Entering the competition was the easy part.
Trying to decide on a theme for a poem was the more difficult part.
My literary interests were limited to world-dominating armadillos.
Surely, I could not write a poem about that?
I asked Salim Uncle what he thought.
“Excellent, papu! Excellent topic, isn’t it? Anteaters. Kamal, kamal. Anteaters. Why not? Yes, yes, that is jolly good topic I tell you. Topping!”
My English teacher, Miss Sosaboska, published my poem in our school magazine, The Phoenix.
It began with a very clumsy and long title:
What would happen if the Armadillo took over the world ?…
The world would not be
By the armadillo it was
The ancient armadillo
Is as simple as the rain,
He’s an armour-plated
With a microscopic brain.
A world taken over by
Would be simple and plain.
He’s disinterested thoroughly
In what the world has
And spends his time
Karim Ajania, Form 3A, age 13
Drayton Manor Grammar School, London, UK
Salim Uncle’s review was in.
He was standing at the kitchen table with a copy of my school yearbook, The Phoenix, in hand, turned to page 33 where my poem about the armadillo was published. He felt duty-bound to interpret and explain my poem to me, despite the fact that I was the one who had written it.
“Now you see papu, this armadillo is anteater isn’t it? It just eats ants, isn’t it?”
I nodded approvingly. So far so good.
“Now deeper question it is this one: who is anteater and who is the ant? Can you answer me that?”
How would I know? I’m merely the person who wrote the poem. So I kept quiet and let him get on with it.
“I will to tell you! You see papu, armadillo it is a metafive.”
“‘Metafive’? Salim Uncle do you mean a ‘metaphor’?”
“Metafour? You are giving me twenty percent discount on metafive? No problem, call it metafour. Agreed.”
“What is the metaphor, Salim Uncle?”
“Metafour it is this: armadillo it is imagination and ants it is the tyr-ants. You see, papu?”
“No. Not really.”
“Let me to explain, papu. Now Ghandiji he said that ‘when I despair I remember that all through history the ways of Truth and Love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers but eventually they always fall’ isn’t it? Now, what all Ghandiji meant? He meant that imagination from Truth and Love is the armadillo and the tyrants they are the ants. You see, even the word ‘tyrants’ ends with the word ‘ants’!”
Salim Uncle looked so pleased with himself for being such a wordsmith.
“So Salim Uncle, you are saying that the armadillo represents the power of the imagination and the ant represents the physical power of the bully, and over time the imagination triumphs over the bully?”
“Kamal, kamal, papu! Exactly right, you see? Now you see Lord Vishnu, he was like the armadillo. When he took his three steps over the earth and the universe then that tyrant Bali who was a giant, became to Lord Vishnu just like a little ant isn’t it? Word ‘giant’ also is to be ending with the word ‘ant’, you see? These all in life are ants only – giant, tyrant, dominant, important… you see? Same with this bully Grubs, you see? Now Grubs he is just an ant, he is not a giant or a tyrant. He is not dominant and he is not important. Just an ant.”
“But how can you say that uncle Salim? Grubs is out there terrorizing our community of Indians and Pakistanis! He is not a mere ant – he is a giant. A tyrant!”
“Yes, yes. That is correct. But we need to see Grubs from Time and Space, like Lord Vishnu. If you see him in small-small Time and Space, then he is very big-big, he is giant. He is tyrant. If you see him in big-big Time and Space, then he is just small-small, he is just a little ant. You need to make your imagination and your heart big-big, papu, and then Grubs will become small-small, he will become as nothing. You need to find the big power inside you.”
“So, the imagination makes us bigger Salim Uncle? It makes us bigger because we see life from the broader scope of Time and Space? Like Lord Vishnu.”
“Correct, papu. The imagination makes us armadillos. And then giants like Grubs become tiny ants. In this life we need to decide, papu: do we want to be the armadillo or do we want to be the ant?”
At morning assembly a few days after my discussion on ‘ants’ with Salim Uncle, Drayton Manor’s Deputy Headmaster, Mr. Hides, read a scriptural selection from the King James Bible:Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, And are counted as the small dust of the balance: Behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. All nations before him are as nothing; And they are counted to him less than nothing. …
– Isaiah 40, King James Bible
After assembly, I approached Miss Sosaboska in the assembly hall and asked her what “a drop of a bucket” meant within the context of Mr. Hides’ Bible scripture selection from Isaiah 40.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “From the perspective of the infinite realm of the Universe, the earthly affairs of men and nations are perceived as just a tiny and powerless drop in a bucket.”
“Do you mean a ‘tiny and powerless drop‘ just like a tiny ‘ant‘, Ma’am?” I ventured.
“Yes!” she affirmed, “Precisely so. Tiny and powerless like an ant.”
Well, I received the third prize in the poetry competition for my poem on the armadillo.
Graham Reading, who was always winning school prizes, inevitably won the first prize; Judith Moreland, an all-around artist: a poet, painter and musician, won the second prize.
My third prize gift was a brand new hard cover copy of a just published book by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entitled The Gulag Archipelago.
I had never owned a brand new book that had been recently published.
Normally, if I wanted to read a newly published book, I would have to submit my name in the queue for that particular book at the Hanwell Library on Cherington Road. To actually ‘own’ a copy of a recently published book was quite spiffy and swiftly upgraded my status amongst those English school friends of mine who were my fellow bookworms.
I walked around proudly with my newly minted copy of The Gulag Archipelago and more importantly, I devoured every page. I could not stop reading and re-reading it.
I was entranced by the revelations of Solzhenitsyn and his heart-wrenching accounts of those who had suffered in the gulag.
My English teacher, Miss Sosaboska told me why she had suggested Solzhenitsyn’s book to our headmaster, C.J. Everest, who then presented me with the book at the prize-giving.
Apparently, when we had studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm in class a few months ago, I had been asking Miss Sosaboska a lot of questions about the sequel of events. Orwell’s book was really an allegory of the events leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
“What happened after 1917 in Russia?” I kept asking Miss Sosaboska.
Solzhenitsyn’s book answers a significant component of this question, since it documents and elucidates the forced labor camps (gulags) in the Soviet Union that were established for almost 40 years from the year 1918 to the year 1956.
Solzhenitsyn described these labor camps as a secret and vast ‘chain of islands’ spread across the Soviet Union, hence the idea of an ‘archipelago’ of gulags.
Miss Sosaboska had always said that reading good books was nourishment for the soul.
I had always felt this was a nice thing that teachers say to make us drudge through our homework by reading lots of assigned books. However, in reading The Gulag Archipelago I began to see both the wisdom of Miss Sosaboska, and the insight of Salim Uncle. The connection between reading about the suffering souls in the gulags and my own recent experience of being roughed up by Grubs took on a vital significance in my young mind.
It dawned upon me how, in the gigantic sweep of Soviet history during those four decades after the Bolshevik Revolution (where an epic cruelty was deliberately practiced upon sensitive souls like Solzhenitsyn), my own little incident with Grubs seemed so trivial and somewhat trite.
I mentioned this insight to Miss Sosaboska, who was the only teacher I had confided in about my being Paki-bashed by Grubs.
“Great literature, and great journalism can have that effect upon us,” Miss Sosaboska encouraged, “Somehow, we feel connected to the characters and through this connection we experience a wider sense of our place and purpose in the fabric of humanity. Your experience with Grubs, when connected to the local community within the London Borough of Ealing, seems to have a huge significance and suggests a mighty injustice. However, when, through your reading Solzhenitsyn’s book, you expand your sense of community to include the Russian people and their history, then the injustice you have experienced with Grubs takes on a completely new dimension. It is all about perspective.”
“So, would you say, Miss Sosaboska, that by connecting with the Russian people and their history through Solzhenitsyn’s book, I have expanded by sense of Time and Space – where Time includes the history of the gulags and Space includes the Soviet Union as well as the London Borough of Ealing?”
“Precisely. Great writing takes us out of ourselves. It transports us and, ideally, causes us to recognize that we are part of a wider sense of humanity. In the ideal sense, good books make us more universal thinkers and unite us with those whom we have never met but whose circumstances we can empathize with. When you read about the gulags, particularly the torture in these labor camps, it brings perspective to your own experience with Grubs. It allows you , for example, to feel compassion for those who have suffered human rights violations because you yourself have had a taste of what that feels like.”
“Is it also about a perspective of the size of the events?” I asked hesitantly. I was starting to realize Salim Uncle may have been on to something.
“In what way do you mean the ‘size of the events’?”
“Well, my uncle Salim has this theory that events and circumstances can grow in size and shrink in size depending upon how we perceive them. So, if I view being beaten up by Grubs within the London Borough of Ealing then the violence and prejudice of the event seems huge – it appears gigantic to me. However, when this violation by Grubs is compared to the experience of those who suffered in the gulags during forty years of Soviet history after the Bolshevik Revolution, my being roughed up by Grubs is something that shrinks in my perspective as relatively small and insignificant.”
“Yes, I see what you mean – and that is precisely the value of reading great literature and journalism. The reason your experience with Grubs becomes reduced in significance, the reason it shrinks in size, is because the experience of reading a magnificent book such as The Gulag Archipelago causes us to expand our sense of identity and family and think as world citizens. We empathize with the experiences of those who suffered in the gulags because we feel a kinship with them, because they are part of our extended family, our fellow world citizens. And as we grow and expand this size of our global identity, we see our own local experience from a less exaggerated perspective.”
“My uncle Salim says that expanding my sense of Time and Space through my imagination can transform my view of Grubs from a giant and a tyrant, to a tiny and a harmless ant.”
“I think that is absolutely correct. Moreover, I think that your reading The Gulag Archipelago is perhaps your first insight into how good writing can allow us to see ourselves in a different light, and to cause those events – such as your encounter with Grubs – to be reduced from gigantic and intimidating events, to rather tiny and incidental ones, once we see ourselves within the sweep of Time and Space. Yes, I think there is a lot of wisdom in your uncle Salim – is he the one with the newsagent’s in Southall?”
“Yes, he is. Uncle Salim is not much of a reader, though. I don’t think he has read a book in his life.”
“Ah, but this uncle of yours is clearly a reader of character, a reader of humanity,” Miss Sosaboska considered thoughtfully, “an explorer of this adventure of life. Do you recall when we studied T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets in class recently:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”