‘What he saw in this other world was the dust on men, not men themselves. It was the color of the land, not a history the land told.’
August 7, 2015
Translated from the French by Namrata Poddar
TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: While I was a postdoc at UCLA, I had the opportunity to teach contemporary Francophone fiction from the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean region. Mauritius was the focus of my research, within a broader field of island literature. My critical essays were already lauding a ‘new generation’ of Indian Ocean writers (Nathacha Appanah, Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel, Carl de Souza, and Amal Sewtohul) who were reconfiguring the boundaries of a postcolonial and an Afro-Asian diasporic fiction with their distinct poetics of creolization. I was excited to teach this ‘new writing’ that had won many prestigious awards in the Francophone world, including Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. And yet, while compiling the syllabus for my students, I had to exclude many Francophone Indian Ocean works. Few of their translations were available when compared to their Caribbean counterparts (Patrick Chamoiseau, Maryse Condé, René Depestre, Edouard Glissant, Emile Ollivier, among others).
In September 2014, I read an article in The Los Angeles Review of Books titled, “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.” The writer Jabeen Akhtar laments a “tired, homogenous state” of South Asian diasporic fiction that is thematically obsessed with identity crisis and dislocation at the cost of artistic innovation. Although I disagree with Akhtar on many points, I agree with her plea for the circulation of more works-in-translation so that the rich diversity of South Asian regional and diasporic imagination may become available to a global readership. This translation is an effort to boost a dialogue between different voices on and from South Asia.
When I read Ananda Devi’s 2015 story collection, L’Ambassadeur triste, I was delighted to discover in her latest fiction a distinct, satirical sense of humor, a leaner syntax, a wider spatial scale, and a heightened heteroglossia that infuses her writing in French with English, Hindi, and Mauritian Creole. In my translation, I’ve tried my best to balance a certain brevity of English language over French with a shift in tone I hear in Devi’s story, when situated within the continuity of her œuvre.
Every translation is an act of negotiation in service of the story and its altered linguistic medium. In one scene within Devi’s original title story, the foreign ambassador in India visits a tailor to get new clothes made. The local tailor speaks to the diplomat in a broken English, thus foregrounding a credible linguistic switch that complements Devi’s italicized use of Hindi words elsewhere in the text. In my translation, I’ve avoided the use of italics for the tailor’s response as it felt redundant and disruptive toward a narrative flow that is already in English.
Beside the above disclaimer, I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse into Devi’s fiction as well as a Francophone African and South Asian diasporic imagination.
He would cry at night, uncontrollably. Of course: he was sad.
He would cry during the day as well, secretly though, locked away in toilets, or when his employees snoozed over the slow afternoon hours. His tear glands had turned over productive, and at times, he would cry watching a television show where participants had forgotten to be human.
He would dream of fjords and frozen lava. Of an ash-colored sky whose light slit the clouds like a scalpel sometimes and blinded the eyes at daybreak. The atmosphere was so white that it broke your heart. Yet he welcomed each day with a certain joy, aware of everything priceless in that avaricious sun, in those days so short that they needed to be lived with a warrior’s intensity. Each day, this way, was a gift and a struggle.
He would dream of the country he had left behind.
But what did he know of real struggles, him, the ambassador with eyes dazzled by the cold? What he saw in this other world was the dust on men, not men themselves. It was the color of the land, not a history the land told. A dust and a land that entered him through his nostrils and left him through his pores, working with each breath in, their subtle poisoning. He was convinced he would dissolve into the sulfuric, diesel fumes released by a noxious air into his pristine flesh.
Since the first day itself, he had cried. Every night, he would cry in the arms of his wife who was equally unsettled yet more pragmatic, consoling herself at the thought of having a staff to clean, cook, drive them around, even prune and maintain their lawn. She would whisper to him that being an ambassador at New Delhi was a phase in his career, a springboard toward New York, Berlin or London. Within two, or maximum three years, we’ll be at The Metropolitan Opera watching Nibelung’s Ring; we need to be patient, she would tell him. He promised he would be. After three months, it was she who packed her bags and left them for good, him and India.
Thus, for over ten years already, he had been crying and he had been dying, or vice versa. Each tear took away a few milliseconds of his life. At least he wouldn’t be condemned to live forever on this land of the wretched, he told himself. He saw himself forgotten by all, especially by his country of fjords and lava, his countrymen as beardless as the hairy ones here, his country where man reeked of neither sweat nor rancid oil, but flowered frost and ash.
This solitary man’s proud yet distraught demeanor piqued my curiosity when I saw him at a literary festival in India. Maybe I recognized in him that vertiginous feeling of discord, like a relentless buzzing in my ear, that was consuming me since my arrival here. The excess and the lack. The supernatural and the evil. The generosity and the depravity. Wherever you looked, opposites clashed. No middle ground.
On the festival’s first evening, the garden of an ancient palace now transformed into a luxury hotel was holding one of those extravagant parties Indians specialize in. Everything oozed money and power here; everything was overstated, overabundant, a flamboyant display where the writers seemed, let’s face it, rather lackluster, threading their way through high Indian society’s aggressive social butterflies. The lure of such abundance was short-lived, and the festival soon took a mildly unpleasant turn. On both sides of the walkway leading to the marquee, turbaned men stood stiff like British colonial army soldiers, holding heavy copper torches in their hands. “They’ll stay like that all evening?” I asked. No one answered. I pulled my jacket closer toward me. This country gave me the jitters with its customs and aberrations.
The dinner matched the event. Behind the rows of tandoors, nomadic women with hazy eyes and scarred faces, reddened by the proximity to flames, labored. Their gnarled hands tackled simultaneously the coal and Indian bread as they sprinkled the latter with melted butter and flipped them over plates in a synchronized dance. The meals were served with the finest art; the guests’ palates were pleasured by exquisitely subtle dishes, especially desserts flavored with honey, saffron, and pistachio bits.
Toward the end of the meal, someone pointed out to me a lean and strangely elusive figure that was sliding once again toward the buffet while others had already finished eating. “He’s the ambassador of —,” the person said. “He comes to every meeting, every festival, and each meal.” The man seemed both dignified and evasive to me. “Poor thing, I think he has nothing else to do,” the person added. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine what interest his Nordic country could have in sending an ambassador to India.
He wasn’t a writer, nor did he have a role to play in these corridors of power that surrounded us. He was there, tall, white-haired, pale. Sad. Beyond measure.
He no longer knew who had thought his country’s economic salvation was linked to commercial deals with the giants of the East. It would’ve made sense if his country had something to export, but its entire economy was based on a highly abstruse banking system whose shock waves, over the last few years, were punctuated as in a tragic opera, by those of his country’s volcanoes. He was sent here with much hoopla and election pledges toward an economic revival. Once here, though, he was up against a flat non-recognition masked by glib shows of friendship.
The clash between Indian bureaucracy’s tardiness and his country’s efficiency was inevitable. Verbose letters never truly responding to his proposals piled up in his office, acquiring mustiness and cobwebs with time. Increasingly coercive demands from his own ministry multiplied. Misunderstandings accrued, nipping projects in the bud. Despite his requests turning into pleas, they had refused to recall him or re-post him. This he knew to be the consequence of his failure.
No one seemed to notice the speed at which he was withering away. He had noticed it since his first week, though—a few grams lost already when he climbed on scale. He attributed this to travel stress, especially during his arrival when colleagues with imposing moustaches and ill-fitted suits had welcomed him while openly tongue-lashing their juniors. Courtesy incarnate, he had felt this humiliation of “inferiors” in his bones. As for inferiors, there were many in this country; everything here was a matter of hierarchy. One could take comfort in always having someone below oneself. Thus, every one of his considerate gestures towards them produced a palpable unease, winning him more enemies than friends due to the respect he extended to those who didn’t see themselves as deserving of it.
He was shaken to the core. Every one of his beliefs had been challenged. Was he a man at all if he was self-effacing in front of a woman? In honoring a servant by shaking his hand, was he, in fact, hurting his pride? He had no clue.
So, he would cry.
Can you understand this kind of sadness? The kind that’s ruthless because it’s empty of all meaning, the kind that gnaws increasingly at the core of your being? I mean, you’re an ambassador at one of the world’s biggest countries. You’re treated like a king. You no longer know what to do with your staff. You don’t have to lift a finger for the smallest task. Yet.
To whom can you confess you’re unhappy? To your wife, surely. But she gets it all too well and leaves before the place devours her raw, simply because she has the opportunity to do so.
To whom else?
To the ten million that surround you? Pick one, randomly. They’ll look at you, in your elegant suit, in your chauffeur-driven luxury car, in your house too big to be comfortable, and their gaze will tell you all: Only a rich fuck could have the balls to mope over his solitude.
So, he swallows it all.
And he loses weight. The man with an imposing presence who had landed at New Delhi becomes thin and lanky over the course of months and years; his neck resembles that of a street chicken, his wrist turns too thin for his aging, patchy hands. The custom-made suits from Savile Row he had brought along (as there’s a bit of a dandy in him) have gotten increasingly loose; one day, while getting ready in his huge dressing room, he’s devastated to see his trousers slide down his hips, gather by his feet, expose the prominent pelvic bones and a skin recently turned flabby and gray thanks to its absence of color. There aren’t enough holes in his belt anymore. Even his shoes have grown too big, which goes to show! Swallowing his shame, he goes to the best tailor he can find in the city to have new clothes made from head to toe. When he returns after a few months to order new suits, because he has lost weight again, the tailor notes his measurements with a tiny piece of pencil chewed away at its tip. He compares the dimensions with the previous ones noted in the same notebook, and pouts.
“Too, too thin,” the tailor says. “You reducing too much. Are you sick?” He asks, eyebrows furrowed.
The ambassador shakes his head. He taps his belly with a small smile.
“I’ve trouble tolerating the food here,” he says.
The tailor advises him to see an Ayurvedic doctor, reputed to work miracles. The ambassador listens with a distracted ear: he knows no medicine can cure sadness—not this sadness, at least, hard and cold like a tombstone.
On the festival’s first day, I see him several times in the walkways, alone always, towering over the crowd, paler than the occasional pale people around, pale as the winter he carries in his wake with its mist of boredom. The public rushes from the conference to the round tables to the readings like a mob starved of words, helping writers recover from former literary events where empty chairs served as their audience. Here, they are thousands of them. Here, they rush, they cram, they stay standing or block chairs as if bent on passing their day and night, if need be, to not miss a single snippet from literary mouths. The ambassador stands at the edge of the crowd. He listens to a fragment of a reading or a debate. Occasionally, he attempts a smile, but never when a writer cracks a joke. Maybe a sentence, a phrase, or a cadence secretly outlines a familiar image for him? Next, he goes to have lunch in the room reserved for writers, stands in a queue to get his badge scanned, checks out the various buffet options attentively as if the latter involved his day’s most important decision. He eats alone. He looks at no one. He eats and drinks like a well-behaved child, the paper napkin on his knees. He sprinkles water on his hands because he has eaten the chapati with his fingers. My heart breaks just looking at him, at his deep blue eyes blurred by a void.
Since he was on duty, he had been officially solicited only twice—beyond the visa questions by tourists that his secretary handled through the embassy’s website. (One day, a strange man visited the ambassador, looking for a job in his country. Convinced that the man would never be able to adapt to their climatic conditions, the ambassador steered him tactfully toward the American embassy, assuring him that he could find a job in Alaska. He never saw that man again.)
One noteworthy case he had to deal with involved a couple arrested with backpacks full of marijuana when they were returning from Kathmandu. In fact, they wouldn’t have been exposed if someone hadn’t stolen one of their backpacks as they were getting off a train at Delhi. They were intending to cross the border on foot. They had screamed and a cop had had the presence of mind to jump on the thief and knock him down. Other cops came running and beat the poor guy black and blue until the backpack burst open and the lining ejected transparent plastic packets, wrapped mysteriously. The cops collected the packets weighing several kilos, and discovered a particularly pure type of marijuana in them. The tourist couple tried to escape by abandoning the backpack, but the cops started chasing them, sniffing an underhand trick. The couple escaped a sound beating only due to their white skin.
Informed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the ambassador visited the couple in prison. Barely eighteen years old, they were already a wreck. Confined in their fetid, nauseating cell swarming with cockroaches, surrounded by inmates with looks transformed by the other end of hope and reason, the couple thought they’d rot over the years and die under the slow torture of abandonment. They got on their knees in a piss-puddle and implored him to repatriate them. “We’re guilty,” they said, “and we’ll accept the penalty our country’s law decides for us. But we beg you, let us serve the sentence in our own country!”
He surveyed their prison cell with disgust and felt no pity. They alone were to be blamed for voluntarily visiting this country and flouting its laws. A bit excited, however, by the idea of finally having a task to finish, he asked them to be patient and rushed slowly to settle the case.
As long as the case lasted, he woke up each morning with a certain joy. Finally, he had a goal. He had gained importance. He shaved and combed his hair attentively, recuperating the gestures of a dandy tucked away at the bottom of his sadness; he gauged that he looked better than usual, his skin was less wan, gaining color, the blue of his eyes more alive. While dressing up, he was surprised to see that he had to tuck in his belly to tie the belt. A belly missing for a while now! He buttoned his shirt with difficulty. His jacket felt a little snug around the shoulders.
He spent the day calling his government officials, discussing with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, consulting the most eminent lawyers. As climax, he had a surprise call from his country’s Prime Minister! He stood straight and gave clear, well-composed answers. His listener congratulated him on his efficiency and assigned him the task of implementing whatever it would take to repatriate the couple with minimal media scandal. When the ambassador whispered that Indian authorities might balk at the idea of repatriation, given an absence of contract between the two countries, the Prime Minister stunned him by responding: “I trust you completely, buddy. If there’s someone who can do this, it’s you!”
He was so charmed that one of his shirt buttons snapped.
Indian authorities, in fact, did not show the slightest resistance to the idea of repatriation. They knew how much the media loved stories of drug dealers imprisoned in unbearable conditions. They wished to get rid of their inconvenient burden as soon as possible. Clearly, the dim-witted blondies wouldn’t survive more than six months here. In all likelihood, they would be found hanged with their bed sheets or with their throats slit by their inmates. Local authorities would then get screwed for violating human rights. After all, India wasn’t China. The world’s biggest democracy had accountability to consider, even if it regretted dictatorial rule sometimes.
So the officers at the ministry of Foreign Affairs tried telling the ambassador that they were ready to negotiate his compatriots’ repatriation. The ambassador was surprised, then happy, then a little annoyed that the case was settled so quickly. His recent look had convinced him that he should feel useful to survive. And what more useful than saving two youngsters from life imprisonment, or worse, a hanging? So he started following the rules of a tactful slowness he had learned from Indians themselves. He claimed letters to be lost, he avoided taking calls from the Indian ministry, he told his own government that the authorities here were slacking off. He released press statements, leading people to believe alternatively in the case’s positive or negative outcome. Indian officers didn’t get it: they thought they’d settled the case long ago.
Days turned into weeks. The two youngsters were losing weight while the ambassador was gaining more. In the morning, he would whistle with unprecedented joy while dressing up in clothes he had carried at his arrival here. Never before did their cut seem so sleek, the fall of that silk jacket more elegant. He would match his breast pocket handkerchief to his tie; in ruminating over different shades of color that complemented well the rest of his outfit, he could barely control his emotions.
One day, the young girl was found bathed in her own blood. She had cut her wrist with an iron nail wrenched from her bedframe. He was called urgently to the hospital. Watching her fragile in a bed with grayish, crumpled sheets, fluttering between life and death like a crushed butterfly, he figured he could no longer continue the masquerade. He released messages held so far in limbo. By the weekend, the accused youngsters were sent back to their country where the press awaited them with their insatiable hunger for the morbid, and where, they considered their own TV and DVD-equipped tidy cell as a heavenly corner.
He returned home trying to retain the feeling of a task well done. He succeeded until the next evening. On the following day, he shrank again.
His second case involved a man struck by a heart attack while crossing the desert on camelback. He was a rich businessman seeking original experiences in the world’s most inhospitable places. He had organized this trip carefully in the company of regional nomads, hyper-planning it with Excel spreadsheets and the latest communication gadgets. He had such confidence in himself and in his efficiency that it never occurred to him he could die during this trip. In his opinion, one could die only due to a lack of organization. He died, nonetheless.
The nomads accompanying him saw him fall off the camel as he was commanding them to move faster. They thought it was a rich man’s joke, but when he refused to move, they panicked. As it is, they were a harassed tribe; due to their migratory lifestyle, their land had gradually shrunk to a token space, surrounded by the aggressive sedentariness of others. Their cattle was no longer as valuable, taken over by frozen products from New Zealand. Fake duplicates from China had displaced their handicraft industry. They were surviving thanks to the tourists fascinated by their exoticism, light eyes, skin worn out by wind and sun, and the hotels that called them to sing, dance, cook traditional meals, and exhibit themselves like circus bears. Their gaze held the horizon’s hue as travel was inscribed in their genes.
When the tourist saw the Golden City of Jaisalmer emerge at a distance (he was mistaken as it was an illusion), he got excited, made explicit gestures ordering the nomads to rush, even participate in a camel race with him, turned red like a lobster thrown in boiling water, and fell off the beast. He had stopped breathing even before his flabby body could hit the ground. The nomads shook him, poured water in his mouth and on his face, but eventually, they had to accept the fact that the tourist had died. They fled, aware that if they reported his death, the police would pester them endlessly. They told themselves that the sun, the sand, the wind, and the vultures would soon get rid of his cumbersome corpse while they would’ve long disappeared into nature.
The tourist’s wife, worried on not getting any news of him and unable to reach him on his cell phone, contacted the embassy. The ambassador wrenched himself from the lethargy consuming him since the drug smugglers’ departure, moved, exerted himself, and after some help from a detective, found the tourist.
He was offered a guide who knew the desert as well as the nomads. He had to pay the guide generously, but he had his government’s permission. The missing man was important enough to spare no expenditure. The ambassador left for the desert in a ramshackle jeep, terrified at the thought of getting lost there and never returning. But when he was sitting in the jeep and tying his seatbelt, he noticed a little belly bulge out of his abdomen. It was the belly of satisfaction.
This second case took place just a few days before the festival where I met him. He’d grown thin and pale again. I noticed that he was helping himself to copious portions of food available to us, yet he seemed to be eating half-heartedly, without truly enjoying the taste.
On the festival’s second-to-last day, I sat at his table for lunch. With an extreme politeness, he interrupted his meal and stood up to welcome me. I smiled at him as pleasantly as possible and introduced myself. He seemed distracted to me, and consumed by a secret angst. An awkward silence followed.
Then, maybe because he noticed a tacit empathy in my gaze, he gulped down a glass of the Indian wine served lavishly at our meals and continued the story I just told you. He stopped at the moment of his departure in the jeep.
“What happened next?” I asked him. “Were you able to find the body?
“The desert heat was so unbearable that I thought I’d die. I couldn’t stop drinking water, and soon after our departure, if you’ll ignore this disgusting detail at lunch, a brutal diarrhea seized me. My guide had to stop every ten minutes so I could empty my intestines. I was writhing in pain. He wanted us to return but I knew I had to finish this task. If I succeeded, I was convinced my government would recall me. If I failed, I’d die in the days to come. I was sure.”
He was staring into space and the blue of his eyes gradually turned white, as if reflecting the void he couldn’t stop observing. I noticed that his skin was sagging, a goatskin devoid of flesh.
“But after two days in that desert of staggering colors, where golden rocks fused into bleeding sands amid the brutal appearance and disappearance of howling winds, I understood a truth that had escaped me so far: this country couldn’t stand me…, no, it loathed me, harbored an unflinching hatred toward me as if I were a virus it needed to get rid of.”
After two days and two nights, they reached a crossroads, a meeting point for nomads. No one was around, but footprints of their passage had remained. What had remained in particular was a human carcass close by, once the sun, the wind, and the vultures had done their job: a cooked, ripped piece of meat, devoured by all that was ruthless in that place. And watching those inhumane fragments reduced to the nameless, the ambassador felt sure he was watching himself being offered to this country’s gluttony and carnage.
Through an uncanny transfer, he told me, through one of those hallucinations that seize you when you’re exposed headlong to the desert sun and are feverish, he felt increasingly convinced that he had found his own remains. He didn’t tell this to his guide. But that blue shirt shredded by claws there, that perforated hat, that cross hanging by a rock, all equally vain traces of life, struggle and refusal, he was certain: it was him.
After the policemen and the medical examiner took away a sample of what was needed, reassembled the corpse, and packed the remains in airtight containers to be sent back to his country after the inquiry, the ambassador returned to his place. He sat on his terrace and continued drinking whiskey amid the cantankerous furor of sepulchral birds. He saw neither his maid who would gather his sweaty clothes to wash them, nor the servant who would fill up his crystal glass each time it got empty.
Ghostly and withered, he let the time of his undoing and inutility pass him by henceforth, checking his weight each night. He calculated that he had exactly two hundred and eleven days to live before disappearing and rejoining his remains, dissolved in the sand.
No one called him back to his country. He resumed his life, trying to fill it up with useless things like literary festivals that occupied his time, but engaged neither his soul nor his belly.
“L’ambassadeur triste,” by Ananda Devi © Gallimard, 2015