Continued from here.
The portrait of Pagan Min looms over his table.
Pagan Min sits across from me at dinner and tells me he wishes to help. In the same moment, he as asked “Why would I ever kill you?” and the emphasis is not on ‘kill’, but on ‘why’. It’s believable to both of us that he would have me murdered. He’s questioning where I’ve given him reason. Conversation feels like a minefield.
“You want to help me.”
“I want to help your story. Obviously you’re free to take the rah-rah, youth-in-revolt, palatable to the weepy armchair activists approach. But I invited you here, to my table, because I think you’re better than that.”
He sounds almost genuine. Or rather, he sounds perfectly genuine and it is because I think I know him that I hear deception and danger in every word. I feel
it is a trap being set for me. I try to sip the wine, to remedy my dry-mouth, and I watch for any sign that he’s waiting for me to fall to the ground convulsing.
“Thank you,” I say. It’s the least I’ve ever meant it. “I didn’t set out to write anything one-sided; I want you to know that, sir, and–”
“Just Pagan, please.” When I stop, he shrugs slightly and goes for a plate of something fried. “It’s fine. What I’m trying to say, Divya, is that you’re good at what you do. You have conviction. I like the way you write. I like your taste in luggage; your mother has no idea what she’s talking about. All you need is someone–me–to tell you the truth. Specifically the truth about what the Golden Path has done to this country. Everything you wrote reeks of pseudo-populist bullshit because that’s exactly what it is.”
The image of a man seated before his own portrait, sipping wine older than himself, eating the finest from golden platters, and scoffing at ‘populism’ brings to mind the royalty of Versailles again. But he pauses. He sighs. He runs a hand through hair I imagined would be hard as enamel, but moves between his fingers and back into place.
“All I want,” he says more quietly, as if to his wine, “is to give the people the country they deserve. All I want is peace.”
The silence in the room is heavy. I can hear him breathing and I wonder what’s going through his mind. Is this an act I’m meant to buy into now, or has be gone somewhere else entirely?
“That is a headline,” I tell him after a moment, “that will be very difficult to sell. To call the Golden Path terrorists is to suggest that they aren’t oppressed people. I’ve seen a man beaten, I told you, for tearing down a poster. People disappear in Kyrat and they end up in prison. There is death and violence everywhere. For fun? For fun, they go to Shanath Arena and watch their own being torn apart by animals. Shot by one another! As entertainment! You’re– you’re on Twitter! You’re a style maven. You’re a modern man and I don’t–I am trying to understand how you reconcile what’s happening in this country with what you know the rest of the world is doing. You must know this is brutality.”
“Do you know what I hate?”
‘Hate’ is a choked sound, sharp and guttural, and I am instantly reduced to a cowering child. I’ve spoken out of turn and I’m about to be punished. I can predict the end of the sentence: ‘impudence’, ‘rudeness’, ‘journalists who don’t know their place’. He continues before I can offer a stream of apologies.
“I hate that intelligent, rational people just like yourself can be just as swayed by their propaganda as the stupid monkeys who go out and die for them. Let me tell you, Divya, about the Golden Path. You bring up the Arena, let’s start there. Blood begets blood. When I came in, I established a government. I created an army. I didn’t enslave these people, I freed them from a self-serving inbred who would have run Kyrat into the ground. And how do they thank me? Violence. They go for blood. The blood of people whose only crime was taking a paycheque for protecting their new King. At every turn, it’s torching trucks bringing supplies to the people, murdering my soldiers in the streets–firing mortars into buildings filled with people. In the name of what? Freedom? They have freedom. No, it’s in the name of hurt pride. Look at the casualties. That isn’t my war. My war was won twenty years ago. This is a vendetta.”
“But–” I attempt.
“And do you know what that does to a country? It beats it down. And like a dog, violence changes its nature. The Arena could burn down tomorrow–totally plausible–and my Army would have one less beat to walk. But the Golden Path? They would lose the sport that enures their people to the sight of human beings reduced to ground meat. And they’d lose another blight they like to blame on my leadership. The Arena exists because of the Golden Path and it exists for the Golden Path. Look into it, Divya. You like research.”
The dining room.
“I was told you controlled it. I was told Noore worked for you.”
“You were told I would kill you.” He grins. “And now we’re having dinner.”
“But you must see the signs. The banners. ‘Pagan Min our saviour’. Smiling Kyrati families looking up at your shining image.”
A moment of consideration. “The design’s a little dated, I’ll admit. This is about Utkarsh, isn’t it?”
“It’s about everywhere.”
“But Utkarsh is what you saw. It’s funny, Divya, because you said it yourself in your blog: ‘Utkarsh is the dream. Utkarsh is the model city’. You’re exactly right and I’m proud of you for seeing it. I am! Utkarsh is what I want for Kyrat: prosperous, happy, and clean. It’s the dream I have for the people that the Golden Path doesn’t want you to see. And you, an idealist, walk into that and see a man full of conviction, running down the road to make a political statement and tear down a poster. Do you know what I want my Army to see?”
“A threat to your influence.”
He sighs. “A threat to my people. Are my men meant to know that he doesn’t have a weapon? A bomb strapped to his chest? Are they meant to trust in a group of terrorists who have only proven themselves crueler and crueler with every act? It begins at posters and it ends in death. This is the way the Golden Path operates. They say they want peace, but they don’t know what peace is. They never have.”
“So you feel it was the same, then…” I begin. I tell myself that he has seen my blog and he knows what I know. “Under Mohan Ghale.”
It is as though I rob him of breath, but at the tale end of an exhalation, he tries to make it look like a laugh. His mouth is closed tightly as his tongue passes over his teeth, as if he holding something back, whether bile or violence. Once more, he doesn’t look at me, black eyes dull and aimed at the tabletop, where his hand reaches for the wine, but, as it passes, lingers too long on a steak knife. His fingers brush against handle and I hear my heartbeat in my ears.
“I read–I’m asking because of–” I am fumbling. “I read some journals–Yuma’s journals. I’m only asking. I thought–I thought it would help me understand. I’m sorry.”
He picks up the wine. The knife remains on the table.
“You thought,” he hisses, “it would help you understand.”
As he looks down the table at me, his eyes are those of a predator whose prey is cornered, and he walks towards me slowly; after all, he doesn’t have to be quick about it. I have nowhere to run. Every step in my direction is deliberate and he caresses the back of every chair on his way.
“Oh, Divya…Divya, Divya, Divya.”
When he gets too near to me, I flinch. It is a twitching reflex ready to propel me out of my seat into a futile attempt at escape but:
“Don’t” is a bark. “Move” is a purr.
I stay still.
When he gets to me, he pulls out the chair to my right and sits beside me, close enough for me to smell the depth of his cologne, see where the bleaching in his eyebrows ends.
He sets his wineglass down.
And without a word, he reaches across me and takes my phone, slides it slowly across the table to himself and clicks its screen to show the steady line of the voice recorder. He enters the passcode–my passcode–and taps the recorder off.
“King Min–Pagan,” I beg. “I’m sorry. I meant–I wanted context. I read them because I wanted context.”
He puts his hand on my wrist; the metal of his rings is warmer than my blanching skin. His grasp is gentle, non-threatening, friendly. He turns to me.
“We’re off the record now, Divya.”
He releases me. “Let me give you context.”