[Author’s Note: Originally published in Kwani?06. But that version has several grammatical errors and typos. None of which were of my doing. This is the correct version.]
The pages of Mein Kampf have aged into freckles of yellow-brown, soft purple blotches tint the words, the bones of its spine have disintegrated and now straps of cello-tape hold everything together. That I am going to read this sitting reclined in a hot steamy bathtub.
And in my bathtub there sits Tabitha.
She says, “You walked a few steps ahead of me, like we didn’t belong to each other. Like strangers. You walked sideways, trying to drift away. Always an arm’s length beyond reach, the edge of your shirt beyond the pinch of my fingers.”
Naked Tabitha, mordaciously mellow in the afterglow of Kulungula, the meat of her gazelle tenderness having been devoured by the lion of my libidinous hunger. The long copulation of last night, the poetry of musosi, her curved calf muscles and nipples delight, Kikuyu fleshed but Maasai engineered.
“You are afraid. You remain simply a pandre, a coward unable to embrace me in front of your kind of people.”
As she says that I read on. Hitler’s chapter on ‘Race and People’: There are certain truths which stand out so openly on the roadside of life…yet because of their obviousness, the general run of people disregard such truths. Even a superficial glance is sufficient to show…one may call it an iron law of nature – which compels the various species to keep within the definite limits of their own life forms when propagating…The titmouse cohabits only with the titmouse, the finch with the finch, the stork with the stork…Only the born weakling can look upon the principle as cruel.
I put down the book.
“You’re right. I don’t know what to do when that kind of thing happens. I freeze up. I completely sense a social suicide. I want to be like some terrorist, a socio-cultural terrorist. Radical and careless. I can’t do it Tabitha. Maybe someday. I don’t know,” I say.
“That girl we saw has more guts than you. What did you call it? The show-stopper?” she says.
“I want to blow up buildings. I want to make victims out of the spectators who would watch us hold hands.”
Tabitha upraises a leg, bubble-bath foam drips and trickles down knee and thigh; she then brings it down, back into water, and mildly stomps my groin.
“So you have ambitions of becoming a sauce-show and cult-choo terrorist, all for love, that’s a start, because all there is between us now is this thing I am stepping on, your balls and your Farah Aideed,” she says.
I would like to claim this dialogue in the bathtub is happening right now. But I daydream. I am the only one sitting in the bathtub.
It is true the Nazi bible is in my hands, a swastika emblazoned hardcover, August 1939 edition, an original Third Reich publication, the August date just a month shy of the start of World War II, just as it is true my cruel memory is my last remembrance of Tabitha. The bathtub reverie was once the real thing. The last real thing.
I remember how the screen went that white grainy way. The station just went off the air. I remain haunted by the radioactivity of that past: Did she see it coming? Did it burn? Did she for a nanosecond get to see her skin evaporate? Did it blind her eyes? Did she feel fear? Did she reflexively think of me as one of her loved ones?
I first met Tabitha in the bowels of Nairobi’s city centre where in midst of chaos-theorized choreography that is the walking dance across zebra crossings with my fellow banana boxkikoys and garissa lodge jeans and little red suits, the cars squeezing their brakes at the edge of the stripes, Nissans curving fast around discount cash and carry skirts, dodging past the dance and escaping into the mess of skyscraper sprawl, the pavements where I swim like a city fish through the currents of white collar tides that drift from fast food chips and bhajia outlets to bus-stopped ATM queues, the fist of roar sounds of premier-league infested pubs punching through my ear, the shortcut gulley that folds the space between Biashara Street and Tubman Road, street urchin spoor dotting this narrow passage, shit rots and the shit is black in colour, then into the dark cave of Dev Towers, up the lift whose doors open slowly and tease to close again on arrival and at last fully open and I step out, there lies a chess club called checkmates, and she was seated at the board, pawn pushing, rook peddling, her rastafarian head crowning her blue stitched, yellow embroidered, pink and purple stone-washed harlequin attire. She was instantly noticeable.
We studied the deeper intricacies of the game together under the tutelage of the country’s best players, ‘top dogs’ as they are called. We adventured into the kaleidoscopic world of complex chess openings, the Kasparov Gambit, the Boleslavsky variation of the Sicilian Defence. On opposite sides of the board the first tingle of lust-laced affection was felt, the thinking of next moves translated into mental autoeroticisms, I would castle and she would play a Greek-gift sacrifice on my h7 square but fingers would brush against each other. Feather touch foreplay.
We learnt to record our games on score-sheets. I would write ‘22.Rd5’ and she would make her move ‘22…Qxd5’. She would lose the thread of her game score and ask to borrow mine so she could update hers. I would write on it ‘Want to go for a movie at 8:30pm after your modelling audition?’ and she would pass it back with her reply. Other players saw the childishness of this to and fro but we paraded on shamelessly.
I kept them all. When I now hold in my hands, to read, that sheaf of our personal palaeography, it weighs heavy.
Here is the one where I played the Maroczy Bind on her. During the post-mortem after the game she stood up, asked me why such and such a move and not this, she look at my head as I hunched over the board, looked at my mop, and saw where the hair was going away. Going away fast. Something was happening to me and she wanted to know what. This is when the first cracks appeared between us as I kept quiet and played en passant around her queries. I let my mop grow wild and long so that in the careless frizz the sense of receding hairline was lost, something she found strangely cute.
We were trapped in the beautiful uselessness of our game. Chess was our homing device and addiction. My black knight was incomplete without her white bishop.
Then there is this last one with which our final journey began:
Nothing here, not a move, not a name, nothing. Just some doodles. I was waiting for her at my Westlands house, exploring the textures of the scoresheet with a pencil nib.
She came, I put the scoresheet into my pocket by habit and we proceeded to the matatu stop.
“So these are the warm streets of Westlands,” She said.
The morning sun shone through the cracks in the shadows cast by buildings, houses, trees and Tusker billboards.
“Add some more people and life to these footpaths and we’ll have Eastlands,” she said.
“Eastlands is like Bobby Fischer, a scoundrel, an uncouth madness, a place where if you have a lost position it will enjoy watching you squirm,” I said.
“Ha! You’ve never been there.”
“We’re going there.”
“And Westlands is?”
“Like Vishy Anand, someone who will let you take back your bad moves, smile at you, and instead of letting you resign will suggest idli sambar and a couple of White Caps.”
The tides of morning traffic were coming in. On the narrow roads between the footpaths cars came, stood at junction stops or at the back of traffic lines for awhile and then went into the arteries feeding Uhuru Highway and after that into the city bowels.
“It’s less of a problem than bringing me to your house,” She said.
“Hey, I am trying,” I said.
“Look I get paranoid when I see these mutherfuckers who look like me passing by in their Toyota’s and 4WD’s. It’s not because of you. It’s because of me.”
“It’s good you can feel sorry for yourself.”
“When I see them seeing me walking, it’s like telepathy, I hear them thinking: I’ve got no car because I can’t afford one.”
“No, because my father is probably some hard up middle-class accountant working for a company owned by one of theirs, and his son is just like that.”
The tides of traffic grew. The cars moved more slowly now. The drivers inside looked bored. We passed underneath a giant Safaricom billboard.
“What is it exactly? These sunglassed, clean shaven, cigarette smoking, mobile-phone-talking rich mutherfuckers at the steering wheel getting to you?” She said.
“I am saying, in Eastlands I think I can disappear,” I said.
“Or is it because your father and his son don’t have the balls to imagine the artistry of Kamlesh Pattni or some other similar tritonite?”
A matatu came along and we got into it. It took me away from the exposed footpaths.
And I preferred my matatus to be like this one – tinted. I didn’t want the tritonite motorists looking into them and seeing my conspicuous light skinned face.. They would not have recognized me, not unless they knew me, but they would have known it was me nevertheless. They would not have known my name, not have known where I stayed but they would have known me.
“When do you leave?”
The matatu turned into Kipande Road after going past the Aga Khan Nursery school.
The suburb was being left behind – the conservative homes stashed behind gates of steel and bouganville and old walls. Houses arranged neatly along the tributaries of Westlands’ narrow inner roads and together with the interspersed short buildings that were former homes now converted into profits and the big malls that stood guard further back at Westlands’ fringes.
“Day after tommorow,” she said.
“I have been a pathetic pawn haven’t I?” I said.
“You can try and cheer me up on my birthday. You can make one final attempt to rescue our legacy.”
“I will buy you the books you like.”
Now into Kipande Road proper where the dip toward the giant Globe Cinema Roundabout began. Good houses and neat buildings were exchanged for functioning shambles – roadside garages acting out vehicular pornography, their nuts and bolts scattered across the length of the road – ladies hostels with names like “Jupiter Girls Accomodation” and through their windows on the muck walls you could see the sparse interiors – and again across the length of the road, the houses and buildings and shops and the Hare Krishna Temple were all arranged in random terraces climbing up to shoulder the weight of Ngara behind them.
The sunlight cast over the length of the road chopped into pieces the shadows of billboards; we moved along alternating temperatures of warm sunlight and cool shadows of Barclays Bank and Bata Shoes.
“I am not going away forever,” she said.
And the matatu came into Globe Cinema Roundabout. In the circle were the bumper kissing cars with PC World, Keringet, DSTV sprayed onto their bodies, and others matatus who brought in the people who would work for these companies. Around the Globe was the city where Johnny Walker posed with a frozen strut on the skyscrapers. And in the middle was the gash of Nairobi River, the end process of billboard defecations – Nairobians pooing into their toilets entire diarrhoeas of Kenylon Baked Beans, spraying in their sugared susu of Coca-cola and Ketepa, cleaning up after themselves with carcinogens of Harpic, all this flushed down to the river.
The matatu finally brought Tabitha and I into the city.
We walked to catch our connecting matatu to Eastlands and we passed by Jamia Mosque from where the prayer music for that incandescent Friday would come and we checked time on the tall city clocks.
It would be 10:23am in New York and 5:23pm in Nairobi for Friday.
We glided through the pristine heart of Kimathi street where a profusion of immense LCD advert screens made the place look radiant and futuristic, Nairobi in the throes of technocracy and everything looked sleek and postcard picture perfect. Just like Times Square, New York.
At one of the LCD screens we saw a group of three Tritonite men staring at the Nivea billboard beside it. A semi-nude African model showed off her skin with a smile. Nivea. Three men looked at a dreamworld.
“The Nivea one is a home erectus billboard and this LCD one is a home sapien billboard. It seems to have a mind and life of its own,” she said.
The matatu cut through the now receding morning traffic on Jogoo Road. I was expecting rotting cabbages, roaming swines and the plagues of houseflies swirling around tin roofs but all I saw was the ad infinitum of houses and shops and churches and schools, all arranged in straight lines like the armies of Fischer before move one. This was no slum, it was simply Eastlands.
We arrived at the Jericho Social Hall and were greeted by the Checkmates patzers with “Welcome to the Soviet Union!”.
Tabitha and I were no match for the Top Dogs in the organised tournament. We lost game after game but enjoyed the silent kinetic of the atmosphere. The tournament hall was quiet. Just players hunched over their boards in monastic contemplation. But silence did not mean lack of communication. In moves loud arguments ensued. We chessers could hear the roar as a double bishop sacrifice ripped thorugh a King’s side defence. The soft “Aaah!” of spectating kibitzers at the culmination of a Philidor Legacy felt like a herd of elephants tearing across the 7th rank.
Early evening came on us and everyone sneaked into the Eastlands backdoors. Winding through the straight and right-angled gulleys, we gathered at the Paradisio Bar. Frothy vespers of after-tournament beers puffed up in our glasses. I found my vocabulary inoculated with new verbs, sheng proved so delicious. Tabitha blushed at my maiden attempts to melt the new-found turn of phrases into my general speech.
I took her aside. Our lips moistened when the Tusker showed half empty in the glass. The third bottles made her slide her palm over my navel and I saw the dim lights of Paradisio in her dilate pupils.
I discovered that at 20th Century Fox, when on weekday evenings the place is ghost empty, despite the aura of Hollywood on the silver screen, and I can peel off Tabitha’s clothes and leave her butt naked, I am engaged in the act of kulungula or musosi. I discovered the most aroused portion of mine at these times is called the ocutambula or simply Farah Aideed. And when I send it forth I am sending it into Gulf War. Farah Aideed goes to Gulf War, the national anthem is playing and I have a naked Tabitha in my arms. Or another variation of another day, another evening, another movie night – I peel off her lingerie, I am behind her, my Farah Aideed in the crack of her butt. Her face twists to lock lips. I cup her breasts. She flips around. Arms around my neck. Give into me.
Life like that can make you fall in love.
“I have been thinking, some of these words have profound meanings. Gulf War. This can mean an arena where one, a Farah Aideed, truly comes to be on his own. It can mean discovering a place you can call home.” I said.
“You sometimes make me feel I shouldn’t leave.” she said.
“But you are coming back.”
“It feels like I am never coming back.”
“Don’t say that. You are strong, we will still be together. I will buy you books.”
“I think I have lost all meaning for you.”
“Do you know you are my Gulf War? Not only in the physical sense. You are my radical playground. You have brought me home. Look at where we are now. I would never know this place. You are a war against what I was,” I said.
Our lazed embrace here was disturbed. The now saturnalian and half-drunk chess patzers wanted to take the party toward a more revolutionary level. They suggested a chess blitz fiesta at Karumaindo. I was all objection, you all can go ahead without us. I underestimated Tabitha. She would look totally crazy there but I wanted to make the most of my time with her before she left.
We were soon enough in Karumaindo. A whore joint unlike any other. A bathetic concoction of overcrowding and glaring white fluorescent tubelights that garishly exposed the fat-sausage thighs and 2nd trimester abdomens of the the mamaboga prostitutes.
We took out our chessboards and DGT clocks and blitzed away in the most exotic of all locations. It was remarkable for me – top flight chess being played in the seediest spot in the country in the darkest hour of the night. The mamabogas’ interest was perked and they gathered around our tables in thick formations. They never understood what all the wood pushing on the checkered board was about but they whistled at each long move and touched captured pieces.
The beers flowed. I went slightly beyond the realms of tipsiness and on reflex groped a nearby mamaboga. Tabitha flew into an instant rage. She heckled the mamaboga and her colleagues came to her defense. The vituperative Kikuyu salvos that followed brought Tabitha to tears. She made a start for the exit. I followed.
I found her outside. She had completely lost her composure and she told me to fuck off and fuck off and fuck off. A sizeable crowd of onlookers gathered around us. Somehow I managed to negotiate a taxi for her.
Turning back toward Karumaindo, I was stopped by a couple of armed policemen. This was not the usual identification and bribe thing. They took me in for questioning.
Early the next morning, I was released after they were satisfied I was not Ahmed Razzaq Abdul, Moiz Khalif Hussien, Razzaq Mousawi or Mushtaq Pervez.
I checked my phone and saw a number of messages and missed calls, all from Tabitha. The messages created their own story. I gathered after Tabitha got back home she had a row with her mother. The relationship between the two was dysfunctional. She could not take it that she was being labelled a failure – a late homecoming, a half stable job, no savings between the two of them. Tabitha then downed a half bottle of Kenya Cane. Her mother did the same thing. A house-hold of drunks bitching about and biting at each other. The rest of the messages were explicit abuses. Me that, me this. Me the pervert.
I verified the last missed call from her was only a few minutes ago. I called back.
In a tired voice she told me, “Did you enjoy launching your Farah Aideed into one of those mamabogas after I left you in peace?”
“Happy birthday,” I said.
“Oh yah! I feel great”
“I was arrested right after you left.”
“For cheating on me with a pregnant whore? Tell me it’s true.”
“No! They thought I was a terrorist or had links with terrorists. They said I looked suspicious. They took me in for questioning and asked me about Al-Qaeda plans. They even gave me a cup of coffee and biscuits. They wanted me to talk. They told me they had intelligence that something big was in the works and I knew all about it.”
“Ok whatever man. See you at Westgate at noon. You are taking me bookshopping. After what you have done to me I deserve it. Let’s see how you behave in front of your tritonites with me.”
At Westgate Mall, I committed the errors Tabitha mentioned in the bathtub, like deliberately hitting the escalator two steps earlier than her, quickening my pace then making a sudden right-angle turn that I knew her high heels could not follow with ease, heading to shake hands with an uncle, then moving zigzag through the hungry food court stomachs and conniving to get back to her only when I was sure we were away from select tritonite eye-shots.
For the finale of our sojourn there we were seated at Nandos. I don’t know if she had a problem with the way we sat, we were facing each other across the table, I don’t know if that was all right. We had our books with us their pages fresh with the smell of new purchase.
“Let me read to you this quote of Castaneda as I see it: ‘A Farah Aideed doesn’t complicate things. He aims at being simple. He applies all the concentration he has to decide whether or not to enter into Gulf War. For any Gulf War is a Gulf War for his life. A Farah Aideed must be willing and ready to make his last stand here and now’,” she said.
“I guess I have proved today I am not that kind of Farah Aideed,” I said.
“Now let me read for you this small, tiny excerpt from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. This is the part where the main character’s mother-in-law discovers her daughter-in-law has been sleeping with one of the locals, these dark-skinned South Indian folk, the more local they are the darker they are. Her primary concern is not the dent that has been made to her social status by this abominable act by the younger one but it is her question:How did you stand the smell of him?”
“What do you want out of our friendship? Am I only a fuckmate?”
“I tell you what, tell me some things at random that are floating through your head right now. Any three things floating through your head. Maybe I will understand you better that way. Any three things, whatever they are, whatever randomness they represent.”
“Well, I am thinking Africa is under-developed because Africans have no skills in choosing leadership. We as Africans are as intelligent as anyone else but through the centuries bad leadership has taken focus on political intrigues, you know the art of fitina and such things. Hundreds of years back Africans could have been inventing gunpowder instead of politicking and we would have been the colonizers rather than the colonized.”
She was drinking her milkshake through the straw and made some farting sounds doing so. I continued with my second random thought.
“The matatu is airy. Its doors are open. You can step out any time you like. It will let in anybody anytime. It will take you anywhere, as long as you take the right one. The personal car is confined. You can’t get out of it until you reach your destination. You can’t abandon it on the road half-way.”
She was very much into her milkshake.
“Westlands Road stretches from the area around the bustle of China Plate and Chowpaty and flows all the way to the forgotten fringes of the former International Casino. In the evenings this road is haunted by prostitutes and armed policemen booted in vunjas. When Tritonites pass this road, in their cars of course, husband and wife in the front seat, teenage kids in the back with an irascible, ugly looking mother-in-law, they pretend these other Kenyans of the evening do not exist. On such roads the life outside their cars is a science fiction, an Isaac Asimov. For kicks, one day stand anywhere along Westlands Road and count how many Tritonites walk by. Such numbers are the unknown secrets in Kenya.”
As I finished saying that she made some more farting sounds with her straw and milkshake.
“Imagine how it would look from the top of Uhuru Park if we could watch all that is below, the skyscrapers and stuff, getting blown off by a nuclear bomb. How would it feel for real to watch an atomic explosion rather than just in the movies or on TV? We could stand there and watch and say as it happens ‘I am become death, the destroyer of the worlds’.”
She took her salubrious lips off the straw and said to me, “What the fuck?”
For a few minutes in silence we finished up our eating. Then she looked directly at me.
“I think you chuti men are only after black pussy.”
“No, that’s not true.”
“What’s wrong with your chuti girls? How come you don’t have one?”
“The problem with most of them is they are kind of unsure what they want, I find them confused.”
“I think you are the one confused, your imagination is out of control. Don’t you have a chuti girl somewhere in the background? Most of you guys operate that way don’t you?”
“How could I? I am nothing more than a loner, a chess playing freak who as you say has his imagination running out of control. Tritonite girls prefer the claustrophobia of the Bollywood instinct a guy can give them.”
“I don’t know what you exactly mean. So are most chuti girls like the way you say they are?”
“Almost all probably. Could be a few exceptions.”
“Chuti girls are exclusively like that? What about the girls that are in this mall right now?”
“Yah, more likely the Farah Aideed kind of stuff can happen to the tritonite girl perhaps if she were less of the tritonite kind. Impossible for a girl in this mall, in this suburb to behave in any way other than how I have described it. Even I am afraid to completely embrace you in this sort of area. It would be suicide.”
She cut me off there, clearly not happy with that answer of mine.
“Take a look behind you, I have been observing that couple since they were in the bookshop. Maybe you were too tritonised to notice them.”
I turned back. First thing I noticed was the presence of this pedigree Tritonite couple, Mahesh Patel Shah and his wife Anju Lohana Shah. Mahesh, an heir not only to his father’s business empire but also to his power in the Tritonite society. I looked around a little more to spot what Tabitha was talking about. I followed people’s eyes. Everyone was looking at them.
At the entrance to the sky lifts stood this to-die-for young Kenyan-Indian girl. And this was the show stopper: she had her arms around what looked like a handsome ololo from the lakeside and the two of them were lip to lip.
The first victims were those close around. The explosion blew them away instantaneously. Saris and kurta-pajamas caught fire. Anju Lohana ran like a deer to the nearby car-park exit and Mahesh Patel got hit by shrapnel and the internal bleeding was beginning to kill him. Then the shock wave moved downward, to the first floor, ground floor, the now olololisedcouple was taking the destruction with them out of the mall. Survivors were running toward the safe zones of the Parklands and Westlands suburbs and some were going house to house to warn everyone about an arriving plague. In the end, the mall was left with many brain-dead bodies, victims who could not register what had just happened.
Later on Tabitha and I were in the bathtub. That was like her goodbye to me. She went off to New York the following day. She didn’t call me on the day she left. In fact, after the bathtub she didn’t call me at all.
I mailed her. I waited for a reply. One day, two days, four days days…
On that fateful incandescent Friday she replied. A flicker of hope.
The Friday traffic in City Center was thick. The body heat of the Nairobians palpable. As I walked adjacent to Jamia Mosque the sweet Arabic hints of the Koran recital blared through the air. It was not noise. It felt holy.
I greeted the gathered players.
This was Checkmates. A dingy club. Small TV in the corner showed CNN news, plastic furniture, the small and poorly stocked bar and the slight whiff of urine wafting in through the main door from the nearby toilets.
I took my place at the weaker ‘division 4’ table and my pieces fought my opponents. It was blitz and I liked the faster time controls of playing.
The Koran recital continued its bird song, so smooth you could see the sound flying through the air over the Nairobi City Center.
Then some chess patzer beckoned us to watch the TV. CNN showed a section of Times Square in New York: all those electronic billboards and sign screens and skyscrapers that define it as the world’s financial capital. CNN showed Osama but this was different. He was on a number of screens strewn all along Times Square. American were huddled around these. It was like they had suddenly proliferated to pay homage to a rock star.
Osama was speaking in Arabic. We didn’t know what he was saying. But more interesting then him was the crowd. They were pointing in all directions. Osama was all over the place and the camera angles could not capture everything.
We looked at the faces in the crowd to show us what was happening in other areas.
Osama continued his rant for a few more minutes, we at Checkmates started getting bored and switched back to our chess games. So another Osama video tape. So what? Some hacker got it to play all over New York. Great. Back to the game.
A few minutes later someone else urged us to get back to the TV screen. Osama’s face juxtaposed over samples of videos showing different motifs of an A-bomb explosion. Historic footage of Hiroshima. Nevada atomic tests. On and on. This was completely captivating, forebodingly captivating. Everyone was glued. The games stopped. What the hell was this?
You could see the crowd on CNN behaving differently now. They all seemed rapt in attention like a military regiment. Osama continued to speak. It was still all Arabic.
The H-bomb flowered over Bikini Atoll; Osama’s face like a silhouette in the background.
Then Osama seemed to be saying goodbye or something like that.
He was gone. The A-bomb explosion videos continued on the Time Square screens.
Suddenly, there was nothing.
© Mehul Gohil