At the door of the law sat a gatekeeper. His name was Alim. Alim means wise but Alim did not know the meaning of his name. He was a Tatar, or Tartar, depending upon where you are from and what language you speak. Alim never went to school, and no one ever told him the meaning of his name. He knew a little bit about his homeland from what his father had told him before he died, and later on from the few men of his tribe in the alien neighbourhood where they lived. The only time the Tatar men found time to talk about the past was when they sat around together for a smoke after dinner. Alim’s ancestors were from a peninsula surrounded by two seas. His father, a peasant working in a vineyard in the southern mountains, left the country when the Russians annexed it. He believed it was a more dignified option than living under the orders of the Czar. Alim was twelve years old, his nose already becoming prominent, when the family crossed the Black Sea. His mother, either from a reluctance to leave the country or because she could not keep pace with the men, drowned in the sea. There was no time to retrieve her body. Alim remembered what his father said as they moved on,

“Bury her like a grief in your heart.”

His father died soon after they had moved to Bohemia after a short stay in the county of Constanţa. Alim’s father resisted joining the army twice, back home when the Russians attacked and during the war in Rumania. On both occasions he said,

“My hands are meant to pluck grapes, not pull triggers.”

After his father’s death, Alim grew the customary Tatar beard and, along with his sharp, long nose, it made a formidable impression. He tried his luck at many places, finally earning himself a job as a gatekeeper of the law. It was on the outskirts of the city, and meant for rare cases. He often felt he was being paid for doing nothing, sitting all day to usher in people who never arrived. When the men in the neighbourhood heard of his daily angst, they joked,

“We hope you’re not guarding something imaginary.”

Alim wasn’t one to smile easily, and these remarks gave him even less reason to do so. One bright morning, as he sat in his usual place, waiting for nobody, he saw a man walking up to him. Alim waited, hesitant to draw any hasty conclusion. As he approached, Alim noticed a rather pale-looking man whose coat hung on his shoulders as on a hanger. He had unusually large ears for a man so thin, and it made him look funny. The gleam in his eyes, however, drew Alim’s attention. It was difficult to tell if he was looking straight into him or deep within himself. Alim did not have time to think. The man stood near him, seeking his permission to enter. There was no way Alim could allow the man inside. He had been waiting for ages. The man was providence itself, standing before him as a proof that his job was, after all, no joke and the law he guarded really existed. Alim looked at the man with a touch of gratitude. After a brief pause, Alim told him he could not enter now. He laid stress on the word “now”, as all Alim was looking for was to buy time. If the man was surprised he did not show it. He calmly asked him if he could enter later.

“Perhaps,” Alim said, teasing the man’s expectations.

The man tried to look inside the gate, past Alim, as though weighing his chances. Alim suppressed the urge to laugh. He never laughed before outsiders. He told the man there were other guards inside, each more powerful than him. He did not tell him the others were locals. Only Alim, who belonged to the lowest rung, was a refugee. He drew a frightful picture of the third gatekeeper, to make his story more believable. News of the presence of other gatekeepers gave the man pause. Alim promptly offered him a stool to sit on. The man sat down with the slowness of a tired traveller. Alim caught the man staring closely at him – his shoulders, his nose, the faded old fur coat he had bought from the flea market and, of course, his beard. The Tatar beard always drew the untrammelled curiosity of local people. As if a Tatar lived by his beard, not his heart. For Alim, the beard was the only mark of similarity with his father. The man repeated his request to be allowed inside, and Alim mumbled and gesticulated to tell him it wasn’t time yet. He then started asking the man questions.

“Do you know people, forced to leave their homeland?”

The man raised his thick eyebrows and was about to say something. Then he simply shook his head. Alim enquired about his job and salary, but received no clear answer. Finally, he shot him the question that troubled him the most.

“Do you know anyone who died by drowning?”

The man showed a moment’s puzzlement, but merely shook his head again. He was not interested in Alim’s questions, just exasperated with this obstinate gatekeeper. Alim was not impressed by the silence that met his questions. But how was this man, thought Alim, unaware that no gatekeeper had the power to prevent him? The law favoured no one, and allowed everyone. Alim was surprised by the naiveté of this man from the country. It set him thinking. Was the man summoned by the law or was he here on his own? Did he simply arrive at the law’s doorstep to resolve some petty confusion? That would be such a waste of time. Alim chuckled to himself – maybe he was doing the law a favour by not allowing the man in. Or maybe he was doing the man a favour for, after all, why entangle yourself with the law if you can avoid it? Alim’s thoughts were interrupted when the man took out something from his coat and offered it to him. Alim looked at him awhile and wordlessly accepted the gift. Some time passed and the man made another offering to Alim. Alim accepted it again. When this happened for the third time, Alim told him he still couldn’t grant him entry. He was taking those gifts from him only so the man wouldn’t feel his efforts were lacking. The man sat down resignedly. Alim suddenly felt a bit guilty of his game, but he was trapped by now. This man made his job meaningful. Once he departs, everything will go back to meaninglessness. As time passed, the man offered one or the other of his belongings to Alim. But the two barely spoke to each other. By evening, the man started showing strange symptoms. He began to curse his fate. He grew stiff and began to shiver from the cold, his eyes staring blankly into the horizon. He seemed to have grown much older, mumbling to himself in a state of hallucination. At that moment Alim felt they had been sitting this way, facing each other, not for a day but for many days and many years. Suddenly the man made as if to say something. Alim rose from his seat and went near him. Since he was inaudible, Alim bent forward. The man whispered,

“How come no one else has come this way since I arrived?”

Alim said,

“This gate was meant only for us. After you, I shall shut it and leave this place forever.”

The man looked so stricken Alim thought he would collapse. He suddenly realised how little they knew of each other. The appointed hour brought them before the door. He did not know anything of the man seeking entry. Nor did the Jew know the “lowly” gatekeeper beyond his long beard, nose and stubbornness. They were bound by fate, separated by history. A heavy pall of gloom set over the landscape, as the light sank below the horizon. The muezzin from the nearby mosque announced the time of prayer. The man from the country was about to die. As he spread the old rug for namaz, a sudden twinge of sadness enveloped Alim. He never felt so alone in his life.

Author’s note

I wrote this parable more than ten years ago, and kept working at it. I am glad to publish it on Kafka’s 99th death anniversary. Kafka’s description of the gatekeeper in his parable, Before the Law – “his fur coat… his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard” – prompted me to think of the gatekeeper’s identity (as other). All commentators of Kafka’s parable pause over the predicament of the man from the country in entering the law. The gatekeeper is seen as the typical figure who guards the door of power, of the law, with a clerical lure, distraction and determination. It is the gatekeeper who sets the stage for interpreting the dilemmas and frustrations of the man seeking entry to the law. Jacques Derrida reads the setting as an allegory where literature faces the law, “that place where law is made”. I retell the parable from the gatekeeper’s side. As a modern parable, it says something else in history. The gatekeeper is no longer only a gatekeeper, he is imbued with a certain historicity. The man from the country is still mysterious and unusual. His locational difference with the gatekeeper is slightly distinct. I recreate their encounter by bringing up the question of mutual prejudice and misunderstanding. The parable can be read as an allegory of the historical encounter, where ethical failure often leads to tragic consequences.

Talal Asad on The Gatekeeper

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee’s beautiful, moving story grows out of Kafka’s famous parable, Before the Law. As I read it, The Gatekeeper is not an interpretation of Kafka’s meaning but another parable confronting Kafka’s. Kafka believed that “Parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.” Anyone who pays proper attention to this parable (as at my first reading I confess I didn’t) will be aware that this story doesn’t seek to replace the original by history (“what really happened to real people in real places”) but by another parable that invites the reader to enter imaginatively into the figure of the gatekeeper. Kafka’s story, regardless of its possible interpretations, attends only to the quandary of the Jew who seeks to enter the Law; the immigrant Tartar simply performs the role to which he has been appointed. And yet the one who seeks to enter the law and the one who legally prevents him from entering are mutually dependent in what they do – in what they are. Which is why on the failure and eventual death of the Jew the immigrant Tartar is bereft of purpose. Perhaps not totally incomprehensible, but certainly a human predicament.

Read Franz Kafka’s Before the Law.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Nehru and the Spirit of India, The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown, and Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India.

Talal Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, City University of New York. His prolific body of work includes Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Cultural Memory in the Present), 2013.