The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 goes to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
It was just after seven and the pub was almost empty. The only other customer apart from Daud was a thin, old man leaning over his drink at a corner of the bar. The barman was talking to him, and nodded at Daud to show that he had seen him and would presently attend to him. It was getting towards the end of the week and money was short, so Daud bought himself the cheapest half-pint of beer and sat in the alcove by the window. The beer tasted watery and sour, but he shut his eyes and gulped it.
He heard the barman chuckling softly at something that the old man had said. They both turned to look at him. The old man grinned as he leant back to stare at Daud over an angle of his shoulder, nodding as if he intended to reassure and calm him. Daud made his face as lugubrious as he could and his eyes glassy and blank, blind to the old man’s antics. He thought of the grin as the one that won an empire.
Khalifa was twenty-six years old when he met the merchant Amur Biashara. At the time he was working for a small private bank owned by two Gujarati brothers. The Indian-run private banks were the only ones that had dealings with local merchants and accommodated themselves to their ways of doing business. The big banks wanted business run by paperwork and securities and guarantees, which did not always suit local merchants who worked on networks and associations invisible to the naked eye. The brothers employed Khalifa because he was related to them on his father’s side. Perhaps related was too strong a word but his father was from Gujarat too and in some instances that was relation enough. His mother was a countrywoman. Khalifa’s father met her when he was working on the farm of a big Indian landowner, two days’ journey from the town, where he stayed for most of his adult life. Khalifa did not look Indian, or not the kind of Indian they were used to seeing in that part of the world. His complexion, his hair, his nose, all favoured his African mother but he loved to announce his lineage when it suited him. Yes, yes, my father was an Indian. I don’t look it, hey?
I have found myself leaning heavily on this pain. At first I tried to silence it, thinking it would go and leave me to my agitated content. That it would linger for a season, a firm reminder of the disquiet that lurks and coils below the surface of the stubbornly self-gratifying vision of our lives. Far from going, it became more clear, more precisely located, concrete, an object that occupied space within me, cockroachy, dark and intimate, emitting thick, stinking fumes that reeked of loneliness and terror. When I woke up in the morning, I groped for it, then sighed with plunging recognition as I felt it stirring inside me, alive and well. Emma said it was indigestion or something similar, but I could see from the surprised anxiety in her eyes that she did not believe that. For a few weeks she persuaded me to try a variety of powders and tablets, and she began to read about special diets, and acidity and roughage and vitamins. Emma was like that with problems. She gave them her careful attention, at least for a while.
My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending and hating. I might have faked a lack of concern or I might have ranted in angry outrage behind my father’s back and blamed him for the way everything had turned out and how it might all have been otherwise. In my bitterness I might have concluded that there was nothing exceptional in having to live without a father’s love. It might even be a relief to have to do without it. Fathers are not always easy, especially if they too grew up without their father’s love, for then everything they know would make them understand that fathers had to have things their own way, one way or another.
Dottie first heard the news of her sister’s labour on the factory Tannoy. The voice booming through the public address system did not say that she was being urgently summoned to attend a birth, but Dottie knew. She hurried away with a feeling that this was a moment she had already lived through. In the office she was told that the hospital had rung with a message. Sophie had collapsed at work.
In the cab to the hospital she wondered if there was something she should do, some preparation she could make. It was a short journey from Kennington to Tooting, but the traffic was heavy and their progress was slow. At last the taxi came to a shuddering stop at the hospital entrance, and Dottie stepped out into a patch of autumn sunlight that had evaded the buildings around her. The ward sister smiled and told her that she was too late. The baby had already arrived.
Memory of Departure
My mother was in the backyard, starting the fire. Snatches of the prayer she was chanting reached me before I went out. I found her with her head lowered over the brazier, blowing gently to coax the charcoal into flames. The saucepan of water was ready by her feet. When she glanced round, I saw that the fire had darkened her face and brought tears to her eyes. I asked for the bread money, and she frowned as if loath to be disturbed from tending the flames. She reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out the knotted handkerchief in which she kept her money. The coins she put in my hand were warm from her body, and felt soft and round without edges.
“Don’t take forever,” she said, and turned back to the fire without raising her eyes to my face. I left the house without greeting her and was sorry as soon as my back was turned.
She was then in her early thirties but seemed older. Her hair had already turned grey, and the years had ruined her face, etching it with bitterness. Her glance was often reproachful, and small acts of neglect provoked her into resentful stares.
The Last Gift
One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back. And then another day, forty-three years later, he collapsed just inside the front door of his house in a small English town. It was late in the day when it happened, returning home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether. He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame but himself.
He felt it coming, the collapse. Not with the dread of ruin that had idled by him for as long as he could remember, but with a feeling that something deliberate and muscular was steadily bearing down on him. It was not a strike out of nowhere, more like the beast had slowly turned its head towards him, recognised him and then reached out to smother him. His thoughts were clear as the weakness drained his body, and in that clarity he thought, absurdly, that this must be what it felt like to starve or freeze to death or to have a stone crush the breath out of your body. The comparison made him wince despite his anxiety: see what melodrama tiredness can induce?
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