Friday, 23 October 2015

City of the Dead


Coming down the stairs from the bank, Tauseef saw the dead man for the first time. He was standing right at the bottom of the steps, blocking the way, and made no attempt to step aside.

“Excuse me,” Tauseef said.

The dead man did not react. He was dressed in a villager’s loose robe, and had a turban on his head which was unravelling so one end straggled on his shoulder. The beard on his hollow cheeks was smeared with dust. Only his eyes moved, slowly, following Tauseef.

“I said, excuse me,” Tauseef said, and tried to squeeze past. He’d just managed it when he felt a hand tugging at his coat, dead fingers digging into the sleeve. He turned.

“What do you want?” he demanded. “Let me go!”

The dead man’s mouth opened, the stiff bluish tongue within struggling to form words. One of his cracked leather shoes scraped on the pavement, as though his whole body was struggling together in the effort to talk. It was no use, and after a moment he shook his head dismally.

Tauseef looked at him and down at the hand which was still clutching his sleeve. The fingers were gnarled and spotted with flecks of dried blood, the nails blue with dirt. He tugged at his arm, and the clutching hand finally fell away.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered to himself and walked away down the pavement. The dead were becoming a real problem now. Once upon a time they were hardly to be seen, but now they swarmed the city, doing what they wanted, where they wanted. There were more of them than ever. And no wonder, too, considering what was going on in the countryside.

Briefly, he raised his eyes to the yellow hills in the west. Beyond those eroded humps of stone and dirt, the plateau stretched, beaten by sun and drought and civil war. Even here in the city, food had become hard enough to come by. He did not want to think about outside.

A low flying drone buzzed by overhead, the whirring propeller glittering in the sun, and there was a flash. When he turned to look, the dead man was stretched out at the bottom of the steps. The drone must have been on one of the anti-dead patrols the city had started in an erratic attempt to do something about the problem. He watched the small drone bank and turn away between two buildings, and was about to walk on when he saw the dead man stir. Apparently the drone had missed.

Then he saw the dead man try to rise, only to fall back again on the concrete. A couple of people had stopped to look, but they hurried on quickly again. A dead man was far too common a sight to waste time over, and besides, the drone might be back. The drone operators didn’t always care about who was in the vicinity when they blasted one of the dead.

Tauseef hesitated. For some reason, he felt a sudden surge of sympathy towards the dead man, even though that was silly. There was as much point feeling sympathy towards one of the dead as there was for a piece of stone or a fallen leaf. And yet when the dead man raised an arm towards him, he turned and walked back, and, unmindful of the dirt being rubbed on his coat, helped the corpse to its feet. The drone had done damage. The dead man’s robe was charred on the side, and there was the odour of burned flesh.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked the dead man, as though there could be an answer. The dead man clutched at his coat with both hands and stared into his face. One of his eyes was filmy, grey and blind; the other, for all that he was dead, was bright and black. His mouth opened again, as he tried to talk.

“Do you want to go somewhere?” Tauseef said, feeling stupid. “Is that it?”

The dead man shook his head. Not much, just enough for Tauseef to be able to make it out, but it was a head-shake, nevertheless. His clutching hands would not let go of the coat.

“Well, you can’t stay here,” Tauseef said. “That drone...” he pointed up to the air. “It’s going to be back, and next time it won’t miss.”

The dead man’s eyes, the blind one and the bright one, followed his finger. The hands did not relax their grip.

“All right then,” Tauseef sighed. “You’d better come with me.”

*****************************************

Tauseef’s car was old, battered and dusty, and he used it as little as possible now that both fuel and spare parts were becoming extremely hard to come by.  On the other hand, just about every other car in the city was now like that, so it never drew any particular attention, including from the soldiers who manned the roadblocks on all the main streets. Only, he had never tried to drive anywhere with a dead man in the seat beside him, and he hoped nobody would give them a second glance as long as he stayed to the side streets and alleys.

Getting the dead man into the car had been no struggle. He’d got in readily enough when Tauseef had opened the door, falling into the seat heavily and flopping back as though whatever power had kept him going all this time had suddenly drained away. His hands rose, like someone attempting to ward off a blow, and fell again to his sides. His dusty beard shook.

“All right,” Tauseef said. “I’ll drive you out of the town, and then I’ll drop you where the drones won’t find you unless you’re stupid enough to come back into the city. But that’s all I’ll do for you. Do you understand? That’s all.”

The dead man gave no sign of having heard. Tauseef shook his head, wondering why he was doing this, and got behind the steering wheel. The roads were thick with the dust the wind blew in constantly from the plateau, turning the entire town yellowish-grey, and even after he’d rolled his windows up he could feel the grit on his teeth.

The dead were everywhere. Never before, he though, had he seen them in quite these numbers. Or maybe never before had he noticed them particularly. After all, he hadn’t even before driven around the city with one of them lolling in the seat beside him. But they were everywhere.

He watched one, a young woman, walk right down the middle of the street oblivious to traffic, one broken leg twisting agonisingly at every step. Another one sat on the edge of the pavement, rubbing his hands together, his eyes fixed on the rubbing. Even as the car passed close enough to brush his fingers, he didn’t raise his hands from the rubbing. And then there were two children. They might have been brother and sister. It was hard to tell. They were so covered in dust their eyes were clogged with it and their hair, faces and cloaks all of a colour. Holding hands, they slowly walked down the pavement, and people gave them a wide berth.

High in the hills over the roofs of the city, something exploded, a tower of smoke rising and spreading in a mushroom of dust and pulverised stone. There, the war continued, manufacturing more dead for the city’s streets, as though the drought and famine weren’t enough.

Just yesterday, Tauseef had heard a rumour that the dead were all the fault of the foreigners, who had put something in the air that made them come to life. People said that and threw ugly glances at the huge compound of the diplomatic quarter, where the few foreigners remaining were holed up behind their high concrete walls with the watchtowers and the razor wire on top. People said the drones were piloted from behind those walls, and Tauseef thought that might even be true. But why anyone, least of all the foreigners, would want to bring the dead back was a question that nobody seemed interested in asking.

They weren’t really a danger. They didn’t attack anybody. They had not, as yet, caused a pestilence. They straggled over the streets of the city, aimlessly wandering from place to place, until they were either destroyed or disappeared again. None seemed to stay around longer than a day or two. Sometimes one would cause a car crash or a soldier would accidentally shoot a living person while trying to destroy one of them, but that was all. But they were everywhere, and they did nobody’s morale any good, especially as the drought grew ever fiercer, famine stalked the land, and the war grew nearer by the day.

“Can you hear me?” Tauseef asked the dead man. “Can you understand what I’m saying? I wish I could ask you what happened, what you want – why you’re wandering the streets instead of lying in peace. Is that even the same person in you as the one when you were alive? I...”

He broke off and slammed on the brakes with a soft curse. They had turned a corner and come up against a roadblock. It had not been there an hour before, and soldiers were still piling sandbags and putting up barriers. For a moment he thought he might be able to reverse and drive away, but one of them had already seen him and motioned him forward.

“Is that a dead man with you?” he asked, peering through the window.

 “Yes,” Tauseef said. There was no point in denying it.

“Dead people walking need to be destroyed,” the soldier said, drawing a pistol from his holster. “That’s the rule and...”

“Wait, please,” Tauseef interrupted. “He’s...” He glanced quickly at the dead man. “He’s my father. He wandered away before we could bury him.” He was talking faster and faster, and tried to force himself to slow down. “I’m taking him back home to bury him. That’s all.”

“You’ll bury him while he’s still moving?” The soldier was still in the act of raising his gun. His eyes glistened avidly with the urge to use it. “I wouldn’t call that very kind, would you? So I’ll put a couple of bullets through him, and then you can bury him with a clear conscience. Nice of me, isn’t that so?”

“But...” Tauseef began.

“Get him out of the car so I can shoot him,” the soldier said. He reconsidered. “No, you get out of the car and I’ll shoot him right inside so you don’t have to pick him up and put him back in. See? I’m a not a bad man.”

“Stop fooling around and come back here,” one of the other soldiers, with the stripes of a non commissioned officer on his sleeve, shouted. “The roadblock has to be up within the hour.”

The soldier looked back over his shoulder, back at Tauseef, and spat. “Go on, then,” he said. “Go take him and knock him over the head or something. Or just bury him like that. See if I care.” He stalked off, muttering.

Tauseef stuck to the back streets after that. There were very few people around, and no children. Those who could afford it had long since left, or at least had sent their families away. Only in the villages, where the people had almost nothing anyway, and nowhere at all to go, did they still hang on, scratching in the dirt for some means to stay alive.

As he drove, Tauseef glanced at the dead man in the passenger seat, really looking at him for the first time. He was younger than he’d first thought – probably in his mid-forties, with a thin blade of a nose and a muscular physique. If he’d been alive, and properly cleaned up, he’d probably have been quite striking. Tauseef wondered who he’d been. Not that it mattered, of course. Once they were dead they were...

There was a huge flash right in front of the car, so bright that Tauseef was blinded, and a blast so loud he went momentarily deaf. The shock wave came a moment later, slamming into the vehicle and slewing it sideways, Tauseef stamping on clutch and brake instinctively as he fought to keep control. It was too late. The car mounted the near side pavement, smashed into a wall, and the engine quit.

Tauseef sat behind the wheel, stunned, waiting for his hearing and vision to return. Steam rose from the crumpled nose of the car, and he could smell petrol. Somehow it did not seem an immediate concern that the car might catch fire, with him still in it. He could not will himself to move.

Something touched his face, bony fingers moving down his cheek. Slowly, he turned his head. The dead man had turned towards him, his one sighted eye looking down at Tauseef’s seatbelt. His hands made circles in the air.

“Yes,” Tauseef muttered. “The seatbelt, yes.” He rarely used it, but had put it on before the roadblock, and it had probably saved him from going through the windscreen. As for the dead man...well, he was dead anyway.

He forced his hands to work, raised the seatbelt loop. The near door had burst open from the crash. He almost fell out of the car, staggering, and reached in to pull the dead man out. They stood beside the wrecked vehicle, holding on to each other. Tauseef held on to the dead man because he couldn’t trust his legs. The dead man held on to Tauseef for reasons unknowable. There was a charred crater in the street where the rocket had struck. Not a single person was visible anywhere, but Tauseef had the sense of many watching eyes.

“Bad aim again,” he said, aloud. “Bad aim.”

A distant buzzing sounded in his ears. At first he thought it was his head, still ringing from the crash. Then he realised that it was outside, and getting closer. The drone was coming back.

“Come on,” he grunted to the dead man. “We’ve got to get into hiding.” Opposite was a narrow alley with a rusted old dumpster. He pulled the dead man behind it and pushed him down. A moment later the car bloomed into a flower of erupting high explosive, burning fuel and mangled white hot metal.

“Why?” Tauseef whispered, crouching beside the dead man. “What on earth is going on?”

The dead man turned his head and tugged. The lane they were in was very narrow, and the walls so high that there was only a tiny strip of sky far above. He pulled Tauseef along the alley, his strong hands gripping the living man’s coat. The drone came buzzing down the street behind them again, making a low pass over what was left of the car.

“We’ve got to find shelter,” Tauseef said. He took it for granted now that the dead man could understand what he was saying. “We’ve got to hide until the drone goes away.”

They found what passed for shelter. It was a half-constructed building which had been abandoned a long time ago, and was now beginning to crack and crumble back into the ground. Rusted iron rods stuck from the fissured concrete like accusing fingers pointing at the sky.

Or, Tauseef thought, they were pointing at the drones. The reaction to his narrow escape had begun to set in, and he began to shudder uncontrollably. The dead man, crouched beside him, held him tight. Tauseef no longer noticed the smell of charred flesh.

“It must be you,” Tauseef told the dead man. “There’s no reason for them to go after me. The drones must be after you.”

Maybe he was someone important. Maybe he was even some rebel commander, though not one so important that the soldier at the roadblock would have known who he was. But even then, he was dead, and there was no reason for drones to go after someone who was already dead.

“Dead is dead,” Tauseef said. “Isn’t it?”

The dead man glanced at him from his one seeing eye and looked away. They watched the distant speck of the drone fly back and forth over the roofs, searching.

“Or perhaps dead isn’t so dead,” Tauseef said. “How the hell would I know? You know, but do I?”

The dead man said nothing.

***************************************************

They moved on when the first stars were beginning to puncture the dark velvet veil of the twilight. The drone had finally departed about half an hour ago, but they’d waited to see if another took its place. The dead man led now, walking almost purposefully, his hand on Tauseef’s sleeve. At first Tauseef had been inclined to resist. Then he realised that for the moment he didn’t know where to go. They were on the opposite side of town from his home, if the poky little flat he inhabited deserved that name.

They went back down the alley, and paused. Soldiers were there now, prodding around the wrecked car lackadaisically. None of them looked around as Tauseef and the dead man edged past through the shadows.

“Obviously,” Tauseef murmured to the dead man, “the soldiers haven’t been told what the drone people are doing. Why? Why did they attack us anyway? Who are you?”

The dead man found another alley. Now he was moving quite quickly, as though through familiar territory. His fingers dug into Tauseef’s arm. They were near the outskirts of the town, and the cry of a desert jackal sounded faintly in the distance.

“Where are we going?” Tauseef asked the dead man.

As he expected, there was no reply.

********************************************

They came to the village as the constellations had risen to the zenith and begun descending again to the horizon.

Tauseef was so tired that his legs were hardly moving, but the dead man seemed to gain strength with every step he took. Now it was he who looked like the living man, purposeful, hurrying towards his goal. Tauseef simply hung on because he had no other choice.

The village was small and unlit, and at first he thought it deserted. Then he saw the faint glimmer of a candle or oil lamp from one of the huts His companion, dead hand still clutching his sleeve, drew him towards it.

The village was a shattered ruin. As they got closer to the faint, glimmering light, Tauseef realised that the huts were mostly roofless, the walls broken into fragments, and the ground cratered and burned to the consistency of brick. His feet kicked aside small objects that rattled and bounced, and he was glad he did not know what they were.

Someone was watching them from the doorway of the hut with the light, which was one of the few he could see that still had its walls and roof. She stepped aside as they came, lurching slightly in a motion that was oddly familiar. Then he realised that he’d seen her before, earlier in the day, staggering down the street. Two children sat on a mat on the floor just inside the door. Someone had cleaned their eyes of the clogged dust, and wiped down their clothes. They looked up at Tauseef solemnly.

There were more eyes inside the hut. The floor was covered with thin mats, and the light – it was a thick candle, stuck in the mouth of a bottle set in the exact centre of the floor – reflected faintly on them. They were all dead, of course. Tauseef even recognised one or two more that he’d seen around town in the last few days. They all stared at him silently.  

“What is this place?” Tauseef asked, knowing there would be no answer. “Why have you brought me here?”

But there was an answer. “Probably because you’ve nowhere else to go.”

“Who said that?” Tauseef asked, looking around, his heart thudding.

“I did.” Tauseef had not noticed the woman in the far corner. Wrapped in a dark cloak, she’d been sitting where the shadows were thickest. Now she got up and stepped forward on bare feet, careful not to trample the dead sitting all around. “You rescued him from the soldiers and the drones, I take it?”

“Who are you?” Tauseef asked. The woman’s face was very pale and very beautiful under the dark cowl of her cloak, but she was also clearly dead. Her lips curved in an imitation of a smile.

“Just one of us,” she said. “Some of us keep the facility of speech. It’s not altogether a blessing as you might think, when there’s nobody to talk to.”

“And you’re all together here –” Tauseef waved a hand around at the hut. “Why?”

“Why?” the woman shrugged. “Call it refuge. This village has been killed. Once it was alive, and then the drought came, and after that the bombers and rockets, and now it’s...well, you’ve seen for yourself. A dead city, for the dead. Nobody bothers us here.”

“What about him?” Tauseef pointed at his dead man, who had finally let go of his arm. “Who is he? Why were they so eager to destroy him?”

“Were they?” The woman cocked her head. “Tell me about it.”

Tauseef told her what had happened from the moment he’d seen the dead man on the way out of the bank until they’d left the city behind. “And that’s how we came here.”

The woman nodded. “I can’t tell you why they wanted to destroy him in particular. Doubtless he meant something to them – or they thought he did. There are those among the living who are getting increasingly disturbed at the dead. We now outnumber them by far, and each day we grow in number while they shrink. But it doesn’t matter either way what he was. It matters what he is now.”

“And what is he now?”

The woman looked at him. “Haven’t you guessed yet what we are here for, apart from sanctuary?”

Someone ran into the room through the door, a woman in a torn grey cloak. She rushed in like the wind and threw herself into Tauseef’s dead man’s arms. They hugged each other so tightly it seemed they would merge into each other.

The woman in black smiled slightly at Tauseef. “The dead have their ties too, you know. When families are torn apart and mutilated...sometimes they want to come back together, if only in death. Why not?”

Tauseef looked away from the couple, the woman in grey and his dead man, who were holding each other so tightly that it seemed they would never let go.

“Someday,” the woman in black said softly, reach up to touch Tauseef’s arm, “the dead will be all that remain in the world. The living will have destroyed everything that there is to destroy, and then themselves in their turn. And then, someone will have to be there to carry on. Someone who has already been through the worst, and knows how ridiculous the greed and ambition of the living are.”

“And it will start from here?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe it will start somewhere else. But it will happen, and it has to happen. That is why we are here. That is why we exist.”

“And I?” he asked plaintively. “Why am I here?”

The woman just looked at him.

And then, at last, Tauseef wondered whether the drone had missed after all.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2015



Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Dispatches from Hindunazistan

It looks as though I am a reluctant prophet once more.

By now, I assume that my readers won’t need a thousand word background filler to bring them up to date on the political situation in India; I’ve written enough about it over the last few years that you’ll be able to just, you know, refer back to my previous writings if you need a refresher course.

If you recall, I had predicted a rising wave of Hindunazi fascism and intolerance in the wake of their electoral victory in 2014. I had further predicted that as reality caught up with the hollowness of the Hindunazis’ promises, people would get steadily more disenchanted, and the Hindunazis would react with increased intolerance and fascist violence.

Well, that’s happening, and much faster than I’d have expected.

You see, things are not going so very well in the Republic of Hindunazistan.

In order to get into power, the Hindunazis had made promises that were not just deliriously optimistic, they were such tall tales that no adult should have spent five seconds on them before dismissing them out of hand. They had not, actually, needed to make those promises, because the government before them was so spectacularly incompetent, so incredibly venal, and so utterly unpopular that the electorate was desperate for change. They’d have voted for anyone, at all, who might make things better. All the Hindunazis had to do was make realistic projections about what was possible, and contrast them to the incompetence of the incumbent Congress government.

Instead, they unleashed a laptop army which promised the sky, if only given the chance. The electorate reacted by giving them that chance. And then, reality being what it is, it’s very, very unsurprising that none of those promises – not one single, solitary one – has been kept.

The economy is in the doldrums. Prices continue to rise. There are no jobs to be had. Corruption is still as high as ever. The slush funds Modi had promised to get back from abroad within a hundred days of taking office still lie in their Swiss bank vaults, growing fat on the interest. Even the liberals of the Great Indian Muddle Class, who had voted en masse for Modi on the basis of the Golden Age he’d promised, are now thoroughly disillusioned and increasingly alienated. That kind of happens when a government tells people what they can or can’t eat, can or can’t wear, can or can’t think, and the like.

Like the Nazis they so love and admire, the Hindunazis have looked for an internal enemy to focus public wrath on, and an excuse to manufacture this wrath. They imagined they’d found it in the question of beef consumption. Now, this may be a surprise to most people, but India has, actually, a very high rate of beef consumption, and is also the single leading exporter of beef in the world. And, also contrary to general belief, a lot of Hindus eat beef. Beef was, historically, a prized food which was served to honoured guests; to this day it is a source of cheap protein – the only one they can afford – to millions of Indians.

One of the pet Hindunazi projects is the Hindu Rashtra (literally nation, but rasthra has connotations going beyond nationhood, and encompasses a cultural and social homogeneity  more akin to tribal identity; something like the Nazi Volk). Despite having a more than 80% Hindu population, India is still officially and largely genuinely secular, mostly because Hinduism is not so much a religion as a collection of different religions with a few points of similarity. There are vegetarian Hindus and beef eating Hindus, atheist Hindus and Hindus who donate huge amounts to temples and fast one day a week; there are Hindus who, in one part of the country, worship gods whom Hindus in another part of the country have never even heard of. Imposing a common Hindutva (“Hinduness”) on them has been a long standing Hindunazi project, and one which has always come a spectacular cropper.

But that doesn’t mean the Hindunazis have ever given up trying.

Here’s something I said on a website talking about the Hindunazi project:

The fact is that the Hindunazis, for all their alleged aversion to Christianity and Islam, actually are in love with both religions and helplessly admire them. They adore the extreme fringe of both faiths – the Saudi Wahhabis and the evangelists in Amerikastan – and want to make Hinduism just like them. That’s why their primary attempt is to homogenise Hinduism, force it into a strait jacket, in which no variation, cultural, dietary, or in terms of free thought, is to be tolerated...That’s why they use beef as an issue to force through Hindu fundamentalism nationwide, even though many, many Hindus eat beef and most of the rest don’t care who eats it or not as long as they don’t. That’s why they talk about the need of Hindus to have “suicide bombers” and self-righteously unleash their troll army to bully dissenters online. Fortunately, India is far too diverse – and Hinduism is far too resilient – to fall to the Hindunazis. They might love Hitler’s edict – “Ein Reich! Ein Volk! Ein F├╝hrer!” but they’ll never get any of those things. 
The Hindunazis started by banning beef in states they ruled, beginning with the huge western Indian state of Maharashtra and then – in a move of mind-boggling hubris and idiocy – in India’s only Muslim majority state, Kashmir, where a separatist insurgency continues to simmer and the common people still protest what they regard as Indian hegemony. The logical and common sense option would be to try and accommodate their concerns and not go out of one’s way to alienate them, right?

That only works if you’re not a Hindunazi. Common sense and logic don’t apply to them.

The stoking of passions on beef began, predictably, to spiral out of control. Hindunazi (or Hindunazi-inspired) mobs have beaten and burned several Muslims to death on the basis of rumours that they were “eating” or “smuggling” beef. Modi maintained a deafening silence for far too long before conceding, reluctantly, that perhaps these lynchings should not have happened, but he couldn’t be blamed for them.

This was not exactly the kind of response calculated to endear him to anybody.

The intellectuals are up in arms. In response to the growing intolerance and religious violence, over forty eminent writers (at last count) have returned their government-bestowed awards. The Hindunazis responded to this by unleashing their pet right wing media zealots and online troll army in a desperate attempt to smear these authors, but it backfired badly. Many of them had impeccable Hindu credentials, and they were clearly responding in disgust to the prevailing atmosphere. They couldn’t be clubbed together in some mythical anti-national alliance designed to denigrate the Hindunazis.

In fact nobody needs to denigrate the Hindunazis. They’re doing an excellent job of that on their own.

As I write this, Modi is poised to lose a major state election, in the state of Bihar. It would not have been a particularly major election, and it would not have been Modi who lost it, but for the fact that he, very stupidly, threw himself into the campaign and so made it a de facto referendum on himself. He’d done the same thing earlier this year in the state of Delhi; and the electorate of the state had wiped the floor with him, mass voting instead for the centrist Aam Aadmi Party, which has a broom for an election symbol. But apparently being a Hindunazi means not having to learn from history.

Well, that’s not actually very surprising, since the Hindunazis have no love of history and spend a considerable amount of time mythologising it to suit their own interests.

So, what’s a good Modi worshipper* to do?

[*There is a standard term anti-Modi people use nowadays to refer to Modi worshippers – Modi bhakts, literally “disciples” or “acolytes”. It’s fully part of Indian English lexicon now. However, I think Modi-worship is a better term for this phenomenon since these people are all willing to worship Modi, but don’t seem to have learnt anything from him.]

What they can’t do is take the way out that was pioneered by the previous Congress Party government, the one that set new standards in venality, incompetence and criminality. They can’t say, like the previous (unelected, rubber stamp) “Prime Minister”, Manmohan Singh, that his hands are “tied” by the compulsions of coalition politics. They can’t do that because, in the election whose results they celebrated with delirious joy just 16 months ago, Modi was given a handy majority on his own. He does not need coalition partners to rule. Nor can they wish away the misgovernance of the Modi regime...or the fact that Modi, himself, is hardly ever in the country. He seems to imagine that being Prime Minister means being able to fly from Mongolia to Kyrgyzstan and Japan to Argentina on taxpayers’ expense, and the hell with what happens back home.

As far as I can see from my interactions with non-Hindunazi Modi worshippers, their focus is now to protect him. They can’t do much about the Hindunazis of his party, their increasing disconnect from reality, their growing infighting and jockeying for power, their spectacular inability to come up with any actual solutions for the country’s problems. So their new theory is that everything that’s going wrong with their hoped for Golden Age is...

...owing to Modi’s lieutenants and rivals in his own party, trying hard to sabotage him. Yes, that’s right. Modi is a helpless innocent, trapped in a power play between unscrupulous people whose primary purpose is to bring him down. That’s even though he’s their poster boy and the only reason they got so many people to vote for them in the first place.

Where have we heard that before?

Oh yes, over and over in history when despots began to show their feet of clay.

I could name a few.


 
[Image Source: The Psyche Of Hindu Fascism]

Monday, 19 October 2015

Gobardhan and the Ghost

There was a ghost which lived in the tamarind tree beside the pond behind Gobardhan’s house.

Gobardhan knew the ghost was there. Even if he hadn’t known that this particular ghost was there, he’d have known that a ghost of some kind was around. Ghosts, after all, lived in every single tamarind tree in Bunglistan. Everyone knew that.

Gobardhan didn’t mind the ghost. Most tamarind tree ghosts were irritable at best and could be positively dangerous, but this one was fairly benign. In fact, sometimes on a winter’s night it came down out of the tree and visited Gobardhan, and they’d sit down and drink some hot milk and share a hookah.

Of course the ghost couldn’t come to Gobardhan’s house. This was because of Gobardhan’s wife. Did you not know he had a wife? Oh, he had a wife, all right.

She was a horrible woman, as you’ve probably already guessed. She had a voice like a broken brass pot being scraped over stone, and a hand so heavy that Gobardhan shivered in fear whenever she came anywhere near. She ruled over him with as much total authority as a king over a peasant, and had as much contempt for him as the king would for the peasant, too.

Of course one of her primary complaints was about money. Gobardhan never, ever had enough, and no wonder too, since his only work was as an assistant priest at the little temple in the village. It was a small enough temple, and the income was meagre enough, that when the fat old head priest had taken his share there were only a few cowrie shells left over for Gobardhan himself. And, though she knew the cause, his wife would neither go and look for some work herself nor leave him in peace.

Children? They had no children. Gobardhan shivered with dread at the thought of what his life would have been like if they’d had kids, They’d probably have turned out to be just like her, and then he’d have to listen to several voices like that and be bossed around by them all day.

One of the few times he could find to relax was on winter evenings, when his wife said it was too cold to step outdoors. Then Gobardhan would go and sit down by the pond, looking at the stars reflected on the water, and the ghost would, if it were in the mood, come to him.

The first time this had happened, Gobardhan had been scared. Wouldn’t you have been, if you’d gone to the bank of the pond for refuge from your nagging wife, and something huge and heavy and black as the winter night itself had sat down beside you with a sound like a sack of rice dropped from a height?

Oh, all right. Maybe you wouldn’t have been, but Gobardhan was. He was so scared that he couldn’t even scream in fear. All he managed was a despairing little squeak as he waited for the ghost to break his neck. That was what all the ghosts always did – they broke the necks of anyone they wanted.

Fortunately, the ghost realised that he was terrified. “Don’t worry,” it said, in the nasal tones all Bunglistani ghosts used. “I’m not going to harm you.”

“What do you want?” Gobardhan gasped.

“A puff at your hookah?” the ghost said rather timidly. “It’s been so long, so long since I last had a puff at one. Why, I think I must have been still alive then!”

Blinking nervously, Gobardhan handed over the hookah to the ghost. It pulled in a deep draught of the smoke – which began leaking immediately into the air – and heaved a blissful sigh. “That felt great,” it said, puffing away in great gulps. “Why are you sitting out here in the dark? Don’t you know ghosts are around at night?”

“Well...” Gobardhan said. “It’s my wife, you see...”

“Say no more.” The ghost literally shuddered. “I know all about that. So, you want to come here every night and sit under my tree, eh?”

“Only when I can,” Gobardhan replied. “If you don’t mind, of course.”

“Mind?” the ghost boomed, or at least as much as a ghost can boom, given that it can’t speak except in a nasal whine. “Of course I don’t mind. As long,” it added, “as you have some more of that hookah smoke.”

And that was how the friendship started.

Now, of course, while Gobardhan wasn’t too bright, he wasn’t a complete idiot. That’s why he never, ever, told his wife that he had a friend for a ghost. She’d have stopped him going out at once, if necessary by hitting him over the head with a rolling pin. She was perfectly capable of that.

She was capable of anything.

Now, it so happened that the village in which Gobardhan lived was part of a tiny kingdom, just like all others in Bunglistan. The king was very fond of jackfruits, and had an orchard outside his palace filled with nothing but jackfruit trees. The orchard’s fruit were all for the king alone. Let alone the subjects, not even the queen was allowed to eat a single piece.

This made the queen very angry, because the food she loved above all in the world was jackfruit. In fact, even the smell of one was enough to make her crave the sweetish, slippery taste of one sliding over her tongue and down her throat. So – in a palace where the wind brought the smell of a whole orchard of them constantly to her nostrils – the yearning drove her half wild.

So, one night, unable to tolerate the longing any more, while the king snored, she stole quietly from her bed and down the palace stairs. The kingdom was so tiny that it could only afford a pair of guards at the palace gate, and, of course, at this time of night they were, as she’d expected, sound asleep, leaning on their spears. So the queen could steal into the jackfruit orchard, quite unseen by any human eyes.

Now this is something she should, of course, never have done. Tamarind ghosts are one thing – one might find a good one – but jackfruit orchards are the haunts of the worst, vilest ghosts one ever could see. No other ghost even compares to a jackfruit ghost. The queen should have known all this. And now she was going, at night, alone into a whole orchard filled with jackfruits!

Now, on top of all her other mistakes, the queen chose the night of the new moon to make her trip to the orchard. The new moon night, of course, is the one on which ghosts are most active, and the jackfruit orchard was fairly boiling over with them. They saw the queen enter, stepping nervously through the trees as she peered up looking for the ripest of the fruit she could find.

Now among the ghosts that teemed the jackfruit orchard there was one meaner, angrier and more evil by far than all the rest put together. While the other ghosts were merely mischievous, this one was pure evil. And it was also jealous; it hated having to stay the orchard when the king and queen got to sleep in beds and live in comfort in the palace.

When this ghost saw the queen enter the orchard, it at once thought of a plan. Choosing an exceptionally ripe and odorous jackfruit, which was close to the queen, it seeped into the fruit and waited.

Sure enough, the queen found the particular jackfruit, which was so ripe and stank so much that it would have been hard for her to have missed it. Greedily, she tore apart the tough skin with her fingers, pulled out a handful of the pulpy slippery flesh, and – spitting out the seed – felt the sweetish mucilaginous gobbet slide gloriously down her throat.

And along with the fruit, of course, the ghost entered her too.

A little while later the king woke from his sleep and saw the queen standing at the foot of his bed. This was strange, for she never normally got up during the night, unless she was sick. Then he saw her eyes and decided she was sick. They were blood red and glared with a manic light.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching out to touch her, but she jumped away and bared her teeth at him like a snarling dog. Her teeth seemed to have grown oddly long and sharp.

“Don’t come closer,” she hissed. “I’m warning you.” Her voice seemed to have become strangely nasal. “Go away and leave me in peace.”

Seeing that something was badly wrong, the king hollered for the royal physician. That old man came doddering up from his bed in the lower depths of the palace, took one look at the queen, screamed and fainted. When roused, with difficulty and the application of repeated splashes of water to the face, he goggled and pointed at the queen. “That’s a ghost!” he gasped. “It’s not the queen, it’s a ghost inside her!”

The queen, sitting on the bed and helping herself to the king’s cherished jackfruit, laughed. “Of course I am a ghost,” she said. “And what are you going to do about it?”

There was, as they soon discovered, not much they could do about it. The king called in his head priests and his court astrologer. He called in the royal magician. He even called in the keeper of the jackfruit orchard, on the grounds that if anyone knew enough about ghosts that worthy would be it. He called them all in, and showed them into the chamber where the ghost-possessed queen sat gulping down jackfruit as though there was no tomorrow.

The queen laughed at them all. She laughed at them when they appeared, she laughed at them when they tried their incantations and enchantments, and she laughed most uproariously when, defeated, they trailed out of the chamber one by one. Most especially did she laugh at the jackfruit keeper.

“Look at this one!” she hooted. “All these years he shivered even to come into the orchard in broad daylight for fear of ghosts – and now he’s almost dead with fear. And he’s going to kick me out? He?

In the end the king sent runners out throughout the kingdom to make a proclamation. “Anybody,” the runners announced, “who can rid the queen of the ghost possessing her will be rewarded with half the contents of the royal treasury.”

This caught everyone’s attention, of course, and people from all over the kingdom swarmed to the palace to try their luck. They came, they looked at the queen’s sharp teeth and blood red eyes, and they ran for their lives. And the queen laughed and laughed, and ate more and more jackfruit. That, as much as her possession, was driving the king to distraction.

One time only he tried to stop her from eating jackfruits. At once she stood up from the bed on which she was lolling, and seemed to grow to twice her size. Arms upraised, she stepped towards him, snarling. There was no need to say anything further. The king fled as precipitously as the merest peasant, and ordered the queen to be given her jackfruit.

The orchard was beginning to look a bit bare by the time the news of the queen’s possession finally reached Gobardhan’s village, which was the smallest and least important of all those in the little kingdom. And the moment Gobardhan’s wife heard it, at the market, she rushed straight home and grabbed him by the ear.

“Ow!” he yelled. “What are you doing that for?”

“Off your lazy backside,” she hollered back, yanking him to his feet by the ear. “Half the king’s treasury is there for the taking, and here you are, sitting wasting your time.”

“But...” he began. “I don’t know anything about evicting ghosts.”

He might as well have saved his breath. “How hard can it be?” she bawled. “You’re a priest, aren’t you? You know all the prayers, don’t you? Better than that fat old man in the temple who does nothing and takes all the money?” She didn’t give him a moment to reply. “Get going right now, this instant, and don’t come back without half the king’s treasury, do you hear me?”

Gobardhan, of course, scrambled to obey, though he knew what the outcome would be. Though it was already growing evening, he left at once, not daring even to take the time  to change into his best dhoti and smear a bit of ash on his forehead to act more learned. He’d only gone a few paces when there was a noise like a sack of grain falling on the ground and his friend the tamarind ghost appeared near him.

“What happened?” it asked. “I could hear her yelling right from my tree. Where are you going? Did she throw you out?”

“She might as well have,” poor Gobardhan said. “I am to go and evict the ghost that’s taken possession of the queen, and get half the treasury as reward. That’s all. A mere bagatelle!”

The tamarind ghost would have clucked its tongue, if only it had had that organ. Instead, it clicked its tusks together sympathetically. “I’ve been hearing rumours through the spirit network,” it said. “They say this ghost is a terrible one, one of the worst of the worst.” It glared at the ground moodily. “A disgrace to the whole race of ghosts, indeed.”

“So what should I do?” Gobardhan asked plaintively, plodding along.

“I don’t know,” the ghost said. “But make a little room for me in that pouch of parched rice and jaggery you’ve got in your hand, and I’ll hide in there and go along with you.”

So Gobardhan made room for the ghost in his pouch, and it squeezed in. The unhappy assistant priest plodded on through the evening, until, just at the time when he would have normally sat down to dinner, he finally arrived at the king’s palace.

“Who on earth are you?” the guards said, frowning terribly. “Don’t you know that this is not the time to come bothering the king?”

Gobardhan turned pale, and for a moment thought about fleeing as fast as he could. But then he thought about his wife, and what she would do to him if he failed, and the fear that filled him at that thought was greater than his fear of the guards. “I’m not here to bother the king,” he said. “I’m here to heal the queen.”

The guards exchanged glances and grinned. “Well, then, it’s hardly worth your coming in, really, because you’ll be out at once and running for your life,” one said.

“But we might just let you in, since you’re so keen,” the other put in. “Of course, you have to give us something for our trouble.”

“Like that bundle you’ve got there,” the first added, and snatched the cloth full of dried rice, jaggery, and tamarind ghost. “Now go in...and don’t break your neck when you come running out.”

Casting a desperate glance at the bag, Gobardhan entered the palace. The queen’s chamber was easily identifiable from the overwhelming smell of jackfruit wafting out of it. He entered timidly, and saw the lady herself, sitting on her bed stuffing jackfruit into her mouth with both hands.

She glared at him with her blood red eyes, but her mouth was so full of fruit she was quite unable, for the moment, to speak. At last she choked the slippery stuff down and found her voice. “Well?” she asked truculently, angry at having been interrupted in the midst of a particularly stinky and succulent fruit. “What do you want?”

Meanwhile, the guards at the gate, chuckling to each other, began untying the bundle. “I hope it’s something worth our while,” the first guard said.

“If it isn’t,” the second told him, “we’ll give him a good beating when he comes out.”

“If we can catch him,” the first said, laughing, as he poured out the bag’s contents on the nearest stair. “He’ll be running for his l...”

He never completed the word, because something huge and black with yellow eyes and gnashing tusks rose out of the bag.

The tamarind ghost was irritated. Very irritated. It had found the bag a much tighter fit than it’d imagined, and the constant chafing of the parched rice hurt its tender ghostly skin. And now, after being tossed around the entire evening inside the bag, it had been stolen and rudely spilled out on to the staircase. It rose out of the ground and stood glaring down terribly at the guards, considering wringing their necks for them.

It was not necessary. At the first sight of it, the guards had both fainted dead away.

The tamarind ghost looked around for Gobardhan, thinking to go to him. Smelling the stink of jackfruit from an upper window, it decided the easier option would be to climb the wall and enter through the window. Scrambling up the wall like a huge monkey, it peered over the windowsill...

Ten instants later, Gobardhan’s wife looked up from her supper as something huge and black rushed like the wind into her hut. “Come along,” the thing said. “There isn’t another instant to lose!”

“What –” Gobardhan’s wife began, with a fragment of fish still raised half way to her mouth, but she didn’t get to complete the sentence. Nor did she get to finish the fish. The black thing, which she’d only just begun to understand was a ghost, picked her up and rushed out into the night. In ten more instants, the ghost had carried her into the queen’s chamber and dumped her on the floor.

They had only just arrived in time. The queen, her teeth bared and red eyes glaring, was advancing on Gobardhan, who was frozen in place with two competing fears. The fear of the advancing thing before him made him desperate to run away, while the fear of his wife was enough to keep him rooted to the spot. And then his wife was there, too, right in the middle of the room, and glaring at him terribly.

“Well?” she shouted. “What have you to say for yourself?”

“Here!” the queen objected. “How dare you try to interrupt?”

Gobardhan’s wife hardly spared her a glance. “I can’t even have my fish in peace,” she stormed. “Have you kicked out that ghost from the queen yet? Oh, what’s the point of asking, I can see that you haven’t. Talk about useless! My mother was right. I should never have married you. I should have...”  

“I was just about to wring his neck,” the queen tried to break in. “So please let me do it.”

You keep out of this,” Gobardhan’s wife yelled. “As for you,” she turned back to Gobardhan. “Just let me get you home and see what happens. You couldn’t even let me put on a good sari or my best earrings. Just sent this...this ghost to pick me up. When I think of the way I slave my fingers to the bone for you, I...”

“Shut up,” the queen shrieked. “Just shut up and let me break his neck. Shut up, will you?”

“What?” Gobardhan’s wife hissed. “You said shut up, did you? You said shut up to me?” She advanced on the queen ghost, her fleshy arms rising. “Shut up, did you say? Huh?”

That was enough for the jackfruit ghost. With a wild shriek of terror, it fled from the queen’s body and through the window, right back to the jackfruit grove. The queen sat down on the bed suddenly.

“Oh my,” she said, blinking. “What on earth is going on, and who are you all?”

*****************************************

I wish this story could have a happy ending, but it doesn’t really. Yes, Gobardhan and his wife, and the tamarind ghost, went back to their village. Yes, Gobardhan’s wife did reluctantly consent to the tamarind ghost’s occasionally visiting their hut on cold or rainy nights and share a hookah with her husband, and even unbent sometimes enough to share their fish and rice with it.

The problem was with the half-portion of the royal treasury the king had promised. Yes, he did keep his promise. Kings aren’t worth much if they don’t keep their promises, and, anyway, he was happy to have his wife back, and even happier to have his jackfruit again. So he did give Gobardhan half the royal treasury, as he had promised.

But, as I said, the kingdom was small and poor, and the treasury was smaller and poorer still.

As Gobardhan went back villagewards, half the contents of the treasury hung at his waist, tied in a fold of his dhoti.

The five copper coins clicked at every step, mockingly, all the way back home.



Copyright B Purkayastha 2015



Thoughts on the Moral Basis of Religious Violence

I have been thinking of something for a while. As you probably know by now, I have been researching as much about ISIS as I can, and I’ve watched many of the videos they’re (un)kind enough to put online.

As an aside, I’m always struck by the difference between ISIS practice here and that of African Islamic insurgent groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabaab. It’s hard even to find still photos of those two groups’ troops. But then they aren’t trying to make a Hollywood style media splash, one of the many, many cartoonishly villainous things ISIS does that makes it hard to believe that they’re anything but an artificial bogeyman designed to stampede people into supporting the faltering Global War of Imperialism, alias Terror.

It was while watching yet another ultra-brutal Syrian beheading video – this one from the blood soaked war criminal Barack Hussein Obama’s stable of moderate cannibals and Al Qaeda surrogates, not ISIS – I asked myself, once again, a question I’d thought about many times before.

The original moderate cannibal, Abu Saqqar


These people, I thought, all claim to be acting in the name of a religion. In this case it’s Islam, while others, like the cannibal Christian militias in Africa, claim to be working in the name of Christianity; the Zionazi settler vermin in Occupied Palestine torture and kill Palestinians for the Judaic YHWH; the brutal Hindunazi lynch mobs in India cite Hinduism as their excuse to murder Muslims; and their counterparts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka burn people alive and beat them to death in defence of Buddhism. They murder, rob, rape, massacre, all in the name of religions.


Christian militia, Central African Republic [Source]

But are they really religious people?

In the case of ISIS, for one, a clear argument can be made out that they are not really Muslims at all. They have repeatedly, over and over, violated Islamic rules of warfare. They claim authority – unilaterally – over all Muslims in the world. They run what is basically a mafia state which rules by coercion and maltreats minorities, including fellow “believers in the Book” – Christians. They follow no established school of Islamic jurisprudence and they pretty much make up their interpretation of the religion as they go along. In other words, theirs is a rule by opportunism.

Are the rest any different?

I’m, of course, an atheist, but for the sake of argument, I’m willing to take at face value what the adherents of the multiple One True Religions say about their many different faiths; and if there’s one thing that runs through them, it’s the idea that one shouldn’t do to someone else what one doesn’t want done to oneself. In common discourse this is known as the “Golden Rule”. Do these people who kill in the name of religion obey this Golden Rule?

Of course they don’t.

It’s quite true that, to some extent, they can find some kind of justification of their crimes in some particular and warped interpretation of their Holy Books. Thus, the Hindunazis justify lynching Muslims on the basis that “cow killers” should not be allowed to live; Christians burned and hanged untold numbers of “witches” on the same plea about the King James Bible. In other instances, the religious authorities themselves, knowing that even a deliberate mistranslation of the religious scripture couldn’t cover their planned crimes, issued waivers and special justifications. That’s how Pope Urban II sent masses of European peasants rampaging, murdering, looting and destroying on the First Crusade – by promising absolution for all sins past and present to anyone who died in the course of the bloodletting. Just about anything, therefore, becomes possible when slanted in the right fashion by the top religious authority.

But do the troops on the ground – the ISIS men, or the BSWCBHO’s Jabhat al Nusra and moderate cannibal proxies, the Central African Republic murderers who go around with crucifixes hanging from the stocks of their guns, the Hindunazi mobs armed with iron rods and incendiary bombs made of gas cylinders, and so on – do they, individually, believe that they are actually doing as the religion they claim to defend tells them to?

Unless there is a very dangerous level of mental dissociation present here, I don’t think they do.

Let me explain. It is my contention that the people who are actually hacking off heads, burning villages, murdering innocuous people, and the like in the name of their religion are, in truth, not really believers at all. I won’t call them atheists, but I would call them at least agnostic where the issues of their own faiths are concerned.

Suppose now that I’m a religious stormtrooper for XYZism. My religion, officially, preaches love and forgiveness and getting along with people of all other faiths; adherence to these tenets promises an eternal reward in a hereafter while defiance will, I am assured, plunge me into the deepest pits of hell. However, I am involved in a savage religious war in which I murder, rape, rob and destroy without compunction, and with the full encouragement of my putative superiors. Can I fully believe their assurances that my actions are in line with the tenets I just mentioned, which enjoin me to love all people and forgive all their sins? Can I be certain that my deity, whoever that is, will forgive my actions, just because my superiors say so?

Unless I am a total automaton, without any shred of an ability to think on my own, I can not.

In other words, by following orders to kill and hack and dismember, I am basically doing what I would have perhaps done anyway, only I am able to assuage my conscience, at least partly, with the thought that this has the permission of my superiors.  If anyone’s to blame, it’s they, not I. It’s they, not I, who should be consigned to eternal torment – if any should follow as the consequences of my actions.

But again, unless I am very, very dim-witted, this is not a mental shield that offers much in the way of protection. In fact, the only way I can continue to do what I am doing and not come up against the inescapable conclusion that by going against the tenets of my faith I will suffer the consequences is if...I do not believe in the tenets of my faith. In other words, I’m only playing a part, and the religion I profess to follow is merely a fiction that serves to justify my crimes.

The old Inquisition, in fact, had a neat way of getting around this inconvenient little fact. The monks who tortured confessions out of “heretics” and the like would not sully their hands with actual blood; they had others do it for them. And then they would hand over their victims to the secular arm for execution. It would be the kings and barons who would bear the moral stain of burning these hapless people at the stake, not the monks themselves, who could therefore retain a clear and unsullied conscience.

It reminds me of a crime novel I once read, in which a loan shark defended his activities: "I'm not a bad guy. If you don't pay me back the money I lent you, with vigorish, I won't break your head. No, I'll call my enforcer Vinnie. He'll break your head."

To us, a thousand years later, it sounds like appalling hypocrisy, and undoubtedly it was. It also serves to recall that the monks of the time were the biggest property owners of Europe, and wielded political power of a level few despots today can dream of. Popes bought their office, whored and stole, and behaved in a manner to rival the decadent later Roman emperors. How could all that be squared with the original Christian ideals of poverty and simplicity?

Simple: it couldn’t, if they had the slightest real belief in their professed religion. They were an upscale version of the ISIS “judges” and executioners, no more.

It’s also my contention that out of a given group of people, most are, when all is said and done, morally weak. If given the opportunity, and the moral excuse, they’ll go along with whatever the majority of their neighbours are doing. Later, perhaps, they might look back and be appalled by their own behaviour – but not at the time it is going on. At that time they’ll do as others are doing, and reassure themselves it’s all right because everyone else is doing it anyway. The majority of the mobs that go periodically on rampages of murder and loot in South Asia, for instance, are mostly otherwise normal people who are morally weak, to the extent that they’ll do as directed by a few unscrupulous political leaders and agent provocateurs.

And these are normal people, not the kind of sociopathic thug actively recruited, throughout history, by fascist militias. When it comes to those, from the stormtroopers of Hitler’s SA to India’s Hindunazis – or the headchoppers of ISIS, or the BSWCBHO’s moderate cannibals, come to that – any excuse will do, as a cover to unleash their violent instincts.

Religion, in this case, is an enabler, nothing more.



Someday

Someday, when the last god is dead
When the wind blows sand through the doors of time
When the last temple crumbles to nothingness –

Come with me, and I will show you
The things that shall be.

Someday

The imagination is lifted away
Into the vastness of wonder
We shall be what we can be
Glory lasting to eternity
We shall touch the last red star
We shall be the children of suns.

Someday

The tide of reason shall be unleashed
And wash away the fear of magic and the unknown
Forever, and it will be gone
The world can look back on itself and laugh,
Half-embarrassed, like a man
Looking back at his childhood toys.

Someday, when the fear of life is gone
Someday, when the chains are gone
Someday, when reason sits upon its throne
Then we will be free.

Someday
We will pass from darkness into the light
Of a thousand billion billion suns.

Someday we will be what we can be.

Someday. 



                                                             Copyright B Purkayastha 2015



[Image from Tumblr]