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'Good Night, Mr. Kissinger'

DHAKA, March 06, 2015(BSS)-In his dotage, Henry Kissinger has come to resemble Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars.

After his five decades of insidious influence on US foreign policy, his face has crumpled into a ripple of wrinkles, but the eyes retain their wily luster.

When he enters a room, he does so briskly, and his somber suits barely contain his contempt for those who repeat the accusations that have been gaining traction since the end of the Cold War-that during his tenure as secretary of state in the 1970s, Kissinger abetted, and sometimes incited, mass murder on three continents.

The man's dark aura is magnified by his raspy, Teutonic timbre, which habitually turns the scores of journalists sent to interview him into deferential scribes cowering at the pharaoh's feet.

As was the case with Palpatine, Kissinger's overconfidence may well turn out to be his weakness.

Since 2001, judges in several countries have called for him to testify about his involvement in the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, and activists have demanded his indictment for his role in some of the bloodiest chapters of Vietnamese history, to name only a few of the countries where he wreaked havoc.

His travel schedule regularly inspires activists to protest his public appearances. For the moment, however, Kissinger remains a highly coveted pundit- passing judgment on the Ukrainian and Middle Eastern crises in some of the world's most prestigious newspapers-and dinners are still held in his honor.

Public anger, it seems, only invigorates Kissinger, and he is as unassailable now as when he haunted the White House with Tricky Dick.

James D'Costa, the protagonist in the title story of K. Anis Ahmed's Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, is a man with an "unlikely name" from an "unlikely country," an exiled Bangladeshi waiter working in one of New York's fine-dining establishments, The Solstice.

One evening, James's life becomes even more unlikely when he is asked to tend to one of the restaurant's most distinguished patrons, Henry Kissinger:

When I brought the check to Kissinger, he asked me, "So how is your unlikely country doing these days?"

"Quite well, sir," I replied, trying to stay neutral.

"It can't be doing that well if you are here, can it? How long have you been in America?"

"Just two years, sir."

"I hope your country isn't still a basket-case for the sake of those who are stuck there," said Mr. Kissinger, as he wrote in a fat sum for the tip.

James's unlikely exchange with Kissinger soon becomes a regular occurrence: "Kissinger came to The Solstice at least once a month; usually for dinner, and never failed to engage me in what he must have considered friendly banter." What Ahmed's fictional Kissinger doesn't take into account is that his waiter is better informed than he thinks:

Like all educated Bangladeshis, I held Kissinger culpable to some degree for the genocide that occurred in my country in 1971. I knew that he did not order it, but I also knew that he did nothing to discourage his Pakistani clients, though he wielded enormous influence on them.

These were issues I had gladly left behind. Yet, suddenly now the issue was palpably before me, demanding to be fed and humoured.

The conflict's roots go back to March 1971, when the Pakistani Army, led by President Yahya Khan, a dissolute dictator, launched Operation Searchlight and invaded the province of East Pakistan.

Long neglected by the Punjabi in Islamabad, the Bengalis had awarded the nationalist Awami League a plurality of seats in the country's first free elections, in December 1970.

Refusing to accept the outcome-or rather, unwilling to grant Bengalis their basic civil rights-President Khan dispatched the Pakistani Army to suppress the growing civil unrest.

In the meanwhile, bogged down in Vietnam and seeking to open China to the West, partly in order to exacerbate the Sino-Soviet conflict, Nixon and Kissinger blithely gave Khan free rein while he systematically slaughtered masses of Bengalis.

As Kissinger believed, this had been supposedly necessary to keep using Pakistan, a long-standing ally of Beijing, as a diplomatic back channel.

Yet as Christopher Hitchens noted in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, "It cannot possibly be argued...that the saving of Kissinger's private correspondence with China was worth the deliberate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Bengali civilians. And-which is worse still-later and fuller disclosures now allow us to doubt that this was indeed the whole motive."

James, like Kissinger, knows all of this. His feelings are further complicated by his having witnessed at the age of 9 his father, the "pastor of a small church on the outskirts of Dhaka," being gunned down in front of his family during Operation Searchlight.

Over the course of the following eight pages, we are powerfully made to feel the indignation of such jocular indifference in the face of human misery, and look on as James goes from fantasizing about stabbing Kissinger in the neck with a steak knife to "toy[ing] with the idea of insults," before he eventually realizes that it would do nothing to expose Kissinger for the criminal he is:

Of course, even the slightest of actions entertained in my fantasies would cost me my job, if not land me in jail.

For all my pride, I found that that was deterrent enough. I didn't understand why life's restraints worked so well on people like me, but not on the likes of Kissinger. Why can some people literally get away with murder, becoming ministers or dining on Pemaquid Oysters, while we can only stew in impotent rage?"

As the story draws to a close, James finds closure by volunteering to tutor Bangladeshi children, reconnecting with his roots and simultaneously avoiding the urge to obsess over Kissinger.

Nevertheless, Kissinger's provocations did not abate. I see you have once again topped the list for corruption. What is it with your people? Don't you really think it might do better as a province of India?

The man's capacity for offense was endless. But his comments could not touch me anymore. Indeed, when he came to The Solstice soon after the Bangladeshi Independence Day, I reminded him of the fact, knowing full well he might use it as an opening. "Not much to show for thirty some years, except billions in aid and debt."

"So it would seem from afar, Mr. Kissinger. But not up close," I contradicted, taking a chance. At any rate, the man's predictability amused me.