About the Author

M.G. Vassanji

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He attended university in the United States, where he trained as a nuclear physicist, before coming to Canada in 1978. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. His work has appeared in various countries and several languages, and he has twice won the Giller Prize. His most recent novel, The Assassin’s Song, was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Award. He is a member of the Order of Canada and lives in Toronto.

Books by this Author
A Place Within

A Place Within

Rediscovering India
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It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. It was January 1993. The desperation must have shown on my face to take in all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved, and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.

I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the birthplace of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness, such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who’ve forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out?

What was India to me? I must put this in the past, because by now I have returned many times and my relationship to the country has evolved. Ever since that first visit, there has been the irrepressible urge to describe my experience of India; yet in spite of copious notes this was not easy, because that experience was deeply subjective, my India was essentially my own creation, what I put of myself in it. I grew up in Dar es Salaam, on the coast of East Africa; the memory and sight of that city, of that continent, evoke in me a deep nostalgia and love of place. India, on the other hand, seemed to do something to the soul; give it a certain ease, a sense of homecoming, quite another kind of nostalgia. During each visit I sought it more, as intensely as ever. There was no satisfaction.

I recall my maternal grandmother relating how one day as a child back in Gujarat in India she was lost, having gone out with her sister to bring home water. I also recall not paying any particular attention to this story set in a foreign land as it was being told to my elder siblings, who sat on the floor around her. But I seem to have paid more attention than I thought I did, for I always carried a picture of two Indian girls sitting under a tree in an open land, waiting to be rescued. And that was all there was to the story: getting lost and rescued somewhere in India.

The East African countries became independent from Britain in the early 1960s. But by then to my generation and in my community of people, our spiritual home, so we naively thought, was already England. We believed we could shed our ancestral connections for a thin veneer of colonialness, an ersatz sophistication. And so we chose to imagine India as poor, backward, and laughable – the past. It seems evident now that all that laughing and jeering was at ourselves, our colonial, racial insecurity; we were both the clown and its audience. It did not take long to be disillusioned.

There were always stories about India. One of them concerned my orphaned father, who apparently was something of a wanderer as a young man. All his travels were within the territory of East Africa, but once, according to my mother, he took it upon himself to board a ship bound from Mombasa to Bombay, without papers or much money. When he reached the great city, he was not allowed to disembark. He returned disappointed. I always imagine him watching Bombay wistfully through the portholes of that ship, until it finally turned around and crossed the Indian Ocean back to Africa. Another Bombay story, and repeated more often for its comic value, involved one of my uncles, my mother’s older brother, so excessively pious as to be considered nicely crazy. Apparently he reached Bombay and disembarked, but upon seeing the extreme poverty in evidence, he returned home on the same ship. I would picture him seated in misery atop his luggage outside the harbour, having given all his money to the swarm of beggars that had plagued him.

My mother held blithely contradictory views about India. On one hand it was the land of ruthless cunning and violence – which she could illustrate with colourful and often morbid tales heard from passersby in our shop. On the other hand, India was the land of primal morality – which was why she would allow us to go to the cinema, sometimes, to watch a tearful Bollywood social drama offering lessons in fortitude, piety, and family values, and songs to remember afterwards. In a grand gesture for our meagre means, she sent us all to the Odeon to watch the blockbuster Mother India: a widow brings up her two sons against much hardship, and triumphs at the end. My mother too was a widow, which was also why I could never hear firsthand the full story of my dad’s fruitless trip to Bombay. Mother India was perhaps the only film she herself saw in a decade.

There was, finally, the ancestral mythical memory of India. According to a founding legend of my people, the Gujarati Khojas, a Muslim holy man arrives in medieval times at a remote village in western Gujarat and joins the people in a traditional dance called the garba. As he dances, he sings them a song. The villagers and the mystic – for such he is – go around in circles, clapping hands in rhythm and singing. The people are poor and desperate, for the land is prone to drought; the visitor is new and charismatic and hopeful. They are Krishna devotees, whom he teaches to expect an incarnation of the god to come from the west. You should sing day and night, he sings to them – meaning, I am not sure what, but perhaps this was how they should express their new expectation and joy. Meanwhile they continued worshipping their beloved Krishna. These spiritual dance songs are called the garbi and belong to a larger corpus called ginans.

That syncretism, a happy combination of mystical and devotional Hinduism and Islam, without a thought to internal contradictions or to the mainstream traditions, inevitably defined my relationship with India. The existence of such inclusive systems of belief was proof of an essential historical quality of India, that of tolerance and flexibility, a certain laissez faire in matters of the spirit, at least at the local level, far away from the watchful eyes of orthodoxy. Therefore today I can only find the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim” too exacting, too excluding; I resist them. They carry the charge of recent history and a consequent bitterness, to which I refuse to subscribe. In my travels in India I would simply let people assume “what” I was, since according to them I had to be something. My two initials were my mask.

“What is this India?” asks Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book The Discovery of India, in a chapter titled, significantly, “The Quest.” For Nehru, India was a discovery, a reclamation. “What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? . . . India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me. And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic . . .”

My first serious engagement with India began when as a student strolling along the aisles of a university book sale one spring in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I happened upon a remaindered copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography and quickly – though I cannot say with what expectation – picked it up. Something of the liberal expansiveness of the author, educated in Harrow and that other Cambridge, in England, and his generosity of spirit, appealed to this expatriate student barely out of his teens and foundering upon questions of identity on alien shores. I was of Indian descent, born in East Africa, had recently seen the independence of my country, amidst great euphoria and hope for Africa. Nehru wrote his autobiography (as he did his Discovery) during one of his several terms in jail during India’s own struggle for independence. Reading him I became aware of India as a real, modern country – as opposed to a mythical one – a recent phenomenon, having achieved its independence a decade and a half before East Africa did, after a long struggle. I was reading, for the first time after a colonial education, words written by an Indian, and I felt a swell of pride in that. After Nehru I read Gandhi, in English at first, then later, falteringly, in what seemed a difficult Gujarati. (I grew up speaking this language, in addition to Kutchi, a more regional language, a smattering of Hindi, and of course Swahili.) Gandhi brought India even closer: he had lived many years in South Africa, and he had given an opinion regarding the so-called Indian Question in East Africa; and he was a Gujarati, from the same city, as I was to discover, as my maternal grandfather.

In the early 1970s, a time still of the hippies and the counterculture and the antiwar movement, India had a certain outré glamour for young people, denoting spirituality, austerity, and a Lucy-in-the-sky exoticism. The Beatles had visited India, all manner of gurus did their rounds of North America, books on spiritualism flourished. Louis Malle’s dense personal documentary Phantom India evoked the exotic and the mysterious at a time when the material and the rational, as symbols of weapons and war, were under attack by the young. To think that my roots were there, amidst all that magic of India. A Satyajit Ray retrospective, showing all his films in a college hall, was another revelation. In Ray’s sparsely drawn India, full of pithy reality, the characters reached out to me in all my Indian-ness. I did not have to speak Bengali to understand them. I could catch the fleeting shadow of sadness as it crossed the face of a mother, laugh at the banter of city youths out on a picnic, exult in the catchy, triumphant smile of a young father carrying his son on his shoulders.

I had long harboured a desire to visit India, ever since this youthful romance, but more immediate and mundane and adult concerns soon took the greater priority. The possibility receded in some back drawer of the mind, an experience put off indefinitely; its time would come. It did, two decades later, when through a fortuitous contact I published a novel in India. Finally, I told myself, I had made that visit, albeit symbolically. Soon after, as a corollary, came an invitation to go to India for a conference. Arrangements would be made for me to tour various places; just come, said my hosts. The current outbreak of riots in the country was of no concern, I was assured, they would not affect me. Yes, I replied promptly, in case they changed their minds, I will come to India. The significance of the journey that awaited seemed as profound as possible for a single human life.

And so to that first arrival. It was 3 a.m. in New Delhi’s airport; if I had not actually rehearsed this moment, I had thought of it many times. A return after three generations, if one wanted to lend it epic proportions, an element of drama. I recall African Americans arriving in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam in the sixties, a decade of intense black pride and consciousness, and kissing the sun-drenched earth of their forefathers. I was not of so dramatic an inclination, and my people had not been away as long as theirs had. And besides, I stepped out not onto the earth of India but upon the rubber mat of a covered portal and found myself walking through musty corridors into a dingy immigration hall, where I was hit by an overwhelmingly wretched sense of the familiar. Long lines, people jumping queues, patient, bemused officials. A tired and valiantly grinning host met me finally and took me to a hostel through dark Delhi streets; shown my room, I fell straight asleep.

At six the desk clerk woke me up to ask what my initials stood for. I had barely shut my eyes. Indulgently, I answered him, and reminded myself that I was here to garner impressions, not to make touristic scenes of outrage. Happily, that most wonderful of concoctions, “morning tea,” was brought for me on a tray and, the buses groaning on the road outside making it impossible to sleep, I was ready to begin my first day in India. Downstairs in the lobby, attendants and waiters went by wishing guests a happy New Year, murmuring the words with embarrassed religiosity every time they passed.

“A country you’ve seen in films; you’re linked to by tradition, culture, language. Where is it?” I asked myself, and kept asking throughout that visit.

Having postponed from the airport that moment of epiphany, I now awaited it anew. I remember contemplating the glass doors leading outside. There was a gate and a guardhouse beyond a yard, and farther, a few taxis at the street; the sun was bright, city life bustling. Should I walk out and experience the city, that first moment, by myself or simply await my escort for a guided tour? First impressions were surely important, even more for so momentous a visit. Inside, other visitors, Europeans and North Americans wearing thick­belted theft-proof fanny packs, had gathered for breakfast in the room adjoining the lobby, also ready to take on the city. I myself had been advised to wear a wallet inside my shirt, around my neck, and had dutifully and much to my later embarrassment done so, prepared for the numerous and cunning thieves of India. Newspapers lay around for those who had to wait. “Fight the menace politically,” began a grim editorial in the current edition of a Time-format newsmagazine, commenting on the recent demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fanatics. More than half the issue analyzed the current crisis in the country – the communal divide that was widening, and the emerging threats to the secular ideals of the past. The forecasts were discouraging, except to those given to India’s eternal prayer of hope: Life goes on, it will be all right. But this was not the India I had come to experience; there was so much more of it, and anyway, I did not see myself as Hindu or Muslim.

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And Home Was Kariakoo

And Home Was Kariakoo

A Memoir of East Africa
also available: Paperback
tagged : east, literary
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Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler

Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler

A Penguin Lives Biography
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His name was Presley Smith. It was the seventh or eighth time he’d had it, he told me. Each time this phenome- non in his mind began with one persistent thought, a string of words that had no meaning for him. It’s midnight, the lion is out.
     —And the rest of this condition? I asked him.—Any thoughts that follow? Pictures, images in the mind? They do come?
He waited, before responding,—Yes, they come scattered- like . . . not always the same. I forget . . . A few times the red bumper of an antique car, and part of the fender. I don’t under- stand them—and why this one thought like a prelude . . .
     —Do you see these words or hear them?
A longish pause.—I don’t know. Hear them, I think.
     —Any other phrase or words that follow these?
     —No. Just this one.
     —You know what it implies—this kind of recurring thought? You came to me, so you appreciate its significance.
He nodded, spoke slowly, uncertainly.—Something left over from a previous memory? A life I left behind a long time ago. But I can’t relate to this thought, this image. They are alien.
     —That’s how they often come—you don’t understand them. And the trick then is not to try and understand them, unravel the thoughts—that only feeds the syndrome and revives those dead circuits in the brain—and brings more of them back. And you don’t want that.
I watched him stare away at the window behind me, losing himself; he uncrossed his legs, crossed them back again, returned his gaze to me. The window always had that effect on patients, drawing them out, calming them. On the moni- tor, hidden from him, Presley’s pulse had already steadied.
     I asked,—Do you see in your mind what might be a lion— out stalking, perhaps? Do you have an image of it?
     —Not at all? . . . And midnight—do you see midnight, darkness?
     He shook his head, repeated drily,—No.
     He was listed as a patient who’d seen two doctors in the city in recent years. Once for a severe attack of Border flu, during the Outbreak three years ago. And then a year ago a consulta- tion with an orthopaedist. I looked up from the monitor.
     —Any physical symptoms—racing heart, sweating—to accompany this, er, phenomenon?
     —No . . . But I’m not sure, Doctor.
     —A couple of times I thought . . . burning . . . some smoke, meat. I’m not sure. It could be the new neighbours, they like to barbecue.
He grinned sheepishly. But now his pulse had gone up, the fear index risen. This was surprising, the first alarm bell.
     —And how exactly did it first appear, this thought about the lion out at midnight? Suddenly, full-fledged, or did it approach gradually, begin with a hint, sort of?
     —The latter . . . I think . . . like an approaching some- thing, it began with a feeling, an expectation, I think.
     —A certain mood—that feeling? He nodded quickly.
     —A low mood?
     Presley Smith had an Afro-head with red hair and pale skin; striking green eyes, planar nose, large ears. A well-done reconstruction job if somewhat eccentric. The average body frame was, I guessed, as before. He would not be an ethnic purist, or an idealist, I surmised from those eclectic features, not someone hung up on history and origins. And he would not be one of those religious fatalists for whom another, per- fect life lies somewhere else, in abstraction, why not let this one fade away. A practical man, an everyman named after a twentieth-century pop icon. Then what ails him, I wondered, what demons from his previous life have come to prey upon him, and why? It’s a question we ask ourselves often enough. The answers rarely satisfy, the soft, slimy mass in the head that we call the brain still eludes us, as enigmatic as ever.
     Leaked memory syndrome—Nostalgia, as commonly known—is a malady of the human condition in its present historic phase. Reminders of our discarded lives can not yet be completely blocked, but we can expect their intrusions into our conscious minds to diminish as our understanding of thought-complexes increases and our ability to control them improves.
     Chemicals do alleviate the condition, but often they are blunt, their effects diffuse, with collateral outcomes to negoti- ate. Stubborn cases require the more intrusive ministrations and shock tactics of a surgical team. It was too soon to sug- gest anything yet. Meanwhile a lifetime of experiences was ready to flood into his brain behind this lion-harbinger that was only a minor irritation now. Was he aware of the danger that lurked ahead, I could not help but wonder. But then that’s what we were there for, the nostalgia doctors, to close the gates behind the scouts and let the past remain hidden.
     I noticed that his right knee, crossed over his left, would go off into a steady vibration that he struggled to bring under control, before it set off again. He could easily have had that seen to. On the vibrating leg, in the gap between his black shoes and green pants he revealed a garishly bright yellow sock that periodically flagged my attention. It is these little tics that often are a giveaway, signals from the land of the dead.
     They’re all a puzzle, each stray and escaped thought is only the barest tip of a universe that lies beneath. How far do you reach inside to stem the leak? The deeper you dig, the greater the chance of falling into an endless pit—a hazard- ous operation. It needs a delicate hand to know when to seal off and withdraw; turn off the lights and go home and hope there’s no repair needed in the foreseeable future.
—Have you had previous consultations of this sort? Treatments?
     He should not remember them if he had them, and he didn’t.
     I prescribed a tranquilizer, and a monitor patch for the arm. If he had an episode, there was a means to signal it, he should on no account dwell on it. We settled for a meeting the following week. I have preferred personal meetings at the beginning of consultations, because with the actual talking person before me, tics and all, I can begin to form my clues about the intruders lurking behind their minds. It is easy and amusing to picture them as so many worms to be cap- tured and put away.
     —If it worsens before then—this condition—let me know.
     —I will. Thanks, Doc.
     —Don’t be shy, now.
     —I won’t, Doc. Thanks.
     He looked surprised at my concern for him, and I felt a blush of embarrassment. We shook hands, and I watched him leave. He had a sturdy profile, with a swaggering walk that did not fit what I had seen of his personality. I kept star- ing after him, until the clinic manager Lamar’s ample frame filled the doorway suddenly and broke my trance.
     —What’s up, Doc?
     —Something about this case.
     —Oh? What?
     I shook my head and sat down.—Let’s see where it goes. He looked disappointed, reminded me to look at a few reports he’d completed, and left.
From as long back as we can imagine, we humans have striven for immortality. Now that, in our rough and ready way, we’ve begun to approach it, we face the problem of what to do with the vast amount of information we carry. Even if the brain allowed such storage capacity, who would want to be burdened by quantities of redundant, interfering memo- ries? Painful and messy ones? Therefore as regeneration techniques advanced to allow the body to last longer, mind renewal grew alongside. The term is colloquial and inac- curate, of course—what is a mind, after all? No matter, as someone quipped. In fact, it’s selected portions of long-term memory that we renew. New memories in new bodies. New lives. That’s the ideal, though we are still far from it. The body may creak and wobble; memory develop a crack or hole. In the leaked memory syndrome, or Nostalgia, thoughts burrow from a previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss.
     I am myself a GN, a new-generation person—and feel the body-age sometimes, in the nuts and bolts, as it were, the connections and interphases. By law, no record of a person’s past life exists, nor of calendar age, but the body knows. I am old, in the original sense, though the word hardly gets used these days. Surely there’s a little truth to the media hype that we’ve attained the status of ageless gods. A flawed immortality, but we are the fortunate ones, a new species in the making, who’ve defied death. Very nearly.
     Our triumph comes, naturally, with its problems. We’ve not created Utopia, perhaps never will. But the problems are old wine in new bottles, we’ve had them always. The war of the generations, as popularly called, or more plainly, the young versus the old, shows no signs of abating; mostly it’s a cold war, manifest in constant disgruntlement. There’s the occasional street riot that vents frustration. The GN-serial rampage two years ago was a terrible exception—eight elderly GNs murdered over a period of twelve months, their bodies savagely mutilated. The young G0 criminals were appre- hended and dealt with. We have assurances from authorities that such acts are very unlikely in the future. We’re not rid of fanatics either—those who will cling to outdated ethnic identities that most of us have forgotten, or for whom lon- gevity is philosophically or morally repugnant. The wide- eyed few who dare to turn off their lights, turn down this gift that we’ve given ourselves. But progress is forward, we cannot go back.
At day’s end I came out of the Sunflower Centre into a world of cheery autumn brightness, the courtyard flush in  the clear light of a low sun. Further up, the Humber ran plac- idly along its course down to the lake, and two crews rowed their boats one behind the other, in no great hurry. Across the river, the yellow leaves of October had been set coolly ablaze. It’s always a breathtaking sight. On the bank, this side, students sat stretched out, some with their book pads open, others strolling or hurrying along the paved path, making way for the odd bicycle or two.
     I arrived at the riverbank and sat down on a bench. There  was  a  message  from  Joanie;  she would  be  out that night at a hockey game with a friend. The Friend, I had every reason to surmise. I never cared for the sport, and was teased for it: Who was I, really? Meaning, what was I before I became what I was. I am, was always my answer. It was my creed, as a minder of memories. I didn’t care for the befores. But Joanie is a G0, a BabyGen, and Babies have no previ- ous lives, no befores. They have actually been born—to be beautiful: flawless, symmetrical,  smooth.  She  was  visiting a neighbour and during a block barbecue joined me with a beer and seduced me with her banter. We dated hesitantly, then more passionately, and cohabited. But my beautiful BabyGen was now seeing someone else on the side. Who else but another Baby this time, it always comes to that, doesn’t it. And I no longer wondered what she saw in me.
     I popped a couple of pills into my mouth, looked around me; eyes lingered a little too long over a couple of youngsters necking.
     The problem with staring at beautiful youngsters is that you are caught between the lust for the pure and supple beauty of youth (I did have Joanie) and a desire for chil- dren of your own. I didn’t have children; if I did, in another life that had been erased, I didn’t know. But this man from Yukon, Dr Frank Sina, had none and longed for one. Why the persistent need, like a thirst when you wake up, for a child of your own? There are areas of the brain that conspire to create longings that should have been buried and gone. No amount of erasure and implantation can create musicians or artists at will. Or take away the need for a child.
     But what of Presley Smith? He looked surprisingly youth- ful and limber—and yet his record showed a GN, like me. Evidently I have been negligent, not paid heed to those keep- fit reminders we now find everywhere—and so I complain of malfunctions.
     It’s midnight, the lion is out. A chant carried over from the past? A line from a poem?
     Have I ever had stray thoughts that needed fixing? I cannot know, of course. But judging by my comfort with myself, I can only conclude that whoever my doctors were, they had done a perfect job sealing my previous life off. There was a short period in the past, however, when, very foolishly, though for the sake of research, as I explained to myself, I would lie in bed looking up at the ceiling and fish for a thought; when a likely candidate came I would detain it by repeating it over and over. It never lasted. Soon enough and mercifully I realized my folly and stopped fishing. Now as I sat meditating before the quietly flowing river bathed in the soft afternoon sunlight, I realized that I had a thought that would not go away, and it was precisely this: the image and words of Presley Smith.

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The Assassin's Song

The Assassin's Song

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Chapter 1
Postmaster Flat, Shimla. April 14, 2002.
After the calamity, a beginning.
One night my father took me out for a stroll. This was a rare treat, for he was a reticent man, a great and divine presence in our village who hardly ever ventured out. But it was my birthday. And so my heart was full to bursting with his tall, looming presence beside me. We walked along the highway away from the village, and when we had gone sufficiently far, to where it was utterly quiet and dark, Bapu-ji stopped and stared momentarily at our broken, grey road blurring ahead into the night, then slowly turned around to go back. He looked up at the sky; I did likewise. "Look, Karsan," said Bapu-ji. He pointed out the bright planets overhead, the speckle that was the North Star, at the constellations connected tenuously by their invisible threads. "When I was young," he said, "I wished only to study the stars...But that was a long time ago, and a different world...

"But what lies above the stars?" he asked, after the pause, his voice rising a bare nuance above my head. "That is the important question I had to learn. What lies beyond the sky? What do you see when you remove this dark speckled blanket covering our heads? Nothing? But what is nothing?"

I was eleven years old that day. And my father had laid bare for me the essential condition of human existence.

I gaped with my child’s eyes at the blackness above my head, imagined it as a dark blanket dotted with little stars, imagined with a shiver what might lie beyond if you suddenly flung this drapery aside. Loneliness, big and terrifying enough to make you want to weep alone in the dark.

We slowly started on our way back home.

"There is no nothing," Bapu-ji continued, as if to assuage my fears, his tremulous voice cutting like a saw the layers of darkness before us, "when you realize that everything is in the One..."

My father was the Saheb — the lord and keeper — of Pirbaag, the Shrine of the Wanderer, in our village of Haripir, as was his father before him, as were all our ancestors for many centuries. People came to him for guidance, they put their lives in his hands, they bowed to him with reverence.

As we walked back together towards the few modest lights of Haripir, father and first son, a certain fear, a heaviness of the heart came over me. It never left me, even when I was far away in a world of my own making. But at that time, although I had long suspected it, had received hints of it, I knew for certain that I was the gaadi-varas, the successor and avatar to come at Pirbaag after my father.

I often wished my distinction would simply go away, that I would wake up one morning and it wouldn’t be there. I did not want to be God, or His trustee, or His avatar — the distinctions often blurred in the realm of the mystical that was my inheritance. Growing up in the village all I wanted to be was ordinary, my ambition, like that of many another boy, to play cricket and break the world batting record for my country. But I had been chosen.

When we returned home, instead of taking the direct path from the roadside gate to our house, which lay straight ahead across an empty yard, my father took me by the separate doorway on our left into the walled compound that was the shrine. This was Pirbaag: calm and cold as infinity. The night air suffused with a faint glow, and an even fainter trace of rose, all around us the raised graves of the saints and sufis of the past, and our ancestors, and others deserving respect and prayers. They were large and small, these graves, ancient and recent, some well tended and heaped with flowers and coloured cloth, others lying forlorn at the fringes among the thorns, neglected and anonymous. This hallowed ground was our trust; we looked after it for people of any creed from any place to come to be blessed and comforted.

Overlooking everything here, towards the farther side of the compound was the grand mausoleum of a thirteenth-century mystic, a sufi called Nur Fazal, known to us belovedly as Pir Bawa and to the world around us as Mussafar Shah, the Wanderer. One day, centuries ago, he came wandering into our land, Gujarat, like a meteor from beyond, and settled here. He became our guide and guru, he showed us the path to liberation from the bonds of temporal existence. Little was known and few really cared about his historical identity: where exactly he came from, who he was, the name of his people. His mother tongue was Persian, perhaps, but he gave us his teachings in the form of songs he composed in our own language, Gujarati.

He was sometimes called the Gardener, because he loved gardens, and he tended his followers like seedlings. He had yet another, curious name, Kaatil, or Killer, which thrilled us children no end. But its provenance was less exciting: he had a piercing look, it was said, sharp as an arrow, and an intellect keen as the blade of a rapier, using which he won many debates in the great courts of the kings.

I would come to believe that my grandfather had an idea of his identity, and my Bapu-ji too, and that in due course when I took on the mantle I too would learn the secret of the sufi.

But now the shrine lies in ruins, a victim of the violence that so gripped our state recently, an orgy of murder and destruction of the kind we euphemistically call "riots." Only the rats visit the sufi now, to root among the ruins. My father is dead and so is my mother. And my brother militantly calls himself a Muslim and is wanted for questioning regarding a horrific crime. Perhaps such an end was a foregone conclusion — Kali Yuga, the Dark Age, was upon us, as Bapu-ji always warned, quoting our saints and the scriptures: an age when gold became black iron, the ruler betrayed his trust, justice threw aside its blindfold, and the son defied his father. Though Bapu-ji did not expect this last of his favoured first son.

The thought will always remain with me: was my betrayal a part of the prophecy; or could I have averted the calamity that befell us? My logical mind — our first casualty, according to Bapu-ji — has long refused to put faith in such prophecies. I believe simply that my sin, my abandonment and defiance of my inheritance, was a sign of the times. Call the times Kali Yuga if you like — and we can quibble over the question of whether there ever was a Golden Age in which all was good and the sacrificed horse stood up whole after being ritually quartered and eaten. Whatever the case, I was expected to rise above the dark times and be the new saviour.

This role, which I once spurned, I must now assume. I, the last lord of the shrine of Pirbaag, must pick up the pieces of my trust and tell its story — and defy the destroyers, those who in their hatred would not only erase us from the ground of our forefathers but also attempt to write themselves upon it, make ink from our ashes.

The story begins with the arrival in Gujarat of the sufi Nur Fazal. He was our origin, the word and the song, our mother and father and our lover. Forgive me if I must sing to you. The past was told to me always accompanied by song; and now, when memory falters and the pictures in the mind fade and tear and all seems lost, it is the song that prevails.

Chapter 2
From western lands to glorious Patan
He came, of moon visage and arrow eyes.

To the lake of a thousand gods he came
Pranam! sang the gods, thirty-three crores of them.

Saraswati, Vishnu, Brahma bade him inside
Shiva Nataraja brought him water to drink.

The god himself washed this Wanderer’s feet
How could beloved Patan’s sorcerers compete?

You are the true man, said the king, your wisdom great
Be our guest, show us the truth.

c. a.d. 1260.
The arrival of the sufi; the contest of magics.
It used to be said of Patan Anularra in the Gujarat kingdom of medieval India that there was not a city within a thousand miles to match its splendour, not a ruler in that vast region not subject to its king. The wealth of its many bazaars came from all corners of the world through the great ports of Cambay and Broach, and from all across Hindustan over land. It boasted the foremost linguists, mathematicians, philosophers, and poets; thousands of students came to study at the feet of its teachers. When the great scholar and priest Hemachandra completed his grammar of Sanskrit that was also a history of the land, it was launched in a grand procession through the avenues of the city, its pages carried on the backs of elephants and trailed by all the learned men. Great intellectual debates took place in the palace, but with dire consequences for the losers, who often had to seek a new city and another patron. In recent times, though, an uneasy air had come to hang over this capital, riding on rumours of doom and catastrophe that travelled with increasing frequency from the north.

Into this once glorious but now a little nervous city there arrived one morning with the dawn a mysterious visitor. He was a man of such a striking visage that on the highways which he had recently travelled men would avert their faces when they crossed his path, then turned to stare long and hard at his back as he hastened on southward. He was medium in stature and extremely fair; he had an emaciated face with a small pointed goatee, his eyes were green; and he wore the robe and turban of a sufi. His name he gave as Nur Fazal, of no fixed abode. He entered the city’s northern gate with a merchant caravan and was duly noted by his attire and language as a wandering Muslim mendicant and scholar originally from Afghanistan or Persia, and possibly a spy of the powerful sultanate of Delhi. Once inside, he put himself up at a small inn near the coppersmiths’ market frequented by the lesser of the foreign merchants and travellers. Soon afterwards, one afternoon, in the company of a local follower, he proceeded to the citadel of the raja, Vishal Dev. The time for the raja’s daily audience with the public was in the morning, but somehow the sufi, unseen at the gate — such were his powers — gained entrance and made his appearance inside.

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The Gunny Sack


Memory, Ji Bai would say, is this old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for any more. Stroking the sagging brown shape with affection she would drag it closer, to sit at her feet like a favourite child. In would plunge her hand through the gaping hole of a mouth, and she would rummage inside. Now you feel this thing here, you fondle that one, you bring out this naughty little nut and everything else in it rearranges itself. Out would come from the dusty depths some knickknack of yesteryear: a bead necklace shorn of its polish; a rolled-up torn photograph; a cowrie shell; a brass incense holder; a Swahili cap so softened by age that it folded neatly into a small square; a broken rosary tied up crudely to save the remaining beads; a bloodstained muslin shirt; a little book. There were three books in that old gunny that never left her bedside, four-by-six-inch, green, tablet-like, the front cover folding over into a flap fastened with a tiny padlock! On the cover of each, neatly carved, two faded inscriptions in gold, wriggling in opposite directions: one in an Arabic-looking hand, the other indecipherable, supposedly in a secret script. “He who opens it will suffer the consequences,” she, who did not read, would gravely pronounce to her awed listener.

We buried Ji Bai a few weeks ago on a cold November afternoon . . .

From near and far, young and old, they came to see her go, in this small overseas community. Not that many here knew her or had even heard of her; she was only passing through, a traveller. But they would go away the wiser, about her and themselves and the common links between them. Such are the merits of a funeral. The converted supermarket was half full. The old, the exiled old, sitting on chairs on one side, visible but unobtrusive, outwardly implacable and unperturbed, watching the funeral ceremony proceeding with clockwork precision in the hands of the Westernised funeral committee. What thoughts behind those stony masks? The rest of the congregation, the younger members, sat on the floor, facing the ceremony. With practised precision, with appropriate gravity of speech and bearing, the head of the committee led formations of select relatives and friends to partake in the more intimate rituals. She lay inside a raised open coffin, a younger, doll-like Ji Bai, face flushed pink but hideous and grim. What have they done to you, Ji Bai? Someone had taken the pains to iron out every wrinkle on her face, to clean out the grey, to stretch the skin taut like a cellophane wrapper. Once, when time was plenty and the hourglass slow, every man, woman and child present would come and kneel before the dead and beg forgiveness and pay their last respects. Now, in collective homage the congregation filed past the pink face in the coffin; the women took their seats, the men formed two closely spaced rows. A sob stifled, a wail choked (practised wailers, some of these), the coffin was closed.

“Stand back,” said the leader, gruffly. “Stand back!”

“Praise the Prophet!” The coffin was slowly if shakily lifted on to the shoulders of the male relatives and the committee members. Then it took purchase and at shoulder height bobbed away easily like a boat in a slight current, between the two rows of males, as anyone who could gave it a shoulder or even a slight shove on its way to be rolled into the black funeral car outside. An older, experienced voice, rich with feeling, took away the chant:

There is none but Him
There is none but Him
There is none but Him
—and Muhammad is His Prophet . . .

(Once, a rickety yellow and green truck with men sitting on both sides of the coffin at the back chanting the shahada, at the sight of which pedestrians would stop and fold their hands in respect.)

Afterwards, I watched from a distance the last clod of earth thrown perfunctorily on the grave, the last of the congregation — how can I call them mourners? — leave. Someone made a gesture in my direction but then thought the better of it. I was left alone. Trees rustled in the wind, dead leaves scraped the ground. In the distance another burial was in progress, this one more opulent, its mourners in black, with bigger and better wreaths, bigger and better cars. Traffic zipped along the highway. What cold comfort, Ji Bai, I thought. Even worms couldn’t survive in such a grave. I had a vision of her small frail body under six feet of cold earth that would soon freeze. I could see the body shrink, under icy pressure, the skin dry and peel off and fly away like a kite, the skeleton rattle and fold and rearrange itself to form a neat square heap like the firewood that was once sold outside her store in Dar.

A week later Aziz her grand nephew stumbled in to see me with a large blue vinyl suitcase.

“With the compliments of Ji Bai!” he announced cheerfully.

“What? A suitcase?”

A vinyl legacy from a vinyl-faced Ji Bai? No . . . The twinkle in his eyes recalled the mischief in Ji Bai’s, as with a flourish he proceeded to lay it on its side, and like a salesman swung it open as if to display its capacity and interior. A ball of kapok glided out and sailed away.

“The gunny sack,” he spoke, the same instant I saw it, brown and dusty, looking threatened and helpless in the brand-new interior. It was drawn loosely shut with a sisal string. “You used to sit before it so long, she thought it should be yours.”

“Isn’t it rightfully yours?” I asked.

“No. It’s yours. She wanted you to have it.”

“Come, come . . . what if she had died there? Would you have posted it?”

“But she died here.”

Young Aziz, he knew more than he let on. He was Ji Bai’s companion during the last few years of her life. She had said she would travel, and Aziz accompanied her, first to India then here. Wherever she went, her gunny went with her. Did she know she would die in this foreign place, then? With Ji Bai there was no telling.

He said, “If my family had had their way they would have burnt it long ago. It’s brought nothing but bad luck, they say. They want you to burn it, once and for all to bury the past.”

“And you — do you want me to burn it?”

“Look at it first — it’s what she wanted, after all. Then, maybe burn it. To tell you the truth, I almost burnt it instead of bringing it here.”

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The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?” -- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

“Neti, neti.” (Not this, not that.) -- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Po pote niendapo anifuata.” (Wherever I go he follows me.) -- Swahili riddle; answer: shadow

My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation -- and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.

I am quite an ordinary man, as you will discover, and moderate almost to a fault. How I came upon my career and my distinction is a surprise even to me. But my times were exceptional and they would leave no one unscathed.

Part 1 -- The Year of Our Loves and Friendships

Njoroge who was also called William loved my sister Deepa; I was infatuated with another whose name I cannot utter yet, whose brother was another William; we called him Bill. We had all become playmates recently. It was 1953, the coronation year of our new monarch who looked upon us from afar, a cold England of pastel, watery shades, and I was eight years old.

I call forth for you here my beginning, the world of my childhood, in that fateful year of our friendships. It was a world of innocence and play, under a guileless constant sun; as well, of barbarous cruelty and terror lurking in darkest night; a colonial world of repressive, undignified subjecthood, as also of seductive order and security -- so that long afterwards we would be tempted to wonder if we did not hurry forth too fast straight into the morass that is now our malformed freedom.

Imagine an outdoor mall, the type we still call a shopping centre there, a plain stubby strip of shops on open land, with unpaved parking in front. It was accessible from a side road that left the highway, less than a mile away, at the railway station. Far out in the distance, the farthest that you could see through the haze over the flat yellow plains, rose the steep green slopes of the great Rift Valley, down which both the railway and the highway descended to reach us at the floor. Behind us lay most of the rest of Nakuru, the principal town of our province.

My family ran a provision store at this Valley Shopping Centre, which was ten minutes’ walk from the Asian development where we lived. We sold Ovaltine and Milo and Waterbury’s Compound and Horlicks -- how they roll past memory’s roadblocks, these trademarks of a childhood -- and macaroni and marmalade, cheeses and olives, and other such items that the Europeans and the rich Indians who emulated them were used to. Beside us was a small bakery-café run by a Greek woman, Mrs. Arnauti, for the Europeans -- as all the whites were called -- who trundled down from their farms in their dust-draped vans and pickups to stop by for tea or coffee and colourful iced cakes and neat white sandwiches. Next to it was Alidina Greengrocers. On Saturday mornings, with the schools closed, my sister and I went down to the shop with our parents. Sun-drenched Saturdays is how I think of those days, what memory’s trapped for me: days of play. Though it could get cold at times, and in the morning the ground might be covered in frost. At the other end of the mall from us, Lakshmi Sweets was always bustling at midmorning, Indian families having stopped over in their cars for bhajias, samosas, dhokras, bhel-puri, and tea, which they consumed noisily and with gusto. By comparison our end was sedate, orderly: a few vehicles parked, a few rickety white tables outside Arnauti’s occupied by Europeans on a good day. My father and mother always ordered tea and snacks from Lakshmi, and my sister and I could go to Arnauti’s, where we were allowed a corner table outside, though not our black friend Njoroge, who with quite a straight face, head in the air and hands in his pockets, would proudly wander off.

After hastily consuming sticky Swiss rolls and doughy cheese or spinach pies, Deepa and I ran out to play. There were two handcarts outside the shop for pulling loads, one of them had its handle broken and no one usually minded when we took it out to give each other rides. Deepa, who was seven, ran along beside Njoroge and me, and habitually, in domineering big-brother fashion, I refused her a place in our conveyance, became annoyed at her for running after us, a girl in her two long pigtails and Punjabi pyjama and long shirt. She cried, and every time she did that Njoroge would give her a ride, obligingly push the cart for her all around the parking lot, and I believed they had more fun together than he had with me. That was why I thought he was in love with my sister. Every time I said that, Mother would have a fit, but she never objected to our playing with our friend.

One morning just before noon a green Ford pickup drove up and parked outside our store; from it emerged a tall and slim white woman, with brown curls to her shoulders and trousers that seemed rather broad at the hips. She had a long and ruddy face with a pointed chin. She paused to scrutinize the shops in the mall and, I thought, stared severely for a moment at me and my companions, before bending to say something to the two children who were in the passenger seat. The door opened on the other side and out tumbled a boy of my age and a young girl who could have been six; from the back jumped out with some flair an African servant–well dressed in expensive hand-me-downs, as the more favoured servants of the Europeans usually were, much to the envy of other servants. This one sported a brown woollen vest and a tweed jacket. The woman escorted her two children to Arnauti’s, where they sat at a table outside and in loud voices ordered from the waiter who had come running out to attend, and then she went over to my father’s shop. Soon our own barefoot servant hurried out to hand the European woman’s servant a bottle of Coke.

When she had finished her shopping, her servant was called and he carried her two cartons of purchases to the back of the pickup. Then Mrs. Bruce, as was her name, returned to Arnauti’s patio and joined a table with two other women and a man. Her two children came out, where Njoroge, Deepa, and I, upon seeing them, now somewhat self-consciously continued our preoccupations with each other and our cart. The boy and girl stood quite still, outside the guardrail, staring at us.

Do you want a ride? I asked the boy suddenly.

Without a word he came and sat in the cart and we pushed him away at top speed with hoots and growls to simulate various engine sounds. When we stopped, after a distance, having gathered up a cloud of dust across the parking lot, the boy got out and dusted himself off as his sister whined, Now me, Willie, it’s my turn now.

He paid her no attention but shook Njoroge’s and my hands solemnly, saying, William -- call me Bill, and pleased to meet you.

We shook hands wordlessly, then I pointed to my friend and said hesitantly: Njoroge.

That day Deepa and I stopped calling Njoroge by his English name. And I believe he also stopped using it for himself.

Now he in his turn pointed at me and said: Vic--Vikram.

Well then -- jolly good, Bill said. Let’s give those two girls a ride --

He wore shorts of grey wool, with a rather fine blue checked shirt. His hair, like that of his sister, was a light brown. And both wore black shoes and white socks. The girl was in red overalls, and two ribbons of a like colour tied her hair in clumps at the back. We drove the two girls with speed right up to the line of shops, as they hung on, clutching for dear life, screaming with joy.

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The Magic of Saida

The Magic of Saida

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Uhuru Street

Sunday afternoon languor descends over the street as usual. The day is hot but clear and a soft breeze blows bits of paper about. The street gradually empties of people and business comes to a halt. The last strains of Akashwani on the airwaves from India mingle with the smell of hot ghee, fried onions, and saffron that wafts down from people's homes. Hussein, my father-in-law, sits on the bench and stares out through the doorway, as intently as though watching some action on the pavement. In his hands are the two halves of a ball, a soft bouncy red ball, the kind kids call flesh-ball, and he squeezes the two parts together.

A short while ago the ball fell froma roof three floors up, bounced a few times on the street and pavement and landed inside the store. Hussein was upon it even before I realised it was there. Minutes later some boys came in, with a side of wood, their bat.

"Uncle, did you see a ball fall here somewhere?" they asked.

"Pigs!" yelled Hussein, jumping up from his seat in rage. "Do you want to hurt people? How many times do you have to be toldÉ?"

'We won't do it again, uncle,' pleaded a boy.

"Pigs from hell! I will show you É devils!" He brought out a large knife and sliced the ball in two. A bit of rubber fell to the ground. "Here," said the old man, "take this-" They looked at what remained of their ball in his hands and ruefully left the shop.

The boys call him "German," because, he says, he can speak German. I've heard him say two things, "Mein Herr," and "Mein Gott," which I presume are German. He was still a youth when the Germans were here, and when he's in the mood he can spin quite a yarn about those times. We all have a name here. They think I don't know they call me "Black." Because I'm dark, almost an African. They have to give me a name, and what better name than something so obvious. Black. My wife is "Baby," the whole town calls her Baby, and you have to see the rolls of blubber hanging on her to see why. She was brought up on nothing but the purest butter, proclaims her mother proudly. "Our Baby was most dear to us," says Good Kulsum, whenever I need reminding of the good fortune that has come my way. How I landed in this situation is another story. I married to attain respectability, but right now I wonder if I've not had enough of it.

Now Baby and her mother sleep after the biriyani and I wait up, the shop half closed as usual. The quiet of the Sunday afternoon has always been mine - it is nice and pleasant in the shade and the town sleeps. I sit on the armchair and read the Sunday Standard column by column, and when I've finished and solved the puzzle set for children by Uncle Jim, and noted last week's winner, I have tea and wait for the woman to bring samosas. All this peace while they sleep and snore. But not today. Today German sits with me.

Excerpt taken from the story " In the Quiet of a Sunday Afternoon."

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When She Was Queen

When She Was Queen

My father lost my mother one evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table. I have often tried to recall that moment, its exact details of scene and mood, though I was not present there, could not have been. I was, if you will, the contingent phenomenon, a potential lurking in the unholy fug of a revelrous night spun out of control. My father’s gesture was not the nail-biting one of a compulsive gambler who, having lost all, imagines with diseased mind he will redeem himself with just that one hand that Lady Luck, his kismet, was bound to throw his way. Nor was there an epic dimension to that fateful moment – ancient enemy seeking ultimate revenge – castration in public. My father was unusual in many ways; but he was also a simple innkeeper, who succumbed in an instant to one gigantic temptation. He had already won a few hundred shillings that night, not a trifling sum for him. But then, in all the whimsical naivety of his nature he let his good sense abandon him. He saw a miraculous vision of more, he desired it to distraction. On the table for him to win was a palatial lakeside residence, which turned Mother heartbreakingly wistful and envious every time she set her eyes on it, and which he could never hope to provide her in a hundred years with his wages. When John Chacha, known otherwise as the Asian King of Kisumu, declared magnanimously, “I am ready to bid what is dearest to me, this alishaan mansion – there, you have a chance to wipe me out and move in with your lovely wife into my castle – ” Father said, “Don’t I only wish I had something of value to match your bid.”

John Chacha, with his impressive, oversized head and abundant white mane, beamed at my father across the table.

“You have,” he said. “You have exactly such a thing.”

The few people standing around the table followed the big man’s wolfish leer and smiled in nervous anticipation. And my fair and beautiful mother, with her stylishly modern, short brown hair and shimmering olive-green sari, on whom that eye fell as she stood watching behind her red-faced husband: Why did she choose to remain silent?

I have gleaned this story from whatever my mother Shirin, and my two elder sisters Razia and Habibeh, who were then seven and nine years old, have relinquished to my queries. We all live in Toronto now, far from Kisumu by Lake Victoria, and my father Rashid has been dead twenty years. Let us say that over the years enough allusion to that eventful night had flown past me, uncomprehended, that finally I decided to uncover all the mystery surrounding it.

In the mid-1960s my family were settled in Kisumu, down from the western ridge of the Great Rift Valley, in the cosy equatorial embrace of the Lake Victoria shoreline. It was soon after the independence of Kenya, life in this new sunshine was freer and livelier than it had ever been before; the Indians were emerging from the former mingy, scrappy existence of their neighbourhoods. There was money around, and there was life to be lived. I recall a happy childhood from those days, and legends about the hardships and migrations of a distant past. My father Rashid, who had tried his hand as a salesman at a hunting store in Nairobi, as a safari rally driver and navigator, and as manager of a timber mill and later a tea plantation, had been enticed when the plantation was sold by its owners to manage one Rose Hotel in Kisumu. Rashid Jafar was an outsider in Kisumu, but because of having worked with Europeans and acquired certain mannerisms and habits as a result, and due to his brush with glory when he and his co-driver came close to beating the Swedish aces Erikson and Erikson in the East African Safari rally (their Peugeot 404 overturned on the home stretch outside Nairobi), he was welcomed by the rich Asians of that town.

Every Friday night a certain rambunctious group among this elite would meet at the Rose Hotel for a late dinner from its renowned menu. The kitchen at the Rose was famous from Nairobi to Kampala for its rich spicy dishes – the chicken tikka, the lamb biryani, the coconut and coriander fish, and the naans and parathas; tourist handbooks raved about its tantalizing aromas and rich tastes, and airline pilots were known to hitch rides with each other to eat there. This glory of the Rose was a creation of my father.

He would say his hero was the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley – whose name was more apt to draw scorn and contempt in independent East Africa for his reputed cruelty, but what Rashid admired about that American was his pure gumption, the fact that he, a foreigner, simply arrived on the scene one day and started up the Congo River on foot and on boat and wound up ultimately not far from our town in the heart of the continent. Rashid’s spirit was not of the outdoors type, but he too was a mover, a migrant. Kisumu, he would say, was his final stop.

I loved him. There was never a time when, if you put your hand in his jacket pocket, you would not come out with a Trebor or Bluebird candy, a box of Smarties, a cylinder of Rolo chocolate, a packet of Pez awaiting your grasping child’s hand. Mother said he had a hole in his pocket, but for me that pocket was Ali Baba’s cave. John Chacha would tell him, Your staff eats better than me.

I recall a man slim of build, not very tall, and rather dark, with a narrow face and sparse hair; the face smelling deliciously of Old Spice aftershave and stale cigarette. He had a peculiar habit, when posed to listen to anyone, of facing away, with a tilt of the head downward, lending them his ear, so to speak. Always in a light grey or blue suit, he could be found at the hotel reception, or in the kitchen, or striding along a corridor somewhere in between those two destinations; in the evenings he sat in the bar or the dining room among his patrons. Mother supervised housekeeping and shopping for the kitchen.

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Meeting of Streams

Meeting of Streams

South Asian-Canadian Literature
edited by M.G. Vassanji
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