ISSUE SIX
February 1999

Rosa Shand


THE CORTLAND REVIEW

INTERVIEWS
 
Henry Taylor

POETRY
 
Mark Bibbins
  Sharon Cumberland
  Philip Dacey
  Daniela Gioseffi
  Brent Goodman
  Mark Halperin
  Ben Howard
  Stellasue Lee
  Linda Lerner
  John McKernan
  DeWayne Rail
  David Rigsbee
  Peter Robinson
  Terry Savoie
  Joseph Stanton
  Mary Winters

REVIEWS
 
David Grayson

TRANSLATIONS
 
Lloyd Schwartz

FICTION
  Rosa Shand

  Daniela Gioseffi

Rosa Shand (Photo by Mark Olencki) Rosa Shand has published over 25 stories in such journals as Chelsea, VQR, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Massachusetts Review as well as in a book: New Southern Harmonies: Four Emerging Fiction Writers.  One story won the Katherine Anne Porter prize and 3 others have been broadcast on NPR's Sound of Writing.   She teaches at Converse college.

Word Ghosts    Click to hear in realaudio

           For the Uganda Asians, l900-1972

 

The Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop is an upstairs porch. Anna is at a corner table, half shaded by a jacaranda tree. The air is soft with breeze and sweet with roasting coffee. It's busy sounding. Voices rise and fall in spurts — Gujarati and English and Swahili and Arabic and German and Luo. You can hear Acholi from the soldiers and Luganda humming's mixing in it all.

Anna has her back to voices at the tables. She's looking over the porch rail. She daydreams out through vines, so the table hum goes faint, far away, as if she's part of someplace else.

She looks out on Visram Avenue, under the shade of cassia trees, and down the street to Savji's Toys. Mahdvani's clerk, opposite the bookshop, stands on the sidewalk grinning. He holds a pen, but his busyness is calling to a woman with a basket on her head. Just under the porch, she can see a footless leg. It's the leper-beggar's leg. The skin is scaly white on top of black. A soldier rattles the leper's tin — the pavement is spotted with combat troops. They wear thick boots and they poke rifle butts at beggars. They're camouflaged for jungle war.

On the grass in the middle of the avenue, a white boy and a white girl catch her eye. The boy's hair's in a pony tail. He's young —  he must be on vacation from a school or college, maybe from England. He's standing holding his bicycle up between his legs. The girl is barefoot. Both of them are dressed in cut-off jeans and the jeans are torn and streaked. You see a lot of ragged clothes in Uganda but you're not used to ragged clothes on whites and the Africans are staring, like Anna is staring. The girl's hair is long and straight and loose bits hang in her face. She's maybe college age but she's not wearing lipstick.

The girl laughs and reaches up. She slips her hand under the boy's blue shirt, up near the collar. Anna catches her breath. The girl's hand is moving, rubbing the boy's neck. She feels it like they're standing next to her but they are in the middle of the avenue.

The waiter comes to stand by Anna's table but she doesn't look at him. She nods without turning because she's watching the girl stroke that boy's neck, in the middle of Visram Avenue. The waiter sets her coffee and her samosas in front of her.

Anna thinks the girl is wonderful, happy, and more beautiful than any girl she's seen.

She grabs a Kleenex from her basket. The movement is abrupt. She keeps her face away from the tables and roughly scrapes the lipstick off her own face. She will not wear lipstick — the girl's face looks like faces ought to look. She fumbles through her hair and pulls her hairclips out and lets her hair fall where it likes. The girl's hair is like hair ought to be. She slips her feet out of her sandals. She's always liked bare feet. At last she's understood: she's pinched herself in pointed shoes and pins and clips and paint because she never thought about it — and all at once she has no idea why she never thought about it. Of course the girl is happy. Of course. She, Anna, lives in the African sunshine and she has kept herself laced up and frowned and rushed around with lists and she has no idea why.

She breathes more quickly with her lightness, unexpected lightness. She twists around to search the tables on the porch. Her Indian's not here. There isn't anyone. She would not expect him yet, but there's no one here to take the smile she feels. She fishes in her basket for her pad — if he's not here she'll write to Giles.

Once Giles taught English in Uganda, in the school she teaches in. Now he's in England. They played Vivaldi and over vodka they stumbled on the sl words — slimy, slovenly, slavish. She still had a husband then, but he gave up on them, left them alone — they laughed at pedantries, inane ones. But it was innocent their games. She'd grown up in the fifties in the South and she didn't know she could knead Giles' neck, under his shirt, and laugh. She didn't know she could take the hairclips out of her hair.

She writes Giles that his desertion has turned her into a wastrel. He abandoned her to cafe life which has led her into temptation, which she seized at once and so can't see because her hair's now hanging in her eyes because she won't wear hairclips ever again — or shoes or lipstick — because thanks to the view from their cafe she's caught up with the sixties' style — nevermind her age and nevermind it's 1971. And anyway he already knew she harbored some envy for her down-and-out hung-over twenties-era magnificent expatriate woman Jean Rhys, in her Paris bistro life. But mostly, she tells Giles, mostly the state of her makeshift stab at living is a straight revenge for his desertion. The Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop seethes, she writes, with Left-Bank undercurrents since he's left, or maybe with the undertow of thirties' Berlin cabaret, what with prowling Acholi soldiers.

She's leaning down writing, as best she can manage through hair. But she identifies, at once, the blur of movement on the porch. She can feel her Indian's walk. She can feel the twist of his jeans and she's aware he's conscious of her, and he's confused because his table's taken — two Sikh women have usurped his place. She follows him obliquely — him setting his satchel on an alien table and going still, at commotion on the steps. She can see the way he turns and watches — the tips of his fingers on the tablecloth: troopers lurch through the opening and a hush falls over the porch. A soldier points his rifle butt at cakes. He demands three cakes. The Goan woman packs the creamy puffs and cherry tarts and piles of raisin scones. The Muganda waiter rushes to hold boxes. The waiter's hair is almost white.

Anna hugs her arms across her chest. The sun is still warm, the light is still lemony, the birds are still red. But now she feels exposed. What is she doing in a coffeeshop, in Kampala, in the middle of East Africa? She looks around — on the veranda, on Visram Avenue — and she can't see anyone she knows. Something will happen. Her Indian's come out on the porch but she does not know him. She doesn't even know his name and maybe now, with the soldiers swarming, she will never know his name.

People at the tables start to click their saucers. They pretend the soldiers are not there. She watches her Indian slip into his chair, cross his arms and lay them on the tablecloth. (She calls him Saji in her daydreams. She heard somebody yell that once, and the sound is right.) His black arm hairs stand out against his sleeves. He's settling his profile — she sees he means her to have that particular view. He's right — it's an elegant profile, pencil-fine. It deserves his care with the angle.

She turns back to Giles. She writes him that the place went gray with soldiers but it's still cafe society, almost genuine, with Uganda politicians and Indian merchants and English women regulars, all high-strung on rumors. She's overhearing people on all sides of her — that Obote is mad to be in Singapore, that he's leaving this country to the army and, Last night - did you hear the lorries? On Kololo, or do you mean on Nakasero? On Makerere as well! And, What is Nyerere thinking? She tells Giles the air is livelier than ever — the town has the sound of rifle snaps and rumbling lorries and he is missing out because the troops will leave and the air will keep on smelling like spices and coffee and sweetpeas.

Saji, culturally, appears to be retarded. She knows he's a Makerere student, but he's acting like James Dean — as if Indians haven't figured that's a fifties look. It has no relation with the committed sixties way you need to set your features when a girl's not busily massaging your neck. Nevertheless, she sees wisdom in his style, his trailing smoke through purple lips.

His book looks French — it's the soft-paper look with fraying at the edges. She thinks, only Indians believe being a student means reading French. Last week he saw her read Siddharta so he's come up with one better. It makes her smile, but she keeps her head well down.

Anyway, she writes to Giles, "What can England have like this? Who are the people you're making laugh? If it's a woman, warn her you'll desert her." It isn't just the French. It's the profile, and the way he bends his hand around just so, with the angle of his wristbone jutting through his wristhair. The other hand is tapping at his ashes. She drops her head abruptly. She will not look.

She writes: "And don't be shocked I'm speaking out. Things are changing me — other things besides the sixties' style. You may not remember him but Satyajat Rao, the metaphysics man, has vanished. In the Mountains of the Moon. The Makerere philosophers went mountain climbing and he strayed off in fog. They never found him. Life goes out while your head is turned, while you're clutching what you vaguely meant to give. So. I now resolve that I will not live vague. I will capture life — in words, even, if it has to come to that. I am starting by writing to you. I'm speaking up, Giles: I never play Vivaldi now you're gone. I never think of sl words. I walk past your house and it's your white and orange bougainvillea but Sikhs with purple turbans creep about in it. They make ablutions, at dawn, with pinkish garments hanging off their waists. They rearrange walls — they are your walls — for strangers."

She can see, just barely, through her hair: the way his fingers taper, his wristbone, his dark hand sculptured on the creamy-white book cover. His arm that holds his book — the way he rubs his hairs along that arm, slowly, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. His fingers slip under his shirt sleeve, stroke his arm hairs. It may be unconscious. Or he may know precisely how it acts on her. She will not look at this man.

His eyes are on her now. She will not reciprocate. To Giles she scribbles anything that comes:

"You pairing off. Everybody pairs off, gets neutralized, drowns their sparks and the world bogs down to a waterlogged yawn and I'm left splattering ink — and forget this. What I have to do — it's stick you in the world right here in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. Where you ought to be.

"Nothing's changed if you ignore the boots and rifles. It's the same sweet roasting coffee that gets to you from half a mile away. I've held myself to two samosas and four cups of coffee. The same crumbs are on this tablecloth as when you sat here with me — and here's a jacaranda twig and for a second the breeze is ghostly whitening the leaves and the dirty ashtray is still here and the pink sweetpeas in the muddy vase. Our footless beggar's on the pavement — he's so close under the porch I see only his stump through leaves. He wails Mpola till a Sikh in a pinkish turban throws a copper. It bounces. The leper lurches at it. A wooden cart is creaking and is holding up the traffic and green-blue birds bound in the trees and breeze scatters leaves across the porch where I'm trying to tell you about it."

Saji's decided he'll play her ignoring game.

She goes heavy at her own stand-offishness — she will never know this man. And that, she decides, is no outcome at all.

He isn't reading. She can tell his book's a prop the way he folds it down and spins his cigarette. But he won't look at her now. He's pointedly refusing.

He makes a sudden movement, reaches in his satchel. Another book. No. One of the blank books like she's writing in. He fumbles for a pen. His dark hands for a moment hold his pen against his shirt. His hands are beautiful, and the way he bends his wrist is beautiful, and the way he opens his notebook, and stops, and reaches to rub his finger on his lip, pretending he's thinking — oh so pointedly not looking at her but stroking his purple sexily-shaped lips. Very gently.

"We used to say Kampala was an Indian city," she writes Giles. "We decided it was sweet with cloves — it was a wet-dark Indian city and it flared with silk-rich saris and canna-lily reds. But we forgot to say — we forgot to say how all at once the breeze swirls saris up and they glint gold through dark green silk until you can't tell greengold saris from the greengold light and we forgot to say that makes you dizzy, if you're in a wet-dark jungle city, and the people there have pencil-fine profiles and soft and darkish purple heart-shaped lips.

"Maybe you can picture where I am. But what you can't picture - I've started a movement. You can't suspect I'm not the only one scribbling in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. There's an Indian student. And he's quick — he's caught the style, or he's faked it good enough. He's put down his book — of course it's French — he's uncapped his pen, only he's tucked his notebook in his lap (he can't parade this alien style in front of Indian traders — they're after him to hawk their Yamahas). And anyway he's scribbling in one of those Patel Press books from Red China so it isn't a letter to you but here we are, scratching pens, clinking cups, scraping chairs. I hear I swear Amin CAN NEVER be a threat from the table back of me, Sple-e-endid! from the other side."

She feels his heavy-lidded eyes on her. He has relented. She will not let gray silt down on her again — he WILL not change his mind. She looks directly at him. The seconds are charged, before they start to smile. She knows they're smiling because they grasp they're nutty with their ludicrous self-consciousness. She knows they've staged their pen seduction grandly, in the style of the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. She can't stop her smiling even if her lips are closed so she bends her head down and writes her gibberish and knows her time has come.

"Did you ever wonder," she asks Giles, "about Indians — about why, say, their legs do not have calves? The Goan manager in her puff-sleeved dress — her legs are lampposts and why should that bother me so? I see her, I re-shape her legs, and I think maybe it's not genes, maybe it's the cooking with ghee — do you think? But then don't you wonder how Indians' features get to be so fine? Or how their eyes are so deep-quiet they draw you down you have no idea where?

"I think that student has caught on. I think our Indian Rimbaud has accepted we are fated, the two of us, to write the great Uganda novel from the veranda of the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. He's looking my way — he's getting up. He could — possibly, possibly — be edging his way between the chairs and tables just to interrup . . ."

Anna doesn't catch her Saji's genuine name. When she asks him to repeat he says "It doesn't matter, does it?" And of course it doesn't. It's right, the way he understands details don't matter. Of course they don't. They have cream-soft books and tablecloths and the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. Of course they are above details likes names.

 

——

 

II.  Click to hear in realaudio

She is waked, in the middle of that night, by exploding shells. She's heard it before and ignores it, but not long, because Amin takes over the country.

She escapes Uganda. The letter she wrote in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop has nothing any longer to do with anything and is dumped in trunks unmailed. The Uganda Asians — that's what they call Indians, Goans, Pakistanis, Afghans, who might be Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Ismailis, Christians — all of them, after generations in East Africa, are expelled from the continent with three weeks notice. No country takes them in.

In New York City Anna comes on a letter. It's a year later. The letter is addressed to Giles. She is, she feels when she unfolds the sheets, unwinding a shroud. She hears Luganda hums. She sees green-silk saris and a loose-haired barefoot English girl in the middle of an avenue, and she sees Sikhs in purple turbans stooping in Giles' orange bougainvillea. She wants the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. She wants white tablecloths with crumbs, pink sweetpeas, samosas, green sunshine.

She finds a diner on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street but it's a sorry-eyed spot. The people are too much her — New York suspicious, Southern exiles or African exiles or both — to make cafe society. She sits in a formica booth and reads Times stories about Uganda Asians squatting on Malta, foodless, waterless, tentless, futureless.

She looks up, sees an Indian man who has his face part-turned away. She wills it to be Saji, stares, and holds her breath. He picks up her intensity and spins around, studies her a minute.

He has a bulby nose and metal New York eyes. He shifts his gaze, hesitant, then pushes out the door and vanishes in mountains of sacked garbage — garbage persons are on strike. Wet hair strikes her face.

Anna is sobered. She wonders if there ever was a Saji, or a Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop, or a cafe society.

But she can write to Giles. She can send a new letter, along with what she scrawled out once in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. Always she has paper.

She feels eyes on her from all corners of the diner and she grows self-conscious. She sees herself scribbling over coffee. She sees herself making up her Sajis. Sajis have dark thin hands and pencil-thin fine noses and black hair curling over white shirt sleeves. Sajis don't think names can matter. Sajis are safe in Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshops.

She stops writing, leans her chin on her fist, with her pen in her hand.

It must be she invented the place. It must be she read of coffeeshops somewhere. This morning she happened on a screed of words, and a coffee-smelling spot sprang up.

So. So her sweet places are word ghosts. Cafe societies are spectral-real — Indian Kampalas and Sajis and Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshops. The world you hold is ghosts scrawled over a page.

But they matter.  They matter.  And she herself can call them up!

She sits at the stained formica. She leans on her elbows sipping. The coffee is cold, but at the moment it's okay. The window panes sweat grease, but it's alright. She gazes toward the smudged-weak light where blurs of gray pass by, but it's not blurs she sees.

She has a Saji in a leaf-bright coffeeshop where he abandons his book, crosses his arms, and gazes at her. It takes them time. But they have time. And one day she will even know his name.

 

THE END

 

 

 

Rosa Shand: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review