Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Bombay Attacks, Three Years Later


Seen from the air, the city of Bombay stretches like a finger pointing south into the Arabian Sea. The city is surrounded by the sea on three sides – the west, the south and the east, where it parallels the coast of the Indian peninsula.

Exactly three years ago as I write this, on the evening of the 26th of November 2008, a rubber boat drew up at a jetty used by fishermen on the west coast of the city. According to the official account, ten young men landed from that rubber boat while fishermen watched. They were fairly well dressed, in T shirts and cargo pants, and had rucksacks on their backs. They may or may not have been challenged by local fishermen, depending on whom you believe, and may or may not have produced fake papers showing them to be students of a college in Hyderabad, again depending on whom you believe.

It’s kind of difficult to believe anything about the official story, going by the incredibly complicated and contradictory tale it tells. Apparently, these ten young men (I have earlier written at length on why I can’t believe that there were only ten) were fidayeen attackers belonging to the Pakistani jihadist group, the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Their backpacks were loaded with AK series rifles, grenades, pistols, ammunition, and food enough to last them for several days, as well as GPS systems and mobile phones, all with Pakistani markings.

They had apparently sailed several days ago from the Pakistani port city of Karachi by ship, and then hijacked an Indian trawler off the coast of the state of Gujarat. They had then killed the entire crew of the trawler except the captain, whom they compelled to sail them to Bombay. They then killed him, and abandoned the trawler (helpfully still loaded with packets of tissue paper, milk powder, flour, soap powder, and other groceries, also all with Pakistani markings, not to mention a GPS system with a map to help them navigate back to Pakistan) to climb into their rubber boat, which they paddled into waters right next to a major Indian Navy base, landing on a waterfront which was usually crowded with people – and got away undetected. [see here]

Besides, they allegedly had already reconnoitred the city in some detail; a city where local jihadist terror groups had already carried out attacks in the past; yet they chose this absurdly risky amphibious assault, without making any effort to coordinate with local agents, or to simply infiltrate into the city in ones and twos and attack when they were ready.

I ask you – if this were a movie, would you have swallowed any of it?

In any case, these ten young men then – again going by the official account – split up into five pairs, who then spread out through the city on foot and by cab, and then proceeded to unleash three days of holy hell. By the time the ninth of them was killed, the total death toll was 166, among them a substantial number of foreign citizens. This last little fact – that most of the targeted spots were hit because of their popularity with foreigners and the upper class Indian elite – was what brought this entire episode to global consciousness.


Otherwise, you know, meh.

Note that I specified that by the time the ninth was killed. One of the alleged ten attackers had been captured alive the very first night of the assault, and was, also (original wording) “singing like a canary” in custody. His name, it turned out, was Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab, and he has since become pretty much the (young and innocent-looking) face of the attack, being blamed for virtually every death during the incident.



I realise, incidentally, that usually I’m not exactly very complimentary towards my fellow Indians. In fact, usually I take pride in calling myself a card-carrying traitor, since I’m no patriot and never will be.

But I will point out a few things that India did and didn't do after this strike (which, you know, could fairly accurately be blamed on someone in Pakistan, even if said someone was a jihadist group and not the Pakistani government); things which prove that we Indians are still on the right side of sanity:

1.     India didn’t bomb, invade, or send commando forces to carry out strikes inside Pakistan. India didn’t even threaten to bomb, invade or send commando forces to carry out strikes inside Pakistan.

2.     India made no attempt to frighten everyone into falling behind the government with an absurd colour-coded terror alert system, and made no attempt to use this episode to restrict civil liberties. Not that most Indians actually have much in the way of civil liberties, except on paper, but they weren’t wiped off the paper.
 
3.     The “sole surviving terrorist”, Kasab, was not waterboarded, put in an orange jumpsuit, and stuffed in a cage in some distant out of the way concentration camp. Nor was he denied a trial on the grounds of it being too dangerous. He was quite openly tried in the civilian courts, provided with full legal counsel, and though he was sentenced to death, he’s appealed and his appeal is quite legally going through the system. 



These things actually make me proud. We aren’t that great, but going by the way certain nations which preach to the world have jumped off the deep end, we certainly could have done much worse.

Recently, I was in Bombay, and visited the sites of some of those terror attacks. There is some security, mostly fairly openly for show. Like this police picket, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), Bombay’s main commuter railway station, which was attacked by Kasab and his partner. Note the NO ENQUIRY on the sandbags, presumably to protect him from the slings and arrows of outrageous questions.



In fact, what I discovered in Bombay was a determination to move on – one of the things I love most about that city. The people did not consume themselves with a thirst for revenge, and did not allow their trauma to be used by others as an excuse for revenge. No Muslims were massacred in retaliation (in fact, a substantial number of the victims of the attack were Muslims themselves, especially at the CST), thus foiling what was almost certainly a primary purpose of the attacks – to create a religious divide which would cause the marginalisation and radicalisation of Indian Muslims. Today, it’s hard to believe (even more so because of the farcical security, most of which is plainly eyewash) that there had been a major attack.

Let’s take a look at some of the targeted sites, as they were in 2008 and as I have seen them myself. In each case, the 2008 photo is from the Internet while the 2011 photo is by me.

Here’s Leopold Cafe, a congested and overpriced hangout of younger foreign tourists and rich Indians, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 attack:



Here’s Leopold Cafe today; crowded with people, and more waiting outside for their turn, while the pavement outside is lined with stalls selling everything from optical instruments to clothing:





That's me, and that's a backpack, not a bullet proof vest!


Here’s the Taj Hotel, scene of a bloody three-day standoff, which was badly damaged by fire and where firefighters evacuated people right in the middle of the fighting:


CCTV view of the attack in progress



Here’s the same hotel today. No, I didn’t go inside to take photos – it’s kind of out of my class – but the outside will do fine. Incidentally, this area was the scene of other terror attacks over the years.




Here’s CST, after Kasab’s rampage. The fact that most of the people killed at this spot were poor and middle-class commuters meant that the elite media virtually ignored it in favour of the more upscale targets:



Here’s CST today. Who has time to be afraid?





I’m not saying the victims of the terror attack should be forgotten. But Bombay demonstrates that there is another way to commemorate them than by an annual rite of hatred, soaked in the blood of innocents in a land across the sea.

Of course, maybe I am wrong. Perhaps exterminating innocent people elsewhere in the name of “protecting Indians” would have helped to prevent more terror attacks.

But I don’t think so.

International Giving Obama The Finger Day

I realise this incident happened a few days ago. However, I just got to know of it this morning, and since, damn it, whether you like it or not, it's my damned idea, I am naming today International Giving Obama The Finger Day.

For those of you who don't know about it yet, an anchorwoman called Tatiana Limanova on a Russian TV network did this to the Messiah cum Nobel Peace Prizident:


She did it as she read Obama's name while reporting on the APEC summit in Hawaii earlier this month, possibly believing that she wasn't on screen at the time and was on "voice over".

Here, have a good look again:

video

How many of us have instantly made Ms Limanova our new heroine? How many of us would love to give the warmongering, voter-betraying, murderous, waffling, corporate-shilling Nobel Peace Prizident the finger ourselves? Just about the only people who wouldn't, it seems to me, are the shrinking number of True Believers for whom Obama-worship is now a de facto religion, and whose faith is firm and unflinching. 

Hopefully Ms Limanova will find new employment shortly. Her ex-employers' competitors should be a good place to start looking.

[I am aware, incidentally, of the claim that Limanova was giving one of her camerapeople the finger for trying to make her laugh on screen, but I don't believe it. Attempting that kind of thing is utterly unprofessional and Limanova is hardly a beginner to fall for such juvenile humour. Besides, until the moment she gave Obama the finger, she didn't even look up from her notes. It sounds like an attempt at damage control on someone's part, as though there were any damage to be controlled.]

As for the rest of us, I suggest we all show Obama the finger ourselves. After all, they can't fire us.

Here  I am, doing it:



See how easy it is?

Right, now you do it too.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Surgical management of deep infrabony pocket, maxillary left canine, 25/11/2011

The subject was a 43-year-old male with good overall health and fairly poor oral hygiene, who had recurrent episodes of pain and swelling over the left upper lip.

Examination showed no visible swelling but there was palpable loss of bone over the mesial aspect of the canine.

Intraoral periapical X ray showed the tooth to have a deep infrabony pocket extending up to the apical 1/3 of the root.

I decided on a two-part treatment, involving endodontic treatment of the tooth followed by a flap surgery with bone analogue (MTA) grafting of the pocket.

This photo essay depicts the second, surgical, phase of treatment.

Here's the X ray of the tooth prior to surgery. The bone defect is visible on one side all along the root.



The gingiva (gum) around the tooth looks normal - no reddening, swelling or discharge.



Incision made by a Number 15 Bard Parker knife:



Raising the full-thickness flap with a periosteal elevator:



Two views of the raised flap. Note the exposed root surface. Normally it should be covered by bone.




The  bone defect is visible as a deep hole on one side of the root:



Debriding the defect with a periodontal currette after ultrasonic removal of calculus and debris.



Sterile resorbable sponge:




Placing the sterile sponge in the defect:




Inserting the bone graft analogue (MTA):




Bone graft analogue in place. Note that the defect is now closed off and no longer gaping open:




The flap falls easily back into position without any tension in the wound :




Suturing the wound :



Wound closed by a single black silk suture:




I don't anticipate problems in healing, but long term success depends on oral hygiene maintenance.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

National Slap A Politician Day


As I’ve said on occasion, I’m more than a little tired of American holidays being stuffed down the collective craw of the rest of the world – like, oh, turkey, for example – so this year I was planning to invent a holiday of my own to mark the occasion, as a kind of protest. 

But then, being naturally lazy, I let the idea slide. I mean, you need something to celebrate when you invent a holiday, right? And what the hell is there to celebrate these days, unless you’re an imperialist warmonger, in which case you can pretty much celebrate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year anyway?

All right, so to get back to the point, I was looking for something to celebrate as a kind of antidote to Thanksgiving, and I believe I have found it.

Today, in New Delhi, one of India’s most loathsome politicians (and to stand out in that crowd, one has to be peculiarly awful), Sharad Pawar, got his.

One of the things that makes me reluctant to write at length on Indian topics is frankly how I have to lay out the groundwork and explain the background each time, every time. Still, I believe I haven’t mentioned Sharad Pawar before, so here goes.

Sharad Pawar, who holds the post of Agriculture Minister in the Indian government, is the chief of a political party called the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), an ally of the Congress Party in the right wing coalition which (mis)rules India at the moment. He is also an ex-member of the Congress party who left to form his own outfit in order to get a bigger share of Pawar, er, power, and then came right back and allied with his own former outfit to get that power. Who says politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows?

Oh, and Pawar is a disaster from whatever way you look at it. As Agriculture Minister, he’s sat back and watched as millions of tons of grains rot in stockyards (hint: link to an article by me) while people starve in the villages. He’s exported food while domestic prices rise through the roof. He’s also spent more time politicking in the cricket establishment (cricket in India is a lucrative business, awash in slush funds, and only incidentally a sport) than in running his ministry. But he can’t be sacked from his post, because the Congress needs the support of the Nationalist Congress to stay in Pawar, uh, power (sorry, can’t resist making that pun over and over), and keep on with its own agenda of sucking the nation dry.


The face of leadership


Today, one Indian finally had enough.

A young Sikh called Harvinder Singh, a transporter, caught up with Pawar in New Delhi and landed a nice hard slap on his obese cheek. (Can you tell I’m happy? Oh, you can? Good.) 



Singh was beaten up and taken to prison, but his act’s fired the imagination of the people, as you can see by the responses to this article here (I’m there too, being my usual Grammar-Nazi self).

Let’s look at that slap one more time shall we? Here you are:



The political class, even those who can’t stand Pawar (meaning pretty much everyone, even his allies) have closed ranks around him, obviously from simple fear. The refrain is the same – condemn this evil senseless act, yada yada. Perhaps they remember Martin Niemöller, and are modifying his words slightly:

First they slapped Sharad Pawar, and I didn’t say anything because I was not from his party
Then they pulled the pants off Manmohan Singh, and I didn’t say anything, because he’s on the way out anyway
Then they kicked out the Gandhi dynasty, and I didn’t say anything because I thought it would clear my way to power and wealth
Then they replaced me by a people’s government, and there was nobody left who would say a word in defence of me.

How I wish.

The most ludicrous response, even by Indian political standards, came from the Congress. It put the blame on the Hindunazi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; the name means “Indian People’s Party”, which sounds like a leftist group, but isn’t). In a rare display of sense, the BJP had warned a couple of days ago that people’s anger would boil over and they’d “come down to the streets” unless corruption and rising prices were addressed. Apparently, the BJP is responsible because its warning instigated Harvinder Singh on his mission to slap the crap out of Pawar.

And here we come to the anti-Thanksgiving holiday I mentioned. I propose that we Indians henceforth celebrate the fourth Thursday of November as National Slap a Politician Day.

Look at all the advantages:

1.     It gives us a legitimate reason to celebrate, one that doesn’t involve the murder of innocent poultry;

2.     It’s in a perfectly good cause, one any sane individual can get behind regardless of political leaning; and

3.     Since our nation is now cravenly pro-American, and utterly in thrall to anything and everything that happens in the Empire, it needs a holiday to coincide with Thanksgiving, and this provides such an opportunity.

All right, so there you are. Your brand new holiday, courtesy Bill the Butcher. No charge.

You can bow in gratitude to me now.

Away From It All




The sun had already travelled far down towards the west when Kande emerged from the doorway under the bridge, and the shadows stretched across the sluggish water. Its rays glittered off the surface, but faintly, weakened by the drifting haze in the air.

Kande squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, leaning back against the ancient stone of the bridge support. Although she’d known, of course, that it would be like this, she was still overcome by a rush of memories of the last time she’d seen all this.

It had been a mild autumn day, with golden leaves still on the trees and carpeting the banks. It had been evening, too, the sun a deep golden-red, the sky a blaze of colour from all the particles in the air. She’d known that it was all poisoned, even then, of course – but she’d never thought it would get quite as bad as now.

Kande was just over seventy years old. She was small but compact, with broad shoulders, built like a little tank, and for all her years was tough and still strong. Her mop of silver hair was crushed down under the hood of her contamination suit, which covered her from top to toe, except for the gas mask over her face. Through its pair of windows, small and thick, her grey eyes peered out at the altered world.

It was a scene of such desolation that she wished she could retreat back into the shelter that lay behind the doorway. Stretching ahead of her, up to the horizon, was a tumble of broken concrete and twisted metal, shattered stumps that was all that was left of once towering buildings, and the river, dead, grey and sluggish as liquid mud.

Kande had been born far away from here, and grown up on the south-western coast, where she’d thought to be a pilot, and had earned a flying licence even before she was eligible to learn to drive. It helped that a relative had had a light plane of his own and hadn’t minded teaching her. She’d never made the transition to a commercial licence, though.

She still remembered the moment she’d decided on the course her life would take. She’d been at the controls of the Cessna, on a flight across country, the sea a band of blue on the horizon behind her and the land below a drab brown. In the middle distance she’d noticed a smudge of black, which as she approached had resolved itself into a gigantic cloud of smoke. At first she’d thought something was on fire below, but as she’d got closer she realised that it came from a forest of factory chimneys, belching out their sooty breath into the noon air. Once she’d landed back at her home airport, she’d tried to find out what she could do about it.

Those were the days when the crisis point was evidently fast approaching, and environmental scientists had imagined that they would at last be taken seriously. Kande had enrolled herself in the University in this city, and stayed on to do postgraduate research. She’d believed, in those days, that they would make a difference, that they could still pull the ecosphere back from the brink. But she – they, all of them, the whole faculty, hell, the entire discipline – hadn’t reckoned with the tenaciousness of corporate greed and the spinelessness of political will. Big Business had proclaimed there was no crisis, the politicians had enthusiastically agreed, and Big Religion had fallen in line. By the time the damage was so great that it was no longer possible to pretend there was no crisis, the people in charge had declared that there was no point doing anything because it was too late for anything to be done. And that was that.

Overnight, the funding had been turned off like a tap, and research labs in environmental studies had been forced to shut down; first, all over the country, and then – for it was still an important country, one that decided the condition of economies across the globe – all over the world. Except for tiny and unimportant labs in tiny and unimportant nations, humanity had turned its back on the environment. And then things had got so bad, so fast, that there was no longer anything to be done.

But some people had seen the writing on the wall in time, and acted.

Far below Kande’s feet, stretching under the river and beyond, into the city, were the tunnels of the old underground railway. They’d fallen into disuse by then, since the government had decided to do away with them in favour of private vehicle ownership, which, as the economists had assured everyone, created jobs and hence wealth. The empty subway tunnels had proved a good place to turn into a secret underground system of shelters, and they had retreated into them while there had still been time, with as much food and water as they could get hold of.

They’d had hopes then, of holding out a few months to years at the most, before humanity came to its senses. But the years had turned into decades, and the world outside had become a poisoned wasteland, where even the air was no longer fit to breathe.

Underground, they’d waited until they’d run out of food and water, and then they’d tried to get hold of  food and water, in foraging expeditions to the surface. But even those sources had dried up a long time ago, and in recent times there had been almost nothing to eat or drink. Not that there were many left to eat or drink it anyway.

She’d made up her mind to leave while there was still time, while she could still leave on her own terms. There had been others who had left over the years, plenty of them, but there had still been a kind of hope that things might get better, and with what equipment had been left they’d carried on the research they could. Now there was nothing left, not even hope.

Kande walked down to the mud by the edge of the water, where the debris was less of an obstacle and walking slightly easier. Thick greyish-green lumps of weed grew here on the mud, of a kind she had never seen when she’d been young. Even the pattern of life was changing.

As the sun sank and the temperature dropped, a thin mist began to accumulate over the surface of the water, and licked at Kande’s knees as she walked. It was probably harmless vapour, but seemed sticky and poisonous, so that she had a strong desire to get away from it. Clambering up an inclined slab of stone, which had probably once formed part of the collapsed roadway above, she climbed onto the embankment.

Even softened by the last of the day’s light, the devastation was amazing. Kande had known, of course, of the conflicts that had marked the final struggles of those who had remained on the surface – the battles over food, and water at first, and then over shelter and breathable air. But that knowledge hadn’t prepared her for the devastation that she saw.

It was almost as if an angry giant had stomped all over the city, crushing everything under his boots in a rage, and kicked over what was left. Here and there still upright buildings poked their heads over the desolation but they were only shells, windowless and scorched by fire.

“Don’t go,” the man who had once been the scientist in charge of the laboratory, then her lover, and was still the leader of those remaining in the tunnels had said. “You don’t know what it’s like there. Trust me. I’ve been up to the surface, you haven’t.”

Kande had looked at him. Once he’d been young and had the looks of a minor movie star, and then grown fat, bearded and rubicund until he looked vaguely like Santa Claus. Now he still had the beard, but the fat had fallen away and he looked like nothing more than a tired old man with not an original idea in his head, nor the capacity for one.

“I can’t stay here either,” she’d said, trying to sound as kind as possible. “There’s nothing left here. In another year, at the most, you’ll all have to leave too, or starve. I’d rather not wait.”

“That’s silly. In another year things might be better.”

She hadn’t even bothered to reply to that, concentrating on packing her things in her rucksack. He’d followed her around, looking as hurt as though she was leaving him for another man and as though whatever was between them hadn’t been over for fifteen years.

“What will you do out there?” he’d asked. “It’s not even as though you know where you’re going.”

She’d shrugged, checking to see that she’d taken all she wanted. It was little enough, she’d thought, not even filling the rucksack – the accumulated possessions of a life. “It’s not as though you know what you’re doing, hanging around here,” she’d said at length, not looking at him. “As I see it, at least I’m trying for some kind of control over my own destiny.”

“You’re old, damn it,” he’d said. “You don’t have much destiny left, do you?”

She’d grinned mirthlessly. “All the more reason to make use of what time I have left.”

“All right, go” he’d said, waving his arms. “Get out of here. Do whatever the hell you want. But remember, out there everything’s poisoned – even the air!”

She nodded now, imperceptibly, inside her gas mask. As the sun set, the river, below the embankment, began to glow from pollution in the water. The air, too, became almost visible, clouds of greenish and yellow phosphorescence drifting low over the shattered street, so that she had a little light to make her way along and didn’t have to use the precious torch she’d purloined from the stores when nobody was looking. Or, rather, she amended, he’d known for sure that she was taking it, but he hadn’t said a word. And she’d known he wouldn’t.

Something scuttled from between her feet, squeaking, and disappeared into the shadows, making her jump involuntarily. It was too small and quick to get a look at, and when her heartbeat got back under control she realised that it was probably only a rat. Still, it proved that animal life still existed among the ruins, and she searched until she found a stout metal rod with a twisted, jagged edge. It was heavy and unwieldy, but would serve as a weapon – she hoped.

It was too warm for comfort inside the suit, and the sweat began to trickle down her face under the gas mask. She wished she could take it off, but that would be a stupid error. After all these years, the air was still full of poisonous gases, and likely would be for years more. Somewhere, factories were still pumping smoke into the air, she was sure. If they could find raw materials, and a source of energy, people would continue polluting, and telling themselves they had nothing to lose.

Kande realised that she’d been walking, unconsciously, in the direction of the University, where she’d worked before they’d moved the laboratory underground less than a week before they’d have run out of funds to keep it going. It was not really a surprise, because the laboratory was where she’d spent so many years working, and it was the one place in the city with which she’d been familiar. She’d never cared to get to know the rest of it, the theatre district and the main drag with its towering malls, the remnants of one of which she was passing now. Obscurely, the sight of the gutted ruin pleased her. Back in the day, when the environmental scientists been pleading with everyone to do something about the coming catastrophe before it was too late, the politicians and the media had accused the likes of her of plotting to take away peoples’ simple pleasures. That would teach them!

She’d been walking for hours now, and the night was well advanced. Long ago, she’d left the river behind, and now she was passing through an area where most of the buildings were, in comparison to those by the embankment, relatively intact. Many years ago, this had been one of the great thoroughfares of the city. Even now, although it was still dotted with the rusted carcasses of vehicles, it was easier going than earlier. The glowing vapours by the riverside had dissipated, too, but she wasn’t ready to take off her mask quite yet. The entire city lay in a depression surrounded by higher land on which the industrial estates had been situated, which meant it was still flooded by the effluvium of those temples of economic progress.

She’d rested as much as she could before setting out, and had eaten what passed for a good meal, but the slow plodding pace the terrain and the uncertain light forced on her made her legs and back weary. She wanted to sit down somewhere for a while, but she had a distinct feeling that it wouldn’t be safe. She realised then that this feeling had been creeping up on her ever since she’d left the river, and been growing imperceptibly stronger. It was almost as though something was watching her, waiting for her to display some weakness, let her guard down for an instant –

Kande spun round, metal bar raised awkwardly at chest level, ready to lash out, but there was nothing there. But, more than ever, she was sure someone – something – was watching her, from the shadows, circling closer and closer, preparing to charge.

It was at that precise moment that the sound started.

It began as a low moan, as of pain, and rose swiftly into a shriek of anguish that split the sky, echoing from the deserted buildings and the forgotten cars. Again it came, the echoes making it impossible to locate its origin, and then there was another, surely from behind her this time, and another, now to her right. All around her, the noise, and she did not know which way to turn.

She fumbled the rucksack off her back and pulled out the torch. After the hours of darkness the yellow beam of light was almost dazzlingly bright, and she screwed up her eyes involuntarily.

When she could see again, the first dog was already out in the open, watching her.

It stood beside the skeleton of a car, a large white animal with heavy muscular shoulders and ragged ears. It trotted forwards a few steps, stopped, raised its muzzle and howled again, to be answered by another not far away. Kande could see them now when she swung her torch around, slipping from shadow to shadow, coming steadily closer. Bending quickly, she picked up a stone and threw it at the first dog, the big white one. It moved aside a little to avoid the clumsy missile, but that was all.

Kande had never been afraid of dogs. In her younger days, before she’d left all else behind to concentrate on her research, she’d made a practice of gathering bread crumbs and scraps to feed the strays on the street corners, something which had not endeared her to the shopkeepers. She’d ignored their hectoring and kept on feeding the dogs, a thin young woman surrounded by a forest of waving tails, and finally the shopkeepers had relented and left her alone.

But those had been friendly dogs, not a feral pack on the hunt.

The first dog, the big one, began walking towards her, stiff-legged, head held low. Its broad muzzle wrinkled, exposing huge canines, and its voice was a low, almost musical rumbling in its massive chest.

Kande backed away from it, slowly, keeping the beam of the torch focussed on its face. She’d seen videos of wild dogs, and she knew it was trying to intimidate her into running. The rest of the pack would be behind her, waiting for her to break and run. Then they’d come in from all sides, darting under her guard and biting at her legs and underbelly. Once she went down, that would be the end. They’d rip her to pieces. The suit would only prolong her agony by keeping her alive that little bit longer.

Whatever happened, she mustn’t break and run.

The big dog was closer now, and she swung her crude club, almost connecting and making it jump back for a moment before advancing again, more cautiously, weaving back and forth. Its growl had deepened to a snarl, and it seemed only a moment before it would duck under her club and hurl itself at her.

Something bumped her rucksack from behind, large, hard and unyielding. Cautiously, she rubbed herself against the obstruction, not taking her eyes from the dog, and realised that she had backed herself against a wall.

This meant, at least, that she was temporarily protected against attack from behind by the rest of the pack. She began sidling along the wall, making passes at the white dog with her club, but her arm was tiring fast. The dog seemed to know it too, and had started to feint, forcing her to react each time by lunging at it as best she could. It was an intelligent dog, and brave, and in other circumstances she would probably have enjoyed making its acquaintance. But for the moment she only wanted to get as far away as possible from it.

From the corners of her eyes, distorted through the thick windows of her mask, she saw some of the other dogs of the pack, approaching. Less bold than the big white pack leader, they came warily, ready to back off if necessary, but they came. If she let her guard down, they’d lose their wariness and be all over her.

The wall behind her disappeared, so suddenly that she almost fell over backwards into darkness. Stumbling in an effort to regain her balance, she realised she had inadvertently passed through a doorway and was inside the building. And there was the door, just by her right hand. Throwing down the club with a clang, she hurled herself at it.

With a snarl, the dog charged.

It came rushing forwards, leaning into the attack, massive haunches pumping. It came so fast that she had only got the door halfway closed when it struck, ripping at her thigh, managing only a bite of the contamination suit. It twisted, trying to rip the mouthful of suit away, and as its teeth slipped off the tough fabric it fell. It was up in an instant, but Kande had finally slammed the door shut, throwing her shoulder against it. She felt the thud as the dog hurled itself against the door, its fury palpable through the wood, barking frenziedly. The other dogs were shouting too, raucously, the whole pack just on the other side of the slab of wood. She leaned against the door with all her weight, and after a while the noise outside abated. The last she heard of it was harsh panting that faded gradually in the distance.

Kande decided to go no further that night. The torch’s batteries needed conserving, but she had to expend a little more power to check her surroundings. She was in the tiny hallway of what had evidently once been a block of flats, with doors opening on both sides and narrow stairs ascending opposite. The nearest of the doors, to her left, was ajar, and, pushing it cautiously open, she entered.

The room was fairly large and had probably once been luxuriously furnished. The carpet on the floor was so thickly covered with dust that at every step she took puffs of it rose into the air, but it was soft and deeply-piled, and the furniture which remained looked expensive and quite possibly – Kande was no expert in such things – antique. The curtains over the windows had flowery patterns on them, faded but still visible in the torch’s light, and a framed print of flowers hung on one wall.

It was, in other words, a room so feminine that it filled her with revulsion. But she was only going to stay for what was left of the night, so she merely snorted and moved on to check over the rest of the apartment. It consisted of a bedroom with a double bed, which was shrouded in dust, a tiny kitchen, absurdly small compared to the size of the other rooms, and a bathroom with rust stains on the pink porcelain of the sink, complete with a washing machine which took up half the space.

Shaking her head at the pretentiousness of it all, Kande returned to the living room, slapped the dust off one of the chairs, and sat down, turning off her torch. It would have been useless in any case, because the dust she’d raised filled the air, and even though the gas mask filtered it out she felt her throat tightening reflexively. The darkness flooded in, and she leaned back, feeling the weariness in her limbs.

Idly, she wondered what he was doing now. She remembered the last she’d seen of him, his liver-spotted hand on her arm as he once again tried to dissuade her from coming. She’d looked away from his face, because the look in his eyes made her feel as though she was abandoning him instead of merely leaving while she still could.

Perhaps he would be sleeping, inside the carriage of the abandoned subway train which they’d long ago converted to living quarters. More likely, he’d be awake and going over the results of the latest air sample readings – readings which had not changed in a year or longer, perhaps because the equipment no longer worked properly – and trying to convince himself things were getting better. Maybe he was thinking of her, but she hoped not. She didn’t want to hurt him, even inadvertently. He wasn’t a bad man, never had been.

Her mind slipped to thoughts of what he’d said, and she acknowledged that from his viewpoint he’d been making sense. Where was she going, with only the food and water she had in her rucksack? How far could she get? Even if the dogs didn’t get her, what other dangers lay in wait in the ruins of the city? Even if she found food or water, how could she know if it was edible or just more poison?

Hell, she thought, I don’t even dare take off this mask to eat or drink what I’m carrying with me. I must be insane. But she wasn’t insane. What was insane was remaining inside the subway tunnels waiting for the end. What was insane was being left with no choice. At least she was exercising a choice.

Somewhere not too far away, a dog howled. The pack was still around, then – naturally, because this must be its territory. Gripping her club, Kande stared through the thick eyepieces of her gas mask into the darkness and waited for the dawn.

She woke suddenly, her heart thumping and mouth dry. She’d had no memory of sleepiness, let alone falling asleep. It was still dark outside, no trace of light leaking past the curtains on the windows, but she had the indefinable feeling that hours had passed. Something had woken her, but what? A sound?

Even as she strained her ears, listening, the sound came again.

If it had been the old days, she’d never have given it another thought. It was merely the blat-blat of an unmuffled motorcycle engine, coming steadily closer. But who would be using a motorcycle here, in these ruins, at this time of the night?

Carefully, trying not to disturb the dust, Kande stood and walked over to the nearest window, gently lifting the corner of the curtain enough to look out into the street. She could see the beam of the motorcycle’s headlight, a pale wavering glow, steadily approaching. A few moments more, and the bike came to a stop almost directly opposite the window, and the headlight blinked out as the engine was switched off. The pillion rider, a dark shadow, swung an awkward leg over and stepped off, while the person in the front seat hunched over the handlebars and seemed to be waiting for something.

Kande had almost decided that the better part of valour would be to drop the curtain and retreat back into the room when she heard the other engine. It announced itself with a discordant grinding, clearly audible through the gas mask and contamination suit hood, and another pair of headlights swept briefly over the window, making her duck reflexively.

When she looked again, the car was standing near the motorcycle, its arthritic engine still running and its headlights illuminating the scene. At least two people could be seen near the car, talking to the two who had arrived on the bike, and Kande could see another person at the wheel. Whatever the discussion was about, it wasn’t going well. She heard voices raised in argument, and suddenly there was the gleam of light on metal, a knife blade raised high.

Someone screamed, shrilly, and the shadows merged, scuffling, one going down, another suddenly breaking away and running across the street towards her. Before Kande dropped the curtain and stepped smartly back, she saw that it seemed to be the same size as the pillion rider of the motorcycle. She heard the door of the building squeak shrilly, and running footsteps on the other side of the wall. The next moment, the door of the apartment, right next to her, slammed open.

If Kande had been younger and faster, she would undoubtedly have given herself away. It was her slowed reflexes more than anything which kept her frozen where she was, in the darkness next to the window. In her black suit and mask, she was invisible.

The person who had run in fumbled to close the door, pulled across the nearest chair and pushed it under the handle, and stood panting. Apparently, the others outside hadn’t noticed precisely which door had opened and closed so abruptly, and Kande heard them rush through and up the stairs at the back.

There was a long moment of silence. Kande stood frozen in place, trying not to breathe, while the other person in the room stood in the same attitude of watchful stillness. Then, stepping softly, the shadow moved to the window, within touching range of Kande, and pulled the curtain back.

In the faint light filtering in from outside Kande saw a girl. She was dressed in a faded denim jacket, over whose padded shoulders her thin, triangular face looked even thinner. Her hair, stringy and ragged, fell over her forehead and hung limply down her back. When she leaned against the windowpane to look down the street, Kande saw that her eyes were red and inflamed, rimmed with crusted purulent matter.

The girl was dangerous. Kande was no physical coward, but she knew that the worst mistake she could make was to approach her. She looked as though she was poised on the edge of violence at all times, and, when she was scared, as she obviously was now, she would be even more aggressive. Kande couldn’t see a weapon on her, but was sure she carried one. Her sort would never be unarmed, even for a moment. Even the big white dog earlier had probably been a much lesser danger than she was.

The situation was getting rapidly impossible. The sky outside was lightening rapidly, dawn creeping onto the world. Soon she could no longer remain hidden – the girl must see her. Even if she didn’t, the others, who from the faint noises were probably searching upstairs, would finally arrive and break the door down. She wondered why the girl hadn’t realised it herself. Did she imagine she’d be safe in here? Kande wondered just what had happened outside, who she was, and who the people hunting her were.

But it was pointless speculating about all that. Time was precious now, and Kande’s first responsibility was clearly to herself.

There was only one thing to do, and much as she hated to do it, Kande acted. Waiting until the girl turned away for a moment, she stepped softly forward, raised the club she’d been carrying for so long, and brought it down in a vicious arc. As the girl collapsed, Kande stepped quickly over her to the window and looked out.

In the half-light just before dawn, the car and the motorcycle were picked out in degrees of shadow. Something dark lay beside the car’s rear wheel, knees drawn up and arms thrown open wide. There was nobody else to be seen, not even a sentry.

Pausing only to pick up her rucksack, Kande pushed the window open. It stuck partway, but left enough space for her to clamber out onto the windowsill and drop to the ground. She was about to trot down the street when she had a sudden thought. Crossing quickly, she went to the car, ignoring the corpse on the roadway, and looked inside. No luck, the key was missing, and she hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about starting the engine without it. Nor did the motorcycle have a key. But if she was right and the girl had been the pillion rider, then the driver was probably the one who’d been stabbed. And if so, the key should be –

Less than a minute later, Kande was astride the motorcycle, the engine throbbing between her legs, a faint yell in the distance fading as someone from the building caught a glimpse of her from a window. She rode as fast as she dared, the contamination suit clumsy and the mask making for restricted vision, but every revolution of the tyres pushing her towards safety. At the first opportunity, she turned into a side street, and then into another, until she was reasonably sure that if anyone found her, it would be by accident. She wasn't worried about the car. From what she'd heard of its engine, it would never be able to catch her as long as she was on the bike.

It had been many years since Kande had last been on a motorcycle, but one never forgot how. She had loved biking back then, ignoring the helmet law, her hair blowing in the wind as she drove for tens of kilometres out into the country and back, her only relaxation from University and the laboratories. She’d become very well known, the biker woman who drove, as they said, as well as a man. But those days were long past.

Kande had long since given up all plans of going to the University. She didn’t know what was going on in the city, but obviously the danger level was extreme. Swinging the bike onto another, broader, street, she drove towards the east, determined to get as far as she could out of town. After that, she’d see.

She’d almost made it out of the outskirts when the bike ran out of fuel.

She’d known, of course, that it was coming, the needle on the fuel gauge hardly flickering above zero for the last few kilometres. Still, it was with a sense of acute disappointment and near grief that she heard the splutter of the dying motor and steered the bike to the side of the road. Propping it on the kickstand, she took the precaution of taking the key with her. Nobody would be able to chase her on it, assuming they could find petrol for the tank.

The sun of late morning was hot, beating the sweat out of her skin as she trudged along, miserably uncomfortable inside the suit and the mask, and tired, hungry and intensely thirsty. However, she dared not stop to rest, and after seeing the pus-encrusted eyes of the girl she’d hit, she was even charier of removing the gas mask.

As the houses fell away and the brown desolation of the country opened around her, Kande once again began to feel that she was being followed. After last night’s encounter with the dog pack, she had even more reason to trust her instincts – but, even though she turned round again and again to check behind her, she couldn’t see anyone, not even the hulking white dog with the wrinkled muzzle and tattered ears. Surely if it were the people in the car, they’d have attacked her by now, not merely hung back watching?

Her thoughts were growing confused as hunger and thirst joined hands with her physical weariness, and she became conscious of her seventy years as she hadn’t been in a long time. If there had been trees on the roadside, she might well have sunk to the foot of one and rested, hidden follower or not; but except for thick patches of scrub bushes, no vegetation survived by the roadside. The few remaining trees were leafless skeletons.

She was beginning to stumble and weave when she saw the airport. It lay to the left of the road, a tiny control tower perched like an afterthought on the roof of the blocky red terminal building. The runway stretched on either side, flat and empty, but for a hangar in the distance, its metal doors and walls promising shelter.

Desperate energy flooding back into her limbs, she shambled off the road and across the runway towards the hangar. It loomed above her as she approached, far larger than she’d thought it from the road, and the steel doors were almost shut, wide open enough only to squeeze through.

Squeezing through the crack, she stopped with the shock of surprise.

There on the concrete floor stood a Piper Cub.
It had been decades since she’d last seen one, but there it was, still in its bright yellow paint, looking as fresh as though it had only just rolled off the factory line. Reverently, almost unbelieving, she walked up to it and touched the propeller. The blade turned at the pressure of her hand, slowly but steadily, and with mounting excitement she realised that it might still even be usable.

“But where could one fly with it?” she asked aloud, her voice a murmur inside the gas mask.

“As far away as possible,” someone said right behind her. “To someplace where the pollution hasn’t killed everything yet.”

Slowly, heart thudding, she turned. “You.”

“Of course.’ He raised his contamination-suit clad arms, an embarrassed grin on his bearded face. His gas mask dangled from one gloved hand. “Who else could it be?”

“It was you. You followed me.”

“I really couldn’t let you go wandering off to the middle of nowhere alone, could I now?” He stepped closer, but warily, as though she was a dangerous animal. “I’d thought you might make for the old airport, you being a former pilot and all. I saw you in the distance a while ago, and, well...”

“Yeah?”

“I didn’t want you to think I was keeping an eye on you. I saw you come in here, and wanted to take a look to see if you were all right. I swear that was all.”

Kande stared at him. “How’s the air?” she asked at last.

“The air?” He sounded surprised. “Breathable.”

“Whoo.” She pulled off her gas mask and sighed deeply. “Air! I needed that.” She looked at him, and then back at the plane. “Come on,” she said briskly. “Since you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful. Help me get this going.”

“You’re sure?” he asked doubtfully. “You’re sure you want to do this?”

“What the hell else can we do? This place is more lethal than you think, I can assure you. Now let me see if we have some fuel. Let’s have a look at those cans over there.”

Much later, when they’d managed to push open the doors of the hangar, and wheeled the little plane onto the runway, she paused to wipe the sweat off her face. “What if we crash somewhere?” She looked at him. “Not that I’m saying we will, it’s just something to consider. What if we crash and burn?”

He shrugged. “Got to take a chance sometime. Besides, I trust your piloting skills.”

“Thanks for nothing,” she snorted, sliding into the front seat and frowning over the primitive instrument panel. “Let’s see if I can at least get it into the air.”

“Told you,” he said a few minutes later, as the little yellow plane lifted somewhat unsteadily off the runway. “I trust your ability.”

“You’re a good man,” she said quietly. “Not the best, don’t get a swollen head – but there are worse. Much worse.”

He grinned from the rear seat. “That’s why you’re taking me along?”

“Well, you are an old coot, but so am I.” She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “This plane’s an old coot too, but there’s a world outside, and some of it’s probably still fresh and new. All we have to do is find it.”

The plane flew on towards the gathering dusk.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2011