Litro #156: India: Mapping Memories

 Imagine it is a paper.
Look at it.
It is a portrait of the earth.
See where the needle of your magnetic heart stops.
That’s it. That’s the place you always missed.
Put a dot.
Touch it with your finger tip. Softly.
It throbs.
Then put another, and then another till a line is formed –
The umbilical cord reconnecting.
The spot is the cartograph of your memories.
It is the wound healed.

A dot shines on the page
at the zero degree of all directions.
Here ends your returning.
You are home.




Litro #156: India: Excerpt from My Own Country

 My mother and father arrived in Addis Ababa a week apart. They were among four hundred other Indian teachers—most of them Christians from Kerala—who would spread out over Ethiopia and teach math, physics, biology or English in the newly built high schools in Ethiopia. Why were all these teachers recruited from one state in India? Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, shortly after his country was liberated from Mussolini’s hold, went on a state visit to India. He traveled to the south of India to see the churches of St. Thomas. He had seen in the early morning, as you can still see today, legions of schoolboys and schoolgirls in uniform making their way to classes. Kerala was then and still is the stat with the high- est literacy rate in India. is sight had impressed the emperor so much that he had decided to hire teachers from this Christian state to man the new schools he was starting across his country.

On the matter of how my parents met, how they courted, I dare not ask my father. And my mother, though seemingly willing, parts with no significant details. My brothers and I always thought it had something to do with physics.

When my parents tell me the story of their arrival in Ethiopia—the tough times in India, the struggle to get a college education, the word of mouth from friends about jobs overseas, the letters of inquiry to “relatives” abroad, the establishment of a base, the accumulation of a nest egg, the consolidation of resources by marriage, the help and support extended to their younger cousins and more distant “relatives” who wrote asking for advice—I understand the migration of Indians to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mauritius, Aden, Ethiopia. And the next wave on to Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, London and Toronto. And to Flushing, Jersey City, Chicago, San Jose, Houston and even Johnson City, Tennessee.

In their herald migration, my parents individually and then together reenacted the peregrination of an entire race. Like ontogeny repeating phylogeny—the gills and one-chamber heart of a human fetus in the first trimester reenacting man’s evolution from amphibians—they presaged their own subsequent wanderings and those of their children.

***

During the hiatus in my medical education, while I worked as an orderly in America and before I went to India to finish medical school, I had seen the vantage of a hospital worker the signs of urban rot in Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Trenton and New York. The (insured) middle class continued to flee farther out to the suburbs where chic, glass-fronted hospitals complete with birthing suites and nouvelle cuisine popped up on the freeway like Scandinavian furniture franchises.

Meanwhile, the once grand country hospitals were sliding inexorably, like the cities them- selves, into critical states. Understaffing, underfunding, the old stories. Their patients had become the uninsured and indigent whose problems resolved around drug addiction and trauma. In the emergency rooms of these fading institutions, bodies were pressed together like so many sheep. Old people languished on stretchers shunted into hallways and corridors while beleaguered nurses attempted some form of triage.

An inevitable accompaniment to this scene of a city hospital under siege was the sight of foreign physicians. The names of these doctors—names like Srivastava, Patel, Khan, Iqbal, Hussein, Venkateswara, Menon—bore no resemblance to those of the patients being served or the physicians who supervised them.

City and county hospitals were the traditional postgraduate training grounds for foreign medical graduates: hospitals like Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Nassau County and Kings County in New York and dozens of others across the country counted on foreign interns and residents for manpower, particularly in internal medicine.

By the time I completed medical school in India and returned stateside, a few of my seniors from my medical school in India had begun internships at county hospitals across America. rough them and through their friends and their friends’ friends, an employment network extended across the country. With a few phone calls, I could establish for any city which hospital to apply to, which hospital to no bother with because they never too foreign graduates, and which hospital took foreign graduates for the first year, used them for scut work, but never prompted them to the second year—the infamous “pyramid” residencies. And the network invariably provided me with the name of someone to stay with.

At hospitals that took foreign physicians the work was grueling, the conditions appalling— but only by American standards—and the supervision and teaching often minimal because of the sheer volume of work. This was particularly true in hospitals that were university- affiliated. The cut work—wheeling the patient down to x-ray, drawing blood, starting intravenous drips, putting in Foley catheters, doing ECGs—was endless and the every-other-night-call schedule was brutal.

As I crisscrossed the country, in search of a residency slot, by way of Greyhound, sleeping on friends’ couches (or on their beds if they were on call), I was amazed by the number and variety of foreign interns and residents I met in these hospitals. I overheard snatches of Urdu, Tagalog, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi and Arabic. Some hospitals were largely Indian in flavour, others largely Filipino. Sill others were predominantly Latin or East European.

In the cafeteria of a hospital in a less-desirable section of Los Angeles, a hospital at which I was interviewing, I took my tray over to a table where an Indian physician sat. She had the handsome Aryan features of a Parsi or a Kashmiri. I thought she might be from Bombay or Chandigarh or Delhi—the other end of the country from where my parents were born. But when she spoke I was bowled over: from her lips emerged the purest Birmingham cockney! (I recognized this accent easily: as a ten-year-old I had spent a year in Birmingham while my father was there on sabbatical.)

She told me her family had fled Uganda and settled in Britain when she was a young girl. She had never seen India, neither had her parents. Her family had been in Uganda for two generations. She had gone to medical school in Leeds and then come to the States. When I told her I was born in Ethiopia, she tried her Swahili on me and I my Amharic on her. Neither of us got very far with that and so we retreated to English.

The England she reminisced about was vastly different from my memory of it. The Asians, she said, now had pubs of their own in Asia strongholds like Wembley and Southall. These hybrid establishments served tandoori chicken, pakodas and samoosas to be washed down with pints of the finest British bitter. And the music and dance were likely to be “bhangara-disco”— an electronic rendering of Punjabi and Gujarati folk music. The youth, most of whom, like her, had never been to India, had taken up the music of Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh or Mohammed Ra —old playback singers for Hindi movies.

Before she left to return to the wards, she paged a fellow intern, a Zachariah Mathen. From his name I knew he was a Christian-Indian like me. Zachariah took me around the hospital and as a matter of course
offered me his apartment and car keys. “Make my home your home! Explore the City of Angels,” he said.

***

Some hospitals, like Coney Island Hospital in New York, sent contracts to graduating medical students in India who had been recommended by their seniors. Come July, the seniors were dispatched to Kennedy to pick up the new blood fresh o Air-India, bring them to Coney Island and orient them. e cultural adjustment was simple: the reassuring scents of green chili and frying papads wafted won the corridor of the house-sta quarters. Indian sari stores, Indian restaurants and Indian grocery stores abounded—some even delivered. The latest Hindi blockbuster starring Amitabh or Dimple could be rented in Queens on bootleg video within days of its debut in Delhi or Poona. And the faces of the physicians of the wards were those that one might have seen on the platform of Victoria Station, Bombay.

The few American interns and residents I saw in the various hospitals I visited were graduates of the “offshore” or Caribbean schools in places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Montserrat or Grenada. These schools existed solely for Americans who could not make it into U.S. medical schools.

***

The foreign doctors—with some glaring exceptions—were well received. ey developed reputations as sound physicians. Though they were friendly, the majority chose not to integrate with the community except at a superficial level. They retained many of their foreign customs, the women wore saris, they were very protective of their children, and most of their socialization was with each other. In the corner of the kitchen or in a separate puja room would be a collection of Hindu icons: invariable Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and Ganesha. Also Muruga, Venkateswara, Sai Baba, Durga, according to taste. Once a day the incense and the oil lamp would be lit, the silver bell rung and burning camphor waved around the idols. And at least once a year the family would travel to the Hindu temple in Nashville to do a more elaborate puja or mahabhishekam.

The effeect of having so many foreign doctors in one area was at times comical. I had once tried to reach Dr. Patel, a cardiologist, to see a tough old lady in the ER whose heart failure was not yielding to my diuretics and cardiotonics. I called his house and his wife told me he was at “Urology Patel’s” house, and when I called there I learned he and “Pulmonary Patel” had gone to “Gastroenterology Patel’s” house. Gastroenterology Patel’s teenage daughter, a first-generation Indian-American, told me in a perfect Appalachian accent that she “reckoned they’re over at the Mehtas’ playing rummy, “ which they were.

Rajani and I, perhaps because we were of a younger generation, traveled easily between these two worlds: the parochial world of Indians in America, and the secular world of east Tennessee. For the Indian parties, Rajani wore a sari and we completely immersed ourselves in a familiar and affectionate culture in which we had our definite place as the junior most couple; but at night we could don jeans and boots and go line dancing at the Sea Horse on West Walnut or listen to blues at the Down Home.




Litro #156: India: In Search of Equatorial Roots

I imagined how my father must feel to return to the land of his birth after fifty-two years. More than the physical aspect of traveling long and far it was an adventure of the mind, as the mind tried to match every sight and sound to memories stored in its deepest reserves. As it tried to belong.

In his hand, he held two letters from his father: a one-page handwritten note describing locations and general directions and a barely legible scribble from when he had been terminally ill on the ventilator—a plea to be brought home to die. A wish we did not fulfill.

Yesterday, after a year of planning and coordination, Dad, Mom and I had converged at Singapore’s Changi Airport from Oman, India and the United States. From Singapore, the first leg had been a choppy seventy-minute ride over the South China Sea to Kuching. We were now airborne over East Malaysia to our final destination Miri in the island of Borneo.

Below, a river meandered through thick rainforest and balding farmland like a python sprawled across a green rug, not a care in the world for its deep curves. The occasional patch of white and burgundy sloping roofs seemed alien—almost hostile—to the lush equatorial wilderness.

Much of Borneo’s hinterland had remained unexplored and inaccessible until the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century and an increased demand for timber brought roads, navigable river routes and airways to the world’s oldest rainforest. In the fifties, my grandfather had been employed at the Sarawak Shell Oil Corporation. My grandmother, a math graduate, taught algebra at a local elementary school. When my father was six years old, a civil war broke out in the region forcing the family to return to India. The provinces of Sabah and Sarawak where they had lived went on to join Malaysia, breaking up the island into parts of three nations: Indonesia, with the five Kalimantan provinces comprising three-fourths the area, the minute Kingdom of Brunei comprising about a percent of oil-rich land, and Malaysia, the rest. We were the first members of our family to visit the region after 1962.
“Isn’t this the same steward who served us in the first leg?” my father asked as the meal cart came our way.
I said no, because the crew had changed at Kuching.
“But I’m sure,” he insisted.
“No, Dad, they didn’t leave one behind.”
His mind had already embarked on its adventure.

#

On the day we arrived, Dad took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood. He had done a fair bit of reading in the process of making flight and hotel bookings and knew his way to the city fan, a park constructed in the shape of a medieval fan. What we hadn’t known was that sidewalks were hard to come by in this part of town. We circumvented numerous roadside meat stalls, walked between patio tables of bars, peered for signs of life in a seemingly deserted school, and stared suspiciously at two guys waiting on motorcycles by the side of the road with their engines running. At the park, we tried walking on the “acupuncture stones,” each of us wincing in pain and jumping back to level ground, claiming little health benefit from the brief bout of therapy.

There was a growing mall culture I hadn’t expected to find. Honestly, having done no research myself, I hadn’t known what to expect. But the sight of a Pizza Hut in an unknown land, especially one known to have liberal dietary choices, was oddly comforting.

The next morning, a blue Toyota Innova with glaring yellow seats awaited us outside the front lobby. The hotel had arranged for a local driver to take us sightseeing. David Wong had the permit necessary to cross the border to Brunei. Bandar Seri Bagawan, the capital of the small oil-rich nation, is only 128 kilometers from Miri, but with the visa formalities at the border, we were looking at a three-hour drive. The road was narrow in parts but mostly paved. Except for a handful of townships, the sides of the road were thick with underbrush. In the distance, tall trees raced up to the sky competing for sunlight, closing in on one another, forming the canopy of rainforests.

At the capital, we visited the king’s museum and a couple other tourist spots. As we drove past the Saifuddin Mosque David said the dome was made of “916 gold,” meaning gold of 91.6% purity. He had been delivering such vignettes all along the way. Chatty and cheerful, he had a notorious tendency to break into fits of laughter at the slightest hint of humor. We got along pretty well.

We walked around the city center before stopping for lunch. For the second time in two days we, and especially my vegetarian parents, were thankful for the indiscriminate proliferation of American fast food chains. No matter where you were in the world, you could trust KFC’s waffle fries and Pizza Hut’s veggie lover pizzas with reasonable certainty.

After a lunch of cheese and potato sides at KFC we headed back in the direction of Miri. We first drove through the town of Seria where my father had spent the first year of his life. It was a small oil town by the sea. David said he had worked at a rig off the coast of Seria for twenty-six years before becoming a cab driver. “I like land much better,” he cackled.
Next, we visited the hospital where my father was born, in the town of Kuala Belait. The hospital had been renovated very recently, wiping clean any hope of recognizing it as an integral part of my family’s history. Nevertheless, we unleashed our cameras and added it to the latest chapter.

We crossed the border and drove to the city of Lutong, where the family had moved to from Seria. On the way, we passed by a number of traditional dwellings on stilts. The family had lived in such houses in Seria and Lutong. As a kid Dad would go under the house so his mother could not get to him. Eventually he got hungry and came out. After a scolding and lunch, his mother tied him to the leg of the dining table so she could tend to her chores, until Grandpa returned from work. My father sat there all afternoon until the endearing calls “Appu”—Grandpa’s nickname for Dad—wafted through the front door.

In Lutong, we visited the Recreation Club where Grandpa had served on the executive committee. They had no records from the late fifties. But the manager was gracious enough to show us photos of the club from then and offered to contact us in case he found something. A visit to the Shell office nearby also turned up with nothing. They needed time to dig up old records, time that we didn’t have. My father was disappointed. The era this region had been in and the length of the fifty-two years that had passed in between was becoming more obvious to us now.

The road back to Miri was along the coast. The South China Sea was particularly rough; massive brown waves lashed against the narrow beach. Not a single fishing boat had ventured into the open ocean today. Staring at the waves, I was hypnotized by their raw menace. It was as if every lash was a reminder: “I am Nature, I am Boss.” I imagined the water receding hundreds of meters, revealing debris, plastic bottles, carcasses of sea and land animals alike, leaving fish flipping about in the wet mud… As I gawped at the revelations of the deep sea, a solid brown wall rose in the horizon. It grew as high as the eye could see and started moving towards the shore.

I shook off my unwarranted imagination of catastrophes and concentrated on the road. A few days later, Air Asia flight QZ8501 was lost in stormy weather over the South China Sea.

#

David brought his wife along the next day. A newer white Innova with beige interiors had replaced the blue one with its eyesore seats. It was his son’s, who had become a cab driver just like him.

“I told my children to study, but they want to make money. Such stupids!” he chortled.

The day was reserved for sightseeing. We were going to Niah caves, 70 kilometers southwest of Miri. As we approached Batu Niah, the mostly flat, low-lying land rose sharply in the horizon to thickly forested, near-vertical rock faces. Batu Niah is home to an ancient limestone cave complex, carved into the side of the mountain. What we hadn’t known beforehand was there was a hike up to the mouth of the Great Cave. David had brought his wife along to keep him company while we were gone on our “long trek”.

Unprepared as we were, we decided to give it a shot anyway and bought park entry tickets. The price also covered the world’s shortest ferry ride across the narrow, yellow Sungai Niah. At the dock, a sign said “Beware of crocodiles.” The river was notorious for its croc population. Every now and then, their numbers would swell and starve the river of its resources. As a result, unsuspecting humans would be stolen at night or sometimes, in the case of really hungry crocs, in broad daylight.
After an uneventful crossing, we started trekking through thick vegetation. The trail was well maintained but slick from recent rain. There was not another hiker soul in sight. The forest enveloped us from either side. It was quite alive and noisy: crickets chirped, odd screeches and ominous tick-tocks emanated from its depths. Mom and I started slowing down, doubting the safety of the trail. I imagined creatures watching us from heights through camouflage, tracking our moves, teasing us with their other-worldly sounds. “Oooo, let me swallow the fat one, he’ll last weeks.” “I don’t fancy older women either. Share with me some young and fresh, he looks delicious.”

Brave as I was, I voiced my concerns rather strongly. Soon, we were walking back, with Dad insisting in vain that the trail was perfectly safe. David roared with laughter when we returned in a jiffy. I learned later, not without a pang of regret, that Niah Caves was home to some of the world’s oldest human remains, dating back about 40,000 years and beautiful prehistoric cave paintings from early human settlements.

At Batu Niah town center, a huge warehouse had been converted into a shopping complex of sorts with a department store, vegetable and fruit stalls, a food court, and what looked like an urban zoo. Right by where customers sat and ate, there were cages and tanks carrying reptiles and amphibians. I was amazed and repelled by the sight of what David called a “king dragon turtle.” If there were ever genetically modified turtles that could be trained in ninjutsu, it was these guys. This particular one however was way past its teens, with claws so long they curled under the feet, a rough hardened armor, long scaly tail, and a strong unwillingness to move. Kids crowded around an albino ball python’s cage, prodding it with straws. The braver ones poked it with their fingers. Having given up on life after years of depraving captivity and human bullying, the snake moved ever so slightly to show it wasn’t yet time to pour kerosene over and light it.

David then took us to an Iban longhouse settlement. Fifty shotgun shacks had been built side-by-side on tall wooden stilts, each sharing walls with its neighbors except the ones on the ends. The entrance to each house actually led to a massive common hall. On the other side of the hall were the real front doors leading into the longhouses. Children played in the hall while adults basked in the sun filtering through the windows. David exchanged pleasantries with some of the residents. A man in his late twenties hunched over a laptop playing Call of Duty as two kids watched, glued to the headshots and explosions. About halfway down the hall, human skulls hung in a basket overhead. The Dayak tribes had been headhunters by tradition before the government had outlawed this fun activity.

Back outside, David asked us if we took any photos of the skulls. We didn’t, because it had felt like an invasion of the residents’ privacy. He sighed in relief and said, good, for otherwise we would have brought back the spirits with us. Surely those wandering headless souls had left long ago with some brave photographer before us. Going along David’s trajectory of superstition, I imagined the gruesome baggage people who photographed uncovered mass graves must have carried back. In more ways than one, they would have been haunted for the rest of their lives.

Our last stop was the 104-year-old Grand Old Lady on Canada Hill, the first oil well in the region. Though no longer functional, it was Miri’s raison d’être. The looming metal structure watched over the city from above, an everyday reminder for how it had all begun.

After David dropped us back at the hotel, my parents left for a stroll around the neighborhood. I stayed back. Had Dad achieved mission objectives? Little remained of the Seria and Lutong he left behind as a kid. He had hoped to meet at least one person who remembered his parents—perhaps a relative or a descendant of Sari, the Dayak maid who had taken care of the children while the parents worked, or a colleague of my grandmother from the school she had taught in—but we hadn’t met any. We embarked on this trip with a lot of anticipation and excitement, perhaps a fraction of what my intrepid grandfather had felt when he left home at the age of eighteen, and shortly thereafter the country of his birth, armed with a knowledge of shorthand and an excellent words-per-minute on a mechanical typewriter. Once when I asked the silver-haired octogenarian how he had done it he simply chuckled. Instead, he lamented about being made to repeat sixth and ninth grades, the former because he failed and the latter because he broke his right hand. My grandfather hadn’t thought much of his education, which was little to begin with, but what he achieved over the course of his life transcended an average life of self-accomplishments. He brought his family, his wife’s family, and of those around him to education and prosperity by bringing them overseas, getting them jobs, sending them money to study or start businesses of their own.

The ripples of my grandparents’ lives are still felt today, years after their deaths. There is no need for any validation for it is self-evident. Therefore, I decided the purpose of our visit had been for Dad to remember them more intimately as their son, more personally than through legend, so he could renew the calls “Appu” to his five-year old self, imagine how they had made it work more than a half-century ago in a primitive and completely foreign land. Most importantly, it had been for him to make peace with the fact that as we continue to live with their memories, Miri, Lutong and Seria live on, changing with and adapting to the times, glimpses of their past in a street corner or on a hilltop, reminding us how far they have come.




Litro #156: India: Sharmini Subramaniam: Name, Unknown

 6am
At 6 in the morning, with a weak winter sun just rising, I open the door to put my milk bottles out. Sharmini Subramaniam is already out on the street, hugging herself and wondering about aimlessly but I know what she is actually doing, is exercising. I don’t know Sharmini Subramaniam. In fact, I don’t even know her name. I call her Sharmini Subramaniam because that’s what I’ve named her. She looks like she could be one. She’s small and dark, and she wears an ill-fitting salwar-kameez which makes her already thin body look even more formless. Her face, I suppose, would be attractive at a Bharatanatyam dance contest; a red bindi on her large forehead, the kohl rimmed hard around her black fish-shaped eyes, a snub nose and a pointy chin. Her hair is slick with coconut oil which she parts with determined precision right at the centre and then braids into two thick plaits which fall on either side. I can tell she’s newly arrived from India. She has that smell which wraps itself around women and men and children newly arrived from India; of pickles and incense and sometimes of camphor balls as if their clothes have all been resting in a suitcase for a very long time. Every morning she walks to the end of the street and back again.

Last Wednesday, our paths crossed at the corner shop, which Ismail runs with the help of his ‘cousin-brother’. Ismail’s shop is so cluttered with things, there is hardly any space to walk and I wonder how he keeps an eye on it all; the sweeties and cigarettes and bottles of distilled vodka and refrigerated Pukka pies, and spreading onto the floor are the tin cans of beans and fruit in heavy syrup and sachets of pet food all gathering dust. Sometimes, he puts a cereal-box in front of a particularly offending pair of silicon breasts popping out from the cover of GQ magazine but mostly, he doesn’t care that it’s haram (sinful), in his religion, to stare at the candescent nakedness of a woman.

He’s always there at 6 in the morning, his skull cap a little off kilter, his beard droopy with long strands of grey, his summer coat which doubles as his winter coat stretched tightly over his large belly, pulling up the aluminium-grey shutters, nodding at pedestrians and ushering in the early morning commuters.

‘Why do you work so hard, Ismail?’ I ask him one morning.
‘Betti, in Pakistan you would call me baba, yeah? Here you can be disrespectful to me. Calling me Ismail. I am not your younger brother, yeah?’ Ismail pretends to be cross, but he’s glad for the conservation.

‘I work because it is the honourable thing to do. You want me to live on benefits, yeah?’

I saw Sharmini buy full-cream milk at Ismail’s. She had tucked under her arm a book with large lettering, ‘English as Your Second Language in Three Months’. She looked at me in that earnest way people who share your skin colour do; for some sign of recognition, some distant, primal force of solidarity. I looked away in embarrassment. I bought my newspaper and my organic yoghurt and hurried out of the shop. I walked home, faster than I had intended. When I reached my house on Park Lodge Avenue with its pyramid shaped roof, smudged bay windows and unkempt weed-ridden front garden, I looked back. She was dawdling behind me, alone, in her usual way, which infuriates me. London is a city of speed. How long before she learns to walk like the rest of us?

9am
Michael reaches over my shoulder and grabs the milk from the fridge. He sits at the table with a cup of coffee and opens the newspaper to centre page.

‘The pakis are at it again,’ he says, ‘another one from Bethnal Green calling for Sharia law in Britain.’
‘Things must be really bad in Bethnal Green,’ I say.

He stretches out his arms, loops them behind his neck and smiles at me sheepishly. I smile back, grateful I don’t have to bear the burden of Muslim collective guilt.

‘Got any croissants?’
‘Yes, in the bread bin.’

He looks older than his thirty-six years; the hair about his ears already grey, the stomach soft and sagging, the shoulders hunched. We met at a university mixer. He had about him, in those days, the air of a young, liberal revolutionary spouting obscure Russian writers and pasty poets.

‘What are you reading?’ he had asked, hulking over me like a Viking warrior, a little too pink in the face, wearing a fashionably crumpled linen shirt, smelling of leader-bound books and lamb gravy.

‘Middle English Literature.’

Back then, I still believed the world owed me something; that all a woman needed to succeed in life was an opinion and sexy underwear. Back then, I didn’t know a university degree in Middle English Literature, interrupted by marriage, would only buy me domesticity (labelled a life-style choice) and a few evenings a month at the local library book club.

Now neither of us are sure of our liberalism. We still sit in front of the television in the evening and watch Channel 4 compete with the BBC over its liberal bias, and every Sunday, Michael buys the weekend edition of The Observer, but more often than not, surrounded by stories of stranded refugees, we find ourselves shaking our heads in disagreement.

‘We can’t rescue them all,’ he says.
‘Maybe it’s us that needs rescuing,’ I say, avoiding his gaze.

In here, within these four walls, in this orderly kitchen empty of the clutter children bring to people’s lives, Michael and I are safe; insulated from the political correctness we endure with our friends. In here, sitting across this table with a croissant in hand, bound by our failures and the casualties of our dreams, banter and racism is permitted in the spirit of bonding.

11am
Sharmini and I share the wall of our living room. From the other side, I can hear her crying. Soft sobs. Loud sobs. Choked sobs. I imagine if I bump into her in the street, later in the day, I’ll find the kohl running down her face.

Sharmini has a husband. I know this because I see him leave the house every morning with a plastic bag in hand, preoccupied on his cell phone. I can smell the chapattis she cooks for him and hear the songs she sings when he is away. In such imperceptible ways, I am aware of my neighbour’s existence. Beyond that, I don’t want to know anything about Sharmini. I don’t want to know about her mother-in-law or the problems with her washing machine or if she is lonely or any of the things women talk about. Knowing them would burden me; they would consume my time and my attention. I would have to offer advice and comfort and hope. Sharmini would become real.

Sometimes, I see Sharmini talking, near the bus stop, to a gaggle of women, all newly arrived from India; their vowels rattling, their consonants harsh. Sharmini talks rapidly with her words, her eyes, her hands, her bobbing head all of which form part of her alien language. The rain, the icy cold wind, the soft falling snow, none of it perturbs them. For a brief while, they are transported by the weightlessness of language and laughter to a less foreign world. I grudge them this carefree insolence; oblivious to the stares of fellow commuters.

I’m weighed down by what Miss Richards, two houses down, is thinking. Miss Richards, who used to be the French teacher at the state primary school and who used to vote Liberal Democrat but now votes Conservative and is infuriated with our open borders, as she calls them.

‘It’s the future of our country at stake,’ she tells me, arms flailing about helplessly.

I nod and agree amicably.

I can never be defiant. I was taught to keep my head low, learn the language, blend in, become invisible.

12:30 pm
I watch from my kitchen window young boys on bicycles trawling the street for mischief. Travellers. I feel a certain dread in the pit of my stomach. My hijabi friend (I’ve told her not to wear the hijab, to avoid trouble. I feel uncomfortable when I’m with her) tells me to call them pikeys.

‘They hate that,’ she says.
‘What does it mean?’
‘I don’t know but they hate it.’

I look up the word pikey: a derogatory term; an ethnic slur; a person who moves from place to place. Not so long ago, Irish travellers had a camp in this area until developers forced them to move. Now, they roam around, a pale-faced tribe of unwashed hair and velour tracksuits; displaced from the only way of life they have known.

I finish washing the coffee mugs; the water swirls down the drain effortlessly, compelled by an inner compass towards some eventual destiny.

4pm
I walk to the nearby pharmacy. Last night’s soft flakes have gathered on the street in slushy piles of snow, deceptively charming, over a layer of black ice. The air feels crisp and pure and fragrant. In the distance, I can discern the tiny figure, almost a speck, of Sharmini set against the horizon. She disappears quickly into the thicket of shops: the launderette, the Sealife Kebab Land, the Hong Kong export emporium, the Polish sklep, the Krishnan Cash and Carry piling their sacks of onions, potatoes, brinjals, watermelons and papayas onto the pavement, the riot of cars parked illegally, the post office whose officious-looking postmaster also sells plastic buckets and frying pans, the dreary railway station beyond which is a small bridge with rusting Victorian lamp posts on either side of a sluggish canal, as if mourning a past, of which Britain is at once proud and ashamed. When did all this change take place?

I pay for my progesterone tablets and push the heavy glass door open. Not far from me is Sharmini returning with two plastic bags in hand. She walks past me, turns the corner and for a moment stands very still, looking out on the street bereft of houses, vacant of cars and pedestrians, suddenly remote and silent. In that instance, I realise why she has hesitated in crossing. She looks at me briefly. Then just as quickly, the swarm of traveller kids on bicycles surround her, enclosing her in an unassailable fortress of hate which grows thicker with every taunt. Their shadows lengthen on the solitary road; monkey sounds emerge from all directions spurred on by the courage of the pack.

Sharmini hisses back, crouched cat-like, small and diminished. Her lips tremble and a tiny bit of spittle escapes her mouth making its way down the chin. The boys make repeated attempts to snatch the dupatta covering her upper torso, but they miss. One of the younger boys pedals dangerously close and yanks it off, letting it drop a few feet away from her. Exposed and vulnerable, she stands erect, her back arched, her stomach protruding, her hand instinctively protective of the little bump of impending motherhood.

I stand rooted; impaled by cowardice. The sun slides into the sky taking with it the last rays of light, leaving us all in the sepulchral glow of a winter’s evening. The boys, now a spent force, cycle away, jeering as they race uphill, their little faces ruddier with an afternoon’s easy triumph. Sharmini, crosses the street, a wraith, a nimbus floating homewards.

***

Months later, both of us volunteer at the community centre.

‘My name is Kamla,’ she says, the salwar-kameez discarded like a shrivelled skin; in its place is a loose maternity dress pulled over her bulging breasts; she smiles across the Formica table-top which separates us.




Litro #156: India: Firefly

 It was her. She was prettier in real life: svelte, slim-wristed, utterly feminine, utterly cosmopolitan Indian upper middle class. She was striding towards the Rare Books & Music Room in a tight-fitting purple top and blue jeans, her heeled boots looking more expensive than anything I had ever owned. She turned, momentarily, as if remembering something and I caught sight of her expression. It was as if she disapproved, as if she didn’t have any time for my nonsense. ‘Who was she?’ I asked myself. ‘What was her name again?’

I was seated at one of those big black tables on the first floor of the British Library, stuck between YouTubers and reluctant essayists, the majority of whom seemed keener on managing their Facebook accounts than finishing their work. I’d forgotten my Readers’ Pass and was cursing myself for having looked up because Wiggy Kenton (my eccentric boss at Oxford University Press) had me on a tight deadline for a big editing job: a German academic with bad English, writing on Shakespeare and the ‘Glocal’. Now I couldn’t stop staring at the Rare Books & Music Room, willing its walls to melt so that I might see Santosh Mukherjee’s wife again. I imagined her disdain when she caught me staring, my desire willing the entire building to de-materialise so that was just she and I. She was the unseen parts of Santosh, the world he’d stashed away. Intelligent, elegant, accomplished: Santosh Mukherjee’s beautiful wife. Who was she? What was her name again?

During those first weeks of my English Studies PhD, Professor Santosh Mukherjee had chased me so hard that I thought it was love. A fellow student had caught him looking at me in the lecture theatre and told me. That’s when I found myself dressing up for him, perfuming my hair, reading up. He was bright and attractive for his age, a welcome distraction from my true love, Sven, a Norwegian pilot who had left me for a Finnish girl. Once, when I spoke out at one his lectures, he described my question as ‘incandescent’. In our one-to-one tutorial, Santosh enthused about Derek Walcott’s poems before sidling up to me and saying, ‘You look so serious, Zainab. Where’s that lovely smile of yours?’ and later, ‘No need to leave. Relax a bit. Why so formal?’ We soon got to the sex and lies. At first he told me he and his wife were in an ‘open relationship.’ Then he said he was torn between his obligation to wife and his desire for me. And then he told me the truth.

‘I feel like I can tell you anything, Zainab,’ he said, one afternoon in bed. ‘I love my wife. She is the mother of my child and she reads everything I write. I’d be nothing without her. But we’ve been together for fifteen years. Fifteen years … it’s a long time to be with someone. I get bored,’ he continued. ‘I get curious. Is there anything wrong with being curious?’

His voice cracked.

I shook my head in agreement but deep down I was unsure. ‘How would I know?’ I thought to myself. I was twenty-two with only a BA and an MA to my name. I wasn’t as brilliant or as philosophical as Santosh Mukherjee. That night Santosh took off for a faculty leaving party with the suggestion that I should stay the night. In the darkness, I unearthed his suitcase from beneath our temporary bed. I half-expected to find souvenirs of the other girls. Instead I found a photo of Santosh’s beautiful wife. She was holding their baby daughter in her gold-bangled arms, proof that his other life really did exist. Moonlight shone on her face as I held it. Later, when I confessed I’d seen the photo, Santosh wearily told me that his wife researched the daily lives of a hunter-gatherer community on the Andaman Islands. I listened, my heart panicked. We didn’t speak of her again.

All through that overcast, wet winter in Kent we had sex/made love and continued our discussions on modernist poetry, on Hughes, Walcott, Larkin, and my very own thesis topic: the short stories of Jean Rhys. Santosh suggested I should change the topic from a consideration of Rhys’ short stories to those of Manto, tales he argued were closer to my Indian heritage. They were ‘vivid, intense, rich, and far more fun.’ Manto was a fine stylist and seemed to know something of the truth of life but sometimes, when Santosh talked about the writer’s characters I felt a creeping sensation along the nape of my neck. And right after sex, I’d tear apart his analysis in my mind, worrying whether or not Santosh really loved me. In those moments I’d watch his every move, searching for what was real. But truth evaded me and instead I’d feel a crackling, weakened sensation in my legs.

It was Santosh who ended it. He had applied for and won a full professorship at the University of Cornell. ‘I find you very attractive, Zainab,’ he had said, watching me dress, ‘but I have a wife … and a child. You understand.’ I nodded and looked away. Attractive. I had wanted to hear him say ‘beautiful’.

We spent our last weekend at an academic conference. We stayed in a gaudy hotel and drank Manhattan cocktails along the Thames.

‘You won’t tell anyone,’ he told me. ‘You’re good at keeping secrets.’
I shot back at him, accusing.
‘Only silly girls ruin big careers.’

His face darkened and he turned away. There was metal in his goodbye kiss.

I told my mother that academia just wasn’t for me. She had been right all along: it was impractical, poorly paid. And that very day, I met Wiggy Kenton in a department store elevator that got stuck for half an hour between floors. We chatted as we waited for help during which time he said he’d fix myself up with a junior editor role at OUP. It didn’t pay well but I thought, ‘Why not? What have I got to lose?’

Over the years, Wiggy would continue to insist that he couldn’t give me a pay rise. Sometimes during my coffee break, I would chance upon one of Santosh’s essays. (Wiggy was a snob and subscribed to literary magazines he never read.) The words of his arguments shone as bright as ever, incandescent. He seemed to be doing so well.

*

Her name was Meenakshi Mukherjee. I remembered it late that night in my Leytonstone bedsit, with its broken night lamp and sunken mattress. I was trying to finish Wiggy’s damn manuscript when all of a sudden, Santosh’s wife’s name lit up in my mind’s eye. Santosh had named her only once during our affair and I’d pretended not to notice the slip up. Secretly, however, I stolen it, stashed it inside me. Meenakshi Mukherjee. Of course.

I Googled her. She was a Cornel historian, dazzling just like him but with an even longer list of publications to her name. Santosh hadn’t lied about one thing. Professor Meenakshi’s research really did focus on the Jarawa people of the Andaman forests. Settled villagers lived outside the forest and her work demonstrated that exchanges between tribal and non-tribal groups were complex, political and under-studied. ‘The Andaman Islands … wasn’t that the place with the big a tsunami?’ I thought, gazing in admiration at the shining purple and gold sari on Meenakshi’s Wikipedia profile. I was amazed at how invisible and mawkish Santosh looked standing beside her.

The Andaman Islands were tropical, stunning and serene: a glittery honeymooner’s paradise. I imagined Meenakshi wandering through the islands, flanked by researchers and local guides, exploring with big maps, important questions pencilled into her notebook. She’d be sweaty in her white flowing salwar khamiz, drinking coconut water in the shade and talking politics.

Sometimes she’d stop to worry about the daughter she’d left with her grandparents in India. Maybe she’d worry about Santosh too? Her poor husband was all alone in Kent while she worked on the paradise island Maybe not, I considered with a smile. Maybe Meenakshi got bored too.

The following morning, I still couldn’t stop thinking about Meenakshi Mukherjee. Santosh’s wife was the stronger academic, and her list of publications far eclipsed Santosh’s own. I wondered if that burned my professor, my sometime man, and then I got myself wondering what she’d actually written. I pulled my first ever sickie at OUP and headed straight back to the British Library. It was morning rush hour on the central line and I imagined stepping onto the platform and crashing right into Meenakshi Mukherjee. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I’d tell her. ‘I didn’t mean to. I didn’t see you there.’ And then I’d touch her arm. ‘How are you? Are you okay?’

But a second encounter never materialised. Instead, I made my way into the Humanities 1 Reading Room of the British Library and ordered her latest book on the Andaman Islands, scrolling through Internet articles as I waited.

I read about Captain John Ritchie’s 1770 Marine Survey for the English East India Company. When he had arrived by night boat on the Andaman shores, he wrote that he had seen quivering beams of light lining the shore. Long after he had settled on the island, the captain still couldn’t decide whether the lights he had seen were man-made fires by local or the fireflies that swarmed the island shores at night. I imagined Meenakshi’s plane landing on the island’s airstrip then, her heart questing for the fireflies. But what if she arrived on a night boat, I wondered? Then entire coast would be lit up like Diwali for her, thousands of fireflies illuminating her pale skin. What a sight that would be! What a welcome!

Meenakshi had written about the islands’ foreign settlers too, of kidnappings and confinements, diseases that had been spread by new inhabitants, stillbirths and syphilis. It was an age-old story, of abuse and colonialism, of laying claim to that which could never be yours. She reported that the Jawara people saw the forest as vessel for darkness and light. According to the community’s elders, the forest’s luminosity was due to the presence of fireflies and stars, which helped keep balance and order in and above its canopy. I imagined Meenakshi and her researchers sitting in a story circle then, listening to the elders, their mouths dropping like children’s in wonder.

One Jarawa myth told that the world above the forest was home to a married couple: the moon and the sun. At night they wished to make love but were prevented from doing so by blinking stars, with their mischief and laughter. The couple remained close but they were rarely able to consummate their relationship. The stars had their role to play though, and it was thanks to them that the forest was rarely ever in complete brightness or darkness. The stars, according to Meenakshi’s ethnography, were similar to the forest fireflies: it was they who kept the order of light in the forest.

Meenakshi wrote that the Jawara people feared both intense heat and intense light. I understood somehow. I knew full well how bright lights could both attract and scorch you until you felt blinded, devoid of light. And that’s when darkness would creep up behind you, cast its black hood over you and carry you off in its sack for years. One of the elders said that newly married Jarawa couples would receive a log of smouldering wood to keep fireflies away. I thought about Santosh and Meenakshi and me. I imagined myself as a forest firefly, a nuisance to the couple’s harmony. But weren’t fireflies like the stars about the forest: as central to its complex system as the sun and the moon, sustaining the forest’s life too? Weren’t they as much a part of my constellation as I was of theirs?

Another myth told the story of how the Jarawa ancestors managed to retain the glow of fireflies in their bodies. I imagined joining Professor Meenakshi and her researchers as a PhD student in the forest then. We were gathered in a circle around the storytellers, our Dictaphones and listening. It was dusk in the forest, and other members of the tribe were listening too, watching us foreigners learning their stories, own mouths open in awe. What a tale that was! I’d tell Meenakshi and she’d agree, extrapolating its various meanings, wondering how best to write it up. Later, we’d fly back to the University of Cornel, my brilliant Professor and I. Meenakshi would invite me to a big party at her house, all rum and leftist South Asian politics, and that’s when I’d recoil, making some terrible excuse. I’d fly back to my apartment and seal myself within its dark walls, imagining Santosh, Meenakshi, and their talented daughter laughing and joking in their big sunlit house.

Late that night in my Leytonstone bedsit, my thoughts returned once more to the fireflies in the Jarawa forest. I wondered if the myths the Jarawa people told themselves were as real as real to them as mine were to me. They were small but far from insignificant: like the stars in the night sky, they too were keepers of light in the forest.

Unable to sleep, I replied to Wiggy’s irritable email. This time, I pushed back on his deadline request and demanded a pay rise. Then I texted my landlord about the broken lamp. I reminded him of his contractual obligations, telling him that I was looking to move out. There were no stars outside the window of my dark bedsit and the London sky was blanketed in familiar grey smog. I drifted into a heavy sleep, dreaming once more of arriving by night boat onto the islands’ shores. The stars above the forest had sent their emissaries, the fireflies, to greet me. They led me into the forest and it was as if the whole place was breathing, its pathways neither too bright nor too dark, lit up just for me.

*This story was informed by Vishvajit Pandya’s ‘In pursuit of fireflies: the poetics and politics of ‘lightscapes’ in the Jarawa forests’ in New Histories of the Andaman Islands: landscape, place and identity in the Bay of Bengal, 1790-2002.




Litro #156: India: The Dragon Slayer

Jamie told a story that night to Marie. He talked of a boy named James, and she did not blink. She knew his name was Jamie, and that he would have liked to be called James. He had told her once that he was too grown up, and should no longer be called Jamie. Marie had agreed.

His mother called him Jhoomar, which was a Hindu name, and he could not understand why. She had embraced Christianity ever since she came to the Tirinidad islands on the ship all the way from India.

“Ma, you are now a Christian. You should give up all thoughts of the old country and its faith,” Jamie often told her, but she clung to both with a nostalgia Jamie did not support. She had left his father and come away here with Jamie in her womb, and was now working on the sugar plantation, where Jamie worked as well. There was no other choice. They were ‘coolies’, cheap Indian labour who worked on the fields for the white masters.

That night he told Marie a story of a boy with blue eyes and straight blond hair that fell across his forehead so fair that the light could shine through it and legs long and thin and hairless that ran like the wind amidst the green grass, and arms that flailed in the sun with joy and abandonment, and skin that bruised so easy that a red blob formed fresh on the surface almost before the hunter was laid on it.

“What hunter being laid?” she asked, her eyes innocent but her mind knowing. “No hunter lays across such skin, Jamie, you should know it.”

He told her to listen and not interrupt because it stopped the flow of his words. It also stopped the flow of his dreams where he was this white-skinned James whom Marie would definitely want to get married to at the end of the story. He felt that the real Jamie would never be the man she craved as a partner, given his brown skin and black hair that curled unkempt around his ears despite all the oil he put to keep it in place. He watched as she closed her eyes and listened to the rest of his story. Her eyelashes curled upwards, forming a semi-circular fan. Her hair fell in two long plaits down her back. Small gold earrings glinted in her ears, a gift from her now dead grandmother. Jamie was fifteen and had been working from a very young age, his hands calloused and hard. She had similar hands. They both worked the fields like the rest of their family. But her face was soft like the night breeze that sweetened the air now.

She lived next door and they were childhood friends. Jamie had become increasingly conscious of her since the year before. She was a couple of years younger, and a fierce protective instinct had developed within him for her. He kept it in check, because he felt it would spoil their friendship if she knew his feelings.

They spent the hours after work together. She was the one person who lent ear to his ‘tall tales’, mocked by their other more boisterous friends. Of course, the younger kids mulled around, wide-eyed, as they listened to his stories of James the Night Rider. James slayed dragons; he hobnobbed with goblins and fairies at night. He changed his colour to a dark-skinned young man to work among the field hands in the morning, to know their world and be one with them so that no one would guess who he really was. But the children grew sleepy and wandered off to their beds and then there was only Marie. At that time, Jamie’s heart swelled with a sweetness he never knew earlier as he kept on weaving the magic of his story around and around her so that she would never escape from him.

*

They went to Church every Sunday with their hair licked and plastered behind their ears, their faces scrubbed. Jamie would steal some sandalwood paste from his mother’s dressing table and rub it onto his arms for its smell. She used that paste to anoint the Hindu gods, a pantheon she had on display there in her prayer room along with the cross of Christ.

His mother’s faith perplexed Jamie. He found it strange, a mixture of this and that, though if anyone asked her she would swear to be a devout Christian and nothing else. She sang her Hindu hymns at night, and Jamie fell asleep listening to their melodious sound.

Marie came to Church as well, and they would steal glances at each other, quietly saying hello. Yet Sunday was a day Jamie liked to be alone, sleeping off the wear and tear of the week, for exhaustion visited his young bones. The music would play on the radio and he would lie in the sun, drunk on the heat and the laziness in the air, letting life go by for that day at least. He did not allow himself the thought of the arduous week ahead and only dreamt of his time with Marie in the evenings and so got lulled into a deep sleep.

The following Sunday he could not rest. His sleep was fitful. He dreamt of dark woods, heard strange sounds, and saw himself trying to cut through long grass to follow a sound. The grass was stiff, thick and difficult to cut through, pricking him with its pointed ends like swords and lacerating his skin. He woke up in a sweat and found himself running a high fever. He glanced apprehensively at his skin to see if it had any red slashes on it but it was smooth and clear.

Jamie’s mother made him rest, and did not allow him to get up from the bed for anything. She sat up the whole night, cooling his forehead with a wet cloth again and again. Next morning was work for both of them. The owner of the plantation, Master John, did not consider a fever or exhaustion any reason for them not working.

That evening, as he lay with fever again, and his mother sat next to him nursing him, Jamie thought of Marie. He felt a bit happier just thinking of her coming, as she surely would. He had not seen her in the fields that day, but was too unwell to find out why.

She did not come. As he grappled with his fever, another, greater worry began to eat away at his insides. He asked his mother to find out where Marie was, but she would not leave his side and told him it was not something he should worry about. Seeing how his face had fallen, she reassured Jamie that Marie would come the next evening.

Every morning he staggered to work and back home in the evenings. His mother, gaunt and exhausted as well, tended to him. That whole week he did not see Marie in the fields or in the evening. His mother refused to find out why, saying that he could do so when he was well enough.

*

By the next Sunday he was better, and attended Church, hoping to see Marie there. She was standing next to her uncle, looking soft and beautiful in the morning light, and his heart skipped a beat as he looked at her. She did not look at him, however, keeping her head bent throughout the service. Jamie was so giddy just at the sight of her that he did not wonder as to why she was not looking at him. He was sure he would meet her at work on Monday morning.

Excitement would not let him rest the whole day and he tossed and turned in bed, dreaming up all kinds of stories to tell her. On Monday, she came to work, but was quiet and subdued and ignored him completely. Jamie could not understand her behaviour. He walked up to her and tried to talk to her, asking her where she had been all these days. She did not answer him. He grew visibly upset at this. His heart was hammering a strange tattoo and his brain was bursting all of a sudden.

“Come in the evening, will you then, please?” his request was more like a supplication. She nodded and walked ahead, pretending to be too busy to answer.

Jamie tried to concentrate on his work but his eyes filled with sudden tears.

*

He sat morose outside his home that evening. Maybe he already knew that she would not come. It was late night and the lights had gone off, the street outside the home was deserted. He could not rest and began to walk, his steps moving heedlessly any which way.

He was outside Master John’s home. He didn’t know how he reached there. All he knew was that a light was shining through a window and he was standing in front of it and he could see two people inside, for the curtains had not been drawn.
Master John was holding on to Marie tight, so tight that Jamie felt himself choking, as if his throat was being held. Her clothes were off. She was the victim and he was the dragon, and Jamie was the lonely bystander who watched everything in his misery, unable to do anything at all because he was just Jamie. Not James, never James, the man he wanted to be.

He turned and ran and this time it was not towards home, but away into the wilderness. The grass here was thick and it cut into his arms and his legs but he did not care.

*

They found him in the morning, his body lacerated and bleeding. Jamie’s mother cried and cried and prayed to all the gods she knew but he refused to heal. Every time the scabs formed, he plucked at them and made them bleed again and they became infected.

In his delirium he called out to her, “Marie, my Marie.”

His mother put home-made unguents and pastes that she painstakingly prepared on his wounds. Early each dawn she lit the lamp in front of the pictures of the Hindu gods, Shri Ram and Sita, Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Ganesh and Hanuman, and the goddesses Laxmi and Kali. She lit candles in front of the picture of Christ on the Cross. She sang her bhajans and her hymns with greater fervor and then went to work. On her return, she attended to Jamie, sitting up in the night and holding him in her arms, her tears dropping on his hot skin, but he was oblivious of all this. All he could do was call out to Marie.

*

It was a couple of months before he was well. His mother told him that Master John had been kind; he had allowed him to rest. She did not tell him that now she would have to put in an extra hour everyday to make up for the time he had not worked, but he got to know this on his own. His mother also told him that Marie would be going away. She would come and say goodbye to him before she went. She had promised his mother this.

Marie came after two days. The evening sun was setting; the sky was bathed in orange light. She looked strange and all grown up, walking with a diffidence he had not seen before. Her steps were short, tentative and measured, as if she was scared of taking a wrong one. Jamie watched her as if she was a stranger, she felt so far removed from him.

“How are you, Jamie?” she said, her voice low. She kept her head down as she spoke and did not look up.
“I am fine, and you?” he said, choking on the words.

They both knew how they were.

The air filled suddenly with a sweetness that smelt sickly. It smelt of hospitals and births and death. Jamie shook his head and looked at her. There was a slight swelling at her belly that had not been there before.

“I saw you that night,” he said.
“Which night, Jamie?”
“The night the hunter was laid against me,” he said.
She knew what he was talking about.
“All night long the hunter against your skin, and you did nothing?” Her voice was a whisper of pain.
“All night long the hunter against your skin and you did nothing?” Jamie asked her then.
Her eyes filled with angry tears.
“I am just Marie,” she said.
“And I am just Jamie.”

She turned away now, her back to him.

“And you will never be called anything but Jamie. You can never be James,” she said, as she ran off into the gathering darkness, not wary now of any wrong step she might take.

*

Jamie’s stories died that night, because all stories are based on two things. There should be at least one listener who appreciates them. And there should be hope on which to build one story after another, like you build a home. Jamie had neither left with him.

Inside, his mother had begun to sing her evensong, asking the gods to slay the dragons of the world. She had full faith in their ability to do so. They were not mere mortals like Jamie was. They were gods, equivalent to the might of the white skinned man. And to make doubly certain, she also prayed to a white skinned god. She closed her eyes in supplication, her hands folded in prayer.

Jamie let out a yell and raced in, his eyes wild and his hands jerking. With one hand he swept the pictures from the shelf on to the floor. All the gods stared up at him. The kumkum and sandalwood paste fell, mixed and moved like a trickle of blood on the floor. It coloured the eye of Christ in the fallen picture. It looked as though it was bleeding.

“No more prayers,” he told his mother, who picked up the pictures one by one, sobbing quietly. “No more prayers,” said Jamie.

Then he was gone, and all she could hear was the rustle of the grass in the wind.




Litro #156: India: The Warehouse

To understand our family is to know about the warehouse. Magic things happened there. Our fortunes fluctuated. We ran a small international company by each of us occupying every single role, from managing director to warehouse staff to janitor. We gave it everything we had. Each of us. And so our family survived.

On Sundays, we were a gang. My father, mother, two kakas and kaki, and a stack of theplas wrapped in tin foil. The radio was tuned to Sunrise. Junaid’s dad voiced the occasional advert. We mocked his Rothmans-deep voice. In Summer, we listened to test cricket, loudly if India was playing. Dad and the kaka drank lukewarm tins of Fosters and occasionally bellowed ‘ahl-roight bra-thaaaa’ to each other, and kaki and my mum took over the office at the back, licking their glitter-peppered fingertips and counting reams and reams of tissue paper into individual packs of three sheets.

We were the only ones on the industrial estate.

I heard and spoke Gujarati all day. We dipped thepla in a carrot and chilli seed pickle and ate them rolled up. Mum and I shared two or three cans of Diet Coke. Kaki banged the desk every time she made a mistake. She was, mum had once remarked, a typical Bombay-ite. Everything was fast and loud and dramatic and full of heart.

I helped to pack orders, count out reams of paper, pack them, tick them off on the order sheet, gee up my uncles with tales of my school and generally feel like an adult. I did this willingly at first. I understood my burden. I was the one out of dad and kaka’s kids who got to go to private school. I was the eldest. It was important to them all that I went. My parents didn’t come to the UK to assimilate. They came here to make money. But they understood that in order to make more money, you might have to assimilate. It was with this in mind that they focussed on my education, sending me to a private school, because private schools churned out future leaders, future business tycoons, and future lawyers. They afforded opportunity. Most importantly, my dad thought, they looped you into the old boy’s network he knew existed. By going to private school, I would be making connections that could pay off in my adult life. The irony was that all this opportunity private school afforded me, it turned me towards the arts.

By the time my sister was ready for school, by the time my cousins were ready for school, the business was floundering and so they all went to comprehensives. Meanwhile, I was left to excel at private school. Except, I was failing in maths and science, the subjects that meant everything to my dad and his brother, and the pressure of doing badly made me hide as much as I could, because I didn’t want a lecture from my mum about what a waste of money I was, how we were all struggling, as a family, to give me the best education so I could be the saviour of the family. This is the thing about immigrants and private school. Whatever our class or background, we’re so assimilated into the British institutional way of life, that a private school feels like the top of the food chain. It becomes important that everything is sacrificed so we can go, and have the opportunities we’re told aren’t for us. There was a particular time, in my year, when suddenly a significant portion of the intake was Gujarati kids in North West London, and suddenly the school was deemed to be going downhill, because we were here, decolonising by taking over, thus ruining the school’s potential to be able to sell you by virtue of its name alone.

But we’re here to talk about the warehouse.

The warehouse was filled with boxes. There was no adherence to any health and safety. The fire exit was blocked by a stack of flattened boxes we kept in case we ever needed them. Piles of boxes ran up high, nearly touching the ceiling. Boxes spilled into the office till they became a permanent fixture and dad and kaka stopped taking meetings on site, because the office ended up being more storage space.

When dad had walked mum, my sister and me around the space just before we moved in, he was incredibly proud of the suite of three offices. The plan was for him to sit in the back, the executive corner office, he called it. There was a desk and a phone and a glass display case where he could show off his business accolades. There was a small round table with four chairs around it for meetings. Now the executive corner office was where we ate lunch and mum and kaki counted and folded sheets of paper.

We had taken on a new contract that involved presenting the paper to shops in their own point of sale branding. It meant hours and hours and counting off three individual sheets of paper and using tools made from old cardboard packing boxes, folding the sheets until they fit in small see-through bags, before stapling on the header advertising the shop, price and what exactly the paper was. Mum and kaki sat in that small office, surrounded by boxes, inhaling glitter by the fistful, counting off sheets and gossiping about family members, while dad, relegated to the middle office, which was supposed to be where all the operations were managed, sat on the archaic computer, printing off remittance advice, invoices and payment reminders.

The kakas and I were be in the main warehouse, listening to Sunrise Radio (number one-rise radio, it’s Sunrise Radio), all dressed in hoodies or fleeces, packing boxes, joking with each other, teasing each other mercilessly. They drank beer, I drank mum’s diet Coke. We made fun of each other’s appearance, the way we sang certain Hindi words. We told bad jokes. Made fun of each other’s bad jokes.

I stole moments to myself in amidst all the chaos. When the kakas would retire to the offices to help out, or to drive boxes around various homeworkers to carry on the assembly line when we had big orders, the warehouse was mine.

While I packed orders, I entered my own make-believe world. I stood at the front, near the shutters. The warehouse wasn’t big but it was chaotically packed, which afforded me pockets of invisibility. I stood with the broom handle, pretending to be Michael Jackson and singing. Or Prabhu Deva, apparently a teacher of Jackson, as he pulsated and jerked his body around impossibly to ‘urvashi, urvashi, take it easy policy’.

I was in a detective show, every now and then. I was deep undercover, working as a warehouse worker in a family business. The family was using gift-wrapping paper to smuggle drugs around the country. I was investigating but I was in too deep because I’d made friends with the family and realised that while they were engaged in severely criminal activities, actually they had hearts of gold, and were just trying to make ends meet. They were just middle men and it was the top boss blackmailing them into moving his products I had to investigate. But in order to protect this family that took me in as its own, I kept my identity a secret. I kept a secret radio on the mezzanine floor of the warehouse, stashed amongst the boxes of dead stock. When I was alone in the warehouse, I’d imagine the sensors were on, meaning, I couldn’t touch the ground, and I had to get from the front, near the shutters, to the stairs up to the mezzanine to radio the sarge without alerting anyone to my presence. This meant jumping from palette to palette, using stacks of boxes to balance on, creeping, clutching on to high shelves as I shimmied along the bottom one, and at the last jump, hanging on to the metal joist holding up the makeshift mezzanine floor and having it support my weight for a vital few seconds as I swung safely on to the stairs. I don’t know why the stairs didn’t have sensors like the rest of the place, but that didn’t matter. It was a repeated scene, I made this move again and again and again, every Saturday, every Sunday, for years and years.

The warehouse was magic like that.

It meant everything to our families.

My uncle bought the Daily Star and the Daily Mail every single day, and holed up in the toilet for hours at a time, reading both, getting his daily dose of boobs and racism. I avoided the Mail but would flick through the Star as I approached my teenage years, because this was the easiest way to access pornography. He kept stacks of both papers by his desk in the front office. If I was doing my homework, which was expected of me, to split my time between my education and paying for my education, I’d sit at my uncle’s desk, my books open.

When no one was looking, I’d flick through as many Daily Stars as I could, flushing with embarrassment at the first sighting of breast, and closing the paper, getting my head in my books guiltily.

As I got older, those papers would be the battleground for endless arguments with my uncle about racism and feminism.
Soon, I’d stop coming to the warehouse altogether.

The warehouse meant everything for our family. You’d know a big important order was due to be shipped when my grandparents were brought in to help with counting sheets.

The cans of beer would then be done in secret, because my dad and his brothers were desperate for their father to think they were taking the business seriously.

Years later, when I had finished university and could see the world moving on from small companies, I begged dad and my uncle to consider a website. They traded on word of mouth and reliability alone. I told them this was the way of the old world.

‘But you can’t touch the papers,’ dad told me. ‘You have to touch the papers.’

‘My contacts all love me,’ my uncle told me from behind a Daily Mail. The headline screamed at immigrants. I couldn’t get past the incongruousness of the moment.

I speculated that maybe having our surname in the name of the company put people off. Maybe having an ethnic name was a problem.

My uncle put his paper down, riled.

‘That is our name, beta,’ he told me. ‘It was our name before the company, and it will be our name after the company. The name is like a quality stamp.’

Years later, I regret the interaction. And what I was suggesting they do, pander to white fears about immigrants. My dad and uncle, while they may not have been able to move with the speed business was moving, they kept their integrity. Years later, and I’m staring at a quote from Uzo Aduba, an actor in Orange Is The New Black. She says, I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.

I don’t know the point at which I stopped going to the warehouse unless I was asked by dad. Mum asked all the time, but if dad had to ask, you know it meant they needed help. Otherwise I was free to be at home by myself, on the proviso that I was studying hard, and looking after my sister and cousins.

We mostly fought for supremacy of the remote control. The one thing we could settle on was re-watching episodes of The New Adventures Of Superman and Friends, both we’d recorded in the preceding 48 hours, and watched when they were broadcast.

My sister’s TV sessions meant cartoons and mine meant films. We’d sit in on each other’s sessions and that’s when the study books would come out. We’d keep them open in front of us, our eyes glued to the screen, hoping to learn by osmosis.

The warehouse carried on, season by season, without us. Mum and dad went every day, even when mum had work, she’d start and end her days there. Dad dropped me at school at 7.45am and was at the warehouse till 7pm every weekday, and Saturday and Sunday, they took it easier, 10-6.

Each time I went back to the warehouse, I could see it decaying around me and I could see my parents disappointment in what they thought was my squandering of my schooling.

The school gave me the opportunity my parents were so desperate for our entire family to have, and with opportunity and access, I chose the opposite of what they wanted.

With the semblance of every opportunity laid out before, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Mostly, because I wanted to write Star Wars tie-in novels. When I told my mum and dad that this was my dream, not business like they sorely hoped, desperate for me to wrestle the company from my dad’s tired shoulders, not law, like they sorely hoped would be the compromise I would arrive at when they realised I was terrible at maths and strategy, but good at languages and arguing, they sat me down and gave me the well-worn immigrant speech.

‘You want to go into a competitive industry like writing, you have to realise that it is run by mediocre white men,’ dad told me. ‘You have to work twice as hard as the mediocre white man, write twice as good to even get half the opportunities they do.’
‘Surely it’s the same in business.’

‘That is why we work three times as hard,’ he told me, sipping on a whisky and soda, staring at the Technics hi-fi he was so proud of as it played CD compilations of Bollywood songs we knew inside out. ‘Look at the books world. Do you see anyone who looks like us? Now look at business. Some things belong to us. Other things do not.’

Sadly, it wasn’t enough.

By the time I hit my late twenties, I had outgrown my weekly trips to the warehouse. Mum and dad had abandoned working on weekends and the business was in slow decline.

‘A small business cannot survive in this climate,’ he told me. ‘The shops, they will only deal with the big companies now,’ he insisted.

I asked again why they didn’t have a website. They needed a website.

‘It is paper,’ mum told me, echoing dad from nearly a decade ago. ‘You need to be able to feel it, look at it, touch it, see it in the flesh.’

‘Either way,’ I told them. ‘You need a website. One that can people can order through.’

Whether it was their inability to keep up with technology, or whether it was the squeezing of small businesses as high streets closed ranks and cut costs, or whether it was the damn ethnic name, they eventually, months after it was too late, folded the business.

My last trip to the warehouse was with a choke held back in my throat the entire hour I was there. The warehouse had worn my family down: my father and his need for a responsibility-free job; my mother and the glitter that had scarred her lungs irreparably; my uncle and the only job he had ever had, the company he started from the back of the lorry he bought for cheap with pocket money; the youngest brother and the lost weekends he could have spent golfing, scrapbooking, socialising, watching football; me with the guilt that I should have been a lawyer in order to pay back the sacrifice an entire family made to send me to private school (not my younger sister or cousins, there was no money left, just me, the first-born, the one with the most potential).

I walked along the slim corridors of boxes and looked around. It seemed smaller than I remembered. I picked up the broom I would disappear with behind boxes at the front of the warehouse to pretend was a mic stand and I was Michael Jackson, every urgent limp in my body taut and controlled as it shimmied and danced seamlessly.

I walked up the stairs to the mezzanine floor where I pretended to stash the radio to get in touch with my superiors and update them on the drug gang.

I ate thepla out of foil, dipping it into carrots swimming in chilli oil.
I sat at my uncle’s desk and marvelled at the decades worth of Daily Mails, Daily Stars and Daily Expresses folded up and stacked around him.
I looked up at the wall planner on his desk, pinned to the partition wall. It was from 1993.
I recognised my handwriting immediately. Out of boredom, I had written mine and my sister’s birthdays on the wall paper and drawn three Star Trek Federation insignias around the border.
I smiled.
We had lived here and we had done our best. Whatever we did, it was enough. My family was beaten down, and not prepared for what would come in the next few years — illness, chronic unemployment, death. But we had existed, here. And made our name.
We left the sign up on the door as we exited the warehouse for the last time. It was Sunday and there was no one else around.
We let the warehouse remain Shukla Packaging.
We needed people to know we were here.
As we drove away, I remembered, once, on a cross country run with my school, we ran along the canal. I was quite a way behind but as we passed the back of an industrial estate, I noticed an opening that led into the courtyard where dad’s warehouse was.
Smiling, I ran towards the front door, opening it and frightening my uncle, who had been asleep with his head on the desk.
‘Hi,’ I shouted, breathlessly.

Dad walked in from the warehouse into the office where I stood, muddy and panting.

‘Son,’ he told me. ‘This is a place of business.’




Litro #156: India: DIASPORA

Forgive your country every once in a while.
If that is not possible, go to another one.
-Ron Padgett

morning-jama-mosque-in-delhiIt’s a simple car bomb, and it’s rigged to a busload of schoolgirls. No one knows it is there except for me. The Ceylon Islands’ bomb squad were trained by Israelis, but have not had anything to defuse in 20 years. By the time they get here there will only be carcasses of young girls to sift through.

I have three daughters and I am far from a monster. Yet this mission was created on my recommendation. It has taken me 10 years to formulate this plan and I believe it to be the only viable option.

In an hour, thirty-five schoolgirls between the ages of 8 and 12 will die or be disfigured because of the length of the hem on their school uniform. After that, this country will burn for weeks and after that I will be there to put out the fire.

It all began with Chamara Jayawardena, esteemed Sri Lankan cricket captain, swearing live on the BBC. A leader resigning like a drama queen wasn’t unusual in this county, but an old boy of Trinity College dropping the f-bomb in public was something scandalous.

The story of Ceylon began not with King Wijeya or Queen Kuveni, but with a post-match press conference at Lords. Chamara Jay was usually well spoken and polite, but that day he looked ruffled and agitated.

He was responding not to the dull cricket match that he had wasted five days on, but to news that Buddhist monks had set fire to Tamil businesses in his hometown of Kandy.

“Today I am deeply ashamed to be representing Sri Lanka. Thugs in robes claiming to uphold Buddhism have committed shameful acts in recent times. But none as disgraceful as the torching of property owned by Sri Lankan Tamils, people who are my brothers and sisters.”

“This may not be the forum, but it is the only one I have. I wish to announce my resignation as Captain, and my renunciation of my race and religion. Henceforth I no longer consider myself a Sinhalese or a Buddhist, as doing so implies complicity to these hate crimes, implies allegiance to these fucking arseholes.”

“I am Sri Lankan and consider any crimes against those living in my land, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, to be crimes against me. I have used my position as a sportsman to feign apathy as most of my fellow countrymen do. No longer. This is unacceptable and I will not accept it. Thank you. I will not be taking questions.”

The clip played on CNN, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, networks not known for their interest in cricket or in the troubled isle south of India. Among Sri Lankans, the clip was shared and argued about on social networks, many of which were blocked in the island. Patriots denounced our cricketing hero as a stooge of the west. Liberals exulted him as a hero.

The population of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, exceeds 20 million. It is the head count of the Australian continent squeezed onto a landmass the size of Tasmania. Yet the nation of Lanka extends far beyond the boundaries of this fair isle.

2 million Sri Lankans, exiled by economics and politics, reside in kingdoms across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. 1 in 10 people who could be identified as Sri Lankan no longer reside within its borders. This diaspora is made up of Tamils banished by the Eelaam wars of the 80s and 90s, Burghers exiled by the Sinhala Only policy of the 50s and 60s and economic refugees of every shade of brown working as slaves in the first world. The diaspora features a myriad of races like Sri Lankan Moors, Kaffirs, Chetties, Parsis and Chinese, spurned by the land of their birth.

It is among this diaspora that Chamara Jayawardena’s tirade receives the most airplay on unblocked bandwidth. For many, Jayawardena is a hero, a sane voice speaking for humanity in a paradise plagued with division. At home, those in power denounce the man as a traitor, who should be ashamed for airing the nation’s dirty laundry on the world’s washing lines.

The story is reported widely and shared ad infinitum and is accompanied by banner ads for a luxury resort called Ceylon Islands. These ads call for hospitality personnel, hoteliers, marketers, architects, engineers, waiters, chefs and artists to apply for vacancies and offers ‘competitive remuneration and career advancement.’

When Chamara Jayawardena is gunned down at a traffic light, while taking his sons to cricket practice, the story hits the world’s headlines. Eyewitnesses, all of whom later retract their statements, describe men on motorcycles, pulling up to Jayawardena’s Pajero, won for being player of the tournament at the 2019 World Cup, and firing 5 times into his SUV. No arrests are made for the murder.

***

Sri Lanka is a sovereign Buddhist nation, the sole custodians of a Lankan brand of Buddhism. If China goes secular and Burma goes psycho, we are, we believe, the last bastion. This, we are told, is important, important enough to burn churches, stone mosques, dismantle kovils, send monks to parliament, and shoot the very Prime Minister who began this idiocy.

Buddhism is based on karuna and metta, kindness and compassion. It is about harnessing the mind and the desires, accessing the soul, using thought, word and action to promote the good, the just and the right. It is philosophy more than religion, though in Sri Lanka it has adopted all the ugly traits of organised faith.

Buddhism is a way of being, grounded in empathy, in benevolence, in nonviolence. Ceylon has made a joke of that, a deeply unfunny joke. Those who industrialize aggression: the military, the cops, the gangsters, the politicians, all claim to use violence as a last resort. Over here, in the sovereign home of nonviolent Buddhism, it is our first port of call.

A drunken spat will end in a homicide, a domestic tiff will conclude with acid, political disagreements are resolved with guns, a failed exam leads to the drinking of poison. Each of these happen each and every day in this beautiful land.

The malady may not be a uniquely Lankan. Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin L. King are now signposts on dirty boulevards, sepia photos used to sell computers, postage stamps that we spit on. Their names are spoken and their words are quoted, while their ideas fester in the first world and rot in the third.

Around the globe, in every bloodied outpost, it is as clear as God’s disdain. Pacifism is the idea that failed. The idea that should have been placed on an altar after two wars made Europe a steaming heap. The idea that has been skewered on a hook and left to decay for half a century. The idea that will be bludgeoned and burned each day for as long as vermin have claws on these lands.

***

I follow the bus in my air-conditioned van. On the passenger seat is my diary, my cigarettes and lighter, and a black box with an antenna and switch. As a father of three daughters, my choice of target may appear suspect, though it is very much not.

Could I not have placed my explosives at the house of parliament, that floating building on Colpetty Lake, designed by one of Geoffrey Bawa’s many imitators? Could I not have targeted one of the government buildings on Duplication Boulevard hidden amidst bo and banyan trees? Is the killing of children necessary or even acceptable as a means to an end?

I have spent the last year at the Diego Garcia naval base typing up a 30-page report justifying what I am about to do. In it, I have outlined 7 different scenarios that could deliver the desired objective. Of these, the thirty-five schoolgirls represent not only the lowest head count, but also the most effective course of action.

Nothing softens the heart like the birth of a daughter and nothing hardens it like the death of one. Killing schoolgirls, especially those of tender age, yet to become rebellious and petulant, will create a frenzy of emotion and a call for blood. There will be ground support for a pogrom on the perpetrators and finally, after decades of peace, the Ceylon Islands will be at war.

***

In 2025, both Forbes magazine and Conde Nast Traveller ran cover stories on the Ceylon Islands. Floating on the equator, somewhere between Somalia and the Maldives, the islands had become a refueling stop for shipping lines on the Indian Ocean as well as a sought after tourist destination.

The cluster boasted 345 archipelagos, 230 eco-friendly resorts, a resident workforce of 500,000 and an annual turnover of 300 billion, making it the most successful tourist destination of all time.

Travellers marvelled at the landscaped beaches, the native fauna and the crimson skies. National Geographic published colour spreads of butterflies, elephants, black leopards and a recently discovered species of Ceylon dragon. Conde Nast praised the standards of service, the exquisite flavours of its Sri Lankan fusion menu, and the innovative use of air taxis, hovercrafts and hot air balloons to transport guests from one paradise to the next.

It is only when The Economist unveiled the man behind the curtain that heads began to turn. Raviraj Balasingham had left Sri Lanka in 1983, like thousands of Tamils who lost homes and families in riots and wars. The story behind his fortune has many versions. Some say he ran pornography shops in New York State during the 90s. Others report him as a predator who made profits on foreclosures during the ‘08 credit crunch. Many attest to his presence at LTTE fundraisers and claim that his offshore investments armed the Tamil Tigers for three decades.

The Economist noted that 82% of all employees were of Sri Lankan descent and enjoyed generous wages and perks. The magazine raised questions on discriminatory hiring practices and asked why the group of companies was registered in Shanghai and not in New York, where Balasingham was a resident. “Sri Lankans work harder than anyone else, as soon as they are taken out of Sri Lanka,” was Balasingham’s retort.

While these allegations remained unaddressed, his appearance on the Fortune 50 raised a few eyebrows. In an exclusive interview with the New York Times, he revealed his motivation behind the purchase of the Ceylon Islands. “I wanted to create an authentic Sri Lankan tourist experience, on a place free of Sri Lankan bureaucracy and corruption.”

Indeed as the nation of its birth degenerated into a third world theocracy, as its economy and tourist arrivals dwindled, the Ceylon Islands boasted a GDP that would’ve placed it on a list of first world nations, despite the fact that it was a privately owned conglomerate. It was the beginning to which I am about to put an end.

***

The late great Chamara Jayawardena outlined his approach to captaincy in his posthumously published autobiography Charmed Life. “I always look at the result rather than the method. I tell my bowlers to bowl at the mistake they want the batsman to make. If I need 300 runs, I play egos against each other to achieve it. People get too hung up on rules and process. I commit to the result before I even know how I will create it.”

Make the commitment. Then figure out how to do it. Wise words from a dead man. So what was my desired outcome? To destabilize and destroy the economy of the Ceylon Islands, an economy based on pluralism, equality and professionalism. How does one destroy something based on all that is good and just? It is simple. Just add religion.

Do not for one second think that I am a novice. I have managed operations for both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, some covert, others less so. In my youth I engineered seven political assassinations, one involving a head of state, and to date none of them have been solved. After I switched sides, I helped end the war in 09 and cripple the terrorist group whom I once worked for.

In the early 10s, I was in charge of silencing soft targets referred to in military parlance as ‘children’. I disappeared journalists and activists and helped manage the press fallout afterwards. I then retired and set up a PR firm for government ministries, a lucrative enterprise that didn’t require the spilling of blood. Then I was approached by men I had done business with before, asking me my opinion on the ‘Ceylon Islands problem’.

I told them what I learned in my time as a fixer. It’s not enough to kill or kidnap or disappear. You must find a goat to scape, someone who wouldn’t like being blamed, someone likely to retaliate in the face of false witness.

If I plant the smoking gun in the mosque on Slave Gardens, how long before religious tensions turn paradise into hell? Can a successful secular state formed on principles of democracy and transparency survive the slaughter of 35 young girls, without the demand for an eye for an eye? We shall soon see.

***

In 2029, Raviraj Balasingham made the boldest move of a career built on maverick maneuvers. He requested an audience with the UN and brought with him a delegation of distinguished gentlemen and ladies. Among them were scientists, engineers, economists and lawyers, each of Sri Lankan origin, mostly citizens of Canada, Australia, UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Brunei.

He presented financial records outlining the solvency and profitability of the islands’ tourism, shipping and agricultural sectors. The Ceylon Islands’ tea, rubber and coconut industries were leaders in markets across the globe, eclipsing their Asian rivals, dwarfing the small change earned by the island south of India, which their parents once called home. The Islands’ manufacturing sector had managed to remain competitive without resorting to cheap labour. Its fledgling stock market was stable, transparent and highly lucrative.

His case for an independent state predictably found opposition among SAARC countries, notably the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, now a one-party dictatorship where all citizens were required to convert to Sinhala Buddhism. It mattered little, as China, the US, the UK and the recently reformed Soviet Union all voted in its favour.

Balasingham’s proposal was drafted by distinguished Queen’s Council Sir Christopher Peripanayagam, respected civil rights lawyer MHM Aziz and renowned litigator Samaraweera Pereira. Sri Lankans resident in London, The Hague and New York respectively. The constitution was that of a secular democracy, a meritocracy that would serve as a homeland for a legion of displaced Sri Lankans.

Riots erupted in Colombo on the day the resolution passed, though the world’s media focused on the inauguration ceremony in Batticaloa City, the newly crowned capital of Ceylon Islands. Rohan de Kretzer, CEO of Ceylon Islands Resorts was sworn in as Governor General.

The cabinet was made up of technocrats, among who were three Nobel nominees. While the nation began as a one-party state, free and fair elections were promised within five years. While qualified expats were welcomed, citizenship and land ownership was restricted to those who had at least one Sri Lankan parent.

Exiled filmmakers set up studios. Grammy-winning rap star Maya, banished from the homeland in the 00s staged a music festival. The last surviving member of the ‘43 group auctioned his paintings in Batticaloa City. Housemaids from the Middle East, slave labourers from Singapore, skilled and underpaid technicians from Sri Lanka flocked to the visa office to cash in their worthless passports.

It was article 7 of the constitution that received the most attention both from critics and supporters. To be granted citizenship, one had to denounce race and religion. In other words, it was not possible to be a Ceylon Islander and remain a Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. Every citizen was a Ceylonese and had to pledge allegiance to a flag of three colours, representing the official languages of English, Sinhala and Tamil. While freedom of religion was tolerated, it received no state patronage.

The newly formed government resurrected and replayed Chamara Jayawardena’s Lords press conference from a decade ago as inspiration for the state’s constitution. The great man’s birth anniversary in May was declared a national holiday. The Chinese built highways and ports, the Americans set up universities and the Arab nations signed trade agreements. By 2033 the population of Ceylon Islands had swelled to 3 million.

While the world moved on, Sri Lanka refused to recognize the sovereignty of The Ceylon Islands, calling it a ‘rogue state’ propped up by a ‘puppet western government.’ The Ceylon Times noted that most critics of the new nation were Sri Lankans who had had their visa applications rejected, and went as far as to publish the rejected application forms of Sri Lankan ministers looking to defect.

My wife, my three daughters and myself all received new passports. We each denounced our Tamil heritage, our Hindu beliefs and our allegiance to the island of our birth. At the time it appeared a small price.

***

The bus turns off at Dickmans Drive and I drive into Chamara Jayawardena Avenue, where I am late for work. My black box has a reach of 15 km, which means I could set off the charge from the safety of any one of the neighbouring islands.

It is 8.25 am and the Royal Bishops College would start its day in 5 minutes. While the school is co-ed and progressive, its transport is segregated. The boys’ uniforms are traditional white slacks and white shirts. The girls wear a one-piece white frock with shoulder straps and a hemline above the knees. It is an outfit considered sexy by hormonal teenagers and pedophiles.
The crime rate in Ceylon Islands is negligible, thanks to a zero tolerance policy. Since inauguration there have been no murders or rapes, at least none that were reported in the Ceylon Times. The punishment for all crime from theft to drunk driving is immediate deportation to Sri Lanka. Many claim this to be a fate worse than decapitation. Rumour has it that serious offenders are sent to Saudi Arabia and Texas for execution, though this has not been proven.

The police force and army have been trained by Israel, the economy managed by consultants from Singapore, the hospitals and schools designed by specialists from Sweden. Consultants were granted residency but not citizenship, unless they had one parent who ate rice and curry by hand.

There was talk of compulsory military training for all citizens, females included, but this is still being debated in parliament, along with bills asking for a crackdown on religious freedoms, the hijab and circumcision.

The national cricket team applied for ICC status, but is yet to receive word, despite beating both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in friendly test matches played at the scenic Bloomfield ground on the isle of Trincomalee. One day the Ceylon Islands will play a test match against Sri Lanka and may even win, according to optimists.

I get a call from a Maldivian number as soon as I get to office.

“Where?”
“Plan changed. We have decided that the evening run is better than the morning. Game will take place at 230pm and not at 830am.
“Who decided this?”
I sigh and say nothing.
“We will need full report.”
“Obviously.”

Click.

I took this job on the basis that I worked alone and had no chain of command. The less voices there are to silence, the easier the cover up. My comrade from Maldives knows this and is not required to like it.

I told you that I am no monster and perhaps that is why I am having second thoughts. My wife and daughters live in an apartment on Lavinia Hill overlooking Pettah Beach. I have been here three years. The girls attend Bridget Thomas Convent and my eldest may be head girl next year. It is a much better life than we had in Colombo, Jaffna or in exile in Toronto and I will be sad when it is over, which it undoubtedly will be when I press that button.

***

The fledgling nation is not without its teething problems.

For the past few years, the Sri Lankan government has been threatening military action. While there is no doubt they have the firepower and the muscle to overpower the 45 archipelagos, they will not be able to cross the Indian ocean without facing the US coastguard. Ceylon Islands have hired frigates from the Diego Garcia naval base to protect the waters from Somali pirates, Pakistani mercenaries and rogue Arab rockets.

Then there is the thorny question of immigration. The meager indigenous population are granted citizenship but the non-Lankan expats are not. Governor De Kretzer maintains that priority will be given to those cursed with a Sri Lankan passport. In the first year they receive 5 million applications of which only 40,000 are granted passage. Minister of the Interior, Sir Christopher Peripanayagam is an open Social Darwinist and has publicly stated that he only accepts ‘useful’ immigrants and will shun ‘uneducated freeloaders’. The unskilled, the lazy and the politically inclined are not granted residency.

Sir Christopher Peripanayagam published the 6 most wanted criminals in the Ceylon Islands. Two were Muslim jihadists, two were Tamil separatists, one was a serial killer, one was a Marxist agitator. None of the names belonged to me.

There are class tensions and religious tensions, though nothing to rival the paradise back home. The Economist hints that the Ceylon Islands will become a capitalist fascism, not unlike Singapore or Dubai. Policymakers within the islands take this as a compliment.

If you haven’t visited The Ceylon Islands, I cannot tell you what you are missing out on. Eleven months of sunshine and one month of snow. An island of wild animals where predators are kept on a leash. Landscaped hills, aquamarine lakes, cities of steel, and citizens of fixed smiles. And an air of controlled freedom that is the envy of the uncivilized world.

***

It is 2pm and I stare at the switch, knowing that the phone will ring and the caller will be impatient. If the Muslims are blamed for the blast, the Ceylonese will storm their mosques and the Arab nations will withhold their oil and release their savages.

Here are the things that allow me to sleep at night. The knowledge that all nations will die, even as their crimes live on. The notion that ideals can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism does. The reality that politicians are chosen for their ability to win votes, rather than their prowess at governing. The Ceylon Islands experiment is destined to be a blot on history, a trail doomed to fail. You can take the Lankan out of Lanka, but you can’t take the Lanka out of the Lankan.

I could tell you I am doing this under duress but that is untrue. I could tell you I am doing it to forward my position and that is partially true. I could tell you that I used to gamble compulsively and that I haven’t visited a casino in 30 years. I could tell you that sometimes the biggest gamble is to do nothing and wait.

I could tell you that the 500,000 Maldivians whose islands are being swallowed will be sent our way, unless. I could tell you that I didn’t expect to enjoy life this much when I took the assignment and moved here.

From my office I see the statue of Chamara Jayawardena, holding aloft his cricket bat, as if he has scored a quadruple century on a tricky wicket. It is the first thing immigrants to the main island see. It is our Statue of Liberty founded on a statute of limitations. I stare at it while my phone rings.

The caller is not from the Maldives, but from the neighbouring building. It is the great Raviraj Balasingham himself, founder of the nation, a man who has taken decades to wash the blood from his paws.

“Chris is that you?”
Ravi is the only person on the planet aside from my family not to address me as Sir Christopher.
“Ah Ravi, how?”
“Have you heard anything about a terrorist plot?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“The Israelis are agitated.”
“When are they not?”
“True. Keep your eyes open Chris.”
“Always.”

It is 2.29pm. History is a zero sum game. The only truth is the law that governs the universe. The strong will devour the weak. And if you’re not doing the devouring, then you must be one of the weak.

The question is not whether it is better to be a big fish in a small pond or a guppy in an ocean. The question is whether it is better to be a citizen of a lawful nation or the ruler of an unfair one.

The west is best if you are a servant, but the east is better if you are a master. You may say I have had my unfair share and you would be right. But we are creatures of appetite and how much or how little precisely is enough? If you’re in the habit of going all in, it doesn’t matter how many chips are on the table. This call will not be from the Maldives but from Diego Garcia, and I may have no more excuses left to give.

I call my eldest daughter and we chat about cricket, about her speech to the girl guides and about the three boys who think they like her. I hear the beep of call waiting but I do not hang up. I have dragged this out for ten long years. What conceivable difference could a few more make?




Litro #156: India: LOST

 When I returned home I went into the kitchen and my partner and my ex-father-in-law were both looking for it. They’d emptied out the cutlery drawer and the cupboards to find this thing that must be found. In the bedroom a crew of Aunties were tearing open the lining in the drapes and pulling up the carpets and in the ensuite my twin was underneath the boiler with a set of spanners though I don’t believe it was lost in any bathroom. In the hallway I pass my elderly neighbours in overalls carefully making their way down the steep cellar steps. In the kitchen even my infant son, who’s strapped into his high chair is leaning forward prodding his fingers into the cracks of the table. I think everyone seemed to be so wrapped up in the business of searching that they hardly seemed to notice me.

When I looked in the back garden, I noticed my nephew he was working up a sweat and had dug several wide holes, some as big as foxholes. I gave him a half-wave through the window.

I thought perhaps the least I could do was to feed all these people in my house or just proffer them some light refreshments but by now the baby had fallen asleep at the table. I lifted him up out of his high chair. His cheek bore the print of the weave from the cloth. I placed him in his cot and checked underneath it again, just in case.

By nightfall, everyone was slowing down, they came in from the lofts and the cellars and the shed and in from the garden. Some of them were shaking their heads, others were whispering to each other. They all convened in the kitchen. They looked exhausted and some were still panting with exertion. Uncle took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and put on his reading classes, someone else passed him the telephone.

The police liaison officer was a woman with kind blue eyes. She made me a cup of tea from my kitchen and offered me sugar and milk. She had a notebook and asked me gently questions about my day and where I had been.

Her questions stirred up a terrible confusion in my mind. She nodded understandably when I stumbled over an event or couldn’t quite reach the word I needed for certain parts of the day. She used her mobile phone a couple of times in the middle of my story but I couldn’t make out most of what she was saying.

I could hear the sirens outside in my neighbourhood but I couldn’t imagine it had anything to do with my situation. When I put the TV on, I saw pictures of a woman who looked just like me she was opening the door of a house that looked very much like mine. The policewoman gently took the remote control out of my hands and turned the screen off.
When they had left the aunties took me to the bathroom and helped me out of my clothes and eased me into my bed. They asked me to open my mouth and placed two pills on the centre of my tongue and urged me to swallow them with a glass of water.




Litro #156: India: Letter from Editor: The Indian Diaspora

 Dear Reader,
No other country has anything like it—an annual jamboree of its diaspora, conducted with great fanfare by its government. India has been doing it, with great success, for thirteen years now, timed to recall the return to India of the most famous Indian expatriate of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, who alighted from his South African ship in Bombay on 9 January 1915. Each January, a selected Indian city overflows with expatriate Indians celebrating their connection to their motherland at a grand Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Expatriate Indians’ Day).

India is the only country that has an official acronym for its expatriates—NRIs, or Non-Resident Indians. In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the question is whether NRI should stand for ‘Not Really Indian’ or ‘Never Relinquished India.’ Of course, the nearly 25 million people of Indian descent who live abroad fall into both categories. But the nearly 2000 delegates who flock to India from over sixty countries for each Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (or PBD, as our bureaucracy has inevitably abbreviated it) are firmly in the latter camp. They come to India to affirm their claim to it.

The ease of communications and travel today enables expatriates to be engaged with India in a way that was simply not available to the plantation worker in Mauritius or Guyana a century ago. To tap into this sense of allegiance and loyalty through an organized public gathering was an inspired idea, which India continues to build upon each year.

Sometimes the real value of a conference, however, lies in the conferring. Indians have learned to appreciate how much it means to allow NRIs from all over the world the chance to share their experiences, celebrate their commonalities, exchange ideas, and swap business cards. Because when India allows its pravasis to feel at home, India itself is strengthened. I can think of one more meaning of NRI: the National Reserve of India.

Emigration – both of transported colonial-era prisoners and indentured labour, as well as some voluntary fortune-hunters – created an Indian diaspora in South-east Asia, Africa and the West Indies. The experience of passage was not pleasant. To be an indentured Indian labourer transported to the Caribbean on British ships was to enter a life-and-death lottery in which your chances of survival were significantly worse than to be a shackled African slave. The cultural result of this tragic experience, though, was the creation of a common sorrow-filled bond between slavery-induced and indentured labour. The ‘Brotherhood of the Boat’ became the subject of poetry, shared folklore and above all music that persists to this day. Literature has at last followed.

This expatriate “reserve” has also added profoundly to the rich storehouse of Indian literature, as Indians in the diaspora have written in various ways of their connections to their homeland and their new lands. The diaspora in the US and the UK have already become well-enough known, ever since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981, when a new and ancient land imposed itself on the world’s literary consciousness — a land whose language and concerns have stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. A generation of post-colonial Indian writers has brought a larger world — a teeming, myth-infused, gaudy, exuberant, many-hued and restless world — past the immigration inspectors of English literature.
But those writing in and of the global South have received relatively short shrift in our focus on diasporic Indian literature. It is time this was redressed, and that is why this issue of Litro focuses particularly on India and the global south. In short essays, stories and poems, Indian writers dislocated from their national and cultural moorings explore aspects of the expatriate experience.

They are, I suppose, NRIs with a difference – Newly Readable Indians.