the wilting

the wilting

Gurjari Todi

Koeli’s voice changed the air the way a craftsman changes a sheet of gold into a necklace of undulating, shimmering grooves. Tristan heard her singing thumris in the dark of the sitting room every morning as he brushed his teeth by candlelight.

The dawn has come

And my eyes are heavy with sleep

And you my love

Have been with another woman

And are telling me lies

The dawn has come

And my eyes are heavy with sleep.

Koeli sat on a cheap velvet cushion on the floor beside the window. The head of her tanpura rested between the bars of the window as the sky slowly grayed with sunrise. She favored the Gurjari Todi raga in the morning. It made her think of stormclouds and every kind of hurt she had known thus far in her young life. Her voice wept with sorrow and Tristan always left the house feeling as if he had had a breakfast of coffee and dark chocolate instead of the usual watery tea and crackers. To him, his kid sister had the most useful talent a hungry person could have.

As soon as the first rays of sun slipped into the room, Koeli stopped singing and rested her long fingers on the tanpura strings to break the hum. The room became completely silent for only an instant until it filled up again with the sounds of crows and the early trills of bicycle bells. Koeli twisted herself like a wet cloth until her joints crackled. She stood up and began the daily before-school ritual that she savored before venturing out into the harsh light of the outside.

Milk-clouded tea sat steaming in a little white cup with flowers, the one her mother got in a set on her wedding day. Koeli waited for the tea to cool as she parted her long black hair on the left and braided it in a fat plait with the green ribbon that was part of her school uniform. She had always resented being forced to wear a stupid ribbon in her hair and tried to find a creative way to incorporate it into her appearance without looking like a child. This was difficult—Koeli’s small thin frame gave her the appearance of being several years younger than sixteen. The uniformly white sari with a green border looked boyishly awkward on her as she wrapped and tucked it hastily. After examining her dark little face in the mirror, Koeli mentally renewed her vows to take up intellectual space if not physical.

Koeli hummed a song about hope as she gathered her books into her shoulder bag. She stopped humming when she walked outside. There was a yellow air of dread on the faces of the people careening by on rickety bicycles as if the thought of shuffling through another stack of papers in the midday heat made them feel physically ill. Even the thought of school felt tense, the long days spent learning useful things that she would probably never get to use. Koeli started humming again, thinking about the time when her voice will blare from a midday radio show, and for a moment these terrible faces will relax into a semblance of enjoyment and turn their radio up. The announcer will ask her in a formal manner,

“Miss Koeli, why do you sing?”

“I sing for the workers, sir. I sing in the spirit of the revolution.”

Koeli smiled at her thoughts and wondered at their improbability.

 

No Sex

Anya lay flat on the grass, looking straight into the California sun. Dots like fractals appeared in her field of vision and bounced off the edges of her eyeball like a game of Pong. She followed them lazily with her eyes, no, her mind. She could actually hear the sounds they made, moving through her gaze. Ping, ping, ping! The rays of the sun made noises too, like television static. Ssssshhhhhhhhh…..

Everything was imbued with nearly imperceptible motion and sound. How lovely, thought Anya.

The loveliness changed as Eric turned on the iPod speakers inside the house. A Brazilian band sang about bread and circuses with clanging bells and horns blaring in a friendly circus way.

I ordered that leaves of dreams

be planted in the Garden of the Sun
The leaves know how to seek the sun
And the roots seek, seek
But the people in the dining hall
These people in the dining hall
But the people in the dining hall
Are busy being born and dying.

Anya started to giggle uncontrollably when she saw Eric lumber back outside. He looked like a suffocating, hapless bear. His face had turned bright red and his eyes were popping out of his skull. She half expected him to start dancing to the music with a pair of crashing cymbals. Things were happening here!

Anya was sixteen. She had taken her father’s old samovar from its display case in the dining room and brought it over to her boyfriend’s house. The samovar was a thing of true gorgeousness. Barrel-shaped and coated in a film of yellow gold, it had intricate enamel work of twisting vines and flowers, all royal blue, pink and white with green leaves. Anya’s friends had gazed at it with reverence as she brought it through the door, cradling it carefully like a baby goat. They congratulated her on finding such a beautiful object and agreed that it would make a marvelous addition to their trip.

“This is our barrel of meaning,” Eric said as he filled the vertical pipe running down the middle with charcoal. He then ceremoniously filled the little teapot on top with packed dry mushrooms and licorice tea leaves. The dry red caps seemed to so intimately belong in the old water heater. Anya held her teacup under the golden spout and reddish gold tea streamed into the cup, the strained light of sunsets.

By the first cup they were seeing things like through a weird glass of pink and green. By the second cup, Anya felt completely sexless. It was the most incredible feeling. She stood up from the grass feeling long and flat like a board, or Gumby. Her brown stretchy dress seemed like a part of her body, a true friend. The boys around her were friends, only friends and comrades in search of the fantastic lights that lived in their brains, waiting to be released in a rush of poison or confidence in illuminating medicines. Even Troy seemed to her a fellow soldier and his plush mouth only looked like a pink shape to her, so much a part of the pink shapes all around her. She did not think once whether her cropped black hair looked completely ridiculous (which it did due to her rubbing her head in the grass because it felt like feathers). Humans became to her living sculptures while the inanimate were too animated to bear.  Not knowing what to do, Anya plopped back onto the grass and looked at the voluminously arranged sky in a half grin that slowly turned to a grimace.

 

A Mean Trick

            Tristan’s father worked at the jewelry factory on Ballygunge Road making filigreed enameled gold bracelets and rings for American merchants who marked the products up a thousand percent. Before partition, his own father had been a farmer near Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh and had trained him to be the same since he was a young boy. Tristan’s father felt a special connection with the leathery oxen that plowed the fields in slow, agonizing motions. He spent entire days in the hard mud, beseeching the cattle to move, whispering in their fly buzzing ears like a friend needing a favor. When the rains came to soften the mud he rubbed his hands over the oxen’s jutting ribs and shouted words of encouragement. Tristan’s father wished he could sleep in the fields and thanked the stars that he was not in his uncle’s position. His uncle Debesh had a short leg and was not cut out for hard labor. Instead, he slept in a cot in the corner of the house and read book upon book about things Tristan’s father could only imagine to be the secrets of women and love. At the time, it was the most baffling subject on his mind. Debesh was only 7 years older than him but seemed to know about the most mysterious phenomenons, like why people riot and kill each other and the politics of rice.  One day in the pouring rain, an ox slipped in the mud and ran over Tristan’s father’s foot with the plow. The foot was crushed so severely and irreparably that he had to move to the city to work in a factory painting beautiful trinkets that his own wife would never wear.

When Tristan’s father had placed his hand on his wife’s swollen belly in the year 1950, he had felt instant love for the little kicking foot. At around the same time in the dead center of the century, Debesh graduated from Presidency College with a doctorate in political science. He was offered a teaching job at his alma mater that, although did not make him wealthy, boosted the family credentials significantly. Tristan’s father asked Debesh to give his son a name that would become synonymous with wealth and intelligence, a name to eclipse all names of the next generation. Playing somewhat of a mean trick on his nephew, Debesh named the baby Tristan after Tristan Tzara and assured the family that his namesake was a great man of infinite compassion and prestige. In truth, Debesh just wanted to instill in the tiny thing a ready appreciation for the dynamic absurdity that was India.

 

The Holy Fool

            “Dada!” Koeli called out. Several boys wheeled around, looking confusedly about for their little sisters. Laughing, she called again, this time spotting Tristan near the snack cart and running over to him. Tristan was secretly glad she never yelled his name out in public and instead just referred to him as older brother. He felt an odd discomfort with having a foreign name, no matter how soft the T’s and R’s became in the Bengali tongue—it felt to him bourgeois, pretentious, made more so by the fact that even the childish call of “dada” rang such intimate ghosts of his true name.

“What’re you guys doing here?” Tristan looked over at Koeli’s friend Priya whose portly being looked somewhat put-out at having had to run across a college courtyard of older boys, no, men. She wrapped the end of her sari around her midriff self-consciously while she pretended to consider buying a cup of tea. The man behind the cart looked at Priya for a second, and then his eyes rolled past her to peer into the brilliant sky. The vendor of the snack cart was a familiar and well-loved character at Presidency College. He had suffered some kind of debilitating mishap in his youth that left him in a constant daze, somehow plastered to a singular expression and notion. He functioned well enough to make tea and fry chicken cutlets, but with a look on his face as if he was constantly trying to recapture a lost thought. The boys affectionately called him the Holy Fool. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact he didn’t seem to hear or even understand anything besides the food in his cart and the invisible pull of the sky.

“It’s a half-day at school today so Priya and I are going to her house to listen to records. You can come if you want,” Koeli added, knowing full well her brother considered himself above it.

“Oh go on, you kids and your gramophones,” Tristan said, wiping the tea off his thin mustache, the growing of which Koeli thought was a direct contributor to his newfound pompousness.

“Yeah, anyway, just tell Ma I might be late making dinner.”

 

Book Report

With a loud KRSSSHH Anya ripped out a page from her notebook and began to write.

Literature is for those friendless people who just want to hear a human voice once in a while, telling them truths that are hard to come by from living just one lifetime. It is for the burrowing into thought and skatting like jazz onto the discoveries of others, adding your own truths onto the great snowball of human knowledge. It is different from scientific knowledge because it accepts even the most unlikely truths without needing reproduction, indeed, eschewing reproduction.

Here she paused, pen in mouth, wondering whether she shouldn’t replace the word “eschewing” since she had no idea how to pronounce it. She moved on before her thoughts had a chance to settle.

My first realization of the awesomeness of literature came to me in poems—first through old Ginsberg and then through the supreme weirdness of Richard Brautigan. He wrote about a town made entirely of watermelon sugar. Just the thought of the process required to distill sugar from watermelons struck a wonderful chord with me. This guy was amazing. He saw the absurdity of the earth and instead of trying to make sense of it, he added to the great snowball of human absurdity. A boy I was enamored with at the time lent me that book.

Anya thought back to that boy and his long limbed insouciance but stopped herself. He was the stuff of daydreams and she didn’t have time for it. This report was due in like ten minutes.

Living in the world of “In Watermelon Sugar” would be unbearably lonely. It would be lonely and dangerous, empty with space and filled with tigers. The walls of everything would be delicious. The sky would be unnatural colors, a perverse red like the constant threat of storm. But hey, Richard Brautigan! Your world is not scarier than the one I’m in right now. I want you to know that I like the way you write words and even though you killed yourself and I’m not sure how entrenched you are in the literary canon, you’ll always be a poet to me.

As she walked hurriedly toward school, Anya tried to memorize the small speech. It’s just a dumb book report, she told herself. She couldn’t believe that they were still making people do these things.

“Public speaking is one of the most important skills a person can have,” her teacher had said. It was one of Anya’s personal demons—she felt cold and naked in front of so many eyes and her hands felt uncertain as to their role in the public eye. Anya bit off all her fingernails on the way to school and spat them out as she went, leaving a trail of ragged fingernails behind.

 

Krishna or Dark Skinned

            Koeli and Priya ran through the vast corridors of Priya’s father’s house, giggling about something or someone whose details are escaping them now. They collapsed onto a huge bed covered in an orange batik printed duvet. Koeli let herself sink softly into the clean cotton as her laughter died away into something like envy. The room glowed in the radiant light of the evening sun that illuminated the rich silk tapestries on the wall and the gleaming, freshly washed marble floor.

Priya got up and slid a vinyl record out of its sleeve. She carefully placed it onto the record player inside of what looked like a giant wooden box and lowered the needle. The machine purred and spat out a riff of drums. Priya turned up the volume knob and cried, “I love this song!”

Koeli and Priya danced to a song called “Walk Don’t Run” made by the American surf rock band called The Ventures. Koeli didn’t know what surfing was and she had never been to the ocean but she danced and wiggled her arms anyway, because she could feel it was the right thing to do for a song like this. She sang a lot of la-la-las and bobbed her head from side to side. She pretended she was in a convertible with the hood down like actresses in Hindi movies and swung her hair from side to side. Priya laughed and tried to imitate Koeli’s strange movements but she felt graceless and stopped. She sat down on the bed feeling suddenly out of breath.

“You’re lucky, you know,” Koeli said to her friend. “I don’t know anybody else who listens to American music at home whenever they want. In fact, I don’t even know anybody who has a record player.”

“You’re luckier,” Priya pouted. “You can actually make music. You can sing and everybody knows that’s the next best thing to being fair. And anyway, my dad says this song is 15 years old.”

Koeli’s ears felt hot. She remembered her great-uncle Debesh telling her once, “Koeli, your voice is so beautiful and your parents are lucky for that. The greatest asset a dark girl can have is her voice.”

Then she remembered her own voice saying, “I hope to use my voice in something other than song one day.”

“And you’re impossibly thin,” Priya continued. “Do you know what? I’m getting fat,” she whispered confidentially.

“Oh shut up, you are not!”

They continued this game until the sun threatened to set and Koeli had to say goodbye and run home before the darkness beckoned violence.

 

Communist Party of India (Maoist)

            Tristan pointed to a man buying ice cream. The man peeled off the paper covering the cup of vanilla-strawberry Kwality ice cream and discarded it carelessly on the side of the street. Three street children with swollen heads immediately ran over to investigate. One of them picked up the cover and licked it clean. They hung around the man with their palms out, asking for coins. The man looked over their heads, hailed a rickshaw, and climbed in without breaking a stride. The rickshaw puller was an old man with sinews like the roots of some long forgotten tree.

“Did you see him? That guy with the ice-cream? He’s a member of CPIML,” said Tristan with undisguised disgust. “Marxism-Leninism is a farce now in Calcutta. Even that asshole that lives two houses down from you, Raju, you know the one who ran over a beggar and paid off the cops. He’s a party member too.”

Raju snorted. “So that’s your reason for being a Maoist? Because there are assholes in the other party? There are assholes in every party, Tristan.” A couple of their friends voiced their agreement.

“And plus,” Raju continued, “the Naxals are biggest assholes of all. The so-called peasant rebellion in Naxalbari wasn’t even led by peasants; it was led by Maoists in peasant clothes. It’s fucking ridiculous that in a country where half its people are peasants, we can’t even come up with a real peasant rebellion. That should tell you something.”

“Tell us what? That they can’t read? That they don’t know about the communist doctrine? My great-uncle says to paint the trains—” Tristan was cut off by a thin boy smoking a joint.

“Your uncle is a bourgie in Naxal clothing,” he drawled. “He’s a fucking professor at Presidency College, what does he know about hunger.”

Tristan stared at the boy. He looked too young to be speaking here, with them, the youths of the neighborhood.

“My father was a farmer and his father before him,” Tristan said slowly. “The only reason my uncle wasn’t was because of his foot. He got into college through a scholarship and he knows more about hunger than you can imagine.”

“Yeah, he might have gotten a scholarship, but how did you get in?” The boy looked pleased with himself. Tristan looked down.

“And can I please remind you that your dear Mao is the one funding those asshole Pakistanis in their sadistic mission to keep Bangladesh? How can you defend that?” Raju continued.

The group was suddenly quiet, anxious at the appearance of two policemen in khaki pants walking by. They eyed the boys as they walked past, leisurely, with their hands on their batons. One of them spat a wad of red thick phlegm, colored by chewed up betel leaves and supari.

“We should leave,” Raju said in a hushed voice. “We shouldn’t have been talking about this out here. We should go.”

Tristan looked straight into the cops’ bland faces with defiance. He was nameless, the son of a lower-middle-class nobody. They would never know who he was. A cop looked at him and smiled with pointed red teeth.

An Important Investment

            Koeli’s mother looked up from the boiling pot of rice as her daughter walked into the kitchen.

“Did Tristan tell you? I was at Priya’s.”

“Yes, he told me. I wish you had asked me first, we have guests coming tonight. They are friends of your uncle, very important people.” Koeli’s mother paused and stirred the rice. “Their son goes to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur,” she added.

“Okay, well,” Koeli said, standing with her feet unsure on the ground, feeling flat like a board. “I’m going to go take a shower.”

Koeli poured water over herself using a red plastic mug. The water had been sitting in the deep cement basin for a day or two now and it was freezing cold. She shivered as she wondered about what would happen tonight. If it was for what she thought it was for, well—she stopped herself. There was no way, she was too young. Her parents would never agree to that.

The towel she wrapped around herself felt anemic and Koeli shivered violently as she ran with wet feet from the shower to her bedroom. She saw that her mother had laid out a nice sari for her on her cot. It was made of stiff starched cotton in a strange goldenrod color that seemed at once saccharine and threatening. The black embroidered shapes were too jagged, like a row of daggers line-dancing down the edge. She picked it up. As if on cue, a yellow spider in the corner of the room scuttled hurriedly toward a window.

Koeli’s mother came in as she was getting dressed and made fine adjustments to her daughter’s draping here and there. She stiffened the pleats at the bottom and made sure the small peaks of her breasts were fully covered underneath the sari. Koeli found this irritating and shifted uncomfortably under her mother’s unsettling new gaze. Koeli’s mother began combing her daughter’s long hair slowly and rhythmically, trying to calm her as if she were a frightened mare but this caused Koeli more distress than anything else.

“Hold still, I don’t want you to mess up the folds I just made,” her mother gently rebuked.

Instead of braiding it, Koeli’s mother twisted her daughter’s hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. After applying a thick rim of kohl to her eyes and a small red dot on her daughter’s forehead to center her beauty, Koeli’s mother lifted the end of the sari and draped it over and around Koeli’s hair like a hood. When Koeli looked in the mirror, she saw an image of a terrified child-woman trapped in a rectangle and she felt a surge of insurmountable hatred.

“Please sing a thumri tonight, Koeli,” her mother said. “You know how much I love love-songs.”

Koeli said nothing. She knew that she would not be able to sing a song of desire when all she tasted was so much bile-filled hate.

Later that night, the guests all gathered in the sitting room after dinner. They were well-dressed, well-spoken, laughed politely and talked politics as if they cared. The young man in question sat opposite of Koeli, looking miserably down at his feet. He was young too, and sullen as if he had been plucked from tasks of great importance.

“It’s terrible what the Pakistanis are doing to our people,” the boy’s father said. “Do you have any family in Bangladesh?”

“Yes, we do. They’re in Dhaka,” replied Koeli’s father.

“How have they been? No one is hurt I hope.”

Koeli’s father hesitated. “The lines of communication have been basically cut, the mail is not being delivered with any regularity anymore, and it’s hard to know what is happening. I am sure they are managing to get by.” In truth, Koeli’s father knew that his entire family had been killed one night in a raid by the West Pakistani government. They were hacked to pieces, except for his niece who was raped by seven different men and left crumpled in the corner of a room, ashen and limp like a used petticoat. By virtue of the Pakistani sperm, her illegitimate child would be Pakistani by birth, her Bengali blood eliminated like a pox. And if all that hadn’t happened yet, it was just a matter of time.

“Well, god willing they will come out of this unharmed. Something needs to be done about the refugees though, don’t you think? Calcutta cannot handle any more bodies,” said the boy’s mother from behind obese lips.

Talk waxed and waned throughout the night in a monotonous hum that left Koeli feeling drowsy. Tristan tried to leave the conversation as it turned to the topic of Naxal rebels, saying he had an exam in the morning.

“Stay for your sister’s song, dear,” Tristan’s mother said.

The entire group turned toward Koeli as if noticing her for the first time that night.

“Yes, let’s have a song,” the sullen boy said, waking from his stupor. Perhaps he too was expecting a love song. That night Koeli sang, to the horror of her mother, a song about disappointment.

This youth is like water

Resting in a cupped palm

It will drip away with time

And at the end I will wonder

Why did I while away my time

During my fleeting youth.

After the boy’s family left, Koeli helped her mother wash the dishes. She squatted near the faucet at the corner of the kitchen and wiped rice and fish bones off of the aluminum plates.

“Ma?” Koeli asked.

“Yes?” Koeli’s mother sounded too tired to even sigh.

Koeli wanted to ask her mother whether the decision to invest in singing lessons for her daughter was paying off as well as she had hoped. Instead she looked at the knotted joints of her mother’s chestbones peeking from the top of her blouse and stayed silent.

 

No Art

            By the time Anya stepped into the house the gathering had already begun to parody human interaction. Music was blowing through the speakers and into the Aptos wind in the backyard and through the mountain gullies. A woman was singing in French, quite earnestly.

The moon is free I believe
That radiates above the rooftops
Even more than one would believe
It fluctuates between that and these
That parts that one never sees

It is above everything,
It is free of everything,
It is above everything,
It is free of everything,
It is above everything.

It was a very nice song, thought Anya. It sounded cheerful, and positive, and like the kind of music you’d like to drink to on a Tuesday night when you know you have to get up for school the next day too early, and trudge on into class with dark circles hidden under cream concealer.

“Hey! Anya man, take a shot!”

“Okay,” she smiled, “Let’s do it! Let’s make it double!”

“Excellent. What’ll you have?”

“Vodka, please.”

“You’re such a chick, man!”

This oft-asserted claim always confused Anya, that everyone chalked up her love of vodka to her gender and not her Russian lineage. Not that it was either of those reasons but only because she preferred tasteless poison to brown-flavored poison. But vodka she drank and strawberry flavored too, and some sort of aggressive pink soda to wash it down with and prepared for an evil sugary hangover the next morning. The music seemed to get brighter with each shot and more beautiful did the night, cold but not unfriendly, the spiny bushes lining the mountainside like hidden sentinels to protect from the world not contained within this massive home. Anya smiled and laughed and posed for pictures and tried to keep her heavy eyelids from bulging. Once she reapplied her lipstick in the bathroom and wondered who she did this for, this automatic motion. Her boyfriend was not in attendance tonight.

As the night wore on, Anya realized the house she was in. Hutch-like stone corridors led into vast double doors that contained hidden rooms. The kitchen was where everyone gathered and sat around the sofas (in a kitchen, mind you) and played music through supplanted hidden speakers in the walls, in the ceiling, possibly even in the leaves of the potted blue irises. Anya wandered out of the kitchen feeling tipsy, running her fingers along the small cliffs and ridges of the stone walls. Occasionally a glint of mica sparkled like an inlaid gem. Small pieces of framed art covered the walls—black scenes with white faces shimmering like ghouls in a still river, a shining globe like a sun growing over a sarcophagus, a somber Jesus Christ urinating in a night desert. A door ajar with a viola playing inside materialized in the row of paintings and appeared for a second to Anya as a painting itself.

Peeking in, Anya saw no one. What she did see was the most magnificent painting she had ever seen. She walked into the room and stood below its substantial heft, looking up as if in prayer. Small accent lights soaked the image of a woman, her belly swollen with a soon-to-be-human, sarcoid mass sinking heavily into the torn umber sofa, her flesh mangled by paint, bones casting shadows that glowed with their own suggestive flush. Anya was at once fascinated and repelled by the figure’s corpulent seduction. She swayed a little on the balls of her feet and imagined herself to be moved by the slight breeze coming in through a window. The sound of the viola coming through hidden speakers seemed to be playing for the viewing of this painting only, like a soundtrack. The painting outshone all others around it. Anya wished for something.

“Kind of disgusting, wasn’t I?”

Anya gave a small squeak of terror and spun around to find a woman curled up in a dark chair in the corner of the room nursing a glass of red wine.

“That’s me,” she indicated, pointing a wine at the painting, sloshing a little onto the carpet. “I was eight months pregnant and hanging out in London. They wouldn’t let me fly back to the states because of my pregnancy.” The woman smiled at Anya and sipped on her wine while Anya reeled.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Matthew’s mom.”

“Hi, I’m Anya,” Anya said, wondering who Matthew was. And then looking back to the painting, “Did Lucian Freud really paint you?”

The woman giggled appreciatively. “You know art, do you?” She had long black hair that fanned onto her black cashmere sweater. She had dark circles under her eyes that she had apparently tried to spackle with grayish concealer. Anya found her familiar and foreign.

“Yeah,” said Anya. “I kind of want to be a painter maybe.”

“Oh? That’s a wonderful goal. Although I should warn you that American art hasn’t been relevant in ages. There are just so few wars and so few artists that are really starving. And the ones that are starving, well, they’re starving.” She laughed again like it was an inside joke. Anya smiled politely and turned back to looking at the paintings on the wall.

“That’s why I never buy American art. Terence Koh’s might be the closest piece I have, but technically he’s Canadian.” The woman nodded her head at a square framed drawing in between two minimalist sculptures. It had tiny graphite curlicues like so many pubic hairs. Most of the piece was left with white space.

“That piece was made with the artist’s and his friend’s semen.”

Anya stepped backward automatically, her palms out slightly as if needing time to think. She could feel the woman continue to look at her in a way that she could only describe as unheimlich.

“Your face reminds me of this artist actually,” the woman said. “She uses her own body as art, binding it with rope and photographing the bulges in such a way that it stops resembling a human body at all. She is also very beautiful. Her own success is her critique on what it means to be a woman making art.” She stopped to breathe. “The only difference between art and porn is who you know.”

The Tin Drum

            The air was unforgiving on that day. Oppressive, humid, the clouds voluptuous with rain, it was as if the sky itself was squeezing tighter onto the throat of the city. Things had been happening around; things where families paid for the price of their pride and of their young sons and daughters who dared to use their mouths in something other than consumption. There had been some kidnappings, some beatings, some indiscriminate sweeps of gunfire that cleared the streets prematurely and made leaving the house to go to the coffeehouse an act of beautiful courage. Instead, kids began to memorize circuitous routes that led to safety zones and underground hiding places. Families began to send their daughters away to other states and lived in fractured unity so mass murders were that much harder to commit. This was happening because some Maoists had killed some men in khaki and the men in khaki were not happy about it.

The date was March 26th, 1971. The night before, Tristan’s father’s visions of a raped countryside littered with bodies had come true. Those white feathery rushes had been the only things moving in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Sometimes there would be a sound of a child crying and a woman running into the street to look for her baby until the phantom faded again into the sound of a nation weeping, a voice united in grief, a hahakar.

Tristan’s great-uncle organized an impromptu lecture on the terrace of Presidency College. His voice surged through a handheld megaphone and vibrated into the bones of every young person there, shaking him and her to their core, giving them chills, willing them to take action. Tristan swelled with familial pride and glowed with vehemence.

“Action!” he cried with his fist in the air, along with the rest of them.

It was on this day in Calcutta that a young Bengali girl took a bus to College Street and strode into the coffeehouse with some purpose. She was meeting friends there to discuss what should be done in light of recent events. The girl was wearing a yellow silk kurta and blue jeans. Her hair was cut short into a flat bob and her face held a spark of something that girls were not usually allowed to have. She was an undergraduate studying engineering at one of India’s most prestigious schools of technology and right now, she climbed the mammoth stairs of the coffeehouse to the vast upper level because she needed coffee to think. The balcony overlooked the entrance to the coffeehouse with people milling in and out, students and writers smoking and talking, and those who smuggled in flasks of brandy, yelling loudly and ordering plates of fried meat. The girl ordered a cup of coffee and fried eggplants from a man who darted between the tables like a silverfish.

This girl was Anya’s mother. She blew lightly on the hot coffee and watched a young white man walk through the door of the coffeehouse carrying, or rather dropping, a large pile of things on his way to a table. He was trailed by another young white friend, also carrying, albeit more successfully, a bunch of wooden looking slats. White people were not commonly seen in Calcutta but if they were anywhere, they were here. They were more common after the Beatles had followed around some crazy swami four years ago trying to learn transcendental meditation. Usually such white people wore white kurtas down to their knees and had red powder on their foreheads and hair, having been blessed by a guru and then refusing to bathe until they reached the banks of the Ganges. But these particular white people were dressed in rather old looking pants and work shirts and something about the first one’s eyes caught Anya’s mother’s attention. They were heavy lidded, serious, piercing in their complete lack of color like a snow dog’s.

She watched with interest as the men set up. They chose a table and quickly assembled a sort of small puppet-theater stage, the kind that gathered men women and children in villages around for a break from their lives of agriculture and poverty. The stage was painted in red and white and black. They pulled out marionettes and by this time a crowd had begun to gather around them. Anya’s mother watched from the balcony as the marionette of a very small child played a tin drum, the sound coming from one of the puppeteer’s mouth in a loud RATATATAT like a machine gun. Anya’s mother was interested. She had read this book and knew the puppet child’s name was Oskar. Anya’s mother walked down from the balcony to sit in audience of the puppet show and as she watched little Oskar take down the Nazis with his tin drum, she chose a path of action that radically shifted the course of her life in three ways.

1      She met her future husband in the inflamed eyes of the white man from Russia.

2      She did not meet her friends that day to discuss plans and was subsequently left out of a decision to make pipe bombs that would be lobbed into a crowded street and directed toward a group of policemen.

3      She did not die several days later.

 

No Religion

            Anya moved toward the pool. It was safe to say that she was fucked up. She sometimes at parties would think, am I fucked up? And if affirmative, she would be happy, because let’s face it, no one drinks it for the taste. Anya moved toward the pool and by this time other people were fucked up too and being loud, yelling obscenities and squealing and shrieking in happiness, hopefully. She sat down on a shrubbery ledge and a hidden light illuminated her from the bottom so the hollows of her eyes seemed like pools themselves of deep considerations. A boy came over and sat next to her and they drank together from his red plastic cup like they were old friends but in truth Anya couldn’t place him from anywhere.

“I liked that book report you gave in class,” he said to her.

School is always sneaking up on you like that.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was so nervous, I had to drink like three things of Red Bull to get a word out.”

A girl walked, no, sauntered by them. She was so beautiful that they were both quiet for a while. She was Muslim, her head wrapped tightly in a purple jersey scarf and a tight black turtleneck binding her body in cloth. Green eyes rimmed in sooty eyeliner and tight jeans tucked into high riding boots made her seem more S&M than anything else. Maybe it was the way she walked.

“Why do you think some hijabis wear both the scarf and makeup?” The boy asked.

Anya had no idea but she thought she might try to defend someone whose hypocrisies were being pointed out.

“Maybe to her, hair is like breasts and vaginas are to other people, just completely sexual and no way around it so it has to be covered up. And maybe makeup isn’t so sexualized. Like by wearing makeup, she is trying to be beautiful without being sexy.”

The boy looked unconvinced. He drank more.

“There is such a thing as beauty without sex, you know,” Anya said.

He looked at her quizzically.

“Is there?”

He put his hand on Anya’s thigh and squeezed a little. She got so nervous that she didn’t do anything.

After they had made out a little, Anya stopped kissing and pulled away.

“Hey,” she asked the boy. “Do you identify with any groups?”

“Huh?” he said.

“Like, do you consider yourself to be part of something bigger? Not really like a religion, but maybe are you working toward something?”

“Ahhksss,” the boy exhaled and rubbed his temple, “let’s save that discussion for the second date. Goals or whatever. Kind of a buzzkill. Aren’t you having fun?”

Anya shook her head.

“I have a boyfriend,” she said and walked away.

 

And Now on to the Importance of a College Education

            Rows upon rows of pink and gold and red glass shimmered in the sunlight. Koeli ran her fingers across the delicate display of bangles and heard them tinkle conspiratorially. She wondered how much strength it would take to crush one in her hands. Not much, she thought. Lately she had been having fantasies of destruction and lunacy. Striking strangers for no reason, taking the cleaver meant for cutting gourds and slicing off her own hand, things like that. These thoughts were swirling inside her head all the time. She would stare off into space while picking up a ration packet of milk for her mother and imagine the street cow chewing its own sick to suddenly go mad and charge at her, curled horns pointed like bayonets and skewer her innards into the nearest tree. She imagined the shock of seeing something huge hurtling toward her, the exquisite pain of forcible entry and the eventual delicious feeling of never having to feel again. And then she looked down at the array of tinkling glass bracelets and felt ill.

“What about these, Koeli?” Priya pointed to a stack of turquoise and gold bangles. “What color sari are you wearing again?”

“Black,” said Koeli gloomily.

“Really?” said Priya. “But why? You look so much better in bright colors.”

Koeli shot her friend a loaded look. The money her mother gave her for new costume jewelry sat heavy in her purse. Her family and the young man’s family were putting together a formal night of culture. Koeli’s mother insisted on buying something nice to lift Koeli’s spirits.

“I’m really not trying to impress these people, you know. If music weren’t so important to me I would seriously consider singing like a howler monkey on purpose, I really would. I just don’t understand what they want from me. I’m poor, dark, way too young to be getting married and clearly unwilling.”

“Maybe they want someone young to get a head start on the grandchildren,” Priya teased. “What about college, though?”

Koeli laughed derisively. “Yeah, they say that they’re willing to wait until after I take my graduating exams and that of course they’ll consider college, but I can tell that as soon as I sign the marriage certificate they’ll hand me the keys to the kitchen pantry and from then on my life will be measured in spices.”

Koeli ended up buying a stack of black and gold bangles. She spent the rest of the money on flaky meat pastries that she and Priya chewed with relish to try to enjoy the small things in life since the big things aren’t meant for them.

 

Here Take This

            Tristan was having a cup of tea under a tree with Raju when he saw the thin boy running toward them. His rubber sandals made a slapping sound against the road. There was something singularly unpleasant in his usually ganja-placid face. The boy stopped under the tree and stood with his hands on his knees, breathing shallowly and with trouble. His throat made a noise like an old carburetor. Raju handed him his cup of tea to sip from and the boy drained it in one swig. He wiped his lips and looked at Tristan.

“Something’s happened at Presidency. There’s a riot about to start.” The boy looked down at his feet. “I thought you should know that your uncle might be in trouble.” The boy continued to stand there with his hands on his knees, ribs heaving visibly under his light shirt.

“What? Are you serious?” Tristan asked, getting up from the ground. The humidity of the day had made him lethargic and feel like syrup. He understood the boy’s words but not their meaning. “What started this?”

“Somebody threw a pipe bomb.”

The word “bomb” accelerated Tristan’s brain like a tape on fast forward and he found himself running toward Raju’s bike tied to the tea stand.

“I’m gonna borrow this, I’ll bring it back,” he yelled to his friend. The thin boy ran behind him, catching hold of his shirt.

“Wait,” he said. “If you want to be a real Naxal and do something important, today is probably your best bet. Take it and use it as you see fit. Say something real for once.” His small palm bared to reveal an even smaller blade, rusting quietly in the misty air. Tristan took it without thanking him and jumped onto the bike.

Pedaling madly, he almost missed the frantic shape of Koeli running in the opposite direction with her hair coming loose from her braid, forming a veil of curls around her dark face. She saw him and screamed “Tristan!” He stopped short and wondered why his sister had chosen this moment to address him by his real name. He took it as some sort of sign, signifying something.

“Did you hear?” Koeli gasped.

“Yeah, I’m going there right now. You better go home and tell Ma I’m at Raju’s or she’s going to lose it”

“Take me with you, please,” Koeli begged.

“Are you joking?” Tristan almost laughed out loud. “Why would I take you? It’s incredibly dangerous for you to be there right now.”

“And not for you?”

“Look, Koeli, I really don’t have time for this right now. Please, just be a good girl and tell Ma. You know how much she worries about the smallest things, I really don’t want to give her a goddamn heart attack. Please.”

Koeli stared at her brother. She did not say anything and began to run again.

“And tie up your hair!” Tristan yelled after her. “You look completely insane.”

 

Story of a Small Man

            While a small but organized group of Naxals threw a pipe bomb from the roof of Presidency College into a gathering of policemen standing in the street, a sugarcane plantation worker in Uttar Pradesh dropped his machete, the handle slippery from orange-ish bright blood. He picked up the knife gingerly and re-gripped the handle. Gritting his teeth, the worker tried to ignore his throbbing hands and slashed at the tall stalks. He imagined little crystals of sugar falling like diamonds from each gash his machete made into the fibrous grass. He imagined the shoots bleeding sweet molasses as the blisters in his hands ripped open with every blow, twelve hundred blows per hour, one ton of sugarcane that he alone harvested every hour, eight tons of sugarcane every day, for barely enough money to buy his family rice and lentils.

The jaggery-brown worker tried to think of anything to make the pain go away. He thought about the banana tree next to his house that held a bunch of thick green bananas that would last the family about a month if used properly. When his stomach growled in protest he tried to think of a song with a rhythm he could hack to but could only think of a Bengali song he had heard when the traveling movie theater came to his village last spring.

Oh all the troubles that I’ve seen,

            Oh my brothers.

            Seems that everywhere I turn

            There’s just so much to be learned

            I can never seem to find a real answer.

            Decent people live in harm and strife

            The wicked is a king for all his life

            The ones who reap the golden wheat

            Never have enough to eat

            Workers of the diamond mines

            Poorer than the dirt.

            Oh my brothers.

            Oh all the troubles that I’ve seen.

The worker paused to blink the sweat from his eyes only to see the furious red sun roll off the edge of the earth so quickly that the evening seemed to descend instantaneously, enveloping the fields in a welcome cool. And the worker forgot about his bloody hands for that second, and was truly glad. Somewhere in Calcutta, a student got a boot to his mouth.

 

The Holy Fool Laughed

            Koeli’s feet were running faster than they ever had before. Dodging traffic and animals and people on bicycles, she ran straight to Priya’s house and knocked on the door. Trying to keep her breathing normal, she brushed her hair out of her face and clenched and un-clenched her fists. No one came. She knocked again, more insistently this time. An elderly maid opened the door, hand on a really bent hip.

“Hi, hi, is there anyone home right now?” Anya asked.

The woman shook her head slowly and with a toothless grin said, “No, honey. Everyone is out. Was it something important?”

“Okay, well, Priya wanted me to get her bicycle for her so we could go to the park. She’s still at school, talking to a teacher,” Anya said, hoping the maid remembered her well enough to trust this not very well thought out lie.

“Oh?” The maid looked unsure. “Usually she has to get permission to go riding at the park from her father,” she said.

“Priya said he already gave her permission,” Anya said quickly. “At breakfast.”

Thinking how much trouble could two nice young girls really get into, the maid relented and showed Koeli where the bicycles were kept. Koeli tried not to show her impatience and thanked the old woman, who smiled and invoked the name of the goddess Durga for safety.

Koeli could hear the blood pumping through her ears as the bicycle clipped by building after building. Hot surges of adrenaline coursed through her body and her fingers throbbed with anticipation. She felt like she had one of those fevers where big things look like tiny things and the body feels distorted and like a weapon. This felt more like living than learning how to embroider petunias on a handkerchief in school did.

On the street, everything seemed normal. It was the afternoon which meant shopkeepers were napping outside their shops with dishtowels over their faces. Flies were buzzing around the heads of dogs hungrily tucking into lunch scraps on the ground. It was like that for the most part until she hit the College Street area. At first it seemed like there was no one there. She could hear voices yelling far away as if from a dream.

Koeli slowed down and rode past the coffeehouse when she saw a group of men running away from Presidency College, carrying someone between them. It was a boy bleeding from the chest. There were pieces of shrapnel embedded in his skin. He looked very young. Koeli and the men stared at each other as her bicycle went past them. Her eyes looked very much like tea-saucers.

Koeli nearly fell off her bicycle when the explosion went off that felt like it was right underneath her, vibrating the bones suspended in her blood and muscles. As she turned a corner, a mass of screams and a slowly revealing scene shattered whatever image Koeli might have had in her head of what a riot looks and sounds and smells and feels like.

The burning skeleton of an autobus was glowing like an effigy in the center of the road.

Acridity was everywhere in the air—burning rubber and skin.

Throngs of people were beating each other with so many fists and dull weapons.

They pulsated like a breathing organism, forward and backward.

Their cries and screams pulsated too, like someone twiddling a volume knob on a gramophone.

A cop in an olive beret seized a girl by the hair and hit her in the face with a wooden baton.

Her nose splintered and black blood trickled over her mouth, eliminating it.

She fell down very quickly.

People stood on their rooftops to gaze upon the street.

Street children stood on the sidewalk as blood ran over their feet.

A rickshaw puller was pulled onto the ground and beaten until he did not get up again.

The bodies of two cops were face down in the gutter, as if hiding their charred faces.

A stray dog was biting viciously at a flea on his rump when it was hit with a flying stone.

A young man got right up into a cop’s face and yelled into it: “Inquilab Zindabad!”

He was taken down. The revolution lived on.

A professor of political science was beaten to death with his own cane by a cop with red pointed teeth. In his last second, he thought of the word “carnival” and died.

The Holy Fool laughed. His eyes were focused now and he had found the answer to his unasked question.

Koeli saw all this like a film reel unwinding. It did not seem like reality. It seemed very much like reality had taken off for a couple hours and was vacationing in Goa, leaving some kind of weird simulation of reality that was getting it all wrong. She saw her brother Tristan run up to the cop with the red pointed teeth and get real close to him like he was giving him a hug. When he moved back, the cop fell forward and didn’t get up. She saw a moving thing hit the ground behind Tristan and she saw nothing but the ground when she opened her eyes. She saw her brother lying still on the ground among other still bodies and she saw herself get up and somehow drag his unconscious body toward the entrance of the college. She saw a nook in the arch of the gateway and she saw everything else happen as she and Tristan became a part of the wall, indistinguishable in the shadows.

 

No Fight

            Anya sat melting into the black leather couch in her living room, feeling the silvery effects of benzodiazepines in combination with the otherworldly aural effects of electronic music wash over her in the sneaking light of summer sunshine that was coming through the gap in the curtain. She was bleary eyed like a spooked rabbit, wishing for sleep to come already.

The last day of school and the first night of summer prompted a group of friends to pop three pills of supposedly excellent E that is like basically a Molly man, with just the right amount of meth to keep you going through the night which turned out to be about 64 percent badly cut methamphetamines with who knows what other kind of powdery neurotoxin that kept Anya staring at her bedroom ceiling for three nights in a row, and by the third night experiencing acute and terrifying auditory hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation. She kept hearing a radio tuning in and out in her head and a voice that sounded suspiciously like her father’s talking incessantly and so loudly that it kept that most desired sleep far from her grasp. She couldn’t understand the words but they were words she tried desperately to find meaning in so her brain could at least get some satisfaction from doing all that work, but nothing was there to be found.

Wearing her mother’s maroon MIT sweatshirt, Anya huddled into herself. The air conditioner was on full blast, humming quietly and rhythmically under the electronic music like the subtlest backbeat. She thought the Valium would work more quickly. It just amplified her tiredness instead of curing it. How unreasonable that some idiots eat ecstasy like popcorn at a rave and three of those things are affecting me in such an extravagant way, she thought.

It wasn’t even worth it, really. On ecstasy Anya didn’t feel one with the world and her friends, she felt sweaty and clammy and overwhelmed. She didn’t feel sensual or sexual, she felt like a malfunctioning machine with shaky vision. Instead of ecstasy, she felt an enormous sadness, too enormous to contain in her body alone so she touched people to transfer some of it. She sometimes liked these feelings and encouraged them synthetically. It only depressed her a little bit when she realized that most of her friendships were really just chemical camaraderies. But she very much liked the idea of raves and feeling a comforting kind of discomfort. Otherwise the comforts of your great comfortable life could really drive you batshit crazy.

Anya’s father walked in through the kitchen after having gotten off early at work and looked at his daughter lying on the couch, staring into nothing. He perceived her slack expression as an indication that she was entranced by the music that he never learned to understand.

“I don’t understand how you listen to this kind of music to relax,” he said to her in Russian. Anya’s parents both spoke to her in their own respective languages in order to inculcate her with the knowledge since childhood.  But she, in a small rebellion, always responded to them in English and so had a useless understanding of both Russian and Bengali without the ability to communicate in either.

Anya mumbled in return, waving away her father’s comment with something like, go away you old fogey and leave me in peace.

“I mean, music up until the 70’s stood for something,” he continued. “People fought for things they believed in with music. What does this kind of music fight for?”

Anya sat up a little to imitate interest. “Sorry, Dad. Your generation squeezed out all the vehemence that was left in the 20th century. You guys had communism and all that. We have no one to fight against but ourselves. And aren’t you glad the new millennium is starting in relative peace?” She knew that wasn’t right but was too tired to correct herself.

“Say what you want about it, but you know I’m right,” he said as he sat down on the couch next to her and stretched his legs. He turned on the TV to CNN as Anya dragged herself off the couch and started trudging toward her own room. The last thing she remembered was hearing Harmeet Shah Singh reporting from New Delhi that early in the morning of April 6th 2010, dozens of police were killed in a Maoist ambush in eastern India. Her father turned up the volume as the Valium overtook Anya’s brain and she crawled under her thick feather comforter. She dreamt of a million things and remembered not one when she awoke.

 

The Ways in Which Love Manifests

            Tristan awoke feeling like his face was on fire. He heard Koeli’s shallow breaths and saw nothing in the darkness but he could feel his entire body aching and stinging and crying out in the way bodies do. His jaw felt knocked out. His clothes were sticking uncomfortably to his body and when he tried to peel them off, searing pain shot through his skin. But worst of all was the strange feeling that everything had gotten a lot quieter.

It was nighttime when Koeli felt safe enough to support Tristan’s lacerated body into a rickshaw. The lower half of his face was bloodied from a huge gash above his lip. He looked as if he had fallen face first into a jar of tomato chutney. Koeli thought about the scar that would form there and with some satisfaction, how it would interrupt symmetrical moustache growth. Tristan was very quiet, gazing at the manure patties lining the walls of the crumbling city, steaming of nitrogen and heat. He was having trouble piecing together the chain of events that got him to the point he was at now. There was a loud ringing tone in his ear that made the outside world noises seem submerged in water.

Ten minutes later, Tristan handed the rickshaw puller a ten-rupee note that was incredibly somehow still in his pocket. Koeli walked in through the front door of her house with half of Tristan’s body draped over her shoulders. Their mother was sitting in the kitchen doorway. Looking up, she rushed at them, screaming incoherently. She was also crying. She hugged each of her children so tightly that Tristan felt his back crack. She then stepped back and slapped Koeli across the face. It was such an abrupt action that everyone stifled a laughter. Koeli’s father limped out into the sitting room, heaved an almost inaudible sigh, sank onto a cushion and listened to his children tell him that his uncle was dead.

That night by the steady flame of a red candle Koeli and her mother stitched up Tristan’s wound. Koeli’s mother took a sewing needle, held it in the flame and watched it turn black. She then threaded it with black thread and as Koeli held up the candle to Tristan’s face, pierced the skin around the gash over and over again, pulling the thread in a zigzag pattern. Tristan’s eyes watered as he tried not to wince, each pull of the needle feeling like parts of him, thin clear threads of him were being tugged out. He had several pieces of shrapnel stuck in his back but they were surface injuries, nothing too deep. The cuts bled through his clothes so Koeli tore up an old sari of their mother’s into long soft strips and bandaged Tristan’s torso. When they had finished, Tristan looked like a mix between a mummy and Frankenstein’s monster and felt about as functional as them too. He did not tell anyone that the world was becoming more and more frighteningly silent.

 

No Matter

            Anya’s mother and father sat at the kitchen table gripping their coffee mugs with both hands. They had things on their mind. Their daughter sat picking at a strawberry Pop-Tart.

“Anya,” said her mother, taking off her reading glasses as she clicked her laptop shut. “We need to have this conversation again, I think. You still haven’t told us where you’re planning on applying. How were your grades this semester?”

“Fine,” she said, not looking up. “I was thinking art school, like maybe RISD or something.”

“Anya,” said her father. “Have you done any research on art schools? RISD is incredibly difficult to get into. Not to mention expensive. Not to mention somewhat useless unless you know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Um, dad, you were a puppeteer for half your life.”

“Lucky for me then that those crazy Soviets paid for my education. Who’s going to pay for yours?” Seeing the deflated look on his daughter’s face, Anya’s father added hastily, “I mean we’re certainly going to do all we can, but I suggest looking into scholarships.”

Anya’s mother did not want to crush her daughter’s barely formed sense of ambition. “Look, why don’t you start creating a portfolio and we can go talk to someone about where to go from there. You haven’t showed us any of work recently. You have been painting, right?”

Anya lied and said yeah. She hadn’t painted in several months. She had been turning in half-assed proposals for really big installation pieces in art class. Her high-school art teacher, also the wrestling and football coach for whom druggie teenage painters were less interesting than his cauliflower-eared athletes who gave their bodies and minds so completely (literally, so much so that half the wrestling team tested statistically-significantly worse in sophisticated cognitive tasks) to their sports, handed out A’s in art class like who cares about this shit. Anya had a feeling that he made assignments based on what he thought would produce the most amusing results. One time he pulled her outside of class and said, “You know, Anya, when I said a self-portrait made out of materials that reflect your personality, I was thinking something actually do-able. And frankly, as far as I’ve been your art teacher for the last two and a half years, I’m not sure whether your personality really evokes uranium-235 for me. I think you might be overshooting your volatility.” The conversation, no, monologue continued with phrases like “applying yourself” and “wasted ability if not talent” and “ride you like a horse [to get you to do anything]”.

So Anya lied to her parents and said yeah. She then hopped into a friend’s jeep and felt the wind whip her hair as she tried to keep a cigarette lit. She felt good. Later, she took bong hits and giggled about the word “awesome”, because when you say something is awesome you’re really just saying “awe, so me!” She then watched an award winning neo-realist movie about the life of a young man struggling to find a job and starting a tentative family with a girl whom he falls in love with but she dies in childbirth. Anya wanted to cry during the movie, unsure about why she felt suddenly so emotional. Neo-realism usually did nothing for her.

 

The Story of a Small Village

            While several incredibly high American teenagers watched a neo-realist movie set in a village in Bengal, another village in Orissa was being plowed over so the TATA Corporation could enact a factory to meet the growing international demand for nano-cars. A group of villagers protested, and loudly, that they would lose their homes and livelihoods. The TATA Corporation generously gave each family twelve hundred rupees, or thirty dollars, to relinquish their land and all rights to it and offered a cramped two-story rehabilitation building as an alternative dwelling. When the villagers refused to leave, TATA hired a band of goons to kick down the protestor’s doors, drag their wives and daughters into the street, strip them naked, and chop their breasts off. A journalist covering the story was found strung up on a nearby tree. TATA responded that these peasants were Naxal sympathizers, possibly informants, definitely criminals.

 

Yellowing the Skin

            Koeli’s wedding date was set in a hurry. The groom’s family paid the priest a little bit extra to find an auspicious date in the next couple of months. Who knew what the city would become by the end of the year and it’s better to take what you can when you can take it. Koeli’s eyes had widened when they told her. All she could really hear was the chanting from the street as a group of men and her father and brother carried a stretcher with a professor’s corpse through the streets, draped in garlands of jasmine and marigold, adorned with holy basil leaves. And as students shouted their last goodbyes, others spoke quietly of a dying movement.

Koeli went to the banks of the Ganges with her family, staying a respectable distance away from the body with the other women. She watched her brother circle the body and sprinkle water and clarified butter on it. She saw him lower his torch to the body’s face and watched how the butter burst into flames like startling flowers blooming, and the way her father’s face bent into his chest, heaving. For the next two hours Koeli stood at the glowing pyre, smelling the urgent, feverish, disturbing scent of a human on fire. She did not cry and neither did Tristan who was just happy to hear the sound of a fire crackling near his ears.

A month later and the day before the wedding, the little house was filled with girls fluttering in their pink and green chiffon saris. In the middle was Koeli, face and neck plastered with turmeric paste, hands decorated in henna, sitting like an immobile goose while people whirled around her in bursts of infectious giggles. Her cousins and friends took turns feeding her small hard cakes and laughingly rubbing them on her nose and cheeks. Koeli in her red gingham sari felt like she was being basted for dinner but couldn’t help feeling a little giddy about being the center of so many things. When her future mother-in-law blessed her hair with grains of wheat and called her “daughter” though suddenly Koeli’s stomach felt hollow and tight.

While everybody sat down in long lines along the wall and Koeli’s beaming mother heaped mounds of rice and fish onto their banana leaf plates, Koeli managed to sneak into the bathroom to wash the turmeric off her face. As she scrubbed her cheeks vigorously, Priya walked into the bathroom carrying a pot of cold cream.

“You’re going to need this,” she said. “That stuff can stain your skin yellow if you leave it on for too long.”

“Thanks,” Koeli said and began applying the oily white cream all over her face. Her skin felt hot. She avoided Priya’s gaze.

“How do you feel?” Priya asked gently. She, for her part, felt rather pretty in a new lavender sari embroidered in gold threads and gold bangles glimmering on her dimpled wrists.

“I feel fine,” Koeli said. “It’s really great to see my cousins again—the little girls are so tall, it’s almost embarrassing.” She started to talk about how delicious the food looked when Priya cut her short.

“Come on, you know what I mean. How do you feel about this whole thing happening so quickly?”

Koeli looked up at her friend in what she hoped was a steady gaze and tried not to let her lower lip tremble. She smiled.

“Don’t worry, I really do feel fine. And anyway, what choice do I have now? My parents are already spending more than they can to put together this wedding, and I’m not going to complain about anything today. It would completely break their hearts.”

“But you have a choice! You can stop this from happening to you if you wanted to,” Priya pleaded.

Koeli laughed and said, “No, I can’t. We don’t have the money for me to go to college, so what’s the point? It’s either this now or the same thing later. But Priya,” she said seriously, “you can stop this from happening to you and I really hope you do.” She wiped the last of the cream and turmeric off her face with a rag and looked at her friend.

Priya knew that it was true and her eyes watered. She sniffed and hugged Koeli and they stood there for a while, tears dropping from their eyes and onto the bathroom floor.

 

Rising Up Into the Air

            Anya’s mother moved to the states when MIT accepted her graduate application. She was glad to get away from Calcutta and the horrible memories of attending mass funerals of so many friends who had never gotten to step outside the confines of their city. She was getting tired of always watching herself in public, never being able to walk by herself, always feeling targeted. The man from Russia had also started to shift the tectonic plates of her ideologies, telling her stories of Soviet life and the heavy handedness that could crush any sense of originality.

“You cannot imagine,” he would say, “what it is like to live like that. And China, it is worse,” pronouncing it “vorse.” And she would outwardly scoff and argue, but inwardly wonder if he wouldn’t like to leave with her too.

And so they did. Her parents were none too happy but turning down a degree from MIT seemed foolish even to them. Anya’s mother was escorted to the airport by her entire family, even her stooped over grandmother with arthritis, and while her mother whispered in her ear warnings about the demonic American sluttiness, her father paced around the airport gulping down tears at losing his only daughter to a country across the world. The Russian man stood nearby with his suitcases, looking at the scene out of the corner of his eyes, eating a chocolate bar, pretending not only to not know Anya’s mother but also to not be falling in love with her. When the plane took off, the Russian man and Anya’s mother held hands and this lovely feeling of freedom and weightlessness spread throughout their body and it had nothing to do with being lifted into the air.

Their wedding was huge and sparkly and took them both back to Calcutta in a time of peace. Anya’s mother was secretly already pregnant and glowing profusely in the heat as her mother applied sandalwood dots on her face and lined her feet in red dye. She was weighed down by pounds of gold on her neck and arms. The maids were drawing elaborate mandala designs in the doorway with rice-paste and Anya’s soon-to-be-father was being fitted in a long silk kurta and a tall carved hat made of fragile milky-white cork. They saw each other from different doorways and burst into laughter. Someone blew a pink conch shell and somebody else rolled their tongue in ecstatic ululation.

Anya’s mother spent the days after her wedding perusing Calcutta’s famous book fair at the Maidan, a huge urban park with sprawling greenery and scattered remnants of Victorian legacy. She walked hand in hand with her new husband, ate cotton candy and spicy fish cutlets, and felt the baby kick like the soccer players who practiced at the Maidan every Saturday morning. She hoped her daughter would turn out to be someone forward and self-assured, that she would love books and soccer, and that she would learn how to break out of her proverbial Calcutta. She went to an outdoor concert where the singer sang a song he wrote for his young daughter:

 

Whenever you smile the sun is embarrassed

It wants to put its light-tiara on you instead

Whenever you clap your hands, Zakir Hussain

Quits playing tabla and raises doves instead

 

When Anya was thirteen, she dyed her waist-length hair purple. Anya’s mother freaked out and her father, after he had stopped laughing, asked her what she was thinking. Anya’s mother, who was rather attached to her daughter’s shining black hair, tearfully asked Anya what exactly it was that she was rebelling against. She felt a mixture of sadness and pride for her daughter having the good sense to reply that there was nothing to rebel against and that she was merely going through the motions of rebellion.

 

Breaking People

Koeli was not ready for the complicated politics of married life. At first she was bowled over by the sight of her husband’s family home. It was two stories tall, freshly painted in bright white paint and covered in garlands in anticipation of the newlywed’s arrival.  A receiving party busily escorted the two kids into the house, making sure Koeli’s first step was into a bowl filled with milk and red dye, and she was amused to leave little pink footsteps all over the foyer. As her mother-in-law explained to her, she was now in charge of giving orders to three maids and a cook, all of whom were much older than Koeli. Her mother-in-law also made it clear that Koeli was by no means at the top of the pecking order, and that the matriarch’s word was the very last word. Koeli looked down and nodded.

Sex was a dumbfounding experience. Koeli remembered giggling with Priya about some gorgeous guy or another and feeling rustled when she read love poems in the library. But here was an act that aroused feelings in her, certainly, but she was unsure whether these feelings are the same ones mentioned in poems and songs. This is what Krishna pined for when Radha was away? This frankly painful and embarrassing act committed by practical strangers wore away at Koeli’s resolve to be a technically good wife. She thought maybe if she and her husband were friends at least, if not lovers, then sex wouldn’t be such a chore. Koeli tried to get him to talk to her about his interests but it turned out that he was only interested in technology. As hard as she tried to concentrate whenever he enthusiastically explained how and why an electrical current was magical, she knew she looked bored. He knew it too and they stopped trying to pretend altogether that they cared about each other.

“What do you think about the Naxals?” she had asked once.

He shrugged without looking up from his food. “Nothing,” he said. “They are terrorists. These lentils need more salt.”

Koeli smiled and wondered what he would say if she told him anything about her life before him.

Sometimes after an afternoon nap, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law and she sat on the sweeping veranda and looked out into the peaceful street. She sang an evening raga while the other women combed their hair with coconut oil. The sky was always different depending on the time of year. During the summer, it was filled with clouds of every color and shape and the air was hot. Monsoons made the sky black and magnificent and smelling of earth. Koeli loved this time of day and made it her own, trying to forget about every banal thing that otherwise filled up her days. The maids listened to her while they cleaned the floors with yellow acid-water and rags, trying to forget about the noxious fumes that filled up their lungs.

Mother-in-laws have their own strange codes of conduct. They are like cruel coaches, training their young protégés to be effective future mother-in-laws themselves. Koeli’s mother-in-law, while not abusive, was adept at the art of the backhanded compliment. She often commented on Koeli’s beautiful singing voice and added that it very nicely drew attention away from her ugly nose. Koeli, who was fond of her nose, took it to heart and spent an entire day hating her husband’s mother and thought seriously about running away.

But she never did. The powers of mother-in-laws are sharp enough to break the spirits of young girls with desires. And once broken, those spirits are nearly impossible to fix even when there are continents between them.

 

If You Know What I Mean

            Anya walked down a street in downtown San Jose passing chain link fence after chain link fence and feeling really paranoid that the yellow eyes of pit bulls were watching her walk around. Her nylon backpack felt comforting and heavy against her back and she slouched a little and let her growing hair fall over one eye. She was out to make art. Looking at the beautiful black girls and chola girls sitting on porches and hanging out, smoking cigarettes, Anya thought she saw a sense of purpose behind their eyes, under their purple tattooed eyebrows, in their huge glossy purple mouths, behind their oversize sweatshirts. More purpose than the waifish zombie-eyed girls who sold chiffon things in boutiques or who politely clicked their kitten heels through galleries that were ninety percent empty space anyway.

A tree with roots that cracked the cement around it was on the sidewalk in front of Anya. She sat against it with her feet over the curb, feeling small and significant at once. Anya drew a drawing. It was of a girl in a forest who was not lost. She had large concerned eyes. In superfine pencil she drew in every single hair on the forest girl’s head and every single hair in her eyebrows and lashes. This made the girl seem lushly hairy and beautiful. Anya took out a red felt-tip pen and wrote NIRVANA on the girl’s shirt. She then flipped the drawing over and wrote in pencil, “If you know what I mean, send something back.” Then she wrote her address but not her name and stuck the drawing in the first mailbox she found. Anya waited for exactly one month to feel despair that she didn’t get a reply.

When Anya returned home, she saw her mother sitting in the living room with her eyes closed and her glasses slipping off her face. An old Hindi song was playing softly.

 

My shoes are from Japan

            My pants are from England

            The red hat on my head is Russian

            But my soul is forever Indian.

 

Presently,

            The indifferent light of a California morning striped the floor of Koeli’s bedroom. She lay in bed with the covers tangled around her feet, her hands clasped at her belly, staring at the white ceiling. The baby slept next to her, thumb curled into a perfect rose mouth. No noises anywhere, she thought. The ceiling was hard and drippy and ugly. Everything was white and off-white and hideous and Koeli was so tired of the baby crying all night and her husband’s light snoring that she found the quiet white ugliness almost beautiful.

Koeli blinked and carefully got out of bed, making sure not to wake the baby. It was fast asleep. She shuffled through the carpet into the living room where the sun had taken over. It was so bright. She squinted and wrapped the old bathrobe around herself tighter. She still felt small, even more so in a large country with largeness all around her. But her body had started to accumulate flesh, as all bodies do, and she felt a sense of gravity about herself that she had never felt before. Pulling out a Tupperware of yesterday’s fish curry from the fridge, Koeli thought about what she would do that day.

A blankness settled over her. Koeli ticked off the hours until her husband would come home from work. She had a student coming later in the day for singing lessons and after that she would start the rice-cooker and soak some lentils but that still left around five hours to do nothing. She couldn’t play music or it would wake the baby and she couldn’t leave it to go for a walk. Her modest circle of Bengali friends she really only saw during festivals and their children’s birthdays and even after five years of having lived in the states she was still afraid of driving on the highway.

How slow the days feel without the barked orders of a mother-in-law or the heat of a fire stove in your face all day. She should be happy for the baby, Koeli thought. Adoption agencies rarely cooperate so quickly so she should be happy but Koeli thought she never wanted a child in the first place. She had felt some guilt for her husband’s impotence, yes, and gave in to adoption when it became painfully clear that they would not conceive. But she never saw herself as a mother. Koeli stuck the fish in the microwave.

Chewing the spicy mustardy fish with relish, Koeli looked out the window into the street. People and cars moved by but made no sound through the walls. In a couple of hours school will let out and there will be a stampede of uniformed children running through these streets of downtown, pushing each other and starting fights and putting their arms around each other’s necks. That’s how Koeli liked children best: from afar.

Right as she extracted a tiny fishbone from her mouth, Koeli noticed a young girl outside place something in her mailbox, glance toward the house, and walk away. Wondering what kind of service the girl could be advertising, Koeli put on her slippers and walked to the mailbox. In it, she found a letter from Tristan and a very odd drawing of a girl in a forest. Her shirt said NIRVANA. Koeli flipped the drawing over and saw written, “If you know what I mean, send something back.” She stared at the scrawled handwriting and wondered if it was a joke. Koeli didn’t know what it meant.

Sitting on the uncomfortably cold leather sofa that her husband picked out, Koeli opened Tristan’s letter and tossed the drawing on the end-table. She turned the baby-monitor on and heard nothing but peaceful baby breathing. She curled her feet underneath her thighs and started scanning the letter. By the end she was massaging her temple. Her mother had passed away.

 

Realization

There she was back at the Ganges. It was much dirtier than Koeli remembered. The water was gray and smelled horrible. There she was standing again in a cloud of ashes, the remains of her mother’s cancerous body charring in the fire, with no one around to see it burn away. Koeli’s father was too weak to make it to the banks and Tristan was working in the United Arab Emirates as an oil worker. The money he sent to his parents kept them alive but those lives were getting smaller and smaller. He had abandoned his dissent in order to keep people alive. Koeli felt alone standing there, saying goodbye to someone who hadn’t really been alive in years. There she was again not crying.

She pulled out the drawing of the girl in a forest. Koeli kept the picture in her bag almost always. She often pulled it out and tried to understand it in context of the situation she was in. She still didn’t know what it meant. The picture was smudged and the same color as the smoke, the Ganges. She put it back in her bag and left.

Koeli hailed a taxi. She closed her eyes as it rushed down Park Street. It wound its way through crowded New Market, suddenly slowed and eventually stopped.

“Sorry madam,” the taxi driver said. “There is a strike happening. Traffic is very bad.”

Koeli hadn’t noticed the screaming picketers. She was swimming in her own loss. She rolled down the windows of the taxi and allowed their anger to flow through the cab. The young men were shirtless, their hollow chests glittering with sweat. Their voices were breaking as they yelled. One of them pounded on the hood of the taxi as he passed.

“Who is striking, do you know?”

The taxi driver laughed and said, “Who knows madam? There are a million strikes every day. Nobody is happy with anything in this city.”

Koeli watched a girl in the protest. Her voice was hoarse and she carried a banner defaming the TATA corporation. She was short and thin and wore huge glasses. Behind the lenses, Koeli thought she saw eyes that she recognized. Koeli pulled out the drawing and held it up to the window, lining up the forest girl’s face to that of the picketer.

“Thank you for the ride, brother,” Koeli said and hastily dropped some bills into the front seat. She opened the door into the strike and was engulfed in a sea of bodies.

“INQUILAB,” she yelled alongside the girl with the banner.

“ZINDABAD,” the crowd replied.

Life Lol

We are standing in a garden made of bees built on a foundation of white stones made of cracking eggshells (very good finish). We are running around like idiots, trying to eat the bees because we are hungry. All the fruits are made of bees. The bees fertilize the fruits by eating other bees and having sex with them (order unimportant). Our behavior makes no difference and we are aware of the collapsibility of our world. We are trying to have a good time in this sadistic painful bee garden. We are covered in raspberry welts from the bee fruits. People come over and say we love it, we love your scary garden. We say yes, this is a scary garden but we live in it.

Today’s Nonsense

The Times of India put out a new broadsheet called Ei Samay (This Time) and asked me to write a piece about HJBRL, the book I translated a while ago. This article is the first piece of writing I’ve done that’s been translated. You can read the Bengali version here.

Today’s Nonsense

There’s a big white building with stately columns about 10 minutes from my house in San Francisco. It used to be a church, except instead of statues of Jesus it now houses server stacks. This building belongs to the Internet Archive, a digital library that’s on a mission to scan and catalog every word that has ever been printed or typed. It’s common knowledge that the best way to bring down a civilization is to burn its books. But burning isn’t the only way to kill a book. Neglecting and allowing it to molder untouched except by pulp-loving insects is a slower and more painful death.

Apparently the members of my generation are subjecting the classics of Bengali literature to this cruel fate. Or at least, that’s what people keep telling me. Not having lived in Kolkata for a very long time, I have no first-hand knowledge of the matter. I’m a firm believer that no one has a duty to prop up artifacts of a dying culture if they are no longer of use. However, I have a hard time believing that this could be the fate of Sukumar Ray’s Ha Ja Ba Ra La.

The turgid and old-fashioned language of most classics bore me, and there are just too many books in the world to waste time reading ones I don’t enjoy. But I have always loved the odd interplay of cultural specificity and universality of Ray’s stories. I translated Ha Ja Ba Ra La into English when I was fifteen in order to share it with my friends. The language is so casual that it could have been written two days ago. Ray’s words are sweet and chewy like sandesh. Even when the jokes are based in Bengali wordplay, they remain culturally fluid—I can’t think of a language where a father-in-law named Cookie isn’t funny.

Another great thing about Ray is that he didn’t deal with morals. I never really appreciated the subtle beauty of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghor or any such stories that I suspected were trying to teach me a lesson by tugging at my heartstrings. Tagore’s Amol didn’t talk like I did. He was too sincere and limpid. I liked books with disruptive characters. I saw myself in Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu stories and Soviet propaganda books about roving gangs of feral children. As a kid, I related to the genderless protagonist in Ha Ja Ba Ra La who questioned every absurd explanation she was fed. I must admit that I now relate more to the overly academic goat who gives lectures on the edibility of various furnishings.

As I get older, new things catch my attention. A couple nights ago my roommates and I were winding down after a night of drinking and talking about immortality. One of them mentioned a jellyfish that ages up to a certain point and then begins to get younger and younger, eventually becoming a polyp, and then aging upward again. This process can go on indefinitely. I squealed and jumped out of bed to scribble this piece of information down. Surely I don’t need to point out the parallels between this biologically immortal jellyfish and Ray’s age-flipping old man who cycles between age ten and forty? Did he know about this jellyfish, or is the natural world absurd enough to de-absurdify even the most nonsensical literature? Isn’t the mystery of Gechodada’s current location simply an example of Zeno’s paradox? The tape measure that measures everything as 26 inches an illustration of Maslow’s Hammer?

Martin Gardner once wrote that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a deeply upsetting children’s book because it deals with philosophical concepts that unsettle even adults. Ha Ja Ba Ra La is similar in many respects. It contains a dream architecture that muddles the boundaries between signifier and signified. But children seem to be less disturbed by this instability if only because they haven’t lived in the world of symbols for very long. During childhood, events simply seem to unfold without rhyme or reason. Like the confused young protagonist, I quickly came to understand that I cannot control anything and must be content with observing and reacting. I think the process of aging erodes this understanding of reality to our own detriment.

Cultures can’t be preserved like airtight jars of pickles, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I’m dropping off my dusty collection of classic Bengali literature to the Internet Archive because I simply don’t have the time or desire to sift through the pastoral dramas of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or the measured meters of Tagore’s love poems from an unrecognizable era. But Ha Ja Ba Ra La doesn’t need this kind of archiving yet. It’s a living, breathing text. Its language and satire remain as piercing as ever. There’s no need to look backward or make temporal concessions in order to find every joke and every grinning, snuffling character alive for our age.

On Androgyny

So here is this short story I wrote in high school. It is painfully, painfully embarrassing and I was seriously debating whether I should post it. But like, I think of it as tattoos. It’s pointless to regret a tattoo–it exists for better or for worse. It’s a snapshot of the person you were when you got it. I’ve thought about getting a time elapse sleeve up my legs where I get one each year for 20 years or something and see how the style and content changes. And so this piece is like a marker in time.

I will say that for all of its embarrassing excesses, it’s something of a relief to me that this story deals with the same subjects that I’m still interested in. I have this irrational fear that my personality is an elaborate illusion, a long hall of mirror neurons that simply reflect the ideas around me instead of create them. This is partly because I have awful episodic memory. I don’t really mind it though because it means I have very few bad memories and the world around me is always interesting.

Reading this over also gives me a better idea about why I’m not interested in narratives. It’s difficult enough for me to find meaning in small events, so creating a satisfying narrative arc is pretty difficult. I like poetry and non-fiction because I feel like their functions are just to make readers say “huh, weird!” whereas the human drive for story-telling revolves around our need for things to make sense. But things largely don’t make sense.

Ok one last disclaimer–I wrote this in 2004 when I was 15 and really into The Fountainhead. So yeah, proceed at your own peril. Oh also, there’s a character named Zayn. Yeah. Sorry.

The author would like to note that being supremely unhappy all the time is not a recommendable state of being but is sometimes helpful. But only sometimes. And even then, not so much.

On Androgyny

Prologue

The night was glistening outside. The lights of the streets and architectural monuments looked like raindrops suspended in the air, waiting for a good excuse to suddenly crash onto the gridlocked city. Some ways into the city, inside of a cream house with white shutters, a lonely dog with chocolate-y eyes waited with infinite patience for his family to come home. Sometimes he got so tired of waiting that he felt an urge deep down in his furry belly to do something. What that something was, he did not know. Pillows and furniture were regularly devastated and he whined so softly that he could break your heart, but still, he waited. And the feeling in his furry belly got stronger and scarier.

I. Setup

An older sister and a younger brother, virtually indistinguishable from one another. Born and brought up in the United States during its period of conservative tyranny, they had both acquired a certain arrogance and cynicism vital to the survival of the intelligent species. They found in their village of skyscrapers a microcosm of beauty, freedom of expression, and even progressivism if they chose to find it (they often did). They belonged to a relatively small subculture of the ridiculously wealthy and aesthetes-snobby artists and musicians who nonchalantly roamed the streets in equally nonchalantly expensive clothes. Dinah possessed two more years and the less exotic name. Her brother Zayn possessed two more inches. They came from a family of dark and intellectual Balkans who all shared glossiness of skin and hair as well as an unsettling aloofness of character. An older sister and a younger brother. The sister examined the bruises on her brother’s face and the slashes on his skin. She held his wrists and found that he is dead.

“Dinah, seriously now kid, you gotta stop wearing suits on our dates. Either that or grow out your hair or something, I get enough weird stares as it is, being an inch shorter than you.” Dinah looked over at Marcello nonchalantly and cocked her gray man’s fedora farther down over her eyes. She lifted a long leg onto his chair under the café table and leaned back to stretch her arms. As a result, she nearly punched a cat walking on the flower-box behind her. It meowed and hissed passionately, then took off running in the opposite direction.

“Why.” She said.

“Because! Well I mean, you can’t pretend to say that you’re not boiling in the middle of a New York City summer. And although your hair looks undeniably sexy indoors or when you’re sleeping or something, underneath that hat, it just makes you look like a really hot guy.”

“So.” She said, rubbing her eyes.

“Oh boy.” Said Marcello. He smiled on the inside.

Zayn handed his mother a folder full of new spreads he was in. She liked to collect them. Her eyes widened in delight, first at seeing her son for the first time in two months, and second at the folder he handed her. She pulled the cigarette out of her mouth, exhaled quickly, and kissed him on the forehead.

“How was it! I mean India jesus christ! You look like a native, are those extensions? Your hair can’t have grown that much in two months.”

Zayn stared at her incredulously. “Extensions? Whaddya think I am some sort of glam rocker or something.” He ran his hand through his decidedly dirty locks. “Nah I just didn’t bother to cut it. Plus it’s nice long.”

His mother had meanwhile emptied the contents of the envelope onto their glass dining table, which looked like a huge block of ice. The base was reflective and resembled a pool of melting water. It was made by a friend of the family, the avant-garde artist Mona Gatunan who was involved in a high-profile breach of her Sixth Amendment rights. She was linked to Las Sangres, a militant grass-roots organization that meddled in environmental socialist agendas and Moltov Cocktails of frightening destructive abilities. The group had a small but surprisingly efficient guerrilla division that slithered in and out of Sudan’s most intimate government sectors, slaughtering officials and Janjaweeds left and right. Their attacks against American oil tycoons were well publicized. A paralyzing wind of paranoia had swept the former-superpower-nation into wrapping its blanket of suspicion and smog even more tightly around itself.

Dinah unlocked the door to her apartment. Well, room at least. She lived in a room above a pub run by an old Italian man. The pub was crumbling on the outside but it was always filled at night by other old Italian men and some bored teddy boys with deflated pompadours. It had a nice jukebox and a pinball machine that she liked to play around with when she couldn’t think of anything to write about. It usually gave her some ideas. The room was absurdly hot. Ridiculous, even at night. She took off her suit and hat and lounged around in her underwear and tried to write. Nothing came to her. She was sort of distracted. She put her hat back on. She couldn’t think without her hat.

Zayn had lived in an actual apartment with his girlfriend Kate. She was slightly addicted to cocaine and had the sweetest temperament of anyone he had ever met. A really nice kid. And she had this face, right? It wasn’t beautiful or anything, but he’d gotten used to beauty, being surrounded by it all the time. She just had this face that he couldn’t reference from anything. It was stunning in its amazing plainness. He often just stared at her trying to fit her into some frame of reference– exotica, the girl next door, his own goddamn mother, anything. He always failed. He was terribly in love with her. Their house was a crash pad for all the rich kids looking for trip hideouts. It was okay with him because the only people he got along with were those in chemical stupors who couldn’t tell a telephone from a hat-pin anyway. He could remain silent around them and he appreciated their blatant search for the meaning of life. That was all before his girlfriend moved out. She now lived with her coke dealer, and so clearly had a very businesslike reason for her decision, but had to make up some lame excuse so it wouldn’t hurt him to think that drugs were more important to her than he was. It went something like this.

“Zayn, you overanalyze things. You think too much about what things look like and what they mean. It’s really very shallow.”

“What?”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m moving out. It’s complicated but just, I don’t know, it’s not that complicated I guess. I think we aren’t like the same people anymore.”

“You’re moving out? Seriously? Are you doped up right now?”

“No! Zayn see this is what I mean. You don’t even take me seriously.”

“I take you seriously, believe me, I’m very serious right now. Where the hell are you going to live?”

“With Charlie.”

“With who for chrissakes?! Charlie? Oh man I can’t even…Charlie?” Zayn let it go. He knew he couldn’t win this one. Chemicals always win the war against spirituality. But he never really let it go.

What’s wrong with death? Nothing’s wrong with death. Death has gotten a bad rep from people who haven’t died yet. What do you mean by this, you fat and lazy creature. Get up, I say. You have no business sleeping in the middle of the afternoon. Dinah’s head voice only surfaced during the times of half sleep. She had somehow managed to fall asleep with her hat on and thoughts of death slumbered through her head like slow-moving mammoths, inching forward and eclipsing the sun in a barren desert landscape. She rolled over, misted with sweat, and jumped into a standing position with one swift leap, rudely shaking the sleep from her body. Thinking about death, she walked around her room, on top of the bed and the chair. There was an attached bathroom sort of thing with a crummy looking shower and she walked into that too and stared at herself in the mirror. The mirror was actually just a square of old chrome with subtle dents everywhere and it distorted her face into soft ice cream. She walked back into her room and sat down at her desk. An open letter was resting lightly on the edge. She picked it up and read the ragged handwriting for a second time.

Right now, I’m sitting here. Staring at the walls. That, as you might know, is a fragment, but I don’t care. The laws of grammar do not apply to me right now. Really, when DO the laws of grammar apply? When they can communicate? What is communication but to send semiotic signals from one brain to another? How can I know that you are not misunderstanding what I am trying to say. I can’t. I just have to have faith that our brains will communicate similar signals to each other. For this I thank education. Here is a formal thank you. Thank you education. I owe you a lot. I owe you because you molded my mind into something tangible, something recognizable, something unlike the minds of others who have not the same education as I have. The vast ocean crashes on the shore. Crash. Foam. Smooth. Ride. Wave. An ocean of knowledge from an institution which degrades other institutions like communism and even religion. It goes against all my formal knowledge to trust education as much as I do but it’s something that I have been taught for all my life and, well, it works as well as can be expected. Nuns. That’s who taught me. Nuns. They carried wooden rulers and smacked them down on the bones of my wrist and my knuckles. I was only six years old. What gives people the cruelty to do these kinds of things? The want to make the world a better place? Young children being jaded with the slap of a ruler? Disillusionment is the cruelest form of reality. I don’t condone the knowledge of santa or god or anything, but for god’s sake, don’t tell them it’s not real. Let the children figure out for themselves if anything. Children aren’t stupid. It’s unfair to assume that a group of people are stupid and form a fairly tale for their demographic based on that assumption. No one is really stupid. Everyone knows what they want. Like right now, I want some water.

And then later, scrawled hastily but more legibly,


Sorry I was really drunk but I don’t want to waste paper so I’m mailing this to you. India is good, but I wish I were in Venezuela. Hugo is a good kid. Why don’t you write about love and the forms it takes? When someone you love tells you that they don’t like the person you are, then, well, you really fucked up there buddy, didn’t you. Write about that.

-Zayn

He was talking about Kate moving out.

Dinah banged the table in frustration. She didn’t know what was wrong. Well, yes she did. Everything had to be perfect in order for her to write. She couldn’t be thirsty or have to take a shit or anything. It was helpful if she had just read a particularly inspired piece of writing or maybe remembered a favorite philosopher’s words. Right now, something wasn’t perfect. Most frustrating of all, Dinah found that she could never write with a consistent agenda. Every time she was certain of her convictions she always found this one thing, teeny tiny barely existent but still there, this one thing that always messed everything up. She found that each element of a human life had to be examined in a very narrow window in order to make any sense of it, otherwise the conclusions are so contradictory that they induce insanity or suicide. Each decision or opinion is based on the narrow opinion that came before it. Things like that make it very hard to get anything done, you know?

II. History

Dinah was an unusually subtle child. She had a firm grip on the mechanics of logic even while in the womb. She realized that if she didn’t untangle herself from her mother’s umbilical cord, she would most likely perish. So she did, and with surprising swiftness for a fetus. She saved her family from a lot of emotional baggage. Zayn made his way into the world yelling and screaming bloody murder. That, incidentally, is also the way he died.

They hadn’t lived in the city all their lives. Their parent’s house (it may be fairer to call it an estate) was nestled high in the California bay-area hills with a view! Dinah had gone to a public high-school by her own insistence, but because of the wealth of the general area, the effect was quite private. She had always been withdrawn and frustrated by conversations of boutiques and trips to Europe, even though she could effortlessly relate. She felt repulsed by her classmate’s inane speech and manicured fingernails and hungered for something unclean.

And thus Dinah’s ready association with the scumbags of surrounding middle-class San Jose was some sort of reverse osmosis of culture through association. Drugs were always a fashionable gimmick in upper society, good for a party but let’s not go overboard now. She picked up on the seedy web of people that seemed to follow the drugs through the opulent parties and created her own minor network of dealers. She had a little business set up, being a middleman between the tweaky meth-ed out valley kids and the bored blazer crew. Price gouging didn’t matter to her since her customers never knew the street price anyway. Guilt never played a role and she considered the money she made the “cleanest” there was. She never spent her parent’s money on drugs. She was a girl of principles.

“They’re supposedly your friends,” Zayn had said. “If your human relations exist only through mere business transactions, you have issues.”

“Yeah? That’s what the Communists said too.” Dinah had replied darkly.

At first, her accomplices’ severe savagery and super-violent tendencies often made her sick to her stomach. However, the pain intensified a great deal when she began dealing to her mountain-mansion classmates who loaded up on ecstasy and cocaine to take a road-trip to their grandparent’s ranch in Santa Barbara, funded completely by their mother’s leftover change, scrounged after a quickie boob job. Here, it was not a question of cruelty or morality, but a singularly nagging and perverse paradox of wealth and happiness that had and continued to haunt her thoughts. She had turned to Jewish mysticism for some time and sought some promised salvation through, in her eyes, the least incriminating form of spirituality. (Buddhism required too much patience.) Needless to say, she called bullshit by the fourth book on the matter. Zayn, conversely, devoured the stuff.

As many small boys and girls are, the children were encouraged to be athletic at an early age, but they both showed a preference for art. The parents were delighted to have visionaries in the family yet they nonetheless nudged Zayn towards the direction of some kind of sport, fearing the disenfranchisement that comes with non-athleticism in little boys. However, he remained firm in his distaste for sports and started to smoke copious amounts of cigarettes in order to feign some mild form of asthma. And, true to his parents’ predictions, he came home more than once with a bloody nose or a black eye or two.

Dinah, on the other hand, liked the way her body moved on the basketball court. She towered over the rest of the girls and felt an easy spring to her arm when she shot the ball into the basket. She felt as if she could look into her opponent’s eyes and read her mind, and thus, be able steal the ball in a heartbeat. By the time she had finished delighting over this thought, her opponent was long gone. She decided basketball didn’t suit her very well after all, and that self-indulgence was her worst quality.

As Zayn progressed into puberty and beyond, he became sharply aware of the connotations of garment and photographs. He held both in great admiration. He first noticed the eagerness of people, especially urbanites, to wear “statement” clothes and to photograph themselves in a fashionable light. He then also noticed their habit of hoarding pictures of themselves, cringing in horror at the ones they deemed unflattering. He came to the conclusion that both clothing and photographs are completely masturbatory and erotic. Being very fond of masturbation, he pursued a career in modeling.

III. India

The atmosphere of Calcutta shimmers with dead skin cells and sweat. As soon as Zayn stepped off the plane, hot air swallowed his head while the supernaturally bright sunlight stabbed his eyes. Warmth seemed to permeate his very sinews. The dirty interior of the airport was a gateway into a storybook land, a capitalist’s fantasy, where the rich lay back in five storied air-conditioned homes and the poor—legless, armless, eyeless—resemble a pile of bones in rags roasting foully on the sidewalk.

An unbearably willowy girl followed him off the plane and wrinkled her magnificent nose.

“This place will always smell the same: like excrement.”

Tara was a genuine red-dotted Indian and had spent some years of her life running through the barely paved sidewalks of Calcutta and Madras. Little tender muscles toddled over the rocky cement and one epic fall that nearly smashed her kneecaps left her with a fantastic raised scar that was instrumental to her being eagerly gobbled up by one of the biggest modeling agencies in New York by the age of fifteen. She also had cutglass hipbones, collarbones, and cheekbones.

“Yeah? Excrement? I thought that was the new YSL perfume you were raving about.” Tara rolled her eyes and stuck out her teeth in a mock overbite. “When do we start shooting anyway?” he asked.

“Early tomorrow morning, but there’s a bunch of shit I want to show you today.” After battling through the oily airport with their suitcases, she grabbed his arm with one hand and waved down a fleet of taxis with the other. The two slid onto a peeling black seat where the yellow spongy stuffings were desperately trying to escape from their plastic prison. Zayn watched in amazement as Tara unperturbedly rolled up her windows while at least ten brown little arms and hands scratched at the glass and ten little eyes stared at them, curious and accusing. Small boys in various states of undress demanded American pennies in various states of excitement. Tara indicated to him that he should probably roll his up too…etc.

As Tara watched Zayn ride his motorcycle through the russian-roulette streets of Calcutta, she imagined his ever impending death. The motorcycle would be overtaken by a monstrous lorry and be mowed over without the driver even stopping. Zayn would be unable to see the truck from behind him because the rusty old bike’s side mirror had been smashed very long ago by a similar incident, less lethal. The beastly truck would swerve and meander its way through traffic into oblivion as the russet colored bits of metal flecked with blood would remain lumped on the street with a crowd of people gathering around it, everyone making noise, shaheb!, but no one doing anything. She imagined the plane-ride back to the states and telling his mother what happened. His beautiful mother. They would hug and cling to each other like mother and daughter, and Tara with her secret ardor, her silent affection, would tell her how much she loved his son and how much he had no idea. OR He would pick up a small dirty teddy bear off the side of the road, not knowing that concealed inside of its cotton tummy lay a ticking package of explosives, ready to go off at the slightest touch. He did not know that there were commercials on Indian televisions warning about roadside bombs disguised as toys, so as to lure small children to them. He did not know any of this.

IV. Discovery

There were rare times when Dinah felt the vulnerability of her sex. It was never while she wrote, her eyes heavy-liddedly gazing at her racing hands through amber colored shades. It was never while she negotiated an article with her editor, dodging the bloody slashes deftly and managing to keep most of the piece intact. It was never even while she lay lazily back while Marcello played his finger and tongue games, trying to get a rise out of her. No, this girl was invulnerable at all times except while certain chemicals were coursing through her bloodstream. Her drug use, in one chiffony plane, satisfied her heightened sense of bravado in surviving dangerous things. This type of prancing behavior is characteristic of young males of her type, but she let the feeling plunge her into a seemingly never-ending despair—an amber, quiet gloom.

Things were lounging when she came in, bringing with her the smell of dark gray smoke and expensive felt. Murmurs rose up in sync with the intellectual rock that was blaring on the stereo. Artfully disheveled people were unraveling themselves in pools of human yarn over the slick ground, sofas, and trash sculptures. All this ennui! New York should be throbbing and beating, not thickening like jelly in an acid laced languor. But it was, what, 2 in the morning? She was too tired and it was too late to make an effort. She dutifully accepted a sugarcube. Six hours of mental entertainment and transcendence into simultaneous consciousness would be a suitable substitute for constructive thought. At least for tonight. Tonight was one of those nights. The sugar melted obediently over her tongue, almost completely hiding the bitter insidious taste of the lysergic acid diethylamide. She reached for a piece of paper. Her fears would be recorded tonight before anything else happened because, who knows, things happen, fears disappear and she might never be the same person again and a reminder of her former self would be a nice thing to have.

I was sitting at a desk in the middle of a darkened room. Doors lined the walls of the room, all of them agape like hungry mouths, dull lights visible at the end of the promised halls like recurring nightmares. Shadows and soft voices flickered through them. A desk. A room. The room was empty save for myself and the desk. We stuck to each other like babes in the woods. An irrational and paralyzing fear swept through my body and my teeth started to chatter. Clickclickclick like little castanets. The voices fluctuated- soft and hard. I almost saw the whites of their eyes. I dashed out of a door headfirst and blindly, and out into a lit hall. The hall was long and thin and slender like a spider’s leg and I ran through it and out of another door leading me outside. The night was cold. Tiny red lights started to blink in my peripheral vision and the dim glow of streetlights cast the specter of my poverty towards me. My responsibilities, every thing and every one I needed to protect and take care of were dredged up in the shadows of the broken sidewalk. I abandoned myself to a life of servitude with staunch resignation. An army of painted women suddenly overtook me. I felt them wrap their gauzy arms around me as they herded me towards a massive shape. As I neared, I felt this shape change underneath his skin. I fought so hard that I bled from the lips and chest. Screaming, screaming, not this servitude!

She opened a window. The stars looked like diamond glass, unbearably bright through her now cloudy eyes. She tumbled her words into crystalline swords. Her thoughts separated and her world fell apart.

When the pain is so great, fear has no place. It is afraid to overtake pain. If nothing else, I was free from fear in the midst of my servitude. It was the moments before my tasks began, the anticipation of another shape looming, drunken, massive, supernaturally cruel—that made the fear suffocate me with plastic bags and pillows. Soon I was the plastic bag and pillow. Easy to kick around, kiss, and slice through like fluffy cake. If this one does not hurt enough, fret not, for the next one surely will. And death, oh death is such a rare friend. Death comes in tantalizing pieces and settles in the creases of the body, but never in totality. Death, do visit soon.

Ribbons of horror were tied up in her pretty hair, softly lit up by the twinkling sky. She could hear time pass like panthers in pain. Meanings revealed themselves and vanished again.


Cruelty is borne in all beings like blooming flowers and those with fragile muscles reap its benefits. I weave a net with no one in it. To have no responsibilities is to avoid the whole mess altogether. Simple cowardice? Never. Courageous enough to protect every future person’s life before my own, even if it means constant vigilance and searing loneliness. But so is life.

V. Marcello

Something buzzed and whirred roughly against Zayn’s thighs. He jumped. He never got used to that thing, stupid cell phone.

“Zayn, kid, I hear you’re back.” It was Marcello.

“Yeah, yeah I am. I’m at home actually.”

“Good, good. How about coming to this party with me and your sister. It’s like, oh I don’t know, a couple hours away, up in Rochester, beautiful house I hear. A friend of a friend of a friend you know, an actress I think. European, don’t know what the hell she’s doing here.” He laughed in a barking Marcello-like way.

“Yeah, sure, tonight, yeah.” He thought it’d probably take his mind off of things. He was right, in a way.

Marcello began as a cancerous appendage of Dinah’s social life, somehow getting the idea into his head that she, in true girlfriendboyfriend fashion, belonged to him. She couldn’t figure this out for the life of her and decided to take naps instead of go out with him for the first few months. Eventually both her libido and curiosity got the better of her and she decided to map him out just for the fun of it. Here is how far she got.

Begin at Zayn.

Remove four inches in height.

Add some corn-fed good looks. Light blue eyes almost white in their cruelty, nearly silver even.

Take a left turn at completely idiotic.

Wait at that red light of talkative for about seven hours or until he shuts up, whichever comes first.

Still waiting.

Seriously, shut up.

She would’ve gotten farther if she still paid any attention to what he said, which she didn’t. It’s brain numbing brother, you wouldn’t have either- is what she said when she was explaining all of it to Zayn. What she never found out was that what attracted Marcello to her was not just her social status- very high for a person who held most people in contempt- but the way she looked straight into his eye without flinching or looking away, something no one he knew could do. And also, maybe most importantly, it was her inexplicably boyish way of talking and nearly hipless figure. Thirteen-year-old Marcello was once guided in the ways of lovemaking by a ravishing young man, a friend of his older brother, and he hadn’t soon forgotten it.

It all seemed simple enough. Eternal anesthesia. Conversely, the idea of infinity mystified her. Numbers go on forever. Fractals go on forever. Forever goes on forever. Religious people can’t all be stupid, she thought. There are way too many goddamn smart people in the world for religion to be so obviously wrong. But however long she looked for explanations through philosophy, nothing ever placated her mind. Even Salinger was wrong, she thought miserably. Why did she keep thinking about death? Dinah slid her hands through her rough hair, pushing it up on the sides to make it look positively electrified. Buzzbuzz went her cellphone. Hello Marcello. Of course I would love to go the party with you and pretend to like you if only to have an excuse to down several flutes of smooth vodka although I do prefer the cheap and quick stuff myself, and to stare at gorgeous people and observe their bone structure, the way their cheekbones dip and dive into the hollows of their dimples and curve like lacquered roses into their drunkenly open mouths. No I will not wear a dress you vapid prick. I hope you burn in hell. Just kidding. There is no hell.

Intermission

One day the ever-patient dog found a small hole in the fence of the backyard. FREEDOM! He wriggled his way into the neighbor’s backyard and managed to navigate the labyrinth of backyards until he made it to the glittering black pitch of a New York highway. The feeling in his furry belly urged him forward, drawing him into two orbs of fast moving light as if he were being pulled along by his long dead mother. His nose was wet and cold and his ears were cocked and alert.

VI. Journey

Marcello picked Zayn up from his house in his slick little platinum Benz with Dinah in the front seat, gracing the stiff black leather seats like she graced everything- with incontrovertible and inimitable grace. She had changed from her slate suit into a smart black one, with creases sharp enough to slice diamonds, the silk shining mutely in the glow of the trickling fountain at the gate. Her gray fedora was traded in for a smaller black one with a white satin band. Zayn looked down in alarm at his own chocolate brown suit, beautiful in his own right, and felt underdressed.

While they drove to the party, each of the two siblings underwent a mini existential-crisis. Pretty much, these two kids were pre-maturely exhausted with life. Marcello talked on about this friend of a friend who pumped his arm up with saline and how it popped oh disgusting but really, saline isn’t that bad if you’re looking to get ripped really quickly, although he prefers the lean look himself, lean being used in the literal meaning of the term, not the connotative body-builder meaning hey you guys sure are quiet is everything okay, haha? The siblings ignored him completely, with some “hm”-s and “oh”-s thrown in there out of politeness. Their heads swirled with other thoughts.

Dinah was preoccupied with her lack of anything to complain about, but the overwhelming feelings of disgust that seemed to follow her everywhere she went anyway. Self, stop it. You are in a perfect situation. Please, please, stop being such a wreck and straighten yourself out and produce something for once. You have no excuse for having no output. This life and everyone in it have been good to you, much too good for your own good. They have given you everything you need and many things you don’t need but are nice to have anyway. Why in the name of everything that is beautiful and good are you so GODDAMN unhappy? Aren’t you a little too old for this? She wanted to strike the reflection of herself in the side-view mirror. Also, she thought, life is a setup plotted by some evil origamist—folding up steel and concrete to create perfect cities and empires—folding up numbers into algorithms, folding up logic into axioms that cover every nook and cranny and every crooked nanny that any other dimension throws at it. She furrowed her eyebrows, pulled her hat down lower over her eyes and simultaneously had a sudden, sad vision of the world ending with a bust fuse and a quiet squeal, like turning off a television set. At that exact moment, and maybe for the first time, she saw the lights of New York at night and the phantasmal image of a city on fire with millions of candles flickering in and out and she felt the leather underneath her, and smelled the wind, and tasted her teeth, tried to look at herself through the eyes of the city, found herself to be pitiably tiny and her brain and thoughts to be even smaller, realized that life is a marsh for everyone. everyone. everyone. including the privileged and there is nothing she could do about it even if she were to be an ascetic hermit and were maybe raped when she was younger or homeless on the streets, she couldn’t help it, it wasn’t her fault, grief happens to everyone, and she went through the millions of words in her head that she had ever read or understood and came up with two, a possessive and a noun, which seemed to engrave themselves onto everything she ever laid eyes on ever again: My life.

Zayn was remembering this one time in the seventh grade when he was drawing a cloud formation that, he wasn’t kidding, looked like Bill Clinton smoking a cigar, a group of older boys came up to him in their dark gray slacks and neat prep-school jackets.

“Nice drawing there,” drawled one.

“Yeah.” Said another one. How original- Zayn remembered thinking this distinctly.

“Thanks.” He said, and kept drawing. He was ready for them now. After years of getting thrashed, he carried a razor-blade with him in a secret compartment in the sleeve of his jackets, self-made. He had often practiced flipping it out in the palm of his hand at the slightest sign of danger. Only problem here was though the fact that his hair was in his eyes, and looking down at his drawing, he couldn’t see the boys’ faces.

(It should be mentioned that at thirteen, Zayn was the definition of a beautiful youth, all doe-eyed slender-boned charm. Yet his quiet and bashful nature made him wary of the girls who stared at him in class, asked him to school dances, and sent him cutely excited text messages. He would be angry at himself, of course, but not as angry as the soccer players who would jealously guard their pretty young rich seventh-grade girlfriends like some would guard their vintage pearls or their shameful secrets. They were united in their locker-room rowdiness, sports drinks, and shared hatred of this delicate little threat. His delicacy was seen as effeminate and weak, earning him his queer label and at least a dozen unspoken beatings that would last him until he moved to a school dedicated to the refinement of the arts. It was here he felt at home. At last.)

The boys surrounded him still. He knew they wouldn’t leave. He tightened his abdomen and waited for the first kick. He did not have to wait very long. He didn’t even have time to flip out the blade.

The one thing he learned out of all this is that pain did not matter. He never fought back because he knew it was useless. He cradled his face and head in his hands and hoped with all his might that he would not be paralyzed. He never was. The pain felt good after a while. But only for fleeting milliseconds. Usually it made him wish he were dead. In the car, whizzing past other cars and the lights of New York, Zayn felt a pain worse than any other he had ever felt in his life, worse than any loafer kick to the chest could have felt. This was a pain he couldn’t stand because he didn’t know when it would end, if ever. This was a pain without a hate-able face. This pain belonged to her face and her body and her breath and taste and tears and relaxed expression and cheerful hugs and her empty little mind that he felt like he had to protect from a world that would use it and chew it up until she felt like him.

“Kate, oh Kate,” he said in his mind, imagining her reply.

“Yes?”

“Don’t leave me darling, please, they’ll hurt you. Let me take care of you.”

“I’ll survive probably.”

“You won’t.”

“Trust me.”

“I don’t.”

“I know.”

Damnit. He lost again. This was his fault in the end. His mind curled back to Kate’s face and remained there for the rest of the night, even while he was dying.

The party was suitably crowded and boring. The house was on a secluded hilltop, overlooking the city, gorgeous in the way very expensive houses tend to be. The only interesting part of it was that there was a panther locked up in a huge cage in the backyard, near the pool. No one really knew why. The cage was numbered 59049 in steely prison numbers. No one really knew about that either. It was tame, the rumor went. You can pet it, go ahead. Dinah spent most of the night sitting next to it, slowly getting drunk, and petting the velvety violet creature. She sympathized with it. I know friend, you feel trapped, it’s okay. So do we.

Zayn took one look at the party and took off. He filled his flask with vodka first and took a walk down the hill into downtown Rochester. By the time he had walked onto the bridge over the Genessee River, his flask was half empty and he was fully drunk. The water sloshed against the banks. Or did it? He grinned. Pretty.

Time stood still for maybe four hours. He remembered finishing the flask but not much else. He did not remember his hated cell phone buzzing on and off a million times and finally chucking it into the river. He did not remember the man who came up to him and asked if him if he was all right. He really wasn’t. He told him so with tears streaming down his face. The man offered to take him to a hospital. Zayn declined politely.

“No thanks mister nunna that here see I got a broken heart.” The man understood and left him alone. It was late and the man had to go home to his little girl.

Dinah was worried. Where was he? She borrowed Marcello’s keys. He gave them to her because he was more drunk than she was.

Zayn ducked into an alley, crying soundlessly but with more intensity than ever. God, what’s going on. He was bewildered.

Dinah went up to a guy and asked him to slap her five times, and hard. He looked at her peculiarly and said what. She did it herself and got in the car and strapped herself in.

Zayn could see a billboard from his little corner. A golden model glistened for no reason. Perfume didn’t make one glisten. Silly. Sometimes he wished he didn’t have a brain with which to process the meaning behind images and he could see the images for what they were without any sentimentality attached. Sometimes he wised he lived in a vacuum. He loved dust bunnies.

Dinah went down the hill. Steady there keep it steady whoah too much to the left there steady WAKE UP. Where would he be? Downtown. Own. Twice. Downtown.

A bar door expelled a group of drunken men onto the pavement. Black boots danced around. They danced around yelling and singing, right next to Zayn’s shoe. One of them tripped over it and landed on the asphalt, too drunk to stop his face from getting scraped up into a lasagna. It took his buddies at least a minute to stop laughing and figure out what really happened. One of them finally saw Zayn. The poor kid was shaking in the cold and in fear. They all ducked into the alley as if following orders. Zayn knew what was coming. Kate, he thought. Kate.

Dinah parked the car next to the bridge. Where was he? She walked along the same path her brother had taken an hour before.

“Look at this here fag, yessir.” Zayn guessed they probably weren’t from around there. Or maybe they were. He couldn’t tell anymore these days. He was reminded of his Catholic school days. Ah, childhood. One of them turned him over with his motorcycle boot.

“He’s got pretty hair, don’t he, this one?”

“Sho is pretty. Wanna mess him up baby?” This guy was wearing a snakeskin boot and was addressing a female companion. She was blonde. She looked cheesy.

“No, let’s mess him up right now before my buzz wears off.”

Zayn didn’t have time to tighten his abdomen.

Dinah saw a cop car racing and wailing. She felt physically ill. She got back in the car and followed it. The irony of the situation made her want to burst out laughing but she was afraid of opening her mouth to even exhale the cigarette smoke that was now pouring out of the car. She had already inhaled four during the course of her search.

Bodies, metal, one man with a bloody face, handcuffs, policemen. Boots.

She held his wrists. The soft side of it was brown and pristine, the only part of his body that seemingly wasn’t shredded into bloody pulp. His face was relatively unharmed, but he was dead dead dead dead dead deader than she had ever wished herself to be. He was really dead. My life. My life. My life.

Kate, he thought.

Epilogue

A family of nice people wept terribly at the sight of their dog. His intestines were falling out and bones stuck out at strange angles, but the dog didn’t care because he was dead.

NOTES NOTES NOTES NOTES PAY NO ATTENTION TO THESE NOTES

Note to self: stop killing everybody off. Very bad sign.

Listen to America- Simon and Garfunkel

Inability to see certain things because of obstruction of sight or hear for deafness—missing a vital sense needed in order to make sense of existence. Victims of chronic loneliness. [Symbol][Symbol][Symbol]IMPORTANT—integrate this somehow, fucking hard though

Fast and Bulbous

Haha I guess I’m just gonna throw some papers on here. I wrote this in March of 2009.

 

Fast and Bulbous: The Baroque Genius of Captain Beefheart

There is a mustachioed man in a Californian desert who paints the shadow of a crow flying over sand. He learned to whistle at the age of two and at three he read about the extinct auk and got so upset over the passing of the passenger pigeon that he tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the La Brea Tar Pits but was saved by his devoted mother. As a teenager he locked himself up in his Mojave Desert bedroom and went a year and a half without sleep. This man is named Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. His masterpiece double-album Trout Mask Replica has as much to do with rock and blues as it has to do with sculpture and the body. Although his Magic Band was comprised of exceptionally talented and patient musicians who translated Vliet’s impossible mindscapes into music, the album’s incredibly exciting and unfamiliar sound has only Vliet and his laissez-faire producer Frank Zappa to thank. The album as a maximalist piece of work at once breaks with the landmarks of the 60s counterculture and yet remains one of the most unique and representative creations of that American era.

The details of Vliet’s real life are elastic and inflatable. He earnestly propagates lies of mythic proportions about himself in interviews, whereupon hapless journalists feel ill at ease to omit them from articles. In one severely tangent-ridden interview for New York Rocker magazine, Vliet claimed of his great distaste for urban life: “I break out in a horrible rash if I use a telephone in the city. I can’t stand it. I think it’s fascist. Very fascist odor on a telephone receiver” (Cantz 133). Vliet creates a fabulist image of himself through his own self-descriptions yet he greatly resents being categorized as a “weirdo”. This kind of self-inflicted contradiction and Dada-inflected language characterizes the brilliant manic man who would retire from the music business in 1982 to devote his life to painting. There are, however, some salvageable facts of his life that are confirmed by various sources. They are as follows:

 

  1. Vliet can imitate the voices of great blues singers down to the most essential gritty growl. In Trout Mask Replica, his voice most notably resembles that of the great Mississippi blues-man Howlin’ Wolf. Vliet attended a concert by Hubert Sumlin, the deceased old Wolf’s guitar player. “While Sumlin was sitting with his guitar across his knees to tune it up, Beefheart crept up behind him and addressed him in the voice of the dreaded Wolf. Sumlin jumped several feet in the air and begged Beefheart in a trembling voice never to do such a thing again” (17).

     

  2. Sometime before he was eighteen, Vliet appeared on a television show alongside the Portugese sculptor Augustonia Rodriguez, showcasing his talent at fashioning animals out of soap. He consequently won a six-year art scholarship that would have taken him to Europe had his parents not forbid him to go, saying that all artists were “poofs” (queers). (18).

     

  3. Vliet was born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California. Although he did not attend much of his Lancaster, California high school, it was there that he met Frank Zappa. The two men go on to have a tumultuous friendship as well as a professional and creative relationship that yields some of Vliet’s best work.

     

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s first album Safe as Milk was released by Buddah records in 1967. The Magic Band’s ever rotating roster features Ry Cooder on the lead and slide guitar in the R&B and soul-inflected album (Beefheart.com). John French, Alex St. Claire, and Jerry Handley were also featured. The twangy guitar sounds like general sixties rock—the Rolling Stones in particular. Vliet’s voice comes off rich and soulful like a back-country road but the lyrics are quite accessible, sometimes approaching psychedelia in songs like “Yellow Brick Road” and “Electricity”. Beefheart and the band amp up the psychedelic mood for their next album, Strictly Personal released in 1968 by Blue Thumb Records. Jeff Cotton replaces Cooder on the guitar for this realease. The instrumentation features more post-production effects and Vliet’s voice moves toward the warbling weirdness it eventually reaches in Trout Mask Replica. After Safe as Milk and Strictly Personal, Vliet “sensed that R&B had been done to perfection by his black predecessors” (Chusid 134) and thus decided to create the music that he always heard in his head, no holds barred. Although his first two albums are solid pop albums with slight hints of experimentalism, they are not in any way indicative of the newness that is to follow.

Vliet’s eccentricity did not make him an easy artist to work with and consequently left him and his producers at odds, both promotionally and more importantly, creatively. They marketed him to the basement groovies and mixed his music in the general 60s “rock style”. Even Zappa realized Vliet’s commercial dilemma. He once said, “I think Don is fantastic, but he’s unmarketable” (132). Despite profit concerns, Zappa invited Vliet to make a record on his Warner Bros. distributed label Straight. He stressed that Vliet would have complete creative control over the music and mixing. Vliet accepted, and Trout Mask Replica was born, an album that Rolling Stone critic Langdon Winner claimed to be “the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record”.

While America was going through the violent growing pains of the year1968, Vliet sequestered a group of inexperienced yet talented young musicians in a cottage for almost a year to practice for the recording of his most honest album. Vliet crowned his band members with names befitting musico-anatomical superheroes. John French became “Drumbo”, Jeff Cotton was “Antennae Jimmy Semens” ,  Bill Harkleroad was “Zoot Horn Rollo”, Mark Boston rhymed with “Rockette Morton”, and Victor Hayden became “The Mascara Snake”. The musicians would later tell stories of Vliet’s appalling cruelty and megalomania. He enforced food and sleep deprivation and researched methods of brainwashing. In response to these accusations, Vliet simply stated, “People don’t like to be used as paint. If they’re going to be used by me, that is the only way they’re going to be used” (136). This is perhaps the most accurate description of Vliet’s directorial style as a self-taught musician who never learned how to read or write music. Asserting that he and his band communicated through “telepathy”, Vliet conveyed the musical topography of his mind through such non-orthodox methods as scatting, drawing, and charades. It was like inviting a Dada poet to direct the construction of a building. Fortunately, his musicians had the chops to execute his vision and Zappa had the restraint to allow Vliet’s vision to be produced unhindered by commercial worries. As inactive as Zappa’s role may appear to be, it is his lack of tampering that allowed Vliet’s vision to be manifested in all its innovative glory.

Although Trout Mask Replica sounds at times like an impromptu pastiche of haphazard noise, it is in fact “highly structured, carefully arranged, and long in rehearsal” (135). Attendees of Captain Beefheart concerts attest to the minute exactitude of the live renditions. As usual, the exception to that description is Vliet himself, who refused to listen to the instrumental playback while recording his vocal tracks. As a result, the vocals have a skipped-beat, spoken word quality that isn’t necessarily glaring due to the fact that the album sounds like each musician recorded his own part in the privacy of his own cave. This description is not as hyperbolic as it may seem. Vliet recorded his vocals for the track “The Blimp” from a telephone mouthpiece and he sang “China Pig” from behind a closed door with the microphone on the other side (Cantz 18). He is able to not only get away with such blatant experimentation but indeed benefit from it due to his best asset: a robust singing voice that spans anywhere from four-and-a-half to seven octaves. His voice reaches such vertiginous heights in “Pena” that it is nearly unrecognizable as the low growling voice of “Pachuco Cadaver”. In the interview with New York Rocker, Vliet claims to not have any influences at all: “I haven’t any idols and what I do is what I do. Anything else…doesn’t work” (134). But his singing style is instantly recognizable as being born from the Delta blues (as opposed to the Chicago blues, as was the cased for most white bluesmen at the time) from artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. The spontaneity of the compositions can also be likened to free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor (134). But don’t tell Vliet that.

Vliet wrote all of Trout Mask Replica’s twenty-eight songs in one eight and a half hour period. When jokingly asked why it took him so long, Vliet answered: “Well, I’d never played the piano before and I had to figure out the fingering” (Winner). Indeed, Vliet does not play any instruments at all except his powerful voice and a crazy lurid pen. The lyrics on the album cannot be summed up in a neat categorical bow. One type is like romantic pastoral folk ballads on magic mushrooms. Another type is free-associative grotesqueries that bring to mind paintings by Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon. Vliet’s vast distaste for urban life shows up in songs like “Frownland” where he sings, “I cannot go back to your Frownland / My spirit’s made up of the ocean/ And the sky ‘n’ the sun ‘n’ the moon”. The more surrealist images come from songs like “Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish” with amazing verbiage like “Fack ‘n feast ‘n tubes tubs bulbs/ In jest incest ingest injust in feast incest/
’n specks ‘n speckled speckled/
Speckled speculation”. “Dachau Blues” is as close as the album comes to social activism, with the eerie warning, “The world can’t forget that misery/
’n the young ones now beggin’ the old ones please/
t’ stop bein’ madmen/
’fore they have t’ tell their children/
’bout the burnin’s back in World War Three’s”. Conversely, the song “Orange Claw Hammer” is a straightforward folk song sung, or rather recited, a capella and pulled off as well as any old coot sitting on his Mississippi front porch. The wonderful variety of lyrics and singing styles demonstrates the breadth of Vliet’s songwriting prowess.

The difficulty of constraining Trout Mask Replica into one musical genre is understandable due to its maximalist nature. Both Zappa and Vliet’s work are said to fall under the largely unexplored category of maximalism. Composer David Jaffe defines maximalist music as “ [embracing] heterogeneity and [allowing] for complex systems of juxtapositions and collisions, in which all outside influences are viewed as potential raw material” (Armand 129). Zappa’s music has been “accused of being far too noisy and of containing too many notes” (126). These accusations can be, no doubt, extended to his friend as well, prompting the comparison between their music and intricate baroque sculpture, which emphasizes volume and asymmetry. Vliet in particular admits to a three-dimensional approach to making music, claiming in fact to not like music at all: “Music gets in the way…I’m a sculptor” (Cantz 136). He does not use a musical instrument to make the sounds it is intended to make. For example, nearly the entire rhythm section of the album is comprised not of the drums or bass, but of the stop-go strumming of the electric guitar. This synesthetic approach is often experienced as a barrage of the senses—an initial feeling of being sensually overwhelmed. However, upon closer inspection, the linguistic folds of one of the most bizarre songs on the album, “Pena”, begin to resemble the marble folds of Bernini’s classical baroque masterpiece, “Ecstasy of St. Theresa”. The evocation of different textures like velvet, crystals, and felt give the song a tactile richness that is echoed in the gorgeous golden rays and swirls of fabric in the sculpture. The monstrousness of religious ecstasy can be found within the lyrics, “Soft like butter hard not to pour/
Out enjoying the sun while sitting on a turned on waffle iron/
Smoke billowing up from between her legs/
Made me vomit beautifully”. Vliet’s preoccupation with pain and the body are further indications of his place in the maximalist tradition.

The song “Old Fart at Play” describes the trout mask replica that becomes the title image of the album. In the song, an old man puts on an anthropomorphic wooden fish head that becomes part of his body. His wife’s body parts (the nose, the eyelashes, the legs) are described as a host of different animals like a cat, a rooster, a duck, and a goose. The various appendages of the body turn into nature via grotesque transformations. The functioning aspects of the body like breathing, smelling, and the sensation of pain lose their real-world connotations and become magic tricks performed by strange objects. The connection between the body, nature, and absurdity have always existed in romantic literature, notably in Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” where a man wakes up to find his nose missing and later finds it parading around town in the guise of an inspector. Likewise, the protrusions of the body in Vliet’s lyrics are “not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects” (Armand 135).  This transformative aspect of the body is constant with maximalism’s fixation with strange juxtapositions and textures.

By sheer virtue of its innovation and weirdness, Trout Mask Replica gained massive critical acclaim and became something of a cult classic. Nevertheless, Vliet had many problems with the way Zappa was pushing the record, believing himself to have become “the token weirdo artist on Warner Bros., signed just to prove how sophisticated the label was” (Chusid 132). Few critics felt that the album did not live up to its hype. The (fantastically named!) journalist Peter Keepnews wrote that, “like many double albums, it probably has a single album’s worth of really prime stuff, surrounded by filler and a few tracks that sound like he’s trying too hard to be weird” (137). One critic later noted the near-complete absence of women at Beefheart’s shows, saying that the lack of a regular rhythm eliminated any potential sex appeal from the music. Despite the erroneous assumption that women are primarily interested in sexy music, the discrepancy is still rather strange. An online discussion of Beefheart’s work yielded 101 male respondents to a mere three female (133). Despite, or perhaps because of, its limited audience and record sales, Trout Mask Replica places number 58 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.

Vliet’s next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) is often filed alongside Trout Mask Replica as some of his best work. It was produced by Zappa again and featured a somewhat more polished style, with the introduction of a horns section that continues onto his later albums. The album climbed to the number 20 spot on the UK charts and remains Vliet’s most commercially successful project. Significantly, he also changed the name of the band from His Magic Band to The Magic Band, conceding some semblance of humanity and autonomy to his band members. The following four albums—The Spotlight Kid (1972), Clear Spot (1972), Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974), and Bluejeans and Moonbeams (1974)—were all released under Mercury Records. Most of The Magic Band members had left by then, leaving him to play with “a group of competent but uninspired hacks” (138). The albums made a move toward commercial and financial viability but instead alienated the fiercely devoted fanbase that raised Captain Beefheart to his legendary pedestal in the first place.

Realizing the creative dead-end he was in, Vliet went on tour with Zappa (despite frequent public feuds) and released their studio sessions together as Bongo Fury (1975). Vliet spent the next two years writing material for his comeback album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), put out by Warner Bros. The album featured a much more harmonic and tropical vibe than any of his previous work. His last two albums, Doc At The Radar Station (1980), and Ice Cream for Crow (1982) were put out by Virgin Records and signaled his departure from the music world. He moved to the Mojave Desert with his wife Jan and continued his painting career, which was bringing in more cash than his records anyway. His paranoid and somewhat schizoid personality was better suited to painting than working with musicians. “The paint doesn’t say anything,” he said in a 1993 interview. “It just allows me to make mistakes” (140).

Many would argue that Trout Mask Replica as an album has very little to do with the pop music of the 1960s, and they are right in many ways. It discards the common 4/4 time signature found in Western rock and uses its own ever-shifting versions of rhythm. Vliet did not just make an album, but created a new way of understanding music that employs vision and touch just as much as hearing. As new as the album was, it could not have been born in any time and space other than the United States in the 1960s. A history of blues, jazz, and R&B contributed to Vliet’s striking vocals, but most importantly, an environment of artistic freedom and social change was fertile ground for the birth of one of the strangest albums in American rock music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Armand, Louis. Contemporary Poetics. Northwestern University Press. Illinois, 2007.

Cantz, Verlag Ostfildern. Stand Up to be Discontinued. Germany, 1993.Winner, Chusid, Irwin. Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. A Capella Books.

Chicago, 2000.

Langdon. “The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart.” The Captain Beefheart Radar Station.

[http://www.beefheart.com/datharp/odyssey.htm].

 

 

Dark Side of the Moon

I wrote this paper for bio and thought I’d put it up. Sorry about the formatting, as always. Don’t know why the works cited part freaks out like that :/

 

Dark Side of the Moon: Depression as an Adaptation

Biologists have long puzzled over the pervasiveness of mood disorders. Conditions like depression have dire, often lethal, consequences. Why would evolution conserve the depressive tendency in such large proportions of the population when it has the potential to kill the afflicted individual? Evidence suggests that depression is not a straightforward pathology but instead an adaptive trait that has become maladaptive in the modern world. Numerous hypotheses in the field of evolutionary psychology attempt to explain how a condition with such high fitness costs could be considered adaptive. Two leading ideas include the analytical rumination hypothesis, which describes depression as a problem-solving mechanism, and the honest signaling hypothesis, which paints depression as a bargaining signal for help from social allies. Both of these hypotheses look at depression as a phenomenon following a traumatic life event and do not adequately explain severe depressive episodes that have seemingly no underlying trigger.

Certain aspects of depression suggest that it may at one time have been an adaptive trait. In the United States, an estimated 17% of people have suffered a major depressive episode in their lifetime (Andrade). As a comparison, less than 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, another common mental illness. Moreover, unlike most illnesses that increase in occurrence as people age, depression can occur throughout a person’s lifetime, peaking during the ages of 20 to 30 years. Lastly, depression seems to have a strong heritable component. All of these aspects suggest that depression is not a dysfunctional pathology but instead an adaptation that may have provided an important benefit for our ancestors.

Outside of the clinical context, the concepts of depression and sadness often become conflated. Sadness is simply one aspect of major depression, which includes other symptoms such as low self-esteem and loss of pleasure in former interests (anhedonia). Primitive emotions such as anxiety and anger serve a purpose for the individual experiencing them. Anxiety alerts the individual to a dangerous element and prompts the fight-or-flight response whereas anger prompts the aggression necessary to drive away an attacker. Evolutionary psychologists predict that sadness serves a similarly helpful function. What that function is, however, is more difficult to determine.

One clue lies in the analytical rumination hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes that depression is an adaptation developed in order to work through complex problems via obsessive rumination. Due to the prevalence of depression within all cultures and age groups, proponents of this hypothesis suggest that depression is not a pathology at all but a normal psychological function (Thomson). That is, clinical levels of depression do not indicate a disorder but a normal response to stress. It may be useful to compare the depressive response to a fever: fever is a costly and potentially lethal bodily function, but its role in ridding the body of noxious contaminants is worth the expenditure. Thus, it is not categorized as a dysfunction. Similarly, depression keeps an individual isolated and unable to partake in important activities such as sex or child rearing which can have significant effects on fitness. It forces the individual to invest the vast majority of her energy ruminating on a specific problem. The analytical rumination hypothesis proposes that the insights gained from the rumination make up for the socially alienating and painful aspects of depression.

Individuals suffering from depression do not become excellent problem solvers overnight. There are three proposed aspects of depression that promote analytical problem solving: first, the events that trigger depression tend to be complex problems that affect fitness-related goals. Complex problem-solving requires a different mode of thinking–each component of the problem must be first broken down individually, then reintegrated.

Second, the depressive state creates neurological changes that focus the brain on breaking down a complex problem into simpler parts. Research shows that when non-depressed individuals attempt to solve a complex problem, their depressive affect increases during rumination (Andrews). This aspect of rumination can actually appear to impair cognition as it prevents depressed individual from focusing on anything other than their original problem. Depression is an enormous mental resource-suck and this may be the reason why depressed individuals consistently display impaired memory and attention in lab tests (Goodwin). However, a battery of cognitive tests in a lab setting is unlikely to be the kind of complex problem that depression was meant to solve.

Third, over the course of evolutionary time, depression helps people solve the problem that triggered the depressive episode. Proponents of the analytical rumination hypothesis point to the failure of anti-depressants to create long term change as evidence. Many therapists find that while anti-depressants alleviate psychic pain, patients relapse once they are taken off medication if the underlying initial problem is not solved. Conversely, for many patients an episode of major depression terminates once the triggering event has come to a conclusion.

If depression is not meant for solving lab tests, then what types of problems is it meant for? The honest signaling hypothesis models the syndrome as a social bargaining tool employed by individuals who need to re-negotiate some aspect of the social contract. Individual human fitness relies a great degree on complex social interactions. As mentioned above, the emotion of anger can propel an individual to demonstrate aggression in a situation where she feels threatened. However, if an individual is up against a much larger individual or a group of individuals, then aggression may not be the best tactic (Hagen 96). In this case, she must signal to others in her social group that she needs help. The ill health of a depressed individual affects not only her own fitness but also that of her offspring, mate, and kin. Thus, they have a vested interest in coming to her aid. Women are twice as likely to experience major depression as are men, and when social role variables are controlled for, 50 percent more likely. Since women tend to be less physically strong, this provides support for the idea that depression is an alternative to physical aggression.

The difference between honest and dishonest signaling may shed light on depression’s high costs on fitness. An honest signal requires costly resources because it needs to be difficult to mimic. If it were simple to mimic, others would employ it dishonestly in order to take advantage of its benefits and the meaning of the signal would become diluted. The complete withdrawal of the depressed person from her environment signals the direness of her situation to her social allies and compels them to action. This tactic can be compared to that of worker’s strike, where a worker cuts off her stream of income in order to bring about a necessary change (100). Thus, depression is manifested when a problem begins to affect fitness so much so that the costs associated with displaying depression are lower than the cost of not getting help.

Depression’s effectiveness as an adaptation is debatable. Between 3 to 5 percent of depressed individuals commit suicide, and up to 60 percent of those who commit suicide suffered from depression or other related mental illnesses. Suicide attempts themselves can be seen as signaling the seriousness of the depressive episode and usually occur after a protracted period of suicidal ideation (113). However, it is possible that depression led to successful outcomes in the ancient environment in which it evolved. Social conditions have changed drastically in a short period of time, and like the human craving for sugar, depression’s once-adaptive quality has taken a turn for the maladaptive. Additionally, the two discussed theories do not sufficiently address those bouts of depression that descend upon an individual for seemingly no reason.

The jury is still out on whether depression is indeed an adaptation stuck in the wrong time period (similar to diabetes) or whether it more resembles a feedback loop gone haywire (similar to chronic pain). While the analytical rumination hypothesis and the honest signaling hypothesis provide evidence for the former, the multi-faceted nature of depression makes it difficult to reach a consensus. Evolutionary psychology is an understandably murky field due to the difficulty in evidence-gathering. However, looking at perplexing mental phenomena through an evolutionary lens may help to uncover more effective therapeutic techniques.

Works Cited

Andrade, Laura, et al. “The epidemiology of major depressive episodes: results from the
International Consortium of Psychiatric Epidemiology (ICPE) surveys.” International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research. 12 (1):  3–21. ( 2003).

 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mpr.138/abstract;jsessionid=9BECE4244227C074635F4D687D756E24.d02t03

Andrews, Paul W., et al. “The functional design of depression’s influence on attention: A
preliminary test of alternative control-process mechanisms.” Evolutionary Psychology. 5(3): 584-604. (2007). http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/ep05584604.pdf

Goodwin, G. M. “Neuropsychological and neuroimaging evidence for the involvement of the frontal lobes in depression.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 11, 115 -122. (1997).

Hagen, Edward H. “The Bargaining Model of Depression.” Genetic and Cultural Evolution of
Cooperation. Ed. Peter Hammerstein. (2003).

Thomson, J. Anderson, et al. “The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” Psychological Review. 116(3): 620–654. (2009).

Wrong Number

Wrong Number

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep- Click.

“Hey I’m not here right now, leave a message.”

Please leave a message at the tone or press one for fax.

Beep.

“Hey Carl, it’s Laura.”

A small coughy laughter spatter.

“I know, it’s been a while. I don’t even know if this is still your number.”

Little wheezings like blood in lungs.  

“Funny thing, but I won’t get into it, kind of don’t have a lot of time you know.”

Some silence, some more silences peppered throughout.  

“I think I’m dying, Carl. In fact I know I am. I’m in this goddamn car crash and there is literally something stabbing me in the heart or kidneys right now I think. I won’t get into it but I’m dying that’s for sure and there is no one around to— ”

A dying away of voice, like some silences, a breath of rattling suspense to sustain the small amount of life slipping away like water in cupped hands. 

“Anyway Carl, have a good life, huh? I loved you a lot. That’s all I wanted to say.”

Click.