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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Man from Gujarat

I am a story teller and not a historian. I am the woman who once sat in the bazaar, and thirsty ears would come to me and say “Tell us a tale of Babylon, a tale of a Broken Heart, tell us a tale of a Dragon and a Maiden torn apart.” And I would weave, weave bright skeins on the loom of dreams; give them a treasure of pleasure to take home: a dream of what life is, could be, should be. A story. I am a storyteller, you see.

So a man came to me and he said: “Tell me a tale, a Tale of Gujarat.”

And so although I come from another land and know not the roads and tastes and tests of Gujarat, I will tell you a story from the loom of dreams; and this is how it begins.

Far far away, in a place I have never been, divided from my heart's land by a single Ocean - and so perhaps not so far, for they do say lands divided by the same ocean often kiss - in this far land was born a man.

He was born as all men are born. He was born a boy. Diffident and quiet, as is usual and suitable to the youngest of seven. He was shy and small and weak, and rather inclined to weep and hide behind his mother's skirts. His father was a good man, a wise man, a councillor of Princes; and though he was humble-slim and lean with abstinence, his shadow was very great indeed.

When he was seven the who would be a man took his first step along his road: his father took the family into a new land. It was his first, but not his last journey. It was only one small step on the Great Road that would one day bring him home.

So he was a boy, a man, a father, a son. All these he was and became: a loving son, tormented by an inheritance of pious guilt; a father before he was a man; a man still uncertain of his will, his strength, of his place in the world. They sent him far from all he had known, this man of Gujarat, on his first great journey, destined also to be the longest.

He set out, leaving wife, son and mother behind, to school his clumsy tongue to an alien discipline. He set out for England. England land of Conquerors. Alien, that cold, grey land: scentless the breeze, cold the rain. The food colourless, tasteless. The people: cool and reserved, strapped as tightly into their castes as his own people to theirs. There was some understanding in him, some sympathy for their ways. Their women moved in cages: as trapped in their corsets as his own women in the tight circle of their traditions. The fates decide your status, you earn you place on the Wheel: there seems to be some concordance on this also. Besides, they are his conquerors, with all the glamour and seductive power of such. He must please them.

He kept to his small tight disciplines as well as he could: he ate no meat, he pared his meagre pleasures down to nothing. He took pleasure in his rigour. It empowered him. It set him apart. He endeavoured to forget burrowing eagerly into his wife’s young body as his Father lay dyeing in other arms. The memory of his avidity was repugnant to him. He will be a good son after all. He can deny his flesh, keep his vow to his dead Father. In this he does not fail. He must not fail.
At long last the exile ends, he returns. He dreams night after night on his narrow berth: his Mother, frail in her silken muslin, stretches out her narrow arms. He weeps. Dark, perfect circles bloom on her shoulder as he weeps. Her thin arms bring him home, forgive him, redeem him.
There is no thin figure on the quay. His brothers, rotund and prosperous, greet him.
She is dead. Long dead. No heart-quake warned him, no mystic breath whispered it to his cringing soul. The very centre of his life is gone.

This is failure, one bitter taste followed by another. Some demon steals his speech. His mind so agile and quick, cannot reach the outside world through the portal of his mouth. Another failure. A stumble-tongued lawyer: a family joke. What can be done? A summons comes. Far, far away a man needs an advocate of his own race.

He will be unique. No other exits in that far bastion of the Empire, none like him.
He sets out bolstered by his reinstatement in his high caste, carrying around him the invisible aura of his uniqueness, his privilege. A new start, a fresh beginning. He will wash away his old sins on a far shore, and come back resplendent, reborn.

He headed to the south of the world, the fabled coast of Africa where his people had been summoned to harvest sweetness and reaped, instead, a bitter crop.
The ship lay down anchor in a busy port: he walks down to the quay, dignified in his grey English suit, his white turban crisply folded.

Three men await him, men of his race, though not of his own people. Muslims.
Portly, glossy with success, they greet him, welcome him with splendid words and graceful gestures to which, he answers with dignified restraint; with splendidly arrogant humility.
The oldest of these men take his arm to lead him past the raucous bustle of the stevedores, calling to each other, reeking of acrid sweat and the sour sweetness of sugar. They heave sacks on to their backs, heft cargo on platforms shouting “Heeeee! Heeee!”; answering the calls of the foremen, their corded muscles rippling with the strain of the ropes, the measured weight of their labour.
They swarm the ship, the quay, black ants punctuated here and there by the termite pallor of stiff-shouldered Englishmen, wincing from the barest brush of alien flesh.

Further on he notices a bull-necked man, whose smoke yellow eyes follow them with the faint derision of the warrior for the merchant-caste. The massive bullet head swivels slowly to follow their progress. Heavy, broad lips draw back from white square teeth. A stream of thick yellow spittle spatters in the dirt at their feet. The man laughs. His naked arms roll with obscene looseness in their sockets, his shoulders shrugging his despite. He laughs and others join him, calling approval, their mockery transparent in their voices.

He sees himself briefly through those eyes, smoke yellow with swallowed rage: a small narrow bodied man, scurrying along on his spindly legs and stiff hips; his shoulders bowed piously.
The man himself towers in massive, slim-hipped splendour, his naked chest sporting glistening pink scars like rosebuds, raised proud against the smooth blackness of his skin.

His companions hurry him along, pouring a constant stream of commentary into his numb ears.
The Zulus…savages…insurrection…hate us….the Impie veterans the worst…Come, come, you will see how we receive you, come, come…

They leave the docks behind and take him into a broad-avenued town with the splendid aura of prosperity. His companions explain, exclaim, complain. People move busily to and fro on the broad pavements, carriages and waggons trundle past. A small boy, pale faced and wan walking hand in hand with a stately black woman in a white dress, stares at him with disturbing dark eyes.

He sees, horrified, a young black girl with jiggling naked breasts laughing merrily and waving her hands gracefully in the air. Her palms flash moist pink, like a glimpse of intimate flesh.
He averts his eyes but sees, again and again, the loose motions of her body.

They lead him to a respectable-looking house, introduce him to an array of eager faces: young, old, thin and generous-fleshed, they are all eager to welcome him, flatter him. Their regard pours healing balm on his wounded pride.

That night on his solitary bed, he dreams the girl, her naked conical breasts juddering above him. In the final moment of his pleasure, she leans down and moans through broad heavy lips, teeth clenched in ecstasy, smoke-yellow eyes glistening; and he tallies in his heart his first hate, his first fear, and so poisons his fresh start.

***

In the quiet pool of lamplight the Man from Gujarat stoops his shoulders to the book. His pen scratches deep precise furrows on to the page, it pleases him to watch the sluggish flow of the glossy ink, slowly drying on the paper.

His words flow effortlessly through his mind, travelling swiftly to egress through the sharp steel nib. This fluency pleases him. He builds his case, graceful bridges of logic consolidating his arguments over the flowing river of facts. What agility escapes his stumbling tongue is compensated by the grasping leaps of his eager mind.

In the tranquillity of that warm night, any phantom of failure is allayed. He works until the delicious weariness overpowers his limbs and cottons his mind. He lies on his bed and lets the slow waves of sleep lap against him.

He imagines himself - narrow elegance in his dark western suit - gesturing with humble authority; his arguments fluent and impassioned. In his half dream the English Judge wobbles his pink jowls in awed, though reluctant, approval…

Alas, his fantasy is not to be. He must head west and northward, to the fabled land of gold and gunpowder, there to negotiate a settlement. He will not gloriously expound, but only quibble and squabble, like a merchant or a panderer, over coin.

Still, he will represent his client with dignity. He boards the stagecoach impeccably dressed: hair neat and gleaming with pomade, suit sharply tailored; glasses flashing acuity.

He speaks politely and knowledgeably to his fellow travellers, one of whom had spent some time in Bombay, trading tea; and now trades hotter more intoxicating beverages to the mining camps. At the border to the Republic of the Free State of Orange they changed horses and drivers in the middle of the icy night. The passengers somehow managing to slumber through the stop: the guttural voices, the clinking of metal on metal, the hoarse blowing of the horses as they are backed into the traces. Frigid dawn sees the next stop. The door opens and a broad bearded man climbs in, bringing in the sharp smell of the cold, mingled with the smoky odour of pipe tobacco.

Wat is Dit!

`n Koelie!

Ek sal nie langs `n Koelie sit nie!

The creaking and swaying of the carriage announces the heavy descent of the driver and his companion.

Wat se jy Meneer, Dat ons Koelies is?

Then two faces staring at him in astonished indignation, the scarlet faced fury of the new passenger barely impacting on his consciousness; and the rough hands are grabbing at him. He is tumbling, crashing to cold hardened earth, a-sprawl, gaping at thick-soled, dirt-caked boots.
He is dimly aware of the exclamations of alarm of his fellow passengers, some sort of argument.
The harsh voice of the driver interjecting in some coarse form of English he could barely understand:

No Koelis! No Indianers! This is die Vrei Staat, Engels!

Indians verbode! Forbidden!

Geen bedondered ape!
No monkeys!

The sour sting of vomit rises in his throat. Dirt cakes his teeth, his lips split and bleed as he grimaces in pain and humiliation.
Bandar. Monkey.

All his proud pretentions brought to dust. This dust, soaked with his bile and his blood. He is less than nothing.

Less even than an Untouchable.
He is dust in an unforgiving land shaped by warriors, shaped for warriors.
He is dust.

***

Crouching on the stirrup runner, he has a sudden vision of himself: Folded stick arms and legs, monkey-head hunched against the cold between his shrugging shoulders. His fingers cramp desperately to his hand-hold on his perch: fear and ice adding tenacity to his grip. Numbed, floating beyond any point of consciousness he ever believed he might survive, he is jarred by the sudden jerk of the carriage coming to a stand-still, nearly shaking him loose from his precarious perch.

He clings, oblivious, until gentle fingers pry him loose, strong hands lifting him into blessed warmth. A lap rug is wrapped around him. In the unfocused haze of his naked eyes, the Boer passenger’s scarlet face looms.

Sies ,man, Koelie…
Shame...

An awkward silence hangs in the carriage. A palpable miasma, the mingled smells and hot plumes of breath: an unwelcome intimacy. Leaning back, eyes closed, his eyelids glued shut by tears of dust and shame, he sees himself. He sees himself, again and again, fastidiously drawing his garments around himself to avoid the contaminating contact with the unclean.
Unclean. Untouchable. Unthinkable.

He has scorned good men of his own race as impure while seeking the approval of an alien nation.
The stinging rejection of the people of this land burns his pride, scours away his complacency. Their hatred and their their despite, make them brothers. Their justified scorn - he now sees - make them twin targets for his loathing, his anger, his hate.

.***

His arrival in Johannesburg, tottering stiffly from the carriage, wrapped in a blanket and stained with dirt, adds another layer to his suffocating rage.
The curious sidelong glances from his fellow passengers and passers-by, has him fumbling for a handkerchief scrubbing vainly at the shameful map of tears on his cheeks.

Mr Gandhi?
Mr Gandhi!
What has happened to you?

The solicitous kindness in a familiar lilting accent almost has him sobbing in relief.
He is taken away from the sardonic stares of the big men with the fierce beards, the urbane scorn of the Englishmen. He is cocooned in gentle indignation, warm familiar scents, comforted.
His humiliation is complete. Those whom he has secretly scorned as his inferiors, in both status and intellect, have shown themselves far above him in generosity of spirit.

Ah, so, a man from Gujarat comes to the Land of Dreams, and what does he see?
Himself. His unwelcome reflection in foreign eyes.

***

A man from Gujarat proclaims to have received enlightenment, and seeks redress for his people. The press for justice unlocks his stuttering breath, the savage acuity of his mind is freed. He fights, he refuses this image of himself lodged like a festering thorn in his mind. He speaks of love, but in his heart ferments the hot rancid pus of hate.

Hate in his heart, and hate echoes in the world. War comes, and he - the pacifist to be - begs for a gun. He wishes to join the conquering Army, the bold British forces that once took his land. He begs to stand in those ranks, and is refused by reason of his colour.
Why? Why would you fight, man from Gujarat?

And then we see the men he would fight - see crushed, destroyed - are the very men who took from him his vainglorious pride. Boers. Crude, rough men, with no poetry, and no art. Hard men, warriors. Uncouth, yes, but armed with a ferocious drive for freedom, a passion for this land. He sees now how such could be.

This is a broad land, empty and clean of overwhelming masses of suffering humanity. The scents of the breeze are uncluttered by incense or spice, the gilded unfolding landscapes uninterrupted by human life. Here a man is owned by his land. Here a man steps on virgin ground every day of his life. Here a man must make a stand, for he fights not just for his life. He fights for Holy ground.

***

They take this man from Gujarat who long for a gun, and give him a stretcher. They bless him not with the perfume of gunpowder, cordite; instead he suffocates in a miasma of blood and urine and fecal matter. He cannot, should not touch such, it breaks the laws of his caste; and yet he must.
His thirsty hatred brought him here, now he must kneel and drink...

He thinks: I will drink the blood and defeat of my enemy, and this will set my heart free of this ugliness in me.

But it was not to be. The might of an Empire is brought to its knees by the desire and passion of a small Nation. The man from Gujarat runs in the battlefield at Spionkop. he pauses before a screaming boy, sobbing as his thin hands press his flesh closed over a gaping wound. He pauses, and cannot tell if it is a Boer or an Englishman. He cannot tell, and so he stops and takes his head in his lap, and comforts him as he would his own small son woken from a nightmare. He holds him until his soul is released, until the boy is no longer there. He closes the pale eyes, strokes back the hair. He gets up. He totters, he falters in his steps. He is overcome by grief, he sees all around him death.

Soon the silence falls. Sobbing silence. Dust and blood, and mud. They take him, the Boers, him and others. Prisoners all. Soldiers and stretcher bearers, and men who are neither. He is prisoner.
He bows to his fate, and waits for freedom to come again.

From that field of gore he takes the first seeds of his life's work: the ferocious unbending desire to be free of foreign rule, from men who had always been free. He sees it. He understands this is as it should be. He sees their victory. It can be done. Small Nations can overcome great Empires. Yes it can be done.

***

He calls for his family and they come. He builds for himself a new life; his children, his wife must bend and adapt to the new shape he has devised. He is as passionately intransigent in his demands on them as he is on himself. He will be a better man. He will be.

Here in this far land his people need him, in this small community he can be a great man; be wise, beloved, admired. He can be the man his father was.

He goes North, to the Transvaal. He devours words, reads of equality, freedom, politics and policy; reams of words by sunlight and candlelight, he borrows schemes to fit his needs. His and his nascent dreams, for himself and his people.

But still there is a day when his hate reawakens. There is to be war again, war in Natal. There is a call, the Zulu rise again, assegai in hand to spill blood, and split guts; and though he is far in the Transvaal, his spirits rise. He will strike at that despite he glimpsed in those somber eyes so many, many times. He will go to Natal, and once more beg for a gun, to be allowed to take a warrior's stand.

He goes indeed, but once again it is not as he dreamed. He is again a comforter of the wounded, a companion to the dead. The war is not a war. It is something else. The soldiers strike at women, children, old men. Whips cuts are more frequent than bullet wounds and just as deadly in this moist heat. The violated skin cannot protect the tender inner flesh and the wounds fester.

The man from Gujarat sees a strange and terrible thing. One evening under the stuttering light of a paraffin lamp the back of a black man shows him this thing he would not, could not see.
Under the lamp light the flesh gapes open, and within the parted skin - that shimmering black, dense impenetrable night - he sees all the pulsing layers, the yellow layers of fat and red meat and blood that comprise a man.

He sees all the layers of himself. He sees: This is what I am. The hate I feel for him, is the hate I feel for myself.

In himself, in his many faceted and fragmented heart he has harboured pride and hate and lust. All that he would find to deride in others is in him, the deep thorn skewering his mind. This is the true enemy. The enemy outside is just a shadow of the enemy inside; and yet the external enemy is so much easier to grapple with...

He finds a place for himself, his wife, his new way of life. He is adamant she must follow him in this. His pride will not abide deviance. She must bow, she must submit. She also must cleanse herself of his sin. She must, if she would remain at his side. And yet, this too is sin, this too is rooted in pride.

How low must I abase myself, how low...
He discovers he takes pride in this also. His humility, his piety is fake coin. Fake, false, all offered up to his monstrous intellectual pride. It is not enough. He must strive, fight, survive his hubris. He must be not a great man, but a good man, as his father was.

He knows it is not in his nature, this intrinsic goodness he so desires. It is a thing to strive for, a constant battle that will last all his life.

And he thinks: By the fruits of thy labour shall ye be known. Evil trees do not grow sweet fruits.
He takes the seeds from the battlefields where he buried his hate, and ploughs them into fertile minds. These are the fruits. He takes the words some angel places in his mouth and spouts them out; calls for change, and the strange thing is, change comes. Ears hear him, the Empire hears. What he asks is but little in the grand scheme, little for the great; but for his people who live with so scant a store of pride, it is much.

Now they call to him: Come home! Come home! Here is another fight! Come home, we fight a foe beyond our might.

And the small man from Gujarat sits under a jacaranda with a wide shadow and asks a question:
How? How can it be done? I have seen what must be. We must fight, yet look! They fought and died. But it can be done. They fought alone. If only...

And he dreams and schemes under the tree, and the soft violet lavender lilac light cradles him.
The great Ocean that divides also unites, he thought. The people of this place refused to bow beneath a foreign hand. We have been bowing, and bowing for centuries. One pitiless master after another. Submit to survive. It has become a habit, this bowing down.

I must break this habit. It is not enough that we survive. We must thrive, be alive. The refusal to bow is in itself a battle won, if we can stand tall in our pride in who we are, we too can take that stand. Win or lose, we fight for our freedom, our children, our Holy land.

From the tree something fell. Swooped and swayed in that kissing breeze, fell to his cupped palm and stayed. A seed. A seed fell down, a seed like a wing, made for the wind.

This, he thought, this I must take home.
And he tucked that seed into his sleeve.

He left. He packed his dreams and his wife and his life. He took the seed of the story of the fierce horse-men with their rough ways, who wooed the very land; and the seed of story of the the dark men with poetry in their hearts, and blood on their spears.

He took the seed and he planted it anew, and I suppose like every other story it was not new.

If it gave good fruit, I do not know.
I think he did as he did in a mix of good and ill, as all men do.
I think he did as he did in a mix of ambitious pride, and the agonised desire to be good.
I think he did as he did because it was the answer to the question he had asked.
The jacaranda answered with a seed.

A seed is an order for continuance, and like a good soldier, he did as he was bid.
Like Anthony said of Caesar: ambition blinds like pride; yet in that darkness some goodness may abide.

The best that can be said of any man, can perhaps be said of him: is he did the best he could.

Well then, that is my story about a man from Gujarat.
Whether it be true, lies, fantasy, or a parable of goodness and pride, that you must decide.
I don't know, and I don't care. I am only the woman sitting in a bazaar selling dreams, with jacaranda blossoms tangled in my hair.


Manuela Cardiga

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