People & Society

Zulfikar Ghose's brush with the American dream

Updated Jun 05, 2017 05:07pm


Photo taken from the December 2013 issue of the Herald
Photo taken from the December 2013 issue of the Herald

I had been in Texas for less than three months when I had the chance to strike it rich. Let me tell the story from the beginning, which starts with my catching a cold in London.

It was the winter of 1968. I was working as a schoolteacher in London and had taken two days off upon catching a cold. The second day was a Thursday, the day that the weekly Times Literary Supplement (TLS) came out. At that time, the reviews in the TLS were unsigned; in the early 1960’s, I was one of the anonymous reviewers, and then had given up that occasional employment , for it angered me to see so much mediocrity being passed off as intelligence behind all that anonymity.

And so, on that fateful second day of lying in bed with a cold, having disdainfully avoided the TLS for some years, I had the spontaneous brainwave of buying the latest number, thinking that it would make me so angry that I’d sweat off this cold. I bundled myself up, walked to the corner newsagent, bought the TLS and returned to bed.

It had the desired effect. I sweated profusely while I read the reviews. But then, as if fate had contrived a tormenting temptation especially for me just to be cruel, there was a surprise at the end. Normally, the last two or three pages of the TLS contained classified advertisements that were usually exclusively notices from libraries.

But this one time, on the only Thursday from several hundred Thursdays on which I chanced to buy the TLS, there was, in conspicuously bold lettering, only on that one occasion to arrest my attention, an ad from the University of Texas offering a handsome salary for a position in its English department.

The dollar figure was printed to catch one’s eye and was so calculated that anyone reading it in England would instantly translate it to 10,000 pounds, which at that time was at least double of what any chaired professor earned in England and more than five-fold beside my schoolteacher’s salary.

Now, I was in bed with a fever. It is possible that the appearance of the figure of 10,000 pounds in my imagination put my mind into a state of delirium that overwhelmed me with incredible fantasies. The still sober part of my brain knew that one had to have a PhD to be a professor; all I had was a two-two BA from a provincial university.

I should explain that two-two stands for II, ii, which stands for second class, second division; which is a roundabout way of saying third class, and an example of the complicated length the English will go to in order to appear superior than they actually are when it comes to class distinctions.

A couple of days later, I accompanied him to the tax assessor’s office for the official paperwork associated with selling a car, because in Texas the purchaser of a second-hand car has to pay a sales tax on the agreed price.

No first-class Oxonian scholar, I! But miserably unqualified to dream I could become a professor. Besides, I was born in Sialkot.

Remember that this was 1968 when racial discrimination still excluded non-whites from superior positions. It was bad enough in England where the best I could do was to be a teacher at a crowded state-run secondary school while my white friends with the same second class, second division degree as mine were executives in advertising agencies or in publishing and broadcasting corporations, from all of which I had accumulated a thick file of rejections.

That was in ‘fair-minded’ England, so imagine Texas! The mental hot air, which had me floating on the magic carpet of dream-filled levitation, quickly cooled and gliding down to earth. I was back at school the next day.

But my mind kept hallucinating about Texas and, in that drugged state, I composed a letter of application to the University of Texas and posted it before I could lose the delusional high. It was not a simple, straightforward letter that went, ‘Dear Sir, I wish to apply … etc.’

The letter I wrote was a literary composition, studded with allusions, which from its opening phrase would make the reader stare in shock and cry out, “What’s this?”, catch his attention if he got the allusions or make him throw the letter away if he did not.

And I mentioned, as if it was something any 33-year-old could do, that I had published six books in London, one of which (it happened to be The Murder of Aziz Khan) had just been bought by publishers in New York, Oslo and Berlin.

The person who read my letter turned out to be no typical academic but one of those highly cultured men with a broad learning that transcends an academic’s unusual narrow specialized field. What’s more, he was writing a book on Proust and possessed the aesthetic sensibility that aroused his curiosity when he saw my letter.

Well, a correspondence followed for some months, with finally a cable from me partly made up with phrases from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins that implied the question, without asking directly, if I was to be employed or not.

My presumption was that people would take immediate notice if they received a long, expensive cable written in a literary code language whereas a letter would be cast into the ‘pending’ tray. And, sure enough, an answer quickly came back with an offer.

And so it was, ‘Goodbye England, Texas, here I come! Thanks to my catching a cold and the self prescription of reading the latest TLS to cure it. Now, I had saved a modest sum of money that was more than the maximum of 350 pounds that the British government allowed one to take abroad, at that time. However, one could take any amount of goods.

One of my dreams, over the previous couple of years, had been to own a Lotus Elan, one of the most beautiful sports cars then produced.

My life savings almost equalled the price of its export model, and so, as soon as the offer from Texas came, I ordered a Lotus Elan. With six months to go before leaving for Texas, I did some good, hard driving, including one from London to the Algarve coast in Portugal, doing over a 100 miles per hour on some stretches.

It drove beautifully, but was not without mechanical problems – this was the time of the beginning of the decline of British automotive engineering – and I put up with its bad days because I intended to sell it as soon as I got to Texas because it was only intended as a way of taking the equivalent of 3,000 dollars out of the UK.

Once in Texas, I advertised the Lotus in the Austin paper with an asking price of 5,00 dollars. A couple of young men came asking for a test driver, which is standard practice in America when buying a car:

You can pick up a new car, drive away by yourself and come back an hour later and say it’s not what you’re looking for. Then I had a serious call from an older man. He was interested in looking at the Lotus for his 19-year-old son, could I bring it to his house?

My wife and I drove to his house in the Lotus. It was a beautiful house in a very upscale lakeside neighbourhood, with a yacht in a private dock at the end of the back garden. Parked in the front courtyard full of flowering bushes, had the Lotus been photographed it would have made a stunning ad in a glossy magazine. The son was enchanted by it. So, his father made an offer. “I’ll give you 2,500 dollars in cash,” he said, “and the other 2,500 dollars in land.”

What? Did I hear that right?

He explained that he owned several lots in a new subdivision beside the lake, some 20 minutes up the shore. He would give me two lots to make up for that second 2,500 dollars. He offered to take us in his yacht to see the land. And so, there we were, sailing up the beautiful lake under a gorgeous blue sky.

The lakeside mansions glided past, the land on either shore became wild and rugged. I was in the proverbial heart of Texas.

Less than a century earlier this was Indian country, land of the Apaches. And here I was, another type of Indian, about to be shown two lots that I could call my land. It felt bizarre, to say the least. Maybe that fever which had made me delirious when I read that ad in the TLS in London had never left me and I was still hallucinating.

But at the back of my mind was the myth of America, of penniless immigrants coming to the Wild West, acquiring a bit of land, and pronto, next thing they were millionaires!

The grand sounding 'Estates' in 'Lake Austin Estates' changed to 'Trash Heap' in my mind.

The yacht docked and we clambered up the bank on a path through a wild wood. We came to a clearing where the land had been marked out in what looked like half-acre lots, two of them for our choosing. Take what you like. I felt as if I was a character in the Arabian Nights who is shown something valuable and told that it is his if he wants it.

“It’s a deal,” I said to our Texan host, shaking his hand like I remembered men did in Western movies, and would have raised my other hand to tilt back the 10-gallon hat had I worn one instead of my French casquette.

A couple of days later, I accompanied him to the tax assessor’s office for the official paperwork associated with selling a car, because in Texas the purchaser of a second-hand car has to pay a sales tax on the agreed price.

This is where I realized why he had wanted to pay me half in land — as far as the tax assessor was concerned, he had purchased the car for 2,500 dollars, not 5,000 dollars, and so he saved himself a couple of hundred bucks in sales tax.

That was fine with me, for now I had enough cash for a down payment on a house and the deeds to two lots which might well, following the familiar American success story, gush out with oil and make me an instant millionaire!

I bought a second-hand Volkswagen, known in Texas as a VW Bug, for 650 dollars, and my wife and I drove to our land, feeling rather grand to be solid property owners within three months of coming to America. It was a little farther by road than it had been up the lake, some 20 miles from downtown Austin, in a largely undeveloped landscape of oaks and junipers. There was an arch to mark the entrance of the subdivision, which was called Lake Austin Estates.

Our two lots were at the far end, and when we had landed by yacht on that side we had not seen the few dwellings immediately inside the entrance. They were not houses, but trailers placed on concrete blocks. The families living in them had the appearance of what in Texas is known as ‘white trash’ — poor and ill-educated white people who lived in trailers which were referred to as ‘mobile homes’.

Uh oh! By bringing us on his beautiful yacht to see the land, the man had given the impression that everything in his possession was high-class and he had skillfully prevented us from seeing the low- class people in their mobile homes, whose presence indicated that the land was worth far less than we'd been led to believe it was. A lot less. I'd been outsmarted by a wily old Texan.

Ah, well, nothing to do but bite the dust — almost literally, standing on that barren land! Forget the fantasy that made life a series of happy coincidences that began with catching a cold in London and progressed to making a quick million in Texas. We drove away. The grand sounding 'Estates' in 'Lake Austin Estates' changed to 'Trash Heap' in my mind.

My only association with that land during the next three years was the annual demand from the tax assessor’s office for the property tax due. Instead of making a fantastic profit, that land was costing me money that I could ill afford. But central Texas had entered a growth cycle; the population was increasing and suburban sprawl raised land values.

There seemed an opportunity to come out at least even. I put an ad in the paper and found a buyer who purchased the two lots for 3,000 dollars . Big sigh of relief. At least I'd got what I'd asked for the Lotus, though the tax bill had taken a chunk out of the gross.

Now, it happened that in one of my fiction-writing classes at the university, there was a young man who was working on a graduate degree in engineering and took my course ,out of curiosity. I introduced the class to a wide range of writing styles, beginning with traditional forms and going on to the experimental work of writers such as Donald Barthelme and Joyce Carol Oates.

When we read the short prose of Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the engineering student was transformed. Forget engineering, he wanted to be a writer! Fortunately for him, he had enough knowledge of computer science to work as a software engineer, and this being in the mid-1970s when personal computers were just taking off, he found high-paying work, earning a lot more than we poor professors and, shortly, became a wealthy man.

He wrote a children's book and, not wanting to endure the customary submission and rejection process with publishers, set up his own publishing house to launch his book. I had a novel written in so radically experimental a form that no publisher wanted it, and so my student brought it out.

This was Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script, which is now available from rare-books dealers though it had no sale when it was in print. However, once I happened to look up Humphrey Bogart on Google, and there, quite ridiculously irrelevant among the thousands of articles on the actor, was my novel!

And then, what do you know, my student's directions had brought us to the entrance of Lake Austin Estates! The mobile home trailers were gone. The 'white trash' had been swept away

His software programming jobs took my student publisher to work away from Texas and, about 10 years later, he phoned me to say that he was back in Austin, where he had been at a new job for some months and had bought a superb new house, and would my wife and I come and dine with him.

Come the appointed evening, we followed his instructions and drove past the booming new developments that formed the city's new spreading suburbia.

The burgeoning technology industry had brought many highly paid executives to Austin, and this particular section had a good share of million-dollar mansions:

Where there had been scrubland with deer, rabbits and rattlesnakes, there was now a sophisticated affluent community. And yet, for all the extravagant development that had transformed the area into a neighborhood where people came to fulfill the American dream, there was a strangely familiar air to the place, by the time we arrived where my former student had his new house.

And then, what do you know, my student's directions had brought us to the entrance of Lake Austin Estates! The mobile home trailers were gone. The 'white trash' had been swept away. The new rich had moved in, and the land, which had been considered of so little worth that a shrewd old Texan had thought nothing of giving away two lots in payment for a flashy car, was now prime property.

It made one dizzy to think of the fortune that could have been made by holding on just to those two lots. And now, the final surprise, which you have probably anticipated.

My student 's house was on one of those lots that I'd sold for a thousand bucks, the whole deal now worth at least half a million. And that Lotus car, by the way, had the life-span of a butterfly: the 19-year­ old son for whom it was bought drove it to Dallas – a trip that normally takes three hours - in two hours, which would make it at an average speed of over 100 miles per hour. He had burned the engine.

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2013 issue under the headline "Texan treasure". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is the author of The Murder of Aziz Khan along with several books of fiction and poetry.