When a nation has devils to exorcise, it is a fine distinction whether they were bred at home, or abroad. Take slavery, for instance; to both importer and exporter, it mattered little either way. The sum of human misery and well-being was negative in their respective balance of payments. And today, we were paying for merchandise which appeared the very reverse of evil to its manufacturers, the antithesis of slavery, yet, paradoxically, had the same effect as the thesis, except that the whole nation had been substituted for the solitary individual, equally to be bought and bound: democracy.
It had been threatening rain for quite some time. Gathering clouds overshadowed the city, making the air muggier still; thunder rumbled like a menacing army. The room grew dark, even though it was morning.
"I have an Aeschylean feeling about all this, sir," I said.
"General Rashid, we mustn't let poetry get in the way of power," said Arif, sharply. He was a tall, dark fellow with a longish face and carefully parted hair. He sat upright as though he were at a board meeting, and not the living room of my flat.
The General looked thoughtfully down, his two chins merging. His deep voice faltered. "I know what you're saying, Zafar...and I understand you, too, Arif....I lost power at the hands of boys...with a push from the donors....they didn't need me anymore...no more Berlin Wall to shore up...."
Gauging his emotions, I refrained from speaking. Mistake. My opponent was a better salesman. He didn't hesitate to seize the psychologically right moment. He had something to sell.
"But if you had had your own student body then, you would still have been in power! And if you don't form a student body now, you'll never again be in power!"
The atmosphere grew charged. Flashes of lightning illuminated our taut faces.
We heard the General heave a sigh, but not of relief. "I have children, Zafar." A long pause. I listened to the deepening drum-beats of the impending storm. "Would I have ever...wanted them to carry guns...go into politics at fourteen...?"
"No, sir, you would not." I beat Arif to it this time.
"But it was fourteen-year-olds who overthrew your government!" He had neutralised me again. "Every democracy needs its ready army, General. From the rabble of the Roman Republic to the worker's unions last century. Now, in Asia today, it's the turn of the students — they can be concentrated in one area, the school or college, and turned into a private army."
"I'm thinking about their parents, Arif," remarked the General, weakly.
"And I'm thinking about the next election, General. The government rigged the last one, but this time we'll insist on international supervisors, after our boys have brought down the government. That will show them we can do it, and will do it again if the election is fixed. We'll give them a dose of their own medicine."
Arif was one of my brightest students. He gave one the impression that he'd missed his calling: that he should have studied business instead of philosophy, and joined a multinational firm rather than go into politics. Every time the General weakened, he conjured up a picture of future victory. And whenever I raised an objection, he countered it with impeccable logic. He was all technique.
The General wiped his forehead. "We have no choice, Zafar. We must use boys to bring down the government. The donors want democracy; but there can be no democracy in Asia, as you've argued again and again, when I was in power. We are in debt-slavery, Zafar. And slaves have no choice."
"I implore you, sir; do not do this. It is evil."
"It is evil to do nothing, Mr. Shah. The General has decided to capture power and use it to liberate his country. With a conscience like yours, he'd be in the wilderness for the rest of his life."
The temperature always drops before a thundershower. I was cold.