Copyright © 2011, 2015, 2016 Richard Crasta
Published by The Invisible Man Press, New York
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Richard Crasta is the author of twelve other books, including literary fiction, nonfiction, humor, and essays.
This book takes many fictional liberties, including the fiction that there is such a thing as liberty. Any person attempting to insult the author by agreeing with him and thereby rendering this book superfluous is liable to be shot on or before sight, and failing sight or sufficient light or physical apprehension, to be shot in absentia. Because it is only if a significant percentage of readers disagree with the author, or are grievously offended and wounded by his writings, that the author must be doing something right (besides which, all that wounding means more business for the surgeons).
Wounding? Right, as in Franz Kafka’s oft-quoted words: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound us and stab us. If the book we’re reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Right; and the bandages for your axe wounds will be sold separately and autographed by the author for a small extra charge.
In the parts of this book labeled as fiction, any resemblance of the characters or pretended facts to “real” people or real facts is purely coincidental and knock-your-socks-off astounding; in the pieces not labeled as fiction, any such resemblance is probably an indication that the author was sound asleep and forgot to get his facts wrong.
(But, seriously: if you’re easily offended, are under severe mental strain, or have strong opinions, you might find this book disturbing. Please be advised that this book is meant only for the open-minded and profoundly empathetic reader.)
Before I begin, let me tell you that, in a very recent conversation with my eldest son, I confessed to him that I had made so many mistakes in my life that, it was the probably the only reason that I was a writer: to express my regret, amazement, horror, and sometimes amusement at the mistakes I had made. This confession is the background note to every word that I write hereafter in this book.
In late 1999 and from mid-2003 to mid-2004, beginning with my father’s death, certain things happened: traumatic happenings that shook me up, made me lose touch with who I was. Fatherhood, until that time or a few years earlier, was something I had taken for granted, as a gift of the gods: three beautiful children and a home full of childlike excitement and laughter, with never a dull moment. I had not fully realized how fundamental and inalienable a component of my personality fatherhood had become.
So, in 2004 and 2005, as a result of these events and perceived and actual dispossession, I was in deep depression and pain, but without avenues to express my pain, except privately, on paper, and to a few close friends; one journalist interviewing me around that time for a different book observed that I seemed “subdued.”
But I only appeared “subdued” because I was using all my power to suppress my feelings and my thoughts: I, who had so much to say, with so much emotion bottled up inside me and destroying me (perhaps it was only the occasional helpings of sex that saved me) that I desperately wished to tell the world my story, every word of it.
I was restraining myself, because I was also concerned that a public telling of my story might affect my children, who I felt were still too young: Rohit, the youngest, was 15, Dev was 17, and James, 21; and I still cared about not damaging them, especially the younger two.
So I decided to write a book about fatherhood, but without explicitly saying everything that I wished to say, and by adding some humor and sandwiching it—or smuggling it—between less explosive material, including the prose and poetry of two other authors (my friends, Ralph Nazareth and Arunachalam Kumar), so as to camouflage the really explosive parts. I wanted to reach certain people and tell my story, but without causing alarm. I was going to package it as a general book about fatherhood titled Fathers, Rebels, and Dreamers, with my two friends as co-authors.
But at least three chapters from my contribution to it were anything but general; a woman friend of mine who read them looked like she had seen a ghost. “That was something else!” she said.
With this book, on the occasion of Father’s Day, 2016, I open the door a little wider (there is still a considerable story left untold) by publishing three of the stories/essays about fatherhood from that book, plus a couple of new ones, including excerpts from letters, and drop every piece that does not relate to fatherhood.
Because, though I am in touch with my children, and am the grateful beneficiary of their love and care (though not in equal degree), the untold story still yearns to be told.
And even though all you’ll get here are glimpses of the truth—the full truth would require 1000 pages and a year of writing—I hope this book, or its closely related paperback version ( The Other Side of Fatherhood: A Father’s Day Anthology) reaches enough people as to make possible the completion and publication of the rest.
[From Eaten by the Japanese, reproduced because it is central to this book’s father-son theme.]
In late 1997, nearly fifty-two years after he had written his memoir of being a POW of the Japanese during World War II, my father had nearly forgotten the manuscript’s existence. “I don’t know, I think it is lost,” he stammered weakly when I asked him if he knew the whereabouts of the original. His wrinkled and sunbaked skin draped itself loosely around his frail bones, which he dragged about uncertainly in the small, dark rooms of the tiled mud structure he called home. In the previous three or four years, each time I visited him on my annual trips to India, I feared that it might be the last time I would see him. Now, he was sleeping at odd times in the day, rarely leaving home except to tip his hat to the Big One during the obligatory Sunday Mass. He walked slowly and hesitantly, first one short step, then another. He was not the defiantly active man I had known, the man with a contempt for death.
I had already left the icy winds of New York for the endless December sun of Southwestern India, secretly planning to surprise my father with an unusual fiftieth-wedding-anniversary gift: the first edition of his memoir and my humble wish that, just as his body had cheated death countless times in the eighty-seven years past, his spirit and his book would triumph over it for many more decades.
What made me do this, considering that at the time I had determined to publish it, I had still not read only a part of the manuscript — which I had quietly and protectively photocopied during my previous visit, a fact I wished to hide from him even at this late hour?
To answer this truthfully, I must take you back to my childhood, or perhaps to that universal state called childhood. I began by being proud of my father, as most children are in their age of innocence. But when I reached that awkward age when I was exposed to the materialistic judgments of the world, I was embarrassed that my father rode a bicycle rather than drove an old Austin like my uncle, that his shirt was tucked unevenly into his pants, that one leg of his trouser was cuffed higher than the other, that he looked like someone an upper class Mangalorean could dismiss and boss around. We had not learned to love our father simply for what he was — our father. Like many children, we played immature “My Daddy can whip your Daddy” games. And sometimes, to overcome our perceived disadvantage, I and my brother would reinvent our father, telling friends that he was an Army “Major” rather than the Subedar Major he really was — in other words, by giving him a significant promotion four levels above his real rank. But my father remained stubbornly himself, the man on a bicycle. He rode a bicycle in the sun and in the rain, in the day and at night, a “market bag” for fetching fish or vegetables usually suspended from its handlebar. Nothing could persuade him to abandon this humble vehicle, much scorned by Indians obsessed with middle class respectability, for a loftier mode of transportation: not the possibility that he might puncture the ballooning ego of his son, the Indian Administrative Service officer, not an improvement in his financial position late in life, and not even his children’s offer to pay for his autorickshaw fare or to buy him a scooter after being provoked by the taunts of relatives. He rode his bicycle till he was seventy-six years old, whereupon he visited the United States for four months to visit his expatriate son, and realized on returning that two culture-shocks — the first on reaching the United States and finding trees near JFK International Airport instead of the endless skyscrapers he had expected, and the second on returning to India after four months of two-wheeler deprivation — had rendered him incapable of resuming his bicycling career.
I mention these details simply to underscore the simplicity of the man, the humble position he occupied for most of his life, and the fact that life was not very kind to him except in granting him life and allowing him to cling on to it for almost as long as imaginable for a resident of a country where life doesn’t count for much: given that its possession of the world’s second largest population — or one-sixth of humankind — does not even entitle it to a permanent voice in the United Nations Security Council. The bicycle, at first an economic necessity, grew into a rusty, creaky, yet indestructible symbol of his contempt for the shallow status-consciousness of Mangalorean society, where upper class persons living just next door to the church would drive to it rather than risk the shame of being spotted walking like the not-blue-blooded middle classes — who in turn would walk long distances rather than endure the shame of being spotted on bicycles, the conveyance of the decidedly lower middle classes or of the lower castes. We didn’t understand, as children, that our father’s old bicycle, the most visible symbol of his humble and self-effacing identification with India’s poor, was a statement, a courageous statement, of scorn for the class system he otherwise accepted as inevitable.
Mangalorean upperclass society returned his contempt with compound interest. The callous Plymouths, Fiats, and Ambassadors of the rich drove dangerously close to him, often making him scamper off the road onto a stone-littered sidewalk to save himself. And yet, I mention the bicycle only as a symbol of his modest, unhonored life, a life in which he kept his story to himself. If it is true, as the nuns and priests assured me when I was a child, that God shows his special love for certain individuals by sending them gift parcels of suffering, then God loved my father a little more than He should have.
It saddened me, when I grew older, to think of his hardship-filled life, which makes mine seem like a bowl of aromatic, sweet payasam. Luckily, it was not just God, but Life, too, which must have had a soft spot for my father, for he survived it all, and saw many of his social, financial, and military superiors to their graves.
Consider the odds my father had overcome. What were the chances of an Indian born in 1910, when the Indian life expectancy was about 37, reaching the age of 88? About one in a thousand. In addition to which he narrowly escaped the 1935 earthquake that nearly wiped out Quetta in today’s Pakistan, having left the city the previous night on an Army transfer order. Thereafter, he survived innumerable bombings and three and a half years as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese.
After returning from the war in December 1945, grievously weakened and ill, my father was granted six months of sick leave, which he spent recuperating slowly in Kinnigoli, where he was gradually nursed back to health by his simple and overjoyed mother.
“He looked really sad and terrified,” my uncle Louis remembers. “He was worried, in a bad mood. He would sleep a lot, and not talk to anyone.” Uncle Louis didn’t understand the reason: PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t yet been invented, let alone become fashionable, and my father was reliving his wartime nightmares by writing about them; or perhaps he was simply exorcizing his ghosts by consigning them to paper.
He returned to his life under proud, demanding, and feudal Army officers in an independent India that had no soft spot for veterans of their former Masters’ Army or its wars. He kept his memory of hell on earth bottled up for years and years, never revealing to us, his comics-reading, joke-loving children more than a few stray snippets about his wartime deprivations. And we, young and full of life, our heads full of the Beatles and of girls, didn’t really listen, didn’t really care. Indeed, we fell short in giving him even the respect that he was due as our father.
Forty-six years after he had penciled his war memoir on the yellowing stationery of the Mayor Footwear Co., Kinnigoli, his brothers’ footwear store in Kinnigoli, my first novel was published in India, and despite its prohibitive price (the hardcover was priced at half the monthly salary he had retired on), he went unprompted to a bookstore and bought it with his own money, and read it within two days.
This brought me closer to him, as did his age, and his growing weakness, which made me feel protective towards him. Still another was my experience of paternal love for my own children, and an understanding of how special it is to be a father. I have three sons; the sons are the fathers of the man.
Also, as I began to battle with my own too-obvious human limitations, my eyes were opened to his own special qualities — his stoicism, his simplicity, his hard work, his sense of humor, his disdain for superficial appearances and other people’s opinions, his need to do the right thing, his insistence on continuing to work for more than thirty years after his official retirement from the Army, tottering precariously to his office right until the time he was nearly 87. I saw now that the man on the bicycle was having the last laugh at status-conscious Mangalore. His bicycle had kept him healthy, at least until the time that bicycling in increasingly polluted and traffic-choked Mangalore became more hazardous than beneficial to one’s health.
Belatedly, I tried to honor him, dedicating my books to him: first, the British paperback edition of The Revised Kama Sutra, followed by my second book, Beauty Queens, Children, and The Death of Sex. In the meantime, I was also sending him money to help improve his extremely modest life style. But I still felt irreparably in his debt.
And when I first offered, in 1996, to publish his memoir, he declined. It was simply his modesty and his diffidence as to whether the story would interest anyone at all. He was also concerned that he might cause offence; perhaps the story should not be resurrected from its paper graveyard?
I was disappointed, aware of my still-unpaid debt of love and honor. For I hadn’t really submitted to him with unconditional and clearly expressed love until his memory and mental alertness, which hadn’t deserted him until the age of 85, began to decline. He did not wish to travel any more, and my long-cherished fantasy of our meeting in the holiday atmosphere of a cool hill station, of having long and profound conversations leading to a deeper understanding and meeting of minds and hearts — a timeless father-son bond — could never be fulfilled. I realized I would have to take the initiative. I decided to “make” him an author (to the extent that we can “make” anyone what they are not), even if it meant going against his recently expressed intention. I decided, in other words, to reinvent my father — and on the grand battlefield of life to help him outrank his fellow Subedar Majors and perhaps some significantly higher brass.
I had a secret reason for doing so. Once, in my teenage years, when I had already sold my first few articles to a newspaper and begun to think of myself as a writer, I had come across the manuscript, judged its simple and straightforward style as falling below “literary” standards, and attempted to destroy it. Miraculously, it had survived, but the memory of my arrogance had remained within me like a guilty secret, making me even guiltier when a few years back I heard that the unremarkable and nearly unreadable memoirs of a Kansas grandmother had fetched a million-dollar advance from an American publisher.
I secretly started the publication process in early December 1997, tactfully extracting his conditional assent: “If we find the manuscript, it will be okay to publish it.” Not the fullest permission, I grant, but when I regarded his entire life in context, and distilled from it its meaning and his true intention, I felt that he really wanted the memoir to be published. Because one writes to be read, even if one sometimes denies it to oneself.
Besides, he made me. Whatever I am, I would not be today but for his escape from being eaten by the Japanese or otherwise killed in the war, and for his marriage to my mother, Christine. So I owe my very existence to the story detailed in this book. It is therefore my story as much as his.
Furthermore, but for my risky decision, it is quite possible that this story would have been lost to history. As a writer, I believe so strongly that something is preferable to nothing, and that in conjunction with our art, our stories are our planet’s most precious — and once written down, immortal — heritage, that I decided to take the risk of assuming his full permission. He would then have the option of blaming me if the book didn’t get a good reception, and of accepting the credit if it turned out fine.
Besides, his original refusal came from some ancient sense of gentlemanliness and decency, some archaic sense of goodness. But, as Mae West said about her career and life, and as I say about publishing, goodness has nothing to do with it. Publishing is about initiative, about taking risks, about a passion for telling the truth.
Most of the time, history is written by the victors. Sometimes, it is also written by the powerful members of the vanquished side. I would help my father’s voice become part of its truth. For I now believed that history should never be whitewashed; or else, if as some say we are condemned to repeat it anyway, how much the worse it would be to repeat it without even knowing that we were doing so. Only after the historical truth has been recorded, in this view, is forgiveness or realistic acceptance a soul-cleansing possibility for all concerned; for how can we forgive an act whose existence we are unaware of?
So I plunged into the secret production of Eaten by the Japanese. The day before my parents’ fiftieth anniversary celebration, I caught the airplane from sunny and cool Bangalore on the Deccan Plateau to steamy, coastal Mangalore, and presented myself a few hours later at the park-like home of my friend, Dr. Kumar Arunachalam, a Mangalore author, polymath, and nature lover. Presenting him with the first edition just hot off the press, I requested him to read it the same day. If he liked the book, would he speak briefly at the celebration mentioning his appreciation of the book? And if he didn’t like it, would he kindly keep his opinions to himself and decline the offer to speak — in deference to my father’s age and his understandable state of shock when he discovered that he had become an author?
Dr. Arunachalam not only turned up the next day at the church hall, he spoke with such emotion that he couldn’t be stopped even by noisy and fidgety children. He ended his long and passionate speech by calling my parents his own parents (even though he had never met them before that day), and by touching their feet before one hundred and twenty people in a surprising and dramatic gesture of respect and reverence. Dr. Arunachalam, who as a renowned local speaker and Vice-Principal and Dean of the local medical college wields considerable clout, explained later that the gesture had been spontaneous, and that a spontaneous gesture of touching someone’s feet — contrasted with the ritualistic gesture, made at a wedding towards your parents or older relatives — is an expression of total submission and a declaration of insignificance before the greatness of the person whose feet were being touched.
The man on the bicycle had come a long way. Tears misted my eyes.
The event ended in smiles. Until the final moment, I had feared an explosion from my father and even a public scene: “How dare you do this without my permission? I disown the book!” Instead, he looked around mystified for a few minutes, and then smiled. Fifteen minutes later, I observed him autographing books as if he had been doing it all his life.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
But I considered that moment to be a pure gift, a bonus I didn’t necessarily deserve. Because by then, I had accepted him completely, as well as the lesson he had taught me: that to have suffered through a rough life, and to have smiled and survived, is to have been a hero.
Despite the book’s launch before a large Mangalorean audience, and passionately commendatory reviews in local papers by Dr. Kumar Arunachalam and by local literary personality Louella Lobo Prabhu, the hurriedly produced book had been marred by printer’s devils, inhibiting its presentation to a more sophisticated national audience. I decided to bring the book out properly before a larger audience, persuading myself that my literary career could not proceed unless I first did justice to my father.
But there was another, non-literary duty to be performed before I could feel some degree of liberation from that powerful sense of incompleteness in my relationship with my father. Dr. Arunachalam’s gesture of touching my father’s feet, repeated later by another Mangalorean I greatly respect, Konkani musician, composer, and impresario Eric Ozario, had haunted me. Because, having been an individualistic, city-raised Christian too cut off from my culture and even from my Indian Christian village roots, I had never touched my father’s feet. Back in America, I feared that I would never forgive myself if my father passed away from this world without my ever having touched his feet, while others — no doubt my brothers, kindred souls, and cosmic, Brahmanic extensions of myself — had done so.
In October 1998, ten months later, I arrived in a monsoon-lashed Mangalore and dashed home from the airport, heading directly for my father’s bedroom. He didn’t come out to greet me as he usually did, for he was weaker than before, slowly losing his once-solid grip on the world. I walked right in and hugged his frail frame, paused a few seconds, and then bent my once-proud body and touched his feet.
He died in October 1999, almost exactly one year later, with me being present at his hospital bedside — and I consider myself extremely fortunate and blessed to have done all that I did before he passed away.
Or The Artist, His Wife, Her Mother, and Airplanes
[This is a work of fiction, though inspired by a real character the author met in Thailand; names and details have been changed drastically so as to protect this character and make him unrecognizable.]
This is the story of an artist, a father, a dreamer. It is a story with a dollop of sex, a pinch of drugs, but no rock n’ roll. Instead of rock n’ roll, it offers a marriage on the rocks, a rolling narrative, a heart dashed to pieces, and a betrayal. This is a story that must be told, and read, and retold, and reread, if only to save the lives of other artists, fathers, and dreamers.
The story begins in Thailand, with an unlikely meeting and friendship. To begin: I am the narrator, the reporter, the commentator. And I had never, until then, had met a man named Erik—I mean, an Erik who spelt his name with a “k.” (I was pretty sure that Eric the Half a Bee in the Monty Python skit spelt his name with a “c.” Or perhaps half a “c.”)
But once I got to know Erik, a Dutchman living in Thailand, his name or its spelling became to me as irrelevant a detail as the color of his shoelaces or the brand of his underwear. For I began to see him as a multi-dimensional human being, a loving father with a tragic story, rather than just a strange name. In almost no time, he became my friend, and it saddens me to think that I might have become perhaps the only real friend he had in the last weeks of his life, and that I might have unthinkingly contributed to his death.
And now that Erik N. is dead, just five weeks after I first met him, there’s nothing more to be done than to tell his story, or the little that I know. For a story, even if it survives him by a few months — if not for a few years or decades — extends his life by at least those few months. That is a feat not even the best doctors can manage, for they cannot keep you alive for even one minute after you have actually died, let alone for years, decades, or centuries. That’s what friends are for: to help friends in trouble and sickness, to bury the dead, to comfort and share the grief of the loved ones, and sometimes, to tell their stories and preserve them for at least a tiny fraction of posterity.
Roll back to about two months ago: An afternoon in southern Thailand, with its coconut trees, lazy dogs, emerald green rice fields, and blissful porkers in pig heaven, is pretty much like an afternoon on the coastal belt of Southwestern India, the place in which I grew up. Except that it was only in Thailand, on such an afternoon, that I met Erik, on a bus to a beach town. I was deeply touched that he, unlike many other standoffish European tourists, spontaneously helped lift my unwieldy bags onto the bus. Tall, lanky, light-haired, with kind blue-green eyes and pale red skin, Erik N was a divorced man and suddenly childless father who, like thousands, probably tens of thousands of divorced men and orphaned fathers from the Western world, was escaping his loneliness and his suddenly empty life by trying to drink Nepenthe in Thailand. Occasionally he would do so in the arms of Thai damsels. More often, he would just seek his solace in the sun, on a beach, with an alcoholic drink, or in the smiles of strangers. Indeed, such a magnet is Thailand for divorced men from Western countries and from Australia that if Thailand did not exist, it would have to be invented.
From a distance, one might make grand sociological pronouncements about such a state of affairs, but if you knew some of the nicer of these men intimately — and there’s a universe of a difference between the nice ones and the despicable ones — they are just battered souls doing what they have to do to survive, sometimes spending their days in Thailand only because here it is always summertime, and the living is cheap and easy, the local food cheap and delicious … and the rat race of their home countries far from their minds. From their point of view, and that of kind non-judgmental souls, countries like Thailand deserve to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the welcome and comfort they provide to grieving, battered souls, refugees from emotional distress.
This was how Erik summed up his view of his life and of his fellow escapees to me, as our bus sped through numerous villages and past scores of Buddhist temples, stopping to pick up and disgorge uniformed schoolgirls and boys, clerks and shopgirls visiting friends or the beach. When the bus slammed to a halt at our destination, a beach town with a hilltop temple and a few girlie bars below to sin in later (and also a real local population with a real life), we parted after agreeing to connect again. I had no local friends, so we ended up often meeting for coffee or meals, and on the beach for a Coke or beer and a meal of steamed or sweet and sour whole fish along with rice and water mimosa.
Erik was fifty-one years old, a man whose white hair had traces of blond, a lean, intense man with a preference for khaki shorts. He had been divorced ten years earlier when his Dutch wife of fifteen years had joined a cult and found herself a new man — he was never sure which came first, the cult or the lover. These events transformed her into a new and almost unrecognizable person. Soon, she asked him to leave the house, and to leave his children too: the very house he himself had built (he being a handyman of sorts), the very children he had lovingly helped to bring up. It had made him furious to think that another man was living in the house with his children, making love to his wife in his still-warm marital bed, and that his children had to see this new man occupying their father’s place and had to call him “Dad.” Though he was a Dutchman, and the Dutch are famous for their tolerance of everything from pot to pornography, he feared that his children, all boys, might be traumatized by this change of their mother’s bedroom partner and by the disempowerment and banishment of their father. Being cut off from his daily and rightful access to his flesh and blood wounded him deeply. To overcome or at least soften his dangerous anger and his disabling, blinding depression, he took to alcohol. And when that wasn’t enough, he decided to court forgetfulness by hopping onto a flight to faraway Thailand, where he would escape his pain and his enslavement to alcohol by occasionally finding some pleasure and comfort in the arms of the opposite sex.
Whether Erik had a dark side, whether he was a paradox (and who isn’t?), whether he was not as nice to others as he was to me, I do not know. Still, that wouldn’t have changed what he was to me. I would still feel compelled to tell his story, which must be not greatly unlike that of many other men who silently suffer their divorces and their disempowerment or death as fathers, and who, even while outwardly seeming to have vanquished their demons, struggle and quiver only a few inches away from Death’s jaws.
For when people are sad and down and lonely and in despair, there’s no difference between men and women: we’re all human beings. And sometimes, indeed often, it is men who are the truly weaker sex, the weaker sex that is forced to pretend to be the stronger — and therefore, whose secret stories have been told less often than the stories of women.
One evening at the Pornthip Seafood Restaurant facing blue waters sparkling in the midday sun, Erik told me that in Holland, he had been an artist, a painter, a gardener, a handyman, and an author of children’s books.
He said, “My wife and I were deeply in love when we married. True, she was from a rich family, and a young medical student, and I was a self-made man who had risen from poverty. But I was a dashing artist with experience and self-confidence, and she was an innocent girl who adored me. We decided we would both enjoy the professions we loved without regard for who earned how much money. She loved me for my dreams as much as she loved me for who I was.
“At first, it worked well. We had two children, and we really loved them. For years after, people who saw us together thought of us as an ideal couple, deeply in love.
“So what happened? When people try to give me superficial explanations about why some couple divorced, I ask them: Were you present in their bedroom every day of their married life? How do you know what really happened? Could they not have had secrets they wanted no one to know?
“Why does divorce happen in any particular instance? Some reasons are obvious, others are fake, and both may mask a complex truth. If one partner suddenly becomes very religious, joins a cult, or goes insane, that’s an obvious but real reason. When a woman who tolerated a man’s moderate drinking for twenty years suddenly demands that he stop, a good hunch is that the real reason is something else. In Indian philosophy, as you know, and in Zen, we are told not to trust appearances. Maya is at work, and the truth always lies beyond the veil, or somewhere else. Every divorce has two novels behind it, a “His Story”, and a “Her Story” — and perhaps a third one, a fantasy of gossipy speculation called “Their Story.” Each of these novels, if well written, can be gripping and compelling — but they would still not be the complete truth. That is why no one but you can get to tell your own story. We are such complex beings, that nobody and no possibility can be written off. Nobody else gets to tell your story for you.
“Even the people who should know the most — the divorced couples themselves — may know only half the story, or be blinded from seeing it all. Anyone else is simply making a wild, wild guess.”
A young and sexy waitress appeared with a bucket of ice and a warm smile. When Erik saw a pretty woman, his eyes glowed like fireflies on a dark night. For a while we sipped our drinks as we watched dogs and children playing in the sand.
One little girl, perhaps six years old, in crumpled, cheap, and soiled clothes, grabbed my attention with her laughter like the gurgling of a merry brook. She looked at a stray dog on the beach and laughed. She bent and scolded the dog, asked it a question, saw its face crumble into stillness and sheepfacedness, and laughed. She stumbled and fell in the sand, and laughed. She jumped, and laughed. And all with such enthusiasm, as if every pore, every cell of hers, even her bone cells and cartilage were joining in the laughter.
And to think this little girl had so little, so little compared even to the other children on the beach—with their toys, nice clothes, and pampering parents—and yet she seemed the happiest. Looking at her, I was reminded of the six-year-old daughter I had left behind in New York, the daughter I would be seeing a month later. I wanted to rush to this little girl and hug her.
Erik continued, “Somewhere along the way, in my marriage, a transfer of power took place. Superficially, you might say she began earning more than I was. She became powerful in her job. While I remained a dreamer, an artist who, after a short run of commercial success, was unable to get buyers for his paintings. Like Van Gogh, I refused to measure my contribution to the world in dollars and cents. In the life of her mother, and of her grandmother — and the men in their lives — there had also been these stunning reversals over a five or ten year period, the women becoming dominant, the men crumbling into insignificance or nothingness. One husband had died of a heart attack, another had died from drinking too much. Still another, a tycoon boy friend, shrunk in power while the woman grew more and more powerful, until she had become a terror to him. This was a secret that could not be revealed the world, because the appearances of “male domination” had to be maintained. In all cases, the men they met and married, originally dashing or powerful, had become shadows of their original selves, while the women had ballooned in power, and sometimes in size. They had a lot of external charm, charm that impressed everyone they met. But what did their husbands think and feel in their heart of hearts?”
“What I think now is that this woman was, genetically predetermined to be the man-eating type: a ball buster, a castrating wife and mother. As the years went on, she became powerful as the American war machine. She caused collateral damage. She slowed my artistic output. She put me through emotional turmoil, by manipulating the children, who I loved. Still, she could not crush my resistance. I kept my defiance, my independent spirit. I remained a rebel, thanks to the occasional solitary vacations I took — for artistic inspiration. You take away that spirit of independence and freedom from me, and you might as well pronounce me dead.”
“She had a superior weapon, however. A cruise missile — her mother. She would invite her mother for a visit, and the mother would cruise in quietly. But by the time she left, a month or two later, it was like Hurricane Katrina had devastated the home, destroying its former peace and character. She had a voice that could make the cows in the neighboring counties drop their calves prematurely.
“The reason she gave me for the divorce was that she had found a new lover. We Dutch are liberal. I didn’t grudge her the divorce. I too had fantasies about other women. I was just angry at the way she went about it. And that I lost the children. One fine day, a judge says, ‘The children are hers, not yours.’ And you’ve suddenly had a piece of your heart snatched away from you. You need your wife’s permission and cooperation to see them, and every time you try, she uses her control to make you feel bad, to discourage any connection between you, to make you lose. The children become her instruments for revenge, her Weapons of Ex-Spouse Destruction. Being too young to understand, being wholly dependent on the sole parent managing them, they become tools. To win her precious and life-enabling favors, they become willing tools. And one day, you tell yourself: I don’t have to take this anymore. I love my children, but I am not going to debase myself and dance to her tune just to see them. Because that won’t be good for my children either. They need to see that their father is strong.
“It was the only way to win this battle. So long as I showed my desperation, she would be in command, she would play with me as a cat plays with a wounded baby bird. I had to show that I could survive without them — because fatherhood is eternal.
“For five years, I saw them only once. Now, they want to see me, they are my best friends. That’s what happens: it’s much better if they realize it themselves than if you try to tell them. They will come looking for you.
“Of course, the children and I — we both lost something. We lost time. There are all those hugs and good times we could have had in those five years, when the flower of childhood was still fresh inside them … years which we will never have. But that was predetermined. What must be must be.”
He paused, as if in reflection, and tears misted his eyes. “It was survival — to try to forget my children,” he exclaimed emotionally. “For five years after I left her, she and her mother were still giving me nightmares, with equal starring roles. Until one day, she overtook her mother as my chief Inner Tormentor. Indeed, she became her mother. I didn’t want to be tortured just because I loved my children. The children were meant to be objects of love, not instruments of torture. I didn’t want to be nagged either, whether about my punctuality, my planning, or my life. First her mother started to nag me, then she, and then I had to escape them both by traveling. Even after the divorce, when I rented a room a kilometer away, I would get nightmares. I felt I had to run away as far as possible to survive. I don’t want anyone telling me that I need a haircut, that my driving isn’t perfect, or that I need to wash behind my ears. Before we were married, she pursued me with passion, she gave me sleeping pills that she filched from her hospital, she was willing to follow me and my dreams to the end of the earth. She gave me unconditional love. All those spectacular nights of passion, and she adored me. She had had richer suitors, but she would not exchange me for all the men in the world. And now, the only thing she does is to find fault with me. If a woman can’t give me unconditional love, let her get another man, she is welcome to him. I don’t want anyone telling me that I don’t plan things six months in advance, that I am not organized, that I am this or I am that. I am what I am. I say: Leave me alone!”
He broke down and wept, quietly. After that, for a while, we quietly watched the water and the beachgoing locals. A Thai man, perhaps in his late fifties, having purchased a 24-pack of toilet paper from the Tops supermarket, was collecting money for his next meal by retail-selling individual rolls on the beach to feasting Thais who called it tissue and used it in lieu of paper napkins. A hawker-woman walked by with a tray of fried crabs, fried breaded shrimp, and barbecued squid. The waves had become boisterous, with clouds and stormy weather churning the sea beyond. I remembered that the conversations with Erik hadn’t always been so serious, that he could laugh. As when he said to me, all out of the blue,
“I think I should have married an airplane.”
Why? I asked, amused.
“One: An airplane will kill you quick; a woman takes her time. Two: airplanes don’t whine unless something is really wrong. And three: An airplane has no mother!” He roared, and was laughing nonstop for the next five minutes.
A bit later, Erik continued, “I am a free-thinker. My wife came from a strict Catholic family. So, perhaps, she had some real mental and moral gymnastics to perform in order to come up with a justification for her divorce and her living openly with a man she was not married to. How did she do it? The old Mick Jagger method: Paint it Black. Yes, by painting me black. Otherwise, she could not have borne the guilt. As for her family, they did it too. Just because they thought it would make them look good to their social circles. They didn’t want them to hear about the cult she had joined, or about her lover.
“A woman in the grip of a powerful obsession, whether for a particular man or some other goal, can be so transformed by it that she invents a reality which she actually begins to believe in, convincing others of its truth. There is no cure for this except by allowing for some flexibility within marriage and some social sanction for the occasional lover or mistress. Marriage, after all, is a practical arrangement to raise children.
“Besides, do we really care now that Dostoevsky cheated his friends of money, or that Henry Miller and Picasso had two simultaneous lovers at the same time? Or that their wives or children had grievances agaisnt them? We are grateful for their art. While we imagine that their lifestyles may have been tough on their families, we remember them chiefly for their work.”
I replied, “Well, at least in Holland they talk openly about divorce. In India, the topic is submerged in ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy. Our movie stars and celebrities, Salman Rushdie for example, have had multiple marriages. Our sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar, is like Picasso — a man who lives by his own rules. He has two current partners, and they accept each other. Indians do not condemn these celebrities for what they do. We have one morality for those we admire and worship, and a different, harsher morality for those we do not know or don’t like, including our relatives.”
He laughed and said, “That’s not just true of India. Ray Charles had nine children with seven women and two wives. And he said, ‘Many times, people condemn you because they couldn’t do the same thing.’”
I thought: Ray Charles may have been legally blind, but he sure saw a lot more than most people with normal vision. Well, at least his one-eyed bandit did.
“So how have you coped with your solitude and your sorrow all these years?” I asked.
“Sometimes, just after the divorce and my separation from the children, I desperately wanted some woman to hold me, to hold me in her arms. It had to be someone soft. I needed to cry. And there was no one. The women of Thailand, I had to pay for their company—for that’s the ancient system here: if a man tries to get comfort from a woman and doesn’t pay, that reflects poorly on his character, and is also seen by her family as dishonorable on his part, and as stupidity on her part. But once I paid, they gave me love, they fulfilled their roles as “minor wives” or “temporary wives.” Many did it not just for money, or sometimes not at all, but because they too needed some loving, needed someone to be kind to them. Many of them had been jilted by lovers, husbands, or sometimes by families which demanded that they send money to support their families, that they would be failing their sacred duty if they didn’t. I babied them, they babied me. We were a mutual comfort society of the battered. I had to try and see a positive side to what happened. Such as that, perhaps,” he paused and smiled, “perhaps my ex-wife had released me from bondage so I could provide orgasms to less-privileged women.”
“So have your views changed in any way at all after all these years?”
“Amazingly, I have changed. I think now that where a couple has small children, there need to be restrictions on the grounds for divorce. No child wants his father out on the streets, off balance, or unable to enter his own home. And no child is happy to see his mother being screwed by a man who is not his father. These are acts of violence on the child. It is far better that parents exercise or exorcise their lust discreetly, in time-honored ways — you know, isolated, quiet flings, or in friendships that occasionally and discreetly spill over into sex. Once you have brought children into the world, you have no right to destroy their happiness. They deserve to have both of their parents around at least until they are fifteen years old, if not eighteen. When there has been no violence from and between any of the parents, or any truly serious problem; when the only cause of divorce is trivial, or just some desire for variety of partners, perhaps the old hypocrisy is a better solution.”
“What about your friends? What about all the social acquaintances you left behind in Amsterdam? Don’t you miss them?”
“Yes, I do,” he said. “But so much has been left unsaid, so much of my story is unknown to them by now, that I wouldn’t know where to begin. I know the advantage belongs to the partner who stayed behind, especially if she is a woman, and I don’t know how to correct it now. We men don’t know how to tell our stories. It’s easier for me to talk to you, a complete stranger, than to my old friends or relative.”
Two weeks after I saw him off in a small Thai town, I was in Bangkok, attending a film festival, when I ran into the owner of the guest house Erik had lived in before we journeyed to Tiny Town.
“How’s Erik?” I asked him, enthusiastically.
“Erik is dead,” said he.
I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. Erik had started drinking nonstop on Christmas Day, just three days after I had parted from him. He had died about two weeks later. The actual death may have been caused by an overdose of tranquilizers, said the guest house owner, who added that a friend had given him Valium to help stop his drinking binge.
I was aghast, since I knew something about tranquilizers like Valium. You give tranquilizers to a man, you snuff out his soul; and you might as well bury his body, even if it is alive and kicking. Erik was already a battered soul. He may have swallowed a whole bunch of tranquilizers; he may have wanted to end his misery. Valium and alcohol are a deadly combination, I know. It was hard to pinpoint the exact cause, but his body was right now lying in the morgue, and information had been sent to his ex-wife and children through the Dutch Embassy.
“Did he have any real friends?” I asked.
“None,” my informant said, quite frankly.
I was saddened, and saddened to think that he had died in a place devoid of friends or family to spend the last moments of his life with him, to mourn him, to conduct a service for him. Because Erik’s one friend in his last days may have been me. He may have found in me the first man, in recent months, who had listened to him and taken him seriously. For I had always had a soft corner for dreamers, had always felt sympathy for the underdog.
”He was hard up for money, wasn’t he?” I asked my informant. “He was always trying to save money.”
”He had a gold credit card. A man who is poor does not carry a gold credit card,” he replied.
My darkest fear is that if I was his only friend in his last weeks of life, and if he was a man on the brink of despair, my desertion may have triggered his descent into his fatal drinking binge. I could have at least sent him an e-mail or made a phone call to him on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day, could I have not? Or was it my obligation? Am I my brother’s keeper?
A question that might apply too to the thousands of lonely and dispossessed men who wander about the world, lost, looking for an anchor, a home, and love. Like us, they belong to the family of man, and they are our brothers. Should we care? Are we our brothers’ keepers?
And in honor of Erik, and perhaps to save a future Erik, let me ask: why shouldn’t the state and philanthropic institutions care for both men and women who have been through traumatic divorces, and whose lives have been shattered by divorces? Because it’s not always the woman who is most shattered by a divorce; sometimes, it is the man who, thanks to the loss of his children and his home, sinks deep into depression, while the woman has a lover in waiting, and the kids are still hers.
For the sick, we have hospitals. For the old, we have senior citizen homes. For battered women, the state runs shelters. For orphans, we have orphanages: at least in the economically advanced countries of the West. War veterans get pensions, the war-wounded have special hospitals and grants. What does Western society offer divorced men, who sometimes find themselves to be victims of a war they often did not choose to begin? Especially those past the age of being able to take care of themselves, who have lived sheltered lives, those who are dreamers and idealists and artists perhaps, those who may die without the company of other human beings like themselves, including female human beings? In many cases these men may have simply been the casualties of a feminist war they had no role in starting, and didn’t even comprehend. In the United States, for example, thousands of women, prodded by “recovered memory therapists” (exposed later as ideologically driven frauds), accused their own fathers of abusing them as children — causing such trauma and dissension in these families that some women divorced these men, and some men committed suicide. One fine day, scientists decided that “recovered memory therapy” was a load of horse poop. What a cute story! Except that for thousands of fathers who had been divorced, estranged from their kids, or otherwise traumatized by these accusations, or who had died in sorrow, and for the families that had broken up, the collateral damage had already been done. And these pea-brained pseudo-shrinks with their night-school therapy diplomas and unresolved Daddy issues of their own: how could they ever compensate these fathers for what they had done to them?
Should we care for such men? Are we our brothers’ keepers?
The story should have ended here, and yet, I cannot help having a last word or two. I have been haunted by the possibility that what Erik had told me was not the whole story, that he had just opened the door a crack and given me a quick glimpse of just one facet of his complex life. The story I have narrated could be just the surface. Like most surfaces, it could be an illusion — Maya. But then, did I have to know everything? Is it really possible to know “the truth,” if there is such a thing? Is it not sufficient that I met a kind man, was moved by him, and gave him a voice and told his story, without making any claims that it is any more than his story?
And finally, I began to ask myself: what I might have done if, like Erik, I had lost my children? What if it were possible to face everything with equanimity — even the loss of one’s own child — so long as one ceased to think of just one or two specific children with specific faces and DNAs as “my child”? If you thought of all children on earth as “my children”, then you would never lose a child, because until the end of the world, until the death of the last child on earth, you would always have a child to love. Because the reality of the world is such that there will always be children who need love, who could use your love. And then, by extension, perhaps you could even think of all fathers and mothers — or at least those that looked a bit like your own father and mother — as your own father and mother. And the loss of your mother or father need not be such a shattering event. The possessiveness, the exclusivity that causes us such sadness, and also so much selfishness in the world, has to be overcome, if not for something higher, some higher principle of human togetherness, then at least for the sake of one’s sanity when it seemed to be under threat.
I thought of the six-year-old girl on the beach and knew that, given a chance, I could treat her as my new daughter and could love her forever.
[Author’s Postscript, 2016: I have rethought the ending to this story, which I present in its original form, and have realized that the final conclusion is only partly true: it was a conclusion that I tried to believe in as a consolation truth: the kind of truth that, like a framed quotation or a religious figure’s inspiring words, makes you feel better and more accepting of your lot, though, deep inside, you’re never fully convinced by it: you are aware that it is a surface truth.
What I now wish to make clear, or add as a correction: You could indeed love a child that was not your biological child, love him/her deeply, and with effort, be a good father/parent to such a child that was orphaned, abandoned, or who for some reason had been transferred to your care. And I encourage and admire all fathers who do this. But you would never be able to forget or cease to love and yearn for a biological child that was still alive, that had only been separated from you by circumstances beyond your control. I believe that my love for my children has no expiration date, and is unconditional (despite anything I may have written elsewhere, or believed briefly, in anger or pain, they are extensions and carriers of my DNA, and it is an elementary, almost primal instinct for me to be passionately interested in their survival). Which is why I never ceased to yearn for my children, and was ecstatic when, finally, I was reunited with them.]
— More Conversations with Erik (Fiction)
Erik, the Dutchman who I met in Thailand, said to me one day, “The Thais have a proverb: Before buying an elephant, take a good look at its tail. Before marrying a woman, take a good look at her mother. Not that mothers-in-law are bad people. Ninety-nine percent of them are fine and spectacular people. But if you are the unlucky one to get the atrocious one percent, get prepared for a life of utter misery. This is why it is important that not only should we be taught all about marriage while at school, there should also be a special course on How to Screen a Prospective Mother-in-Law.
“Men may be from Mars, and women from Venus, but bad mothers-in-law are from only one place: Hell. And they bring it along with them, wherever they go. Hell, packaged in a suitcase, or in a house-dress.
“Bad mothers-in-law never leave the married couple alone. You may emigrate to Mars, thinking you are finally safe from her. But just wait a year, and who do you see alighting from the latest spaceship from earth, bellowing at the astronauts to carry her heavy bags? Your mother-in-law! And she has only dropped by because she was visiting some neighboring planets, and she remembered she had to visit her daughter. And she will only stay with you for a few years.
‘If you want to enter an American college, you have to pass an SAT test or a GMAT test. If you want to be a mother-in-law, you should have to pass an MAT: a Mother-in-Law admission test. There will be no passing or failing scores, but low scores will warn prospective sons-in-law of stormy weather ahead.
“I would have gladly accepted stormy weather. But what I got was endless hurricanes.
“Haven’t you heard of the famous Dutch feminist? Osama bin Hagen Daz? That was my mother-in-law. She was a terrorist. Compared to her, the real Osama was a pussycat. She was a woman who struck terror in the hearts of men, young and old. She had grown to become thus just after she became a woman spurned. She was by nature a woman endlessly hungry for attention, flattery, worship, and goods. Once she became older, though, she received less attention and flattery. This made her unappeasable, more ferocious than ever. No man could survive in her presence for even a few hours — let alone for a few years or a lifetime. There were no men in her life now — and so she became an enemy of all men. She went straight for their throat.
“She was unstoppable. She could get people to do her will, even if her will was crazy. You know, she is ethnic Dutch — but her family had been in Indonesia for two generations from the time of the Dutch colonists. One day, all on her own, she converted my son to Islam — had some sort of ceremony performed, that is. A few weeks later, she herself becomes a born-again Christian. She will do anything if it gets her attention. Then, when she realized the Islamic party had again become powerful, she converted back to Islam. If you promise her national TV coverage, she will even become a Zoroastrian.”
“Osama bin Hagen Daz!” I laughed.
“Yes, she’s related to the Van Laadens and also to the Van Harridans.”
“So what actually happened?” I asked, not willing to let the subject dissolve in flippancy.
He replied: “In the later years, whenever she prepared to make a visit to the house, I would make my preparations to leave. I would set out on a long trip exactly matching her probable visit. Because if by chance we ran into each other, thunder and lightning would have resulted. As the day of her arrival neared, the fish in the fish tank started to get jumpy, the poodle had sudden episodes of incontinence, the chirping birds fell silent, the rabbit birth rate dived. And even the monkeys in the Amsterdam Zoo began to behave themselves, keeping their hands to themselves and away from the usual erogenous zones. She wasn’t above lecturing monkeys. She wanted every male, human or animal, to behave himself or itself in her presence and in the vicinity.
“One day I realized that my wife was becoming her mother. My mother would simply rearrange the furniture whenever she came. But my wife, in my absence, had rearranged the house, cut into my study, and extended the bedroom and living room.”
“You said your mother-in-law was a feminist?” I asked.
“That’s what she called herself. Because the Indonesian president just then was a woman, and it seemed to be useful — so one day she declared herself a feminist. A feminist who wanted only her sons to inherit her property, not her daughters. The more unrighteous she was in her personal life, the more pompous and self-righteous she became in her public life: it almost seems like a natural law of human behavior, is it not? Evangelists have secret mistresses, public servants become public masters and thieves of public money, and accountants steal from the company?”
I laughed and agreed.
“Did something serious happen? You seem to get very passionate when talking about her,” I said.
“Something happened,” he said. “Something that shouldn’t have, something uncivilized. Unfortunately, I didn’t talk about it right then, and I can’t talk about it now.”
“Did your wife have any brothers? What did he think of what happened? Where was he?” I asked.
“She has just one brother,” he replied. “He won’t be of much use, I am afraid. He behaved strangely with me right from the start. It was as if he had a grudge against me for screwing his sister. I was almost about to tell him, ‘Look here, chap. What’s your problem? Screwing your sister is my job: I am her husband, after all. I can’t delegate that to anybody else.’ He had strange eyes.
“And here is what I tell you, and what I want to tell the world: Before you marry a girl, take a good look at her mother. Get it? Before you marry a girl, take a good look at her mother! Spend more time looking at the mother than you do looking at the daughter. Take down notes, and then enlist ten shrinks to analyze her. And if the mother is a horror, if you would not ever marry or live with the mother for more than six months, take to your heels! Especially if there is no father-in-law to restrain the mother-in-law. Why? Because, twenty years from now, your sweet and pretty wife will most likely become her horror of a mother. And her mother, if she’s still around, will become her mother, the whole squared. And if the two decide to form an axis to fight you, you are better off dead!
“Besides, people whose only excuse for arrogance is their wealth, their shiny new cars, large houses, or bank accounts, will in the end turn out to be obnoxious in-laws. And no matter how sweet and innocent and liberal and free of this mindset the nineteen-year-old daughter seems to you, don’t be taken in. That’s the way women often are at nineteen: they are rebelling against their mothers, especially if their father is no more; or at least they think they are rebelling. Because the family, with its petty shopkeeper’s mindset, will debase the quality of your life. And of your mind, and of your heart, by their constant interference. Far better to marry a well-educated girl with a heart of gold and a noble history of poverty.”
I think Erik was exaggerating, extrapolating from his own bitter experience, which I am sure is a strange and a rare one. I only tell his story because he is now dead, and cannot tell any more tales. And he wanted to have his story told. And, like anyone else, he deserves to have his story told.
June 3, 2001
I’m writing you this special letter for your confirmation day.
When we are young, everything that is happening to us at this very moment is the most important thing in the world. It’s a wonderful thing, really, this phenomenon: Childhood is intense. Our passions are terrific. We enjoy our ice creams the most, laugh our loudest laughs, and can lose ourselves in a simple fish tank or a toy for hours. Might as well enjoy it, for life will never be the same for most people once they grow up.
Still, I wanted you to have a little perspective by looking at your father’s life (you must realize your father’s story is part of your story, just as my father’s story is part of my story — this is vital to self-understanding). You see, when I was a child in Mangalore, between the ages of 6 and 13, in seven years, not a single parent of mine attended a single school function of mine. I would, on average, have one or two prize-giving ceremonies a year (on school day, I usually bagged five or six prizes), and perhaps act in two plays. There weren’t that many extracurricular activities in Mangalore: our schools were poor, and education emphasized textbook learning or taking down dictated notes.
I would have been happier if my mother or father had been there, but they couldn’t come. They were two thousand miles away (actually, my Dad did attend the last school day when I was 13, and he was visiting me). But not even my uncles and aunts, who lived in Mangalore, came to see me receive prizes or act in plays.
And still I loved my father and mother. Because they were precious to me. Because they were the only father and mother I would ever have.
In America, children seem to manipulate their parents like puppets on a string. Parents work overtime, ruin their health, and sometimes their marriages, because of the stress caused by dropping many different children to many difficult after-school activities, and the pressure they feel to attend every function such as a concert, or a School Day, or PTA (as if by not attending one such function, the kid would be traumatized for life).
I think many of us have lost our sense of proportion. We have become unforgiving, inhuman, harsh disciplinarians of our own selves, and of our parents . . . but not of our children (heaven forbid, that might be regarded as child abuse).
Now then, about your Confirmation. Do I have a religion right now? Not an organized religion. But I am not an atheist. I believe there is a Plan, I believe there is something in Nature, be it a Higher Power, a Natural Intelligence, or a Universal Spirit. And yes, religion is a system of rituals that help us do pleasant things in a communal setting.
Most Americans treat the Catholic religion thus, but in India, we took our religion too seriously (or rather, we were forced to). It scarred us. Therefore I don’t quite feel comfortable or genuine pretending to pray or to follow a Catholic ritual. But I now respect those who do follow the rituals — if they are true Christians in spirit outside the Church in their daily lives.
But if these people cheat, are rude, are inhuman and uncharitable, are racist and selfish, and don’t have compassion and love above all, then . . . their religious pretensions simply make me sad, and a little sick.
I had to tell you this because I am, as your father, supposed to talk to you about these things now and then. We cannot just talk about Santayana and Ray Charles and teddy bears all the time; sometimes, we can talk about serious things such as religion, politics, sex, and practical matters in your daily life. (You and I do, but not often enough, in my opinion.)
Of course, I would want to be with you on any day on which you were doing anything you considered important to you — if I could. But the stress I would feel being in the same place with your mother would be unbearable. Well, bearable, but not worth it for this. It would hurt me too much; the wound is still raw, and not much has been done so far to heal it, I am still smarting from the deep wounds inflicted on me in the process of the divorce. I don’t think you would want me to suffer so much. You are an imaginative child. You can think of me being present with you in spirit. Indeed, I am in you, Dev, in a special way: my genes speak through you, my blood courses through your veins, and we have so many common things in our nature, the way we deal with the world, that I would nearly think of you as a double. Except that you are much nicer, and you have the whole of your life before you.
Indeed, I will go today specially to a local Catholic Church up here in the Catskills, and will, in the way I can think of best, pray for you. Pray for you: pray that the wind is always at your heel, that flowers bloom for you, the sun shines wherever you are, and the rain if it falls is gentle. That the waters part when you walk, that animals never bite you, that people are turned on by your charm, and that an invisible power of your will makes them do what you want them to do. I will ask that you be always protected and strong and courageous, and that you try to do the right thing always, but that you don’t give yourself too hard a time for any fault or failing, especially a minor one, but think instead of every negative as a stepping stone, or an education.
I am still thinking of a possible small party for you . . . either here in the Catskills, or down there in Lynbrook. But, you know, there’s one other factor: my doctor has said with certainty that I need ankle surgery soon, and that it will be hospital surgery — not an office procedure as I previously thought — and I might take 2-5 weeks to recover. Therefore, I am not mobile. Perhaps I could do it later in the summer?
Lots of love, hugs, and kisses to you, my dear and truly special son.
(To my sons aged 12 and 14)
I dream so much about you. You, and even your mother, are in my dreams, two or three times a week, and more often than that in my waking hours. Yes, even in July 2004, four years after I left home, four years after the divorce that amputated our family. Divorce, legal edicts, angry words, complaints don’t change certain basic things about us. Our genes, all mixed up, root and branch and all, collaborate, collude, conspire to keep us together or at least inextricably intertwined however much we want to enforce, or think we wish to enforce, a complete rupture. How can these fundamental, eternal bonds be erased by a mere piece of paper? Merely that I cause you angst, or that you break my heart, is not enough, means nothing to these passions, feelings, connections, this sense of belonging and ownership, all of which clamor to the spirit, demand acceptance, love, et al. Yes, my overgrown babies, I am your Pater, your Paw, your Progenitor, now and forever. “Please Release Me, Let Me Go” — it’s a formula that might work for people who have had a short-term infatuation, not for a 22-year intertwining and merging of lives and genes, of which you are indelible products. (Though sometimes, just for some peace in my life, for some end to my torment, I wish that piece of paper, the divorce judgment, had come along with a magic potion to make me completely forget all of this deep connectedness of ours, and had barred and banished you from my dreams.)
What can I say? I am poor not to have you with me, and simultaneously, rich to have you with me and in me forever, inseparably, unchangeably so. And though life has been demanding for me, doctors or physical therapy appointments almost every second day in the last six months, the impetus for this letter increases a hundredfold when the sudden thought comes to me: what if I died, or what if you died, suddenly, unexpectedly? To the survivor, whoever he is, how silly and petty will all of this quarrelling look, all of this that kept us apart for so long? What anger, what sorrow, what self-recriminations could come from that?
And for a few days now, I have realized I have to say: SORRY. I wish to withdraw a few of the things I said in one of my last letters, and to apologize for them. Because I am man enough to do so, and want to encourage you to do the same.
A Politically Incorrect Author’s Dilemma
“I carried him in my womb for nine months. When he died, not just him died. Part of me died too.” — Mother of British soldier killed in Second Iraq War.
I have fathered three books, and I have also fathered three human children. I have loved all six of them, deeply, unreasonably, passionately, and despite their flaws. Despite their flaws, all of them, at moments, have been resplendent in their father’s eyes. For that reason, and because they are mine in both their flawed and in their shining moments, I am proud of them. I would want to protect them from death, from the executioner’s knife, the mind-poisoner’s words, or the slander of the ignorant.
And what if a book-child of mine had gotten into trouble because I had dared the impossible and invited trouble upon my own head? Even though, when it happened, I was genuinely shocked, and invoked principles that mainly remain on paper in the U.S. constitution, because I had lulled myself into forgetfulness, as if I lived in America rather than in India, where freedom is not the supreme value, but keeping important people happy and preventing them from knifing one another is?
I would still want to protect this child. This is the irrationality, the almost bottomless, animal and unreasonable affection of the parent, who loves even an unreasonable and rebellious child despite his being a social misfit, a threat to society and the establishment. Your child could be declared an enemy of the republic and have a price on his head, and yet, unreasonably, you would try to save the child from capture and execution, even to the extent of sacrificing your own safety, freedom, and perhaps even your life.
And yet, in the last few years, I have felt a kind of helplessness and hopelessness in my attempts to save my children from execution (I speak now of my book-children, and especially my second book, though the other two also have had disquieting things happen to them), and therefore I must at least speak my mind. (This is a story more about fatherhood than about books. Somebody powerful killed my children. Do you have the heart to at least give me a hearing? So forgive me, a bereaved father, while I babble on.)
Why did I feel helpless? Let’s say that theoretically, some persons wanted to steal my children (meaning, my books) from me, so that, without their father’s protection, they would die or could be executed quietly (even if they still had bodies, their souls would have left them). They could use a pretty cunning strategy, one which fabled American corporations use to prevent hostile takeovers: the poison pill strategy. In this strategy, they make the book so unattractive or flawed in its production, presentation, jacket design, or blurbs, that you are a little ashamed of it, and even hesitant of saving it from death.
And yet, a book is an author’s child. Imagine that you had a thousand children, and most of these had been imprisoned, confined within a dungeon during the period of their flowering when they most needed light, prevented from mixing with their peers and interacting with the world. Imagine that, as a result, they became stunted, had grown old before their time. Though you as a parent may have mixed feelings about these children, they are still your children. There’s no guarantee that you will not love an imperfect child — indeed, you might love an imperfect child far more than the ones who cruise through their lives equipped with perfect bodies and perfect minds. When the owner of the dungeon now threatens to execute these children, you want to save them, even if it simply to give them a more decent burial when they die naturally, rather than to undergo a cruel execution under their present captor.
So far, we have been speaking figuratively, theoretically, of situations that may have little correspondence with the real world.
I will now speak of a specific book that I wrote and published a few years ago. It was a book of essays and satire, it had a splendid jacket, and its not-first-rate paper and binding quality were infrequent but not unknown among Indian multinational publishers. Yet, it was displayed in bookstores imprisoned in a cellophane wrapper — the only general nonfiction book or book of essays so displayed. Why?
Generally, books displayed in cellophane jackets are either hugely expensive coffee table books or soft or hardcore porn books with tediously repetitive anatomical details and basic fucking action. In the former case, the publishers are protecting their expensive investment from being soiled by non-serious browsers, which is a fair consideration. In the latter case, as with a certain periodical Indian directory of “broad-minded” swingers published in India, the cellophane wrapping prevents casual readers from noting down the box numbers or contact details of other swingers, thus stealing the essence of the magazine without buying it.
But my book was neither of the above, by far. It was book of ideas, nonfiction reportage, viewpoints, literary, political, and social criticism, personal essays, and satire. Admittedly a few of the ideas were as provocative as Martin Luther’s umpteen theses nailed to the door of the local church. Provocative and dangerous, perhaps, but why should they be shameful? For if ideas are shameful, if bras and panties must be put on ideas, then I suppose the cellophane jacket was a bra. It was not a delicate Maidenform bra, because a normal bra can be gently unhooked; it was an industrial strength DMK or RSS bra that had to be ripped open before one could get to the goodies inside them. And thus, to rip it open would make you feel like a rapist, and though men may have it in their racial and prehistoric makeup to rape, they don’t like to admit it, and prefer to do it behind closed doors, not in bookstores.
So why was the book so shameful, and why did it have to be protected thus from casual readers? Because it contained an essay, “On the Trail of Sex in Kama Land”, that asked, “Who are we the lucky liberated upper classes to tell the masses to use condoms”? Or an interview with columnist/author Khushwant Singh titled “Indian Women are as Lusty as Any?” Certainly, that is a provocative statement, one that ordinary, unimaginative persons would characterize as a slur on Indian womanhood, not something a politician would say during a Republic Day speech to an assembly of Tamil Mothers for Decency (though a Punjabi politician after a few whiskeys might), but if Khushwant Singh says it, and Khushwant is an important man, a major Indian voice, and he does indeed like to tell the straight biological truth without putting panties and bras on them, he certainly has the right to have his words reported accurately. So why not let us hear it and think about his words, or even laugh about them? Or the rather upstart idea that “if Rushdie had been starved of his lunch as a child for losing his pencil, and had a moment of epiphany which made him drop his Victorian camiknickers — then he might have written a novel like The Revised Kama Sutra.” Or much more likely, the suggestion that if we Indians don’t put an end to “this Mir Jafferism, this backstabbing,” we are going to produce mostly “gutless, sneaky, or suitable writers” — which may by a far stretch be imagined to constitute a putdown of one of the Great Bestselling and Advance-getting Indian writers of recent years, and surely this deserves the guillotine preceded by a week of imaginative torture, right.
Right, except for this simple objection: Who designated Indian publishers as headmasters in charge of ensuring the good behavior of their schoolboy writers? Is this not a British colonial hangover, that Indians could not be trusted to be responsible, or to take care of themselves, or not to say the wrong thing, without highly restrictive laws?
Or was it the essay that lambasts the hypocrisy and contradictions of Western feminism transplanted uncritically to Indian society? Why can an Indian writer, 50 years after independence, not be free to write what he or she thinks, and hope that others do the same in return? And if I turn out to be brash and hasty and make mistaken judgments, well, that is a function of being human, let someone upbraid me for it in print or correct me, providing reasons.
But if you’re going to ban my writing or distance yourself from it, why not do it openly and honestly, having explained your reasons, and allowing the author his chance to explain his case to the public or to a court of law?
Whatever your response, accept the rules of the game, and present your counterarguments in a literary forum like a newspaper or a magazine — unless you don’t have any counterarguments at all — in which case, have the gentlemanliness or ladylikeness to say so and to admit defeat. Whatever you do, it’s much better to do it in the open. If you are going to kill someone’s child (to use a different metaphor), do it in the open, and let the mother mourn and bury the child, and achieve some closure. It is when the children are secretly murdered, as in Argentina, that mothers, twenty or thirty years later, are still stumbling around lost, looking for answers, for any information, for anybody who can tell them what happened to their child.
Actually, I don’t know what really happened. And so my inquiries are directed at the Void. I am not a mind-reader, I cannot function as a detective when the doors are shut in my face. (And the doors were slammed in my face by the tall baldie who ran the outfit according to his own law, with total contempt for the ethic of the original company — HarperCollins — which would have at least required some degree of gentlemanliness and fairness towards authors, and at least the outward pretense of professionalism.) But at the time, I was sillier and blinder than I think I am now, and I felt outraged, regarding a cellophane jacket on a book as a sort of straitjacket on ideas, telling the reader, “This author is crazy (or obscene). Don’t read him.” Imagine if some asshole of a psychiatrist, at the first sign of some unusual behavior or talent in your child, orders him confined in a straitjacket. How would that make you feel?
And what if this was done to the book of an author who had been lauded for saying things Indian writers don’t usually say? What message was he, and other authors similarly daring, supposed to get?
With the exaggerated sentimentality of a father of three flesh-and-blood boys, and three real books, I saw this act as unjust imprisonment: supposing the person imprisoning your children were an in-law who happened to be an asshole, you too would be furious, wouldn’t you?
Anyway, imagine that your book is so displayed, and so ingeniously hidden at the same time that your friends, as well as the most passionate readers of your first book, don’t know of the existence of this your second book — or else your very name might make them buy it. You complain to the editor, and you complain again and again, but you get either no response or a bloodless response, “It is up to the bookseller to display the book with the cellophane removed, if he so wishes.” You convey this view to the bookseller, and the bookseller replies, “If the customer asks us to open the book, we will open the book.” And yet strangely, when you, the author, ask the bookseller to open the book, he is reluctant! (Perhaps because you are a mere author, and not a customer?)
Which, you realize, is the equivalent of a death sentence for the book, for you know that Indian readers are likely to be shy and non-assertive. If they see a book in a cellophane wrapper, they think they are supposed to buy it merely because of its title, they are supposed to take a chance (books are not easily returnable in India — and certainly were not at that time). Readers resent that kind of assumption. Further, they assume it’s a shady book, soft porn perhaps, and it makes them shady persons to be seen ordering the book. So they probably will just walk away rather than spend an enormous two hundred fifty rupees on a book they know nothing about. For an Indian to part with 250 bucks for an unknown quantity, it is a violation, something he would go to war about. Besides, if they really want to buy a shady or soft-porn book, India has been liberal enough for a decade at least that hundreds of open books (unwrapped) with sexy titles are available in that very bookstore for easy browsing and purchase, and for even less on the pavement from the sellers of pirated editions, so there is no need to put money down on an unknown book by a relatively unknown author.
In a country like India, where even in 2003, in a village in the Nilgiris, you will find that a majority of homes have not a single book in them (except for the odd school textbooks that have sometimes outlasted their time), hundreds of books can be “pulped” — meaning shredded into worthless scrap paper — at the mere command of a publisher or editor. If such a book had been mere hackwork, which the writer had written for quick money (“30 Days to Thinner Thighs” or “Guide to Study Abroad,” or “Study Guide to Hamlet,” say), the hack would merely understand that this was the end of the shelf-life for this particular commercial product, and feel nothing except a sense of commercial loss.
But if you had risked your very life, your happiness, your friendships, your literary career, and your loves, by writing this book, and every book of yours into which you put your heart and soul — money being the least important consideration, the money being a laughably piddling amount compared to the work done and the energy spent, and the travels you have undertaken to launch it; if it was the product of your passion and belief; if the book had made the editor laugh and respond with passionate enthusiasm, when you first presented it to her, then what would you think? And what would you think if you had fought a hard battle to save it from an earlier attempt to strangulate it? You would be wrong, of course, but you might be excused for imagining that the publisher had succumbed to pressure from some powerful interests who felt “attacked” by the book, who wanted to prevent it from being widely circulated. And that the publisher had quietly and cunningly agreed to restrict its circulation and choke it to death — until such a time that the sales naturally dropped to such low numbers that they now had the necessary fig leaf of a justification to demand the destruction of the book.
Of course, this is all conjecture on your part; but what can an author to whom no explanations are provided do but let his imagination run wild? But in any case, what is the point of going on with this essay? Surely, I am not alone, there are hundreds of authors to whom such things have happened, I am probably relatively lucky, right? Well then, try saying such a thing to a parent who has just lost his child (“You are not the only father who lost his child; thousands of Rwandans also lost their children!”), and he might slap you. He doesn’t care how many thousands, how many millions of others have lost theirs; he must mourn his own child first.
This is why every act of injustice matters, is important. For injustice is like a cancer, like a hundred thousand cancers growing in the different body parts of society.
Just the other day, legendary Indian editors N. Ram and Vinod Mehta were on a television show discussing journalistic ethics. But do they truly care and ensure that they and every employee of theirs, while wielding their enormous power, try to be just in every instance? And what about in publishing, which is an arm of the Press, a tool of freedom of expression and the democratic process of debate and of intellectual enquiry: does it not too deserve an Ombudsman?
To return to the story of Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex: About two months before the launch date, the editor who had embraced the original manuscript and concept so enthusiastically was suddenly determined to suppress a few chapters. I resisted those attempts, but did not have the energy or the heart to withdraw a book that had been growing for seven months in my womb, and within two months would be out and alive in the world, a loveable if somewhat defective creature. So I compromised and accepted some cuts, though not all the cuts I noticed when the book actually came out.
So the baby that emerged was a book in which some parts had been ripped out: a baby missing an arm, say. However, because the ripping out was hurried, not all and indeed not most of the dangerous elements of the book had been cleanly ripped out. Which is not so easy to do with my work; a fan of my next book, Impressing the Whites, remarked that if I had submitted it to a regular Indian publisher, the final printed work, after the publisher had cut out the dangerous material, would have contained just two pages: the title page, and the Acknowledgments page So the end product was still dangerous, though somehow damaged, bleeding, not whole, lacking its integrity, a flawed child.
Why did the editor decide at the last minute to suppress a few chapters, and to demand they be taken out? I have never quite understood, because thereafter communication between us became simply a kind of shouting match, and I never was given a clear and honest answer. Perhaps she thought there were some important people those chapters might offend, and those people were powerful enough to ruin her life and her career in the Delhi publishing world — but that’s only a conjecture, as I have no way of reading her mind.
Still, the book was published — however, since it was arguably still dangerous and offensive to some (silly, silly me, to take such chances!), I have “conjectured” that there was a “contract” put out on it, in a manner of speaking. It would be hobbled by bad and remarkably cunning marketing strategies, and thus prevented from reaching its potential customers.
It was a book whose production, odd typesetting, blurbs, or poor paper quality shout, “Don’t buy me! I’m inferior!”, and you, a reader relatively new to the author’s book, and protective of your money, might say, “Well, who am I to disagree? I’m not the expert. I’m not taking chances!”
Despite all this, I kept silent in public. Despite my wanting to provoke a public anti-censorship movement on the subject of this book and others, I kept quiet. Why? Because we writers are told we must work with publishers, that we depend on them, that we must sometimes suffer in silence so that future works are not hindered. I had already suffered for having been too frank, in public, about the marketing of my first book — a conjecture based on the non-availability of the book in many bookshops, and its absence with the authorized distributors, despite consumer demand. I notice that Indian editors dislike dissent from their writers when it applies to editorial and publishing policies, even though the Fourth Estate (of which publishing is a part) is supposed to be the guardian of democracy and free speech, to actively provide a forum for dissent and for opposing points of view, and certainly should not be in the business of muzzling their own authors.
However, as someone said,
“If you bring forth what is within you,
What you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
What you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Ultimately, as the years passed and I saw no relief in sight, I decided the situation was intolerable and I ought to fight censorship by reprinting the book myself, whether or not my rights were returned to me. I almost did it, spending a decent amount of time editing the entire book, and taking out a few essays and adding a few (yes, there’s a new version available and ready for publication), but held back at the last moment to conserve my energy and resources.
I’m not saying that as a literary product, my book didn’t have its flaws; a book may seem like a good idea at the time it is conceived, but we do not fully control all the factors, including the genetic and environmental ones, which will dictate its exact shape at birth. Still, you love the child or the book, because it is yours: at the time you conceived it, you believed in it, you gave it your all, you gave it your essence. If it is an anthology, as this one was, there may be from a total of nineteen essays four essays that you gave so much of yourself to write, that you feel so close to, that so express your essence — like your eyes or hands exactly reproduced in your child, who in other features looks different — that you would fight for its life. Theoretically, a book with one hugely original essay, three good or moderately original ones, and fifteen crappy ones deserves publication and survival far more than twenty other books in which all nineteen essays are mediocre and unoriginal.
So why was this book guillotined (if it was — the conjecture element runs throughout this essay, even if not specifically mentioned)? Democracy, in theory, advocates a separation of powers, according to which a publisher ought not to be the judge, tormentor and executioner rolled into one, and ought, once it has decided to publish a book, surrender it unhindered to the will and judgment of the People — meaning, the readers. But theoretically, megacorporations can get away with behaving like autocrats. And yet, theoretically, what a book to crush, a book meaningfully launched precisely on the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence, a book that had in its Preface the following quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn came to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till . . .
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. . . . I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.
Yes, the book spoke my latent conviction, the rude truth as I saw it, but the publisher, after an initial, laudable, and courageous impulse, had possibly retreated, had possibly chickened out. Finally, after some thoughts of suing the publisher, but realizing I lacked the money and the energy to do it, I decided, when informed of the decision to pulp the books, that I would buy the books from the publisher, and sell them to public myself. Anyway, I felt pretty powerless, because it was long since my better known novel had gone out of print thanks to my own request (in retrospect, hasty, brash, and self-destructive), and partly due to sabotage by the marketing department. So I asked that the rights be returned to me.
Anyway, it was too late to think of what might have beens: I had to rescue the book first, there was very little time.
And I, unable to see my children being executed — my real children were being executed, in a metaphorical way, in any case, so therefore I was grasping for any children at all that I could hold on to, damaged, compromised, or flawed — yes, I decided to pay for all those books, and now those books are with me.
All through this process, I was in a dilemma. With scarce resources, do I rescue just a few of these children, in which case I am discriminating against the others, or save all and think nothing about where the money is going to come from?
Should I appeal to the public?
This was the way it was. And I, unable to see my book children being executed — my real children were being executed, in a metaphorical way, in any case, so therefore I was grasping for any children at all that I could hold on to, damaged, compromised, or flawed — yes, I decided to pay for all those books, and now those books are with me.
And now I must find a national distributor, and look him in the eye, and say, “Dear Mr. Distributor: Democracy and the people depend on you. We have faith in you. In your impartiality. That you are like a doctor or a judge or a university examiner: you will do your duty as a professional, which in this case is to help present the views of a member of the People, to the rest of the People, without interference, without bringing in your personal prejudices, without allowing anyone to influence or stop you in this essential task.”
“Will you sentence my children, just rescued from certain extinction in the Book Pulping Buchenwald, to slow death in a dungeon? Or will you allow them to be held in the arms of readers from Amritsar to Tiruvananthapuram?”
And to you, the reader, I say: Ask not what you do not find in this book: Beauty Queens, Children, and the Death of Sex. There’s lots that you cannot, including the meaning of life (which, in any case, changes from moment to moment). Ask instead, what you can find in there that you rarely find anywhere else among the ballyhooed Indian writers: brutal honesty, and almost reckless courage. Sure, this blend hasn’t made me enough money to pay even for my basic expenses, and instead has caused me endless heartache; still, I cannot truly abandon it, because it encapsulates my truth, the real me; any other style would be false. And rather than be false, it would be better not to live.
So I ask you, my readers, to ask this publisher on my behalf, “Tell me the reason, please. Who put the pressure on you? Was it Solomon Solomonar? Was it the Beauty Queen? Or, as we know is most likely in India, some of their self-appointed, unpaid friends and agents, providers of Lifetime Free Coolie Labor to the Mighty? Was it an interest group that sometimes works behind the scenes, because it dares not engage in open debates, which it fears it might lose? Could you not at least give the author a chance to explain or to defend his point of view? Why engage in behind-the-scenes censorship? Are we such an immature country that we cannot tolerate satire and dissent, and that even the really sincere writers amongst us must doff their hats to the Literary Powers That Be?”
Having said this, I must paradoxically say that at times, I feel I ought to thank my censors: they may have kept me pure (and if not pure as the driven slush, at least not as much of a shameless whore as some of the rest). Success without obstacles might have made me sell out; my voice has retained at least some of its edge and it fire and its willingness to take up unpopular, unfashionable causes and speak for unglamorous minorities, thanks to my remaining lean and hungry, with no international super-agents beating down my door, demanding to be let in.
And yet, on the other hand, getting too lean and hungry isn’t good for the soul, it may even lead to literary death. I believe from the depths of my soul (whatever that might be) that truth-telling writers are born, not made; I claim no credit at all for my birth and my existence and what I do, just as a hunchback cannot claim credit for his hunch; nor can a person with long legs claim credit for their length. It is just the way it is. But there are not many of us in existence, so when we do come around, please try to ensure that we at least survive: for the good of the community, and for the sake of writing itself.
Finally, whenever something unjust occurs in public life (and publishing, which is a function of free expression, is at the heart of public life, besides being very important to a free society), one is inclined to ask: What was the press doing? Ever since India gained its independence from Britain, Indian journalists having been giving politicians lectures about eternal dharma, public morality, and integrity, but politicians haven’t changed one bit; indeed, they have, on average, become far more villainous, shameless, and rapacious. Why? Perhaps because the journalists, though certainly far purer than the average person (I suppose so, or hope so), and certainly purer than the average politician, are perhaps not that pure; for they too, perhaps, have a casting couch mentality in which, though they may not physically and carnally sleep with powerful (with powerful publishers and editors for example)—barring individual, hormone-dictated exceptions—they do so metaphorically?
At the time that I was “in” with the “in crowd” in Delhi (very, very briefly), an important journalist’s wife was writing a book for India’s top editor, who had published many a book by an Indian VIP and VVIP. Is that journalist not going to find it difficult even to see, let alone write, something strongly negative about that editor or that publishing company? More so when everybody and their mother and their mother’s boy friend wants to publish a book these days, film stars and current and former heads of state not excluded? When certain name-brand publishers get too powerful, the only counter to that power is a public consensus, as well an abundance of practical examples, that there exists a culture of total immunity and transparent publicity for those who express genuine criticism of publishers (whether it be internal or external criticism), the journalists functioning as watchdogs of democracy and upholders of high principles.
A letter sent to someone in early-to-mid 2014, when I was trying to raise money to visit my son:
A father being reunited with his son. Do you have anything against that? Unless you hate the father, or hate the son?
In principle, I would want every father to be reunited with his sons: I would wish that even for my enemies. To me, more such reunions would result in more happiness, more peace throughout the world, fewer enmities, less hatred, fewer violent acts, fewer suicides.
Especially after some of what I went through as a father, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy; for we are all either fathers, or the children of fathers. Except, perhaps, on the one person who was most responsible for this suffering, who derived sadistic pleasure, even ecstasy, from grinding a father under his Gestapo boot-heels and preventing him from meeting his young sons.
So this journey is, to me, is sacred, more sacred than a pilgrimage to Gangotri is to a devout Hindu.
The differences between me and my son came about as a result of a brutal divorce—he was too young, and the young, especially while going through hormonal and biological changes that they can’t fully understand, can easily be manipulated by those who have power over them; I, too, bear some responsibility for my misfortunes, having made many mistakes and misjudgments in this matter, as have others.
So many external and unpredictable factors came between us, including distance and misunderstandings, and even such mundane matters as time zone differences and communication difficulties (technology, which at one time was so unevenly distributed the world over, and now is increasingly binding the world).
Sometimes, this is how you feel about something: This is the most important thing in my life right now. If I do not do everything in my power to make it happen, I would be stupid.
That’s how I feel about being reunited with my son. If I had the physical strength, I would walk across the entire land mass of Asia and Europe, then smuggle myself aboard a cargo ship to get to the American shores, then walk the remaining distance to see my son.
[P.S. The goal was achieved; I did meet my middle son, in August 2014, and was his guest for nearly three weeks: it was one of the most important meetings of my life.]
In my darkest days after the divorce, in my loneliness, when I could neither live without my children or without a woman to hug and hold at night, I wrote this passionate appeal, meaning it to be published somewhere. Here it is, around 12 years later, an emotional outburst that by no means summarizes our complex marriage, only one tiny aspect of it:
Save Our Children. Save our children from harmful laws, from vengeful or horny spouses of either sex who would deprive children of their fathers solely in order to get what they want, and to get it easily.
In divorce, separation, or marital discord cases where there has never been violence between the two parents, or between any parent and child, or any major non-financial disability of one parent, equal custody can be the only just solution, coupled with the right of both parents to live in the same home, in different rooms or different sections of the home—until the children are 18. To assist women or men to engage in extramarital affairs without having to sue for divorce, or to continue their affairs after divorce but out of the sight of the children, I suggest a Lovers’ Corner in every town, with free or discount rooms in which adventure-seeking wives can meet and sleep with their lovers without feeling compelled to demonize their once-beloved husbands … to demonize them merely because they are looking for an excuse, a socially acceptable excuse for their friends and family, one that gives them permission to satisfy their lust. Lust or sexual desire is understandable, and it’s human, and the author has no intention to demonize it; indeed, he offers his full support to Equal Opportunity Lust for both sexes, including men: both partners to be provided by the State with sexual partners for the night, just in case one of them doesn’t already have one: similar to the provision that supplies a free State attorney to defendants who do not have one.
At one time, in my Freud-worshipping thirties and early forties, I was not only convinced of the powerful reality, in most human beings, of the Oedipus Complex, but that my oldest son had a classic case of it. Whereas now, I believe that even if, as a psychological model, the Oedipus story had some validity, it’s a symbolic rather than literal representation of an unconscious, childish fantasy that is almost never fulfilled, because it’s forbidden by law and socially taboo.
But what happens when, later, the son becomes more powerful than the father, either because of the financial success of the son and the relative financial weakness of the father, or simply because of the physical weakness and dependence of the latter in old age? So, while I presently am a great skeptic of any psychological or psychoanalytical theories, I do realize that .
Coming to recent years: one of the most painful aspects of my life and my choices has been my financial weakness in the last few years—the result of being too much of a dreamer, of believing the promises of not-very-honorable people, and being almost contemptuous of financial planning and saving for a rainy day, believing that my salvation and success were just around the corner, that they would happen sooner or later and I wouldn’t have to worry about money.
Unfortunately, that success is still around the corner … but it could take me a long time to reach that corner. And meanwhile, I feel my oldest son, almost unconsciously, acts out his Oedipal fantasies by repeatedly vanquishing, not the physical me, but my fatherhood, my power over him. As I am still his father and still mentally strong (though not as much as before), and as my fatherhood is not interchangeable in reality, this act has to be repeated endlessly to give him at least a temporary illusion of power.
Or perhaps it is real power. The power that, as with any other power, is susceptible to abuse. Because, after all, we’re all only human (yes, even I, and especially I). There are only two pieces of advice I can give to other fathers before they find themselves in such situations:
1. If you can, plan well for your retirement and old age, and avoid having to be dependent on your children.
2. If you cannot, then learn to live with it. It will be painful, yes, but then, they are your flesh and blood, and as the Buddha said, Life is pain. The way I regard it is this: Yes, it is Purgatorial, but so long as I have some independence, some autonomous power—which, currently, I do—I cannot let human frailty crush me: especially the human frailty of my own flesh and blood, who like me are moved by forces larger than themselves. Just as I have sometimes to tolerate, with compassion, the rebellion of my own body, and sometimes forgive myself for my wrong judgments. So, in my best moments, I try to arrive at an attitude of philosophical compassion towards my son: He is my son, my Mini-Me. He’s making some of the same mistakes that I made at his age. He has to make them so as to reach the understanding I now have. I am older and wiser than him, in some ways, but I cannot convey that to him. He has to find it through his own experience.
However, if you happened to be the son in such a situation, I would say to you: What if this happened to you in your old age, say as the result of an accident that amputated your legs and rendered you completely dependent on your children while wiping out your life’s savings? Would you not want your son or daughter to treat you with kindness and compassion? When you find yourself in a situation of power over your old father, exercise that power with grace and discretion, with respect and love, with tenderness and humility, because whatever your other powers, you will never have the power to actually reverse the act of creation that brought you into this world, to become the father to your father. And your father, and his glory, his happiness, can still be valuable to you. Your father’s life does you credit; your own life does your father credit.
Do this especially if, when your father was powerful he, despite his imperfections, truly loved you.
I have also said to my son, and I paraphrase here what I have expressed to him a few times, perhaps less pompously: “I chose, or perhaps I was chosen, by other priorities, by a calling—to express my unique voice. And this calling, this sense of higher duty, has dominated my life and sometimes lands me in desperate situations, needing rescue by a friend or loved one. That weakness of mine (a delusion, perhaps?), and the huge mistake I made in getting pally with Valium, a devil of a companion that will simply not let you go: they have together been responsible for my moments of great difficulty. But I have never been totally helpless: if I had chosen to make money and financial security my chief goals, I would have succeeded. But I was not willing to do so and in the process sacrifice my calling. Perhaps my ambition may inspire you some day, and maybe it will make you feel that it was worth the inconvenience, that it was part of your journey.”
And I once wrote to him:
You are my son, my flesh and blood, and as your father, I gave you genes and also owe some responsibility for your character development, so your faults are at least partly my faults … but my faults are never your faults, okay? They are just my human frailty.
So, as father and son, we are in this life together, and so how do we make the best of it? In my view: with compassion, love, understanding, kindness, respect.
To the larger society, I would say: in the last twenty years, half of the theses or tomes written by women (or perhaps three-quarters?) and many of those written by men have used the word patriarchy as if the word itself were a combined accusation, proof of male guilt, and justification for anything at all done by women (sometimes in conjunction with powerful, cunning or silly men) to disempower men/fathers. And I respond: to me, given the reality that Sonia Gandhi was the Supreme Matriarch of India for over ten years, with powerful men literally touching her feet (in the traditional Indian gesture of submission) and prostrating themselves before her, that powerful women have become the chief ministers (or Supreme powers) in two major Indian states in just the recent elections (and many more earlier, including one from U.P. who reportedly had her opponents, in a few cases, beaten to death): how do the preceding examples demonstrate the universal existence of patriarchy or explain the situation of tens of thousands of fathers who are rendered powerless by the system, and sometimes who, King Lear-like, end up having no safety net? King Lear, for me, is the classic play of human frailty as well as the truth that evil or frailty transcends gender and are potentially inside all of us. That is why I believe, along with Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking and Buckminster Fuller that a progressive modern society should guarantee a minimum income to everyone, regardless of their mistakes of judgment, so that the travesty of older fathers being dependent on the kindness of strangers, or of their children does not easily happen.
I say this having come to know, a few years after his death, that my father’s torture didn’t end with his liberation from the Japanese prison camp. In his late Eighties, when he was physically weak and not fully able to take care of himself, and I was in America and unable to notice or be of help, he was harassed both by his former landlady, twenty years younger than him (whose entire reason for her cruelty was anger that she had sold the house to my father, who was no more subject to her, and that the value of the house had increased considerably), and tortured by the servant girl with sticks, and sometimes, by being briefly locked up behind the door leading to the bathroom and toilet. It still hurts me, and I still blame myself that I was too absorbed in my own affairs and unable to protect my old and helpless father.
This book is much smaller than it could be. There is much more to publish—potentially 15 books, a few of them as or possibly more daring than anything I’ve published until now—and I am partly restrained by the extreme difficulty, for me, of making a living and writing at the same time (and this has partly to do with my long-term dependence on Valium, which slows me down, mightily). Though I look for editing and proofreading jobs (you can search the Net or my web site for my editorial website), they are hard to come by, and my book sales have dwindled to almost nothing.
If you received this e-book free (as a publicity tool, the only publicity tool I can presently afford), or if you paid for it, but still appreciate that it was written and published (it takes a lot of emotional and physical energy and courage to do so, there are any number of people who will criticize you for publishing real truths; writing fiction or self-help books is a lot easier), I urge you to take a chance on a few other books of mine (listed in the ) even if they are not on your priority reading list … just to encourage a truth-telling writer to come out with far more truth than the Establishment would like to be revealed. Yes, I am a minor literary Bernie Sanders (great respect for the man, of whose qualities I have but a tiny fraction) in that I have consistently been true to my voice and my heart (though, at times, a bit more discreet for the sake of my survival or safety), and wish to publish all that remains unpublished: for me, that’s the literary equivalent Bernie Sanders’ “See you in Philadelphia!”
You, the Readers, could empower writers like me … or not.
By the way, a few of my books can be downloaded directly from my website:
Praise for The Revised Kama Sutra
”Exuberant, unabashed picaresque novel… indefatigable good humor transcends the personal to stand for the contradictions and struggles of India as a whole. Considerable, irreverent charm.”
— Publishers Weekly
“I salute you as a full-fledged colleague. Yes, I am reading you and finding you very funny!” — Kurt Vonnegut
“Irreverent, unputdownable . . . has a comic timing never seen in any Indian novel to date.” — The Indian Express
“An Indian novel with a difference . . . an entertaining romp of a novel, with the Hindu culture at odds with Western sexual freedom. A startling change from A Suitable Boy, Heat and Dust, or The Maneater of Malgudi.”
— Tim Manderson’s Special Selection, Publishing News, U.K
“A verbal craftsman . . . hilarious.” — Time Out, London
“Should be a recognized classic. An exuberant Catcher in the Rye, a South Indian Confederacy of Dunces. Uplifting and powerful.” — Mark Ledbetter, linguist
“A delightful and zany debut. Touching. Crasta has managed a voice, unlike most Indian authors. This book is the Empire striking back at the new colonists, the land of Coca Cola and Kentucky Chicken. With his zany sense of humor and a chutzpah fed of locker room bravado and a no-holds-barred attitude towards all holy cows . . . a desi kind of Portnoy’s Complaint.” — India Today
“The episodic nature of sex is most believably represented. Hilarious and delicate” — Kimberly Leston, The Face, U.K
“Humorous and irrepressibly manic. An Indian Portnoy educated by Catholic nuns. There is little actual sex in Richard Crasta’s novel, but an enormous amount of sexual frustration. Sometimes it’s even funny.” — The Independent, U.K
“A Dickensian tale of a young boy’s travails, a comic-sexual odyssey, and a modern Joycean anti-novel. Peppery wit, no-holds-barred, de-sanitized, Rabelaisian. Much that is real and genuine. Surprises you with its remarkable perceptivity.” — Times of India
“333 pages of pure fun punched with serious matters of contemplation, topped with irreverence at its healthy best. A Pickwickian comedy. The Glossary is a marvelous example of meaningful iconoclasm . . . sounds which make the book sparkle, an audio-reading delight. Exciting innovations . . unabashedly candid, honest, sharp, Camusesque . . . may seem too daring to some.” — Debonair
“Delightfully witty… unputdownable… a novel written from the heart. From the first sentence to the last, the story unfolds in a manner that is not dissimilar to the languid stretching of arms of a woman after making love. Should be read for the sheer pleasure of reading.” — The Pioneer
“Hilarious contemporary Indian novel shot with some serious undercurrents… a rich and multifaceted novel… an indictment of colonialism and the colonial legacy on which we depend. A surrealist vision of India… Important. Enough to get him banned and excommunicated.” — The Hindu [BOOK CHOICE of the fortnight]
“The author’s approach to sex is warm, sensitive, and very, very funny. He may well be the best humorist we’ve had in ages. [But] the book is also about growing up in a time much more innocent than our own. Crasta’s tale is both quaint and poignant, qualities sadly absent from life in the Naughty Nineties. He brings to the English language a freshness we’ve stopped expecting from our reigning literary lions.” — Business Standard
“The hero is a Tom Jones. Crasta builds upon sex and colonialism — both being tools of control. Sex controls the body; colonialism the land and the consciousness of its people. Crasta uses sex as a liberating phenomenon.” — India Abroad, New York
“Manages from the first page to overturn most of our expectations of what the Indian novel should be . . . He gives us a different India, a surprising and refreshing one. The book is clever, funny, lighthearted, readable and sexy . . . rampant, riotous, Rabelaisian. It is that great thing, the novel of literary quality which is capable of being enjoyed by a wide readership, and it has an utterly original voice.” — John Saddler, Transworld Publishers, U.K.
“A craftsman of letters. Hilarious. Almost read it nonstop.” — Khushwant Singh, prolific author/critic, India’s most widely read columnist.
“Penguin’s hot new book now making waves has a hero with a perpetual bulge in his pants and the Stars and Stripes in his eyes. An undiluted ode to the omnipresent Oedipus in the Indian male psyche. Personifies the post-Independence Indian male.” — Canara Times
“The book is about growing up with a half-empty stomach and a constant state of arousal . . . In a bittersweet satirical way, the book is about the life of an average Everyman from India. Crasta, who has taken the humor in the book to the point of near subversion, has managed to encapsulate the feelings of an entire generation of Indian men.” — Masala Magazine, New York.
“Crasta has created waves with his non-conformist novel . . . which has arrived on the Indian literary scene with a resounding bang. The author delves into the labyrinthine relationship between Indian men and women, especially across class lines. A brutally honest picture of the male mind. It is an examination of the identity of the Mangalorean Catholics and Indian Christians living in an overwhelmingly Hindu society and of their complex relationship with their ancestral religion.” — Amrita Bazaar Patrika
“Sensational… fascinating… a writer who refuses to say things the way they’ve always been said, and manages to find new ways of saying them. A writer who makes you laugh, but also makes you question your value systems. Revels in bawdy, earthy sex, but talks poignantly and yearningly of love. A refreshing revolt against our boring, middle-class mores… our rarely confessed prudery. A serious, intelligent writer who means business. Witty, snappily written dialogue… an insightful protest against the way the colonial mentality still pervades our lives. Crasta has spoken out against censorship, against oppression.” — Society
“Delightful . . . unpretentious . . . such pleasurable reading.” — Financial Express
“The Rushdie of Catholicism.” — The Asian Times, London
“In 1994 he took India by storm when he wrote The Revised Kama Sutra. Even today most Indians talk in hushed whispers about his book. — The Times of India, Bangalore, 1997.
“The catastrophic eruption of his unexpected, indeed unpredicted and inexplicable, tumescence upon the innocent young author starts a hilarious look at the growing pains of a young Indian in post-independence, ’60s India. Truly a novel of colonialism and desire!” — www.dere-street.com
“Three novels I regard as milestones are . . . Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel . . . Richard Crasta’s The Revised Kama Sutra . . . and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s You Are Here.” — Khushwant Singh, Outlook Magazine, 2009
Praise for Impressing the Whites
“A humanity divided against itself cannot stand. Richard Crasta’s amplification and modernization of Abraham Lincoln’s chief message aptly captures the essence of his new book, Impressing the Whites. Gives us something to think about. Not attempting to preach… suggests viable solutions. Controversial, eloquent . . . boldly goes where no man has gone before.” — Asian Age (Book Pick of the Week)
“This book is not intended to change the world, but rather to reflect it in such a way that the reader laughs, squirms, recognizes his/her own hypocrisy and the blatant absurdity of most unquestioned social conventions. In this, Crasta succeeds in ways not unlike Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat character or Chris Rock race routines succeed, i.e., brilliantly. As social criticism the book is potent enough, but the sheer zany exuberance of it all make it far more than that — a delicious and mischievous pleasure. Highly recommended.” — Frank Feldman, Amazon 5-star review
“A thoughtful and very interesting book. A must for everyone who wants to have a better understanding of “The Other” in this case Indians. This is a book for those looking for an authentic Indian voice, unlike the usual brown sahibs paraded by the Western publishing Industry.” — Mallika Patlola, Amazon 5-star review.
“I think that your books are important works for their frankness and insight; and most eloquently told. I never hesitate to recommend your works to other readers. I look forward to reading anything that you write. I think that one of the best books about race that I’ve ever read was yours. It should be mandatory reading in every school.” — Russ Rowley
Praise for Beauty Queens, Children And The Death Of Sex
“His subjects inspire the sparkling best in him and his fine prose is as sparkling as ever with wit, racy yet refined.” — Indian Express
“Pungent, witty and incisive… leaves the reader surprised, provoked and sometimes outraged. Guaranteed to make a good read.” — Press Trust of India
“Refreshing candour, enjoyable, a landmark of its genre.” — Mangalore Today
“After his best-selling The Revised Kama Sutra, Richard Crasta is back with another enjoyable book. Flippant and full of satire … full of subtle humor, the book takes a lighter look at contemporary India… telling it like it is — no holds barred. Not your average humour but a classy, welcome change. Get it.” — [_Femina _]
Praise for What We All Need
“Hilarious yet satirical account of the author’s approach to sex.”—Savvy Magazine
Praise for The Killing of an Author
"An integrity that is rare. This book must be read." --Kuldip Nayar, Eminent Indian Author & Veteran Editor-Columnist
“Bare-all, spare-none . . . Bohemian . . . every page is engaging.”—The Week
“Dares to be different . . . a sense of humor from the start to the end.”—The Deccan Chronicle
Eaten by the Japanese: The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War
“A classic in military history, telling the story of men trapped in a world of torture, starvation, and death”—Roger Mansell, Tameme Magazine
“You see the horror of war, without a trace of artifice, through the eyes of one who was there, the writing a simple act of catharsis. A war memoir that ranks with the best.”—Professor Mark Ledbetter, Nisei University, Amazon 5-star review
“Striking and raw, an antidote to myth. Something to be treasured. This is the kind of record that this generation is losing fast, and we need to hold on to this. It made me think of what had happened to my own father’s memoirs, which were lost.”—Professor Barry Fruchter, Nassau Community College, New York
“A tale of unmitigated horror. A handsome tribute to a man of courage and rectitude.” –Khushwant Singh
“The theater of the absurd . . . war as seen from the smoking trenches. Written without rancour or hatred, of archival value to historians. Bloodcurdling references to acts of cannibalism. Crasta’s memoir should find a cherished place in all major libraries.” --Dr. Arunachalam Kumar, Author, in Morning News.
“More than any book in recent memory, Eaten by the Japanese drives home the lasting effects of enforced captivity – not only on the bodies but also on the minds of the prisoners. It is almost totally devoid of xenophobia directed either at the Japanese enslavers or at the British imperial military masters. Instead, it is a book about kindness, solidarity, and collective survival, about the bonds that matter: those between one single human being and another. What emerges in Crasta’s survivor’s tale is not a mere story of self but an epic of collective agony. This is the story, then, of a nation’s agony as well as a man’s, a man’s survival as well as that of a nation’s, in both cases to await the next chapter in a complex narrative.”—Professor Barry Fruchter.
(If you enjoyed this book, you may be interested in a few of these other books. Please also sign up for my mailing list at: )
• The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel (Viking Penguin and 12 other publishers: Also on all e-book platforms. The author’s most widely acclaimed book.)
• Eaten by the Japanese: The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War by John Baptist Crasta; Richard Crasta, contributor, editor, co-author (An untold story of World War II, combined with a touching father-son story.)
• Impressing the Whites (Invisible Man Press & Raffles Editions, Singapore and e-book: subversive book about race and literature)
• The Killing of an Author (Invisible Man Press & e-book—a literary autobiography and thriller: the story of a writer’s misadventures in writing and publishing, narrated with passion, humor, and humanity)
• What We All Need (fiction and nonfiction, sexy, subversive, funny, literary)
• Fathers and Sons, Love and War (a 3-book bundle including the new “Letters to My Sons.”)
• Father, Rebel, and Dreamer (Honest, sensitive, funny: fiction and nonfiction)
• Beauty Queens, Children and the Death of Sex
• Killing Me Softly
• Apocalypse Then and Now: An Alternative View of 9/11
• The Man-eaters of Malgoonda and The Last Days of Louella Lobo Prabhu
• No Sex, Please: You are Indians!
Most of these books are available on multiple e-book platforms; more information at .
This Father's Day Anthology is about modern fatherhood, of fathers separated from the children they love ... trying to express their love, pain, sorrow, and sometimes, their helplessness. Vulnerable, yet powerful: an alternative anthology for Father's Day, speaking to the truth and the lives of millions of modern fathers with sensitivity, brutal honesty, and sometimes with humor (as in the quote from Ray Charles, or in the character of Osama bin Haagen Daaz). One of its essays compares authorhood to fatherhood, and an author’s books to surrogate children, and those who would “steal” and “execute” these books as heartless persons. With stories, essays, satire, and a father’s letters to his sons and about his sons, "The Other Side of Fatherhood" describes the kind of fatherhood you do not read about in Hallmark Cards or Hallmark Card type books. By the author of the widely published novel "The Revised Kama Sutra" and twelve other books—an author who admits that but for his stupendous mistakes, he might never have been a writer.