The Obituary Man - Muthoni Garland
Wacha Dev designed and edited obituaries for The Kenya Gazette. On his desk lay printed proofs. He studied each dead face, testing himself as to whether he felt a connection. Only a full-page Hindu businessman from Thika raised a tingle. They shared the same surname - although in the garden of names, Dev was a common weed. After verifying that his dead faces were each contained in rightful place, Wacha Dev sprawled his initials at the bottom of the page. About to put down his pen, he spied a three-line notice that he hadn’t put there:
Tomorrow at seven, I will appear
At the Nairobi National Museum
To have some part of me cut off.
Unlike his dead, the notice wasn’t boxed in. It wasn’t labelled or embellished. It revealed no clue as to the identity of its author, but lodged like a red stain between a Funeral Announcement for a Sister-in-Christ, lay-elder, and choir member of the New Redeemers Church, and An Appreciation for twin girls - the beloved grand-daughters of a retired engineer once involved in the building of Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
Wacha Dev wondered how the notice had sneaked onto his pages. For a hot moment, he even wondered if he’d written it himself. He copied out the three lines on a yellow post-it slip, stuck it onto the back of his hand, and studied the wording for a while before reaching into the recesses of his desk. He extracted a nondescript brown bottle and shook his AZT tablets onto the notice. Pink. Brown. White. He’d been taking them for four months. Wondering what part of him each colour addressed, he swallowed the tablets, and put away the bottle before heading to the men’s toilet to wash them down with tap water.
The faint buzz of the television blaring in the large reception area upstairs filtered down, highlighting the absence of other sounds. Apart from a few editors and reporters filing in late stories, the building was mostly unlit and deserted. Metallic odours of ink and newsprint seeping along the wide corridors were swallowed by the tingle of pine antiseptic that the cleaners used to mop floors in the bathroom.
Wacha Dev stuck the post-it slip on the wall-to-wall mirror in the bathroom and attempted to see through the words. Without knowing why, they frightened him, as though it was him facing an amputation; as if the announcement was about his own dying. He broke into a sweat. His fingers shook. When he tightened them into a fist, they felt dry and rubbery. He splashed his face until the panic subsided, and then used a wad of toilet paper to dry himself. Too quickly it absorbed water, disintegrated. Specks of tissue caught on his stubble but the mirror verified he still had all his bits. Wacha Dev opened his mouth wide, wider, checked his throat – a deeper pink than usual, and shiny with saliva. He hacked an experimental cough. It developed into a full fledged coughing fit, rich with phlegm. He bent his head into the sink, spitting. Cupping water with his hands, he drank until his breathing slowed.
In the mirror, he looked as he always had - average height, slim, curly hair, and long-lashed eyes that his girlfriend, Tichi, often described as ‘bedroom’ particularly when he was tired. Like now. Maybe he’d go home and catch the late news at eleven. Maybe he’d face her, accuse her, nail her.
As though reading his mind, Tichi flashed him on his mobile phone. In a sing-song voice, she dragged out the last letter of her words.
“Are you coming-g? I’ve cooked for you a big ugali-i.” Tichi’s girlish giggle implied and something else.
To play along, he bared his teeth in a mock growl. Tiredness turned it into a yawn. He hadn’t slept properly since the diagnosis. “I’m coming. I’m coming.”
“What are you doing?”
“Waiting for the messenger to collect the proofs.”
“But even you can take them up.”
“Consider this. A guy is employed to fish leaves out of a swimming pool. It’s a hot, sweaty job. Seems to him the more he fishes, the more leaves shed. He gets a bright idea. He offers to cut down the trees. Boss says okay smart guy, go ahead. Guy cuts trees. Guy is out of a job.”
“Silly-ee. How can you lose your job by taking things upstairs?”
“One, they might expect me to do it all the time. Two, it might cost the messenger his job. Three, I’m not silly.”
“No, it’s just me you’re avoiding.” She paused as though waiting for him to deny it. Then she giggled to soften the awkwardness. “Wacha, it’s not going to work. I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
She released a long sigh. “Please” she said. “Life is not fair or easy for any of us.”
He’d once leaned towards proposing marriage to Tichi. That was before they’d gone for the HIV test (at her prompting); before he’d listened to her cry as she confessed to a fling, “Before,” she claimed, “I’d committed myself to you.”
Now it was his turn to stay uncommitted. Suppressing his panic meant not dealing with the issue of what to do about her. He resented her pressuring him. He wanted to hang up, cut her off, but she’d only call back, and call back. She’d be there at home waiting for him. He hoped she wouldn’t beg, wouldn’t go on about how much she loved him, loved him, loved him.
She didn’t. “The landlord just came by.”
“Shit. What did you tell him?”
“That you’d be home soon.”
“How many times do I have to warn you not to open the door at night?”
Maybe the landlord, the old bastard, infected her.
In the background Wacha Dev heard the soap opera playing on the 32 inch TV on which he’d blown an entire pay cheque, and then he heard nothing.
Mistakes happen. Obituaries might merge with classifieds and convert the back pages into haphazard islands of flotsam and jetsam. Words might lose their way, take a wrong turn, attach themselves where they don’t belong. A farmer from Muranga had once threatened ‘to sue the braday newspaper and its braday foreign shareholders and their braday mothers because his rate wife was not a braday eighteen-year-old-man from Kisumu who’d perished after A Braday Short Illness!’
Someone had screwed up - switched the photographs of two death announcements. Strangely, even though the newspaper wrote to offer a make-good, the eighteen-year-old’s family never showed up. In any case, that Someone had been fired and Wacha Dev hired. Because he was half-Indian and his boss believed Indians fed on detail.
With a red marker, Wacha Dev circled the three-line notice and stuck a question mark beside it. Since he’d found out his status, he didn’t trust himself. But he’d not authored these three lines. And there were no jokers left in the department, not since the company embraced the global slogan, ‘Profits Above All’ and let loose its twin-headed ogre - Redundancies and Retrenchments.
Perhaps the notice was a trap. His positive status might have leaked. Perhaps this was nothing but a corporate search for any other reason - An Other excuse - to redund and retrench him. Wacha Dev double-checked every damn line, comma and full stop. The dead looked blankly back at him.
The test theory lost its sting when Wacha Dev considered who might have set it. He doubted that his immediate boss, Mr. Ernest Simiyu, had the imagination.
But if the notice wasn’t a test, what was its relationship to the dead?
Perhaps the museum, in a desperate effort to seek attention, intended to offer an extreme biology class - a dead body cut up for public consumption. Not that Wacha Dev could blame them, what with the typical Nairobi dweller’s perception of the museum as a superfluous national mausoleum.
Perhaps the notice was one of those clever advertising teaser campaigns. Like the one in which a girl removed an item of clothing every day. By the Thursday, she’d united the Kenyan religious fraternity in condemnation and its male species in admiration. Papers sold out. On the Sunday she’d dangled a lacy petticoat from her fingernails. Below her shoulders her ‘perfect body’ was revealed to be the engine of a car. Wacha Dev couldn’t remember the make.
But if the advertisement was for the museum, the only stated object in the notice, this idea rubbed up against an old stone. The place was run by government. And when had government ever taken a creative risk?
Besides, this had the whiff of something more personal, more desperate. More like the manoeuvres going on beneath his skin. Wacha Dev underlined some part of me. His mind leapt to an obvious conclusion. After all, A Whole Penis was an endangered species. In its vicinity, somebody was always sharpening a knife.
Just before he’d gone to high school, his mother had taken him for circumcision. In their crowded Jamhuri estate, they’d been much talk, elbow-ribbing and finger-pointing about circumcision – who had done it, who was a coward, who was a boy/man/girl/strong African/weak Foreigner/wrong tribe. The uncle who lived with them then, assured him that circumcision would make him whole. But nobody provided details, and he’d been too embarrassed to ask. On the way to the clinic, Wacha Dev had been terrified that it would all be cut off.
The messenger entered the basement office to collect the proofs. A long service award, in the form of a silver pin, shone on his navy-blue uniform; a uniform that hung on him, echoing the dry looseness of his skin - as though he’d shed a bucket of weight all at once.
“Mu Hindi,” the messenger said in greeting.
“Wacha,” Wacha Dev corrected.
He didn’t like to be referred to as an Indian. Wacha, either intended to mean ‘leave it,’ or ‘you’ve got to be joking,’ was clearly what his Indian father had told his Kikuyu mother - a sales assistant in his carton manufacturing concern - when she confessed her pregnancy to him twenty-six years ago. He’d fired her, of course.
Wacha Dev had never met his father, but his mother had managed to extract enough from him over the years to educate Wacha.
“Kesho, Tomorrow,” the messenger said in goodbye. “Wait.” Wacha Dev indicated the three-line notice that he’d circled.
The messenger read it out loud, enunciating each word:
Tomorrow at seven, I will appear
At the Nairobi National Museum
To have some part of me cut off.
“What is this? Somebody advertising a haircut?” Wacha Dev faked a laugh.“Or a nail-trimming service?”
“You think of it as a joke?” The messenger shuddered, shaking his drooping jowls. “He was on television upstairs. With my own two eyes, I saw the place where his finger had been cut off. The finger floated in a glass container full of liquid. It sat on the desk in front of the interviewer.”
“Who was this person?”
“Maybe a djinni.”
Wacha Dev let that one go. “What reason did he give for cutting off his finger?”
Within the mountain of uniform, the messenger’s shoulder blades rose up like two narrow peaks. “Who can understand the ways of ma-djinni?”
He might have exaggerated, but in the time that Wacha Dev had known the old messenger, he’d told no lies. Still, the notice was clearly in the wrong place.
Tichi flashed him again.
“Anyway,” she said, as though continuing an ongoing conversation, “what’s so interesting there?”
“Not obituaries.” Wacha Dev laughed without really laughing. “Obituaries bore me to death.”
An irritation at the back of his throat felt like a tribe of safari ants crisscrossing his tonsils. He started to cough.
“Then pleeeease come home.”
She disappeared off the line just as suddenly. But something in her voice resonated. Fear. Though he couldn’t have said why, he was glad she was afraid.
The elevator doors pinged open.
The day was done but that didn’t stop Mr. Simiyu from giving the impression of being a busy man. He strode into the basement.
“I don’t know how you work in this mess.”
The basement accommodated back issues, ancient files, and the kind of broken office paraphernalia - printers and fax machines -that someone from IT or Technical would rescue one day because they were too valuable to throw away.
“It looked no different when I got here, boss.” Wacha Dev replied, wondering about the purpose of this late visit. “I haven’t made a mistake. Have I?”
“Well…” said Mr. Simiyu, frowning. “That’s not the point, young man.”
From behind his back, Mr. Simiyu produced a printed strip and stretched it in front of Wacha Dev. “Step Up. Be Counted” he said, as though Wacha Dev couldn’t read the bold print for himself.
Wacha Dev had worked in obituaries for two years. Mr. Simiyu had taught him the standard layouts and wordings himself, urging him to pay attention to title, photo, content. Wacha Dev had caught on in half an hour, but knew enough to keep asking questions. Wacha Dev became so adept on computer graphics that the other clerks started handing him their raw copy to input. He didn’t mind. It was easier to type and design than to deal with customers, especially the single girls that his colleagues referred to him. Girls who blinked back tears, in need of comfort, while he doggedly probed for details of their bereavement. Giggling and digging elbows at each other, his colleagues watched him, whispering loudly enough for him to hear.
“Will the Mu Hindi be lucky tonight?”
He knew they wanted him to date one of them so they could box him, label him, move on. But it seemed too intimate and binding to tell them about the girl he had at home. In any case, Wacha Dev was shuttled downstairs. Mr. Simiyu called it a promotion, and even matched it with a raise in salary. But he later admitted that Wacha Dev’s point-five looks and clever ways disturbed the girls upstairs and confused customers. half-caste
“New corporate slogan, young man,” said Mr. Simiyu. “Because competition is seriously eroding our revenues.”
“The alternative press is snatching more dead people?” Wacha Dev sniggered. “Grave Robbers!”
“Eh? Exactly. And each of us must do our part to reverse this situation. When I spoke with the directors today…”
Wacha Dev stopped listening. As part of a general sweep of his desk, he ran his eyes over the three-line notice before planting them back in the space between Mr. Simiyu’s sparse eyebrows. That, and a judicious nod every now and then, delivered the impression that he hung onto every kernel of clever corn planted by senior management into Mr. Simiyu’s porous topsoil.
A black stain ringed Mr. Simiyu’s hairline. He dyed his patted-down afro with Easy Black. Despite that, and the fact that his shiny two-slit suits flapped over his bottom when he walked, Wacha Dev liked Mr. Simiyu. His vanities seemed so modest. Mr. Simiyu was the kind of man he’d have liked for a father; the kind of father who’d treat Wacha Dev as a worthy young man on whom to press his wisdom. A father who’d never cut off his son, although, it could be construed that since Wacha Dev had never made any effort to contact him, he’d also cut off his father. ‘Cut off’ as an omission, a minus, a lacking. A circumcision, of sorts. All this cutting, he thought.
He wondered if the me (in some part of me) intended to represent more than the physical self, and if so, where me began and ended. Of course, the part of himself that Wacha Dev most wanted to cut-off coursed his whole body, invisible, and indivisible. But he also wanted to cut off Tichi, and her bloody, ‘life is not meant to be fair’ approach to this business of living with dying.
Mr. Simiyu stopped talking, looked at Wacha Dev.
Extracting his handkerchief, Wacha Dev blew his nose before guessing. “Step Up. Be Counted. Right?”
“Very good, young man.”
Wacha Dev indicated the notice and his question mark beside it. “That’s why I want to know what this is doing in my obituaries.”
“Where else do I insert it?” Mr. Simiyu blustered. “Better buried here than the back page.”
Perhaps this was the real reason for the late visit.
“Frankly, the idea of someone travelling all over Africa having bits of himself cut up for display in national museums is crazy.” Mr. Simiyu spoke as though arguing with himself. “I’d prefer not to run it, but there is no legal basis to deny publication… and the customer paid top rate and …”
‘Profits Above All,’ Wacha Dev finished the sentence in his head. He asked, “Who dealt with the customer?”
“He sent it in by courier, and provided only a general post box address and a mobile phone number. But mteja hapatikani kwa sasa - the subscriber cannot be reached, is all you get when you call this number.”
“You think the joker is for real?”
“Didn’t you see his nose sitting on the interviewer’s desk?” Mr. Simiyu gestured around his nose. “Didn’t you see the holes on his face?”
Wacha Dev lied. “I didn’t look further than the finger, Sir. I didn’t know what to believe.”
“A crew rushed to KBC TV to interview him. By the time they got there, he’d vanished. As we speak, reporters are combing the city. The story is holding up the front page. I’d better go up and see if anyone has news. In fact, I suggest you go home. You don’t look like yourself.”
Mr. Simiyu marched out with the same urgency with which he’d come.
So who or what did he look like, Wacha Dev wondered about himself. Did he appear to others like a man intending to be cut or a man already cut?
Images lie. Once, a lady in a jaunty little hat, dragging along two young boys, bulldozed her way into the newsroom.
“I am not dead,” she declared.
The photograph definitely looked like a younger, plumper, happier version of her. Yes, she was the wife of the man stated in the obituary, had these two children, and originally hailed from Meru. But no, she was no longer Catholic, didn’t sing in any choir, didn’t belong to a Mother’s Union and most of all, didn’t care even one fingernail for the husband who’d chased them out five years earlier.
“I’ve certainly not died of tuberculosis or short illness or suddenly,” she’d said. “Obituaries only spell out the truth when it’s cancer and other respectable diseases that filthy husbands don’t give their wives! But, I am not dead, so no way will I be buried on Saturday. Not unless someone intends to kill me in the next two days, in which case I am here to expose that plan!”
Of course, the paper published a correction, and at the woman’s insistence, accompanied it with a photograph of her in her jaunty hat grasping the hands of her boys in their neat school uniforms.
Wacha Dev remembered how he’d flicked his fingernail as he demonstrated the woman’s dramatics to Tichi. Remembered how the two boys smiled in the photograph, the corners of their lips turned down as though forced to display bottom teeth to a dentist.
Since he’d submitted the ‘final’ edit, Wacha Dev was only supposed to mark changes on the proofs, but he over-rode the password and called up the obituary pages on his computer screen. The three-line notice screamed its presence. To match its neighbours, he drew a border around it. To further blend it in, he changed the type from italic to standard, and the colour from red to black.
‘Step Up. Be Counted’ rang in his ear. Perhaps he wouldn’t tone it down. Perhaps he’d tone everything else up. While the editors upstairs waited for their breaking story, he’d reposition the obituaries as advertisements for the dead.
Title. Photo. Content.
He drew a red border around each entire obituary page, and in loopy italic script titled the top, Our Dearly Departed. On the funeral notice of the Sister-in-Christ he upped the emotional texture by changing the wording from, ‘Announcing The Death…’ to ‘Promoted to Greater Glory...’ On a similar one, he inserted, ‘Risen To Join The King...’
For the twins, ‘Sad to Announce…’ became, “Grieves Us to Mourn… prematurely snatched from the loving bosom of family…”
On another, he underlined, ‘and his wife, a teacher who’d once taught the Vice-President.’
The Hindu’s obituary was padded enough. It even specified that he’d passed away at the exclusive Princess Zahra Ward in Aga Khan Hospital.
When the Aga Khan’s daughter had visited Nairobi to commission the ward, Wacha Dev had tagged along with a Kenya Gazette crew. But she’d been surrounded by so many dark-suited company and security men that he’d only glimpsed a halo of dark hair and a silky pink trouser suit that probably cost a fortune but looked like pyjamas to him. More impressive were the hotel-like rooms of the new ward. Now he wondered if their carpeting, floral colours, dim-able lighting, and mounted television were actually intended to assuage the guilt of those left behind rather than comfort the dying. His forehead burned. His stomach made an oozy noise. It seemed to him that dying were a ratty business that could not be assuaged at all.
Sucking an antacid tablet, Wacha Dev left the building. He stuck the post-it slip with the three-line notice onto to the solid centre of his steering wheel. So somebody was cutting off bits of himself. Why, why, why? He waited for meaning to land. It buzzed like a mosquito searching for the most-tender spot of him to bite. He wanted to slap it against his brain, watch it bleed its reason for appearing in his life.
He loosened his tie, released the top buttons on his shirt. The ants seemed to be marching down his neck and along his spine. At a follow-up visit, the lady at the clinic had warned that his CD4 count had dipped since the news of his status, and since he was on ARV, then it was probably a mental thing going on.
“Watch out for opportunistic infections,” she’d warned.
A snivelling irritation might develop into pneumonia or tuberculosis or even a brain oedema. What started as an upset stomach might be the pre-cursor to kidney failure or liver crises or a bloody malfunction of his spleen. What appeared to be a man cutting up himself might turn out to be a sign – of what?
“Exactly when did… the mistake happen?” was the only question he’d asked Tichi after her confession.
“More than a year ago,” she’d said, as though that somehow mitigated the harm.
The post-it slip on the wheel seemed to vibrate, deepening Wacha Dev’s conviction that its message was intended for him. Tomorrow at seven I will wake up, he silently mocked it, in my flat on Church Road, beside Tichi who sentenced me.
He decided to pass by the Museum.
On approaching Museum Hill, Wacha Dev ran into a traffic jam. Cars, matatus, outside-broadcasting vans, cameramen, and people clogged the road and lined the driveway leading to the museum. Jacaranda trees along the perimeter fence offered viewing platforms for the enterprising. A number sat atop the decorative canopy over the museum gate. It creaked every now and then as though it would break. This didn’t seem to disturb the policemen manning the gate. Watchmen in neighbouring buildings charged people who wanted to warm their hands or faces in their charcoal fires. Vendors plugged their oranges, bananas, sodas, miraa and Tropical Sweets. A turbaned preacher screeched, “Repent! Repent! The time is hee-arrr!’ and begged people to heed this manifestation of the awaited sign. On an amplified stereo of a yellow souped-up car, Suzanne Owiyo boomed her famous ode to Kisumu City. On another, Marvin Gaye promised sexual healing.
Of the amputee, there was no sign.
As though participating in a curtain raiser to the main event, people laughed and gossiped. A few danced to the disparate tunes, jerking onto the road, and only jumping back to avoid the determined rungu of a neon-coated policeman.
As he slowly drove through the jam, Wacha Dev rolled down his window to better hear the speculation.
“Did anyone see the creature go inside?”
“What is he going to cut off this time?”
“Stop pushing me. If I’m run over by a car, will you pay my bill?”
“Si, in Philippines, men are nailed to crosses?”
“Tongue went in Egypt, I hear. A protest against the Nile Water Treaty...”
“Me, I have to see for myself with my own two eyes.”
“My sister said her friend said her Uncle said it was a White man spreading a curse throughout Africa.”
“New technologies, my dear. That thing called computer that carries messages in the air from one computer to another. Explain that.”
“I missed! I wish I had a TV.”
“But the skin didn’t look white though it’s hard to tell because my TV is not a colour one.”
“Nigerian juju for sure. Didn’t I warn against Nigerian witchcraft movies?”
“This thing is about money. A hungry man will sell anything - even his organs, even his children.”
“Politics, man. You know how it is. A disgruntled candidate, a crooked judge...”
The idea that this could be a money-making or attention-grabbing charade annoyed Wacha Dev. He wanted the amputations to happen for a reason, to make sense to him. He wanted the amputee to be a person like himself, unable to deal with the prospect of dying. A person who’d discovered something so vile in himself that he had to get it chopped off bit by excruciating bit.
Tichi flashed him.
“I’m in the car,” he said.
“So what’s that noise in the background?”
“Music to my ears,” he said, and hung-up.
He could have chosen to be Indian, he thought, lived within its safe, steel-wire cocoon. When he was six or seven, his mother’s car had broken down on a busy street as she drove him to school. After abusing two mechanics who mushroomed out of nowhere offering to fix it, she’d grabbed Wacha Dev’s hand and taken him in a matatu to the industrial area. He’d never been in a public minibus before. They’d had to alight and walk for a long time into the interior. His mother was hugely pregnant, and complained about the heat and the distance, but refused to answer his questions about where they headed. They reached a factory surrounded by high walls.
“We are here to see the boss, the big boss,” she’d demanded of the uniformed man guarding the towering gates.
The guard took his time emerging from a wooden cubicle. “Who are you?”
Gripping Wacha Dev by the back of his collar, she thrust him towards the guard. “I’m bringing him to his father.”
Wacha Dev wondered why his mother wasn’t afraid of this big, dark man. The guard studied Wacha Dev’s shiny, curly hair. He studied Wacha Dev’s mother, lingered over her belly. He clicked his tongue.
“Do you have an appointment?”
His mother shrieked, “Open the gate. Open the gate. If he won’t talk to me on telephone, he will address me face-to-face.”
“Madam, without an appointment, there is nothing I can do.” The guard re-entered his cubicle.
“Did I create him by myself?” she cried, “Can’t you see the Dev in him?”
Her crying upset Wacha Dev more than her anger. And he wasn’t sure about this Dev in him.
“You men are all the same!”
The guard ignored her.
“Why should I struggle so much by myself when his father can provide the life he deserves?” She turned to Wacha Dev, ruffled his hair. “It is your right!”
With a last feel of his hair, she pushed him towards the guard.
“Tell him his son is waiting outside,” she shouted, before waddling back in the direction they’d come from. “I have fix my car, go to work, pay for this, pay for that, buy this, buy that, while the father does what?”
When Wacha Dev called her, she shouted, “Don’t cry. Your father will open the gates for you.”
But the towering gates stayed shut.
When he got tired of crying, and hot and bored of drawing stick figures in the dust, the security guard allowed Wacha Dev into the cubicle. He fell asleep sitting on a hard chair. Late afternoon, the security guard asked him if he had money, and if he knew the way home. Wacha Dev shook his head and sniffled. Only then did the watchman call reception from the black phone.
“He calls himself Wacha Dev,” the guard said. “What am I supposed to do with him?”…“I’m going off duty,”… “He looks like an Indian to me, but what do I know?” The guard had to repeat the story several times to several people, and afterwards clicked his tongue and grumbled, “They talk as if they don’t insist I chase away anyone without an appointment!”
Eventually, a dark, elderly lady emerged from the pedestrian gate. She gave Wacha Dev a glass of milk and sugary biscuits with NICE written on them.
“Who is your father?” she asked, while he ate.
Not only was this old woman not the father he’d expected would open the gates, but she also didn’t seem to know who he was. Maybe they’d come to the wrong gates.
“My mother told me that my father is Dev,” he said, invoking the authority of his mother.
It seemed to settle something in her mind. “Mr. Dev said he’ll meet you on one condition.”
Wacha Dev pretended to be busy chewing, but inside fear ate at him again.
“Mr. Dev said he doesn’t want you to fall in the crack.”
Wacha Dev eyes scampered over the ground. “What crack?”
She answered in the same memorised way he did to a question from his teacher. “The crack between two cultures.”
Wacha Dev stared at her.
She shrugged, moved her lips about. Her eyes lit up. “Mr. Dev is a rich man. He can pay for a top school. Wouldn’t you like to go to a top school?”
When Wacha Dev still didn’t answer, she added, “He drives a Mercedes. And he can buy you as much milk and biscuits as you want.”
Now he was certain this condition would be another towering gate, one that required a long boring wait, one that involved his mother crying and walking away.
“I want to go home,” he said, trembling.
She told him not to cry, that she would take him home. She asked him to wait while she fetched her bag from inside. She returned much sooner than expected. Shaking her head, she exclaimed, several times, “Hawa ma-tycoon!A child is better off with its mother.”
And she ensured he had a seat on not one, but two matatus, paid his fare, and escorted him right to the door.
His mother hugged and fussed over Wacha Dev as though she’d never expected to see him again. Wacha Dev pushed her away. The lady handed over a padded brown envelope, and refused to stay for tea. Thereafter, she dropped off a padded brown envelope every month. His mother never mentioned his father again. Wacha Dev was certain he’d made the right choice.
The choice was consolidated in high school. An Indian friend invited him to the new five-star Sanatan Dharam Sabha temple for a Diwali celebration. He admired the intricate carvings of twenty-four deities and forty-six saints, the gilded over-pinks and over-blues in the marriage hall, the fireworks display and the long banquet tables of food in the social centre.
Unused to the quizzing, probing and kidding along, he inadvertently leaked to his friend’s mother that he was of the Devs of a carton factory in industrial area. The lady ogled her black-lined eyes at him before gathering other ladies in silk saris. They pressed food on him, asked and chattered with and about him, pinching his cheeks and touching his hair as though he were a puppy. They were so kind and concerned that it seemed easier to let them conclude that his own mother was a simple-simple, poor-poor, helpless, uneducated African woman than to fight against the tide of their prejudices.
“Shame-shame!” they said about his father, dipping and nodding their heads, and jiggling their bangles. “Bit dark skin, but you can see the Dev in the shape of his nose.”
“Shame-shame!” they said, looking down at him. “The poor thing knows nothing about Diwali, nothing about his gods, nothing about his family or sect or Punjabi customs, nothing.”
“Shame-shame, only!” they said, tweaking his dark Dev nose. “We should adopt him. No?”
And hot with shame, Wacha Dev extricated himself.
Africans asked fewer questions. In fact, his looking different opened their gates for him. And since he’d been circumcised, at home and in the estate, they allowed him space to be himself. So he’d consolidated his choice by studying African literature at Kenyatta University. He’d chosen what seemed the easier life and now he’d die for it.
Tichi had fallen asleep on the living room sofa, clutching her mobile phone. A white t-shirt rode high on her slim thighs.
“Malaya,” he said, under his breath, his head throbbing. The Slut
Lights blazed. On television, a judge on Vioja Mahakamani banged his gravel in a courtroom of people who continued to argue amongst themselves.
He’d been rather pleased that Tichi had dragged him to the clinic, not because he suspected her of infidelity - far from it, but because his mother had warned him to be careful, particularly of hoi-hoi Nairobi girls. A clean bill of health would have fitted in so well with his plan to introduce Tichi to his family as his future bride. Now Wacha Dev stared at her as he had at the clinic, after the test, as she’d babbled on about a ‘mistake.’
“Look at you,” he sneered. “Who would know, baby, who would know those great big eyes are nothing but a window to a virus factory?”
Her braids stood out in all angles as she sat up, rolled her shoulders.
“I should have placed an adwertisemint in Bombay Times, only,” he said, with an exaggerated Indian accent. “Wanted, wirgin to appear at Yomo Ken-yatta Airport to how hersilf Curt By Me!”
“Kwani you think they don’t have AIDS in India?” Tichi’s voice was snarled with sleep.
He paced up and down. Her eyes followed. Wary.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Wacha Dev raised his fists, brought them down on the coffee table. The glass on top of the wooden frame broke, fragmenting into irregular pieces.
“You’re bleeding.” Tichi scrambled up, stood behind him and wrapped her arms around him.
He shook her off. She fell.
His head felt like it would splinter and scatter sharp, rough, painful pieces of him all over the place. “Close your legs! Close your legs!”
He kicked…at nothing, kicked without breaching the gap between them.
She drew her legs together and pulled down her t-shirt.
“Go,” he said. “Get out.”
He staggered to the bedroom.
He woke up naked.
His swollen hands throbbed from multiple mini-cuts and abrasions. The buttons sewn into the mattress had pressed their pattern onto one side of his body. A waft of the cocoa butter Tichi rubbed on her skin rose from the bedding dumped on the floor. In the living room, he saw the broken table and scattered glass.
Tichi was curled up on the sofa in the shape of a question mark. She’d changed into day clothes as though to communicate that she’d only stayed the night because it was too late to leave.
“Shit, shit, shit.” As the roar of last night rang in Wacha Dev’s ears, it occurred to him that what he’d really like to cut off were the parts of himself making him sink into her.
Pouring antiseptic into a sink of water, he washed his hands. They probably had bits of glass embedded, but Wacha Dev was suddenly in too much of a hurry to bother with that. Wincing at the sting, he wrapped each hand with a dishcloth, leaving only the tips of his fingers to wiggle free. With these, he somehow managed to start his car, and drive.
To dissipate the smell of antiseptic, and his depressing thoughts, he rolled down his window by pressing the electronic button. It was still dark. Few cars were out on the streets, and the streetlights, though recently rehabilitated, were few and far between. He pulled up at the traffic lights at the Westlands roundabout. A hawker thrust The Kenya Gazette under his nose. The paper rustled as though it were alive.
Wacha Dev jerked the car forward. The hawker jogged alongside.
“Open job-o for me. I need to eat…”
“Get it out of my face unless you want to donate.”
“Mu Hindi,” the man said, twisting his mouth, “how much did your car cost?”
Wacha Dev jabbed the electric button with his bandaged hand. As the window wound up, the paper slid off the steering wheel onto his lap. But the hawker didn’t pull back. Instead, he let his hand obstruct the closing of the window.
The light turned green.
The hawker didn’t look particularly frightened. In fact, he stared at Wacha Dev as if ready to accept whatever happened, even if that ‘whatever’ involved pain. Maybe the guy was bluffing. Too easy to assume that a guy in humble circumstances suffered a shortage of brains as well. Wacha Dev pressed the button again. The window inched up another notch.
A flicker of something - hate or pain or surprise - temporarily cracked the man’s martyr-like expression. Like most hawkers, he was muscular in a ropy way. A short-fade haircut merged with the contoured lines of beard ringing his well-defined cheekbones, and an equally thin moustache underlined his wide nostrils.
Perhaps the danger in those three lines lay in interpretation. To have (in to have some part of me cut off), might imply the power lay in someone else’s hand - a Wacha Dev at the Nairobi Museum, who’d somehow coerced the amputee into having his parts chopped off.
A car hooted, roared past.
Wacha Dev jabbed the button again. The window squeaked against its human barrier. The man didn’t flinch. Instead, he frowned at Wacha Dev’s bandaged hands. Then, slowly and deliberately, he raised his other hand, and placed his fingers on the edge of the window. A thin gold band glinted on his third finger. He pushed down. The window squeaked. The man leaned into the window and grimacing with the effort, pushed harder. The window gave, and gave until it was all the way down.
Wacha Dev wondered at the depth of a man’s strength. Clearly no Wacha Dev, or God for that matter, at any museum had power over a person’s choice as to whether or not to have part of himself cut off.
“Open it for me.” Wacha Dev jabbed at the newspaper. “Open the obituaries.”
Despite, or because of their history, the hawker obeyed. He laid the pages across the steering wheel.
Our Dearly Departed, in red, seemed appropriate. The dead faces, oddly identical in expression, seemed resigned to their fate. But who were they? Were the twin girls budding Sheng rappers re-made to sound like choir angels? What had the lady who’d taught the vice-president taught her own children? Was the Sister-in-Christ really another Mother Teresa or a lonely spinster with a crush on her preacher? Were his homebound brothers and sisters less important to the man whose obituary was peppered with distant cousins living in the USA? Had the man whose cute childish photograph belied his age actually been a carjacker butchered in a shootout with the police? Was the businessman’s family secretly celebrating his demise so they could take over the shop? Did the Hindu man, incidentally or accidentally, have a secret son?
The hawker leaned into the window, folded and lifted the newspaper. He spoke in a surprisingly gentle voice. “Umeifiwa? Pole baba.” You’re bereaved? Sorry, brother-man.
Despite the chill of a crisp dawn, the crowd at the museum who’d waited at the gate all night, generated heat, sweat, and noise. The police had cordoned off the area. Raising his bandaged hands, Wacha Dev made his way through to the gate. The security guard eyed his bandages and his curly, shiny hair as though they were related to the strangeness of the occasion. He directed Wacha Dev to the great hall where a lady’s voice on microphone urged the crowd to respect the rules and refrain from taking photographs. But the people flashed cameras and jostled for position as though fighting for a share of a national treasure.
They circled a ringed dias, in which, Wacha Dev imagined, the amputee sat awaiting the clock to strike seven. This muscular circle of bodies repelled his advances. No matter how hard he stretched or pushed or jumped, Wacha Dev could not break through. As the woman on the microphone instructed, “Order, Order,” he wondered if the amputee was frightened at what was to come, or exhilarated at taking charge of his future.
But would people note anything, Wacha Dev pondered, apart from the fact that the amputee had himself butchered and displayed across this unforgiving continent? Was it enough that one or two people, like Wacha Dev, might wonder why? Unless, that is, the amputee intended his message for a particular person. Was it possible that he had offered the first gesture, a finger, maybe, to prove the serious nature of his intent, and when that had been ignored, matters got out of hand?
No formal presentation or commentary explained or built up to the main event. But, as the time approached, the people stilled, talking in fearful whispers as though anticipating a religious or other-worldly experience. To ease the tension, Wacha Dev edged his way around the fringes. That is when he noticed the jars displayed on a ledge running along the walls of the hall. Above each jar, a card written in red italic described the item, and the capital city in which it had been cut off - Kigali, Harare, Lagos, Cairo, Dafur, Freetown, Kinchasa. Nairobi was a blank. And in the jars filled with urine-yellow liquid, floated a finger, a nose, an ear, a tongue, a toe, a nipple and a chunk of meat that proffered to be a slice of buttock. Amazing how extraneous they seemed to the core of a man.
“What is the man doing now?” a breathy voice enquired.
Wacha Dev answered. “Directing attention to his core.”
Somebody clicked his tongue. “Does he think God gave him a mouth for decoration?”
Wacha Dev answered, “I bet the tongue was the first he had cut off.”
Eyes and cameras swivelled in Wacha Dev’s direction. Puzzled looks dwelt on his hair and bandaged hands, and darted over the contents of the jars immediately behind him before lingering again on his hair and hands. The wall of bodies silently parted open to admit him.
Wacha Dev stepped forward, flashlights dazzling him as he searched for the amputee.
“This must be the one who is going to do the cutting…”
“How come nobody is arresting him?”
Wacha Dev caught sight of the amputee - a man, or rather, a mutilated body of a man with a short, striped kikoi wrapped around his waist, seated in the centre of a dias, incisions and slashes marking his face and torso. Bar the missing bits, a black man of average height and weight. He pointed a stump of a finger at Wacha Dev. His eyes burned.
Wacha Dev spoke. “I’m the obituary man.”
“Why is this one talking about obituaries?”
“Are obituaries written while you’re still alive?”
“If the jama wants us to know him, si he writes a book.”
A lady touched Dev softly, and whispered, “Please don’t cry.”
“Haiiiiya!” said the voice over the microphone, “Even the other one is crying.”
“Ashindwe! The devil be defeated!”
“They know each other?”
“Is he going to cut or not? I’ve got to get to work.”
“Me, I never even have time to read the Gazette in the morning…”
“Don’t call me sister. My mother doesn’t know you.”
“Si you push even you…”
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