November 22, 2005

Clandestine struggle

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. (So Michael said).

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.

"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. Out of the blue and much, 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.


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, sea-food, cigars. Prostitution and drugs, of course. Away from comparing Christie to Markandeya, Michael roamed the streets trying to get tourists to visit a semi-fancy restaurant. In Cuba's crumbling economy, there are few ways to make hard cash. This dismal pursuit is one.

Jiniteros were usually warm and helpful. The exception was another Santiago youth. One afternoon, we were hurrying to an intriguingly-named museum. Used to the ways of jiniteros by now, we were trying to ignore the fellow who hurried along beside us, with his nonstop patter about this or that ristorante.

Then he stopped. Breaking into broken English, he shouted at us: "You no wanna speak with Cubans? You like only speak with your own people?" Our protestations only made him angrier. He stomped off in a huff. Feeling vaguely guilty, we pressed on. But when we got there, the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle had closed.

The curious name is because Santiago is where Fidel Castro's Revolution began. In July 1953, he launched a suicidal attack on the Moncada military barracks in the city: 100 ragtag men went up against ten times that many soldiers armed with rifles and machine guns. They were routed, but Castro survived. He also achieved one of his goals: he was now the acknowledged leader of the struggle against the dictator Batista.

After a few years making plans in Mexico, Castro returned to Santiago in December 1956 aboard a tiny yacht called Granma. From out of the hills around the city, he and his young heroes mounted a daring guerrilla campaign against Batista. Their courage and commitment won a country. Batista fled Cuba on January 1 1959. The Revolution had triumphed. Castro made his first speech as leader of Cuba in Santiago's Parque Cespedes. That plaza, the Moncada barracks, the yacht Granma, the men of the campaign -- these are revered icons of modern Cuban history; and in 1984, Santiago was somewhat grandiosely titled "Hero City of the Republic of Cuba."

Disappointed that the museum had closed, we caught our breath on a bench nearby. A few girls ran up to the building. They clamoured to be allowed to take down the three flags outside. When the curator said yes, they got to work. Reverently, the girls lowered the flags from the poles, took them off their ropes and folded them. Then the curator appeared in an upstairs balcony. He produced a long pole and leaned over the railing with it. Still reverent, the girls stood on tiptoe and hooked the ropes on his pole. He pulled the ropes up and tied them to the railing for the night.

Not quite the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. But the Lowering of the Flags in Cuba's Hero City was a fine and strangely moving performance anyway.

Back home, we bought Kamala Markandeya's "Nectar In A Sieve" for Michael. Whatever Marti might have said, we wanted him to have a copy he has not stolen.

But while Jose Marti has left his mark on Michael, another Cuban hero has not. Curiously, through that entire Santiago evening, Michael did not once use his name. "The insect", he said, "the one who sucks our blood. You know?" We didn't, so Michael glanced over his shoulder and did a quick gesture with his hand, tracing a beard around his face.

Unmistakably Fidel. Unmistakable, too, was this jinitero's contempt for the man.

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