Wherein my son renders Vasco da Gama and I describe his bloody deeds in India

A little about what the psychotic Vasco da Gama did in India

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Vasco da Gama as depicted by Arjun Hektor Perumal Harsch

Vasco goes to India

Currently throughout the world it has become a commonplace observation that the United States is the successor of the British empire; yet the simplicity of the notion blandly obscures (especially in the implied natural progression of historical blocks of time and ravage) the lasting devastation wrought by the Brits, who essentially, beginning as little more than pirates and con men, transmogrified India from the wealthiest region in the world into a perpetually desolate lesser chunk of land, committing what ought to be considered if the word is to be used at all an economic form of genocide. Strangely, at least to me, the, for lack of a better term, racism that allowed the swindling and subsequent conquering of India is widely considered an anachronism, as if self-serving behavior at the deathly expense of others was once in moral cahoots with enlightenment. Interestingly the only defense of attenuate British terror is multiple offense, though I would defend the word racist by conjuring offense against the Scots and the Irish, peoples it was easy enough to watch keel over but far more difficult to outright murder. The phenomenon was, of course, visited upon India first by the Portuguese, and none so gruesomely, with such bloody arrogance, as history’s esteemed Vasco da Gama, whose less examined second visit to India degenerated into a paroxysm of revenge. At the time, the Hindu kingdom of Vijanagar was a center for trade that dealt primarily with Muslim traders, who rightly viewed the sudden appearance of da Gama as a threat to a centuries old system. On his first visit, some of them seized and held captive several of his crew. Da Gama held the Hindu ruler of the coast, the zamorin, and the matter was worked out without bloodshed. But on his return voyage Vasco da Gama was responsible for the one innovation Europeans introduced into the Indian Ocean trading system: the use of force to extract favorable terms of trade — for the first time in the history of the Indian Ocean, merchants arrived supported by navies. Much is made of the strange absence of great navies among the successive empires of south Asia, but the simple fact seems to be that as trade was established and generally followed international rules from China to Africa and even into the Mediterranean, the hinterland empires had no motive for opening their treasuries to build warships.

Vasco da Gama may not have known that he was lucky to escape India alive, but he should have. Surely he was to a degree a learned man, quite aware — this is of the utmost import — that a journey to India by sea around Africa had the potential to devastate the markets of the land route and Red Sea route he knew to be ancient. In fact, that was why he was sent. He would have known that he was sailing into a web of trade that was centuries old, offering insultingly trifling gifts to a locally venerated and wealthy ruler; how could he not have known that the established traders would take umbrage at his arrogant foray to the Malabar coast? Though da Gama knew that most of the traders were Muslim — this was, after all, an attack on the Ottoman rear — he made no religious distinction in the inner maelstrom of his insane wrath. He was after Calicut, site of his considerably petty ordeal the first time over, and its zamorin. But his revenge could not wait — he attacked the first merchant ship he saw near the Indian coast. Though it was indeed a cargo ship, it was also transporting pilgrims returning from Mecca. One might consider pilgrims pious innocents (no popery intended), but not if one were a deranged Portuguese captain, who could only consider them inhuman infidels — or, at best, in the way. Da Gama captured the ship effortlessly and stole all the cargo, but this was just the first act in a bloodthirsty play of vengeance and he was not about to let the matter rest there, with a simple act of piracy: The vessel was filled with gunpowder and set on fire; those who leapt into the sea were pursued by da Gama’s men and slaughtered, about 700 of them — the only people spared were about 20 children who would be forcibly converted. The zamorin thus had certain news of the return of Vasco da Gama, and sent emissaries to try to persuade him to approach in peace (as if it were not too late). However, once da Gama actually arrived off Calicut, a Hindu ambassador sent to the ship with generous offers intended to calm da Gama was arrested and the Portuguese bombarded the city for three days. Meanwhile, 20 trading vessels off the town were seized, their goods stolen, and about 800 commercial sailors captured. Da Gama ordered his men to take these prisoners ashore and amputate their hands, ears, and noses, which ex-excrescences were subsequently piled in a boat. The rest of the bleeding victims then had their feet bound together, and since they obviously could not untie themselves with their hands, that left their teeth to be stove in (the Portuguese were quite thorough in mid-atrocity — who else would have thought it necessary to prevent these noseless, earless, handless wretches biting through the ropes that bound them?), as they duly were before they were tossed in yet a separate boat that was set alight. The only survivor amongst these particular innocents was the ambassador, whose boat was sent not afire off to where he has become a ghostly phantom of history. The order of all these events is rather difficult to sort out, but suffice the mention that the original fire ship reappeared, drifted ashore, and there were, amazingly, a few survivors, apparently aside from the stolen children — and a number of grieving relatives clamoring toward shore to search for their men in what must have been a terribly wrenching scene to any sane observer. Da Gama was immune to wrench; he had his men keep the relatives at a distance, and then, upon finding that there were indeed some survivors, had them strung up on masts (I don’t know of which ships, but he had about 19 extra at his disposal) and used for target practice by his already expert crossbowmen. Strangely, after all this, another ambassador was sent by the zamorin — who knows how he fell into disfavor, to get such a task — and this one, quoting Richard Hall from Empires of the Monsoon, “had his lips cut off, his ears cut off, the ears of a dog were sewn on instead, and the Brahmin was sent back to the zamorin in that state. He had brought with him three young boys,” sons and a nephew, who were hung and afterwards sent ashore, dead of course. This account leaves out a total of the dead, for no tally from the bombardment is given, nor details of further massacres that occurred before da Gama’s holds were filled and he had turned for home; but there is plenty of evidence that his example was an inspiration to his crew, and fellow captains and their crews, who perpetrated a variety of tortures on a variety of captives before setting off home.

Should anyone out there read this bescumbered page of maritime history, I urge you to treat it as a message in a bottle, for da Gama remains a figure of merit in history books (which is already rather risible, given that the cape had already been rounded by 1498 and his trip across the Arabian Sea required, simply, the pilotage of a Gujarati seaman picked off the east coast of Africa), but was in reality a figure to match the most monstrous malefactors of even the 20th century. At any rate, Arjun will be immune.



The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman (excerpt)

All dogs long since asleep, I sleep until the dogs are small like rats and when I wake it’s a rat I remember. He had climbed up the drainpipe into the second floor bathroom, where I sat one dysenteric night. When I saw the rat I stood slowly, my lungi collapsed limply at my feet. He was cornered near the door; I was between him and the drainpipe. We approached each other warily, intending no harm, each choosing the wrong direction in a brief, panicked dance of evasion, leaping at the same instant, meeting in the air, fangs withdrawn, violence far gone into fear. He fled down the drainpipe, but we could still feel each other, where our bodies met, and I was surprised how quiet it had been. And I sit in this bloodred chair in which Sushila loved to sleep, her legs drawn up, her chin resting on her knees, a cup of heavily sweetened coffee on the arm. Sometimes her brother Gautam would be playing his guitar. I sit and look at Kali and try to feel Sushila’s warmth beneath me, but it is the rat I feel, and then I refuse not to imagine myself as I once did, a plague rat carrying the disease I desperately fled, unaware that it as well arrived before me to those shores radiating from a Madras throbbing in the heat. Perhaps the series of fevers and dysenteries left this wretched self-image, rendered me incapable of sequential reason, clarity of memory—still, I look back and I do not see much of a man.

The rats flee with a rat’s health, leaving fever. I left here in deliberate pursuit of fever, that Sushila might find me accustomed to her land. I would then wait for Sushila, who could have come here only for me; Sushila, who had left her mother—and her mother, who was not looking for an orphan, an exile, a son; her mother, who unfolded herself like Maya, opening before me a universe of delirium, which Sushila had tried to prepare me for by chanting a mantra of coconut groves, by burning away in her passion the remaining accretions of my own civilization. Now I beseech Mother Kali to take me back, to return Sushila to me. I had had a taste of fever and it was like drinking of desire, like jewels located in a dream held in the palm under the last light of the moon before coming fully awake, the dream gone, the mind still in its sway. Perhaps I left Sushila for Madras certain that in a land where the malady is fever one wakes from the dream without having returned its gifts. Alas, fever is not so generous to strangers. My fevers began almost immediately, increasing in their intensity until the profusion of images that pleased me were flattened into a shifting, hallucinatory dimension, until in the fumbling hands of a more capricious time and space all my nights became a day, a hot day in which past and future were compressed and then stretched to rising horizons enveloping the sky; a drenched, tumid day of temperamental gravity, of faltering geometry, that would burst out of itself like flowers of madness; Sushila’s cool lips covering my burning eyes, shh, she said, like Mother, her susurrations expanding like an approaching train into a roar trapped against the walls of my skull, and she was gone, and the walls of my room mocked me, held themselves at impossible angles, leaning, laughing, in league against me, Sushila again 10,000 miles away; and as I concentrated, endeavoring to focus in vain attempt to take the first immeasurably short step toward comprehension, another day or two passed, a letter arrived from America in response to the one I had sent with the maid that morning, the maid returned, set the letter by the window, then stood before me, her vermilion sari a garment of blood, remaining in flames when she left the room. How may times in those days of fever her face loomed before me, my head oppressed by the weight of the sea, how many times I longed for Sushila’s face, my mind lightened by the attenuation of the desert.

I don’t know how many days were burned up by the sun inside me before the proximity of the sea prevailed, before the sea lifted and a distant, profound will put the smell of salt into the miasmic air of my room, luring me like a sleepwalker from the resignation of fever’s hot equilibrium. The burning was so well attuned to the sultry days and nights, it may never have occurred to me to rise again had it not been for the nearby Bay of Bengal. The waves playing against the coast exerted upon me the influence of a second world, or third, one in which a man could drown or be devoured rather than wither dishonorably in a bed of his own effluvia. I lay in bed, far from Sushila, and the sea was telling me that the death I was ready for was not ready for me.

Incident in Dodge City (Kansas)

It was my first day in an armed class, but I was calm, you might say dead-eyed, looking out at my 22 kids, their 44 66 eyes. Nothing need change. Good morning class, that’s how I usually began. I smiled broadly. ‘Good morning class.’ I said. It’s just that easy. ‘So, please open your text books to page’—click…click…clickclickclick…’please set your text books aside, as we are going to something a little different today. Heck, why open an English text book when you all already speak English? No, instead today we’re going to have a little fun. How many of you speak any Spanish?’ click…a deafening chorus of clicks…’Me neither, nor should I, nor should you…’ What was I thinking…but wait, there was a hand slowly rising, as if, as if…’Yes, Carlos.’

Testimony of   —————————, professor of English, Dodge City Technical College, September 19, 2016.

Insect Arms, My First Two Critics, parts I and II


2.99 at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01D3Y2LLK




the appearance of death to a hindu woman….2.99 at amazon.com

INSECT ARMS:  My First Critics

After events unfolded during the 1990 in India that inspired the novel The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman, I found myself adrift in the United States, seeking work to support my writing. I became a taxi driver, a job that did not allow space and time for writing. Seeking a solution, I found that friend was willing to support me with $3,ooo so that I could go to Mexico, where I would settle on the coast north of Merida and get down to writing my novel. In the mean time, a different friend told me about the bizarre phenomenon of writing workshops, places attached to universities where writers could go to learn how to write. Naturally I balked at the thought, hearing him out while trying to get the attention of the bartender…but eventually he got through to me that the elite writing school, the Iowa Writers Workshop, was just four hours away from where we were and that if I went there with financial aid I would have two years to earn a master’s degree in fine arts, or, as I thought of it, two years to write my India novel. Weighing the two options, I decided I would indeed apply to writing schools, and I did so, to five of them, including the University of Southern Mississippi, which is where I wanted to go, entirely in consideration of the climate. And the did accept me, but with limited financial aid. So I couldn’t afford it. As it turned out, it was the Iowa workshop that offered me enough money to live and write for two years, an odd bit of luck I did not recognize at the time. I had sent them 100 pages of a novel called Taxi Cabaret, the Adventures of a Fat Nihilist, and apparently it attracted much attention. The university contacted me as I was driving the cab, and when I put the caporegime of the workshop on hold—something I later found out one generally dare not do—and she understood I was in a taxi as we spoke and she found it exhillarating in the way royalty quaintly does a peasant juggling five cats, good for a few minutes amusement.

I quit the taxi driving as soon as I  could afford to and began intensive reading in preparation to writing the novel. I had written paragraphs here and there that are still in the novel, but had been unable to sustain the writing, just to think it through. As a consequence a guide to the unwritten book was laid like railroad track in my subconscious, awaiting the preparatory work of deepening the necessary knowledge if Indian myth and philosophy.

I arrived in Iowa City, to live on Iowa Avenue, to attend the State of Iowa’s university and its Iowa Writers Workshop—I arrived as a rube. I never thought of myself as a rube, being suburban raised, but I had an old-fashioned view of literature, how it was written, what it was, where I fit in its schemata. And I expected great things of the workshop; not of the actual teaching/learning, rather assuming that I would meet terrific writers and spend two years among them, all of us inspiring each other toward greater writings. I had no idea what the process was really like.

To a degree, my highest expectations were met in that more than a few people were indeed excellent writers and generous artistic souls. Not that it matters, but they were in the minority. The majority fit in many ways between those folk and the two I will describe, my first two critics of the India novel, which I first submitted about thirty pages of, though it was after I had already learned that a workshop was a seminar held in a garden of pettiness, jealousy, and itinerant spite.

These two were quite remarkable:

I think I referred to the guy as the bloat-headed midget with insect arms. [Homonculus!That’s what it was–ever since I wrote that I had this feeling something wasn’t quite right, yes, the bloatheaded homunculus with insect arms! what a relief!]His real name was J.C. Luxton. He was indeed short, had a pretty big head, and with his elbows drilled into their pivots on the table his arms from the elbow down (up, actually) seemed all he had to swivel about; so yes, the short arms may well have been an optical illusion. None of this would have disturbed me enough to bundle it into some laughs had he not been such a shit. His outstanding characteristic as a seminar conversant was the inability to reform his persona in the face of overwhelming evidence that the jokes he was laughing had been but partially uttered and were not funny to anyone else, so that he was a self-alienating little arm-waver whom others treated politely by, as with ephemeroptera, allowing him to go about his privacy in our presence as long as he desired. More painful was the fate of his mate, another shorty, Amy Charles, who was equally condescending, though less comic a presence, sitting like dark contagion in her seat, who when speaking rapidly dimmed to a hushed tone that only once lured ears closer, for the success of such manipulation must be earned by interesting content and those at the table were instead quickly trained when she opened her mouth to lean further back, stretch their legs, and make noises no one actually heard that were yet louder than her commanding, emptied auditorium voice.

Writers and other artists are often asked to spread their emotions to the pubic, perhaps to atomize them into a consumptive mist that settles into the lungs of the needy. When a work is very personal, autobiographical, the question is often asked, dog tongues dripping drops of droop: how hard was it for you, etc. The answer is: please go look elsewhere for torment. When I was writing about a rather important personal period in my life, my India love and loss, I was working on a novel, not suffering a loss. The worst was over. And I suppose had the worst been all that bad I wouldn’t have been able to work on the novel. All this by way of saying that I was not the least sensitive about the material of the novel, much to the chagrin of the feckless sadists of the workshop.

J.C. and Amy were feckless sadists. How the process worked was copies of our writings were piled up in an office, where class-mates (colleagues! Fellow artists!) would pick them up so they could read and mark them before class, where the author was by rule to sit quietly as the class and at some points an officially stamped writer was to speak of the work before them. Our writer of note, was Marilynne Robinson, and she was in a terrible mood to judge by that semester—during which of approximately 30 review sessions, two student writers per week, she spoke positively three times. She did not speak positively of my first public efforts. Yet that part of the experience was not difficult or even memorable, but for one point she made, which was that we need to be very careful with our words, for at one point in the hallucinogenic flow of my words I had written something that upon a bit of reflection made no sense. She was right; so I remembered that. The rest was abstruse or vague, something like a spell of moderately poor weather is to a busy worker.

The fun part, then, was after the seminar, when we had a pile of our own work that had been marked by 14 other ‘writers’ to take home and sift through. I remember that one of the first things that Luxton wrote was ‘Yoy! Dialogue!’ That, because my excerpt went eight pages without. Already you can see what a demented, nasty little turd he was. The first book to my left that I noticed just now is Middlemarch—seven or eight pages before dialogue. Yoy. The Idiot: I don’t even have to look, dialogue on the second or third page. Green Henry (a Swiss masterwork, less known that one would wish): about fifteen pages. Yoy! and again Yoy! The rest of his remarks escape me but for those that were echoed by the woman he would soon couple with, Amy Charles. She ws more pompous, more condescending, more unconsciously hilarious, than her slightly taller friend: big words. I used big words. Latinate words. She wrote a short essay on my piece, at the end of it, about writers who, and this part was the key to the hilarity of the whole, fall in love with Edgar Allen Poe and thus with big words. I was 34 years old at the time. I recall that Catch-22 had a lot of words I was unfamiliar with in it when I first read it. I suppose Ulysses had a few. Cortazar perhaps. I don’t really know. Catch-22, for some reason, is the only one I recall recalling used ‘big words’ which I defined as those I did not know the meaning of.

So recently I went through The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman, preparing it for e-printing. I hadn’t read it for at least 16 years. I was eager to see what those words were. I knew it had to be somewhere near the beginning of the book. And as it turned out I could not find it. The only words I would guess might give a reader trouble were Indian words—the book may or may not require a glossary if it is ever printed. But Latinate words? Yes, we all use them all the time. Big words? I’ll look again, but I would expect that most of my friends know most of the words in the book, and for every one of those they don’t know, they do know one that I do not know. By now, J.C. Luxton probably has a ruler tattooed to his forearm, for I find it unlikely he has changed, and by now he’ll need proof that a word is too long. And I won’t apologize for that last sentence, which had five words too long in it. As for Amy…I made her cry one day. I’m not proud of that fond memory. It was the second year, by which time my novel had been crowned a success by Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson, while she was rooting about for something better than she was capable and had confirmed her place in literature already as one who would never make it, who had not the calling, who had not even the verve to fake it. She saw me out walking and asked me something about my writing that seemed to invite comment on her comments over the past year and few months. I simply told her that her comments were among the least valuable I had ever received, the least helpful, the most misguided and perhaps spiteful. And genuine tears leapt from somewhere behind into her eyes.


2.99 USD



That link should take you to the page where this novel that has been waiting over 20 years for publication is now available.


The description of the book is as follows

The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman explores the spaces where love and delusion, myth and existence weave sinuously, rhapsodically, through the Indian world. An American man loses his Indian love during, significantly, the Kali Yuga, the age of decadence, when the spiritual succumbs to the profane. Attempting through yogic/tantric methods to return to his love, the man makes a pilgrimage that may or may not be real, may or may not succeed, as he journeys through Indian historic and mythological time, eliciting the great loves of Indian lore, Radha and Krishna, Rama and Sita, Kannagi and Kovalan, attempting to overcome the dark forces that would prevent their union. The prose at times adopts the techniques of Indian poetry, and ranges from realistic encounters in and with India to a dramatically poetic and surreal absorption into an India unknown and hitherto unavailable to the outsider. The narrator, by virtue of his knowledge, rises beyond the deluded novice, while by virtue of his poetic and romantic nature as pilgrim defies the distance between historian and subject, in this beautiful and romantic work that ultimately is an act of submission to the mysterious forces of love.

Rick Harsch publishes Arjun and the Good Snake (again and cheaper e-style)

Rick Harsch publishes Arjun and the Good Snake

Snake300First of all, let me get the following out of the way: yes, I count the writer Rick Harsch among “real-life” friends (i.e., not one of those you only “talk” to via one of the antisocial networking sites), so my review of his first e-book (but hardly Rick’s first book – he has previously published a heap of those… what were they… oh, paper artefacts!) might not be entirely objective (as if any review is). The thing is, Rick’s relentlessly critical outlook but nevertheless remarkably positive opinion of my own debut novel was what I desperately needed at a time when my confidence in my scribbling ability was faltering on a daily basis, and he has also been invaluable in his efforts to help me polish my own books and get them in front of readers. This was, as far as my own previous experience had indicated, rather unusual for “old-school” writers such as Rick.

As it happens, Harsch is not (yet?) a member of the modern, agreeable, happy-go-lucky gang of “indie authors”: he hails from the “olden” days when the stereotypical image of writers was still – with good reason, I suppose – that of obstinate, loopy, unsociable, disgruntled old geezers who most likely hate all other writers, but especially any who might materialise in their vicinity. After all, Rick was, once upon a time, on his way to becoming quite renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate allits aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.

In light of all of the above (as well as because I practically forced him to), Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe. Arjun and the Good Snake is the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, hopefully in a series of others that should follow. I’ve had the honour of formatting it for e-readers, and it should look good – I certainly hope so, and if it doesn’t, feel free to complain to me and hold me personally responsible, and I mean that! This I did most happily, for Snake has been, to date, my favourite book of Rick’s (with the possible exception of an upcoming “paper” one, which is still in the works); though I, unfortunately, haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Driftless Trilogy, because it is, sadly, out of print. (Rick is currently looking at the possibility of resurrecting it, but the fact that he doesn’t have the manuscripts in the electronic form will make this “project” difficult and, above all, long-winded.)

Reading Arjun and the Good Snake for the first time a few years back was the perfect way of getting to know Rick better, along with all of his numerous remarkable qualities as well as considerable faults. As he puts it himself in the introduction to Snake, “No character, especially that of the author, is safe” (from assassination, I guess). The (sort of) journal supposedly focuses on the six weeks in India (without alcohol, woe was Rick!) that the author spent on a quest to track down a cobra and hopefully also a Russell’s viper, the ophidian preference of his son. However, the “diary” is interspersed with the author’s intimate musings and ruminations: on his own failings, particularly the harrowing alcohol addiction (paradoxically, simultaneously soul-sucking and soul-giving, as anyone who has ever struggled with their share of problems with alcoholism will surely know); on his family, especially his relationship with his wife Sasikala and son Arjun; on India and all her unknowable depths; on philosophical, existentialist, even suicidal enigmas; as well as on the various goings-on back at the Slovenian coast, where the author had emigrated from the United States, primarily, as far as I know, to escape oppressive idiocy… Only to witness, to his dismay, the quickening of rabid, unhinged capitalism in a former socialist country, with all the savagery that has entailed.

Arjun and the Good Snake is not an “easy” book. If you’re an ardent believer in the magnificent contemporary Western world and appreciate the constant pursuit of instant gratification, ravenous consumption as well as instantaneous excretion – then this might not be a book for you. However, if you’re willing to put a bit of effort in a literary work rather than just be “entertained” by it, you’ll doubtlessly unearth and come to appreciate many a touching contemplative passage such as, for example, the following:

We arrived to the sea – and this is where if I were ever to commit suicide, the time would be as appropriate as it would get, a wretched man standing apart from the alienated cluster representing all he’s got, unable to enjoy himself alone, alienated even from a circumstance too familiar to generate true despair; the waves relentlessly formed and reformed with their concealed force, spent themselves falsely, the sea sucking in with greed: There is much to be learned standing with pants rolled above the knees and feet planted on damp sand as the lace of water passes ankle high, and then the sand around the feet is stripped away with a surprising, even sinister, force that badly wants to take me under, too…