“I wasn’t too happy with our new army”

V.S. Naipaul, 1979. A Bend in the River.

 

I used to wonder how someone like Mahesh had survived all that he had survived in our town. There was a kind of quiet wisdom or canniness there, no doubt. But I also began to feel that he had survived because he was casual, without doubts or deep anxieties, and – in spite of his talk of getting out to a better country (standard talk among us) – without deeper ambitions. He suited the place; he would have found it hard to survive anywhere else.

Shoba was his wife. She had told him – or by her devotion showed him – how fine he was; and I believe he saw himself as she saw him. Outside that, he took things as they came. And now in the most casual way, with almost no attempt at secrecy or guile, he became involved in ‘business’ deals that frightened me. And most of those business offers came to him now from the army.

a-bend-in-the-river

I wasn’t too happy with our new army. I preferred the men from the warrior tribe, for all their roughness.  I understood their tribal pride, and – always making allowance for that – I had found them straight. The officers of the new army were a different breed. No warrior code there; no code. They were all in various ways like Ferdinand. They were aggressive, but without Ferdinand’s underlying graciousness.

They wore their uniforms the way Ferdinand had at one time worn his lycée blazer: they saw themselves both as the new men of Africa, and the men of the new Africa. They made such play with the national flag and the portrait of the President – the two now always going together – that in the beginning I thought these new officers stood for a new, constructive pride. But they were simpler. The flag and the President’s portrait were only fetishes, the sources of their authority. They didn’t see that there was anything to build in their country. As far as they were concerned, it was all there already. They only had to take. They believed that, by being what they were, they had earned the right to take; and the higher the officer, the greater the crookedness – if that word had any meaning.

With their guns and jeeps. these men were poachers of ivory and thieves of gold. Ivory, gold – add slaves and it would have been like being back in the oldest Africa. And these men would have dealt in slaves, if there was still a market. It was to the traders in the town that the officers turned when they wanted to clear their gold or the ivory they had poached. Officials and governments right across the continent were engaged in this ivory trade which they themselves had declared illegal. It made smuggling easy, but I was afraid of getting involved, because a government that breaks its own laws can also easily break you. Your business associate today can be your jailer, or worse, tomorrow.

But Mahesh didn’t mind. Like a child, as it seemed to me, he accepted all the poisoned sweets that were offered to him. But he wasn’t a child; he knew the sweets were poisoned.

He said, ‘Oh, they will let you down. But if they let you down, you pay up. That is all. In your costing you make allowance for that. You just pay. I don’t think you understand, Salim. And it isn’t an easy thing to understand. It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right.’

 

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