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If any logic at all can be found in the way a popular myth gets its start, then we have to go back to Calcutta, to the Consulate General of Belgium, to look for the beginnings of the one we can call, for the moment, “the myth of the newfound paradise.” A shabby little consulate, set up in an old colonial villa on the edge of the diplomatic quarter, waking one morning to find a silent throng milling around outside its doors. At daybreak the Sikh guard had chained the front gate shut. From time to time he would point the barrel of his antique rifle between the bars, to urge back the ones who had pushed their way up front. But since he was a decent sort, and since there was really no threat to himself or the gate he was guarding, he would tell them now and again, nicely as he could:
“Look, maybe in a little while you can have some rice. But then you’ll have to go. It’s no use standing around. See the announcement? It’s signed by the Consul himself.”
“What does it say?” the crowd would yell, since none of them could read. “Tell us … Read it out loud …”
As a matter of fact, it was hard to make out much of anything now on the notice posted on the gate, smudged as it was with the prints of the thousand hands that had pawed it over, never quite believing the bad news it proclaimed. But the guard knew the text by heart. He had had to recite it now for a week, day in day out, and he droned it through, word for word, from beginning to end:
“Pursuant to the royal decree of such-and-such date, the government of Belgium has decided to terminate until further notice all adoption procedures presently under way. Henceforth no new requests for adoption will be accepted. Similarly, no Belgian entry visas will be granted for those children currently being processed for departure, even in those cases where a legal adoption and dates the present decree.”
A long moan ran through the crowd. Judging by its length and volume, and by the fact that it welled up out of the silence each time it seemed about to die, the Sikh guard—a master at gauging mass distress—guessed that their number had doubled, at least, since the day before.
“Come on, now. Move back!” he shouted, shaking his gun. “Let’s all quiet down! You’ll get your rice, then you’ll have to go back where you came from. And you’d better stay there from now on, too. You heard the announcement.”
Up front, a woman stepped out of the crowd and started to speak. All the rest stopped to listen, as if she were speaking for each and every one. She was holding a child in her outstretched arms, a little boy, maybe two years old, thrusting his face so close to the gate that it made him cross his big, gaping eyes.
“Look at my son,” she cried. “Isn’t he pretty? Isn’t he solid and strong for his age, with his plump little thighs, and his arms, and his nice straight legs? … See? Look at his mouth. See how white and even his teeth are? … And his face. Not a scab, not a fly. And his eyes, never any pus, wide open all the time … And his hair. You could grab it and pull it, and he wouldn’t lose a one. … Look between his legs, see how clean it all is? Even his little bottom … And his belly, nice and flat, not swollen like some babies his age … I could show you what comes out when he goes, and you wouldn’t see a worm, not even a speck of blood. No, he’s a good, healthy child. Like the papers said he had to be. Because we fed him the best, we fattened him up just for that. From the day he was born. We saw how pretty he was, and we made up our minds we would send him. So he could grow up there, and be rich, and happy … And we fed him more and more, just like the clinic told us. … Then his sisters died. The two of them. They were older than he was, but such sickly little things, and he was so hungry, and prettier every day. He could eat enough for three, God bless him! … And now you’re trying to tell me that we fattened him up for nothing, that his poor father slaved in the ricefields and worked himself to death, all for nothing, and that I’m going to have him on my hands for good, and keep him, and feed him? … No, it’s my turn to eat! And I’m hungry, you hear? Yes, it’s my turn now, because he’s big and strong. … And besides, he’s not mine now, he’s not even mine. He’s got a new family, halfway around the world, and they’re waiting to take him and give him their name. See? It says so on this medal they sent us. The one around his neck. See? I’m not lying! He’s theirs now. Take him, he’s theirs. I’m through. They promised. I did what they told me, and now … No, now I’m too tired …”
A hundred women pushed forward, each one with a child in her outstretched arms. And they cried out things like: “He’s theirs now, he’s theirs!,” or “They promised to take him Pretty babies, mostly, all looking as if they had fed themselves plump on the flesh of their mothers. Poor haggard souls, those mothers, drained dry, as if the umbilical cords were still intact. And the crowd howled, “Take them, take them! They’re theirs now! Take them!,” while hundreds of others pressed forward behind the ones up front, with armfuls of babes by the hundreds, and hundreds of bigger ones too, all ripe for adoption, pushing them up to the brink, to take the giant leap to paradise. The Belgian decree, far from stemming the human flood, had increased it tenfold. When man has nothing left, he looks askance at certainty. Experience has taught that it’s not meant for him. As likelihood fades, myth looms up in its place. The dimmer the chance, the brighter the hope. And so, there they were, thousands of wretched creatures, hoping, crowding against the consulate gates, like the piles of fruit a crafty merchant heaps on his stand, afraid it might spoil: the best ones up front, all shiny and tempting; the next best right behind, still in plain sight, and not too bad if you don’t look too close; then the ones barely visible, the damaged ones, starting to rot, all wormy inside, or turned so you can’t see the mold. … Milling about, way back in the crowd, the women with the monsters, the horrors that no one would take off their hands. And they moaned and groaned louder than all the rest, since their hope knew no bounds. Turned back, pushed aside, driven off day afterday, they had come to believe that a paradise so well protected was worth besieging for the rest of their lives, if need be. Before, when the gate was open and the beautiful children had gone streaming through, occasionally one of these mothers would manage to slip her monster in line. Which was something, at least. A step toward salvation. Even though the Sikh would always hold up his rifle and bar the Consul’s door. They had come close, and that was enough to nurture their hope, enough to make it spring to life with extravagant visions of milk and honey flowing untapped into rivers thick with fish, whose waters washed fields fairly bursting with crops, far as the eye could see, growing wild for the taking, where little monster children could ,roll about to their hearts’ content. … The simpler the folk, the stronger the myth. Soon everyone heard their babble, believed their fantasies, and dreamed the same wild dreams of life in the West. The problem is that, in famine-racked Calcutta, “everyone” means quite a few. Could that be one explanation? …
Way back, behind the backmost women in the crowd, a giant of a man stood stripped to the waist, holding something over his head and waving it like a flag. Untouchable pariah, this dealer in droppings, dung roller by trade, molder of manure briquettes, turd eater in time of famine, and holding high in his stinking hands a mass of human flesh. At the bottom, two stumps; then an enormous trunk, all hunched and twisted and bent out of shape; no neck, but a kind of extra stump, a third one in place of a head, and a bald little skull, with two holes for eyes and a hole for a mouth, but a mouth that was no mouth at all—no throat, no teeth—just a flap of skin over his gullet. The monster’s eyes were alive, and they stared straight ahead, high over the crowd, frozen forward in a relentless gaze—except, that is, when his pariah father would wave him bodily back and forth. It was just that lidless gaze that flashed through the bars of the gate and caught the eye of the Consul himself, staring in spellbound horror. He had stepped outside for a look at the crowd, to see what was going on. But it wasn’t the crowd he saw. And all at once he closed his eyes and began to shout:
“No rice! No visas! No anything! You won’t get another thing, do you hear? Now get out! Get out! Every one of you! Out!”
As he turned to rush off, a sharp little stone hit him square on the forehead and left a gash. The monster’s eyes lit up. The quiver that ran through his frame was his way of thanking his father. And that was all. No other act of violence. Yet suddenly the keeper of the milk and honey, stumbling back to his consulate, head in hands, struck the crowd as a rather weak defender of the sacred portals of the Western World. So weak, in fact, that if only they could wait, sooner or later he was bound to drop the keys. Could that be one explanation? …
The Sikh took aim. The hint was enough. They all squatted down on their haunches, hushed and still, like waters ebbing before the flood.
“You and your pity!” the Consul shouted. “Your damned, obnoxious, detestable pity! Call it what you please: world brotherhood, charity, conscience … I take one look at you, each and every one of you, and all I see is contempt for yourselves and all you stand for. Do you know what it means? Can’t you see where it’s leading? You’ve got to be crazy. Crazy or desperate. You’ve got to be out of your minds just to sit back and let it all happen, little by little. All because of your pity. Your insipid, insufferable pity!”
The Consul was sitting behind his desk, a bandage on his forehead. Across from him, some ten or so figures sat rooted to wooden chairs, like apostles carved in stone on a church façade. Each of the statues had the same white skin, the same gaunt face, the same simple dress—long duck pants or shorts, half-sleeve khaki shirt, open sandals—and most of all the same deep, unsettling gaze that shines in the eyes of prophets, philanthropists, seers, fanatics, criminal geniuses, martyrs—weird and wondrous folk of every stripe—those split-personality creatures who feel out of place in the flesh they were born with. One was a bishop, but unless you already knew, it was quite impossible to tell him apart from the missionary doctor or the starry-eyed layman by his side. Just as impossible to single out the atheist philosopher and the renegade Catholic writer, convert to Buddhism, both spiritual leaders of the little band … They all just sat there without a word.
“The trouble is,” the Consul continued, “you’ve gone too far! And on purpose! Because you’re so convinced it’s the right thing to do. Have you any idea how many children from the Ganges here have been shipped off to Belgium? Not to mention the rest of Europe, and those other sane countries that closed their borders off before we did! Forty thousand, that’s how many! Forty thousand in five years! And all of you, so sure you could count on our people. Playing on their sentiments, their sympathy. Perverting their minds with vague feelings of self-reproach, to twist their Christian charity to your own bizarre ends. Weighing our good, solid burghers down with a sense of shame and guilt. … Forty thousand! Why, there weren’t even that many French in Canada back in the seventeen-hundreds. … And in two-faced times like these, you can bet the government won’t admit what’s really behind that racist decree. … Yes, racist, that’s what I called it. You loathe the word, don’t you? You’ve gone and worked up a race problem out of whole cloth, right in the heart of the white world, just to destroy it. That’s what you’re after. You want to destroy our world, our whole way of life. There’s not one of you proud of his skin, and all that it stands for …”
“Not proud, or aware of it, either,” one of the statues corrected. “That’s the price we have to pay for the brotherhood of man. We’re happy to pay it.”
“Yes, well, we’ve gone beyond that now,” said the Consul. “Adoption isn’t the issue anymore, discontinued or otherwise. I’ve been on the phone with my colleagues in all the Western consulates. They tell me it’s just the same. Great crowds outside, milling around, quiet, as if they’re waiting for something to happen. And mind you, none of the others have decrees on their gates. Besides, look at the English. Their visas were like hens’ teeth, but that hasn’t kept ten thousand people from squatting in the gardens outside their consulate. It’s the same all over the city. Wherever a Western flag is flying, there’s a crowd out there, waiting. Just waiting. And that’s not all. I’ve just heard that back in the hinterlands whole villages are swarming out onto the roads to Calcutta.”
“Very true,” said another of the statues, his face trimmed with long blond whiskers. “They’re the villages we’ve been working with, mainly.”
“Well, if you know them, what on earth do they want? What are they waiting for?”
“Frankly, we’re not quite sure.”
“Do you have an idea?”
The bearded statue’s lips broke out in a curious smile. Was it the bishop? The renegade writer?
“You mean you had the nerve the Consul began, leaving his question and thought in the air. “No! I don’t believe it! You wouldn’t go that far!”
“Quite so,” said a third statue—the bishop this time, in the flesh—“I wouldn’t have gone that far myself.
“Are you saying you’ve lost control?”
“I’m afraid we have. But it doesn’t matter. Most of us are glad to go along. You’re right. There is something brewing, and it’s going to be tremendous. The crowds can feel it, even if they have no notion what it’s all about. Myself, I have one explanation. Instead of the piecemeal adoptions that these poor folk have hoped for and lived for, perhaps now they’re hoping and living for something much bigger, something wild and impossible, like a kind of adoption en masse. In a country like this that’s all it would take to push a movement beyond the point of no return.”
“Nice work, Your Grace,” the Consul retorted, simply. “A lovely job for a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church! Mercenary, hireling to the pagans, all of a sudden! What is this, the Crusades in reverse? Judas leaping up on Peter the Hermit’s nag, and crying, ‘Down with Jerusalem!’? … Well, you chose a good time. There’s no shortage of poor. There are millions and millions! The year isn’t three months old, and already half of this province alone is starving. And the government won’t do a thing. They’ve had it. Whatever happens now, they’re going to wash their hands. That’s what every consul in the city heard this morning. And what have you all been doing in the meantime? You’ve been ‘bearing witness.’ Isn’t that what you call it?
Bearing witness to what? To your faith? Your religion? To your Christian civilization? Oh no, none of that! Bearing witness against yourselves, like the anti-Western cynics you’ve all become. Do you think the poor devils that flock to your side aren’t any the wiser? Nonsense! They see right through you. For them, white skin means weak convictions. They know how weak yours are, they know you’ve given in. You can thank yourselves for that. The one thing your struggle for their souls has left them is the knowledge that the West—your West—is rich. To them, you’re the symbols of abundance. By your presence alone, they see that it does exist somewhere, and they see that your conscience hurts you for keeping it all to yourselves. You can dress up in rags and pretend to be poor, eat handfuls of curry to your hearts’ content. You can spread your acolytes far and wide, let them live like the peasants and dispense their wise advice. … It’s no use, they’ll always envy you, no matter how you try. You knew I’m right. After all your help—all the seeds, and drugs, and technology—they found it so much simpler just to say, ‘Here’s my son, here’s my daughter. Take them. Take me. Take us all to your country.’ And the idea caught on. You thought it was fine. You encouraged it, organized it. But now it’s too big, now it’s out of your hands. It’s a flood. A deluge. And it’s out of control … Well, thank God we still have an ocean between us!”
“Yes, an ocean. We do have an ocean,” a fourth statue observed, lost in reflection at the obvious thought.
“You know,” the Consul went on, “there’s a very old word that describes the kind of men you are. It’s ‘traitor.’ That’s all, you’re nothing new. There have been all kinds. We’ve had bishop traitors, knight traitors, general traitors, statesman traitors, scholar traitors, and just plain traitors. It’s a species the West abounds in, and it seems to get richer and richer the smaller it grows. Funny, you would think it should be the other way around. But the mind decays, the spirit warps. And the traitors keep coming. Since that day in 1522, the twelfth of October, when that noble knight Andrea d’Amaral, your patron saint, threw open the gates of Rhodes to the Turks … Well, that’s how it is, and no one can change it. I can’t, I’m sure. But I can tell you this: I may be wrong about your results, but I find your actions beneath contempt. Gentlemen, your passports will not be renewed. That’s the one official way I can still show you how I feel. And my Western colleagues are doing the same with any of their nationals involved.”
One of the statues stood up. The one who had mused about the ocean. He was, in fact, the atheist philosopher, known in the West by the name of Ballan.
“Passports, countries, religions, ideals, races, borders, oceans …” Ballan shouted. “What bloody rubbish!”
And he left the room without another word.
“At any rate,” the Consul said, “I suppose I should thank you for hearing me out. I imagine I’ve seen the last of you all. That’s probably why you’ve been so patient. I’m nothing now as far as you’re concerned. Just a relic, a dying breed …”
“Not quite,” replied the bishop. “We’ll both be relics together, only on different sides, that’s all. You see, I’ll never leave India.”
Outside the consulate gates, Ballan elbowed his way through the crowd, through the crush of monster children—the most monstrous of the lot clinging to his legs, drooling on his trousers. Ballan held a strange fascination for the monsters, the same fascination they held for him. He reached into his pockets, always filled with sticky sweets, and stuffed their shapeless mouths. Then he noticed the giant, the turd eater, standing there still topped with his hideous totem. And Ballan called out:
“What are you doing here, dung man? What do you want?”
“Please, take us with you. Please …”
“Today’s the day, my friend. We’ll both be in paradise, you and I.”
“Today?” the poor man repeated, bewildered.
And Ballan smiled a compassionate smile.
Could that be one explanation? …
“… in the four departments bordering the coast, under the command of the undersecretary, Monsieur Jean Perret, personal representative of the President of the Republic. The army will make every effort to protect all property left behind, insofar as its other duties permit. Government sources confirm that the President of the Republic will address the nation at midnight, tonight, with a message of grave concern …”
The ones who knew French turned down their radios and translated the announcement for the horde of compatriots piled on all sides. The cellar had never seemed nearly so full as it did that night. It housed the black rubbish men of the northern wards of Paris. With all of them crammed in together, eight to a double-deck bed, legs dangling over the edges, there was a feeling of solidity and strength that even they themselves had never noticed. Oddly enough for such talkative types, no one dared risk a word, not even the handful of whites that were part of the vast mass of black, among them one of those ragtag priests and a militant tough at war with the social order. Everyone was thinking, straining his mind to the utmost. It’s not easy to conceive the dizzying dimensions of something so unbelievable when you live in a strange city, down some godforsaken cellar, and the only time you get out is first thing every dismal morning, to pick up the rubbish along nameless streets.
“And if they manage to land in one piece, what then?” asked one of them, the one they called “the Chief,” since he had lived in France for quite some time. “What if they land, will all of you climb up out of your rat holes too?”
The only reply was a long, meaningless murmur. None of those underfed brains worked fast enough to picture the possible chain of events. But something was building up inside, something slow to take shape, but powerful and solemn all the same. Then, from the dark recesses of one of the bunks, a voice boomed out:
“All depends. Will there be enough rats?’
“By daylight,” the ragtag priest replied, “they’ll be thick as the trees in a giant forest, sprung up overnight in the darkness.”
That much they understood, and the murmur rippled with approval. Then they sat back, ready to wait …
There were others waiting too that night: the swill men, sewer men, sweepers from all the dumps the length and breadth of Paris; the peons and bedpan pushers from all the hospitals; the dishwashers from the shabby cafés; the laborers from Billancourt and Javel, from Saint-Denis and beyond; the swivel-hipped menials digging their pits around gas pipes and cables; the fodder for industry’s lethal chores; the machinery feeders, the Metro troglodytes, black crabs with ticket-punching claws; the stinking drudges who mucked around in filth; and the myriad more, embodiments all of the hundreds of essential jobs that the French had let slip through their delicate fingers; plus the ones who were coughing their lungs out in clinics, and the ones with a healthy dose in the syphilis wards. All in all, a few hundred thousand Arabs and blacks, invisible somehow to the ostrich Parisians, and far more numerous than anyone would think, since the powers that be had doctored the statistics, afraid of jolting the sleepwalking city too violently out of its untroubled trance. Paris was no New York. They waited now the same meek way they lived, overlooked and unknown, in virtual terror, whole tribes of fellow sufferers hiding away in the depths of their cellars or huddling together up under the eaves, happy to shut themselves off in infested streets, where grimy façades hid unsuspected ghettos as wholly unknown to the people of Paris as Ravensbruck and Dachau, once upon a time, had been to the Germans.
It was only among the Arabs that the thought of the unlikely confrontation brewing off the southern coast of France would occasionally take a vengeful turn. Nothing too concrete yet, only shadowy yearnings and suppressed desires, like the wish to see a French- woman smile, rather than dreaming of having to rape her; or being able to get yourself a pretty whore, instead of hearing her tell you, “I don’t go to bed with dirty Arabs”; or just being able to take a carefree walk through the park, and not suddenly see all the terrified females cluster around to protect their young, like mother hens ready to pounce. That evening, only the most fanatic envisioned a new kind of holy war, and one that wasn’t even theirs to wage. Still, in no time at all, the Algerian quarters all through Paris and the suburbs had been zoned off again into sectors. A certain Mohammed, the one called “Cadi One-Eye,” appeared to be in supreme command. By eleven that night he had managed to pass his first orders down the line to all the sector chiefs:
“The time for violence is over. Have them put away their razors, have them break their knives in two. The first one I hear of who spills any blood, I’ll see that he’s castrated.”
He was an Arab, and he knew how to talk to Arabs. And so they all obeyed him. Except, that is, for his schoolteacher wife, who was white and French. Indeed, his own razor was quick to disappear. It was hidden inside her right stocking, flat against the thigh. Élise had known what contempt was like. For all ten years of her married life, not one of its subtle barbs had escaped her. She cherished a dream of redemption by blood, and she wasn’t alone. Of all the French wives of ghetto Arabs—a scant thousand, perhaps—not a few had felt that burden of contempt. Among the Arabs, unlike the blacks, they were the only Western intruders. The clan loathed the stranger more as friend than foe; and if it accepted these Christian wives at all, it was only because it had swallowed them up, only because they belonged to it utterly, sex and soul, even more than Frenchwomen do to their Frenchmen …
There were some, though, who had a clear notion of just what a crucial struggle the next day would bring. They had closed their shutters, barred their doors, drawn the drapes in their rooms and offices, and sat clustered in silence around their radios, eager for news, waiting like everyone else for the promised address by the President of the Republic. They were the Third World diplomats and students—Africans, Arabs, Asians. On the verge of panic, with nowhere to turn, they had even stopped calling back and forth between their embassies, between their homes, so suddenly crushed by the turn of events, that they—the rich, the select, the leaders, the militant elite—no longer even bothered to keep abreast of each other. Which was all the stranger since, during the fifty days of the fleet’s dramatic odyssey over two oceans, they had been consumed in a frenzy of thoughtful reflection, issuing endless communiqués, holding press conferences, interviews, meetings, debates, one after the other, while the fleet pressed on and on, a mixture of fact and myth, a phenomenon so untoward that people would have to see it before they believed it. Then Gibraltar, finally, and see it they did! And suddenly all those eager devotees stopped wagging their tongues, their zeal turned to panic, and some—if the dark truth be known—had to hold back a flood of hate at the brink.
Closed, now, the West Indian bars, the Chinese restaurants, the African dance halls, the Arab cafés. In the light of other reports—from embassy guards, from worker and student informers—these signs all tended to kill any lingering doubts the police might have that the situation in Paris, eight hundred kilometers from the refugee fleet, was as grave as it was along the southern coast. Yes, a state of emergency should be declared here too, with the whole array of preventive measures, while they still had time. … The prefect of police called the Élysée Palace. He tried to get through to the Minister of the Interior. But all he was told was that the meeting was still in progress. … Three-quarters of an hour to go before the address, and the government still hadn’t made up its mind! The prefect, too, assumed that all he could do now was wait.
Could that be one explanation? …
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