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Overdogs Versus Underdog: Fiction by John Oyewale


Damp, dark, the room was a squarish little space; possibly an attic or some cellar. It had been lightless for as long as Dora had been dumped in there, and she could not tell how long she had been there. She was a prisoner of conscience in her home country of Asperita. Seven years earlier, there was a new government elected to power. It was called a democratic government and it acted so for the first three and a half years: it had miraculously made peace with rebels that harassed the people and had told stories of impending economic boom. But after three-and-half years, the trickery of the government began to reveal itself: first, there was a Structural Adjustment Prospect, which was essentially a package of radical economic cuts and restrictions. Caught by surprise, the citizenry grumbled, then groaned. The liberal society—of authors and journalists and academics—began to bleed the quill in protest, unravelling in the process a slew of hitherto concealed corrupt tendencies and activities of the government. Then one by one they began to disappear, to never be seen or heard of again.

Dora was one of the ones who had disappeared. Her offence, they said to her, was that she talked frankly and therefore too much: she had written that the government was a Trojan horse in all reality and it cared nothing for plainness and truth but for lies. Truth is white and white is white and that there is no such thing as colour transition, no such thing as a continuous variation, she had written in an article that they with mad triumph shook in her face on the first day of her incarceration. They clearly had a different understanding: there was grey, something in between, the softer option that lay in between, and it existed in shades, shades of grey. You didn’t have to tell the truth; it was an illusion. Over and above having a contrasting understanding, they now had the windowless dank spaces, the Iron Virgin, the emasculators, the high-voltage clamps, the soulless psychologists, the perverted lobotomy experts, the water and the board, the gas and the germ, the rope and the gibbet, the gun and the bullet. Thus always they waited eagerly, with scimitar-toothed mouths that dribbled with sadistic glee, for contradiction from anyone.

Then, flying defiantly into the gloom, this stubborn gazelle called Dora broke the curfew and proclaimed the unfashionable and bitter truth that there was indeed blackness all over the land and that truth was in the same danger as that which faced the dodo—that of a massive hunt, of obliteration, of extinction. She, more than many others, revealed that the government had begun an attack on values and thus had ignited an ideological war. The liers-in-wait, if you like, were up from their lair at once and, sprinting through the familiar darkness, familiar because created by their very selves and therefore unnatural to all else but them, they pounced on the gazelle and dragged her all the way to their lair. There, now, she languished.

The overlords, the servants of Power, had cast her in that cell for ‘reform’: that, not indoctrination, was now the acceptable term. There was no telling what would befall you if you did not learn the new terms and denotations of the government quickly enough.

In that cell, the dread of which was great on the minds of all who had at some time or other been made to occupy it, there was no telling Time: it did not exist. It was a part of the perverted programme of the overlords to experiment with whether Time could be made to seem perishable, and none bore the brunt of the experiment more than the prisoner of conscience. For her, Time ceased to exist, that all she was abandoned with was only a vast, ridgeless plain of banal eternity, an interminable and wholly unprofitable stretch. The powerful ones wanted to seize the capability of anyone to imagine such ideals as Liberty and Independence and Information and Interrelationship and the Freedom to persuade and to be persuaded and an unfettered spirit. They wanted you to recognise no more what the verdant plains of Eden were by the time you had served your term and—if Providence prevailed in your case—had been flung out, an old, limp rag, into a world that had during your absence been forced through some alien mould and had changed and had lost humanity and was now peopled, even infested, with unfeeling automatons who, true to their uniform inbuilt programme, would regard you as no more than a speck of dust.

Within the concrete-and-cement walls of that cell, there were mosses clinging to the walls and to the ground, mosses in little bluffs, mosses thriving. Within the space, she languished and mosses thrived: that is a most intriguing phenomenon about life. When one is cast down, for the other there is a lifting up. There was algal scum, too, floating languidly in a still puddle of clear water that seeped from some crack in the wall. There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in, Cohen had sung insightfully; but in this walled space, there was no crack and Light had no inlet; it had been classified as an ideological term and therefore as an illusion, a hazy-outlined dream. That Light was still, for Dora, a dream that she hoped for, showed that the work of reform had not yet been perfected, just as wondering whether she had been there for three weeks or more meant that Time was still living, even if on life support  in her breaking mind.

The door was flung open and in flew someone and certain switches produced clicking sounds and then there were rough hands over her face and the blindfold fell and suddenly there was light, not in its familiar and desired beauty but of a strange form and undesirable, for it was very harsh. There were ten 200-Watts tungsten filament bulbs, and each of them gave forth harsh light of no less than 200 volts.

The people that sat in darkness saw great light,
and to them who sat in the region and shadow of death
is light sprung up.

There still was Poetry; shards of numinous Poetry on her breaking mind. Poetry which was outlawed in the land. Poetry, which the lords that served her bitterest rival, Power, had declared persona non grata. Poetry, which brought upon the ones who, against the edicts, still housed it, a certain slow and obscure and painful fading away into oblivion. You dared not speak of Death these days, for they said it lived no more, and so did ‘indoctrination’ and ‘Poetry’ and ‘Truth’: what happened now was that you simply no longer existed once you were found to be on what Authority and Power now regarded as the wrong side.

Out of darkness into light: the pupils of her eyes could not immediately accommodate the sharp contrast between the familiar darkness and sudden light from ten powerful bulbs which, for the rotting walled space, were nine too many. She instinctively brought her hands to her face to shield her eyes as soon as the lights came on; but there was at once a brutal reaction: a big open palm slammed onto her face, and, crumpling to the wet earth from the impact of the forceful slap, she went blind to the world but immediately saw fantastic unearthly visions of galaxies in technicolour, which she could not at all explain. Darkness had fallen and so had disorientation and disconnection and a heavy pall of bewilderment. Her thoughts lost all coherence and derailed: O pity on me what is this I don’t understand what are they going to do to me Is this the end and Truth will never find a voice anymore fallen in the street stars are falling falling falling crashing into the ruptured earth blowing out craters the size of Lusitania My head aches Have mercy Let me go Why do you hate me so What have I done For just being a mouthpiece for gagged and hounded Truth and I defied the night and the curfew and the restrictions and the policies not put on paper but working in reality and the implied and overt warnings How could I keep quiet keep quiet how could I ever keep quiet Stars circling wildly in a vortex uncontrollable red yellow indigo blue they all I pray have mercy on me Oh why are you doing this Oh this hurts Oh please be easy at least Oh the gates my gates are broken Ah this hurts Please stop please stop stop stop No not another more I feel so sore please be human don’t do this to me any further please stop please—

Many hours or maybe even days later—a rough estimate, of course, for, remember, it was a vast banal interminable eternity that now seemed to exist—Dora was standing before a table overlaid with broken and browned Formica in another room filled and bursting with blinding light and tremendous heat from ten bulbs such as the ones in the walled damp space into which she was at first cast and in which she had daily suffered indignity of the direst kind. At the table sat two uniformed men: one, a little man, with the hair on his head dyed all red and his eyes glinting with an eternal leer; the other, stoic, monolithic, unforgiving of look and poise. Sweating very much, feeling faint, she had tried to answer the barrage of questions that came from the two interrogators; and then she had passed out at a time, the last thing she heard as she collapsed to the floor unassisted being the raucous guffaws of the two men. But after a woman, dressed as a nurse, had revived her and given her a little water, she now stood before them, with her face to the floor rather than to the leering face of the one man or the granitic face of the other.

‘Is there still any such thing as an ideal or a standard in our world?’ the granitic man asked, the chin resting in the groove between the thumb and the forefinger, the elbows planted on the table.

She thought: they hate to hear a yes I know them they hate to hear a yes I do not know how else to answer them Oh I am tired—Oh calm down slowly—slowly—slowly. ‘Yes,’ she answered.

‘Yes?’ the leering man repeated disbelievingly.

Dora did not answer.

‘Yes or no?’ asked the granitic face.


‘Give an example, an example,’ urged the granitic face irritably.

‘A violin picks its tune neither from itself nor from others of its kind but from a piano.’ Dora was quoting that answer which flashed at so timely a moment across her mind, but where it originated from she just could not recall.

The other officer was shocked and for a moment the leer disappeared; it shot a surprised look at the granitic, which blinked slowly, trying to come to grips with the response, and looked straight back at Dora.

‘Where’s that from? Where did you get that from?’ it asked her.

‘I cannot remember.’

‘Oh, I see!’ The leering face exclaimed, the leer returning at once, mingling with a look of satisfaction. Across the granitic face hurried the shadow of a smile.

‘Have you yet another example?’ asked the leering face.

‘The moon gets light from the sun; lovers warm towards each other, bonded by the ideal of Love; the family gets its cohesion from the couple that’s established it; the ideal of Truth is what stalls the utter ruin of the world—’

‘Enough said already!’ the granitic face barked. ‘You’re stupid, stupid, stupid, you’re stupid. You still remember ideals!? You are not yet fully reformed. Ideals, idylls: they do not exist; they do not exist; they do not exist; they never did; they never did; they never did; no, they never did. You’re worse off every moment when your twisted mind lets off some wispy vapour about any such thing as an ideal. Doubt everything, everything; doubt everything. All things are relative to one another and to different situations. Has that sunk through?’

Dora nodded.

‘What is love?’ asked the leering face, the representative of a multi-million dollar industry of blackness that thrives at the expense of poor migrant female minors and of beautiful and virile ones who have unfortunately lost their moorings.

Love is not love, till it’s given away.
A gift is not a gift, till it’s received

Irritated afresh, the granitic face asked, ‘Where’s that from?’

‘I cannot remember now…oh I think it’s from a song; yes, it is from a song.’

‘I’ll tell you this sincerely: you’re stupid, you’re mad, you’ve lost your mind.’ The granitic face rose as the man left his seat and he, intimidating, marched toward Dora. He stood now before and towered above her. ‘Look up, see, see your faculties, they’re floating away, sailing away to faraway Cebu; you’ll never have them again. We then will grind you and scatter you over the Euphrates and the Nile and the Mississippi and you’ll be forgotten. We will reform you into smoke. You never existed, Dora, you don’t exist, you’ll never exist. You are an underdog; you belong to the wrong side, that of the underdogs, the slow-witted, who cling to the traditional, the ideals, while we, the overdogs, are at the head of the formation already landing on the brave new world of sheer relativism and enjoyment and liberty. There the eagles perch, and so do the vultures; no one says one is beautiful and the other is not. Truth, Love, Poetry, Music, Faith—none of these things exist. And so do you, Mrs. Reporter, Mrs. Writer, Mrs. Speaker, Mrs. Preacher; you do not exist.’

At this point, after its long tirade, you could see that the granitic face had broken out in beads of sweat; and over it now ran a handkerchief. The leering face was just beside it.

‘I should like to ask you two a few questions….’

The two men were stunned, caught off guard.

The leering face, regaining composure quickly ahead of the other, replied, ‘Ask.’

Raising her face to the level of the other two, Dora swallowed hard and ventured: ‘Look into my eyes. What do you see?’

The two faces faced each other, amazed. Then they turned again to the young captive.

‘What do you see?’ Dora asked again; their expression of shock had emboldened her.

‘I don’t know,’ the granitic face answered, with the unforgiving look creeping back into the visage. ‘I don’t know,’ equally answered the leering face.

‘You answer elliptically that you don’t know because you are afraid to declare what you see. You are afraid of an image: that of yourself. You see evil; you are evil. You are wary of Reasoning and Truth. You feel trapped. All you deny does exist, for all your dire efforts to wish it to nothingness. In my eyes, you both see yourselves, but you cannot bring yourselves to believe your eyes, for what you see are two men exhausted, burnt out, haggard, worn; the opposites of who you should be. In the secret places of your homes, you tell your wives that you love them. You yawn after a day’s work of tiring torture here and say the truth to yourselves that you are tired and need a shower and rest. You listen to pop music in the secret places of your rooms but play martial music in public. You have dubbed me an underdog and garlanded yourselves with the brief leafy crown of ‘overdog’. But when Power roars, as it often does, you exceedingly fear and quake; you find yourselves praying. You cannot tell me what you see when you look into my failing eyes; but I can tell what I see when I look at yours. I see Love, Poetry, Faith, Truth, living still, unvanquished, even though their mouthpiece you have abused and treated despitefully. I see them planning to redeem me. And when, in time to come, you find yourselves banished by your great but whimsical queen, Power, to this very vast brown grassless stretch of maddening yet false timelessness on which you now make me stand, then you, regretting your lost chance to accept the futility of denial and the worthlessness of your reforms and the reality of Truth, will weep in its outer darkness, gnashing your teeth and biting your nails to the very quick—’

The dizzying slap fell again; she lay crumpled on the ground again, silenced; darkness fell again and so did disorientation and disconnection and the spiralling intangible stars. And just before she passed out again, she heard, as though from a great distance and across immense bejewelled marble halls with walls padded with acoustic boards, the harsh, trenchant cry, ‘Guards! Take her away! Away! Away!’

(c) John Oyewale


John Oyewale
John Oyewale
John Oyewale is a postgraduate student of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. His fiction and essays have appeared in Naija Stories, The Nigerian Telegraph and Short Story Day Africa.

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