Excerpted from Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth by Anosh Irani. Copyright © 2019 by Anosh Irani. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
E X H A L E / E X I L E
I once had a yoga teacher who would use the word “exile” when he meant to say “exhale.” This was because of his accent. I was still in Bombay, before leaving for Canada twenty years ago. I had a perpetually blocked nose thanks to a deviated septum, and my family doctor – Dr. Hansotia – sent me to this man.
“Exile! Exile! Exile!” the teacher would say, letting out the breath from his belly and mouth at great speed, encouraging us to do the same. I found the idea of breathing in a closed space with fifteen other humans quite repugnant – all those germs moving around with the arrogance of frequent flyers, threatening to enter whomever they chose. But the word “exile” stayed with me, purely for its comic effect. Back then, I hardly knew what “exile” meant. Little did I know that the word would enter me more than any other germ, cause me to sneeze, writhe with fever, laugh, dance, dream, cry, do who knows what, as time went on, as a result of hurling myself from Bombay to Vancouver like a swashbuckling pirate. Now my swagger has gone, and I am as loose and unable to come back as Dr. Hansotia’s wife’s underwear.
Some time ago, I came upon this passage by Edward Said:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.
This is a terrible piece of writing. Terrible in its truthfulness, in the feeling it evokes, in its ability to both ask a question and then conclude, without question, that there is no solution to its pain. It left me feeling weak and angry. I have been moved by literature time and again, inspired by its awesome power, such as when I first read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. These are stories that contain truths. This passage, however, was truth that told a story, my story. And I couldn’t bear to hold it in my hands. Twenty years of being in a foreign land, and instead of gaining something, I was being told that I had lost?
I cannot remember my yoga teacher’s face. At least, not entirely. I remember his nostrils and his mouth. But not the eyes. He almost never opened his eyes. I have a feeling he was from Kerala, and was stuck in Bombay. He was expressing, through his nostrils, what Said had written. The self and its true home were so far apart that only breathing could calm him down, smooth out his anxiety. I didn’t know at the time that he was offering me a tool, a coping mechanism that I could use in Canada. Dr. Hansotia hadn’t sent me to him because of my deviated septum. He’d sent me to this man because he somehow knew that my leaving India was going to cost me much more than international student fees.
“Why are you going?” he asked me, when I went to his clinic for a final checkup just before I left. I still remember the day and date. August 11, 1998. It was a Tuesday. I was set to leave for Canada a week later.
“I’m going there to study,” I said. “Study what?”
“Er . . . creative writing.”
“You want to be the next Tennessee Williams?” “No,” I said. “I mean . . .”
“Son, are you sure you want to become a writer?”
A writer? Who said anything about becoming a writer? What the hell was this guy talking about? But of course, secretly, that’s what I had decided. I just had no intention of announcing it. To anybody. To say it would make it real. This was my dirty little tryst with destiny. Perhaps, back then, I didn’t understand the seriousness of my undertaking – I was about to lock horns with something that was larger than me, more powerful, and completely dangerous. I was on my way to becoming a flammable object. That’s what writers are. And I knew I had it in me, this innate ability to combust.
Writing isn’t about prose. It’s not about stories, plots, characters, themes, images, ideas, and, certainly, not about redemption. Do you have the ability to combust? To fucking implode time and again, day in and day out, with the stamina of an athlete, until you have written that novel of yours? Once the book is out, even if it gets great reviews, this still doesn’t prevent your nerves from being on fire, because the next story has already come along, it’s already spewing and vomiting inside your gut – it knows that your ability to combust is far greater than your capacity to heal.
Maybe Dr. Hansotia saw that in me, much more than I did at the time. I was, as they say, full of the arrogance and exuberance of youth. And in the three years since I had graduated from university with my B.Com (Bachelor of Complacency), I had grown shadowy. I no longer lived in the light. I stopped playing football, stopped going to nightclubs, avoided large crowds, felt pissed off hearing laughter. I just stayed at home and stared out my window into the dark, at the glow of lumber mills and cooking fires. But I wrote nothing. I didn’t know how to. I was seething, the fury was building, and I had to leave. That’s all I knew. Leave. If I had stayed on any longer in Bombay, I would have had a motorcycle accident, or gone to the red-light district and smashed a pimp’s head with a bottle.
“Just make sure you do yoga,” said Dr. Hansotia. “Keep doing it even there, it will help you.” In other words, make sure you breathe.
“Yes,” I said.
As soon as I landed in Vancouver, I inhaled. On that very first day, I took such a deep breath that my lungs were shocked by the purity of the air, the sheer audacity of oxygen. I continued doing yoga breaths for a few days. Then I told myself that if this was the quality of the air around me, I wouldn’t need yogic breathing. After Bombay’s smoke-filled, polluted death offering, this Vancouver air seemed like a trick.
It was. And I fell for it.
Twenty years later, I sit by the window in the very room where I grew up. It’s dark outside, the only light coming from a small cooking fire in the lumber mill visible through my window. This is not a typical Bombay view – there are no vehicles, no smoke clouds, no skyscrapers. Just low tin roofs that stretch out for hundreds of metres. In the distance, there is a small building near a cemetery. More space, the dead laid out horizontally for my benefit, not blocking the view. If you think about it, bodies should be buried vertically, to save space. At least, that’s how I would do it. This is what I think about at night. I cannot blame the jet lag. I wouldn’t call myself an insomniac, but sleep and I have a tumultuous relationship. Or perhaps, like so many relationships, it’s one-sided. I love it, but it doesn’t love me back, and what I’m left with is thoughts of vertical burials. My friends tell me that I’m morbid. Why do I think of these things? But if not vertical burials, what? The stock market? Bank statements, families, children, picnics, weddings? No, thank you. Vertical burials need some pondering.
The thing is, something keeps me up at night, whether I’m in Vancouver or Bombay, and I know what it is – or what they are – but I can’t catch them, I cannot exhume them. They are fragments of something deeply embedded in my consciousness. They are all this back-and-forth between continents and cultures, for two decades now, and my inability to own a home, to find a home, to feel at home. Exhale/Exile. Vertical burials. A woman’s undergarment. All gibberish, really. But they make it impossible for me to sleep. And so I have come to the conclusion that nights are not for sleeping. Nights are for translating.
I recently had the pleasure of reconnecting with my Italian translator, Anna Rusconi. On the topic of translation, she mentioned that she doesn’t like to “touch the body” too much. In other words, a translator is not a scientist who examines the text with a scalpel. She simply stands next to the work, really close, “feels its breath, and understands it as though heat is being exchanged by two people who are very close to each other.” My body is exuding these fragments of consciousness into the air, but there is no one but me to intercept them, catch them. I am my own translator, my own doom.
I move to the other side of the apartment, to the row of sliding windows near the main door. My parents are asleep in their room, at the opposite end of the apartment. They are sleepers. No fragments, no translating. While they sleep the sleep of kings, I stare at the underwear. The garment is so motionless that I’m afraid it will come to life any moment, and smother me because I’m staring at it. What a marvellous death that would be.
– How did he die?
– Oh, by underwear.
– By underwear? What do you mean?
– He was staring at a dead woman’s underwear, and it suddenly sprang to life and smothered him.
I would insist on being buried vertically, with the underwear in my mouth. Halfway down my throat, the rest of it rising like sour milk in a horrible puff.
I light a cigarette just to burn the taste of the underwear. It’s the lighting of it, and that first drag, that I enjoy. The rest gives me a headache. But what else can one do at night? How many almonds can one eat, how many cups of tea – green or otherwise? It’s fine; it will be morning soon. Soon, I will hear the sound of the newspaper being tucked into the space between the door and the latch, and the nation’s news will find its way into our home, where it will mix with tea and curdle everything it touches.
Now that the morning light is about to enter, I go back to my room, and close my eyes. The three hours or so of sleep that I get will be full of dreams. More unnecessary fragments. My most recent one: I saw a black-and-white photograph of a man’s face. Below it, his name, Sitar K., written in pencil. He used to work in a circus. Then, another drawing – an architectural sketch of the circus. Someone had drawn an arrow and scribbled the following words in pencil: This is the spot from which he fell and died. Translation: not a clue.
The next morning, I google “Sitar K.” Nothing. Then, “Sitar K. + Circus.” Nothing. I google my dreams. Should I consider myself lucky? That I have the time? That I don’t, or choose not to, rush to an office and sit in a cubicle, which is just another version of a grave?
The doorbell rings. I take my ashtray to the door and empty it into the garbageman’s cane basket; it’s full of half-smoked cigarettes, a healthy, expensive way of smoking. My next-door neighbour greets me with a big hug and a kiss. She asks me, as she always does when she sees me, if I am finally married. In my mind I tell her, as I always do, that I would prefer a vertical burial, while I am alive, to the M-word. But she’s elderly. So I just nod and tell her, “Soon, soon.” Then she tells me about Dr. Hansotia’s wife. “She used to be my childhood friend,” she says. “The three of us, Hosi, me, and her, used to be in the same school.”
I know that already. I have known since I was a child. But I let her speak. Sometimes old people need to speak. The bodily muscles no longer move much, but the tongue moving makes them feel muscular. I let her feel muscular.
“It’s just awful what happened to her.” “What happened?” I ask.
“She died of a brain tumour. And that son of hers didn’t even come to see her.”
That I did not know. It’s not what I would have expected of Yezdi. The last I heard, which was several years ago, he was in Silicon Valley.
“That’s why I’m saying get married quickly,” she tells me. So that I have a son and he doesn’t show up when I’m dying?
I say it was great to see her, and start to move back toward my door.
“And that underwear,” she says. “That underwear . . .” “What about it?”
“How dare he . . . that is Jaloo’s personal . . . I told him what I thought, but he just nodded. He has lost his mind.”
Wouldn’t anyone? If your childhood sweetheart, your wife of fifty years, is gone, and your only child doesn’t come to visit, wouldn’t you lose your mind too? Shouldn’t that be the primary concern for my neighbour? For everyone?
Once I am back inside the apartment, I look at the undergarment again. I love the word “undergarment.” A garment, according to the dictionary, is simply an item of clothing. But add the word “under” to it and the wheels of outrage start to turn. For a deeper understanding of the word “undergarment,” I turn to Wikipedia (as one should for a reliable account of anything):
Undergarments are items of clothing worn beneath our outer clothes, usually in direct contact with the skin . . . They serve to keep outer garments from being soiled or damaged by bodily excretions, to lessen the friction of outerwear against the skin, to shape the body, and to provide concealment or support for parts of it.
Now that Jaloo’s body is gone, what is the underwear doing? It’s creating a ruckus in the minds of my neighbours. But what’s it doing for Dr. Hansotia? Or to him? He doesn’t go out much any more, according to my father. He gave up his practice a while ago, and now he just sits at home. My head starts to hurt. I go to my room, shut the door, pull the blinds down, turn the fan to full speed, and let the dust enter my nostrils. The histamines in my body are now going berserk, my eyes are red, I sneeze and I feel choked up. There’s no question I’m home.
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