Breaking Loos by M. G. Vassanji
Where do we come from, where do we belong, where is home? Easy questions, but the answers are not always so simple. Family, culture, history – all these things connect in different and mysterious ways.
An Asian girl and an African man meet at a university dance in an African country. It is the girl’s home town, and the man is a visitor from another country. Who is the foreigner here… and does it matter?
A band called Iblis was playing on the stage. The singer and guitarist was a young Asian with long hair, now singing another popular foreign song. Close to the stage danced a group of fashionable, brightly dressed girls. Their wild way of dancing seemed to say that they were the girlfriends of the four young men in the band.
Yasmin was at the far end of the dance floor with her girlfriends. She and two of the girls were standing, because there weren’t enough chairs. Sometimes she looked round at the dancers and the band, hoping to see an empty chair that she could bring over. The band was loud, the room was hot and airless, and everyone was sweating. A well-dressed black man in a grey suit appeared out of the crowd of dancers. He came up to her and asked her to dance. She went.
Of all the girls here, why me? I don’t want to dance. I can’t dance, she thought. From the centre of the dance floor she looked back sadly at her friends, who were talking and laughing in the distance.
‘I’m sorry,’ he smiled. ‘I took you away from your friends.’
‘It’s okay… only for a few minutes-‘ she began, and blushed, realizing that was not a polite answer. After all, I should be pleased, she thought. He’s a professor.
It was a dance that did not need any closeness or touching – and she was grateful for that.
‘Daniel Akoto. That’s my name.’
‘I know… I’m Yasmin Rajan.’
It’s all so unnecessary, she thought. I’m not the type. Why didn’t he dance with one of those girls near the stage?
She looked at him. He danced much better than she did.
She was shorter than him. Her long hair was brushed straight back from her face, and she wore a simple dress. This was the middle of her second year at the university.
‘Good music,’ he said.
‘Yes, isn’t it? I know the singer-‘
‘But too Western, don’t you think?’
‘I don’t know…’
She felt uncomfortable with the conversation. There was the little worry too – why had he chosen her, and would he want to see her again? He was looking at her and still talking.
‘… you’re too westernized, you Asians. You like Western ways, European ways, even more than we Africans do.’
She didn’t know what to reply, and felt very embarrassed.
He went on, shaking his head, ‘Just listen to that song! Rolling Stones. What do you call Indian in that? Or am I missing something?’
Oh, why doesn’t he stop? she thought. ‘What do you mean, we’re westernized?’ she said angrily. ‘Of course we have our own culture. We have centuries-old customs…’
She had stopped dancing and there were tears in her eyes. She felt under attack in the middle of the two hundred people dancing around her. She could feel their eyes burning into her, seeing her embarrassment.
She left Akoto in the middle of the dance floor and, with her back straight and her head high, returned to her friends.
The next day she waited for her punishment. A call to the university’s head office, a black mark for her rudeness to a professor who was a visitor from another African country.
During lunch in the university restaurant with her friends, she saw him standing at the door, looking around the room. She took a deep breath and waited. His eyes found her and he hurried forward between the tables, laughing and calling out greetings to people as he passed. When he arrived at her table, he found an empty chair, sat down and looked at her.
‘About last night…’ he began. The other girls picked up their plates and left.
She laughed. ‘You pushed them out,’ she said. ‘They’ll hate you for that.’ She wondered where she had found the confidence to speak like that to him. He was in a red shirt – expensive, she thought. He looked handsome – and harmless.
‘But not for long, I hope,’ he began. His smile grew wider as he looked at her. ‘I’ve come to apologize. I asked you for a dance and then I bored you with all those ideas of mine.’
‘It’s okay. It’s my fault too. You see…’
‘I know, I know. An innocent Indian girl having to dance with a man! But tell me – don’t you expect men to ask you to dance when you’re in a dance hall with music playing?’
She smiled, a little embarrassed. ‘Having girlfriends with you usually means that strangers don’t come and ask…’
‘Oh dear! I’m a foreigner, so I didn’t know that! You came to have a good time with your friends but you couldn’t, because of me. I’m really sorry. Look, let me show you how sorry I am. I’ll take you for a drink. How about that?’
‘But I don’t drink… alcohol, I mean.’
‘Don’t worry. We’ll find something for you.’
It was wrong of him to ask her, of course, but she found she had accepted his invitation without any worries.
When they met, as arranged, later that afternoon, he said, ‘I’ll take you to The Matumbi.’ The Matumbi was a tea shop under a tree, half a mile from the university. It had a roof but no walls. She went in slowly, feeling a little shy. But Akoto was well known there, and the owner pulled up two chairs at a table for them.
‘Are you hungry?’ Akoto asked.
‘No. I’ll just have tea… perhaps a small cake…’
‘Right! Two teas, one cake and one sikisti!’ he called out. ‘What’s a sikisti?’ she asked.
‘It’s a hot egg sandwich. It’s called sikisti because it costs sixty cents!’
‘It’s true, believe me!’
Akoto was a professor of sociology, from Ghana.
‘What are you studying?’ he asked her, after their tea.
‘Do you read any African writers?’
‘Yes. Soyinka… Achebe…’
‘Things fall apart…’ he said.
‘The center cannot hold.’ She finished the words for him.
He laughed. ‘What about Ngugi? Palangyo? Omari?’
She shook her head. She hadn’t heard of them.
‘New, local writers. You should read Nuru Omari. Wait for Me, that’s her first book. I could lend it to you if you want.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll borrow it from the library.’
He looked very surprised. ‘But it’ll take a long time for the library to get it.’
‘I’ll wait… I don’t have much time right now.’
‘All right.’ He was annoyed.
At last, when he saw that she was a little restless, he said, ‘Well, now that I’ve apologized, I hope… Well, perhaps we can go.’
I am studying literature and I have no time to read the most recent books, she thought. She felt ashamed.
When she saw him again several days later, he did not appear to notice her.
He knows I’m not interested, she thought. So why did I go to the tea shop with him?… Because he’s so different, so confident, so intelligent… He’s a real gentleman! Ah, that’s it! He said we Asians are westernized, but what about him? He’s a perfect English gentleman himself! I’ll tell him that!
‘Dear Professor Akoto,’ she wrote, ‘I wanted to tell you something. You called us Asians westernized. Well, have you looked at yourself recently? Your language, your clothes – a suit even in hot weather – you are just like an English gentleman yourself! Yours sincerely, Yasmin Rajan. P.S. Could I borrow Omari’s Wait for Me from you after all? Thanks.’ She put the note under his office door.
The next day he came to find her at lunchtime again. ‘You’re quite right,’ he said. ‘Although I’m not sure I completely agree… But let’s not argue. Let me show you my library. You can borrow any book you like.’
He took her to his house, and when he opened the door of his sitting room, her eyes opened wide in surprise. Three of the walls were covered with books. She had never before seen so many books which belonged to one person.
‘You’ve read all these books?’ she asked.
‘Well… I wouldn’t…’
‘Lucky you. You must know so much!’
‘Oh, not really.’
‘Do you also write?’
‘Yes. But none of my writing is published yet.’
He had ideas about African literature. ‘Today’s writers are going back to their beginnings, digging deep. And that’s what I’m trying to do – dig. So you can understand why I worry about what’s real and what isn’t.’
They went to The Matumbi that evening. She had her first sikisti, and talked about her family.
‘My father had a pawnshop, but pawnshops are no longer allowed, so now he has a shop which makes men’s clothes. Tell me, do you think pawnshops are a bad thing?’
‘Well, I think they’re bad for poor people. They have to pay an awful lot to get their things back.’
‘But where can poor people borrow money from? Not the banks! And you should see the kind of things they bring to the pawnshop. Old watches, broken bicycles, sometimes clothes. We have three old gramophones that we can’t sell.’
‘Is that right? Can I look at them? Perhaps I’ll buy one. I like unfashionable old things.’
So one afternoon Yasmin took him to her father’s shop to show him the old gramophones. He entered the shop alone, while Yasmin went round to the back of the building, where the family lived. Her father came to meet Akoto.
‘Come in, Bwana. What can I get for you?’
‘I came with Yasmin,’ Akoto explained in his bad Swahili. ‘For a gramophone…’
‘Ah, yes! The professor! Sit, Bwana, sit.’
While Yasmin’s father showed Akoto the gramophones, Yasmin was inside the house, talking to her mother.
‘How can you bring him here like this?’ said her mother angrily. ‘What will the neighbours think? I’m so ashamed!’
‘But Mummy, he is a professor!’
‘I don’t care if he’s a professor’s father!’
By the time Akoto had left the shop, with his gramophone, Yasmin’s mother was wild with anger. ‘You do not have friendships with men – not with men who we don’t know.’
‘The world is not ready for it,’ said Yasmin’s father quietly.
‘You stay out of it!’ his wife screamed. ‘This is between Yasmin and me!’
Yasmin knew her father would discuss things sensibly, but her mother never stopped warning her, and punishing her, and expecting the worst, just because she was a girl. Yasmin’s three brothers did not have this problem.
‘What do you know of him? With an Asian man, even if he’s very bad, you know what to expect. But with him?’ Her mother went on shouting and screaming like this for hours.
By the end of the day Yasmin felt half dead with tiredness.
It was more than a week before she and Akoto met again.
‘Where do you eat lunch these days?’ he said, smiling. ‘You’re the perfect salesman. You sell me an old gramophone and disappear. Are you afraid I’ll return it?’
She said something polite, and walked quickly away. Later she returned the books that she had borrowed from him, and refused an invitation to The Matumbi. She did not go to the end-of-year dance, but her friends told her what happened there. Professor Akoto sat alone at a table for a while, and drank quite a lot. He got into a fight with Mr Sharp of the Boys’ School. Then he left.
India was not just the past, or the close circle of family, neighbours, and friends. India was a place, a culture, one of the great nations of the world. And during the holidays Yasmin discovered India. She read endlessly, and asked her father about it. Here in Africa she was an Asian, an Indian.
But up to now she had known almost nothing about India. At first, her search for her own past seemed to put a distance between her and Akoto, the African. But this was what he had talked about – digging deep, finding what was real. So in a strange way her search also brought her closer to him.
The world seemed a smaller place when she went back to university. Smaller but exciting; full of people doing their best, fighting, loving, staying alive. And she was one of those people. People who were locked into their own histories and customs were like prisoners, she thought. But sometimes the old patterns were broken, and things changed – lives changed, the world changed. She was part of that change, she decided.
A month later Yasmin’s father was lifting boxes in his shop when he felt a pain in his heart. The doctor was called, but arrived late, and by then Yasmin’s father was dead.
Daniel Akoto came to the funeral. He sat on the ground among the men, sweating and uncomfortable, trying to sit with his legs crossed. A black face in a sea of patient brown Asian faces. Someone saw how uncomfortable he was and put out a chair for him by the wall. From there Akoto could see clearly across the room.
Mrs Rajan sat beside the dead man, crying. When she looked up, she saw Akoto through her tears, and lost control.
‘You!’ she screamed. ‘What are you doing here? What kind of man are you, who comes to take away my daughter, even in my sadness? Who asked you to come? Go away!’
People turned to stare. Akoto gave an apologetic smile.
‘Go!’ said the woman wildly, pointing a finger at the door.
No one else said a word. Akoto stood up, bent his head respectfully towards the dead man and left the room.
A week later Yasmin knocked at his door late in the evening and found him in.
‘Come in,’ he said, putting away his pipe.
‘I’ve come to apologize for what happened at the funeral.’
‘It’s all right. People aren’t at their best at a funeral… but perhaps they’re more honest.’ He watched her face carefully.
‘You must think we’re awful. You’re a professor – you know so much – you’re a great man…’
‘No, I don’t think you’re awful. And don’t call me a great man!’
She began to laugh, a little wildly. They both laughed.
‘And you, I respect you.’ He spoke calmly. ‘You are brave. You left that crowd of girls that day at the dance, and since then you’ve done it again and again. It’s brave, what you’ve done. Trying to break away from family, friends, the old customs, the old ways… trying to find your own path in life… Even coming here like this. I realize that and I like you.’
‘Well, I like you too!’ she said, too quickly. There was a silence between them. ‘You know, it’s not going to be easy… with my father dead, this will be the most terrible news for my mother… it will kill her, it will…’ Tears were running down her face.
‘Now, now.’ He went up to her, put her wet face on his shirt. ‘We’ll have to do the best we can, won’t we?’