By Anjum Hasan
This is the kind of town where you could be sitting in a restaurant, concentrating on your noodle soup, and suddenly notice across the room a man with the face of Harrison Ford, calmly eating lunch with his ordinary wife and bespectacled child. Or, on Sunday, walking down a dismal street, the trucks throwing dust into your face, one of those wooden buses with yellow snouts will go by full of old men in dark suits singing in chorus from the red-edged pages of their hymn books. Some things are the same—the siren still calls people to work at ten and sends them home at five. Poor women sit on their haunches behind baskets of sour fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. The hills are still there, though just about.
I wake up every morning with the idea that something has been missed the previous day and must be grasped before it’s too late, but I end up doing the same things — going for aimless walks, dodging cars, eating rice and pork stew in small places that remind me of the university campus. When I get back in the evening, there’ll be more cars. Cars backing into the hotel compound or trying to get out. Cars blasting music, cars being scrubbed down, cars loved like people. I can hear them as I sit down in the little veranda at the back and try to read.
I’m not sure what I’m doing here. Maia would have woken up in the morning and asked: What’s our plan for the day? We’d start in bed and continue our plan-making through the morning. She’d emerge from the bathroom with damp hair, her delicate skin flushed, and say, ‘I just got a great idea.’ The rest of the day would be spent in the excitement of that adventure — the adventure of being together, of having a shared idea of what we wanted to do, a secret pact between us. No one else knew. That’s love. No one suspects a thing.
I’m a visitor now; I’m sleeping alone on a hotel bed. On Monday morning, I’ll head down to Guwahati and fly back home. As usual, I’ll unlock the door to the flat and then won’t know how to proceed. Grief is one thing. When, abandoning all those plans, your wife dies, you drop everything as well and just sit in a chair for weeks. But later, when you have to get up, when you have to make certain motions to keep life going — that part is harder. The difficulty of being ordinary after Maia was gone, the difficulty of deciding what, without her, had any significance at all.
I started travelling — not an answer to that question but maybe a means of searching for it. The careful budgeting of my pension that we used to sit down to do at the start of every month seemed stupidly childish. I didn’t want savings; I didn’t want to think of that kind of future, the kind animated by money, the sort that flickers with possibilities if you have both love and cash.
I went to Calcutta because Maia and I had met there; I took ferries up and down the Hooghly with men in nylon shirts dropping peanut shells on the floor, their eyes fixed on the goals of whatever small business it was they were up to — all that enormous energy that goes into making a measly living. I could smell their sweat. One guy tried to pick my pocket probably because I looked so obviously, so goddamn, lost. I moved away from him instinctively though I should have let him take it. Either that or stood up to him, bunched my fists before his face.
I sat for hours in the old Flurys which was spanking new and crowded now, drinking coffee and watching people. I flew to London because we had both gone to university there without ever crossing paths with each other.
And I’m here now in honour of the two years I taught philosophy at the university while Maia, laughingly, for the fun of it, became a schoolteacher. There’d been no vacancy as such at the school but they’d invented the subject of drama for her — her job was to instil in the children a year-long excitement about the annual concert, or get them to enact stories from their English textbooks, or make papier-mâché masks and flowing satin costumes.
I enjoyed those two years like I’ve enjoyed nothing before or since. In every frame of my memory there are trees leaning in; I left every class I taught feeling valiant. I believed I was bringing my students something romantic in its remoteness — news of a man called Plato, for instance, news of the misled men and women cramped into his metaphorical cave.
Very little about the town threw me and Maia even though throughout our time here they were picketing the government offices; there were murders and agitations, rallies and blockades, anger and fear. It was all newspaper reports to us. We saw nothing from our little cottage except pine trees and gravestones and the washing hanging outside other people’s homes. I would walk up to take my classes and then perhaps sit with a colleague in a tea shop, drinking cup after cup of over-boiled tea or eating from small enamel soup-plates of rice and meat. My fellow philosophers were men who had spent time in this town; some were born here, some drawn by the lure of the university. Nothing united them except the fact that they were all unhappy. I’d listen to their complaints for a while, and then leave determinedly for the library. I wanted to develop some of the ideas in my PhD on Immanuel Kant’s ethics into a book.
Come morning I’d be up early, making tea for Maia. The fact that the coming day was going to be more or less exactly like the previous one sharpened my appetite for it. Everything hummed with life. I loved my wife. I loved moral philosophy. I loved my students. They were eager and fresh-faced and ready to believe anything.
I’m out walking on the narrow pavements now; the air is dark with certain rain. Middle-aged men, beautiful girls, college boys — everyone wears perfumes that I inhale as I squeeze past. More than anything, the perfumes make me lonely. How can it be that this town is so full of people they’re falling off the pavements and yet only in dreams am I in someone’s arms?
All of yesterday they sang Easter hymns in the church nearby. I did nothing. I woke suffused with my usual dreams of Maia, only now I know they’re dreams and not portents, not promises. She’s simply not here. I tried to read, then went for a walk and returned, defeated by the downpour. I was determined to do better this morning. I planned to visit our haunts — the house on the hill, the university, her school.
I’m almost there now, reassured to see that anonymous, old three-storeyed building before the turning to the university. The same shops below, their awnings patched together with rusting pieces of flattened tin. The red mobile phone company signs stand out against the bleakness. And above, those enigmatic, dust-blackened windowpanes, cracked and broken with age, hiding behind them God only knows what sliver of bygone life, what secrets of genteel poverty.
But as soon as I turn to go up the slope, I find that I am somewhere else. This was not my path for those two bright years. Huge concrete monsters lean over, swallowing the road, and between the cars there’s no place even for a footfall. I cannot go up and yet I must — to fight what came over me on that ferry in Calcutta: passivity and helplessness. The world riding roughshod. That weak-kneed feeling; that shocking irrelevance of being old.
I struggle with my umbrella, which the wind is working hard against. I am going to go up.
‘Sir,’ says someone softly at my elbow.
A man in a woollen jacket with his collar buttoned up against the damp, his umbrella a rock against the same wind that is flattening mine. I shake his hand even though I don’t know who he is. The rain is relentless now and we take shelter under one of those tiny awnings while other people walk by without pausing, everyday expressions on their faces to match the everyday rain.
‘You don’t recognize me, sir. I’m John. You taught us Immanuel Kant in the fourth semester.’
I continue looking at him without changing my expression. John, I think. The small, silent, back-of-the-class, barely visible presence who would turn in the best-written, the most comprehensive assignments.
John. I’ve never forgotten him even though I didn’t quite recognize him just now in his little goatee and smart, new glasses. There is a way in which John is always present whenever I think of Kant.
I remember standing in a sunny classroom, expounding on Kant’s categorical imperative. I am explaining to my students that this was Kant’s big thing — his most important contribution to Western ethics. The categorical imperative, he believed, was the singular principle on the basis of which all human beings must hope to act. And what was this imperative? Act only on that maxim through which you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law. Be truthful not because it will win you favours but because it is desirable for there to be universal truthfulness. Do not steal because you don’t want all your fellow humans to give themselves the license to be thieves. Also, act in such a way that you always treat both yourself and other people never as a means but always as end. Do good to others not because you expect favours from them but because you value them as human beings. It is goodwill which determines the moral worth of an action, not its consequences. This was the German idealist’s view and it was grand but worth quarrelling with.
I wanted my students to talk to Kant and I remember that day feeling restless at their silence, their heads bent as they faithfully recorded everything I said. I was usually pleased at their sincerity but I wondered that day if it was not just acquiescence.
‘The Shitland of the East.’
I couldn’t get anything out of them, and headed down to the library, swearing. The next thing I remember — not because this is the next thing that happened but because rage or disappointment has arranged it in my memory that way — is sitting in my little office in the department and marking end-semester papers. I was smoking too much and irritated, repeatedly ignoring the students or colleagues who happened to knock on my door. One candidate in particular — I didn’t have his or her name, because the names were not given to us — had written a punctuation-mark-less tribute to that other grand German idealist, Friedrich Hegel. The piece was a horrid mishmash of what I’d said about Hegel in class. It was almost possible to trace the student’s rising and waning attention in the classroom through the missing links and the broken, trailing sentences. I scanned through the rest of the paper and gave it 10 out of 50. Next came what was recognizably John’s paper — I knew his handwriting — and my mood improved.
The third image that has stitched itself into this story is this: I am standing in a dark lane, the one I always took to the little shop on the main road to get cigarettes. The lane opened out to the road with the sawmill, and one walked up past the sawmill to the cigarette shop. I could see the lights of the mill but the head of the lane was blocked by three men whose silhouettes meant nothing to me — just three men standing around. When I reached them, though, they didn’t move aside to let me pass.
‘You shouldn’t have failed him,’ said one of them.
‘Francis,’ said another. ‘Why did you fail Francis?’ I looked at him squarely, smelt the alcohol on his breath and realized, in the same instant, when he angled his face away from me and towards the lights on the road, that this was John.
‘John, what’s up?’
I peered into their faces, the light in my eyes.
‘Francis has to repeat the fourth semester,’ said John and I understood that the boy who was standing quietly to one side was the failed Francis.
‘I’m not surprised,’ I said. ‘If your paper was anything to go by, I’m not surprised. You need to go back to high school if this is how you think philosophy is done.’
‘You’re not surprised?’ asked the other boy sarcastically, who was definitely not one of my students. What do you know about philosophy and examinations, I was going to ask him, when he drew out the hand that was under his jacket and showed me a knife. It was a small penknife, its sharp edge glinting. ‘Are you surprised when you see this?’
‘You don’t understand anything,’ said John as anger rose in me. I clenched and unclenched my right fist. ‘Francis was supported by his uncle but he won’t support him anymore. His two years is up. He’ll have to join the church and become a priest to feed his stomach. He’ll have to study theology now.’
I looked at Francis who refused to meet my eye and then I said, ‘Look here, this is insane. Why don’t we all sit down…’
But John pushed past me and the three disappeared up the lane. I was left there with my unfinished sentence, my fist still clenched.
‘It’s been a long time,’ says John, looking sympathetically at me.
I haven’t seen him since that night in the lane. Maia and I left town soon after.
The rain is starting to let up; John shakes the droplets off his umbrella.
‘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.
‘Maia would have liked this place,’ I say to John. We talk about our wives. He’s married to a college lecturer who is the first person from the community to have received a PhD in microbiology. I ask him what he’s been up to all these years.
He ignores the question and says, ‘I’m so glad, sir, that I’m getting this chance to apologize to you. The hand of God — that you turned up.’
I clear my throat. It’s such a difficult pleasure — talking. Since I arrived here ten days ago, I’ve said little more than ‘good morning’ to the chaps at the hotel desk.
‘When I saw you the other day, I wasn’t sure you remembered. I mean, I don’t know if it still matters to you.’
‘It does,’ says John. ‘It does. I haven’t forgiven myself. I look at my kids and I think — what if they did the same thing to one of their teachers? I’d be ashamed for life.’
‘So you’re still thinking about him?’ I say, smiling.
‘The categorical imperative. Immanuel Kant.’
John takes a sip of his whisky and looks out of the window at the lights on the hill.
‘Act only on that maxim through which you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law,’ I say and raise my glass.
John looks into the depths of his, then lifts it. The clink is drowned in the sudden laughter of the girls from the adjoining table. I glance at them and they are absorbed in each other; they have the same look as the boys in the salon — the sated, happy look of self-love.
I am ready to talk philosophy but John is still in the past.
‘So much happened in those years, as you know. So much bitterness. A lot of people left town but you didn’t deserve to go.’
‘I couldn’t have stayed.’
‘I was drunk and angry. I didn’t plan to frighten you away. I just wanted to make a point.’
‘John,’ I say, sitting up in my chair. ‘You didn’t frighten me away! I was here on a temporary post. We’d have left anyway. Much as we loved it here, both Maia and I knew we were going to leave at the end of those two years.’
‘I thought you felt insulted and decided to . . .’
‘No, no! That’s not what I meant when I asked you if you remembered. I meant the lectures, our conversations, the books you used to read . . . Philosophy, for God’s sake! That’s why I felt let down. Because threatening someone who’s only being fair is not a maxim which you can will to be a universal law. You knew that.’
John looks confused. So it’s just his own pride he’s been worried about all these years, I think bitterly. First the pride in imagining he’d got me to leave, and then the loss of pride in realizing it wasn’t such a great thing to have done.
I take a big gulp of my drink. It’s like I thought when I met John near the university. We have nothing to say to each other.
I try to recall if Plato, who said something about almost everything, had anything to share on the subject of disappointment.
If we were sitting in my office twenty years ago, I’d have put the question to John and we’d have talked about his favourite Socratic dialogue or mine for a pleasant hour.
‘Are you doing philosophy, John?’ I ask him
He looks me in the eye and says, ‘No, sir, there are more important things to do.’
He’s no longer apologetic.
I’ve finished my drink and I’m ready to leave. But John isn’t; he’s pointing out something in the distance, up in the lighted hills.
‘Do you know what’s on the other side, beyond those big houses and electricity pylons?’
I look at him steadily, saying nothing.
‘There are villages there and the people in those villages . . . Well, they naturally don’t have anything we have. They’re poor people,’ he says, pronouncing the word ‘poor’ as if it’s a foreign word, a word he’s trying to teach me.
I think of the letter in the newspaper the previous day, the vision of apocalypse seen in a dusty taxi.
‘I know, John,’ I say calmly. ‘I know they’re poor.’
‘Now what happens when winter comes around? The growing cement plants need all the coal they can get and more. So where are those poor folks going to get coal from to keep themselves warm? Can they compete with the monsters? No, they cannot. They just have to lump it, they just have to freeze.’
I wait for him to connect this back to the question of what he’s been doing with himself, but he seems to have abandoned that line of conversation.
John is silent for a while, then leans forward and says, ‘They used to call this place the Scotland of the East. You know what it is now?’
‘The Shitland of the East.’
I laugh uproariously.
John has a grim look for a minute and then he dissolves into laughter too. He shakes his head and says, ‘Man, what can you say? The rich get richer, the poor stay poor. And all we have till Doomsday come is whisky.’
Doomsday again? He orders another drink and insists I have one too.
Suddenly we’re talking about everything — the multitudes of people in town and the languages I’ve heard spoken on the street, many of which I no longer recognize; how the ministers in the state government keep breaking up and then forming and reforming alliances, like blind amoeba; the number of men who look like Elvis Presley; John’s children and his cautious hopes for them; the people I used to know when I lived here, now scattered like rain all over the country.
It’s close to midnight and I should be getting back. I have a flight to catch the following day. I feel for my wallet to pay the bill but John has already got it.
‘Do you think of him?’ he asks suddenly, looking up from the bill.
I blink at him. Kant, finally?
‘Francis,’ he says impatiently. ‘Do you wonder what happened to him?’
It takes me a couple of seconds to remember who Francis is and, of course, it shows on my face.
‘No,’ I say truthfully.
‘He went down, that guy. He went all the way down. He couldn’t stick it out with the padres. He went back home and got into drug running. He was caught in Mumbai airport with three kgs of Ephedrine. You know what they do with that stuff, don’t you? He’s been cooling his heels in jail for the last five years.’
The question — ‘Why is this any of my business?’ — is on my lips but before I can say it John has killed it.
‘Sir,’ John is saying, ‘Why are you afraid to take responsibility?’
* This piece is excerpted from ‘Difficult Pleasures’ (Penguin Viking, 2012), reprinted here with permission of the author.
Anjum Hasan is the author of the short story collection ‘Difficult Pleasures’ (2012), the novels ‘Neti, Neti’ (2009) and ‘Lunatic in my Head’ (2007) and the collection of poems ‘Street on the Hill’ (2006). Her poetry and prose has been widely published. She is books editor at ‘The Caravan – A Journal of Politics and Culture’ and lives in Bangalore.