The Assignment

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For Anjan Sundaram, mathematics was a spiritual pursuit. But then he was consumed by the desire to collide with reality. And, he went to Congo as a journalist. There, amid the rubble of a country torn by civil war and in the company of its wretched children, he experienced life at its most exuberant
Extracted from Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in The Congo | Anjan Sundaram | Hamish Hamilton | Rs 399

The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself—revealing a core of crisis. One had nothing to hold onto.

I was at the time at university, in America.

The professor’s eyes gleamed. His gaze penetrated, even frightened. Serge Lang, a legend of mathematical theory, sat behind his large desk, a black telephone to his one side and on the other, a wall covered with yellow hardbound mathematics classics that he had written.

He was a fiery man, bursting with vitality. He screamed at his students, threw chalk at us in class. He shouted with his nose held to our faces. ‘Truth! Clarity!’ He pressed his forefinger into our chests in the middle of arguments. But Lang and I got along. I liked his fury and candour. And he believed in my mathematical ability. When he saw me devour his classroom material he delightedly goaded me on. He wanted me to see more. Over three years he gave me more than two thousand dollars worth of his textbooks. I cared for them as my small treasure. I studied them in our stone department building, near his office, feeling pleasure and satisfaction—convinced that I was going to become a professor.

But on this day it was with those same yellow books, piled high in my arms, that I stumbled into his office. The professor’s gaze set on me. I put the books on his desk. Lang frowned—he had understood.

“What happened?” he said. The anger was gone. He looked distraught. I felt like I had betrayed him.

It was for the beauty that I had stayed. The beauty of the world in those symbols. The mathematics I loved was inspired by nature’s exquisiteness: in crystals, corals, snowflakes; and by nature’s grandeur: in stars and oceans. It was the purity of the work that appealed. One was devoted to revealing the meaning of the symbol as well as the beauty of what was signified beneath. And my work at the best of times seemed an almost spiritual pursuit, for something elusive and universal; for a truth. Lang had showed me this.

In my field, algebra, we were devoted to generalization—a search for the universe’s deeper rules. Our goal, indeed the ultimate triumph, was to reveal different things to be the same. And for this purpose we drew abstraction from abstraction, piled cleverness upon cleverness. Three dimensions became four, and five. One had to imagine in seven, seventy, impossibility. Objects grew too complex; new languages were invented. Conventional geometries became fully explored; other geometries, less imaginable, were brought about.

This was mathematics progressing. And Lang was now taking me to a place where nature’s mysteries had extinguished, where man was surpassing nature. Fresh symmetries were being discovered, more complex, profound and elegant than in the world. This new mathematics was pristine, but it offered no stimulus to the senses. Its relations to the universe were numerous, but fortuitous. It was man’s brilliance and vanity at play. I started to feel lost. Our world seemed multiplied out into many worlds, like in some fantastical game. Sublime laws were substituting life.

I shrugged at Lang.

I told him the textbooks would be better used by someone else.

There was an uneasiness. I fidgeted, feeling a kind of anxiety wanting release. I was to leave university in two months. Lang had taken me far in a very short period: I should have been finishing my first degree, but in three years Lang had brought me to the point where I would begin a doctorate. I waited, not sure for what, and shuffled about.

“Where will you go?” Lang asked, staring at the wood of his wide table.

I was surprised by the preciseness of his question. “I’ve decided on Congo.” I added, “I’m going to try to be a journalist.”

“To play the fool.” He said it at once.

His face was stern. But he was smiling with his eyes, brilliant. Always those eyes. I would never forget their lucidity.

I glanced for the last time at the tower of yellow books I had placed on his desk.

Some weeks later I was in a Togolese shop in New York, buying khaki pants to take with me to Africa. Lang called me from California. He always used a fixed line. The professor asked what I was doing. It was a strange call. I wondered if he was feeling lonely. But I found the shop’s music too loud, and asked, “Can I call you back?”

I forgot to call him.

A month later I received a message that Lang was dead. I contacted the university, but the mathematics department would tell me nothing more. Rumours were circulating that the professor had killed himself. I suppose he had called me to say a goodbye of sorts. I was devastated, shocked. But there was little more that I was able to do—by then I was already in Kinshasa.

I broke with America. Congo consumed me. After Lang’s calm world of mathematics, I felt here only impermanence, fear. I had to constantly push, fend. Around me the crowd ground like a windmill; now loudly bellowing, now whirling in silence. A volatility seemed exposed against the black terrain. It felt impossible to belong to this place. The houses, the paint, even the brilliant goldworks of new villas appeared to announce the coming of a jaded future. But it did not shock. I felt somehow alert.

Journalism seemed a natural choice. I felt that the profession would immerse me in the world, and allow me to explore it. Part of my desire was to see a crisis. I had lived in man’s genius for so long, I wanted to know our destructive capacities. I wanted to see how people responded to crisis, what people could become. But these thoughts became secondary as soon as I arrived. The apprehension was immediate, and assailing. I had come to Congo alone. I needed to survive. I needed money, a job. There was an urgency about this.

Congo was also an unlikely place to launch a journalism career. Nothing about it was welcoming. And the world had large ly rejected the country. Few cared for its news. Reporters were usually posted to Africa after several years in the business; and even among those who chose to start on the continent, the rule was to base oneself in Senegal or Kenya: safer, more ordered countries,with regular streams of tourists, and where the major newspapers stationed full-time staff.

But in my favour was the moment. Congo’s elections, due in less than a year, would be historic, the country’s first chance at democracy in four decades. It was a precarious time: old tensions had surfaced. Power could again be won or lost. I could feel the people’s agitation. I could sense the threat—looming— of change.

It gave me immediate purpose: I visited the election commission, a building on the Boulevard with an enormous orange facade of a voting box. The vision of Congo was different here: gleaming, organized, contemporary. I found the staff to be unexpectedly warm. I was given a front seat, as a foreigner, and a special coloured badge; my questions were answered graciously. Later local journalists came up to tell me the answers I had been given were wrong. They had their own explanations. They proposed we collaborate. The atmosphere here, in the shiny halls, was more subdued than in the streets. I felt a sort of inclusion.

And then at home, with its anxieties and half acceptances, I was surprised by the hospitality. Nana had apparently decided to make me more quickly familiar with local culture. But she told me nothing. I found out only later that for more than a week she had been busy making arrangements.

The girl came around, dirty but pretty, with brilliant eyes large like leaves. Her name was Sylvia, and she looked older than the boys. All of them seemed in their mid-teens. Guy and Patrick stood at attention. “Confession?” Guy said. Sylvia scowled. From his pocket Guy drew out a joint that he lit with a match. He smoked with compressed lips. Sylvia looked around appearing bored and suddenly pulled the roll from his mouth; she put the joint in her nose and inhaled it to half the length. Her eyes had turned red.

The boys fell upon her, pinching her body. She rolled, laughing. They fondled her breasts, felt in her shirt. She pulled away. Guy produced another joint but Sylvia snatched it while he searched for a match. She stuffed it into her bra and took two steps back. The boys didn’t pursue her.

I wasn’t sure if I should be shocked: it seemed natural, innocent—merely play. Guy now showed Sylvia something on his palm. Patrick lay on the ground. The sky was dark. The breeze had stilled. Worried the taxis would stop running, I announced that I would leave. To where? Sylvia asked. Victoire. How? By taxi. She suggested we take a ride. The boys agreed. Patrick disappeared, all jumping, and returned pushing a two wheeler. The bike looked new—and almost certainly stolen. Guy pulled me on, between him and Patrick, the driver, in front of whom stood Sylvia. We pushed with our feet over the garbage, rolling out of the Quarter. What about petrol, Sylvia said. I gave money for one litre, which we bought at a garage.

Too heavy to move fast, we trundled through the main road, dark, and then through a street coloured caramel by wicks in kerosene. My legs sweated from dampness in the air. The night felt ripe. An occasional taillight reflected in a red patch on the road. It seemed provocative to engage Kinshasa so directly and in the company of its outcasts; it felt reckless to enjoy the wind against one’s face. Patrick drove steadily. We had covered almost the full distance home when we passed the tall iron gate of the Stadium of Martyrs. Suddenly the bike swerved. We’re going inside? I didn’t hesitate. From here the house was only a walk, even if at night I would be less sure of the way.

Behind the gate we passed a fire that a homeless man sheltered by cupping his hands. The fire was small, about the height of my ankles. A child slept beside. They could not take refuge in the sentry post, a cement cabin with grilled windows which was vacant but locked.

The stadium loomed: a giant coliseum with tall archways and corridors wide enough for tanks. The immensity of the place—pillars thicker than my body, the towering roof—this largeness felt like the presence of a government. And so our trespass produced a perverted excitement; as though we defied the highest authorities. We climbed the flights of stairs, wide, and made of concrete. Patrick grabbed my hand, and with the other I held Sylvia’s. Guy stumbled and fell and scrambled to his feet. We pulled each other up, as a chain, towards the end of the corridor that opened to the sky.

Circle upon circle of seats we climbed on all fours until we reached the topmost row and the stairs became a wall. We turned. The stadium seemed impenetrable, totally black.

Joints were rolled and passed around. It was as though we had reached a summit; there was that kind of exhilaration. For a moment I wondered if we could be seen or heard. The children chattered, insensitive. And Patrick killed all my inhibitions by screaming into the blackness.

The echo came garbled. Patrick mimicked it by mumbling. The air felt heavy, liquid almost, as though it rippled. He bowed like an orator. Sylvia clapped. He pointed in the air; Guy laughed. Patrick spat above himself saying, “Congo Na Bísó! Ezalí bosóto!” He stepped forwards and backwards like in his own private theatre; he screeched; he shouted at Guy; he turned on me. His face seemed charged with anger and bitterness; the boy seemed consumed by some interior emotion. His mouth opened and saliva stretched between his gums. With a cry he fell over Guy. “Fou!” Sylvia yelled.

She told me to ignore him, saying he had lost his mind during the war.

Patrick slammed Guy in the chest. “No!” Guy shouted, reeling, but he laughed, then punched Patrick. They hit each other. Suddenly their laughter seemed unreal; it transformed into cries and screams. The violence grew, the boys seemed unhinged. Guy buckled. Patrick coiled his arm and hit him on the back so hard that his head hit his knees. Patrick punched the air. I stepped away. He punched like a madman. He would not stop. Guy leaned towards the stadium and shouted “Congo!” Patrick stopped, waiting for the echo; ‘Oo . . .’ They laughed.

Patrick became still. The boys calmed down.

We sat in the stadium’s silence. Our breaths made fog in the air, from the cigarettes. From time to time Sylvia would say something to the boys; she spoke in long phrases, properly enunciating words. She had been educated. The boys mostly communicated with motions of their heads, in rude bursts.

Our silence was sometimes broken by a cry from the city; when it was a dog you could tell by the barking that followed: one bark after the other and then a chorus. But sometimes it was like a woman’s screech: unaccompanied, piercing.

Sylvia sat cross-legged, folding her long legs and exposing her satin-covered crotch. She drew the joint from her brassiere and had it lit. It passed from her to Guy to Patrick to me. “Do you live at the cemetery?” I asked. “I live with the boys,” she said. “And sometimes with white people.”

After some time Guy crawled over and lay on her lap.

The ride home was short. The bike started uncertainly but found its rhythm, bumping over the mud roads near Victoire and veering dangerously. This was the city that had rejected the children—and in turn the children had rejected it. I reached Bozene between night and morning and banged on the door and stamped out the joint, which they had given me ‘for the road’. It glowed before dying out. I had never been up in Kinshasa beyond zero o’ clock, as the Congolese called it. I went to the back room, past the public toilets outside the house, and hissed. “Jose!”

He fumbled with the padlock. I apologized, staggering into the house in a daze and falling over my bed. I writhed on the mattress, succumbing to all the aggressors: the heat, the mosquitoes, the stabbing bedsprings. The choristers started again. I felt I had collided with reality.

At the time what struck me was the freedom I had felt around the children—they were free to seek pleasure; and they did, in sex and intoxication. Their lives were unbridled by the constraints and the repression of society. Yet almost every journalistic report, NGO statement and academic paper I found perverted their expansive lives and obvious pleasure, depicting everything as a wretchedness. It was important to me that the children be able to express themselves, in terms near their own, and not be described by a moral or even sympathetic prejudice imposed on their experience.

I would experience such incongruity repeatedly: in miserable places I would find the most exuberant joie. It seemed to me both extraordinary and implausible, and at first I imagined it to be cosmetic cover- up, a mask worn to hide the suffering, or to help overcome it. That may have partly been true. But I also felt that the Congolese in their delirium truly forgot the misery, that they spoke in verse and caricatured their misfortune in genuine comic spirit and not for farce; it was their way of taking distance, I thought, of suspending the destruction of time. To a degree that exceeded any people I had known I found the Congolese able to isolate the present, and be satisfied. Theirs was a sort of amnesiac solace.

Fockoff! Fockoff!’ The children’s last words to me kept coming back.

I woke up scratching the blisters on my shoulders. They had bled. The night had been a frenzied experience, and all morning the nostalgia lingered: making the house seem dreamlike, dreary, looming, like a part of the Quarter, or as though I was still there. That was my first adventure. Good morning Kinshasa.