- REVIEW: ARUNDHATI ROY'S
TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO FICTION
- THE WORD TREE (LAFZON KA
- REVIEW: SHIN'S "PLEASE LOOK
- REVIEW: HASTINGS' "THE SECRET
LIVES OF SOMERSET MAUGHAM"
- THE BEST FRIEND
- REVIEW: ADIGA'S "BETWEEN THE
- TROUBLE AT SEA
- THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME
- TATTLE TEETH
- BEHIND THE TREE
- SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN
- THE BUS RIDE
- HARRY BURNSIDE'S REWARD
June 11, 2017
Arundhati Roy’s triumphant return to fiction
Her first novel since The God of Small Things is both mischievous and outraged
By Gillian Beer
Source: Prospect Magazine
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
Twenty years ago Arundhati Roy produced a first novel, The God of Small Things, in which
caste and place controlled a tightly-woven and tragic love story whose cadences drew on
south Indian speech. That won the Booker Prize and became a great bestseller, selling six
million copies worldwide. Since then Roy has been engaged in political activism in her
native country, always a thorn in the side of the Indian establishment that once fêted her.
She has watched her country’s turn to Hindu nationalism with horror, and it seemed as
though the injustices she exposed in her non-fiction might permanently divert her from
novels. But it has turned out not to be so. Her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,
is larger, more complicated, more multilingual, more challenging as a reading experience
than The God of Small Things, and no less immersing.
This intricately layered and passionate novel, studded with jokes and with horrors, has room
for satire and romance, for rage and politics and for steely understatement. It’s a world
where laconic asides destabilise our comfortable assumptions. The entire Indian
subcontinent and its conflicted history over the past 70 years (and before that) are drawn
into the descriptions. So are individual people in all their variety.
The chronology of the book twists, turns and overlaps, sometimes taking us forward in an
aside, sometimes unfurling whole events previously only hinted at so that we now enter
close into the passions of people who have previously seemed to be bit-players. The reader
must keep her wits about her at all times. Memory and the future grid over each other.
Following the track is hard work.
What is gained by this? These ellipses and delays mimic the ways in which in reality we come
to know individuals and their life stories over time. They also serve as an analytical tool
(often a savagely funny one) to demonstrate how events gain new meanings or are depleted
by future happenings. Indeed, the constantly shifting focus of the stories asks: What is an
event? Can we divest ourselves of the past? Isn’t it in the grain of the present? Isn’t it the
propulsive energy of the present? And why are we in hock to the future?
That debate is not a matter for individual lives only. It is the great question here as national
and international events topple on to each other: Partition, the Golden Temple massacre in
1984, the Bhopal disaster the same year, 9/11, Afghanistan, assassinations of the powerful,
torture, the rise of the BJP and religious extremism, “martyrdom” of several kinds. Through
them all run capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, the caste and class system, even the dairy
Subtly fraying and colluding with all these systems is human survival and human affections.
The outcasts and the many animals who populate Roy’s universe live in the cracks of this
history, making their own tracks. The narrator watches Hindu extremists sardonically: “A
parakeet committee of pedagogues was set up to finalise the process of turning history into
mythology and mythology into history.” Bureaucracy is the agent of brutality and torture
minces its way through menacing tea-breaks, as the characters discover to their cost:
“Downstairs in the cinema lobby there was a torture-break. Tea was being served to the
But such an account of the novel, though accurate enough, may make it sound abstract.
Instead, in the reading, it is exuberant, page-turning, and sometimes even frolicsome—
though a frolic that can flip abruptly into something like despair. That’s because it is peopled
by a horde of diverse people, each of whom is intensely valuable to the storyteller and to
each other and becomes so to the reader. Like Dickens, Roy can plunge us into intimacy
with a character within a few pages; she can also sustain the mystery of character across the
entire span of the plot. The novel’s shape twists and turns and only at its ending do we
understand how completely the start and finish match each other.
Late in the book comes an epigraph from the novelist James Baldwin: “And they would not
believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” That’s the book’s
paradox. Much that at first seems fiction turns out to be fact. Some readers will straight away
be able to recognise the thinly-veiled politicians, such as the former Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, whose disguised satirical nicknames populate the novel. Equally, some
figures who may seem fictions when first encountered, like Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, prove
to be important sages in reality. (He was a 17th-century Persian mystic whose grave is now a
site of pilgrimage in Delhi.)
“Like Dickens, Roy can plunge us into intimacy with a character within a few pages; she
can also sustain the mystery of a character to the end”
The history with which this book is so fiercely engaged continues into the present moment:
the Indian supreme court announced in April that 13 members of the governing Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP), including the serving governor of Rajasthan, have been charged with
involvement in the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 by Hindu extremists, an event
that precipitated murderous riots.
The stories in the novel lurk beneath 70 years of official documents. But stories are not just
documents; they distrust documents. In his unfinished letter to his little girl written after her
violent death, Musa the Kashmiri patriot writes, grief-stricken: “You wanted me to tell you
real stories, but I don’t know what is real any more. What used to be real sounds like a silly
fairy story now—the kind I used to tell you, the kind you wouldn’t tolerate.” The child Miss
Jebeen the First (as she is called) insists on truth. The authenticity of this burgeoning,
mischievous and outraged fiction is that it everywhere abuts actuality. It makes us as
readers take part in what has been happening in the world.
All our interest and attention in the first hundred pages or so is on the community of hijras—
the so-called “third sex” in India, neither male nor female—that the inter-sex baby Aftad, at
first identified as a boy, grows up determined to enter. Is this community happy? No,
declares Nimmo, one of the hijras he admires, because all the encumbrances and divisions
that others experience as external are inside, endoubled: “The riot is inside us. The war is
inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us.”
Aftab/Anjum, a boy with girl’s genitals, who feels himself happy before puberty, becomes a
woman with a doubled voice, becomes almost and entirely a mother. (That “almost” is a
repeated point of contention throughout the book.) In the intricate wave-motion of the work’
s revelations, Anjum is never quite forgotten and she will reappear in the book’s last
section, set again in the graveyard of its first pages, a place now transformed by love. But
for now she vanishes.
Then, sidling in after more than 100 pages, comes a new name: the publisher of a pamphlet
by hunger-striker Dr Azad Bhartiya: “You see this English signature? This is S. Tilottama,” or
Tilo. And soon we are away into a different set of characters: Tilo, the beloved, and the three
men who love her (Naga, Musa and “Garson Hobart”).
Tilo will carry the plot and much of the insight, debate and allure of the book. Garson Hobart
provides distance though he speaks in the first person, unlike the other main characters.
He clarifies events because he is a cynic, and he misunderstands their meaning for that
reason too, corrupted by his alliance with power. Long before we as readers are allowed to
understand the inner lives of Tilo and Musa and their love, we have heard a bureaucratic
account of what happened to them from Hobart (real name: Biplab Dasgupta). His public
name is not his own; it’s from a play in which as students they all performed, in which he and
Musa played gay lovers. He doesn’t know everything. He is often baffled by the residues of
Tilo’s life that remain in the apartment he has rented to her: photographs and notes. Those
residues alert the reader to piteous events beyond Hobart’s understanding, though some
are riotously funny.
The work has further surprises to spring and they come often through poems, songs, and
dreams, through quotations from Leonard Cohen and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Billie Holiday
and Jean Genet and, once, Shakespeare. Roy’s hyperbole carries tenderness as well as
devastation: “Tombstones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth.” Throughout,
we need constantly to correct our knowledge. Documents of all kinds disturb the surface of
the narrative: witness statements, translations, text messages, a specious asylum
application, advertisements, legal notices, letters and the delirious utterances of Tilo’s
mother written down by Tilo.
Names here are assertions and disguises, portable, transferable, often sloughed off. For
some characters, new names are a way of evading the caste system, or gendered language.
For some they are a way of staying alive or claiming power. They are often part of the book’s
comedy. “Saddam Hussain,” the sunniest of young men and the eventual bridegroom in the
happy ending marriage-plot, hides his tragic past by adopting the name of the Iraqi dictator,
after looking at a video of his execution that shows Saddam’s courage only.
Topics and questions grind against each other in Tilo’s deadpan pedagogic book The
Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children, one
of the tour-de-force interjections in the narrative. This entry is headed:
I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much
happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated,
what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.
Q 1: Why is it not sophisticated?
Q 2: What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?
These are mordant questions: but this is also a work that knows happiness and how
irresistible it is when it comes. Lyrical descriptions of Kashmir’s beauty are set in among the
violence. A photograph of the simple Gul-kak (whose role in the plot is crucial) shows him
“armed to the teeth”: “In each leather bullet loop there was a green chili. Sheathed in his
pistol holster was a juicy, fresh-leaved, white radish.”
Thomas Hardy, writing about the appallingly hard life of labourers in Britain at the end of the
19th century observed that: “Happiness will spring up.” It cannot be commanded. Happiness
is a debatable sensation and it is possible for a character in this novel to feel “a mad
insurrection against a lifetime of spurious happiness.” Yet happiness is necessary if
children are to thrive. Three girl children in succession and their multiple mothers “stitched
together by threads of light” drive the plot. Children are rescued (kidnapped), adopted,
The relation of mother and daughter is at the book’s heart in the pained history of Tilo’s
The novel’s form shares the pleasures of a detective novel, but with outcomes that make us
quail. Full meaning is delayed and even then is conditional. But though we may be ignorant
as we plunge through the novel’s events, our judgments as readers are rarely undermined.
We read alongside the intimate and authoritative third-person narrator who doesn’t flinch
from certainty. This gives an odd comfort to the novel. It prepares us for the turn to
happiness at its conclusion.
Roy makes room for the numinous and her final pages dangerously conjure incarnation—
“dangerously,” because it may too much console the reader. The book is dedicated to “The
Unconsoled,” some of whose sorrows we now know. The conclusion cannot encompass all
that has happened, but in the figure of the happily peeing child seeing the sky inverted
hope is uncovered.
This is a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace, as well as being fuelled by savage
indignation. It is also a work that feels dangerous to read, even to those far from the scenes
described. There is no space left for easy objectivity in this challenging novel. That gives it
its cutting edge.
June 8, 2017
The Word Tree (Lafzon ka Perh)
By Shah Alam Khan
(This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to recent events or people is intentional, fiction
after all is the step daughter of reality)
Azadnagar was a unique place. It had birds which could speak. Yes, speak as we could. The
people of Azadnagar loved their birds but no one knew how they could speak. The secret of
the speaking birds of Azadnagar lay right in the middle of the dense forest of the place,
where there was an old tree, as old as humanity. It was huge, so big that it appeared to even
cut off sunlight to a substantial part of the forest on a bright day. The tree was unique,
remarkably different from other trees. It didn’t have fruits or flowers, words hung from its
branches. Words which made sense, words of love, words of hate and words which made no
sense at all. Each branch had thousands and thousands of words and in spring it even
bloomed, aligning the words into stories. It was called the Lafzon ka Perh (tree of words).
Every morning, the birds of Azadnagar came to peck on these words and stories. They
pecked and pecked till their tiny hearts were full of words. They then flew to the town and
narrated beautiful stories, soul stirring poems and ravishing songs to the people of the
land. Every soul in Azadnagar lived happily with the birds.
Then a new King ascended the Azadnagar throne. No one knew why, but the new King hated
words. He particularly abhorred the spoken word. Spoken word is probably the most
significant; after all it’s the essence of communication! He ordered the caging of all birds of
Azadnagar and this was followed dutifully. With all birds gone, Azadnagar became quiet, as
silent as a grave. The King was happy but he wanted to know the secret of the speaking
birds. An old myna, caged without food or water for days, revealed the secret to his
ministers. The king immediately ordered that the tree be cut down. A team was sent to the
forest with hammers, pickaxes, adzes, mattocks and other ugly tools to bring down the
lafzon ka perh. The tree was big and strong and it took the King’s men three years to bring it
down. The day it fell, the King’s men celebrated. Azadnagar became free of the spoken word.
Then one day, a tiny swallow came to the palace parapet and spoke. It was followed by more
speaking birds; sparrows, bulbuls, pigeons, doves, herons, crows and even the vultures
with their ugly bent beaks. All had stories, songs and words of wisdom for the people of
Azadnagar. The reappearance of the speaking birds bewildered the King and he dispatched
a team to the forest to investigate.
To their utter surprise, the King’s men discovered that the place where the lafzon ka perh
once stood, was strewn with tiny saplings on which words bloomed. They realized, when the
tree was brought down, it had spilled its words all around the forest like a sweet scent. Its
offspring now covered the whole forest and words were scattered on the forest floor like
dry leaves. The speaking birds of Azadnagar kept the spoken word alive forever. The King
and his men knew that it is impossible to bar the spoken word. Spoken word was the
essence of communication!
The lafzon ka perh had become immortal.
The author is a Professor at AIIMS, New Delhi
A review of Please Look after Mom - Korean Family Dynamics
by Charles R. Larson
The opening of this painfully disturbing novel is enough to chill every—yes, every—reader. Visiting one
of their sons in Seoul, his parents are about to enter one of the cars at a subway station. The father,
who enters first, believes that his wife is immediately behind him, but when the doors close, he sees her
on the other side. By the time he has waited for her at the next station and then subsequently returned
to the station where he last saw her, his wife—refereed to as "Mom" throughout the novel—has
disappeared. So he goes on to his son's house and that son, Hyong-chol, calls his three siblings (a
brother and two sisters) and their search begins for Mom.
Such is the opening of Kyung-sook Shin's wrenching novel, Please Look After Mom. "Mom was pulled
away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings." Mom and Father
had lived all of their lives in the country where they farmed. They were not savvy about the city, though
they had visited their children in Seoul and other places many times. Both were getting old and there
was some fear that Mom, particularly, was showing signs of dementia. But the more significant
problem—as Kyung-sook Shin slowly reveals through multiple points-of-view—is the simple fact that
Mom was always taken for granted by her four children and her husband. "Mom was Mom." Period. She
would always be there, whenever her children or her husband needed her—the pillar of reliability in the
family, devoting every minute of her life to her children's successes so they would no longer be yoked
to the land. And her children were, indeed, successful, hugely successful.
As the chapters unfold and the children begin to reflect on their relationships with Mom, family secrets
begin to leak out. When Hyong-chol, the eldest son, was still a child, Father left Mom for another
woman. But Mom didn't flinch; pleaseshe had the farm, and everyone admired her ability to make
anything grow, so she was able to provide for her children, get them schooled. Hyong-chol begins to
remember little details—for example, Mom "transferring the meat from her bowl to his," always denying
herself for her children. After the children left home for further education, Mom "felt useless now that all
the children had gone their separate ways." In order to feel needed, she began volunteering her time
at a near-by orphanage. Father, who had returned home by then, never even realized what she was
Worse, Father didn't realize that Mom couldn't read—that well had Mom managed to conceal the fact.
How ironic that one of her daughters became a successful novelist. At the orphanage, Mom got one of
the workers to read these novels aloud to her, telling the co-worker that she could no longer read
"because of bad eyesight." True, Mom had little strategies to conceal what she believed were her
limitations, but they were all to help others.
After Mom's disappearance, after the police had been alerted, after the children began a concentrated
effort to find Mom, "Every night, they split up into teams and visited homeless shelters, to no avail.
Mom…disappeared as if she were a figment of a dream. No trace of her remained. [Hyong-chol] wanted
to ask Father whether she had really come to Seoul. Ten days passed since her disappearance, then
two weeks, and when it became almost a month, he and his family fumbled around in confusion, as if
they had all injured a part of their brains."
What slowly emerges—from her children and her husband—is the family's collective guilt. Down to the
smallest detail, everyone ignored her. The reason Mom followed him at the subway station was that she
always walked behind him. Dad's realization is narrated in the second person (as is much of the novel):
"You'd stopped and waited for her, but you'd never walked next to her, conversing with her, as she
wanted—not even once." They had a silent marriage; yet although Father left Mom many times, he
always returned. He always returned to her because of her strength, since he had none of his own.
Mom finally gets her own voice in a revealing chapter after the others have had their say. That section
is called "Another Woman," that is, the woman her children and her husband did not understand. It's an
incredible chapter, full of revelations—not any that improve her situation within the household but
present a complex woman never understood by her family. And that chapter with the earlier
observations by her children and her husband adds to the growing admiration I have for Please Look
after Mom, especially because of Chi-Young Kim's glowing translation. As I said earlier, this is a
painfully honest story, but reading the book will certainly provoke all of us to reconsider the
relationships we've had with our parents.
Please Look After Mom
By Kyung-sook Shin
Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Knopf, 237 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Professor Emeritus of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.
Review of Selina Hastings' "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" (Random House, 2010)
by Arshad M. Khan
Quite possibly the most famous writer in the world during his lifetime, Somerset Maugham was not
favored by critics who found him an aloof, objective observer. However, his books and plays were a
resounding commercial success, and he finally settled in comfort on the French Riviera -- defined in his
own inimitable style as "a sunny place for shady people".
His are the stories of little people ... leading little lives of quotidian boredom punctuated by little dramas
of desperation or escape. His are not the soaring heroes of literature -- just a little quirky, a little
different, a little like himself.
Occasional thematic repetition aside, the short stories, with their twist and turns of fate, retain the flavor
that marked his commercial success, and, for something meatier, "Of Human Bondage" and the "The
Razor's Edge", his last major work, continue to give pause for reflection. Hastings is a sympathetic
biographer -- something a man, not known for being well-liked, yet who brought pleasure, joy and
entertainment to millions, surely deserves.
Perhaps, no soaring talent then, but a gift for storytelling, an economy of words, a lucid style, a master
of aphorism, and the experience of armchair tourism exploring the bygone world of British planters,
sundowners and restrained, uncontrolled passions.
THE BEST FRIEND
Arshad M Khan
On the island of Hongshu lived a lonely old man and his daughter Pui Yang. The years had worn well
on Lee Kai Ming, and he always said life's blessings were bestowed on those smart enough to receive
them. He had been very lucky almost all his life in being happy until a few years ago when his wife,
Ting Ting, was taken away from him. Having always expected to die first, this had left him with a sense
of frustration and anger. No longer did he have the familiar contours next to him in bed, nor someone
– and this bothered him even more – to share his most intimate thoughts. Yes, he was not alone, just
From the window where he liked to sit, he could see the mainland, and it would bring back many
memories, increasingly now of his childhood. He could see the mountain that dominated the sky line. It
had been a challenge to him as he was growing up but he had conquered it. That's what he believed;
he believed in removing obstacles from his path. He had a sudden twinge ... yes, that was one memory
best forgotten. But try as he might, and though he had been successful in blotting it out for many
years, it now seemed to haunt him more with each passing day.
'I wish I didn't have to do it,' he said to himself. 'But I just couldn't see any other way through. Yes, he
was my best friend. But what could I do. There was no other way.'
Oh, it was so long ago. But these days it seemed like yesterday. He would shake his head sometimes
like a dog shakes water off a wet back. But he couldn't throw off the memory. It was stuck like a leach
sucking blood; except it seemed to be sucking the spirit from his soul. 'Oh, Kwok Wah Sun, why did
you have to be so perfect?' he thought.
He had been his best friend ever since he could remember. They played baby games, childhood
games, and games that grew more serious as they grew older. Somehow Wah Sun was always better
at everything, even school work. He smiled ruefully.
'I didn't mind you being better at everything. I just enjoyed your company and enjoyed playing, and
thought I could learn from you. You were so clever. When we played hide and seek you would hide
and I could never find you, and then I would hide and you would find me in no time at all.' His daughter
came into the room, interrupting his thoughts.
“Why don't you take a little walk,” she said to him, “before I bring you your dinner?” He raised himself
off the chair using his elbows to lift himself up, and heard the creaking bones which always brought a
wry smile to his face. He thought to himself his ancestors should be proud of what he had
accomplished. His mind checked his thought – but for that one thing that had been necessary. His
daughter brought out an embroidered silk quilted jacket for him to wear.
“It's getting a little chilly in the evenings,” she said, and helped him on with it.
He liked to walk by the shoreline and watch the sun set below the mountain, across the water. The air
felt bracing and invigorating and soon he had forgotten his thoughts. He liked watching the children
play. There weren't too many on the island because young couples could not easily afford to live there.
'Life had been good,' he thought. 'If only Ting Ting had lived a little longer.' He sighed. 'Well, all in all,
I've had a happy life.'
Now all he had to do was to marry off Pui Yang. There were plenty of suitors, given her dowry, except
she always found something wrong with each one. 'Yes, I'm going to have to do something about her.'
His three sons he had given a good start. And they were each successful in their own way, he thought
with satisfaction. He just wished they didn't live so far away. How the world had changed in his
lifetime. Families scattered all over the country. Well, he'd see them at New Year's. It was nice of
them to come and visit him so often, he thought. He loved seeing his grandchildren, though now they
were older they weren't as charming as they used to be. Still, it felt good to see them – his own flesh
and blood. Yes, he smiled, it had been a good life.
And then, the sudden twinge again. 'Oh,' he cursed under his breath, 'why does this keep bothering
me so much? It hadn't been so most of my life. Hadn't even given it much thought. It was an accident,'
he said to himself again and again. Except ... in his heart of hearts, he knew better.
“Good evening, Mr. Lee.” A man passed by bowing respectfully, and he nodded his head in
acknowledgment. “It is a nice evening for a stroll, Sir.”
“Yes,” he replied, preoccupied with his thoughts. “Yes,” and continued to walk on.
He was much respected, given his wealth and status - deservedly, he believed. It was hard earned
respect for he had started in such humble circumstances.
Yes, his wife had been his secret. She had been the impetus for his drive and his wisest counsel. She
had often said that if she died before him, and if there was an afterlife, she would come visit and tell
him all about it, so he could be ready. And in the last year, he had wondered more than once if there
was such a thing because he hadn't heard from her.
Or, could it be she had met Wah Sun? No, it couldn't be. Yet, the new thought had begun to nag him.
She was, is, the most precious thing in his life. They were to be together for eternity. Could he lose all
of that? He had always assumed he would die first and be able to talk his way out of it with Wah Sun.
He could always talk people around to his point of view. But she had gone first. Yes, he was worried.
The sky had turned magenta. It will soon be dark, he thought to himself. He had better be getting
back. Pui Yang might be worried and dinner might be getting cold. He could have kept a cook but she
loved to cook for him. Yes, she had been a fine daughter to him. However, he did employ a
housekeeper to ease the burden, and also someone to clean and maintain the house. Yes, she had
been a fine daughter to him.
It must have been a few weeks later. Negotiations had been going well with a new suitor who Pui Yang
was not completely indifferent to, and he had high hopes this time. He was taking his usual stroll when
he heard a voice calling his name. It was very familiar but not quite the same. As he slowly realized
what was happening, he was dumbstruck. He steadied himself with his walking stick. 'Ting Ting. Could
it really be?' he thought to himself. 'Or, is my mind playing tricks?'
Then the voice called again, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it?” several times.
He reeled back. 'It's Ting Ting. She knows.' His mind went blank, then in his mind's eye, there he was
in his village again, and he was remembering vividly those fateful events of more than fifty years ago ...
It was a beautiful day, clear as only an early spring day can be. The air almost crackled with
crispness. They were going to climb the mountain that dominated the skyline. Climb? No, conquer it.
That's how they felt: the mountain today and the world tomorrow. Their mothers had packed lunches
and snacks, just some rice, vegetables and dried fish.
As they walked along the base, spring was everywhere. Little creatures scurried away as they
approached: squirrels, an occasional rabbit, and birds hopping, pecking, flying off, landing, and doing
the same again; male birds singing from trees, laying down property rights; watching females, carefully
Yes, it was spring and both young men were thinking of Chan Ting Ting. Wah Sun supremely
confident. He had, after all, been admitted to the most prestigious School of Engineering in the
province and was the academic star of the school.
Kai Ming was envious. Try as he might to dispel such feelings – for he wanted to be loyal to his friend
– jealousy and envy remained. He tried to compensate by being specially nice to him. It was he, after
all, who had helped him get through High School. Why was it he could never stay awake in class? He
was always dreaming. Yes, Wah Sun had tutored him all through school from the earliest years. Yes,
he had been a good friend.
Why couldn't he, Kai Ming, be good at anything? Even the games they played now ... Wah Sun beat
him regularly at table tennis. Oh, he might win an occasional game but that was rare.
He had to admit it, he smiled wryly to himself, Wah Sun was better at everything. What chance did he
have with Ting Ting, he, who was going to work in a shop now that schooling was over. He smiled
ruefully, looking at his friend's back. He was leading the way, as usual.
'I am stronger than he is,' he thought to himself. 'We are both the same height but I am heavier and
stockier. I could take him down if we wrestled, he thought. Still, he beats me at arm wrestling. How
does he do it? I get tired and ease up; he ... he is just so determined. You can see that gleam come
into his eye whenever he competes at anything.
'How come he knows everything? When we were wondering where babies came from, he bought an
old book with its pages coming apart, from somewhere, and was soon explaining the whole shebang to
anyone who would listen. I started to look at my mother and father and laugh. And then' – smiling
broadly – 'we had gotten curious and compared our things, you know. And guess what, I was the
biggest. So ha, ha!'
During this reverie, Wah Sun had kept up an incessant chatter on the botany of their surroundings: the
plants, the shrubs, the flowers and anything else that came to his mind. He was a well of information.
But one could tell, from the longer pauses, the climb was getting steeper. The green was less lush.
Soon it would turn to all rock with patches of ice clinging to the nooks and crannies. He began to part
whistle, part sing a popular song pausing intermittently to take a deep breath.
Kai Ming smiled to himself again for his friend could never carry a tune and never realized he was tone
deaf. He had tried to show him many times to no avail. He was always quite receptive. He'd say, “Hey,
thank you now I've got it,” and then repeat it out of tune again. Yup! music he understood better.
It had become steep and they had had to scramble up some rocks using their hands to steady
themselves. A few patches of ice made for some slick areas and Wah Sun kept telling his friend to be
careful. He was always looking out for others, insistently telling his friends what was good for them.
Why they should give up smoking, why they should exercise, why this, why that. He was convinced he
was helping them, and was loved by his friends. The truth was they were a little tired of him, and were
glad he would be out of their lives come the commencement of the college year in a few months. The
teachers loved him: he was their success, their hope for the future. He had scored the highest ever, by
far, of anyone in the village and near the top for the whole province. He was going to be a Civil
Engineer and build dams and bridges to help people. Yes, helping people was what he did never
realizing that most people just wanted to be left alone and resented what they considered criticism.
The smokers wanted to smoke because it cut a dash with the girls – more important than health
problems, may be thirty years from now. And who wants to exercise? Only the old doing their tai-chi.
Then who wants to be nagged about it? Anyway, why is it his business, they thought. But that was it,
he felt compelled to help people improve themselves.
The pictures in his mind grew sharper and he began to mutter to himself ....
Yes, that was another thing. I knew people; I just knew them for what they were. I knew Wah Sun was
harmless and meant well, and it was easy for me to put up with him. And it got me through high
school. Now, I was going to work in the best shop in the village with old man, Lao. But I had worked on
him for almost six years now. I fetched and carried without asking anything in return. Yes, he'd give
me a little something now and then. Everyone thought he was taking advantage of me, as did he. But
as I had known all along, he began to like me – and he had no children. I was going to work hard and
save every penny. I just knew I would own that shop one day.
“We are almost there,” Wah Sun shouted, exultant at the prospect of reaching the summit.
A few more minutes of climbing and there we were: it was a beautiful sight. Climbing, we had been able
to see a semicircle behind us, now we commanded a universal vista. We could see not only our own
village but all of them scattered in clumps around the mountain. The farmers in the fields carrying
baskets of vegetables on bamboo poles across their shoulders looked like muscular-jawed ants
heaving large leaves in their mandibles.
“Just look at the big beautiful blue sky here,” he said whirling around obviously pleased. “Do you know
why the sky is blue?”
He launched into a long explanation of refraction and wavelengths, even taking a detour through
mirages. I just looked like I was listening. I was enjoying the scent of the fresh, cool air, purifying,
filtering through my lungs cleansing out the clotted smoke of two decades of wood fires down below in
“Don't you remember the Physics class?”
Well, I had spent most of my classes dreaming about different businesses I was going to set up, and
knowing why the sky was blue wouldn't have helped my future. I didn't answer.
“Come on, let's eat,” he concluded. He always led the agenda. “Then, let's carve our names on the
rock here, so we can come and see it twenty years from now, when I am a famous engineer. But I'll
never forget you Kai Ming ... and Ting Ting,” he added softly, musing after the last thought. I wondered
what he was thinking, probably that he wouldn't have to forget her if he married her. The color rose in
my face. I bent down so he couldn't see it and ferreted in my knapsack for the packed lunch.
Yes, Ting Ting saw beyond his irritating manner and said he had a good heart. She was always
looking after him, giving him little things. She gave me things too but I had the feeling that if ever he
asked her to marry him, she'd jump at the chance. Fairly or unfairly, considering all he had done for
me, he was my rival, and I hated both what had happened and my ambivalence towards him. But I
never showed it. I could not afford to lose him as a friend for he could very well be useful in the future.
What matters in this world is who you know, and I was careful to cultivate and maintain relations with
people who could be important, and I tried my best not to make enemies. I always cleared up
misunderstandings and talked people round. I never let conflicts fester. In fact, I would not be boasting
if I said I was the most well-liked person in our class. They always said he should go far, then looked
down and wondered how.
But Ting Ting's behavior was unsettling. I had always banked on her as a partner, and no longer did it
seem quite so certain. It was frustratingly difficult to read Chan Ting Ting. She was like the Egyptian
Sphinx we had come across in World History class. To me she appeared to be keeping an open mind,
if not favoring him and rending apart my dream.
“Yes, let's have lunch.” The top of the mountain was a wider area than I had imagined. We found a
good-sized rock as a back-rest and shelter from the wind, and settled down to eat. In brotherly fashion,
he began to give me advice on my shop job, expressing touching concern that Mr. Lao would take
advantage of me. I was touched and amused. He had a knack for always missing the key element in
any human interaction. I just kept eating and nodding and thanked him. My mind was on Ting Ting
and how a shop boy could win her heart.
“Time to go down,” he announced.
“What about our names?” I ventured.
“We spent too long eating. It's getting late. We'll just have to do that some other time. Perhaps in
That's the way he was. No other opinion mattered. He was not being disrespectful. Other opinions
were very simply beyond his purview: his answers were always the correct ones in class; he was always
right on facts, issues, everything we discussed; so, he had just stopped considering anyone else's
point of view.
Down we went. He set quite a pace almost skipping along. I warned him to be careful. There were ice
patches still, and just below the shallow slope down from the ridge was an almost vertical drop. I really
was not paying attention. All I could see was Ting Ting's face in my mind's eye, and, to my way of
thinking, my severely diminished chances.
Then it happened ... my mind is a blur ... it all happened so fast. He slipped, went sliding down the
shallow slope in a semi-tumble and ended up hanging down from the edge which sloped inwards. He
was screaming for me to help. I slid down very carefully on all fours.
He was hanging on a precipice, unable to reach the cut away ridge face for a toe-hold. “Help me!” I
could see the fear in his eyes.
“I am not strong enough to lift you without sliding. We'll both be killed. Hang on Wah Sun, I'll tie our
rope to a solid rock and throw it down to you.” I climbed back up to the ridge, and sat down on the
other side, out of view. My memory is hazy ... all I remember are images of Ting Ting flashing before
my eyes: how she bent to pick up a pail of water, her skin, her beautiful calves, the way she would
smile, her warm, gentle, yet teasing eyes ...
I have always played percentages. That's how I became successful. What were the chances the old
man would sell me his shop at a favorable price as he had no one except his wife? What were the
chances he would actually leave it to me if his wife died before him and I behaved towards him like a
son? What were the chances ... yes, what were the chances ... I couldn't get the thought out of my
mind. What were the chances of Ting Ting marrying him?
Now this I can not understand. I reached down into the bottom of my knapsack and pulled out a packet
of cigarettes and a match box. This was a secret from Wah Sun. I would now and again smoke a
cigarette, not regularly, just now and again.
There I sat, and I lit a cigarette. My arms and legs wouldn't move to take the rope, secure it, and throw
the end down to my friend. I don't know why. They just did not move ... they were beyond my control. I
could hear him calling “Hurry Kai Ming! Hurry!” And then just a scream. I finished my cigarette and
went down the mountain, a brisker business-like pace. I felt a new man, as if a load had been lifted off
Over the years Kai Ming had rationalized his action: the rope would not have held him; no boulders or
edges to secure the rope as far as he could remember; no place to brace his feet if he were to tie the
rope around himself, and so on. Then he had forgotten it. The memory had been buried deep until
his wife died and the thought of her encountering Wah Sun began to prey on his mind.
He heard his wife again.
“Why did you do it?”
He could now hear Ting Ting sob, “Why? Why, when I always liked you so much more? Wah Sun was
an unbearable know-it-all. No one can explain love, and I loved you, Kai Ming.”
He heard her sobs again. He was in a daze. All of a sudden, everything began to whirl in his head ...
thoughts, trees, the sobs, the shore line rising up and spinning around ... as he fell, dropping his
walking stick. A wave engulfed him, drawing him off the island to a distant shore.
They looked everywhere for him but all they found was his walking stick.
“No grave for me to honor,” cried Pui Yang again and again.
Adiga's "Between the Assassinations"
Business as Usual in India
By Charles R. Larson
Between the Assassinations refers to the time between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s death on the last
day of 1984, when she was killed by her own bodyguards, and her son Rajiv Gandhi’s similar death, by
assassination, in May of 1991—years that Aravinda Adiga shows as troubled ones for India’s quiescent
democracy. Not a novel in the conventional sense, Adiga’s skilled narrative is more loosely a collection
of overlapping short stories: same place, same time, some continuity of characters but, above all,
variations on a theme of extreme difficulty for many of his country’s millions.
There are poverty, corruption, race and class tensions—to mention only three in what for me is a much
more accomplished book than The White Tiger, for which Adiga was awarded the Man Booker Prize in
2008. The events depicted in the new work cover a period of only seven days and all take place in
Kittur, an imaginary city in southern India, somewhat akin to R. K. Narayan’s imaginary and always
inventive Malgudi. The same adjectives apply to Adiga’s work.
In the second of these stories—but still set on the first day—a businessman named Abbasi spreads
some of his own excrement into a glass of Johnnie Walker that a government official expects as part of
his pay-off for approving Abbasi’s newly opened shirt factory. Abbasi himself is an enlightened
employer, concerned that the detailed embroidery on the shirts his workers produce is slowly driving
He’s done everything he can to improve their lot, but the system itself is so corrupt that it’s hard to
make a rupee. In the four months since he decided to re-open what was once his father’s shirt factory,
he’s had to pay off: “The electricity man; the Water Board man; half the Income Tax Department of
Kittur; half the Excise Department of Kittur; six different officials of the Telephone Board; a land tax
official of the Kittur City Corporation; a sanitary inspector from the Karnataka State Health Board; a
health inspector from the Karnataka State Sanitation Board; a delegation of the All India Small Factory
Workers’ Union; and delegations of the Kittur Congress Party, the Kittur BJP, the Kittur Communist
Party, and the Kittur Muslim League.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why the little instances of revenge—excrement, urine, and spit mixed in the
officials’ drinks—give Abbasi an occasional satisfying feeling of revenge. But the real problem is red
tape and the obvious implication that with everyone on the take capitalism cannot succeed. Finally, in
a more ambitious act of revenge, Abbasi directly confronts the latest government officials who visit his
factory for a bribe and experiences a genuine feeling of satisfaction. However, his story itself is
anything but hopeful about India—still trapped in the legacy of Indira Gandhi’s corrupt leadership and a
bureaucracy so extensive that little ever gets done.
In later stories, Adiga shows us the unrest of students at the university, of migrants from the country
who seek their fortunes in Kittur only to have those dreams crushed, of Muslim/Hindu tensions. In one
particularly revealing sequence, a journalist discovers that an article he had published weeks earlier
about a riot in Kittur was far from the truth of what had actually happened. Discovering doctored police
records, he learns that the violence was planned by government officials—for profit, of course. By the
end of the story, his idealism has vanished and, sadly, he’s begun to question his entire career as a
Though any number of the stories in the volume are worthy of note, I was particularly moved by the
quietness of one that concerns a woman who is forced by her family to cook in the households of
upper-class Indians. For forty years, she toils with no reward—giving up the possibility of marriage and
children—never even seeing her meager wages, which are always sent home to her family and her
more fortunate siblings. At the end of still another several-year position cooking for a rich family, she
covets a blue ball that one of the children in the household has abandoned. It’s even partially
damaged, but when she asks the boy if she can take the ball with her when she finally returns to her
family, he answers with an emphatic NO. What follows is, again--as in the story of the owner of the shirt
factory--a fleeting Chekhovian moment of happiness, virtually all she will ever get out of life.
The stories in Adiga’s Between the Assassinations are both beautiful and troubling: quiet moments of
despair and frustration, resignation and happiness. India’s stagnation under the Indira Gandhi
dynasty, he implies, bordered on the claustrophobic. Yet there is truth, and finally even hope, for
those who decide that enough is enough, that it’s time to take things into their own hands.
Between the Assassinations
By Aravinda Adiga
Free Press, 339 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.
June 15, 2009
Trouble at Sea --- Obama, the Dreamboat and an Iceberg
Arshad M Khan
Your indulgence, Mr. President, but I had a very puzzling dream last night, and as you played a central
role, I feel obliged to write to you. We are on board the Titanic. The ship is on the high seas but a
small boat has come alongside and the Captain is leaving the ship. He turns back to wave and smiles
a characteristic smirk, shouting above the crashing waves, "Don't forget the 'nukaler' option." The
Captain has left his crew on board, and the ship continues to steam ahead into a mist beginning to
Now here is the odd part: you, Sir, are not the Captain of the ship. No, you are the head steward in
First Class, bowing politely and solicitously attending to the needs of those privileged passengers.
Some want a trillion salmon croquettes, others a trillion beluga eggs --- though why by count and not
pounds of caviar, I do not know.
And then there is steerage where some passengers have not had a decent meal in several days. They
have gambled their money away and in steerage they have to pay for their food. How did that happen
you might ask? Well, there are several gambling casinos.
The casino for the steerage passengers is a plain gambling den, smoky, practical, business-like -- the
players look very serious as if the future course of their lives depended on the throw of a dice. It does.
Some are happy -- they have had favorable outcomes and expect a good start in the New World.
Others look glum and depressed for they have literally lost their shirts. You, Mr. President, continue to
smile benignly at the proceedings reminding people how important it is to take responsibility for their
own lives and mistakes, and how they must overcome adversity for that is the American spirit.
The casino for First Class passengers is a happy, festive place. There is cheery laughter to be heard,
drink is flowing freely and everyone is having fun. Plenty of people have won large amounts of money;
some have lost. Now here is the surprise: every time a passenger loses a very large amount of
money, the floor manager signals to the croupier, and he returns the losses. You are explaining it this
way: the shipping line relies on the custom of these passengers and cannot afford to have them lose
their money. It would starve the shipping line of their major source of revenue and capital for growth.
In one corner of the ship, a group of predominantly young males, dressed in some kind of uniforms are
firing guns at an unseen enemy. You are smiling benignly at everything --- a smiling presence in your
head steward's jacket, seemingly everywhere but flitting back constantly to attend to the needs of those
First Class passengers. The ship continues to steam ahead ... and I wake up.
Mr. President, I wish you well and continue to hope you will do the best you can for our country and the
majority of its people.
May 20, 2009
The Trip of a Lifetime
Arshad M. Khan
It was a long, long time ago ......
I woke up with a knot in my stomach. I cursed the calculus exam that was doing this to me; I cursed the
system that required me to take calculus when the chance of me ever using that skill was as remote as
encountering a space alien within the hour; I cursed the society that required me to spend the best and
most adventuresome years of my youth cooped up in a classroom, or a library, or a dorm room, instead
of outside, in the fresh air, seeing the world, preferably with varying female companionship.
It was a short walk from the dorm to the exam center – or, in my mind, the torture chamber – and I was
there just in time. The professor was distributing the papers. But, guess what, it was the nice lady who
taught the chemistry class. Now, chemistry I liked, especially organic chemistry, and it was important
for me as a pre-med student. I also liked the teacher; she always had time for you. It was never like
that with Shiva, the terror of the Indies, master of calculus, who traveled the world delivering papers on
obscure mathematical topics, yet managed to always be there for his classes. He didn't suffer fools
gladly, and if you asked him a question to which he felt you should already know the answer, he made
you look an idiot.
Ah, the thought, the wonderful, satisfying, luxuriating thought – he had been struck down by Delhi belly
or Motezuma's revenge, or whatever you like to call it, on his travels. I imagined him sitting down, doing
the obvious and I burst out laughing. People turned to stare at me, so I straightened up and put on a
By this time the teacher was distributing the exam papers to my row, in the back, and I received mine.
My smile vanished, my jaw dropped and I was in shock – it was the organic chemistry exam. I was
certain this was scheduled for Monday and I had the weekend to study for it. I whispered to the guy
next to me, who was in my calculus class for sure, “Hey, what happened to calculus? I thought the
calculus final was today.”
“You are all screwed up, man; calculus is next Monday,” and he went back to concentrating on his test.
I broke into a cold sweat. I had mixed up the dates of the two finals. I could see my dreams of
becoming a medical doctor vanish as I bombed organic chemistry – something that was really important
for med-school admission. I raised my hand, and the professor beckoned me. I walked down to her
desk at the front of the class.
“What's the matter?” she asked. She must have noticed I looked like hell. “The exam not what you
“Well, I ... I don't know how to put this but I thought the chemistry final was next week and today was
Those smiling blue-gray eyes hardened into steely-gray slits. “You know, I've heard electricity failures,
dead grandmother funerals – for some reason that's a popular one – stomach flu, other sicknesses
and injuries, but never, until today, a calculus exam. It's so outrageous it might even be true, but I can't
help you. Now that you are here, you must take the exam.”
I went back to my seat. The rest of the ninety minutes are a blurry haze. I did the best I could with the
test knowing full well that my 'A' was going to end up a 'C' in organic chemistry and my Med-school
admission chances had severely diminished.
I walked out into the open air feeling as if I had escaped a suffocating hold. I thought of the reasons for
my wanting to become a doctor. When it came right down to it, let's face it, I was in it for the money.
Oh yes, healing the sick and all that made a good front and made me feel heroic, but no, the truth was
quite venal if I was honest with myself. I really did not like the smell of hospitals, the sight of sick
people, or even very old people, but I felt I could overcome this distaste for the reward over the
rainbow. There was no essential goodness in me. Greed was the primary motive. I realized I was
really the kind of guy who'd marry a girl for her money when he really didn't love her. Poverty does
those things to you, not to everyone, but to some.
I had just crossed the street to the dorm when my musings were interrupted by a shabbily dressed guy
accosting me, “Can you help me, Sir? I really need your help.”
“Look, you are talking to the wrong guy, I don't have any change to spare. Sorry.” I started to walk
“No! No! It's not your money; it's your tachyonic charge that I need.”
“My what!?” I stared at him, startled.
“Look, I have identified you as having a high tachyonic charge. It happens in your species under
emotional stress. Look, maybe if you come with me to my spaceship, I might be able to help you and
then drop you back.”
Everything that's happened today, I thought to myself. And now a loony who thinks he's from outer
space that I can't get rid of. “Excuse me, I've gotta go. I've my own problems.”
“Sir, please, I beg you. It's taken me a very long time to find someone with your tachyonic potential and
I've got to go home. Please, you have nothing to lose. Just hold my shoulders for thirty seconds while I
I figured if this is the only way I can get rid of this crazy, I might as well do it. “Okay, but make sure your
hands stay on my shoulders,” I said, “I don't want to lose my wallet.” That would really cap this shit day,
I thought to myself.
Well, there we were in the middle of the sidewalk holding each other's shoulders, and then, WOW!! I
had the strangest sensation. I felt like all of me had started to melt from inside out. Then suddenly, I
was in a swirl and then there I was holding the shoulders of this odd looking thing, not too different from
the pictures alien abductees draw, in a gleaming shimmering room, no, more like space. Then other
similar looking things were moving towards us.
“Don't be frightened,” my companion said. “We are nonviolent ... manufacture our food artificially. You
have nothing to fear. They are just coming to disinfect us.”
His remarks were partly reassuring. After all, I wasn't going to leap from a bad chemistry test to a pan
for someone's lunch! “You know, this is hard to believe. I was convinced you were one of those early
lack-of-funding releases from a psychiatric hospital. Tell me what were you doing on Earth?”
“Well, the closest thing you have to what I was doing are 'adventure tours'. This has been my annual
three-week vacation, six months in Earth time, and I worked as a Chicago bus driver. And I tell you it's
been exciting. You are a violent race. One man robbed me. He couldn't budge the fare box so I had
to give him the money I had. Another was so belligerent I had to use my protective shield. He never
could figure out why he couldn't hit me when there was no physical barrier that he could see. He was
drunk and just went away muttering, shaking his hand. Of course, the element of danger makes the
vacation exciting. In our world, technological mastery has made life a little dull. You are an interesting
species in many ways and there is so much variety that I have had friends go to Earth time after time
for their vacations. Anyway, I am just rambling on. I promised to help. Now tell me, what was your
I took a deep breath and explained all that had happened including the realization that I was going to
be a doctor for the wrong reasons – basically, for the money and what I could buy with it.
He explained that, in his society, since technology provided all needs, money and the status that came
with wealth was nonexistent. His society valued only one commodity – time – because it was finite,
limited by individual lifespan. “Life is to be lived and enjoyed, and you can only, really have a fulfilling
life if it provides a useful service to your society and that service is enjoyable for you to perform. We
figured this out millennia past and all tedious activity is robotized.” He continued, “Now you love
organic chemistry and I am going to send you back in time to that exam. Just ignore the other people,
who you might find acting strangely. But first, a crash course in organic chemistry through S.I.T. Yes,
that's self-induced teaching. We have an efficient way of transferring information directly to your
neurons without the intermediary of your senses.”
I was taken to a small chamber, where my new-found friend attached what looked like electrodes to my
temples. Then he selected the appropriate course materials, pressed some buttons, and suddenly my
brain seemed to fill up with shapes, sizes of molecules, compounds, theories, and more organic
chemistry than I could have imagined. I wanted to learn more, but he said he was already in trouble
with his superiors for bringing me on board, and he could not let me stay much longer.
We bade our goodbyes. He pointed out it was more likely a final farewell. He said he would try to look
me up on his next vacation, but because of the duration of Earth time in one of their years I was going
to be very old if not dead. He wished me a long and happy life.
I had formed a strange attachment to this odd being and I felt quite sad and sorry to say goodbye to
him. He clasped my arm firmly above the elbow in their version of a handshake, then moved back.
Again, I had the strange melting feeling, and then I was back in the exam room. Something was
different, however. I didn't grasp it, at first, but then it gradually dawned on me. Everyone else's
movements were in extreme slow motion, as if ... as if they were all waiting for me to catch up. I did.
I became a whiz at chemistry. I had ideas nobody had dreamed of. Dreamed, yes, that's it, I dreamed
them. But that dream was so real – it is real, it happened. I know it happened. And, I believe in extra-
terrestrials. I know you will think me a loony, but I am not. I am a respected Professor of Organic
Chemistry slated by many as a future Nobel Prize winner. And, I owe it all to my alien friend.
April 18, 2009
Remember, dear friend, when I took you "BEHIND THE TREE", I promised to tell you how I came to be
where I was. Well, as I have said before, I always keep my promises, so here is the story ... don't be
TATTLE TEETH --- Edgar Allan Poe Redux
Arshad M. Khan
Look around you. Everything that lives is going to die. I will go so far as to say that the essence of life
is mortality. And death is immortal -- the fossils live on forever. Ponder these premises as you read on
You see, I am not a bad man. I am a good man. I am a thoughtful man; I give serious thought to my
surroundings -- I pay attention. It was just such meticulous attention that directed me to the plight of my
old neighbor across the road. I noticed he limped badly as he tried to push his lawn mower. The
mower did not move in a straight line but in the direction of the limp. I noticed that it was a push
mower. It meant that he could not afford a power mower. I had noticed also that his house over the
past year or so, had begun to take on a run-down appearance.
No one ever came to visit the old man. He lived alone. As he limped along leaving whiskers of uncut
grass, I felt sorry for him, and I decided to help. I walked across the street to talk to him. Seeing me
coming towards him he stopped mowing and wiped his brow with his sleeve. He looked exhausted.
Close up he looked older.
"I am not doing anything," I said. "I thought I'd come and help."
"I don't have any money to pay you. My social security barely covers the necessities, you know, food,
medicines and such like. And I never have anything left over by the end of the month. If I'd known
what old age over here was going to be like, I wouldn't 've come here in the first place."
I hadn't noticed it before but I could now detect a faint central European accent of indeterminate origin.
"No, no, no!" I said. "I am just being neighborly. You don't have to pay anything. Anyway, the exercise
will probably do me good and I won't have to go to the gym as often. Even save on gym fees,
perhaps." The latter I said as a joke, of course, but he took it literally. His manner changed; he was
more comfortable now that the idea of a deal with mutual benefits had been introduced.
"Well," he said, "You better start this way ..." And he proceeded to give me detailed instructions on
how to mow his yard. Was he fussy? He didn't want the mower clipping any flower beds, or being
bumped against the fence, which he claimed had been freshly painted. The way it looked, it must have
been at least ten years. But then memories compress in old age, and, being a nice person, I was
willing to allow him every latitude. He wanted the edges trimmed and the walks brushed clean, etc.,
etc., etc. When he finished, he held out the handle of the lawn mower to me and SMILED.
All the time he had been talking to me I hadn't realized. He talked with his lips covering his teeth and
he smiled seldom - no, almost never. But now he had smiled, and he had bared his teeth. Those
teeth. They were the most ugly, fearsome and disgusting teeth one could imagine. They were long,
jagged, stained in shades varying from yellow at the tips to brown next to the gums. Where they
adjoined, they were black. And when he opened his mouth a breath emanated that could only be
likened to a dog with a bad case of gingivitis.
I finished the work and the old man who had retreated into the house came out and thanked me. But
then he also had some words of advice as he called it. He criticized the work in minute detail getting
agitated at certain points.
More or less the same pattern was repeated every week when I went to help him with his yard. I tried to
not let it upset me -- the criticism I mean. I just thought it odd, considering I was helping him out. I
made allowances for the old man's age. And I am a nice person. I like to help people and I liked the
It's just that his teeth, those horrible ugly teeth ... they would send a cold shiver of fear and loathing
whenever I recalled them. At night I would wake up from my sleep thinking of them. Disembodied they
would be talking, criticizing my yard work, making a peculiar clicking sound as they talked.
You see I had noticed something. I have told you before I am a careful observer and I am. I noticed
that when the old man made normal conversation his teeth remained hidden behind his lips. It was only
when he started to criticize and became agitated that the lips parted back, and the teeth -- oh! those
teeth -- were revealed ... almost as if the teeth were clicking and clacking out the nasty words
complaining of this, complaining of that without the old man's participation. Did I say, "almost?" No! not
almost. It WAS the teeth I am sure. I had nothing against the old man. It was those teeth, bared fangs
spitting out the poison.
I don't know exactly when it happened. I don't know when I reached the inescapable conclusion. But I
knew that for me to have a normal life again, those teeth, which were now with me, in my mind's eye,
night and day, would have to go.
It was as if I had passed a tipping point. I had gone over a precipice into a world out of my control, a
kingdom ruled by tyrant teeth that had to be destroyed to regain my freedom. I didn't know what I could
or would do, just that I would have to do something to preserve my sanity.
I felt like I was riding a wave to an inexorable destiny, yet I maintained careful control of my day-to-day
actions. I was like a surfer who goes where the wave takes him but he controls his balance on the
surfboard to stay afloat. I was the surfer and I practiced my game with just as much caution.
The leaves were beginning to turn color. It was Fall now and the days were shorter. Dusk arrived
earlier before the rush hour traffic of pedestrians and automobiles. In the dark with fewer people about
I would be less likely to be observed. You see how I thought of everything. But now that I was ready,
the teeth were never bared. I was no longer criticized. Perhaps, I had become better at the work;
perhaps the old man was tired. And I had no quarrel with the old man. I liked him. It was the teeth I
had to destroy.
It was a cloudy day, dark and miserable portending winter and more immediately the events that were
to transpire. The old man wanted me to plant some bulbs and I went over in the gathering dusk of late
afternoon. The bed was large and the earth caked. I wanted to do a good job so I thought I'd turn it
over a little bit to make it more hospitable for the bulbs. I went and fetched a spade.
What I hadn't realized was that he had other bulbs planted in the back and I was supposed to plant the
tulip bulbs in the front rows of the bed. As I dug, humming a tune, I noticed some small bulbs, scarred
and damaged by the spade, turning up with the earth. At the same time, the old man, curious as to
what I was doing with a spade, walked up. We both saw the damaged bulbs at the same time. There
was a moment of complete silence -- no traffic on the road, the neighbors all at work and the anonymity
of darkness as dusk waned. Then the old man turned to face me, his face livid, his teeth bared as they
began to spit out the words, "What the hell do you think you are ..."
The words died as I hit him; just one blow with the spade and the teeth stopped clicking and clacking. It
was suddenly quiet and peaceful. But I was not resting. I dug furiously in the hour before the
neighbors would start to return home. I placed the old man's body in the hole I had dug. But I was not
taking any chances with the teeth. I severed the head and put it in a garden sack. I covered the body
and finished planting the bulbs. I am not one for backing out of promises, and I had told the old man I
would plant the bulbs for him.
I had something else in mind for those teeth. I had purchased a small strong box with a stout lock. I
placed the head in the box and buried it right under the sun deck in my own back yard. Ha! Ha! Those
teeth weren't going anywhere and they certainly weren't going to bother me again.
It was about a week before the police came. But I was ready for them. It transpired that a raccoon
lured by the scent of flesh had dug up all my handiwork. I was truly concerned he had not let the old
man rest in peace under a perennial wreath as I had envisaged.
Having heard that I helped the old man with his yard, the police came to interview me in the course of
their inquiries. I was generous, even magnanimous. We sat on the deck right over the spot where I
had buried the teeth. I offered them sodas and they accepted. But after they had finished asking me
their questions, they still sat there chatting.
I was now becoming uneasy for I could hear a faint click and clack like the chatter of teeth. It was very
faint. You'd have to know what to listen for to hear it. Fortunately, the officers just kept talking quite
unmindful of it. But hark! the noise began to get louder and the officers just kept on talking. Why
don't they go away?
"Look, I've told you everything," I said to them. They stopped talking and looked at me in surprise.
The silence was shattering as they stared at me, and breaking the silence the loud click-clack of the
teeth shouting "What the hell do you think you are ..."
I put my fingers in my ears. Yet the click-clack still kept ringing. It was so loud now. I had to shout over
it. They must hear it. Yes, they can hear it. They are just mocking me. They know! They know.
They are making a jest of me. And I won't be their fool anymore.
"All right! All right!" I shouted, "I did it." The rest of him is buried right under you."
April 11, 2009
BEHIND THE TREE
Arshad M Khan
I do not dislike anything; it is just that I do not like anything. I wasn't always like this - I was full of
love but the passage of time and the heartache of loving changed me little by little, so
imperceptibly that, at first, I was not even aware of the change myself. Once upon a time I even
loved a tree. It was a big, no, huge, beautiful elm with a trunk the diameter of a man's extended
hands. The corner it occupied shielded the house and its neighbors from prying eyes across
the alley, and, more importantly, from my point of view, vice versa. It gave me the illusion of
having a little cottage in the country rather than a cheap little house in an ordinary suburb. A
beautiful tree -- but the electric company felt differently about it. First, they trimmed it, actually
they removed branches the size of trees -- made it look like a man whose hair has been cut by
the barber's apprentice on his first day. Even after the shearing, it still bothered them - too
close to the wires. Every now and again, their yellow truck would come around, and the man
would get in his box atop a ladder. The machinery would whiz and whirr, he'd be hoisted up,
and he'd hack away at the poor tree's attempts to grow. Eventually, the tree itself started to get
a little sick. I mean, who wouldn't after what had been done to it. Instead of trying to cure it, this
was all the excuse they needed and euthanasia it was -- they cut it down. But it was a majestic
tree. Most trees, they send a crew and it's all over in a morning. This one, the slaughter, went
on for two days. First, they'd send workmen up who'd prepare slings for thick trunk like
branches. Then the rope would be slung over even higher branches and the cut branch
lowered slowly down to the ground. This went on for two days, as I said, until just the bare trunk
remained, looking for all the world like it was giving the finger to the electric company. But it
was its last hurrah and soon it was all over. Sitting here in this little cell, I have endless time to
think, to reminisce to myself, to remember. My thoughts often go back to my childhood. Was I
sad? Well, as I said, it was a long time ago, it was when I could love, and so, yes, I was sad.
But as you might have realized, it was a selfish love -- the tree did all these things for me; I
didn't do anything for it -- the kind that doesn't last. And I soon got used to living without it. In
fact, life took on aspects of a soap opera, because I was now cognizant of the comings and
goings in the house behind the cut tree. For some time, I had been puzzled, and attributed a
particular odd fact to a freak of nature, of the DNA undergoing an extra twist, an unusual
unraveling and joining. Perhaps they had some blond genes somewhere. You see they were
sallow Latins with black hair both quite good-looking, especially the wife. She would take her
little preschoolers for a late-morning stroll after her husband had left for work. The first two of
the children were recognizably theirs; the third, much lighter colored with blue eyes, he was big,
heavy-set and already the size of his older sibling. I wondered if he was adopted; if not, what
did the husband think of the cuckoo egg in their midst. But then, humans have a tendency to
rationalize away unpleasant truths and the more bizarre an explanation the more believable.
You only have to look at religion around the world and the attempts to explain its truths in the
light of modern scientific knowledge. I am talking of religious detail, the paraphernalia of
religion, the stories and homilies, not the existence or, for that matter, absence of God.
Anyway, to get back to the story, I was sitting outside in my favorite spot behind light shrubbery
where I could see but not be seen, enjoy the sun and also be able to move into shade if it got
too hot. I was having a late lunch. It was late spring, the smell of lilacs was in the air. The
cardinal was doing his sounds proclaiming his territory in song. It was a beautiful day, the
temperature, seventy-four degrees Fahrenheit, the air, conditioned by nature, and as a a
bonus, perfumed; the sun's warmth just enough to balance the chill of the breeze. The sound of
a workman's truck pulling up broke the spell. A young man got out and walked to the front door
of the house behind the cut tree. What caught my attention was his quick, furtive glance back
and to the sides before he rang the doorbell. The door opened almost instantly and he
disappeared inside. About forty-five minutes to an hour later, he reappeared, the same wary
look left and right and he marched quickly to his truck and drove off. This time I watched him
more closely through a pair of binoculars that I always kept beside me for watching birds. He
was a handsome man, in his middle twenties, I would guess, small nose, sensuously curved
lips, a longish strong chin jutting out just slightly, suggesting a determination belied by the
gentlest of blue eyes, large and baby like; all crowned with a shock of unruly blond hair. He
was a big fellow, tall, at least six foot two, broad-shouldered and large boned. He was vaguely
familiar and I noticed he had not taken any tools with him into the house. He came again the
following Tuesday and the one after that. By this time I had lost interest for I had discovered
why he looked familiar. He was a dead ringer for the third son. In time, shrubbery surrounding
the old tree grew taller and we were walled off again. The family moved away and others came
in their place. All in all, not too different from the birds nesting in the forsythia - the female
seeking genetic variation to improve the survival prospects for her own genes. Life goes on.
And what about me, why am I in a cell all by myself. Let me whisper it in your ear ......sh.....very
quietly: they say I am dangerous. I think, only to those who are dangerous to me .... I'll tell you
all about it next week.
a play for Gaza
No children appear in the play. The speakers are adults, the parents and if you
like other relations of the children. The lines can be shared out in any way you
like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as
the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.
Tell her it’s a game
Tell her it’s serious
But don’t frighten her
Don’t tell her they’ll kill her
Tell her it’s important to be quiet
Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good
Tell her to curl up as if she’s in bed
But not to sing.
Tell her not to come out
Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting
Don’t frighten her
Tell her not to come out even if she hears nothing for a long time
Tell her we’ll come and find her
Tell her we’ll be here all the time.
Tell her something about the men
Tell her they’re bad in the game
Tell her it’s a story
Tell her they’ll go away
Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still
But not to sing.
Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and
Tell her her uncles died
Don’t tell her they were killed
Tell her they were killed
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her her grandmother was clever
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her she was brave
Tell her she taught me how to make cakes
Don’t tell her what they did
Tell her something
Tell her more when she’s older.
Tell her there were people who hated Jews
Don’t tell her
Tell her it’s over now
Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews
Tell her more when she’s older
Tell her how many when she’s older
Tell her it was before she was born and she’s not in danger
Don’t tell her there’s any question of danger.
Tell her we love her
Tell her dead or alive her family all love her
Tell her her grandmother would be proud of her.
Don’t tell her we’re going for ever
Tell her she can write to her friends, tell her her friends can maybe
come and visit
Tell her it’s sunny there
Tell her we’re going home
Tell her it’s the land God gave us
Don’t tell her religion
Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived
Don’t tell her he was driven out
Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and
the country is waiting for us to come home
Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here
Tell her of course she likes it here but she’ll like it there even
Tell her it’s an adventure
Tell her no one will tease her
Tell her she’ll have new friends
Tell her she can take her toys
Don’t tell her she can take all her toys
Tell her she’s a special girl
Tell her about Jerusalem.
Don’t tell her who they are
Tell her something
Tell her they’re Bedouin, they travel about
Tell her about camels in the desert and dates
Tell her they live in tents
Tell her this wasn’t their home
Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away
Don’t tell her they don’t like her
Tell her to be careful.
Don’t tell her who used to live in this house
No but don’t tell her her great great grandfather used to live in
No but don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom.
Tell her not to be rude to them
Tell her not to be frightened
Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children
Don’t tell her she can have them in the house.
Tell her they have plenty of friends and family
Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own
Tell her again this is our promised land.
Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people
Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.
Tell her maybe we can share.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we won
Tell her her brother’s a hero
Tell her how big their armies are
Tell her we turned them back
Tell her we’re fighters
Tell her we’ve got new land.
Don’t tell her
Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool
Tell her it’s our water, we have the right
Tell her it’s not the water for their fields
Don’t tell her anything about water.
Don’t tell her about the bulldozer
Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer
Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down
Tell her it’s a building site
Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.
Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint
Tell her we’ll be there in no time
Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask
Don’t tell her the boy was shot
Don’t tell her anything.
Tell her we’re making new farms in the desert
Don’t tell her about the olive trees
Tell her we’re building new towns in the wilderness.
Don’t tell her they throw stones
Tell her they’re not much good against tanks
Don’t tell her that.
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafés
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her they don’t
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that
Tell her we’re stronger
Tell her we’re entitled
Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence
Tell her we want peace
Tell her we’re going swimming.
Tell her she can’t watch the news
Tell her she can watch cartoons
Tell her she can stay up late and watch Friends.
Tell her they’re attacking with rockets
Don’t frighten her
Tell her only a few of us have been killed
Tell her the army has come to our defence
Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.
Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed
Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed
Tell her they’re terrorists
Tell her they’re filth
Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls
Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television
Tell her we killed the babies by mistake
Don’t tell her anything about the army
Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why
not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? tell
her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she’s got
nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell
her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them,
tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them,
tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can’t talk
suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog
of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I
laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals
living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out,
the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if
the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re
chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in
blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.
Don’t tell her that.
Tell her we love her.
Don’t frighten her.
Seven Jewish Children is Caryl Churchill’s
response to the situation in Gaza in January
2009, when the play was written.
Seven Jewish Children first published in Great Britain in 2009 by
Nick Hern Books Limited, 14 Larden Road, London, W3 7ST,
in association with the Royal Court Theatre, London
Seven Jewish Children copyright © 2009 Caryl Churchill Limited
Caryl Churchill has asserted her moral right to be identified as
the author of this work
Typeset by Nick Hern Books, London
ISBN 978 1 84842 047 2
Seven Jewish Children was first performed at the Royal Court
Theatre, London, on 6 February 2009.
The play can be read or performed anywhere, by any number
of people. Anyone who wishes to do it should contact the
author’s agent (details below), who will license performances
free of charge provided that no admission fee is charged and
that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid
for Palestinians (MAP), 33a Islington Park Street, London
N1 1QB, tel +44 (0)20 7226 4114, e-mail email@example.com,
Author’s agent: Casarotto Ramsay and Associates Ltd,
Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ,
fax +44 (0)20 7287 9128, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This text can be downloaded free of charge from the
Casarotto Ramsay, www.casarotto.co.uk/page/sjc
Nick Hern Books, www.nickhernbooks.co.uk
Royal Court Theatre, www.royalcourttheatre.com
THE BUS RIDE
by Arshad M. Khan
It was a day like any other. Desmond Larson was waiting for the seven forty bus to take him to the
suburban train station. Then he'd take the train downtown and walk to his law office as he had done for
the last eleven years. He was a lawyer, a successful one and a partner in his firm. Not much went past
him where he could not assess a measure of self interest.
The bus was right on time. A new driver, he thought to himself. The new ones were meticulously
punctual, realizing only with experience that being a minute or so late gave rushing commuters a grace
period and fewer missed the bus. He got on, produced his season ticket to display to the driver, who
seemed to him a little too old to be driving a bus, only to be told:
“You won't be needing that, Desmond.”
He was startled. “How did you know my name?”
“Oh, I know the names of all my passengers. That's how I know where to take them,” the driver
Desmond looked around the bus. It certainly was not the usual crowd. But for a few exceptions like
himself, they seemed to be retirees. Then he noticed the bus itself was different. The windows were all
shaded so dark you could not look out. And the bus seemed to move without the usual bumps and
road noise; in fact, it was gliding along so smoothly, he could have sworn it was flying.
Not the kind of person to frightened easily, he had a feeling of unease mixed with curiosity as he
walked up to the driver and confronted him.
“Is this the bus to the train station, or not?” he asked in measured tones.
“I think you know the answer to that, Desmond,” the driver replied.
“I don't know who you are or what you are up to, but I think I want to get off,” Desmond sais.
“You can't. Nobody can.”
“Stop the bus and open the door,” Desmond shouted, now quite agitated.
“Well, I am hopping out the next time you pick up a passenger.”
“As it happens, you were my last pick up on this round, but even if you weren't, you would not have
been able to get off. You would have found an invisible barrier stopping you, while the person on the
other side getting in would've come through easily.”
“What do you mean, 'the other side'?” asked Desmond visibly agitated.
“Well, let me put it this way. You did something quite uncharacteristic of you today. You remember the
little boy waiting for the school bus while you were also at the bus stop.”
“You remember, how he, looking the wrong way, stepped off the curb just as the bus came and how
you jumped in front of him, scooped him in one arm, and threw him back on the sidewalk."
“Well, you didn't get back on the sidewalk in time yourself, Desmond.”
“What! You mean... you mean...I... I am dead.”
“But how can you people do this to me. I did a good dead. And I am only thirty-eight years old. I have a
young wife and two young children.”
“You surprise me, Desmond. According to the records of you billing hours to clients, you are seventy-
six. Now be calm and I'll be dropping people off at heaven or hell, as I am directed. Be seated, please,
we never like to have to use restraints.”
Desmond's eyes rolled up; his mouth fell open, and he collapsed on an empty seat.
Desmond arrives at the gates. He expects to be going to hell because of the way he has led his life. But
he ends up in heaven because, when it really mattered, he chose to rescue the little boy even at the
expense of his own life.
Copyright 2009 by Arshad M. Khan
HARRY BURNSIDE'S REWARD
by Larry Stanfel
At the moment we first glimpse him, the gentleman of principal interest here was fifty-eight years old
and a mathematician. For most of us that is sufficient description to evoke images of undisciplined hair,
overdue for shearing; neckties (probably too rarely to mention) violet in color, with bulbous knots, and
draped over dark brown shirts unbuttoned at the neck; and passing his waking hours massaging
numbers too long for astronomers to contemplate.
In many ways, this was Harry. Throughout that hair was scattered considerable gray, much of it in the
lower strata, which may have accounted for his reluctance to worry it very often with combs. Like his
hair, his black shoes had gone gray, not so much from age as from the effects of chalk dust and an
absence of polish, and he was wholly unperturbed by the hole he had paced into the left sole.
But calculations? Hardly. Most sixth graders could do computations as accurately and swiftly as Harry:
he was as likely as the next person to be short-changed, and he found it a challenge to discover
without pencil and paper which brand of catsup had the lowest unit price or how many miles his car
could travel on a gallon of gas. No, Harry had a low regard for numbers, which will sound quite absurd
when it is known that his field of specialization was Number Theory.
The distinguishing term there is "theory:" Harry was interested in the properties of numbers, and most
particularly in those of our everyday counting numbers, zero, one, two, three,...; that is, the
Perhaps an example or two will clarify the difference. In a trice Harry Burnside could demonstrate that
no possible quotient of two integers could equal the square root of 2. No amount of calculations could
establish that: there are always additional integers to divide, and it is impossible to run through all the
pairs of them - bigger ones are always lurking just beyond where one has stopped. Harry would show
the truth of the statement inside a precise framework of logic, which, without the tiresome necessity of
dealing with them, accounted for all the possibilities, and the only number among the few lines he
scribbled on his mottled blackboard would be poor, little 2.
Or this. A prime number is an integer larger than 1 that can be divided(with no remainder) only by itself
and 1. Thus, 2,3,5,7, and 11 are primes, whereas 4 is not(2 divides it), and 6 is not (2 and 3 divide it).
One of the first things Dr. Burnside showed his class in Number Theory was that there are infinitely
many prime numbers. Once again, no amount of calculation, even by the biggest, fastest computer
ever to be built, can prove the truth of that assertion, because as long as it runs, it will still generate
only a finite number of integers to test for primeness.
Harry Burnside was a theorist. Not that he scorned computers and computation, no indeed. Every now
and then he employed his office machine, but these were invariably usages to test his ideas about what
mathematical conjectures might be true (after which he would return to his blackboard or his tablet and
pen), to approximate his income tax burden for the year, or to write an unpublished letter of complaint
about smut on television.
In no aspect of life had Harry Burnside known undiluted success. His father - not to mention a locker
room full of coaches - had been grievously disappointed in young Harry's athletics, and his mother, in
her son's musicianship. Not one of his teachers had been startled by Burnside's brilliance, and he had
become a graduate student mainly as a result of inertia and the dearth of jobs awaiting Bachelors in
mathematics who did not aspire to careers as programmers.
In the early days of his professional life there had been a student who, prior to abandoning him in favor
of a veterinarian, became his wife for a time. Somewhere around Phoenix there had been a possible
daughter whose lineage Harry had good reason to doubt. As a child she had written him sloppy letters
at those seasons when gifts were appropriate, but Harry's patchy record of response had ended that
correspondence. A few years earlier, an announcement of her marriage had arrived, but there followed
no recognition of the silver-plated platter he had mailed.
There had been a very few other women - unexpected, brief detours along the way, but as much as he
ridiculed that initial catastrophe - "I thought the fellow was only interested in pussies and bitches, and
sure enough,"- it had destroyed his capacity for affection. The nearest Harry ever approached
philosophy was his prophetic surmise that "The heart is a very unreliable muscle." Around the age of
fifty there had been a couple of hot years of acute lechery towards several of his women students, but
he had not prosecuted the fantasies and was relieved at the gradual atrophy of desire.
Harry had worked thirty-two years at three universities, all of them second tier, which was the polite
term, current at the time, for excluding good schools. He had won no awards nor achieved any especial
professional recognition. If the notion of a mathematician disinterested in computation is plausible, then
so possibly is that of a professor mostly apathetic about pedagogy. He had chosen an academic path
out of an interest, which though not exactly ardent was greater than he felt for any other, subject matter
and the opportunity to pursue it selfishly, not from a passion to propagate it. Early on he had realized
that inspiring others to learn was quite outside his scope, if not entirely illusory, and while conscientious
towards his classroom obligations, he was not enthusiastic.
The only undergraduates he saw were upper level mathematics majors, and for the most part they had
been disabused as early as high school of the notion that acquiring knowledge should be a lark. Most
of his classes were for graduate students, and they had long been aware that learning was the greater
part of teaching. At any rate, Harry generally showed up below the average of the the semi-annual
student evaluations of courses, but despite what the university said publicly about valuing and
rewarding teaching, Harry did not suffer.
He was, on the other hand, a capable researcher. Throughout his career he had managed to publish
several papers annually, and whereas these tended to show up in the second tier of mathematics
journals, he was respected at his institution, if not remarkable in his field.
Harry was a full professor, which, since he had no desire to head a department and a towering
abhorrence of anything administrative, meant he had progressed as high as possible in the hierarchy
of his profession. Naturally, he was tenured, which meant superficially he could not lose his position
unless struck incompetent, found guilty of moral turpitude, or the school declared itself in economic
exigencies and canceled all the other faculty rights, a possibility that appeared less remote with each
There was Harry, a man who loved nothing but who liked several things, among them music, brandy,
and his pipe. He enjoyed his pipe so much that he could do no creative work without it. Therefore,
when the university decided it was illegal to smoke inside its buildings, Harry avoided his office as much
as possible and worked and smoked at home.
One thing he did not like was cutting the grass, but so as to insulate himself from humanity, he had
bought a house with a large lawn, and as if to defy his concentrated neglect, the grass flourished. He
might have eliminated the odious task by hiring it done, but it seemed to him, fit as he was, as bogus to
have someone trim his grass as to have someone shine his shoes, even assuming they ever got
To avoid ruining Saturday, a day he coveted for his own, he was mowing it one Friday evening. Unlike
many people whose remunerated work involves deep thought, Harry did not burden his fleshy
computer at other moments. He loathed chess and all games at cards, and grass-cutting was a time he
lost himself in the engine's roar and the clouds of toxic fumes and dust and fantasized. It was an
opportunity to invent the lethal ripostes which never came to mind when the rude store clerk or student
deserved it; to formulate elegantly the scorn and abuse his ex-wife deserved; to replay his past and
correct the manifold errors of strategy and tactic he had committed.
These were a pair of hours to think about anything but mathematics, but Harry had a number of
ornamental bushes and young fruit trees, and as he glanced at them from far across the yard,
something about the geometric pattern they made trapped his attention.
For a moment they seemed to fall into several little groups, and there was something interesting about
the numbers of plants in the groups and the relationships between groups. Harry halted abruptly, and,
staring at the curious pattern, stood with his hands on the vibrating handle. There was importance in
what he saw, and, even though he could not say exactly what that was, he decided to make a few notes
before the impression passed.
En route to pen and paper he realized the connection and was quite excited when, unperturbed by the
mower's chugging away where he had parked it, he sat down to record his thoughts. It was very, very
interesting, but over the years Dr. Burnside had learned enough of himself not to trust sudden
inspiration. How many times on those long, lonely nights of his dissertation work had he gone,
convinced of a breakthrough, to his wretched little bedroom, only to discover, by the harsh rays of the
next sun, some foolish blunder for which his professors would have had his scalp. Thus had it
continued through the years: the brightest flashes always proved to be undoable or mere seductions
fomented by errors so gross that he would have failed the student who made them.
Thus, Harry realized the best next step was to return to his bloody, sweaty task and forget awhile the
sheet, peppered with the runes of his trade. But as soon as he began pursuing the swath of grass still
standing, the view of the plants changed a little and became even more profound. There were several
more trips inside, and most of his gasoline supply idled away uselessly. By dark, Harry had covered his
desk top - that is, added a new layer to the disorder always prevailing there - with ideas to pursue and
still had plenty of grass to harvest another day.
When he finally retired to his brandy, Harry was pleased to have outlined sufficient interesting new
problems to amuse himself a good, long time. Some new contributions to knowledge were certain to fall
out of all that; he would write a few unnoticed papers that would satisfy his chairman another year or
two and deflect the recurrent accusation that he was, at his very best, a mediocre teacher.
Tomorrow, of course, or the next day or the day after that, the truly tough nut, the problem that had
galvanized him into such unwonted action, would prove to have remained uncracked. He would
discover in his preliminary work some opprobrious mistake, probably something so cruel as a minus
sign misplaced or omitted; or he would simply reencounter one of the dead ends that had frustrated
generations of his mathematical predecessors. Anyway, it was great fun to smoke and drink and then
smoke and drink a little more and pretend for a few hours that he had done something significant. The
eventual disappointment would be painful, of course, but Harry had got himself just drunk enough to
avoid thinking of later revelations and to exclude most everything from thought other than Goldbach
and his famous problem.
That estimable gentleman, born in the much contested strip that was Prussia and dying in Moscow,
lived mostly in the eighteenth, a little in the seventeenth, century. Whereas he made any number of
important contributions to the marvelous edifice that is mathematics, he is best remembered for what
he could not do. Goldbach noticed that every even number larger than 2 that he could think to write
was always expressible as the sum of two odd primes. If you've forgotten already what is a prime, just
glance back at the early paragraphs of this literature, and then try a few examples.
24 = 13 + 11
12 = 5 + 7
126 = 123 + 3
144 = 131 + 13
In fact, try all the examples you wish: you won't find one where it fails to work. Goldbach, however, was
unable to prove its truth in general and so had to be content with making the statement a conjecture;
that is, something like "I think this is true, because I can't find a case where it fails; however, I'll be
damned if I can prove it."
No one had ever found a case to violate it, nor had any descendant thinker succeeded in establishing
its truth. Of course, he would discover himself dead wrong, but for just a little while, anyway, he
deceived his more rational self into believing he had resolved the elusive enigma. Consequently,
unloved and unloving Harry Burnside, that mediocre fellow, had a deservedly enjoyable evening with
his pipe and his bowl - of which size a respectable brandy glass is a good approximation - and, by
virtue of several compact disks, even had a few fiddlers and others in to entertain.
* * * * *
Feeling so jolly and felicitous, Harry could not bring himself to approach his desk and burst the bubble
on Saturday, but after one day more the magnetism of the skeletal work, like that of the unopened
letter, was irresistible.
Following Mass, the first one in ages where he had said other than the stock prayers of the liturgy -
"Make it be right, Lord. Please." - he sat down to do battle. Curiously, no glaring fallacies, no laughable
omissions, no fatal, neglected contingencies were, at least, conspicuous.
He now rewrote in detail his sketch and filled the gaps over which he had galloped Friday evening.
By Monday night it was all over. The inspiration Harry had derived from vegetation was a clue on how
to decompose his problem, Goldbach's problem, into a number of distinct cases. If the decomposition
were valid, and Sunday afternoon's work did nothing to spoil it, then the strategy was to let the
computer grind through these. It was inelegant, perhaps, but it had worked, he knew, on at least one
other famous problem. If the computer got successfully through the various problem types, he would
have proved Goldbach's Conjecture (still assuming no flaw in the earlier work, the intellectual part); if it
did not, which seemed by then unlikely, he would have generated an exception to the famous
On Sunday evening Harry, one of the least proficient programmers on campus, formulated the
instructions for the big machine in the computer center and got up early the next morning to key it in
before his classes; early, because Harry was also low on the keyboard dexterity list. It took three runs
just to locate and fix all the blunders of clumsy fingers and those of program syntax. He submitted it
again for the computer's scrutiny just in time to run off and be only ten minutes late for his class, which
that day failed more than usually to capture his attention.
Back in his office, the queer-looking outputs of his run led to the discovery of two errors of program
logic; it had still not done what he intended. These were more abstruse to unearth and time-consuming
to fix, and he was even later for the next class, whose students were enormously pleased by his
delinquency and ecstatic when he dismissed them early.
After that, and belaboring the unreliable muscle of his aphorism, he actually ran up the stairs to his
office, so eager was he to view the revised fruits of his computer labor.
Yes, it was all over for Harry on Monday night. He had sat on his patio so long that either darkness or
drink had enveloped the weeds sprouting up through the sundry settling cracks. Rather more tipsy
than usual, he sent up great clouds of tobacco smoke, which even the most devious and persistent
insects failed to penetrate.
"That son-of-a-bitch!" he thought. "That son-of-a-bitch is right!" "Yippee!" he shouted over the
neighboring back yards. "Ya-hoo!"
Earlier and calmly, he had reflected upon what he should do. Before sending it off to the journal, he
should have a colleague study every punctuation mark in it. Two colleagues. It would diminish the size
fool he would make of himself, because it had to be wrong. "That son-of-a-bitch is not wrong," he had
retorted audibly to the skeptic within. Further, colleagues were mostly rapacious little bastards who
would decamp with the most casual of ideas, not to mention something apparently momentous. No, he
had stayed late to type it himself; not even secretaries would get a preliminary peek at it. It was
packaged up in triplicate and lying innocently there in the outgoing mail tray. Nobody would get a
preview. That son-of-a-bitch was right. "Whoo-ee! Yeah!" And he gave the air a high five and spiked
his glass down exuberantly just before there was a knock at the wooden fence. "Oops!" giggled our
hero. It was probably some neighbor wondering just what the hell was going on back there.
"Yes?" he asked as he flung open the gate with unnecessary gallantry.
"Dr. Burnside?" There was yet enough light to reveal a small, elderly man, dressed in a suit that
blended with the night and a frilly white shirt open at the neck. He had a funny-looking flat hat and a
considerable beard. Harry's first impression was of a rabbi, and this possibility was strengthened by the
man's accent. "Yes? What can I do for you?" said Harry, emphasizing the pronoun unusually when his
tongue at first failed to respond.
"My name is Christian, Dr. Burnside. I am going to be your neighbor, and I thought I must introduce
"Must be a rabbi," thought Harry, a little below the peak of his deductive powers. "Lots of Jews are
named Christian." Taking the old man's hand, he pumped it enthusiastically and said, "Well, that is
neighborly of you, Mr. Christian. C'mon in and take a chair." Unsteadily, Harry led the way to the patio
table, proffered his guest a seat, and got the bug candle sputtering on the third match. "No lights out
here. The switch broke once, and I never did, uh... Sorry."
"Oh, it is quite nice without lights. A beautiful evening, is it not? Look at the many stars."
"Yes, indeed," affirmed Harry, taking the celestial assessment on faith. "Say, would you like a drink? I
was just having a drink," he explained superfluously.
"That is most kind. Yes, I will join you."
"Eau-de-vie? Oui, Monsieur. Merci beaucoup."
"Un moment. Je vais apporter un verre," said Harry, feeling barely up to English at the moment and
hoping that was the end of the tramontane talk. When he returned with the glass, the old gent had
vanished from the chair but materialized again at the verge of the hemisphere of candlelight.
"I was enjoying the stars again. I had almost forgotten this perspective."
"Are you a rabbi, Mr. Christian?"
"Why, no, Dr. Burnside. I am - I suppose one would call me an emissary of sorts."
"Oh. Well, here's welcome to the neighborhood. Glad to have you."
"Most excellent brandy, Dr. Burnside," said the guest when they were again seated. The smallest taste
betrays its wonderful quality."
"I have to confess I've been having some pretty huge tastes tonight," Harry said in a confidential way.
"Oh, well. What is good in small quantity must be even better in large. What was it Mr. Oscar Wilde
wrote? “Nothing succeeds like excess,” I believe. Brilliant fellow. Wish I might have known him. Perhaps
I should do some catching up, yes?" And his eyes twinkled merrily when he tipped his glass again. "Na
Zdrawie. Mmmm. C'est magnifique! A rare treat for this old body."
"I've been celebrating tonight, Mr. Christian," said Harry, feeling some explanation in order.
"Wonderful, sir! On what may I congratulate you?"
"Well," began the host, rather at a loss when it came to discoursing with laymen on his profession, "did
you ever study mathematics?"
"Oh, dear me! Your achievement is in mathematics!" chuckled the old gentleman. "I am afraid it has
been ever so long since I had much to do with mathematics."
"Oh," said Harry, not surprised but still disappointed. "Then it would be difficult to - to -"
"But assuredly I recall some of the terminology. Perhaps, yet, an appreciation of your triumph is
"It is rather simple at that," agreed the professor, whose brain cleared slightly at the thought of his
recent exploits. He launched into a sort of man-on-the-street tutorial regarding primes and such -
rather in the style of that found a few pages earlier in the present account, but ever so much more
authoritative. Despite the thickness of his tongue he essayed to bring his old, new neighbor within a
respectable distance of the problem.
"Yes, I see, Dr. Burnside. I believe I do understand. It seems a simple thing, after all, does it not. But so
much of what seems simple in life becomes... what should I say, nubilous? on closer examination. Or
perhaps it is humankind that makes it so. Ah! Let me try several problems. 86. Hmmm. That would be -
83 and 3 work, of course. Also 79 and 7, he laughed happily. And 126. That would be 123 and 3, and
other combinations, too. 119 and 7. Ummm hmmm. Yes. It seems so obvious after a few examples, and
yet you say no one has proved it true after these hundreds of years?"
"Not until today," said Harry dramatically, and we must forgive him a trace of theatrics, for, after all, he
had been fairly exploding for over seventy-two hours and not another soul in which to confide. "Not until
today," he repeated for emphasis.
"No! Dr. Burnside, do you mean to say that you - that this intractable problem - No!"
"I know," said Harry with resignation. "It has to be wrong. That's what I said, too, but let me tell you, Mr.
Christian -", and here he guffawed quite involuntarily - "I've thought of it a dozen different ways, and
that son-of-a- ... it's right!"
"I regret I could never understand your proof," said Mr. Christian reverently but then added with a
mischievous grin, "but now you've set me to thinking how extraordinary it is that anything is true all the
time. It seems so - so contrary to this world, which is hardly anything but contradictions. No, you must
give me a moment to try it on some more complicated numbers. Let me see.
139,262. Hmmm. Yes, 131,071 + 8191. What of 2,148,007,934?
Oh, yes. That's merely 524,287 + 2,147,483,647 among many other possibilities."
"Two billion, one hundred forty - what you said - is a prime?" asked Harry, his mouth open in the fear
that either he had crossed some dangerous threshold of booze or that his new neighbor was a lunatic.
"Oh, yes, to be sure," muttered Mr. Christian abstractly. "People always think the trick lies in conjuring
up some immense number, but then there are just more ways to express it as a sum. Forgive me for
leading you on a little. That was absolutely brilliant, Harry! Absolutely. Those categories of yours. What
an idea, my friend!" Paternally, he patted Harry's limp arm. It tingled beneath his touch. "I rather
suspect that proof of yours may revolutionize a branch of mathematics. Possibly begin a new one
altogether. What an idea! I spent half a lifetime on that - please pardon the expression - damned
problem, Harry Burnside, and here you solved it with your lawnmower, eh? There is a computing device
for you!" He laughed merrily.
Harry squinted across the fuzzy dome of light and withdrew the arm that had been touched. "Who are
The old gentleman placed his hat on the table and looked warmly at his host. It was as if his mother, his
father, his wife (in the earliest days, that is), his football coach, and his grade school priest and nuns
had all been pleased with him at the same moment and contributed a share of love and approbation to
that gaze. " I think you know, Harry."
"Christian isn't your last name, is it?" asked Harry, instantly sober and electrified down every inch of
"No, it is my Christian name. If you will permit me another little joke."
"Christian Goldbach." The syllables nearly refused utterance. "But - ", and then they did refuse.
"I was telling the truth before, Harry. I am an emissary - at least now and then. Tonight, for example. He
sent me to fetch you."
“Fetch?” asked Harry, not picturing himself as a bone. “Who sent you?"
"Harry, I bear good news and better news; in fact, I have the best of all news. First, the good. Your
proof is perfect from top to bottom. You shall be famous. You shall win many awards and prizes - all
posthumous, of course."
"Yes, that's the best news. You are coming to heaven tonight - with me. You and I shall be neighbors.
That was the truth, you see. It was God who sent me."
"I'm going to die? Tonight? Wait! I drank a quart of that stuff. And it was not excellent, it was cheap.
This is not real!" "Think of your life, Harry. Did you love it? Even enjoy much of it? No, and who could
blame you? Life was unkind to you - in many ways. Just remember all those letters from that little
"You mean she wasn't - that is, that my wife..."
"Exactly," said Christian gently.
"I knew it!" exclaimed Harry triumphantly, and for an instant forgetting the cataclysmic conversation he
"And yet you have remained a good man. A very good man. Oh, I know there were slips, but, all in all, a
very good man. Otherwise, I would not be here tonight, would I?"
"But, my work - my -"
"Dear Harry, please believe me; in a little while you will know everything. Everything that ever was,
everything that ever will be. Why everything is the way it is, how everything works - from the insides of
those particles the physicists call ultimate, to the human brain, to the universe itself. Maybe even some
of those truths that Professor Goedel posited, eh? What do you think of that?" Here he gazed skyward
and smiled affectionately. "That little problem of mine will seem as vulgar and uninteresting as a - a - an
itch on your little finger - and just as easy to dismiss. But if you want to discuss number theory, say, well
- ", he grinned knowingly, "a few other mathematicians have made it. Not a great many, you know, but
Harry could only look dazed while Goldbach finished off his brandy. "You call this cheap, Harry? This is
wonderful stuff. Better than the Tsar kept. I lived in his house for a time, and I was not purely a theorist.
I manufactured a key to the pantry." He sighed, gently replaced the glass, and allowed his tongue to
tidy up a final droplet from a wrinkled corner of his mouth. "Well, Harry, shall we be off?" He arose
somewhat stiffly. "The night air gets into these old bones. And they are old. My uniform for this job, you
An enormous wave of fatigue claimed Harry, but, trembling, he rose and looked steadily at his
unearthly caller. "But, Christian, this just cannot be. This can not be happening. This is not how it is. I
mean, how - how do I - die, that is."
"Ssshhh, do not worry for an instant, Harry. Look there. It's all done and over with. That wasn't at all
bad, was it?"
Following the direction of the wizened finger, Harry saw himself, lolled back as if asleep in the patio
chair. "My God!" he gasped.
"Yes, indeed," agreed Christian. "Yes, indeed."
"What was it?"
"Hardly worth mentioning, Harry. Something to do with your heart, I believe."
"But I just had a physical!"
"Just? When was that?"
"Well, I don't know. Four or five years, I suppose."
"It was seven, Harry."
"Seven, ten, what's the difference? The doctor said my heart -"
"Harry, he wasn't much more than a - veterinarian, after all, now was he? None of them is, you know."
"And my paper! Are you sure - "
"Now, Harry, just think for a moment. You needn't ask me, do you? You know for yourself, is that not
so? Eh? Just think. You can see it all, can you not?"
"Why, why ... Yes! I can! Say, I'm going to be quite a light at that! Sort of wish I could stay on a little and
"No, you do not, Harry. Wait until you meet Him. You won't care to be anywhere else."
"Christian, there is one thing that troubles me, something I do not understand."
"And what is that, my friend?"
"The proof was just a gift, wasn't it? It wasn't really me at all, was it? I was about to die and, somehow or
other was found to be a little worthy, I guess. I still don't feel as if I am, but, anyway, He, or you, or
someone sort of threw it all in front of me, right? A going away present. I mean it wasn't really my work,
was it? I couldn't do anything that good. It wasn't really me."
Taking Harry's arm, Christian led him away from the feeble light. "You are a very difficult assignment, in
a way, my young friend. Perhaps it goes with the profession. Einstein was like that. I remember it well. 'I
could not have done that photoelectric work, not I. And that clock business in Switzerland. He put that in
my way. I was no dumbkopf, mind you, but I was not up to that.' And Hamilton. 'Multiply quaternions?
Hardly, my dear Goldbach. I fuddled myself years with that cursed problem, and, then suddenly - on
that rickety little bridge - No, no, old fellow, it's not to my credit, I assure you.'” Christian slipped
smoothly in and out of accents to quote his earlier work but now returned to Russian-weighted English.
"What do you think about Sharon Haynes? One of those slips I mentioned. Likely the main one, in fact.
Do you believe God put her in your path to trip you up?"
"No, He wouldn't do that."
"Of course not. We were not marionettes here, Harry. Your good works are your own doing, just as you
must be accountable for the wick - that is, the less creditable ones. Now, I will not say He does not
intercede on occasion. No, I will not say that. But that proof of yours - that was your doing, my friend.
And why did I not think of it, eh? I could almost envy you. I suppose that is why I was sent. My problem.
"It's very dark, Christian. Where are we?"
"Why, we are almost there."
* * * * *
Kjersti Nævdal lay dying in Trondheim. At seventy-five she was still beautiful, but her synthetic lungs
were failing again, and the surgeons correctly determined she was far too weak to withstand another
implant. She remained alert, though the labored heaving of her shapely breasts signified she was
about to pay her debt to Nature. So near was the end, in fact, that the physicians had elected to
dispense with terminating her.
A native of Kristiansund, she had obtained a teaching diploma and survived fifty-four years of combat
in the "gymnas" where she had herself once been a student. For her struggles she had managed to
slip surreptitiously a few precepts of elementary geometry into those unyielding young skulls, and,
although they never suspected it, an occasional dose of Christian values. In a world rapidly voiding
itself of the latter, she considered it her primary contribution.
Though she had never had one, Kjersti, now dying alone in the scientific little chamber, was big on
inspiration and never could refrain from hortative classroom digressions on keeping the mind open and
receptive; receptive to those susurrations and sparkles, those flashes of insight she never had, in
which genius camouflages itself.
In his famous paper Harry had been unable to resist a brief allusion to the queer experience that had
illuminated him, and though the editor's red pencil had hovered repeatedly over the passage and
pecked tentatively at it (out of the conviction that anything worthwhile must be desiccated and tedious),
he had, from respect for the dead, allowed it to remain. Hence, while Harry's work never percolated far
enough down to be called popular, the story of his inspiration did. Kjersti held up the long-deceased
plodder as an example of the harvest possible when a germ of ingenuity falls on soil, however
uncultivated, that has remained fertile.
Harry always winced when he heard himself described in a context he associated with dirt and manure,
and, after all, he had not been quite so pedestrian as she painted him. Still, he was pleased to be cited
as a positive example of something good in the world.
When frøken Nævdal (She had never been asked to marry. She had no one, and not a single student
had thought to pay an apopemptic visit.) saw the stranger at her door, she was too weary of dying to
be much startled, however odd he looked.
He was somewhat overweight and entirely seedy. His baggy suit, straight from a history book, must
never have been pressed, and the way his shoes looked, he might have been wading in whitewash.
Over a shirt the color of dung he had slapped a maroon tie. Yet, there was something nice about him.
He smiled at her in a way she always hoped a loving husband would. Somewhat clumsily he
approached the bed and touched her arm. The warmth of his fingers coursed through her chilly body.
"Hvem er du?"1 she struggled to whisper.
"Hei, frøken Nævdal," Harry managed in passable Norwegian. "Jeg heter Harald. Snart skal vi bli
1. “Who are you?”
2. “Hi, Miss Naevdal.” “My name is Harold. Soon we shall be neighbors.”
The author is a retired Professor in an area of mathematics.
Copyright © 2016 by Larry Stanfel.
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