July 13, 2009

Book thief

At least one person in this world, I now know, has compared Agatha Christie to Kamala Markandeya; and Michael found dear Agatha somewhat wanting. "She's a silly girl" are the precise words he used to describe the Duchess of the detective novel. And Markandeya? She's such a good writer, he said, that he used to steal her books from his university library. Though "steal" is not quite the right word, he thinks; after all, the legendary poet and Cuban nationalist Jose Marti once wrote that stealing books was no crime.

At first, Michael couldn't remember her name. "You're from India," he had said. "I wanna talk to you about a writer from your country." He loved her books, he stole them -- you understand, it wasn't stealing -- but what on earth was her name? His voice trailed off in despair. "Kamala ... Kamala ..." we heard him musing, almost lovingly.

"Das?" we said. "Markandeya?" we offered. He shook his head to both, especially baffled by the inscrutable complexity of that second offering, leavened as it was with our Indian accents. No other writing Kamalas came to mind.

But out of the blue and much later, loud enough for the dancers at the other end of the Parque Cespedes -- perhaps even at the other end of the city -- to turn their heads, there was a shout: "Maar-khan-daa-ya!"

Michael had remembered.

This thief who isn't lives in Santiago de Cuba, that country's second largest city. He is a jinitero, a hustler, one of hordes of youths in Cuba's cities who make a living off cuts they get from things tourists spend money on. Everything is fair game for such cuts: taxis, meals, rooms on rent, rum, sea-food, cigars. Prostitution, of course. Drugs, I'm sure. In a crumbling economy, this dismal pursuit is one of the few ways to make hard cash.

Now I think it is safe to assume that Dame Agatha's books remain stacked on university shelves in Santiago. But that students there will have to learn to do without Kamala Markandeya, I have no doubt. Michael has seen to that. Ms Markandeya, wherever she is, should be proud.

That is why, on our return, we bought Kamala M's Nectar In A Sieve and dispatched it to Michael. We hope he got it before he felt the urge to steal -- whatever Marti might have said -- a copy of that one too.

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