9 mutiny -1
who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this; they are like the english pows in dresden who continued to pour tea and dress for dinner, even as the alarms went off, even as the city became a ball of fire. born of a green and pleasant land, a land, the english have a basic to conceive of disaster, even when it is manmade.
it is different for the people of bangladesh, formerly east pakistan, formerly india, formerly bengal. they live under the invisible finger of disaster, of flood and , and mud-slide. half the time half their country lies under water; generations wiped out as as
clockwork; individual life expectancy an optimistic fifty-two, and they are aware that when you talk about apocalypse, when you talk about death en masse, well, they are leading the way in that particular field, they will be the first to go, the first to slip atlantis-like down to the seabed when the pesky polar ice-caps begin to shift and melt. it is the most country in the world, bangladesh. it is god's idea of a really good wheeze, his stab at black . you don't need to give out questionnaires to bengalis. the facts of disaster are the facts of their lives.
between alsana's sweet sixteenth birthday (1971), for example, and the year she stopped directly to her husband (1985), more people died in bangladesh, more people perished in the winds and the rain, than in hiroshima, nagasaki and dresden put together. a million people lost lives that they had learnt to hold lightly in the first place.
and this is what alsana really held against samad, if you want the truth, more than the betrayal, more than the lies, more than the basic facts of a : that magid should learn to hold his life lightly. even though he was safe up there in the chittagong hills, the highest point of that low-lying, flatland country, still she hated the thought that magid should be as she had once been: on to a life no heavier than a paisa coin, wading thoughtlessly through floods, shuddering underneath the weight of black skies .. .
naturally, she became . naturally, she tried to get him back. she spoke to the authorities. the authorities said things like, "to be honest, love, we're more worried about them coming in or "to tell you the truth, if it was your husband who arranged the trip, there's not a great deal that we-', so she put the phone down. after a few months she stopped ringing. she went to wembley and whitechapel in despair and sat in the houses of relatives for epic weekends of and eating and commiserations, but her gut told her that though the curry was sound, the commiserations were not all they seemed. for there were those who were quietly pleased that alsana iqbal, with her big house and her blacky white friends and her husband who looked like omar sharif and her son who spoke like the prince of wales, was now living in doubt and like the rest of them, learning to wear misery like old familiar silk. there was a certain satisfaction in it, even as zinat (who never revealed her role in the deed) reached over the chair arm
to take alsana's hand in her sym claws. "oh, alsi, i just keep thinking what a shame it is that he had to take the good one! he was so very clever and so behaved! you didn't have to worry about drugs and dirty girls with that one. only the price of spectacles with all that reading."
oh, there was a certain pleasure. and don't ever underestimate people, don't ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. pain by itself is just pain. but pain distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinema verite, a good belly , a sym smile, a raised , disguised .
alsana sensed all these and more at the other end of her telephone line as the calls flooded in 28 may 1985 to inform her of, to offer commiserations for, the latest . "alsi, i simply had to call. they say there are so many bodies floating in the bay of bengal..."
"i just heard the latest on the radio ten thousand!"
"and the survivors are floating on rooftops while the sharks and s snap at their heels."
"it must be terrible, alsi, not knowing, not being sure .. ."
for six days and six nights, alsana did not know, was not sure. during this period she read from the bengali poet rabindranath tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (night's darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort. for those six days her life was a midnight thing, a hair's from the witching hour. but on the seventh day came light: the news arrived that magid was fine, suffering only a broken nose delivered by a vase which had fallen from its station on a high shelf in a mosque, blown over in the first breath of the first winds (and keep one eye on that vase, please, it is the same vase that will lead magid by the nose to his vocation). it was only the servants, having two days earlier taken a secret supply of gin and piled into the family's dilapidated van on a pleasure trip to dhaka, who were now floating belly-up in the jamuna
river as fish finned-silver stared up at them, pop-eyed and bemused.
samad was . "you see? he'll come to no harm in chittagong! even better news,he was in a mosque. better he break his nose in a mosque than in a kilburn fight! it is exactly as i had hoped. he is learning the old ways. is he not learning the old ways?"
alsana thought for a moment. then she said: "maybe, samad miah."
"what do you mean, "maybe"?" "maybe, samad miah, maybe not."
alsana had to stop directly to her husband. through the next eight years she would determine never to say yes to him, never to say no to him, but rather to force him to live
like she did never knowing, never being sure, samad's sanity to , until she was
paid in full with the return of her number-one-son-eldest-by-two-minutes, until she could once
more put a chubby hand through his thick hair. that was her promise, that was her curse upon
samad, and it was revenge. at times it very nearly drove him to the brink, to the
kitchen-knife stage, to the medicine cabinet. but samad was the kind of person too to kill
himself if it meant giving someone else satisfaction. he hung on in there. alsana turning over in her
sleep, muttering, "just bring him back, mr. idiot... if it's driving you nut so just bring my baby back."
but there was no money to bring magid back even if samad had been inclined to wave the
white dhoti. he learnt to live with it. it got to the point where if somebody said 'yes' or no' to
samad in the street or in the restaurant, he hardly knew how to respond, he had come to forget what
those two little signifiers meant. he never heard them from alsana's lips. whatever the
question in the iqbal house, there would never again be a straight answer:
"alsana, have you seen my slippers?"
"possibly, samad miah."
"what time is it'
"it could be three, samad miah, but allah knows it could also be four."
"alsana, where have you put the remote control?"
"it is as likely to be in the drawer, samad miah, as it is behind the sofa."
and so it went.
sometime after the may , the iqbals received a letter from their
elder-son-by-two-minutes, written in a careful hand on exercise paper and folded around a recen photograph. it was not the first time he had written, but samad saw something different in this letter,
something that excited him and validated the particular decision he had made; some change of tone,
ss o ^urity, of growing eastern wisdom; and, having
^carefully in the garden first, he took great pleasure in sneaking into the kitchen and reading it
aloud to clara and
alcana who were drinking peppermint tea.
listen- here he says, "yesterday, grandfather hit tamm (he is the houseboy) with a belt until his
bottom was redder than a from to he said tamim had stolen some candles (it's true. i saw ct'it!),
and this was what he got for it. he says; sometrmes muh pun she's and sometimes men have to do
it, and it >s a wise n who knows if it is allah's turn or his own. i hope one day i can be a wise
man." do you hear that? he wants to be a wise man how many kids in that school do you know
who want to
be wise men?"
maybe none, samad miah. maybe all."
samad scowled at his wife and continued, "and here here where he talks about his nose: "it
seems to me that a vase should lot be in such a silly place where it can fall and break a boy s nose it
should be somebody's fault and somebody should be punished (but not a bottom smack unless they
were small and not grown-up. if they were younger than twelve). when i grow up i sink i should
like to make sure vases are not put in such places where they can be dangerous and i would comp
lam about oaer dangerous things too (by the way, my nose is fine now!) see?"
clara frowned. "see what?"
clara rrownea. occ wa-.
"clearly he disapproves of iconography in the mosque, he dislikes all , unnecessary,
dangerous decoration! a boy like that is destined for , isn't he?" "maybe, samad miah,
maybe not." maybe he'll go into government, maybe the law, suggested
^rubbish' my son is for god, not men. he is not fearful of his duty. he is no" fearful to be a
real bengali, a proper musum.
here he tells me the goat in the photograph is dead. "i helped to kill the goat, abba," he says. "it
kept on moving some time after we had split it in two." is that a boy who is fearful?"
it clearly being incumbent upon someone to say no, clara said it with little enthusiasm and
reached for the photograph samad was passing her. there was magid, dressed in his
grey, standing next to the doomed goat with the old house behind him.
"oh! look at his nose! look at the break. he's got a roman nose, now. he looks like a little
, like a little englishman. look, millat." clara put the photo under millat's smaller, flatter
nose. "you two don't look so much like twins any more."
"he looks," said millat after a cursory glance, 'like a chief."
samad, never au fait with the language of the willesden streets, nodded and patted his son's hair. "it is good that you see the difference between you two boys, millat, now rather than later." samad glared at alsana as she spun an index finger in a circle by her temple, as she tapped the side of her head: crazee, nut so "others may scoff, but you and i know that your brother will lead others out of the wilderness. he will be a leader of tribes. he is a natural chief."
millat laughed so loud at this, so hard, so uncontrollably, that he lost his , slipped on a wash cloth and broke his nose against the sink.
two sons. one invisible and perfect, frozen at the pleasant age of nine, static in a picture frame
while the television underneath him spewed out all the shit of the eighties irish bombs, english riots, transatlantic stalemates above which mess the child rose untouchable and unstained, elevated
to the of ever smiling buddha, imbued with eastern ; capable of anything, a natural leader, a natural muslim, a natural chief- in short, nothing but an . a daguerreotype formed
from the quicksilver of the father's imagination, preserved by the salt solution of tears.
this son stood silent, distant and was 'presumed well', like one of her majesty's colonial island
outposts, stuck in an eternal state of original naivety, pre-pubescence. this son samad
could not see. and samad had long learnt to worship what he could not see.
as for the son he could see, the one who was under his feet and in his hair, well, it is best not to
get samad started up on that subject, the subject of the trouble with millat, but here goes: he is the
second son, late like a bus, late like cheap postage, the slow coach the catch-up-kid, losing that first
race down the birth canal, and now simply a follower by genetic predisposition, by the
design of allah, the loser of two vital minutes that he would never make up, not in those all-seeing
parabolic mirrors, not in those globes of the godhead, not in his father's eyes. now, a more
child than millat, a more deep thinking child, might have spent the rest of his life
these two minutes and making himself miserable, chasing the elusive , laying it
finally at his father's feet. but what his father said about him did not concern millat all that much:
he knew himself to be no follower, no chief, no wanker, no sell-out, no fuck wit no matter what his
father said. in the language of the street millat was a rude boy a badman, at the forefront, changing
image as often as shoes; sweet-as, safe, wicked, leading kids up hills to play football, downhill to
rifle fruit machines, out of schools, into video shops. in rocky video, millat's favourite haunt, run
by an unscrupulous coke-dealer, you got porn when you were fifteen, i8s when you were eleven,
and snuff movies under the for five quid. here was where millat really learnt about fathers.
godfathers, blood-brothers, pacinodeniros, men in black who looked good, who talked fast, who
never waited a (mutherfuckin') table, who had two, fully functioning, gun-toting hands. he learnt
that you don't need to live under
flood, under , to get a little danger, to be a wise man. you go looking for it. aged twelve,
millat went out looking for it, and though willesden green is no bronx, no south central, he found
a little, he found enough. he was arsey and mouthy, he had his fierce good looks squashed
inside him like a jack-in-a-box set to spring aged thirteen, at which point he graduated from leader
of zit-faced boys to leader of women. the pied piper of willesden green, girls trailing
behind him, tongues out, breasts pert, falling into pools of heartbreak.. . and all because he was the
biggest and the baddest, living his young life in capitals: he smoked first, he drank first,
he even lost it it! aged thirteen and a half. ok, so he didn't feel muchortouch
much,itwasmoist andconfus in g, he lost it without even knowing where it went, but he still
lost it because there was no doubt, none, that he was the best of the rest, on any scale of
delinquency he was the shining light of the teenage , the don, the business, the
dog's genitalia, a street boy, a leader of tribes. in fact, the only trouble with millat was that
he loved. trouble. and he was good, at it. wipe that. he was great.
still, there was much discussion at home, at school, in the various kitchens of the iqbal/begum clan about the trouble with millat, mutinous millat aged thirteen, who farted in
mosque, chased blondes and smelt of tobacco, and not just millat but all the children: mujib
(fourteen, criminal record for joyriding), khandakar (sixteen, white girlfriend, wore mascara in the
evenings), dipesh (fifteen, marijuana), kurshed (eighteen, marijuana and very baggy trousers),
khaleda (seventeen, sex before marriage with chinese boy), bimal (nineteen, doing a in drama); what was wrong with all the children, what had gone wrong with these first descendants of
the great ocean crossing experiment? didn't they have everything they could want? was there not a garden area, regular meals, clean clothes from marks 'n' sparks, a-class top-notch education?
hadn't the elders done their best? hadn't they all come to this island for a reason? to be safe.
weren't they safe"!
"too safe," samad explained, consoling one or other , angry ma or baba, perplexed and dadu or dida, 'they are too safe in this country, accha? they live in big plastic
bubbles of our own creation, their lives all mapped out for them. personally, you know i would spit
on saint paul, but the wisdom is correct, the wisdom is really allah's: put away childish things.
how can our boys become men when they are never challenged like men? hmm? no doubt about it,
on reflection, sending magid back was the best thing. i would recommend it."
at which point, the assembled weepers and moaners all look mournfully at the treasured picture
of magid and goat. they sit mesmerized, like hindus waiting for a stone cow to cry, until a visible
aura seems to emanate from the photo: goodness and through , through hell and
high water; the true muslim boy; the child they never had. pathetic as it was, alsana found it
, the tables having turned, no one for her, everyone for themselves and their children, for what the terrible eighties were doing to them both. these gatherings were like last-ditch political summits, they were like desperate meetings of government and church behind
closed doors while the mutinous mob roamed wild on the streets, smashed windows. a distance
was establishing itself, not simply between father sons old young bomtherebornhere, but between those who stayed and those who ran riot outside.
"too safe, too easy," samad, as great-aunt bibi wiped magid lovingly with some mr. sheen. "a month back home would sort each and every one of them out."
but the fact was millat didn't need to go back home: he stood schizophrenic, one foot in bengal and one in willesden. in his mind he was as much there as he was here. he did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother's life and his own (he was a twin after all). alsana was the first to spot it. she confided to clara: by god, they're tied together like a cat's cradle,
connected like a see-saw, push one end, other goes up, whatever millat sees, magid saw and vice versa! and alsana only knew the incidentals: similar illnesses, simultaneous accidents, pets dying continents apart. she did not know that while magid watched the 1985 shake things from high places, millat was pushing his luck along the wall of the in fortune green;
that on 10 february 1988, as magid worked his way through the violent crowds of dhaka, ducking
the blows of those busy settling an election with and fists, millat held his own against three sotted, furious, quick footed irishmen outside biddy mulligan's kilburn public house. ah, but you are not convinced by ? you want fact fact fact? you want brushes with the big man with black hood and ? ok: on the 28th of april, 1989, a tornado whisked the chittagong kitchen up into the sky, everything with it except magid, left miraculously curled up in a ball on the floor. now, segue to millat, five thousand miles away, lowering himself down upon legendary sixth-former natalia cavendish (whose body is keeping a
dark secret from her); the condoms are unopened in a box in his back pocket; but somehow he will not catch it; even though he is moving rhythmically now, up and in, deeper and sideways, dancing with death.
1 october 1987
even when the lights went out and the wind was the shit out of the double glazing,
alsana, a great in the that is the bbc, sat in a nightie on the sofa, refusing to budge.
"if that mr. fish says it's ok, it's damn well ok. he's bbc, for god's sake!"
samad gave up (it was almost impossible to change alsana's mind about the reliability
of her english institutions, them: princess anne, blu-tack, children's royal
variety performance, eric morecambe, woman's hour). he got the torch from the kitchen drawer
and went , looking for millat.
"millat? answer me, millat! are you there?"
"maybe, abba, maybe not."
samad followed the voice to the and found millat chin-high in dirty pink soap suds, reading viz.
"ah, dad, wicked. torch. shine it over here so i can read."
"never mind that." samad tore the comic from his son's hands. there's a bloody blowing and your crazy mother intends to sit here until the roof falls in. get out of the bath. i need
you to go to the shed and find some wood and nails so that we can-'
"but abba, i'm butt-naked!"
"don't split the hairs with me this is an . i want you to '
an ripping noise, like something being severed at the roots and flung against a wall, came from outside.
two minutes later and the family iqbal were standing regimental in varying states of , looking out through the long kitchen window on to a patch in the lawn where the shed used to be.
millat clicked his heels three times and hammed it up with corner shop accent, "o me o my.
there's no place like home. there's no place like home."
"all right, woman. are you coming now?"
"maybe, samad miah, maybe."
"dammit! i'm not in the mood for a . we're going to archibald's. maybe they still have light. and there is safety in numbers. both of you get dressed, grab the essentials, the life or death things, and get in the car!"
holding the car boot open against a wind determined to bring
it down, samad was first amused and then by the items his wife and son determined essential, life or death things:
born to run (album) sewing machine
springsteen three pots of tiger balm
poster of de niro in "you tal- leg of lamb (frozen)
kin' to me' scene from taxi foot bath
driver linda goodman's starsigns betamax copy of purple rain (book) (rock movie) huge box of beedi cigarettes
shrink-to-fit levis 501 (red tab) divargiit singh in moonshine pair of black over kerala (musical video)
shoes a clockwork orange (book)