Saturday, 19 November 2011

King Jong Ill...?

I was reading a story on the Home Page Of The Dead website about a zombie outbreak in North Korea. Struck me that the author took all the propaganda he could find, much of it provably outdated/false, and shoehorned it into a single package.I mailed him about it, didn't get a response.

It strikes me that there's some kind of innate resistance in the Western world to believing anything but the worst about North Korea. Certainly I don't believe the place is a paradise, but when people refuse to even attempt to acknowledge that things might be a bit different from the standard propaganda presented in the usual accounts (and bolstered by defector stories - defectors, as anyone with sense can tell you, have a vested interest in telling you what you want to hear) I wonder why.

After all, we know all about the WMD fables in Iraq, etc, and it strikes me that the credibility of unimpeachable Western media sources isn't all that high. At the same time, we know that while inveighing against the evil flattopped madman in Pyongyang, the West has no problem cozying up to that great and liberal nation, Saudi Arabia, which conducts public beheadings and where women can't drive or even go out in public without written permission.

Is it perhaps because of the presence of a North Korean nuclear arsenal, which, however small and unreliable, insulates it against the threat of being "liberated"? After all, Iraq and Libya gave up their WMD programmes (not that Libya had much of one), and look what happened to them. North Korea hangs on to its rickety missiles and its handful of atom bombs, which may or may not work - and nobody thinks seriously of invading it. All they do is demand that the country give up its only means of self-defence. Coincidence? I think not.

Insult him as you will (and the author of the story I alluded to has him eaten alive by cannibal women), it seems to me that the lunatic flattop might not be such a lunatic flattop after all. 

Or maybe he's a zombie too.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Rendition: Review

Back during my schooldays, we had a teacher (a monk of the Christian Brothers of Edmund Rice, not the most liberal organisation in history) called Brother Beddoe. This person would only occasionally teach our class, but was chiefly memorable for the fact that he would spend a good half of it inveighing against the (then) Soviet Union. Apparently, the people of the USSR had “no rights at all” and, among other things without number, were tortured routinely in secret prisons to extract confessions from them.

I rather wonder what Brother Beddoe is doing today. I hope he’s alive and well, and that he keeps up with current affairs. I also hope he’s grown a sense of irony since I last saw him over twenty-five years ago.

If he’s still around, I’d strongly recommend Brother Beddoe do a few things. Like, watch a certain movie.

Y’know, I don’t like Hollywood much. I could say that it’s at least, overall, better than Bollywood, but that would be condemning with faint praise indeed. I much prefer European or Iranian cinema. But there are times, rare and precious, when Hollywood doesn’t drop the ball.

You’ve heard the word rendition, I suppose? The full form of the term is extraordinary rendition, and referred to the practice, started by that great liberal Kill Blinton (who destroyed more than one country in order to save its people), of outsourcing torture. Suspected “terrorists” were sent via planes (which landed and refuelled in other great and liberal European nations) to Arab countries where they were tortured professionally to squeeze out confessions. Whether those confessions were useful or even real didn’t matter – the programme needed confessions, and, of course, got them. And the practice soon stopped being "extraordinary" and became quite routine during Bush's Global War Of Terror.

This is one such story.

Anwar el-Ibrahimi is an Egyptian chemical engineer, who lives in Chicago with his heavily pregnant wife, Isabella, his son and mother. He’s lived in the US since the age of fourteen, has a green card, and travels abroad once in a while on conferences.

Meanwhile, somewhere in an unnamed generic North African country, a suicide bomber blows himself up in a public square. Among the nineteen people killed is a newly arrived CIA agent, a US citizen. The bombing is claimed by a local Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, El Hazam, and another CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal as “Douglas Freeman”) is ordered to lead the local investigation.

Anwar el-Ibrahimi has just landed after a trip to South Africa when he’s arrested, at Chicago airport before arriving at customs, and hustled into a CIA secret prison, while all records of his having flown at all are quietly deleted from the passenger list. His crime? Someone who may be a terrorist has, apparently, called his cell-phone number on several occasions. Of course, it may not be his phone (as when the phone was in his possession; as a character says, “these people” sell or give away their SIM cards, and one SIM card can often pass through the possession of many people in succession), and he denies knowing the man, but the CIA wants a confession. Someone must confess something, even if the act of extorting a confession by torture creates a hundred or a thousand enemies where there were none.

At the express order of CIA official Corinne Whitman (a superb performance by Meryl Streep – I love this woman’s portrayal of utterly vile people) el-Ibrahimi is shipped off to the same unnamed North African nation, where he’s stuffed into a tiny cell, stripped naked, waterboarded, and subjected to electric shocks to get him to tell all he knows about the terrorists he’s never heard of. Freeman is a mute spectator at these torture sessions, which are supervised by local secret police chief Abasi Fawal, who had been the target of the suicide bombing in the public square.

Fawal, meanwhile, isn’t a typical movie-monster. He’s a family man with a wife and two daughters, the elder of whom, Fatima, elopes with a young fellow-student called Khalid. Khalid is not someone whom the police chief is likely to approve of as a prospective son-in-law; still less, if he knew that the young man is a secret member of a radical Islamic fundamentalist group, and also someone whose brother Fawal himself had tortured to death in the prison.

On the other side of the planet, Anwar’s wife Isabella frantically tries to discover his whereabouts, finally asking for help from an old friend, senatorial aide Alan Smith. Although Anwar was erased from the passenger list at Chicago, proof exists that he had boarded the flight at Cape Town in South Africa, and his credit card statement proves that he had purchased items from the onboard duty-free shop. Smith approaches his senator, an alleged liberal, but is warned off both by the senator himself and Corinne Whitman, since defending an alleged “terrorist” is career suicide.

There are these separate stories moving side-by-side through the narrative, then: Anwar and his torturers; Fawal’s daughter Fatima and her boyfriend; and Isabella, frantically seeking information about her husband. The common element in them is one, the figure of Anwar, even though he isn’t even aware of the existence of most of the other protagonists.

In the way it juggles different narratives, this film can be compared to Babel. However, I’d call it infinitely superior to that film, where the only “common” element – if one could call it that – between the parallel stories was a rifle, and those who’ve seen that movie will probably agree that the Japan scenes were thrown in as an excuse for some of the most bafflingly gratuitous nudity ever filmed. Rendition is superior to Babel by just about any parameter one can think of, including the fact that it, too, has a time sequence shift which becomes clear only at the end. In Babel, that shift only serves to confuse the issue further; in Rendition, it serves to tie up loose ends and makes for a twist that I won’t reveal here.

There are various things that one takes away from Rendition, or should if one’s watched the film with any attention:

There’s the parallel between the thinking processes of the jihadist preacher who exhorts his congregation to give their lives for Islam, and not to fear the enemy’s bullets because all they can do is “set (their) soul free”, and the secret police chief who describes the act of torturing prisoners to extract confessions as his “sacred duty.” There’s the idiocy of torturing confessions which are completely false, because, as Shakespeare said five hundred years ago,

I fear you speak upon the rack
Where men enforced do speak anything.

There’s the pervasive fear in Washington of going against the official stance on national security, where the Constitution can be dumped along with one’s personal convictions just to avoid being called a “lover of Osama bin Laden.” And there’s the unnamed North African nation, where legitimate protestors are baton-whipped, arrested and tortured by police, so there’s no way out but violence if one wants change. Stupidity, cowardice and expediency, mixed into the most lethal cocktail one can think of.

Rendition wears its liberal credentials on its sleeve and would have pissed off a lot of people of the right-wing persuasion, because of the uncomfortable questions it asks. That these questions are “uncomfortable” are themselves testimony of their validity; they can’t be easily answered. Are 999 fake confessions, 999 tortured innocents, justified if by chance the 1000th just might be useful in preventing a terror attack which might, in the words of Corinne Whitman, have killed “7000 people” in London? And who is to say that it was useful, the people who have a vested interest in keeping the torture programme in existence? Who shall guard the guardians?

The best acting comes from Omar Metwally as Anwar el-Ibrahimi; not because of what he says or does, but how he depicts the character’s steady physical and mental deterioration throughout the film, turning from a cool and composed professional in the first scenes to a drivelling wreck towards the end. As his wife, Isabella, Reese Witherspoon is competent and thankfully doesn’t go the wrist-wringing route. Zineb Oukatch is good as Fatima Fawal, and as I said, Meryl Streep is superb in the few scenes she has. The cinematography is good and the North African settings look authentic.

I’m giving this film four and a half stars out of a possible five. I’m deducting half a star entirely because of the denouement of one of the narrative plots in the last fifteen minutes, which depends on a CIA agent suddenly developing a conscience and deciding to do the “right” thing even at the cost of his career – an intensely unlikely happening however you look at it. It’s as though the filmmakers suddenly realised that after one hour and forty five minutes of treating all Americans except Isabella el-Ibrahimi as villains, they needed to show that at least one of the others was someone with a conscience and the spine to do as it dictated.

In the final analysis, though, that’s quibbling. The film’s excellent.

Like Roger Ebert, who gave it four stars out of four, I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Stranger

Through the flat windscreen before me, the runway stretches like two lines of jewels into the night.

The front cockpit of the TS-11 is narrow, and in my bulky flying suit my shoulders nearly touch the side rails. It’s hot in the suit, but it will be cold up there in the sky tonight, and I’ll be grateful for the warmth then. I shift my body slightly, settling in, waiting for the clearance for take-off. It’s been a while since I’ve flown, and though I’m strapped in and plugged into its systems, I’m not yet a part of this aeroplane.

Waiting, I look up through the canopy at the sky overhead. Through scattered cloud, the moon and a couple of stars are visible. According to the meteorologists, the sky should clear up in half an hour. I’m not so sure I believe that, but then I’ve served at this airport for over two years now, and I know the local weather. They don’t.

Far off to the right, I can see the lights of the control tower, and the blinking red dot that marks the radar dish atop it. Half an hour earlier, I’d been up there, looking down at the runway and going over the details of the mission with the flight supervisor.

“You’ll be missing the dinner,” he’d said. “Too bad, huh? Think of all that food, not to mention the booze.”

“Too bad,” I’d replied absently, my mind on the mission. Although I’ve been flying for years now, and been a qualified flight instructor for two years, I always get nervous before a flight. It’s something I’ve never confessed to anyone, and even convinced myself is a good thing, that it keeps me alert and stops me becoming complacent. “You have a nice time at the dinner.”

“You bet I will.” He’d be on duty all night, not at the party the base commandant’s throwing, and he and I both knew it, but the teasing came naturally. “I’ll eat and drink enough for you too.”

“Get fat,” I’d said, picking up my map case. “Get hungover. Enjoy.”

Once I’m in the cockpit, the tension usually magically drains away. Not tonight, though, not yet. I’ve been away from flying too long, on a technical course and then a long leave. I can’t say I haven’t earned the leave, but not flying always carries a price. The aeroplane knows, somehow, that you haven’t been in the air a while, and reacts suspiciously, giving you its trust only little by little. I’d known it would happen.

My call sign crackles in the earphones of my inner helmet. It’s the tower. “You are cleared for takeoff.”

“Roger.” I pull the thick throttle back, gently, and we begin to roll. I’ve already taxied to the end of the runway, and the jewel-paths of the lights begin to whip past, and melt into a blur. I keep the nosewheel aligned equally between the two blurred lines of light and watch the groundspeed indicator, awaiting the moment to pull back on the stick.

Here it comes, we’re flying fast enough now, and as I ease back on the control column, suddenly the rumble of the concrete under the wheels is gone, and we’re no longer creatures of the ground. We’re flying.

Into the darkness, the runway still whipping by below, and we’re off and climbing, the lights falling behind and away. And the TS-11 and I, we’re coming together again. Not all at once; she hasn’t accepted me yet, but it’s coming. Glancing at the compass, I bank into the current heading. Now, apart from the dim red glow of the cockpit instrument lights, I’m surrounded by velvety blackness.

Scant centimetres away from me, the air whips by at five hundred kilometres an hour, cleaved apart by the blunt nose of the TS-11. The air is a torrent of darkness, drawn roaring into the twin intakes at the base of my wings, twisted and torn in the blades of my turbojet engine, and spat out behind in a white-hot stream of gas, pushing us along high over the earth, a metal bird of the night.

This is what I live for, what I’ve dreamt of since I first saw a plane. To fly through the air on wings, like a bird – who could ever want more? From the moment I first saw that aeroplane, a tiny dot high overhead trailing a white feathery contrail behind it, I’d wanted nothing more.

I bank the plane, automatically settling her into the new heading. I’ve been flying from this airport for two years now, and even without looking at the instruments I can estimate where to turn and where I am in reference to the ground.

If it was daytime, I’d have seen the sprawling mass of the hill called 731, named after its height in metres, below my starboard wing. From the air, 731 looks like a loaf of bread from a corner of which a giant has taken a stupendous bite. At night, 731 is shrouded in darkness, like everything else.

Far below and to the left, a tiny cluster of lights drifts by. It will be the village from where the civilian employees at the airport mostly come, and where the airmen go when they want to buy something not available at the base shop. It’s a noisome, ugly place, full of open drains and fly-blown market stalls. but from up here at night it looks beautiful.

From the air, everything looks beautiful. I remember a poem I’d read a long time ago, about a Nigerian city;

Running splash of rust and glitter
Flung and scattered
Across streams and hilltops in the sun.

From the air, the rust disappears, and the towns are jewels glittering in the sun’s light, the earth a crumpled sheet of green and brown. I’d known that was how it would be before I ever got into a cockpit, from the moment I’d seen that first aeroplane, a speck trailing a line of cloud behind it. And I knew that I would never be able to rest until I’d known it for myself.

I ease the column forward, flattening out from the climb, and pull back on the throttle. The engine note deepens, a low growl felt more than heard through the body of the plane and the howling torrent of air outside, through my outer helmet and inner helmet. I’ve grown to be able to listen subconsciously to that noise, parsing it for a false note, a tremor or missed beat.

I scan the dials on the board before me, illuminated in their dull red glow. There aren’t many of them. The TS-11 avionics are primitive by modern standards, little more than an altimeter, compass, variometer and ground and airspeed indicators apart from the gauges relating to the plane itself. But it’s an old plane, so old that it shouldn’t even be flying any longer. Theoretically, the air force has retired it, but the crippling shortage of modern trainers means it’s still flying from tiny airbases like ours. And, besides, I love this plane. Old or not, she’s still a joy to fly, far more than any of the more modern aircraft I’ve piloted over these last years. It’s going to be a shame when she kisses the runway with her wheels for the last time.       

My parents hadn’t understood my desire to fly. There never had been a member of the family in uniform, and they’d automatically assumed that I’d go into the family business, a prospect that had filled me with horror. There wasn’t a chance in hell that they’d ever pay for flying training, not they; so there had been only one option open for someone in my position.

“Join the Air Force,” the advertisement in the paper had shouted, and I’d sent in my application without saying anything to anyone. To my own astonishment, I’d been accepted. To my even greater astonishment, my father had actually relented at the last and decided to accept my choice of career, though he hadn’t been able to quite conceal his disappointment. And when I’d passed my pilot aptitude test, my cup of happiness had brimmed over.

I bank again, glancing at the instruments but anticipating the readouts, knowing precisely where I’d be, because I’ve flown this route so many times. Most of the time I’ve been sitting in the rear cockpit, with a nervous trainee sweating in the seat before me, far more afraid of what I might say to him than of what he might do to screw up. I try and go easy on them, except when they make stupid errors. There’s no room for idiocy in the air, or for carelessness.

Tonight, I’m alone, and in the front cockpit. I’ve been off flying for too long, and I need to go through the process again, proving my ability, before I can be allowed back into the regular training routine. By rights, there should have been another instructor in the back cockpit, supervising me; but there’s nobody else available at the moment for the duty. I’m on my own.

It’s a relatively simple mission, along a route I’ve flown a hundred times before, into the hills, a dogleg round a peak that’s part of the lower Himalayas, and back to base. I have fuel for an hour and a half in my tanks, more than enough, but I’ve taken a little extra along. I’ll be flying on instruments alone all the way, and it’s simple prudence to cater for emergencies.

I still remember the time I’d gone solo, flown on my own for the first time. The instructor had looked at me lugubriously, and given the go-ahead with obvious reluctance; but when I’d landed, he’d stood me dinner and told me how flawless my first time had been, and that I’d been a credit to him. You don’t forget moments like that. That was the moment I’d accepted, to myself, that I’d made the right choice to be a pilot.

I’d been right to have doubts about the weather forecast. The clouds haven’t cleared up, they’ve grown even thicker, and the few stars and the moon have all been swallowed up. Except for the red glow of the instrument panel, the world is shrouded in darkness. It’s perfect weather, actually, for genuine instruments-only flying, where one doesn’t have to pretend one can’t see outside, just fly entirely according to the readouts on the instrument panel.

This time, when I’d gone home on leave, my mother had urged me to stop flying. No girl, she’d told me, would want to marry someone who always “carried his life in his hand,” as she said. Hadn’t I had enough? I realised once again that she hadn’t understood, after all these years, just what flying meant to me. It was a communication gap that couldn’t ever be bridged.

Some things you just have to learn to live with.

“Base,” I say into my throat microphone. “This is...”

A sudden flash turns my world white, so bright that I flinch involuntarily, my eyes filled with pinwheeling afterimages. It’s followed almost instantly by another, only slightly further away, and the aeroplane is buffeted by a hammer-blow of superheated expanding air. I can hear the crack of it right through the canopy and both my helmets.

I’ve been in lightning storms before, a couple of times, and found the experience intensely unpleasant and unsettling. This is, however, the first time at night, and all the worse for having been entirely unexpected. Cursing the weather people, I pull back on the throttle, and call on the radio again.

At that moment I realise something’s badly wrong.

Not only does the tower not respond, I can’t even hear my own voice in my earphones. All that comes to me is a vague murmur inside my oxygen mask, no more. I try again, and the same thing happens.

The radio’s gone. Something has burned out, somewhere, maybe because of the electricity in the air. I’m cut off from the world below.

A moment later there’s another terrific flash of lightning, so close that it almost touches my port wingtip, and the displaced air throws the jet over on her starboard wing, the thunder so loud that it sounds like an explosion. I can smell ozone even through my oxygen mask.

It’s time to get out of here.

I pull back the control column, striving for height, to climb above the storm, but the lightning is blazing all around, as many forked tongues of it above me as there are to the sides, and the rain is coming down now, hard bullets of water smashing into my wings and fuselage and streaming down the canopy.

Steepening my rate of climb, I turn towards port, where the lightning seems slightly less.

It’s like flying up into the throat of a vortex of electricity, sheets of lightning and water slashing down past us as we rise together, my little trainer jet and I, together now, battering our way through the storm.

Again, and again, jagged tongues of electricity lick at me, and the thunder of their passing shudders through us both, shaking us like a leaf in a gale. But my old jet’s got a big heart, and she will hold on. I will not, cannot, fail her either.

Suddenly, the rain stops, as though someone has turned off a tap, and the lightning disappears. I’m flying on through unrelieved and complete darkness.

And then I realise something: I’m lost.

The realisation of this fact comes slowly. I’ve just tried, once more, to raise the control tower on the radio, with nothing to show for it but the mutter of my own voice in the oxygen mask, when I notice that the compass isn’t reading as it should – if my understanding of my position is anywhere close to accurate. I don’t know if I’ve been blown off course by the storm, or whether the compass has been wrecked along with the radio. This ancient cockpit has nothing like a GPS. Nor can I call base to ask for a radio check of my position.

Depending on which way the storm took me, and on whether my compass is working, I could be anywhere. If I’ve flown west, I might well be over Bhutanese territory, where more than one of our planes has lost its way, crashed, and never been found again. If I’ve been driven north, I’d be perilously close to the Chinese border. And to the east –

I don’t even have the faintest idea which direction’s east. And without knowing which way I’m heading, I can’t begin to think about finding my way back. If only I could hang on until dawn, I might have a chance, but I’ll have run out of fuel long before then. I check my watch and the fuel gauge. Assuming the latter is working, it and my watch both agree; I can stay in the air for just half an hour more.

By now, I should by rights have made the dogleg and turned back towards base, and checked in by radio. There will be, probably, the beginnings of concern, not yet worry; my friend who was joking about the dinner will be trying to contact me on the radio, but will not get an answer. The radar might, or might not, show them where I am. Theoretically, I should be on a radar scope at this very moment, but I know enough of the actual state of the radar network not to harbour much hope on that account. And even if they know where I am, it’s of little use to me if they can’t contact me and guide me home.

But that’s not an insurmountable problem, is it? If I just climb up above the clouds, I can navigate the stars, and fly in the general direction of the airport. And once I’m far enough south, someone will guide me, by flares if necessary, or maybe another plane will be sent up. All I have to do is climb above the –

And then I realise something else, with a sense of utter physical shock: I don’t know which way is up.

Spatial disorientation, they call it. It’s a peculiar danger inherent in flying through cloud or darkness. It’s extremely easy to get fatally disoriented, until one can no longer say even whether one’s flying level or diving or climbing or even flying upside down. One’s spatial orientation sense – the “seat of the pants” sense – betrays one, and the body insists, for instance, that one is flying straight and level when one is actually in a lethal power dive.

Many good, experienced airmen have piloted their planes into the ground while believing they were flying perfectly straight, despite all the evidence of their instrument panel gauges. “Controlled Flight into Terrain,” they call it, or CFT in short, a nice little acronym for a screaming descent into the earth at maximum speed. We’ve all seen the statistics and heard the horror stories. I don’t want to be one of those statistics, but it would be so easy to slam into one of the hills that must lie below me. The TS-11 doesn’t have the luxury of a radar set, so I’d never see it coming. They might not even find the wreckage and the fragments of my body in the thick jungle for weeks, if ever.

And my problem is far worse than just spatial disorientation, because I can’t even trust the gauges. After what's happened to the radio and the compass, I can’t trust a damned thing.

Suddenly, I’m scared. I feel the sweat crawling down my face and along the small of my back. I pull back on the column, hard, and my body tells me I’m climbing – but the altimeter remains stubbornly stationary, and the variometer seems to say that I’m slewing crabwise across the sky.

Where the hell am I, where on earth am I going? Once, long ago, I’d stumbled through a blackout, trying to find my way back to my hotel in a town where the streets were strange to me and where I didn’t speak a word of the language. I feel the same sense of frustration and helplessness, only now the stakes are rather higher than they were then. Now, my life hangs in the balance.

Pushing over the column until it feels to my body as though the jet’s flying straight and level, I consider ejecting. Theoretically, it should be simple – blow the canopy, pull the ejection lever, and the cartridge below my seat will propel me, seat and all, a safe distance from the plane until I can operate my parachute. The problem is, though, that I might well be flying too low to eject safely, or, if I’m not going straight and level, the seat may actually fire me towards the ground rather than away from it. And even if it does work, there’s no guarantee that everything else will go according to plan. There was the TS-11 crash where the instructor ejected but still died because his release mechanism failed, and he went down still strapped to his seat, crashing to earth like a bomb made of blood, bone, fat and muscle. I’d read that the skin of his fingers had been stripped away from the force with which he had been pulling at the ripcord of his parachute until the moment of impact.  

And legion are the pilots who have ejected successfully from all manner of planes, and survived – but broken their necks, legs and backs, condemning themselves sometimes to life in a wheelchair. Smashing into a hillside would be kinder than that.

Not that I’ll have much longer to choose my fate – I have less than ten minutes of fuel left. Ten minutes from now, I’ll be crippled, or dead. That’s not a choice one should ever be forced to make.

I’m beyond scared now – I’m terrified.

There are many kinds of fear of death. There’s the fear that comes in the last split second when one knows one’s going to die, but gives no time for the mind and body to react. There’s the one where death steals up slowly, as with a terminal disease or capital punishment, where one has time to adjust one’s thinking and prepare oneself. And there’s the fear when death announces its imminence, but leaves no time or opportunity for adjustment; the kind of situation I’m in.

My mind begins to swim in a sea of panic, my gut wrenching. I turn my head helplessly, aimlessly staring round the cockpit, at the meaningless instruments, and at the darkness outside. The treacherous darkness that –

What’s that, up there through the canopy, right overhead?

For a long moment, I stare up stupidly at the twin rows of tiny yellow lights, flickering dots in the gloom. They aren’t far away, and slip past even as I’m looking at them, so that I have to turn my head to keep them in view. What on earth are they – lights in the sky?

Only they aren’t lights in the sky.

The realisation comes to me at the same moment that my body reacts automatically, training finally kicking in, my feet working at the rudder pedals, my hands at the controls, turning the jet and rolling her over. I’d been flying upside down, and hadn’t even realised it.

I swing the jet round, and there they are again, right below me and only a little to starboard, two lines of yellow lights in the gloom, flickering below. What airport is it? Where on earth am I?

There’s no time to think of that now, just react. There’s an airport, and that’s all I need to know. I’ll get down first and sort out the rest.

Here we go then, back on the throttle, speed falling away as I turn my nose to the centre of those wonderful double lines of light. Undercarriage down, nose up slightly, and we’re going in, the ground rushing up, visible now, the lights no longer far away but rising up below the wings, and we’re touching, we’re touching down.

The tyres hit the ground, the plane bounces, and we’re back down again, rolling now, and I hold the nose down firmly, hitting the brakes. The lights are flashing by on either side, then slowing, slowing to a stop.

We’re down. We’re safe.

Switching off the engine, I lean back in my seat, eyes closed, trying to control the shaking in my hands, to get my breathing under control. I’m alive, and down – that’s so incredible that I’m still trying to assimilate it. I haven’t yet reached the state of relief.

There’s a sharp tap on the canopy by my left shoulder.

Taking a deep breath, I open my eyes. The ground crew will be here by now, and I’ll have to taxi to the parking apron. The emergency might be over, but I have work to do.

But there is no ground crew.

The man outside is dressed in a woollen cap and a shabby old coat. He’s quite old, the skin of his face deeply seamed and wrinkled, the long hair escaping from under his cap streaked with grey. He taps on the canopy and gestures, motioning for me to open it.

Utterly mystified, I slip the catch and push up on the curved Perspex. The canopy pops open.

The elderly man steps back as I begin the process of separating myself from the cockpit of the TS-11, to make myself independent of the plane, I again instead of we. There are others behind him now, and they are all like him, in rough civilian clothes, young men and old. They gather round the plane, talking animatedly to each other. Through the two helmets I’m wearing, I can’t hear what they’re saying.

For the first time in two hours, I stand up in the cockpit, lift the heavy outer flight helmet off my head, put it down on the seat, and unbuckle the leather inner helmet. Sound is suddenly distinct, the voices of the people around, all talking at once. Someone calls out loudly, and another voice answers from further away beyond the lights. I can’t understand the language.

The elderly man who’d tapped on the canopy comes up again as I climb out of the cockpit. He’s short, scarcely up to my shoulder, but carries himself with immense dignity.

“Are you all right?” he asks in Hindi. “You aren’t hurt?”

“No, I’m fine.” I look around. Beyond the growing crowd around the plane, the lights are flickering and dying down. For the first time, I realise that they aren’t really landing lights, merely old drums stuffed with oil soaked rags and charcoal and set on fire. The ground beneath my feet isn’t concrete either, just hard-packed earth, and the TS-11’s tyres have sunk partly into it. Where on earth am I?

“Arunachal,” the elderly man answers when I ask the question, as though the state’s name was sufficient in itself. “You must be tired. Come along to the village and rest.”

“My plane –“

“The boys will guard it. Don’t worry.” The man snaps something in his language, his tones bearing the unmistakable stamp of authority. “Nothing will happen to it,” he tells me. “Come.”

The crowd parts for us, the people looking at me with open curiosity. Some of them are just children, and they reach out to touch, their fingertips brushing my dark blue flying suit with the pilot’s wings and the rank stripes on my shoulders. The older man, who I’ve realised is the chief, snaps at them and they scuttle back.

The village isn’t far away, but in the darkness, with only a dim torch with a dying battery to guide our steps, it seems a long walk. The path is steep and stony, and the chief indicates patches where I should be careful, holding the torch close to the ground so I have no problem. He’s the only one with a torch, and I think that it’s being used only for my benefit.

There’s no electricity in the village, the dim light from a few oil lamps making it impossible for me to tell how large it is. The chief lights my way to his own house, which is at a short distance from the others, and somewhat better lit. A few women are waiting outside, and they set up an excited chatter when they see me.

“Come in,” the chief says, ignoring the women. “You look exhausted. Sit down, and we’ll eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” I begin to protest, but a young woman with a round face has already brought in a couple of dishes on a tray and put them down on the low table in front of me.

“My granddaughter, Kesang,” the chief says.

“Thanks,” I tell the girl. She smiles, bowing her head and briefly touches her palms together. She can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen, and almost beautiful when she smiles.

“Eat,” the chief orders, indicating the dishes. It’s a stew of rice and pork, the flavour overlaid with the sharp tangy taste of bamboo shoot. It’s not my favourite food, and I suddenly feel sick as the reaction from my narrow escape sinks in, but I force myself to eat, less to please the chief than not to disappoint the girl standing at the corner, watching.

“I have to telephone,” I tell the chief. “The Air Force needs to know that I’m here. I need to call them and...”

The chief shakes his grizzled head, popping a chunk of pork fat into his mouth. “There’s no telephone in the village. No telephone, no school, no hospital, no police. Don’t worry though. There’s a police station down in the town in the valley, and first thing tomorrow, I’ll send someone to tell them that you’ve come. They’ll contact your people.”

“How did you know to set those lights up?” I ask, swallowing the last of the food on my plate, and suddenly realising that I’ve enjoyed it after all. “You know, up there?”

The chief looks at me strangely. “You were flying round and round over our heads. It was obvious that you were in trouble. Besides...”

“Round and round?”

“Yes, for almost half an hour. I was afraid you’d hit a hill.” The chief waits while the girl gathers up our plates and disappears. “You came low down over the village two or three times, so low that we could see the light from your engine.”

It’s perfectly possible. Disoriented, in the darkness, and without instruments I could have easily been flying round and round in circles. It’s a minor miracle that I hadn’t crashed. Suddenly, the reaction catches up with me again, and my entire body begins to shake. I close my eyes, trying to hold on.

“Here. Drink this.” The taste of alcohol in my mouth, rough, burning my throat as it goes down. I cough, convulsively, and feel the warmth spreading out from my midsection.

“I’ll show you to bed,” the chief says. “You look all in. We’ll talk again tomorrow morning.”

I scarcely notice what the bed is like, managing only to pull off my boots and flying suit before collapsing into it. My last conscious thought is that though my friend back at the base had teased me about the meal I was missing, it was I, not he, who’d ended up stuffing myself with meat and booze.

Things are funny the way they work out.


In the morning the chief and I walk up to the plane.

We’ve had breakfast, the shyly smiling Kesang in attendance, looking fresh and lovely though she probably hasn’t had more than three or four hours’ sleep. I’ve tried to talk to her, but she didn’t reply. Probably she doesn’t know any Hindi.

We’d still been eating when a short, broad young man had arrived. The chief introduced him as Tada, and said he would take my message down to the police station. If he left right away, he’d reach the town by midday. On a piece of paper, I’d scribbled down the relevant details – my name, rank, the airbase’s duty phone number, and the insignia of my plane, and handed it to Tada, who’d promptly departed.

“He’s the best runner in the village,” the chief had told me. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

In the morning light the village is tiny, the houses lightweight and blending into the landscape, with terraces cut into the hillside for rice. Small chickens scrabble around between the huts, while a black sow snuffles her way along, leading a line of tiny piglets. On all sides the hills rise like jagged teeth, and I’m amazed even more than earlier that I didn’t hit one of them in the darkness.

“You came from that way,” the chief points. “Down between those hills, and then this way, over the village, and round again. Each time you came you were getting lower, and it was obviously just a matter of time before you crashed.”

I look up and swallow, my throat dry. “How did you manage to set up the drums and the fire in that short time?”

The chief looks at me. “We didn’t,” he says. “The things were all there already – we just had to set fire to them.”

“They were?” His words surprise me. “Why?”

“Well, you know...” He pauses, perhaps to catch his breath, and at that moment we come to the top of the path, and the field where I had landed the previous night lies before me.

It’s an old landing strip. I realise that instantly, looking at the flat strip of land between the two rows of oil drums, blackened and still smoking here and there. My plane, looking tiny in this setting, sits where I’d left it, the canopy still open. A few teenagers sitting nearby get up at our approach.

“See?” the chief says. “They guarded your plane the whole night. Nobody will harm it.”

“This is an airport, isn’t it?” I ask the chief. “It’s a runway, and those are landing lights. How do you have a runway here? But then there must be a radio or something?”

The chief is shaking his head even before I finish speaking. “It isn’t an airport,” he says. “But it was, a long time ago.”

“A long time ago?” A memory stirs sluggishly, something I had read, somewhere. “When?”

“Long ago,” the chief repeats. “During the war, the big war.”

The Hump. The memory is awake now. The Hump, of course! How could I have missed it?

Back during the Second World War, when the Japanese had captured Burma, the only route between British occupied India and its Chinese allies was over these hills, which the airmen of the day called the Hump.

They had flown it, day in and day out, through the long weary months and years, in all kinds of weather. I could picture them, in their old DC3s and C47s, struggling valiantly over the Himalayas, running a supply lifeline to the Chinese. The weather and the landscape were even more of a threat than Japanese fighter planes, and many of these intrepid aviators vanished and never were seen again.

“This was an emergency landing strip?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. It was set up by the sahibs, British sahibs, for planes that had trouble. I was very young then, of course, only a boy.”

“And did any plane use it?”

“Three or four, during the war.” The chief shrugs. “Shall we go back down? You can come again later whenever you want.”

“One moment.” I kick at the hard-packed dirt of the runway, and look into one of the oil drums which had served for lights. “All this has been maintained,” I point out. “The war’s been over for more than sixty years, so how come you’ve kept it in working order? It must be an awful amount of work to keep it this way.”

The chief looks suddenly embarrassed. “It was the Stranger,” he mutters.

“The stranger?” I stare at him. “What stranger?”

“Come down,” the chief replies, reluctantly. “I’ll tell you all about him.”


I told you three or four planes came here during the war,” the chief says.

We’re sitting in his house sipping steaming cups of tea. Kesang, as usual, had brought them, but hasn’t waited around to watch us drink. Maybe she has other duties. I haven’t seen anyone else in the chief’s family, and I think the girl looks after him.

“Yes.” The tea is milky and too sweet, and I put it down after a token sip or two. “What about them?”

“Three planes landed during the war,” the chief says. “They all arrived around midday, waited until help came, and then they flew off again. We gave the crew food and water and shelter, because the sahibs had ordered us to. I really don’t remember much about them.

“Then there was the fourth one. This was the one which came at night, and it was a dark cloudy night like yesterday, with no moon. We heard it flying over, and it was flying in circles, like you. We knew it was looking to land, but we couldn’t do anything.

“There were no fires then,” the chief continues. He looks down into his cup, and swirls it around a little. “We couldn’t do anything, though I and some of the other boys ran up there and waved our shirts around, hoping the pilot could see.

“The plane hit that hill, up there.” The chief points, through the little window. “I saw it crash. There was a flash of flame, like a flower, and a boom like thunder. It had been raining hard earlier, though, so at least the fire didn’t spread far.

“The chief at that time was Kigum. He was very old already, much older than I am now, and frail, but he personally led the rescue party. I was there too, of course, but there was little enough to be done.

“We found what was left of the plane. Parts of it were scattered all over, and some of them were still smouldering. They’re still there – if you like you can walk up there and you’ll still find pieces buried in the forest. We found the bodies, too, what was left of them. They were charred black, and we buried them up on the hill, because they’d likely have fallen to pieces if we’d tried to haul them down here to the village.

“It was only the next morning that the Stranger came into the village. I hadn’t been able to sleep from the excitement – you’ll realise that I was very young then, and it was all an adventure for me – and I saw him from the door of the house. Not this door, of course, the place has been rebuilt since then. He was staggering, and as I watched, he tripped over and fell, right about there, by that big tree.

“Old Kigum had him brought into this house. I don’t know why, exactly, except that it was the nearest, and probably he thought that the man should have the least pain in what time he had before dying. None of us had the least doubt that he’d die within the day.

“We knew, of course, that he was a survivor of the crash. He’d been dreadfully burned, but what was left of his uniform was the same as those worn by the British sahibs who had come on the other planes earlier. He wasn’t conscious, and so we couldn’t ask his name, even supposing he could understand us. My mother washed his wounds as best she could, and fed him a little soup, and we waited for him to die.

“He didn’t die. Even now, after so many years, I’m astonished that he didn’t. By midday his breathing had settled down and he was sleeping properly. By evening, when we’d all assumed he’d be long dead, he was even partly conscious and muttering. The whole village came to see, and my mother fed him again. But during the night he began to run a high fever, and it was obvious he would die, after all, if something wasn’t done, and quickly.

“Jumdo was the greatest healer any of us had ever known. Nowadays you have the big doctors in the city – I’ve been to Itanagar, and I’ve seen how they are – but, believe me, none of them could hold a candle to Jumdo. What he could do with those plasters and potions of his, you’d never believe it unless you’d seen it for yourself.

“Jumdo lived in the village down in the valley, the one which is now a town and where Tada’s gone with your letter to the police. Kigum sent someone that very night for him. As he said, it would be a shame if the Stranger died after going through all this.

“Jumdo arrived late that afternoon. I’d never seen him before, but heard a lot about him, so I was interested in seeing what he looked like. I don’t know what I was expecting – a giant perhaps, with fire in his eyes? But he was only a small man with a wispy beard and a large wart on his face.

“The Stranger was still alive, but just barely. His face was flushed with the fever, and his breathing again weak and ragged. My mother had put wet cloth on his forehead and chest to cool him down, but Jumdo had them removed at once.

“All that night Jumdo sat up with the Stranger. I saw a little of what he did, though without understanding anything. He crushed leaves into a paste and tied them to the airman’s burned face and chest, and asked me to hold his head up while he poured a whitish milky liquid down the Stranger’s throat. At intervals he pricked one of the sick man’s fingers, squeezed out a drop of blood and tasted it. Around midnight he burned some flat cakes of incense which filled the room with an acrid smoke, which made all of us cough and our eyes water. And when the smoke had dispersed slightly we saw the Stranger had opened his eyes and was looking around.

“He lived. The fever left as though it had never been. He was still extremely weak, and had to be fed like a baby, but he lived, and as time passed, he began to recover. But there was just one thing – he could not tell us anything, not even who he was.

“At first we thought it was because he and we had no language in common, but after a while we understood that he could not say anything at all. His body had survived the fever, but his mind had been wiped clean.

“We had expected that the sahibs would send up someone to look for the plane, and they would take away the Stranger, but time passed and nobody came. No more planes ever landed, and it seemed everyone had completely forgotten us. It was only much later that we heard that the war had ended.

“And during these months the Stranger’s wounds healed. His face and arms were still terribly scarred, but the flesh grew back over his bones, and he began to move around on his own and do things for himself, after a fashion. And yet we knew nothing about him, not even who he was.

“Did we try to find out who he was? Yes, we did. There were partly burned papers in what was left of his uniform, and when someone went down to the next village, we sent them along, with instruction that they were to be reached to the British sahibs. But nothing ever happened, and to this day I have no idea if those papers ever got through, and what happened to them.

“Once or twice a month, Jumdo would come up to look at the Stranger, and it was he who began to teach the man to speak our language. At first it was not easy, but Jumdo had patience, and ordered us all to help. As time passed, we succeeded. The Stranger never became particularly fluent, but he learned our language, like a child, picking up words and phrases and knitting them together.

“We never gave him a name. He came as the Stranger, and he lived among us as the Stranger. When he recovered his health we built him a house, and eventually a young woman of the village – it was Kigum’s grandniece, as it happens – married him. They had a happy life, I think, until he died a few years ago, and she soon after. The boy who took your letter – Tada – he’s the Stranger’s grandson. He’s supposed to marry my Kesang next year, and they’ll live in this house so she can look after me. I don’t have anyone else, after all.”

We sit in silence for a long moment, as I think about the story he’s just finished. “But,” I feel constrained to object, “if the Stranger never recovered his memory, what’s the connection between his arrival and your keeping the old emergency strip going? It’s not as though he asked you to maintain it, is it?”

The old chief peers at me over his empty cup of tea. “It’s all about him,” he says. “It was not a good thing to keep him here, so far from his people. If we’d had fires to light that night, if the plane had landed, he would have gone back home to them. He may have had old parents somewhere, a wife and children perhaps, friends and family who never knew what happened to him. They may have waited the rest of their lives hoping he would still come back.

“You understand what I’m saying, young man? We saved his body, but he still lost his life, all he’d had, and had to start over again. We don’t want that to happen, ever again, and that’s why we keep that place up there in working order.

“The Stranger was happy among us, so far as we could tell; but if he could have his own memories back, I still wonder what he would have thought of us. Sometimes I wake at night and think of it, and I have no answer.”


So, how were the headhunters?” the wing commander asks.

It’s three days later, and I’m back at the base. Helicopters had brought in fuel, spare parts and technicians, and I’ve flown my doughty old TS-11 back to base. It’s for the last time, though – I’ve already been informed that she’s to be retired with immediate effect in favour of more modern trainers. At least she’s headed to a museum, not scattered in fragments over a hillside like the Stranger’s plane.

Headhunters?” I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about. “What headhunters?”

“You know.” The wing commander leans back in his chair in the officer’s mess and gestures vaguely. “The savages. The ones you spent the last few days with.”

“Who says they were savages? They took good care of me, and not of me alone.”

“My dear boy.” The wing commander has a moustache strongly reminiscent of a caricature RAF pilot from the Second War, and he rubs its waxed tips with a forefinger. “Just two generations ago they were hunting heads. These people are just above the monkeys, you know. Civilisation means nothing to them.”

I stare at the moustachioed fool who outranks me, and think about the old chief and his shyly smiling granddaughter. “You’re right,” I tell him. “If this is civilisation, it means nothing to them. But maybe the Stranger could tell you what does have meaning for them.”

“What stranger?” he asks, raising his glass of beer to his lips. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, nothing,” I tell him. “Don’t mind me. It’s just someone who found love and kinship, a long time ago. You know, things that don’t exist in civilisation as we know it.”

“You’re tired,” the wing commander says kindly. “Go have a good sleep, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks so much for the advice,” I tell him, and walk out into the night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011     

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Hole To Everywhen

Neha found the Hole on her birthday.

Neha didn’t like birthdays. This alone set her apart from just about everyone in her class at school. Even her parents didn’t understand why she didn’t like birthdays.

“But, Neha,” they would say, “everyone likes birthdays. Why don’t you?”

“I’m not everyone,” Neha would mutter. “I’m me.”

She couldn’t explain to them that she wasn’t against birthdays, just didn’t like the forced jollity and the parties. Most especially she hated the parties. And she couldn’t explain that, because she was a girl who lived in her own mind, she’d rather be left alone to enjoy her imagination.

This birthday, Neha would be twelve years old. She was awkward for a twelve-year-old, too tall, too gawky, too plain, and interested in none of the things her classmates found so fascinating. The others didn’t like her. They didn’t dislike her either. They simply found her incomprehensible, and ignored her completely as far as possible. In past years, when her parents had thrown birthday parties for her, those of her classmates who had come had been as uncomfortable as she had felt, and they had left to a mutual sigh of relief.

Her parents never noticed the awkwardness. As far as they were concerned, her future was already fixed. She would study business management, learn how to network with people, and then marry someone of a social status of whom they could approve. Once that happened, they could sit back and consider their duty done. But they weren’t happy at all, because she was showing no signs of cooperating with their vision. She did what she wanted to, and that didn’t make them happy at all.

“You have to learn how to get along with people,” they’d tell her, over and over.

“Why?” Neha would ask, simply. “I don’t like them and they don’t like me.”

“That’s not the point,” her father would say. Her parents usually talked to her as a team, tossing the conversation back and forth between them like a ball. “You have to learn to get along with them. To...adjust.”

“Why?” Neha would reply, genuinely bewildered. “It’s not as though I’ll have to spend the rest of my life around them, will I?”

Her parents would always give up the argument in disgust.

Her teachers didn’t care for her too much either. “Far too lost in her own world,” they said during the PTA meetings. “Always daydreaming, even in class.” Though, since she still did well in the exams, Neha asked reasonably, how did it matter to anyone?

“Is it boys?” she’d heard her mother ask her father once, anxiously. “Is she thinking about boys?”

“She’s too young for that,” her father had replied soothingly. “Far too young for that sort of thing.”

Neha hadn’t been able to decide whether to feel amused or insulted. She didn’t daydream about boys.  Her imagination carried her far beyond such mundane creatures as the opposite sex, to dark towers raised against a stormy sky, to alien worlds where ice-cliffs stretched to a blue horizon or red deserts baked under a green sun, and showed her other things, things that she couldn’t describe even to herself.

This year, Neha wouldn’t have to spend her birthday at home. Her Grandma – mom’s mom, whom she hadn’t seen since she was old enough to remember – had always been someone her parents preferred not to talk about in her presence. Once or twice they’d abruptly changed the subject once they’d become aware that she was listening. Her Grandma was odd, it appeared.

But Grandma was rich, she had gathered that much. Grandma was rich, old, and chronically ill. Grandma might even be dying, and she wanted to meet them all, including Neha.

So Neha and her parents took the train all the way across the country. They had to take the train because Grandma lived near a tiny place far from any airport, and it was much too far to drive. The train was very crowded, very slow, and very uncomfortable. Neha was heartily sick of it long before it pulled into the little station and her parents and she disembarked onto a platform empty but for a couple of sleeping dogs.

“So this is what the middle of nowhere looks like,” her father said, looking around. “I always wondered.”

“We’ll just take a cab,” her mother said optimistically. “It can’t be too far.”

“Haven’t you been here before?” Neha asked. “I mean, she’s your mom, so-“

“I told you,” her mother snapped, “that she moved just after I married your father. I haven’t ever seen this place.”

“You should pay attention when your mom says something,” her father agreed. “Really, Neha, I don’t know how many times I’ve told!”

Grandma’s house was so far out of the little town that it was even more in the middle of “nowhere”, a sprawling old building set in a yard covered with yellow dust. The dust lay everywhere, turning even the leaves of the trees a dingy brownish hue, so that it seemed to Neha that if she broke open one of the leaves, she would find only the dust inside.

Her grandmother was small, though, and neat as though polished clean. She had to stand on tiptoe to kiss Neha, and then stood back and looked her up and down appraisingly.

“She’s tall, isn’t she?” she said at last. “Going to be taller than either of you, I’ll warrant.”

“She doesn’t eat enough,” her mother said defensively, as though it had been an accusation. “She’s too thin, that’s why she looks so tall.”

After they had changed out of their travel-stained clothes, Neha’s parents asked her to run away and play while they talked to Grandma, as though she were a little kid. She thought briefly of reading, but she only had two books in her bag, and one of them more than half-finished; and who knew how long they would be staying here? So she decided to have a look around first.

“Don’t go prying here and there,” her mother said, a distinct note of warning in her voice. Neha was reminded again that Grandma was supposed to be odd. “And don’t go too far.”

“Don’t worry,” Neha muttered. “There’s nowhere to go anyway.” She turned to go, and from the corner of her eye saw Grandma looking at her, with a look in the old lady’s eye so strange that she turned back quickly. But all she saw was Grandma looking at her with a bland smile.

“Go and enjoy yourself, dear,” she said. “Today’s your birthday, isn’t it?”

Neither Neha nor her parents had mentioned it, but then it wasn’t a family secret either. “Yes,” Neha confessed. “I’ll be twelve.”

“Happy birthday, Neha,” Grandma said. “It’s probably not very nice for you, being stuck so far away from your friends?”

“Oh, she has no friends,” her mother cut in. “She doesn’t mix with anyone. We’ve been telling her and telling her –“

Grandma was still looking at Neha, and again there was the sense of oddness in her eyes. “Have a good time,” she said, cutting off Neha’s mother in mid-spate, “and don’t be afraid of anything you might find. Remember that nothing can hurt you.” It seemed a weird thing to say, but everything about today was weird.

The sun beat down on the dusty yard when Neha finally made her escape. The dust still hung in the air like a tangible film. There were a few outbuildings, but they seemed as stuffy as the main house, and as uninviting. At the back of the house was a line of trees, and Neha went over towards them, hoping for some cool shade. But what she saw made her forget the shade at once.

On the other side of the trees was a pond. It wasn’t large, but its waters were covered with lilies, and dragonflies buzzed above it like tiny yellow and red helicopters. Neha walked along the bank, staring down at the plate-shaped leaves of the lilies, watching the ripples and splashes which might be fishes, or frogs, or maybe just the wind, which was finally picking up. It was fascinating, because she’d never seen a pond before.

She’d almost walked all the way round when she saw the hut.

It was a small place, only big enough to hold one small room, and tucked well into a clump of trees. It seemed an odd place to build a hut, so far away from the other buildings – and when she came closer she noticed that it was windowless and the one door was barred with a heavy plank of wood. For a moment, her hand on the plank, she hesitated, remembering her mother’s warnings. But her Grandma had told her she was free to go anywhere, so she finally lifted the plank off its supports and pushed open the door.

The room wasn’t dark. This was the first thing that struck her, because there were no windows and she’d expected darkness. The lights came from a cloud of tiny sparks that floated in the air like one of the swarms of gnats over the pond. As she came closer, they gathered round her, touching her face and arms, and she felt them tingling.

Behind her, the door of the hut swung shut in the wind, unnoticed. She would have ignored it, even if she had noticed it, because the Hole opened before her at that moment.

It was as though the darkness gathered itself together and twisted and ripped apart, rippling like a whirlpool. In the centre of the spinning darkness the lights whirled, thousands of little sparks gathering together until they formed a blazing funnel of light, drawing her in, pulling her into their centre, and though she had forgotten all about her grandmother’s admonition not to be afraid, she was far too fascinated to even think of drawing back.

She fell into the light. It spun around her, rushing, until she could see nothing but the light, until she was filled with it, until she felt herself part of the light, flooded with it down to the tips of her toes. There was no fear at all – she gasped with joy and wonder, wanting to embrace the light, to make it even more part of herself.

Slowly, reluctantly, the light began to recede. She could feel it drawing away from her, starting at her hands and feet and moving up her arms and legs, up her torso. She didn’t want the light to go – she wanted to hold on to it, but it left her inexorably, until only her eyes were still filled with it. And then it dimmed and was gone.

Neha gasped again, but with shock this time.

She stood on the rim of a vast valley, filled with a dark forest. Far away, on the other side, the land rose sharply in cliffs of sheer stone, higher and higher as though they would reach the sky. And at the very top, there soared the turrets and battlements of a tremendous fort, looking down grimly on the valley below. There was even a flag fluttering from a tower, yellow with a black design in the centre that she couldn’t quite make out. She felt eyes staring down at her from somewhere in that immense mass of stone and masonry, coldly appraising her, though she could see no one.

It was not a dream. She could feel the clammy cold around her, so different from the dry heat of her Grandma’s house; she could feel the stagnant air on her cheeks, the rock sharp through the thin soles of her sandals. When she stepped forwards slightly, her joints creaked a little, like those of an old woman.

She was seized by the arms so suddenly that she had no chance to react.

There were at least three of the men, one holding her by each arm, while the third grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. This man leaned over her and grinned with yellow teeth, the vileness of his breath making her flinch, and said something to her.

She could not understand a word.

He repeated whatever it was he’d said, but still she couldn’t understand, and at last he seemed to realise it. Reluctantly, he let go of her hair and said something to the other two, who loosened their grip enough that she could turn enough to look at them.

They were dressed in conical metal helmets and armour that seemed to consist of interlinked chain, with swords at their hips and triangular shields hung over their shoulders. They looked absurdly like extras from some Hollywood film set in mediaeval Europe, and she almost expected to see someone tall and handsome, with flowing hair, draw up on a horse and begin heroically slashing away with a sword.

Of course no such thing happened. They still had a firm grip on her arms, and began pulling her down the slope towards the valley, in the direction of the fortress frowning down from the crag. The one who had spoken to her, and who was obviously the leader, went in front, and she could see, on his shield, the same yellow-and-black design as on the flag. The black was a winged serpent of some kind, and she felt even more as though she were in a bad Hollywood movie. But the gauntleted hands gripping her arms were real, and the stones that scraped her feet were real, and the thudding of her heart was all too real.

Soon they were down in the forest, and now they were dragging her, legs stumbling in an effort to keep up. She had lost one sandal, and she could see that the foot was bleeding, and leaving bloody prints at every step. And yet she remembered the admonition of her grandmother, and tried to fight down the panic that tore at her breast.

They stopped suddenly, and she saw the horses. There were three of them, surprisingly small, little more than ponies, waiting where they had been tied under a huge tree. The men looked at the ponies and looked at her, and talked to each other in their unknown language, and she had a strong feeling that they were discussing what to do with her. The leader said something then, curtly, and the man holding her right arm let go and walked towards the horses, while the other’s grip loosened slightly.

She moved as quickly as she could, dropping to one knee and twisting her arm out of the gauntleted grip, and was up and running, dodging under a clumsy grab, shouts of surprise behind her. But she was slow in her one sandal and bleeding foot, and they were chasing her. She could hear their thudding footsteps, their excited cries. There were three of them, they probably knew this forest, and they would catch her in a moment.

Dodging between the trees, she doubled back on her tracks, hoping to throw them off, and almost managed it. But one of them saw her and shouted, and they were after her again.

It was then that she saw the house. It was hidden deep in the shadows between the trees, the walls of dark mossy stone that matched the green of the forest so well that it was almost invisible. Neha would have run past it, unaware, but for a flash of something pale, waving in the corner of her vision. Still running, she turned her head.

Her Grandma stood in the door of the house, beckoning urgently.

For the moment, she was unobserved by her pursuers, and she sprinted for the door of the hut, diving past the older woman, who stood aside quickly and slammed the door behind her. Neha threw herself down on the floor and lay there, taking in great gulps of air. Her Grandma walked over and looked down at her appraisingly.

Only it wasn’t her Grandma. The woman standing above her was younger, less wrinkled, and taller, and her hair was only lightly sprinkled with silver instead of bone-white. But the resemblance was remarkable, especially around the eyes.

“Hello, Neha,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you at last.”

“You know who I am?” Neha asked in surprise.

“Oh yes,” the woman said. “I know a lot about you, though of course we haven’t met before. My name’s irrelevant. Let’s just say that someone known to both of us warned me that you’d be coming.”

Neha pushed herself up on her elbows.  “Grandma?”

The woman ignored the question. “I watched you on the hill up there, and was wondering whether I should go up to you and bring you down here. But then the Baron’s soldiers came.”

“The Baron? Who’s the Baron?”

The older woman gestured with her chin in the general direction of the hills. “You saw the castle? The Baron lives there, and you wouldn’t want to meet him. I can absolutely assure you of that. So when they seized you...”

“You were watching? Then why didn’t you do something?” Neha was ashamed the moment the words left her lips. What could a tiny woman, past middle age, have hoped to do against three armoured men-a-arms?  

The woman didn’t seem to be bothered by the question, though. “I had every faith that you would escape from them,” she said. “If you hadn’t got away, I’d have done something. But acquaintance...had told me enough to give me a high opinion of your abilities, though you’re young. And I wasn’t wrong, was I? Here, get up and sit down here.”

“Please tell me what’s going on,” Neha said, sitting on the cushioned stool the woman had indicated. “Where am I, and what is all this? Why did those soldiers grab me?”

“Well, that’s rather a long story, child; and I daresay it will take you a long time to learn all of it. Let’s just say that friend...intends you for great things in the years to come, and this is your first exposure.” She poured a glass of a pale green liquid and held it out to Neha. “Here,” she said. “Drink this.”

The liquid was slightly bitter but surprisingly refreshing. Neha swallowed it and looked up at the older woman. “Where,” she asked, “am I, exactly?”

“Inside this house,” the woman who would not give her name said, “we’re, as far as they’re concerned, nowhere.” She took the glass from Neha’s hand and filled it again. “They can’t enter, don’t worry. But out there – it’s a different world from the one you live in. You’ll understand in time.”

“How do I get back to my own?”

“You will, when the time comes. But don’t worry about that just now. Try and relax a little. Tell me about yourself.”

 So Neha talked. She spoke of her parents and of the others at school, none of whom were even interested in trying to get to know her. She talked of her trip to her grandmother, and the way she had found the hut and what had happened there. Finally, when she came to the moment she was standing on the hillside, she looked up from the glass, which was empty again. “And you know the rest.”

The older woman was looking down at her with a very slight smile. “Yes,” she said. “You are the one, no mistake.”

For some reason this made Neha anxious, and she stood up quickly. “I’d like to go now,” she said.

The older woman inclined her head. “You’ll be back,” she said with quiet certainty. She went to the door and opened it, pointing. “Go right, and turn right again at the dead tree with the silver mark on the trunk. You’ll find what you want there.”

“Will I see you again?” Neha asked.

“I think that’s almost inevitable, don’t you?” The woman smiled slightly, again. “I’ll look forward to it.” Without a further word, she stepped back and closed the door.

The forest was quiet. There was not the slightest sound, not a breath of air. Neha looked around and turned to the right. A short walk further, and she came across a big old tree with no leaves on its branches and a white mark on its trunk.

She turned right again – and walked right into the leader of the soldiers who had caught her earlier.

Both of them were so surprised as to be struck motionless for a moment. And then the soldier yelled and lunged, tripped over a tree root and went sprawling. Neha jumped to the side and took off running.    

Her breath was rasping in her throat, her blood roaring in her ears. She had lost all sense of direction, and was running blind now, without any idea if she would find herself running back towards the soldier. She didn’t even notice the lines of sparks that began to flash around her rushing feet, spreading quickly up along her body, until they enveloped her in a tunnel of light.

She emerged onto hard-packed sand, still running, and stumbled and fell. For a long moment, she lay prone on the ground, and then, with a convulsive movement, pushed herself up on her arms.

She was on a flat yellow plain, which stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Far away, a line of eroded hills thrust up from the flat immensity of sand and rock. The top of one of these hills was broken and angular, and she became aware that they were ruins she was looking at.

And then she realised where she was. Climbing slowly to her feet, she looked around. Yes, behind her was another line of the eroded hills. She was still in the valley, but aeons had passed by.

She was still wondering what to do when a cloud of dust appeared, in the distance but closing rapidly. Below it she could see tiny dots, which resolved themselves into horsemen, a line of horsemen galloping down the valley. She didn’t know if they were coming for her, but they couldn’t help but see her. Even as she thought this, the nearest of the horsemen turned his mount away from the others and made straight for her.

She could see him now, a compact figure on the back of his black horse, his dark blue robes covering him from head to foot, a fold of cloth masking his face. He was standing in his stirrups, leaning forward over the neck of the beast and urging it on, and she suddenly realised that he had no intention of stopping. He would either snatch her up on the gallop or run her down.

Kicking off the remaining sandal, she began to run to the side, knowing she was too late, that the horse was already veering towards her. She heard the thunder of its hooves and its heavy breathing over her own, and felt the vibration of it through the sand. Instinctively, knowing it was too late, she hurled herself down to the sand, rolling into a foetal ball as she fell...

She never hit the ground.

She was splashing, face down, in shallow water, a gentle current tugging at her limbs. Gasping for breath, she struggled to her feet and looked around.

She was standing in the shallows of a river so wide that the far bank was only a smudge on the horizon. Some distance away, the humps of a line of islands broke the surface, and though they were worn away almost to the water surface, she could guess what they were, or had been.

Something brushed against her legs, a big silver fish, swimming gracefully away through the current. She was still looking at it when there was a splash of oars on water behind her, and a wave struck her behind the knees and almost made her fall. Stumbling slightly, she turned around.

The boat was low and broad, its hull made of some kind of animal skin stretched over a framework of wood. The young man and woman in it were looking down at her with puzzlement, their dark features in identical expressions of surprise. They were both of a type, slim and small-boned, and dressed alike in skin tunics. They glanced at each other and down at her again, and the woman murmured something.

The man glanced at her and back at Neha, and motioned behind her. Turning, she saw that the bank was only a short distance away, a flat expanse of silver sand.  Moving clumsily through the water, she waded for it. Parallel to her and a short distance away, the couple in the boat rowed shorewards as well. The man jumped out and helped draw up the boat on the sand.

Neha stood on the beach, soaking wet, and watched them as they unloaded the boat. They glanced over their shoulders and smiled at her while they were taking bunches of strange fruit, like purple peaches, and what looked like dried meat and laying them on the beach. When they were done, the woman came to her, took her by the hand and drew her gently down to where the man had spread out the food on a piece of animal skin.

Seen to from close up, they were obviously older than she’d first thought, probably in early middle age. Both had long hair, down to their shoulders, and despite their slim build the muscles bunched in their arms when they moved. Both had on ornaments, necklaces and armlets of tiny coloured stones strung together, and the woman’s ears were pierced for small bright red earrings like drops of blood. When they smiled, their teeth flashed bright in their dark faces.

It was only when she bit into the tartness of the first of the fruit that Neha realised how hungry she was. She ate as slowly as she could, but the man and the woman watched gravely, and pressed more of the food on her until she could eat no more. Then, as the man gathered up the remainder and stowed it back on the boat, the woman clucked over Neha’s cut and battered feet and spread an ointment over them from a small blue jar.

As the pain in her feet began to dissipate, Neha suddenly felt a desperate exhaustion slip over her. The constant exertion of the past hours made her feel immensely weary, and she leaned back against a convenient rock and closed her eyes. The last thing she saw was the woman looking at her, gravely, as she still massaged the girl’s legs and feet.

“Neha!” someone was shouting. “Ne-ha. Neha!”

Neha’s eyes snapped open. She was back in the tiny room, sitting down with her back to the wall, the sparks slowly dimming in the darkness and dying away. From not too far off she heard the shouting again, and recognised her mother’s voice.

Had she been dreaming? Had it all been a dream after all? There was no time to think of that just now.

“Neha!” Louder, and angry now. “Where on earth is that girl?”

Quickly, she pushed herself up and slipped out of the hut, not wanting for some reason to be found there by her mother. The woman was calling from the other side of the trees, her voice coming closer, and Neha slipped some distance further off before showing herself.

“There you are,” her mother said. “I’ve been calling and calling, and...what have you been doing with yourself?”

Surprised, Neha looked down at herself. Her dress was damp and stuck to her body, stained with mud and sand, and her feet were bare and streaked with traces of clotted blood.

“What happened to you?” her mother shouted. “Did you fall into the pond or...”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Neha snapped, most uncharacteristically, and walked past her towards the house without a look. “I’m all right.”

Grandma was standing at the door, waiting for her. She smiled, and Neha saw a gleam of approval in her eyes.”Had a good time, I suppose?” she asked.

“A good time?” Neha’s mother shrieked. “She disappears for hours, comes back filthy and barefoot, no knowing where she’s been all day, and all you have to ask is if she’s had a good time!”

“Well, why not?” Grandma retorted, her hand finding Neha’s and squeezing. “She deserves a good time on her birthday, at least.” Her small head titled back, looking up at the tall girl’s face. “You weren’t bored, I hope?” she asked, smiling. “Had an interesting time, did you?”

Neha felt her own lips stretch into a smile for the first time she could remember.

“Yes,” she said. “It was a very interesting time. I wasn’t bored at all.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011