Friday, 20 July 2012

The Living Dead

The night before last, I dreamt that I had a cancerous brain tumour and had been given six months to live.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve dreamt of impending death, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, so I’m not particularly disturbed by the dream itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, in the past I’ve even dreamt of being executed, once by lethal injection, and another time by decapitation, and seeing my skull and neck vertebrae on display afterwards, and this was small potatoes compared to that. But it did open up an avenue or two of thought.

Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way: I’m a monist as well as an atheist; which means I have no belief in any kind of non-biological life after death. However, for the purposes of this article, I'll try and put that aside as much as I can.

What I was reminded of is that, scientifically speaking, death is an ongoing process. Even as you’re reading this, millions of your red corpuscles are being filtered out of your bloodstream by your spleen, taken out of circulation and effectively destroyed. The cells lining your mouth and intestine are flaking away, being shed and replaced by new cells growing from underneath. When you have an abscess somewhere, it’s filled with pus which comprises cells of your body broken down by your immune system and digested. Look at your hair and nails – they’re comprised of tissue which was once alive, and now manifestly isn’t. Your body is constantly dying around you.

Even my dream tumour would only be among thousands of cancers my body will be developing over the course of my lifetime, runaway cells of my own substance, which will mostly be snuffed out by my body’s own defence mechanism. Only if the body fails to kill its own material, the tumour cells, will I develop the cancer.

Now this is an interesting thing, because to most people, death is a final and complete end, characterised by the stoppage of the heart and/or the cessation of activity of the brain. But then this too is a process. That the body doesn’t die instantly when the heart stops is fairly well known; most people are aware that if the supply of blood to the brain can be maintained or resumed within three minutes, there needn’t be any long term deleterious effects. But if the blood flow is interrupted for longer than that, what happens?

Well, the brain cells start to die, of course, since the brain is the most oxygen- and nutrient-hungry organ in the human body. But even that die-off takes time, as the cells run out of oxygen to energise their molecular factories and nutrients to burn as fuel, and as they begin to drown in their own waste products. And even after the brain cells die, less energy-hungry cells in the body – like in the nail beds, for instance, or the dermis – keep functioning for a while, since they aren’t as gluttonous and can carry on longer for less. Of course, even they will die in the end – but it will take time.

[A note here: Those pulp horror tales which claim the nails and hair keep growing after death aren’t completely wrong. The hair and nails do keep growing briefly after the cessation of cardiac activity, but the growth would be measured in minute fractions of a millimetre. Sorry, guys.]

Conversely, it isn’t necessary for the body as a whole to die for a part of it to do so. Back in physiology lab in medical college we had to pith frogs. This involved destroying their brains with a needle inserted along the line of the spinal cord. After this was done, the frogs would still be alive, though they no longer had a functioning brain. If food was put in the back of their mouths, they’d reflexively swallow, and they’d breathe and carry on other functions not requiring higher mental control. The body was alive though the brain was dead.

Anyone who’s had an appendix removed, for instance, or a limb amputated (or, as in my case, has been circumcised) has had a portion of his or her body cut away, which has then died; but the main body has continued, in more or less functioning order, to survive. And there’s the obverse, where parts of the body die while remaining attached to the main body, at least for a time. We call it dry gangrene.

Therefore, death is a process, a rather long-drawn-out process at that, which begins while we’re still in the uterus and continues after our hearts stop beating and brains give up ticking over. And even then it isn’t the end.

In an earlier article I’ve written that we are, essentially, vast conglomerations of organisms, from the bacteria in our intestines to the minute arthropods which crawl in the follicles of our eyelashes. As we die, many of these creatures immediately begin breaking down our tissues and converting them into nutrients, which they assimilate and return to nature, to be cycled back through the sequence of continuing death and rebirth.

All this may seem somewhat obvious if one’s accustomed to thinking from the standpoint of science, of course. To someone thinking along these lines, death and life are part of one great machine, turning constantly and irreversibly, and one’s personal death is neither to be particularly feared or welcomed. It’s just part of the scheme of things.

And this is where we find a great parting of the ways. To many people – I’d even say the majority of people – the thought that death is just one of those things is inconceivable, almost repugnant. If death is merely part of an ongoing process, then it’s not of great significance, and if it’s not of special significance, it throws into doubt the very basis of virtually all of spirituality and religion – that there’s a hereafter, and that life has meaning because it affects the hereafter. If you’re dying since before you’re born, what’s the big deal about death?

Answer: nothing.

I mentioned this, basically, because it’s such a wonderful illustration of the schism between what JBS Haldane called the scientific point of view, and what I’ll call the intuitive viewpoint. The intuitive viewpoint is what seems to be “common sense”. How flawed this “common sense” is can be understood when you consider something that was raised to the stature of Divine Writ: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, therefore the sun goes round the earth. If, like Giordano Bruno, you challenged it, you might be burned at the stake. The scientific point of view is concerned only with evidence and testable hypotheses; it has no place for fantasies. An intuitive viewpoint can make up whatever it wants.

To an intuitive viewpoint, life has to have a reason to exist. As the (non-religious but spiritualist) author Richard Bach wrote in one of his books, “Here’s a simple test to see if your mission on earth is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” Personally, I have vast contempt for Bach’s inveterate solipsism, but I shall put it aside for the moment and see what this “mission” might be from the scientific point of view.

There’s a saying I love to quote whenever I find anyone talking about their “purpose in life”: a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. Biologically your mission on earth is to reproduce a recombinant version of your genes. You are, basically, a means to an end – the creation of another copy of your genetic code. Biologically, that’s all you are, and that’s all that matters. Nothing else.

Again, this isn’t something the intuitive point of view can accept. It’s frightening, the idea that we’re only the expression of gene sequences, and are hardwired to recreate those sequences, like biological robots. It’s the same attitude which recoiled in horror from the idea that the earth was not only not the centre of the universe, but was a minor planet revolving around a small star on an outer spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy. Yet that is what we are.

Where life and death are concerned, the scientific point of view will concern itself, like on every other subject, only with facts – facts which can either be directly detected, or can be inferred from observations and then tested for. Recently science finally located the Higgs Boson particle, which gives mass to everything in the universe, without which matter couldn’t exist. Yet the existence of this particle had been inferred for a long time from observations, and experiments were set up to detect it. It wasn’t quite found serendipitously. If, on the other hand, it had been discovered by accident, then the scientific viewpoint would have tested it to find out what it was and what its position was in the scheme of things.

Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people find science “cold” and hence frightening. But science isn’t cold or warm; it’s only concerned with reality, as far as that term can be interpreted. If tomorrow someone could make a case for a “soul” which survived death, which did not have to be taken on faith but could actually be detected by instruments, its properties predicted from observations, and the validity of the predictions checked by independent observers, then science would be duty-bound to investigate that “soul” and research into the “hereafter”. But unless and until someone comes up with such a case, science has better things to do.

There’s one argument I keep coming across, used almost exclusively by theists: “Can you prove a god doesn’t exist?” The inference, of course, is that if one can’t prove a god doesn’t exist, then ipso facto it exists by default. That might make sense in a courtroom where the existence of god is the defendant, and it’s considered innocent unless proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt (except, of course, that to theists there can never be “reasonable” doubt, since faith is automatically unreasonable, even quite proudly anti-reason; anyone who doubts me on that might want to read through the writings of St Augustine sometime). But it doesn’t make sense to science.

To science, the burden of proof is on the “accused”, or to be more precise on the person advancing a hypothesis. To talk about a “hereafter” to a scientist is equivalent to talking of the existence of invisible flying unicorns. Just as because the scientist cannot disprove the existence of invisible flying unicorns doesn’t magically bring them into existence (uh...wait...story idea right there...down, damn it, this is not the time), the hereafter doesn’t exist only because science can’t prove it doesn’t. If the person hypothesising invisible flying unicorns, however, can lay out a case for their existence, and predictions can be made on how they can be detected and will be found to behave, and subsequent observational data bears out these predictions, why, then, these horned horses become subject to the scientific point of view. But until and unless they do, they’re just pie in the sky.

Seen objectively, the scientific point of view is not only the reasonable one, but the only viable one from the standpoint of any kind of morality. It doesn’t even have to do with science. Let’s just look at the current fascination with “liberal wars”, or as they call it, “humanitarian intervention”. In its usual form, it takes the shape of demonising a small and defenceless country, accusing its leaders of being freedom-hating dictatorial monsters who are keeping their people from democracy, and proclaiming that what the nation needs is "regime change". And it is usually true that these nations are not ruled by what the “humanitarian interventionists” would call a democracy, though it’s even more true that in most cases these “dictators” have broad popular support, and that one can accurately predict that “humanitarian intervention” will bring about general social collapse and civil war.

No matter; today, war is sold as a consumer product, with a full range of advertising pitched entirely at the emotional level, with transparently ludicrous propaganda passed off as “fact”. Thought of from the scientific viewpoint, lies about babies being torn out of incubators or London being “45 minutes from destruction” are easily dismissed as lies, and anyone trained to think scientifically will dismiss them with contempt. But to a mass of people who not only think intuitively, but who are actively frightened by science, atrocity stories aren’t fiction unless proof is provided; they believe it because they can’t think objectively, and they do not want to. And they can be stampeded into doing whatever manipulative political and religious leaders want them to do, cheer on any invasion, swallow any lie, however outrageous; not because they are stupid (though that is often the case) but because scientific, logical thinking is as alien to them as the far side of the moon.

To a scientist, then, the "humanitarian intervention" is a cynical ploy which will end in disaster. To the intuitist, it's a holy and righteous mission; and it will stay that way, until the body bags start coming home, at which time the intuitist will shout that he was betrayed. 

To get back to the question of life and death, then. To the scientific point of view, since the afterlife is nonexistent by any objective point of view, this is all we have, and it’s incumbent on us to make the best use we have of it. Shivering in fear of divine post-mortem punishment is as much a waste of time as is blowing oneself up in order to get 72 virgins in paradise.

It really shouldn’t be necessary for me to mention at this point that just as the scientific point of view seeks out hard knowledge and revels in it, the intuitive viewpoint shies away from knowledge and fact. Knowledge is antithetical to intuition. If not, it wouldn’t be intuition, it would be science.

I’ll close this article with a bit of entertaining invective directed at me back in my days on Orkut, which illustrates not only how intuitists think, but how wilfully ignorant they are. I was arguing with someone or other and had put forward the advantages of viewing the universe with the eyes of science.

“You believe in science?” the other person spluttered, indignantly. “What are you, a Scientologist?”

I rest my case.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

On The Beach

In the evening when the sun was low in the west, we went down to the beach.

It was then that the wind came in off the ocean, so that the smoke from the factories blew inland, and the beach and the sea were painted by the sun, the wet sand at the water’s edge glowing gold. One could almost imagine that the factories and smoke didn’t exist, so long as one didn’t turn around.

The girl held on to my hand, her fingers clamped round my wrist, and those who saw us must have thought she was my daughter. I had only met her the previous day, standing in the middle of the street, looking around with wondering eyes. At first I’d planned to walk by, but something about her stopped me. Maybe it was simply that I was growing soft in my middle years and didn’t like he idea of her being knocked down by a car, or abducted for sport, or something. So I’d waited for a break in the traffic and walked over.

“Hey,” I’d said to her. “You waiting for someone?”

She’d looked up at me cautiously, and shook her head just a little. I’d guessed her to be five or six, skinny to the point almost of emaciation, and dressed in boy’s clothes which were too large for her, an oversized green T shirt and dingy yellow shorts. Her legs and feet were bare and dirty.

“Well, then,” I’d tried again, “what are you waiting here in the middle of the street for? Come to the side at least.”

She’d looked ready to bolt, and a car was rushing along, one of those driven by testosterone-fuelled teenagers, far too fast and with music blasting out of the open windows. I’d been afraid she’d bolt right into the path of the car, and so I’d grabbed her by the shoulder and held her tight.

“Come with me,” I’d said, and pulled her to the side of the street. “It’s not safe there in the middle.” And rather to my surprise, she’d come without making any further attempt to run away.

“Look,” I’d said to her, bending so I could look her in the eye, “where are your parents? You aren’t all alone, are you?”

At first she wouldn’t respond, but little by little she began talking. Her accent was broad and rustic, and I had difficulty understanding everything she’d said, but it appeared that something had happened to her parents. She wasn’t at all clear what had happened to her mother, but her father had “gone away” recently, and she’d been somewhere “bad”. I’d got the impression that she’d run away somehow. Her name was Mana, she’d said, and she thought she was eight years old, but wasn’t quite sure.

In the end I’d taken her home with me. I still couldn’t say just why, except that I hadn’t known what else to do. If I’d left her on the street, I couldn’t have lived with myself. So I’d taken her home, fed her, bathed her and cleaned her up, and given her a change of clothes. Unfortunately, they were my clothes, so she still wore a man’s T shirt and shorts, but at least they were clean. Afterwards she’d fallen asleep on the sofa while I was washing up, and I’d covered her with a blanket and left her there.

In the morning I’d been half-certain that the whole thing had been a dream, but there was Mana, still sleeping on the sofa, the blanket puddled on the floor beside her. I’d made us both breakfast and woken her after it was ready. Fortunately, I didn’t have to work today, so we could sit together and eat and after that watch TV. Actually, I sat beside her and watched her as she watched the cartoons, open-mouthed.

After lunch, when the haze of smog lay heavy on the streets, she went back to sleep and I tried to read. Instead, I just sat and stared at the pages, without being able to read anything.

Finally, then, it occurred to me to wonder just what I intended to do with her. Clearly, finding her parent or parents ought to be my primary duty. If I couldn’t do that, I should hand her over to someone who could find them. I snorted aloud at the thought. Whom should I give her to, the police? That was a laugh.

Maybe, the thought came to me, I could keep her. It wasn’t really a solution at all, I knew, because I didn’t have a steady job and couldn’t afford to bring her up, quite apart from having no legal claim to her. But I remembered how she’d looked the previous day, stranded in the middle of the street and wanting to bolt through the traffic. I couldn’t, wouldn’t risk putting her back in that again.

By the time she began to stir, I’d begun to feel trapped in the flat, its air heavy and clogged in my lungs. “Mana,” I said, “let’s go out for a walk.”

She nodded, readily enough but without much enthusiasm, and I remembered that walking was something she’d probably done a lot of. “The beach,” I said then. “We’ll go walk on the beach. It isn’t far. You haven’t seen the beach, have you?”

“No,” she said.

So we went down to the beach. It wasn’t far from the flat but I almost never went there any longer. I hadn’t been there for months – perhaps a year or more. I tried to remember the last time I’d been there, but couldn’t.

“Do you like it?” I asked, when we’d walked down to the sand. Mana was looking at the waves and the wet smooth sand by the water, with an expression of intense concentration on her face. She didn’t say anything, but her hand squeezed tight on my arm.

The sun was slipping down into the sea, and the wind blew fresh and tangy off the western horizon. Far in the distance, I could see a very large ship, perhaps a tanker, but otherwise there was nothing to show that we were not in the world of a thousand years ago, where nothing modern had poisoned the waves and the wind. I did not want to turn round.

“Do you like it, Mana?” I asked again. It seemed suddenly important that I get a response from her.

“Yes,” she said, and paused, digging her toes into the sand. The she looked up at me. “Do you come here every day?”

“No,” I replied, and laughed without meaning to. “I haven’t come in a long time.”

“Why? Don’t you like it?”

“It’s not easy to explain, Mana.” Back when I was a boy, I’d spend entire days on the beach. Those days, when school was closed for the vacation, we’d get together, a group of us, and sometimes we’d stay on the beach through the night as well, making bonfires of gathered driftwood. My parents had in any case not really cared what I did with myself as long as it didn’t adversely affect them, so I sometimes spent three or four days away from home at a time.

Those bonfires on the beach were never very good, I remember, difficult to set alight and burning feebly or not at all. but we didn’t care. It was worth lying back on the sand and laughing, and watching the stars, a million stars in the inky sky over the sable sea.

“We could see the meteors falling,” I began telling her, and then remembered that she wouldn’t even know what a meteor was. She was looking up into my face, the same concentration in her eyes, as though she was fixing every word in her memory.

“At night,” I told her, “we’d go swimming in the ocean.” I remember how it felt, being immersed in the vast black water which went all the way round the world. One could dip one’s head underneath and feel that one was in the depths of space.

“Once,” I said, “I swam with dolphins.” They’d come completely unexpectedly, the water exploding all around with them, smooth torpedo shapes slicing through the dark, full of the joy of living. I’d touched one with my hand, the slick skin smooth under my fingers, and wished I could have been a dolphin, to swim away across the world and never come back.

Nowadays there are no dolphins, and the water is clogged with plastic waste. I’ve been told that sometimes it’s covered with a sheen of oil, when the big tankers like the one on the horizon wash out their ballast into the sea. And at night the light pollution from the city blanks out the stars.

“We used to dance on the beach too,” I said. We used to choreograph our own routines. I had a sudden memory, like a snapshot – six boys jumping together, framed in silhouette by the setting sun. I’d been one of those six boys, screaming my throat out with the others, full of the joy of being alive.

Nowadays nobody dances on the beach. Nobody has the time or desire, and the few boys and girls we saw were clustered in little groups, poring over cell phones and not looking up at the sunset at all. And of the six of us who had been there that day, I only knew one other. I worked for him sometimes. He’d grown fat and respectable, never left his office, and would have been horrified if anyone mentioned he’d ever danced in the sunset on the beach.

Remembering, I felt bitter, thinking about how it had been and how it was now, and decided it had been a mistake to come down to the beach at all. We should have gone to a park or a mall, or something. It wasn’t too late, anyway.

“Let’s...” I began.

“It’s beautiful,” Mana said. “I like it. Very much.”

I looked down at her, startled. She was watching the sunlight on the waves, and the pink of the evening sky. The tense expression was gone from her face, and it was filled with a kind of peaceful joy.

And then I saw, for a moment, through her eyes, which had never known anything of the sea; and the setting sun was a globe of fire in a welter of colour, and the world was beautiful, the world was fresh and new. And following on that came another thought, that maybe I could keep her after all. At least it was worth the attempt – if she wanted to stay with me. If she didn’t...

But that I could worry about tomorrow.

“You know,” I said, “I think you’re right. It’s still there. It’s still all here, if only one knows how to look.”

She looked up at me, solemnly, not understanding. “What?”

“Never mind,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter.” I waved my free hand at the beach and the setting sun. “Nice, isn’t it?”

She looked at it and smiled shyly, nodding.

“I’ve got an idea,” I told her, and took both her hands in mine. “Want to dance?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fishing in Troubled Waters

Strange are the ways of the vassals of Empire.

For instance, I just came across an article which said that an Imperial warship opened fire yesterday on a fishing vessel in the Persian Gulf, killing an Indian fisherman and wounding three others.

According to an Imperial Navy spokesman,

“The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach...US ships have an inherent right to self defence against potential threats…The safety of our vessels and our personnel is of the utmost priority.”

Maybe it wouldn't be threatened if it didn't go where it wasn't wanted? Just a thought

Fair enough, as long as a similar right isn’t denied to ships of other nations threatened by the Imperial Navy. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. Nor am I going to go into the particulars of whether the trawler actually “approached” the Imperial Navy ship, whether the latter actually attempted to warn the vessel, or whether the fishermen would have even recognised the warnings for what they were. For the moment, even though I’m on the record saying I wouldn’t believe the Empire if it says the sun rises in the east, let’s assume that the Imperial Navy was acting in good faith.

To me, as an Indian, the interesting thing about this isn't the shooting itself - the Empire's expected to murder innocents on a daily basis - but that the spinelessly slavish Indian government and corporate-owned media have kept their mouths tightly shut over the episode. If I hadn't read this article I wouldn't even have heard about it.

I’ve just swept through several Indian news sites, and I haven’t come across any mention on any one of them about this episode except this minor item, and this, almost a filler. It's all over the news elsewhere - but in India, which should have been most concerned? Not a peep. Only this item echoed the CNN in identifying the dead man as 

"Sekar of Periyapattinam in Ramanathapuram district. The injured are Muniraj, Panpuvan and Murugan."

Otherwise, though it came from Indian sources (the Fishermen Association president), you don't get that information from the little Indian news items cited above.

Now, there is a precedent for comparison. A few months ago, on 15th February, Italian marines on board the tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire on an Indian fishing boat off the coast of the state of Kerala. Two fishermen were killed in this episode, which India claims to have happened in broad daylight in Indian waters. The Italians claim they fired warning shots at a pirate boat in international waters, after flashing searchlights and being fired upon. How a boat full of armed pirates metamorphosed in between the bullets being fired and them striking live flesh into a trawler full of defenceless fishermen, and how the pirates managed to approach a tanker far, far from known pirate areas of operation, are two of the more mysterious mysteries of this episode. Nor did the tanker have a single bullet mark on it from all the shots the armed pirates allegedly fired.

Somali pirate skiff (above) and Indian trawler (below). Really, they look exactly the same.

In any case, the government and media went ballistic. The tanker was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard and impounded for a while, the two Italian marines concerned arrested and shuttled from jail to jail, and to this day remain on bail in this country while India and Italy wrangle over who has the right to try them. 

The marines in custody

While the Italians have paid a relatively minor sum as compensation to the relatives of the shooting victims, the case still draws a lot of media attention, and a fair amount of nationalistic sentiment. This isn’t unexpected in a case like this; in fact I’d have been astonished if it were otherwise.

Which makes the silence over the Empire’s shooting in the Persian Gulf still more baffling, unless one takes it as a deliberate attempt to avoid annoying our American overlords in any manner. Then it makes complete and total sense.

Come to think of it, if I were one of the two arrested Italian marines, I'd have grounds for grousing. After all, if a naval ship, more than capable of checking out a trawler with sensors and outmanoeuvering it if required, can get away with shooting it up, why should I - on board a clumsy merchant vessel - be tried for doing the same thing?

I wonder if the Indian government will dare protest if the Empire carries out bombing raids on Indian soil as part of the Global War Of Terror?

I kind of doubt it.

Update: India will "take action" over the shooting, our dear government says. Shake in your shoes, America. Hah.

While my personal focus in this article was on the Indian government and media, I'd like to point out a couple of things.

First, none of the articles I've read on the issue have specified what the 'warnings' were. Is there an internationally accepted protocol for these situations? Would the fishermen even have recognised the warnings for warnings? Why is the USN so coy about specifics of the 'warnings' given?

Secondly, words have meanings, and choice of words can be quite revelatory. Take the right to defend oneself against a 'potential' threat, for example. Now there's a difference between a threat and a potential threat. For an illustration, literally anyone who is physically fit enough to wield a kitchen knife and close enough to possibly get within stabbing range is a potential threat to you. Do you have a right to blow them away in pre-emptive self defence? If you did, what would your legal status be? 

The usual argument in favour of "self-defence" is that a fishing boat could be a cover for an Al Qaeda suicide attack like on the USS Cole. However, Al Qaeda and the US are now openly allied against Syria, as they were allies in Libya, and the last thing Al Qaeda would want to do would be to antagonise Washington at this juncture.

Since I wrote this article four days ago, the shooting has vanished completely from Indian news. Even the few sources which covered it have gone mum.The last I heard of it, though, it's certain now that the fishermen were actually given no warning at all. That's according to the declaration of the Dubai Police Chief.

Also, the ship was apparently sailing past the mouth of one of the busiest ports in the world, so the boat would almost automatically have to come close in order to pass by it to enter harbour. (An interesting article here.) This raises the question of just why the ship was there at all.

I have a question in my mind about the propriety of putting trigger-happy cowboys in a position where they shoot up boats purely on suspicion. Is it being done deliberately, in order to have some more of these "accidents" take place? Then will it be made a casus belli to force Iran to disarm its speedboats on the excuse of removing threats to small craft?

As a comparison, Al Qaeda terrorists allied to the Empire launch a suicide attack on Damascus, and the Empire claims that military intervention against the government of Syria is required because the "situation is getting out of control", ie because Al Qaeda terrorists allied to the Empire carried out a suicide attack. With that kind of logic, setting up circumstances under which this kind of thing is almost engineered to happen can only benefit one party.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Blood Food

A couple of days ago I read that a Jehovah’s Witness chose to die, rather than accept a blood transfusion which would have saved his life. And he did this with the knowledge and support of his mother – also a Jehovah’s Witness – and a church elder, both of whom were in at the death. Just what kind of religious indoctrination is it that allows a mother to watch her own son die of his own choice? How different is that from a suicide bomber? After all, innocent people are harmed too. But I digress.

Now I’ll be quite frank here – I don’t actually have that much of an idea what a Jehovah’s Witness is, since they aren’t exactly thick on the ground in this part of the world. Nor am I all that interested in finding out – but I gather it’s one of the loony fringe cults that can be called “Christian” only by stretching the definition. (While I’m on the subject, I’d also call it a death cult if its adherents aren’t allowed blood transfusions. I’d have expected a lot of noise about “mediaeval barbarity” but then it’s not a Muslim sect. So.)

Talking about Muslim sects, in some parts of India, the mullahs have been known to order people not to allow their children to be vaccinated for polio. The logic behind this isn’t something about faulty vaccines (actually faulty vaccines are a health concern in India). The rationale, if you can call it that, is that polio vaccines are a plot by the Hindus to sterilise Muslim kids and bring down the Muslim population.

I wish this were a joke, but no, it isn’t.

Now of course this sort of ridiculous fatwa wouldn’t work among educated people, but the majority of Muslims in India, for reasons which have absolutely everything to do with the legacy of colonialism and the creation of Pakistan, are poor and undereducated. They still depend to a very large extent on the guidance of the local mullah in their day to day affairs, and quite naturally the clerics (few of whom are actually qualified according to Islamic tenets to issue fatwas) take full advantage of the fact. And though, in Sunni Islam, a fatwa is only an opinion and not an order binding on the recipient, the people act as though it is. And this isn’t just a problem in India – resistance to polio vaccination from Islamic clerics has been reported from Nigeria, Sudan and Pakistan as well. (That India has managed to more or less stamp out polio isn't thanks to these mullahs, you can bet.)

This kind of thing isn’t really something unique to Muslims. In the villages of North East India, especially where the Baptists and Presbyterians are the dominant denomination, the pastors act as petty rulers and dictators. The people ask them for advice on literally everything, and take that “advice” as divine writ. I’m reminded of the scene in Richard Llewellyn’s book How Green Was My Valley where one of the narrator’s brothers bursts out that someday the family might learn to take any decisions without consulting Mr Gruffydd (the preacher).

Anyway, to get back to the vaccines and blood transfusions. I suppose it is barely possible that this represents part of a general rejection of modern day technology, but since I see these same people using cell phones and driving swank cars, instead of sticking to animal transport and oil lamps, I kind of doubt it. It seems far more likely that imposing religion based limitations on peoples’ health – no matter on what far-fetched grounds – is a deliberate tool to cement the religious leaders’ control.

I mean, just think about it. Suppose you have a headache, and your priest forbids medicines as a tool of the devil. Instead, he prays for you, and voila, your headache vanishes. Miracle!

On the other hand, what’s the profit in praying (and paying; let's not forget paying) for a miraculous recovery from a headache, when an aspirin tablet can do the same thing? 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Monkey Business

Good evening, sar. Come in and sit down, please. No, not on that chair, it has a wobbly leg. Here – sit here.

Do the monkeys bother you, sar? Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They are trained very well, sar. Just ignore them.

Can I get you some tea and sweets perhaps? You see, I have no way to cook in this room, but my friend owns the tea shop next door, and he will...oh, you don’t want tea. That is also all right, sar.  I should eat fewer sweets, too. They are not good for the health.

You say you want to know about what happened. I will tell you, sar – not because I tell anybody who asks, but because you tell me you will not go to the police or the government. I am frightened of the police and government, even though I am completely innocent, I swear. Besides, I don’t think you would have taken so much trouble to find me if it were just to make trouble for me, sar.

So, yes, I think it is safe to tell you what happened.

My name is Raqibul – Raqibul Haque. If you were a policeman, I would tell you I am from Nandipur or Goshaiganj, or another of those small villages to the interior of Bunglistan. But since I swore to tell the truth now, I shall. I’m from Bangladesh, sar. I have been living here in this country for just over ten years.

I know a lot of people think life is easy for us illegal immigrants. But that is not true, not at all. It is a hard life, and we’re always looking over our shoulder for the police to come with their hands held out to be paid off. If they don’t get their cut, we get arrested and pushed over the border back into Bangladesh.

At first, after I came over, I found employment as a farm labourer near Murshidabad, and then as a construction worker up in Jalpaiguri, and similar jobs here and there. It was hard work, very hard work, and many times I was tempted to throw it all up and go back to Bangladesh. But then I came here to Callcutter, and I bought the monkeys, and learned how to get them to dance. After that at least I have them to think about, and I do make a better living than I might otherwise.

Yes, these are the monkeys. They are called Billa and Ranga. Nice names, sar? Billa is the one with the red face. You see, I sleep in the same bed with them and they eat what I eat. I talk to them, and tell them all my problems. They are like my children, not just performing monkeys, though I bought them for a few hundred rupees and trained them to dance according to my directions.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, sar, I want to explain what the monkeys mean to me, and why the whole thing happened as it did.

Yes, sar, I realise you are a busy man, a big sahib, so I will not waste your time any longer with pointless things. I will tell you what happened yesterday.

Now, yesterday was Sunday, which is always a good day for business with us. You’ll understand that on Sunday all the people are at home and nobody is in a hurry to go here or there, so if we can get an audience we put on a show and get some money. Some Sundays I’ve earned enough to feed the three of us for the rest of the week, but in recent months it’s been getting more and more difficult. Nobody wants dancing monkeys anymore, sar. They have their video games and satellite TV.

Yesterday I was walking through the lanes, leading Billa and Ranga on their leashes, my drum and stick slung over my shoulder. You’ve seen the old parts of this town, sar, so I need not describe to you those ancient buildings with their dingy, peeling plaster, their tiny, grimy windows and soot-stained walls. I wonder what goes on inside them, sometimes. You know, sar, I’m only an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant who can’t read or write, but I’m sure I’m better off than some of those people who live there.

I’d been out since morning yesterday, and it was already past noon, and I’d not yet earned a single rupee – not one. In recent weeks I’ve had to go much further than I usually did, to find customers, into localities I’d seldom been before, and this was one of the furthest I’ve ever walked – and still no business. I was thirsty and my feet were beginning to hurt, and I was growing tired of the packs of local dogs which followed us around from street to street yapping at my monkeys. But there wasn’t a lot I could do about any of it.

By mid-afternoon, I’d almost given up hope of earning anything for the day. In this business you have to target the children, they are the ones who have the curiosity to watch monkeys, but I didn’t see any children. They were all busy watching some cricket match on TV, between India and Australia or South Africa or somebody.

Now if India had won the match, I wouldn’t have had anything to tell you about. I’d just have walked the streets until darkness and then come back here to sleep. But India started to lose, so the kids all quit watching TV and began wandering out for some diversion. I saw them coming out and looking around, talking in little groups, and knew it was my chance. So I started tapping my stick on my drum, and moving the ropes so that Billa and Ranga knew they had to dance.

 I know there are some people in my profession who beat their monkeys, and the little animals dance not because they want to, but because they’re afraid of being beaten. My Billa and Ranga aren’t like that. If you want, I can put on a little demonstration for you, so you can see for yourself how well they dance, and how they look happy when they do, not afraid like those other monkeys.

Yes, sar, I am getting to the point. Now, as I said, I saw the children gathering and began tapping on the drum so that Billa and Ranga had begun to dance, just a little, just enough to get the kids curious. And I started on my patter, sar, of course. The patter is very important, and each of us has his own.

“Ho gentlemen and ladies,” I began, “little masters and mistresses, gather round, gather round. See the monkeys dance, see them worship Lord Hanuman, see them, there are no better monkeys on the face of the earth. Ho masters, mistresses, sar and madam, spare a moment, spare a moment, and watch the monkeys dance.”

Maybe it was because the cricket team got into even worse trouble right then, but some of the adults came out and began peering at us. Without the adults, of course, there wouldn’t be any show. They were the ones who’d pay, after all.

I soon had a quite substantial crowd gathered, maybe forty people in all. This is about the optimum size for these performances, sar. If there are fewer, and one doesn’t really earn enough to be worth one’s while, yet more than that and there’s too much shoving and pushing and the people at the back can’t see, and sometimes they turn nasty. So I thought I’d probably earn a fair amount after all.

At first it went fabulously. My Billa and Ranga dance very well, sar, better than any other monkeys I have ever seen, even in the circus which came last year. But it wouldn’t have mattered even if they couldn’t dance half as well, because, you see, not one of these kids had ever seen a monkey dance before. Even the adults hadn’t seen one in so long that they didn’t remember much about it. So they were almost all staring fascinated. Besides, my dance routine is very family-friendly. I am not like some of the others in my line, who make their monkeys do dirty things with each other for public entertainment. So I knew they’d all be satisfied.

And almost till the end, they were satisfied. I had just finished the final routine, where Billa and Ranga do a Bollywood-style dance, and was about to go around for payment, when I heard a screech. It came from a fat woman in a green sari. I’d noticed her earlier because she had such a disagreeable expression on her face, and because she was so obese that her features seemed sunk in her flesh. Now she was yelling out something, so loud and fast the words all ran together – you know how those Bunglee women talk, sar, like a machine gun in the movies – and it was some time before I understood that she was shouting that she’d lost her gold chain, and that she was accusing me of having stolen it.

Now of course this accusation was ridiculous. For one thing, I was at the centre of all eyes during the performance, and there wasn’t a single moment I could have sneaked away to steal her chain. But I knew that there was hardly any point in protesting my innocence – I was right there, I was an outsider, and they had to blame someone, didn’t they?

Still, I tried, sar, I tried. I looked around at all those faces growing swiftly hostile, and I knew I’d have to say something before they began beating me. I could even predict the one who’d start beating me first, a pear-shaped man with a hairline moustache. I’d seen his sort many times before, and knew he was the kind of physical coward who enjoyed violence when in the safety of a mob. In my line of work, one becomes sensitised to such things.    

“Please, sars and madams,” I said. “How can I have stolen anything? You were watching me all this time.”

“Shut up, you thief!” It was the pencil moustache man. His eyes were already getting bloodshot with anger. “They have accomplices,” he declared to the crowd. “While we were all watching, the accomplice came round and stole the chain.”

“Thief!” the others were muttering. They hadn’t been roused to the heights of anger, not yet – not to the point of physical assault. So, I thought, there was still a chance I could get away without violence. Besides, the kids were still there, and they mostly don’t start beating people in front of their children.

“I don’t have any accomplice,” I pleaded. “Sar, look, there are only your people from the locality here. I can’t have any accomplice, sar, since there’s nobody here but yourselves.”

That this was a mistake, I realised the moment the words had passed my lips. “He says we are thieves!” the moustache man screamed, spraying spittle. “He says we are all thieves!”

“Thieves?” I protested. “I never said...”

“Now he says I am a liar! You all heard, just now, he said we’re thieves, and now he says I am a liar.”

Oh heavens. The man jumped forwards, a hand raised to slap me. Now I don’t really mind being slapped around – over the years, I’ve been slapped a lot, mostly by cops for not being prompt enough with their pay-off – but this wasn’t just one fat man. If one of them hit me, the others would, too, and I might end up getting lynched. Such things have happened before, and of course the law does nothing.

I don’t know what might have happened next, but for Billa. Look at him, sar, sitting there; he looks harmless, doesn’t he? But he jumped on my shoulder and snarled at the pencil moustache man, baring his teeth and clawing with his hands. The slap never landed – the man jumped back as fast as he’d jumped forward. Ranga was also excited and screeching, and she charged at the people till the end of her rope. Oh yes, that lot was looking pretty yellow at that moment, I can tell you.

But then someone had another bright idea. “Call the police!”

You will of course understand, sar, that my heart sank even lower when I heard that. I was out of my own locality, as I’ve said. I’d no knowledge of the police in this area, I’d never paid them off, and if they got their hands on me I had no idea what they’d do. Most certainly they wouldn’t be happy at the idea of my working their turf without paying for the privilege. If I were lucky they’d only give me a thrashing and steal all the money I had on me. If I wasn’t so lucky they might frame me for a few burglaries or other petty crimes and lock me away, or even deport me to Bangladesh. And of course I had no idea what they’d do to Billa and Ranga.

“No, sar,” I said. “Don’t call the police, sar. I will find you the chain, sar. But don’t call the police, please sar.” I don’t really know what I was babbling – I just talked without thinking for a moment, or else I’d never have put in that bit about finding the chain. But once I’d said it, of course there was no going back.

“All right,” the one who’d thought of calling the police said. He was a thin old bald man with a face like a date, and tufts of hair growing from his ears. He was clearly enjoying himself, and looked much more evil than the moustached bully. “Find the chain. Go on.”

I was nonplussed. I wasn’t even sure there had been a chain – maybe that woman had left it at home or dropped it elsewhere. Hell, she was so fat the chain might be lost somewhere in the folds of her neck and she wouldn’t know. But I couldn’t say that, of course.

Nor could I suggest the other logical option – that everyone be searched. No, I’d already got into enough trouble over my big mouth, and I’d no wish to make things any more complicated. So I was looking around the crowd helplessly, wishing some idea would come, when I suddenly noticed something.

You know that old Bunglee proverb, sar? “You can tell the cat which has swallowed the mouse by its face”? Well, at the back of the crowd, peering over someone’s shoulder, I saw a face with exactly that smug, self-satisfied expression. It belonged to a pudgy young man with glasses and a wispy little moustache, and he was smiling slightly to himself. And right away I knew – don’t ask me how, but I didn’t guess or imagine, I knew – that he’d stolen the chain.

The question was, of course, how to prove it. I couldn’t waste time, because at any moment the smug little bastard – sorry, sar, but that’s how I thought of him – as I was saying, at any moment the smug little bastard might simply choose to slope off and I couldn’t do a thing about it. I don’t know why he’d not disappeared already. Just enjoying his triumph, perhaps.

And then I had an idea.

One of the things I’ve learnt over the years about people is that middle-class Bunglees are absurdly superstitious. Yes, they are educated and employed and all, while I am only an illiterate labourer, but we poor people don’t have the luxury of believing in nonsense like they do. Our needs are far too immediate.

“I know a way,” I said. “Maybe the chain has fallen down somewhere here, on the ground. Maybe it hasn’t been stolen at all. Sar, madam, I have a mantra which can find it if it’s still here somewhere. Please stand where you are, and I will walk round your group, a few times, chanting this mantra.” Without pausing to let them think about what I’d said, I began walking round the edges of the crowd, striking the ground with my drumstick and muttering under my breath. What did I mutter? Just a little ditty in the Noakhali dialect of my village back in Bangladesh, too low for them to distinguish words:

“Ki korium khode zaiyum
Ăi to kisu buzi paino
Hayte aare dori mare
Ăi haytere marte arino.”

I muttered that, and others of a similar bent, all incomprehensible to the Bunglistanis. They must have thought I was chanting magic charms. The mothers were clutching their kids tight, and many of them were sweating. I went round the group once, very slightly brushing against the back of the smug little thief, and then again, and a third time.

It was after the third time that I pointed with my drumstick at the ground. “Oh, look,” I said, loudly. “There’s the chain!” And there it was, a thin gold chain, lying among the legs of the crowd.

“It must have fallen,” I said, while the fat woman was slobbering over it. “That’s all, it fell there, sar, madam, master and mistress. You see that I did not steal it.” And all the while the thief was patting his pockets at the back of the crowd, an expression of panic on his face.

How did I do it, you ask? Well, sar, the first time I went past, I brushed slightly against him, and I felt the chain in his back pocket. I could see it, too, a little bulge. The second time, I pointed it out to Ranga. And the third time, she stole it.

You see, sar, it pains me to say this, but I bought Billa and Ranga from someone who hadn’t been too scrupulous about training them. To be exact, he’d trained Ranga, who’s smaller and much more dextrous than Billa, as a pickpocket. His technique would be to use Billa to put up a solo performance at one point in his routine, and Ranga would work the crowd and steal what she could. Of course, I’ve never used her for anything like that, but she hasn’t forgotten her skills. If I’d ordered, she’d have taken your wallet from your pocket, right now while you’re talking to me, and you’d never have known, I can assure you.

And so she stole the chain, and palmed it to me, and I threw it on the ground as I came to the front of the crowd, as close to the fat woman’s feet as I could. And that was that. Those people were all very astonished and grateful. They even paid me!

That’s the whole story, sar. That’s exactly what happened. And that’s why I can’t help you locate whatever it is you lost, and tracked me down to help you find. No, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I have no magic skills, and however much you offer to pay me, I just can’t do it.

Why, sar, you are looking quite unhappy. Maybe my two can put on a dance for you after all? It might help take your mind off things.

They really do dance very well, you know.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012