I love facts, so I’ll start with facts. The fact is, the strangest story I ever read in my life was when I was 27. I was living in Kirtipur and I read a story that has forever changed my life. I’d been living there for over four months, a substantial amount of time in anybody’s life, and I had nothing do. I read Proust in the morning. I read a book about probability in the afternoon, which taught me many things about numbers. It was called Against the Gods, a fantastic title, written by a man called Bernstein. I was against them too. I found out that Pascal, before writing the Pensées, also dabbled in this discipline, before submitting to a fundamentalist sect of Catholicism. That’s a fact people often forget about Pascal. He was a renaissance man before he denounced mathematics. The lesson I learned from Pascal was this: probability (and the study of statistics) is a craft. The whole point of the Bernstein book, however, is that Pascal was wrong and it is more of an art. Bernstein makes that point too many times in his book, but I have no doubt in my mind that he is not wrong.
There were seven people living in the house, excluding me. Five university students lived on the ground floor, the landlady and her recovering son were on top. I was in the middle. I could hear them cooking sometimes, upstairs and downstairs, hear the clanking pots and smell fried garlic and onion. The landlady’s son was recovering from drug addiction. The boy used to come to my room sometimes in the afternoon. He had dull, reddish eyes and he used to sit on the corner of the bed and ask me: how am I ever to know action is better than inaction? He mentioned chaos theory, about how a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico could cause a storm in the eastern Pacific. He was worried about the consequences of his actions. So he stayed at home, did nothing but get high on hashish.
It was when I was mulling this age-old question of his (it is the central question in the Gitā too) that I came across a little story by Heinrich Böll. It was in an anthology of short stories. “Action Will be Taken”, said the title. “An Action Packed Story”, said the subtitle. Probably one of the strangest interludes in my life was the time I spent as an employee in Alfred Wunsiedel’s factory, went the first sentence. Just like that, I fell in love with the story. I liked the repeated use of the word action, a noun for all the verbs, and especially the words take action. I slammed the book shut when I finished the story that, to my surprise, ended with a melancholy shot to the veins, and murmured, action should have been taken.
Action must be taken, I told the recovering addict. He listened, silent, unmoving, the way airline passengers listen to safety announcements. Where’s action today? I asked the university students downstairs. If we don’t act, I warned the shopkeeper at the vegetable market, our lives will be miserable, and our children’s lives will be even worse. Infected by my enthusiasm, she forgot to charge me for the okra and looked past me. It was apparent that there was action happening behind me. I turned around. I was not wrong. It was the recovering addict. Someone stole my money, he hollered, it was her. He pointed at a middle-aged woman, dressed in a blue sari with vertical patterns. She wore a serpentine gold necklace that sparkled in the morning sun just above her breasts. Heads were starting to turn. She walked away with brisk steps, the way one walks away from howling dogs.
To get back to the story, Böll does not say how old he was when he started working at Wunsiedel’s factory. But from his distaste for work, I surmised that he was approaching thirty, or was past it, and had already had a few jobs in his life. It was apparent that he hated working. Financial difficulties compelled me, he says, to take on a so-called job. The sarcasm was not lost on me, for I was in a similar situation, compelled, so to speak, to take on a so-called job. Purely out of the practical necessities of life, food and drinks primarily, but also an occasional book, and rent. Did you get your money back? I asked the recovering addict in the afternoon. That bitch, he said, it’s because of people like that that I became a drug addict. You know, they look nice, but sometimes they slide their dirty little hands in your pockets. Six hundred and fifty-five rupees. Now, my mother is going to think I used it to buy hashish. Can you believe it? He asked. My own aunt! Mother’s own sister! He was foaming with rage and disbelief.
I enjoyed every character in Böll’s story. They are all phenomenally actionprone. Everyone is doing at least three jobs, supporting everyone else in the family, second cousins and all, talking to five people on the phone at the same time, sewing, making soap, running the factory. In other words, they live on nothing but action. They’re so immersed in action that the climax of the story comes when, poised to take action, the owner of the factory, Wunsiedel, faces a moment of stillness – a moment of silence – instead of the loud, instant hurrahs for action that follow his every pronouncement. Shocked, Wunsiedel has a heart attack and dies. But with Böll, dying itself is a kind of action. We’ve had some action, he says to the assistant manager, Wunsiedel is dead.
That afternoon I was encouraged by the story to have a conversation with myself. Like Böll, I’m a taciturn person (that’s a word I’d learned that day from the university students downstairs, who were, in light of the exam the next day, busy memorising out loud something that to my ears sounded like the ritual chanting of a rather long mantra, perhaps from the Gitā). So I responded to myself in monosyllables.
Do you need a job?
Do you need to take action to get a job?
Once you start taking action, do you ever stop to rest?
I immediately made a plan of action. I went to the market, bought a newspaper, and spread it on the floor, flipping the pages in a continuous motion, scanning everything until I hit a vacancy announcement. There it was. International aid agency looking for a hard-working man of action. There was a picture of an attractive, smiling woman with a telephone glued to her ear. I jotted down the number, grabbed the phone, and dialled with the impatience of a soldier rushing into battle.
Hello, a bored female voice said.
HELLO, I said, I’m responding to your advertisement in The Kathmandu Chronicle, dated September 3…
OK. No need to be shrill. Can you type at 200 words a minute?
Yes. Yes. I can type at 300. With practice, I can go up to 400 in a week. In Nepali, English and German. But in Cantonese, my top speed is 100. I’m afraid I’m a beginner in that language. I can also type in the language of Mozambique, Makhuwa, at 50 per minute. I’m an absolute beginner in that one.
That’s good. We’re a German agency, come to our office tomorrow at 8.
She hung up. I was lucky: Böll was also German. Coincidence? Surely not. The universe is no dice game. And I don’t believe in coincidence. It is in the nature of probability that improbable things happen, so said Aristotle. A job was round the corner, no doubt. I had to act fast, dressed in proper attire befitting a German agency.
The thing about jobs, the recovering addict said in a solemn tone, is that as soon as I start, I cannot stop thinking how it’s going to end. I had a feeling that he was trying to dampen my enthusiasm. He glanced around the room. He had shaved that morning. Circular red spots had sprouted on his chin, giving him a ferocious look, like a sick man rushing out of a hospital in white robes. He rubbed his hands and fretted. I had this job once, he said. At a manpower agency. I sent a few hundred men to the Gulf. I used to get a commission from each one of them. Soon, I had a bank account and it fattened every month. Money was not a problem. I rode my bike every day, scouring the cheap hotels. Looking for desperate men. After a year, I met a few who’d returned. Without an arm. Or a leg. Sometimes, with a missing eye. Here he touched one of his eyes instinctively.
What’s your point? I asked him.
Actions have consequences, he mumbled, tilting his head towards the ceiling. I advice you not to get into this German company business. You don’t know what they’re up to.
A man of action is not hindered by metaphysical warnings, least of all from a recovering drug addict. I woke up at the crack of dawn. I poured cold water over my muscular body. I shivered. I shaved. An ironed shirt magically appeared in the closet. I put it on and looked down at my shoes. I was pleased by the bow-shaped shoestrings. The sun was shining when I hit the street. I felt its yellow glow on my back. I was happy. Today is as good a day as any to take action, I said to myself, overtaking sleepy children in blue uniforms on their way to school. Hello to you, German business machine, Guten Morgen. Ich bin ein mann der tat!
Describe to us what you consider to be your ideal job, asketh the German boss, peering out from under his glasses. Here again, I remembered the fate of my favourite German. At Wunsiedel’s funeral, Böll is there with a wreath in his hands, contemplating the tragedy of so much as considering inaction. Also attending is the company that specialises in hiring professional mourners. Job requirements: Must wear dark suits. Sombre as the coffin. Pensiveness highly desired. And voila! Then and there, Böll finds his calling as a professional mourner. I read the lines with vicarious pleasure, thinking, perfect jobs do exist on this wonderful spaceship called Planet Earth.
It was time to respond. Hmm. Let me think. An ideal job. Let me see. Business and bustle, dash and deal, operations (I emphasized this word just like that, I don’t know why), energy and hours. In fact, the more hours, the better, since I’m singlehandedly supporting fifteen cousins, second cousins and third cousins and seven aunts. I never tire of working. With me, action never ends.
I got the job offer a week later. I had been waiting for it. It came in the form of a telephone call. I was already sitting on my bed, pensive, contemplating as usual. It came precisely at 8 o’clock. Ever since, I’ve been writing these notices of casualties, which they say goes into making an action plan in the event of disasters – landslides, earthquakes, floods and avalanches, improbable events that cause death and destruction, I record them all. A solemn job, Böll would probably agree, not unlike that of a professional mourner.
This short story first appeared on La.Lit Volume 2: New Fiction From Nepal.
Featured sketch by Tuan Dinh.