Barlen Pyamootoo: Bénarès

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Sampsonia Way is pleased to be able to share the writing of Barlen Pyamootoo, who is participating in a short-term residency with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Pyamootoo is from Trou d’Eau Douce, Mauritius and is the author of three novels: Bénarès, Salogi’s, and Le tour de Babylone. He is also the founder of two publishing houses: Alma and L’Atelier d’écriture. Before his residency with COAP, Pyamootoo was a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Below is the first chapter of Pyamootoo’s novel Bénarès, published in English by Canongate in 2004, translated by Will Hobson.

Published by Cannongate

One day Mayi came over to my place. I was living opposite the store; I hadn’t been there long. It was only a one-room house, but it had a yard that made it bigger when you opened the door and the window, and there was a spreading tree in the middle of the yard that blocked out the sky and the sun and gave shade all day long, which was good when it got hot. Alongside the yard ran a dirt track, which was used by lovers and people going off to smoke a joint or coming back from doing so, it led to the sea and a vast beach that offered plenty of privacy. The track was also used by men who liked to drink but they didn’t go anywhere, they just stayed glued to the store and that was a long way from the sea. Further still were the clinic, the post office and the houses, some of which had stood empty for a long time; after those came a huge sugar-cane field, which seemed to cut the village in half, and then, in single file, the school, my parents’ house and Mayi’s house.

It was getting light when I saw Mayi. He was walking alongside the cane field, dragging his feet and looking at the ground; he seemed to be thinking about something deep, important. I thought about his job as soon as I saw him; I’d just shaved and I was getting dressed to go to work. If we were joking around, we’d say that he was a second-division fisherman: he didn’t fish out past the lagoon because he couldn’t handle the swell out there. When he reached the post office he stopped and turned around. The sun kept on rising and getting bigger while the road sliced through the whole village like a painted set, silent and motionless and somehow deep as well: it looked as if it had foundered, sunk.

Mayi took a handkerchief out of his pocket and meticulously wiped his face as if he were removing make-up in front of a mirror, caressing himself; he made it seem as if he was looking at himself as he did so. Then he set off again, keeping out of the sun. Now and then he’d stop abruptly or slow down and say something to people I couldn’t see but could imagine leaning their elbows on their windowsills or sitting on their doorsteps. The road wound downwards, with small wood and corrugated-iron houses lining it on either side. I moved away from the window as Mayi passed the clinic and sat on the bed to put on my trousers. By the time I stood up he’d already pushed open the door. He stopped on the doorstep for a moment, his face raised towards the ceiling. He seemed to be studying its texture; he looked so serious, so studious. Then he came towards me, his eyes sleepy, slightly lost, and asked me for a cigarette. He took a very long drag and tilted his head back to exhale, through his nose and his mouth, and that lasted a long time. It was strange how his eyes lit up his face as he exhaled and the smoke rose to the ceiling. When there was no more smoke to exhale, he put out the cigarette and started coughing. He slipped two fingers into his shorts’ pocket, took out a dirty, crumpled handkerchief and wiped his nose, his mouth and his whole face. Then he broke into a smile that made him even more handsome: yesterday he’d won two thousand rupees at cards and he wanted us to go and find a woman each to bring back for the night.

I came home from work at about five. Mayi was waiting for me. He was leaning against my front door, smoking. It was nerves, he said so himself as he stubbed out his cigarette. He’d dressed up; it was the first time I’d seen him in a shirt and a pair of trousers: he’d always worn shorts and a football shirt for as long as I’d known him. They made him look older, more important. I reminded him tersely that the taxi wouldn’t be there til six. It wasn’t that he was annoying me, but I was tense and tired and I felt like being on my own for a while, long enough to forget about work. Mayi looked off towards the store and murmured something, of which I only caught the word ‘sure’, and then he looked back at me and shrugged his shoulders, ‘That’s all.’ Then he went home; he said he’d be back at six. I had a shower and washed my hair. I put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with ‘Miami’ written on it. I like clothes which have something to read on them; that’s what I read the most.

Mayi and Jimi arrived at the same time. Whenever I was bringing a woman back for the night, I always took Jimi as the driver. I liked his manners a lot — for instance, the way, when he spoke to people, he only talked about what mattered. We set off straightaway. I sat next to Jimi; Mayi was in the back, directly behind me. He didn’t say anything — maybe it made him shy going on a trip like that, it was his first time. I turned round every now and then; I wanted to check that everything was ok, that he wasn’t bored. Each time he’d be gazing up at the sky and he’d seem very moved.

We got to Port-Louis just before seven. We drove round the whole town, practically street by street, and went to the docks, not just once but several times, but all we saw were men. It was too early. So Jimi suggested taking us to Pointe aux Sables. He said that there were women standing on every street corner over there and that he’d never seen the likes of it anywhere else, so many women all in one place. ‘You can take your pick and then we’ll be off home.’ We drove round the village five times, and it was only on the last circuit that we actually even saw a woman. She was at a bus stop with a man who must have been her pimp. She waved at us to stop and asked, ‘Are you looking for girls?’ I said we were looking for two. She told us we wouldn’t have any problems there. I added that we wanted to take them home. She wanted to know where. I said Benares. That put her right off. She took a step backwards, abruptly turned round and went back to join her pimp at the bus stop. It was him who told us, `Benares is too far. She’s never even heard of it.’

‘It’s not as far as all that. . .’ but he probably didn’t hear me, since just at that moment a bus drew up between us, drowning out my voice. Two women got out. That only left the driver on board the bus and he was in a hurry. He set off up the hill at top speed, while the two women took it in turns to kiss the pimp. A long kiss each time. There was some laughing, and then they all left the bus stop. After a few steps, the pimp turned and nodded at us, encouragingly I think. I gave him a wave and watched, without regret, the women struggling to get up the hill. They looked like three barrels that might tip over at any moment and come hurtling downhill.

‘So now what do we do?’ asked Jimi, stealing a glance at Mayi.

Mayi didn’t say anything. He continued unhurriedly biting his nails. He seemed lost in a dream; he had the sort of look in his eyes you get when you let your thoughts wander, evanescent, something like that. He must have been mulling things over. He had leaned his elbows on the door and was looking into the distance. He seemed almost to be rising up through the car roof into the sky, perhaps because the road fell at such a steep angle. The sky was a monotonous grey, the sea too, probably, along with everything else there was to see down below if he had leaned out further. But he just looked up, at the grey, monotonous sky.

Several times I thought I heard footsteps and laughter and a vague murmur that sounded like singing — but as far as I could see, in every direction the streets remained hopelessly deserted. So finally I yelled at the top of my voice, ‘What the fuck are they all doing?’ and I looked at my watch as if we were meant to be meeting somebody. It was late, almost eight o’clock.

‘I saw a ship in harbour just now,’ said Jimi. ‘A big one, rust everywhere . . . Maybe it docked today.’

‘What difference would that make?’ I didn’t understand what he was driving at.

‘That’d explain why there aren’t any women around,’ he said, looking towards the trees that lined the other side of the street and the sky beyond them. ‘They’re not going to get the show on the road if there aren’t any sailors around, because the sailors are the ones who’ll push up the prices,’ and then he turned slowly and lit a cigarette out of the wind, ‘and they’re not going to come cheap tonight either, because they’ll be few and far between.’

‘So what time’s this show going to start?’

Jimi stared at his watch for a long time, he must have been counting the hours and the minutes, and then he looked up with an embarrassed smile. ‘Well, not that soon. The sailors are otherwise engaged and they will be for quite a while yet.’


Jimi swung his arms like a boxer and laughed. ‘Just enough to stop them getting rusty.’

‘So now what do we do?’ It was my turn to ask.

Mayi was still biting his nails — he’d just changed hand — and his eyes had the same look in them as before, except that now they were turned on the fields, the houses and the sea. We could see the harbour but no big ship. I almost said as much to Jimi but I realised just in time that we couldn’t see the whole harbour.

Jimi answered in a noncommittal voice, ‘Let’s go to Ma Tante’s.’

I didn’t know Ma Tante but I’d often heard about her and her establishment that was closed at night because the women she employed had husbands and children who they went home to in the evenings after work. And of course the husbands knew what they did but they turned a blind eye; they were too poor to refuse the money, or too greedy. I’d also heard about the beds in the rooms having concrete bases — so they wouldn’t break under the strain of all those men thrashing around, I was told. Then I thought about Ma Tante again and her establishment that she shut at night: I said to myself that it must be because she had a husband too. ‘Won’t we be disturbing her, though?’ I asked, tugging at Jimi’s arm to make him turn round. ‘Her place is shut at night, isn’t it?’

‘It’s just to help us out, give us an address,’ Jimi said softly but firmly, ‘and even if she can’t, at least it’ll pass the time until the sailors have stopped fighting each other.’

We drove back through Port-Louis. It looked like a city during wartime; there wasn’t a single woman on the streets — just some dogs and a few men who seemed to be waiting for a curfew to begin, some signal for them to break up and go their separate ways. Then we took the road for Sainte Croix where we turned right after a petrol station and drove about a hundred metres along a road that was being tarred; there were signs pointing this out pretty much everywhere.

‘It’s like an advert,’ murmured Jimi and he leaned towards me and asked, ‘Elections?’ I said I had no idea but that I’d be surprised, I hadn’t seen any posters saying anything about an election. ‘That’s what surprises me,’ said Jimi, ‘that there aren’t any posters.’ He seemed to be looking for some as he slowed down. And there were a few, but they were for films. Jimi muttered a few words I didn’t understand, they seemed from a different age, and then he stopped in front of a house that was floodlit and had a garden with roses of all sorts of colours. Clearly it was for the roses that there were lights above every door and window: so as not to lose any of their colours. A path crossed the garden; it was straight and narrow and so spotless that it gleamed as brightly as the roses. I looked at the house and pictured the people who lived there and the sorts of jobs they might have. Maybe they worked in a bank or a Government department, or maybe they were in business. I thought of other, less common professions, but the main thing I thought was how right they were to like roses. ‘Respectable people,’ as the saying goes, and I didn’t understand why Jimi had stopped in front of their house.

‘Why are you stopping here?’

‘This is where Ma Tante lives,’ Jimi answered.

‘Are you sure?’ I looked at the garden and its gleaming flowers and gleaming path for a long time. Every rose displayed its halo of light like a precious stone and I could easily distinguish every slightest nuance of shade but I would have been completely incapable of putting the infinite variety of their yellows, whites and reds into words.

‘This is it, right here,’ said Jimi and he got out of the car. He waited to slam his door at the same time as we did. ‘So we only make a noise once,’ he explained.

Then we crossed the garden in silence, sweating and taking shuffling, rhythmic little steps like sleepwalkers. The heat was heavy, soporific. ‘It’s like being in a greenhouse,’ I said to Jimi who had taken out his handkerchief. It was a funny handkerchief, of a sort I had never seen before: it was embroidered and barely broader than the palm of a hand. He mopped his face and forearms, then carefully folded it in four before putting it back in his pocket, ‘Maybe that’s what this is, with all these flowers and lights.’ He stopped at the front door and called ‘Ma Tante! Ma Tante!’

The door opened immediately and a woman who wasn’t as young as she used to be appeared on the doorstep. It was Ma Tante, looking just as people had described her to me. She was very fat with a hatchet face; she had thick lips, broad shoulders, and arms and legs that jutted out like solid, sturdy beams. Her hair was black and curly and her voluminous breasts strained against a blouse that was as dark a brown as her skin. Her mouth was open, probably with delight at our visit. I tried to work out her age but I couldn’t. Her face was furrowed with wrinkles but her eyes were as bright as a young girl’s. They seemed even younger when she recognised Jimi: a glint suddenly stole into them as furtive as a will-o’-the-wisp. She grabbed the hand Jimi held out to her and snuggled up to him for a long while, and then she kissed both of us, Mayi and me, and clasped us in her arms. She was very strong; I’d been told that she’d hit men if they didn’t pay or were looking for trouble.

‘Come in, come in,’ Ma Tante said, gesturing to the door, and she led the way into a room at the back of the house. That was a terrible shock; the colours in it were such a contrast to those in the garden. The room wasn’t painted and the roughcast plaster of its walls had turned the colour of mildew — a mixture of green, grey and chestnut — and what’s more it smelled of cement. Luckily the window was open and a weak but steady breeze blew through the room before dashing itself against some posters on the far wall that had come half-unstuck and rustled constantly. You couldn’t really make what they were of anymore — some breasts maybe, or were they buttocks? Apart from the posters, a handful of cane armchairs stood around a low table, on which there were some plastic glasses arranged in a circle, two ashtrays, an old magazine, some brochures for a hotel in Rodrigues and, in the middle, a cracked mirror. Before sitting down, Jimi took a flask of rum out of one of his trouser pockets and up-turned four of the glasses. But Ma Tante told him she didn’t drink anymore except on Sundays on account of the fact she had a galloping heart. Jimi filled a glass for her anyway — ‘That’s for Sunday’ — and put the flask back in his pocket. He gave her the latest news from Benares and told her about the men she didn’t see anymore ‘because they haven’t got time these days’, he explained, ‘or if they do, it’s already evening and then it’s too late.’ He told her about things that had changed, about his job and the hotel where he did fill-in work, about the tourists who spent their holidays there — Germans, French, Italians and people from other countries as well, but not so many of them — and he said how strange it felt being surrounded by all those whites who spoke so kindly to him; he’d never come across that before, people who asked so many questions. ‘It’s strange,’ he murmured, and he wiped his forehead pensively with his handkerchief, `it’s like being on another planet. . .’ After a silence that seemed long and heavy to me, he told Ma Tante that we were looking for two women to take home. Then he added, `And tomorrow, first thing, I’ll see them back to their place.’

‘Why don’t you go to Maman’s?’ Ma Tante said with a sigh, looking idly round at the posters, the floor, the glasses and the empty armchairs.

Excerpt from Bénarès, by Barlen Pyamootoo. Translated by Will Hobson. Published by Canongate, 2004. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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