Friday, 30 March 2012

The Cruel Sea

Katja, Liebchen

I don’t know if, or when, you will get this letter; indeed, in my heart I know well that you will not get it at all. If I were to be sanguine, I might say that you will never need to receive it, because I will return to you, just as you saw me last; but I know that that is not something Herr Gott has planned for us. If there are good things that lie in our future, they are so far away that we cannot even imagine them now.

I remember that last time we were together, when you had visited me in the naval barracks at Kiel. We had been waiting impatiently for that day – the one day when they would allow visitors, before the ship left. Ah, you came all the way from Dresden, using up all the leave you had left; just for that one morning together.

How I remember the sun shining in your hair, and how the world seemed to light up when you smiled, the dreary old docks coming to life as a flower unfolds in spring. I remember the way you threw your arms around me, and how hard you kissed me right there in front of everyone, as though you would never stop.

I know what you’d be thinking if you could read this; “I know all this – why repeat it?” Why, indeed? Perhaps it’s because I need these memories, to play them over in my mind and remember how you were that day. It’s the last good thing that happened to me, after all, and the last good thing that might ever happen again.

Do you remember the day when we first met, at the door of old Siegfried Kramer’s shop on the Brennerstraße? I was going in as you were coming out, and the sight of you struck me almost dumb. I don’t have the slightest idea what I must have looked like. Maybe I grinned like a fool, slack-jawed, or blushed like a beetroot; I have no idea, and till today I’ve lacked the courage to ask you. I do remember though that I held the door open for you to pass, stepping aside and bowing like a Prussian, and I remember how you laughed, like silver bells tinkling. It’s the laugh I remember best of all.   

I remember how you laughed again, that day on the Kiel docks, when I gave you my spare uniform shirt and cap, and how, when you put them on, you ordered me to salute you and call you Fraülein Großadmiral. It must be true what they say, that all the world loves lovers, because my comrades, hard-swearing and foul-mouthed as they are to a man, had laughed too, joyously and not with their affected sarcasm. Why, even old Petty Officer Starkmann, the terror of the engine room, had turned the corners of his lips briefly upwards; it was the first time anyone had ever seen him smile. And then we’d walked along the docks, far enough that you could look up and see the ship, towering above the tugs and the motor launches as an elephant towers over ants; and I remember the awe in your eyes.

Yes, Liebchen. Though I teased you about it then, I can understand that awe. She’s a beautiful ship, a wonderful ship, even in her present sadly wounded state; and, even now, and no matter what happens tomorrow, I am proud to be a member of Division Eleven of her crew.

I had reacted in awe myself, when I’d first seen her, sitting by the wharf in Hamburg while the instrument fitters and electricians, the mechanics and carpenters, had still been swarming over her. I’d been awed and overwhelmed at her sheer presence; even at that moment, only half-completed, she was already a queen of the sea. Whatever happens to her tomorrow will not change that one little bit.

Here, deep inside her bowels, we are under the waterline. The sea meets the air somewhere far above my head, and I remember how you’d said, only half joking, that you were glad I wasn’t in a U-Boat, because you’d be worried about me, under the water. I’m under the water now, but I didn’t tell you that. I hadn’t wanted you to worry.

I wish I could have taken you on board her, to walk the decks beside me, and pause in the shadow of the great guns, the very reason for her existence. I wish I could have done that. Instead, I watched as the Führer himself took those steps at the side of the Admiral and the Captain, when he toured the ship; and we had been drawn up in lines to greet him. I remember how his grey eyes had flicked across my face and onwards as he passed by, looking strangely ill at ease; and I’d recalled all the talk below decks, that the Führer actually fears and hates the sea.

Certainly the company of the ship has no reason to love him now, for all that the Admiral sends him radio messages promising fealty. We owe him nothing; we don’t fight for him. But then we never did; there are no political people here in the engine room. Nor do we fight for the country, because so far from home, with only the ocean below and the sky above, Deutschland is an abstract concept, like the gulfs of infinity between the stars. I wish, though, that I could say we fight for those whom we left at home, for old Starkmann’s daughters, who are still at school; for Koller’s wife, who is always ill; for you, my love. I wish I could say that, but it would not be true. We fight, quite simply, for the ship, because she is our home, and our world. She is a wonderful ship, and deserves better than the fate that lies in store for her.

The battles we fought have not been like the stories the papers tell, of glorious death rides against the flashing guns of enemy fleets, of glorious victories against terrible odds. Modern battles are not like that; the enemy is so far away that even the men on the bridge can barely see him, and all we, so far below the water, know of the battle is when we can hear the report of the great guns and feel the ship tremble from their recoil. War for us is not a glamorous business, if it is for anyone; our job is to keep the engines going, and try not to think too much. While the men in the turrets and on the bridge carry out the business of killing, all we can do is tend the motors and wait to die.

That death is, I fear, not far off; yesterday, the ship was torpedoed and crippled, the port rudder jammed. All we can do now is steer in a great circle in the middle of the ocean, and our enemies will be closing in. They will be aching for revenge, and will give no quarter. Nor do we expect it.

We have already made our decision – when the time comes for the final battle, the ship will fight on until she can fight no longer, poor beautiful doomed lady; and then we shall scuttle her, open the valves in her engine room and let the water in. She will not be surrendered, to become a prize. And if she should be sunk, it is only right that it would be us, who have loved her and lived in her, who will send her to her rest, not the shells and torpedoes of the enemy.

And what about afterwards? What shall we do? Well, what shall happen will happen. I can say no more.

I think of the day we had gone for a walk in the woods near the old city, and you had found the acorn with a shoot germinating from it; and you took that acorn home, and planted it in a little flower tub on your balcony. As long as it had air and sunshine, you said, let it grow – it represented life and hope in the middle of a war which only promised horror and death.

Take care of that acorn now, Katja. Take care of it well. And if you should have the chance, take it to the woods and plant it there, in its own free soil. And, in the coming years, go to it sometimes, and look up at its branches spread out across the sky, and think of me.

I will seal this letter now, wrap it in oilskin and keep it next to my skin, near my heart. And maybe this time tomorrow I shall be able to joyfully anticipate coming home to you. Or maybe, like the great ship herself, I will be sleeping far away and deep. But that, only the coming hours can tell. Maybe someday I can go to our oak with you, and look up into its branches. I would like to think so.

With all my love,

                                                                                            Yours forever,

Note: On the morning of 27th May 1941, having earlier destroyed the battlecruiser Hood and then being crippled by torpedoes which jammed her rudder, the battleship Bismarck was scuttled by her crew after an epic battle against several British battleships and cruisers. Only 114 of her crew of over 2200 were saved.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Massage Man, the Snake in the 'Hood, and the Year Of Endless Night

He is every woman’s worst nightmare. He lurks in the shadows, evil in his heart. He sneaks into houses while the owners are at work, and conceals himself in some niche where nobody looks. There he waits, until everyone has gone to bed, and night’s blanket covers the city with darkness.

Then it is that he emerges from his place of hiding, and makes his way through the sleeping house to the woman’s bedroom. Slowly he eases open the door, and tiptoes across the floor until he is standing by her bedside, looking down at her as she sleeps. And then

What does he do then, this shape of evil personified, this fiend from the depths of depraved hell? Does he strip the nightclothes from her body and violate her, silencing her cries with a chloroform-soaked rag? Does he decapitate and disembowel her, leaving messages in blood written on the wall for the police to find? Does he merely steal her money and jewels from the bedside drawer? What does he do?

He, well, and I’m actually ashamed to write this: with all that awesome evil to be done, our protagonist doesn’t even attempt to become famous as Jagmohan the Ripper. No, in the true spirit of ahimsa, he eschews all violence, and he apparently has taken vows of poverty and celibacy as well.

He doesn’t kill her. He doesn’t rape her. He doesn’t even steal from her. He massages the woman and runs away.

The city’s full of rumours these days of the Massage Man, that villain of the darkness who terrorises sleeping women by massaging them. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who’s been massaged by this vile criminal; the details are, though, coyly lacking of just how he massages her, which parts of the body, and how long, and why the women seem to submit to his massage long enough to know it’s a massage (no version of this rumour says he groped these unfortunate women’s boobs and ran – no, he quite indubitably massages their bodies...somewhere), and to allow him to make a getaway. Also, it would seem that these ladies possibly enjoyed the experience of a soothing massage, which possibly has some memory-altering capacity as well, because none of them has ever come forward to claim that she was massaged. It always happens to somebody else.

That coyness is lacking, though, in the Curious Case of the Three-Headed Cobra. This polycephalic serpent has allegedly been seen by many, many people, sometimes in different parts of the city at once. There’s even one photo of it, published in several of the local papers, depicting the snake (unfortunately, being biologically literate, I have to resist the temptation to write the vile viper), hood raised, in front of a crowd of people. 

Unfortunately, there’s another version of the same photo, which shows the snake (which looks to be a King Cobra) as a perfectly normal one; and as for the said crowd, for all the cell-phone pictures they seem to be taking, none of those pictures has apparently been made available for analysis. And where all else fails, there's hoax slayer, of course.

As for the snake itself, nobody has caught it either to research its mysterious ability to be in multiple places at once – it’s even been to Nepal!

Recently, after the local newspaper published a debunking of the snake, a furious female wrote in a de-debunking, questioning the paper’s questioning of the veracity of the people who claim to have seen it. Apparently, though the lady concerned has not herself seen the colubrid, she cannot tolerate the honour of those who claim to have being impugned; and therefore, the snake must have its way.

Never, as someone said, let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Meanwhile, did you know about the appalling danger this planet is in from a mysterious asteroid? Well, this rock from space is rushing towards us through the airless void, even as we speak. Yes, bound by the laws of gravity, this mindless boulder will come within 24000 kilometres of this planet, whereupon it will block out all sunlight. Yes, there will be endless night on this planet, lasting for a year. (And what a pity that this means we’ll miss out on the next occasion Mars suddenly chooses to be the size of the full moon, too!)

Can you imagine the fun the Massage Man will have, with an entire year of night to run his free personalised massage parlour, brought to the ladies of the town in the privacy of their own homes? And how about the three-headed snake, over which people will be stumbling round every corner? The poor thing will be so busy biting left, right and centre that it’s never going to have a chance to get its poison sacs full.

And there are the Phone Numbers Which Makes You Bleed to Death. If you dare call them, you, my friend, have committed suicide, for you will fall to the ground writhing, as your body bleeds from every orifice, until you bleed out and die, leaving only a disgusting sticky mess of congealing blood for everyone else to clean up. So dangerous are these numbers that local telephone booths have allegedly put up warnings on their walls with the numbers mentioned; unfortunately, I have not seen these warnings, or else I’d have called all these one by one on live video and let you all enjoy my bleeding to death. Or not.

This must be the rumour capital of the world. There are plenty of others which are frankly too boring for me even to go into, but there must be people actively creating and propagating them; I suppose it makes them feel good, or complete, or something. Some of them are frankly self-serving rumours, like the “prophet” who predicted a three-hour earthquake a couple of years ago in which all but the true Christians would perish, or the woman who attained temporary notoriety by claiming that England footballer Michael Owen was a relative of hers, and therefore a “son of the soil”. But the rest of them seem to spring from some deeper mental aberration.

In any case, we don’t really need rumours to keep ourselves entertained; the reality is bizarre enough. Only a few days ago, there was the case in which the state legislator for Mawlai constituency, Founder Strong Cajee, was pictured sleeping in the state assembly, right in the middle of a political debate. This photo was run in several of the local newspapers, following which Mr Cajee cornered the photographer concerned – right there in the state assembly – and in the presence of at least three other legislators, proceeded to display how “Strong” he was by beating the man black and blue. 

Sleeping Beauty

After an outcry led by the local media, Cajee – who was not arrested for assault, of course; why, did you imagine he would be? – claimed that he was merely “defending the honour” of the people of his constituency, since he claimed the photographer had called it the “Mawlai Savage Constituency”. Not surprisingly, nobody but he seemed to have heard these remarks, and the people didn’t buy it either; one person said that Cajee put the “savage” in the name. In any case, he then “apologised” to the reporter, and there the matter rests.

Of course the people are going to vote for him again in next year’s state assembly elections; why, did you think they wouldn’t? Have you even been listening to me?

Now, I’d propose the Massage Man as Cajee’s political opponent, and urge people to vote for him instead.

At least he provides some kind of a service. I think.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Kiteless Sky (A Play in Verse)

This is a play I wrote in 2009, after meeting an Afghan woman who told me of her life under the Taliban.

                                                 A KITELESS SKY

INTRO: This play would be held on a bare stage with a minimum of props. There are no separate scenes and/or acts and all moving of props will be done onstage during the performance, by highlighting the performance while the props are being moved around, so far as possible by the actors themselves, in shadows.


Main characters (in order of appearance):

NAFISA, an Afghan woman
THE DOCTOR, a psychiatrist
AISHA, another Afghan woman
SHAHIDA, Nafisa’s daughter
NAJEEB, Aisha’s husband
MANSUR, Aisha’s son.

Other characters:
Other Taliban
Crying Woman
Men on streets

SCENE: Opens with a bare stage with the spotlight on a couch of the style psychiatrists are popularly supposed to have in their offices. Also, there are a small armchair and a little table with some notebooks and a pencil or two. The rest of the stage is dark. As the action proceeds the spotlight will gradually shrink until it illuminates the couch only.

When the play opens, the DOCTOR and NAFISA are, respectively, sitting in the armchair and reclining on the couch. The DOCTOR is making an occasional note in a notebook. His appearance is unimportant; he wears a suit, but can be short, tall, fat, thin, young, or old. He however requires a deep and carrying voice.

NAFISA is a woman in her late thirties who appears to be trying to hang on by her fingertips to what is left of her youth and not making a good job of it. She has streaked blond hair, bright red lipstick and fingernail polish, with a heavy layer of blue eye shadow on her eyelids. Her clothes are, correspondingly, “mod”: maroon slacks and a bright orange pullover. As the play begins she is speaking.

NAFISA: …see these things.

DOCTOR: And what would you rather do?

NAFISA: It’s not what I would rather do, it’s what I’d rather be
I’d rather be anything, anything in the world but me.

DOCTOR: Look into your heart and tell me, pray
Just what is it makes you feel that way.

NAFISA: I have looked within my heart
And seen that it is all darkness there.
A bare plain – bare so far as I can see –
Under a sky where no stars twinkle
Any longer, and where the moon
Has hidden her face, when she saw the stars stolen away.
I have seen
Blood run like water, and I have seen
Water precious more than blood.
I have seen
Devils come to do me good.
All this on my dark plain
Inside, indeed.

DOCTOR: Would it be correct to suggest
That you have been under stress?

NAFISA: You say so? I do not know
But to me it seems to be so.
Strange are the things I see
Things that should not be strange to me.
I see a child run at play
And I think it is another day
When skies would split and thunder fall
And bury a child under a collapsed wall.
I see these things and do not know
What kind of truth it is that speaks out so.

DOCTOR: And what are these images that come
Are they unbidden, or do you
Summon these devils up?

[By now the lighting should be illuminating only NAFISA and the DOCTOR’S hands, making notes, and then NAFISA only.]

NAFISA (talking in quiet tones as if to herself): The devils are not of my mind
They were, and they are, of humankind.
They punish me even when they are not
With their distant touch from lands I thought I forgot.

DOCTOR: You will have to exorcise them.
To this end, I suggest
To recall and describe them you do your best.

NAFISA: [As she says this piece the scene should be shifted quietly in the background. DOCTOR gets up and leaves unobtrusively.]
There was a field
Of flowers. Not real flowers, you understand
Real flowers were not for that land.
We slaved over them for years
To let them bloom.
It was not easy, in that land of terrible blight.
It was years of famine, drought and war
That soaked the soil with blood
That watered these flowers, and made them what they were.
I, and others like me
Were like plants winding through stony soil
In search of a breath of air. We came
To the point where just a grain away
Lay air and light.
But then came the famine
And threw us back again, piling rock on rock
And the devils came to save us
From the famine, war, and drought
By drowning us in something else.
[The lights have been dimmed and now they go out. NAFISA continues talking but leaves the stage. By this time the props should have been moved onstage.]
They told us thunder and lightning would bring us to
Paradise on earth
And we preferred to believe they told the truth,
Though we knew they lied.
We thought we were a force of nature
But our flowers came to know different.
We tried to let them grow, as best we could
In the suddenly arid soil
But they were torn up, all for their good
And thrown away.

[Lights rise. The stage now bears a few assorted pieces of furniture and a small TV set to one side. The floor is covered by a thin straw mat. When the light goes up about ten small children should be sitting on the mat, cross-legged, talking quietly to each other. A few more come in and take their places. Most, but not all, of them should be girls. Their ages should be in the range of six to eight years, not more. There is none of the usual childhood exuberance.
Enter NAFISA. She should have done a quick change, replacing her bright coloured clothes with something more subdued, but still “stylish”. Another woman, AISHA, of the same age and general type, enters with her. Since, later on, both will be seen in burqas, it would be easier for identification if there is a marked difference in their heights. Both wear headscarves.]

NAFISA: Things are getting tougher, things are getting worse.
Each time I think it can’t, I’m wrong
In this land bereft of music, laughter, and song.

AISHA: I know. But we must carry on
There is nothing more we can do.
The children here know all they know
From such as me and you.
We cannot
Possibly give up now.

NAFISA: I just wish I could have, just once
A wish granted from the thousands I have made in these months.

AISHA: Which? If wishes could be horses, we would be far away
With these children in the light of day. 

NAFISA: It doesn’t matter. Not really. Anything will do. I’m no longer particular. I mean, I’ve been making wishes till I’m blue in the face and still it has not got any of us anywhere.

AISHA: So, shall we get on with it? I’ll let you begin. I think we should be shifting from your house somewhere else soon. It makes me uneasy to remain in one house too long.

NAFISA: I know, Shahida doesn’t like it either. She says it makes her feel nervous.

AISHA: That reminds me, where is your daughter? I haven’t seen her around.

NAFISA: She sits in darkness and sights despair
And wishes sometime to breathe free air.
I tell her the time will come.
She’s not convinced – she says hope’s dead and gone.

AISHA: Maybe she has a point at that
I think I should go and find
Some other place where these children can develop
Their collective mind.
Meanwhile I stand at the door
To keep an eye out and watch for those
Who would force us at gunpoint to become pure. [Exits]

NAFISA [to children]: Come on, boys and girls. Please make no noise, and we shall begin. How many of you know the nine times table? [She takes up a notebook and opens it.] Come on, who knows it? [A few children raise their hands. She points at one of them.] Yes, you, Fatma.

FATMA: (Begins reciting the nine times table in a typical child’s sing-song) Nine ones are nine
Nine twos are eigh-teen
Nine threes are twenty-seven
Nine fours are -

[Enter AISHA, running.]

AISHA: The Taliban!

NAFISA: Quick, here begins
The race to disguise subversive things.

[She hides her notebook, opens a bag and begins handing out little pocket Korans. Enter three TALIBAN. They are all tall, in black turbans and long beards, dressed in salwar kameez and carrying sticks and guns slung over their shoulders.]

FIRST TALIB [He must be physically imposing, with a deep voice]: What is going on here? The Devil’s work, I’m sure
There is a smell of all things impure.

NAFISA [covering her face with her headscarf ]: I beg indulgence, it is not true
It’s the Book we teach here, look around you.
We are not doing anyone harm
We just help children understand religion’s charm.

FIRST TALIB: You stand shameless, bare, talk back to us
Why should we believe your words, tell me first?
I see the Devil lives here too
There is his instrument, right before you.
[Points to TV set]
That thing there we will take.
On the street it we’ll break.
The pollution of the immoral world
You and yours can do without.
And for your children, the Amir said
If you teach them, you’ll wind up dead.
When we have funds, schools we’ll build
And with the girls they will be filled.
Beware lest we come after you.
To your painted face, you know what we can do?
Careful, hussy, give it all a miss
You don’t know what can come out of this.

[The other two TALIBAN carry the TV set out.]

AISHA: Children, pray, go on home
No classes today; do your lessons at home
And do not forget how to pronounce the suras
Correctly. Go on home, children, pray
There will be no more classes today.

[Children get up and leave room quietly, with none of the usual after school chatter.]

NAFISA (in an aside, to AISHA): And not just today, unless I mistaken am
We could be in a real jam
Teaching children – well, it could be worse
In this life lived under a curse.

AISHA: Shush, sister, let them not hear
Bend your back and let them see your fear.
That satisfies them, and happy they are
A little victory in a greater war.
Like the reed that bows the wind before
When they’re gone, we straighten up once more.

[Lights dim and disappear. AISHA and NAFISA exit. Spotlight focuses on FIRST TALIB, who comes stage centre. Other lights go off.]
FIRST TALIB: Yes, I know what you think of me
But it’s not that simple, why don’t you see?
You think me a brute, all without heart
But it’s not that easy to play my part.
I do god’s work, why don’t you see
And what I do isn’t up to me.
I love little girls just like you
Somewhere my sisters live on too.
I grew up in camp in a foreign land
Seeing my nation ground down to sand.
My country I love too, you know
I was distraught to see her so.
Vultures tore her insides out
Left no room for love or doubt.
These people you would set free
Were saved from death by such as me.
In the streets the bombs that fell
Made of life something worse than hell.
Opium fuelled the horror here
Drugs and violence, hate and fear.
My Amir tells me what I must do
Tells me what is false and true.
He called; we came, and we saved
Women and children from men depraved
Men who were worse than beasts
Who invited Satan to their feasts.
Who raped and robbed, who killed for fun
Who would all pity, all compassion, shun.
Would you rather we’d left the people to them, alone?
We’d have had hearts then, like stone.
It’s for the people’s good this we do,
And Allah will bless them too.
We open for them Heaven’s gate
Save them from evil, confusion, and debate.
Kites or gambling we don’t allow
Music is against the Amir’s vow
To make this land pure as pure
We will do all, be assured.

[Stage goes dark, FIRST TALIB exits. Lights come up, slowly, one by one. The scene now is the same room, but now there is a look of being a conventional living room – of course the television is still missing. The straw mat has been rolled up and removed, and the furniture has been redistributed to give the impression of being cosy.
SHAHIDA enters. She is a girl in her middle teens. Thin, pretty in a sulky way, she is dressed in a light grey sweater and faded blue denims with old white sneakers on her feet. Her arms are wrapped around her chest. She shivers.]

SHAHIDA: I’m cold. I’m cold all through. [Looking around the room and raising her voice]
But what does that matter to you?

NAFISA [entering, in the same clothes as previously, she begins to talk before she is quite onstage]: What matters to whom? What are you talking about?
It’s winter. It’s cold. Those things go together
As you should know by now.

SHAHIDA: If my father were here this you wouldn’t say
He would have kept the house warm. Today
We would have had a fire burning
And warmth here
Instead, the chill eats into my bones.
If only my father were here.

NAFISA: He’s gone, we don’t know where
He went without a word to me or to you
Without a word of goodbye
Or news of where he is
Don’t you think I deserved better
I, who bore his seed
I who was his life
Or so he said?
Don’t you think I deserved better?
And what of you, his darling daughter
Whose hands he would kiss
And say they were princess’ hands – you whom he promised the world
Where is he now for you?
Don’t you think you deserved better?

SHAHIDA: I am me, myself, entire
I decide what I deserve
Because I know my worth. And I know
Maybe he’s gone. Somewhere. To a better life.
Maybe he sleeps now in a king-sized bed
Or in a shallow grave dug in stony ground. What of it?
He is not here. But we are.

NAFISA: And do you think, perhaps
It would be better if we were not?

SHAHIDA: I don’t just think it; I know
There is still a world outside
Where one can go out and feel
The sun on one’s hair
The wind in one’s face.  
And what have we? A life
Where we cannot even look out of the window
Where we are beaten
If we go out alone
Even though we hide inside a burqa
With nothing left of who we are inside.
Yes, mother dear, I think it is
Better by far that we were not in this.

NAFISA: And what do you think we should do about it? Tell me
I want to know what through your eyes you see
Maybe I have grown old and stale
I see things through an opaque veil
You’re young, maybe you know
How one makes hope again grow
From the desert sands of years
Watered by blood and unshed tears.

SHAHIDA: I once used to hope I would be someone
Maybe a media professional, on TV
Or an author – isn’t that a laugh?
Who can read now, who has the need
Of spending time on words on paper?
I used to dream of a lover, I used to think
Of how his kisses would feel on my lips.
Who can even see me to want me now
Who could ever read a thing I write?
It might have been better if only I didn’t know
That there is a world outside
And out there things are just not this way
That there women can walk in the light of day.

That you blame me for not taking you away.
Do you think I should have
Left all we have here, little as it is
And gone where we have nothing?

SHAHIDA: Do you, mother, if you look into your heart
Think we have anything here?
What is a house, what is a home
If men with guns can come in and tear your life apart
What is a city, a neighbourhood
When its life is all gone
Where beggars beg to stay alive
But inside their hearts want the peace of death?
Look at me, mother. Look at these eyes
Look at my face. Why did you birth me, bring me up
Was it to drain the dregs from this bitter cup?

NAFISA: Have a thought, love, for what is here.
This soil, this land, this dust
Bore my ancestors and yours. This land has seen
The centuries come and go
The kings and rulers come and go
Great and small, they lived and died
And my ancestors and yours lived and died
All in this land, they turned to dust.
Prince and tyrant, good man and bad
Nothing is left of them now. As tomorrow
Nothing will be left of the tyrants
Who rule over us today. This I believe.
I was a teacher, as you know
I taught the children, and I try and teach -
And I try and keep
The little flame of knowledge aglow
When the tyrants come and darkness falls
The little flame is all that stalls
The forces of ignorance and evil
From wiping us, all that is us, away
Like chalk marks on the blackboard of history.
I cannot leave, that is the truth
I have a duty here.

SHAHIDA: You teach the children, so say you
And what do you call what happened in this room
Just a little while ago? Was that your light aglow?
I would call it the light going out.
Wake up, mother, if there is still a way
Let us, let us, flee this terrible night
And seek the light of another day.

NAFISA: If I thought it might be better
If I thought the world outside would be better
I would have gone, at least for your sake
But going would be a terrible mistake.
Do you know what a refugee’s life is?
Hell to that is a picture of bliss.
One sells one’s body, one sells one’s soul
Is still left with an empty bowl.

SHAHIDA: I’ll think about it. I’ll think about what you said. (Coming front stage, and the spotlight focusing on her as the rest of the stage goes dark and NAFISA exits)
Mother, you see things in terms I can’t
In me there is a hunger, in me there is a want.
In me stir things I cannot name
I want things I don’t understand
But I do know that none of them is here.
No love, nothing for me.
I’m a clever girl, you know, mother
And I tried my best to please you and my teachers.
Was it all just for this?
If you will not leave at least I will
I’ll find a way, tomorrow if not today,
But I will go, this I promise me.
Forgive me but let me go
I want to go far – far away
Where love and laughter still find play.
Where I can open my eyes and see
The beauty of the world that lies before me.
Forgive me but let me go
To the sunlight let me go.  

[Exit SHAHIDA as the spotlight goes out. Lights rise on the same scene, but the position of the furniture has been changed around and a bed has been added. This is AISHA’s home. AISHA’s husband, NAJEEB, is sitting at a table, sipping at a cup of tea. He is short, plump, dressed in an ordinary, shabby suit without a tie, his shirt collar open. He has a beard of the standard length imposed by the Taliban (at least one fist) and looks older than his years and defeated. In the other hand he holds an unlit pipe and every few seconds he will pull at it.]

NAJEEB: Aisha!

AISHA (offstage): I’ll be there in a moment. (Enters. She is dressed in slacks and a sweater, and is rubbing her hands together.) I wonder if we will ever be able to afford a bit of heat again. What’s wrong?

NAJEEB: Tell me what happened at your friend’s house
I hear talk. This is dangerous, what you’re doing
You should know this. I told you before that times are bad
And when bad times come, only the careful survive
Only the clever are careful
I told you all this.

AISHA: Stop sucking at that pipe. It’s disgusting the noises you make
Nothing happened at Nafisa’s, it’s all a mistake.
I don’t know why you believe these lies people tell
Village chatter at the village well.
I believe we are doing good
Teaching the children, telling them of the world
Of knowledge. I won’t stop if you tell me to.

NAJEEB: Teaching them what? The Taliban say
All that they need to know is already in the Koran.
There is nothing more they need to know
Or at least their radio tells us so.

AISHA (laughs): Radio Sharia! What does it know of life?
And you talk of it to your wife
Who can’t remember when last she laughed
At something that was not a matter for tears
But too sad and mad and bad for tears to flow.
Radio Sharia talks of things it does not know
It mixes religion, tradition, myth
Makes a monster of all of it.
You know it yourself – why, you told me once
Laughing, as I recall, how mullahs who didn’t know Arabic
Would recite the Koran by rote
In Arabic, and refuse to answer questions
Because they didn’t want to show they did not understand
You told me of this once, and laughed
And I recall I laughed with you.
Where is that laughing man?

NAJEEB: That man died. Somewhere along the way he left
And the husk of me is all that remains
But still I live on. Do you want to know what we saw today,
Our son and I?

AISHA: You went to the football match with him.
We all know what goes on there. Did you have to see?
Couldn’t you have not gone?
I can see it myself, not having seen it once.
Being a woman, the only way I could see it
Would be if I were down on the field, between the posts
For the first time and the last.
I can see it in my mind
The bare field and the bound man, the bound woman, made to kneel
For who knows what sin, real or imagined.
I can see the blood money, if any would be offered for a life
Turned down. Because what is money anyway
For a life? What value is a life?
I can feel the terror of the bound kneeling
Person, no longer man or woman
Just a human being
Terrified and alone
Waiting for the bullet – the crash of the bullet
To end all thinking, all feeling, everything.
I can feel it all. What can you say to me
That I do not know already? Nothing.

NAJEEB: I don’t want you to end up there
Between the goalposts. Think of our son, if you will
Think of him being left alone.

[Enter MANSUR. He is about nine years old, bright eyed and excited.]

MANSUR: Mother! Do you know what we saw today?
It was so exciting!

[Since the next part of the play will require a lot of changes in the props, the lights should go out from this time and the spotlights come on to illuminate AISHA and MANSUR only, and then, little by little, focus on AISHA alone. NAJEEB exits.] 

AISHA: You found it exciting? Tell me why you thought it exciting
And we’ll talk about it.
Did you understand what it was that you saw?

MANSUR: Someone who had killed
Someone else, for something
Was punished as he should be
And shot. I saw him jump and fall.
I saw the blood flow, mother, dark on the ground
The ground soaked it all up. I cheered, mother
And when I cheered, the guards looked at me and smiled.

AISHA: Listen, son, my love
It was very wrong to feel that way.
Try and imagine
What that man had felt
Never to know, to breathe, to taste anything again
To see the sky, to see the grass
Never to hear a sound. Never to be again.
Can you imagine
The metal taste of fear in his mouth?
Can you feel the frantic beating of his heart?

MANSUR: But didn’t he kill someone
Didn’t that someone feel just like that too
Didn’t that person suffer?

AISHA: I could tell you it’s not for us to judge
I could tell you a lot of things
But two wrongs don’t make any kind of right.
We don’t know, I don’t, you don’t, nobody knows
Why that man had killed, or if he had
Death is never good, I can tell you that
Death in whatever form, I have seen too much of it.

MANSUR: I know a Talib
Who told me women are too weak
To know wrong from right.
He told me that men are strong
Men know right and separate it from wrong.
He is big, handsome too
He says what he says is true
He drives a pickup and has a gun
And is feared by everyone.
When I grow up I know what I want to be
I want to be like him, I want him to be me.


AISHA [clasping her hands to her heart, in distress]: I feel myself in a void
Of emptiness and fear. I see no up, I see no down
I no longer know which is solid ground.
It’s all very well to talk of truth
To talk of tomorrow’s gentle youth.
It’s very well to talk of lasting through the storm
I just wonder if I am strong enough
To stand it any more.
When I say words they sound false to me
Because they contradict everything I see.
I talk of love and I talk of life
I talk of a world without strife
And my son cheers when blood is spilled
Talk of compassion leaves him chilled.
Am I a failure? Am I worse
Am I part of this endless curse?
Tell me world, tell me what to do
I’m left in silence and all I have is you. 
[Spotlights go out and AISHA exits, but is heard offstage]
My husband broke, he bent so far
My son’s a victim of this war
A victim of a different kind
Healthy body, wounded mind.
All I had is what I do
And I no longer have that too.
Tell me world, must a woman weep
Is there no promise she can keep?
Even to herself, can she make amends
If her life turns dust and ashes in her hands?
[Lights rise. The scene is now a marketplace, with very poorly stocked vegetable stalls and a few men, some attending the stalls, some buying things, and a few standing around aimlessly. A couple of beggars squat in a corner, ignored by everyone. Enter AISHA and NAFISA in blue Afghan shuttlecock burqas with nets over the face. Their burqas come down to their white socks, which must be visible as they walk.]

NAFISA: Here we go again, forced to hide ourselves in our clothes like frightened mice. And I have a degree in physics.

AISHA: Try not to think about it.

NAFISA: But it’s only thinking left for me
All else’s gone, why don’t you see?
My man has gone, my freedom as well
It’s like a black magic spell.
My child’s cursed because she’s a she
And with her future she curses me.

AISHA: This is a sky
Free of kites, and a land
Free of music.
But I remember the shell that landed where we are standing now
I saw it fall, saw the child who did not weep
Who could not understand that he would not walk again.
Some things change. There are no shells falling.
Do you remember that time?

[They walk over to a stall and begin selecting vegetables. Enter the three TALIBAN.]

SECOND TALIB: What is this thing called woman?
What does she want?

FIRST TALIB: This is a mystery of the ages. I do not know
But something within me tells me
Women need to be protected. Also
We well know,
Our enemies are yet unbroken
And we have more important things
Than women to think about.

SECOND TALIB: The world says we oppress them.

FIRST TALIB: The world is a den of iniquity and vice
Evil through and through.
It is no surprise, look at what they do.
Their women are forced to work
Like men in the marketplace
And yet when we save women from that
They say it’s a disgrace.

SECOND TALIB: Yes, you are right
The world should be shown the light.

THIRD TALIB: Someone told me women are evil
Temptresses sent by Satan.

FIRST TALIB: I don’t believe that myself
But there are things I do not know
And things where what I believe
Are irrelevant. Maybe I think that it’s a failure of men
That they should be swayed by women
Or maybe I believe that Satan
Throws a spell on us all.
Maybe I do not believe anything.
What does it matter what I believe?   

SECOND TALIB: We do what we are told to do
We believe what we are told to believe
It is better that way. But still I would like
To fly a kite again
Someday. When the war is over
Maybe we can have kites again.

THIRD TALIB: I had a sister once
Who ran away from her husband.
He was older and beat her, that is true
But it was still a disgrace.
If I found her I would kill her
It’s a matter of honour, my honour, the family honour
Her honour too, the honour of us all.

FIRST TALIB: Look what we have here. Hey you!

NAFISA: What? Are you talking to us?

FIRST TALIB: Of course we are talking to you. What do you think you’re doing?

NAFISA: I don’t understand.

FIRST TALIB: You don’t understand? Should I explain?
I would have thought your crime is plain.

AISHA: Crime? I do not understand
I thought we followed the laws of the land.

FIRST TALIB: I can see your hands. You should know
They can’t be put out on show.
And it’s white socks that you wear
On us to spit you dare.
Our pure white you defile, witch
You would want it black as pitch.
[He and the other TALIBAN lash out with their sticks.]

AISHA: How can we buy without showing our hands?
There is a limit to your commands.

FIRST TALIB: That’s not our affair. The order stands.
[Hits AISHA with the stick.]
Go home and repent
Vile woman, on Satan’s business bent.

[Some other TALIBAN pass through with a young boy on a rope. A woman is running behind them, crying and beseeching through her burqa. The TALIBAN with the boy ignore her.]

FIRST TALIBAN: That is a thief. He will lose at least a hand.
We show no mercy to criminals in this land.
His victims need no longer fear
To protect them and theirs we are here.
And go home now, before trouble comes your way
You have had enough today.

[Lights go down slowly, as women go away silently. Slow music starts in the background and swells until it stops suddenly and darkness falls. The spotlight once again shines on the psychiatrist’s couch, where NAFISA talks to the DOCTOR.]

NAFISA: That was long ago and far away
Yet I think of it every day.
A kiteless sky I still see
And I know not what it means to me.

DOCTOR: And your friend? What of her?

NAFISA:  Who knows, she keeps to the way
She learned in the market that day.
Perhaps she’s happy, perhaps not
Or she is resigned to her lot.
Little I could do or say
She chose her place in her way.
Perhaps she thinks of kiteless skies
Perhaps behind her net she cries.
They say that now she is free
It does not look like it to me.
One set of devils gone perhaps
Others already filled in the gaps.
Someday my land free and fair
Will see kites flying in its air.
When that time comes, I don’t know
Maybe girls will breathe free and grow.

[Spotlight goes out momentarily and comes on again, focusing on FIRST TALIB. He comes centre-stage.]

FIRST TALIB: You think you beat us? You’re wrong
You were wrong all along.
Call us “Taliban”, “Legion”, or what you will
We are too many for you to kill.
We wear saffron robes, suits too
Not just the black turban before you.
On Bible, Koran, or other book
We hang our purpose like a hook.
When one mask falls up one comes
All over the world beat our drums.
Not just in Afghanistan, all over Earth
Your own society gives us birth.
Be scared, be very afraid
We’ll make you as we want you made.
You’ll never know what hit you
You’ll think that lies are true.
You can’t hide though you run
I’m within you, every one.
So look in your mirror and the face you see
Is a face that belongs to me.

[Lights fall slowly towards darkness, to be replaced by a low red glow as the curtain falls, with the FIRST TALIB seen in silhouette to the last.]


Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/2012