14 September 2011

A Plain Tale from the Hills

Recently, a magazine I had never previously heard of asked me whether I would supply them with a piece of short fiction. The length requirement was pretty strict. I had nothing that short to offer, so I decided to try and write a story to their specification, something I have never previously done in the fiction line.

I had recently finished (for perhaps the third time) Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, a masterly collection of short stories originally published in the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette, a newspaper at which he worked as a young man. Rather presumptuously, I decided to try writing a story of the same kind – a kind of student piece in the manner of Kipling, in which Nuwara Eliya, the Ceylonese equivalent of Simla, would provide the frame, just as Simla did for the original Plain Tales. I don’t know how well I succeeded, but the magazine, Himal Southasian, accepted the piece for publication. You can read it here, and I hope you will, though if you can find and buy a copy of the magazine and read it there, that would be even better.

The central conceit, by the way, is stolen from another famous master of the short story, Jorge Luis Borges. Can you identify the story in which it appears?

Thank you, Mr. Hitchens

Letters to a Young ContrarianLetters to a Young Contrarian

Though no longer young, I remain at heart a contrarian, someone who is driven to question conventional wisdom and popular attitudes. Indeed, I feel this is something of a duty – one in which I am far more lax than I have any excuse to be, and clearly far more lax than Mr. Hitchens is. Living as I do in a country that has fallen victim to creeping ethno-religious totalitarianism, my conscience was not simply pricked, but speared, when I read this:

The two worst things, as one can work out without leaving home, are racism and religion. When allied, these two approximate to what I imagine fascism must have felt like.

As we Sri Lankans know all too well, he is right. As we also know, fascism is hard to stand against. Amazingly, Hitchens offers a recommendation for living conscientiously with all kinds of oppression, one he calls living ‘as if’ – living as if one were a citizen of a free society, truly able to exercise all one’s rights and duties, so that one’s way of life becomes itself a form of protest.

In order to survive those years of stalemate and realpolitik... a number of important dissidents evolved a strategy for survival. In a phrase, they decided to live ‘as if’... Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd... proposed living ‘as if’ he were a citizen of a free society, ‘as if’ lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, ‘as if’ his government had actually signed... the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic 'The Power of the Powerless’ because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid.

I found this book put heart into me, reinforcing my belief that disagreement and argument are vital to the pursuit of happiness. I am no political activist, but I believe in certain values and know certain things to be true, and I try to live by these truths and values. The struggle is hard and often seems futile, especially when one’s friends and colleagues turn away to embrace the lie. At times like this, it is good to learn that the effort is not necessarily wasted. It is rarely one feels grateful to an author for writing a book. Thank you, Mr. Hitchens.