‘What have you done all these years?’ I ask and hope the reproach can’t be heard in my voice. I’m still angry with him.
‘It’s a long story,’ says John.
I look away, waiting for an opening to leave. There’s nothing John and I have to say to each other. Whatever his life is like now, it has very little to do, for sure, with those months I spent talking about the Enlightenment while he reciprocated, writing in his small, tidy handwriting the kind of essays that make teaching worthwhile.
‘Should head off before it starts again,’ I say over the sound of the trucks groaning and belching up the incline, on their way out of town to Jowai or Silchar.
‘We must meet again, sir,’ says John, pulling out his phone. I give him my number reluctantly and promise falsely that I’ll try and fit in his invitation for a drink the following day. I make it sound as if there are things I am here to do but as soon as he walks away, my resolution to visit the old university crumbles and I start to drift aimlessly again. I take a shared taxi, then abandon it ten minutes later — leaving it to its fate of eternal traffic jams — and start walking again. The sun appears and evaporates the puddles. Parents and children go past me, laden with balloons and candy floss, and I notice that it’s Saturday and I am near the zoo. I have no business in the zoo so I turn and head towards Police Bazaar which the rain has done nothing to clean up. Everywhere goblets of spit and the squelch of rubbish and the scrum of people and shops.
I branch off from GS Road and suddenly I am among pleasant cottages along a quiet, winding lane, flowers in every house front, and neat painted signs in Khasi on compound walls, presumably urging people to behave. I start to breathe a little easier as I go deeper into the neighbourhood, trying hard to lose myself. I am thinking again of Immanuel Kant. I realize I am wrong about those three memories making up this story from the past because — reaching out across the years and fitting itself snugly with them — is a fourth.
Forty years ago, London. A small seminar room. A young philosopher from an American university has been invited to speak. The room is packed because everyone has heard that the philosopher is controversial for speaking out on campus against the Vietnam War. As the man talks — about his childhood in small-town America, his highly conservative family, his experiences in the army, his decision to study philosophy — he keeps returning to the same idea, the indefensibleness of the war.
And then he’s on to Kant. It’s only through a subjective process of thinking about what is good or beautiful that you can arrive at a universal conception of what is good and what is beautiful. Kant expects you to close your eyes and listen to yourself. The categorical imperative can only be implemented intuitively, not by looking to experience. If we all put our minds to it, we’d know that the war is wrong. You cannot insist on suppressing a people who merely, on their home ground, on their own terms, want to be free.
Once we had the categorical imperative, we had Kant to listen to. And then what happened, he asks, pausing to sip from a glass of water. The room is silent, as if everyone’s watching a film which could absolutely go anyway. In the twentieth century, the positivists came along, says the philosopher. Karl Popper came along. And what did he do? He turned away from Kantian intuition and he based everything on experience. If experience tells us communism is a threat to Western society then, right or wrong, communism must be a threat to Western society. And everything goes downhill from there — the positivists take over, Kant is pushed to a corner.
Karl Popper, yells the philosopher angrily, as if sentencing him to death. He praises the German idealists and damns the positivist influence on Anglo-American philosophy.
A small old lady puts up her hand to speak. No one’s saying a thing but this lady wants to take on the philosopher.
‘Kant was an idealist. He was talking about a transcendental self, my dear, not you and me,’ she says with all the little-old-lady firmness she can muster. ‘It’s not for you and me to individually decide what is right and wrong for everyone.’
The philosopher comes so near I’m afraid he’s going to hit her. He bends down before her and says, ‘Why are you so scared to take responsibility?’
I’m sitting in a fancy salon fitted out in red and black, waiting to get a haircut. I was impatient when I came in but after fifteen minutes I sat back and breathed out. It’s like I felt on my first day here, seeing how everyone moved so slowly on the pavements. I started to fret and elbow my way ahead. Then I saw there was no point, there was nowhere I was going.
I watch the boys. Some are in well-fitting tuxedos, going for a wedding perhaps. They have large towels around their shoulders and are getting their hair styled and coloured, or having layers of gunk applied to their faces. The others in shirts look equally well groomed; it’s hard to tell whether they’re of the same party or are just chatting with the tuxedos in the spirit of excitement that pervades the salon — the loud music, the reek of cologne, the hard looks the boys give the mirrors, intent on looking their best, the slush and ugliness outside be damned. They weren’t even born when Maia and I lived here and if I told them that they wouldn’t care.
One of the boys notices me gazing at him in the mirror. I pick up a newspaper. The state government in crisis. Militants with the faces of children surrendering outsized guns. A training course due to be held on the cultivation and arrangement of orchids. In the letters section, a man writes a rambling letter to the editor about the coming apocalypse. He was stuck in a traffic jam on the outskirts of town and saw a taxi next to his, its sides coated with dust from village roads, a sick woman and her mother inside. They waited five hours for the jam to clear and when the taxi finally took off into the city, he was not sure the woman would make it. He thought of the End and he remembered the Gospel of St Mark — ‘But woe to them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days.’
I fold the paper neatly and put it away. I am called for my haircut and sit down, no longer able to avoid looking at the scars and furrows on my face. The boy combs my hair as if it’s no different from the hair on anyone else’s head, as if the thoughts beneath that hair are of absolutely no consequence.
When I returned home that evening of the encounter with John and friends in the dark lane, cigarette-less and cursing myself for not having stood up to them, Maia and I had one of our rare arguments.
When I told her what happened, she said, ‘These students have lives we don’t know anything about. Maybe we need to talk to them.’
‘I don’t care what’s going on in their heads if it’s not Kant or Hegel or whatever it is I’m teaching. I’m not here to solve people’s personal problems. That boy has no feeling for philosophy. He’s better off being a priest.’
‘It’s not that you failed him,’ she said. ‘That’s not what the problem is. It’s just that we assume everything happening in this town has nothing to do with us. Maybe we’re wrong. It’s all going to creep in somehow. It has.’
‘Maia, you’re missing the point altogether. This is about aptitude. Kant is tough.’
I didn’t tell her that what disappointed me most was not being shown a knife but John out there in the lane with the other two. John understood Kant. When he occasionally came to my room to talk philosophy, tell me about the books he’d discovered, test his ideas on me, I imagined him standing up in a crowded room one day and speaking out in the name of Kant just as that young American philosopher had done in London all those years ago. Nothing seemed more thrilling to me than this — that the idea of right and wrong, good and bad acquired in a classroom could become the basis of political action, of moral choices.
This is what I had hoped for from John and instead I meet him in a lane, drunk and incoherent. That’s when I realized that Kant made not a jot of difference to this boy. As I pay for my haircut, I know that I have to meet John. I want to tell him, because I never got a chance to, how badly he let me down.
I walk back to the hotel thinking, this is it. No more waking up early with a false sense of urgency to catch yet another flight. I’m going back home. There’s a book to finish, plants to water, memories to relive.
All that’s left is to remind John of his mistake. And prove to Maia that her heart was in the right place but she didn’t know the first thing about Immanuel Kant.