A lonely man awaiting execution somewhere in Africa spends his last night writing to a woman in India he has never met. Hard drinking Mumbai based newswoman Taz Dhar sets off to find out who he was, and how he could have been executed without apparently anyone knowing about it. Her journey takes her from India to her home in the UK and then via Germany, Ethiopia, Ghana and The Gambia into ever greater danger as the reality of what she confronts begins to dawn. Who was the man who wrote to her? What happened to him? And who is she? Born in Uganda, brought up in the UK, finding fame then failure in India, her identity as an Expatriate Indian, an East African Asian and a British Moslem all come into question as the reality of the War on Terror, and India’s ambitions within it, embrace her.
A global mystery with a new kind of hero, this story is also about one woman’s journey through unsuccessful relationships and unlikely friendships toward some kind of self discovery.
Extraordinary Rendition? You don’t know the half of it.
The name is Armitage Shanks. A bad joke at the best of times, which this surely isn’t.
I’m Armitage Shanks, and tomorrow I’m going to die.
Do you have any idea what it means to know you’re going to die? Can you imagine it? Can you? I can’t. Even now. At one level, I know the fact. Tomorrow, some essential, some literally vital, part of me will be destroyed. As a machine, a functioning entity, I will simply cease to work. Be switched off. Closed down. Cease to be. My body will remain, but what happens to all that explosive, passionate, confused essence? How can it just end?
Two things trouble me above all others; firstly, that I will die indoors. Secondly, that I will die hot, sweating.
The fact that I know the time precisely, or that I’m in a country not my own troubles me less. Strange.
When they first arrived, I was taken with the others on the back of an open lorry to a run-down army barracks. There we were made to sit on a concrete floor. More and more people were herded in; the heat, the day, and of all these bodies together, was insufferable. We weren’t allowed to speak, or look up, or around at one another. We had to sit with our knees up, and our hands linked around our legs. First I was scared. Then, the sheer bloody discomfort of the situation became the dominant thought. My buttocks ached, and my muscles stiffened. The heat grew stronger and we were plagued by flies, but we couldn’t brush them away. A couple of the younger men began sobbing. One of them was hit with a rifle butt. After a while, somebody vomited. Someone else could not control their bowels any more.
I don’t know how long we were held there. After a while, the pain and discomfort from various parts of my body all merged together. It absorbed me, and I lost track of time. I never passed out, or fainted or slept. I just ceased to differentiate between sensation, thought and emotion. All became one.
When they split us up and moved us to various locations, I was held first in a cell with fourteen others. There was one hard, vicious bastard who was the cell lord. He was, I think, a Somali, although none of us ever told one another much about where we were from or who we were. Informants, you see. Grasses were everywhere. So I never knew what he was picked up for, but he made a bee-line for me; thought it would be fun to a whack at the white guy. He’d killed men in that cell; everyone knew it, but he was never charged because no one cared. It cut down the numbers they had to feed. They never even reported the deaths; just dragged the body out and went on indenting for the allowances for funding the full complement, pocketing the spare. Someone once said that according to the paperwork, there were fifty-three men in that cell, even though it could barely hold fifteen.
Besides, the Somali kept the peace, ensured there was no trouble.
So what did I do? What any determined survivor would–made myself indispensable to him. Never mind how. I think in the end he really came to care for me–he was certainly very angry when they took me out of the cell.
There’s a familiar smell here–familiar from way back. It took me a long time to place it. I thought for ages it was simply that universal prison reek of damp, drains and fear. Then, suddenly, I awoke one morning and knew exactly what it was–as clear and certain as if I’d first smelt it only the day before.
The Slaughter House on Pound Street.
Then, after weeks, I was moved again. This time to a smaller room, with only one other prisoner. He was a Shi’ite; a Koja. He told me he had killed his six-year-old daughter, because he said when he heard her voice, he heard the voice of the man who plays with dogs.
He was completely mad; barking, if you’ll forgive a pun in very poor taste. Hardly ever slept. His eyes were bright, like a man with malaria. Ridiculous though it may sound, he was surprisingly good company. An ideal cell-mate. He was obsessively clean, careful, and private. In places like this, other people’s bodily functions take on dramatic significance; he never even broke wind. Not once. He was determined that, before they executed him, he would convert me to Islam. In his insanity, he kept me sane. Exercising my mind by teaching me prayers, and lecturing me. The real torture in prison is the grinding, relentless monotony. Except for two meals a day, served (ha!) at the whim of the warden, there is no pattern. Nothing to structure, construct and dissect the day. The lassitude, the torpor-induced surrender to their erratic timetable, their unexplained agenda. Meal times, bowel movements, sleep. That’s all there is. Other than hour after hour of sitting, staring at nothing. This is when moral fibre comes to the fore.
Well, call me shallow but I’d exhausted my inner resources within days. After a month, I couldn’t even be bothered to dream.
That’s why Islam was such a gift from God. Suddenly, so much to learn, practice and do: language, process, movement and a glorious, disciplined regimen the guards could interrupt and frustrate but could not impose on. Requirements, restraints, deadlines. All the dos and don’ts you think you would love to be free of but for which you (or at least I) physically ached for once they are taken away.
In return I taught my cell-mate a Gene Pitney song I’d liked as a kid: Not much of a trade really. Eternal salvation for 24 hours from Tulsa. When, without really thinking about it, I told him I’d like to become a Muslim, he laughed, and capered and kissed me. Told me I already was. From that moment on, he treated me like a younger brother, or maybe a son. He sat awake, watching over me, when I slept. He sat awake, talking incessantly to me when I was awake. He would guard me from everything he could protect me from: insects, and insults. He would snatch the food we were given, pool it, then give me the best. I suppose he loved me. I certainly came to love him and found sense in his crazy, obsessive ways.
There was some problem about his sentence; it was postponed indefinitely. In the end, the date of my execution was set before his day came, and I was moved to a single cell. As my life expectancy progressively shortened, so the quality of my accommodation has, in step, improved.
When they decided to kill me, they gave me my first medical check. The doctor complimented me; apart from worms, he said, I was remarkably fit. Good one.
I can’t remember how long ago now I was sentenced to die; a few weeks. Maybe three months. I lodged an appeal; not that it mattered. An appeal was lodged for me, automatically. When it was turned down, equally automatically, three days ago, they told me I would die today, at 9.15 in the morning. Friday morning.
I’d had my last weekend, and I hadn’t even realized. And in all that time, no one had asked me a single question. Weird, eh? Still, I guess that’s what happens when you are Armitage Shanks.