by André Naffis-Sahely.
In his dotage, Henry Kissinger has come to resemble Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars; after five decades of insidious influence on US foreign policy, stretching from Nixon all the way to Obama, his face has scrunched into a ripple of wrinkles, but his eyes retain their wily lustre. When he enters a room, he does so briskly, and his sombre suits barely contain his contempt for those who repeat the accusations which have been gaining traction since the end of the Cold War: that during his tenure as secretary of state in the 1970s, Kissinger abetted, and sometimes incited, incidents of mass murder on three continents.
Over the years his dark aura, magnified by his raspy Teutonic timbre, has habitually turned the scores of journalists sent to interview him into deferential scribes cowering at the pharaoh’s feet. Fortunately, as was the case with Palpatine, his over-confidence may well turn out to be his weakness. Since 2001, prosecutors in several countries have indicted him for his involvement in some of the bloodiest chapters of Indonesian, Vietnamese and Chilean history, to name only a few, and his travel schedule regularly inspires activists to protest at his public appearances.
For the moment, however, Kissinger remains a highly coveted pundit – passing judgement on the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern crises in some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers – and dinners are still held in his honour. Anger, it seems, only makes Kissinger stronger, and he is as unassailable now as when he haunted the White House with Tricky Dick.
Enter James D’Costa, the protagonist of Kazi Anis Ahmed’s Good Night, Mr Kissinger, the debut collection of stories from one of Bangladeshi fiction’s rising stars. James, we are told, is a man with an “unlikely name” from an “unlikely country”, an exiled Bangladeshi waiter working in one of New York’s fine-dining establishments, The Solstice. One evening, James’s life becomes even more unlikely when he is asked to tend to one of the restaurant’s most distinguished patrons, Henry Kissinger.
“When I brought the cheque to Kissinger, he asked me, ‘So how is your unlikely country doing these days?’
‘Quite well, sir,’ I replied, trying to stay neutral.
‘It can’t be doing that well if you are here, can it? How long have you been in America?’
‘Just two years, sir.’
‘I hope your country isn’t still a basket-case for the sake of those who are stuck there,’ said Mr Kissinger, as he wrote in a fat sum for the tip.”
James’s unlikely exchange with Kissinger soon becomes a fixture: “Kissinger came to The Solstice at least once a month; usually for dinner, and never failed to engage me in what he must have considered friendly banter.”
What Ahmed’s fictional Kissinger doesn’t take into account is that his waiter is better informed than he thinks: “Like all educated Bangladeshis, I held Kissinger culpable to some degree for the genocide that occurred in my country in 1971. I knew that he did not order it, but I also knew that he did nothing to discourage his Pakistani clients, though he wielded enormous influence on them. These were issues I had gladly left behind. Yet, suddenly, now the issue was palpably before me, demanding to be fed and humoured.”
Let’s briefly rewind the clock to March 1971, when the Pakistani army, led by President Yahya Khan, a dissolute dictator, launched Operation Searchlight and invaded the province of East Pakistan. Long neglected by their Punjabi brethren in Islamabad, the Bengalis had recently awarded the nationalist Awami League a plurality of seats in the country’s first free elections in December 1970. Refusing to accept the outcome, or rather, unwilling to grant Bengalis their basic civil rights, President Khan dispatched the Pakistani army to suppress the growing civil unrest.
In the meanwhile, bogged down in Vietnam and seeking to open China to the West, partly in order to exacerbate the Sino-Soviet conflict, Nixon and Kissinger blithely gave Khan a free hand while he systematically slaughtered an estimated 300,000 Bengalis. As Kissinger later claimed, this had supposedly been necessary to keep using Pakistan, a longstanding ally of Beijing’s, as a diplomatic back channel. Yet as Christopher Hitchens noted in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, “it cannot possibly be argued … that the saving of Kissinger’s private correspondence with China was worth the deliberate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Bengali civilians. And – which is worse still – later and fuller disclosures now allow us to doubt that this was indeed the whole motive.”
Of course James, like Kissinger, knows all of this. His feelings are further complicated by the fact that, aged nine, he watched while his father, the “pastor of a small church on the outskirts of Dhaka”, was gunned down in front of his family during Operation Searchlight. Over the course of the following 10 pages, we are powerfully made to feel the indignation of such jocular indifference in the face of human misery, and look on as James begins to fantasise about stabbing Kissinger in the neck with a steak knife, then “toy[ing] with the idea of insults”, before he eventually realises that it would do nothing to expose Kissinger for the criminal he is.
“Of course, even the slightest of actions entertained in my fantasies would cost me my job, if not land me in jail. For all my pride, I found that that was deterrent enough. I didn’t understand why life’s restraints worked so well on people like me, but not on the likes of Kissinger. Why can some people literally get away with murder, becoming ministers or dining on Pemaquid oysters, while we can only stew in impotent rage?”
As the story draws to a close, James finds closure by volunteering to tutor Bangladeshi children, reconnecting with his roots and simultaneously avoiding the urge to obsess over Kissinger. Nevertheless:
“Kissinger’s provocations did not abate: ‘I see you have once again topped the list for corruption. What is it with your people? Don’t you really think it might do better as a province of India?’ The man’s capacity for offence was endless. But his comments could not touch me any more. Indeed, when he came to The Solstice soon after Bangladeshi Independence Day, I reminded him of the fact, knowing full well he might use it as an opening.
‘Not much to show for thirty-some years except billions in aid and debt.’
‘So it would seem from afar, Mr. Kissinger. But not up close.’ I contradicted, taking a chance. At any rate, the man’s predictability amused me.”
While the former secretary of state may be fairly predictable, the nine stories on display in Good Night, Mr Kissinger are anything but. Ahmed’s scope is ambitious: his stories are set between 1970 and the present day and his chief subject – although it may not always appear so, its presence emphasised by its near absence – is the city of Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, now home to approximately 14 million people. “Chameli”, the first story in the collection, is set in the autumn of 1970, when Dhaka was still a quiet provincial town of roughly one million people. Its plot is ostensibly simple: 12-year-old Galib likes football, dislikes homework, and has fallen head-over-heels for the girl who’s just moved into the blue house at the end of his street. Too shy to approach the object of his infatuation, Galib enlists “the purblind gardener” hired by the girl’s family. Thanks to said secret helper, Galib finds out that “the girl had no mother, that they were Punjabis, and that her name was Chameli.” After a few weeks of puppy love, Galib is called into the dining room by his father and forbidden from seeing the “Punjabi” girl across the street at “a time like this”.
A week later, and after a brief, last encounter with Chameli, Galib is awakened in the middle of the night, “like the rest of the city, by the sound of rolling tanks and booming mortars”. Yahya Khan’s soldiers have arrived. Galib’s family immediately flees to the countryside, returning to Dhaka nine months later once the war is over, only for Galib to discover that “the little blue house across the street was empty”.
Although Ahmed’s prose is elegantly astringent, his words pulse with an intensely lived experience. As was made clear by a recent interview, his fiction is at least partly inspired by his own family’s travails during the liberation war. His father, an officer in the Pakistani army, spent two years as a POW, while an uncle was murdered. This might explain why the first half of the collection is a semi-idyllic, sepia snapshot of Dhaka in the 1970s and 1980s, a time marked by dreamy childhoods, adolescent loves, and a complicated outer world that the characters will only fully understand when they enter adulthood.
However, throughout the first half, the stories charmingly begin as though the protagonists had just stirred from a fairy tale. “Losing Ayesha” is a case in point: in his teens, the narrator falls in love with Ayesha, who has just returned to Bangladesh with her family after a stint in England. Her “foreignness” is immediately obvious: “I saw Ayesha, in red track pants, on the road with a bicycle. Girls our age didn’t ride bikes often. … The first winter after we’d met, she dyed streaks of purple into her hair and nearly got herself expelled from school.” Despite his affection for Ayesha, the narrator chafes against the “dreary smallness of Dhaka” and finds refuge in literature and philosophy, in particular Nietzsche, and perhaps unsurprisingly turns out to be a little too moody for the tempestuous Ayesha, who is anyway set on completing her education in London, thus threatening to bring their affair to a hurried close.
Again, the plot may be straightforward, but Ahmed displays a great deal of mastery when it comes to timing and setting – crucial ingredients when writing about love, ambition and family politics – and yet still allows Dhaka’s chaotic growth, arguably one of the fastest the world has ever seen, to seep through. For example, halfway through “Losing Ayesha,” the narrator says: “Even as Dhaka expanded, many lives were getting smaller. The prospect of becoming trapped in one of those small lives filled me with terror. Surely, there had to be another world, another kind of life, one that would be full of amplitude, even elegance! A determination to find that world took root within me like an irritating pebble that can’t be dislodged from inside a shoe.”
This miniature of Dhaka’s metamorphosis introduces the reader to the gloomier landscape of the final six stories of Good Night, Mr Kissinger. In “The Happiest Day of My Life” – about a man who receives a stack of letters from an old friend who has just committed suicide – the narrator is “the General Manager of Marketing and Sales for Cailler, a newly-arrived multinational”. The lethargic little town is now a global destination for call centres and garment factories, often eliciting the kind of media attention that has done little to blunt the country’s image as a “basket-case”.
To further emphasise these transformations, Ahmed cleverly enlists the aid of Bengali expats who are reintroduced to a wholly different Dhaka on their return. In “The Year of Return”, Andalib, who has spent years living and working in Canada and the USA, is back on his home turf and bewildered by what he sees: “There was nothing here at first: a four-hundred-year-old mosque and paddy fields. Then my grandfather arrived after the Partition in his Jeep, with a double-barrel shotgun. The area was so pristine back then, you had to arrange your own protection. One by one came the others. The neighbourhood filled up with lovely one- or two-story houses with wide verandas, coconut trees, and Krishnachuras lining the boundaries. Today most of the old houses are gone. Now and then, one spots a relic, abandoned by the original settlers of Dhanmondi, wedged between the towering new apartment blocks with their shiny steel and glass façades and ridiculous names – Millennium Housing, Phoenix Towers, Greenview Apartments. What green view? All the beautiful trees have been cut.” More than 60 years of history condensed into 120 words. An impressive feat.
Although each story can be read independently, the collection is best savoured as a sequence. Ahmed’s style and approach are probably situated somewhere on the tragic end of the spectrum, but I’m not quite sure these stories are tragedies in the conventional sense. His characters exhibit a distaste for the saccharine and the melodramatic, and while perhaps not wildly cheerful, they’re quietly optimistic. Some reviewers have noted the influence of Coetzee and Naipaul, but Ahmed’s character sketches more closely remind me of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories and even Joyce’s Dubliners. To borrow from James Baldwin, it is precisely books such as Good Night, Mr Kissinger And Other Stories that help expose the lie of the West’s pretended humanism – embodied, predictably, by Henry Kissinger – and thanks to Ahmed’s patient weaving of what is quite a complex tapestry, readers will be able to reclaim the riveting humanity of Dhaka’s inhabitants from the headlines and the calamities.
This story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.
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