement reached in the
Tenth Round of the Ministerial Talks in
Kathmandu in late December, seems a good
enough reason to welcome it. And at first
glance, it does look like good news,
Bhutan and Nepal have agreed that they
would take valid documents belonging to the
heads of families to verify who is a true refugee,
and consider anyone below 25 years old as a
member of a refugee family. There is now a faint
hope that many of the 100,000 refugees
languishing in camps in eastern Nepal for
the past 10 years (17,000 of them were
born there in the past decade and have never
been to Bhutan), may be able to go back to
their homes.
The sudden mellowing on the part of the
Bhutanese government is directly related to
recent international pressure from the EU, the
United States, and Bhutan's donor consortium.
There could also be an added element: the
slaying last month of ten Bhutanese in Assam
by militants that shocked Bhutan. This is
potentially a much more serious crisis for
Thimphu, and has sensitive implications for
its relations with India as well. Thus it might
be best to get the refugee thing sorted out once
and for all before it becomes entangled in
India's dangerous Northeast.
But the real question is, how smoothly and
quickly will verification happen? Ideally, it
should happen immediately. It is in the interest
of neither Himalayan monarchy that the
refugee crisis drags on. ft
PAKISTAN
THE GREAT ESCAPE
THE SEIZURE of power by the military in
Pakistan was accompanied by the dissolution
of Parliament, the suspension of the Constitution and the incarceration of the ousted prime
minister Nawaz Sharif. None of this occasioned
any surprise. Sharif's subsequent conviction
and jail sentence were also along expected lines.
But Sharif's exile last month to Saudi Arabia
has introduced a new twist to Pakistani
politics. Sharif's release flies in the face of the
military regime's pledge to conduct "fearless,
honest and bipartisan accountability" of recent
rulers.
For Sharif, the price of freedom is 10 years of
exile and an undertaking not to take part in
Pakistani politics for 21 years. In addition,
the government claims it has confiscated
bank deposits worth PNR 300 million (USD
5m), as well as five industrial properties, five
residential plots and 24 hectares (60 acres) of
agriculture land.
Whatever the circumstances that compelled
Sharif's release, the military regime has now
lost the very raison d'etre for its present control
of the country. As for the Pakistan Muslim
League, it has been deprived of its leadership,
while the Pakistan Peoples Party has egg on its
face, having just concluded an alliance with
Sharif against the military regime.
More to the point, Sharif's release has
ramifications that advert quite substantively to
political fundamentals. Even granting that
there was much to the charges levelled against
Sharif that were fictitious, his 'political' release,
bypassing the due process, imparts a discretionary inflection to the administration of
justice. Judicial independence is undermined
by the political expediencies of the executive
and there can be no clearer illustration of this
than the continued confinement of Sharif's
former ministers, aides and associates. Sharif's
allies, like former Sindh chief minister Ghaus
Ali Shah, former Sindh police chief Rana
Maqbool, and Shahid Khaqan of Pakistan
International Airlines, are still in jail despite
being acquitted by the courts. The pursuit of
such expediencies by the government has raised
awkward questions. As Benazir Bhutto put it,
"If there was no criminal case against Sharif,
why was he sacked, arrested and punished?
And if there was a case against him, why has
he been set free even though convicted by a
court of law?"
The
sudden
mellowing
on the part
ofthe
Bhutanese
government is
directly
related to
recent
international
pressure
from the
EU, the
United
States, and
Bhutan's
donor
consortium.
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
111!
 The strategy pursued by the Musharraf
regime also raises the possibility of a political
vacuum of serious proportions and call to mind
the consequences of Benazir Bhutto's self-exile
two years ago after being hounded by Sharif.
The prescient warning that the vacuum created
by the weakening of the legitimate opposition
would be filled by undemocratic forces was
then unheeded. It was this politically corrosive
strategy that led to the overthrow of Sharif's
government by the military. As things stand
now, the leaders of three major political
formations are conveniently out of the way.
What effects this will have in the elections, when
they do happen, remains for the present a
matter of speculation.
For the military regime, Sharif's exile is not
without risk. Clearly, Musharraf's coterie felt it
necessary to have the only consequential
politician remaining in Pakistan to be eased
out, presumably to arrest any possible increase
in his popular base. While the government
would have it that it has been the net beneficiary
of the outcome, the effusive welcome that Sharif
received in Saudi Arabia will not be lost on
the many in Pakistan who hold the Saudi
establishment in great reverence.
What then could have induced the military
regime to make this gamble? It appears that
Sharif's popularity was on the rise even after
he was declared guilty of terrorism and handed
a life sentence. The military rulers tried to
counter this first by amending the Political
Parties' Act to legally bar disqualified leaders
from holding party offices. When even this met
with little success, the regime decided to break
up Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League. But since
most of the leaders assigned to carry out the job
has no stature nationally, and were themselves
tainted, the strategy failed to take off. To add
to Musharraf's worries, the failure of his
government to ensure sufficient nominations
for the first phase of local elections coincided
with Bhutto's PPP and Sharif's PML entering
into an alliance to oust the present regime. It
was this that prompted Gen Musharraf to make
the deal, purportedly brokered by the Saudis,
or the Americans or perhaps even by both.
Reactions to Sharif's exile have been varied.
The major newspapers in Pakistan have
reacted angrily, as have the Pakistan Peoples
Party and the main Islamist party, the Jamaat-
e-Islami. But in terms of future possibilities,
there are divergent views. There are those who
see Sharif's removal as an important step
towards the military government's promised
return to democracy, because his presence in
Pakistan was the most important constraint for
the regime. His departure could therefore
encourage the military to restore the electoral
process. But even if this does happen, the status
quo ante is unlikely to be restored given that
most senior politicians are in prison, exile or
under house arrest.
The army may well try to set up a group of
politicians to do its bidding, but the political
credibility that such a grouping can acquire is
another matter altogether. A more optimistic postulate is that the space created by Sharif's
departure could be occupied by a new
generation of Pakistani politicians who may
be more inclined to etch a better profile for their
country.
- Adnan Rehmat
KASHMIR
THE TABLE WAITS
THOUGH MILITANT groups in Kashmir
have rejected the unilateral ceasefire announced by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee as a conspiracy to "sabotage the
movement", the 11-year-old armed struggle in
the state may gradually be heading to the
"negotiating table". The second in less than
six months, the cease-fire signals the mounting
pressure for a negotiated settlement on
Kashmir.
The first ceasefire, announced bv the
guerrilla outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, last July
was short-lived, despite the Indian government's positive response of ceasing military
operations; it failed because of Hizb's insistence on including Pakistan in the proposed
talks. Interestingly, this time around the Hizbul
Mujahideen has neither rejected nor accepted
the ceasefire explicitly. On the other hand,
militant organisations like the pan-Islamic
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Al Badr, the Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM) and the Jaish-e-Moham-
mad QeM) of Moulana Masood Azhar (who was
freed in exchange for the hijacked Indian
Airlines plane), have intensified their attacks
on Indian security forces. On 25 December, the
JeM exploded a car bomb right outside the army
headquarters in Srinagar.
Such activities may well be directed towards isolating the Hizbul Mujahideen. But
this gambit may not fetch the desired dividend
if the popular mood favours peace. And there
is some evidence that the popular mood
has made some difference. For instance, the
separatist camp headed by the 23-party
forum—the All Parties Hurrivat Conference
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 (APHC)—which had dismissed the July ceasefire as a "step in haste", has been compelled by
the overwhelming popular response to the
Vajpayee peace initiative to accept it as a
"positive change in the thinking of Indian
leadership". That the Hurriyat's stance has the
tacit support of Islamabad only reinforces the
point.
Complementary developments at other
levels have provided further momentum for
peace. With Pakistan observing "maximum
restraint" and pulling out troops from the line
of control, the Hurriyat Conference has formally
announced its intention of sending a delegation to Pakistan for parleys with militant
leaders and the political establishment.
Hurriyat's talks with the militants could be
significant for the peace process, particularly
if it succeeds in convincing the United Jehad
Council (UJC) on the agenda for talks with
India. Further, the proposed meeting of militant
commanders in Saudi Arabia, for which the
Hizb chief, Syed Salahuddin has already-
reached there, could push the process in a
positive direction, given that the Hizbul
Mujahideen's Commander-in-Chief
(operations), Abdul Majeed Dar, has welcomed
both the Indian and Pakistani initiatives.
Despite these optimistic trends, the pitch
can still be queered. Pre-cisely because the
separatists want to go ahead with the initiative
irres-pective of what the militants think of it,
differences have surfaced within the APHC. The
hardliners, led by Jamat-e-Islami leader and
former Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Geelani, are
adamant that India should first accept Kashmir
as a dispute before tripartite talks among India,
Pakistan and Kashmiris begin. The majority,
moderate group is inclined towards bilateral
talks with the Indian govern-ment first before
involving Pakistan at a later stage. This
faultline now divides the pro-Pakistan and pro-
independence parties in the Hurriyat.
Senior Hurriyat leader, Abdul Gani Lone,
while in Pakistan in connection with his son's
marriage, opposed the presence of foreign
militants on Kashmir soil, and spoke of "no
freedom except that of religion" for those living
in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This
certainly deepened the crisis within the
Hurriyat, and was seen as an "achievement"
for New Delhi. Apart from letting Lone visit
Pakistan, the Indian government had also
permitted two other Hurriyat leaders, Moulvi
Abbas Ansari and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, to
attend the Organisation of Islamic Countries
(OIC) conference in Doha last November.
These decisions are seen as a prelude to a
long-term game the Indian government seems
to be interested in vis-a-vis Kashmir. Observers
in Srinagar see the ceasefire initiative as a "big
risk" for the Vajpayee establishment as it has
enabled the militants, particularly pan-Islamic
outfits, to re-organise themselves in Kashmir
Valley, without any significant reduction in
civilian and military casualties.
To complicate matters, the Farooq Abdullah
government in Jammu and Kashmir has played
its card by announcing Panchayat elections in
the state starting 15 January. The timing of the
announcement, at a time when "serious"
efforts are on to find a solution, suggest deeper
motivations. It is believed that the
central government's bid to arrive at a
settlement with separatists has
accentuated Farooq Abdullah's fears of
a possible change of guard in Kashmir,
engineered from New Delhi. The
Panchayat election could be
detrimental to the peace process if the
militants train their guns on the
candidates at a time when the ceasefire
is still in place.
Nevertheless, if the Indian
government allows the Hurriyat leaders
to visit Pakistan to meet the Chief
Executive General Pervez Musharraf
and the militant leaders, a new chapter
on Kashmir will be opened. This
exercise will be reminiscent of the 1964
trip of late Sheikh Mohammad
Abdullah, who was sent by prime
minister Jawaharlal Nehru to talk to
Field Marshal Ayub Khan.
The days to come are politically
crucial for Kashmir, but much will depend on
the mili-tants' conduct. If the Hurriyat leaders
succeed in convincing the Pakistani
establishment, it will have an impact on the
leaders of those militant organisations over
whom Islamabad has influence. Significantly,
the Hurriyat Conference has already
established contact with LeT chief, Hafiz
Mohammad Sayeed and Hizb supremo, Syed
Salahuddin, in Pakistan. If this momentum is
sustained, a direct dialogue between New Delhi
and the Hurriyat leaders is a possibility. This
will not only give the latter recognition, but will
also define their role in deciding an issue that
has hung in balance 50 years too long. ,:*..
- Kousar Bukhari
The majority,
moderate group
is inclined towards bilateral
talks with the
Indian government first before
involving
Pakistan. This
faultline now
divides the pro-
Pakistan and
pro-independence parties in
the Hurriyat.
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
 Vajra (literally-flash
of lightning), is an
artists' condominium,
a transit home for
many, providing a
base during months
of hibernation and
creative inspiration.
Its isolation, graphic
splendour and
peaceful ambience,
make an ideal retreat
from the clock of
pressure.
Ketaki Sheth
Inside Outside.
I stayed a week at the
Vajra, by which time
I had become so fond
of it that I stayed
another.
John Collee
The London Observer.
Vajra, a serene
assembly of brick
buildings, grassy
courtyards,
ivycovered walls and
Hindu statuary is a
calm oasis over
looking, chaotic
Kathmandu.
Tune
in Kathmandu,
the Vajra
Swayambhu, Dallu Bijyaswori, PO Box 1084, Kathmandu
Phone: 977 1 271545, 272719 Fax: 977 1 271695 E-mail: vajra@mos.com.np
 k\;th Am j - I
tbr\ ' rv
Literature,
LIVE!
susan chacko on the recent NETSAP south
asian literary festival in Washington DC
The tidal wave of diasporic South Asian writing
is no longer news. What is surprising is that
the first literary event bringing together a host
of South Asian writers took place in 2000. In November, about a dozen authors and academics and an
excited audience of about 200 thronged the South
Asian Literary Festival organised by the Network
of South Asian Professionals (NETSAP) in Washington DC.
While the authors were well known from their
books, many in the audience also got their first taste
of the academic approach to literature. The introductory panel included three professors: Sara Suleri of
Yale, Ambreen Hai from Smith College and Sangeeta
Ray from the University of Maryland.
Post-colonial literature is the writing in English
that emerged out of the former European colonies,
and Suleri is one of the cornerstones of the "po-co"
academic world. Her memoir, Meatless Days, was first
published in 1987 and blends a description of the
Pakistan in which she grew up with her own reflections and interpretation. It was novel in that it made
no attempt to 'explain' the culture or society to a non-
subcontinental audience. Its importance to the recent
wave of South Asian writers is evident from the fact
that three of the authors at this festival named Suleri
and her book as their primary influence.
The language of academic postcolonialism can be
mystifying to an uninitiated audience, however; some
of Suleri's sentences like, "Postcolonialism needs to
be addressed with considerable irony" meant nothing to those of us who read South Asian literature for
enjoyment and for yet another fascinating connection
with our own culture. Still, everyone enjoyed her
anecdote about how her first paper about Rushdie,
written before the infamous fatwa, was rejected
because the editor was of the view that "Rushdie is
unknown".
Does diasporic literature mainly present an
upper-class, heterosexual, Hindu vision of India to its
readers? Sangeeta Ray felt so, and the background of
many of the well-known diasporic authors would
seem to bear her out. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati
Roy, and Shyam Selvadurai, however, are examples of
authors who write from a non-Hindu or non-heterosexual perspective.
Shyam Selvadurai, the Sri-Lanka born author of
Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens (http://
www.interlog.com/~funnyboy), shared the first
panel with Mira Kamdar, an international affairs
specialist who has recently published a memoir and
exploration of her Gujarati grandmother's life called
Maltha's Tattoos (http://www.motibastattoos.com/).
Her grandmother Motiba had mysterious tattoos on
her face and forearms, and years later Kamdar traced
Motiba's migrations from Kathiawar to Rangoon to
America in an attempt to find out what these tattoos
signified. In the process, the story of her own family
became the larger story of the Gujarati and Indian
diaspora.
Selvadurai read from Cinnamon Gardens, his
second novel set in 1920s Ceylon. It features
Annalukshmi, a young schoolteacher, and
Balendran, her uncle who lives a respectable married
life while hiding his own homosexual past. The first
question was about the historical accuracy of the
books. Selvadurai discussed his research in Colombo
where he had discovered an old newsclip about an
Englishman being prosecuted for having sex with
Ceylonese men in a railway carriage. The newsclip
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
 \;\A
m -Ji
had the names of the Ceylonese, who were all from
"good Cinnamon Gardens families". He had also
found another document which described the close
friends of a Ceylonese labour leader, one of whom
was a famous British gay activist, so
that Balendran's secret gay life in the
book had a corresponding historical reality.
When Mira Kamdar was asked
about the role of nostalgia in her
book; she said "nostalgia is an
expression of loss". She talked
about how the world was now so
different from the one of her grandmother Motiba; the commonality
between urban cultures across the world
today was something that the older generation could
neither comprehend nor imagine.
Sangeeta Ray moderated an energetic panel called
"Voicing the Unmentionable" about sexuality, featuring Ginu Kamani and Tahira Naqvi. Kamani read an
excerpt from junglee Girl, her book of short stories
about Indian women and sexuality, oppression,
societal and cultural norms. In this story, a young girl
is taken to see a 'lady doctor' because of her overt
sexuality, lt made for a forceful and dramatic reading.
One of the loveliest readings of the day was Tahira
Naqvi's; she read most of 'Love in an Election Year', a
longish short story that appears in her Attar of Roses
and also in Dragonfly in the Sun, an anthology of
Pakistani English writing. (See http://
www.monsoonmag.com/interviews/
i3inter_naqvi.html for Gayatri Devi's interview with
Tahira Naqvi.)
One young man asked why so many women
writers wrote about oppression, and complained that
it gave an unfair impression of the culture when in
fact most women were not oppressed. The moderator's response was, "You speak from experience?"
and the audience dissolved into laughter. Tahira
Naqvi said that she wrote about men, women, young
people, and the culture as a whole, and also that her
stories were not representative of 'the culture'.  Ginu
Kamani felt that the state of a culture is described by
the state of its women, and that the sexuality of
women is feared in many cultures, not just South
Asia. She thought it shouldn't be seen as a binary
issue where one culture was 'good' and the other
'bad'. One audience member suggested that nostalgia
for an imagined past was a large reason for the
repression of women's sexuality in the diasporic
communities.
'Why do you write about abnormal sexual experiences?'; a question for Kamani. She replied: because
it's emphasised by its abnormality, writing class
taught you to go for the drama, and lastly, that
anything sexual is abnormal for some people.
"Had sex talk become more open in India?"
Kamani was of the view that the US was the most
verbal country on the planet, and that the culture of
ihn:
talking was not as indigenous to other countries such
as India, where, according to her, 90 percent of
communication was non-verbal. Tahira Naqvi, in
response to the same question, agreed that parent-
child discussions about sex were uncommon in Pakistan, but women talked
extensively to other women about
sex. Cousin-marriage is permitted
and encouraged in Pakistan, and
kids grew up flirting with their
cousins in an atmosphere of
parental indulgence. Also, there
was no dearth of sexual material
in the form of books such as Ismat
'■ i1 Chugtai's, but the modern South
Asian women writers were only now
beginning to write about it,
The panel ended with a short digression into
Islamic culture, where Naqvi made a distinction
between 'Islamic' (i.e. Korrm-derived) and 'culture'
(i.e. which was derived from the community). She
also mentioned class differences which meant that
women in her own urban educated community had a
lot of freedom while growing up, while women in
villages were involved in 'honour killings', but
pointed out that neither was 'Islamic'; it was the
'culture'.
The panel on "Gender and Nation: Voices in
Transition" featured Bapsi Sidhwa and Shauna
Singh Baldwin, who read from Cracking india and
What the Body Remembers respectively. Both novels are
set in Lahore during Partition. It  was a contentious
panel as the two authors appeared to (politely)
disagree on most topics. Sidhwa's gentle voice
counterpointing with Baldwin's dramatic reading.
This panel was very different from all the others—
many of the questions were really comments from
audience members who had a strong personal
interest in Partition. I've heard that this is typical for
Baldwin's readings among South Asians because of
the topic of Partition. Audience members often got
very emotional when speaking or asking questions.
Judging from the age of the audience, most of them
would have had parents, or more probably grandparents who were Partition migrants, but clearly it's an
intensely emotional subject for many of them. Some
audience members narrated stories about their own
family experiences, and, as the moderator observed,
they had the material to write their own books.
"Why hasn't more been written about the Partition?" Sidhwa thought it was too immediate and
close to the participants, while Baldwin pointed out
that it takes money and leisure to write a book, a
luxury which was not available to most Partition
migrants.
Sidhwa made an interesting point: she said that
people in the Punjab had mostly forgiven the horrors
of Partition and learnt to live with each other's
communities again, while the hatred lives on in
places like Gujarat/Maharashtra that were mostly
10
h^BHHI
MlliWlU 'Iill.ih.ii ?
i sti! i a
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 untouched by Partition. Baldwin said the reaction to
her novel was "gendered"; that male reviewers had
generally not "got" the book.
"Why is there no fiction about the other Partition,
i.e. E. Pakistan/Bangladesh?" Sidhwa thought the
scale of violence in Punjab had been more horrific.
Baldwin promptly disagreed, throwing out some
numbers in support, but said it was a question to ask
the Bengalis.
Panel: Ancient Voices: Mythology's Living Influence, starring Jonah Blank [Arrow of the Blue-skinned
God) and Manil Suri (Death of Vishnu, coming this
January).
Jonah Blank's book is a retracing of the path of
Ram and a retelling of the Ramayana. The passage he
read was about his experience in Colombo during the
violence, and was not very impressive.
Suri's novel, which I had assumed was mythological from its title, turned out to be quite modern.
The Vishnu of the title is a drunken bum who lives on
the landing of an apartment complex in urban India.
This section alternated between two middle-class
women in the complex arguing over
what to do with Vishnu, and
Vishnu's own childhood in a
slum. Judging from this excerpt,
the book is worth looking out for.
Blank, in response to an
audience question, said that
people tried to interpret the
Ramayana in a local context, so -
for example—in Hampi, Ravana ,;ft  ,t'i -Vftjr
was seen as a hero. The
Doordarshan version of the
Ramayana for the first time gave all of India
a common vision of the Ramayana, which had "serious political implications". He works for the US
Senate Foreign Relations Committee and seemed to be
somewhat restricted from fully expressing himself.
Suri was suitably short-winded, as befits a mathematician. Someone asked about 'magical realism',
the phrase usually used to describe Rushdie's writings, and he said that in his book, anything that
seemed magical had a logical reason.
'Was the name Vishnu important? how would the
story have been different if he had been called Phil?'
Suri: it would have been a short story.
'Was there a divine hand turning the short story
into a novel?' Suri said that right after he had finished Chapter 2, his hard drive crashed and he lost
all his other short stories, so that he was forced (bv a
divine hand?) to work on this novel.
'Which Indian concepts are likely to influence the
West?' Blank hoped that some would. He gave
examples,  of Mother Teresa, who said she was who
she was entirely because of Tndia. And of Gandhi's
influence on the US Civil Rights movement.
Vikram Chandra read from his latest work in
progress in the final evening session. This novel
features Sartaj Singh, who appeared in his book of
short stories Love and Longing in Bombay. Anybody
liking Love and Longing, will probably like this new
novel as well. Sartaj Singh is a Bombay policeman,
and the novel involves salty language, corruption,
brothels, murder and the Bombay mafia.
David Davidar was well situated to talk about the
history of Indian English publishing. As the head of
Penguin India, he has been an integral part of its
growth in the last 20 years. In an amusing anecdote,
he described his shock when,  invited by Vikram Seth
to read his new book, he first saw the 1400-odd pages
of A Suitable Boy. He thought Indian English writing
would be fully realised when it included science
fiction, mysteries, romance novels, and memoirs.
The wrap-up panel was moderated by Chitra
Ragavan (see http://www.saja.org/ragavan.html)
An audience question about what sort of novels to
expect in the future brought a diverse set of responses.   Ginu Kamani hoped more people would
write about sex so that she wouldn't have to be the
representative author on sexual issues in future-
panels. Jonah Blank expected more regional diversity.
Shyam Selvadurai said there were two
diasporic Canadian novels about
politics coming out soon,
including his own. Baldwin
wondered if critiques of North
American society would be
accepted by readers? Bapsi
Sidhwa thought young
[diasporicl people craved more
;f™,r'.   ; :';!'U stories about their roots.
^  , Sangeeta Ray expected more
writing from the diaspora in the
Caribbean and Guyana, and more diversity
from within the Subcontinent.
A provocative question from the audience was
whether Jhumpa Lahiri's (http://www.sawnet.org/
books/jhumpa_lahiri.html) recent Pulitzer Prize was
justified, and if not, why it had won. Davidar thought
the book was significant, but also mentioned that the
criteria for such prizes was always mysterious.
Vikram Chandra said he had liked some of the stories
very much, but that he had been fascinated by E.
Annie Proulx's competing novel at the time, in his
experience judging was a complicated issue, and
sometimes the best compromise book won if the
judges were divided. And lastly, that prizes were
meaningless in terms of the longevity of the book. Ray-
felt strongly that such accomplishments should not
be reduced to tokenism.
"What were vour influences?" Sara Suleri said
"Everyone I've ever read", while Mira Kamdar,
Shyam Selvadurai, and Ambreen Hai all said that
Sulcri's Meatless Days had been a major influence on
their own writing. Tahira Naqvi cited Manto,
Chugtai, and other Urdu writers while Jonah Blank
went as far back as Valmiki.
Now the rumour has it that the festival will be
repeated next year—many can't wait for that.
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
ti
 ANNOUNCEMENT AND FIRST CALL FOR PAPERS
COMMISSION ON FOLK LAW AND LEGAL PLURALISM
The Commission on Folk Law and Legal Pluralism will hold its Xlllth International Congress in Dhulikhcl, Nepal
from December 10 lo 13, 2001. Following the congress, an international course on legal pluralism will be organized
at the same venue from December 15 to 19.
THE CONGRESS
The congress will address a number of related themes in which legal pluralism and local unofficial law fonn significant
factors in social, economic and political development. While the conference symposia are comparative in nature, a
major focus will be on problems in South and Southeast Asia. The congress hopes to attract participants from
various academic backgrounds as well as practitioners who in their work are confronted with issues of legal pluralism.
The tentative symposia topics include: 1) legal pluralism and natural resource management: 2) plural laws, ethnicity,
and religion and democracy and human rights ;3 gfendcred perspectives on law ;4) crossing the border: legal pluralism
in a transnational setting; 5) methodological and theoretical issues in legal pluralism.
THE COURSE
After the congress, a one-week course on "Resource rights, ethnicity and governance in the context of legal pluralism"
will be organized for young academics and practitioners. The course aims at capacity building on the complex
issues of legal pluralism by drawing on the expertise of inlernational scholars in the field wbo attend the conference.
It will provide bolh practical and theoretical insights in some ofthe central questions and problems concerning the
development and safeguarding of local populations' rights, including rights to natural resources.
Funds will be available to cover travel and hotel costs for a limited number of congress and course participants.
The deadline for submitting ahstracts and application for funds is April 15,2001.
For further details,
please see the Commission website: www.unh.ca/cflp/ or contact
Rajcndra Pradhan lpluralism@wlink.com.np: Prof. Franz von Benda-Beckmann fhenda@eth.mpg.d
Jrol'. Keebet von Benda-Beckmann kbenda@eth.mpg.de; or Prof. Melanic G. Wiber wiber@unb.ca
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contributions from writers living in or writing about south asia
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ther form of creative writing in english/translated into engllsh
For litSA guidelines please see
www. hinialmne.com/lirsa
No mail's land
no woman's either
I stand in the middle of my life
Out of earth's soft
and turbulent core
meena ale^andor: fault
As Meena Alexander celebrates her birthday
this February, it will not be without a measure
of satisfaction that she looks back on a writing
career that began early, at the age of 10, with
the writing of poetry.
Educated and raised in Sudan where her
father worked for the Government, she lived
the diasporic life, studying and working in
India, Britain and finally   in the US. She
currently lives in New York City where she
works as a professor of English and Creative
Writing at Hunter College and at the Graduate
Centre, City University of New York.
Alexander's oeuvre spans  a variety of
literary genres and has been published widely
and has been translated into a number of languages. Her first book, a long poem, entitled The
Bird's Bright Wing, was published in 1976 in
Calcutta. Her best known book, Fault Lines, New
York: The Feminist Press at the City University of
New York, 1993 is a memoir, but Alexander would
like to think of herself first as a poet. Her work
includes seven volumes of poetry, including River
and Bridge, and a long poem, "Night Scene, the
Garden", which was produced as an Off-Broadway play in 1988. She has   two novels published,
Manhattan Music and Nampalli/ Road, (which was
a 1991 Village Voice Literary Supplement Editor's
Choice) as well as a study on romanticism:
"Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft,
Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley". In 1993,
she was the winner of a MacDowel] Fellowship.
The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial
Experience is a collection of both prose and poetry.
Both an academic and an artist, Alexander's work
straddles both worlds of theory and creativity.
This conversation with Prem Poddar, which
took place in Aarhus University, Denmark, ranges
freely over a number of Alexander's favourite
themes: of location, memory and the struggle to
forge her own unique postcolonial identity.
Short fiction: sunil nepali, matt donahue
poetry: vikas menon, Afsan Chowdhury
play:sandeepmohan
and more
•...'■ ■' ?*
PfiMsi
*■
 questions
of
PP: You've described yourself as a no-nation woman in your
last collection The Shock of Arrival, and to talk about
location in your case is sometimes difficult, often
meaningless. Wltatl'm interested in knowing is: where do
you write from ? How do you locate, yourself—if at all ? And
how does your writing work—given that location is so
intractable, given that you seem to be striving towards
borderline identifications?
MA: It is so difficult but it is also terribly important—
I'm very aware of it. Writing is a physical act and it is
labour and it becomes very important to me, you know,
just the immediate location where I'm able to write. I
write in all sorts of places: I ve often written in moving
vehicles, I've written in the subway for instance... I
also write in transit lounges or 1 write when I'm in
between places, because somehow that seems to open
up something for me. And yet, at the same time, I think
location is terribly important to me, which is perhaps
why I spoke about memory today; it's as if there was a
palimpsest of place, layer upon layer.
In a way I try, not consciously perhaps, but I
construct what I write in terms of the memories that
places bring and the kinds of correspondences or
associations that may exist between geographically
distant places but which can cohere or fuse together in
the imagination which then is attached to a place in the
mind—a place that both is and isn't. For instance that
poem called "Passion"—I wrote it in a room in
Manhattan by a window on 103rd street and
Broadway—I started writing in there, and I wrote some
of it in an apartment on the Upper West Side. But as I
was writing 1 was really translating into a totally
different scene and the scene was a mud hut on a road
in my childhood in Kerala. So the act of writing was
also for me an act of translating across zones. But that
Meena Alexander,
in conversation with
Prem Poddar
doesn't enter into the poem. That is part of what
allowed me to make this poem but it doesn't come into
the poem. So in that sense, there is a way in which
location for me has... it's almost as if it has to attain the
condition of music because it has to exist in time.
Time and again I do return to the landscape of
Kerala which is also the landscape of my childhood.
And I don't really think of it as nostalgic because I
think that what I write is always bound by the present
in some way, wherever that present or whatever that
present is made up of, and the kinds of pressures it
brings.
PP: A lot of questions emerge from what you just said, but 111
just pickonc thread. It seems to me that, among other things,
you're gesturing to the physicality of memory. I'm
interested in getting a sense of how you actually grasp
memory, how a writer can narrate the violence of our pasts.
In this connection I'm thinking ofthe various struggles for
land rights round the world, the work of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; of some
German architects grappling with the Holocaust through
ihe idea of an anti-monument to the genocide, and so on. This
relationship between body and violence and memory seems
to be very, very central in your thinking about memory.
MA: Welt, for the past two years now I've been really
thinking about trauma and memory. I think that Freud
says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that trauma is really "a wound in the mind's experience of time". I'm
not sure if that is the exact phrasing. But, as I said earlier, violent events culturally, politically in our real lives
often leave us at a loss for words because it is an excess
almost of what the nervous system can grasp—1 mean
nervous system both of the individual and of a culture.
So it becomes a kind of hole, a black hole that people
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 don't really talk about and if they are able to talk about
it they stop it—which doesn't mean that it doesn 't exist, it's there. I think particularly of some of the issues
and questions that have come up 50 years after Partition in India, also the oral narratives of women who are
still alive from after Partition—people like Ritu Menon,
Urvashi Butalia, Veena Das who have worked on Partition.
It's very moving to me because often those are also
places of cultural silencing. So, I think, when you look
at questions of the female body fit doesn't have to be
female, but for me it is) and the kind of interface between cultural violence in terms of the construction of,
say, gender and events of historical violence... this is
very interesting because it's also a place where language doesn't reach very easily.
If I actually had more time today, I would have read
a poem called "Illiterate Heart" which has a number of
lines of Malayalam in it. It's about a child learning language, this child runs away and she says "I '11 never be
caught in that cage of script". So, I'm actually fascinated by what it might mean to write out of a place of
radical illiteracy. In Sweden, two days ago, I said something about not learning how to read or write, and there
was this big... quiet in the room, you know what I
meant? it doesn't mean that you don't learn how to
read or write, but that there are places, I think, in our
experience where the linearity of a given syntax doesn't
work, and, for me at least, that's where a lyric poem or
a piece of prose.that is constructed in a certain way
can perhaps move. Now, is that a location? What is
the location of such an utterance? So, in a sense,
we come back to the question of the physicality of
location because this whole issue of what it means to
be in place is so critical for us and what the indices of
place mean.
PP: So, in a sense, memory or re-membering is a kind of
painful reworking,akind of putting together of the sundered
fragments of a dismembered past to make sense of the trauma
of the present.
MA: That's right.
PP: Is that how you really think of your writing?
MA: It is, I agree absolutely. I think dismembered past
but also a past that in some measure has to be invented.
You see it's not as if... I mean, when a body is broken
up into pieces you can't really necessarily pick up all
the parts because bits would have gone into
decomposition, or there are parts that you simply can't
tolerate remembering. And this is the other piece of it,
because I think that traumatic memory very often can
occ ur in flashes, and a flash is necessarily fragmentary.
I think of this line "when the light of sense goes out in
flashes" (it's not my line, it's a line by a gentleman who
I will not name) What does that mean? And it's very
interesting because I think it is where the light of sense
goes out in flashes that we actually stop to see. Now
whether we can put that scene into language is another
question, but I think it's an enormous challenge.
PP: Can I pick upon two issues thatyott 've touched on? You
keep on returning to this idea of location and my question is
a very straight-forward one. I mean, obviously, conventionally location is thought of in spatial terms—it s a kind of
spatial metaphor. But it seems to me that you are also
thinking in temporal terms...
MA: Absolutely.
PP: Location is very much in that sense....
MA: I thinkbut location is a temporal index. You know,
in my very early years, when I was 18, I went off to
England to do a Ph.D and started reading Husserl's
Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness—a very
interesting text, made from Heidegger's lecture notes.
That clarified something for me: that memory is spatial,
and the other piece of it is, that location is temporal...
The present doesn't exist for us, except in so far as we
are able to have a horizon of remembrance. I think the
two things are like body and shadow, just together.
I've been recently looking at something again from
the Milindapanha, The Questions of King Menander,
this dialogue between Nageshan and Melinda. It's
quite amazing because the king asks something like,
"Am I the same being as I was?" And the sage says,
"What do you mean?" And the king says, "Well, was I,
am I the baby?" This dialogue continues and in a sense
the point being made is there are different selves. And
then the king says, "Well, does one man commit a
crime and another man suffer mutilation for it?"
Which I think is an extraordinary question because if
you take temporal passage in that fashion and talk
about the continual changing self, you know, there is a
baby then there is a man that gets married and then
does one man commit a crime and another suffer
mutilation? Which interests me greatly. It's actually a
long dialogue which ends up with this marvellous
image of different stages of a lamp and the sensuous
continuity of the body in time. So it seems to me that we
perhaps don't as yet, in certain kinds of categorical
thinking, have a rich enough sense of what the body is.
I think we have it in art, I think we have it .in our
experience, but a sense really of the way in which
temporality as it comes to us is always bound up with
sensuous experience, in the sense of bodily experience.
I think that it is out of that that we can make a frame for
2001  January 14/1   HiMAL
 aesthetic production, 1 mean that it is out of that in a
sense that we travel.
PP: It seems to me that you locate postcolonial memory in the
ruptured time of the metropolis, if I may say that, especially
in poetry where you bring in these descriptions ofNeiv York.
Maybe you would like to say something about that.
MA: Well, it's very strange, I arrived in New York 20
years ago now, and, it's not like I've lived there for 20
years—I've lived in India in between. It was completely
a kind of gut-feeling for me that I needed a great city,
and by great city I mean a crowded, densed, dense
Crosshatch of the metropolis. This is somebody who
has never lived in a big city before. 1 was kind of
shocked when I came to New York, because I know
Kerala, I know Khartoum, I've been in the Midlands,
you know, Nottingham, bits of Europe, but never
something quite like this. For me it's almost like a
compression chamber, that I will come across
something in this city that really kind of flips me back
or forwards, so it's almost like a kind of time-travel,
which is also why I think that speed releases
something for me. It's very strange. I 'm working on this
new book and I had a very hard time at certain points
writing. We actually live near a parkbut it's very close
to a subway. As soon as I thought of going out of my
room...as soon as I start to get up I want to write
something and it was very strange. So I'd take my pen
and pencil and 1 would go down to the subway and I 'd
write sitting in the subway,., the subway goes very fast.
Actually it became a very safe place for me to write,
what with all this speed and transit under ground.
When I came up I'd stop writing and I thought... how
will I ever do this book? But then of course gradually I
got into it. But you know what it is? It's those difficult
moments when you have to enter another life, which is
what this book has made me do. I think I needed that...
What does speed do? What is speed? I'm not sure but
it's... there's something about it. Maybe it is the idea of
not being in a place.
1 remember, as 1 was coming to Sweden for this
symposium, and I was a bit nervous about coming
because I'd never been so far north, you know, I
thought I'd die of cold and so on, So I got an old friend
to see me off at the bus station (I was taking a bus) and
he said, "You 're a bit nervous, you know it's a big trip".
And 1 said, "yes it is a big trip and I'm feeling kind of,
you know..." Then I was in the transit lounge of the
airport in New York, and suddenly I felt this enormous
sense of release, lt was fabulous, it was really almost
like a mystical feeling because I could see the plane
wings and then suddenly this marvellous light,
and I thought, now it's all right. So there's something
in the going out and the coming in... maybe it allows
for composit i on...
A long time ago I did this thesis in Nottingham and
it was all about memory and the body and place—in a
sense I haven t really gone very far, 1 just sort of have
one idea, right? I remember thinking about what it
might mean to have a romantic poet's composed self in
the poems, and how far does one go with memory.
When 1 was 161 had bronchitis in the Sudan and I was
in bed for about two weeks or more—in and out of bed
really—and I got to read the whole of Proust's A la
Recherche de Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things
Past) and I was in bed for a week and I read—very
carefully— and got very excited because it was this
enormous architectonics of memory. In a way, as
somebody w7ho does not have a very stable place,
memory maybe affords the possibility of a shel ter. Bu t it
is one that really is quite precarious and it's fitful, but
still it is nevertheless there, almost as a realm of
correspondences, I mean correspondence in the sense
of echoes.
I was talking at this symposium at the BildMuseet
to a curator who is based in Paris and does these
international shows. I said, "You know, there is this
line in Baudelaire", and he happened to know it
because he was doing something on cities. So I said, it's
actually in Le Cygne, "le city change en d 1'hdce plus vite
que le coeur des mortelles"—the city changes even
quicker than the human heart.
1 sometimes think that New York is like this animal,
you know. So I have to go away and come back, it is
very, very important to me. Would I write if I weren't
there? Of course I would, but somehow it is there and I
have a job there and so forth...
PP: You 've been talking about the city in terms of travelling
in and out, largely...
MA: But I also travel within the city.. .1 will travel, say,
from home to work and back, to Chinatown or
something, and I come up, and it's like I'm in a different
world. So it is as if even within the city it allows me to
play out this business... Because I think that when
vou're a writer you do carry a world inside you and
you have to sort of keep setting it down—I mean,
literally setting it down. I think that the city in which 1
am at this moment... I think it allows me... you know, a
species of perpetual discovery, which is very exciting
for me, because I grew up in very beautiful places, but
they were small places with clearly marked thresholds
that a girl was not supposed to step over.
PP: I'm wondering if you see the migrant make-up of the
city, with all its disjunctive spaces and temporalities, as
being productwe for at least the inventive imagination of
memory, as enabling the release of postcolonial memory.
16
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 MA: I think so and I think part of it is that any language
that I will use in this particular city, I mean language
literally in terms of English or Malayalam or French or
whatever, but also in terms of any particular grammar
that I seek to use, will have to border on another.
Because New York is filled with language, certainly
English and Spanish, but there are immigrants from all
over the world, lt really is very unusual in that it really
is a place made up of layers of immigrants and of
multiple discrepant kinds of languages. Even who one
is, is up for grabs. 1 mean, if I wear a sari—otherwise 1
could be from Guyana or Puerto Rico. I think it's very
interesting the way these sorts of ethnic confusions
and densities arise. I suspect that if 1 had lived
somewhere, say, if I'd lived in Watertown, Massachusetts for instance, it would be a very different kind
of experience.
PP: But Meena, given your present location in New York, I
mean the act of writing or the process of memorialising or
whatever, wouldn 't that necessarily involve some level of
indulgence in nostalgia. I mean of course you could turn it
around and say, the way you see nostalgia is different or
whatever. What areyour thoughts on this?
MA: No tell me, Prem, what you mean by nostalgia?
PP: IV give you my own take: in the sense that, you know,
there is this conventional understanding of nostalgia,
longing and desire for home, a recovery of a certain kind of
selected past in some ways, necessarily selective memories...
MA: That's right, it is selective.
PP:.. .and it s usually for something that you had. In that
sense it's a luxury. But for a lot of people, especially those
who don 'f come from a rich background, nostalgia can be
different. It's more like nostalgia for things you never had as
it were. Somewhat like Jimmy Porter's rage in Look Back in
Anger.
MA: It can be there, it can be there. I completely agree
with you. There is nostalgia, but I would also like to say
that there is also trauma, you see, if nostalgia is a
selection of only the beautiful things or lovely or
whatever, trauma is not speaking about the things that
are terrible. So that I think there is nostalgic memory,
there is also traumatic memory. In other words, I think
the invention of memory... that's why, when I said to
you I have a whole other layer of work to do, I mean
these are some of the questions I need to think about.
What does it mean to invent a past or to write, to
fabricate? The other piece, which is very important, is
that certainly there is nostalgia but in my work there is
also the edge of the present which is
always pressing, and it's political, and
it's kind of dense. Certainly memory is an
escape but it has to also allow you to make
a bridge of return—because otherwise
you wouldn't keep sane, right, you'd just sort of float
around.
Somehow the question that you asked me reminded
me of talking to Raman, A.K.Ramanujan, many years
ago. In fact, it was a sort of a poignant moment for me
because he had come to New York for a memorial for
Barbara Stoler-Miller—I was going with my daughter
into a little bookstore and she was licking this
ice-cream cone and suddenly Raman appears, you
know, he'd come for Barbara's memorial. So we had
this long chat and he said he wanted some ice-cream
and he was trying to gether to give him some ice-cream,
she said no, 1 don't think she wanted to give up
her cone.
And then he said to me, "Well, Meena, send me
some poems, you know, what you're writing". 1 said,
"Raman actually I've just put together a manuscript,
are you sure you want to see it?" And he said, "Yes,
yes, absolutely. Send it to me right away so it will be
there for me when I go back and I will read it
immediately". And that manuscript was River and
Bridge, you know, the book that came out a few years
ago and, so, the next day 1 photocopied it and sent it to
Raman. 1 think he died about 10 days after that, you
know, after we met on the sidewalk, 'cause he said:
"I'm going in for an operation—I'll read it before that".
And he died under anaesthesia during the operation. 1
felt terribly sad, you know, it was like, I felt like
unfinished business for me, I mean it was very,
very...painful thathe lost his life.
And the other time that remains in my mind I met
him in between, (often—not frequently, 'cause 1 was
never in Chicago, but at that time we were—and they
both have to do with the composition of poems—it's
interesting) because that time must have been, you
know, 18-19 years ago and we were all having
dinner...Raman and Molly had come over... And 1 had
this new baby, who was an enormous child, very fat—
this is the one who is 19—and Raman said to me:
"Meena I just saw some new poems of yours in
Chandrabhaga" (Jayanta Mahapatra's journal) and
"will you recite them for us, will you read them"?
I didn't have the magazine but Nairn did. And I
think there was a poem about the baby in it. So then, the
magazine was on the table and everybody was around
the table and Raman said: "Please read". And then
suddenly this baby started crying, so I had to pick him
up. He didn't want to sit on his father's lap, he wanted
to sit on my lap. And it was quite extraordinary
because I could not read the poems with the baby on my
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Why couldn't I do it? It wasn't that his head was
blocking. It was just that emotionally, you know what,
it was as if it was the same space. I just couldn't, I could
not do both at the same time. And it was kind of painful
. for me because, you know, Raman is much senior to me
and I admired him, you know; but to recite the poem—
I simply couldn't. And I think he understood, I mean,
you know, everybody sort of laughed and sort of
understood, but it was like both times something was
unfinished, and I thought, some day I should make a
poem about it.
I felt very sad because... not sad, but it was a
complicated moment, you know. But it was as if—
"being a mother" is not what I wanted to say, but
having that child physically on my lap, I could not
recite the poems; which doesn't mean that having a
child I can't compose the poetry, or I can't be a poet. I 'm
not saying any of that, I'm talking about something
else—and then this last time, you see, I sent the poems
and, you know, maybe they reached him. There is a
strange kind of sadness about it. And I didn't know
how we got onto this topic at all.
PP: Nostalgia
MA: Nostalgia. How was this, what was this
unfinished business...
PP: In some ways I suppose I'm referring to some of your
critics, who say "Wait a minute, you live in New York and
what you write becomes a function of your location there". I
mean there is, of course, a suspicion in India, in South Asia,
of writers or critics, who live in the metropolis and can easily
be seen as privileged spokespersons for the Third world
position.
MA: I know what T wanted to say. Raman had this story
that he tells (which I think is in the introduction to his
folk tales, but I've heard him tell it) where one of the
emperors in the Moghul times was travelling, and he's
talking about his home. He said his home was in his
memory, and it is a bush and there is a bird in the bush
that sings, "and I carry the scent of that bush and the
sound of the bird and that's my home".
That story that he told is very, very interesting to me,
because I remember when I was in India in my early
twenties I would read Raman's poems and I loved
some of them, and I would think 'How is he sitting in
Chicago and writing these poems? What is this?' T
mean, as someone of a different generation, you know...
I love his poems bu 11 kind of looked at them like this...
'like this', meaning, at an angle. But then people often
say to me, "What would you have written if you were
in India?" Of course I would have been a writer but I
would have been a different writer. I do believe that in
the end if we do get to make the work that we're meant
to do, it falls into certain kinds of patterns, which in
some measure is beyond our control because they come
out of materials that are the materials of our biography,
which you don't have much control over. It so happens
that my biography is of a certain kind, I mean... you
know, I don't write in Malayalam, I write in English, as
many people do.
PP: Connected to what you 're saying, this recent, you know,
fashion, almost, for South Asian writing in the metropolis,
writing for a readership in the West....
MA: Yeah, I don't quite trust it.
PP: You don 'I trust it? But do you have any kind of sense of
why there is this interest?
MA: I'm not quite sure, to tell you the truth. I suspect
that in the West at this moment there is an enormous
sense of anxiety. And there is a realisation after the
ethnic struggles in Bosnia—and stuff that happened
there—the break-up of the Soviet empire... there really
is a sense that the world is shifting and changing, so
that places that were defined as 'other lands' carry
with them a charge. Now, what happens to those texts
when they're read is yet another question. Or even stuff
that I produce, I mean there is this whole multicultural
wave of American writing, of which my work is also a
part. That's also another sort of lens through which I
understand. I mean, you cannot deny that the material
reality in which you live does to some extent mould <
your writing. It has to, it cannot be otherwise. So that [
what I write in New York is not what I would write in a ;
Kerala village. Now, how that relates to the I
structures   of  memories   is   a   very
interesting    question.    I'm    not
completely sure, I mean I don't
have an answer for it in terms
of just talking.
PP: Wiry this particular jt h.r        -">J
fascination with Soulh Asia?
Indian writing or Sri Lankan
zvriting specifically enjoy
so much attention,
especially in England.
MA:   What   do   you
think? Yo u probably
have    a    better
answer for it than
I do.
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
 PP: I don't have an answer. Wliy Anglophone Asia and not
to the same degree writing from the African ex-colonies ?
MA: I actually don't know. I mean why Indian, as
opposed to Nigerian, for instance, right?
PP: Exactly.
MA: My concern is that in all that hoopla they
shouldn't forget the very rich traditions of Indian
writing, which are not in English. Because when they
say Indian writing they mean Indian writing in
English, which is a very small part of what Indian
writing is. There is an extraordinary tradition of Indian
writing, which is not in English. You have to
acknowledge that.
PP: So you think that contemporary Indian writing in
English is serving as some kind of an interface, it is bringing
areas of writing or experience which are not accessible, or
have not been available to the West?
MA: Well, maybe. 1 hadn't quite put it in those words,
but perhaps... But what's very important is that that
part should not serve as the whole in the imaginary.
That, 1 think, is very important. In a sense, as a writer,
one is always grateful for readers but you never know
what somebody is going to make of your writing—all
the uses... You simply don't know. I remember once I
was invited in the States somewhere for a festival, I was
going to read a particular poem, it was a very grand
occasion, and the lady said, "Do you mind if someone
dances while you are reading?"
"What do you mean, someone dances?" I was a bit
shocked. And she said, "Oh, you know, she is a dancer
and she has choreographed this whole dance to your
poem and she is expecting to dance as you read." So
how could I say no? 1 actually read the poem and it was
fine, it was a short poem so it was okay, but I was kind
of stunned, right?
PP: You know, there is a fascinating video of Grace Nichols s
poem called "I is a long memoried woman"...
MA: Someone's dancing to it? She is reading and
someone's dancing?
PP: The poem is used as a kind of voice-over. Nichols reads
from it while the historical experience of the middle passage
is represented in a stunning choreography.
MA: There is a very interesting choreographer in the
States called Ananya Chatterjee and she has
choreographed a whole section of my novel Nampally
Road and there is a dance that comes out of it.
PP: Connected to what you were saying, again South Asian
writing versus African writing, or whatever—what sense of
the modern do you have, I mean, as a South Asian ?
MA: What do you mean modern?
PP: Modern, as in what is your take on the idea of
modernity?
MA: I don't have any. I don't have a take on it.
PP: Can one really?
MA: Yeah, I really don't, I promise. So explain, because
every time someone says modernity, I don't understand,
so you just have to explain what do you mean, you
have to sort of pretend that I'm quite illiterate in these
matters and just tell me. Rephrase the question or
explain,
PP: I mean, what I m asking is: how do you situate yourself
vis-a-vis modernism?
MA: I don't.
PP: You don 1. So it s a kind of...
MA: By modernism, what do you mean? Do you mean
T. S. Eliot, high modernist writing or do you mean
something else?
PP: A certain kind of writing, of course. But I am more
concerned about the lure that modernism has held for many
who migrated from the colonies to the cultural capitals in the
centre but were unwelcome in the international modernist
movement. Thus, I'm also of course referring to a
paradoxical phenomenon, i.e. the ethnocentricity of the.
bastions of modernity...
MA: Which is what?
PP: The questionable internationalism of modernity. By
which I mean the collection of values and ideas associated
with enlightenment thinking.
MA: Goodness gracious me. Why would I do
something like that? Why would 1 situate myself vis-avis the Enlightenment project?
PP: I mean, of course you talk about identity and we can't
talk about identity unless, we, in a sense, try to unpack the
Cartesian notion of identity and the questioning of that
notion by various theorists. We keep on talking about the
postmodern subject, the postcolonial subject, and so on and
so forth, sometimes ignoring the narratives of historicism.
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 Obviously, it s very central in our talk about the
sovereignity of the 'rational' subject, the ethics of individualism, our unpacking of the idea of the modern, right?
MA: That's, I suppose, true.
PP: So I 'mjust trying to draw you into this...
MA: Into a spiral.
PP: No, no, no. I mean, how do you relate to it? I mean, are
you oppositional? If so, how? In some ways you 're saying
that you don't care.
MA: I'm fascinated by Descartes. If you want to talk
about Descartes that's one thing. If you want to talk
about the modern, I simply don't know what to say,
nee? Because our mother would say, "Oh, this is very
modern, it's terrible," and so on. That's obviously not
what you mean. Maybe it is?
PP: Well, in some ways, I mean...
MA: "These modern ideas," my mother will say. In
Malayalam she will use the word modern, which is
very interesting. She says "Meena, it's the modern
ideas...What are you doing? These are all modern
ideas." (She doesn't say that to me anymore, I think she
has kind of lost hope.)
If you want to talk about Descartes, I'm actually
fascinated by the idea of Descartes and the fact that he
dreamt up his... I think it was his meditations, right,
inside this great stove, and he was a recruit in the
Dutch army. The cogito had it's inception in this very
warm, womb-like place. I do teach Blake, 1 teach the
English Romantic poets who were terrified of the idea
of Descartes—whatever that meant. Coleridge talks
about the Cartesian world as all these tiny atoms,
which are just racing and all these bits and pieces
broken up. But, I think, what is fascinating about the
Cartesian project, at least fascinating from the end of
the 20th century when we look back, is the constraints
that were put on any possible epistemology that
started its course off from where he led it.
I don't know if you remember when I read earlier I
talked about this gap in imagined reality, which is
where I start writing. In other words, the decallage, the
gap between what is outside and what I know from my
life, which has to do with migrancy. So it is in that gap
of invented time that I start to write, I start to make up. I
never actually said this in so many words before, but I
think the entire breakdown of the Cartesian project
comes because the poor, wretched man, who was also
extraordinary brilliant, could not conceive of how the
thinking substance and the physical substance could
in any way unite, could in any way be one. In other
words, how the human being could be a person. So
there is always either these animal spirits or the
existence of a just, benign God. There is always in his
thinking this gap, which is already there and cannot be
reconciled without another machine. It's also for me
perhaps the gap in the idea of the modern. Ah, there,
I've answered your question.
PP: Okay, so in a sense you see modernity as a kind of
already fractured modernity?
MA: Absolutely. I prefer not to use that word.
PP: As you would not want to use the word postmodern, I
suppose?
MA: That's right. If you want to use it, it's fine. But, I
think, if you want to use a word like identity then I
could say yes, but a word like modern—1 simply don t
know what to do with it. Maybe because my mother
always had such a problem with it, modern being
someone who wore chiffon saris when she shouldn't...
So it's not a positive word. Now, of course, I'm also
deliberately not responding to your question because I
think that the word has so many layers, and there are
so many takes on the idea of the modern—particularly
in cultural studies—and what it means and what
tradition means. It's very hard unless we have a very
specific context to talk about, beca use it's a complicated
set of ideas.
PP: Well, I was giving you a context in the sense...
MA: You spoke about Descartes and I responded about
Descartes.
PP: ... There seems to be a particular kind of modernity
which is maybe obtainable in South Asia, which makes it
different...
MA: But do you think that's why, to return to your
earlier question, in some way, Indian writing in
English partakes of it? Is that what you're getting at?
PP: Yeah, in a sense I'm saying that there is a kind of... a
questioning of the modern, there is a use or a utility of the
fractured modern that you talk about, which maybe, people
in South Asia or intellectuals in South Asia arc able
to access...
MA: Maybe. That is actually very interesting, I mean
that is entirely possible. In part because if you grow up
in India you have to have more than one language, it's
sort of taken for granted, so you learn to think in the
interstices of these languages. You know, when I was a
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
21
 child I had Malayalam but I
was born in  Allahabad, so
Hindi was in some ways, as
well as Malayalam, my first
language—and everybody
has to learn English. Then
we moved to Pune, so I had
some Marathi, then we went
abroad  and   I  had  to   learn      \
Arabic    and    French.    Is    that
postmodern, is that modern? Is that
a life after decolonisa-tion? What is
it? How do we locate it? Certainly the
project of modernity has created these
metropolises in which some of us live.
There is a very interesting connection between
the way a city functions and a certain take on
what modernity might be.
PP: Well, III leave that for the time being. But a
connected question: the process of writing as framed by a
world, of course a world in my understanding of it
profoundly impacted by the structures and the strictures of
colonialism. How do you forge, how do you reinvent? Or
fashion, whatever the word might be, the intimate language
that I some times encounter in your poems? I mean, given
that history?
MA: I really don't know how to answer that question,
because it is an intimate language. 1 wrote an elegy
several years ago for Uma Shankar Joshi. It's a poem
called "Paper filled with Light" and it begins in
Noguchi's garden on Long Island City, but then it sort
of moves to Sabermati Ashram. It's a piece about
Partition, a meditative poem I wrote during the Gulf
War and it ends with a question, "How could 1 dream
of paper filled with light?"
This is after an evocation of certain kinds of
violence. It's after talking about the Gulf War and the
barbed wire, it says:
the packed cars of new immigrants,
the barbed wires of Meerut, Bensonhurst, Baghdad,
strung in my brain. How could I sing of a plum tree,
a stone that weeps water?
How could I dream of paper filled with light?
So you're saying to me, "How can you have this
intimate language..."—which it has to be, the
language of poetry has to be,".. .in such a place?'" It's
almost like saying, "How can you write lyric poetry at
a moment like this?" And yet, I would like to respond, it
is precisely at a moment like this that one needs the
lyric poem, not the grand piece of prose or not
just rhetoric, you need the lyric because it cannot be
bought and sold, it has no commer-cial value,
it's not like a novel. And it's very small and
£cftj.    you could memorise it, you could write it
'iljLv,     on toilet paper. I mean it.
It's very important to have those
moments of our existence that really
make us human that, in a sense,
cannot be controlled. But, of course,
they can be controlled, you can
starve a poet, they are only human
beings;  also  you  can  burn  the
|£$  paper. The small fragile pieces of
&$   our existence are very important,
and 1 think lyric is related to them.
But you're right. Itmay seem very odd
that on the one hand there is this
woman   who  theorises  in  a  certain
fashion and then writes lyric poetry, It
is a bit peculiar, T admit.
PP: In a sense I 'm trying to draw you into
the idea of, if it is at all possible, thinking
about different modernities.
MA: Like what?
PP: Wliat I 'm saying is what you already said: that the
modern is already fractured and hybrid. And maybe we have
appropriate...
MA: But I'm thinking also of, say, the ideas of
decolonisation as someone like Sarojini Naidu might
have learned—or even Gandhi. Gandhi for me is a
fascinating figure. I keep reading Gandhi again and
again, and I think he is a great modern.
PP: Modern, but a kind of a contra-modern.
MA: That's right. He is a great modern in the true sense
because he's radical. Radical in that he goes under the
root of what a culture might posit.
PP: I 'in trying to ask you a very political question, which is,
if we. have a different take on the idea of the modern in India
or different parts of South Asia, you know...
MA: The idea of secularism could be tied to it also.
PP: Exactly. So, given the growing fundamentalism, if you
like, the kind of violence we see in Sri Lanka or Pakistan
or India, what is the future of lived multiculturalism in
South Asia?
MA: God forbid that one would have modernity
rescue one.
22
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 PP: Yeah, exactly.
MA: That 1 don't accept, because I don't understand
what that would mean. But if we could talk just a little
bit more about Gandhi, what fascinates me about his
project, because I think that's the right word to use for
it, and if we can think about Fanon, we ought to think
about Gandhi at the same time. Living in this day and
age 1 think it's very important. This perhaps is where
postcolonial memory needs to come in, remembering
Gandhi. When I went to South Africa, for the first time
two years ago, for the Johannesburg Biennale, it was
during the time of the Truth and Reconciliation
Committee. I watched on television, on Johannesburg
TV, they would have the commission hearings on TV. It
was actually quite fascinating. Then subsequently I
met the person who was in charge of the broadcasting,
and recently I was talking to Njabulo Ndebele, who is
the lifetime president of the Congress of African
Writers, who's involved in their whole media project.
They would show clips from the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission and then they would
actually show scenes of people who were evicted from
land, and land not in the cities but in the country: black
people going back and saying, "this is my father's
land" or "this is my grandfather's land and 1 want it
back". At the same time 1 was being taken around town
by this photographer, who had done an extraordinary
series of photos about the razing of Lanasia, which
was the whole Asian settlement. It was incredible to
see whole areas literally razed and people re-located,
and you see these houses half standing, it's just
amazing, He took me through one of them, and said, "I
knew this family and this is where they lived", and "I
had tea here," and you see half of a house. It's just quite
something.
Then on the other hand I'm thinking of the riots in
Bombay after the Babri Masjid event. My friend
Rumanna Hussain, this wonderful artist (who died
last year, she's exactly my age), she has done work on
this, she's done a series of installations. Her telling me
that she and her husband had to suddenly leave
because they were looking through all the Muslim
names on the apartment call-buttons...they had to
move. And I thought, my God, I mean, if...
PP: So the Enlightenment project makes you mad?
MA: It makes me very mad, which is why when you
asked me I would not talk about it.
PP: But we cannot not talkaboutit.
MA: No, it makes me absolutely furious, the idea of it,
because for me that is very, very close, I mean that
particular idea of rationality in humanism, which I
identify' as the Enlightenment project, which of course
you could call something else, is for me very closely
related to the Papal Bull, for instance, that Christopher
Columbus was given. It is part and parcel of that
project, it's not exactly the same era, but it is a project
that presupposes a certain carte blanche and at the same
time necessitates the body ofthe 'other', so that... How
do you read Descartes, if you are an Indian woman?
What does it mean for someone like me to read
Descartes? The whole idea of a certain kind of
rationality for me is enormously suspect.
My father, who I loved very dearly really believed in
the idea of rationality. He was bom in 1921 in India of
a certain generation, he studied in Madras and he went
off to Imperial College—he was a scientist. I think tor
him the idea of the modern was very, very forceful, as it
was for scientists in our country of a certain
generation: it was the idea of progress, it was the idea
of a certain equivalence of ail human beings, At the
same time, when he went on a British ship to England
to study—he went in '47 as an Indian student— he
said, "Of course, the British officers would never speak
to us". By "us" he means Indians. At the same time
they were taken to Buckingham palace for garden
parties and so on, because Britain owed India some
money for having quartered troops there after
Independence. It was very strange, vou know.
For someone like my father the idea of modernity
was a very important idea. It also meant that women
should be educated: he has no sons, I'm the oldest
daughter, and he always taught us right from the
beginning that just because you 're a girl doesn't mean
that you don't study—you can do anything a boy can
do. That's a very modern idea. It doesn't mean that
other people in other generations have not had that
idea, but it is a modern idea in that sense, an idea of a
certain kind of permission.
I've just written a preface to a book of short stories
by Lalithambika Antherjanam, who is a great
Malayalam writer, a feminist. She started writing in the
20s and 30s and she talks about being brought up in a
very traditional taravade in Kerala, and how until
puberty she was very free—she was allowed to read
and write and her father was very enlightened. Then
she had these eras where she was more or less
confined, she wasn't permitted to write because she
was female. Then she married a man who was quite
enlightened. It's sort of fascinating to me this whole
question of a buried voice, which is really the dark side
of modernity. It's a voice that's buried in a body—I
mean it has to do with bodily shape and bodily
contingency. Then you have to ask yourself whether
the modernist idea or ideal could have existed without
presupposing it's buried side. I wonder.
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
23
 I don't know if you've seen that prose piece I did,
and also there's a poem that goes with it, which I think
speaks to this in perhaps an elliptical form. The
poem is called "Indian April", it's just been published
in the Massachusetts Revieiv. I sort of imagine Mirabai
and Ginsberg meeting in Rajasthan and then in
Central Park... then I have a prose piece called
"Unquiet Borders", where I re-read Fanon and I
imagine what it would be for Fanon to be alive and a
female poet. A sort of reincarnation in the metropolis. 1
bring it together with the idea of Mirabai and
migration.
The part of Fanon that fascinates me is—I think it's
chapter 6 in Black Skins, Wliite Masks, I'm not sure—he
says, "Look, a Negro!" and the body falls apart and
there are all these fragments and you think, 'What
hands will put those fragments together and what
shape will they take?' For me that's precisely what
modernity cannot, because of its historical limitations,
cope with. It's the putting together again of the
fragments because, after all, Fanon was raised within
the modernist project. He has that language, the
formation. Also to be female and read Fanon—what is
that? You know it's very important.
But to return to Gandhi in answer to your question
about modernity. We really need to examine Gandhi's
migration. One ofthe things that we have to really start
to look at in our understanding of Gandhi was the
place that... Long sojourns away from India, his
migratory understandings allowed him to develop the
notion of Satyagraha, and really undercut the basis of
caste. Had he not been in South Africa and endured the
kinds of racial taunts, slurs and markings out that he
did, could he really have developed his acute
understanding or distaste for the caste system? I
wonder.
What does it mean to be rendered 'other'? You have
to leave your place. But the other thing is, people ask
me about migration. There was this quite long
interview that came out in India on television. They
were asking me about migration and exile, and I said,
"Look this idea of exile is there very early, if you look at
the Mahabharata, Draupadi is in exile much of her life.
For God's sake it's not a modern idea, it's not a
postmodern idea, it's not a postcolonial idea..."—God
forbid. The idea of migration, the idea of exile are parts
of human experience. It's important to acknowledge
that. Not to feel so limited because we are living at
the end of the 20,h century and we use certain kinds
of language. So that returns to your question about
the lyric voice, because there is something very small,
very fitful in the human experience that the lyric
attaches to, and, somehow, the smaller it is, the sharper
it is. But 1 think Gandhi is, for me, a very unexamined
figure.
PP: Tzvo questions falling from what you have said. One is of
course...
MA: But this also comes back to location.
PP: Exactly.
MA: Because Gandhi's understanding was developed
in this transit between locations.
PP: Precisely, and there is reason enough to make that
argument. That he too was a migrant of sorts is clear from his
autobiography. England, India, South Africa—and also in
India in different places—there is a triangular thing which
isfascinating.In that connection, I mean, I'm very interested
in your response to, say, Ashis Nandy s readings and
appropriation of Gandhi. I think he styles himself as a neo-
Gandhian. I think in his ivork toe get an oppositional stance
which does not see the migratory aspect of Gandhi.
MA: Well, because I think that in India for the project of
nationalism, we can't read it. We are all bound. Just
as... because of my project, which is migratory, I
don't... I need other readings. But the nationalist
project, with all it's complexities in India, does not
permit of seeing the extraordinary scope of Gandhi...A
very dear friend of mine, when 1 went back to India
from England, 1 remember him saying to me, (because I
said, "How can I do these poems? I've been outside
India all this time.") "Do you know how old Gandhi
was when he came back from South Africa?"
He was actually quite old, older than I am now. Of
course there were two travels to South Africa. This
comes back to the idea of modern, which cannot be
taken apart from the idea of the national and the
national boundaries. Given Indian history, given the
nature of Partition and the extraordinary migration of
peoples in conditions of great violence, which vvc have
to understand, it is therefore perhaps all the more
important for us to see how Gandhi's travels, and the
length of them, and the complexity of their nature... all
the time it's the same spiritual economy that's been
developed, in terms of a radical critique. It was actually
a very interesting, very complicated understanding
that was being developed in Gandhi.
PP: In some ways 1 think Nandy is able to see that, in some
ways! think he isn't.
MA: Well, I think his readings of Gandhi are actually
very interesting and he also has an interesting take on
violence.
PP: But we have two very well known theorists coming from
India: Homi Bhabha and Spivak, of course, and they, in a
24
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 sense, do not directly talk about Gandhi. Partha Chatterjee,
on the other hand, has done this seminal piece on Gandhi
which furthers his argument about Third World nationalism
not being just a derivative discourse.
MA: Do they refuse, really?
PP: Well, Spivak would see the Indian nation-state as a
fabrication of the bourgeoisie and Gandhi's role in
nationalist thought as one putting into place a
representational structure that corresponded to the very
structure of power it sought to repudiate. Bhabha would
bring in the. notion of the performative. He does though
mention in an interview how Gandhi's Experiments with
Truth is a remarkable project to address the public as private
and the private as public.
MA: But he looks at Fanon which is interesting. I was
brought up by Gandhians. And Gandhi was like this: I
mean, there was Gandhi and Jesus, right. In that sense,
I really am postcolonial, whatever that wretched term
means. I mean I am, but I'm also a woman. I'm not
saying that that in itself is enough, but I think the
whole... —and my grandmother was a Gandhian, my
mother's mother. On the one hand the extraordinary
declension, the liberation of women for a nationalist
project that Gandhi was able to put into place, Madhu
Kiswar says he was a feminist at some level—he was.
But also, he wasn't, 1 mean, what happens to female
body? Or the question of sexuality and desire with
Gandhi? You know, that instance he talks about it in
Satyagraha in South Africa, where he cuts off the hair,
that whole scene, which I've written about... Gandhi's
relation to the question of the body is very interesting.
Have you seen that play Mahatma Versus Gandhi?
PP: I didn 'I. So, I mean, it seems to me that you are
suggesting that Gandhi is going to make some kind of a
comeback.
MA: Has he ever been away?
PP: I mean as a guru.
MA: Oh, I think so. I'll tell you why: because we're
living in an age of such terrible ethnic violence, the
happenings in Bosnia and Rwanda, what the BJP has
been doing in India. These cannot be taken lightly. It is
incumbent upon us to try and understand, and I think
this is where Fanon only goes so far, and Homi's
done... I really admire his work on Fanon, he is quite
wonderful. But I think Fanon only goes so far, as a
thinker, we really have to think about Gandhi. It's
hard. It's very painful to think about Gandhi. There is a
huge amount at stake. 1 don't know if you've read that
novel Nampally Road, I wrote.
PP: Yes, I have.
MA: That woman is being raped in the
police station and there is a picture of Gandhi there. I
mean, this is what we grew up with, right? And that's
important.
PP: Connected to this again. Fanon, Gandhi: two figures
who talked about violence, non-violence... Tivo different
modes of resistance. A friend of mine in Sussex, art Indian,
who lived in Neio York for some time and then lived in
Loudon, suggested to me that we Indians are incapable of
anger, real anger. Wliereas, Africans seem to marshal this
emotion of anger easily. Of course the differential
specificities of experience and the constitutive meta-
narratives of cultures...
MA: I wonder is that really true?
PP:Idon'tknow.
MA: It seems to me as a very easy generalisation. First of
all there are many kinds of Africans, there are many
kinds of Indians.
PP: But there is a certain kind of stereotypical truth about
this as well in some ways, in responses.
MA: Maybe, maybe, I don't know... Oh, so you 're trying
to connect this to Gandhi.
PP: Gandhi and Fanon, in a sense: you don't get anger in
Gandhi's writings, you get anger in Fanon "s zvritings. In
that sense as well.
MA: In that way Fanon is extraordinarily liberating for
us, and I think the readings of Fanon, Homi Bhabha
writing about him... We have to be able to read Fanon,
and reading just means using, inventing a Fanon for
ourselves, which doesn't mean he didn't write it. But
similarly there has to be a project of re-inventing
Gandhi. Part of the problem is Gandhi's relation to
Hinduism: with the rise of a certain kind of fascism in
India, people are calling into question parts of the
nationalist project which took certain levels of
Hinduism as a given universal. So it's a very
complicated kind of reading one has to do. And here I
think your idea of modernity and so on certainly comes
in. But, nevertheless, having said all that, Gandhi is an
extraordinarily under examined figure and part of it
has been his co-option by the nationalist project. When
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated I happened to be in
Kerala and there were little auto-rickshaws going
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
 for me, the question about modernitv is also the
question of what it is that the idea of modernity buries,
or does not permit us to see, or does not permit us to
give voice to.
In a very peculiar way, migrations of people such as
myself—yourself, you've come to Denmark—we're
voluntary migrants, we haven't been running away
from our countries because we would be killed if we
remained there. On the other hand, that excision of
location, the taken for granted of the everyday, really
forces us to think out certain larger issues to undertake
a kind of re-mapping. And this is what, I would like to
suggest, happened in a very different way to Gandhi:
there is this wonderful line in his autobiography,
which I've actually used in this new thing I'm writing,
where he says...—there was a great storm as he was
leaving Bombay in this ship and approaching Aden—
I can't quote exactly, but he says that the sea was
stormy or turbulent at this time all the way from
Bombay to Aden, or something like that, "in this
season the water is always turbulent". We don't really
know what Gandhi did on board these ships, right? In
the African American experience people talk about the
Middle Passage, in the West Indies, Indians in Fiji etc.
Indians were sent as bonded labour to take the place of
the African slaves who were freed. Between C.F.
Andrews and Gandhi and so on there were enormous
conversations about Indian women being used as
prostitutes, and there was a lot of stuff up in the air at
that point. But I think that we need to understand what
it is that happened... —not that we can ever
understand it, but even, perhaps, speculate—what
happened in his head in between these continents.
What does it mean for the place that you've taken
for granted to be memory? You see that is where it
comes in. What does it mean to translate your home
into an idea, or not into an idea because memory is not
quite like that, but it forces upon you really a radical rethinking of the possibilities of temporality. It also
forces you to unlearn the script that you've learnt, and
that is where this idea of radical illiteracy is interesting
because it involves...the map is torn, I mean, it involves
imagining a place where the kinds of maps thatyou've
learnt don't work any longer. That is very scary, but it's
also in some ways the very exciting possibility of the
beginning of a project.
History is not what we can parcel out and set out as
a new and wonderful millennium, or whatever. But,
really, history as what we cannot remember. So that, in
the poem ["Illiterate Heart"], the speaker says,
"someone I learned to recognise", of course, the
speaker doesn't really know this woman. I remember
having to read Heart of Darkness in college and 1
thought, 'Why do they give me this horrible book and I
hate it, why do I have to study this, haven't I had
enough of this?' But there's certain kinds of cogitation,
certain kinds of thought, which have been used to
define our bodily beings, and I think that it's very
important to learn it. In that way, the imagination is
political, not in any other way, perhaps. There's a lot of
work to be done, you know?
PP: But this follows from what you have been saying, which
is, "the map is torn"... reflex'knee-jerk reaction, you know.
Are you saying that there is no future for the map?
MA: But lots of maps are torn. I was carrying this map
of Stockholm and it got completely torn, I 'm sti 11 using
it. It was raining it got torn...
PP: Let me inflect it in my own way. My mind goes back to a
period during the Kosovo crisis. Americans for some time
now have had the capacity to locate a person lost in the
Pacific Ocean or the North Pole within, you know, a
few feet. They have this remote-sensing satellite technology
to do that.
MA: Really?
PP: Yeah, within a fezvfeet. Can you imagine?
MA: But they also have the ability to bomb a factory in
Khartoum mistakenly.
PP: Yeah, of course it's a question of choice. But you know,
the ability to actually locate things or people with an
amazing degree of accuracy. ...and you know, in Kosovo
there was one day on the news that a hundred—more than a
hundred thousand—Kosovars had disappeared in the night.
They just disappeared—so many people. And I'm thinking,
what s going on here? In a sense 1 in wondering what kind of
thoughts do you have? I don 1 want to put it in those terms
but in a sense I'm asking you the question: what is the future
of the map; what is the future for a certain kind of scopic
regime, that you 're, in my reading, alluding to?
MA: What do you mean by scopic regime?
PP: Well, when you talk about, say, a regime of perception
sustained by unequal power-relations, a disciplinary norm
or templa tc, so tha t certain other, alternative ways of living,
ways of thinking become threatened.
MA: You know one of the things that s very frightening
about what happened in Bosnia in the former
Yugoslavia, Sarajevo etc. or what happened in
Bombay, or what happened during Partition, or what's
happening now in parts of India, is that you can live
next door to somebody... I mean 1 understand and I
don't understand and I have to trv to understand. It
28
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 really cuts to the roots of questions of family and
identity—what kind of identity do you claim? You can
live next door to somebody for say four decades and
suddenly decide you're their enemy. I mean live in the
same village, have kids who are the same age or play
together, and suddenly have a kind of barbarism take
over. It's very important for us to think about it because
:t"s part of being human. It would be wrong to say,
this is so terrible, I don't want to think about it". You
have to, it's there. You have to think about it, really
draw it in some way. You spoke about Fanon allowing
one to unleash a certain rage. But I also think that there
are certain conditions of crowds and the gathering of
crowds and mass power that can lead to barbarisms.
I watched this wonderful documentary on Primo
Levi a while back. I hadn't realised he was an
extraordinary poet, but the man who's been translating
my poems into Italian, he's also a reader of Primo Levi.
He said, 'Meena go read his poems, because he's a
fantastic poet.' It was amazing poetry, I had no idea
because he is known for his prose and periodic tables
and so on. As 1 saw this documentary he says
somewhere, "this barbarism is not elsewhere", in other
words, it's not in Africa or Asia, it's in Europe, and it's
at the heart of Europe. And I think it's precisely that
that the modernist project cannot allow us to see, nee?
That barbarism is not only at the heart of Europe, it is in
some way, or has been a part of the human condition.
Particularly in a world that is being so quickly reinvented and 1 'm thinking about the speed of electronic
data, the internet. As someone was saying at the
conference in Sweden I've just come from, what people
don't realise is that the internet is also a series of
spatial points that are connected—that you literally
have a wire. So it is space, it is in a sense a re-invention
of space and the meaning of location. I don't go on
the Internet, I'm terrified that I will get lost somewhere
out there.
The whole issue of violence, which we thought that
after decolonisation was over, that we were entering a
new era of progress, of ways in which technology and
science could ameliorate the human condition, and
they have in many ways but those gains are still very
much dependent on structures of power. You can have
rice in the godown that is rotting or being sold on the
black market and people starving on the other side.
You know these are very difficult questions, they also
cut at the roots of our understanding of family, for
instance. I won't use a big word like patriarchy
because I don't really know what it means, but, I think,
family structures, however they are defined, they can
be defined and redefined. Even those structures all are
dependent upon the idea of a threshold, an interior,
those that you will put your life out for and those that
you won't. To raise children you have to have this idea
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
of protection, you can't do it otherwise—the idea of
responsibility. But this kind of ethnic violence comes
up when the question of those who you are willing to
protect...or the idea of those who you are willing to
protect is raised up against those who you think are
about to do you in. In fact, every time you look at
barbarism of the sort whether it's rhetoric of the Shiv
Sena or any of these rhetoricians, saadvis of the BJP, it's
very, very interesting, they are great orators, And they
are always under threat, I mean, that also happened to
the Nazis. The majority perceives itself as under threat
by the minority. In other words, you can't really go out
and kill so many-people or indulge in the kind of
barbaric violence that did take place, infants beheaded
all sorts of appalling things, and then you speak about
the unspeakable, it's there in our immediate history.
What is it that makes a person do that? And not only
just make the person, but allows persons, who would
otherwise perhaps be fairly law abiding, fairly decent
citizens, go out and do that... or even in the Bangladesh
war, T mean these things happens in human
communities, I don't think any community has a
premium on violence. The kinds of ways in which we
are taught to be human are not very easy for us to
understand and... What was the number you gave of
people who disappeared?
PP: Well, a hundred thousand,! think.
MA: In a sense, if the map is territory that is recognised,
then people who are killed, or abducted, or violently
disappear are thought not to partake of the map. In
other words you shouldn't be there for that map or a
new map to be made. And that "shouldn't be there" is
a very, very strong imperative. You know I have an
uncle and he had a job for many years with the foreign
ministry in Delhi. Do you know what his job was? His
job was to censor the maps that came into India. He'd
put a big X on what was not approved of... Kashmir of
course but... other things—if there was a map that
looked wrong, you know, it shouldn't be circulated in
the atlases, or whatever. Which is fascinating to me
because a map becomes very important. It's a question
of recognisable territory. So that if there are people you
don't want inside your territory then...because with
them there you can't really make the map you want.
I haven't really answered your question, because I
don't really have an answer for it.
PP: Yeah, I mean it's a difficult one.
MA: It's very hard, we really don't know what to
say. But maybe that's good that we don't
know what to say. Maybe that's the way to
leave it. b
Prem Podilar
 SHORT FICTION
BY SUNIL NEPALI
Maiya Keshari Tuladhar
was born with mi.schie
vous eyes and a precocious smile. She emanated such
airs that all her visiting relatives
unwittingly placed that  little extra
money on her forehead as they
filed by the bed where her mother
Tara Keshari collected each
offering with a grateful nod and a
shy, exhausted smile.
Keshar Ratna Tuladhar, Tara's
heak-nosed father, stood by the
bed and greeted every well wisher
with a curt namastay and a nod.
"Maiya will become Kathmandu's
biggest scholar," he declaimed   to
everyone's surprise, while his
young son eyeing the  growing
stack of rupees stammered selfconsciously, offering to pay for her
schooling. The boy's wife peered
from behind, spellbound by the
child's wry pouts that—she felt—
portended a troublemaker; but she
bit her grin and resolved to help
raise Maiya as her own. And
throughout that evening, the
visitors offered extravagant sums
of money, transfixed by the child's
smile and by her knowing,
mischievous eyes.
Only her grandmother Roop
Sova frowned upon the ceremony.
She still mourned her three
teenaged daughters who had once
shared the family's one-room
shack in Chetrapati and who had
succumbed to tuberculosis in the
distant past. Those had been lean,
debt-ridden years, willed through
30
without any assistance from
Keshar Ratna, yet Roop Sova still
blamed herself for failing her
babies. Yes, only Tara had survived, but look at how she had
flouted all decorum and disgraced
the memory of her sisters. "I can
tell," she fumed, "the child will
turn into a good-for-nothing. What
else can one expect of mixed
blood?" Just then, little Maiya
shrieked so malevolently that
Roop Sova forgot her own name
for a week and had to rely on her
daughter-in-law to assist her.
Later that night as the
neighborhood of Jyatha slipped
into uneasy dreams,
Motimaituhtaju the Jyapuni
midwife lit a brazier and
massaged Tara Keshari with
warm mustard oil.  She listened to
Tara's scattered thoughts,
answered her every question,
recounted stories of Jyatha Tole
that she felt Tara needed to hear
and offered advice when pressed.
After the flames settled down,
Motimaituhtaju retired to a cot
nearby while Tara nursed the
baby at her itching breasts and
totted up  almost five thousand
rupees.  Her head still buzzed
with the midwife's coarse voice.
She felt as though an errant
dragonfly had climbed into her
head now, blithely zigzagging
through her memories, pollinating
the rumors with facts, with
dreams, with voices, with
expletives, with neglected tunes ...
until, overwhelmed by an inexplicable, blooming clarity, Tara
gazed through the window and
shivered at the sight of the moon
dangling like a luminescent
crescent earring.
A year and a half ago, 22-year-
old Tara had eloped with the
Civics professor who was helping
her prepare for the infamous I. Sc.
examinations. Her scandalised
family immediately shut their
textile shop and cloistered themselves for three months. Keshar
Ratna disowned her, his only-
surviving daughter, vowing
eternal vengeance on anyone who
dared help her. After all, Tara
Keshari had run off with a
married man from the wrong
family: an oil-merchant by
ancestry, he belonged to the lowly
Svami clan, a Manandhar! Keshar
Ratna strode up and down the
wooden stairways, tortured by the
thought, threatening to dismember
that spineless son of a bitch, that
beshyaka, if he ever laid eyes on
him.Hc yelled so foully that a rapt
crowd gathered near his two-
storeyed mud-and-brick house,
amazed by the versatility of
Nepal bhasa.
"Hare bhagwan, my only girl,
my precious hira who suffered so
much while I was away," he
roared, remembering also the
daughters who had passed away
in his absence, during his long
sojourn to Lhasa: "For whom I
had such dreams... treacherous
chandami... and all this to her
own wonderful, handsome, and
brave father, too!" Taking a deep
breath, he exploded into such ugly-
language that the women of the
tole blushed and stuffed cotton
balls into their children's ears.
Keshar Ratna's torrential
obscenities attracted even larger
crowds of people, who milled
around the roadside by the house.
"Feels like a carnival of the
absurd, a gai-jatra around here," a
passing bureaucrat thought aloud,
picking at a lint on his black coat.
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 "Gai-jatra, gai-jatra, gai-jatra,"
chanted a group of brightly-
uniformed schoolboys, ties askew,
running all over  the place.
Workers on their way to the office,
women headed to the Asan
market, and even some policemen
loitering in starched khakis, all
lingered to take in the scene. One
especially sharp-eyed tole resident
rolled out a few hemp mats for
tired feet and set up a makeshift
tea shop, where cups of hot tea
sold briskly. The transfixed
residents slurped their tea, shared
food from tiffin carriers and cut
jokes as they listened to the
endless tirade blaring from the
house with barred windows.
Roop Sova fuelled her
husband's rage with reminders of
the family's shame and the
possible gossip circulating in the
tole. She recalled the safe from
which Tara had stolen gold
chains, rare jewelry, leaving a note
advising the family to forget her,
threatening to flee the country if
they followed her.
Recognising his wife's
manipulations and reaffirmed in
his doubts about her fidelity,
Keshar Ratna winked at her. "I
wonder how Tara learned such
cunning disloyalty. Must have
been while I was gone, huh?" he
grinned.
"How can you? How can you
even think such things?" she
screamed at him breathlessly,
tears streaming down her oval
face: "Who spent all her time
raising the children while you
were failing at business and doing
God-knows-what for thirteen
years in Tibet, eh? Who?"
Keshar Ratna blanched and
momentarily shut up. But their
duel drew forth even more people,
adding to the already sizeable and
festive crowd.
"Don't you see the gai-jatra
you're creating, Ba?" Juju Rama
tried to reason with Keshar Ratna:
"look at all those people, Ba,
gathered as if for a... for a... you
know, for a freak show."
"Do you think I give a damn
what you or the rest of the idiotic
world think, baucha?" he coun
tered, glaring at his 17-year-old
son. He with his ranting and
raving which—interspersed with
Roop Sova's signature protests—
began to sound like searing ragas.
The daughter-in-law was spared
the immolation, being as she was
on the verge of womanhood and
still residing with her parents.
Only late at night did the
Tuladhar residence withdraw into
an exhausted, eerie quiet.
Three months later, Jyatha Tole
awoke to an unbearable silence.
The roosters slept through the
dawn; the pigeons cooed
soundlessly; the chickens forgot to
lay eggs; and the tole residents
intuited in their dreams the end of
this strange drama. The
incredulous gathering soon
petered out and the people, aching
with nostalgia, were left to ponder
about the newly-purged house.
Keshar Ratna flung open the
windows, and a passing wind
swept out the malodors of past
meals, disturbed dreams, stale
sweat, and rancid breath. Fresh
gusts ventilated the rooms with
fragrances of the earth, the trees,
and certain vines that smelled of
semen—a smell that terrified Juju,
who sensed inchoate links
between them and his raging
manhood.
But the store reopened as if it
had merely closed for a festival
and the customers flocked in for
gossip. They purchased more
cloth than they needed, asked after
the family's health and shared
news of each other without
mentioning Tara.   Breaking finally
from his long preoccupations with
his dwindling savings, Keshar
Ratna sighed with relief and
offered prayers of gratitude to the
god of the hearth, the Aagan
Dyuh, for heralding such a
propitious beginning.
Meanwhile, Roop Sova
gathered all her daughter's
belongings, stuffed them into a
huge teak chest, and slammed the
lid shut upon her memories. She
heaved the chest onto a table in
the rat-infested storeroom and
vowed that life would remain
unchanged.   Thus, ignoring time,
she kept busy cleaning about the
house, washing laundry in the
large clay pots, distilling liquor
and preparing meals for Keshar
Ratna and her son who toiled at
the textile shop.
Juju worked hard to impress
Keshar Ratna. He shouldered the
janitorial-cashier-sales responsibilities without complaint and so
entranced the customers by his
efficiency that by the time he had
measured and scissored through a
length of cloth like a razor-blade
ripping through paper, and even
folded and packed it, the
customers hardly noticed the few
discrepant inches in their
purchases. Amazed by the profit,
Juju learned more techniques and
applied them with such dexterity
that even Keshar Ratna remained
oblivious to the tricks of his son's
trade. The old man reviewed the
accounts since his return from
Lhasa three years ago and
balanced the records to the last
anna. In this manner, the family
kept busy with their blissful
routine and barely noticed the
year darting by like a swallow.
No one mentioned Tara
Keshari, nobody dared to. And
Juju's fears persisted, often culminating in semi-nightmares, where
he grappled with vague feminine
forms and turned into a shrub.
Roop Sova chanced to wind up
the grandfather clock in the living
room one morning and she
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
31
 jumped at the rhythm of its heart.
She peered deeper, shocked and
furious by the unheeding passage
of time: every swing of the
pendulum mocked her. She huffed
and puffed all the way up to the
terrace and sat down to lose
herself in laundry, but her son's
caked under shorts disturbed her
even more. She reluctantly held
council with Keshar Ratna, who
met with the bride's family.
Within a few weeks, after further
wedding ceremonies, the
daughter-in-law received the keys
to the house.
The young bride, Sneha Lani
Tuladhar, assumed control of her
new home without offending
Roop Sova's authority, and
suffused the drab, lonely air with
her musical voice and glowing
beauty. Not only did she calm
Juju's ever-burgeoning anxieties
like a woman of the world—
though she was barely 15—but
she made short work of every
household chore and waited on
Roop Sova so attentively that even
before the matron would begin to
ask for something, the object
would appear before her. But
Roop Sova, still smarting at the
grandfather clock, was never
content.
"The sheets are too colourful
for such an already brilliant day.
Use something lighter," she
advised curtly, or complained:
"The water is wet" as if Sneha
were to blame. Having rehearsed
back at home the worst tortures at
the hands of a mother-in-law, the
young bride, this bhamcha, bore
everything with patient grace.
After long, heated arguments
with himself, Juju Ratna decided
the textile business was not
generating enough money, and
tried convincing Keshar Ratna,
who had aged ten years in those
tumultuous months, to look into
the general convenience store
business.
"The tourists, who've begun
arriving like flies, pay three, four
times the regular price, or whatever you charge them," Juju
explained to Keshar Ratna, who
listened with a furrowed brow
and measured nods. "They pay-
fortunes for strange things like
canned frankfurters, luncheon
meat, or awful-tasting stuff like
vegemite and mayonnaise. And
without any complaints too, so
unlike the uncivilised locals who
bargain over a mere five paisa. We
can't go wrong, Ba."
White-haired Keshar Ratna
kept nodding and growing red in
the face. "Oh, so you want to tell
me what I should do and what
business to run, eh?" he finally
thundered: "so you think these
bhuyu white people are all donkeys, huh?"
Startled, Juju prayed against
yet another attack of the ranting
sickness.
"So you want to act like a man,
but sell our family honour to kiss
the bhuyu beshyakas' rich butts,
eh?" he continued, poking Juju's
chest with his thick forefinger.
"Let me remind you, you little
khwasah: I give the orders here. I
make the decisions." He took a
deep breath and bellowed: "No,
no, no; 1 say no to you henpecked,
pus-brained, retarded son of the
greatest, smartest, and handsomest father. Go sleep out in the gully
if you disagree, you hear?"
His voice had so risen to the
old pitch that some neighbors
sleepwalked out by the house and
attempted to sit on hemp mats—
only to awaken on muddy backsides, the echoes of Keshar
Ratna's ire and snatches of
his past epic outburst ringing in
their ears.
Juju shuffled his feet and
mumbled with downcast eyes.
"Get out of my sight before I
disown you mampakha like your
sisss ...," Keshar Rama choked
back the word, his Adam's apple
bobbing uncontrollably. "Out of
my sight... now," he ordered.
"It's good you talked to Juju,"
Roop Sova whispered later in the
night: "He seems to be acting up
these days, must be the bhamcha.
We shouldn't let that girl plant
bad ideas in our son's head."
He remained silent.
"Hare Shiva!" she muttered
and nudged his shivering back.
Then shaking her head, she
embraced Keshar Ratna while he
sobbed like a baby.
That same night, the young
bhamcha wept too, but silently,
seething,at her husband's coarse
love-making. She fumed at her
karma for flinging her into an
insane household, and studied the
ceiling with such intensity that
she discerned images of a sister-
in-law she had known as a child.
"Oh, Tara tuhta," she prayed:
"come back, come back."
Sneha's visions seeped into
Juju's dreams, and he too recalled
a sister who had cooked for him,
combed his straight black hair,
read him Keshar Ratna's letters
from Lhasa, and sung him to
sleep. Some old tunes and
children's rhymes, like "jhi nima
pasa/yalay wonay nhyasa,"
played themselves over and over
in his head.
Under the weight of so much
yearning, the wobbly table in the
storeroom collapsed, and the teak
chest crashed open, spilling
memories like marbles that thudded across the quiet mud floors
and exploded in a torrent down
the wooden stairwell. The rats
scampered in terror and Roop
Sova briefly lost her bearings in
her dreams.   Keshar Ratna interpreted the incident as a distress
signal from Tara and prepared to
find her despite Roop Sova's
misgivings.
The next morning, Keshar
Ratna presented some pomegranates and three yards of the best tas
cloth to the neighbouring Guvaju
before sitting down to consult him.
The impassive Guvaju sprinkled
rice grains and marigold petals at
the orange sun, intoned incomprehensible prayers, and studied
Tara's astrological birth scrolls
amidst thick incense smoke. For
two hours, he chalked galaxies of
calculations on a black slate before
making the solemn pronouncement.  "Straight down south, at the
edge of the world," the old Guvaju
declared and advised him on the
most propitious days for the
journey.
After a week of questioning,
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
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 wheedling, and bribing every bus
driver for possible information on
his daughter, Keshar Ratna
headed for the border town of
Birgunj in the terai plains. Shortly
after arriving there, he recruited
lagan, an emaciated dehati
rickshaw driver, and set out to
first explore all the lodges, then
the family pensions, and finally,
the temple shelters.
Naked children played khoppi
and rolled worn bicycle tires in
front of a Buddhist vihara. Soon
they flocked around the dapper
old man and begged him for
money with charming smiles. The
exhausted .lagan described Tara
for the sixty-eighth time and
promised twenty-five paisa to
everyone if they could lead Keshar
Ratna to her. "Oye", the sad
woman from Kathmandu !" they
cried in Dehati, pointing towards
the travellers' hostel.
After gaining permit from a
rather overweight monk, Keshar
Ratna ran up a flight of stairs,
banged on Tara's door, and
entered breathlessly.   Tara
dropped her darning and jumped
off the cot, but upon recognising
her father, she bit her lower lip
and looked out the one grimy
window.
It was dark inside, dank, and
aside from an oil lamp, a line of
hanging laundry, and Tara's
metal suitcase, the cubicle lay
bare. Tara's gaunt face, bloodshot
eyes, and her greasy blouse and
sari shocked Keshar Ratna who
cursed himself. Then he noticed
her swollen womb.
"Hare sharanum! Hare
bhagwan! What is this?!" he
roared in horror, scratching his
throat and blowing on his fingers.
Tara continued gazing out the
window.
"Don't you dare ignore your
brave and handsome father,
sneaky little chandalni you!"
Keshar Ratna glared at her
stomach, distracted by a passing
thought. "I wonder if the khwasah
will look anything like me," he
mumbled, caressing his beaked
nose. "Don't take after your
grandmother, your aji, you hear!"
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
he warned Tara's belly.
Tara remained impassive, even
as her left eyebrow began
twitching.
Keshar Ratna glanced about
him as a rat scuttled across the
wooden floor. "Where's that son-
of-a-bitch?" he growled, veins
sticking out on his neck like
venomous snakes: "Tell me, my
precious hira. I'll skin that
mampakha alive and pickle him
in cayenne pepper!"
Tara Keshari stuck to a defiant
silence, but eventually burst into
tears, relieving on her father's
rumbling chest all the humiliation,
suffering, and betrayal the Syami
man had brought upon her. She
sobbed so violently that it
unleashed a two-hour fit of
hiccups, which only abated after
Keshar Ratna cursed everyone in
Kathmandu for talking so incessantly about Tara.
"You're coming home with me,
maicha," he decreed: "My first
grandchild will not be born in
filth and amongst strangers."
She nodded blankly.
The next morning, a grinning
Keshar Ratna helped her into the
nascent sunshine, to the cries of
the children. "Sad woman from
Kathmandu, bye-bye, ta-ta," they
sang, and pestered the old man for
more money. In a fit of generosity,
he handed out five rupees to every
child and dropped his gold ring
into the rickshaw driver Jagan's
palm.
Homecoming was an awkward
affair. Uncertain of her new role
and terrified by the cracks in her
heart, Roop Sova clung to the
security of her resentment. She
withheld blessings when Tara
knelt at her feet, and then strode
off to incinerate the ingrate's
horoscope.
But Sneha hovered around
Tara and served her delicacies of
swari, jeri, and marpa. She asked
naive questions about the
pregnancy and rubbed Tara's
belly in giggling curiosity. Tara
chuckled and patted Sneha's
hand. The brooding Juju retreated
into childishness and insisted
that Tara comb his hair and sing
to him like in the past. He only
awoke to adult care in Sneha's
arms, amidst a new and tender
passion.
Keshar Ratna appeared to
grow younger every day, looking
nothing like the 55-year-old
grandfather he was about to
become. He mumbled lewd tunes
and flirted with the bored
housewives who frequented the
shop hoping to learn the secrets of
regaining lost youth. "Oh, it takes
much devotion and an unflinching adherence to my every instruction," he declaimed   winking
lewdly, and basked in their
laughter. He feigned interest in the
Dhammapada, the Vedas, and
heroically hinted at renouncing
the world to enter into Sanyas.
"No, sauji!" the women gasped in
mock-horror, while Juju swamped
Keshar Ratna with religious
manuscripts purchased from the
Guvaju.
But Roop Sova remained
implacable. Obsessed by the
memories of Tara's thievery and
the need also to preserve her own
identity, she padlocked the safe
and all the cabinets in the
storeroom, and tucked the keys
into her white cotton sash. Even in
her dreams, she locked almost
anything she encountered: young
saplings, pregnant women,
exuberant children, wells, schools,
markets, and even bathrooms. She
withdrew into the familiar
contours of tradition and regularly
visited Lord Ganesh's temple
nearby. And there, the devotees'
plaintive bhajans and chanting
connected her to an ancient and
secure past.
As the birth approached,
Sneha swept, and decorated the
house, rearranged it endlessly.
Sandalwood incense burned
twenty-four hours a day, holy
water and flower petals from
Janbahal were sprinkled in every
room; the mud floors were cleaned
to such perfection that
cockroaches regularly died of
nausea, Everyone tiptoed around
the house like ghosts, except Roop
Sova, who checked the locks with
increased vigilance.
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The Jyapuni midwife lay
nearby and fussed over the
nervous Tara incessantly,
explaining the labour and birth
processes with absolute authority.
After all, Motimaituhtaju claimed
to have manipulated nature and
given virgin birth to a beak-nosed
daughter. She prepared an
aromatic potion, whiffs of which
were at once appetising and
repulsive, and had Tara drink that
every few hours.
"This way the baby won't be
totally unprepared when she
enters the world," the midwife
advised: "And it will also ease
your pain and exhaustion."
The family treated the
seemingly ageless midwife with
utmost respect, at least for the time
being, and catered to the most
whimsical of her wishes. It was
their way of easing her path to
retirement, as rumours said this
lady (who had ministered to every
birth in the tole) was performing
her last undertaking.
On the morning of the
auspicious day, the family
members were all stricken with
loose bowels. They waited in line,
legs crossed, biting their lips, at
the one bathroom on the ground
floor. Only Roop Sova suffered no
such ailment, but remained in her
world where her locks clicked
open at will, and where she stayed
distracted, frantically running
relays from one disobedient lock to
the next. Like a wasp repeatedly
slamming against a windowpane,
she eventually grew exasperated
by the deceptive reality.
The tension in the house
vibrated with every breeze, like
taut sarangi strings, transmitting
waves of anxiety and summoning
the nostalgic tole. They gathered
by the house that morning, certain
they would hear some new
version of that tirade from the
past. The sharp-eyed resident
quickly set up his makeshift
teashop again, this time bringing
along containers of food and other
drinks. Soon people stood at the
roadside, drinking hot tea as well
as tho, and also slurping up
gelatinous tuhkha and juicy
mamochas from their leaf plates.
Conversations caught fire
everywhere, setting off blaze after
blaze of laughter.
At seven and half minutes past
five in the evening, after hours of
Tara's blood-curdling screams, the
baby's cry pierced the air. The
child's shrieks, the cheering and
whistling of the people, and the
temple bells all meshed together
and hung like intricate but
scrambled musical notes in the air.
Four itinerant Gula Baju
musicians returning from worship
at the temple of Swoyambhu,
plucked out those notes and
moulded them into startling tunes.
Never had those big drums,
those cymbals, and the haunting
horns created a distinctly Newari
yet foreign sound such as this.
Tapping their feet at the
revelation, the musicians nodded
at each other and performed with
moist eyes. Every sound they
uttered turned into music, as an
exuberant celebration broke out on
the street. The atmosphere was set
ablaze further when Sneha
slipped bottles of Roop Sova's
most potent firecracker ailah to the
crowd. The people claimed the
prerogative to view the baby and
welcome her to their tole.
"Hare baba, what kind of
madness is this?" Keshar Ratna
yelled at the clamorous crowd:
"This is family business, you
know, not some public spectacle.
Go home and beat your wives, or
whatever perversions you practice
behind closed doors, and leave us
the fuck alone!"
No: Keshar Ratna remained
adamant, granting only the
relatives entry into his house.
After all the well-wishers had
departed, he paced around his
room, stung by the relatives'
sneaky, intolerant glances at his
granddaughter and perplexed as
well by the discordant Gula Baju
and the neighbourhood's
fascination with Maiya.
"Lunacy, nothing but goddamned ignorant lunacy!" he
grumbled: "And me, the only sane
man in this entire stinking tole!"
Little Maiya, he told himself yet
HIMAL  14/1 January 2001
 again, would receive the best
available education, and to hell
with the Kathmandu Tuladhars'
narrow-stupid-vicious minds.
"Fuck their storied mercantile
histories as wrell," he added, still
fuming, and could have continued
in this vein, had not the cavernous
striking of the first morning hour
diverted his thoughts to
Motimaituhtaju, seemingly for no
apparent reason: she appeared to
be smiling rather coyly. Keshar
Ratna shook his head violently
and tried focusing on the noise
outside.
The now drunken crowd
continued dancing to the
precarious,   improvised rhythms,
stomping and shaking the earth in
a single-minded stupor.
Back in the house, a scowling
Roop Sova sought herself in every
corner, chasing memories that
floated about like soap bubbles.
She stalked the random echoes
from the past until she wound up
digging through the teak chest,
certain that the answers lav
within, but unable to conjure the
right questions. Facing herself
without the framework of her
traditions, devoid of guiding
memories, she felt like a lost child.
She crumpled to the floor by the
ancient safe and began weeping—
softly at first, then in gut-
wrenching convulsions.
Irritated by Roop Sova's sobs,
Juju—dreaming of rich mountain-
gazing foreigners—nudged his
wife impatiently. Sneha sat up
with a start and glared at Juju,
until gradually she became aware
of someone weeping and hurried
to the door. To her horror, she
found herself mumbling some of
Keshar Ratna's crudest words,
even as Roop Sova's cries grew
louder and Sneha recalled her
mother-in-law's many,
unnecessary slights. "Beshyaka,
mampakha, khwasah," she
muttered to herself, blushing
uncontrollably and grinning from
ear to ear. She vowed to treat her
own future daughter-in-laws like
princesses, not maid-servants, and
little Maiya, she would grow into
anything but her own invisible
self, Sneha decided, bolting and
unbolting the doors uncertainly.
But her concern for Roop Sova's
strange forgetfulness and the
musicians' even stranger melodies
softened Sneha's heart, and she
rushed into the storeroom to touch
her reassuringly.
"My daughters, my poor
suffering daughters, forgive me,
your unfortunate mother," Roop
Sova babbled in delirium and
embraced the bewildered
bhamcha. Sneha walked Roop
Sova to the matron's bedroom, sat
beside her and talked and talked
and talked, until Keshar Ratna
impatiently cursed them out with
the crowing of the first rooster.
Earlier, while tiny Maiya slept
soundly, Tara Keshari had
awoken from a nightmare,
wherein a grown Maiya and
Keshar Ratna had been swearing
at each other for three days and
nights. Eventually, Keshar Ratna
had hung his head, impressed by
the little twit's raging tongue.
Tara whispered a prayer against
the possible materialisation of the
dream, and calmed herself by
watching the crescent moon
through the window. Stray dogs
whined at the night and faint
musical riffs wafted in from a
distance.
She fished out a crumpled
photograph from under the
mattress and studied the
handsome face. The past reeled
through her mind once more, and
she grinned at her unbelievable
daring, the clandestine adventures, as well as the numbing
heartbreak. And then the familiar
bitterness, rancour and self-pity
began burning her stomach.
Tara shut her eyes and
dredged up those spirits into her
constricted chest, where they
swirled and swirled with
increasing violence before bursting forth into tunes that had lain
dormant for so long. "Jhi nima
pasa/yalay wonay nhyasa .,.,"
she crooned repeatedly and
caressed Maiya's brow.
Eventually, after she had
exhausted all the songs in her
repertoire, even the Hindi film
tunes, she nudged the dozing
midwife and told her she could
leave now.
A bleary-eyed Motimaituhtaju
nodded and made Tara promise to
summon her in event of trouble,
however trivial. They clasped
hands and looked upon each
other with moist eyes before the
midwife descended the creaky
stairs with her bundle of gifts. The
grandfather clock in the living
room echoed the first morning
hour, as Motimaituhtaju shuffled
her way home, her duty done.       ft
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
37
ill
lillli
 SHORT FICTION
BY MATT DONAHUE
cate
Major Black was born in the jungle, miles from
Colombo, the youngest of sons. He graduated school. He captained the team. As was
the custom, he ate with his fingers. At age 19, he
received a commission from the army and was
sent to the Wanni. He fought for 12 years, without a
vacation.
Thrice decorated for gallantry! Veins of tissue
cracked his features. When his commander fell in
Mankulam, he galvanised the troops to hold the
perimeter. He raped women and men. He tortured
and murdered. He ordered the digging of graves. "We
cleaned them up," he said, "In masterly fashion."
When Black was a boy, he used to pray daily, six
times, once in each direction. To the East, he bowed
on behalf of his mother and father: "Having been
supported by them, I will support them," he pledged.
"I will perform their duties. I will be worthy of my
38
heritage." In return, he was taught, his parents would
reciprocate. They would guide him from evil, support
him in doing good, teach him skills, and bestow his
heritage upon him. In this way, Black believed, he
would be at peace with the East, making it free of fear.
He would then bow to the South, on behalf of his
educators:
"I will rise to greet you when you enter, I will
wait upon you, I will be attentive to your teachings, I
will serve you, and I will master the skills that you
teach." In return, he was taught, his teachers would
reciprocate.  They would instruct him thoroughly.
They would ensure that he learned what they taught.
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
iiiiiiiii
 They would recommend him to their friends and
colleagues. They would provide him with security in
all directions. In this way, Black believed, he would
be at peace with the South, making it free of fear.
He would bow to the West, on behalf of his
brothers:
"I will honour you. I will not disparage you. I
will trust you. I will give you gifts." His brothers
would reciprocate, he was told, and in this way Black
believed himself to be at peace with the West, making
it free of fear.
To the North, he bowed on behalf of his friends:
He pledged to honour them with gifts and kind
words. He would look after their welfare. He would
treat them as he would treat himself. He would keep
his word. In return, Black was told, they would look
after his property when he was inattentive. They
would provide him refuge when he was troubled,
and would not desert him. In this way, Black believed, he would be at peace with the North, making
it free of fear.
Below, he bowed on behalf of workers. He pledged
to supply them with wages. He pledged to care for
them when they were ill. He would share special
delicacies with them. He would not dehumanise
them. In return, he was taught, they would reciprocate. They would perform their duties attentively.
They would not steal. They would be bearers of his
praise and good repute. In this way, Black was told,
he would be at peace with the ground below him,
making it free of fear.
Lastly, Black bowed above, on behalf of spiritual
teachers. He pledged kindness to them, in deed,
speech and thought. He pledged to open his house
to them. He pledged to supply them their needs. In
return, Black was taught, they would reciprocate.
They would restrain him from evil, encourage
him to do good, be benevolently compassionate
toward him, teach him what he had not learned,
and guide him toward redemption. In this way,
Black believed, he would be at peace with the
Zenith, making it free of fear.
The International Terrorists' Handbook states:
"Provocation is the subversive's task. Incite the
government to reflex its impulses. Injustices
strengthen anti-establishment causes." So lads on
bikes rode with guns on laps to kill unsuspecting
symbols of authority. Human decency called for
retribution. It granted the government emergency
powers, which allowed it to obstruct certain
freedoms, and wield power less reckfully.  The
rakshasas ensured that their visions were chosen, by
process of elimination.
Only 13, then 14, Black understood little. He knew
rugby Letters on shirts and garlanded sleeves. Black
and his buddies, cousins and brothers also knew that
life wasn't easy. "Life," they said, "is like rugby."
On the rugby field, Black was a leader. Courageous and vicious. His opponents were marked and
the goal was victory. He didn't hate his enemies.  He
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
fought for what was at stake. "Be brave, machans."
That was Black's mantra.
At 16, he watched his eldest brother hug neighbours. His mother wept, and Black tried to console
her. "Why cry, Amma?" It was a festive occasion. His
brother received blessings and gifts, a carefully
wrapped cloth of mother-treats. There was an elephant parade at dusk.
Less than a year, and Black's second brother
followed the first. To Black, he seemed as noble as the
cause. A steel-eyed lion. There were flags, banners
and impassioned speeches. Girls kissing and waving. Never once did the terrorists enunciate their
cause. "If you have a grievance," the speaker spoke,
"state your solution precisely. Otherwise stop blowing things up! The Tigers want a separate state? What
kind of separate state? Will it protect its people from
oppressions? Until justice is its vision, the LTTE will
have no moral authority. It would be to all of society's
benefit if it did."
Two months later, Black's third brother joined.
Another month, his fourth. "We've lived together for
fifteen hundred years! How to separate?"
Seventeen, and a man. Black had watched outcasts wreck havoc on the unsuspecting. He was
courageous. He could not watch idly. He said as
much to his friends and none argued. They shared
his disgust. In one year, they would become soldiers.
In the meantime, they practiced. They beat up kids
who wouldn't enlist. They nurtured emphatic
optimisms. They drank arrack cocktails,
Identity is a fragile concept. If Black had been born
someplace other than in the jungle, he would have
+ + +
sea sea sea  sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea  sea
sea sea sea sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea sea sea sea
sea sea sea sea sea sea sea
sea
sea
sea
sea
UH
 turned out differently. So how to differentiate Black
from his surroundings? Since everything makes the
world, and everything is all things, not a single thing
can change without changing all the world. No thing
is constant. As facts change, the world changes.
Mountains collapse. Stars plunge from their orbits.
On the quantum level, things change constantly.
Thinghood can't exist in a world where change is
constant. A non-constant thing is not one thing but
many, and many things are not one. For a thing to
be a thing, it must be that thing, or some other
thing. It couldn't be both one thing and another,
simultaneously. Nor could it be neither one
thing nor another, because it would then be
nothing. For a thing to be a thing, it must
have some essential nature—something
that docs not change—some intrinsic
identity—but there is no evidence that
such a thing exists, and there can be
no world of something else's, if there
is no world of things. Of all human
parts, it is the I that is the most
fragile.
Black rode to the Wanni in
the back of a camouflaged
truck. He felt on the cusp
of powerful changes.
There were other men.
Each felt like an
avatar of some
eternal.
Were
Hitler's
millions
more
victimised
than the
millions
in India
who
starved
when food
was diverted
to British
soldiers? The commies followed Hitler. The Iron
Curtain.   Mutually Assured Destruction. The New-
World Order. In what sense victory? When? For how:
long? Isn't having enemies the only reality that
enemy having creates?
After 12 years, Black's fingers shook, but he'd
survived with his body intact. When he walked past
glass, he imagined how it might shatter. Instead of
fireworks, he heard enemy gunfire.
After 12 years, happiness, for Black, didn't exist.
There were varying degrees of experiential intensity
He hiked to a cave that housed thousands of bats.
Their shit was higher than his thighs, and the cave
was squirming with poisonous snakes. "Adventure
sport," he caiied it.
After 12 years, Black found a lover in Colombo.
Bat
Bat
t ait
Cavo
Cave
Cave
Thev
drove to
the ocean,
at 90
kilometres
per hour, past
checkpoints
where soldiers
played slow
motion games of
Russian roulette.
She gave him head
along the way. They
romped in the ocean,
had sex in the sand,
drove naked past wide-
eyed sentries. After 12 years,
life was a dare.
After 12 years, he hadn't
had a vacation. He'd been thrice
decorated! His father met him at
the station, with unspoken apologies. Black placed his vices before
him. His mother entered the room. He
waited for her to leave, then wanted
more. His
head was abuzz. At any moment, anything was possible, even chaos. "I'm
desperate," he said. "There's nothing I
won't do."
Of all human parts, the I is the most fragile.
What am 1," asked Black, "Am I still he?"
Sonya wanders like that Wednesday in November, when she packed a bag with hope, and hitchhiked 20 towns away. She met Black at one of Colombo's casinos, playing baccarat on the minimum bet
table. It was November 1999, and Sri Lanka's troops
had just been routed by the LTTE. She expressed her
condolences, and by his eyes, she could tell he knew
her to be sincere. They passed the rest of the night,
winning big and drinking heavily.
"There's someone I'd like you to meet," she told
him. After 15 or so drinks, she wasn't even slightly-
drunk. Her cheeks were tender and her eyes were
wide. Black hair draped like silk across her shoulders, her breasts. She placed small, calculated bets.
Before they left, she donated her winnings to the
bathroom attendant.
"Have you ever experienced tragedy," Black
slurred. She shook her head no, and took his hand.
"It's the capacity for redemption that separates us
from beasts. Better days are created, by thoughts,
actions and speech." b
40
HIMAL   14/1 January 2001
 Review
by
M. V. Ramana
Kuano hadi, sankri, neeli, shaantjfaane kab hogi
aachitij, laal, uddhaam,Bahut gareeb haiyehdhartif
Jahan yeh behti hai.
- Sarveshwar
Kuano river, thin, blue, calm/When will it spread
to the horizon, turn red, turbulent/very poor is this
land where if flows.
- translated by Amitava Kumar
I remember the first time I came into the USA. It
was also the first time 1 had ever boarded an
airplane. The immigration officer looked at the
visa page on my passport. Then he looked up
and asked what I was in the US for. I am going
to graduate school, I tell him. He turns around
and shouts to the officer in the next eubicle,
"Looks like the whole world is going to school
in America." It may have been his attempt at
livening up a boring day but to me it did not
sound welcoming at all. And then he proceeds
to write F-l <>n the immigration form. I froze. I
ftad a J*l visa. I had been warned—any
mistakes could have serious repercussions.
After a moment's hesitation, I piped up:
"Excuse me> I have arj-l visa." "Smart aleck,
huh!" he comments. "Yes, a darned sight
smarter than you," I fell like screaming but
didn't What would he know of my plans, my
hopes and my fears* AH he knew about me was
what was in my passport.
It is what is missed out in one's passport
that Amitava Kumar explores in his Passport
Photos, The book is a charming, exhilarating
thought-provoking attempt at understanding
and speaking about the immigrant experience
in an "undeniably personal and political way".
In the author's o.wn words, "The book is a
forged passport. It is an act of fabrication
against the language of government
agencies." The book, therefore, is structured
into sections that correspond to the categories in a real passport. Name, place of birth,
date of birth, ... This novel format when
interspersed with evidence of Kumar's
multiple talents and occupations—mellifluous poetry, skillful language, great
photographs—-and his passion makes for a
great read. Each section shuttles the reader
between the diaspora and the home country,
between literary theory and political
economy, between Bertolt Brecht and
Gulzar. Kumar follows (and quotes)
Edward Said's suggestion that "since the
main features of our present existence are
dispossession, dispersion, and yet also a
kind of power incommensurate with our
stateless exile, I believe that essentially
unconventional, hybrid and fragmentary
forms   of   expression   should   be   used   to
represent us."
Passport Photos is a refreshing read in
today's world of identity politics. He clearly
subscribes to (and quotes) the view exuberantly captured in Subcommandante
Marcos's response to a question about his
identity: "Marcos is gay in San Francisco,
black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe,
a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in
Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, ... a Jew in
Germany ... a Communist in the post-Cold
War era...and, of course, a Zapatista in the
mountains of south-east Mexico." Nor is
Kumar's conception of desi immigrants
limited to ones that end up in Silicon Valley
or in the emergency rooms of small town
hospitals. Taxi drivers and restaurant
workers, activists and poets rub shoulders
in the book. Why and how these people came
to be in the US and what they do here forms
a major part of the book.
The book does have some distracting
and bothersome features. Despite a structure
that allows the author to weave in outpourings from his multiple talents, it is clear at
various points that a certain detour in the
narrative is occasioned only by the fact that
the author has written a newspaper article
on that subject. That these newspaper
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
41
 jtevfew-
p^y',.''-
articles are often funtrj read is a different matter.
Another .problem is, poor indexing. After
having read it, one cannot find where some
particular subject is discussed, on which page
a certain poem is. But these are quibbles/really.
Kumar's spirited response to "a set of
pressing concerns ha two nations and one
,w©rld" is extremely timely. At no time in
the history of this planet has the world been
"One" as much as it is now. The forces of
globalisation—or, to call a spade a spade,
global capitalism—have made sure that no part
oi the world are left alone in the never ending
search for "new markets." Nothing—food,
dress, culture—is immune to becoming a
commodity. As Kumar writes in one of his
poems entitled "India Day Parade on Madison
Tbave lpst India. You have lost Pakistan.
We are now citizens of General Electric. In this
country, there are no new words for exile. And
if you have nothing to sell, you have nothing
to say that this, or that is indeed you.
Kumar is too clever to offer asimple solution
to^spredkamestt,But,it is clear that his hopes
are set on a range of progressive movements,
both in the first and the third world, and
solidarity between them. Immigrants are, of
course, usually good activist-material. As
Isabelle de Courtivron pointed out in a recent
article in The Chronicle of Higher Education,
"Having a deep experience of two cultures
is to know that no culture is absolute; it is to
realise that social, political, and linguistic
realities could be arranged in numerous
other ways." It is perhaps appropriate that
Passport Photos ends with a list of immigrant
organisations, many of which are at the
forefront of the struggle for other ways of
arranging these realities.
Aao ab milkar badhe, adhikar apne chheen lain
Kafila ab chal pada hai, ab na roka jayega
- Safdar Hashmi
Come let's advance together,
let's take back our rights
The procession is now afoot,
now it cannot be stopped. b
- translation by Amitava Kumar
Cala 2 nights/3 days
Package
Iik-I. of Pcrl'ui'niaiuT
LiSS 175 ni't.pp
Son et Lumiere
Kurul Raising Kvenl for
Ramcandra Mandir
Battisputali, Kathmandu
Nepal
Saturday 24 February 2001
A Temple's tale woven in speech, dance and lights
as narrated by the temple itself.
Enthralling dance production of the Ramayana in the temple
courtyard. Followed by dinner and live band in Dwarika's Hotel.
For further information and tickets
contact the Restoration Committee, c/o Dwarika's Hotel
Battisputali, Kathmandu, Tel: 977-1-479-488. Email: dwarika@mos.eom.np
 V    1     K    A    S
MENON
HYBRID
HOLY GRAIN
I believed in quarks
and DNA
stones bleeding
and ash
tumbling from a holy
palm
within this ripe wound
1 build a temple without end
from within this open shell I
offer you this—
gourd/pot/thrum    ghatam
summer tar and skinned knees
a slow
burning
milkful thick ghee and endless wicks
gourdpotthrum
inchoate stone, bible
torn,
mud smeared eyes
gourdpotthrum
electric hendrix sinuous
dribbling lava loping
molten veena moan
gourdpotthrum    ghatamghatam
wonderbread dipped in dal
Govinda bench pressing Mt. Govardhana
peanut butter payasam—
Ammachan, I took the dust of your feet,
you inhaled the scent of my hair.
Fingering the tulasi plant of Rama Vilas
you stood quietly
while I flung stones at crows,
you stood,
leaves sprouting from your fingers,
while I read giddily, flinging my mind
in circles solipsistic
anotherworld,
from where I sometimes believe
I never returned.
Thinking of you,
leaf quiet,
feet firmly planted
on black stone floors,
my ears craning after
your hoarse whispers
about beautiful Rama,
his smile
a field of white knife
and so I stutter today sacral verses,
perched on one swollen toe, wreathed in the
woodpulp screams of a crumbling city
while below, pigeons scratch cement
for a sparse, holy
grain
and I cradle poison in my throat
and the tightwire sways
I offer
you this  mongrel prasadam
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
43
 AFSAN
CHOVBHARY
THE ASSASSIN AND HIS LOVER
On the fork where the Patan roads meet
Before walking to the bridge which lies over a
comatose Bagmati, where the roads sleep broken and
muddy,
crawling with indifferent slime,
where the roads twist and turn like a woman in
shimmering pain, whispering desperate groans that
don't make it to
Kathmandu Post or Nepali Times,
he stood like a sage weeping tears of deaths and
dimes screaming in pain at his own desperate
prophecy.
Near the feet of an unknown martyr, standing in a
rumpled garden,
scattered by dust and fumes of reluctant dinosaurs
pretending to be buses from Patan Dhoka,
the shops stand lined up like well-mannered deaf
and dumb kids waiting for their school bus in the
pale winter sun.
The shops sleep or lazily wink on holidays,
the seedy shadowy street tea shop
where mobikes and men come to rest and drink beer
and lime, chatting with girls lazing or resting on the
brawny arms of souped up two stroke machines,
next to the shop which sell sad pizzas in the dark,
for customers haunted by fast food come-ons.
And there in serene gloom sits a bookshop for
unknown Pilgrims waiting for unwary men with time
to slaughter and kill,
hoarding books on the dead and the dying
as white tourist fingers lay obscene hands on coffee
book Katnasutra,
and people in grimy shorts who search,
with the vacant sockets of their tired vacation-fed eyes,
looking for mystics and rishis on the pavements and
walls of Patan.
They have come to search for the East in paperback
book covers
of ancient travelogues and ritual sex,
books wrapped in careful but dusty plastic covers,
lying close to incense and candles in earth mother jars.
And there,
1 found as 1 was told I would,
I found my brother I had come to kill,
as he stood in a naked corner of the roads rolling
down to the
Bagmati,
he stood rolling a cigarette with his cold, bare hands
waiting for the smoke to fill the hills and the alley of
his own mind.
The cracked road bends and forks in the limpid
darkness
as men chisel arcane songs in a voice choking with
sleep and wine.
Frozen into a hump in the middle of a haphazard
signboard,
frozen while humping a paid lover,
making dead love in midnight sloughs,
making mud and babies in dark mountain nights,
cleaning the dirt from charity-calmed shoes
as half-fed peasants in saris of red and gold
drift off in no general direction at all, hearing and
seeing nothing at all.
No one heard anything.
No. Not even the lovely girls who walk home without
fear
wearing winter jeans and sweaters, chattering like
swift birds in a mid-air swing,
defying the Himalayan stare resting on their young
shoulders covered in young hair and shine,
44
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 AFSAN
CHOVDHAUY
THE ASSASSIN AND HIS LOVER
as they walk home near the roofs and walls of peeling
faculty pillars
of confused concrete.
Girls who dream of far away lands,
lands which don't swallow dreams like of those
who stay home to watch their decrepit families die
wrapped in splendid, serene, helpless stares.
Go away, far away.
Where the blue and white marshmallow hills
Don't make a constant din of the dead and the dying.
And yet I saw all this before the assassin came,
his face wreathed in hope and prayers,
long before the night was ripped open with the sharp
cleaver of dawn, spilling the red rose guts all over,
just before it dripped into a red day in the red streets,
as early Newar prayers chanted their song in solitary
temples
wishing the chill a gentle beloved welcome.
And so you too have come Bangali babu
come as you promised?
We don't really need you, you know.
Ah yes, ah yes. That part I heard first.
Oh, yes, I am the truthful fat Bangali liar, always
weasel-like, always looking for a friendly face or a
hand-out,
always so glad to be Huree, CLE and a full member of
the Royal Asiatic Society,
friend of the Maestro and close to the Dalai Lama's
camp,
trusted by a man who shoots cocaine
and writes his name in bullets and violin on any
empty wall...
Sala bainchot Bangali. Bat nai sunta.
Khali rusgoola khata and kehta, Tagore,
Kehta Amartya Sen, kehta Satyajit Ray, Subhash Bose,
Khali kehta, kehta, kehta...
Bol, bol, aur kiya kiya kehta?
Kam dhuudta? Sala naukri ko shadi kiya?
Sabka pichc parta? Kiya? Bol?
It's all right sir. We are Bangalis,
We can't mind being disliked.
We just want to go home and fart pleasantly with our
wives.
And he stood there near the monument to the dead,
his hands full of liquid dust,
tears like fire dripping from his shaded eyes,
as his wrist rested from the familiar joy of a knife
pushed deep into a belly as it becomes death inside
the wind-swept tents of desire,
where fools hide, sleep and dream of past
incarnations in wretched but rain washed hills.
He had come to Patan to kill,
He had come to look for his lover.
Sure man, why not?
It's so cold, so sublime, all this death and blood.
Out here there's no hunger and no brine soaked lips
to caress the neck of the dead lover,
the mouth open, hostess to rude flies,
Mixing memories of salt, venom and corpses.
Of making love to death.
As footsteps stalked the fog-clad night,
Yeah?
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
45
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 Puzzles
Scene: A bus stop with a typical urban scene as a backdrop:
grey buildings with tiny apartment flats and washing drying
on the verandahs, children playing cricket, street vendors,
parked cars, and lots of people strolling by in a hurry. A man
can be seen leaning against the bus stop pole. He is engrossed
in reading the day's neivspaper—the current edition of the
leading vernacular daily of the city. He has placed a tiffin
carrier and an office satchel close to his feet. He is slim and
immaculately dressed in a full-sleeved shirt, a tie and creased
trousers. A cardboard cutout of the. back of a public transport
bus is close to him. Occasionally, the sound of vehicles passing
by; but the man doesn't appear to notice. A second man enters
from stage left. He seems agitated, apprehensive and
constantly looks over his shoulder. His clothes are similar to
those of the first man, though he is somewhat dishevelled; he
is carrying a satchel in his hand.
Man 2: Excuse me?
Man 1: (no answer)
Man 2: Friend!
Man 1: (flips over the page of his newspaper)
Man 2: (glances over his shoulder) Does bus number 502
stop here?
Man 1: (continues to read)
(We hear the sound of a bus arriving. It stops for a while and
then leaves after the conductor rings the bell)
Man 2: That was the 502! (gazes after it) Tell me, does it
go over the flyover, turn left at the third signal, and stop
before the law college, before moving on to the highway
and proceeding in a southerly direction towards
Mantralya?
Man 1: (He is now on the front page, flipping back and forth as
if searching for the continuation of a story begun on page one
on another page)
Man 2: Maybe it doesn't go south but heads west,
towards the college of architecture?
Man 1: (He is now engrossed in trying to light a cigarette
while continuing to read the paper. Either
the cigarette slips through his fingers, or the
rnatchstick breaks through his frantic efforts)
Man2: I don't mind even if it follows
the tracks all the way up to the docks.
That's okay by me. (Shrugs with an air of
camaraderie and looks hopefully towards
Man 1)
Man 1: (He is still trying to light up)
Man 2: What I really detest are buses that
go past hospitals and morgues (shudders). Why, once I
took this bus—it was the 506... no it was the 508... (thinks)
Anyway, I boarded this bus in good faith, paid for my
ticket in a most forthright manner and would you
believe it? (Pauses and looks as if expecting an answer from
Man I). It went past the municipal hospital, turned left
at the corner and stopped before the morgue! ... And
(with a peeved expression) then turned right, thereby
competing a full circle, so as to pass the back gate of the
municipal hospital. I had half a mind to get off. But
since 1 had already paid my fare, I stayed put. (Appears
to ponder for a while)
Man 1: (He has managed to light his cigarette and is smoking
as he reads. A look of contentment lights up his face)
Man 2: Whatever you may say, I prefer double-deckers
(stares at Man 1 as if daring him to disapprove). Some
people prefer single-deckers but not me. There is
something large and expansive about double-deckers,
a kind of adventurous air about them that gets to my
soul, (pause) You clamber on to the upper deck, find
yourself a nice comfortable window seat—maybe even
the one right up front—and then sit back and let
the cool breeze ruffle your hair as the bus speeds.
(rapturously) A truly out-of-this-world experience, sheer
ecstasy. All one needs is the price of a bus ticket to taste
this heaven of freedom.
Man 1: (He has opened his lunch box and is munching
ruminatively)
Man 2: (Watches him intently and then walks over casually)
Having a mid-morning snack?
Man 1: What?
Man 2: I said: Having a mid-morning snack, are you?
Man 1: What? (puts his hand to his ear).
Man 2: I asked you whether you were having a mid-
morning snack?
Man 1: Speak up, can't you?
Man 2: I said ... fin exasperation) Can't you hear?
2001  January 14/1   HIMAL
47
 Man 1 : Are you sick or something?
Man 2: All I asked you was ....
Man 1: Maybe it is laryngitis ....
Man 2: Can't you hear?
Man 1: I once knew a man who had laryngitis.
Couldn't speak a word for days ... Hold on, it wasn't
a man, it was a boy I knew at school, a class mate of
mine. He'd had one too many ice creams on Sunday
and the following day he found that he'd lost his voice.
Not that it mattered really, for he was one of those
strong, silent types. No, wait, he wasn't strong and
silent, that was someone else... He was the guy
who used to chew with his mouth open in a most
disgusting manner. I remember one of the local
wits remarking that one could see his arsehole
through his mouth. Raised quite a cackle, as you can
well imagine. Anything even remotely vulgar
would have us in spasms of laughter, then. How we
laughed when Estragon's pants fell off, or were they
Vladimir's?
Man 2: (All this while he has been gesticulating as if he
were speaking. We now begin to hear what he is saying) ...
All 1 want to know is your name, whether you are
Jerry or not? Straight and simple. You see, I deliver
courier parcels and I have a packet for Jerry. And if
that's your name, I can hand it over. All you've got to
answer is whether you are Jerry or not. I mean, you
can't be Peter and Jerry, can you? (appears to think for a
moment) Unless, of course, you've an alias or an a.k.a
like those gangster types—Chota this-and-that, or
Chikna, or Bablu ... No, I think that's his real name.
Listen, did you hear about the gangster who claims to
receive resumes from graduates, just like any regular
entrepreneur? I bet they even give out personal data
forms for the company records: fill in your father's
name, brothers, sisters, nearest police station, etcetera
etcetera. Two reference checks. Mind you, you need
two people to vouch for you. Then, you have to
list your greatest strengths and weaknesses. I can
imagine a potential gangster agonising over
"What do you consider as your greatest achievements
of the year?"
Man 1: (Now he becomes audible as Man 2 fades away)....
Likewise a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese. Why a
pride of lions and not a herd, and why a gaggle and
not a flock? That's what I mean, words are merely
familiar expressions that have gained respectability.
Someone says "fly like the wind" or "to be at sixes
and sevens" long enough, the fad catches on and they
become acceptable. Expressions like a "knight in
shinning armour" I can understand, but to be at "sixes
and sevens"... Of course, the tone helps, if it is
derogatory, one gets to know that what's being said is
not exactly complimentary.
(Gradually, both the speeches become shorter and shorter, as
the actors improvise with whatever comes to mind until they
are speaking gibberish. Their voices begin to die down and
soon there is silence on stage. A man, "the director", gets up
from amongst the audience and walks on stage. Dressed in a
black T-shirt and blue jeans, he genuflects by bringing his
right hand to his forehead after reverentially touching the stage)
Director: Alright people, what do you make of it? Let the
newcomers speak first. Once the discussions get
underway, it becomes difficult for anyone to get a word
in edgewise.
(Silence)
Sorry, I'm beginning to sound just like one of my
characters. Let me introduce myself. I'm the director of
this play, skit, call it whatever you like. Alright, you there
(he indicates someone in the audience). What do you make of
it? What does it convey to you?
Man 3: (A shy, hesitant man of around 30) It's about
communication ... or rather a lack of it.
(The director nods encouragingly)
It's about how we don't connect. We fail to hear what
others are saying. We are so lost in our own little worlds
that no one else matters except for ourselves.
Man 4: (A student in his teens, he barges in even before Man 3
has completed his dialogue) It's about loneliness.
Director: The essential loneliness of the modern individual. Do you identify with the characters?
Man 4: Well, maybe, though I don't know... they are kind
of familiar.
Director: You mean you've seen them before ...
Man 4: ... in some play,
Director: You mean that reference to Vladimir and Estragon
from Waitng for Godot.
Man 4: ...Also, Peter and Jerry in The Zoo Story, Ben and
Gus in The Dumb Waiter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
in R&G are Dead, etc.
Director: (shrugs) Nevertheless, there is a basic difference.
Our characters fail to connect even at the verbal level,
leave alone on the lexico-semantic planes. They share
nothing but similarities in physical appearance and the
stage they stand on. Thev are not anxious or angst-ridden;
they seem pretty confident of their own points of view,
such as they are. We have our own concepts of the
unevenness of lived experience, our very own sets of
phobias, preoccupations, obsessions and causes for
depression. We certainly don't need to borrow anxiety
48
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 I
Himalmedia Pvt Ltd GPO Box 7251 Kathmandu Nepal • Sanchaykosh Building Block A 4th floor Lalitpur
Tel 977-1-543333 Fax 977-1-521013 marketing@himalmedia.com
<www.lrima]mag.coiTi><www.nepalihimal.corn> <www.nepalitinies.coin> <www.wavemag.com>
*m
BBB—
 from the past, that too from an entirely different era and
culture.
(Man 1 and Man 2 have come out from the wings and stand
behind the director)
Man 4: You mean we are post-absurdist?
(mild laughter)
Director: Post-absurdist, that's a thought (muses).
Alienated from our own alienation.
Man 1: Isn't it time we stopped playing language games
and dealt with real problems, those true to urban
societies in India. I mean, how does a play help solve
the water shortage, congestion, pollution, corruption
or, say, help me prepare for a job interview.
Man 2: Getting through a job interview isn't everything.
Tell me how a work of art can help you prepare for life.
Life, perhaps, is something you can stumble through.
But what about the process of dying? With the loss of
all anchors, metaphysical or otherwise, dying has
become a nightmare. An entire lifetime is too short a
time to prepare for it. Earlier, you heard of people going
gently into the night with smiles on their faces. But
today? ( grimaces)... It's okay while one is young and
healthy but what happens when the time to say goodbye
starts to get closer.
Man 1: No work of art can help you die. You have
to come to terms with it yourself. No one else can do
it for you.
Man 2: Not necessarily, what about the sublime? Certain
objects and situations—not necessarily man-made—
capture your imagination so thoroughly that you are
transported elsewhere; you get a glimpse of the ineffable;
you feel this is not all there is. (a long pause) This is what
we need today, not further disorientation.
Director: (firmly) Let's come back to the play, please.
Man 2: I am speaking about the play, lt works through
absences. Absences that need to be filled and this is
what I'm filling my absences with.
Man 1: That's just it. Today, everything you read or
watch fills you with a sense of your own insignificance.
Why must we be crushed further?
Man 2: It's so that you can learn to face life, to look it in
the face and not flinch. You need to create new fictions
merely to survive.
Man 1: How can you create fiction from fiction. We need
some kind of point of reference, something to look up
to. You can't create something from nothing.
Director: Why not? Why do you need props. Anchors
and roots only hold you back. If you have to be truly
free, you have to be adrift. Face the unknown without a
qualm.
Man 3: (raises his hand to attract the attention of the director)
Director: Yes?
Man 3: Aren't you going to introduce the playwright?
Director: You mean the author? (smiles at Man 1 and 2)
All three of us, initially. But now, all of us. Yes, all of us
present in this auditorium, desperately trying to make
sense of the script. Once the play is in performance it
belongs to everyone who participates in the act of
deriving meaning from it. How does it matter who pens,
or as in this case, who keys in the words? Without us
the play wouldn't exist, would it? Anyone can scribble
a down a couple of words but making sense out of it is
the real task. We are the joint producers of meaning,
(pause) I am sure there is enough material in your life to
create a first rate script.
Man 3: My life? (surprised and somewhat beu'ildered)
Director: Certainly, why don't you take centre stage for
a while and tell us how come you're such a nervous
wreck! (chuckles) Just joking, you know. Alright, tell us
how you spend your day or whatever else you like.
After all, what's the point of attending an experimental
play reading if you are not going to participate in the
act. Pardon my saying so, but you most certainly look
as anxiety-ridden as the rest of us.
(Man 3, after some prompting by other members of the
audience, walks on stage)
Please feel free to invent, concoct, fabricate, cook up,
devise or take the easy way out by telling the truth.
Man 3:1 really don't know if I should be doing this. (The
HIMAL   14/1  January 2001
 sr>of is on him while, the rest of the stage slowly fades into
darkness) Had I known it was going to be some kind of
an experimental production, I wouldn't have bothered
to turn up. Sorry, but I mean it. A theatre, for me, is a
place of refuge. A sanctuary where I can relax and
unwind as I immerse myself in the workings of a finer
mind. I want to see a story enacted before my eyes, not
this kind of pretentious avant-garde rubbish, (proceeds
in a more conciliatory tone) What I mean to say is, play it
straight and simple, with a beginning, a middle and an
end. Have convincingly motivated characters, who
employ logical means of self expression. Don't ask me
to interpret and produce meanings with or without you.
I can barely read meaning into my own life, leave alone
a script as disjointed and fragmented as the one you
just enacted, (pause) I work at the Asiatic Library. I'm
not a librarian (pause); it's more of a clerical position,
checking memberships, keeping track of the society's
activities and so on. I read a lot but not anything
highbrow. I am currently going through the short stories
of Anton Chekov, a most captivating writer. I believe
his plays are a bit difficult, though. My wife—I mean
my ex-wife—who used to be a drama critic took me to a
performance of The Seagull at the Sophia Bhabha
Auditorium by a visiting British group called Out Of
Joint or something like that. Can't say I enjoyed it much.
Hard to believe that the same person writes delightful
short stories. Why, 1 wouldn't hesitate to recommend
his fiction as a comfort book to anyone down in the
dumps. Lately, however, I have been drawing comfort
from another kind of fiction—cyber-fiction. I frequent
the Manthan Cybercafe down the road from my house.
They charge only Rs 30 per hour and you don't have
those nitpicking attendants like elsewhere, who get you
to pay for half an hour if you happen to cross your limit
by even a minute. I have joined a number of cyber-clubs
on the Net. It's great fun to communicate with people
you'll probablyr never get to meet. On the Net, I can be
whatever I please: dashing, romantic, a charmer, a
debonair sportsman—anything but the loser I am. The
other day, while waiting for my turn at the cyber-cafe, I
noticed the attendant using a software programme that
chats with you. Since it was there on the screen, I
downloaded it on a diskette. It's some kind of an
analyst—and God knows I need analysing! I didn't
mind the exhausting divorce proceedings as much as
the protracted and heart-rending custody battle. 1
suppose I can file again when my son is seven; but by
then, they'd have screwed up his mind so much, I
wouldn't recognize him. Still, he does look like me. Let's
see in five years time ...(muses) Anyway, I took Eliza—
this programme as she, I mean, it is called—home with
me. And for quite while, I've stopped going to the cybercafe. Eliza is real cool. She quarrels, pouts and
badmouths like any regular human being. If you
don't respond for a while, she abuses you and shuts
down. You should listen to it swear—unimaginable
vocabulary! One thing it can't stand is the Quit
command. It'll beg, plead and try to cajole you to be
allowed to stay on. You can't switch it off without a
long-drawrn-out argument. Best of all, even if it shuts
down, you know she can't walk out on you. (pause)
Actually, my wife did not walk out on me. No, it wasn't
the classic it's-the-last-straw-once-and-for-all kind of a
break up. She was much too smart for such histrionics.
The year before last, she contracted TB. God knows how,
but she did. Of course, it's no longer incurable, and
within a year she was declared free of the disease.
Unfortunately, it didn't end there, for she was terribly
depressed, partly on account of the weight she had put
on—something to do with the medicines the doctor
said... (shrugs) Around then, a friend of hers informed
her about some year-long theatre scholarship in the US
that she'd turned down. My ex-wife jumped for it and
applied. Somehow, she managed to get a number of
recommendation letters from the editors of the various
publications she did reviews for. (pause) I suspected
something was wrong, even as she was leaving for the
US. But I said to myself, "Control yourself, don't get
emotional." Strange, that's just what my father used to
say when I was young and given to sudden outbursts.
(pause) Well, within six months, I received a letter saying
that she had thought it over and that it was best if we
parted ways. I later came to know that she was shacking
up with some Polish student ... (long pause) How did I
manage to lose the custody battle? My in-laws succeeded
in coercing my ex-wife to come down for the hearings.
Left to herself, she wouldn't have given two hoots for
my son... So that's that! (stares past the audience with vacant
eyes) And here I am, atone in the evening: a glass of
clear malt whisky before me, solitaire, a visit to the cybercafe, or a late night movie on television. (Tries to sound a
bit brighter but fails) Hey, I was forgetting my cyber-friend,
Eliza (shrugs helplessly).
(As Man 3 bows his head in despair, the Director walks up
to him)
Director: Hey, that cyber-mate of yours sounds real cool.
Mind if I download her, too! (The lights fade out)
 Notes
for the performance
1. The painted backdrops of the opening scene are optional; a
bare set with only a bus stop indicator pole would do just
as well.
2. It might just happen that the question-answer session with
the audience gets out of hand. Viewers may wish to explore
other avenues of literary production and reception. In that
case, the play has truly worked, and the discussion should be
allowed to continue for as long as possible.
3. Tonal variations in the first section will make a great
difference to the manner in which the audience reacts to the
question-answer session. Subsequent performances should be
governed by their response. b
2001 January 14/1   HIMAL
51
 lastoane
ad a thought the other day, when listerting to a
group of South Asian conference junketeers, on
their way to the Women and Water conference,
who were grumbling about the sloppiness of South
Asian airlines. This sort of exchange is all too
common in South Asia's low-key departure lounges
from Colombo to Paro. We all know that Royal Nepal
Airlines, Biman, PIA, Indian Airlines, Druk Air and
SriLankan Airlines, need to get their act together, but
for a change let's look at the best part of flying within
South Asia—yummie, the food.
If things haven't gone too badly wrong, the food
is usually piping hot. So hot in fact that those in the
know have realised that the best way to melt the very
frozen butter packet that comes with the plastic roll
in the plastic packet, is to put it on top of the silver
foil covering the meal. Once the butter comes dripping out of its sachet, it can then be either licked off
as an appetiser, or drizzled over the meal. I highly
recommend the second approach, as cabin pressure
tends to dry food out (hardly the airline's fault) and
the addition of a pat of butter yields the same results
as a careful sauteeing of the rice in a wok just before
serving. This works mouth-wateringly well on the
halal biriyani served on PIA's Islamabad-Kathmandu
flight.
Another creative approach to making airline food
a touch more peppy was used by a Sri Lankan
woman I once sat next to—she carefully set aside
half her packet of peanuts that were handed out with
the beer on the Chennai-Colombo run. She held on to
it for 20 minutes, and then added the peanuts to the
coriander chicken curry/basmati rice/eggplant meal
that we were served. Pressed for an explanation, she
remarked that this gave it a "Thai" flavour, before
going on to top it with the chili sauce she fished out
of her handbag (she never travels without it). It did
indeed become almost, if not quite, a bonafide Thai-
green chicken curry.
You may not quite understand this little South
Asian quirk, but the best time to fly, food-wise, is in
the middle of the night. Unless you take the unpatriotic but sensible step of flying to Colombo from
Kathmandu via Bangkok, or Delhi to Dhaka on British
Airways, you will be flying in the middle of the night.
Soon after their 3 am departure from New Delhi,
SriLankan airlines gives you a salivating assortment
of cocktail snacks—tiny mutton kebabs studded with
green chilies, chicken pastries and devilled sausages.
Polish off a couple of platters of these, combined with
a few good glasses of coconut arrack, and you get to
Colombo at 5.45 am, feeling as unreal as the all-night
party animals you see crawling out of this happening
t city's watering holes at around the same time.
Sadly enough, many of us neglect our
snazzy salt and pepper sachet options,
assuming them to be redundant. A little black
pepper sprinkled on the continental vegetables can work wonders on Royal Nepal's night
flight, RA 217 from Kathmandu to Delhi. If sprinkled
vigorously enough to make your neighbour sneeze,
wheeze and leave for the bathroom, the added attraction is that you can pinch his profiteroles. I have got to
say it here—when it comes to desserts, Royal Nepal is
the best. Their profiteroles (3 per pax), are small pastry
cases with real cream inside and topped with dark
chocolate. SriLankan airlines comes a close second
with a sensible offering of a Kandos chocolate bar),
which can be stashed in pockets to be eaten after the
tray is snatched back by grumpy airline staff. Other
South Asian airlines are unhappily rooted in the
dairy/sugar syrup category, which means rather
monotonous offerings of watery rice puddings,
rasogollas and gulab jamuns.
Never, never forget, any nefarious activity contemplated on board can be best accomplished during the
meal service. Distracted and harassed by, on average,
245 passengers baying, "Ma'am—I'll have the chicken
chowmein, but vegetarian"—airline staff are only too
happy to nod through your well-concocted story of a
sudden onset of severe back pain and wave you
through to business class. Remember, Indian Airlines'
IC 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked two
years ago, while crew and passengers were tucking
into their meal.
The main thing is to forget the irritations of flying
South Asian, (cancellations, delays, technical faults,
etc.) and once on board, to sit back, relax and surrender yourself to the food. And if by any remote chance
you really don't like it, carefully extricate the lemon
slice from the salad on the extreme left of the tray. It
will come in handy while downing a couple of
tequilas, which can liven flying time considerably.     t>
—Patricia Hoft
52
HIMAL  14/1 January 2001
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