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November 2008
TRIBES AT WAR

Nikesh Shukla
Warring tribes, that’s what my family is. Two camps, two warring tribes marinated in pride and fried in self-righteousness. I have always managed to remain an impartial observer.
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Obviously, it’s always been clear where my loyalties would lie if I was forced to pick a side, but I’ve managed to stay in the middle, getting on with everyone and not having any unnecessary melodrama.

The pride and the stubbornness that permeates our family is a war of attrition. Everyone is looking to wear each other down into submission. They don’t want the other person to admit that they’re wrong. They just want to wear that person down so much that they are saddened and destroyed. It all started so innocuously and now, because pride doesn’t allow you to nip things in the bud, the cause of the problem has gone stale and is now being used as a projectile weapon. Looking at the actual physical cause of this war and what it has now become just does not correlate. It started so small, so tiny, so wee, and now it has become full-on warfare, full fighting, destruction, terror and attack.

Would it surprise you if I told you it all started with the premature finishing of a loaf of bread? I’m sure it wouldn’t. Families argue about all kinds of stupid shit. A loaf of bread was finished when it needed to be kept for some other use or something, an argument ensued, other issues surfaced, some huffing, some puffing, some pride and no interest in reconciliation resulted in meltdown, war and all-out aggression towards each other.

How did I then — the impartial observer, the go-between for the camps, the Mahatma Gandhi of this piece (and of peace) — become public enemy number 2 for warring tribe number 1? I’ve gone from being able to spend time equally between the two camps at family functions to suddenly having to go to defcon 2 (a state of emergency), where previously I was at defcon 4 (peaceful). I’m on the defensive, I’m quick to show people I’m right, forming counter-arguments in my head as soon as anyone opens their mouths. Sometimes I even go straight for the jugular.

So, how did we get to this?

Well, the simple truth is I left a party early. That’s all it was. It was a Sunday night, there was a huge family party going on — a particularly opulent and high falootin’ party — and the party was on the opposite side of London to me (deep within enemy territory), where all of my family except I reside. I was worried about getting home late and being late for work next day, so I took my leave of this amazing party (Cinderella must leave at the stroke of midnight). I took my leave of my hosts, who were gracious but narked (I understood why) and bid me a fare thee well. I took my leave of my aunt and uncle, the parents of the hosts of the party and they immediately took it upon themselves to ignore me, swear at me, call me a traitor to my family, moan to their friends about my rubbishness and walk away from me waving their hands in disgust. I didn’t understand why they were being the way they were so I forced a hug and a kiss out of them and took my leave, running to the tube stop to make the last train across London.

An hour and a half later, I was home, lying in bed and annoyed at the way my aunt and uncle treated me. I had been sucked into this military conditioning of high impact response time. I was in the warring frame of mind. The way they had treated me was like throwing down the gauntlet and defying me to defy them back. How dare they swear at me and try and guilt-trip me into staying and having fun.

Sample comment made when I was leaving: “You want to leave when there is all this fun to be made. Stay, god damn it bullshit to hell, stay and dance. Dance! Dance, come on, dance!”

There’s something so unconvincing about being forced to dance and have fun. You MUST enjoy yourself.

I soon got my war-face on. I was pissed off. I was ready to die for the cause. How dare they defy me and make me feel shit when it wasn’t my fucking fault? This was fucking war. I phoned my mummy the next day, ’cause mum’s kinda like the UN in this situation. I couldn’t proceed with a military attack without her accord. I phoned mummy up and explained the situation to her. I gave her a status report of the events leading up to my call to arms, I explained the emotions I felt, I explained how my aunt and uncle broke elements of our peaceful treaty and how they had drawn me into the family conflict, making me no longer an impartial observer. I told my mum that I expected sanctions. Mummy was considering placing a social embargo on my aunt and uncle anyway. She authorised me to proceed with military strikes. Thank god for mummy, the peace-keeping force of my family.

I considered my options. I could do a direct attack on her house and turn up and berate her. I could phone her up and give her some sort of bilious chemical attack over the phone.

I settled for something more subtle, to ease us into the conflict. I didn’t see the point of a full-scale assault just yet. I sat down and emailed her about my feelings, about my perspective on things, about how she made me feel, about how she was in the wrong, and about how I wanted to avoid further conflict, so was addressing the situation with her so that it did not escalate into man-to-man combat. It was a civil email, scientifically breaking down to her the issues involved. I made my position clear. I made clear to her the repercussions of ignoring me and I made clear that this was a rant that had been sanctioned by mummy. I wrote it, proofed it, spat in the bin and pressed send, the email disappeared off into the ether.

I spent the next two days waiting for a reply, preparing for war. I quickly allied myself with cousins on the other side of the family divide. I told them all my story, what had happened and what a bunch of twats my aunt and uncle had acted towards me. They all allied themselves with me. Their addition to my strike-team was a welcome bulk-up of resources.

The reply came: it noted disappointment that I had broken ranks from being impartial to allying myself with their enemies. It noted my disrespect for adults. It noted my disrespect for their child, whose special day I had ruined by leaving early. It noted that I was their closest cousin and they depended on my being there.

My blood boiled. It was war.

The next family gathering was a week after the initial event. I went down there with my war face on. I wore an olive green suit with a khaki shirt. I scrunched up my eyes and grinned insanely. I hung exclusively with my cousins from warring faction number one. My aunt and uncle were there, as was my cousin and her man. They all ignored me. They all gave me evils. They were all clipped when I spoke to them.

I was then roped into serving food at this function. I made sure I got the driest foods going, bhajis and poppadoms. Sorted, no drips, no stray chutney splotches on my beautiful khaki shirt. My aunt and uncle and cousin and her man (let’s call them PE No. 1) came up to receive their food; they went past without event. As her man went past I held out a handful of bhajis and a handful of poppadoms to place on his plate. He looked at me, placed his plate down on the table and took his own portions from the serving bowls. A telling manoeuvre. Interesting. It was a Panzer attack on me. I felt like they were undermining my serving attempts.

I blew my top, I ranted to anyone who would listen. This spineless man had ruined any attempts at peace. I called a parlay with my sister, who was still impartial and friendly with my cousin. She spoke to her and yes, lo and behold, my cousin now had an issue with me. Most interesting tactics my aunt was using. Not only was she staying stoic, she was also venting bile through her child, who was my generation, thus was able to cause more emotional damage to me.

I phoned my cousin. She told me that her issue was that she thought I was showing a complete lack of respect to the adults in our family. We were younger than the adults. If we had problems with them, we had to ignore them, as these were our elders. I told her that was bullshit and we agreed to disagree. She admitted that her mother had acted out of turn but that was my issue with my aunt. My cousin had turned this into an issue she had with me because of the way I had supposedly handled things. My cousin and I agreed to disagree about the whole respect thing.

We hung up the phone. I sat down wondering if this would continue and continue and continue till we died. I also thought about the fact that I was right and I need to stand up for what I think is right. The moment I don’t, I’m just like those apathetic kids that you always read about. No, I choose to stand and fight. Lives may be lost and treaties may be broken and it’ll never be the same again, but you know what? I was right and I knew I was right and I deserved to give my righteousness a chance to win over its oppressor. My aunt was defying me to back down, choose her way over the right way. I refused. I needed to show her that I knew I was right and I was going to stand up for myself.

I picked up the phone again to call my aunt and call the game back on…

Wow, war sure is hell.




© Nikesh Shukla 2006
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