Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Tale Of A Minor God

I’d just come off the bridge on to the highway when I saw the car.

I’d normally have taken no notice of that car. It was just a dark red hatchback, like a million others, like probably fifty or more I’d already seen today. But I was irritated, and looking for something to work off my irritation on.

And the car was parked directly in front of a NO PARKING sign. The sides of the road were bare as far as the eye could see, except for this one place where there was a NO PARKING sign, so whoever had parked it had naturally selected this one point.

The police hadn’t done their duty of teaching the malefactor the error of his or her ways. Not only was I irritated already, but as a god, it was therefore my right to do so.

Not, of course, that I’m all that much of a god. I am, as my divine colleagues will attest, strictly minor grade. Once I might have grown powerful on the back of beliefs and prayers, but the chance had passed me by. I had never accumulated worshippers and offerings, and so there was no chance of a heaven made from hopes and dreams to which I could ascend and rule over. As a consequence, all I could do was roam around the earth like a restless ghost, doing minor-godly things, and moving on when I got tired of a place.

It is actually extremely easy to get tired of a place when you do minor-godly things and don’t get any reward for them. By reward, of course I don’t mean money or gold. As a god, even of the lowest grade, I could have arranged to become rich at any time I chose. What I mean is to develop enough of a fan base to be recognised as a god, instead of a wizard or a magician. But of course that’s never going to happen, and I realise it fully by now.

I ought to take a moment to explain that there are no such animals as wizards or warlocks, witches or genuine magicians. There are tricksters, and there are minor gods. That is all.

Major gods? They don’t live here. They’ve got heavens and things to live in.

I’d spent an increasingly disappointing two months at a little town up in the hills. I’d gone there because I’d heard that it was being “developed”, with new roads and bridges and buildings coming up, and of course where there’s “development” there’s money and corruption, which in turn means there’s anger and despair. And where there’s anger and despair, there’s opportunity for a god to make his mark.

Unfortunately I was too late. The place was filled to the brim already with all kinds of fakirs and astrologers, gurus and other parasites, and most of all a self-styled maharishi who’d opened an ashram and was raking in money hand over fist from people who actually gave him worship.

That’s right. They were giving this transparent fraud worship, while I, a genuine and actual god, had to go without. I am not making this up.

Still, I hung on. I hung on for two months, doing my best to make my mark. I’d hung on right until the previous evening, refusing to give up hope. And then I’d seen her.

She’d been an obviously distressed young woman, wandering the streets behind the maharishi’s ashram, crying. A crying young woman wandering the streets at half past nine in the evening, not surprisingly, had caught my attention. I’d at once decided that the maharishi had done something to her, and that this was my chance to get rid of him.

So, trying to look as helpful and non-threatening as possible, I’d gone up to her. “What’s the matter, young lady?” I’d asked. “Did that dreadful wretch, the maharishi, do something to you?”

But it wasn’t that at all. Someone had stolen her new iPhone. That was why she was crying.

Still, it was something that I should be able to handle. As a god, getting her a new iPhone shouldn’t have been out of my powers, and of course it wasn’t. The only problem was that it was half past nine in the evening, and all the stores had closed. It was a small town, as I said. So – since even a god doesn’t burgle electronic shops – I’d have to wait for the morning.

She didn’t want a new iPhone, though. She’d wanted her own one back. It had numbers and files and photos and things, she’d explained between sobs, that she didn’t want to lose. So I’d begun to think of other ways I could get her phone back to her. I’d exerted my powers.

Therefore, just then, who should wander by but one of those fakirs I mentioned, and right next to us he’d taken out an iPhone from his bag and started looking into it.

Of course it was the girl’s phone. When she’d screamed and thrown herself at him, the fakir had merely glanced at her and given it to her at once.

“I found it lying on the ground behind one of the benches in the park,” the rascal had said. “I was using my powers to look for the owner, and I found you.” And, equally of course, the girl had believed him.

That was the moment I’d realised once and for all that this was no place for me. Not only could I not dispose of that fraud of a maharishi; even a fakir was too much for me. Leaving the girl ecstatically pressing her phone to her breast, I’d turned around and walked away. I’d walked all night, all through the day, and now, in the new evening, I was still walking.

Therefore, I was irritable, and I was tired. Even a minor god can get tired. And the car was there, parked in front of a NO PARKING sign, a sin looking for punishment.

Ten seconds later I was inside, and driving away. Keys? I did not need any keys. I’m a god, as I said, and I’d be a godawful god if I couldn’t even do what any car thief does every day.

The engine was rough, coughing as though it had a respiratory tract infection. Also, the gearshift was as stiff as the struggle to gain recognition as a deity. For some time I drove without lights on, because of course I didn’t need lights to see. Then I decided that I needed the headlights on so that other vehicles didn’t run into me. And then I discovered that the headlights barely even worked.

I decided that instead of punishing whoever it was who’d parked the car, I was probably doing them a favour.

Even for a minor god, actions don’t always bring the results expected, as I can certify.

Early in the morning, I picked up a small group of hitchhikers. There were three of them, standing by a roadside trucker’s stop looking for a ride; a middle aged man with a round face and a thin moustache, a younger man with spectacles, and a woman who might have been his wife. They looked like people I might want to pick up, so I picked them up.

They wanted to go to another little hill town, down south along the highway and then a little to the east. “Fine,” I said. “That’s where I’m going, too.”

The man with the thin moustache was beside me in the left front seat. He glanced down at my lack of a seatbelt, and opened his mouth to say something. I exerted my power a little, and he decided that keeping his mouth shut might be a good idea. And then I trod the accelerator to the floor to make sure his mouth stayed shut. No, I didn’t know exactly how fast I was going. The speedometer wasn’t working either.

We drove all morning. I stopped once to take on petrol. Even a minor god can’t change the way an internal combustion engine works. Money? There was a little in the glove compartment. Enough to pay for a full tank and a little left over.

It was nearly noon when the man with the moustache looked over at me and opened his mouth again. “We just passed the exit road,” he said.

I’d not even noticed the sign. It was on the other side of the highway, and there was a barrier down the middle. So it was some time before I could turn and come back.  It was a miserable little road, less than half the width of one lane of the highway, and uneven and twisting besides.

We’d been driving down it for about half an hour when we came to a fork in the road. To the left it climbed up a hill, and to the right it went across a small bridge and along a valley. I glanced at my passenger. “Which way?”

“Wait.” These people never said “please.” He leaned over and began talking to the man and woman in the back seat. The woman said they should go to the right. The two men said they should go to the left. Naturally, therefore, the male opinion won.

“Women have no sense of direction,” the man with the moustache told me with a shrug. “We’ll go to the left.”

The leftward road was even narrower, and steep besides. Even I couldn’t drive fast on it, and as we went higher it became narrower still. And people were parked by the side of this road to enjoy the view!

We’d just passed a huge green SUV that blocked a good part of the road when the spectacled man in the back seat, who’d been whispering with increasing urgency to the woman, leaned over my shoulder.

“We made a mistake,” he said. “It was the right hand road after all.”

“You’re sure?” I asked.

“I’m sure.” The one in the front seat wasn’t, of course, and turned round and began yelling. But now he was outvoted, two to one, even if one was a woman.

“The other road was the right one,” he said finally.

It was a winding thread down on the valley, and we’d have to turn round and go back down. The road wasn’t just narrow and steep, it even sloped to the side, and the overall width was less than the length of the car. In other words, it was impossible to turn, unless one was a god. I said so.

“We’ll go up until we find a wider place, and then turn,” I said. I am a god, but after all, only a minor one. “It’ll be much safer and easier.”

“It’s urgent that we get there,” the woman said, talking directly to me for the first time. “We can’t afford the delay. Please.”

“All right,” I said. At least she’d said please. I stopped and turned the wheel, backing the car until the rear fender kissed the rock. To our right and below us, the green SUV bulged like a swollen tick. I swung the wheel over and began turning the car round.

I almost made it. In fact, I would have made it if the moustached moron to my left hadn’t panicked and grabbed at the wheel when the front end of the car went a little over the edge. He didn’t manage to make us go over the edge, but my front end touched the swollen green hide of the SUV. I stopped.

A window rolled down, a round red face appearing. “Hey, you!” It was a voice that would make even a deaf man wince. “What do you mean, wrecking my car?”

“Wrecking your car?” I looked. There was a minor dent in the metal, little more than a wrinkle. “You call that wrecking?”

“You’ll pay for this!” he bellowed. “I’m calling the police.”

“We need to get down,” the woman whined behind me.

I suddenly had enough. Even a minor god has a breaking point. “Right,” I said, opening the door. “You can have the car. Take it and go and do what you want.” Climbing out, I slammed the door and began walking up the road.

“Where the hell are you going?” Red Face shouted after me. “Wait for the police!”

I didn’t wait for the police. Nor did I wait for my erstwhile passengers, who, on discovering there were no keys, began following me up the road, alternately bleating at me and threatening. None of them was particularly fast, and I soon left them some way behind. They didn’t give up, though, following and bleating and threatening. And behind them was the red faced man, who had to climb after me because the car had blocked the rest of the road, and he was only threatening.

I’d wanted followers, yes, but not followers like that.

Maybe I lack the temperament for a proper god.

It was late afternoon when I came to a little town right on top of the hill. It was mostly a resort, with a few shops scattered on both sides of the road. There was a large red-painted hairdresser’s advertising a competition for hairstyles for tonight. I saw a couple of women getting their hair fixed inside.

Ice caps were melting. Forests were turning into deserts. The atmosphere was turning into a brown haze. Cannibal jihadis were busy hacking off heads. The major powers were getting ready to fight a nuclear war. I was a minor god without a hope in the world. And here they were advertising for a hairstyle contest.

A beggar came up to me, holding out a hand and looking hopeful. I was probably the first new mark he’d seen all day. “Alms,” he said. “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Apparently he was an educated beggar, though he didn’t look like much, small and stoop-shouldered, bald and scraggly-necked, wearing an old overcoat despite the summer afternoon sun. He looked rather like an old vulture. “Is there some way I can get away from those people down the road there?” I asked him.

He glanced at them and back to me. His small eyes glittered knowingly. “This way.”

I followed him down a side street. We turned left, and then right, and then left again. In a couple of minutes even I had no idea where I was.

“Go down this way,” the beggar said, pointing to a flight of steps that led down the hill. “They’ll bring you down to the main road by the river.” He held out his hand again.

“Thanks.” I wondered how to reward him. After all, I had no money. Then I had it.

He was still fingering his rich, beaded head of dreadlocks as I set off down the steps. All he had to do was enter the hairstyle contest, and he’d win for sure. What he’d win, I had no idea, but he’d win.

Sometimes I have these strokes of genius, and then I think that being a minor god is good enough for me.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016  

Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Start In Life

From the edge of the water, the Director could see clear across the bay. The sky was like blue porcelain, the water clear as glass, and the city on the far side was a white, silver and gold-glittering sprawl in the afternoon sun.

The Director, however, wasn’t looking at the beauty of the sky or sea or the city. Her brow was furrowed in a little frown, and her attention focussed on the boat that was approaching the pier on which she stood.

Behind the Director, the Station nestled as though for protection against the cliffs that rose in a near-vertical wall. Once it had been fairly small, but now it sprawled all along the curve of the shoreline, office buildings and research laboratories, storage sheds and living quarters, stretching in clumps and clusters here and there from the foot of the cliff line to the edge of the sea.

It was a large institute, a busy one, and the Director had been in charge for almost six years now. She was used to dealing with problems, often several at once. But this particular problem was one she could have done without.

As the boat drew closer, the Director could make out the two hunched figures sitting in the middle, between the helmsman at the stern and the crewman at the bow. They were obviously uncomfortable on the sea, despite the calm water, and would probably have preferred to come by land. But of course the cliffs isolated the station and made land access less than easy.

Often, the Director had wished that access by land had been easier, that almost everything hadn’t had to be ferried by boat across the bay, and that the station hadn’t been almost completely cut off in bad weather. But not today; watching the boat approach gave her a chance to collect her thoughts.

The boat drew up to the pier, the rubber tyre fenders bumping on concrete, and the crewman at the bow jumped out and tired up. The Director took a deep breath and watched the two passengers hesitantly climb out. The man, dressed in a grey safari suit, was of slightly above medium height and had a paunch bulging out over stick-thin legs. The woman was dumpy, her neck was weighed down with beads and necklaces, and she clutched a large square polythene packet in one hand as though it was a lifeline. They even looked like trouble.

“Mr and Mrs Sahni?” she said, essaying a smile. “Welcome to the Station.”

The couple looked at her with surprise unmixed with pleasure. “We were expecting the Director to meet us,” the woman said.

“That’s right.” So it was going to be one of those times again. “I’m the Director.”

She expected to hear something about her being a woman and too young to boot, but the man put a hand on his wife’s arm. “Well, as long as you’re here, that’s what matters. We’re here to...” He hesitated, searching for words.

“Yes, of course I know why you’re here,” the Director said. She waved to the electric car parked behind her. “Shall we go? It’s a few minutes away, and we can talk as we drive.”

Reluctantly, they got into the car. The boat was still tied up at the pier. “We’ve asked them to wait for us,” the woman said, sounding defensive. “We don’t expect to be here long.”

The Director eased the car away from the pier and along the narrow road that followed the curve of the bay. The engine hummed almost soundlessly and the view was spectacular, but the two people in the back seat ignored it. “We don’t want to stay here a moment longer than necessary,” the man said.

“You realise,” the Director told them, her eyes fixed on the road, “that, strictly speaking, this is a courtesy visit. We don’t actually have any legal obligation to allow you here. The Station isn’t open to the general public.”

“We’re not general public,” Mr Sahni said, waving a hand indignantly. “Akshay is our son. So we’re entitled to be here.”

“Akshay is over eighteen,” the Director said, mildly. The road began climbing, the sea falling away to their left, and as always she looked out to sea, where the island bulged like the back of a gigantic turtle. This was supposed to be her day off, and she’d wanted to visit the island again, wade in the water, lie on the sand and relax a little. Instead... “He’s legally an adult,” she said, “and can do as he wishes.”

“He’s still a boy,” the mother replied aggressively. “We’ve a moral obligation to him, as his parents.”

“That’s quite apart from the horrible experiments this place does,” the father added, no less aggressively. “We’ve been reading the media reports.”

“I’m sure you have,” the Director murmured. “I can assure you that they’re no more accurate and unbiased than media reports about anything else.” The road turned and descended steeply to where a large building shaped like a horseshoe curved along the waterline, concrete walls extending from it like fingers into the sea. “This is the section of the Station where we’re going.”

“You’re the Director of this section as well?” the woman asked.

“No, of the whole Station, but apart from being an administrator I’m also a scientist, and this happens to be my own field of expertise.” The Director slowed down, stretching her hand out of the near window holding her plastic identity card. An electronic eye recognised it and slid a gate open.

It was actually a very pretty building, with green lawns set with flower beds outside and roofed with glittering solar panels, but the Director didn’t think her self-imposed guests would appreciate the architecture. She eased the car into its place and opened the door for them. “Would you like a tour?”

“No,” the woman said. “Just take us to Akshay, right away.”

“Fine,” the Director said. “Follow me, please.” She led them past the main entrance to a smaller, recessed doorway in the slender shadow of a tall palm. “Do you have some idea of how we do things here – what the procedure involves?”

The two of them glanced at each other. The woman’s mouth twisted bitterly. “You saw some poor animal’s head open and put a human brain inside,” she said.

“No, ma’am.” The Director led them down the long sloping passage with the rubber mats on the floor, which always reminded her of an airport’s boarding tunnel. “We do nothing of the sort. What we do is grow an organism from stem cells and...” She opened a locker, pulled on a lab coat, and then paused at the console, punching the code to open the door. “And you’ll see for yourself,” she said.

The chamber beyond was lit by shaded yellow lights in the ceiling, which gave it a glow like a partly overcast day. The lights reflected off the surface of the water in the tank that took up most of the centre of the room. The walls were lined with lockers, cylinders, hosepipes and a maze of other equipment, and the space between them and the pool was tiled and fitted with a railing. The Director beckoned her visitors to the railing and pointed. “There.”

The man and woman stood next to her and looked down into the pool. The surface of the water was about a metre and a half below the poolside, and the bottom was painted a dark brownish-grey; the lights reflected off the ripples and waves on the surface, shifting, glittering. The thing under the water was lost in the shifting of light and shadow.

“Where...?” Mr Sahni began.

It broke through the water then, almost directly below. The huge bullet head lunged upwards, the sickle-curved fanged beak pushing the air before it like an obstacle. The flippers, held close to the sides as the bulk of the torpedo-body flung itself into the air, the small eye on the side of the head swivelling. For a moment it hung, balanced on its tail, watching them. Then the blowhole atop the head opened, gusted moist air, and the creature fell back into the water with a crash and a spout of spray.

“Is that...him?” Mrs Sahni whispered finally.

The Director nodded. “Akshay, yes. As you can see, he’s fitted himself into his new environment.”

“What is he?” the father asked. “A dolphin?”

The Director shook her head. “He’s a beaked whale. He wanted something a larger than a dolphin, something that fitted his personality better. We gave him the choices, and he picked this.”

“Why a beaked whale?”

“We can’t make very large bodies, like one of the giant whales. That’s both unfeasible and prohibitive in terms of cost. Nor can we make a baby, implant the memories in it, and let it grow; it would never survive outside without spending years in the care of others of its species. A beaked whale is ideal, a happy medium. The commonest species is the Blainville’s, which is what we used for obvious reasons. I mean, once he leaves for good, we'd like him to be able to find a new home among his own kind.” She shrugged. “I’m sure you know that others elsewhere have chosen to be turned into elephants, horses, even eagles. Your son wanted to be a cetacean.”

“And now he’s trapped inside this pool,” the man said bitterly. “You barbarians.”

“Oh, no, sir,” the Director said. “He’s not trapped at all. In fact, we have no intention of keeping him here any longer than we have to.” She pointed at the far side of the tank. “Look at the far side of the pool. Can you see those doors at the water level? They lead directly to the ocean. Each day, he’s spending more and more time out there, getting used to living free. When he’s ready, we’ll let him go.”

“You have no right,” the woman whispered. “My son did nothing to deserve being turned into that...thing.”

“It was his choice, ma’am.” The Director was proud of her self-control. “The law allows any adult who feels he or she is trans-species to apply for reassignment. You’re welcome to check it for yourself.”

“It’s cruel,” the mother persisted. “And anyway they can’t do it without the parents’ agreement.”

“Not at all. In fact, it would be cruel to force someone to remain in a physical form which is repellent to him. It’s the same principle as sex change operations, just taken one step further. Would you ban sex change operations as well?”

Neither of her visitors replied, so the Director went on. “Your son, as you know, applied on his own behalf, on his eighteenth birthday. He didn’t need your permission to apply.” She paused momentarily as the dark torpedo-shape broke water on the far side of the pool and breathed again. “We did all the tests, and he was found completely suitable.”

“And what did you do then?” the woman asked.

“Then we grew his new body from stem cells, scanned his memories and personality from his old brain, recorded them, and implanted them into the new one. The whole thing was absolutely without the slightest pain and discomfort. Nor was there any sawing of heads involved. As I said, please don’t look for information from the media.” The Director pointed. “That, there, is a completely new Akshay. He’s just got the same memories and feelings as the old one, that’s all.”

The father glared at the surface of the pool as though blaming it, personally. “What happened to him?”

“To whom?”

“To our Akshay, the original one. You scanned his memories and uploaded them into that...that creature. So what did you do with Akshay?”

The Director tilted her head, studying him. “You really don’t know?” She sighed. “I suppose you don’t. The entire idea is to give the person involved a new life as a creature of another species. As such, the old body is not just redundant, it actually defeats the purpose of the species transfer. If we just create a new creature, but let the old body continue with its thoughts and memories, the human body, I mean, it keeps suffering, don’t you see? Its problems aren’t solved at all by the creation of a new body with the same personality.”

“What are you saying?” Mr Sahni demanded. “You destroyed Akshay’s body?”

“No.” The Director glanced at the large clock on one wall. “Should we perhaps continue this discussion in my office?”

“No,” the man said. “We’ll talk right here.”

“Suit yourself.” The Director moved to a console mounted on the wall and pressed a few buttons. “It’s getting time for his outing in the ocean. As I said, he has to spend time in the open water, learning to be independent.” In silence they watched the doors at the far end of the pool slide open. Faint greenish light showed through.

“Do you force him to go out?” the woman asked. “You push him out into the ocean?”

The Director glanced at her. “Not at all. He looks forward to it, and comes back when he wants to.” She pointed at a shadow and a flicker of horizontal tail. “When he’s fully ready for a life in the wild he won’t come back at all. There he goes now.”

“Where is Akshay’s body now?” the man demanded. “Since you didn’t destroy it, what have you done with it?”

“He gave it to science,” the Director said briefly. “He said we could do anything with it that we wanted.”

“So you’ve taken it apart,” the woman replied flatly. “You’ve killed it.”

“No.” The Director pressed a couple of switches. Pumps began working, circulating the water from the sea into the pool, washing it out. “Your son’s body was exceptionally healthy and in excellent shape.” She remembered the boy as he had been, with his long, slim limbs, the muscles of his neck and shoulders, his handsome face, and how she’d wondered just why he’d wanted to give it all up for a life as another species. And then she’d seen the expression in his eyes. “We’re preserving it for when we need to use it.”


“That wouldn’t be of any use. No, his body is functional. It just doesn’t have a mind anymore. All the vitals are working.”

“But that means...” The Director winced as the woman’s fingers dug into her arm, right through the sleeve of her lab coat. “That means you can put him back for us as he was!”

The Director tried unsuccessfully to pull her arm free. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t get you.”

“I’ll explain what she means,” Mr Sahni said. “You said you recorded the memories and feelings from Akshay and implanted them into that...that whale. So that means you must have the recording. All you have to do is implant them again in our son’s body and...”

The Director had already held up her hand. “No. Don’t even think about it. Your son gave his body to science. It belongs to science.”

“It belongs to us,” the man snapped. “We created him, gave him food and shelter and an education, and brought him up. No matter what you say, his body belongs to us, and we’ll go to court if necessary to get him back.”

“The courts won’t rule in your favour. He gave his body to science, and in this case it belongs to this Station.”

“Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will. We’ll see.” The father’s eyes glittered, black orbs of hate. “But you can be certain that the media will back us to the hilt. You’ll find what happens to your public image then.”

The Director knew. She could see the talking heads on the television, the headlines in the papers. They’d call her and the Station heartless, cruel monsters, pleasuring in the sorrow of two abandoned parents. And with the right kind of media attention, they might even be able to influence the judges to grant an injunction indefinitely prohibiting them from using the boy’s body.

“We can’t do it, though, even if we wanted to,” she said, with as much equanimity as she could muster, and quietly pressed another button on the panel, an unmarked one that she’d hoped never to have to use. “In accordance with standard procedures – and you can check on them, sir – we deleted the recording after transferring it to the new body. It’s actually a legal requirement that we do so.”

There was a silence that stretched and stretched like a rubber band. The yellow lights glittered on the water in the pool.

At last the man spoke. “In that case,” he said, “there’s only one thing left for us to demand.” He stared at her. “You know what that is.”

“Yes,” she said, profoundly glad she’d pressed the button. “I’m afraid I do.”


The beaked whale had been out to sea, well past the island, and he had swung in a curve back towards land when he heard the sound.

He’d been desperate to leave the pool today, much more so than any time before. Usually he liked swimming out to sea, which he did several times each day, and would only go back to the pool after he’d had enough. It was a resting place, a kind of refuge, where he could float, surfacing only to breathe and sometimes to play with the Director, who was his friend.

He no longer considered himself to be the human who had been Akshay Sahni. Oh, he had the memories and the thoughts of that body, but it was another life, now, on the other side of a transparent curtain. As far as possible he tried never to look back past that curtain.

Until today, when the curtain had been forcefully ripped aside. He’d heard the Director’s voice, and without listening to what she was saying he’d come rushing to the surface, because she was his friend. But she’d not been alone, and she’d not been in the company of the other scientists. The memory of the two people she’d been with had been seared into his mind, even his new mind, as with a brand.

A voice in his ears, shouting above his head, while he buried his face between his hands and stared down at a book covered with maths problems that made no sense, that never had made any sense. “Why can’t you study? Look at Rinu next door. She comes first in class every time. And you? How can we even show our faces, with the kind of marks you get?”

He’d muttered something that only made half-sense even to him, and been rewarded by a blow across the back of his head hard enough to bring the tears brimming over his eyelids. “Don’t you dare talk back. You’ll do as you’re told. Now get back to that book and don’t let me see you even looking up till half past nine.”

And then, lying awake, biting his pillow stifling sobs while listening to them fight in the next room, over why they’d had him at all and who was to blame for the way he was turning out.  At eleven, he’d swallowed a bottle of ink, because he’d heard somebody say it was poisonous. All it had done was make his mouth turn blue, and then he’d vomited and made everything blue. At thirteen, he’d tried to cut his wrists, but given up from the pain. The next year he’d tried to run away, but never having been given any money of any kind, not even to buy sweets, he’d had to walk. He had not even managed to reach the outskirts before he’d been caught.

And six months after that, he’d been beaten black and blue after Rinu’s mother had reported gleefully that she’d seen him talking to a girl. He’d tried to explain that she was just asking him for directions, but that had made no difference. How dare he talk to some hussy instead of thinking of his books and his duty towards them, his parents?

How could he even explain to them that absolutely nothing of this made any sense to him, that he wanted no part of this, that he didn’t feel he owed them anything merely because, without asking him, they’d seen fit to give him birth? How could he tell them that their bank accounts and their social status meant as little to him as their movies and restaurants, their ambitions for themselves and for him? Would they understand a word? He knew the answer.

He’d been nerving himself up for another and more definitive suicide attempt when, just after his sixteenth birthday, he’d read of the new techniques for trans-specific transfer. And at once he’d known exactly what he’d wanted to do.

Even now, even in his whale-brain, buried behind the bulging melon of his forehead, he remembered the words. No longer must we be parted by the tyranny of genetics, the article had said. Extinction will be extinct. The withered branches of the tree of life will sprout leaves anew, rainbows arch over desert, and unhappiness be banished to the shadows where it belongs. Once the technique is perfected, there’s nothing we cannot do.

Once the technique is perfected, it’d said. Of course, the technique was not yet perfected, and he’d gambled that they needed volunteers. He’d gambled, and he’d won.

For the first time in his life, he’d won.

And in the pool, rejoicing in his new body, he’d grown more and more certain that this was victory. He’d felt real for the first time, things finally had begun making sense. And he’d liked the ocean, too, though he’d known quite well it would take many months more until he felt able to leave for good.

Even then, he’d decided, he’d return every once in a while, to let them know he was all right.

Today, though, he’d not wanted to go back; not until the two people from behind the curtain had disappeared, back in the past where they belonged. He’d dawdled as long as he could, but the sun was going down and he didn’t yet trust his abilities in the ocean at night, so he finally began to curve back towards the shore.

As he went, he scanned the ocean before him, clicks and tweets radiating in a cone from his melon, bouncing off things in his way, the echoes telling him about them. At first, he’d found it hard to get used to forming images by sound echoes, but now it came easily to him. Though the water was darkening and murky, he knew where the rocks were; he saw a school of fish, which heard him and went rushing away. The sound images showed him the wrecked trawler on the bottom, an angular shape he knew well, having investigated it on his first few swims outside the pool before deciding it had nothing interesting at all. And beyond it, the muttering line of echoes that was the shore, with the familiar cubical block which marked the entrance to the pool, his temporary home.

And then it was that the noise had come, hammering at his ears, and pushing him back like a blow with each pulse of sound.

He’d never heard it before except once, in the pool, when it was being demonstrated to him by the Director and the others; and then it had only been for a moment, a moment that had made him scream. He knew the other signals, those that called him back when he’d been out too long, or warned him to return because of something unexpected, like a sudden storm. But they had been used less and less in recent days, as he’d grown more accustomed to the outside ocean; and he’d been assured this was for the direst emergency, that it wouldn’t be used at all. And now there it was.

“Go away,” the signal shouted, in pulses of ugly noise which jarred him, echoed inside his skull, made pain shiver up his nerves. “Go away, go away, go away.”

And underneath, unstated but clearly understood, it said, too, “...and never come back again. Never, for anything, ever come back again.”

Flinching, crying out in distress, he banked in a swooping curve, rose once to breathe, and set course for out towards the night-black sea.


For hours after her visitors had finally left, still shouting threats and promising to be back in the morning, with lawyers, the Director leaned on the railing by the side of the pool, looking down at the water. Her assistant came and spoke to her. She only shook her head, not looking up, and at last he went away again.

There would be time to talk later. Time for unofficial, off the record, explanations. Not now, though. Not now.

“You’ll record the memories from that whale when he comes back,” the visitors had said. “And then you’ll put them back in our son’s head.” But of course the whale hadn’t come back.

“I did tell you that he’d leave permanently when he was ready,” the Director had said finally. “He must have decided he was ready now.”

They hadn’t believed her, of course, and said so. “We’ll keep coming back,” the mother had said. “We’ll keep coming to check, and we’ll find him here. And then just see what we’ll do to you – this place, and you, personally.”

She was sure they’d be back, too; but they wouldn’t find the whale. They would never find him.

“The problem is,” the Director whispered, “that I won’t find you either. I’ll never know what happened to you, as long as I live. I just hope you’ll be happy. I wanted to give you a start in life, but that’s all I can give you now, that little hope. I’m sorry.”

Her words fell on the water, on to the yellow lights reflected on the waves in the pool as they moved to and fro, and were washed by the pumps out into the evening tide.


The sea was vaster than the whale had imagined, and deep and black, and he was all alone.

His echoes traced a cone of sound into the water, and it brought him news of what lay before him; emptiness to the far reaches of hearing, except for flickering shapes that spun away into silence at his coming. He was alone, and suddenly he was frightened, more than he’d ever been in this new life; more than he’d ever expected to be frightened again. And then he was floundering at the surface, spouting in harsh breaths; and he cried out into the dark sea, screaming his loneliness and his fear and his pain.

She came to him, then, coming up beside him and matching his swimming stroke for stroke, so exactly that it was only when he felt the touch of her flippers on his flank, like the ghost of a memory of the time before, that he knew she was there. Her beaked head nuzzled him, gently, her teeth nibbling him, until his breathing quietened, and his heart settled back into its rhythm.

Don’t be afraid, she told him, in wordless words, a new language he already understood. Don’t be afraid, I’m there, I’m there for you. I’ll be with you from now on.

The two whales broke the surface, breathed in unison, and then dived together, down into the ink-black depths of the heaving, endless sea.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Thursday, 26 May 2016

South Asian Problem Solving In Five Easy Steps

You know how magazines keep pushing articles at you teaching you how to solve problems? Evidently, articles teaching you how to solve problems sell. And people are always eager to find out what others do to solve problems, aren’t they? Especially really difficult problems that seem to have no easy solution?

So here, in five easy steps, is the tried-and-true South Asian method of solving problems.

Step One: Ignore the problem.

Suppose there’s a messianic religious terrorist movement sweeping parts of the world, and there are good reasons to believe that your own country might fall prey to it; in fact, there are good reasons to believe that this terrorist movement has already set up cells in your country. What should you do?

Deny the problem exists. If anyone is crass enough to point it out, declare that he is stupid and ignorant, and/or that he’s an anti-national traitor and agent provocateur. If you ignore the problem, it might just go away.

This doesn’t only refer to terrorist movements, of course. A drought or massive pollution, or thousands of farmer suicides caused by disastrous crony capitalist financial policies – all these should be treated in the exact same way.

Step Two:  Call the problem a conspiracy by your political opponents.

Suppose these terrorists, who you have successfully ignored so far, begin making small scale hit and run attacks, killing one or two people each time? Now you can no longer actually pretend there isn’t something going on. But don’t let that mean you have to actually do something about it! In fact, there’s a perfectly simple way of actually taking advantage of it. Just blame your political opponents! You do have political opponents, don’t you? Blame them! Say they’re doing it! Even if it’s a drought or an earthquake, it’s all their fault!

Step Three: Covertly promote the problem to use it against your political opponents.

Let’s say the terrorist group we’re talking about has its main base in a state where your political opponents are strong. These opponents may belong to another party or even to another faction within your own party. No matter, an enemy is an enemy, and this is a golden opportunity to weaken them.

Start covertly arming and training the terrorists. Give yourself wryneck looking the other way as they get arms and ammunition in huge amounts, gather explosives, and set up zones where only their writ runs; a classic guerrilla war strategy. Then blame this on the incompetence of your political opponents, who let this happen right under their watch. Or make sure relief materials for the drought do not arrive, or are stolen by crooked bureaucrats and other middlemen. Again, you don’t have to do anything but look the other way. Easy!

What – you ask – of the fact that just in the previous step you were saying that this was a conspiracy by your political opponents, and now you’re saying it’s their fault because they’re so incompetent? You’re worried about people catching you contradicting yourself? Listen, these are people who are hard put to it to recall anything more than the movie they watched last weekend. You could say aliens from Aldebaran came down to bless you and get away with it.

What happens when the problem grows so severe that your political opponents can no longer control it? Simple: use it to push them aside. Call for elections, saying you’re the only one who can save the nation. Or if the law allows, do it without calling for elections. Why even bother with such superficialities?

Step Four: Now that you’re in charge, make the problem much, much worse.

Now that you’re in charge, let’s say there are ten different ways you can go about tackling this problem. Of these, nine may or may not succeed, but at least won’t make the situation materially worse. These might include peace talks, besieging the terrorist controlled areas to stop them from breaking out and to cut off their arms supply, a propaganda offensive to make the people withdraw their support to the terror movement, correction of national policies which created said support in the first place, or a combination of them. The tenth, however, will be absolutely, totally, guaranteed to make things infinitely worse. Let’s say, for instance, that the terrorists which you’ve been encouraging have now taken over a major religious structure, such as a grand temple or a major mosque, sacred to millions. What you must do is attack this mosque or temple with tanks, artillery, and commandos, and commit a bloody massacre. Whatever happens to the terrorists inside, and even if they’re all killed, what will happen is an immediate massive increase and solidification of their support.

Similarly, if there’s a drought, make highly visible tours of the area to “see for yourself” how things are. Perhaps people are starving to death because there’s no food, but your convoy of vehicles including your huge security entourage, must hog the highways and close them off to the lorries bringing relief supplies. Perhaps people don’t even have drinking water? Make sure tankers drive along in front of your convoy, spraying the road with water to lay the dust so it doesn’t disturb you or obscure your view of the fields cracked and fissured by the sun’s rays. If you visit a refugee camp, make sure the local politicians have cleared space for a stage for you and arranged personable-looking refugees for you to talk to for benefit of the cameras. And so on.

Step Five: Declare a victory and use it to win the next election.

So you’ve destroyed the temple or mosque and killed some terrorists, or made your “tour” of the drought hit area. Announce victory! Do not make the mistake of waiting until people discover that the terrorist menace has increased, or that there’s now an actual famine in the area you just “toured”. Announce victory, make sure the tame media repeat the claim, and use it to win the next election.

Ah, but what about when the trouble starts again?

Have you not been paying attention? Go right back to Step Two and blame your political opponents, dummy.

This has been your Public Service Article on Problem Solving in South Asia. You’re welcome.

[Image Source]