As America and Cuba dismantle the rusty iron gates of the Cold War and restore diplomatic relations for the first time in 53 years, I am reminded of my first unpublished story in English—all my stories in English are unpublished—written when I was 18.
It was a story set mainly in Cuba which becomes a playground of biological warfare between America and the Soviet Union. I vividly remember the opening lines of the novel that was not to be. They read: : “The mauve glow on the tranquil sky of Washington turned into a pale yellow stream of light. A silhouetted figure stood in the window of the West Wing….”
I was 18 35 years ago and the Cold War between the capitalist bloc represented by the United States and the communist bloc represented by the Soviet Union was very much at its peak. Cuba to me then offered a fertile ground for conflict between the two mighty power. The plot of my story had an operative called JoRean Lorento of an unnamed intelligence agency stationed in Havana to supervise a plan to unleash biological warfare in the form of a lethal odorless and colorless gas that could kill a large number of people in the Cuban countryside.
I remember going to the British Library in Ahmedabad to read up about Cuba and biological warfare. It just struck me that if an 18-year-old went to a library to find information about biological warfare today he would end up rendered in some place like Guantanamo. I also read about the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base as being leased to America. What I remember most vividly was how I read about Havana and the Habana Libre Hotel where Lorento frequently drops by.
The point of telling you all this is to show how broader history as unfolding in the US-Cuba thaw can sometimes have a tangential personal touch. I hope to be able to find the notebook in which I handwrote early parts of the novel that I never finished. One of the characters was a journalist not so subtly called May Ankle who liked to wrap a blue neckerchief and wear a khaki photographer’s jacket. Weirdly, I did go on to do that once I became a journalist three years after I conceived of the Cuban novel. I mean a blue neckerchief and photog jacket.
Among the things that I researched was the flora of the island. The acacia tree featured in a significant way. I remember when the first wave of the gas was released I had birds flutter out of acacia trees.
Reading about all the drama that unfolded over the last year and half behind the scenes as America and Cuba went about forging a relationship under the benign and helpful gaze of Pope Francis, I was reminded how the times have changed since I wrote that plot. It is ironic that when the US broke off relations with Cuba and turned into an adversary there was a Castro (Fidel) and the Communist Party in power. Now as they reestablish relations there is still a Castro (Raúl) and the Communists in power. Obama was just about born when in 1961 the two countries went their separate ways barely separated by 90 miles.
Not that this has happened by design but the US-Cuba rapprochement comes at a time when Russia is facing an economic reversal with the ruble sliding. I am sure President Vladimir Putin has noted the development with his own personal angst.
I have never been to Cuba. I hope to be able to visit soon.