100% life from concentrate
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i know the saying. don’t judge a book by its cover. got it. still, it’s okay to be enamored by a book’s poster, right? the one above hooked me when i saw it on thesmithian. the title is interesting enough but each listed step made the story behind it even more intriguing (particularly loved the poetry in #9 & #10). after getting my hands on some of the novel, i quickly saw that my infatuation wasn’t misplaced.
One cold, dewy morning, you are huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since, wealth-obsessed though you will come to be, you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.
The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.
Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it, anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and, when a mother sees in a third-born child like you pain that makes you whimper under her cot, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty head scarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all her surviving offspring.
What she says is “Don’t leave us here.”
She is addressing your father, who has heard this request before. That does not make him completely unsusceptible to it, however. He is a man of voracious sexual appetite, and he often thinks, while he is away, of your mother’s heavy breasts and ample thighs, and he still longs to thrust himself inside her nightly rather than on his three or four visits per year. He also enjoys her unusually rude sense of humor, and sometimes her companionship as well. And although he is not given to displays of affection toward his young, he would like to watch you and your siblings grow. His own father derived considerable pleasure from the daily progress of crops in the fields, and in this, at least insofar as agriculture is analogous to the development of children, the two men are similar.
He says, “I can’t afford to bring you to the city.”
“We could stay with you in the quarters.”
“I share my room with the driver. He’s a masturbating, chain-smoking, flatulent sisterfucker. There are no families in the quarters.”
“You earn ten thousand now. You’re not a poor man.”
“In the city, ten thousand makes you a poor man.”
He gets up and walks outside. Your eyes follow him, his leather sandals unslung at the rear, their straps flapping free, his chapped heels callused, crustacean-like. He steps into the open-air courtyard situated at the center of your extended family’s compound. He is unlikely to linger there in contemplation of the single, shade-giving tree, comforting in summer, but now, in spring, still tough and scraggly. Possibly he exits the compound and makes his way to the ridge behind which he prefers to defecate, squatting low and squeezing forcefully to expel the contents of his colon. Possibly he is alone, or possibly he is not.
The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place, in turn, downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as drainage for the foul-smelling gray effluent that results.
Your father is a cook, but, despite being reasonably good at his job, he is not a man obsessed with the freshness or quality of his ingredients. Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil. His food burns the tongue and clogs the arteries. When he looks around him in the countryside, he does not see prickly leaves and hairy little berries for an effervescent salad, tan stalks of wheat for a heavenly balloon of stone-ground, stovetop-baked flatbread. He sees, instead, units of backbreaking toil. He sees hours and days and weeks and years. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.
Most of the men of the village who now work in the city return for the wheat harvest. But it is still too early in the year for that. Your father is here on leave. Nonetheless, he likely accompanies his brothers to spend his morning cutting grass and clover for fodder. He will squat, again, but this time sickle in hand, and his movements of gather-cut-release-waddle will be repeated over and over and over as the sun retraces its own incremental path in the sky.
Beside him, a single dirt road passes through the fields. Should the landlord or his sons drive by in their S.U.V., your father and his brothers will bring their hands to their foreheads, bend low, and avert their eyes. Meeting the gaze of a landlord has been a risky business in these parts for centuries, perhaps since the beginning of history. Recently, some men have begun to do it. But they have beards and earn their keep in the seminaries. They walk tall, with chests out. Your father is not one of them. In fact, he dislikes them almost as much as he does the landlords, and for the same reasons. They strike him as domineering and lazy.
Lying on your side with one ear on the packed earth, from your worm’s-height perspective you watch your mother follow your father into the courtyard. She feeds the water buffalo tethered there, tossing fodder that was cut yesterday and mixed with straw into a wooden trough, and milks the animal as it eats, jets of liquid smacking into her tin pail. When she is done, the children of the compound, your siblings and cousins, lead the buffalo, its calf, and the goats out to forage. You hear the swishing of the peeled branches the children hold, and then they are gone.
Your aunts leave the compound next, bearing clay pots on their heads for water and carrying clothes and soap for cleaning. These are social tasks. Your mother’s responsibility is solitary. This is not a coincidence. She squats as your father is likely squatting, a handleless broom in her hand instead of a sickle, her sweep-sweep-waddle approximating his movements. Squatting is energy-efficient and better for the back. But, after hours and days and weeks and years, its mild discomfort echoes in the mind like muffled screams from a subterranean torture chamber. The pain can be borne endlessly, provided it is never acknowledged.
Your mother cleans the courtyard under the gaze of her mother-in-law. The old woman sits in shadow, the edge of her shawl held in her mouth to conceal not her attributes of temptation but, rather, her lack of teeth, and looks on in unquenchable disapproval. Your mother is regarded in the compound as vain and arrogant and headstrong, and these accusations have bite, for they are all true. Your grandmother tells your mother she has missed a spot. Because she is toothless and holds the cloth between her lips, when she speaks it sounds like she is spitting.
Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win. In the meantime, your grandmother flaunts her authority whenever she can, and your mother flaunts her physical strength. The other women of the compound would be frightened of your mother were it not for the reassuring existence of the men. In an all-female society your mother would likely rise to be queen, a bloody staff in her hand and crushed skulls beneath her feet. Here the best she has been able to manage is, for the most part, to be spared severe provocation. Even this, cut off as she is from her own village, is no small victory.
Unsaid between your mother and your father is that on ten thousand a month he could, just barely, afford to bring her and his children to the city. It would be tight but not impossible. At the moment he is able to send most of his salary back to the village, where it is split between your mother and the rest of the clan. If she and you children were to move in with him, the flow of his money to this place would slow to a trickle, swelling like the water in the gully only in the two festival months when he could perhaps expect a bonus.
You watch your mother slice up a lengthy white radish and boil it over an open fire. The sun has banished the dew and, unwell as you are, you no longer feel cold. You feel weak, though, and with the pain in your gut it is as if a parasite were eating you alive from within. So you do not resist as your mother lifts your head off the earth and ladles her elixir into your mouth. It smells like a burp, like the gases from a man’s belly. It makes your gorge rise. But you have nothing inside that you can vomit, and you swallow it without incident.
As you lie motionless afterward, a jaundiced village boy, radish juice dribbling from the corner of your lips and forming a small patch of mud on the ground, it must seem that getting filthy rich is beyond your reach. But have faith. You are not as powerless as you appear. Your moment is about to come.
Decision time arrives a few hours later. The sun has set and your mother has shifted you onto the cot, where you lie swaddled in a blanket even though the evening is warm. The men have returned from the fields, and the family, all except you, have eaten together in the courtyard. Through the doorway you can hear the gurgle of a water pipe and see the flare of its coals as one of your uncles inhales.
Your parents stand over you, looking down. Tomorrow your father will return to the city. He is thinking.
“Will you be all right?” he asks you.
It is the first question he has asked you on this visit, perhaps the first sentence he has uttered directly to you in months. You are in pain and frightened. So the answer is obviously no.
Yet you say, “Yes.”
And take your destiny into your own hands.
Your father absorbs your croak and nods. He says to your mother, “He’s a strong child, this one.”
She says, “He’s very strong.”
You’ll never know if it is your answer that makes your father change his answer. But that night he tells your mother that he has decided she and you children will join him in the city.
A month later, you are well enough to ride with your brother and sister on the roof of the overloaded bus that bears your family and threescore cramped others to the city. If it tips over as it careens down the road, swerving in mad competition with equally crowded rivals as they seek to pick up the next group of prospective passengers on this route, your likelihood of death or, at least, dismemberment will be extremely high. Such things happen often, although not nearly as often as they don’t happen. But today is your lucky day.
Gripping the ropes that bind luggage to this vehicle, you witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so, too, can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia.
Atop your inky-smoke-spewing, starboard-listing conveyance, you survey the changes with awe. Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.
At each subsequent wonder you think you have arrived, that surely nothing could belong more to your destination than this, and each time you are proved wrong, until you cease thinking and simply surrender to the layers of marvels and visions washing over you like the walls of rain that follow one another seemingly endlessly in the monsoon—endlessly, that is, until they end, without warning, and then the bus shudders to a stop and you are finally, irrevocably there.
As you and your parents and siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or, indeed, tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation—the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.
Your sister turns to look at you. Her left hand steadies the enormous bundle of clothing and possessions balanced on her head. Her right hand grips the handle of a cracked and battered suitcase likely discarded by its original owner around the time your father was born. She smiles and you smile in return, your faces small ovals of the familiar in an otherwise unrecognizable world. You think your sister is trying to reassure you. It does not occur to you, young as you are, that it is she who needs reassurance, that she seeks you out not to comfort you but, rather, for the comfort that you, her only recently recovered little brother, have in this moment of fragile vulnerability the capacity to offer her.
Your city is not laid out as a single-celled organism, with a wealthy nucleus surrounded by an ooze of slums. It lacks sufficient mass transit to move all its workers twice daily in the fashion this would require. It also lacks, since the end of colonization, generations ago, governance powerful enough to dispossess individuals of their property in sufficient numbers. Accordingly, the poor live near the rich. Wealthy neighborhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards, and those, in turn, may be separated from the homes of the impoverished only by an open sewer, a railroad track, or a narrow alley. Your own triangle-shaped community, through which you walk now, textbook in hand, is bounded by all three.
Arriving at your destination, you see a whitewashed building with a plaque declaring its name and function. This is your school, and it is wedged between a tire-repair stall and a corner kiosk that derives the bulk of its revenues from the sale of cigarettes. Until the age of about twelve, when the opportunity cost of forgone wages becomes significant, most children in your area manage to go to school. Most, but by no means all. A boy your height is working shirtless in the tire-repair stall. He watches you now as you pass.
There are fifty pupils in your class, and stools for thirty. The others sit on the floor or stand. You are instructed by a hollow-cheeked, betel-nut-spitting, possibly tubercular teacher. Today he takes you through your multiplication tables. This he does in a distracted chant, his preferred, indeed only, pedagogical tool being enforced rote memorization. Parts of his mind not responsible for control over the tissue and bone of his vocal apparatus wander far, far away.
Your teacher chants, “Ten tens, a hundred.”
The class chants it back.
Your teacher chants, “Eleven elevens, a hundred twenty-one.”
The class chants it back.
Your teacher chants, “Twelve twelves, a hundred thirty-four.”
One foolhardy voice interrupts. It says, “Forty-four.”
There is silence. The voice is yours. You spoke without thinking, or, at least, without thinking sufficiently ahead.
Your teacher says, “What did you say?”
You hesitate. But it has happened. There is no way back.
Your teacher’s tone is soft with menace. “Why did you say that?”
“Twelve twelves are a hundred forty-four.”
“You think I’m an idiot?”
“No, sir. I thought you said a hundred thirty-four. I made a mistake. You said a hundred forty-four. I’m sorry, sir.”
The entire class knows that your teacher did not say a hundred forty-four. Or perhaps not the entire class. Much of the class was paying no attention, daydreaming of kites or assault rifles, or rolling nasal residue into balls between their thumbs and forefingers. But some of them know. And all of them know what will happen next, if not the precise form it will take. They watch now in horrified fascination, like seals on a rock observing a great white breaching beneath one of their own.
Most of the pupils have in the past been punished by your teacher. You, as one of the brightest among them, have drawn some of the most severe punishments. You attempt to hide your knowledge, but every so often bravado gets the better of you and it comes out, as it just has, and then there is hell to pay. Today your teacher reaches into the pocket of his tunic, where he keeps a small amount of coarse sand, and grips you by the ear, the sand on his fingertips adding abrasion to the enormous pressure he applies, so that your earlobe is not only crushed but also made raw and slightly bloody. You refuse to cry out, denying your torturer satisfaction, and thereby insuring that the punishment is prolonged.
Your teacher did not want to be a teacher. He wanted to be a meter reader at the electric utility. Meter readers do not have to put up with children, they work comparatively little, and, more important, they have greater opportunity for corruption and are hence both better off and held in higher regard by society. Nor was becoming a meter reader out of your teacher’s reach. His uncle worked for the electric utility. But the one position as meter reader this uncle was able to facilitate went, as all things most desirable in life invariably went, to your teacher’s elder brother.
So your teacher, who narrowly failed his secondary-school final examination but was able to have the results falsified, with his false results—plus a bribe equivalent to sixty per cent of one year’s prospective salary, and a good low-level connection in the education bureaucracy in the form of a cousin—secured the post he currently occupies. He is not exactly a man who lives to teach. In fact, he hates to teach. It shames him. Nonetheless, he retains a small but not nonexistent fear of losing his job, or, if not losing his job, then of being put in a position where he will be forced to pay yet another, and indeed larger, bribe in order to retain it, and this fear, augmented by his sense of abiding disappointment and his not unfounded conviction that the world is profoundly unfair, manifests itself in the steady dose of violence he visits upon his charges. With each blow, he tells himself, he helps education penetrate another thick skull.
Penetration and education, the two are intertwined in the lives of many around you. In the life of your sister, for example. She is sobbing when you return home. Lately, she alternates with alarming frequency between suppressed but globular tears and calm airs of smug superiority. At the moment, it is the former.
You say, “Again?”
“Sit on my dick, you little pussy.”
You shake your head. You are too tired to retort appropriately and, what’s more, too drained to be confident of dodging one of her quick-fire slaps.
She notices that something is wrong with you. She says, “What happened to your ear?”
“That sisterfucker. Come here.”
You sit beside her and she puts her arm around you, stroking your hair. You shut your eyes. She sniffles once or twice, but she is done crying for now.
You say, “Are you frightened?”
“Frightened?” She forces a laugh. “He should be frightened of me.”
The “he” she refers to is your father’s second cousin, a decade her senior, to whom she is now betrothed. His first wife recently died in childbirth after two miscarriages, and no time has been wasted in arranging another match for him.
“Does he still have that mustache?” you ask.
“How should I know? I haven’t seen him in years.”
“It’s enormous, that mustache.”
“You know what they say about the size of a man’s mustache.”
“So are you frightened?”
“I don’t know. Of leaving. I’d be scared to move back to the village all by myself.”
“That’s why you’re still a boy and I’m a woman.”
“You’re a girl.”
“No, I’m a woman.”
“I bleed every month. I’m a woman.”
“Maybe.” She smiles. “But a woman.”
Then she surprises you. She does something that you associate with women of girth and substance, not with slender slips of girls like her. She sings. She sings in a quiet and powerful voice. She sings a song that mothers in your village sing to their newborns, a song that your mother sang to each of you. It is like a lullaby but more upbeat, meant not to put an infant to sleep but, rather, to communicate a mother’s presence when a task takes her beyond touch or out of sight. You have not heard it in years. It feels strange to hear your sister sing it, oddly relaxing and unsettling at the same time. You lean against her as she sings, and you feel her body swell and diminish like a harmonium.
Your sister, firstborn, has worked as a cleaning girl since shortly after your family moved to the city, your father’s income unable to keep up with the rampant inflation of recent years. She was told that she could go back to school once your brother, the second of you three surviving siblings, was old enough to work. She demonstrated more enthusiasm for education in her few months in a classroom than your brother did in his several years. He has just been found employment as a painter’s assistant, and has been taken out of school as a result, but your sister will not be sent there in his stead. The time for that has passed. Marriage is her future. She has been marked for entry.
When your brother gets home he is exhausted, a fine white dusting of paint on the exposed skin of his hands and face. It is also on his hair, like a play actor’s makeup, and he resembles a boy about to go onstage as a middle-aged man in a school drama. He looks at you wearily and coughs.
Your sister says, “I told you, you shouldn’t smoke.”
He says, “I don’t smoke.”
She sniffs him. “Yes, you do.”
“The master does. I’m just around him all day.”
The truth is that your brother has smoked on several occasions. But he does not particularly like to smoke, and he has not smoked this week. Besides, smoking is not the reason for his cough. The reason for his cough is paint inhalation.
The painter your brother assists is an air-gun spray painter, and his work is in some senses like being an astronaut, or, slightly more prosaically, a scuba diver. It, too, involves the hiss of air, the feeling of weightlessness, the sudden pressure headaches and nausea, the precariousness that results when an organic being and a machine are fused together. Then again, an astronaut or an aquanaut sees unimaginable new worlds, whereas your brother sees only a monocolor haze of varying intensities.
His occupation requires patience and the fortitude to withstand a constant sense of low-level panic, both of which, out of necessity, your brother has acquired. In theory, it also requires protection in the form of goggles and respirators, but your brother and his master have neither. They place thin cotton rags over their mouths and noses instead. Hence, in the near term, your brother’s cough. Over the long term, consequences can be more serious. But a painter’s assistant is paid, the skills he learns are valuable, and, in any case, over sufficiently long a term, as everyone knows, there is nothing that does not have as its consequence death.
While your mother prepares dinner that evening, a lentil stew thickened with chunks of onion, not because onions are her favorite ingredient but because they appear to add substance to a meal and today in the market they were cheap, it may not seem that you are a lucky child. Your wounded ear is, after all, more visibly painful than the expression in your sister’s eyes or the residue of paint on your brother’s skin. Yet you are fortunate. Fortunate in being third-born.
There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.
Your father comes home after you have eaten. He has his meals with the other servants at the house where he cooks. All of you crowd around the family television, a sign of your urban prosperity. It is powered by a wire of communally stolen electricity that runs down the front of your building. It is archaic, a black-and-white, cathode-ray-tube device with an excessively curved and annoyingly chipped screen. It is narrower than the distance between your wrist and your elbow. And it is able to capture only the few channels that broadcast terrestrially. But it works, and your family watches in a state of hushed rapture the musical variety show it delivers to your room.
When the show ends, credits roll. Your mother sees a meaningless stream of hieroglyphs. Your father and sister make out an occasional number, your brother the occasional word. Third means your success is decoupling from that of your kin. For you alone does this part of the programming make sense. You understand that it reveals who is responsible for what.
The electricity to your neighborhood cuts out on the hour, and with it the light from your single naked bulb. A candle burns while you all prepare to turn in, and is then extinguished by your mother with a squeeze of her fingers. In the room it is now dim but not dark, the glow of the city creeping in through the shutters, and quiet but not silent. You hear a train decelerate as it passes along the tracks. You tend to sleep deeply, so although you share a cot with your brother, his cough does not disturb you even once during the night. ♦