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“The Importance of Breast Milk” — Part II — by Zireaux

This is the second part of Zireaux’s story, “The Importance of Breast Milk.” Part I appeared on Tuesday, November 16. You can read Part I here.
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The Importance of Breast Milk (Part II)


by
Zireaux

 

The Prison Doors (1986)

The Prison Doors (1986), by Alex Frishberg

In SALTY there are no windows, only vertical slots in one wall, through which the frail old sun, like a welfare recipient who has finally reached the front of a queue, anxiously pokes its withered fingers.

“So, is it true?”

“Is what true, sir?” asks Mukhul.

“You act as if you don’t know what you’ve done.”

“I’m afraid I don’t, sir.”

“My counterpart at DUFFI says you were just in his office discussing a story with him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“In other words, you’ve produced a story without first getting permission from us.”

“Well, I haven’t produced anything yet, sir.”

“You haven’t produced anything yet?”

“I had just mentioned a possible title — ”

“Then what’s all this?”

“What’s all what, sir?”

“This!”

Mukhul looks around in the circular radius which the SALTY director’s hand directs him. Wisps of cigarette smoke. A gecko curled crescent-like on a wall. Three clean-shaven yUCkys like himself, playing cards.

Something strikes Mukhul then — literally, his own hand across his own face, which offers something equally striking in return: a faint but unmistakable suggestion of whiskers.

Once upon a time there was a man who went to work without shaving, thinks Mukhul. And his name — he was starting to tremble now — his name, oh God, was Mukhul.

“I — I don’t know how — ”

The Director directs a direly directive hand toward Mukhul’s belly-button which protrudes through a gap between the buttons of Mukhul’s over-extended shirt.

“Some money for some advice,” says the Director.

Mukhul withdraws two crumpled bills from his coin-purse and places them in the Director’s hand.

“You’re going to skip now.”

Mukhul, standing, starts to skip.

“No. Solitary Confinement and Inhumane Punishment. Listen to me. Do exactly what they say. Do not try to resist. Got it? Now, before you go, here — some tea.”

They drink their tea in silence. All of them. Mukhul and the Director. The card players. The unarmed guard who had escorted Mukhul in. Even the rifle-bearing one, who, in a moment, will haul him away.

                                   *          *          *

There are only two kinds of stories in this world, Mukhal often thinks during the many miserable years he’s spent alone in his prison cell. There are make-believe stories, fictional stories, the kind of stories told to us by fellow human beings, stories which are invariably tainted, meddled with, distorted, polluted by their authors. And then, secondly, there are what might be called real stories, or natural stories; that is, stories untouched, unaltered, delivered to us straight from the universe itself.

Years later, in prison, she is the first foreign woman Mukhul has ever met. A watery-eyed, fair-skinned lady in dirty sandals and a faded yellow dress, she says she comes from an organization called WAR. She tells Mukhul that she is determined to secure his release from prison.

She leans forward, clutching his hand. “I know how difficult this must be for you,” she says. “So many years in solitary confinement can break a writer’s spirit. But unfortunately, believe me, your situation is quite common in countries and cultures such as this. Some governments fear creativity, you see. We have a lengthy registry of such cases at Writers Against Repression. Torture. Assassination. Seen it all. Writers of genius like yourself can cause instability, which can lead to — ”

Mukhul’s teacup shatters on the floor. He tells the lady from WAR the same story he always tells: that he isn’t a writer, that he’s a mere yUCky, a Unit Clerk, a man of eight words or less — “oh dear, just look at me now, babbling on” — a simple, harmless, unmarried Unit Clerk who, by not shaving, somehow managed to mix himself up in an imaginary story about a man who goes to work without shaving.

But the story — he laughs, and then, surprised by his laughter, laughs some more — the story doesn’t exist. He never wrote it. He never got permission to write it; although he recently related his version of events to his brother-in-law, who works at the Bureau of Maternal Propaganda (BUMP). But BUMP only publishes pregnancy guides, pamphlets promoting the benefits of breast milk, that sort of thing. They’d never publish a story about a man who goes to work without shaving.

“Quick,” says the woman from WAR, handing Mukhul a small scrap of paper as the guards approach to escort her away. “Your mother asked me to give you this.”

He opens the note. In the last flicker of candlelight from the hallway, just before the door to his cell is closed, he reads the following words:

Come home, my love. Probhani has agreed to marry
that Khalanghiri boy at PIMP.
Every day crying.
— Mother
P.S. Tell warden less rice, more fruit. Rice will constipate you.

                                   *          *          *

So many endings I’ve written for this story (I’ve been told to keep it short). Sometimes Mukhul dies in prison. Sometimes he’s rescued by WAR. Sometimes he fantasizes about his own escape – and his marriage to his beloved and beautiful Probhani – and in so imagining the events, he causes them to occur.

Of course, were this a real story, a story delivered straight from the universe, I’d need to tell it differently. For one thing, reader, I could never introduce you to Probhani in the flesh. I could never let you gaze into her dark green eyes, or see her trembling lips, or hear her thoughts (lyrical, song-like) as she sits on the bamboo swing in her bedroom brushing her long black hair, or reading the latest letter from her cousin who, by the way, is a very good friend of Mukhul’s brother-in-law at BUMP.

Nor could I ever let you visit her bedroom, witness the needlepoint peacock that covers her vanity table, open the little carved soapstone box in which she keeps a pair of gold earrings that once belonged to her great grandmother, a petal from a lotus blossom she plucked in her childhood village, and a small glossy black-and-white picture — salvaged and carefully cut from a discarded book-jacket — of her favourite poet (a once famous but now neglected writer named Zireaux).

Instead, I’d need to take you straight to my local library in Auckland, to a table covered with wine glasses, crispy little dumplings, fish-sticks arranged in neat floral designs. Palm trees through one window, an island volcano through another. The occasion? One of the venues for an annual literary festival – the place where I first met Mukhul’s mother in 1998.

“Have you been to the top of the Sky Tower?” I would recall myself asking the distracted woman. “Did you like the Harbour Bridge? Have you seen the boats along the Viaduct Basin?” — but here, in the library, amongst the people gathered for the literary festival, Mukhul’s mother wouldn’t seem to understand my questions. She’d carefully inspect the finger food.

“You must be very proud of your son,” one of the organizers of the event, a woman named Emilia Boyle, would say. “He’s such an inspiration. When did you first know that he’d become a great writer?”

Mukhul’s mother would need to look at her son, who is holding a serviette pimpled with crumbs and an empty plastic wine glass, while, at the same time, fiddling with the nozzle of a hot water tank, trying to pour some tea. A great writer? The serviette is oily. Bad for his stomach. The water will burn him. He’s got stains on his tie.

A few minutes earlier, I’d need to explain to you, reader (were this a real story), her son had stood in front of the audience and said his usual eight words: “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m here.” He had then proceeded to read a 19-word poem entitled “Prison,” a 22-word poem entitled “Close Shave,” and a 15-word poem entitled “Grandmother’s Earrings.” He had then sat down beside his beautiful wife; and that was enough. For that the audience had applauded.

For that, they’d always call him “great.”

I’d need to tell you, reader, that I doubt Mukhul’s mother has ever read any great writers, but maybe somewhere she’s seen a picture of one — Tolstoy or Tagore, or maybe Melville or Whitman, or even Rushdie — because, in a real story, she would have responded to Ms. Emilia Boyle’s question with the following observation:

“The hair,” she would have said, searching her limited English for the right word. “The — the beard. That’s when I knew. All the great writers. They all have beards.”

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“The Importance of Breast Milk” by Zireaux

Zireaux’s story, “The Importance of Breast Milk,” is appearing on ImmortalMuse.com in two parts. The second part will appear on Friday, November 19 (to become, perhaps, a “Friday Prose”?).
All rights reserved under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


The Importance of Breast Milk


by
Zireaux

 

Office files.

Office files. Photo by Komal Soin.

“Once upon a time there was a man who — ”

“No no no. Very sorry. You haven’t registered your title with B-PUNT.”

“B-PUNT?”

“Bureau of Publication Names and Titles. Very sorry. I can’t let you go on.”

“And where, sir,” asks Mukhul carefully — a man of few words, no more than eight at a time, as a rule — “is this B-PUNT?”

“Very sorry. Can’t help you with that.”

Mukhul stops to think, then decides against it — the thinking, that is. After all, why should a mere Unit Clerk like himself — a yUCky as he’s known — become further entangled in the sticky web of mental activity? For wasn’t it a thought, after all, a strange and bewitching little thought, that had led him to these extraordinary circumstances to begin with?

                                   *          *          *

A drop of blood. It had all begun with a drop of blood.

He had woken, as usual, amidst the woolly smell of cardamom and coal. The raving ravens, the burble of a dozen babies, the beatings and shrieks, the splutter of morning phlegm as it rattled up the throats of his neighbourhood elders – this was the familiar music to which our Mukhul awoke each day. And he was happy with it. Yes, quite happy.

As usual, he had begun his workday in the bathroom. Putrescent, mottled with mildew, the bathroom had troubled Mukhul’s sense of smell far less than those other aspects of toiletry – seclusion, loneliness — troubled his sense of self. But never mind that. The rust-speckled mirror above the sunken sink; the round face with its slick quotation mark of hair; the inflated, lathered cheek subjecting itself to the first little twitch of the razorblade — and then the sudden sting, followed by a cartographic red line drawing itself over that snow-covered terrain of his flesh.

Sure, Mukhul had cut himself shaving before, many times before. But what an extraordinary thing – to cut himself shaving on the first stroke! Before he’d even cut a single whisker! He wondered (oh the dangerous act of wondering!) what would happen if, having suffered an injury before the shaving began in earnest, if he simply folded up the razor and went to work without shaving.

Imagine that — going to work without shaving. A man who goes to work without shaving!

He shivered. How absurd!

                                   *          *          *

“Freight train?” Mukhul’s mother asked her son as he sat on the kitchen floor for breakfast.

“No. Commuter express. Two-car. Smooth and fast.”

Mukhul’s mother smiled at this report. Nothing pleased her more than a dutiful digestive tract. If only her son were as dependable at becoming a married man as he was with his bowel movements, she wouldn’t be so worried about the Hussein family’s visit this evening. Mr. Hussein was, after all, a Unit Minister, or yUMmy as they’re known, and a marriage proposal from the Husseins was certain to include a considerable dowry — something so important to a poor widow like Mukhul’s mother.

Oh worthless son! How many parents with marriageable daughters had come to meet Mukhul over the last God-knows-how-many years? And how many parents had gone away, never to be heard from again? She knew there was something wrong with her boy. He lived, as they say, “in a faraway galaxy.” Before each meeting with the prospective bride and her parents, Mukhul’s mother would fill her son’s head with detailed instructions on how to behave.

But rather than follow these instructions, he’d sit quietly gazing at the floor. And then, suddenly, he’d do something absurd — stamp his foot down on a lost cockroach, or start singing the national anthem, or quietly, for no reason at all, get up and leave the room.

And yet this girl was different. She wasn’t as pretty or domesticated as the others, but something about her — Mukhul’s mother was certain — had caught her son’s eye. Mukhul had known the girl from his school days. Once, trembling and wretched with tears, he had even confessed to his mother that he loved Probhani and couldn’t imagine marrying anyone else.

He said he thought the girl was intelligent — as if he could judge such a thing! And now his mother had risked every last vestige of social dignity to arrange a meeting with the Husseins, who were several strata above her socially, and, with a shoveling toss of their gossiping tongues, could dispose of what remained of her family dignity into the neighborhood rubbish pile.

The day had just begun and already, even as he sat down for breakfast, something about her son had struck Mukhul’s mother as not quite right that morning.

“Not too smooth, I hope,” she said, pinching Mukhul’s ear. “Otherwise tonight’s feast could derail you entirely. What will beautiful Probhani think of a prospective groom who greets his guests with uncontrollable explosions.”

Mukhul swooned. Probhani! Those large green eyes! Those tender mountain peaks of her upper lip! How often he’d imagined the two of them sitting together in his room, sipping tea, talking, laughing, lifting their feet in perfect unison as one of his older sisters swept and mopped the floor below them.

But even Probhani’s face lacked sufficient magnetism to lure Mukhul away from that other visage. The one he’d seen in the bathroom mirror a few moments before. So dark and coarse and enchanting. So bristling.

“Mukhul?”

He stood up.

“I’ll be home early, mummy. Sweetmeats. Silk tie.”

Eight words. And he was gone.

                                   *          *          *

A man who goes to work without shaving!

Yet the only undue facial attention Mukhul received that day was tactile, and it came from his own fingers. But clearly his hair didn’t grow fast enough; and the absence of any interest from his co-workers eventually convinced Mukhul that he was the wrong man for the role. Still. The idea. He still couldn’t clear his mind of the idea.

“What if…” began Mukhul, sipping tea with his two yUCky colleagues who shared his small office: three desks; two typewriters; one typewriter ribbon; a ceiling fan slowly chasing its tail.

“What if I wanted to write a story?”

“Impossible!” exclaimed Mr. Joshi, raising his pointed chin. “You’d need to have something to write about!”

“Correct,” said Mr. Faroukh, jowls jiggling. “Not once in my twenty-five years of service have I heard of anyone writing a story without having a story in mind.”

“But suppose I have a story in mind — ”

“Bah!”

“Tsch tsch!”

“Okay — not me” — and rushing through the roadblock of his eight-word limit — “Let’s suppose someone else has a story in mind.”

“Ah!”

“Alright now!”

“My brother-in-law, for example,” fabricated Mukhul. “You know, the clever one. The one who works at BURP.”

“Ah, a story about real estate kickbacks,” mused Joshi. “What else can they dream up at the Bureau of Urban Planning? But no one can write a story without getting it registered.”

“Yes,” confirmed Faroukh, scratching his massive head. “Your brother-in-law needs to get his idea registered at DUFFI first.”

                                   *          *          *

Which is where our poor hero (Mukhul, that is, the man who went to work without shaving) is standing now – at the Department of Unofficial Factual and Fictitious Information; or rather, where, having been told he now needs to register a title with B-Punt, he’s in the process of exiting.

He had left his yUCky office an hour early today. It had taken him fifty minutes to find DUFFI, and another hour to find the right person at DUFFI to talk to. Time was running out. How could he possibly locate B-PUNT and return to his house before his lovely Probhani and her dear parents arrived? Oh forget this madness! Please forgive me, my dearest! How could I let my imagination carry me away like this when you, Probhani, offer such greater pleasures!

Mukhul now passes through the columns of un-filed papers, corridors of dust-caked cabinets, past the large front desk and white plastic chairs of a waiting room, and finally steps outside. Peanut hawkers, shoe-shine children, tobacco touts. The din of car horns, bicycle bells, and the ravens, as always, carrying on about some carrion in a rubbish bin. The sky, meanwhile, is freshly torn apart, a gory pink and unreachable mess.

We can see our unit clerk boarding his bus now — the bus that will take him home, the bus that will take him to a happily married life with his Probhani — when a pair of unfamiliar talons pinches his elbow.

“Excuse me, sir. You must come with me.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The director of SALTY. He wishes to see you.”

“SALTY?”

“Stories, Anecdotes, Legends, Tales and Yarns” — pinch, pinch. “You must come at once.”

                                   End of Part I
Read Part II

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Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part III

Mind you, ELECTRA (not to be confused with Freud’s misinterpretation of the goddess), although lacking in most Indian customs, is not a bad place to live.  Joyce, Proust, Melville – the world’s finest writers have vacation homes there.  But these writers, writers who really have composed enormous tracts of their native landscapes, do not take well to a poorly sketched character “feeling a glow of happiness” or faces that work like emoto-meters, as in the case of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s howler, “On the faces of Mr and Mrs Kairon could be discerned a daze, an initial shock, and an inchoate ethnic guilt.”  Therefore many of the writers whose subject matter doesn’t appeal to the Indian audience would be as quickly turned away from ELECTRA and humiliatingly redirected to collegiate writing programs in middle America.

Categorising by readership or amorphous ideas of nationhood, of course, is as absurd as categorising by surname.  One should question this need to drape nationalistic sashes over the shoulders of writers and turn their fiction into pageantry.  I cannot help but attribute the impulse to the fundamental disappointment many of the ELECTRA-type Indian-English writers must feel, when, after having their personal visions of India so warmly embraced by western editors, they come home to relatives who know nothing of their art, family members who – as you read them a page or two of your latest novel, editing out the sex bits and translating the difficult words as best you can – interrupt to ask, so how much money are you making?  Isn’t it time you got married?  Or worse, the book is set afire by angry Indian mobs and banned by the Indian courts.

Your natural reaction is to raise your awkward oriflamme of Indian ancestry and proclaim that your art and your self are inseparable, that because your self is as Indian as any Allahabadian Sandman or Delhian Sylvie, your art must be Indian too (never mind that it speaks a language the majority of Indians don’t understand).  And look, just look at the growing number of other Indian-English writers — a whole collection of them! — who are carving out a similar territory, graphically describing all sorts of previously unspoken material (most of it pulled, coincidentally, out of a very British-American sexual closet), making an impact on the English literary scene, winning international awards, creating, as Rushdie puts it, “the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

But what a tremendous contribution India would make to the world of cooking if Indian mothers would just start serving their pappadams with ketchup and cheese dip.

You might even say India has made a valuable contribution to the world of beauty since its  string of successes in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests – never mind that the traditional Indian concept of beauty would easily fit two modern beauty queens into the same traditional dress, or that the average Indian female wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a swimsuit.  When the German-Indian rap star Apache Indian sang his hit song, “I am an Indian” (the video of which, interestingly, became a kind of national anthem on Indian television because of its “unity-through-diversity” theme – hey, everyone’s an Indian!), he was not singing about the Indian identity, or even the German identity, because he was performing like a young American.

And thus the Indian-English author, in trying at once to serve the recipe of India in the dining room of English literature, faces a conundrum, the most common solution to which is the Indianization of the performance — the tuxedoed waiters serve fried samosas and chutney-covered canapés, the punch bowls are filled with mango lassi and todi juice, the candelabras fitted with bright Divali sparklers, and all the while the writer entertains the company with clever conversation, an endless stream of cross-cultural teasing and wordplay.  But the general shape of the literature, the reason, form and purpose behind the entertainment – the aforementioned celebration of self — remains fixed; in fact it becomes more entrenched, more exclusive, because now it is suddenly rejuvenated with a new and exotic party game.  Like Karoke.  Or Bangra music.

Which is why the indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a more Tagorian creature in which an image matures entirely outside the English literary imagination – the base of a banyan tree spread like the sari of a seated women, a river rising to embrace a village with the passion of a young wife returning for the first time to her parent’s home — is such a rare and endangered species.

Apart from some whispers sounding like “neem leaves brushing the sandstone ceiling” (Parera’s second indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a record-setting two in five pages), I didn’t find another specimen in the entire Rushdie-West collection.  I admit to having skimmed much of Firdauz Kanga’s most exasperating “Trying to Grow,” (Up?) which, reading like an Internet chat session, is as misplaced in Indian Writing as Nehru’s spoken piece of non-writing.  Amitav Ghosh’s reflections on his anthropological study of a village in Egypt squirms uncomfortably in this Rushdiesque reserve and betrays the false nativity of the collected subject matter.  The sample could as easily fit into a collection of Egyptian-English Writing, or Bangladeshi-English Writing, and Ghosh – usually quite suspicious of border-defined states – would have been wise to follow V.S.Naipaul’s example and disallow the patriotic representation of his craft by forbidding Rushdie and West to capture his work altogether.

The chapter excerpted from Arundhuti Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things could be said to contain an indigenous Indian-English metaphorical conceit – the comparison of human sperm to those syrupy soft drinks sold in Indian movie theatres and carnivals.  But here we have a case of an Indian packaging of a foreign commodity.  While sperm may tropologically inhabit British and American phraseology, one doesn’t often hear it mentioned in public Indian-English discourse – although perhaps I mix with the wrong crowd.  To her credit, of all the demonstrations of, as Devani puts it, “fascination of the male anatomy” (no less than five of the stories include descriptions of penile emissions), Roy’s may be the most artful.

Since publication of The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, another decade of novels and poetry written by Indian nationals has emerged in numerous languages and styles, and I expect I’ll comment on some of these eventually, but my initial impression is thus: India’s trade liberalization policies since Indian Writing’s appearance, the huge increase of London- and New York-based literary agents representing India-based authors, the mass influx of foreign tourists and businesses into India over the last decade, the availability of the Internet and cell phones across the country, satellite television, foreign ownership of Indian media, the explosion of young Indians wanting to be writers, filmmakers, artists, entrepreneurs and so forth (rather than the civil servants of old), the Indian-English accent on the telephone support call, the newfound sense of career ambition and the whole amusing illusion that our fast-expanding world is somehow shrinking – all of this will likely transform India, in Rushdie’s mind, into an even larger presence, a greater contributor to the world of books; but it’s unlikely to help infuse English literature with anywhere near the richness, the beauty, the immensity of life which India, the country, is capable of.  For every Indian author who navigates the treacherous migration to an American or British readership, an unknown number of beauties will fly into windscreens or find themselves left with nowhere to feed.

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