Saturday, 11 June 2011

Three things you probably don't know about me

1. I feel a deep and personal affinity towards (sub-Equatorial) Africa. This is strange because I have never been to Africa, though I have had several African friends.

I feel far more affinity to Africans than I do to my fellow Asians, which is why when I had to create a fictional nation to host some of my stories, I set it in Africa (and called it Bisaria). I used to be able to speak fair Swahili at one time, though I’ve forgotten most of it; and at one point, I had made serious plans to emigrate to Kenya. I had also applied for a job in Ethiopia in 1996 but didn’t get selected.

I love African literature. My love for it began when I read Carcase For Hounds by Meja Mwangi, and deepened after I came across Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart trilogy. Unfortunately, books by African authors are difficult to come by hereabouts; I try to read what I can on the net.

But, again – I have never been to Africa.

2. I used to be a sleepwalker. Not very often, though, but I have had episodes throughout my childhood. Once I woke in the bathroom, without much of an idea what I was doing there. Another time I woke with my feet wet and muddy, though I was in bed and had no memory of leaving it, let alone the house.

The last episode I know of was at the age of eighteen, when my roommate informed me that in the middle of the night I had got up, gone to the window, began talking about a girl who was “doing something” and demanded that someone give me a rope. After that I, it seems, went back to bed. I have no memory of that at all.

3. I despise two foods – brinjal (eggplant to Americans), which makes me vomit (I mean projectile vomiting) and jackfruit. I can’t stand the odour of jackfruit, let alone eat any, a trait I share with my mother. I think it’s the smell which sets off the problem, because I have no problem with dried jackfruit chips (like potato chips). But even the idea of swallowing a slippery, slimy jackfruit makes me want to puke.

This thing is a jackfruit. It stinks.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Radio Activity

My family was the first in the locality to acquire a radio.

This was back in the 1930s, and said radio – which still existed, albeit in non-functional form, when I was a child in the seventies, so I saw it – was one of those affairs with a wooden cabinet, a cloth screen to cover the speakers, and huge knobs for tuning. It’s the kind of thing you keep seeing in Second World War propaganda posters.

Almost exactly like this.

This radio created something of a sensation in the world of 1930 India – somewhat like acquiring a Formula One car, or one’s private Space Shuttle, in a society still stuck with horse-drawn carts might be. Apparently, people from all the locality came to see it, and to listen to it, not just once but over and over again.

My grandparents, who were the owners of the radio, rather enjoyed the attention, I suppose. Certainly they didn’t discourage the people who came rubbernecking. And these people reciprocated with open admiration.

Except for two families of neighbours.

These two neighbours were actually my grandfather’s brothers, and their wives and children. They burned with jealousy at the thought that it was my grandparents who were getting all the attention. For a long time they didn’t come at all, even though they’d only have had to cross the street. Finally, one of the two families sent a delegation to see what the “radio” thingy might be.

My grandmother told me the tale with great relish:

“They went back, and began telling everyone, ‘Don’t bother going. It’s only a box, and when you press a switch, noises come out from inside and people start talking.’ “

Much later, in the early 1980s, television finally became a common thing in India, and while these neighbours and we weren’t on friendly terms any longer, you can bet your socks what they’d have said:

“TV? Humph, it’s nothing. Just a box, and you press a switch and people inside it begin moving and talking.”

I’ve just finished writing this, and now I’m imagining what they’d have said to a mobile phone. The best one so far:

"It's just a box. You press a button, and  the people you want to talk to will become small and crawl into it and talk into your ear."

Now excuse me while I crawl into your computer and write stuff there.

Thursday, 9 June 2011


Mama Cynthia was huge. She was like a gigantic black idol, almost as big around as she was tall. She didn’t look fat, just big and formidable despite her bright green and yellow dress and the red stone bead necklaces spread over her enormous bosom.

Her face matched her body, a round black moon under the brilliant yellow of her headscarf, which she wore like a turban. Her nose and lips were thick, her brows heavy, and her eyes like wet black stones. Only her ears were small and unexpectedly delicate, whorled like roses.

She sat on a small stool covered with a white cloth, behind a low table on which there were arranged animal bones, jagged rock crystals, and other things Dingane couldn’t identify. Sticks of incense burned in holders set in the wall and filled the room with eye-watering smoke, and he had to fight down a cough.

“Sit down.” Mama Cynthia’s fingers were thick around as bananas, and beset with rings bearing stones of many colours. They flickered in the light of the bulb that burned in the ceiling. “You come to see me early. I don’t usually see clients at this time of the morning.”

“I beg your pardon.” Dingane sat down on the low chair Mama Cynthia had indicated. “I had to see you. It’s a matter of importance.”

“Tell me.” The big woman leaned over the table, her bosom brushing the bones and crystals. Her eyes bored into his face. “Tell me what is bothering you, and omit nothing.”

By the time Dingane had finished describing his dream, Mama Cynthia was leaning back in her chair, her fingers laced under her small chin. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.

Dingane blinked. “That should be obvious. Free me from the dream. I want you to make it so I’m not troubled by it anymore.”

“You want to be exorcised of the dream. I understand that.” Mama Cynthia looked down at her bones and crystals, and moved some of them around. “However, my young friend, it’s not as simple as that.”

“It isn’t? I thought you could do anything, Mama. I’ve heard so many things about you.”

“Yes, I can make love potions, and I can cast spells that will cause wayward men to return to their wives. I can dismiss evil spirits that sit on men’s shoulders and drive them to harm themselves, and others. I can do all that. But this is different.”

“Different? How?”

“You’ve been out in one of the haunted forests?” Mama Cynthia tapped a bone on the table for emphasis. “You’ve been in the war. So you know what I mean. Have you been out in the haunted forests?”

“No,” Dingane said. “I haven’t left the city since the end of the war. But I’ve heard of them, of course.”

“Quite naturally. Everyone’s heard of them. You know how the spirits of the restless dead haunt the forests where they died? Not even the most powerful witch doctor of the clans has power over them.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“This dream. It’s not something that can be pulled out, burned to ashes, and buried in the ground outside.” The big woman looked up at Dingane, her eyes flat and hard. “There is big juju that makes this dream. You will have to find the person who set the juju. Only that person can lift it and only that will make you free.”

“Who? Who set the juju?”

 Mama Cynthia looked back at him across the table, with not the slightest trace of sympathy in her eyes. “The little girl,” she said. “The little girl you pulled from her mother’s breast. Wherever she is, whoever she is, you must find her.”

“Someone used her to set the juju?” Dingane asked, his throat dry.

“No,” Mama Cynthia said, preparing to rise. “She did.”


Dingane could afterwards not recall a single detail of his drive back home. It seemed to him that one moment he was still in Mama Cynthia’s room, searching for his wallet to pay her, and the next he was parking the car outside the house he shared with Stellah. He didn’t know what time it was until he saw her come out, dressed for work. She said something to him, and he responded automatically, not thinking of what he was saying. She was still trying to talk to him when he gave her the key and walked into the house.

He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about what Mama Cynthia had told him. “You have to find her, even if she is dead. Even if it is her spirit that set this juju on you, you have to find her. There is no other way that you will find peace.” She had paused, deliberately. “For the wrong you did her, she has never forgiven.”

“I was only thirteen years old!” Dingane had protested.

“I know nothing about that. I have only told you what I know.” Mama Cynthia had held out a beringed hand, and the contents of Dingane’s wallet had vanished into her purse.

“Where do I look for her?” Dingane had asked.

“Where does the wind blow? How can one say? She could be anywhere. Or nowhere. I cannot help you with that.”

“Suppose I do find her. What should I do to make her take the juju off me?”

“She will want something. What, I can’t tell you, but it will be something you must give her. If you can, she may lift it. If you cannot...” the fat shoulders had shrugged.

Dingane moaned. His head was hurting. He wished now he’d never gone to Mama Cynthia, never had even taken the car out this morning. He should have stayed home and let Stellah make love to him, and they would have been the better for it. But it was too late for that now.

Dingane had seen much of the witch doctors during the war, and afterwards. They were fearsome presences in the back of his mind, men – and a few women – who could kill with their juju, could make you invulnerable to bullets and bombs and then take away that invulnerability on a whim, people whom it was absolutely lethal to cross. Why, even the General had never done anything without first getting a witch doctor to strengthen him. The witch doctors’ influence spread everywhere; nobody was, or could be, immune from it. Even his boss at work, a bible-carrying Christian, whispered when talk turned to witch doctors and to their juju.

No, he couldn’t put aside Mama Cynthia’s pronouncements as nonsense. Dingane massaged his head with his fingertips and thought back to what she’d told him. He had to find the girl and get her to lift the juju. But how could he find her? He had no idea whether she was even alive or dead!

It was getting on time for him to go to work. Pushing himself up, he took his uniform from the hooks on the wall and began to change. The uniform was grey and had gold-braided epaulettes and a peaked cap with a multicoloured badge on it. It made him feel ridiculous.

He decided he wouldn’t say anything to Stellah just yet. In many ways, she was completely Westernised, and would probably mock him for having gone to a witch-woman, as she would refer to Mama Cynthia, rather than to a psychiatrist. It would have been useless to explain that the fat woman in Goodtown could look into him and tell him the real reason for his troubles. She wouldn’t believe him, and the last thing he needed now was a fight.

He took a minibus to work, as usual. It was a converted truck, colourful and noisy, with benches down the sides for people to sit, and was always crammed to overflowing. Today he was lucky, because he knew the driver, and the man squeezed over to allow him to sit in the front, his legs on either side of the gearshift.

“Something on your mind?” the driver asked, over the grinding of the engine.


“I asked if there’s something on your mind. You look distracted.” The driver removed his cigarette from between his lips and held it out to Dingane. “A puff?”

“No, I’ll be all right.” Dingane watched the hood of the bus. A small butterfly was clinging to the metal, its orange wings fluttering in the wind. “What do you do when the past comes calling?”

The driver laughed. “I can’t afford to think of the past, my friend, or of the future. If I can make enough to feed and clothe myself today, that’s good enough for me.”

“Some of us aren’t so lucky,” Dingane said without thinking.

“You call that lucky?” The driver glared at him out of the corner of his eye. “Try staying a night or two without food because you had to spend the money for a doctor, because your kid’s got colic, and see how that works for you. Lucky!”

Dingane bit back a comment about having spent years in the bush without knowing how many days would pass before his next real meal. “That butterfly’s getting a free ride,” he told the driver instead. “Wonder where he wants to go.” Even as he said that, the butterfly flapped up and was carried away by the wind.

“You shouldn’t have talked about giving it a free ride,” said the driver, scowling. “What’s wrong with you today, friend? I shouldn’t have let you sit here in the front.”

“Sorry,” Dingane said.

“No,” said the driver, shaking his head. “From next time you can stand in the back if you can’t find a place to sit.”

“I said I was sorry,” Dingane snapped.

The driver was still shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have taken you aboard today at all.”


After his shift at work ended, Dingane went to visit Jandu. He hadn’t met the other man in well over a year, and when he walked up the narrow flight of stairs to the third-floor flat where Jandu had lived, he wasn’t altogether surprised to find someone else in residence.

“Is he in trouble with the police or something?” The new occupant, a tall man with tribal scars on his cheek, had peered suspiciously at Dingane with his cross-eyes. 

“I just want to get in touch with him,” Dingane had explained. “I’m just an old friend of his.”

After some coaxing, the cross-eyed man had finally admitted he knew Jandu’s new address, and had given it up. “If he isn’t in trouble with the police yet,” he’d said, “it’s because he’s bribing the entire force. The kind of low-life I have coming here looking for him, you wouldn’t believe.”

The evening was warm, the streets of the city filled with a thousand smells, when Dingane finally arrived at the address he’d been given. It was in one of the newer residential districts that had sprung up around town since the war had ended. Jandu had come up in the world.

He was at home when Dingane knocked on his door, and peered at him for a moment through the peephole before he opened the door. “Well, it’s you. It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, hi, Jandu. I had to go to your old home to track you down here.”

He’d changed, Dingane noticed at once. Not in a definable way – physically he was the same as when they’d last met – but the lines of his face had shifted and hardened, and his voice had changed too, acquired a smoothness it had never had.

“And I suppose old Squint had things to say.” Jandu stepped somewhat belatedly aside and motioned Dingane to enter. “I see you’re still working for the same people, and came here directly from work by the looks of it.”

The living room was furnished with sofas, lamps on tall stands, and the floor was covered by a leopard-pattern carpet. A girl sat up from one of the sofas as Dingane entered and looked at him from under hooded eyelids.

“Lilian,” Jandu said. “This is Dingane. A friend from long back.”

“Hello.” Lilian was very beautiful, far prettier even than Stellah, but there was a studied languidness about her movements and speech. Dingane wondered if she was on something. Considering Jandu’s line of work, it was more than likely.

“So, what brings you here?” Jandu asked without ceremony. “You’ve reconsidered the offer I made last time, have you? It’s still open.”

“ Stellah wouldn’t like it.” Jandu made what was obviously a good living as a narcotics distributor, though he had investments in prostitution on the side. He’d offered Dingane a job in what he’d grandly called his “organisation” the last time they’d met. When Stellah had heard about it she’d almost hit the roof.

“Well, it’s your business.” Jandu wasn’t pleased, but apart from a tightening of his lips, his expression didn’t change. “So, since it’s not about the job, what exactly can I do for you?”

Dingane glanced at Lilian. She’d swung her legs back up on the sofa and was leaning back, examining her fingers with deep interest. The lamps threw the shadows of her hands, distorted, on the walls.

“You can talk,” Jandu assured him. “She’s not going to be a problem.”

“All right. You remember back during the war, when we attacked that village that was burning? We killed the men and women, but we spared some of the kids.”

Jandu stared at Dingane. “I don’t even remember my own name half the time when I think of those days,” he said. “Forget about any particular village. What about it, anyway?”

“Nothing. I’m trying to track down one of the kids we spared. For...personal reasons.”

“And you thought I could help? Sorry, my friend...” The old Jandu would never have called anyone my friend. “But I don’t remember anything about it. Whereabouts was it anyway?”

“It was a Giro village,” Dingane said, “on the other side of the Black River. That’s about all I remember about it.”

“There you go. Half the war we spent attacking villages the other side of the Black River. How d’you expect me to remember which?”

“Well, who might have any idea where we were those days? The General?”

Jandu laughed. “The General’s trying his hardest to forget he ever was a general, ever since he’s joined the Unity Government. The last time I saw him, he was fat as a pig and oily as a politician. The last thing the General will admit is that he knows anything, even if he does.”

“I suppose I’m wasting your time then,” Dingane said and began to rise.

“No, wait a minute.” Jandu held up a hand. “Why do you want to find this kid? Is it very important?”

“It is to me, but it’s personal, as I said. Never mind. I’ve got to get home. Stellah will be wondering why I’m late.”

“Do you love her?” The voice from the sofa startled both of them. “You seem to be thinking a lot of what she thinks.”

“Love whom? Stellah? She’s my girl.”

“You could do better than her, whoever she is.” Lilian went back to examining the shadows her hands threw on the walls, and giggled. Jandu gave Dingane an embarrassed look.

“I’ll do something,” he said. “I’ll ask around, among the people I know. Some of them fought along with us back in the war. They may have an idea.”

“Yeah, thanks. I’d appreciate that.” Dingane glanced once more at Lilian, who ignored him totally. “Good night,” he said anyway.

At the door, Jandu suddenly grabbed him by the arm. “I haven’t really changed that much, you know.”

“It doesn’t matter. You have to do what you have to do.”

“It does, actually.” He looked acutely unhappy, and for a moment the mask slipped and Dingane could see the old Jandu back again. “I try and keep from remembering the past as much as possible, you know? Because all the ghosts are there.”

“I know what you mean,” Dingane said, and touched his hand. “But my ghosts aren’t locked safely away. Not all.”

He glanced back over his shoulder at the top of the stairs. Jandu was still standing at his door, staring after him.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Cthulhu Wakes

Deep in the drowned city of R’lyeh, Cthulhu rubbed his head and opened his eyes. He wasn’t happy.

Cthulhu had a hangover, a bad one.

The party Nyarlathotep had thrown had gone a little too far. Cthulhu groaned when he remembered the wine. Made of mermaid tears, it tasted like distilled Great One essence but packed a punch like an angry colossal squid. Cthulhu, deceived by the flavour, had downed several tankers full. He had no real idea of how he’d returned to his home in R’lyeh, just hazy memories of stumbling through the ooze, falling several times from the effects of the booze.

Cthulhu groaned again. It wasn’t the first time he’d got so drunk and it would certainly not be the last. However, usually he could sleep it off and be fine in a few weeks. Not this time, though.

Something had awakened him. Cthulhu scratched his head with one of his tentacles, accidentally knocking off some of his favourite sea lice, and wondered what it could have been. Even as he wondered, it came again.

Distance had deadened it, the distance that lay between him, in the drowned city of R’lyeh, and the surface far above. It came in waves of pressure, sound and radiation, smacking into his delicate sensory endings, threatening to set his migraine off on top of the hangover. Cthulhu rolled himself into a foetal ball and waited for it to be over. It wasn’t.

Even as he cowered, it came again, blasting at his tentacles and extremities. Cthulhu groaned, loudly enough to set off an earthquake and a small tsunami. Lumbering to his feet, he began rising towards the surface, his great limbs pushing the water back slowly.

A sinking ship or two fell on him, bounced off and disappeared into the depths. Cthulhu ignored them. Sinking ships were nothing to him. He’d sunk a few himself once.

Long before he’d got to the surface, the booming and the radiation he’d felt had faded away. But in their place now, his sensitive tentacles found another source of intense annoyance, this time electronic, blaring across the spectrum of sound and vision.

Furiously, and many years after he’d started out on his journey, he surfaced. The electronic screaming was much, much louder now. One sort, in particular, angered him to frenzy. Striding across the ocean, a relatively short walk brought him to land, each step – or stumble – assaulting him with more and more infuriating electronic mayhem.

Cthulhu had been angered a little too much this time. He’d had his moments before, when he’d been tempted sorely into rising and smiting the world down. Like when that bearded little twerp’s corpse had come sinking down to him as he was rising from R’lyeh, had introduced its late owner as Ossummuh Binlaaden and had asked him to join Alka Eda,  whoever that might be, in the jihad, whatever that might be. But it hadn't been a patch on this.

It was night when he reached land. Lights flashed from all around a stage where several two-legged creatures in big hairdos and brightly coloured costumes jumped and flailed about and screamed as though they were being castrated alive. In front of the stage, many thousands of other two-legged creatures, mostly female, also jumped and screamed and waved their hands or pieces of underclothing, in the air. And the electronic blast from it was the type which had infuriated Cthulhu to frenzy.

Cthulhu rose, He rose to his entire mountainous height, threw his head back and shrieked at the sky. He reached out with his fingers and picked out the jumping-est of the brightly-coloured big-haired castratos and held it up to his face.

“What the hell do you people think you’re doing?” he shouted. “What can’t you let me sleep? What part of ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn can’t you understand?

The little creature looked back at him. “Hey man,” it said. “What a voice! I’ve got a proposition for you...”

And thus was born the phenomenon of Cthulhu, the new singing sensation.

His duet with Lady Gaga, Spawn This Way, is up for the Grammys this year.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Iron Road

I suppose one of the things that really dates me – and, incidentally, the state of this nation in the time I grew up – was the fact that when I was a kid, one of the things I dearly wanted to be was an engine driver (that’s “engine” as in “locomotive”, for those who don’t know).

And, of course, by “engine”, I meant “steam engine”.

                                                              Like this
Now, I don’t know what the kids today hang their dreams on when they’re eight or ten years old. What are their ambitions? To be a pro video game player? An investment banker? A space shuttle astronaut? Back in the 1970s (and earlier in other nations), any red blooded young male had as one of his top ambitions to be a steam engine driver. Most of us older ones will know what I’m talking about.

Oh yes, I grew up when Indian railway trains were still dragged around by black smoke-puffing steam engines with wonderfully (if subliminally, at that age) phallic boilers mounted in front. I remember once – at the age of six – sitting at the window of a railway carriage watching a steam engine parked right beside, so I had a glorious view of the interior of the cabin. You never saw so many dials and levers. Paradise.

Steam engines. I had a book on them, talking about how wonderful they were (it was a British book published long before I was born and catered to the aforesaid boys who wanted to drive ‘em). I used to drive those engines in my imagination, leaning out of my bedroom window and imagining I was one of those engine drivers leaning out of their cabins, the better to see the signals by. I must have circumnavigated the planet the amount of engine driving I did from my bedroom window.

Well, you know what? I’ve been thinking about it – and the job of a steam engine driver would have sucked.

Consider the idea for a moment. Let’s have a look at a typical steam engine cab.

                                                            Actually, that's kind of clean. And rad.

Now, the first thing that ought to strike anyone is that those guys really did have to lean out of the cabins because with that whacking great phallic boiler in front of them, they couldn’t see a damned thing in front. Sure, they had two tiny windows up on the sides. You try and imagine steering your car looking through windows like that. Sounds like fun?

                                                                            Great fun.

Now, remember that this thing is burning coal, and that there is this firebox near your knees that’s full of – well, obviously – fire. Every few minutes, your fireman will have to shovel in a load of coal – and that means coal dust as well, naturally – fouling the atmosphere, and probably raising the temperature inside your non-air-conditioned, metal box to sauna levels.

                                                                 But without the babes.

And then there are those blazing pieces of coal which will spill out and burn your legs and the fireman’s hands (of course you never thought of being a fireman, only a driver, though in the Indian railways you’d get to be a driver only after years of being a shovel jockey) and the cinders that would shoot out of the stack and drop into your eyes. And the speeds you’d have to maintain, and the signals you’d have to watch out for, not to mention (on Indian tracks) the cows, goats and fucking morons who use the railway tracks as a pedestrian way, and who also, quite routinely, try to get across at level crossings even when a train is not just on the way but visibly in sight.

And all on a salary that…well, I have no idea how much it pays, but I guess the average person makes more.

Oh the delights.

The last steam engine I actually saw in action was in 1990 or thereabouts (though I believe heritage trains catering to the foreign tourist trade still use them). It was in a railway station in Bihar state, puffing the regulation clouds of dirty smoke and steam in equal amounts.

No, thinking back, the last thing I’d have actually wanted to be would be an engine driver. But at the same time, I rather pity the kids of today.

As far as I can see, they’ve forgotten how to dream.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Sell

One day I decided to sell my soul.

Please understand that this decision did not come easy. But for someone who has been out of work for so long that even his unemployment insurance is collecting unemployment insurance, there comes a time when there is no other recourse.

Down to my last but two pocketfuls of change, then, I rubbed two coins thoughtfully together and decided that since it came down to a choice between starving to death and selling my soul, the latter was the preferred option. I’ve never fancied the idea of starving to death anyway.

But how does one, I wondered, go about the business of selling one’s soul?

I checked the telephone directory. Since I did not have a telephone, I had to check the directory in the local newspaper shop, with the owner hanging around giving me dirty looks until I placated him by buying a newspaper. I might as well have saved my coin, because there was no Devil or Satan in the directory. Not a single one! I could hardly believe it.

Then I thought of checking on the net. In order to do this, I had to visit an internet café. Fortunately, my old driver’s licence was still valid, and I bought myself an hour’s worth of computer use with only half a pocketful of change. After trawling through all the usual Google results for the Devil and Satan, with a singular lack of success where it came to locating them, I’d almost given it up for a bad job when I had a sudden thought. I’d once had a girlfriend who had previously worked for a travel agency which had boasted that it arranged tours of heaven, hell and all points in between. If it arranged tours of hell, I thought, it could at least tell me how to contact the management.

With only a few keystrokes, I found the agency, and copied down the telephone number on the inside of my wrist. I then went back to the newsagent.

“You want to buy another paper?” the proprietor asked me hopefully.

“No, I want to use your telephone.”

“No paper,” he told me, “no phone.”

So I bought another damned paper, stuffed it into my pocket and went to use the phone. The travel agency’s phone rang and rang. I was just about to give up when someone finally responded.

It was a breathless young woman. “Heaven and Hell Tours,” she said. “May I help you?”

“You arrange tours of hell?” I asked.

“Yes sir,” she replied brightly. “You wish to book a tour? We have several packages, from the half-day budget excursion to the nine-day Grand Tour.”

“Uh…” I considered. “What are the costs?”

“Well, sir,” she said, “that depends, doesn’t it, on the package you choose? Our rates are really very competitive. Of course, you’d need special equipment. But you can hire that from us, unless you’d rather provide your own, of the same standards of course.”

“What special equipment?”

“Asbestos suits, to start off with. The fires of hell, you know.”

“Isn’t asbestos illegal these days?” I asked curiously.

“Oh, hell doesn’t have environmental regulations. So which package should I sign you up for, sir?”

“How much is the…half day budget excursion?”

She named a figure that set my heart falling towards my scuffed and cracking boots. I couldn’t even imagine how many pocketfuls of change that came to. “That’s rather more than I could envisage paying at this moment,” I told her.

“Oh, I think we could work something out, sir,” she responded, still sounding slightly breathless. “You could always pay with a part of your soul.”

“A part of my soul?”

“Standard valuation rates,” she said. “We assess your soul, and you pay with a part of it according to the value we put on it according to the tables. It’s a completely transparent process. We, in turn, resell it to the folks in hell.”

“Actually,” I confessed, “my purpose wasn’t really to visit hell. It was to sell my soul – all my soul – in exchange for a lifetime of bliss. You know what I’m talking about?”

“Oh, you mean the Deal.” She sounded a bit doubtful. “I don’t know if we handle that. You’d have to talk to the Boss.”

“The boss? You mean the manager?”

“No, the Boss, the real Boss. Could you come over to the office, sir?”

“I suppose I could. When?”

“No time like the present, is there?”

I took down the office address, and even more important, the directions, on the newspaper I’d bought and turned to find the shop owner looking at me sourly.

“For talking that long,” he said, “you’ll have to buy a magazine.”

So I bought one, without even looking at the cover right then. It turned out to be a porn magazine, and I gave it to the blind beggar at the corner. The last I saw of him, he was turning its pages over, avidly, his dark glasses hanging round his neck.


The office of Heaven and Hell Tours wasn’t that easy to find. One had to dodge down a dark alley, clamber down a manhole into a passage disguised as a sewer, and then slide down a fireman’s pole into a chamber at the far end of which was an elevator in front of which an armed security guard sat at an intercom. After frisking me and confirming my identity, he called up on the intercom to let them know I was coming, and only then did he send me up. The elevator rose higher and higher until I began to think it was maybe delivering me to heaven itself, but after what seemed like several lifetimes’ journey it slowed to a halt. I stepped out to find another security guard waiting, who then frisked me and verified my identity all over again.

“Will you come this way, sir?” he asked, and preceded me up a narrow corridor, dimly lit by thick yellow glass globes set in the ceiling.

The office of Heaven and Hell Tours was small but beautifully appointed, with décor showing green meadows and bright red flames. A woman in a white nightgown with angel’s wings on her back came to meet me, smiling. She had small horns on her forehead too, and one of them seemed in danger of coming unglued. When she spoke I recognised her as the breathless maiden of the telephone conversation.

“The Boss will see you now, sir. Will you come this way, please?”

I followed her through a small door at the back of the office and into yet another passage, which ended in another office. This was a much bigger one, with avant garde furniture and a huge picture window along one wall, which showed nothing but sky.

“The Boss,” my guide murmured, gesturing at the figure behind the desk, and disappeared, clapping her hand to her forehead just in time to stop the horn falling off.

For a moment I stood there looking at the Boss and the Boss looked back at me. Then she stood up and came around the side of her desk, holding out her hand.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” she said, in a rich contralto. “I am the proprietor of this concern. My name is Lucifa.”

“Lucy Fa?”  She was extremely attractive, from the artistically disarranged hair on her head to the expensive shoes on her narrow elegant feet. When I shook her proffered hand I felt a tingle as of an electric shock all through my body. “I’ve never heard a name like that before.”

She shrugged. “You might have heard me called Lucifer or something like that. It’s typical of the male chauvinist pig establishment to turn me into a male.”

“You mean,” I said, excitement thrumming through my veins, “you’re the Devil him…I mean, herself?”

“Why, of course. Satannah, Old Nickie, Lucifa, at your service. The Devil, in other words. You can call me the Bitch if you like, too. I don’t mind.”

I swallowed. “Lucifa will do fine.”

“Why don’t you sit down?” She waited until I’d ensconced myself in the softest chair I’d parked my rear on in longer than I cared to remember, and went back behind her desk. “Care for a drink? I can offer you a choice of Hellbrew or Ambrosia.”

“Hellbrew sounds nice,” I said.

“Good choice.” She pressed a button with one immaculately manicured forefinger. “I’m glad to see you have the taste not to pick Ambrosia. It’s pretty awful, rather like stale beer.”

The girl came in with two tall glasses on a silver tray, both full of a red smoking fluid. I noticed that she’d stuck her horn back on again. She smiled at me, put down the drinks on the desk, and departed. The Devil motioned to the glasses. “Your health.”

I sipped the Hellbrew cautiously. It tasted like hell.

“Good stuff,” I said. “Can you tell me why the Devil would be running a tour agency offering trips to heaven?”

“Why not? It’s good business sense. You’ve no idea how many people return from heaven determined not to spend eternity in a place that dull.”

“And who’s running things in hell while you’re here?”

“Oh,” she said, waving. “I outsourced that part of it to Bangalore. Administration always bored me anyway. Even so, I pride myself that we’re better run than heaven by any parameter you care to name.”

“Actually,” I said, finishing the drink, “it isn’t heaven I’m interested in.”

“My girl tells me you want to make the Deal. Is that right?”

“Uh, if that means, I want to sell my soul, then yes, that’s what I want to do. For a lifetime of pleasure, mind.”

“Yes, of course.” She appeared slightly amused. “That’s the Deal. Well, where’s your sales proposal?”

“My sales proposal?”

“My dear sir, “ she said, “you mean you don’t have one? How do you expect us to buy your soul if we don’t even know what we’re in for? We aren’t in this business to buy just anything, are we?”

“I’ve, uh, no experience in sales,” I said. “I’m sorry, but there it is.”

“I suppose you don’t have a contract lawyer either?”

“A contract lawyer? Do I have to have one?”

“I see you really have no idea how this business is run,” she said. “How do you expect your interests to be protected unless you have a contract lawyer look over everything? You don’t expect our legal department to do your paperwork, do you?”

“If I had the money to hire a contract lawyer,” I told her, “I wouldn’t be here trying to sell my soul, would I?”

“Um…I see what you mean. Let me think.” She clicked away at her laptop for a few minutes. “All right, we’ll offer you a deal. Your soul for standard service. You will of course offer a guarantee against manufacturing defects. If your soul’s defective, you have to replace it.”

“Huh? How do I replace my soul?”

“That’s your problem, isn’t it? Not ours. Well, is it yes or no?”

“What does this standard service of yours consist of?” I asked cagily.

“Just what it says. You’ll get what you ask for, as long as you live. No, before you ask, we don’t know how long you’ll live, and we aren’t going to engineer your death ahead of time. That kind of thing gives us a bad name, don’t you see? What do you think we are, some kind of devils?”

“Uh. OK.” I searched my pocket and found the last handful of change. I didn’t even have enough for a porn magazine now. “I’ll take it,” I said.

“Of course you will. Just sit here while our legal department draws up the contract.”

The legal department took its time drawing up the contract, It took so long drawing up the contract that the sky outside turned from day to night to day to night again, and I lost track of the time.

“How much longer?” I asked finally.

“The legal department has some problems,” Lucifa said. “We’re suing heaven for non-payment of dues, and the lawyers are mostly busy on that. You have to wait.”

“If this takes much longer I’ll croak,” I croaked.

“Have some Hellbrew.” Lucifa got me the drink herself. “There’s more if you want.”

“This tastes like hell,” I confessed, sipping.

Lucifa smiled. “You’ll get used to it,” she said.

From the Baboon Chronicles

Once upon a time, there were two troops of baboons which lived in a deep and lush valley in the middle of the savannah. These two troops kept to their own territories and did not interact with each other, though sometimes a baboon or two from either side would meet to squabble or mate when nobody was looking.

But then, one day, in the middle of the valley, a most wondrous thing happened. A tree suddenly grew heavy with fruit, its branches weighed down with luscious orbs that just begged to be eaten. As soon as they had seen it, both troops of baboons rushed upon the tree in order to strip it of its edible load.

“It belongs to us,” the birds which lived in the tree protested, but they were chased away, their nests destroyed and their eggs broken. The two troops of baboons then had the tree to themselves, with no competitors...but for each other.

Promptly, the two baboon troops began fighting desperately over the fruit, biting and scratching at each other, until the branches of the tree were broken.

Then a young baboon rose up from amongst the troops and said, “Brothers and sisters, we must make peace. For if we do not, if you fight each other, soon the fruit will be knocked off and trampled into the ground, and there will be nothing left to eat – for anyone.”

But the baboons paid him no heed, but rather intensified their fighting, until the fruit was knocked off and trampled into the ground, and there was nothing left to eat, for anyone.

And then they set upon the young baboon and tore him to pieces. They were quite justified.

It was all his fault, anyway. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Chapter Two: Stellah

After Dingane had left, Stellah moved around the house, cleaning and mopping. She didn’t really like housework, but found the routine soothing. It gave her a chance to think.

If it hadn’t been for the war, she thought, she’d probably never have been in this situation. Her father had been a prominent businessman, one of the richest in the country, and she’d spent the first years of her life in a mansion in the hills above the city with servants to attend to every need, and her future life assured. Her father had been a modern man, and had no patience with ideas about a woman’s place being in the bedroom and a son being the only natural heir. She’d study business administration in the best college abroad she could get admitted to, and after that she would take over her father’s import company. It had all been decided before she was old enough to walk.

But then the civil war had come, and the first of several coups. Her father’s business had gone along with his money and the mansion on the hill, and her parents now lived on a small farm in the country which had once belonged to her mother’s father.  Nowadays she rarely saw her parents, and when she did, they did not speak of the past.

Stellah bent close to the floor to clean under the bed, chasing out a few dust mice. Sometimes she wondered if the life her parents had planned for her would really have been better. Now, in her twenties, she had finally begun to acknowledge some of her own limitations to herself, and she was far from certain that she would have been able to handle the stresses of running a corporation. Sometimes she wondered if her current job as a cashier weren’t perhaps too much for her.

Rubbing a painful spot on her lower back, she went to straighten the clothes in the wardrobe. Dingane often hung the clothes sloppily, almost falling off the hangers, but Stellah had a passion for order. She put them all facing the same way, with the same distance between them, as though they were soldiers on parade. The symmetry pleased her, but had many times driven her boyfriend to distraction.

“It’s not the army, damn it,” he’d said once. “We aren’t living in a barracks here.”

“I just don’t like a mess,” she’d said, taping down the curling edge of a poster on the wall. “That’s all.”

“It’s not a mess,” he’d yelled, shocking them both with the outburst. “It’s normal. It’s a normal life!”

Sighing to herself at the memory, she went to fix herself breakfast and lunch. Dingane had been acting stranger and stranger these last few months. They’d been living together for almost two years now, and once she’d thought of marriage, but lately she’d been wondering how long they could even stick it out any more.

Oh, she’d been taken with him, the first time they’d met. It had seemed like one of the tales she’d read about, of love at first sight. He’d been assigned as security to the shopping complex where she’d just started at her job at the emporium. She’d been instantly attracted to his clean-cut good looks, so unusual after the years of pain and terror. But there had been no way to get to know him, because she had neither the time nor the opportunity to spend time with a security guard on rota.

One evening, someone had tried to steal her car. Dingane had noticed the man trying to break into it, in the shadows of the basement garage, and had chased the thief half way down the street. He’d then gone looking for the car’s owner to tell her what had happened.

She still remembered the way she had hugged him with spontaneous gratitude, and how he’d been acutely embarrassed by it. After work, she’d offered to take him out for dinner, and to her surprise and joy he’d accepted. Sitting across each other in the dark and smoky restaurant, with the chatter of other diners all around and boom boxes blaring music in the background, they’d actually talked for hours, and she’d opened  up to him, talking about her life, much more freely than she’d talked to anyone – even her parents. By the time they left, she knew she would see him again.

A month later he’d moved in with her. Life had been even harder then, just after the war had finally ended, and pooling their resources had been only common sense, in the interests of economy. That was how she had put it to him; and besides, her small home was much better than the noisome and tiny flat he was then sharing with seven other young men. He’d needed persuading, but eventually he’d agreed.

She’d been amazed by his behaviour in those first days. He’d acted as though he was a guest at a palace, terrified of inadvertently saying or doing something wrong. He’d spoken only when spoken to, and tried to vanish into the background as much as he could. He hadn’t even slept with her for nearly a month, and in the end it was she who’d seduced him.

Scraping her used breakfast dishes into the sink, she felt the familiar empty ache in the pit of her belly. Over the past months, physical intimacy of any kind between them had dropped to vanishing point. When she tried to make love to him now, he reacted as though it was an imposition. He hardly even touched her these days.

She had some idea of what was troubling him, more than he suspected. She knew something of his past, as much as he’d told her, and suspected more, because she’d filled in the blanks from her own experiences from the war years.

He hadn’t ever asked her about what had happened to her during the war, and, except for alluding to the scar that cleft her forehead almost in two, she’d never told him. It wasn’t as though she was ashamed of what had happened to her; she’d played the blame-the-victim game and found it was a loser’s proposition. She hadn’t told him because he had his own demons to grapple with, which made him moan and cry out in the night, and she didn’t want to add her problems to his. Besides, she told herself, she’d handled her past much better than he had. He was the one who needed help – not she.

But even now she often lay awake nights, listening to him breathing, and telling herself that she was safe, that the past was done with and would never come back to trap her again.

And most of the time she could almost believe it.


The war had come to Stellah on a Friday, just as school had ended for the week. The school, which had been boarders only, was one of the most exclusive in Bisaria, and had struggled to keep going even as the country had imploded all around it. The girls, happy at the prospect of two days of freedom, had laughed and chattered as they’d rushed to their dorms to pack for the weekend.

Stellah had then been all of twelve years old. Like the other girls, she’d been only vaguely aware of what was going on outside in the world, and had had no worries about the future. She had stuffed her homework and a few clothes into a bag and gone down to the school gate with her best friend, Karima, to wait for her father’s big black car to pick them up. Karima’s parents frequently travelled abroad, and the girl had stayed over weekends with Stellah many times before. There were many other girls, similarly waiting.

Instead of the parents’ cars they expected, a line of big green trucks had turned up, and soldiers in green uniforms and carrying guns had got out and forced them back into the school. They had shouted a lot, and cuffed the girls who’d been slow to obey. The girls had all been forced into the big auditorium and the soldiers had moved around the school with their guns, shouting and banging around. Everyone had been very frightened, because they had no idea what was going on.

That night there had been shooting, so much that the walls had trembled like an earthquake. The school staff had tried to barricade the doors of the auditorium with desks and tables, but close to midnight the doors had been burst open and a lot of men and boys had come in. They weren’t in army uniform but were heavily armed and had begun slashing around them with knives and machetes, and shooting in the air. Stellah had tried to crawl under a desk but had been pulled out by the feet. She remembered the light flashing on the edge of a machete as it came slashing down at her head.

When she’d regained consciousness, it was morning, and she’d been outdoors, in a ditch. All around her were bodies. She’d been lying on bodies.  She’d recognised most of them. Just beside her had been Karima, her head almost severed from her shoulders. Her teacher was there too, her round face covered in blood. Stellah had not cried, She’d been in too much pain and shock to cry.

After some time she’d managed to crawl out of the ditch, and found herself on the edge of the school’s football ground. She’d begun crawling along the field towards the school buildings, dripping blood as she went, until she’d got dizzy and passed out again.

When she’d come back to her senses for the second time, she’d found herself roughly bandaged and a captive of some of the boys and men who had broken into the auditorium. They’d treated her with a rough kindness at first, and not beaten her or starved her. When they’d left the school, they’d taken her with them. The rapes and beatings had come later.

She’d spent most of the rest of the war as a slave. She’d cooked and cleaned for the militia, and acted as a pack animal when she had to, and as a sex slave most nights for whoever had wanted her. She’d learned fast, in those days, what it took to survive, and she’d done whatever she’d had to do. She’d realised early on the virtue of good looks, and had played off admirers against each other to get the best deal for herself, in terms of food and drugs, the small gifts that had made life bearable. She’d also lied and stolen, when she could, what she could, because her only allegiance had been to herself.

There had been other things she’d done. Once or twice, when the group had been hard-pressed, she’d even had to get a gun and fight alongside the men. It had been a kind of education she’d never have got in school, and sometimes she’d been obscurely grateful for it.

And afterwards, when a ceasefire had been signed and they’d finally let her go, she’d been told that she was a whore and worse. But the people who had told her all that had never had to go through what she’d had to go through, and it had been easy to ignore them. They didn’t signify.

But sometimes she wondered how badly she was scarred inside from the war. She wondered if the past ever really went away, and whether it was possible ever to have a normal life again.


Stellah glanced angrily at her watch and pulled on her stockings. If Dingane wasn’t back within ten minutes, she’d have to take the bus to work, and she hated that. She hated the looks the men gave her, and the way their hands seemed to be itching to poke and prod at her flesh. It made her feel dirty, like a piece of meat at the market, far worse than her days as a sex slave. It was the reason she’d bought the car, even though she couldn’t really afford it.

Maybe she should call him, she thought. But he hadn’t taken his cell phone with him – it was sitting on the bedside table. Even if he had taken it, why should she call him? He had to learn to begin keeping promises without being nagged, hadn’t he?

She thought again of how Dingane had changed in recent months. He’d always been reticent, keeping a part of himself withdrawn from her, and, she suspected, withdrawn even from himself. But in these last weeks and months he seemed to be shrinking into that part entirely, like a snail into its shell. She could barely talk to him any longer.

Once again she wondered if the time had come to leave him. If they couldn’t even interact meaningfully, maybe it was better that they parted. One of her colleagues at the clothing emporium had a larger and better apartment and was looking for someone to share it. She should perhaps take the woman up on her offer, and let Dingane have this place. At least he wouldn’t have to go back to sharing his space with eight or nine other men.

But she didn’t want to. That was the simple thing, when you came right down to it. She didn’t know if she loved him any longer, or whether she’d even loved him in the first place, but she did want to heal him if she could. Perhaps, she thought, it was a conceit. Or perhaps she had simply learned to get what she wanted, regardless of the consequences.

And what she wanted was to heal him, if at all she could. She owed him that, she thought. And maybe she owed it to herself.

She’d finished dressing and was about to leave the house when she heard the car draw up outside. Dingane was walking up the steps when she opened the door, holding the keys up in his hand for her to take.

“There you are.” Only now, as she took the keys from him, did she realise that she’d been worried for him, that she’d been afraid that he’d been hurt in an accident, or worse. “Where have you been?”

“Out.” He didn’t look at her. “I told you I’d be back in time.”

“I left breakfast for you,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Thanks.” He still didn’t look at her. “Have a good day at work.”

She tried one last time. “You’re on the afternoon shift today, aren’t you? Noon to eight?”

Without replying, he pushed past her and into the house.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011