What does politics mean, how does it play out, and how must it be theorised and comprehended? Is it ‘an intricate dance where your enemies are your dance partners,’ as Professor Airauhi says to his students, or is it Dusty’s solid fist, that ‘shatters four of Professor Airauhi’s teeth’ and hurls him ‘like a tossed puppet, all the way down the podium and into the first row of seats.’ Someone who has trouble passing Professor Airauhi’s Introduction to Politics course is our narrator, and Dustry’s punch throws him into considering just what his problem with the professor is: is it the inadequacy of the professor’s definitions in a time of horrible violence, or is it the fact that all these definitions are armchair-propelled, only to serve self-interest and intellectual vanity?
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Thank You for Your Honesty
The man is dusty. Dark-brown dust-cakes crumble and scatter from his cheeks and legs, almost as if his skin is peeling. His hair is wild, the way Mammy Mbaise’s is after eight months of natural growth. He walks into the viridian hall. Wind billows in the skirt of his heavy-fabric A-line dress. The dress is the color of the hall. Printed flowers pattern it, lilies and hibiscuses and morning-glories. The bust and bodice fight to hold the mass of the man’s body inside them. And at the center of one printed hibiscus, I can see every outline of a full nipple. Lilies scatter away from nipple hibiscus, hiding under heavy folds of breast, spreading wide over full taut belly. The only part of the man’s upper body that does not make every contour of itself known through the fabric is his navel, and that is because it tucks inward and not out. But unlike the cramped torso, the skirt of the dress flows free. The man traipses into the lecture hall, shedding dust like detritus in the wake of a whale, and heads straight for the raised podium. He climbs it with grace.
Professor Airauhi is an open-mouthed graceless effigy watching the man come to perch daintily beside him. But he comes alive when the newcomer makes a grab for the microphone in his hand.
“Who are you? Why are you covered in dust?”
Dusty pauses then. Looks at himself. Takes it in. Blinks. Seems to notice the dust for the first time. Frowns. Deeper. His face contorts, scrunches up like brown paper crinkling. I swear it makes the sound. Lividity. Tyson Fury. His fist shatters four of Professor Airauhi’s teeth on the way into his face. I will count them later, in the aftermath. Blood blooms and momentum carries the body like it is a tossed puppet, all the way down the podium and into the first row of seats. Splays him across a pretty boy’s lap. Everybody screams now, which makes the stunned silence of before feel like it was strange. Everybody runs for doors.
“Politics is like an intricate dance where your enemies are your dance partners.” Professor Airauhi says, earlier this morning, pontificating to a class of three hundred sitting prim and proper. My pen runs out of ink and I twiddle it between my fingers, bouncing light off its chrome surface. The words are half scribbled across my page of notes, fading with the going of the ink, incomplete: Politics is like an intricate dance where–
“In politics,” Professor Airauhi continues, “every step is both an attack and cooperation.” The man approaches this sentence carefully, word of God unto Zerubbabel, Allah unto Mohammed. “An attack,” his left leg pushes forward briskly, and he claws in front of him with his right hand, a bear attacking, “and cooperation.” He says, his right leg rushing to catch up, left hand grasping thin air in a stiff-fingered clutch. He looks at us, and his eyes shine with revelation.
I ignore the revelation, turning instead to the girl on the right side of me. An old friend. Mammy Mbaise’s daughter. “Simbi, do you have an extra pen?” She shakes her head no, and her pen spells cooperation into her notes. I sigh. “Can I get your notes after the lecture, then?” Her eyes swivel my way, briefly, noting that I am someone she knows enough to nod yes to and not worry about losing the notes. She nods, and I set my empty pen on the table to better listen to the professor pontificate.
“Consider this.” He throws one arm out to encompass all of us. “Armed bandits attack a village, a small disaster.” I consider it and wonder if perhaps the terrorized villagers would agree with the Professor’s description of their situation. A small disaster. I imagine Mammy Mbaise sitting beside me in place of her daughter, wrinkling her nose at it. A small disaster. The words itch, send her foot tap-tapping against the granite floor, her shoulders trembling as her breath hitches. A small disaster? Rearing up, she’ll say, Hmm? Please explain, Professor. She’ll ask him, do you know what these ‘small disaster’ bandits do? Have you lived through it, Professor? Have you?
I turn to Simbi to see what she does. She just takes notes, spells the words out on the page. A small disaster in navy ink. Simbi is not her mother.
The professor continues his monologue with gusto, striding across the podium. “Our aspiring politician will vehemently condemn the attack. He will organize relief efforts and quickly fly over to the broken village with clean water and photographers. News reporters will be tipped off to get ready.” He pitches his voice low, conspiratorial. “Our politician will sink into the role of humanitarian, assist the government by rendering aid, all the while pointing his empathic face at every camera and every watching eye.” The professor freezes in position, eyes twinkling, like he has stumbled upon a most neglected truth. “He is saying one thing, this our magnanimous politician. He is saying, I am better than the government who let this happen to you.” I gasp, and the others with me. This is a play, and we play along.
The professor steps back, claps once, and continues pacing. “The president will have to commend him; he cannot say, ‘Who are you? Why are you taking advantage of this disaster?’ That would be bad form. The politician will be commended up until the next election when he announces his presidential aspirations. A cooperation and an attack. This is politics!” Professor Airauhi punctuates his statement with a stamped foot and a flourish of an open palm.
The students in the front rows applaud. Those in the back rows hoot. Some in the middle, like me, mime the motions. I stare at the subject of the lecture scribbled at the top of my notes. Introduction to Politics. A first year, first semester course. The only reason a third year like me would take this course is if they had failed it the previous two times, which I have. Because Professor Airauhi is far too impressed with himself. His grin shows off flawless dentition, glinting in the generous light. His eyes take in the applauding students, reveling in their praise, and almost certainly awarding them extra marks in his head for finding his conclusions deeply profound. I wonder if he knows, when he describes his politicians as posing peacocks, that he is describing himself.
I did not mind Professor Airauhi at first, at the first of his lectures I attended, in my first year. His conclusions may have been obvious, but they were hardly inaccurate. Politicians schemed. It may not have been a profound conclusion, but it was a true one. I smiled and accepted it. Until he did it again—over and over again—and it sank in that this, an ongoing litany of obvious conclusions, was all I was going to get.
Professor Airauhi is content to frame politics, to expound it as some elaborate repartee, full of checkmates and clever feints. He is content to do this for every minute of every lecture till the end of the semester, for which I do not particularly blame him. Lecturers of dubious competence are a dime a dozen at this university. The problem comes with Professor Airauhi being the only lecturer, of dubious competence or otherwise, who spins his exam questions off his classroom rants. “My word is above the material.” He actually said that. I expected consequences. Token outrage at the very least. Until I learned. Professor Airauhi is the oldest, most senior professor in the department. The Dean had been his student. And half the current faculty staff. There is a power that comes with longevity, and an immunity that only the remembrance of who you were before can bestow. I don’t know when Professor Airauhi began to stray from the material, when he went from a competent lecturer to an old man losing self-awareness and repeating himself. It was before my time. But the memory of him is kept by authorities bigger than us, so the students must play along. Two times I avoided his lectures, reading only the textbooks and covering the set curriculum. Two times I failed.
My eyes take in the half-finished sentence in my notes. Politics is like an intricate dance where–
I construct a caricature of the professor to finish it. Politics is like an intricate dance where your professor is both your enemy and your dance partner. Certainly, to win, you must learn the dance. But you must also learn the professor, because your partner has the lead, and you must follow. The applause comes furiously from an imagined audience around me and I bow to the invisible crowd.
I try it again. This time I seek out a real audience. I turn to Simbi and whisper in her ear. “Politics is like an intricate dance where Mammy Mbaise and Baba Sheriff are dance partners.”
Simbi cuts me off, gives me a festering stink eye. “Don’t talk about my parents.”
I blink and apologize, but she hisses and snaps her head away. Her spine is rigid, her body set in a serious iron-backed pose. Her face is so severe and ever slightly haunted. And it occurs to me, suddenly, when did I ever see Simbi laugh? Maybe, when we were children. When Mammy Mbaise was a mountain of a woman to me, and I was the orphan child of the community. I would come to Mammy Mbaise with my heart in my hand and ask if I could play with her children, and she would grin, a wild and beautiful thing, and send me to Simbi and her brothers. I had to ask permission. I had learned the hard way that not everybody liked to mingle their children with the eight-year-old orphan, like the death of my parents was contagious. Even if the community had come together to ensure my continued education and wellbeing after the disaster, there was still one thing I didn’t have, and that was a home of my own.
I idly wonder how Professor Airauhi would have described my situation. “Tragic house fire kills a young couple, a small disaster. The rumors that follow—that the bodies were whisked away too quick, that some neighbors had heard gunshots coming from the burning building, and that the couple had seen too much in their government job and taken it to the wrong person, that they’d refused certain bribes—well, all that proves my point, you see. Politics is like an intricate dance where justice will always lose to experience.”
Politics is an intricate dance where— humor and poverty are dance partners. The first time I saw Simbi laugh, she was too young to know that Mammy Mbaise and Baba Sheriff were poor, even by the community’s standards. It took everything they had to raise their three children, and as these children grew, the responsibility of poverty settled onto their shoulders like a shroud. But they still laughed. Distance blossomed between Simbi and I as we grew, despite the things between us that were common, like a brilliant mind and an interest in politics. I think Simbi saw my life as somewhat easy. The community paid for my food, paid for my clothes, paid for my schooling. She saw all of that, but she still laughed with me.
There are two ways poverty develops humor. Poor people can have an exquisite sense of humor, or they can be utterly joyless, devoid of even the simplest mirth. But all of that is in the beginning. It is best for a person to leave poverty behind, and take their humor with them to a comfortable life. Because staying poor will twist humor. Simbi’s laughter became a mocking thing when I got into the university straight away on community scholarship and she had to spend two years working odd jobs to save up for it. A poor person’s humor is in the color of the filter on things, the tint of the lens. How heavy can a tint lean before falling into opacity? I wonder, what does she think now, seeing me attend her first-year course as a third-year? Does she envy me the luxury, that I can afford to fail the same course twice?
Twice a year, the community’s bespectacled representatives gather and leaf through a record of my expenses, weighing them against results. I remember the last community council meeting, standing before the council and accounting for all the money they give me. They turn page after page, scrutinizing every item bought, every service paid for, squinting through glasses to catch me in a lie. Or a truth they don’t agree with.
They say, “You are spending too much on food. Rice is expensive, but not that expensive.”
“Also, why are you buying so many fancy food items.”
“Zucchini and eggplants? Even I don’t eat zucchini.”
“You are an orphan; you should temper your tastes.”
“I think we should take food money out of your stipend. We can send you ingredients and whatnot from the community market every month or two.”
“Yes. I think we can cut this expense in half. What say you?”
I nod and hmm and yessir. Politics is like an intricate dance where we pretend I have a say in the matter.
“Also. Your grades are excellent as usual. All As, except for this Introduction to Politics, which you have failed again.”
I defend myself then. “That one is not my fault. The lecturer strays off the material. The only things that matter in the exams are his opinions, many of which are irrelevant to the things we are actually supposed to learn.”
The council representative looks up at me. “We thank you for your honesty. However, you will pass the course this time. Registering to retake it is adding extra expenses to your already significant tuition. I think you are intelligent enough to pass a simple introductory course, unless you want to pay your tuition yourself. What say you?”
Hmm and yessir.
“Good. The community has high hopes for you.”
“You are our pride.”
“One day, you will finish school and begin to pay us back on our investment in you.”
I am faced with a row of gleaming teeth. “We look forward to having a great politician with our interests at heart in the upper echelons of government.” Politics is like an intricate dance where your sponsors own you.
Is it better to be owned by your family or by a community? I turn to ask Simbi, when Professor Airauhi falls silent mid-sentence and the rest of the class with him. His mouth hangs open and his eyes are fixed on the door at the side of the hall. Dread begins settling, dripping like freezing water from my head to the small of my back, and I follow his eye to the door where Dusty has appeared. Dusty steps forward.
Later, in the aftermath, I will learn who he is. Now, there’s a big smile on his face as he heads for the podium.
Later, I will learn Dusty was all dressed up for his birthday when his father and mother’s spirits had finally broken, like cracked glass giving up, and they had called in the asylum. Now, Dusty sheds detritus in the wake of his whale body.
The asylum had brought a car and taken him; his parents had turned away teary-eyed into each other’s embrace, leaving Dusty confused and wondering, floundering gracelessly in the hands of strangers. Now, Dusty reaches the podium and climbs it with grace.
The asylum’s people had not been gentle; they called him a werey, a mad man, forced him into the back seat and drove him away from home. But far away from them now, Dusty comes to perch beside Professor Airauhi on the podium.
One of the asylum’s people had looked at Dusty’s dress, run his eye over the printed flowers with his lips twisted in disgust. Dusty had smiled and seized the opportunity. Dusty told him, “It’s my birthday!”
The asylum’s person then looked at him wide-eyed, like he could not believe it. “I cannot believe it. You’re mad! You’re a bloody gay mad retard!” the asylum’s person shouted and cursed and slapped Dusty and spit on him. Dusty saw red. He thrashed and reached for the car’s driver, choked the man with a meaty hand and slammed his head against the steering wheel. The asylum’s person tried to grab him, to find purchase on his massive frame and subdue him. The car flipped off the road and crashed into the dust and all the struggling stopped. Then Dusty got out, not a scratch on him, and he stumbled away. Into the campus, away from people pointing or staring or shouting hey! Into the hall the color of his dress. There are people inside it. He can see them sitting like dolls with frozen expressions, watching him. Perhaps waiting. Maybe asking questions. There is a podium, with a man, and a microphone. Is it for him? It is his birthday, after all. Should he tell them? Maybe they’ll listen. Maybe they’ll hear.
But they don’t. “Who are you?” Professor Airauhi asks, shattering the illusion. “Why are you covered in dust?” Politics is like an intricate dance and Professor Airauhi is in very bad form. Dusty sees red again.
Everybody screams. People are running for doors. Dusty, alone on the podium, cries into the microphone. “It’s my birthday. Please. Please, it’s my birthday.” No one is watching. No one is listening. No one hears. Not even me. As Professor Airauhi bleeds in the lap of a petrified boy, I wander over and count his broken teeth. One. Will he have a lisp? Two. Will he slur his words? Three. Can he talk at all after this? Four. I wonder. Will he retire? He is certainly old enough. Watching Dusty cry, all I can think about is whether this is the year I pass.
Uchechi Princewill is a fiction writer and medical student at the University of Benin, Nigeria. He writes about how living beings intersect, both in reality and fantasy. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology, Pikes Peak Writers DREAM Anthology, and Litro Online. He is also a winner of the 2017 CYC Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition. He can be found in most spaces @bryanwhoiam.
The banner image references Raphael ‘s classic fresco painting The School Of Athens, painted between 1509-1511. Leonardo Da Vinci (the old man with the beard) represents Socrates pointing upwards, ostensibly to the abstract, the theoretical and the ideal. Aristotle’s figure points forward, towards the actual world. The source image was taken from Wiki Commons.