Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.

Soren Kierkegaard




The Europeans left with a vengeance, what I said to Lia. Now a new political atmosphere marred our lives with land masses falling apart and going into the ocean, it seemed like. But Lia scoffed, for she had views of her own. Now nothing remained for us to contend with as power-drills kept being at it; and some people were bent on seeking pleasure like the highest satisfaction in life; call it hedonism, if you like.

How Lia laughed.

A new political state in the making we argued about, as we longed for more than an elusive identity. A new body politic in the making, but without the rule of law. I argued about going back to where we came from. But Lia balked. “We have to make amends,” she said.


“It’s what we always thought, didn’t we?”

Balefully, I nodded.

And the locals talked among themselves debating every point of law, some being ideologues or polemicists snapping away at each other. Some simply called themselves sociologists and anthropologists ad nauseam. But who really understood Kant, not only Hegel and Marx? Indeed everything became mixed in with oral history. Folklore, yes.

See, Lia and I were caught in a whirl; and maybe we’d been away too long. Now a new spirit was taking over, Lia hinted.

“You will be disappointed,” I hurled.


“About independence.

Because of our being in the “diaspora” – too long? Crossing continents, what only our forebears did, like being Marco Polo all over again? And the letters we’d written and reminded ourselves about.

“Maybe,” Lia countered.

“Do we belong here?” I tried.

And what did the Europeans leave behind as institutions appeared to crumble? Would we complain about the banality of Empire Writing Back? “I know what you’re thinking, Lia,” I scorched.

“You do?”

“Yes, dammit!”

She heaved in. We kept up a keen sense with eye and ear tied to racial origins–with our forebears inevitably being in the mix. Emotional baggage strapped onto our backs, more like it. Sisyphus going uphill! Like ancient history, you see. But came Lia’s new stance; it had to do with will power.

“Real power?” I challenged her.

“There you go again.”

Instinctively I laughed. And her name, would it always be Asian-sounding? More I contested. Call it integrity, if you like. “Don’t you know?” she grated.

“Know what?”

Lia becoming political, which frightened me.

It did.

I watched her on a platform talking about the “causes,” in bright sunlight. Human rights abuses and social issues tied to political freedom she went on about. Idealistic she became overnight. What else is to come? She scoffed and said I was indeed imagining things.

“I’m not!”

“We’re just returnees, remember.”

I hated the word “returnees.” She made a sourpuss face.

Now I wanted something else to happen, my being incorrigible. Yes, I kept testing the waters with her; and how I wanted Lia to laugh as before. She didn’t.

Yes, the newspaper columnists kept being at it with their self-styled rhetoric. Who else wanted to have their place in the sun – now that the Europeans (meaning the English) had left for good? Did we want to forge a new political path tied to our own aspirations? Ah, America was keeping a close eye on us. Not what we ever denied!

“It’s what’s not true,” I grated.

“It’s our destiny,” snapped Lia.

“Bah, what’s destiny?”

“Not what’s European is our legacy!”

“Europeans brought us stability.”

“What kind of stability? Kari, you’ve always had it good,” she slammed.

I wasn’t sure, because of my having come from the middle-class with my Asian sense – my family name being Kirpalani from a Gujarati source. How real? Who wanted to be seen as upstarts calling themselves the Alliance For This-or-That? Political frenzy swirled around us. Let large or small states learn about our real motives, I hinted. Oh, back to racial origin, with talk of ethnic cleansing!

Not a new political ideology in the making?

I blamed the “opposition,” people of another race, if only from a mythical Africa. Lia made a face. Then, about a hortatory India with the Vedas in the foreground, not background. Economic solutions we yearned for too as Lia quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen; yes, she reminded me of having once heard him speak at the London School of Economics. Our Indian ancestry came back in more than dribs and drabs. And Lia’s words started becoming her critical nerve-centre; she wanted change. Didn’t I, too?

She simmered. Who really were the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Africans with their own past empires? What Mughal state existed before the Europeans came to India? Did Alexander the Great really conquer the known world, but was unable to go beyond the Indus Valley? And why did the Romans leave generals behind when they tried to conquer China, some who intermarried with the local Chinese women? Oh, thousands of horses, elephants, camels were killed.

Who really was Genghis Khan? Marauding tribes with horsemen showing off their skill, like devilry itself. Imagine women being raped and children killed at every turn! Scribes too kept being at it… with the ink of conquest. A writer I was, I wanted it to be different.

Lia cautioned about what I was aiming for. Narcissus, watch yourself. Did Marshall McLuhan actually say that? Now the small state we’d returned to, where everything was more than metaphor. Motifs becoming leitmotif, yes. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh I conjured up –

he who had his weird dreams in the Tower of London with his mind-mapping instincts as he wrote his Discoverie of the Worlde. And did I know that Sir Francis Drake had a black man named Diego in his ship as he circumnavigated the world?

“Kari, you never belonged here,” Lia said.

“You mean we never belonged.”

She was now an activist, more than role-playing. But this was no game. What else must I know? And how much did I really care?

She railed at me. “Kari, you’re a son-of-a-bitch!”

“What?” Then, “I’m not… but you are.”

“Because I’m female?”


“Then sons-of-bitches we will be!”

We also knew unity never existed between the main races in the country, though some pretended it did. Christ, we were never one people, one nation, one destiny. How we yearned for a genuine rule of law, wanting crimes against “our people” to stop! And what more did we conjure up in the forest or bush the British left behind so close to the equator? The hinterland with the sea inexorably coming closer. And were there death-squads working hand-in-hand with the drug cartels in the midst of an army take-over?

“It’s imperialism’s curse,” I lamented.

Lia wasn’t willing to lay blame.

The local politicians kept up the hysteria, about fear that stalked the land. But Lia said we should only blame ourselves because of our lack of a tradition, as she quoted T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; she’d been an archivist at the London School of Economics, see. But I shared republican sentiments because of my time in America. America, oh America. Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln; good old Abe.

Let the Civil War stand apart as a special place in American and world history, as I beckoned her to it. And about Walt Whitman with his Leaves of Grass. What more? On shifting ground I kept hoping to find my true place. Yes, I was falling in love with Lia.

Indeed we didn’t want to be in an “outback” place any longer as we might have conceived it – being not unlike the Aborigines of Australia, come to think of it.

“Really the outback, Kari?”

“It’s what I sometimes feel.”

“We’re here now.” She breathed in hard.

“Without the sense of origins?”

The image of the wild coast becoming wilder with my keen writer’s sense – as I fancifully conjured up philharmonic orchestras and Mozart playing: everything replayed in the hinterland more than leitmotif. I kept imagining ourselves being really in Vienna. Tall trees, the greenheart and wallaba, fluttered their leaves; the forest canopy grew wider in an overarching sky. Zinnia and bougainvillea flowers rose among aromatic basil, this Indian herb along the coastal belt.

I yet disdained the word “returnees,” in our interlocutory manner.

“Tell me more, Lia.”

“Tell you… what?”

“What I must aim for.”

She chortled.

The nation-state being all we kept wrestling with in our self-created drama, it seemed like. Now how far back in time must we go?

You tell me.

“Tell you?” she hissed.


“It’s about love, is it?”

The land becoming bright and sparkly in our dreams, what we hoped for. How soon?



Lia joined a trade union movement, then started advocating for women’s rights. Her name blared out in the media. “I’m doing something about it, Kari,” she said. “I have a voice.”

“Voice?” I grew impatient. “You’re thinking of not ever returning?”

“Kari, I want to make a difference.”

I was surprised by her energy. She reassured me it would always be the same with our friendship. Not courtship? Then, “Kari, we must really do something.” See, she started attending meeting after meeting about workers’ rights – women workers, in particular.

The media called her someone who combined astuteness with charisma. Imagine her becoming a member of Parliament. Would she really seek political office? She had no such conceit. “Take me as I am,” she said.

“Who are you really?”

“Not who you are?”

Flashbacks… as I reminded myself about how we’d indulged ourselves talking about the essence of things, even pretending to be phenomenologists. Who… or what really? She was pragmatic, more than a mere ideologue-turned-activist, see. Lia stirred from deep within.

I watched her interacting with people. She wasn’t fazed by the crowd coming around her. Only I seemed to be an… outsider. She glared at me. Then, “Why did you really come back, Kari?”


“You heard me.”

I’d been away too long?

Lia proclaimed herself a leader as a real politician, in a few short months. In Parliament she assumed leadership of her party. Her charisma acted out, as the media described it. The masses gravitated round her, petite Lia. “Yes,” she cried.

“You’re fooling yourself,” I hurled.

“I’m not Marxist if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“The media’s calling you that. You’re no longer just liberal, you know.”

She was in her true element. And I was unable to accept who or what she was becoming, and told her so. I did!



We were coming to the parting of the ways. Was I really an outsider, while she kept being the insider? “I’m real, Kari. Only you are living in the past.”

“The past is all we have.”

“It’s much more, Kari.”

I didn’t want her to get caught up in something bigger than herself, and feel she was being “loved” by the people. She hurled at me: “It’s you – in love with me, ah!”

“Am I… in love?”

“Admit it, Kari.”

“I’ve always found you attractive.”

“But love is much more.”

Outsider-insider instincts I recalled: how we’d danced in the metropolis; and the meals we ate in fancy restaurants in London, New York, Vienna. We reminisced about the “good old times”… until the realization that we should indeed return home.

“I’m genuinely in love with you,” I said to her.

“Are you really, Kari?”

She only wanted us to have a solid place in the sun; and for her to show the former colonial masters what we were capable of. We would no longer be living in a failed small-state, not forever. Then, “I know you’re thinking of returning… there,” she said.

“I want to be here with you, Lia,” I pleaded.

“Do you?”

I also wanted to be in the centre of things… with her. Not being at the heart of empire anymore? Not where things literally fell apart. I throbbed. Lia glared at me.


She didn’t want me to “crowd” her anymore, she said. Others came round to cheer her on… the new leader. Applause followed.

Instinctively, I also cheered. “Kari, Kari,” I imagined her calling out. “Lia, Lia,” I called back. She kept leading her party in the polls; she would win the elections. She did! Let the trade unions rule the day, the workers’ rights being all. Capitalists beware! She kept saying the people wanted genuine change. Transformation!

I said the people, well, who were just the masses – always fickle.

They were never to be relied upon. She raised a fist at me. I raised a fist back at her, in our incorrigible ways. Never just foreplay! Now nothing would hold back Lia. Not hold me back either?

A plane flying overheard I looked at. The far sky. The country and its people… everyone applauding. Echoes: as I woke up from a long dream in London, New York. What a dream.




It came to me one morning after I’d worked it out for myself, and I told Lia I didn’t belong here any longer; I wanted to drag her home with me – for her to get out of the maelstrom she was caught in. But Lia would have none of it. “We don’t belong here,” I cried.




“Where we came from. London, New York.” I felt almost dizzy. “There… where we truly belong.”

“The people – ask them. Only they can tell us.”

“Christ, Lia, we’re not part of them.”


Lia said it was what we might have imagined or fashioned for ourselves over the years. Images I quickly denied. And the locals: what about them? The wind of change kept blowing. But Lia wanted to deliver on her promise. The workers, women, the trade unions appeared more real. “No?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

When she screamed at me, I screamed back at her!

“D’you really love me, Kari?”

“I do!”

“What’s love, eh?”

We would go on like this for days… as the media kept describing her as a woman with true principles with unique abilities – she who’d returned to save “her people.” “Let’s go back there,” I begged.

“To feel we were only… returnees?”

“Before the whirl takes you over completely.” I wasn’t really sure why I said that.

“You mean before I become seduced by power?”

I harped back on identity, then about race that impelled us – and to ask who we really were. We also laughed, you see. Oh, Lia and I embraced – here in our final meeting; and she would remain here. And Empire… I reneged, or denied to myself. Lia said she never really wanted it to be this way. Do you, Lia?

She would come to her senses five or ten years from now – after politics took its toll on her soul – what she would never really admit to.  “Kari, you’re one of a kind,” she said. “You only live in the imagination.”

“And you… Lia?”

“I’m an activist.”

“Bah, what’s an activist?”

She scoffed.

I simply grinned, in a fool’s way.

Indeed, a new place with new people, and empires rising and falling apart once more. What we would imagine in the passage of time. Yet love was the only genuine emotion! We would meet in foreign streets and again see ourselves in the diaspora thinking we were yet “returnees” living out our existential lives. Shrill voices around us. Hysteria everywhere.

“You belong,” a voice called out. “You really do belong,” I muttered back to myself. Lia, where are you? Fate taking over, what I wanted to acknowledge, or accept. Lia, wherever she now was, was also looking or searching for me. Time passing us by.


“Books” (CC BY-NC 2.0) Andrew Atkinson

A few weeks back I opened my front door, and there on the landing was a small, dog-eared, salmon-coloured paperback: the Marquis de Sade’s Les Crimes de l’amour. Diane, my neighbour downstairs, visits bibliothèques de la rue – small wooden lockers set back from the sidewalk, where people can pick up and leave second-hand books. I’ve never noticed the bibliothèques before I moved here (a quiet, northern suburb on the island of Montréal), although since I’ve started recounting this story, people tell me that they are everywhere in the city. In any case, I didn’t confess to my neighbour that I’d never heard  of the bibliothèques de la rue, and I didn’t ask her what was behind the tradition. In Montréal, I’ve gotten used to figuring things out as I go along and pretending I know what I’m doing. It’s part of scraping by with the language: you make up what you don’t quite hear or don’t want to ask. In this particular instance, I figured that the book exchange scheme was probably the brain-child of some new and ambitious city councillor who saw mutual self-help as a way of gaining prominence and maybe winning votes. This at least is how I see things.

My neighbour doesn’t work. She’s waiting for her sixty-fifth birthday, which I happen to know is next March, because when it comes she’ll get more money from the government. She dreams of finally getting out of her basement apartment and starting a new life. In the meantime she walks the streets – and reads.

She’s quite respectable. She’s decently dressed and generally sociable. She’s a middle-class woman fallen on hard times with two adult children in the city and no husband in attendance. Her own preference is for historical novels – dramas or romances that take place in the châteaux and royal courts of Europe over two centuries ago, and which I assume involve intrigue and illicit sex. Her other preoccupation is complaining about the landlord who lives on the ground floor and is falling behind in repairs. She catches me on the stairs or just outside the front door, speaking always in a low, conspiratorial voice as if she’s frightened of being overheard. “Est-ce qu’il vous dérange?” she asks. “Il claque la porte quand il rentre, et si fort. J’ai dit, pas si fort, pas si fort. Je dors seulement quatre ou cinq heures par nuit à cause de lui. Et j’ai des réparations à faire.  J’appelle et j’appelle!”

The landlord’s partner left him about a year ago, and he’s taken over sole responsibility for the building. He works long hours and comes in very late at night, slamming the front door and waking Diane up at 4:00 am.

I like talking to Diane. She makes me feel I have a place in the world because she’s so sure of having one herself. She lets me know what’s going on in the house, and now that the landlord is alone, we are more or less all in the same boat:  four célibataires, as Diane says – myself, Diane, the landlord (Bruno) and the landlord’s young adult son who has the apartment next to mine. The son has short-term girlfriends who come and go. For the most part we all rattle around in a medium-sized, semi-detached triplex like loose change in an automatic vending machine, minding our own business and leading our own lives. I would describe relations as a step above indifference and a step below nosiness, though people are polite, and in that respect I think it helps to be Anglophone – or half-foreigner – because people do observe the decencies and still leave me a certain amount of personal space.

I knew as soon as I had it in my hands that I would like Les Crimes de l’amour. Apart from the shocking pink cover, the title is done in neat, round lettering much like the handwriting of the educated French, schooled in exclusive French lycées. The appearance of the book is unmistakably haughty and Parisian – I would say from somewhere around the Sorbonne. I see a tiny, dark bookstore on a narrow street off Boulevard St-Michel. On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of a classical painting showing a powerful, muscled and mostly naked man whipping a fleshy and mostly naked woman; the man’s right arm is drawn back, ready to strike, and in his hand is a ribbed iron chain. The corners of the photograph are curved, as in cheap Polaroid prints. The effect is tacky.  The message is deadly serious.

   Les Crimes de l’amour was a surprise, but not a disappointment. The book consists of four lengthy short stories in which there is not a single sex scene. The usual stuff of melodrama – alcohol, violence, physical cruelty, or cold, calculating sexual adventure – is almost entirely absent. These are all are stories of trickery and deception, and the deceivers show a remarkable constancy in their attachments: the objects of their cunning are known to them and are often chosen by them, and if they abandon their victims for a time, they later return. They are not usually motivated by money or ambition: what they seek is psychological domination and the gratification of their own desires. The death, dishonour or humiliation of a virtuous young woman – or possibly all three combined – follow as the inevitable consequence of the deceitful characters’ need to manipulate and control.

In a moral sense, the Marquis clearly knows what’s what: the schemers and manipulators are called scoundrels, thugs, bandits, rascals (malfrats, fripons, vauriens, coquins). The stories are presented as tragedies, and true to that tradition, the outcome is only hinted at; the reader must read to the end to learn exactly how much psychological pain can be inflicted and how much damage can be done. But there is no real contest between good and evil, and no sense that good will eventually be restored. Here innocence is drawn to destruction as a flower turns to the sun.

Most often, the innocents are young women and the evil-doers are men, but this is not exclusively true. A young man is killed with his lover, a mother plots against her daughter, and a daughter plans her mother’s downfall because she sees her mother as a rival. The stories take place in pre-Revolutionary France – among landowners, counts, barons, chevaliers, and their wives, widows, daughters and sisters – but there is no sense that the corruption in this society is at the root of the choices people make. The desire to harm is pure and disembodied; it is unexplained and unexcused. And although there are characters who insist on the importance of morality in any given society, their efforts are curiously inept and ineffectual. Guardians or clerics who are friends of the family make long, tedious speeches about the value of the good life, but fail to see moral danger when it appears. They are complacent and self-protective, and they take no risks for themselves.

If all there is to living is self-interest, the Marquis seems to say, then virtue isn’t an option. Evil will always win out.

The stories are best read late at night, in the stillness of a sleeping house. It’s then that you can sink into the long, elegant sentences stretching down half a page, or search around in the recesses of memory for unusual verb forms that are probably the past historic tense, or take a guess at whether a verb form could be an imperfect subjunctive. In the silence of the night, ego melts away and you no longer struggle to get things right; you concentrate on what’s there and what you can make of it. Thankfully, the vocabulary hasn’t changed very much over two centuries, and a broad understanding of the story comes through easily enough.

The unfolding of the plot is strangely satisfying. The most exciting moments are probably those where virtue seems, fleetingly, to have a sporting chance, but the suspense never lasts long. Good never breaks back, and never puts much effort into the fight. In one of the stories (Florville et Corval ou le Fatalisme) there isn’t even an evil-doer as such, and a woman whose only wish has been to lead a blameless life finds, at the age of thirty-seven and in the first months of a long-delayed marriage, that she is nonetheless responsible for two deaths and two acts of incest. She has been trapped, not by human malevolence but by fate – by not knowing her parentage and by being put in some very difficult circumstances. When she learns what she has done, she blows her brains out.  Her new husband and his son by an earlier marriage soon retreat to a life of contemplation and prayer, where they learn “that it is only in the darkness of the tomb that man can find the tranquility that the ill-will of his fellow creatures, his unbridled passion and the iron hand of destiny will always deny him on earth.” [Author’s translation]

“Tomb” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Simon Huggins

By the Marquis’ standards, this is a happy ending, for even if the woman was well intentioned and could not have known that she was breaking fundamental social rules, her victims did not deserve their fate. In this sense she is guilty and her suicide is just. Her husband and stepson share in her dishonour, and for them, as for her, death is the only release.

The Marquis de Sade died on December 2, 1814 at the age of seventy-four, after spending thirty years of his adult life in prisons or institutions for the insane. His family buried him but put no name on the tombstone because they were ashamed of his craziness.  I learned this from the “Introduction” by Gilbert Lely. I also learned that Les Crimes de l’amour is not reckoned to be the Marquis’ best book. That would probably be Justine, published in 1791, followed perhaps by Nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu, suivie par l’Histoire de Juliette, sa soeur, published in 1797. Les Crimes de l’amour was first published in Year VIII of the French Revolutionary Calendar, 1799.


When I was halfway through the third story, Diane came once more to my door.  To be exact, my doorbell rang unexpectedly, and when I went down to answer it, Diane was outside waiting to be let in. “Bruno n’est pas là,” she told me, and on the way up the stairs: “Ma porte ferme automatiquement. C’est une serrure spéciale. Ça coûte cinquante dollars pour faire une autre. J’ai oublié ma clé.” Upstairs she told me, “Je déteste Bruno. Je dors sur le sofa afin de ne pas l’entendre la nuit. Je dors presque pas. Je suis toujours fatiguée. C’est pour ça que je n’ai pas pris ma clé.”

She spent the better part of the day in my apartment, with a brief spell next door in the apartment of a tenant she is friends with. I offered tea, a sandwich, a glass of wine, a book, a video – anything to take her mind off her discomfort and to pass the time – but she accepted nothing. She clung to the bitterness and frustration of feeling hard done by. Mid-afternoon, I lent her my cell phone and she phoned Bruno at work, but he didn’t know when he was coming back. The son didn’t return either. I told her how much I had liked Les Crimes de l’amour and offered it to her to read, but she pushed it aside. I think she prefers historical romances.

“L’ombre du rouge / The Red’s Shadow” (CC BY-NC 2.0) Denis-Carl Robidoux

At eight in the evening Bruno came home. She flew (almost literally) down the stairs and into her apartment. The next morning she was back outside my door, knocking. She spoke in her low, furtive voice: “Je quitte mon appartement en octobre. J’ai parlé à Bruno. Il m’a dit okay. Je pars pour de bon.” I felt I would miss her, but knew I couldn’t expect her to stay for me. At the end of the week I saw her outside wearing a good pant-suit and talking to a neighbour. I assumed she was going to stay with family, and I was a little hurt that she hadn’t said goodbye. I didn’t see her again for a while, although I didn’t see any moving vans either.

In late October I ran into her just outside the building. “Vous êtes toujours ici? Je pensais que vous êtes partie,” I said in surprise. “Il ne m’a pas laissé partir.” Now she was almost inaudible, and I had to lean in close to catch what she said about Bruno not letting her leave. “Il m’a dit que j’ai signé un papier en juillet. Je pars en avril. Il veut…” She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. I said, “Il a besoin d’argent puisque sa femme l’a quitté.”

I could see that she’d lost her bounce. She had the look of someone broken inside.  In a whisper, she added, “Il m’a dit que j’ai un caractère bavardeux.” Obviously, the fight between them had been personal, and she had lost. I haven’t seen her since. She keeps herself to herself and rarely goes out.

I can’t help feeling sorry for Diane, although I also feel that she brought it on herself. I could’ve told her that the landlord wouldn’t have let her go just like that, and in a business relationship, who goes against their own best interests? Who can expect that they will? And maybe if Diane had read Les Crimes de l’amour, she might have known that in order to get what you want out of life, you have to be a landlord and not a basement tenant.

All the same, I judge Bruno more than Diane in this affair. From what she told me, he was too harsh with her – and too personal. He feels to me to be more of a villain, while Diane is just naïve and foolish.

In my mind, Diane has a fair amount in common with the virtuous young ladies in Les Crimes de l’amour. The mistakes these ladies make ensue mostly from their over-readiness to trust: they believe that the world is benign and supportive, and cannot see trouble coming. They continue to believe in the men (and women) who betray them right until the end. But emotionally, this perhaps is what the stories are about: you don’t pity the Marquis’ leading ladies, but you do experience their fall into the abyss – their annihilation or their disappearance from the social map. This is how the stories end – with the death or dishonour of these young women, and not with the triumph of their tormenters.

There is a deep sense of loss in the Marquis’ endings – a feeling of emptiness, the certainty that winning is always without purpose. There is also a profound sense of peace – the peace of knowing that there is a realm above individual responsibility and judgment where nothing matters and nothing can be judged. Nothing matters because good was never valued anyway, and because everything is now destroyed.

This is the message I imagine being carried via my bright pink copy of Les Crimes de l’amour, from the back streets of Paris to the quiet suburban streets of Montréal. My copy is well-thumbed; the pages are slightly yellowed. Inside the front cover is a penciled price – in Canadian dollars – and the name of a previous owner has been torn off, giving it a jagged look. I imagine the book passing through several local hands before reaching me. Before my particular edition was issued, generations of French readers must have read the same stories in other printed versions, and the stories themselves go back more than two hundred years to the dark prisons of the French monarchy and the early years of the French Revolution. The message itself is implacable, but it does carry with it the promise of release – release without forgiveness, or repentance, or obedience to a new faith.


Selection of aphorisms from Yahia Lababidi’s forthcoming book, Where Epics Fail: Aphorisms on Art, Morality and Spirit – Unbound UK / Penguin Random House, 2018


The danger of cynicism is getting what you believe in: nothing.

In the same way that people are sensitive to condescension, fate is repelled by cynicism.

Cynicism’s knowingness cheats itself out of true knowing.

Cynicism: a knowingness that does not know it lacks spiritual stamina – in other words, a shortage of breath and vision.

Cynics are in need of constant reassurance; first, that their worst doubts about humanity are true and then, of course, that they are not.

Cynicism loves Misery’s company.

Cynics never win, because they insist on defeat.

The only failures are misanthropes.

The problem with being full of yourself is that you cannot fill up with much else.

Why announce your few good deeds to the world, when you hide your many bad ones – even from yourself?

There is such a thing as spiritual deformity, a kink in the soul that keeps us from loving straight.

Selfish love fosters dependence – hobbling the beloved, then offering a crutch.

At the heart of every vice sits selfishness, yawning.

Cruelty:  obscene pain turned outwards.

Since they make no allowances for happy surprises, cynics are forever being surprised.

Pity atheists their pitilessness. They are like persons hurt in love, who vow: never again.

Atheism, as a season of the spirit, is equivalent to winter.  Naturally, it should be followed by spring – where wonder stirs, anew.

Questioning everything is good practice for, eventually, accepting everything.

Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.

In the spiritual dimension, versus the merely literary, one cannot produce a masterpiece, before they become one.

Where there are demons, there is something precious worth fighting for.

Our salvation lies on the other side of our gravest danger.

Conscience: the skewer and the spitfire.

Every time we betray our conscience, we strangle an angel.  Yet, it’s not certain we are allotted an infinite supply of winged pardons.

Shield the angel, as you would the child, from seeing what is unbecoming.

Unheeded pricks of conscience might return as harpoons of circumstance.

Inhibitions might be the handmaidens of conscience.

To remain in fine, flying form, our wings require careful, constant grooming.

Wings are needed not only to fly, but also to keep our balance.

As in the physical realm, so in the spiritual – it takes one moment of inattention to slip and fall.

Spiritual initiation is knowledge received intravenously.

It’s all very well being a spiritual tourist – keeping in mind, you cannot know a place until you live there.

Spiritual tourists:  the playboys of religions.

Paths are also relationships – to be meaningful, they require fidelity.


If we pay attention, we are ushered along our path in winks and nudges.

To acquire a third eye, one cannot blink.

The guardian of the riddle must speak in riddles.

If we ask life for favors, we must be prepared to return them.

We can lend ideas our breath, but Ideals require our entire lives.

All who are tormented by an Ideal, must learn to make an ally of failure.

One definition of success might be: refining our appetites, while deepening our hunger.

Trust in Longing to sing itself.

The path to Peace is littered with dead selves.

As we make peace with ourselves, we become more tolerant of our faults–in others.

Every day we cast the net, and only what is ours returns to us.

In the deep end, every stroke counts.


The book is now available for pre-order at





Sleep, the brother of Death

J. could not sleep. Not since the wall went up and the gates closed with a protracted metallic groan. Not since the night filled with the sighs and moaning of dozens of people suddenly filling the apartment. Not since his mother’s eyes stopped resting on him, hiding forever behind red-rimmed lids that shut, silently, that fell like heavy curtains soaked with tears cutting him off from the obsidian translucence of her gaze. J. tried in vain to lift them with gentle antics, tugging at her skirt, peering into her face only a breath away from his, as she stood huddled in the middle of that endless sadness that descended on their world. She responded with a tilt of her head, but her eyes remained hidden from him.

J. couldn’t sleep, as he listened to the sound that lingered behind the stifling, suffocating tightening of bodies, and the space wrapped itself mercilessly and invisibly around him. All these faces that once belonged to people he knew now sat frozen in a grotesque grimace of despair upon skeletal bodies of strangers. He could hear them in the night as they shuffled and whispered, their murmurs a prelude to the shrieking that he knew would finally erupt and the wave of pain it heralded that would swallow him. When sleep would not come and J. could no longer stand the memory of its sweetness, calling and calling, when his body twitched with millions of invisible insects that made their home under his skin, he sought solace in the night air. Creeping, meandering among sleeping bodies that littered the house, still whispering and moaning in the grip of some monstrous nocturnal beast, J. escaped into the courtyard and lifting his head to the darkened sky, a sliver of faraway calm visible from the well of crumbling walls, he dreamed of sleep. And when his eyes became too sore and the ebony firmament pulsating above him turned a murky grey, he slipped back into his corner upstairs, among the dank bodies that breathed in sobs. In the morning, alone, except for the memory of his mother’s delicate touch upon his cheek with which she checked his presence each day, J. went outside, leaving behind the aching clutter and desperate goings-on of the strangers that lived in his house, these people who seemed to know him but whom he could not recognize, and who clung with such inexplicable persistence to a life that did not want to dwell in their emaciated bodies. Standing motionless in the doorway that arched above him like a stone angel’s wing, J. watched the street, and in particular, he liked to watch the rooks.

Everything had changed but the black birds remained the same, perhaps, he thought, because they still flew over the wall and visited the old life that J. was certain existed behind it, but which for some unknown reason he was forbidden to see. The rooks emitted long raspy calls as they swooped across the sky, alighting on the cobblestones, balancing with their enormous wings that shone in the meagre sunlight. They turned this way and that, their heavy rapier-sharp beaks weighing their heads down as they sought crumbs long ago picked by the children. Frustrated, they then flew into the naked branches of the trees and carried on noisily. J. was fascinated by the way they walked, swaying from side to side, glistening midnight blue feathers dragging in the dirt, smart black eyes darting here and there. After their brief walkabout, the birds rose into the sky and were gone, and J. was alone again, alone among the strangers.

He was sorry he could no longer visit Mr. Y. who always gave him candied toffee, soft on the outside with an unexpected and resistant hard inner kernel of impossible sweetness. Not since the wall cut him off from Mr. Y.’s shop, which only yesterday was but a hop away across the cobble-stoned street and the wide pavement with cracks that he skipped over, adding up points for each he managed to avoid. Mr. Y. was dead. His mother said so, and J. tried to imagine what Mr. Y. looked like dead. Perhaps he resembled the people he saw lying motionless against the walls, oblivious to the passers-by, never moving away even as the feet of those hurrying over their bodies raised small clouds of dust that settled on their clothes and the yellow stars sewn into them. J. watched and watched, sometimes until evening fell, but they never, ever moved.

The next day they were gone, but if he ventured a little further, leaving the security of the stone archway, he soon found others. And so it was, day after day, and J. could not sleep for wondering about all these things.




An air raid shelter – Photograph by Matt Gibson, from Flickr under creative commons license by 2.0 (share, adapt)



The woman in Damascus didn’t send these thoughts to me. I don’t know her or even her name. We have never met, but this is how I imagine her, lodged as she is in my brain. It is as if she had come to me in her old age, dressed in black, to tell me the dangers she faces and how she is coping with them, and as if I were meant to be her messenger. She is my hallucination.


The last she saw of her husband was five years ago when he climbed into a truck with a crowd of young men, including her son, to join the opposition in combat. Too much time has passed for her to expect her husband to return. He would not have survived the fighting. Now, with her fingers shrunken, turned almost to bone, she lost the ring he gave her long ago. It happened when, talking to the sky, she gestured emotionally toward the Barada River and the ring flew off her finger, over the riverside wall, and plunged into a shallow, polluted stream down below, which was the river’s present state. There was no sound of metal striking a pavement and rolling, as there might have been if she had been facing another way. She could not see the ring amidst the sluggish debris below, and no one was there to help her, even if it could have been retrieved. There was simply loss, immediate sorrow, and a haunting sense that the water was sick, ailing as she was.

These were the days when she managed with almost nothing. Rather than travel a long distance looking for handouts of food that might or might not be distributed to the “internally displaced,” she rummaged through the cupboards in abandoned houses, turning meager crumbs into a meal for the day, and wetting her lips with water captured from drain pipes.

She would sit for long hours without moving, listening with her eyes closed to explosions that gradually came nearer, and to the cascade of rocks and rubble nearby that would invariably follow the sound of a rocket or a blast of TNT in a barrel bomb. Her windows were boarded, but daylight, a weak intimation of the sun somewhere above on its daily round, crept across her open doorway and down the hallway to where she was.

Thoughts came to her of creatures and objects from the past, as if ghosts of them had come to join her in her solitude. The ghost of “Dear One,” a gray cat she had in childhood delicately stepped past her, and she would say silently, with her heart, “Dear One, how are you?” She remembered a lightweight kettle she once had that shook and rattled as the water came to a boil, its fat body feeling the heat of blue flames at its base. Only reluctantly did it eventually surrender a bit of steam through its throat and give an accompanying weak whistle, more like a timid whine. There was not enough water now for tea, and no tea to brew.

She thought of her younger self, as if it were a shadowy incarnation of former innocence, one that didn’t know what injustice felt like, or blood on the ground looked like, or how it was to live intimately with deep pain, fear, war, raw survival. Her tears had stopped years ago. Now she had a feeling that she might let go entirely, that tomorrow she might walk toward the explosions and be released with one stunning blow from the long war that had taken away her husband, her son, and many others’ loved ones, relatives, friends. They all came to her, one by one, calling out to her, “Dear one, how are you?”

“Tomorrow,” she thought, I shall walk toward the explosions, or I shall walk toward the place where they distribute food. It may be that I shall die, or that I shall keep on declining and sink into a delirium of pots, pans, scraps of food, voices, the river. Maybe the war will end and I shall be saved, be at peace.” She thought how strange that would seem after all that had happened. “What use would the whole tragedy have been? It is like a gigantic tantrum, this madness, this ravaging, and I may be,” she thought, “too weak for any tomorrow.”


From the safety and comfort of my home I dare to speak of her hunger, suffering, and tiredness, as if I could know what real threats she faces and deliver to you her message about the violence and destruction around her, wherever she turns. I know, at least, that the war’s outer manifestations, the bombs, the inhumanity, are unspeakably obscene. Surviving them, I imagine, entails an unbroken, unceremonious, steady stream of all-too-human, elemental, everyday minutiae, but those minutiae have changed, requiring people to adjust to daily gunfire, car bombs, air attacks. Only the woman in Damascus and all those with her know how much more there is to describe or to withhold.


Author’s Note:
My latest novel – Maru and the Maple Leaf – contains outlines of many unfinished stories from my earlier days. This was one of them. The first outline read: A story that is waiting to be written. An offshoot from what happened at the Immigrant Women’s Association today when a woman came in for counselling who had a burn she claimed to be from the radiator. A white doctor, female, Janice McKnight, recruited by an East Indian woman to speak to her group. Battered women. One of them turns out to be the wife of an East Indian she had loved. He goes to India on hearing his mother is ill. Comes back married, and they never see each other again. The propensity of Indian men to be under their mothers’ thumbs! She is furious at first, and shocked when she knows what has happened.

Janice’s peripheral vision took in the waiting room as she walked through the back door of the building to her private office. She was only forty minutes late but already there seemed to be half a dozen patients. Her sandwich would have to remain uneaten, as usual.

Getting into her white coat, she glanced at the list of people to whom she had given an appointment over the telephone during the weekend. It was to have been during the hour she usually sets aside for lunch, but she was already late. Only on the last weekend of each month did she have a stand-by colleague who answered calls for her. The rest of the time, she let calls through to the answering machine and answered them one by one, leaving notes for her receptionist. Only one of the calls had been urgent, and the baby had been duly delivered the previous day. Today’s list was short, thank God. And one of them was not a patient. Pratima Kumar. She should not have given her an appointment, Janice thought. Mondays were always terribly rushed. But the accent had thrown her off balance, and she had started on a friendly note instead of a professional one, and then it was too late for anything except to grant the five minutes that the woman had sought. Janice was annoyed with herself for her weakness with East Indian accents; no matter who it was, she still reacted with reflexive friendliness. Five years, already five years?

Her nurse, Doreen, came in and, as per procedure, stuck the patient files on the two doors on either side of her office. “Mrs. Johnson said you’d see her,” she said, “and Mrs. Dunn doesn’t have an appointment but… you know how she is. Just popped in.”

“Since I’m late already, as usual I’ll start with the morning appointments,” Janice said, “but squeeze in the other two after them, and I’ll see Mrs. Kumar here now. Let’s hope we can catch up by three o’clock.”

Pratima Kumar was in her mid-thirties, average height for an East Indian, dressed in a simple but clearly expensive skirt and sweater outfit. Her complexion was light brown, smooth, unblemished. Janice always noticed women’s complexions, her own freckled cheeks having been her cross to bear ever since she could remember.

Janice motioned her visitor to the other chair as she took hers. “Sorry to be running late,” she said, “but one can’t help with delays in natural births.”

Pratima gestured, don’t apologize. “That’s fine. If I were your patient, I would be glad to know you are not one of those who’d rush me when I am in labour. I do greatly appreciate your giving me an appointment during your lunch hour. I’ll come straight to the point. I need you to spare me an hour and a half any morning you can, to talk to my group. I work with them, kind of helping out in a wholly informal way.”

“Talk about what?”

“Anything would do, like simple rules to follow, good habits for good health. Anything at all.”

Janice felt a trace of impatience. She should not be spending office time on this; maybe she should postpone this meeting to after hours. That would have been easier had she been on time.

“Perhaps a volunteer from the Women’s Resource Centre would be more suited,” she said, “or maybe a Public Health nurse.”

“I need a doctor.” Pratima’s voice was soft but firm. “I beg of you, Dr. McKnight, to spare just one hour. I need your presence more than anything you might say. My women need an open door, Doctor, and it is my hope they will find their way to yours.”

Was she trying to bribe her with prospective patients? No thanks, her list was already longer than she cared to have.

Her visitor sensed that the doctor was about to turn her away. She leaned forward. Her voice trembled, not with nervousness but with anger. “Two hours, Doctor, just two hours any time between nine and three. These women,” she paused as though she had trouble saying the next words, “are battered women, and they need an open door. You cannot deny them that please! How about Thursday morning? You’re usually free Thursday mornings.” She stated rather than questioned.

Janice was annoyed. The gall of the woman. She had snooped around and found Janice’s schedule. “You have done your homework, I see,” she said, not without sarcasm.

“Yes, Dr. McKnight, I have, and I am begging you. Isn’t it strange how readily one accepts being humiliated when we are working for our volunteer commitments?”

“I have a question. Why me? Who referred you to me?”

Pratima did not reply and Janice felt a tremor of nervousness. Was it…please God, no.

“Because you are a woman, and you work alone, perhaps the only one to do so.”

That made sense. “But wouldn’t they communicate better with someone who could speak their own language?”

“Come, Doctor, you can’t mean it? Battered women, and from India? They’d do their darndest to hide it even if it kills them. And besides, what makes you think they don’t know English?”

Janice got flustered, though she didn’t show it. She had not meant to sound patronizing. “Sorry, one shouldn’t assume new immigrants don’t speak English,” she said. She felt even more annoyed with herself for being so apologetic.

She said more brusquely than she meant to, “Look, I’ve never done anything like this before, I don’t know anything about domestic violence, and I haven’t been interested either.”

“May be it is time you were? Thursday morning then? This is the address, but I will pick you up. My phone number is on it too.” She rose.

Janice said, “I think I’ve been had.”

“You won’t regret it, Doctor, and I do greatly appreciate your promise of help.”

Janice had mixed feelings as she watched her visitor putting on the short fur jacket that she had carried on her arm and had placed carefully on the back of the chair. There was something striking about her, though feature by feature, she was not attractive except for her skin. She was large hipped and her eyes could have done with some mascara and eyeliner. But she definitely had a presence. Janice’s mind wandered to her ex-lover. His wife probably looked just so, Janice thought, and as always, wondered that their paths had not crossed in all these five years. Sohan Shah, her lover who had gone home to India that summer five years ago to see his ailing mother and come back married. “I had to do it, for my mother, I just had to,” was his only explanation, and they had never seen each other since.

“They’d do their darndest to hide it even if it killed them.” Not just your women, not just immigrants either, she thought, the old wound bleeding again. Five years, already five years?

Janice was glad the next patient was Mrs. Dunn. Mrs. Dunn would go on with inconsequential talk and non-stop monologue, leaving her time to get herself composed.


It was a strange experience for Janice. Pratima Kumar picked her up and they went to the house of one Roshan, who worked with Pratima on this project. Janice felt nauseous for a minute, remembering the smells of Sohan’s apartment – of spices and oil hanging in the air that no fan could dispel. Her first reaction had always been negative, but within minutes she grew used to it and even enjoyed the whiff of cumin and garlic. Sohan, Sohan, the old heartache flared up again. The many discussions they had, the way he made love, her impatience at his habit of always wanting her to make the first move and once made, how he sometimes fell on her with raw hunger and haste but more often with slow massages and foreplay.

The women at Roshan’s house had taken her into full confidence, and Janice had no doubt it was due to Pratima’s easygoing manner. There were six women, and each had a story of abuse and scars to show for it. One had a long scar on her thigh that she showed without shame, another a bald patch on her head that she had neatly covered with her hair. Janice was startled when one of the women was introduced as Rekha Shah. She told herself that Shah was one of the commonest names among East Indians. Rekha had cigarette burns on her arms. For a fleeting moment, Janice imagined Sohan inflicting burns but no, he was not that kind of man. He was a wimp who could not defy his mother, but he was no physical abuser.

But when Rekha came to her clinic next week, there was no doubt. She was Sohan’s wife from the name and address written on the file. Dr. S.M. Shah with a Tuxedo address. Rekha spoke English well enough, and she said somewhat haltingly that she did not mind the abuse but only wanted to hide the scars. It was okay as long it was winter – nothing showed because of her sweater but soon it would be spring and she wanted the scars gone by then. “Stop him, isn’t that the best way?” Janice asked impatiently, but Rekha shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said, she did not mind it.

“Do you like it when he does that?” Janice asked the question rhetorically, but Rekha nodded assent, much to her dismay. My God, she was into sado-masochism and the whole deal. Sohan!!

She remembered how gentle he had always been even when hungry to take her. No, it was not the same man! But it had to be!

Over the next few weeks, Rekha told her enough to know she was not protecting her husband by saying she enjoyed S&M. She really was into it for her own sake. Sohan, when had he changed so drastically? Led by this woman perhaps?

But how could he change so much? Getting to treat Rekha might help assuage her own deep pain that she had nursed for years. Perhaps nothing could spoil her memories of the time they had shared, but that was a closed chapter. He was another man altogether, the man who had surfaced now. It was as well he had gone his way. And yet, Sohan! She could not imagine he had this inside him all along, and that she had not seen it in the eighteen months she had been intimate with him.

One day, Rekha came to her without an appointment. Fortunately it was a Thursday, the day she reserved for paperwork and did not see patients. Rekha’s problem went far beyond cigarette burns and twisted arms. Janice could not contain her anger. This was brutal rape and could not have been consensual. But Rekha was adamant that it had been, and that he had apologized and had not realized he had gone too far. Janice explained how a lawyer could help and how the law of the land could help. But no, Rekha did not want that route. She just wanted Janice to write a note that she could show her husband – to refrain from intercourse till “the infection” had been healed. There was something weird about the way she asked it. A note was not going to solve the problem. “I want it for my husband,” Rekha said, as though it explained everything. “I can take care of myself till it heals. I can.” Janice thought back on all the sappy Indian movies they had seen, where doctors said just that to brides married to the wrong man, and whose chastity had to be kept till the right man came along. Keep off intercourse, a decree that had to be followed. She had laughed over those old movies from the seventies that he had loved, with their no-kissing, dancing around the bushes scenes and extravagant love songs that he would translate for her. Sohan, Sohan!

“I can talk to your husband,” Janice said. “This is something that involves both of you.”

Rekha was totally flustered. “Please, please, you said in front of all of us that confidentiality was the most important aspect of your profession,” she said accusingly.

Janice talked about couple counselling and how she could refer Rekha to a counsellor. But Rekha would have none of it. “Please, please, my husband should never know,” she cried out.

Janice’s antennae went up immediately. Rekha had her hand on her mouth, confirming that there was a lot more going on than Janice had ever imagined. “I am here to help you, but I have to know just what is happening,” Janice said with professional precision.

Rekha’s secret came out in short bursts. She had a lover, a wonderful, exciting man, very different from her stodgy husband, and she loved both of them. She insisted that she needed both of them. Please, understand, Doctor,” she said with a burst of confidence, “not all women are the same and I am not like most women.”

Janice pointed out that she could not write the note but she had some advice. “Tell him when he approaches you that you have some physical problems with intercourse and he will understand. I know he will. You have to trust he will understand.” But even as she said it, she realized she was thinking of the man she had known, and perhaps Rekha wanted the “note” for her demon lover.

“You don’t know my husband,” she said, “he is the most boring man you can find, and he never talks about anything, it is work, work, work all the time. And I am sure you’ve never been with anyone like my friend. He is sorry, he truly is, and it will never happen again.”

Janice remembered one of their many discussions about a friend of his whose marriage was on the rocks because of the wife’s high-maintenance emotional needs.

– What can he do? Kill her off, maybe? he had said.
– Good Lord, he can divorce her.
– In my culture, that’s the same as killing you know.
– There are ways of going about it with compassion.
– Same as letting her be at home and taking care of her.
– But what about him? He has to have a life too.
– Yes, and he will lead it as best he can. Sex isn’t the be all and end all of marriage you know. Not even the main thing. Life consists of all kinds of pleasures and responsibilities. A stable marriage frees you to do the rest.

She recalled the conversation and thought, “and he has found his method of stabilizing it.” He no doubt knew what his wife was into. How could he not? But the waste, the immense waste of it all. And to think her wound had almost healed…



lies 1


“She is a liar and a cheat. She is an elephant. She is my wife.”

And it was the end of an almost perfect day.

She thought of her beautiful daughters and her grandchildren. She counted on her fingers the number of times she had lied in the last few days. It was for the sake of small things that she had bought with cash carefully saved from a monthly allowance. Small luxuries she bought as gifts to give to her daughters and their husbands and their husbands’ families. They would come in handy when at a short notice she would be asked to produce something special to take with her to mark one of many ceremonies and religious events.

She thought hard and for long, but she could not come up with anything that she had bought for herself with those bills.

The big ticket items for which she had told most of her lies were the L’Oreal lipsticks. She had spent less than what she had said she had spent from her allowance, and had spent more than what she had claimed to have spent on those gorgeous lip-colours sealed within the gilded cases that she had impulsively bought for her daughters.

She had put on weight over the years. That was her own fault and she had no excuse for it. Nothing to show for it – nothing like what she had stashed away under her clothes, well hidden inside the deep wooden shelves of her almirah. She could always predict when the word ‘elephant’ would hit her with stinging humiliation. At times, the ‘elephant’ would be replaced by ‘buffalo,’ but it never missed its target, never failed to strike where it hurt most.

Then there were these three women murdered by a man whom they had loved at some point in their lives. “The media folks are quick to blame the man,” he had said,
“What about the women and their responsibility? Like that teenaged girl who had committed suicide. Why was she found naked at a drunk party? What was she doing there? Why did her parents not stop her from going there? Why did she not listen to them? It is easy always to blame the man, never the woman!”

She went back to counting the number of lies she had told and asked herself:

“Why do I lie? I know it is wrong and I keep fooling myself that it is not a lie, but

I would have nothing left to give to my daughters if I told no lies.

“My daughters are beautiful. They live for my happiness and I for theirs. One of them needs to be careful because she is seldom alone, surrounded by her parents-in-law, brother-in-law, his wife…..the other one is bolder and speaks her mind. They cannot work outside the home. Husbands don’t want them to or perhaps it is their families. It doesn’t matter. They are happy to be away from this nightmare of an existence.

“Another daughter was born to my older daughter. Had it been a boy, she would have been able to rest for 40 days. I am not sure now. It is another girl. It is not the same. There will be a celebration, but it will be a muted one. There will be no distribution of traditional sweetmeats, and preparations will begin for when she will have to leave for another home.

“Yes, I am the ‘elephant’ or the ‘buffalo’ that carries on my back the weight of the sons I never had. I am the ‘elephant’ with the wisdom to hold peace at home. I am a woman with a name and two beautiful daughters with equally beautiful daughters of their own.

“So where was I? I have lost count of the numbers – the number of lies. One lie compels you to lie again, and the numbers begin to add up. Initially, I had meant to stop at the first one. Who would have thought I would end up with so many? They are, after all, mere lies.”