Václav Havel was with me, sitting across on a flowery print upholstered sofa in the verandah of a tony club in Mumbai. He lit a cigarette. Was smoking allowed? I do not know. I cannot remember. It was mid-1995. The staff was on strike and the British nobleman who had founded this club was a large portrait in a gilt-edged frame like the one they have in museums. What was the great dissident doing here? He smiled sardonically. As it turned out, the staff was on strike. All the new brown sahibs and memsaabs had to go to the counter instead of being served by bearers who opened the lids of even the most humble cheese balls as though they were precious jewels.
Václav…may I call you by your first name, I wanted to ask, as the smoke rings merged with the clouds that rose over the golf course greens. I desisted. Was he smoking? Was smoking allowed? I do not know. All I remember is his presence. I had a guest with me. Coffee? Tea? I asked. Tea. I walked to the counter, the wooden floors creaking with a pleasant sound in the silence. I had two Styrofoam cups with tea bags and the twinings hanging out, brushing against my hands. I had to tiptoe, ladylike. Not spill a drop. The staff was on strike and who might wipe the stains?
Václav smiled. Or smoked. I do not know. Was he there? Yes. His myth hovered over us. I was being interviewed about my work. Barely had we started sipping the tea and biting into the cookies, he, my interviewer, mentioned Havel. I had once written a column titled ‘Hope in the gutter’. On that sleepy afternoon, someone remembered it, and somehow I felt engulfed by this man on that day as I had when I wrote the piece.
In many ways, Havel’s myth preceded him and tailed him. I had often battled, and continue to do so, with the thought of a dissident sitting in the highest office of his land. Did he recall those days in prison and did he see the position he occupied as another prison? Did the office make him pro-pro or anti-pro, or anti-anti or pro-anti? Did opposing Communism make him a capitalist? If he believed in non-violence, was the selectivity of using Nato against Yugoslavia justified? How do moralists make the distinction, and he has been called a moralist? He took refuge in art, and wrote plays that captured the political ethos of his times. The problem is that his time was for a certain period – the before and aft of it has been included by default.
I wish he were on that sofa that day, smoke rings covering his face, eyes burning with answers. Like most dissidents, he managed to make his country more than a picture postcard, a travel brochure, or a bullet-riddled, fissured-land entity. He gave it character as much as the environment imbued his character. However, he could not possibly be limited to it or by it. As he wrote:
- “If every day a man takes orders in silence from an incompetent superior, if every day he solemnly performs ritual acts which he privately finds ridiculous, if he unhesitatingly gives answers to questionnaires which are contrary to his real opinions and is prepared to deny his own self in public, if he sees no difficulty in feigning sympathy or even affection where, in fact, he feels only indifference or aversion, it still does not mean that he has entirely lost the use of one of the basic human senses, namely, the sense of humiliation.”
It was the emotional undercurrent, the sense of déjà vu that I related to completely. My posers were for the poet in him. Intellectualism appeared to irritate him if it was bereft of feeling.
Once, in the dark, Havel fell into something sticky and smelly. It turned out to be shit swimming in slush. Attempts to get out did not help until, finally, a ladder was procured. Later, he was to ask, “Who could have known that I was to leave this unfortunate sewer only to end up in the president’s office two months later?” He could have wrung his hands, said a prayer and wilted, but then for him “scepticism is dehumanisation of history”. History is based entirely on hope, because it goes beyond the immediate.
I also hope little hopes, and like Havel it is the sewer that brings out the best in me.
I took the Styrofoam cups with dried remnants of milky tea to throw away in the garbage. The large portrait of an English nobleman looked down at us. The wooden floors creaked. My much smaller, and probably inconsequential to the world, rebellions had taken place within these charmed rooms. There was no conflict. I had got at least some answers about dissent and belonging.
More than 15 years ago, Václav Havel was there with me. There is no reason why he should now leave.
(c) Farzana Versey