Saturday, 19 December 2015
Friday, 18 December 2015
The first of the two suns was just setting as Anurag walked up the slope, his boots crunching on the cinder. Once, he’d have stopped to watch the sunset, marvelling at the green flush that spread across the sky, from emerald to a fading turquoise where it met the creeping dusk in the east. But that was a long time ago. Anurag had been on this planet too long to be impressed now, by the sunset or by anything else.
Well, he thought to himself, at least I won’t be here much longer. There’s that at least.
Something the size of a cat scuttled across his path on many legs, almost close enough to touch. One of the miniature worker castes, perhaps; he didn’t know all the castes, and there was no longer much point in trying to know.
The huge mass of the Colony rose above him, a titanic pillar of cinder and clay, surmounted by the conical roof like a monstrous mushroom. Now that the first sun had set, it was only lit by the dull glow of the second, the dim red giant. It gave the Colony a menacing air, throwing parts into shadow and painting the rest the colour of clotting blood.
As always, Anurag stopped by the split rock to look back down into the valley at the base and at his ship. It was a compulsion, he’d realised, but one he was utterly unable to resist. He needed the reassurance of knowing the ship and the base were there and waiting, before he entered the Colony.
Not that there was any danger in the Colony, of course. The HaKuru knew well enough not to pick a fight with men. He knew that, but it was still something he had to do, like touching a lucky charm before starting on a difficult job. But then, he reminded himself again, it was for the last time.
The Colony’s entrance was a low, rounded hole in the base of the immense pillar. One of the two soldiers on guard came out to him at the sound of his boots, blocking the way with its immense head.
He identified himself, speaking the code words slowly and clearly, so the soldier could understand. Instead of stepping aside, though, it came closer, its vast head thrust so close that Anurag could smell it, the faint odour of pheromones drifting off its armour plates. Knowing what was coming, he suppressed the instinct to flinch as he felt the whisper-light touch of the soldier’s vibrissae flicking across his face and body as the creature felt him, making a touch-image. This happened each time a new set of guards was posted, one that he’d not encountered before; once the touch-image matched the one it had been given, the beast should step aside and let him through.
Instead, though it stepped back a couple of paces, it didn’t clear the way. The other soldier, on some signal, slipped back into the entrance and disappeared, leaving Anurag and the soldier with each other.
“What’s going on?” Anurag asked the soldier. “You’ve got to let me through. I have the right to enter. I’m the accredited...” He gave up, realising it would do no good. The soldier simply stood there, its huge eyeless head blocking his way. He knew well enough not to try to get past it. Blind or not, the soldier would know exactly what he was doing, and he’d seen for himself, many times, how fast the caste could move.
Once again he realised just how ugly the HaKuru were. The soldiers were the worst. This one, for instance; its gigantic head was so large it was amazing the rest of the body could even support it. The intricate carvings on its carapace would indicate its clan, sub-clan, name and place in the hierarchy, but Anurag had long ago given up trying to decipher them. All the carvings did was make the beasts even uglier to his eyes.
The other soldier emerged from the Colony entrance, leading a Sniffer. The Sniffer came up to Anurag, the long tube at the end of its globular head whiffling at his odour as it analysed his scent. Finally, it stepped back, and, without a further sign, went back the way it had come.
At last the two soldiers moved away, opening the entrance for Anurag. They were armed, he saw now; on the backs of their huge heads, each had a quiver full of weapons. Something was wrong, he realised. Something was very wrong.
He met ShidarPrahal just inside the entrance. The HaKuru was hurrying up the tunnel, as fast as his limbs could carry him, and almost bumped into the man. He stopped so quickly that a shower of gravel scraped and skittered across the floor.
“Your pardon, Ambassador,” he said in his crackling voice, each word bitten off by his beaky mandibles. “I was just informed that you had been stopped at the entrance. I was coming to order you to be allowed to pass – but I see that you have already.”
“Yes, a Sniffer came up and passed my scent.” Anurag frowned at the Mediator. “What is going on? How dare you stop me?”
“Come down inside,” the Mediator said, “and we’ll talk.”
Anurag followed ShidarPrahal down the passage. The tunnel was filled with soldiers; they rustled and clicked and passed by on all sides, popping out of side tunnels only to disappear again. Normally these reaches should have been filled with the worker castes, but today there was hardly any in sight.
“So you’re leaving us?” ShidarPrahal asked conversationally. “You said last time that your stint here was almost at an end.”
“Yes. I’ve just come to turn in my implant and take the formal farewell.”
“That’s a pity,” ShidarPrahal said. “I have always enjoyed talking to you, Ambassador. Do you have any idea of when your replacement will arrive?”
Anurag shook his head. “There won’t be a replacement. We’re closing the embassy and pulling out. The rest of the staff is already gone. You may’ve seen their ship taking off. I’m the last one left, I am leaving at dawn tomorrow, and that’s that.”
“Oh?” The Mediator fell silent for a while as he digested this information. They were now moving down passages lit by dim yellow glow-globes set in the ceiling. Around them the soldiers crawled and clattered. “May I ask why?”
“There’s no point to this embassy. Your planet has nothing to trade, no resources Earth might want. It’s not even strategically sited. Nor do your people pose any kind of military threat to us. You’re not even, biologically, interesting enough to spend time researching further. After all, even Earth has colonial life forms as complex as you.” He waved a hand. “So there’s really no point to Earth’s maintaining this embassy, with all the expenses that come with it. That’s all.”
“So what you’re saying is that we’re too insignificant to be worth your notice.” If the Mediator’s clicking could convey emotion, it might have been filled with dry amusement.
“You can put it that way if you want.” At this level, deep inside the Colony, the walls were smooth-packed and hard, and the lighting was brighter. They were approaching the luxury areas, reserved for the upper castes. “Of course, being beneath Earth’s notice isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“That’s one way of thinking about it, certainly.” Down here the guards were so huge that they could not walk on their own; they blocked tunnel entrances with their monstrous heads. ShidarPrahal rapped on a blind carapace and it heaved slowly out of the way, allowing them to pass. “Of course, you leave us at a bad time.”
“And what is that about?” Anurag stopped. “I’m not going any further until you tell me what’s going on. What are all these soldiers doing around us, and why was I stopped at the entrance? I demand an answer.”
“Come in here, please.” ShidarPrahal indicated a small ovoid room carved out of the side of the tunnel. Anurag didn’t recall having seen it before, but then the inside of the Colony was being constantly rearranged and modified. As soon as they’d entered, a guard sealed the entrance with its head. “We can talk privately in here.”
“Privately?” Anurag glanced around the room. It was totally bare of any kind of decoration, the walls and roof glass-smooth. The only furnishing, apart from a fabric-covered hump to one side, was a glow-globe set on the floor on a pedestal. “Do you have secrets?”
“Secrets, yes...” the Mediator’s four pairs of round black eyes studied Anurag carefully, as if trying to judge his reaction. “The clans are going to war,” he said.
“War? Against whom?”
“The other Colonies – they’ve made an alliance against us. They have agents inside here as well. Last night there was an attempted coup.”
“What?” Anurag said blankly. “A coup?”
“Yes, they tried to assassinate the Great Mother herself. Fortunately the attempt failed, but now war is inevitable.” ShidarPrahal waved a forelimb. “So you see why these things are going on that so disturbed you, and why the guards took no chances at the entrance.”
“And you think – you think you can win this war?”
“Well,” SidarPrahal said, “we’re outnumbered and they have better weapons. You see, we’ve been too dependent on our higher status and bigger Colony. They were the savages who lived by fighting, we were the sophisticated ones who were above all that.” He made a motion that might have been a shrug. “And so, this is where it brought us.”
“I see,” Anurag said thoughtfully. “What’s the war about?”
“About? Food. Water. What little we have in the way of metals.” The Mediator gestured with a claw. “You know as well as I do that this is a dying planet. Nothing’s left. Maybe you’ve seen the ruins of our ancient cities? They were great once, but they crumbled when they ran out of food and water and began fighting amongst themselves. Then we went back to burrowing under the ground and building up Colonies. Now the cycle is just being repeated. It’s our turn.”
“Perhaps.” Anurag nodded. “In any case, there’s nothing I can do about that. Earth’s policy is never to get involved in native politics.”
“Unless there is some advantage to Earth in getting involved,” the Mediator replied drily. “But then we have nothing to offer Earth on this dying planet, do we?”
“No – you don’t.” Anurag drew back the sleeve of his robe and pulled at his implant of accreditation. It came loose from his flesh with a slight sucking sensation. “I ought to hand this to the Great Mother in person, oughtn’t I?”
“Theoretically, yes, but I’m afraid the Great Mother is currently inaccessible,” ShidarPrahal said. “After last night’s attempt we’ve relocated her to a secure chamber under total isolation. But don’t worry, I’ll return it to her personally.” There was a brief pause. “You’ll be glad to leave us, I suppose?”
“I won’t be at all sorry, that’s true enough. I’ve had enough of this planet.”
“And where will you go, back to Earth?”
“I wish I could.” Anurag sighed despite himself. “If I had money enough, I’d have retired. Unfortunately, all that will happen is I’ll be reassigned to another dead planet somewhere, forced to interact with another race of stinking...” he stopped abruptly.
“...bugs,” the Mediator finished smoothly. “That’s what you humans call us among themselves, isn’t it? Don’t worry, Ambassador, we don’t mind being called that. As far as we’re concerned it’s just a word. But you want to go back to Earth for good, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Anurag confessed. “I’ve had enough of space. I’m homesick for blue skies and warm breezes, for waves washing up on a sandy shore, for the tickle of grass and the touch of rain. I want to be among people I can talk to.”
“I’ve often heard you talk of this Earth,” the HaKuru Mediator replied. “I know how much you long for it.”
“Yes. But there’s no point thinking about it, is there? It won’t happen. I’ll never earn enough. That’s what they never tell you when they recruit you to the Imperial Space Service.”
“But if suppose...” The Mediator hesitated and drew close. “If it so happened that you suddenly had enough to be able to go back permanently, to quit your job and live the rest of your life in comfort. Would you?”
“What are you talking about?”
The alien’s heavy triangular head tilted, his array of eyes gleaming in the light of the glow globe. “We’re going to lose this war. And when we lose, along with us goes the last vestiges of culture and hope the HaKuru have. The other colonies are little better than savages. Once they destroy us they’ll fight among each other until nothing is left. And what with the situation of food and water, it won’t be long after that that the race will be extinct.”
“This. You’re going off planet tomorrow, Ambassador. You’re going to be the last opportunity we have to preserve our people.”
In answer, the Mediator walked to the hump near the wall and stripped off the fabric. There were two crudely hewn metallic boxes, dull silver and coppery. He picked one up gingerly.
“In this,” he said, “are the eggs of all the castes of the Colony, including future Great Mothers. It’s the entire genetic heritage of our race.”
“If our species is to survive, we have to get off this planet. We don’t need much; any world with oxygen and liquid water will do. All I’m asking is that you find any such planet – any at all – and unload these eggs there, somewhere on land near water. Nature will take over after that.”
“That’s all. Hatching should occur soon, and the babies will find their own way.”
Anurag stared at the box. “And what do I get in return?”
“This.” The Mediator picked up the other box. “We may be out of resources,” he said. “But these were from centuries ago, when our mines weren’t worked out and our cities hadn’t died. Take our eggs along, and these are for you.”
“What are they?” Anurag asked.
“Jewels.” ShidarPrahal put the box down. Something inside rattled faintly. “You can take both boxes back and examine them at leisure. Just say yes or no.”
Anurag opened one of the boxes. Rows and rows of rough, glassy balls filled it, gleaming dully in the globe’s light with the faint iridescence of rainbows. He opened the other one. The spheres inside, the size of marbles, caught the light and threw it back in a thousand shades of green and dazzling gold.
“Well?” the Mediator asked, watching. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, of course,” Anurag said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Anurag sat back in his captain’s chair and felt the straps automatically tighten around him, holding him down gently. In the viewscreen, the HaKuru planet was a fading greenish-red disc.
“Captain to ship,” he said conversationally. “Override coordinates. Set course for Earth, with flyby of the red giant.”
“Confirming override of coordinates,” the ship’s computer said. Rocket tubes set in the hull fired brief bursts, nudging it into a new course. “Course set with flyby of red giant.”
Anurag smiled thinly. By his hand, strapped down to the table, was the box filled with the green and gold glimmering spheres. He’d loaded the box with the rough glassy orbs in the disposal chute long before launching from the planet. And it was without the slightest compunction that he now pushed the button that sent the little package spiralling down towards the swollen disc of the red giant.
“The universe has far too many bugs anyway,” he said, and patted the coppery box.
“But never jewels enough,” he murmured to it, or perhaps to himself. “Never jewels enough.”
“You,” the Great Mother said severely, moving her enormous bulk, “are evil. Totally and absolutely evil.”
ShidarPrahal moved his mandibles deprecatingly. “Evil is a strong word, Great Mother. I did what had to be done.”
“But to put on such a charade – just to get this human to take the eggs off planet! It’s wicked, that’s what it is.”
“What else would you have me do, Great Mother?” ShidarPrahal peered up at the Great Mother’s expanse of whitish, rippling flesh. “It was our one and only chance to get the eggs to another planet, to make sure our species survives. I couldn’t appeal to the human’s better nature. I’d got to know him well enough to be aware that he had none.”
“But you tricked him.”
“Not at all.” ShidarPrahal moved his forelimbs in negation. “I paid him in full, enough so that he’ll be able to go home to his Earth and never have to work again. All he has to do in return is...”
“To drop the eggs on a planet that’s got water and oxygen, yes.” The Great Mother bent her head to peer at the Mediator. “Do you really think he will?”
“In all probability,” ShidarPrahal said, “the answer is no. But I knew that when I gave them to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just this.” ShidarPrahal clacked his mandibles. “I didn’t tell him which box was which. And he did not ask.”
The Great Mother began to say something and fell silent.
“If he had any plans to do as I’d asked, he’d have made double certain that what he thought were eggs were actually eggs, and the other one were jewels. But he didn’t. And I’m sure he was planning to get rid of what he’d thought were the eggs at the first opportunity.”
“So,” ShidarPrahal said, “if he keeps his word and drops the eggs on an oxygen and water planet, everything’s fine. He gets to keep the jewels and is rich for life. They’re immensely valuable, for all that they’re so rough and colourless. Any geologist could tell him that. On the other hand, if he throws away what he thinks are the eggs...” He paused. “I watched him which he was looking into the boxes. At this moment, the box of jewels is probably drifting in space somewhere, and he’s on his way to Earth with the eggs.”
“And Earth is a water and oxygen planet, isn’t it?” the Great Mother asked. “Rather a warm and fertile one, as far as I know.”
“Absolutely.” If ShidarPrahal could have grinned he would have. “I wonder how long they’ll take to hatch?”
“And you know how...hungry...the newborns get, and how fast they eat.” The Great Mother shook her head. “Really, ShidarPrahal...”
“All he has to do is carry out his own promise,” the Mediator protested. “If he doesn’t, whatever happens is his fault, not mine.”
“You’re still evil,” the Great Mother said severely. “Utterly and totally evil.”
“I know,” the Mediator said, waving his limbs in apology. “I know.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
This is one of those times when I have to make an appeal to you all. Because you’re important, right?
In fact, what would I do if there was nobody to read the stories I write, the comics I draw, or look at the paintings I occasionally create? What would be the point of my sacrificing leisure, sleep, reading, and a social life to do all that if you weren’t there?
See how important you are to me?
So now I’ve got all the flattery out of the way, let me go to the important point.
Look up to the top of this page. Also, go to my comic strip site and have a look at that as well. See that big DONATE button? You know, the one that looks like this:
Oh, that’s right, you can’t see it. Because it isn’t there.
Let me remind you that everything I put on this site is totally free and for your enjoyment (or not-enjoyment, as the case may be). Either way, I am not asking for your money, and I will never ask for your money for anything I post here, any more than I’d ask you money for a gift I’d present you.
You all – those fifteen or twenty of you who are regular readers, or the hundreds of others who might have dropped in once or twice in your lives – are of extreme importance to me. Without the encouragement of your presence, your readership, I would have no incentive whatever to write, or draw, or create in any way whatsoever. After all, all that comes out of my own time, the time I might have spent doing something else. And when you like something I do, and say so, it gladdens me down to the part of my liver which might go well with Fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Though I do not want anything from you in material terms, I would dearly love it if you could do me a favour in return. No, I repeat, I am not passing round a hat. I am not asking you to do anything that will take any effort at all on your part. What I’m asking for is absurdly simple.
No, it is not your soul, though that's both absurd and simple.
No, it is not your soul, though that's both absurd and simple.
It’s just this:
If you like anything I like or draw or paint, or my blog in general, please don’t keep it to yourself. Share the link(s) online on your Fakebook, Google Plus, Twitter, or whatever social media; on your blog if you want; tell your friends and relatives. It requires almost zero effort; the share buttons are there, right below this post.
Some of you are already doing this, and to you I am profoundly grateful. To the others, this is just an appeal. I don’t plague you with petitions you should sign, I don’t ask you to show your appreciation with cold hard cash or the digital equivalent thereof; all I’m asking for, and that without making it any kind of condition whatsoever, is that you just share. It’s not that much to ask for, is it?
Whatever you decide, as long as I am physically and mentally capable of writing, drawing and painting, I will continue presenting my creations to you, and I will thrill at your pleasure at it. Your sharing or otherwise won’t affect that.
And, once again, thanks for reading.
Tuesday, 15 December 2015
When the moon rose over the silver sea, the waves cradled the island like a sleeping baby in their arms, and the shadows smiled in its peaks and hollows like the baby’s face.
It was on these moonlit nights, when the foam broke on the rocky beach not far from the fishing village, that the seal-women came out of the sea. They crawled out of the surf, one by one, and shed their skins, and became human-seeming women of such loveliness that the moon herself would almost pause in her way to gaze upon them. And they would play on the beach, dancing in the moonlight, and they would sing in their wonderful voices like silver bells, while the constellations wheeled by overhead. Only when the sky in the east would begin to blanch with the dawn would they slip on their skins again, and turn into seals which swam away into the dark waves of the surging sea.
When the seal-women came out on the shore, the people of the fishing village, man, woman and child, all lay in bed, not speaking, listening to the singing. They all knew what it was, but not one of them would even speak of it. They lay in bed stiff as boards, next to each other, and listened to the singing, and in the morning wouldn’t mention it again.
The only one who ever came down to the beach to watch the seal-women dance and sing was the old man who lived in the house on the edge of the cliff. Nobody knew who he was really, or where he came from, except that it was from a distant country, away on the mainland which rose in a line of faded blue on the horizon on clear days. For many years, he’d lived in the house on the cliff, and he hardly ever spoke to anyone, so nobody ever spoke to him either.
It was not their way, to talk to strangers, and he would be a stranger forever and a day.
On the nights when the moon was out, and the seal-women came out of the sea, the old man climbed down the stony path from his house on the cliff top and came to watch them dance and listen to them sing. They knew he was there, and at first they had been wary of him, and careful to keep their seal skins within reach. For you know that when a seal-woman’s skin is taken by a human, she has no way to turn back to a seal again, but must be his wife forevermore. But the old man never touched their skins, and little by little they grew more relaxed with him, and danced as they had always danced before.
Among the seal-women was one whom we shall call Silda. That was not her real name, her seal-name, for that was known to her and her sisters alone. But when she slipped off her skin and danced naked and gloriously beautiful in the moonlight, that was what she was called. And, unlike the others, she always danced and sang for the old man, for she knew it gave him happiness and pleasure, and that made her feel something inside her that she had never felt in all her centuries of life before.
One day, it so happened that by one of the cycles that happen in a seal-woman’s life once in a while, Silda felt the urge to migrate away from land, and swim away into the deep blue sea, where there was no beach on which to crawl up and dance and sing. So she gestured farewell to her sisters, threw up her back flippers, and plunged below the surface where the light faded from dappled green to eternal black. One by one, her sisters, feeling the same urge, followed.
And the moon came up and shone on the sea, and there were no seal women to come up out of the water, and dance and sing on the shingles. And the fisher-folk slept well at night.
Then one day, far away in the middle of the open ocean, Silda felt the call she knew must come, the call that drew her back to land. So she swam back out of the watery wastes and towards the island and the shingled beach she had left so many months ago, but to one of her people it was as though only moments had passed by.
So Silda came back to the shingled beach on a moonlit night, and slipped off her skin, and walked naked and lovely up the strand. In the distance the village lay basking in the moonlight, and on the cliff top the old man’s house brooded. But there was nobody on the beach to watch her dance and listen to her sing, and the old man’s windows were dark as blind eyes.
Then Silda rolled her skin up under her arm and walked up the rocky path up to the old man’s house, for all that the sharp stones hurt her feet. And when she reached the darkened hulk of the building, she rapped on the door, though her heart was bounding in her chest and the fear was stronger within her than it ever had been before.
For a long moment she thought the house was empty, and then she heard the faintest whisper from a corner, wafted to her through the door.
“Come in,” the whisper said. “Come in, whoever you are.”
So she pushed the door open, and, for the first time in all her centuries of life, entered a human dwelling. With her skin under her arm, she walked naked through the rooms until she found the room, lit only by a single guttering candle, where the old man lay in his bed, covered by a thin blanket, his head propped up on a pillow. And even as she saw him, she knew that the thread of his life was frayed, and was on the point of breaking.
Death was close in the room, the seal-woman saw, squatting like a black shadow on the side of the bed, watching her with glowering red eyes. Death had reached out to take the old man, but when she entered the room, It drew Its hand back and watched.
“It’s you,” the old man whispered. “I had hoped I would be able to see you once again, just once more. I watched and waited, but you never came, and never came, and now I can wait no longer.”
Silda walked to the edge of the bed and took his hand in her own. It was the first time she had ever touched a human.
“Will you sing for me?” the old man asked. “Will you dance, one last time?”
So SIlda put her skin down at the foot of the bed, and danced, there in the room. And though all the light there was in the room was that single guttering candle, she danced as she had never had before, so that it was as though the moon and stars had come into the house with her and gathered around her, their light shining on her flashing limbs. And her singing filled the house so that it was as though the very walls were soaked in song.
She sang, she danced, and the stars and moon whirled around her, and through her, and she was the sea and the beach and she was woman and seal, and seal-woman, and all things else that the universe had ever seen. She was life, and she was music, and she was the high-vaulted sky and the deep blue sea. And down in the village the fisher-folk heard her song and shivered, for they knew that it was such a song as never had been before, and might never be again.
And as she sang, the guttering candle on the table filled out and blazed anew, the shadows around the room shrank to puddles, and Death drew away from the old man’s bed and listened. When at last the song was over, It bowed low and drifted through the wall and away. And the old man sat up in bed, and his eyes were filled with life once more.
Then Silda picked up her rolled up skin and gave it to him. “You can take this,” she said, speaking in the human tongue for the first time in all her long life. “Take it and burn it, and I will be yours forever, as long as we both should live. And I will dance for you every night, and keep Death from your door.”
The old man took the skin, held it for a moment, and handed it back to her. “I can only imagine,” he said, “how much it cost you to say that. But I don’t want you to destroy yourself, who you are, for me. You are seal and woman, betwixt and between, and you can never be one or the other and remain who you are.”
“Then,” Silda said, “I will come to you every night, and sing and dance for you, here in your house. And when you can come down to the beach, I’ll sing and dance for you there, too.”
Then they held each other’s hands, and looked into each other’s eyes.
“I once used to be a painter,” the old man said. “I thought I knew beauty. But I never really did, not before I came here, to this island. Tell me of the beach, what it’s like down there tonight.”
“The sky is dark velvet,” Silda replied, “and the moonlight on the waves is like silver, and the island is like a sleeping child, rocked on the bosom of the deep blue sea.”
“And what of you?” the old man asked.
“Me?” Silda replied, surprised. “What of me? I am not beautiful.”
But the old man smiled, because he saw what she didn’t, and she smiled, because he was happy, and there was someone who needed her.
And, down below the cliff, the sea beat on the land, and the seal-women crawled out of the surf to dance, one by one, in the light of the watching moon.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Shaukat stopped at the newsagents’ on Blair Street to buy a newspaper. The man behind the counter stared at him suspiciously, but he was quite used to that, and his quid was as good as anyone else’s, so when he walked away he had the Daily Guardian under his arm.
It was a bitterly cold evening, and it began drizzling just as he reached the bus stop on Cameron. He stood under the shelter of the roof to read the paper. There were only three other people waiting, a couple and an older woman, and they gave him a wide berth. He was used to that as well.
The headline was huge and black: RAF POUNDS HIZBOLLAH POSITIONS. Under that, in slightly smaller type, was the subheading: MAJOR ADVANCES MADE IN ANTI-ISIS OPERATIONS. Shaukat tilted the paper towards the light from the shop windows so he could get a better look.
“RAF Tornado attack aircraft struck Hizbollah positions east and south of Beirut for the second day running,” the news item said. “Among the positions bombed were the terrorist group’s command and control centres and suspected weapon stores. One Tornado was hit by a surface to air missile and is reported to have crashed near the border with Israel. The crew’s fate is at this time unknown, but rescue operations are continuing. Prime Minister Latham announced that Britain would ‘impose costs’ on whoever had provided Hizbollah with the surface to air missile. That ‘someone’, Russian oligarch Dmitry Larcenov said, citing sources of his own in Moscow, was Russian President Putin himself.
“ ‘It is essential that Hizbollah be defeated, so that people do not feel frightened into joining ISIS,’ Prime Minister Latham said, before leaving for an emergency Cabinet meeting which was also to be addressed by US President Hillary Clinton. ‘Hizbollah, being a Shia group opposed to ISIS, is the cause of many recruits joining the Islamic State in self-defence. Anyone attempting to prevent us from achieving Hizbollah’s destruction is obviously coming in the way of defeating the Islamic State, and is therefore on its side. President Clinton agrees with me, and after the cabinet meeting we’ll be making a statement on our next course of action.’
“Meanwhile, Royal Marines who had landed in Beirut announced that they had made progress in fighting their way towards the main Hizbollah strongholds in the city. A spokesman for the marines acknowledged that there had been casualties but refused to disclose any numbers or identities. ‘I suggest you ask the Pentagon,’ he said. ‘They’re the ones directing this operation.’
“Speaking to the media, Opposition Members of Parliament Mike Parker and Jeremy Stanley said that Prime Minister Latham was acting as a proxy for American interests and had no...”
“Excuse me, sir.” Shaukat looked up at the voice. “May I examine your beard, sir?”
Sighing, he stood up. The policeman, pushing his helmet off his forehead, produced a pair of callipers. Peering at the reading, he shook his head regretfully.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “Eight centimetres, it says. You’re over length.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Shaukat protested. “Ten centimetres is the allowed maximum.”
“Not since this morning, sir. The maximum’s been reduced to seven and a half centimetres. Can I have your ID, sir? Thank you.” He scanned the document with a tiny scanner and gave it back. “That’ll be a fine of ten pounds, please, since it’s your first offence.” He grinned at Shaukat’s stricken expression. “If I were you, sir, I’d seriously consider shaving. There’s talk of banning beards altogether next year.”
“What are you doing here anyway?” the policeman’s partner, who hadn’t spoken yet, asked. “I’ve been watching you. You let three buses go by.”
“I’m waiting for my wife,” Shaukat said, watching as the first policeman scribbled out a receipt. “She’s supposed to meet me here.” He looked over the policeman’s shoulder. “Here she is now.”
He knew at once that he’d made a mistake, but it was already too late. “Ahhh,” the second policeman said. “What’s that I see she’s wearing, sir?”
“What’s going on?” Nazira asked, coming up, wiping the rain off her hands on her hijab. “Why are these policemen talking to you?”
“You’re wearing a burqa, ma’am,” the first policeman informed her. “You know as well as I do that’s a banned item of clothing.”
“This?” Nazira said incredulously, lifting the edge of her headscarf and letting it drop. “It’s just a hijab. It doesn’t even cover my face!”
“It still comes under the definition of burqa,” the first policeman said happily. “As per the latest definition, released by the government this morning, any form of Islamic head covering is classified as a burqa and banned.”
“It’s terrorist clothing,” the second policeman said helpfully. “Your husband, here, with his beard, and you, ma’am, with your burqa, well, you fit right in with the kind of Islamic radicals we’ve been told to look out for.”
“After all,” the first policeman added, “you could always cover your face with the end of this cloth and carry out a terrorist act, couldn’t you?”
“What with?” Shaukat said bitterly, and held up the newspaper. “This?”
“I’d advise you not to talk back to us, sir. That sort of action could have...consequences.”
“But,” Nazira protested, “I’m a saleswoman in a bookstore, and my husband works with disadvantaged children. We can prove it.”
“Anyone can work as anything as a cover,” the second policeman said darkly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come along with us to the station.”
“What?” Shaukat repeated incredulously. “Even if this were a burqa, which it isn’t, all it carries is a fifty-pound fine.”
“Not when we have reasonable cause to suspect involvement in terrorist activity, sir.”
“Terrorist activity? We never did a thing.”
“You’re Islamic radicals, aren’t you? Why did you make your wife wear a burqa otherwise?”
“It’s not a burqa, and he didn’t make me wear it,” Nazira said desperately. “I wear it because I like it. It –”
“Oh, ma’am.” The first policeman held up a huge hand. “I don’t think your religion would approve of you talking out of turn, ma’am. All the books say Arabs don’t let their women talk.”
“That’s not true at all, and, anyway, we aren’t Arabs. Shaukat is Indian and I’m a Pakistani.”
“An Indian and a Paki together, is it?” the second policeman shrugged. “What would you be doing together except plot terrorist acts, I’d like to know.”
“Everyone knows Indians and Pakistanis don’t get along together,” the first policeman snorted. “How stupid do you think we are?”
“Tell your buts to the superintendant. Now will you come along quietly, or do we need to...”
Something smashed on the opposite side of the street, shattered plate glass tinkling on hard pavement. There was a strangled shout, and a momentary glimpse of two young men running hard, arms loaded with looted merchandise. The next moment they’d vanished into the darkness and the rain.
“So,” the first policeman sighed with deep, deep satisfaction. “Not just terrorists – you’re accomplices of looters as well, are you?”
“What?” Shaukat asked blankly. It seemed to be the only word he could say anymore.
“Got them to rights, Bert,” the second policeman said. “Distract us while their friends come along and do their bit o’ smash and grab. They’re for it now.”
“A fair cop,” the first one, Bert, agreed. “Right, let’s come along to the police station. Don’t dawdle, or I’ll have to force you.”
“Don’t dawdle,” the second one echoed. “Bert rather likes forcing people.”
“Especially when they’re terrorists,” Bert nodded. “Harry’s right. I love forcing terrorists. Go ahead, give me an excuse.”
“Can we call a lawyer?” Nazira asked.
“A lawyer?” Harry grinned. “Oh, no, ma’am. No lawyers for terror suspects, you know.”
“New regulation, as of this morning,” Bert said happily.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Sunday, 13 December 2015
The day Sunaina’s husband died, the village came as one and demanded that she go away.
“You’re evil,” old Harbans said, his toothless jaws working. “He would never have died but for you.”
Sunaina didn’t say anything. There was no point saying anything, because they weren’t here to listen.
“You wouldn’t bear him children,” Harbans’ son, Balbeer, said, pointing at her with a thick forefinger. The nail on it was stained yellow and lined with black, as though it were cracked. “And now you don’t even have the decency to scream and cry and faint that he’s gone.”
“Hussy,” the men agreed. “Vile hussy.”
Sunaina still didn’t say anything. She didn’t even acknowledge that she’d heard them.
“You must go away,” Mala, who had once been so friendly, told her, after the men had withdrawn a little and were talking angrily amongst themselves. Sunaina’s husband’s body lay on a makeshift stretcher on the ground, covered by a dingy white sheet and flowers which were already wilting in the heat. “There’s no place for you in this village now.”
Sunaina turned to her. “You know it wasn’t my fault in any way,” she said. “It’s true that I’m not crying for him, but if you knew what he’d put me through, you’d understand why. But I didn’t have anything to do with harming him.”
“They all say you did,” Bimla, Mala’s sister, as dried up as Mala was plump, put in.
“You know it was a heart attack,” Sunaina said. “The doctors said so.”
“What does that matter?” Mala said. “What happened, what you did or what you want – all that matters is you go away before you make things worse.”
“And Harbans and Balbeer will get the property,” Sunaina said.
“Yes, they’ll get the property. That’s their right, as the next of kin. What’s it to you? You wouldn’t have got it anyway.”
“All right,” Sunaina said. “I’ll go.”
“Where will you go?” Bimla asked, her eyes glittering with triumph and curiosity.
“That’s my business,” Sunaina said. “Perhaps you should attend to yours.”
Bimla went red, but didn’t reply.
So Sunaina went into the inner room and began to pack her things. There wasn’t much she had, and not much she wanted to take.
What little she really needed was mostly in her head anyway.
That evening she left the village, and though a hundred eyes watched her go, not once did she look back.
The City was big and bustling and full of smoke and noise and people who didn’t look at her a second time, either with pleasure or vexation or even the slightest interest.
Sunaina found work at a mall. They gave her a blue uniform with a peaked cap and closed shoes that hurt her toes. She spent all the day pushing mops and cleaning up tables at the food court. Little children ran around and sometimes bumped into her.
She never said anything. She wasn't important enough to say anything. Hardly anyone even ever noticed she was there anyway.
Sometimes famous people came to the mall, people who she heard were movie actors and the like. Everyone rushed to see them, but as far as Sunaina could make out they were like anyone else, and they made quite as much mess too. Sometimes more.
Then one evening, as she was leaning against the safety wall of the second floor balcony, looking down at the expanse of the ground floor far below, she saw some people in the gathering crowd. They stood out because they were dressed in village clothing, among all the city fashions, and because they were looking around helplessly, as though they’d never been in any such place before and felt overwhelmed. And also she recognised something about them, the way they moved and talked. When they were hesitating at the foot of the escalators, she went across a little of the way for a better look. Yes, it was, as she’d thought, Harbans, Balbeer, Balbeer’s wife Kamla – and Mala.
Sunaina looked at them for a while and went back to her work, swabbing tables. There was no expression on her face.
About half an hour later, a fire broke out in a shop across the way from Sunaina on the other side of the second floor. At first it was a rather small fire, and most people weren’t even aware of it, except those on the floor itself. Then suddenly it began spreading, running up the floors towards the domed roof high above, and also racing round the central well of the mall like embracing arms. People were beginning to stampede, rushing to the escalators and the lifts, though both had been shut down. Sunaina could have rushed out along with the others, but she saw that children were in danger of being trampled, so she went along the corridors, physically pulling family groups together and guiding them to the stairs. Some of the people didn’t want to be guided, and pushed her and abused her. But their fear of the fire was greater than their anger at her, so they finally did as she ordered.
By the time the fire engines arrived, the mall was thick with smoke and most of the lights were off. There were still people trapped here and there, though, their ways of escape closed off by the fire. When the firemen entered, Sunaina, a wet handkerchief pressed over her nose, went to meet them.
“I can take you by the back service passages to the place where the people are,” she said. “The maintenance staff know them well.”
The firemen looked at her and at the fire. “All right, then.”
So Sunaina led them via the back passages to the fire, and they followed, dragging their hoses and fire axes after them. The passages were dark and filled with smoke, and Sunaina led the people whom the firemen got out of the fire back by the hand, by touch, to the stairs and down to the ground floor. Then she went back for another lot, and got them out as well.
Sunaina had just brought down the last batch when the fire was finally under control. Her lungs were burning, her head swimming, and she realised she couldn’t function any longer without some fresh air. Still leading the last batch by the hand, she went out into the night air.
There were masses of lights, people gathered in huge numbers watching the fire and, of course, media photographing everything. A couple of them pushed up to her, carrying a microphone and a camera.
“You’re the one who’s been helping the people come out, aren’t you? And you helped guide the firemen inside as well?” They were statements, not questions. Other media people began gathering around.
“You’re a heroine now,” they said. “You’re famous. How does that feel?”
Then there was shouting and Sunaina saw Harbans, Balbeer and the others waving from the crowd and yelling something. She heard her own name mentioned. Some of the media people went over to talk to them and led them back towards her.
“They say they’re your relatives,” one of them said, indicating Harbans, who was grinning toothlessly. “Is that so?”
“Of course,” Mala said. “We all love her very much.”
Sunaina looked them up and down and turned back to the cameras and microphones.
“They must be mistaken,” she said in clear carrying tones, ignoring the burning in her throat and chest. “I’ve never seen them before in my life.”
And, as she spoke, she suddenly realised that it wasn’t even a lie.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015