At the beginning of the year, nothing was going right in my life, both career and personal. I was really broke, for one thing. As the year ends, still not many things are going right for me. One of my biggest dreams came tumbling down, started to collapse with the beginning of the year, and by November it had crashed to the ground. It came like a shooting star, like a lone star among the millions, and went out before it had lived to fulfill it’s purpose in my life. It reminded me of Gene Hackman, who once was one of my heroes, I can’t remember where I heard or read this line from him, but it stuck to my head, and for much of the year it kept ringing in my skull. ‘I’ve always been a lone wolf.’ I believe that now about me.
Can you believe that smile is from a lone wolf?
But hey, the title of this post says ‘this has been a good year’, and I did set out to write the one thing that went absolutely write for me. It’s the only dream I have ever had, the only thing I have ever loved, the only thing that kept me going, and still keeps me going, in the darkest hours. It’s the only thing I live for. Telling stories.
Okay, that’s a bit of a cliche statement. It’s not really that I live for it, that I have a passion for it. It’s just something that I do because I have nothing else to do, because I don’t know what else to do, because I can’t do anything else. It’s kind of like a curse. I’ve said that already many times before, not a passion. But its the only thing that can hold my hand in the dark and whisper in my ears, ‘Don’t worry Dilman, everything will be alright.’
And ever since I was about fifteen, when I discovered that it’s the one candle that will never go out in my life, I’ve longed for recognition of some kind. For something that will put me on the literary map. It finally happened for me this year, when I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It opened a door I’ve been knocking on since I was born.
The Smiling Machine
As a result of it, the San Diego State University included one of my short stories, Homecoming, in it’s syllabus, at least for a semester. I remember reading the email three times without understanding what they were asking me. ‘We need your permission to make copies of your story, as part of an academic course reader for use in the upcoming semester…’ All the while I was thinking of the mighty dead we were compelled to read at school, the likes of Shakespeare and Hardy, and I was thinking, some kids are going to have to study my work to pass exams? If I needed an indicator that all these years of hard work are finally starting to pay off, this was it.
And then the agents came knocking. Or rather sniffing around, like dogs that suspect there is a bone somewhere. Normally, it’s the writer who has to go begging agents to look at his work, but for the first time I got emails from agents, asking for any novel I have written. I can’t say much more about this at the moment, for I have yet to polish the novel I’m writing, and give it to them first. One already didn’t like it, but it’s only a matter of time before one of them likes it. And then…….
Dance dance dance
Garlanded with victory. Smile, smile, smile
To crown off the year, I got an email from a publisher, asking me to write a short story for an anthology they are hoping to release in January of 2014. Again, it’s always the writer who goes begging publisher’s for a chance to have his name in print, but this time round, it’s the publisher who came to me. Another great indicator! And while the agent thing is taking long, and maybe another year before one finally says yes to me, this short story thing happened quickly. I wrote the tale they wanted, and they were impressed. Come January, and my first Afro sci-fi, set in a futuristic Africa, will be in print! Yay! Be sure to get your copy.
Whew, surprising how just one event suddenly turns my life around. Before the Commonwealth Shortlist, I was a struggling writer, struggling for attention, struggling to continue writing in the face of a pile of rejection slips, struggling to hold on to a dream (or rather curse) that has pestered me for more than twenty years now. I was wondering why the heck I’m bothering and seeing no fruits of it. I should have been world famous by now, if ever I was to make it. I was in that state, that miasma, nearly giving up, when I got the nod. And overnight, I was writing more than I’ve ever written in my life! In the span of six months, I had one romance novella published, Cranes Crest at Sunset, one novelette came out, The Terminal Move, one new short story in an anthology, The Broken Pot, another (the Afro sci-fi above) accepted for another anthology, yet another reprinted in the African Roar Anthology, The Puppets of Maramudhu – whew.
And I have to include the seven episodes of a sitcom that I wrote, the short film that I wrote and directed, the radio play I wrote, the adaption of an African folk tale into a stage play, the two short stories that I wrote from scratch — works that are yet to find a home, but I look at all this and I know it has been a very good year for me.
I’m sad it has come to an end, but I do know 2014 will be the year I finally make it!
Normally, I don’t kiss and tell, but this happened so long ago that it doesn’t matter much. Sometime early in 2010, shortly after I arrived in Nepal, a time when I was still single and had not yet met the Filipino bombshell. A time when I was still befuddled with that timeless question: what is the meaning of love. This is probably the last post recounting my personal experiences of dating in Nepal. (Read here part 1 and part 2). The two years I spent there, I was more concerned with their love and marriage customs, for I was making a film about inter-caste marriage, but some mistook my interested to be a veiled expression of my desire to find a Nepali wife, so I got my fare share of proposals, probably more than most foreigners would get, because I spoke the language and lived in a rural community.
Well, last time, I told you about Sweta. I went with her on a date, which I thought went horribly wrong, but which to her seemed to be a big step forward. She asked to come to my place the next day, supposedly to cook for me a meal. I called in sick at work that morning, for she was due to arrive at about 10 am. That, in Nepal, is after lunch. She would make nasta, snacks, maybe chow-chow. I hated it. They were a kind of instant noodles, but cooked with eggs they served as my main meal many times. I wished she offered to cook a chicken dish instead, or something much more romantic than factory food.
When she showed up, she brought me a package. Momo. Dumplings. I loved momo, one of the few Nepali things that I fell in love with. She brought steamed, buff momo, made from buffalo meat. I preferred veg momo, but since it was a gift, I wasn’t going to be picky about it.
I lived alone in a huge bungalow. It was walled in and gated. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one living room, a kitchen, a dinning room, and a rooftop space, but Nepalis being very nosy people, I couldn’t be certain of absolute privacy. Being day time, I had no intention of doing ‘funny business’ with the girl. Since I used only two rooms, the bedroom and the kitchen, the other rooms were covered with dust and cobwebs, so I took her straight to my bedroom. She didn’t protest, nor did she expect me to dishonor her. Privacy being nearly non-existent, it was not uncommon to end up in someone’s bedroom on your first visit. Moreover, most youth lived in single rooms, with shared bathrooms and kitchens. It was not a big deal taking her straight to my bedroom. There being no chairs, so she sat on the bed.
Why is she gloomy while on her date?
I’ll skip the boring parts. Our conversation was pretty much a rehash of the previous day. She asked about my country, my people, the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we see on TV, how many people we were in my family, how many brothers and sisters I had. We ate the buff momo, the chow-chow, we drank a ginger-lemon drink with honey.
Then the interesting part came up. The kiss. I don’t know who did it, but I guess I made the first move. One second, we were seating on my bed, Kunti Moktan’s songs played in the background. The next, my lips touched hers. Nothings serious. Nothing deep. The kind of kiss you could give a sister, or a little child, but the girl jumped away in utter horror.
“You papi me!” she screamed. She fled into the bathroom and washed her mouth.
When she came out, I thought she would be fuming in anger, but she had this playful smile, which encouraged me to give it another go. Another little peck on her lips. They were cold, from the water, I think, and tasted of some lip cosmetic I couldn’t name, and again it was not the kind of kiss you would expect in a hot, romantic scene, but this girl jumped up as if her insides were exploding, and again she ran into the bathroom and washed her mouth.
I did not understand what the word ‘papi’ meant. I looked it up in my pocket dictionary the moment she had left, and learnt that it meant ‘sinful’ or ‘evil’. Every time I kissed her, she said ‘You papi me’ and ran into the bathroom to rinse her lips. The washing was a ritual of absolution, of purifying something polluted.
Lovers enjoy a cozy moment in Lama’s Cafe, Kathmandu
Nepalis believe the mouth is the greatest polluter. Once you touch something with your mouth, it becomes impure, and must undergo a ritual of purification. They have a concept called jutho. Food that remains on your plate is polluted, and no one other than those lower than you (untouchables, children, your wife, dogs) can touch it. One time, we were eating lunch with my boss, and I asked to eat a lemon she had left. I picked it off her plate without waiting for permission. She was scandalized. Though she had not touched it, it was part of her left overs. She snatched it off my hands, and sprinkled water on it before allowing me to eat it.
During my time there, I learnt to drink water off glasses and bottles without touching the vessels with my lips. It’s something that puzzled me a great deal at first. Water vessels were never individually owned. In offices, especially in the terrai region where temperatures hit 40 degrees and you have to drink water constantly, there is a big water bottle on every desk. You cannot have your own water bottle. People take bottles without asking for permission. They expect you to share it. But once your lips touch a bottle, it becomes jutho, and no one else will drink from it, even if they are dying of thirst. It was one of the first tricks I learnt the moment I landed, to drink without letting my mouth touch the bottle or glass. Sometimes I find myself pouring water into my mouth without letting it touch my lips.
A Nepali woman shows love for her husband, by scribbling their initials S + J
While the mouth is the biggest polluter, water is the purifier (Gold, on the other hand, purifies polluted water). Hindus have great attachment to water and the concept of purity. Some people, I heard, have to bring fresh water into the house every morning, because the one that stays overnight becomes impure and thus unfit for drinking or cooking rice.
So it was with this girl. She washed her lips to purify it for I had made it impure by touching it with my lips. This game went on for about ten minutes. I kiss, she runs to the bathroom to wash her mouth, yet each time she came out I thought she was inviting me to ‘papi’ her some more, and each time I ‘papi-ed’ her, she ran to cleanse herself.
Naturally, it killed my appetite. After about ten episodes of the game, she finally excused herself and promised to set up another appointment, but I did not want to go through another nightmare. It scared me off having a relationship with Nepali women. I could not imagine someone going to wash herself every time we kiss.
I made discreet inquiries after this, for I was curious to know if the same thing occurs between married people, and the answer I got was; ‘there is no jutho‘ between husband and wife’. How convenient!
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She got married so I guess it’s okay for me to write about this, though I’ll still not say her real name. I saw a status update on facebook, and I know she is married. Nepali girls wouldn’t write such a status, or else it hurts their honor.
A couple on a date in Thamel, Kathmandu. Lama’s Cafe.
I first saw her early in 2010, must have been March, for the winter had just ended, and I had just moved from Kathmandu into Dhanghadi, the small town in the far west of Nepal where I was to stay for the next two years. I still loved watching football back then, and wouldn’t miss a weekend match for anything. (Now, I don’t even know what a ball looks like!) So I went to a cable company to subscribe, and I saw her at the reception. She had large eyes, a little unusual for a Nepali girl, and long eyelashes, which weren’t fake. I was still single at that time, so you ladies should not think I am a macho-monster, but I was just beginning research into this Untouchable Love documentary. I was clueless about the dating habits of Nepalis. I had read a bit about it, but I thought I would learn more if I actually dated a Nepali girl.
Now, at that time, I had already received a fare share of marriage proposals, being a foreigner, some parents wanted to arrange for me to marry their daughters, or some boys offered me their sisters, and I even got a girl who offered me her mother. But when I saw this girl (let’s call her Sweta), I thought to myself, ‘Wow, if they offer her to me, I won’t refuse!’
She seemed to take an instant liking to me as well. Oh well, she didn’t. It’s just because she had probably never met an African in person, and was excited by it. The first question she asked me when I walked into their office was “Have you eaten rice?” I frowned. It was hardly eleven am, and I could not understand why she was asking me if I had eaten. At that time, I was still adjusting to the fact that Nepalis eat lunch at about 10am, and breakfast (or a snack) at 1pm. All through my two years there, I never got used to it, and I would go to a restaurant at about 1pm and ask for lunch, and they would tell me they only have breakfast. Well, so this girl asks me, “Have you eaten rice?”, and at that time, I didn’t know it was a form of greeting. Instead of, a “Hello”, or maybe “How is your morning?” they go “Have you eaten?” And my innocent reply was, “No, I haven’t eaten. But if you cook for me, I’ll eat.”
In broken Nepali. I wasn’t fluent yet at that time. But she was thrilled that I could speak her language, and it probably helped my intentions as well, for she at once offered to come to my dera to cook for me. Being shy, I balked. Her boldness surprised me. I had yet to learn that Nepali girls did not beat around the bush. If they want to cook for you for the rest of their life, they will tell you so, even if they do not yet know your name. So we got talking, for about thirty minutes, and at the end of it, she agreed to go out with me for tea.
A rickshaw puller taking a rest.
Danghadi main street during rush hour.
A date. So easily! I begun to think that Nepal is indeed a man’s heaven. (Honest man seeking marriage, not randy one-night-standers :-o) I couldn’t understand why so many men in their thirties were still unmarried. It was a Sunday, the first working day of the week. I suggested we have tea on, Monday, but she said no. She had to go to school. She was at a local university. Well, then I said Tuesday, and she told me outright, Tuesday is a bad day to visit, especially if it is for the first time. (I later learnt that a married woman cannot visit her parents on Tuesday, or if she has been staying at her parent’s, she cannot go back to her husband on a Tuesday.) It was a bad luck day to have a first date, thus we settled for Wednesday.
The time came. 4pm. I took a rickshaw from my dera in Hasanpur 5, but i did not know where we were going. I called her, and she tried to tell me over the phone, but I could not understand her directions. I asked, is it Shalom Restuarant? It was a favorite of mine, near Raato Phul (Red Bridge). ‘No’ she said. ‘Give the rickshaw driver the phone.’ She then instructed him on where to take me.
We rode. We passed Raato Phul, and for a moment I thought we were going to Bells Cafe, which after Hotel Devotee was the classiest cafe in town. It served Chinese, Japanese and Indian dishes, alongside Nepali dishes. It was pricey as hell, but airconditioned. I thought it would be a nice spot for a first date. We did not stop there. We continued, and I thought we were going to the next best place, something on a rooftop with gold fish in a tank. I forget it’s name. It has ‘garden’ in it though, and was opposite Nabil Bank. Will look it up. But we stopped before we reached there. The rickshaw man pointed out a shop to me. And the first sign that it was going to be a bad date struck me. A shop? A hardware shop?
A waiter in Shalom Restuarant, Danghadi, showing off her mehendi. Superstition has it that the darker the heena, the more your husband loves (or will love) you.
Maybe, I thought, it’s just a first stop, a meeting place, before we go to a real restaurant, a cozy cafe somewhere for that nice cup of Nepali tea. I walk into the restaurant and there she is, petit, large eyes, smiling brilliantly, in spite of the dust from cement. Her uncle sat next to her. He welcomed me, offered me a sit, and all the while I thought we would just say hellos and get going. Then the uncle asked a boy to bring us tea. A twelve year old boy. He came with tea in small glasses.
Is this it? I asked myself. A date in a hardware shop? Amid metals and bags of cement and all sorts of plumbing material? That was not the worst bit. There were about six workers in the shop. They all crowded around us, staring at me in excitement, waiting to listen to whatever we were going to talk about.
Her uncle then told me, “Why are you not talking? Tell her things!”
With six people listening? I didn’t even know what ‘things’, he was talking about, but it sure wasn’t the small talk on Uganda, and the weather in Uganda, that they wanted to hear about. When the Uncle said this, everyone fell silent, waiting for my next words.
“He is shy,” the girl said. “You know foreigners don’t like talking in people.”
“Okay okay,” the uncle said. “I’ll take you upstairs.”
A street cafe. Might have been a better venue for a date.
‘Upstairs’ was an unfinished floor above the shop. The dust made me cough. We sat on dusty crates, and I thought the uncle would now leave us alone, but he walked about, pretending to do clean up the place, while his ears were tuned to the conversation we were having. I don’t even remember anymore what we talked about. I don’t think I remembered anything soon after I left that hardware shop. I sure did not say the ‘things’ the uncle expected me to tell her.
Still, I must have impressed the girl, or rather she was determined to cook for me for the rest of her life. She asked to come to my dera the next day! She did come, but I’m going to save that story until the next post. I have to sleep now. Be sure to return to read it.
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I never knew how much we remember from childhood until I wrote this story, The Puppets of Maramudhu. One reviewer, when talking about it, said “Dilman’s story is unique, not that it is alien or experimental. It is neither of these. In fact, it is the kind of stories we love to tell, orally, but which we rarely ever write, unfortunately, perhaps because of our quest to remain realists.” I always wonder why we endeavor to remain realists, yet our socialization process conditions us to believe in the supernatural, to point at spirits and unknowable forces when explaining strange phenomenon. As children, the stories we loved to hear the most were those with magic in them. Why is it that as adults we shy away from them?
Razor Blade, a street child rapper, and his audience.
Even if we didn’t have such a socialization process, in the name of religion or science, it is hardwired in our systems to believe in a world that we cannot see, a world with powers we cannot explain, simply because we have never figured out what happens when we die. I became fascinated with this world at an early age, like every child, but I think I have not outgrown it. The characters I met back then still haunt my dreams, and every now and then they creep out into my stories. These characters were so weird that they furnished our childhood fancies with wild imaginations.
I think every child will come across a story of a real-life person who resurrected from the dead, long before they ever encounter Lazarus. It is the same with folk tales, for you will find narratives in an African society that are similar to those of a South American society that it has not had known contact with. These similarities often arise because all human beings share the same fears and emotions. If you look into your past, into your childhood, you will remember hearing about a person, maybe who lived down the street, or in the next village, or in another town, often someone you know, who will become a bogeyman of sorts, and you will remember that such a person once died and resurrected.
In my town, we had such a guy. They say he was buried for three days (why three days, like Jesus?), and one time a group of children were picking mangoes from a tree near the public graveyard when they heard something knocking under the ground. They fled. The knocking did not stop for several hours, until a few brave men dug up the grave and found the man alive. We called him Bubu (or was it Abubuna), which was not a polite word, for it mean deafmute. He could not speak, could not hear, for it is said what he saw in the world of the dead had to remain a secret. It’s probably because of him that I’m always fascinated with the living dead, like the jothokwo in The Terminal Move, and like Maramudhu in The Puppets of Maramudhu.
We would follow Bubu around the streets, trying to make him speak, and often he would ignore us. He was docile, non-violent, and I sometimes feel bad for pestering him. We used to follow ‘mad people’ around as well. I say ‘mad people’ in quotes because it is not the politically correct term to refer to people with mental disorders. I think most of these people were schizophrenic. They offered us a daily dose of entertainment, with their oddities. We followed them to eaves drop on the conversations they were having with the imaginary creatures bothering them, but often we followed them to provoke them into a fight.
A woman with a mental disability poops in the streets. Banepa town, near Kathmandu, Nepal.
I especially remember one woman, I forget what we used to call her. She had made a home in the disused stands at the bus park. We loved to throw stones at her for she was particularly fierce, and would throw missiles at us in return. One day, she did not fight back. She ran, fleeing our missiles. But then, she stopped and, even as stones fell all around her, she dumped a huge pile of poop right in the middle of the road. Not a stone hit her. The moment we realised she was pooing, we stopped stoning her and watched in excitement.
After she had eased, she resumed running away, though we were no longer chasing or stoning her. We crept to her poop. It had a variety of colors, almost like a rainbow. I had never seen such colourful poop, and never have. We were so enthralled by her poop that we kept watch over it for a whole day, until it decayed and lost its brilliance. For a moment, we thought the poop had magical powers. We wanted to scoop it up and keep it somewhere safe, where we would discover what powers it had and – well, I don’t remember what stopped us.
A Street Child Rapper Entertaining Women in Kampala
An Acrobat Entertaining in Kyaliwajala town, Namugongo, near Kampala.
While we tortured these poor fellows for our entertainment, every once in a while a real entertainer would drop into town. Being a small, almost ghost-like town, unlike a city, these street traders would not attract much money, or stay for long. Most would hang around for a day, or just a few hours. But some kept coming back, every few months or so, on their way through. There were dikulas, clowns who dressed like women and told silly jokes (dikulas have made it into another story, a novel, if it gets published, you will be reading a lot more about them, but they sure aren’t like the evil clown in Steven King’s IT), acrobats, musicians, dancers, and puppeteers. (I wonder how children these days entertain themselves. They seem to have a lot more (TVs, Internet, video games) competing for their attention.)
There was even once a man who came with a TV show. This was the 1980s, a time when the TV set was a mystery to many of us. Our family got its first TV set in 1990, because that is also the year the world cup was broadcast live to Uganda (I think), but we got the bonus of watching the Gulf War live as well. It was a black and white thing, and when the pictures when totally fuzzy, we sat and watched anyway for nobody knew how to get a clear signal. So when this guy came to town and said he had a TV show, a small crowd gathered. It turned out that he had only a set of still photos, which he hid inside a big black box, and he only allowed you to look at these photos through a pair of eye-holes. He did not make much money, once people figured out he was a big con. We thought we were going to see moving pictures, not a slideshow. His box show ended up in The Puppets of Maramudhu, as the cart the evil sorcerer dragged around.
The puppeteer who stuck to my head, and who eventually become the title character in the story, Maramudhu, was Abe Mukibuga (I think that was his name). Or I might be confusing him with another one. Maybe there were two puppeteers, I cannot remember well, but I remember the song they used to sing, as they made their puppets to dance. It went ‘mayo ni mayo, mayo ni wempe’ (whatever those words mean) and then another line ‘sasa wewe kijana moses, shika bibi yako’, one of the puppets was called Moses, and he had a female partner with whom he danced. Well, this song ended up in the story as well, not the same lyrics though, but the same tune. I wish I could make a film out of it, to preserve this song that has never left my dreams.
The stories behind Mukibuga (that should mean town-man, or an urbanised man) were weird, as well. Nobody knew where he came from, even though he used a show name from Buganda. Nobody knew his age. He seemed to be the same age for decades, from the seventies when he started to pass by the town, to the late eighties when I first saw him. They said he never traveled in vehicles, that he pulled his cart on foot, from Kinshansha to Mombasa, staging shows from town to town. This particular detail impressed me so much that I had to write a story about him.I feel guilty for making him an evil man, but I guess I was only trying to make the dreams go away.
I feel I have not exhausted the story, of a showman who walks across the continent entertaining people. I think he will come again, sometime in the future, and maybe this time he will not be evil.
It’s been an exciting year for me, as a writer. I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and then longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa. I’ve heard two books out in print, and two short stories to appear in anthologies, one is already out, the other coming in December. Busy, busy year, and I expect next year will be even busier. Which unfortunately might mean less blogging :((
So here are the books. They went up on amazon at nearly the same time, the first being in September and two this month. The Terminal Move. A novelette, written in a genre I loved so much as a boy, and which I still think is my niche. It’s basically a zombie tale, but set in Africa from way back in time, before the nations as we know them today were formed. Which makes it a fantasy as well. Take a peak at an interview I did for the publisher here.
And here is the blurb for the novelette.
For years the Jolabong people have wandered across the world, looking for a new home. Torn apart by war and famine, they have all but given up. But it is in the fiery motivation of Laceng, a rebellious youth of the tribe, that the delicate future of the Jolabong is poised. Together with his band of insurgents, Laceng marches into a valley of plenty – but what he finds there is worse than any threat his tribe has ever faced. *** In this gripping tale of death, life and reins of power, Dilman Dila delivers a narrative reminiscent of the ancient oral traditions of Africa. A Commonwealth Short Story 2013 shortlisted author, Dila delivers yet again in the poignant and exquisitely crafted THE TERMINAL MOVE.
Cranes Crest at Sunset. I surprised myself with writing this one. It was an experiment in romance. I’d never written in that genre before, but shortly after returning from Nepal, with my head still full of the love stories that I had gathered while making my first feature documentary, Untouchable Love, and with my heart growing fond of a Filipino bombshell, I just had to write a love story. Shortly after I finished it, I saw a call for manuscripts from a Kenyan publisher. They want to start an East African version of Mills and Boon. I submitted, wondering if my little story would fit their criteria, and it surprisingly did. So here it is, available on kindle.
The blurb. Kabita, a beautiful Nepali doctor escapes from an arranged marriage to serve in a remote village in rural Uganda. In this village, she hopes to put to rest the haunting memories of her forbidden love and shattered past. But the peace she so desperately seeks seems elusive now, as she finds herself falling in love with Steven, a handsome African herdsman. Is she foolish to reject the advances of a fellow doctor for an idle herdsman painter? And is Steven really what he seems to be? Should she follow her heart or mind? Will Kabita finally find joy or will her dreams be shattered again? This is an intense love story set in rural Uganda
The third is in a collection of short stories, called the African Roar 2013. It’s another horror fantasy story, about a puppeteer I used to know in my hometown when I was a little kid. Not that the puppeteer was evil. He was a great guy, but my childhood imagination fed me all sorts of crap about him, and when I became a writer I just had to write that story. We used to hear all sorts of stuff concerning the guy, he was a mystery, no one knew where he came from and some people claimed he walked from Kinshasha to Mombasa dragging his cart, staging shows. Such urban legend stuff became the spine of this story. The Puppets of Maramudhu. I should write more about him later.
Well, so here they are, three stories from Uganda, from some of the finest publishers in Africa today. It’s not often that you find Ugandan fiction on Amazon, and I’ve heard of many foreigners in the country looking for something Ugandan to read, and not finding anything. This should be a start. Hopefully many other Ugandan writers will pick tips and have their works put up on Amazon.
Last night, I watched The Party. It put PeterSellers at the top of the list of my favourite comic actors. He makes me laugh with the least effort. I used to think Mr. Bean is hilarious, that Leon Schuster is awesome, that Jim Carrey was the god of comedy, but they all disappointed me at some point. (Okay, he does not beat Woody Allen. I think Woody will be my favourite of all time, because Woody is not just a comic actor, but also a funny writer and director. I’ll do a list of my favourite Woody Allen’s next). With Sellers, every film of his I’ve seen is a riot. Or well, maybe not The Man Who Never Was, but again, it was a very entertaining film, and it only confirmed to me that he was gifted actor, able to fit any role, be it comedic of serious. As happens in the industry, he got typed with comedy (I think) and so most of the films he was given were in that genre.
Peter Sellers. London, 1973. Photo from Wikipedia
Being There (1979) I’ve never watched a film as good as this one, not in a long time. It might be better than Harold and Maude, though they probably share the spoils. It’s about a simple man with a mental disability. He is called Chance. His brains never develop beyond childhood, but it doesn’t make him an idiot, as you might imagine. Certainly not like I Am Sam, or The Rain Man. He has lived for as long as he can remember in the backyard of his benefactor’s house. He is a gardener. It’s the only thing he knows. Then his life turns around when he his guardian dies, and he is thrown out of the house. For the first time, he is out in the streets. He is a guy who has never been outside the doors in decades, and what follows is a sweetly sad story with a weirdly happy ending. He ends up the President of the USA! Okay, maybe not. But you get the feeling that he will be the next one. 🙂
I particularly loved the acting in that film. I’ve read that Sellers went to great lengths to perfect his portrayal of Chance, he changed his voice and the way the character walked. According to wikipeadia, “Sellers considered Chance’s walking and voice the character’s most important attributes, and in preparing for the role, he worked alone with a tape recorder, or with his wife, and then with Ashby, to perfect the clear enunciation and flat delivery needed to reveal ‘the childlike mind behind the words’,” and that in order to remain in character, he refused to do interviews and kept aloof from the other actors. I love such an actor. He should have won all the awards for that role. Quoting wiki again “Critic Frank Richwrote that the acting skill required for this sort of role, with a “schismatic personality that Peter had to convey with strenuous vocal and gestural technique … A lesser actor would have made the character’s mental dysfunction flamboyant and drastic … [His] intelligence was always deeper, his onscreen confidence greater, his technique much more finely honed”: in achieving this, Sellers “makes the film’s fantastic premise credible”.
The Party (1968) In this film, Sellers plays an error prone Indian actor, Hrundi V. Bakshi, who accidentally gets an invitation to a high class party. At first I was sceptical, and thought he would end up offending Indians, but by minute fifteen, I saw he was at his best again. I totally believed he was an Indian, with the accent, the subtle head shake, the Namaste hand clasp, the English! My, and do comedies get any better than this? It’s told in the fashion of the films of those days, where everything happens largely in one location. I want to write such a film soon.
The Ladykillers (1955). At first, I thought it was a film about hunks who ‘kill’ ladies. Then, I thought it was a film about a gang of psychopaths who go around killing ladies. I was wrong. It has a very captivating plot. A gang of thieves plan a robbery. They use an old woman’s house as their base, where they pretend to be musicians rehearsing for a performance. The old woman is an eccentric widow with a raucous parrot. The thieves think she will be a pushover, when she stumbles upon their plan. Instead, she finds herself part of the gang, to her horror.
A Shot in the Dark (1964) This is arguably the best of The Pink Panther series. I loved it more than The Pink Panther itself. Like all good comedies, the plot has a very fast pace, and like all good mysteries, it has a lot of twists and turns. I totally loved the scene in the nudist colony! Sellers gives a more interesting portrayal of the bungling French detective, Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Though I’ve come to respect him as an actor, I found it disturbing that in this film, he forced the producers to fire one director, and then he did not get along well with the replacement director. They even stopped talking to each other. I don’t like it when actors become too big for the director, however good the actor is. He should have directed the film himself.
The Mouse That Roared (1959) The premise of this film is a weird one. A small country, smaller than even Uganda, invades the United States, and wins the war. I’ve fantasised about such a thing happening in real life, and i’ve had delusions of being a general who leads the war against the US. After all the trouble they have caused in the world, it would be nice to have someone whack them (not some cowardly terrorists, but a real army to go there and kick ass and put some sense into them). In this way, this film was kind of prophetic, for many people around the world would love to the downfall of a big bully. Sellers played three roles, he was the elderly queen, the ambitious Prime Minister and the innocent, clumsy farm boy who leads the invasion. The film is packed with humour, I laughed every five minutes or so. But it’s also very entertaining. I’m yet to see an idiotic film that captures my attention the way this one did.
There are other good ones, like Dr. Strangelove, in which he played four roles, but I did not like. Maybe because it only appeals to the cold-war era. The Mouse That Roared is also based in that era, when nuclear weapons threatened the world, but its premise (attacking a bully, the US, and using war as a tool of profit) speaks to our generation as well, and will continue to be relevant long after nuclear politics are gone. He was also in Lolita, which I did not like much, maybe because the book was better, and the girl in the film did not look like an under-aged girl. The Pink Panther, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ensuing one. I loved What’s New Pussycat, in which he appeared with Woody Allen, but well it wasn’t the best of Woody’s films.
Have you been to our YouTube Channel lately? Those of you who have will notice that we have started putting up travel videos. I was looking through my archives and I saw I had a lot of stuff that I filmed in Nepal, as well as in Uganda, and that I had filmed while making one documentary or the other, but ended up not using. Then I thought of making them into short docs, webdocs, whatever they are called, but these are stories that will give you insight on the different cultures I’ve encountered, as well as tips on how to travel, what to do on your travels, and such things.
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
The first is about how to enjoy a holiday in Lake Bunyonyi, in Western Uganda. Things to do in Lake Bunyonyi are very many, but in our recent visit, we did a dozen things that we thought are the coolest and most fun activities while on a holiday in that lake. Enjoy the video here. http://youtu.be/a82XkGOpuHg Hope it inspires you.
Interviewing the Batwa, in Lake Bunyonyi. Documentaries have enabled me to travel far and wide.
A pretty girl, with whose family I stayed while in Nepal. Very friendly people.
While in Nepal, I encountered many types of people, doing many careers. The ones who intrigued me the most were the gold makers. You would think that someone whose duty it is to make gold would be rich, would be from the upper caste. Apparently, gold makers, otherwise called Sunar in the caste system, were at the bottom of the rung. They were untouchable. I have never been able to figure out this caste system. Why did they put all artists into the untouchable category? Musicians (Damai), jewelers (Sunar), blacksmiths (Bishwarkarma), shoe makers (Kamai), Entertainers (Badi) and many others. They were all bundled up as untouchables. Even architects and builders. Yet, strangely, the upper castes used to enjoy the works of these categories, wear the jewelry, live in the houses they built, dance to their music. I think it’s something like slave labor. I visited a shop where they make gold items, in Biratnagar, the second biggest city in Nepal, in the east of that country. Here is the video. http://youtu.be/kfP-ROL0hLg
Mehendi artwork. A Nepali woman shows love of her husband.
Nepali children at a market.
Ha, you will like this one. We were idle one time in my humble kitchen. I picked out the camera and asked Reiza to say something. She had this green stuff on her face and I did not know what it was. She said it was avocado. I could not understand why. I thought she wanted to become an alien, but apparently, she had a few tips on how a woman can stay beautiful while on the road. How she can look after her skin without having to carry loads of cosmetics and stuff. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why women even bother to buy cosmetics, yet everything they need to become beautiful exists in nature, and is free of charge! Enjoy the video. http://youtu.be/L4QAsWq_jTg
The other day, I was looking through my archived videos of Nepal, trying to decide what to delete to create space in my backup hard drive. I found this interview of Binod, a resident of Saptari district, a man who ran mad after his love affair with an upper caste girl came to an abrupt and violent end. I came upon him by sheer luck. While making Untouchable Love, I was visiting their home to interview his younger brother, Manoj, whose affair with Parbati, an upper caste girl, had led to a war in their village when I learned that that Binod too had been involved in an inter caste affair. I thought I had struck gold. Two dalit (untouchable) brothers fall in love with upper caste girls, causing a lot of trouble in the village, hmm, the kind of stuff every storyteller would jump at.
In their village, like everywhere else in Nepal, the different castes live together. The apartheid-like system that kept ‘untouchables’ in the outskirts of society no longer exists. Children from all castes mingle freely, attend the same school, play with in the same balls, grow up together – the only thing that still exists is that they cannot enter each other’s houses, or eat from the same plate, or drink the same water. Or fall in love with each other.
The way the two brothers fell in love was very similar. Both upper caste girls were their neighbors. They went to school together and were in the same classes. Binod, being older, was first to become romantically involved with (I do not remember him mentioning her name, so I will call her) Sita. As it is with love affairs in rural Nepal, the issue of marriage came in very early in the relationship. In that country, you do not date for fun, and Binod was so serious about his girl that he went to her parents to ask for her hand in marriage.
A very foolish thing, but very brave. Of course he knew about the taboos in the society. He knew that being a Mandal (or Khanga as they are sometimes called) it was unthinkable for him to marry a girl with the name of Raut. Still, their respective families were amiable to each other. He thought he could talk to her parents, they seemed like a nice lot, more liberal in comparison to other Rauts. So he dressed in his Sunday best and paid them a visit. Her father gave him a big smile and told him he will think about it. However, hardly had Binod left their compound than the old man pounced on Sita, and beat her up thoroughly. She was imprisoned in a room for several days and tortured until she denounced her love. Then they arranged for her to marry another man, an upper caste old widower whose teeth were black and rotten from eating paan, whose saliva was now permanently a bloody red from eating paan. This was the only way her parents thought they could restore the family honor.
Binod and one of his brother’s children.
Binod was devastated. He ran mad. Totally bonkers. I do not know exactly what he did that proved how mad he was, but all the wires in his head were broken. He ended up in a mental hospital in India. He spent there several months. Whatever treatment he got seemed to work very well. He came back to Nepal a sane man. The first thing he did was burn up all the photographs of Sita, along with all the love letters she sent him. It was the only way he could fully recover his sanity. To help him fully recover, his parents arranged for him to marry another girl.
He despises his wife. He kept referring to her as ‘uneducated’ and ‘foolish’. I could discern that deep inside he still moaned for his lost love. He apparently is still in a fragile state, although eight years have passed. When his parents heard him talking about Sita, they became afraid. And very angry with me. They thought memories of Sita would make him run mad again. They ordered to stop talking about her, and threatened to throw us out of their home if we insisted on asking him about her. I was sad to let it go, but I had to agree to their demands. We spent three days with them family, and I never saw Binod again. They must have sent him away to live somewhere else, to make sure he did not talk about Sita again. His younger brother Manoj told me the rest of the story.
Parbati prepares to apply sindoor on her forehead. It is part of the daily make up for a married woman.
Binod and Manoj’s mother with sindoor prominent on her head a proud symbol of her marital status.
Now sisters. Binod’s wife in green, from an arranged marriage. Parbati on the left, from a love marriage.
About one year after Binod’s affair ended in tragedy, Manoj fell in love with another Raut girl, called Parbati. Manoj was wiser. He kept his affair a total secret. Only a few friends knew about it. When they decided to get married, they did not bother telling their parents. They told no one. They simply sneaked away to a temple in Rajbiraj town, with a couple of friends as witnesses. He applied sindoor on her head and bingo, they were husband and wife. Sindoor is that red thing that you see in the parting of hair just above the forehead. It symbolizes virginity. I was told that you can rape a girl by simply applying that thing on her forehead. Well, it is like the ring in Western weddings. Once a boy applies it on a girl, it means he has deflowered her, and owns her forever. No priests needed, no fancy ceremony. Simply rub the stuff on her forehead and you are married. But they had to take a photo to prove that he had put sindooron her, that they were now married.
After the wedding, they could not go back to their homes. They went to live with Manoj’s uncle’s in a neighboring district. They thought they were safe. I won’t tell you their story because I already did in the documentary, Untouchable Love. They are the lead characters. All I’ll say is after their elopement, war broke out in the village. Ethnic cleansing. The upper caste people were fed up of the untouchables snatching away their girls, and so they decided to chase all the dalits from the village. It was violent and bloody.
Good old Nepal, with so many stories. I cannot believe I lived there for only two years, because I came back with enough stories to last a life time. Strangely, though I’ve lived in Uganda all my life and I often fail to find what to write about. I should soon again travel again to someplace to collect more stories.
When the year begun, I was broke. I had spent much of last year finishing The Felistas Fable, and had not earned much during that time. I felt low, for it is not possible to quickly make a profit from selling a film. Sometimes you have to wait a whole year. I felt depressed in frustration. Then, out of the gloom, I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I had a reason to smile. I had waited for this kind of news for twenty years, since I became obsessed with writing at the age of fifteen. The frustration of not making it compelled me to branch out into film making in 2006. Shortly after that, I got nominated for the Million Writers Award, in 2008, which was a sign that I should stick to writing. But by that time, I already had one leg in both places. when the Commonwealth shortlist came, it was more than just a sign. It was a reminder that I should return to my roots, or rather that I should concentrate less on film and throw more energy onto writing. Winning the prize would be the best thing to happen to my career.
Everyday, I prayed to let me win. At least it would alleviate the brokenness (and maybe it’s because I was thinking more of the cash than the prize that God didn’t let me win 😮 ). I got the bad news last week, just before I set off for Nairobi. At first, when I saw the email from JB of the Commonwealth, I thought it would tell me I was a winner. But I had a bad feeling. I had not gone to church the previous Sunday. In my superstitious mind, I thought God would punish me for it. Indeed, it was a regrets email, but JB added an encouraging note that my story had been in contention right up to the very last minute (I guess s/he told every other contestant the same thing). The depression returned, and with it the lack of confidence, the fear that I will never make it.
But then, as I sat in the bus to Nairobi, I got a revelation, a sign that good things are to come.
This story that got shortlisted, A Killing in the Sun, is a ghost story. I wrote it in 2001 or 2002, I cannot remember, but it was shortly after I saw a photograph in the front pages of The New Vision. It was the picture of one of the two soldiers sentenced to death for killing a priest in Karamoja, taken a few moments before he was shot by firing squad. As I looked at that photo, at the expression on the man’s face, at his unzipped pants exposing a pair of clean white boxers, the story fell in.
Well, I had actually thought of the story for many years before that. You see, I had a nightmare when I was about twelve, or thirteen, and in the dream three cloaked hags with pockmarked faces and long bony fingers were grinning at me. Their yellow teeth looked more like shards of bones. They wanted to eat me.
Two works of art that I know influenced this story were the short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the 1990 horror film by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder.
After I wrote the story, I never tried to sell it. It sat in my computer for ten years, ignored, until I submitted it for discussion to a writer’s group, which is organized and run by Beatrice Lamwaka, who was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize. The reaction of fellow writers to this story made me think that I was sitting on a masterpiece. They told me it’s the kind of story that will win international prizes. I was encouraged to send it to the Commonwealth competition, and was pleased when it got shortlisted. I was depressed when it did not win, just as I get depressed each time I get a rejection letter.
But last Thursday, as I sat in the bus heading to Nairobi, something happened that lifted my moods. Something that every writer needs every now and then to keep their spirits out. The seat next to me was empty. I did wonder about it, for this was Queens Coach, a popular bus that never fails to sell all its seats. But I did not give it much thought. I was too sleepy. I had not slept much for nearly a week. I dozed off shortly after the bus took off.
Suddenly, a woman woke me up with a very friendly “Hello.” I opened my eyes, and at once noticed we were in Jinja. Then I got angry. Couldn’t this woman see I was sleeping? Why did she have to wake me up? Being the gentleman my mother raised, I swallowed my irritation and replied with a smile and a hello. Turned out to be a bad idea. She was a chatter box. She at once started telling me the story of her life, as though we were old friends who had not seen each other for a very long time. Her openness shocked and amused me. Her determination to tell her story irritated me. I wanted her to shut up so I could get some sleep, but she just would not keep quiet. Finally, I told her I wanted to sleep, and she said, ‘Okay’, and I dozed off for a few seconds. But the moment I woke up, she plunged into her life story.
Out of politeness, I forced myself to keep awake and listen. Sometimes, I would fail, and would sleep off, but she would not notice and keep talking.She gave me a blow by blow account of how she developed some medical condition, how she was in an operation theater for twenty four hours, how the doctors removed her large intestines to save her life and so she could not poo like everyone else. She needed colostomy to help her pass out shit. She told me about a bunch of other conditions that threatened her life, and that if she was not a Scottish citizen with access to free, good quality medical treatment, she might have died. She is a Ugandan whose husband, a Ugandan as well, joined the British Navy and now they live in Scotland. I soon discovered the reason she was telling me all this. She simply wanted to warn me that in the event I heard a bad smell, I shouldn’t laugh, or make her feel uncomfortable, for because the lack of a large intestine makes her susceptible to passing out stool uncontrollably. Poor woman.
After talking about this for two hours, all the way from Jinja to Malaba, the topic somehow shifted to ghost tales. I did not hear of anything else but ghosts for the rest of the night, until we reached Nairobi. She is a university graduate, works with an international NGO as a consultant, and is a very strong Catholic, but I was not surprised by her belief in spirits. Anyone who has gone through a near-death-experience will believe in the supernatural. However, her endless encounters with creatures from the other world that made me raise an eyebrow.
The one I remember vividly is how an angel of death visited her. She said that she woke up one night and noticed there was a man in her room. She could not imagine how he got in. She was about to scream when he told her, ‘You are going to die tomorrow in a car accident.’ She replied, ‘No, I will not die.’ The man insisted, ‘You will die.’ So she said a prayer (or maybe she threw a bible at him, I was dozing and did not get this detail properly) and he vanished. She went to her mother’s bedroom, and told her mother about this strange man. But her mother simply said, ‘You had a bad dream, my dear. Go back to sleep.’ The next day, she avoided vehicles. She traveled in boda boda motorcycles, and at the end of the day, as she was heading back home, just when she thought she had eluded the prophecy, the man reappeared. She saw a motorcycle in the bush. She at once knew something was wrong about this bike, for it was in the middle of a bush. Not in the road! Then she saw the man straddling it, and her blood froze. It was the same man who visited her room in the night. He kicked started his motorcycle, and it out of the bush into the rode. It sped towards her, to crash into the motorcycle she was on. Luckily, her boda rider was an expert. He dodged it. They skidded and nearly crashed, but managed to stop without injury. People were screaming at the ghost rider, which means they could see him and he was not a figment of her imagination. He rode away and vanished as some people tried to intercept him. She fell on her knees and thanked God for sparing her life.
That was just one of the ghost tales she told me. There were about twelve others, some of which I remember, like the one about her cousin, a little girl who could not walk. A catholic exorcist told the mother, ‘A demon is sitting on her leg. But I cannot drive it out of the girl without injuring her. I have to send it into you. Do you agree?’ The mother nodded. She wanted her little girl to walk. So the exorcist, called Vincent, I think, drove the demon out of the girl into the mother. The girl begun to walk. The mother ran mad. A few days later the exorcist drove the demon out of the mother. Now the family is fine.
When I reached Nairobi, I no longer felt bad about losing out on the Commonwealth prize. It had to be a sign from the supernatural creator that I shared a seat with a woman who talked about nothing but ghosts on the day I received a rejection letter about my ghost story. Like another friend of mine, Beverly, said, ‘Coming second is as good as a win. Do not lose heart. A great door has been opened for you.’
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Retired. Relaxing. Is he enjoying the labor of his youth? A grandfather passes the time in Nakapinyi, Mukono district.
It’s the day when we remember workers of the world. I do not know what made me look through my scrap folder, but I found this poem, which I wrote in October of 2009, shortly before I went to Nepal. I cannot remember why I wrote it, what the ‘inspiration’ was, but it is clearly about a vegetable seller struggling to make ends meet, and failing to impress his wife. I dedicate it to all working men out there who are going through tough times, who cannot seem to fill their pockets with happiness, however much they try. I normally don’t publish poems, though I have written quiet a tidy pile of them, but I do hope you enjoy this one.
He collapses as he pushes the cart to the market
He lies burnt out on the pile of unsold cabbages
Though his weight and sweat ruin the stock.
she hates the necklaces I buy at clearance sales
so I wonder if I married a princess.
The hat rests on his nose
To shield his face from passing eyes
That shine like suns in hollow skulls.
she serves me bread without any butter
so I wonder if I married my mother
His battered body yearns for the balm in a smoke.
He takes a crumpled cigarette from his pocket
But his palms, wet with sweat, ruin the matches.
she makes love to me in autopilot
so I wonder if I married a harlot.
He smashes the hat onto the unsold cabbages
Then the cigarette that he failed to light.
Rage in his feet. He stomps it all into the dirt.
The poem is dated 4th October 2009. I cannot think of what I was doing on that day that I wrote this poem, but does it capture the mood of a frustrated worker?
A fruit seller waits for customers in Lainchor, Kathmandu, Nepal
Salute women for their ability to multi-task. Here is a hair dresser, vegetable seller and baby sitter.
An egg hawker in Lazimpart, Kathmandu, Nepal
Unrecognized labor. A boy hawks firewood in Soroti, Uganda.
Fruits of labor. Sorghum harvest in Katakwi, Uganda.
I should be particularly on for this labor day. Normally, writers are not considered as laborers. People always think of a worker as someone who has a boss, and earns a regularly salary. But I think I am a worker too, though I mostly idle around the house farting and hoping for a big break — I think it is coming soon. Finally, after a long struggle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013, for a short story I wrote way back in 2002 but has never been published. You can read about it here. I do hope this short list opens doors for me, and puts me on the path to becoming a writer who earns a living from his fantasies 🙂
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