Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 15: “How to Live Longer” by M.G. Vassanji

From What You Are

What You Are by M.G. Vassanji

The principal figures in “How to Live Longer” are the first-person narrator, Anita, and her husband, Zool. The pair met in the Tanzanian coastal village of Meza, “an ancient Swahili town known for its hauntings.” Now resident in Toronto, Zool is a retired engineer and Anita has stepped back from her catering business and is stalled on writing a cookbook. On the wrong side of sixty, the husband and wife have shed their former vivaciousness – they used to sing love duets to entertain guests at parties – and now spend “quality time” watching Bollywood films on the sofa after dinner. Their figures, which in younger days they took pride in comparing to those of Indian film stars, have started to sag. The two keep a close eye on their weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure, and frequently wonder “what‘s happened to us?”

Anita answers the question this way: “What happened was that the kids grew up and left. The house had been paid off, and there was change to spare. We were less active, enjoyed food, and the pounds sneaked up until we were what our mothers used to call ‘healthy.’ ”

In an attempt to alleviate the ravages of age and return to some semblance of youthful vitality, Zool has created a diet called ELMO, which stands for “eat less more often.” He has written a book detailing his system, which he self-published on Amazon; it sells for $1.99 and has become a bestseller. He has also published a book detailing his rules for poetry – FIRM: feeling, invention, rhythm, metaphor – which is not a bestseller. “Poetry can’t compete with weight loss, for sure,” says Anita, ruefully articulating a truism that will be apparent to any working poet.

Zool’s catholic interests are presented as a function of his restlessness following retirement. The former engineer, we are told, requires something to keep him occupied at all times. What also becomes clear over the course of the story is that Zool is a know-it-all, the kind of person who feels justified in claiming expertise in any realm. Nor is he afraid to offer unsolicited advice in the areas he has decided he has authority. He suggests that Anita get a tummy tuck and presumes to lecture a poet on the rules of the literary form.

The latter argument occurs during a gathering that includes a “trio of geniuses” from the old days at Rusomjee Secondary in Meza: Zool, the poet Veyas, and Moez, who has maintained a rivalry with Zool since they were boys. “Moez is the wealthier one now,” Anita says. “[H]e drives a Mercedes to our more modest vehicle, and walks with a swagger. A showoff.”

It is perhaps Moez’s propensity to show off – combined with his evident material success in their adopted country – that prompts Zool to try to prove his worth at an event that also includes Pandit Shivkumar, an “Indian vocal maestro” whom Moez invites to sing ghazals for a crowd at a Markham, Ontario, banquet hall. When Vyas begins grumbling about what he feels to be the inferior quality of the poetic lines the maestro is performing, Zool cannot help but try to one-up him: “There are actually a few very simple rules to writing poetry,” he declaims, before launching into an explanation of his FIRM system. Anita describes Zool’s habit of flaunting what he considers expertise in withering terms:

My dear husband believes that he discovered America when he placed his right foot on the runner at the Toronto airport. Or, as Moez once said, Zool would try to teach Newton the laws of gravity. It goes this way, Isaac.

But it is Anita who makes the key mistake in defending Vyas, referring to him as a poet in the past tense. When one of the anonymous audience suggests that Vyas is just “[s]ome fool from Toyota” – a reference to the job as a car salesman Vyas has been forced to take in his new Canadian home – Vyas erupts with indignation, saying he is “[a] real poet! A living poet!”

Vyas has reason to want to assert himself in front of Anita: he was a rival for her affection in Meza, before she eventually settled on Zool. “I was reminded of the boy I had known back in Meza,” Anita recalls. “The one I had my eye on, before Zool struck first.” (The verb here is interesting, calling up images of a snake or some other predator.) What we are offered, then, is a triangulation of three healthy male egos: Moez, the wealthy showoff; Vyas, the poet reduced to hawking cars at a Toyota dealership; and Zool, the successful rival for Anita’s heart.

The scene at the banquet hall also highlights the temporal distance between the characters as they are in the present and the young people they were in Meza. Each has long since seen their glory days disappear in the rear-view mirror, yet they all try to retain their hold on some small measure of vigour and the pride that goes along with it. Each has accomplishments to boast about – Zool has completed a career in engineering and has a successful diet book on Amazon; Moez drives a Mercedes; and Vyas, who has worked his way up to partner at the dealership, once wrote a poem that was anthologized in a book of African verse edited by the Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka. Yet the distance between then and now yawns like a gaping cavern beneath all of these men, as well as Anita.

It is common to point out the duality inherent in immigrant characters; their experiences are always bifurcated, existing in the liminal space between the homes they have left and those they have chosen. This is evident in “How to Live Longer” from the dissatisfaction expressed by characters who have been educated in their home lands and yet find themselves forced to take less prestigious jobs in Canada in order to survive.

Equally pressing on the psyches of Vassanji’s characters is the fraught history of Asians in Africa, especially the expulsion of some 80,000 Ugandans of Asian descent by Idi Amin in 1972. The history these characters share is typified by missed callings and unfulfilled dreams, which makes the relative comfort of Anita and Zool in the present at least somewhat melancholy. The past is always asserting itself, which in part explains Zool’s obsession with losing weight so that he can retain the more chiselled form he sported as a younger man.

Nor is the past, as Faulkner suggested, ever really past. (Not for nothing does Vassanji stipulate at the story’s outset that Meza is a town “known for its hauntings.”) It persists in Vyas’s indignant declaration that he is “[a] living poet!” It also exists in a copy of Soyinka’s anthology that Anita refuses to give to her friend because it is signed, by him, with love. The notion of missed opportunities is inherent in the book’s inscription: if Anita had chosen to marry Vyas instead of Zool, how different might all their lives have been? The question is ultimately unanswerable. It is also the question none of these characters can entirely escape.

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