The Barter

Ho Anh Thai, Trans. Wayne Karlin

[W]hile I was studying in India, I had a German classmate with whom I also shared a room in the hostel. In a word, we were roommates.

The first day we met, he introduced himself with these words: “I am Heinrich, from Bavaria, located in the south of Germany.”

I told him I had read the work of the German poet Heinrich Heine, his namesake. He shrugged — nowadays, he said, everyone was writing poetry. I abandoned nineteenth century German literature and mentioned Heinrich Boll and Erich Maria Remarque. He looked at me suspiciously, as if I were trying to trap him into admitting some association with criminals wanted by Interpol.

The only time I saw him express any pride in his German background was one evening when he invited me to go with him to the India International Center to see a solo dancer perform the bharat natyam. This dance was born in the Hindu temples of Tamil’s Nadu state, where the ritual was traditionally performed at festivals by dancers-cum-prostitutes. We found the International Center on Max Muller Road, and Heinrich pointed proudly at the sign. “Max Muller was a German, and a well-known Indologist,” he said. “Germany is one of the first countries to have developed Indology.”

Perhaps that was the only German achievement he felt significant. In his country, after all, prejudice still existed against Asians. Even he, a man from a small farm in the south, had once been mimicked for his country bumpkin accent by some prostitutes in a Berlin alley. Heinrich had gone to the capital to look for work, but finding none, his money nearly exhausted, he had taken to sleeping in parks or in the doorways of shops. On one such night, the inspiration to become a scholar of Indology had broken like a light in his mind, sparked by an newspaper notice — a boxed ad, small as a matchbook  —  offering scholarships to study Hindi and Indology in India. The next day, without eating, Heinrich took a train back home. He had spent all his remaining money on a Teach-Yourself Hindi book, and several books about Indian culture. A year later, he returned to Berlin and went straight to the embassy of India. The dozen or so Hindi sentences he spoke, and his bit of knowledge about Indian culture were enough to help him pass the interview, and the unemployed German graduate student packed his backpack and got ready to go. Before leaving Germany, he was already infatuated with India. After arriving, he was entranced.

I was the one who had to live with his obsession. One day, I called his name, Heinrich, five times, and he didn’t reply.

“Don’t you hear me?” I asked in English.

He looked blankly at me, as if he were deaf.

“Don’t you hear me?” I asked again, switching to Hindi.

“Yes, I do,” he said, replying in the same language. “But Heinrich is no more. From now on, there is only Amar Singh.”


Our entire hostel of 40 foreign students was abuzz with the news that “Heinrich is no more.” In his place was a guy with an Indian name who wore a kurta, the loose-fitting Indian tunic. This Indian guy slept in Heinrich’s bed, took Heinrich’s seat in our class and in the dining hall, and flatly refused to answer if anyone called him Heinrich, or to speak English to anyone. He told me that the week before he had gone on a pilgrimage to Benares, and had dipped into the sacred water of the Ganges to wash everything he had been away. Afterwards, a priest had taken him through the rituals to convert to Hinduism. He had become a Brahmin, the highest caste, with the Hindu sacred thread draped around his torso, from his right shoulder to his left waist.

“The holy thread is embracing you a bit late, isn’t it?” I said. “Usually Hindus don’t hold the wearing-the-thread ceremony for anyone over fifteen.”

“In the eyes of all the gods and this great civilization, I am only an infant.”

“I thought children under nine years old aren’t allowed to wear the thread. Aren’t you being sacrilegious?”

He regarded this as a low remark to which he wouldn’t stoop to reply. Nor would he join in the repartee of our group of foreign students, who often preferred speaking English to the language we were studying. “Amar Singh, may I borrow your book?” someone would ask, but then say “Hey, Heinrich, you have a letter at the school office,” just to enjoy watching him deny his new identity as he hurried to see who had written to him.

That winter was chilly. By five o’clock in the morning, the temperature outside would fall to two degrees celsius. Our room temperature, after the heater had worked all night, would reach eight degrees. Amar Singh would rise and open the window wide, and the room temperature would instantly be identical to the temperature outside. Then he would sit in a corner and pray. Before him would sit a large plate on which he’d arranged a handful of red powder, rice, and a ghee-fueled lamp, the clarified butter burning with a wavering flame. His prayers usually dragged on until after six o’clock. Every day I complained that he was freezing me out and not letting me get enough sleep. Every day, he practiced his Indian-style stoicism by either acting as if he didn’t hear anything, or by saying that he didn’t feel the cold at all.

Once, at about one o’clock in the morning, I switched on the ceiling fan and turned it to top speed. The fan roared like the rotors of a helicopter.

“Switch it off,” he moaned, sticking his head out of the blanket.

“But I don’t feel cold at all,” I said, mimicking him.

I knew if we continued going tit for tat it would only be a matter of time before we were both found frozen to death in our room. We were two countries in a continuous border conflict, with no peaceful solution in sight. He did not want peace. One crisis would still remain unresolved, and yet another would come up. I no longer even had to wait until five in the morning for our first clash. One morning at four, I was startled out of my sleep by a series of loud thumps coming from the ceiling. My first thought was that another Indianized Westerner was pounding a stick above my head in order to smash my peaceful sleep. This went on for several more mornings until, unable to bear it any longer, I threw off my blanket and rushed up the stairs, determined to catch the faux-Heinrich red-handed. But it turned out to be the genuine article. And he had no stick — just a coconut he was hurling down on the floor in order to smash its shell. He silently gathered the pieces and then took them to our room, to use as part of his morning worship ritual. I said nothing. I had gotten into the habit of saying nothing. Negotiation was useless. I would simply act. I waited until five o’clock in the evening, when I knew Heinrich was accustomed to taking a short nap after class. I went to the upper floor, directly over his head, and thwack, thwack, began jumping up and down, practicing the karate moves that up until then I had only done in the morning, and in the courtyard below.

The skirmish of the top floor and the battle of the room did not end the war; soon it spread into the domain of the intellect. One day by chance I came across a paragraph from a speech by Indira Gandhi which she had given at the Sorbonne in Paris, in 1981. Gleefully, I pushed the words under his eyes:

“Many in the West, alienated by the acquisitive society, have been turning to the East for spiritual light, even as the young in our countries look westwards, dazzled by its glitter. A barter of deceptions, this spiritualism is no more a consumer good than is technology. Each has to be internalized, through a dedicated period of self-discipline: what we in India call tapas, yoga, which is essentially a discipline—physical, mental and spiritual control.”

Feeling smug, I watched him read. But all he did was shrug, his complacency unruffled. “I practice my yoga regularly,” he said.

You can’t have a war if one side doesn’t deign to fight. Luckily, our student group was about to be split up and sent off on study tours far away from the capital. The time would allow a temporary cease-fire between the two of us, a chance to rest and replenish our weapons. We were to be divided into groups of four, though some groups would have three students. My group would only have two. I was the first. I waited for the dean to read off the name of the second. Of course.

Heinrich and I went to the southern state of Tamil Nadu. We travelled by train, sharing our small compartment with two Indian men. When one of them told the attendant that he was a non-vegetarian and would like a chicken curry, my classmate immediately retorted that since he was sharing a compartment with vegetarians, he must eat vegetarian food. The man stared in surprise at this blond Westerner who was acting more royally than the king. I was all ready to support him by declaring my desire for chicken curry also, thus creating a two/two balance of forces in the compartment. But the man possessed the Indian talent for self-denial. He contented himself with vegetarian dishes until we arrived in Madras where he went his own way and undoubtedly to his own food.

The university in Madras recommended that we visit a certain village about 100 kilometers from the state capital. When we arrived in the morning, we heard that there would be an auction of devadasi dancers — the name means “slaves of the gods” — that evening at the temple complex. These were girls who had been dedicated to the goddess Yellamma-Renuka when they were very small, and then trained to be temple dancers, performing at rituals and festivals. Now they had attained puberty and the temple administrative committee was holding an auction sale. The highest bidder would have the right of “first touch” with the girl, and would become her master until he was satiated with her, at which time he could sell her to another man.

The first four girls were each about sixteen years old. After their preliminary dance, a price of 600 rupees per girl was agreed upon, and they were handed over to their new masters, peasants with long snouts and pot bellies, like sewer rats. They hurriedly paid the girls’ parents and, pawing the girls, led them to the dancers’ private rooms inside the complex.

Now it was the turn of the fifth girl. She stepped up onto the round platform made of black stone and began to dance the bharat natyam. Swift as the wind. Forceful as a bellows. Searing as a flame. All of these elements emanated from the movements of a fifteen year old girl. As in a trance, she became Lord Krishna, became the story of his life, from a mischievous little boy to a brave and chivalrous god who “fought the west and conquered the north,” as we Vietnamese say. I had seen this dance many times before, performed by professional dancers in New Delhi. But I had never seen it done with such a naive and fresh authenticity.

Her dance teacher, singing and pounding out a beat for the girl’s dance on the tabla (a pair of small drums), looked like a bitter man. He had been guiding the girl since she was nine years old, had cultivated the rose bush until it budded, and now another, wealthier, man would come along this night and pluck the rose. As another Vietnamese proverb has it, he was angry with the fish, so he hacked at the chopping block. What he hacked were his drums. Without a pause to allow her to rest, he kept singing and pounding, knowing she had to keep whirling as long as he kept up the music. She danced for over an hour without pause, until the chivalrous and kindly Krishna she was portraying had become an exhausted old woman breathing her last breath. It seemed as if once the dance teacher stopped drumming, she would collapse like a body without a soul.

“I’m going to kill that damned guy,” I said, and started to rise. Amar Singh pulled me back. Staring at the girl, he ground his teeth with a grating noise. His face was steely.

The satyric sewer rats began to shout their prices. Two hundred! Three hundred! Three hundred and twenty! Three hundred and eighty! The dance teacher was still singing and beating the drums. He would not spare the girl, even though she was staring at him entreatingly.

“Stop!” I yelled and sprang up.

My sudden shout startled the dance teacher into a different tune, his voice going much lower.

The head priest raised his eyes and asked me: “Noble guest, how much do you offer?”

“Five hundred.”

Now it was my turn to be startled, for this amount had been roared out by my German friend. The dance teacher’s mouth gaped and so was finally silent. The dancer took this as an opportunity to rest. She pressed her palms together in front of her chest and sank to the floor.

The sewer rats shrank back into a corner. They were clearly offended at this arrogant Westerner driving up the price with his wealth. The angry buzz of nationalism filled the air. One of them shouted, “Five hundred and twenty!”

“Six hundred,” my friend said, not even condescending to look at him.

“Six hundred and twenty!”

The price climbed slowly. Seven hundred. Seven hundred and twenty. Eight hundred. Eight hundred and twenty. One old goat even muttered, “One thousand rupees,” his voice trembling, as if he feared my friend would not go higher. Finally, everyone emptied their pockets for a last bid. Four thousand rupees. God knows what they all would have done with the girl if they won.

“Four thousand and five hundred rupees,” said Amar Singh, and the place went silent.

The deal was struck immediately. My friend paid the dancer’s parents, who belonged to the lowest untouchable caste, and then paid another one thousand to the temple’s administrative committee, including a fee for a ceremony marrying him to the girl.

The next morning, Amar Singh borrowed all my money, three thousand rupees: it was the same amount his new wife would have provided for her parents over half a year if she had continued to work in the temple as a dancer and a prostitute. He spent it on a farewell party for her relatives and neighbors. Everyone honored and congratulated her parents for snaring a Western groom who didn’t need a dowry paid to him. His wife preened in all her new glory. And the unemployed graduate student who had come from a small farm and who used to sleep on the sidewalks and in the parks of Germany, preened in all his glory as well.

Back in New Delhi, Amar Singh borrowed money from his friends to rent a room for 1,500 rupees a month. He borrowed from anyone he could, promising to return the money as soon as he received it from his father.

One day he came to me. “Our room in the hostel (which was free of charge for scholarship students) would cost one thousand rupees a month if we had to pay rent for it,” he said. “Now that I’m not living there, you have it to yourself, which means that you should be paying me 500 rupees a month. Six months from now, when our course is over, that would come to three thousand rupees, which is exactly what I borrowed from you. The way I figure it then, we’ll be exactly even — neither of us will owe the other anything.”

Although he had become an Indian in all ways, even to changing his name, it seemed he was still very German when it came to matters of money. But by now our relationship was much changed. Before we’d left New Delhi, we had been two neighboring countries with an unresolved border dispute between them. Now we had returned as two friendly nations regarding each other from separate continents. Besides, I was grateful that he’d jumped into the auction and probably saved me from a murder charge, since I had been about to kill the dance teacher with a karate chop.

Sometimes Amar Singh came to see me — particularly when-ever I published an article in the weekend supplement of the English language newspaper. He would borrow half of the fee I’d earned for the article. He became my most faithful reader and biggest fan, never missing an article I’d written. I suspected that he scoured the newspapers every day, searching for my byline.

One day I dropped by his flat only to find he was out and only his wife was home. Lalitha no longer danced. The sophisticated managers of the noble capital theatre would turn their noses up at a rustic dancer, an illiterate girl with no gimmicks in her performance. Not that Lalitha missed performing. She was living in the capital with her foreign husband, seeing his foreign friends — things she had not dared to dream about before.

“Isn’t Amar Singh at home?” I asked her.

“As usual, he’s gone to pray. He goes every chance he gets. Pray and worship, worship and pray. Today he’s gone to the temple to prepare for the ceremony of Lord Krishna’s birthday.”

“Aren’t you going?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Whatever. Do you want to listen to some music?”

She turned on the cassette. It already had a tape in it. Michael Jackson.

She tugged at my arms to get me up, and started dancing with me. Once, she said, her husband had gone out to practice his yoga and an American guy named Alan had come over and they had had an entire afternoon to enjoy themselves. Another time, her husband had gone on a pilgrimage to Haridwar, and a Japanese guy named Sojama had come over and they’d had a whole night to enjoy themselves. I got the idea and extracted myself from her grip. I wasn’t a lame rooster who took his pleasure in the hen-coop of his friend, I said. Besides, I was still afraid of the gods. Lalitha hooted and said I must not have read the Bhagavad Gita carefully, or I would remember the story of the Brahmin priest and the prostitute. The priest was extremely irritated at seeing how customers from all over the world would queue up at the prostitute’s door. Every day he cursed the loose woman. Then one day after she had prayed at the temple — the prostitute prayed fervently and often — she met the priest at the entrance. He threatened her with hell and with terrible punishments, threatened her so vividly that she fell down dead on the spot.

The prostitute was taken directly to paradise.

The priest was swiftly thrown into hell.

The prostitute was always conscious of her sins and repented. Her soul was always directed towards holiness.

The priest only threatened others. His soul was always directed towards the obscenity of the prostitute and her customers.

Lalitha finished the story and looked at me as if she had just finished a lofty civilizing mission. My God, I thought, she has just started to learn how to read and write, and begun her lessons in English for beginners, but she knew her classics and epics. Moreover, she knew how to apply them to real life.


Before I left India, I went to say goodbye to Amar Singh and Lalitha. As usual, he wasn’t at home. He had opened a yoga class for foreigners, though even Indians were attending it as well. By now Lalitha spoke English rather fluently, though she still didn’t know how to read and write. She boasted that English was the only language she could use to chat with the neighboring women, who were just breaking into the middle class and resolutely refused to speak Hindi or Tamil or any of the Indian languages. She disclosed that Amar Singh’s father was doing well financially now, and had begun to send money to his son — I should claim the debts her husband had heaped up, borrowing from my newspaper article earnings. As I turned to leave, Lalitha stopped me. Take me with you, she said. She was ready to leave India — she hated the dark brown skin of the Indians. She loved my white skin, loved anyone with white skin.

“I’m not white,” I said. “I’m yellow.”

“Then I love yellow,” she said, without hesitation.

This translation appeared in Behind the Red Mist: Fiction by Ho Anh Thai, translated by Wayne Karlin and Ho Anh Thai, Curbstone Press, 1998.  Reprinted with the permission of the author and editors.


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Ho Anh Thai

Author's Bio

HO ANH THAI was born in 1960 in Hanoi into a family of journalists and writers. He graduated from the Hanoi College of Diplomacy, and then earned a Ph.D in Oriental culture. Ho Anh Thai works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the elected Secretary General of the Hanoi Writers’ Association, and is on the Executive Committee of the Vietnam Writers’ Association. A novelist and short story writer best known for his novels Behind the Red Mist, The Women on the Island and his short story collections Fragment of a Man, and The Goat Meat Special, he has published 16 novels and story collections.


Illustration by Greg Myers