Thursday, 18 September 2014

Winning the Lottery

Class”, said Miss Bliss, “Mary has something to tell us all today.”

Everyone looked at Mary, who stood up, blushing with pride. “My dad,” she began, “has won.”

“Won what?” somebody asked.

“The lottery, of course,” Mary said impatiently. “Will you just listen?”

“The lottery?” Everyone gasped in wonder. They all knew which lottery, of course. The news had been full of it all week. “You mean your dad –“

“Yes, he’s going to be on the firing squad!” Mary said gleefully. “He said it’s the best hundred dollars he’d ever spent.”

The class fell into an excited buzz until Miss Bliss called it to order. “Now, everyone,” she said, “this is a very proud moment for us all. Mary’s father will be one of just six men in the entire state who will get to be on the firing squad. Won’t that be great?”

Mary smiled at Miss Bliss, who was very pretty. Mary had a huge crush on Miss Bliss and wanted to be just like her when she grew up.

“Of course, it’s not just a matter of being famous,” Miss Bliss said. “Mary’s father, Mr Cummings, will be doing a very important job. Can anyone tell me what it is?”

A thin arm rose at the back of the class. “It’s to kill that bad man,” the owner of the arm said. “That Douglas.”

“Yes, Douglas,” Miss Bliss replied. “A very bad man, as we all know. He killed two policemen, and you know policemen are good people who keep us all safe.”

“I saw him on TV last night,” the boy at the back said.

“Yes, very ugly, isn’t he?” Miss Bliss shuddered delicately. “You can see the evil in his face. Anyway, he has to be punished for killing those policemen, and Mr Cummings, Mary’s father, is going to help do the job.”

“My father said they put a blank bullet amongst the real ones,” Mary said. “But he says that he’ll insist he gets a real bullet. He said he wants to be sure he does his job, and by God...”

“Mary,” Miss Bliss said warningly.

“Sorry,” Mary replied contritely. “He said he paid for the chance and won’t be deprived of the kill.”

“He’s a brave and good man,” Miss Bliss said. “You could ask him to come to the class tomorrow and give us a talk on how the execution went.”

Mary blushed even pinker with pleasure. “I’ll bring him along with me,” she promised.

“That’s good,” Miss Bliss smiled. “I’m sure your mother is very proud. Will she go along with your father to the execution? I’m told the lottery owners can bring along their family members as witnesses.”

A brief shadow passed over Mary’s face. “I don’t know,” she confessed. “She said she doesn’t want to be the wife of a killer. There was a row.”

“I’m sure it will be quite all right,” Miss Bliss said hurriedly. “Now, everyone, open your textbooks and turn to page forty-three...”


Mary,” Miss Bliss said the next morning, “I see your father didn’t come with you.”

“No, Miss Bliss,” Mary confessed. “He said he didn’t want to come.”

“Why not?” The class hadn’t yet begun, and the other children were still coming in. “I saw in the news that the execution went off all right.”

“Yes, he said it went fine.” Mary scuffed her shoe on the floor. “He didn’t want to talk to me about it though. When he came back this morning his face looked all funny and grey.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Miss Bliss said soothingly. She held up her newspaper. “Look, here’s a picture of your father and the other members of the firing squad, right on the front page. And here’s another picture of the chair in which Douglas was shot.”

Mary looked at the paper. “My, dad looks fine, doesn’t he?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Miss Bliss said. “Why don’t you talk to the class this morning, show them the paper, and tell them all about how your father won the lottery and did his duty? Would you like to do that?”

Mary nodded, her heart filled with love for her teacher, and she thought once again that Miss Bliss was a very pretty woman, and she would grow up to be just like her, after all.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014  

Don't Lose Your Head

So – let me tell you a couple of things about the Great Big Islamic State Threat du jour.

For the purposes of this show’n’tell, I’ll pretend that the Islamic State (which I’ll call ISIS for convenience’s sake) is not an American creation and tool (which of course it totally is). For the current purpose I’ll pretend that it is exactly what it is claimed to be – a radical Islamic insurgency carving out a jihadist terrorist state in Syria and Iraq, which it intends to expand into a caliphate stretching from India to North Africa.

Where does that get us? Doesn’t it justify the extermination of this sadistic, ultraviolent movement by any and all means possible before it overwhelms us all?

 Um...not exactly.

Let’s look at what ISIS is. It’s a conglomeration of disparate groups with wildly varying ideologies, which are fighting under a black flag of convenience. Few of the “ISIS” who allegedly overwhelmed the best the farcical American-trained Iraqi army had to offer were actually ISIS. A lot of them were (and are) Baathist militia comprising battle-hardened trained soldiers from the days of Saddam Hussein – the Naqshbandi Army and the misnamed Islamic Army. Others are groups from Syria which were given the Hobson’s choice of signing on with ISIS or being eliminated. And the rest are disaffected Sunni tribal militia, alienated by the systematic anti-Sunni policies followed by the Washington-installed “government” in Baghdad.

What do these people want? Some of the Baathists long for a return to the enforced secularism of the Saddam era, and these are the same people – the hard-drinking, rigidly secular generals of the old Iraq Army – who are in charge of the military campaign. Many of these officers actually offered to join the new Iraqi army and were rebuffed, whereupon they went over to the insurgency. Two of these generals, Azhar al Obeidi and Ahmed Abdul Rashid, have in fact been appointed the governors of Mosul and Tikrit respectively by the Baathists.

Some other Baathists, undoubtedly, would be satisfied with some kind of diluted Sunni Islamism – the top commander of the Naqshbandi Army, Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, was one of the few practising Muslims in Saddam’s inner circle. The Sunni tribal militias, on the other hand, are divided among those who demand a partition of Iraq and those who want equality between the sects. And as for the Syrians, a lot of them have no greater desire than to gather arms, money and experience to return and fight the Syrian government.  

Even the core of ISIS is hardly homogeneous. It comprises jihadists from tens of countries, including at least some Indians, who have absolutely nothing in common with each other (including language, culture or military training) except an adherence to an ideology. And that ideology, itself, has nothing more to offer but the setting up of a tenth-century political establishment completely out of touch with the requirements of the modern world.

Obviously, then, ISIS isn’t a group so much as a fiction of a group. It isn’t even an idea like al Qaeda, because it has no goal besides the setting up of the “caliphate” which it has already declared – and, therefore, its primary goal has already been achieved. And its “allies” – the Baathists and the Sunni militia, not to mention the Syrians – are fighting for completely different reasons, most of which are actually completely contradictory to ISIS’ own aims.

So what is the outlook for ISIS? In the short term, it’s attracting recruits for one reason, and one only – it’s the new, dynamic kid on the block, the street thug who’s charismatic, covered with bling and with plenty of money to throw around. Such street thugs usually collect a following in short order, but they also have a short lifespan because they overreach themselves very quickly.

On the other hand, the far from charismatic and very sclerotic leadership of al Qaeda’s core group are like the capos of la Cosa Nostra – well-established, cautious, thinking in the long term and careful about the risks they take. These mafia bosses don’t attract attention as far as possible, and they end up living much longer and making much more money than the young kid on the block.

In other words, from the jihadist point of view, ISIS is the equivalent of a sprinter, say, a hundred-metre runner who will leave everyone else in the dust but run out of steam embarrassingly quickly. Al Qaeda – building up influence slowly and patiently by a system of franchises and subsidiaries worldwide – is the marathon runner who waits for the opponent to exhaust itmself, whereupon a last burst of speed will win it victory. But the TV cameras love the sprinters, and nobody even remembers the marathoners’ names.

It’s when the opposition exhausts itself – that is, when the Americans and Europeans run out of finances and ability to continue their endless Global War Of Terror – that al Qaeda will make its move. Not before. Until then, it’s willing to just keep itself in existence, while setting up launchpads in areas like Yemen and Mali from which to conduct future operations.

But how great is the jihadist threat, actually? If you look at it, not very. Sure, the jihadists can cut off heads on camera and blow up car bombs in photogenic balls of fire, but in all these years of endless jihad, have they been able to control even one single country? Even the Taliban – which is not a jihadist organisation, just a Pashtun tribal fundamentalist militia – at the height of their power could not control all of Afghanistan. The prospects of jihadists taking over anything of any substance are dim unless one looks into the very, very remote future. And long before that future arrives, global warming, resource depletion and the new imperialism of NATO will create problems which will make jihad look like a non sequitur.

Currently, ISIS occupies a space in West Asia which, for convenience’s sake, we might call Syriraq. It has not, after its initial gains, shown any great ability to conduct further advances – and that’s without the airstrikes currently being conducted on it by the United States.  

For all practical purposes, therefore, ISIS has been boxed in and contained. As such, as long as it is left in its box, it will not last long. Its components will soon disintegrate into different mutually warring factions, which will simultaneously, and increasingly ineffectually, fight the external foes. These factions will swiftly draw funding from different power rivals – from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar for sure, and probably from other sources as well. Some of these funds will be in the form of protection money, and the rest as a means of using the factions as proxies against the factions run by the others. The quantum of violence will increase in the short to medium term, but will be restricted to Syriraq; and in the long term it will die out, not with a bang but with a whimper.

And that is if the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the latter under Iranian leadership and with the help of Shia militias, don’t finish it off first.

But all that will happen only if ISIS is left boxed in Syriraq and allowed to autodestruct.  Fortunately for it, the Nobel Peace Prizident has other ideas.  As everyone knows by now, he’s decided to “degrade and destroy” it by simultaneously bombing it and by arming the other, “moderate”, Syrian militias to fight it.

Naturally, ISIS must have broken out the non-alcoholic champagne when it heard that news. For one thing, it’s been given a purpose greater than the already-achieved goal of setting up its “Caliphate”. The evidence shows clearly that ISIS got a massive “shot in the arm” when America decided to name it its Global Enemy Number One. The United States is hated worldwide by a lot of people for quite excellent reasons, and being identified as its enemy increases the acceptability of virtually any group, anywhere. Besides, the usual American tendency to drone-murder schools and weddings, bomb funerals and target random “military age males” on suspicion alone, will flood ISIS with new recruits.

And, as everyone knows well enough, and as the Evil Emperor himself admitted, there are no “moderate” Syrian rebels. Those that are receiving American largesse have either defected immediately to ISIS or else declared that they will not fight the Islamic State – but that didn’t stop the US Congress from authorising a military aid package for them anyway.

Directly arming and funding your enemy so that he has the wherewithal to fight you, while simultaneously increasing his support base and recruitment by ineffectually bombing him, has to be one of the least effective military strategies in human history.

All this, of course, is if you truly believe the tales about ISIS being the unstoppable juggernaut jihadist monster it’s claimed to be. If you accept that it’s an American tool to be used to oust Iranian influence from Syriraq, it all makes sense, though. Until America completely loses control of the situation, as it is in the act of doing.

I titled this article Don’t Lose Your Head. That’s generally good advice.  

It doesn’t work when you’re holding a knife to your own throat making sawing motions, does it?    

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Plateau and the Stars


Don’t camp up on the plateau,” the woman at the village shop told me, as she put my purchases into a large brown paper packet.

I looked at her, surprised. “Why not? It seems a good spot to camp.”

She shrugged and looked away, her pretty face expressionless. “It’s just not...good. That’s all.”

“She’s right,” the other man waiting in the shop said. “Nobody ever goes up to the plateau, not at night.”

“Can you tell me why not?” I asked. “Wild animals? Bandits?”

“No wild animals except jackals, no,” the man said. “And no bandits either, of course.”

“I’ve never heard of bandits all my life,” the woman agreed, counting my money and still not looking at me.

“Then could you please tell me why I shouldn’t camp up there?”

The two of them exchanged glances. “Some people,” he said, reluctantly, “say they’ve...seen something. Especially when the moon’s new. And today’s a new moon.”

“Seen what?”

He shrugged. “One person says one thing. Another person says another. Who’s to know what the truth is?”

“Well, thanks for the food,” I said, picking up the packet and stuffing it into my rucksack. “I’ll see you tomorrow on the way back.”

The woman raised a hand. “You can camp here in the village, if you want. There’s space to put up your tent, or you can just ask someone to take you in for the night.”

I nodded and smiled. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll take my chances.” In truth, I hadn’t come so far to pitch my tent in the village, and as for asking someone to put me up for the night, that wasn’t even something I was willing to consider. Besides, I knew these people of the highlands still harboured a lot of resentment for we of the plain, whom they considered alien conquerors. If I stayed in the village during the night, I might end up being robbed, or worse.

“You’re taking your life in your hands,” they’d told me back in the university, “going alone among the hill tribes. They still live in the eighteenth century in their heads up there.”

“They wouldn’t dare,” I’d laughed. “Primitives or not, they’re still subject to the law of the land.” I was sure I’d be all right, and so far I hadn’t seen anything to change my mind.

Still, I wasn’t stupid, and I wasn’t scared of “seeing things” either. Also, the sun was about to set, the shadows were getting longer, and I had to get up to the plateau and find a place to camp before dark. So I raised a hand in farewell and left the shop. I didn’t look back, but I could feel the eyes of the two of them on me all the way, and I didn’t doubt that they would be talking about me.

I felt a faint curiosity about what they’d be saying.

In the last golden sunlight of the day, the rocks of the plateau looked smudged, the shadows that dappled them violet and purple. It was still quite hot, but I could already feel the incipient chill of the night. It would be cold on the plateau, and I’d need a fire.

By the time I had found a good place to set up camp, the sun had long since set and it was almost too dark to see. But though the plateau was arid as a desert, there was plenty of dry scrub, enough for me to build up a fire, and by its light I pitched my tent and got ready for the night.

Later, after I’d eaten, as I sat looking up at the stars beside the fire, I thought about how far I was here from the city, much more than the mere physical distance. Back there, the streets would be crowded now, the malls and restaurants expecting the usual Saturday night upsurge of business, the police on the lookout for drunk drivers and drug peddlers in the night clubs. If one looked up into the sky, one couldn’t even see a single star through the blaze of lights.

Somewhere, far away but clear in the night air, a jackal called. That, too, was something that one would never hear in the city, where all anyone would ever hear was the endless noise of traffic and people talking. I listened to the jackal and watched the stars, and thought I’d soon crawl into my tent and go to sleep.

And yet I did not feel like sleeping. It wasn’t the novelty of camping out, because I’d been doing that for days now. I found myself thinking about the people in the village below the slope. How did they spend their evenings? Did they even have a life in the evenings, in a little place like that? Was the woman I’d talked to, perhaps, in the arms of her lover now, or was she spending the dark hours alone?

I hoped, obscurely, that she had a lover. She was a very pretty woman.

That got me thinking of how the man and she had both tried to stop me camping up here on the plateau. Perhaps they’d wanted to harm me, though I’d thought it was unlikely. More it was part superstition and part the desire to scare the man from the big city.

Perhaps, I thought, they had a right to be resentful of people like me, so much richer and better educated than they were. But it wasn’t as though I’d chosen to be born in the city, and of the wrong ethnic origin as well.

Maybe when I went back in the morning, I’d drop back into the shop and tell them that I had spent a nice night up here, and that there was nothing to fear. Maybe they’d feel able to come out here sometimes, and watch the great glittering stars while listening to the call of jackals. Or maybe they wouldn’t believe me.

I shrugged to myself. It didn’t really matter whether they believed me or not. Meanwhile I’d enjoy the silence.

As I thought this, I realised that I could hear something. It wasn’t the jackals, who had stopped calling, but something else, a noise that I could not identify. It sounded like a crowd muttering in the distance.

It grew louder as I listened, and there was no doubt about it – it was growing louder and clearer, and quite definitely the noise of a crowd. At first I thought it was the village, which had got together to either forcibly drag me down from the plateau or maybe lynch me right here. But the noise was coming from the other direction, from out on the plateau.

And it grew louder still. It did not sound like the noise of other crowds I’d heard, though. There were shrill cries, and what sounded like harsh orders, barked out, and among them there were other noises – the squeak of a badly oiled wheel, the creaking of harnesses, and once, quite unmistakably, the lowing of a bullock.

It sounded like an army on the march.

And yet I could see nothing. In the starlight, the plateau looked bare as far as I could see.

A gust of breeze blew smoke from the fire into my face. Blinking, wiping my smarting eyes, I walked a little way from the flames, with my back to them.

And now I could see that the plateau was no longer lit just by starlight. There was a ruddy glow, as by a thousand torches, and in its light I could see the army coming. I stood where I was and watched them come.

Onward they came, nearer and nearer. By now I could see the torches themselves, their light flickering on the soldiers’ conical helmets, reflected off their leather armour, the tips of their spears and the brass fittings of their muskets. Bullocks strained forward in their traces as they towed the long cannon, their muzzles pointing backward, the iron-bound wheels of the gun carriages crushing the stones to powder. And in between, here and there, the tall silhouettes of war elephants rose above the mass like moving hills.

Closer they came, and closer. Now, I could see individual faces, black eyes peering under the brims of the helmets, beards pouring out over breastplates. They did not look at me, though the vanguard was only a few paces away, and I knew that they couldn’t see me. I was not there to them.

I took a couple of steps nearer. The first soldiers were passing me now, almost close enough to touch, but I could not feel the vibration of their steps in the ground. Nor could I feel the heat of their torches, and the dust of the plateau did not lift from their boots and from the hooves of their oxen.

Then I knew it was not a real army, at least not something real in the here and now. And as I stood watching, the main force passed, the cannon and war elephants, the ranks of infantry marching past, disappearing in the light cast by my fire. And now before me was another column, and this one filled with other noises, wailing cries and the crack of whips.

It was the column of the captives. And they were many. It must have been a successful campaign.

I stood where I was and watched them come.

The first prisoners were men, some of them still dressed in the garb of warriors, the remnants of their light armour stained with dried blood and caked with dust. There were others, weatherbeaten peasants in little more than rags, and here and there a few softer-looking merchants in richer clothes. They looked stoically at the ground, or sobbed piteously, as they passed me by.

And then it was the turn of the women and children. By now, I’d realised that they must be coming, but it was still a shock when the first of them arrived. They had been roped together, children separated from their mothers, and their cries rose above the rest of the noise like a litany of despair. There were only a few guards, and they strode up and down, occasionally shouting and raising their whips threateningly.

Then – just opposite me – it happened. I saw the ropes slip from the wrists of a woman. I’d been watching her for some time. There was something curiously familiar about her slight form, the way she turned her head to look at the guards, and I’d been half-expecting her to try and make a break if she could. Even so, when it came, it was a surprise.

She came running right at me, up along the line, head down and arms and legs working, her feet silent on the ground. The nearest guard was quite far away, and for the moment had not seen her. Then there was a startled shout, she turned monetarily to look over her shoulder, her foot caught in the hem of her dress, and she fell in a heap, right at my feet.

I would have bent to catch hold of her, to pick her up and put her behind me, where she would perhaps be safe. But I could not move at all, not even to reach out my fingers to touch her hair.

And the guard was coming, running heavily, his boots flashing in the light of the torches. He reached the woman just as she’d struggled to her knees, and reached for her with one big hand. I couldn’t see his face, because he had his back to the line of torches, but I could feel his excitement and his anger. He said something, quick and guttural, his hand twisting in her dress and dragging her to her feet.

And then she turned and struck at him with a stone she’d been holding in her fist.

It was a blow as quick and graceful as a striking snake, and in other circumstances might have been as deadly. All it did here was bounce harmlessly off his helmet, leaving a smear of dirt on the metal. And it infuriated him, of course.

I saw him raise the whip and bring it down again, once, twice, a third time. And though she raised an arm to ward off the blows, she kept fighting, kicking at his boots, and still trying to strike at him with that stone. They fought together, so close to me that I might have felt their breath.

I think he would have killed her then, and I think that was what she wanted. But other guards had arrived by then, three of them, and they pulled the first one back. The woman was on the ground, her head hanging between her shoulders, her dress torn from her back and the exposed skin welling with blood from the whips. But she still tried to fight, weakly, when two of the guards caught her by the arms and dragged her away.

For an instant she looked back at me, and the light of a torch one of the guards carried fell on her face.

It was the woman in the shop, the woman who had told me not to camp up on the plateau. Through the dirt and blood on her face, through the tears, there was no mistaking her. And the guard, the one who had first come after her, in the light of the torch I saw his face, too.

Then they had dragged her back to the column, and marched away, to whatever fate awaited her. I did not know it, but I could guess.

And, suddenly, I could move again, but I had no desire to.

And as I stood there I wondered why I had come back to this place, this long forgotten battlefield, when I didn’t have to; why, when there was nothing to see here and no research to do that I couldn’t have done at my computer at the university, I’d come here, after all.

The history we’d been taught, the one I’d been researching, said it had been a clean campaign, that the armies had treated the defeated honourably. We weren’t like the others, the ones who took slaves and displaced entire populations in the course of victor’s justice.

I saw again that woman’s face, and I knew I would go back tomorrow, but not to the University. I could no longer research history, the history we’d been taught. Not after this. And especially not after seeing the guard’s face.

I knew that face well enough. I saw it in the mirror every day.

The army was gone. The night was dark and still, and when I looked back, my fire had burned down to embers. I must have been standing there for quite a long time.

In the distance a jackal called, like a mocking voice.

Head down, I walked back to the tent, and though it was cold, it was not the reason I was shivering all the way.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014