The Post 9/11 World Seen Through the Eyes of a Brown Writer

Vikram Kapur

My brother told me this story. He and his wife were flying back to India from the United States in the summer of 2003. While waiting for their connecting flight at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, they started conversing with a Sikh man who was also flying to India. The man was a cab driver in Los Angeles. He was wearing a turban, but said he had no hair under it. He said, thanks to his long hair and beard, twice he had been mistaken for a Muslim and beaten up. Finally, he had shaved and got his haircut.

‘There they beat me up for having hair,’ he said, stroking his insubstantial stubble. ‘Back home they will beat me up for not having hair.’

I was reading a collection of Chekhov’s short stories at the time. I could almost hear his ghost chuckling, as I listened to my brother. The tragicomedy, inherent in the Sikh man’s predicament which I later used in my short story ‘The Suspects’, would have surely tickled his funnybone.

The tragicomic mantra that runs through Chekhov seems most fitting to describe a world that appears to have checked into its own version of Ward Number Six. No matter where you look, you find the ghost of Gromov. He lurks in the paranoid airport official, the gun-toting policeman on the streets of major cities, the sniffer dog increasingly becoming an integral part of the backdrop…A terrorist strike or the threat of one, and Gromov surfaces inside each one of us. The nearest brown man becomes an instant suspect. That realization spurs the brown man’s own paranoia. He shaves his beard, cuts his hair, shuns ethnic wear, speaks only in English…He can lose all sense of who he is, and, instead, become obsessed with who he appears to be, the irony being the more he obsesses with who he appears to be the more paranoid he becomes, since nothing he ever does seems to be enough.

Of course, in classic Chekhovian fashion, none of that was supposed to happen. After all, the war in Afghanistan was won six years ago and the one in Iraq in 2004. At least that’s what the British and American governments told us. Yet four years after ‘winning’ the Iraq war they, who marched into the Middle East with the missionary zeal of healers, find themselves so utterly clueless there, a la Dr Ragin, they may very well have checked into the very asylum they were purporting to mend. If they ever depart from the impotency of Ragin, it is to don a mask that is ominously reminiscent of Nikita with his infallible belief in the primacy of the hefty blow.

With fear and a sense of chaos governing our lives, not surprisingly, we embrace a popular culture that departs from everyday reality. Fantasy rules at the bookstore, as well as the multiplex. We can’t get enough of songs about parties. We have even found a way to make reality unreal through the genre of reality shows…The keyword for our age is escape, with its attendant subtext that pleasure can only be achieved by departing from what is actually around us. It is as if, from time to time, we clamour to sink into the sensibility of another inmate of Ward Number Six, Moses the Jew, who battles his trauma by completely divorcing himself from reality and is now ridiculously happy living in a dream world.

I thought of Chekhov when I read Hanif Khureishi’s ‘Weddings and Beheadings’. The man, who cracked jokes on his own deathbed, would have been chagrined that he never got to write that tale. When I think of how Chekhov might rewrite it, I am inclined to believe that he would go even further than Khureishi. Rather than go at it from the point of view of the man filming the beheadings, he may very well write it from the perspective of someone being beheaded. After all, in ‘A Dreary Story’, the hero Nicholas Stepanovich is a pathetic old man who is about to die. Yet by the end of the story, Nicholas is happier dying than Katya is living. Yes, in Chekhov’s hands, I can hear the man being beheaded laughing, while the one doing the beheading sheds crocodile tears.

Chekhov’s view of death is flippant, even dismissive. Even where death can be tragic, such as Dymov’s in ‘The Grasshopper’, he adds a farcical dimension. No wonder he is easily evoked in our times. Our age is so hardened to untimely death that death itself has diminished to become a statistic. Of course, as Chekhov would hasten to add, such callousness only exists with relation to other people’s deaths. We are nowhere near as unconcerned about our own. If we were, we wouldn’t be half as paranoid.

In his article ‘A Short History of the Short Story’, William Boyd describes Chekhov as someone who saw life as ‘godless, random and absurd’ and all history as ‘the history of unintended consequences’. That vision, as Boyd goes on to state, is clearly visible in the structure of Chekhov’s stories. Chekhov abandoned the event-plot narrative with its presupposition of logic. The manipulated beginnings, middles and ends, achieved chronologically or through a more fragmentary technique, assume a causal progression. But if life is random and haphazard, then how can a structure based on logic mirror it? For that same reason, he shunned climaxes. There are no neat resolutions in life, then why should there be any in stories?

In our age, we probably feel even less in control of our lives than in Chekhov’s times. We continue to grapple with the intrinsic inexplicability of life. Despite the best efforts of scientists and priests, most of us are still unsure of where we come from or where we are headed at life’s end. And now we are suffused with the belief that what we have may snap any moment. We may have progressed from where we were right after 9/11, where some people in America were writing out wills and leaving notes for loved ones before boarding flights. But paranoia remains close to the surface and chaos is merely the next bomb blast away. We are obsessed by what someone else might do to us. At the same time, we are conscious of a paralyzing helplessness in our own ability to impact things.

Such unsettled times seem best captured in a Chekhovian mirror. Its central reflections—life’s randomness, inexplicability, absurdity…translate well into our times, while its abhorrence for dense plots and tidy endings sits perfectly in our illogical universe. Furthermore, the helplessness that many of his characters experience in doing anything about their own lives mirrors the helplessness many of us feel about our own ability to impact things.

The Russian scholar Vladimir Khatalev writes that a friend of his who moved to America found Chekhovian characters everywhere. Even an institution as insular as British theatre was compelled to import him. Of all writers in recent memory, Chekhov is the one who defies time and geography and, even more than a hundred years after his death, remains current all over the world.

What is it about Chekhov that makes him a man for all seasons? For me the answer lies in the fact that more than anyone Chekhov understood the connection between the past and the present. He expressed it best through the voice of Ivan in his short story ‘The Student’, where Ivan learns that the past and present are linked by ‘an unbroken chain of events, each flowing from the other’, that when ‘he touched one end, the other started shaking.’

After 9/11, that chain shakes ever more resonantly.

Notes

Here is a link to my short story ‘The Suspects’ which was mentioned the above essay—[http://www.hindu.com/mag/2006/11/12/stories/2006111200120400.htm]

Copyright Vikram Kapur 2008

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