What does it mean to be an artist living in an authoritarian regime? That’s one of the questions that Ravi Mangla wrestles with in his new novel The Observant. It’s a question that has come into play countless times in the real world, which provided Mangla with the inspiration behind this book, which focuses on a filmmaker living in a totalitarian state weighing the cost of his own freedom. As we did with Mangla’s earlier novel Understudies, we’re happy to be publishing an excerpt from this gripping new work.
Two guards stood on either side of the door. They instructed me to collect my linens. I submitted without hesitation. They led me down the corridor—the opposite direction of the interrogation room (but, then again, all the hallways looked more or less the same). We took the staircase down two flights. A third guard met us at the landing and took charge of the company. The back of his uniform was untucked, but I made no mention of this.
He opened the door to a cell and the other guards shepherded me inside. The room was the same size as my previous dwelling, with three single beds crowded together: two stacked and one perpendicular. An older man with a mussed gray beard lay on the top bunk, his naked ankles crossed and hands behind his head. Below, a slightly younger man with a knit beanie perched at the edge of his bed, his leg trembling. The guards instructed me to deposit my linens on the unclaimed bed. They then exited the cell. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room.
“Welcome to the abyss,” the older man called down.
After allowing me several minutes to settle, to take in my new living quarters, the men introduced themselves: Aasim and Naveed. Aasim, the older man on the top bunk, and Naveed, the younger, more serious one. They were university professors who taught at rival schools, but the competition seemed immaterial at this point.
“I wrote a paper for a European journal on Antonio Gramsci’s conception of hegemony. It wasn’t a major periodical. Just a small journal read by other academics in the field. After the publication, they broke into my house and arrested me—in front of my wife and daughter,” Naveed said. “I can only imagine how terrifying it was for them to witness. The look on my daughter’s face is something I will never forget.”
“Me, I’ve never shied away from sharing my politics with my students. It was destined to catch up with me sooner or later,” Aasim said, almost blissfully.
Naveed shot him a look of admonishment. Aasim turned to me and nodded, encouraging me to share my own story of internment.
“What is there to say? I wanted to shoot a film about the uprisings. I was careless, naïve. I believed my American passport would protect me from a place like this.”
“Classic Yank,” Aasim grinned. “You always think you can intervene in the affairs of others without consequences. But there are always consequences. In this country, only the very wealthy have impunity.”
Naveed moved to speak but instead said nothing.
“How long have you been here?”
“Months,” Aasim said “I may be a mathematician, but I’ve never been one for counting the hours.”
“At this point either a family member pays an official for your release or you wait, sometimes for months, sometimes for years,” Naveed said wearily, sliding his feet into slippers at the foot of the bunk and striding over to the elevated window.
“Don’t worry,” Aasim said. “Your people probably have helicopters over us right now, ready to blow a hole through the wall, and fly you out of here.”
He made the whooshing noise of a helicopter out of the side of his mouth and lay back in his bunk, covering his face with a pillow.
Back in the interrogation room the inquisitor stirred his coffee cup with an outstretched finger. The lights were lowered to a less abrasive wattage.
“How do you find your new accommodations?”
“I hope you’ve had time to think about our last conversation. I certainly don’t want to make this more difficult than it needs to be. I expect your wife and mother would feel the same.”
He set his coffee aside and tidied his papers.
“What did you and Ali Jameel discuss on August the seventh?”
“Science fiction novels.”
The interviewer gave a curt smile. The guard rushed forward and cuffed the side of my head. The gold band around his finger caught the skin above my ear. Blood spilled from the wound as I pressed my hand against my head, believing that the pressure alone could staunch the bleeding. I cursed under my breath, leaning forward in the chair. The guard retreated to his post. The inquisitor crossed his legs.
“Care to try again?”
Aasim tore a thin strip of his bedsheet and helped me dress the wound.
“Each scar is a story,” he murmured, stirring his hands around my head and securing the bandage with the knot.
“Not always one with a happy ending,” I said. The wound still throbbed and my sight dipped in and out of focus. I wondered if I had a concussion.
“Chin up. The last thing Mohadessi’s people want is an international conflict. You’ll be out of here soon enough,” he said. “Sooner than the rest of us anyway.”
Naveed rose from his bunk. He paced across the small room. The frustration on his face was apparent.
“Don’t cosset him,” he said. “He returns home and— what?—writes a book, makes a movie, accepts a teaching post at a famed university. This is simply a footnote in his life. We will suffer the repercussions of this for years. Even if I’m let out, I will constantly be checking over my shoulder. I have to worry about my children and wife, whether they are safe. Who knows if I will even be able to teach again, if I can travel abroad again. There is no reprieve coming for us.”
“Such a worrywart,” Aasim said, dismissing Naveed’s grievance with the flick of his hand.
Once every several days, at seemingly random intervals, a small caravan of prisoners would be led to the showers. An armed guard stood outside each of the eight stalls, checking and rechecking the identical watches on their wrists. The showers were repellant. The grout was yellowing and chiseled away. Hairline cracks spidered across the blue ceramic tiles. There was no shower curtain to cloister the prim or pious. The showerhead, brown with rust, delivered its water in spits and dribbles.
“One minute,” the guard announced.
Ten seconds later: “Thirty seconds.”
Before my body could acclimate to the cold water a hand took hold of my arm and hauled me out of the stall. The remaining shaving of soap slipped from my hand and circled toward the grumbling drain.
Aasim had proposed to teach me conversational Arabic: an offer I readily accepted. He seemed to derive joy from small acts of service, from imparting the obscure knowledge he had accumulated over the years. He used the cell as an oversized chalkboard, scratching characters onto the walls. Naveed watched our sessions with mild curiosity, sometimes interjecting to correct my syntax or pronunciations.
My tongue took to Arabic as if it were an ill-fitting suit, but when you have so little to occupy your mind, the rudiments of a new language much more easily take root. After only a few weeks of daily lessons, I was able to understand and converse freely in the local dialect—with only minor blunders to expose my lack of experience.
The lawyer wore an espresso brown jacket over a creased white shirt. His beard was finely trimmed and hair fastidiously combed to one side. He guided a miniature lint roller over his pant leg and then slipped it into his pocket. When I asked for a card, he responded curtly to the request.
“No card,” he said, as if admonishing a small child for grasping for candy at a store checkout.
I took a seat across from him.
“I was sent by your people.”
Who were my people? I wondered. The Americans, the Sikhs, the Brooklynites, the Directors Guild…
He had a briefcase laid out on the table and two documents in front of him. His elbows were propped on the table and hands draped over one another.
“This is no place for you,” he said. “I can make a request for your release, but I need your signature.”
He pushed one of the two papers forward and handed me an expensive fountain pen. I read over the document slowly.
“This is a confession,” I said. “I’m admitting to conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government.”
“Is this not the truth?”
“I don’t work for any intelligence agency.”
“I can’t help without your signature. You must make a confession, otherwise they will hold you indefinitely.”
“I’m not confessing to a false charge. If I sign this, they will hang me.”
He shook his head forcefully.
“You misunderstand,” he said.
“This,” I said, holding the paper up to his impassive face, “is a death sentence.”
He seized the document and returned it and its companion to his briefcase.
“I offer my help, Mr. Rai. These are my conditions.
Without your cooperation, then there is nothing I can do for you.”
The gold latches on his briefcase snapped shut and he left the room.