An extract from The Lovers: A Novel by Amitava Kumar
When Ehsaan was young, that is to say the age I myself was when first I met him, he had gone to Tunisia for his doctoral research. In nearby Algeria, revolution had caught fire. It was said that Ehsaan had travelled to Algeria and fought in the war against the French. Had he? No one knew for certain. I never got the chance to ask him and, years later, sitting in a restaurant on Broadway, when I asked his widow that question, she quietly said, “I don’t know.” I had liked her honesty, especially when I pressed her to explain why Ehsaan had chosen to stay in the US and not return to Pakistan when his studies were over.
She laughed and said, In Pakistan the women wore the hijab. Here they showed their legs.
The very first time I had gone to Ehsaan’s office, to get my enrolment form signed for the class he was teaching, I had seen on his wall the framed poster of The Battle of Algiers. I had watched the film, when I was in my teens, in Pragati Maidan in Delhi. The poster’s background showed grainy black and white warren-like homes in the qasba, and leaning into the frame from the sides were the Algerian Ali La Pointe on the left, and, on the right, the French military colonel Mathieu.
The film’s director Gillo Pontecorvo had sought out Ehsaan when making the film. Pontecorvo had arrived in Algeria with his screenplay, but accidentally left it on the top of a car. Parts of the screenplay soon appeared in a right-wing paper. So Pontecorvo had recast the story, basing it upon interviews with revolutionaries: “a fiction written under the dictatorship of facts.” Ehsaan was in Algeria then and became one of his advisors. Except that the student who told me all this, a thin, saturnine man from Gujarat, was not a credible source. He would even have put Ehsaan in the film as the main actor, a man from a scrappy background emerging, not without charisma but mainly because of the pressure of history, into the forefront of a glorious struggle. Truth be told, I wasn’t too far from holding the same view myself.
Ehsaan was a man born in a village not too far from mine in Bihar. He migrated to Pakistan during the bloody Partition, and later came to America on a scholarship. Awarded a doctorate at Princeton, he toured the globe and made friends with Third World leaders, especially in Africa. How could I not look up to him? He was our hero—and thus all heroic. He had crossed boundaries. He was a man who was without a nation and a friend to the oppressed peoples of the world. A few years later, when Ehsaan died, after a battle with cancer, Kofi Annan paid tribute at his funeral.
At our first meeting, I didn’t want to tell Ehsaan that I already knew a lot about him. There was a reason for my silence. I had read in an interview that as a boy Ehsaan had witnessed his father’s murder. This was a few years before Ehsaan left for Pakistan, travelling alone in a column of refugees. He was only five and lying in bed next to his father when his father’s cousin and his sons came in with knives. Ehsaan’s father knew they were going to kill him, but he covered the child’s body with his own. I didn’t want to acknowledge my awareness of the sadness in Ehsaan’s past.
There were always stories told about Ehsaan. The story that I liked best was about his being tried in court for having conspired in a plot to kidnap Kissinger!
Mr Kissinger, you’re under arrest.
This was to be said after dessert. Everything would be calm. Nothing out of the ordinary. Ehsaan believed that because they were academics, and had friends in common, they could get invited to a dinner where Kissinger was also a guest. People sipped cognac in such circles. Ehsaan would choose the moment to speak. He was articulate: his words commanded attention. He would get up and make the announcement about the arrest, addressing Kissinger directly.
Then Kissinger was to be taken to a meeting of antiwar activists. He would be questioned about war policies. The police by then would have started a massive manhunt, of course. The accused was to be moved from one hiding place to another, and, within a day or two, a statement would be issued that he had been arrested for the crimes of war. The point was to educate the public. Put the war back on the front pages instead of endless stories about the breakup of the Beatles or Jim Morrison’s allegedly lewd and lascivious behaviour. They would be clear about their aims. Kissinger was to be released if the government stopped B-52 raids in North Vietnam.
They had just been sitting around in a borrowed house in Weston, Connecticut. A white single-storey house with a large screened porch in the front. It belonged to Ehsaan’s in-laws, who were away in Europe at that time. He had cooked rice pulao and chicken curry. Everyone was drinking chilled vin rosé and, when that was gone, gin and tonic. Out of the ease of the evening, the lingering light of the summer, and the flow of the conversation among friends, had come the talk about making a citizen’s arrest.
Mr Kissinger, you’re under arrest. This phrase was noted more than once in the indictment.
Ehsaan just laughed when I asked him about the Kissinger trial. So many years had passed. But he had a purple mimeographed article, pale with age, from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Noam Chomsky had given it to him, or maybe Howard Zinn, he couldn’t remember. At some point during the public trial of Kissinger a member of their group would inform the American public that the B-52 bombings had turned the rice fields of Vietnam into a lunar landscape. The countryside was now useless for crops, gouged by craters, some as large as 45 feet across and 30 feet deep. Placed end to end, these craters would form a ditch 30,000 miles long, a distance greater than the circumference of the earth.
Ehsaan said that the idea first emerged at an antiwar rally at St Gregory’s Church in New York City. At any large gathering a person would simply get up and say: We hereby arrest, in citizen’s arrest, such-and-such people who are government leaders. Then “subpoenas” would be “issued”. It was all symbolic, and involved no concrete action. The goal was education. You would tell people that the task of filling the craters in Vietnam would require moving 2.5 billion cubic yards of earth. That unforeseen medical problems now ravaged the population there. That people were living underground day and night, and children were suffering from many disorders, including rickets from living without sunlight.
The idea of arresting Kissinger was an escalation in the war on war, a step-up from earlier actions like the burning of draft-records or the dumping of three buckets of human waste into the Selective Service filing cabinet. But the idea didn’t go any further because how would you get somebody like Henry Kissinger without using some form of coercion? It seemed implausible. Ehsaan and his guests spent twenty minutes discussing this plan that evening but abandoned it even before the ice had melted in the glasses from which they were drinking.
Except that a few months later, in November, 1970, when J Edgar Hoover spoke in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, he mentioned this conspiracy and, for good measure, a plan to blow up underground electrical conduits and steam pipes serving the Washington, DC area. It was pure fabrication, Ehsaan would say later. Along with Ehsaan, the others named by Hoover were two Catholic priests and two nuns who had been active in the peace movement. After having made the public accusation, Hoover now threw hundreds of his agents into the investigation of antiwar activities. A little over a month later, FBI agents knocked on doors to serve federal grand jury subpoenas to scores of people. There was going to be a trial.
Everything about the way the government put the case together and pursued it was exaggerated and comical. We had reasoned, over the caprese, that Kissinger was the right person to arrest. He was a bachelor, with many girlfriends. I guessed he wouldn’t want too many bodyguards around.
For his part, after Hoover’s announcement, Kissinger speculated that “sex-starved nuns” were behind the plot to kidnap him. President Nixon gave the go-ahead by saying that he would let the Justice Department carry out its prosecution unimpeded. Ehsaan said that they phoned William Kunstler, and after a hurried meeting, the famed counsellor released a statement on their behalf: “Mr Hoover is overgenerous. We have neither the facilities nor personnel to conduct such an enterprise. Nor do we have access to unallocated funds like the government does….” Their struggle was to impart a sense of reality into a scenario made feverish by Hoover’s paranoid imagination. That is why the lead defence counsel, Ramsey Clark, in his opening statement on the first day of the trial, reminded the jury, “Of course we know that Henry Kissinger wasn’t kidnapped. He is alive and well in Peking today.”
The trial was held in Harrisburg, during the first three months of 1972. There would have been no indictment, and no trial, had it not been for a letter that was written after that summer meeting in Weston, Connecticut. A love-letter, no less. Present at that planning dinner in Weston, Connecticut, on the night of 17 August, 1970, had been a young woman named Laura Campbell. Laura had just started teaching Art History at a Catholic College in New York. She was also a nun. And she was falling in love with a man to whom she wrote letters each week in prison. He was a priest who had waited for the police to come and arrest him after he had poured blood on draft-records to protest the war.
The priest’s name was Francis Hull. He was serving a six-year sentence in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for his anti-war activities; he was also a participant in the civil rights movement and a critic of the isolated stance of the church in black communities. Father Hull had said, “I have faith in the Almighty who will save our souls. I am just trying to save the lives of the young blacks being sent to Vietnam.”
Father Hull also had faith in a fellow convict, Douglas Adams. Adams was on a student release program and would go each day to Bucknell University to take classes. While on campus, he would hand over to a librarian named Mary any letters from Hull that he had smuggled out in his notebooks. The letters were for Campbell, mostly, but also, on occasion, for other activists. Mary, in turn, gave Adams the letters she had received in the mail from Laura. Neither Francis Hull nor Laura Campbell knew that Adams would carefully open each letter and make a photocopy that he would take back with him to prison in a manila envelope. This was because after he had read the first letter from Laura to Francis, and dutifully made a copy, he had approached the FBI and become an informant.
Ehsaan hadn’t even laid eyes on Adams till the trial began and Adams, flanked by US marshals, stepped into the courtroom. He was a thick-set man in a lavender shirt standing stiffly on the sea of slime that was the court carpet. He was the main witness for the government. Adams would not look at any of the defendants. In his deposition, he made the claim that Ehsaan had called him twice, at a laundromat, to discuss plans to kidnap Kissinger. Ehsaan told the press that this was “a complete falsehood”. Admittedly, Adams didn’t have any qualities that would have incited Ehsaan’s interest or trust. Adams had served for a short time in the US military in Korea, and then passed bad checks and stolen a car. Back in America, after escaping from a military stockade, he had once again used forged checks in Las Vegas and then Atlantic City. His father, in conversation with a journalist, said that his son had not spoken the truth even once in his life.
Yet, Adams was a kind of a charmer. At Bucknell, he told the young women he befriended that he was very active in the antiwar movement and was probably under surveillance by the authorities. He claimed close friendship with Francis Hull, the mention of whose name stirred people’s curiosity and admiration. Adams started dating two female students. He proposed to one of them, a blonde named Jane, but she had doubts about marrying him. To put her in a better frame of mind, Adams went ahead and bought her a bus-ticket so that she could travel to New York City for the first time in her life, where she was to meet Sister Laura and open her heart to her. This was a plan suggested by Adams. En route, Jane opened a letter from Adams that he had said she should wait to read till she was on the bus. The greeting he had used as well as the words he had employed to sign off had been borrowed from what he had seen in Laura’s letters to Francis. He had also written that if he sometimes appeared distant in his manner it was because someone close to him had once ratted him out to the FBI. Adams told Jane in the letter that he had proposed to her because he had cancer and he wanted her to give him six months of happiness.
Let us pause here for a moment. The contempt that Ehsaan and others felt toward Adams, that feeling, slightly exaggerated, is in my heart too: in a memory that is not mine, I see Adams stepping into the courtroom flanked by armed marshals who tower protectively above him and I hiss in anger. Adams looks nervous because in all the stories we have read liars look around apprehensively while still managing to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes. Ehsaan will not even look at him, but I do. My interest in Adams borders on sympathy. He claimed that he was close to Hull, he thought the women he wanted to date would be impressed; I was to do the same with my classmate Nina, bringing back to her stories of my encounters with Ehsaan. Adams stole words from Hull and Laura, and used them in the letters he wrote to Jane. I don’t want to be Adams in his plaid shirt and oversized glasses, and I don’t want to sweat like him, but I am him.
Let me explain with an example. In Ehsaan’s class the previous semester I had read Stuart Hall who had been born in Jamaica and spent most of his life in England where he gained a following as an enormously influential cultural theorist. In his essay, Hall said that people like him who came to England in the fifties had actually been there for centuries. He was talking about slavery and sugar plantations. “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” Symbolically, Hall was saying, the people from the darker nations had a long history in the West. The symbol of English identity was the cup of tea, but where did the tea come from? “Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. Where does it come from? Ceylon, Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.” Powerful stuff and delivered in Hall’s inimitable way. In a poem I was to write for Nina a few months later, I shamelessly put as my closing line: I’m the sugar at the bottom of your coffee, I’m the colour in your cup of tea.
Extracted from The Lovers: A Novel (Aleph). Published in the July-September issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.
Illustration credit: Tanuja Ramani