Seagull Books

Month: April, 2011

Change by Mo Yan, a short excerpt

In the fall of 1973, I found temporary work in a cotton processing plant where my uncle was an accountant. Temporary it might have been but, every month, after turning twenty-four yuan over to the production team, I took home fifteen. Back then, with pork selling for seventy cents a catty and eggs at six cents apiece, fifteen yuan went a long way. I began to dress smartly, wore my hair long and owned several pairs of white gloves. All that ‘wealth’ sort of turned my head. One day, after I got off work, He Zhiwu came to see me. He was wearing worn out shoes with holes in the toes and a folded blanket over his shoulders. His hair was a mess, he hadn’t shaved in a long time and there were three deep creases in his forehead.  ‘Lend me ten yuan,’ he said. ‘I am heading up north.’ ‘What about your family, what’ll they do after you leave?’ ‘The Communist Party won’t let them starve,’ he said. ‘What’ll you do up there?’ ‘Don’t know. But its better than hanging around here till I die, don’t you think? Look at me, I’m damn near thirty and I don’t even have a wife. I have to get out of here. Moving kills trees, but it keeps people alive.’ To tell the truth, I didn’t want to lend him the ten yuan, a tidy sum in those days. ‘How’s this?’ he said. ‘If I make good I won’t pay you back, but if I don’t I’ll pay you back if I have to sell my blood to do it.’ I couldn’t make heads or tails of this logic, and hemmed and hawed for a while before finally lending him the money.

But let’s return to that afternoon when I was leaning against the schoolyard wall, watching a ping-pong match between Big Mouth Liu and Lu Wenli. Liu was a mediocre player who was obsessed with the sport and loved to play against the girls on the team. None of them could be called unattractive, but Lu Wenli was the prettiest and hence his favourite opponent. Every time he hit the ball, he inadvertently opened his gaping mouth. That alone would not have been worth mentioning, but a guttural gaji gaji sound emerged, as if a few toads were trying to get out. Sight and sound, his playing style nearly made us gag. Lu Wenli hated playing with Teacher Liu, I knew that, but he was one of the school administrators so she had no choice. The look on her face and her sloppy play when she was on the other side of the table with Teacher Liu told us we all needed to know about what she was feeling—disgust and loathing.

Now all this jabbering has been intended to set up the following dramatic scene: with his mouth open, Teacher Liu hit a topspin lob which Lu Wenli casually returned. But as if it had eyes, the glistening ping-pong ball flew right into his mouth.

We were stunned, but only for a moment. Then we burst out laughing. A teacher by the name of Ma, who’s face was red to begin with, turned the colour of a rooster’s coxcomb. Lu Wenli, who had pulled a long face chuckled aloud. I was the only one who didn’t laugh. I just stood there amazed at what had happened, and recalled a well-known tale from our village that our storyteller Grandpa Wang Gui had told us. Once, when a down-and-outer named Jiang Ziya was selling wheat flour, a strong gale swept it out of his hand. Then he tried selling charcoal, but it was a particularly warm winter. Finally, when he looked up at the sky and sighed, bird shit landed in his mouth. Twenty years later, in the fall of 1999, I was on the subway on my way to work at the Prosecutorial Daily when a newspaper peddler caught my attention with: ‘Read All About It—Soviet Artillery Shell Lands Right in the Barrel of a German Artillery Piece During the Second World War!’ And I immediately thought back to the day when Lu Wenli hit a ping-pong ball into Teacher Liu’s mouth. What happened next was that everyone realized they shouldn’t be laughing and stopped abruptly. Now you’d have thought that Liu would have spit that ball out and said something funny—he had a pretty good sense of humour—while Lu Wenli, who was noticeably embarrassed, would have apologized to her Teacher. But you’d have been wrong. Instead of spitting the ball out, Liu stretched out his neck, opened his eyes wide and tried to swallow the thing—we all saw it. Then he flailed his arms as a strange guttural sound emerged from his throat, and he looked like a chicken that’s swallowed a poisonous bug. We were flabbergasted and utterly helpless. All but Teacher Zhang, who rushed up and began thumping Liu on the back. Then a teacher named Yu ran up and put his arms around Liu’s neck. Arms flailing, Liu pushed them both away. Teacher Wang, one of the rightists and a graduate of a medical college, knew what to do. He ran up, shoved Zhang and Yu out of the way, wrapped his arms—he had long monkey arms—around Liu’s waist and jerked his hands into the midsection. The ball flew out of Liu’s mouth and landed on the table, where it bounced a time or two and then fell to the ground and stuck, without rolling an inch. Wang let go and, with a strangled cry, Lie crumpled to the ground as if he were made of mud. Lu Wenli threw her paddle down on the table, buried her face in her hands and ran off crying. Wang massaged Teacher Liu, who was lying on the ground, until he was helped up. As soon as he was back on his feet, he looked around and said hoarsely: ‘Where’s Lu Wenli? Where is she? The little brat damn near killed me!’

– — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — — — –

In Change, Mo Yan—China’s foremost novelist—personalizes the political and social changes in his country over the past few decades in a novella disguised as autobiography (or vice-versa). Unlike most historical narratives from China, which are pegged to political events, Change is a representative of “people’s history,” a bottom-up rather than top-down view of a country in flux. By moving back and forth in time and focusing on small events and everyday people, Yan breathes life into history by describing the effects of larger-than-life events on the average citizen.

Change is a part of Seagull’s What was Communism? series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Vision of Somnath Hore

K. G. Subramanyan

Lean, light of foot, bright-eyed, Somnath can be seen around the Santiniketan campus, but always in a hurry. He is always going somewhere like a man on a mission. And his work too has a missionary focus.

On a summer morning the world glows with sunlight, the flowers load the trees, the breeze wafts around a heady kind of perfume—but in Somnath’s vision it is the spectacle of man’s suffering that steals the show. In his paintings and sculptures, in prints and drawings, it is invariably the same.

This has been so since a long time. Since he saw the disastrous Bengal famine more than forty years ago; and behind it the panorama of rural poverty when still a youth. He goes over and over this obsessively. In everything he sees, he reads its gesture of tragedy.

So in a crack in the earth, he sees a dire menace. In fissures in the wall, he recalls a gaping wound. Even his sensuous fantasies are sewn up in a skin of suffering. Lean bodies of men and women huddled in wan despair. With faces whose flesh sinks into the bone; whose chests cannot find enough skin to hide their hollow nakedness; whose eyes are sockets from which all light has been drained out; mouths whose only voice is that of rattling teeth. Then the skinny dogs and bony cows and goats that keep them languid company.

They do not repel our eye; they draw us in. His artistry gives each item its kind of appeal; the sharpness of the bone, the tightness of the skin, the deadness of eyes, the muteness of mouths, the limp inertia of the folded body. They entice the eye in and lacerate it. Blood-shot, it seeks a world behind the world of flowering hedges.

There are loud pictures of suffering whose message passes over our heads like barked out slogans. Somnath’s are different. They are insidious; they slip slowly in. Then they disturb us and shade into the didactic. We start thinking, what is this world that we see daily? And run our hands over our faces. And find that the bone lies below the flesh.

From the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition

Somnath Hore – Prints, Drawings, Posters

presented by The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Calcutta.

Click here to view the exhibition online >>

 

Somnath Hore (b. 1921, in Baroma, Chittagong district) taught at  Indian Art College and Delhi Polytechnic before coming to teach at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. Also Visiting Lecturer at M. S. University of Baroda for a short time, Hore worked in various media—print-making, drawing and water-colour—before turning to sculpture in his later years. Author of Tebhagar Diary and Aamar Chitro Bhabona, Hore received the Padma Bhushan (posthumously), the Aban-Gagan Puroshkar, the Lalit Kala Ratna and the Rabindra Bharati University Award among many others. Hore lived and worked in Santiniketan until his death in October 2006.

K. G. Subramanyan is a veteran artist who has worked with a wide range of media and materials, exhibiting extensively both within and outside the country. A major retrospective of his work was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, in 2003. He has been part of the arts faculty at Baroda and is Professor Emeritus at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. His writings on art have been published widely.

Click here for books by Somnath Hore and K. G. Subramanyan.

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Extracts from the Offence Series

The Jewish Case

In the beginning, before ‘Judaism’ divides into different kinds and denominations and roams across the face of the earth, is the text: the Hebrew scripture and the story it tells. I use the present tense since the story, in one retelling or another, endures. And I put ‘Judaism’ in quotes because I am not at all sure that the word fits the thing that it names. Judaism: what is it?
I start with this question because it is fundamental for the remit of this essay. On the one hand, there is nothing that non-Jews can do that is more likely to cause Jews to take offence than misunderstanding or misrepresenting Judaism—if only because Jews generally regard this as their prerogative.

On the other hand, giving offence is virtually a Jewish way of life. This might sound like a throwaway line but it will turn out to be the thought that anchors the whole of the argument. You can call it a claim about Judaism, but it’s not: it’s a way of laying claim to the tradition that goes by that name, which is a rather different matter. But this must keep. First things first. Aside from this introduction, the essay falls into three parts. In Part One, I examine the standard dictionary definition of Judaism. Calling Judaism a religion turns out to be problematic; even calling it Judaism can be misleading. The upshot is that the familiar distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is not adequate to the Jewish case.

Some readers, at this point, will object on the grounds that there is a larger context that I am ignoring: the resurgence of faith in the twenty-first century. This, they will say, poses a threat to the modern world and gives rise to a ‘battle for the Enlightenment’. Judaism, on this view, comes into the picture only insofar as it is, precisely, a religion. My reply, which occupies Part Two of the essay, offers a critique of ‘Enlightenment piety’ and recalls a ‘dark side’ of Enlightenment thought: the dominant perception of Judaism and Jews. Having cleared the ground, in Part Three, I bring the argument of the essay to bear on the Jewish case today. I home-in on the debate over Israel, since this is the arena that is most conspicuous. With the earlier discussion of identity in mind, I explore the complex sensibility that leads many Jews to create ‘no go’ areas of debate. But Judaism in its depths cries out for outspokenness; or such is the tradition to which I lay claim at the end. There is a battle among Jews over the limits of free speech about Israel: this is the context I see for the essay. Call it a battle for Judaism.

The Christian Case

The primmest communities are, reputedly, the most sensitive to irreverence. Middle- class post-War Britain, with its china teacups and doilies; marginalized, puritan, rural United States; Stalinist Russia, with its hushed voices and lace curtains; the veiled Iran of the Ayatollahs. In societies boundup with displays of conventional order, propriety, stability and integration, disparaging, offensive or ‘blasphemous’ expressions are very readily perceived as acts of defamation. The affront can be personal or collective. Either way, it is usually retrospective because offence is a slight remembered. Memory, cultural anthropologists tell us, is social. The things we recall merge with the things we have been told. Images from the past slip into stories we have heard and narratives that we have created. The content and uses of memory are determined by our relationships, by language, by communication and by emotional ties. Remembering is a descent into intimacy with the self, mediated by the shape and order of our outer lives—we associate freely only in our dreams.

And, strangely, experience re-moulded through the prism of memory, imagination and feeling, also seems to galvanize; it encourages reformation, restructuring and mobilization. But that is in the aftermath. If identity has been slighted, there is, initially, only the dismay of shattered structure, the pain of incertitude and a lost self. After that comes the story (‘she did it’), then the ideology (‘she is mean’) and, finally, the act (‘let her have it!’).

Thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard argued in The Postmodern Condition(1979) that highly developed societies resist the notion of the story or the narrative as knowledge. Post-modernism is marked by ‘an incredulity towards meta-narratives’, those opinion forming, legitimizing stories that shape cultures and lives, tell of beginnings and ends, of morals, gods, demons, selves and identities. So, have modern, developed societies overcome their limiting sense of self? No, they have not. Today, Lyotard’s theory about the crisis and collapse of the meta-narrative has to be viewed in the light of polls that show 59 per cent of North Americans as believing in the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, along with the willingness of Muslim fundamentalists to kill themselves and others for their interpretation of the Quran. The mega-stories that have held communities for millennia live on irrespective of economic development. How far they have been modernized, revised, reinterpreted, localized and rewritten has to be considered in the light of opposing religious and secular narratives that have arisen, and are constantly arising, to challenge, undermine and offend them. Lyotard’s theory may be one; Richard Dawkins’ call to secularism another. Multiple and multicultural communities adapt their stories to reflect a changing sense of self. In the UK today, for example, a fiction about the particular vulnerability of cultural sensibilities is especially prevalent. Kenan Malik has called it a ‘theology of respect’. This neo-religious stance, Malik argues, has been built around three principles: not offending other cultures; respecting all beliefs; and censoring one’s own views in the name of tolerance. ‘It seems that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views,’ Malik writes, while ‘it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the greatest freedom to express our opinions, even if others find it offensive.’ Instead, it seems that expression must remain subservient to religious and cultural sensibility. Pluralism and the right to offend are two sides of the same coin. Clashes are unavoidable and have to be dealt with because, as George Orwell wrote: ‘If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

The Hindu Case

Officially, by 1996, Bombay had already ceased to be Bombay: a regional political party, the Shiv Sena, had campaigned for years to change its name to Mumbai, arguing for its ‘real’ name derived from Mumba devi, a local goddess. In 1995, the federal government obliged. There has been some argument that Bombay owes its origin to the Portuguese phrase, Bom Bahia, or ‘a good bay’, but the Shiv Sena is not a party to welcome an academic discourse, as many artists, academics and dissenters have found out over the years, many preferring silence and acquiescence. The process of attacking and renaming what they do not approve of in the name of Hindu religion has been the way of Shiv Sena activists for some time now.

Their most visible target that night in 1996 was Husain. Husain stayed away from the party—had he come, he would have been arrested. Bombay was no longer the warm welcoming hometown Husain knew; he could not live there safely, nor visit. That evening, at the Cowasji Jehangir Hall, a group of young artists unfurled a banner which read: ‘Husain, we miss you.’

As the night lengthened, getting chillier by Bombay’s warm standards, and women wrapped themselves in shawls and men who had worn jackets felt they had made a wise choice, the conversation grew heated. A well-known Western collector of Indian art was incensed that nobody had spoken out for Husain, and asked loudly why the city’s intellectuals were not defending Husain more passionately. An old friend, married to a painter, asked me in turn, ‘Why doesn’t he understand? This is like asking us to speak out in Berlin in 1936.’ In September 1996, an old sketch of Husain’s, of a nude Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, had surfaced when the Hindi magazine Vichar Mimansa (Discussion of Thoughts) published an article about this controversial work. The controversy spread across India, as eight individuals from different parts of the country filed criminal complaints against him, saying his art offended their religious sensibilities. Could you really show a goddess without clothes?

The Shiv Sena protested, as did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the national opposition in parliament. The police immediately decided to arrest Husain for disturbing communal harmony. Neither lascivious nor derisive, Husain’s sketch of Saraswati had stirred admiration. But times had changed. A militant brand of Hinduism, Hindutva (Hindu-ness), had emerged, arguing that the government’s secular policies were an excuse to appease minorities and that Hindu identity was being insulted. Some Hindu activists asked: ‘Why does he paint only Hindu goddesses in the nude, and not Ayesha, Prophet Mohammed’s wife?’

Typical was an Internet post from a concerned Hindu-American: ‘Husain is a Muslim by faith. What on earth prompts him to choose onlyHindu Gods and Goddesses for such disgraceful and ridiculous portrayal? He has mistaken Hindus’ tolerance for their weaknesses.’ Acting on such sentiments, Hindu nationalists took the law into their hands. In October that year, a Hindu mob ransacked a private art gallery in Ahmedabad, where a major retrospective of Husain’s works was planned. Ironically, while the police in Bombay were prompt in issuing an arrest warrant against Husain, to this day nobody has been charged for destroying his work in Ahmedabad. For the first 40 years of India’s independence, Hindu nationalist voices were isolated and marginal in the Indian political spectrum. But, since the mid-1980s, for reasons we shall see later, they have grown more vocal and aggressive. By the mid-1990s, the single-largest political party in Parliament was the BJP, the latest incarnation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization partly inspired by European fascism and Nazism. In 1996, following the Congress Party’s defeat in parliamentary elections, the BJP even led a coalition government that lasted 13 days, before making way for a short-lived left-leaning alliance. The BJP finally came to power as the head of the National Democratic Alliance and ruled India between 1998 and 2004. While the BJP professed to play by parliamentary rules, several of its allies—in particular the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra— often used force. The Shiv Sena had risen into prominence by targeting ‘outsiders’— those who came to Bombay and ostensibly took away jobs from the local, Marathi speaking population. Once it had secured in the state and decided to transfer its chauvinism from language to religion. Outside Bombay, Marathi was pretty much the lingua franca, and linguistic chauvinism, relevant to whip up support in Bombay, had little value in Maharashtra’s hinterland. By the mid-1990s, the Shiv Sena ran a coalition government with the BJP in the state. a footing in Bombay, it sought expansion in the state and decided to transfer its chauvinism from language to religion. Out- side Bombay, Marathi was pretty much the lingua franca, and linguistic chauvinism, relevant to whip up support in Bombay, had little value in Maharashtra’s hinterland. By the mid-1990s, the Shiv Sena ran a coalition government with the BJP in the state.

The Muslim Case

The only way out of this vicious circle of mutual suspicion is for both sides to take a closer look at each other. A closer look at the Muslims of the world reveals many different pieces in the Mosaic of the Offended Muslim. An even closer look reveals that the Mosaic of the Offended Muslim is only a small part of the larger Mosaic of Muslims. But there is no denying that for reasons to do with national and global politics, with the former being the more significant component, religious extremism is on the rise. In Pakistan, there was a time when the JI was the most extremist of politically significant organizations. Then the JUI came along and made the former seem moderate by comparison. But both the JUI and JI worked towards being part of the political set-up, with all the compromises  and accommodations that politics makes necessary. Since Pakistan’s armed forces joined the ‘War on Terror’, there has been an increase response from armed militants – former jihadis who now feel betrayed by the Pakistan state that once thought it expedient to back them and train them-with no interest in the political process and whose sole desire is to extend their writ over sections of Pakistan through capturing territory rather than votes. They, in turn, have made the JUI seen centrist by comparison.

There is a deep crisis in Pakistan, its roots in provincial imbalance and the failure of the state to provide for its citizens, which creates a vacuum into which the religious parties have stepped with their free education in madrasas and other acts of civic responsibility. After the 2006 earthquake, for instance, the extremist organization Jamaat-e-Dawa was far more visible than any government agency on helping the wounded and the recovering bodies for burial. In addition, the political manipulation of religion by all parties and governments through Pakistan’s history, the use of jihadism as tool to increase regional power, the dependence on US military and financial aid, which ties national self-interest to US demands, the dependence on Saudi aid, which allows Wahabism to spread via mosques and madrasas in regions where Sufism has been the dominant expression of Islam for centuries, further aggravates the situation. That many of these issues find echoes or overlaps in other Muslim-majority postcolonial states creates an image of sameness across the Muslim world. But it isn’t so. To say otherwise would be to allow Pakistan’s politicians, its bureaucracy, its religious leaders, its intelligence agencies and its army off the hook for their successive and continuing failures.

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Green-Eyed Thieves by Imraan Coovadia


Part of Seagull Books’ Africa List.

A brief extract from the book.

Finally we spent hours going from one private room to the next on the psychiatric floor hoping to escape from the same doctor who admitted us in the first place. Dr Böhrendorf wasn’t the happy man he had been in the morning. It’s sad for any decent psychiatrist when a textbook case fishes your medical degree off the wall of your office, and adds insult to injury by helping himself to your brown-bag lunch. I wouldn’t be surprised if that morning was the seed for a ferocious persecution mania on Böhrendorf ’s part. I waved to him through the window of the elevator as we descended into the basement. Ashraf found a handtruck and carted a file cabinet out of the emergency-room entrance and into the subway. No one followed us onto the train.

It was nice to be out of the city, and then to come back. On our way home from the Island Ashraf and I walked through the evening crowds on their back-and-forth ant marches. We speculated about people’s movements, asked about this one patrolling the corner of Fulton and Clinton, that one opening her bag to retrieve a cheque book, whistled at the beautiful, sharp-nosed girl in a peasant’s shawl descending the winding stairway to the C train, hassled the made-up guy who works at Stingy Lulus on Tompkins Square Park, joked with the rusted, reeling old man in a formal brown buttoned vest and tie who brought jars of brown liquor into the subway in a paper bag. The muscle men, the Circassians, memoirists, sidewalk notables, fry cooks, passing shoppers and shop owners were suddenly our New York brothers and sisters. We were on more intimate terms with our fellow New Yorkers now that we had a random sampling of their social-security numbers. All in all I was getting to like the city, even getting to be comfortable in Brooklyn. Although I can’t honestly say I liked it, I increasingly found Brooklyn to be neighbourly—if by that elastical term you comprehend the neighbourly feeling of the Serbs for the Bosnians and the neighbourly glow that lights thehearts of the Hutus when their thoughts turn to the Tutsis next door. People kept turning to stare at us as my brother tried to keep the file cabinet out of their way.

Our reward was a pile of patient records that yielded many more names, addresses and social security numbers than were needed. Before five in the afternoon Ashraf produced a wallet’s worth of cards, thirteen cards in thirteen different names. Most were blank. Several had a raised thirteen-digit account number that Ashraf ran his fingers up and down like a man who knows how to read Braille. My brother’s eyes shone with a cruel green joy. The colour in his eyes resembled the flame off a pellet of sodium. I saw that colour first in chemistry class and never since until this particular moment.

‘What do you think?’

I said, ‘It’s a beautiful thing to see, Ashraf. You’re finally making something of  yourself. You fooled the doctor into thinking you were a schizophrenic, which is a major achievement even if it’s also true. Then you make these from scratch. A real day’s work.’

‘You want to take them and go on a spending spree? Go to Barnes and Noble, or the Strand. Get a complete set of, what’s his name, Schopenhauer? Chopin-hauer?’

‘Thanks but no. I don’t want to get arrested like unlucky Felix,’ I replied. ‘I have too much to read. Let me see what you’re doing for Atta though.’

‘It’s a secret. But now I’ve finished doing their commission those guys are going to be in town soon to collect. Maybe as soon as next week. You can ask them yourself.’

If you define a friend as I do, as someone whose misfortunes are simultaneously sweet and bitter to one, then Maulana Abbas was my friend on Atlantic Avenue. His office in the mosque was right around the corner from our pad and he started calling on me in an inimitably Egyptian manner. Abbas usually had an indefinable cloud about him of attendants, assistants, male secretaries, but he sent them away to talk to me and Felix in confidence. Or he took us out to Damascus Pastry shop. I think he saw us both as potential converts.

One afternoon the maulana brought Mohammad Atta by to see my brother and said hardly a word to me. Abbas soon disappeared on the arm of his assistant Sayeed, and left us alone with Atta and his number one friend Ziad. I ended up sitting across the table from them as Ashraf set up his apparatus to show off. Ashraf was concerned to make a good impression because these people, he insisted, could introduce us to Saudi billionaires. Still they weren’t easy to get along with. Atta was distant with me, not wanting to talk about our adventures in Pakistan. He seemed to have rolled back all our knowledge of one another. As for Ziad, he was not as much of a scowler as his leader but he was certainly uncomfortable and kept looking at his Timex. Ashraf set up the slide projector and showed them pictures of his new licences.

My brother was professional. ‘By the way, Mohammad, and Ziad, I hope, if things work out, you mention me to friends and family. To begin with, I’ve prepared a wallet with everything you wanted. Here’s a Florida driver’s licence. Here’s another driver’s licence. It’s Swiss. Then there are credit cards, a social security card, everything you need to get a legitimate job. There’s a firearms licence, a farmer’s explosives certificate so you can pick up nitrates when you need them. If there’s anything else I would be delighted to help out. When are you going back to Florida?’

‘Tomorrow,’ Atta replied. ‘We have a job to do that needs to get done very soon. Say, what do you guys do around here for fun?’

We went to one of Ashraf ’s favourite places—a Korean massage parlour out in Red Hook where we had separate cubicles separated by paper screens. I was out first, then watched as Atta had his muscular back pounded by one of the maidens. By now you know what she was like, a fierce young lady with a triangular face and linen layers of makeup on her face. She had an expression of terrible concentration as she drummed on his shoulders. The towel was bound around the guy so tight that his face was flushed with blood. He could hardly speak. I sat on the chair next to the bed. There was a curious, very intense look of disgust and pleasure on Atta’s big face as his attendant turned him around, lifted up his white towel and finished him off, as they say in the business.

Atta drank a fair amount of saki. Afterwards he wasn’t steady on his feet. Ashraf and I had to support him between us. It was tough being stuck with these two characters. I caught my brother in the cubicle adding Largactyl to Atta’s cup and figured we didn’t need any more enemies so I stayed close to both of them. I emptied out the cup when Ashraf wasn’t looking. I could hear our visitor talking to himself under his breath but only after a minute did I realize that Atta was cursing the Jews. I paid the bill with one of my brother’s cards.

We got the big fellow into a taxi and took him home with us. Ashraf ’s head was spinning so he went to sleep in Dad’s bedroom. I was left to take off our guest’s clothing and help him into a pair of my cotton pyjamas. As I had his shirt half open Atta woke up suddenly. He was as strong as an octopus. Atta grabbed me around the neck. His grip was tight and he tried to force his mouth on to mine. I felt his breath dark on me. With unexpected power I pushed him into the bathroom, locked the door and went to sleep next to Ashraf. He didn’t mind sharing a bed with me.

The Farewell Insurance Company was my father’s creation which he began working on the very day we signed the lease on the apartment. He had been dreaming about it since I explained the plot of Gogol’s Dead Souls. Dad’s previous idea was to start a restoration house for Fabergé eggs, send imitations back to the owners and flog the originals. I admit that I pushed Dad towards the insurance company idea in the hopes of keeping his thoughts away from the divorce, his no-show brother and other difficulties. Enterprise, energy, agency were—in my opinion and Tocqueville’s—this society’s great virtues. I figured it was vital for Dad to assimilate and work is the highest form of assimilation, after marriage.

‘You two boys will help me with the business,’ he assured himself as we strolled down to Montague Street to have a look at the Statue of Liberty for the very first time. The waters were choppy around Governor’s Island. ‘Once I get in touch with Micah’s connection Crogan, we will get the ball rolling. I want you two to look out for each other.’

‘Don’t worry about poor Ashraf,’ I replied. ‘I’ll take care of you, my brother.’

‘I’ll take care of you first.’

‘You both take care of each other,’ Dad insisted. ‘Firoze, you’re taking the philosophy classes you always dreamed of. Ashraf, you’re learning Spanish at my expense. But please, remember that your primary responsibility is to our financial future.’

I said, ‘Business is business.’

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Hardly a conventional family memoir, Green-Eyed Thieves tells the story of the fortunes of a family of crooks—the green-eyed thieves of the title. The matriarch of this unusual family is a university lecturer and an accomplished shoplifter, and her husband is a master thief whose ingenious exploits include relieving the Aga Khan of his wardrobe of expensive suits—since they both happened to be the same size. An uncle, universally known as Ten-Per-Cent Farouk, lives with the family in Fordsburg, a suburb of Johannesburg. And Firoze, the narrator of this wickedly humorous novel from South African writer Imraan Coovadia, is a dreamer and a bookworm who is radically different from, but inextricably bound to, his identical twin, Ashraf.

Green-Eyed Thieves follows this clan of skilled criminals and the twins as they embark on a series of mind-boggling adventures that include a love triangle with the twins’ perfect match, a masterly heist at Sun City and a surprise appearance at the White House. Including cameos by George W. Bush, Mohammed Atta and a Pakistani Brigadier in Peshawar, these original and lively family adventures are sure to delight.

Imraan Coovadia is a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Cape Town. He is also the author of The Wedding (2001).

 

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