Monday, 16 October 2017

Little Baghdadi Sat In A Wadi

Little Baghdadi sat in a wadi
Eating his Kurds by the way
Along came a Russian plane
And the SAA came
And the Kurds jumped up to say

"How dare you try to take my spoils
Baghdadi is my hero too
And I'll gladly ally with this bugger
Before I settle with you.
And if you think I'm alone
Look over there and think again
Those tons of arms from Trump's closet
Didn't just come up through the drain.

"ISIS, Kurds, America, we're together
When it comes to you,
We'll take Raqqa and the oilfields
And we'll keep Kirkuk too."

But the roar came slamming
From the Syrian lion here
And the Iraqi lion shook his mane
Bared fangs and rose up there.

And now Baghdadi and Kurds alike
Will be eaten by the way
Nobody knows, where this story goes
But we're finding out, day by day.

Sunday, 15 October 2017


Fast ran the car through the night. The highway was empty, the sky clouded over, devoid of moon and stars. The only light came from the twin headlights, painting the road with a pale wash of yellow – and the tip of the driver’s cigar, glowing red like an inflamed eye.

The driver was in no hurry. He had far to go, but the night was long, and he did not have to be there before morning. He could even have a bath, a shave, a snooze and breakfast before presenting himself to the underboss at his office.

Yes, the police might know that he was coming. The police might track him, and might even try to find some excuse to search him. But they wouldn’t get anything. They never had, and they never would.

Especially not this time. This time he was on the most important mission of his career. By this time tomorrow night, billions would have been made – and he, Robby the Mook, would have earned enough to be a millionaire himself, several times over.

No longer would he be a lowly bagman and gambling runner. By this time tomorrow, Robby the Mook would be among the rich and mighty, the hardships and dangers of his life all behind him.

In his head, buried where no policeman could get to it, were the details of every single bet placed over the past week in the Great Big City – every single bet riding on the results of the Grand Election tomorrow. Robby the Mook, who had a brain cursed by a literal inability to forget figures, had long ago found a way to make it work for him. And not just for him, but for the Organisation.

The Organisation was not ungrateful.

But this time it was more than this. Robby the Mook had placed discreet bets this time, carefully spread out among the Great Big City’s illegal bookies, in many false names – each a small bet in itself, nothing to draw any attention, but together they would pay out a massive sum if he won.

And he would win. Careful work over the years, payments made and contacts sedulously cultivated, had all finally borne fruit. Robby the Mook knew exactly who had been selected to win the Grand Election tomorrow. He even knew exactly by how many votes, within the nearest thousand, the final total would be.

Oh, Robby the Mook would be a rich man indeed.

Puffing at his cheap cigar, contentedly reflecting on the fact that by this time the day after he could afford better smokes and a better car, he roared on through the darkness, and switched on the car radio to listen to some music.

He’d have to keep it quiet for a while, of course. The Organisation would have no mercy if it discovered that he’d known what was about to happen and not tipped it off. But after a few months had passed, he could arrange to disappear, change his name, and turn up with false papers in a South American country. It would not be hard, when he had money. He might even get plastic surgery to change his appearance. He’d always disliked his nose...

But he would not delay in buying a better car and better cigars. And new shoes. He loved new shoes. Black, gleaming, with pointed toes and that leather smell.

His dreams of the future were so absorbing, and so comforting, that he did not notice until it was too late the brilliant light lowering through the clouds above him.


The caab-ship from Glnthorr had passed the orbit of the moon before the captain summoned her second in command to the control tub.

“Senior Lieutenant Vicious Rimmer,” she snorkled, moving her tentacles in the tub’s green and purple liquid. “How was the harvest this time?”

Senior Lieutenant Vicious Rimmer opened his voice flap. “Excellent, Most Honourable Caab-Captain,” he bloggered back at top volume. “We have never had a better one.”

“Really?” Caab-Captain Lindispercy thrashing around her tentacles in confusion. “I thought you’d said that it was shaping up to be a really poor harvest this time.”

“That was true enough, O Honourable Caab-Captain,” Vicious Rimmer blooted.  “The first collections were severely stunted, almost useless. As you may recall, I decided to make one last attempt. And we struck, as the apes on that planet call it, gold.”

“Gold.” Caab-Captain Lindispercy’s left front upper tentacle flicked some of the fluid so high that it splashed on the ceiling. A crawling tiktiki lizard instantly slurped it down before it could dribble back into the tub. “That heavy yellow metal. Oh yes, I remember that these apes like it. So it went off well?”

“Most well, O Delicious and August Mistress Caab-Captain,” Vicious Rimmer gnokked, his voice-flaps distended at full opening. “This last collection was better than all the rest put together. The harvest collection tanks are filled to brimming, and the memoworms and mathafungi are already seeded and growing.”

“Very good.” Caab-Captain Lindispercy smacked her beak appreciatively. “It’s been a long time since we could eat our fill of memoworms and mathafungi. With full tanks we will all get medals and promotion. Set course for home.”

Lying back in the tub, she watched the tiktiki on the ceiling and dreamt of the honours to come.


Reports of UFO activity have increased over the last few days,” the radio said. “People have reported seeing strange lights in the sky, and some of them have alleged that their vehicles stopped working, after which they remember nothing.

“Scientists have explained away these as mass hallucinations arising from anxiety over the results of tomorrow’s election, which has been stated to be the most significant in a generation. In political news, the candidates...”

Robby the Mook blinked. The car radio blattered meaninglessly. He looked out blankly through the windscreen at the empty highway, and at the steering wheel in front of him. There was the burnt end of a cigar on the dashboard. He looked at it, picked it up, bit it, and threw it away.

He was still sitting there when the police car stopped beside his and a torch shone in through the open window. “You,” a voice said. “Who are you? What are you doing sitting in your car in the middle of the highway? Are you ill, or drunk, or trying to cause an accident?”

Robby the Mook stared at the torch. “Blub?” he inquired.      

“I said,” the policeman repeated, his voice rising in exasperation. “Who the hell are you and what are you doing?”

“Glop,” Robby the Mook said. He raised his hand and grabbed at the light, surprised when he couldn’t catch it. “Brok?” he asked. “Brok dok mok?”And then, with an effort: "Who are you? Where am I?" He frowned. "Who am I?"

And it was at that point that the policeman began to scream.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017

[Image source]

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Movie Review: Purple Sunset

China, August 1945.

Two days after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and in accordance with the Yalta agreement, the USSR declared war on Japan and invaded northern China, the Japanese puppet state of “Manchukuo”, and Korea. This act, it has been persuasively argued, was far more devastating to the Japanese war effort than the two atom bombs, and was the single precipitating factor that forced Japan’s surrender.

The vaunted Japanese Kwantung Army – the largest and most prestigious of all Japanese army groups – shattered like porcelain before the Soviet onslaught. As the Japanese forces in China dissolved, and the world war ended, two other wars began. One was the Chinese Civil War, which had been interrupted by the Japanese invasion a decade earlier but now broke out again in full force. The other was the Cold War, which – as anyone knows, and all pretences otherwise notwithstanding – is still going on to this day.

That is history. But there is much more to history than just the headlines.

The Japanese war crimes in China and Korea are among the most astonishingly underreported and unknown things about the Second World War. As the Japanese advanced through China in 1937, raping, killing, and destroying (not necessarily in that order) everything in their path, they began an odyssey of sadistic violence which far exceeded in cruelty and numbers anything achieved by the Nazis in Europe outside the USSR. A quarter of a million civilians were massacred in Nanjing after the Chinese capital had fallen. The entire Korean peninsula was turned into a source of slave labour for Japan, administered by Korean turncoats. The Japanese medical experiment centre, Unit 731, murdered more people, in more depraved ways, than the German Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele (“the Devil Doctor of Auschwitz”) ever did – and got away with it, in fact being rewarded with positions in US universities in return for handing over their experimental data.

There is an excellent reason why to this day if there is anything China and the two Koreas agree on, it’s their mutual hatred of Japan and their determination that Japanese militarism must never be allowed to raise its head again.

And yet to this day Japan, while acknowledging its war crimes against Western prisoners of war* does not admit or acknowledge what it did to its fellow Asians. And for some reason that undoubtedly has absolutely nothing to do with Cold War imperatives and anti-Korean/anti-Chinese strategy, the West has never attempted to compel it to.

[*In The Other Side Of Tenko, his memoir of life as a Japanese prisoner of war from 1942 to 1945, Len Baynes specifically mentions that while the Japanese were bad, if “half the tales told by some of our men about the way they treated the ‘wogs’ were accurate, British colonial policy between the wars was as bad as the Japs at their worst.”]

Acknowledged or not, the war crimes were real enough. And as the Soviet tank divisions slashed across the plains of Manchuria in August 1945, crushing the Kwantung Army under their tracks, the Japanese army turned on the Chinese in one last orgy of violence. Civilians of all descriptions were swept up, casually murdered, and their corpses dumped in rivers; machine gun squads massacred entire villages before the Soviet forces could reach them; and young Japanese, many of whom had absolutely no desire to participate in this war in any way, were jammed into uniforms, informed that it was their duty to die for the Emperor, and sent off to do their share of killing.

This is the story of three people during those days of August, seven decades ago.

Yang is a Chinese peasant in his late twenties or early thirties. When we first see him, he is among a mass of Chinese civilians, roped to each other and being marched along to be slaughtered by a Japanese machine gun squad in front of a wall. The rest of the civilians are murdered, but before Yang himself can be killed, Soviet forces which have broken through the Japanese lines arrive and annihilate the Japanese. Yang, the only survivor, is put into an armoured personnel carrier along with Soviet wounded and a female medical officer, and packed off to the Soviet headquarters somewhere along the shifting frontline.

As we see later in flashback (the backstory of all the three main characters is revealed in flashback) Yang is in this position because his home was invaded by Japanese troops on one of these murderous missions.  All they found were Yang himself, and his aged mother, whom they tied to posts. The officer in charge ordered one of his young troops (a bespectacled schoolboy scarcely taller than his rifle) to bayonet the old woman, and beat him until, face covered with blood and tears, he complied.

While other Chinese dead were being tossed into a river in sacks – or being burned alive for sport – Yang and other survivors were marched off to be shot. As the only survivor of his village, Yang literally has nothing left.

The armoured personnel carrier has, as I said, a female medical officer. This is Nadia, whose Russian is so clearly enunciated that I could understand almost all of it without needing subtitles. Her flashback reveals that her son was killed in a Nazi air raid when a shot down German plane crashed into the playground he was in. And that is it for her family as well.

As the armoured personnel carrier tries to look for the headquarters among unmarked roads in the North Chinese plains, the driver takes a wrong turn and blunders into a Japanese base. In the ensuing firefight, all the Soviet troops are killed except Nadia and the driver. They and Yang manage to escape into the forest, and decide to try and find their way back to the Soviet lines. In the middle of unknown territory, this is easier said than done.

Walking through the forest, they come to a bridge, on the other side of which is a guardhouse. It’s apparently deserted, but as the driver crosses, someone inside throws a grenade at him. He retaliates by riddling the guardhouse with submachine gun fire, and kicks down the door to find...two Japanese schoolgirls. One of them commits suicide at the sight of him with a bayonet, but he captures the other. And, deciding that she can be their guide out of the forest, they take her with them, gagged and at the end of a rope. Her name is Akiyoko.

Flashback: Lines of young people in the rain, girls on the left, boys on the right, listen as a Japanese officer screams at them about how they are all “soldiers” now, not students, and their only duty is to kill their enemies and die for the Emperor. Akiyoko, whose father has been conscripted and likely dead, and her lover, Onishi, are in different lines, listening. Shortly after, he is taken away along with other recruits while Akiyoko, slipping and sliding in mud, runs after them, crying. But the lorry vanishes in the distance, leaving Akiyoko standing in the mud, and soon afterwards it’s her turn as well.

As the four march through the wilderness, they get into a minefield, and the Soviet driver is killed. Nadia and Yang, suspecting Akiyoko of having deliberately led them into the minefield, nearly kill her, but finally decide to spare her for the moment. At this point they all speak to each other in different languages: Russian, Mandarin, and Japanese, which create further confusion. They save her again, when she falls into a quagmire, and then, when a crashing Japanese aircraft starts a forest fire, she saves them by creating a firebreak – and reveals in the process that she speaks fluent Mandarin. It seems that she’s lived in China since the age of four and does not even know for certain that Japan is across the sea.

In a Western film, the plot would be straightforward from this point. The two older people, Yang and Nadia, would fall in love, and they’d adopt Akiyoko, and the three of them would live happily ever after. This is not a Western film, and the story is much more complicated than that. It is full of tender moments, as suspicion wavers and recedes, but never goes away; and spots of hope - but whose hopes are they? Can a Japanese girl have the same hopes as the Chinese her nation has massacred, and can a Soviet soldier have the same hopes as the two of them? 

No, it's not a Western film, and so it marches inexorably towards a dramatic and tragic conclusion. What that is I won’t tell you, but the film is right here, so you can watch it for yourself:

I love this film. I think it is superb, and almost as good as the Soviet film Come And See, which I rate the best war movie ever made. I find it incredible that it is not famous. I can only speculate that this is because it’s a Chinese movie about Japanese war crimes, which means that it’s dead on arrival as far as the Western media are concerned.

The acting is excellent from all three main leads, with nuance and expression. Most of the Japanese soldier parts are overacted, but given the film that is excusable. The direction is good, and the scenery is indescribable. There are a few historical inaccuracies – while there was one last Japanese kamikaze attack after the surrender, the planes were flown by volunteers and never hit any target, much less an American aircraft carrier – and Japanese hand grenades of the period did not work in the way depicted in the movie. These are not important quibbles.

I strongly recommend that you watch it.

[Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5. I never give 5 out of 5 because nothing is perfect.]

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Terminal Beach

It was still night, and cold, when Jesme felt herself being shaken awake.

She shook her head, trying to get rid of the sand in her hair, and opened her eyes. “What?”

It was her mother, she could tell that, though the older woman was just a dark shape silhouetted against the stars. She touched a finger to Jesme’s lips and bent over her. “Quiet. Come quickly.”

“What?” Jesme repeated, but more quietly. “Has a ship come?” She felt stupid as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Of course a ship had not come.

“No,” her mother hissed. “It’s food. Come now.”

“Food?” The word felt alien on Jesme’s lips. When had she last had food? Two days? Three?

“Yes,” her mother said, pulling at her arm impatiently. “Come quickly, now. Or they’ll go away.”

Jesme stumbled to her feet. The night air was cold, the wind off the sea making her shiver in her thin dress. The smouldering remnants of most of the few scattered fires had long since died down to glowing embers. “I’m coming,” she said. “You don’t have to pull me so hard.”

Her mother barely seemed to notice. “I hope they haven’t already gone,” she muttered. “They wouldn’t give me enough to bring some back for you. They said you had to be there.”

Jesme peered at the ground, trying not to trip. Things were scattered everywhere. Some of it was what people had brought with them, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres, and then, finally, thrown away, bundles of clothes, battered aluminium utensils, packets of certificates from schools long since abandoned to spiders and scorpions. Jesme knew those things well – she still carried her own certificates in a polythene packet tied to her dress by a cord. It was one of the last things they had left, since her mother had traded the last brass pot for half a chicken for them to eat.

That was the last thing they had eaten, that half a chicken along with some dried grain. Jesme had tried to keep the taste in her mouth as long as she could, but it had faded and even the memory had gone with it.

There were other things on the sand as well, including people. Jesme lifted her feet high to avoid treading on them. Most of them were probably still alive, and trying to sleep. And if they woke, they would wonder where she and her mother were going, and might want to follow.

And if there was food, that wouldn’t do at all.

Once, not that long ago, Jesme had liked sharing. She’d regularly given away whatever she had to anyone who wanted. Now, of course, she knew better. She knew enough to hide what she had to herself, except for her mother. And someday it might come to it that she would hide it from her mother as well. She could see that day coming, and knew it would be the end of the Jesme that she’d been all her life. What would come after that, she had no idea, and she was afraid of finding out.

The dry rough sand under her bare feet gave way to smooth hard wet. Her mother was almost running, pulling her by the arm. “They’ll have gone,” she was muttering. “I took too long to find you. I should have insisted they give me the food.”

“Who?” Jesme asked, but there was no response. She hadn’t expected any. The sea was now close, the heavy oily water slurping against the old concrete walls of the buildings that were now underwater. Over to the right she could see the string of yellow lights from the high buildings which still stuck out of the ocean. There were people living on them, using solar panels to make electricity and eating what they could catch from the sea. Some of the beach people had fashioned a raft and tried to reach the buildings the day before yesterday; the people on them had fired at them, and shot them off the raft, one by one.

But apparently, though they did not want anyone coming to their buildings, they were willing to come over to the beach. Jesme saw them at the same moment that she heard her mother’s relieved mutter. There were two of them, squatting next to the hulk of a boat pulled up on the sand. One of them stood up and beckoned impatiently.

“We thought you weren’t coming.” His voice was rough and heavily accented, as though the language was foreign to him. Perhaps it was. Jesme couldn’t see his face in the dark, just the faint reflection of light on a bare scalp. “Is this your daughter?”

“Yes. I told you she needed food.”

“So you should’ve brought her sooner, or we’d have gone. What were you delaying for?”

“Give her the food, Ulod,” the other man called. “It’s not as though you’re making it any faster by blathering on.”

“Shut up, Tilas.” The bald man, Ulod, handed out something to Jesme. “Here, girl. Eat. Make it fast, we don’t have all night.”

It was smoked fish, salty-sweet and chewy. Jesme’s mouth worked, teeth grinding frantically, her stomach clenching in its eagerness to feel the food inside it. Her mother was watching her anxiously.

“Don’t eat too fast,” she said. “You’ll get a cramp.”

“Here’s water,” Ulod told her, “if you want to wash it down.”

The water was tepid and tasted of plastic, but it was water. Jesme drank it too quickly, and felt a painful bubble of air trapped inside her stomach. The fish was finished, quicker than she’d realised. She handed the empty bottle back.

Tilas got up and stretched. He seemed younger than the other man, taller and more thickset, with a bushy head of hair. “Was it good?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks.” Jesme managed to tease a few fibres out from between her teeth with her tongue. There was a gap between her teeth which she had been supposed to get braces for, but that was back in the old time. “It was tasty.”

“Right.” Jesme’s mother suddenly seemed impatient again, and tugged at her arm. “Let’s go, Jesme.”

“Go?” Ulod asked. “What about payment?”

“You’ve already been paid,” Jesme’s mother snapped.

“For your food, sure. But what about her food?” Ulod pointed. His forefinger, almost touching Jesme’s nose, was tipped by a nail that was split and the colour of slate. “It’s not free, you know.”

“It isn’t,” Tilas agreed. He wandered over past Ulod and prodded at Jesme’s breast through her thin dress. She flinched at the touch. “Why did you think we asked you to get her here?”

Jesme’s mother slapped his hand away. “Run, Jesme,” she said, pushing Jesme so hard that she almost fell down. “Run and hide somewhere, quickly.”


“Go!” her mother shouted, and slapped her. It was the first time the older woman had ever hit her. Jesme started in shock, and then, as Ulod reached for her again, she took off running.


It was midmorning, and Jesme’s mother had still not appeared.

Jesme had run until she could no more, and then thrown herself down and tried to hide herself by burrowing in the sand. She’d lain like that for a long time, for hours, until it was light in the east, over the city behind the beach. Then she’d gone back down to the beach, cautiously, ready to flee. She’d found the empty plastic bottle, and the crumpled paper packet which had held the fish, but there was no boat and no trace of her mother. She’d looked out at the buildings half-submerged in the sea. They were like broken teeth, the teeth of some gigantic beast gnawing at the land. She could imagine eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she’d wanted to cry. But there were no tears left to let fall.

In the harsh sunlight the air was like fire, and what little beauty the beach had at night had long since vanished. It was more crowded than ever. More people had arrived at dawn, attracted by the hope of ships.

A couple, the woman heavily pregnant, sat down next to Jesme. “We’ve been walking for ten days,” she said. Her face and limbs were skeletal, making the huge bulge of her belly look bizarre, as though it was a tumour consuming her. “There’s nothing left, no food, nothing.”

The man, whose eyes were sunken so deep that he seemed to be peering out at the world through twin tunnels, jerked a thumb landwards. “The city people, they’ve put barricades of barbed wire and concrete slabs to stop us. We had to give them everything we had to let us pass.” He glared accusingly at Jesme, as though it was somehow her fault. “Somebody said that they hadn’t done it when you all came.”

“No, they hadn’t,” Jesme had replied. She’d been desperate to get away from these two, the woman with her obscenely distended belly and the man with his tunnel eyes, but she had no idea where else she might wait for her mother. “When we came, they just told us to move along. They didn’t do anything like that.”

“Their time will come,” the man said. Deep in the hollows of his sockets, his eyes glittered with anger. “The sea will rise more, and the water will give out, and the food will give out. Then the fighting will come to them as well, and it’s they who will be sitting on the beach in rags, waiting for the ships. You wait and see.”

Jesme said nothing.

“We’ve nothing to pay the ship with,” the woman said eventually. “We had to give away everything. Do you think the ship will take us without any payment?”

“None of us has anything left, Auntie,” Jesme told her. “All of us are hoping the ship will take us.”

“If there is a ship,” the man said, echoing Jesme’s unspoken thought. “Are there ships, girl? Have you seen them?”

For a moment Jesme saw red. “My mother’s lost,” she wanted to scream. “I nearly got raped for a mouthful of fish, my mother’s lost, and you think any of this would have happened if there had been a ship? Do you think any of us would have still been here if there had been a ship?” But she bit her lip, took a deep breath, and waited until her voice was under control. “I haven’t seen a ship,” she said, “but there was a man who said there was a ship just leaving when he’d arrived.” She didn’t add that the man had been half insane from fever and had later wandered out to sea and drowned. “He said it was badly crowded and that it would be a while before another came.”

“We’ll have to wait.” The woman reached out suddenly and grabbed Jesme’s arm. “I like you, girl, you’re at least human – more human than any of the others. Will you do something for me?”

“What?” Jesme tried to free her arm with an experimental tug, but the woman’s grip was strong. “What do you want me to do? I have nothing.”

“You don’t have to give me anything,” the woman said quickly. “Not at all. It’s just that...” She patted her swollen belly. “This is due any day. Maybe today. If – if I die having it, you know, you can see what it’s like here. If I die having it, will you take it? Take it along with you on the ship, and bring it up?”

Jesme stared at her, and then a great bubble of laughter came rising out of her, slowly at first and then uncontrollably, until she was shaking with laughter and tears, pointing down at her own ragged dress. “This is all I have,” she managed. “I don’t even know what I’m going to eat today, or if I’ll be alive this time tomorrow, and you want me to take your baby?”

“But,” the woman began, “listen...”

“No, you listen.” Jesme was still laughing, but now the tears were of anger. “You don’t know who I am, I don’t know who you are, we’re all of us on a beach dying of heat and hunger, and you want me to promise to do something I literally can’t? My mother told me not to lie.” At the thought of her mother she began crying harder, shaking with sobs.

“Let her go,” the man snapped. “You can see she hates us.”

“I don’t hate you,” Jesme said. “But don’t ask of me what I can’t give.”

“No, you hate us,” the woman said. “I can see it.” She dropped Jesme’s arm and climbed to her feet. “I hope someday you find yourself in my position, that’s all.” She tried to spit, but had no saliva to spare. Leaning on the man’s shoulder, she wandered off down the beach.

Jesme sighed and tried to wipe her eyes on the hem of her dress. And then she discovered that the packet of certificates was gone. At some point in her panicked flight of the night before it had fallen off.

What did it matter anyway, she thought bleakly, and stared out at the heavy, sluggish sea. What did anything matter anymore?

After some time she went down to the water and splashed it over herself.

Far out to sea, a cloud drifted by, and she watched it go.


The sun was a red and orange ball of fire touching the waves when Jesme’s mother returned.

She came trudging up the beach, her arms wrapped around herself, and sat down beside her daughter. For a while she said nothing and replied to nothing Jesme asked.

Eventually she stirred. “I’ve got some fish,” she said. “Would you like to have it now or later?”

Jesme’s mouth moved. “Later,” she whispered. “Not now. Not now.”

Jesme’s mother nodded. “Tell me when you want it. It’s all for you. I already ate.”

“Where have you been?” Jesme asked for the third or fourth time.

“Out there,” her mother said eventually, without making any attempt to explain what that meant. “They asked me to go back again, but I said no. But they were still generous enough to feed me, and give me some for you.”

“Generous? They’re evil.”

“No. They’ve got to survive, just like the rest of us. In their position we might not have been so kind.”

Together the two women, the young one and the younger one, watched the sun sink into the sea. “Mum,” Jesme said eventually. “Where will these ships take us? To a country where people treat us like those two last night? Is that all there is?”

Jesme’s mother shrugged. “What else is there?” she said. “We can’t keep walking any further. The ships are all we have left.”

Jesme remembered what the insane man had told her about the ship, a blocky rusting box of steel with so many people aboard that they were literally perched on the railing along the sides. “And the ship will come? There will be a ship, won’t there, mum? It’s not like the whole world is like this, is it?”

“Of course,” Jesme’s mother said eventually. “A ship will come. Tomorrow, maybe. Tomorrow a ship will come.”

“I lost the certificates,”  Jesme said.

Her mother sighed. “Certificates don’t matter anymore. Education doesn’t matter anymore.”

Somewhere, not that far away, there was a sound. Jesme turned her head away from it, and pressed her hands over her ears. It was a newborn baby, crying.

“Then what matters?” Jesme asked.

“Survival,” her mother replied. “Survival.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Dispatches From Hindunazistan: The India-Pakistan War of 2019

In the winter of 2018-19, Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi is going to start a war with Pakistan.

Back in 2013 - a year before Modi had taken over – I had written a long fiction piece called Armageddon: The India-Pakistan War of 2019. To this day it remains the most “popular” (if hits and abuse can be counted as popularity) thing I have ever written. You can read it here.

But that was back when I’d imagined it was fiction. Now I am almost convinced I was making a prediction.

Here is why.

Three years after its inception, the Modi project is in a state of collapse. The economy has plumbed rock bottom, courtesy Modi's Great Glorious Demonetisation Jamboree and his General Sales Tax fiasco. Unemployment has reached stratospheric levels. Small businesses - the core of Modi's party's historical support base - are closing down in huge numbers. Farmers are in a state of open revolt. Lynch mobs murdering people on the excuse of protecting cows aren't going to miraculously open those closed brick kilns and textile factories back up. Things are so bad that even Modi - on one of his rare visits to the country between trips to Vancouver and Vanuatu - has been reduced to boasting that his government was still not as bad as the previous one. That's the sum total of his "achievements" in 3½ years - that he is head of a government which, he claims, isn't as bad as the previous one.

Elections in multiple states, including Modi's home state of Gujarat, are coming up, and the outlook isn't good for Modi's Bhaktonazi Jumla Party (actual name, Bharatiya Janata Party: Bhakts are Modi’s Hindunazi worshippers, and Jumla means broken promise). At the least, even if they hang on to power in those states, it will be with a bare majority. And that in turn will finally, probably, galvanise the so far incredibly incompetent and disorganised opposition parties to get their act together and unite.

National elections are due in spring 2019. It's hardly likely that Modi will cut his own term in power - not to speak of his taxpayer funded foreign trips - short by calling early elections, though that would be the smart thing to do at this juncture, before things get even worse for him and before said opposition has a chance to unite. So he will sit glowering over a 2018 which will reduce his chances in the 2019 election with every passing day.

What is the only thing which might save him? A war with Pakistan, which can be spun as a "victory", with the opposition either being compelled to acknowledge him as a "victor" or be branded as traitors.

This war will not face opposition from the military, because Modi has made sure to place a right wing blowhard in the chief of staff of the Army's spot, superseding two senior generals. The air force will do whatever Modi says and the navy is a ceremonial force of no significance. It is the army that counts.

This war will be meant to be of short duration, for these reasons:

1. The longer the war lasts the higher the bloodshed, and the less easy to pretend it is a victory.

2. The longer the war lasts, the greater the chances of a clear battlefield defeat. Destroyed armoured divisions and piles of Indian corpses can't be concealed from the populace in the internet age.

3. The longer the war lasts, the greater the chances that it will go nuclear, with catastrophic consequences for Modi's home state of Gujarat, which is the westernmost Indian state and just across the border from Pakistan.

4. The longer the war lasts, the greater the chances of international pressure enforcing a humiliating Indian backing down. That would defeat the purpose of starting the war in the first place.

5. The longer the war lasts, the greater the economic costs and the chances of a total crash, which again would defeat the purpose of starting it at all.

Also this will have to be a visible war, one that is actually fought, not a fictional "surgical strike" which would mean nothing to anyone except the Modifellating Bhaktonazi fan base, who would support Modi anyway.

Therefore the Modi regime will plan for a short duration war, one fought as much in the television studios with the help of screeching rabid Bhaktonazi propagandamongers like Arnab Cowswamy as on the battlefield. The Indian Army already has a plan for such a war in place; it's called the "Cold Start Doctrine" and envisages a sudden Blitzkrieg invasion of Pakistani territory, to capture objectives close to the border, "punish" Pakistan, and withdraw quickly.

The timing of this war will also be important. It must be fought in the winter, for these reasons:

1. The end of the harvesting season, which will mean that farmlands can be sown with mines and run over with armoured vehicles without too much disruption of agriculture.

2. In winter, Kashmir is snowed in and a Pakistani counteroffensive there won't happen. Mass public demonstrations can also be contained more readily than in the summer.

3. The timing is right, just long enough before the 2019 election for Modi to pose as a victor but not long enough for the costs of the war to come home to roost, in both economic and political terms; before people become aware that they have won nothing at all.

So, will it work?

I believe it will be a disaster. The Cold Start Doctrine isn't secret; Pakistan is aware of it as much as India is, and their spy services are far superior to ours. They'll know what's coming before the first Indian tank clatters across the border in the Rajasthan desert.

Why the Rajasthan desert? Because that's the only place where the border isn't fortified to the teeth and an Indian Blitzkrieg has any chance of penetrating Pakistani defences, that's why.

So the Pakistanis will know when the attack is coming, where it's coming, and they've already prepared for it both militarily and politically.

Militarily, Pakistan has acquired short range missiles with low yield battlefield nukes, which they can and will use on Indian armoured divisions in the desert. They will have to use them because with India's military superiority Pakistan can't fight a long duration war with success, and can't afford defeat without the real threat of disintegration. India has no equivalent weapons, and can only retaliate with city-level nukes on Pakistani urban centres. Can it? Will it, with all the consequences, not excluding retaliation by Pakistan on Indian cities? Or will it quietly withdraw, both sides pretending the battlefield nuclear strikes never happened?

Politically, Pakistan is aggressively wooing Russia, and with considerable success; if the Modi regime imagines it can balance that with an alliance with Amerikastan, it is considerably mistaken. Simple geography, given its proximity to Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia, means Pakistan will always be of greater importance to Warshington than India; and no Amerikastani president will want to commit suicide for the greater glory of the Bhaktonazi project in South Asia.

But reality isn't a factor with Nazis, never has been; so expect some kind of "terrorist attack" - genuine or staged - in December 2018/January 2019, followed by an Indian attack on Pakistan, followed by nuclear war.

The Oracle has spoken.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Racing the Wind

From the crest of the ridge, the valley is like a crumpled tablecloth spread below us, sprinkled with trees and houses.

Far away, looking little more than a stain in the air, the mountains on the far side of the valley rear towards the sky. I had been there yesterday, with the others, checking the topography, each of us marking out the route we’d take, planning out the way to win.

It takes a lot of planning and plotting, this sport, more than the actual time spent in the game.

The referees are coming around, to check on equipment. The one who approaches me stands for a moment, staring, as I’d known he’d do, before he bends to check on harness clasps and straps.

“All fine?”

He nods silently, and then motions to my helmet. I strap on the bright yellow plastic shell. All the helmets are numbered and colour coded. I’m number nineteen; to my right number thirty two is fumbling with his white helmet, while on the other side is number five, in red. He’s joking with the referee, and the man, who wouldn’t say a word to me, is joking and grinning right back.

The Chief Referee, with his green cap, comes up. “Gentlemen,” he announces, and glances at me. “And lady.”

I hear a faint titter from somewhere. Again, I’d expected this. It isn’t easy being a woman in this man’s sport. It’s only been a few months that we even got the right to compete, and even now there are hardly any of us in the top league.

One of the reasons that there are hardly any of us in the top league is that we don’t get any sponsorship to speak of. I have saved all I could for a year for this.

“Gentlemen,” the Chief Referee repeats, “and lady. Your attention, please.” We pause in our fumbling at our equipment to look at him. “You have drawn lots for your starting positions, and you know the rules. Drones will be accompanying you. Make sure your cameras are turned on. We wish you good luck, and may the best man win.” There’s a moment’s hesitation, and he glances at me. “Or woman, of course.”

There’s that titter again, and I’m almost certain it’s from thirty two, who’s behind me. I remember him from earlier, when we were drawing lots. He had been complaining loudly that ranking and experience should decide the starting order, not the draw of lots. He’d especially been disgusted when he’d come in behind me, the woman on her first competition.

We begin to shuffle into line. I’m next to last, of course – my luck isn’t that good – but there’s at least number thirty two behind me. It’s hard walking with the harness and the equipment hanging down our backs like a bat’s wings. The morning sun hasn’t warmed the air yet, and my breath hangs before my nose in a little cloud.

“Priyanka,” my coach had said, “remember that you don’t have to win this. You just have to compete, to make your mark. Don’t take risks.”

“I won’t,” I’d said, though we’d both known this was ridiculous. Just taking part in this sport is all risk. And if I play safe, hang back, and lose without putting in an effort, it’s just going to tell everyone that women can’t compete, they can’t be taken seriously. And I can’t possibly do this without somebody helping pay the bills. Better equipment, too, and a better coach as well.

A whistle goes off. I can’t see the head of the line, but they’ll be dropping off the ridge now, one by one, as fast behind each other as the referees will let them. Glancing up, I can see a drone, hovering on shimmering propellers, watching. It and others will be with us all the way.

That’s all they will be doing, watching. It’s not that they’ll step in when things get rough. As they will.

Belatedly, remembering just in time, I reach up to the top of my helmet and turn on my camera. If I had one of the new, expensive helmets, I could have the option of projecting the footage on the inside of my faceplate, telling me when to turn my head to get the best footage to please the advertisers and television networks. But my helmet doesn’t even have a faceplate; I peer at the world through rubber-framed goggles clamped over my eyes, like a snorkeller’s mask.

The line’s moving faster and faster, and suddenly there are just three in front of me. A bright blue helmet flashes, catching a stray beam of sunlight, and disappears over the edge. The launch referee, hand raised, is peering over the edge. He turns, his hand comes down, sharp, and the next helmet – black as midnight, the number three briefly visible – disappears. Then it’s number five, in the red helmet. I’m so close to him that I can see the material shift and twist as his limbs tense under the apparatus. And then, like a bubble pricking, he’s gone.

For a moment, I flash back to the first time I’d ever done this, flown solo. I’d stood on a launch platform, tense with terror though I’d been on enough training tandem dives to know what it would feel like. Like that moment, when I’d stood poised on the edge, I feel suddenly as though I’m not ready for this, that I’ll never be ready. But I have to be. I can’t turn back now. It’s not just the fact that I’d lose everything; I literally can’t turn back without disrupting the launch schedule and delaying number thirty two, behind me. Baki, I remember his name now. It’s Baki. I flex my knees, pull my harness cords.

The referee’s hand drops sharply, his head turning. “Go!”

The ground drops out under me. One moment I’m stuck to the rock by the soles of my boots, as much so as any of the stones around. The next, I am falling through the air like a pebble thrown by a child.

As a child, long ago, I used to have a recurrent dream, one that was so frequent that I used to lie awake fighting off sleep in case I had it again. In this dream it was night, under a sky without moon and stars, in a city without lights. There were only immensely tall buildings, so close together that the streets between them were little more than alleys.

The dream was always the same. I was falling down the face of one of these buildings, past rows of blank dark windows. I never knew if I’d fallen or I’d been thrown off the roof or jumped, all I knew was that I was falling, that I could feel myself falling, and that in a moment my life would be over before it had even properly begun. And then, just before I hit the ground, I would wake up.

And so it is now. I’m again falling, past the cliff-face, and though it’s rock and not brick and plaster, and it’s broad daylight, it’s just the same. Only this time, I can do something about it.

I pull on the harness cords, and my folded wings spread with a snap, taking my arms and legs with them. Suddenly I’m no longer falling. Suddenly, I’m a bird, not a stone.

Now. The wind catches me, slaps against the bottoms of my wings, and I’m swooping past the rocks, rushing past them faster and faster, and then I pull back my arms at the right instant and I’m rising, lifting away from the rock studded slope. I’m flying.

I have often wondered if I would ever have taken up this sport but for that dream. Maybe if I can fly enough times, I can exorcise it. And then, maybe, I will never want to do this again.

But that is something that may or may not happen in the future. Right now I am here, and I am flying.

My equipment, like my helmet, isn’t of the same grade the others have. I had to buy what I could afford, and it’s just barely of competition standard. My wings are smaller than the others, and the section between my legs ends at my feet. I do not have the spread  tail the others have, to lift and manoeuvre with.

On the other hand I’m smaller and lighter, and I know my wings. I know they can do what I order them to do.

Below me, the beginning of the valley is a tortured jumble of rock and scrub, and at the speed at which I’m flying it’s just a blur. If I hit that stone now I’d be a smear. I resist the temptation to pull up further, knowing I’m at a safe height and that rising will rob me of lift and speed. I can’t afford to stall and fall out of the air.

There’s one last ripple of ridge below me, like a frozen wave, and as I rush past it the valley is open below me, green and beautiful and inviting. I have no time to think of it.

Below me, the air is dotted with the bat-like, brightly coloured specks of the other flyers. I’m too far away to make out who’s who, and at this point it no longer matters anyway. Right now all that matters is flying as fast as I can.

Even through my helmet I can hear the wind rushing by, and it’s buffeting my face and nose so hard it’s difficult to breathe. By turning my head to the sides I might snatch a few extra breaths, but I have long since learnt not to do that. At this speed, spread-eagled and tied to my wings, turning my head back and forth could change my direction, and I can’t afford that. Not even the slightest bit.

A shadow falls over my face, and for a moment I wonder if it’s one of the others, if I’ve overtaken someone already. But that’s ridiculous. There will be no overtaking here, not out in the open. That will only happen when we’re in the mountains on the far side.

It’s a drone. The thing drops to my altitude, effortlessly faster than me on its many whirring propellers, and spins so the black round eye of one of its cameras is pointing at my face. I can imagine the feed going out on television, the studio commentators – not one of whom has ever strapped on a wing – talking about the lone woman competitor and how this is a breakthrough for her, even though the bookies don’t think much of her chances.

It’s distracting and intensely annoying, but there’s nothing I can do about it; the competition rules say the organisers can take and use any media footage they desire. My coach would tell me to maximise the opportunity for publicity, to look up at the camera and smile, show them as much of my face as they can see past my goggles. Instead, I look down, at the valley floor rushing by. If asked by my coach later I’ll say that I was checking for height clearance and whether I should try to gain altitude, but, really, I’m safe. I just don’t want to feel like a piece of meat on the block. Not one of the others will have a drone staring into their faces – or if they do, they’ll be enjoying it and making use of it for all they’re worth. You can be sure of that. I look up again, and the drone is gone.

Right then. For the moment all I have to concentrate on is not letting my airspeed drop off too much. I can’t get too slow, or I’ll never make the other side.

There’s a dip in the ground below, a long channel in the valley, and I dip my wings to pick up speed, hurtling over the ground, slashing by over a road, lorries and cars blurring by below, white and red houses a blue to the right. Now the ground is rising again, and my increased velocity carries me upwards, up towards the craggy rocks on the other side.

“Why did you ever choose such a dangerous sport?” I’ve been asked this more times than I can remember. “Don’t you know how lethal it is?”

“What else can I play?” I could have answered reasonably, and I used to. “I can’t run, I can’t throw things any distance, and I can’t kick a ball to save my life. I can’t plan a chess move if the fate of the world depended on it, and I can’t tell one card game from another. What do you want me to do?”

These days I just smile. “Maybe I’ve got a death wish,” I say sweetly.

“You ought to get married and settle down,” I keep being told.

“Maybe,” I reply. “But I don’t have that much of a death wish.”

I still remember the first time I’d seen the wings on television. It was when I was in school, unhappy and friendless, bullied because I was too studious, not studious enough, the teacher’s pet, the teacher’s hate object, too ugly, too pretty. Nothing I could do was right. And then I saw the wings, bright blue, green, yellow, and red, and at that moment I knew that this was what I was waiting for.

I didn’t know, of course, just how lethal the sport was, especially at the competition level. Even if I’d known, it would not have made a difference. I was hooked.

A blur of motion in the corner of my restricted, goggle-vision startles me out of my thoughts. I see it a moment before it vanishes, a spire of stone like a finger pointing at the heavens. I’d marked out this finger on my map, and when the time has come I’ve been so busy dreaming about the past that I almost missed it.

Here, now. The valley is ending, the mountains of the other side coming up, the point at which the race really begins. I can no longer waste time thinking. From this point on, it’ll be hard work, and luck, all the way.

The slopes are rising again, fast, the mountains a wall of rock before us, too high to fly over. I catch a glimpse of one, two, three, glittering bat-like figures to the right, sliding through the air. They’ll be making for the main pass, depending on it to get to the finish line. The pass is broad enough for them to manoeuvre, and has enough twists and turns for them to try and outfly one another.

I have other plans. With my small wings, in the narrow confines of the pass, I have no chance.

Dipping my left wing, I slip into a hard turn, through the shadow of the finger, the wall of rock to my right. Ever since I saw the cleft in the rock, yesterday, I’ve been planning this; I’ve gone over it so many times in my mind last evening that I’ve done it in my dreams.

The plan was simple. Everyone else would go for the main pass, or perhaps one or two would fly on to the spot where the two arms of the mountain ridge joined at an obtuse angle, and there was a point that a fast-flying wing might be able to get over. I could never manage that; my small apparatus could never lift me that high.

But there was the cleft on the other side, little more than a fissure in the mountainside. It was longer, too long for the professionals to bother with, and in it I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else. I could just concentrate on staying in the air, as fast and as high as I could.

But in plans everything goes perfectly. Reality is another animal.

Here’s the cleft, coming up, and I turn right, hard, as hard as I can, knowing that if I miss the crack I will become a smashed ruin on the rock surface, knowing also that if I turn too hard I’ll lose lift and stall. It looks as though I won’t make it, and I wrench hard, as hard as I can, on my left wing, and suddenly I’m through.

It’s a narrow space, the walls blurring by on both sides, and I’ll never get any lift from air currents here. There won’t be any room for mistakes, but if I can just concentrate on flying, I should be fine.

Wrong. I am not the only one to think of the crack.

At first, when I see the shadow on the rock below, I think it’s my own. But the angle is wrong, it’s much too high, and there’s my shadow, right where it should be. Then I think it’s a drone, but it’s far too large for a drone, and the way it’s flying, that isn’t like a drone, at all.

And then I know. It’s someone else, someone who’s chosen the same rock fissure as I have, someone who’s followed me in here. And, given my position as last but one in the line, there’s only one person it could be.

If I could have heard anything through my helmet and the slipstream roaring past my face, I might have heard him snigger. He knows that the fissure is too narrow for him to pass me, unless he can fly higher, and he can’t fly higher because there is no way to gain height in this narrow, windless space.

I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to try and get rid of me.

How will he do it? If he’s armed, I’m dead, no matter what I do. But there’s no reason he would take along the extra weight of a weapon – he can’t have known that I would be going alone into the fissure, not out into the pass with the others – and the referees would have noticed it. Besides, a bullet hole will be hard to explain away, and in any case a drone may be watching. And the camera feed from his helmet will show what he does.

That limits his options, but doesn’t eliminate them. He’s more experienced, and, more importantly, he’s got a much larger wing. So...I clench my fists momentarily as I realise what he’s going to do.

He’s going to rush me, get as close to me as possible, and use the downdraft from his huge wing to push me down onto the rock. It’ll work, too. There may be suspicion, but that’s all. Nobody will be able to prove it wasn’t an accident.

I’ve heard of this happening before, flyers sabotaging each other, deliberately crossing each other’s paths to force them to stall or turn away and lose time. But those have been gamesmanship, not attempts at murder; and, anyway, I have never expected it to happen to me.

I can’t see Baki yet, he’s still behind me and slightly above. He probably doesn’t know yet that I’ve spotted his shadow, that I know he’s there. I have to use this while I can.

My jaws are clenched so tight that I force them to relax, while I try to think. Yesterday, when we’d come over here on the official inspection, the others had concentrated on the pass, while I’d come back to this fissure. I try to remember whether Baki had come back as well. I can’t remember seeing anyone else.

Therefore, he must have made up his mind afterwards, and that meant he probably doesn’t know the fissure as well as I do. That’s my only advantage. I must use it.

Ahead, past a bend to the right, the fissure narrows sharply, and that’s where he’ll make his move. I’ll have no space to dodge, no way to escape. But there’s something I know that he doesn’t.

Just past the bend, the fissure splits. One side, which is actually wider, and looks like the natural extension of the main cleft, goes straight on. But it’s a dead end, and terminates in a flat wall of rock in a couple of hundred metres. The smaller passage, to the right, is the way to go.

He’s probably following my lead, waiting for the right time, and this has to be what I’m going to make use of. I don’t have time to think longer, or hesitate.

Sweeping into the bend, right wing dipping slightly, I note, out of the corner of my eye, his shadow on the rock. It’s closer, but not yet too close. I may just have enough time.

Now. There’s the straight passage ahead, and I fly towards it, and I feel him following, the first down pressure of his coming pressing down on my wing surface. He’s busy calculating at exactly what point he’ll press in on me and send me down like a sparrow with a broken wing.

But I’m lighter than he is, and my wing is smaller. I can turn more sharply than he can.

And that is what I do. At the very last moment, I drop my right wing and wrench myself as sharply to the right as I can. I have a nightmare glimpse of the rock, so close that I can feel it kiss my toes, and then I’m round, I’m turned, and the passage to the right is open before me.

I turn my head, risking a look, just in time to see the bat-shape of his wing vanish into the dead end. There’s no way he can turn round in there. He’ll have to get down or crash into the rock, and either way, he’s lost. I can imagine his baffled fury, but I have no time to worry about his fate.

Here is the narrow part of the passage, and I’ve lost too much speed, too much altitude in my twisting and turning; I can’t fly on at this height or I’ll crash. There’s just one thing left to do –  dive.

The air is like a wall against my face, battering against my cheeks and teeth. The rock of the fissure floor is so close that I might be able to touch it if I stretch, but I’m going faster now, fast enough, and I risk pulling up my wing leading edge. Slowly, I’m gaining height.

Little by little, metre by metre, I claw back some of the altitude I’ve lost. I have to turn again, now, once more time, and suddenly the fissure is done. I’m in the open air, over a gentle slope, and there’s the finishing line, below.

Of course I’m not the winner. The ground is already littered with parachutes. I’m still too low and too fast to risk it, and I swoop overhead, away over the slope, and turn round again, coming back, and pull the ripcord.

There’s the familiar jerk and the snap of the opening canopy in my ears, and I’m dropping, down towards the ground, people looking up at me and a couple moving away from my descent path, the ground coming up and slamming my boots.

I’m down. I’ve survived.

My coach comes up to me and helps free me from my equipment. “Not bad,” he says. “Thirteenth of those to finish. They’re still coming in.”

I want to tell him about Baki, and decide not to. “Thirteenth,” I say. “Is that unlucky?”

“Not for you. You’ve made the qualification for the Typhoon race.”

I think of what I’ve heard of the Typhoon race. It’s in an deserted city, between skyscrapers so close together that one can’t fly straight longer than a hundred or so metres. And any accident means a fall down to the cracked surface of the streets far below, dotted with the rusting wreckage of abandoned cars.

Or perhaps the city is only supposedly deserted. I’ve heard tales that gangs live in the basements of the crumbling skyscrapers, and are not above shooting at the wings as they speed by. It’s rumoured that the organisers know it, too, and hope that someday a flyer is gorily shot down on television so they can get good ratings.

“Do I have to?” I ask.

“I thought you wanted to get recognised at this,” he says.

I think of Baki, somewhere in the mountain, who’d planned to eliminate me in order to win. I think of feral gangs with rifles shooting up at me. And then I think about a dream of falling down a dark building, and how I have been spending my life trying to get over that.

“I’ll do it,” I say, picking up my wings. “I will.”

We trudge up the slope, to where the referees are waiting.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017


Friday, 18 August 2017

The City With Spires Of Marble And Gold

The flat red sun rises straight ahead, painting the highway the colour of clotting blood.

I have been aware for some time that it is about to rise. The flames on the horizon have been gathering themselves up to crawl into the sky, and, each time that happens, soon the sun will crawl up after them.

I have long since lost count of how many days I have been walking this highway. Days and nights have followed one after the other so many times that I might have been walking this road since the beginning of time. I can’t even remember when I started; it is all I can remember ever having known.

It is not yet light enough to get a look at the eroded desert on either side of the highway, but the first of the morning’s corpses has appeared, lying half on and half off the road. One of its hands is still twitching a little, as though reaching up for help. I barely glance at it as I walk by.

There will probably be many corpses today. For the last day or two there have been hardly any. Sometimes I might walk hours without seeing one. Sometimes they are so thick on the road that I have to be careful not to step on them. Sometimes I have to step off the highway altogether and into the desert, but I do this as rarely as possible. There are things that move out in the desert, just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye; things that seem to be following me, biding their time. I do not want to give them an opportunity.

The sun is rising up into the sky now, fading from red to blinding yellow-white in the flaming sky. It is probably very hot. I don’t know; perhaps I am so used to it that I have stopped feeling it. But at every step, the soles of my boots stick a little to the surface of the highway, as though it was softened toffee. If I looked back, I would see my footprints marked in the road surface, black and glistening in the faded, dusty grey; but I do not look back.

In all this time I have looked back only once. Once was enough.

The corpses have begun to appear, sprawled on the highway. Today they are in groups of two or three, not clustered too thickly, so I can pass easily by them. They’re like all the others, leathery skin stretched over bone, wisps of hair and grinning teeth. Some of them clutch guns, the metal muzzles black holes leading to nowhere and nothing. A few occasionally have mobile phones and laptops, the screens dead as the desert, dead as the hands holding them. Some of the corpses wear uniforms, so faded from the sun that it is impossible to tell what colour they were. Others wear any clothes you care to mention: suits and T shirts, saris and dresses, kimonos and sarongs. A few wear nothing at all.

Some of them moan and turn their eyeless heads to track me as I pass.

Today, I think, I will finally reach that city whose spires have been rising on the horizon for many days now, climbing like white cliffs into the white blazing sky. Once, I would have welcomed the sight of a city, hoping to find someone living, or at least an end to my journey. Once, I imagined reaching some city with spires of marble and gold, where the truth would finally be revealed about where I am going and what I am doing here.

Now, having passed through towns without number, straggling along either side of the highway before giving way to the desert again, I know there will be nothing.

I think I can still remember the first corpse I saw. It sprawled halfway out of the turret of an overturned tank, the tracks spilling like the intestines of a disembowelled monster across the road. It still had a helmet on its head, and it was making a noise between a sigh and a moan. I think I had gone to help it, but its hand had reached for me with skeletal fingers, to pull me into the charred metal box with it. And I had kicked it aside and moved on.

Since then, how many corpses have I seen? And does it matter?

I have often wondered where the corpses come from. I have never seen any sign of fighting or disease. Perhaps it is famine, though I do not think so. I have, of course, not looked for food or water; I do not even remember ever needing either, and though I do not believe that there is any to be had, I also do not believe that there was ever any food or water in this world. All there is, in fact, are the highway, the desert, and the burning sky.

Sometimes, more than once, I have wanted to stop. I have wanted to sit down on the highway and rest, to let happen what will happen, but I do not. I dare not. I will walk until the end of time, but I will not sit on this road and rest.

Where am I? How many times have I asked myself this? Who am I? And why is it that these questions have no answer? What is the point of asking questions that have no answer?

The city is close now, and I can see that the white cliffs are tarnished and shattered, the walls crumbling and broken. The streets leading off from the highway are choked with rubble and wrecked vehicles, the metal scorched and corroded, half-cremated corpses still sitting behind the remnants of steering wheels. If I looked up at the towering cliffs of masonry on either side, I could perhaps imagine that there are living eyes staring down at me from the blank windows and empty balconies. But the highway goes straight through the city, and I do not look up.

I see the girl from some way away. She is sitting with her back to a half collapsed wall, her legs stretched out before her, her hands in her lap, and at first I think she is just another corpse, her stick-thin limbs skin and sinew pulled over bone. But as I come closer, her head slowly rises, and her mouth moves, the remnants of her lips writhing over the hissing of her withered tongue.

“You,” she says. “You’ve come.”

I stop, startled. “What?”

“All this time. Endless. And you came.” Her eyes, holes in the parchment-mask of her face, seem still to see me, to have some kind of expression. Her head swivels slowly, her feet and legs straightening, pushing her upright. “This is why we have been waiting,” she says.

“We?” I want to walk past her, as I have walked past a million corpses, but I can’t. I try to look away from her, but I cannot. “Who are you?”

“Who are we?” Her voice is like the wind across the desert. “We are your children,” she says.

My mouth moves, in response to the absurd thing she uttered. “I have no children.”

“You do now,” she says. “You are our father. You made us. You created us, and we are your children. We have been waiting for you to come, for we belong to you now. Now and forevermore.”

And, oh, I can remember now, the locked door bursting open. “I didn’t know,” I hear myself whisper. “I didn’t know it would be like this. I didn’t want this.”

“That does not matter,” she says. Her hand rises, touches my arm. “We were many, we had many lives. Now we have nothing. Only you.”

“And the road,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “The road.”

And I can hear them coming now, as I have glimpsed them, the one time I looked back, in their hundreds and thousands and millions, those I have created, with my power and what I did with that power. I have brought them here.

“You have brought us here,” the girl agrees. “We will be with you from now on.”

They are behind me now, close-packed, streaming from ruined buildings and debris-clogged streets, joining together in sections and battalions and divisions, more and more till the highway behind me is so full of them that there is nothing but them, until the end of the world.

But the highway before us is empty, and there is but one way to go. Where that will take us, I do not know. It doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did; perhaps, there will be a grand destination, a shining city on the horizon, with spires of marble and gold. Or maybe we will walk on till the end of time.

Head bent before the burnished sky, I trudge on, leading my army of the dead.  

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017