Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.
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.
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.
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.
Lia becoming political, which frightened me.
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.
“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.”
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.
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?”
“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?”
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.