Friday, 24 July 2020

All Pentagon On The Hollywood Front

Or, Why Hollywood isn't remaking "All Quiet On The Western Front".




One of the most persistent criticisms of Hollywood these days - as well as one of the most accurate - is that it seems to have run completely out of ideas. It only makes movies that are remakes, or superzero franchises, or both. Of course, there's more to it than that; Hollywood only makes things that are guaranteed to make a profit by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Since the lowest common denominator is also essentially mindless, functionally illiterate, and barely able to summon the intellectual ability to look at a movie poster, cinema pandering to their tastes has to be as vacuous as possible. Superzero titles fit the requirements perfectly.
    Superzero cinema also has excellent things going for it otherwise. Look at the typical superzero. He or she is almost guaranteed to be white, Amerikastani, and always, invariably, a supporter of the authority in power and the status quo. Even the illegal immigrant Clark Kent, alias Superman, chose to grace the Imperialist States of Amerikastan with his presence and fought for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Many of them are also filthy rich; Batman or Ironman might, you know, have given some of their money to improve the conditions of the poor rather than acting as vigilantes above the law that's for the hoi polloi.
    Always, what do these superzeroes, even those not white or Amerikastani, do? They fight for capitalist Amerikastani interests. Suppose there's a hidden African country with an advanced civilisation,while the nations around them are exploited by Amerikastan, ruled over by Amerikastani-allied dictators, with high levels of poverty and illiteracy, malnourishment and civil war? Suppose in this hypothetical country someone rises up to demand that the super advanced civilisation do something to unite and liberate the exploited people of the rest of the continent? You'd think he was the obvious hero, right?
    Wrong. As per Hollywood, he is the villain. The hero would be the one who's going to stop him from doing any such thing.
    Then there is the little fact that all Hollywood movies these days that use any kind of weaponry need to get clearance from the Pentagon to make sure that Amerikastan's military is adequately propagandised. In return the filmmakers get access to anything they want, from combat ships to aeroplanes to rocket launchers, not to speak of war criminals ("soldiers" and "marines") to train the actors or even act as extras themselves. Hollywood is basically an Amerikastani Empire military propaganda vehicle.
    This is why I've said many times that the greatest Hollywood film ever, "Dr Strangelove", would never have been made today. Even then it was investigated for "espionage" because the B52 cockpit interior design it used was allegedly very close to the real thing. Of course, the real problem of the film was its anti militarist message, which wasn't Stanley Kubrick's first either. He'd already trod that track before with "Paths Of Glory", but that film was about French criminality in WWI, and therefore Amerikastan had no problem with it. The French regime did, banning the movie, but not the Amerikastanis.
    Today, of course, Kubrick would never have been permitted to make "Dr Strangelove". The producers wouldn't have financed it. The studios would have closed their doors. Kubrick would have been denounced as a "Russian agent", as would most of the actors, especially Peter Sellers, who was British to boot. But I'm almost sure that Kubrick couldn't have made "Paths Of Glory" either.
   Why? Because "Paths Of Glory" is as savagely anti militarism as "Dr Strangelove" is, only it doesn't attempt to be funny. It's based on a real life incident during WWI when a French unit, ordered by incompetent generals to assault an impregnable German position, was beaten back and troops refused to continue a senseless and suicidal attack. Three soldiers were taken at random from the units, given a kangaroo court trial with a foregone conclusion, and shot by firing squad to "encourage" the others to keep fighting. Kubrick's protagonist, the unit commander who acts as the soldiers' defender at the trial, is actually thought of as stupid by his superiors because he doesn't use this opportunity to push for promotion. A doomed mission, incompetent generals interested only in promotion, exhausted and demoralised troops who no longer want to fight....have we seen this recently? Somewhere in a possibly fictional country called "Iraq" and somewhere in another possibly fictional country called "Afghanistan"?
    And that is the reason why, though Hollywood is perfectly willing to scrape the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ideas for rebooted superzero franchises, it won't make another "Paths Of Glory". It won't make another "The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming", the wonderful mid-60s comedy about a Soviet submarine that runs aground off an Amerikastani island, where the Soviet sub crew turns out not to be Evil Communist Ogres or Red Defectors Desperate For Capitalist Freedom, but emphatically People Like Anybody Else.
    A system that exists on Perpetual War against human beings on the other side of the planet cannot afford to have potential recruits see those human beings as People Like Anybody Else.
    And this is why Hollywood seems to have no interest in remaking one of its own greatest all time films, "All Quiet On The Western Front." The original novel by Erich Maria Remarque, which is surprisingly slim when you first see it, came out in January 1929. Within weeks it had become an international superhit, translated into English and French, and Hollywood had bought the movie rights and begun filming. German ex soldiers, who had settled in some numbers in Amerikastan after WWI, acted as consultants and extras. While by today's standards the movie would be rather overacted (the main cast were all silent movie veterans who were used to the exaggerated gestures and acting necessary to that medium), it was also an immediate hit on release. In Germany, too, it was a great hit, or would have been, but for the Nazis.
    The Nazis, then an up and coming fascist military worshipping party, called the film an insult to the German military. They attacked movie theatres, beat viewers, and soon pressured the German censor board into banning the film. In Poland, ironically, the film was banned as "pro-German". The right wing American Legion, comprised of Amerikastani former war criminals ("veterans"), also condemned the film. They were united in opposition because of the simple fact that the movie was not just anti war, but that it showed the soldiers, even enemy soldiers, as being not at all different from you and me.
   In one of the film's, and the book's, most famous moments, the protagonist (he's no hero, thank you very much) Paul Bäumer, is trapped in a shell hole on no man's land. A French soldier jumps into the same shell hole for shelter, and in a panicky frenzy Bäumer stabs him, wounding him mortally. The Frenchman takes hours to die, with the horrified Bäumer trying to comfort him and dress his wound. After his death, Bäumer is still trapped with his corpse in the shell hole for the next day and night, and he searches the body, finding letters and photographs. The Frenchman isn't a nameless enemy any longer. He's Gérard Duval, a printer in peacetime. Bäumer thinks confusedly that he should become a printer after the war in expiation of what he thinks of as his crime; he makes whispered promises to Duval's body that he will take care of the Frenchman's family after the war, only to realise that as the killer of their husband and father he can't expect anything but hatred from them.

"The Death Of Gérard Duval". Acrylic on paper.

    It is an immensely important scene, one of the high points of the book and the movie; the other is when Bäumer goes home on leave and finds that the civilians at home not only understand nothing of the war but are still pressuring their children to join up and go to the front.
   These are not themes that will be popular with the Pentagon today.
    Even the description of combat in the book is brutal. The original 1930 film (and a not too bad 1979 made for television remake) both totally sanitise the violence, but the book doesn't. During an attack, Bäumer trips over "an open belly, on which a fresh new officer's cap was lying". His friend uses a sharpened spade to cleave a giant French soldier down to the shoulder. Bäumer's friend Haie Westhus has his back blown open so his lungs can be seen as he breathes; he's still not only alive but conscious, biting his hands in agony. So it goes.
   If Hollywood were even remotely true to  its alleged liberal reputation, which of course it is not, it would have remade All Quiet for the 21st century, maybe in 3D. Rats, mud, corpses, the doubtful affections of French prostitutes, roasting stolen duck in a former kennel, crouching in a dugout under a barrage while new recruits go insane from fear, all of it.
    Not one bit of it would have brainwashed one single person to get into uniform, so of course it will not happen.
    The original German title of "All Quiet On The Western Front" is "Im Westen Nichts Neues", which is much better translated as "Nothing New In The West."
    Im Hollywood Nichts Neues either.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Shot At Dawn: The Case Of Mata Hari

One morning, over a hundred years ago, a woman was shot by firing squad on the outskirts of Paris.

She was called a spy, a whore, the killer of fifty thousand French children. Movies have been made about her. Books have been written about her. There's at least one graphic novel on her.

Her name is Mata Hari.

This is her story.

The term Mata Hari has almost become synonymous with "woman spy", but the real story is anything but a tale of espionage. It's a story of French incompetence, evil, and judicial murder.

Mata Hari was a Dutch woman called Margrethe Zelle who was born in 1876 to a relatively wealthy family. Her father however was in debt and went bankrupt in Margrethe's childhood, and later abandoned her mother and her to run off with another woman. While Margrethe was still in her mid teens and at school her mother died, leaving her without means and unable to earn a living. So she answered an advertisement for a wife posted by a Dutch officer, one MacLeod (I assume of Scottish descent) who was on leave from Dutch-enslaved Indonesia. He was twice her age but they immediately got married within a week because he was going back to Indonesia. On the voyage by ship there he gave her syphilis. Later she had two children, one boy and a girl, both born with congenital syphilis. The boy was accidentally murdered by a colonial regime doctor trying to cure his syphilis. The girl barely survived. By this time Margrethe and MacLeod openly despised each other. He started having multiple affairs, she retaliated in turn, and they finally moved back to Amsterdam and divorced in 1904. Though the courts gave Margrethe custody of her daughter, she had no money and the girl was actually brought up by her ex-husband.

In 1905, penniless and with no prospect of a job, Margrethe decided to reinvent herself. She changed her name to Mata Hari (which in Hindi would mean Mother Krishna, or Mother of God, but she didn't take it from Hindi. In Malay and Bahasa Indonesia Mata Hari means "eye of the morning", that is, the dawn or rising sun.) She claimed to be, at various times, Indian or Malay, and that she had been trained in sacred temple dances in the East.

Mata Hari was, despite her background, extremely intelligent, fluently multilingual (she could speak English, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Malay and "probably" German), and she was a good if not exceptional dancer. She soon became extremely famous for her dancing, mostly because it was a thinly disguised striptease in which she would take off everything except her bra (because she was self conscious of her small breasts). At that time striptease would have landed her in jail for obscenity, but she was very careful to get round that by announcing before every performance that she was going to perform sacred temple dances, so it was a religious affair. She became famous throughout Europe; from Paris (where she lived) to Germany and Russia, she performed everywhere and earned enormous amounts both in money and gifts of jewellery from her lovers and admirers. This lasted all the way through the 1910s until the start of WWI.

Here is an actual photo of Mata Hari dancing:



When WWI started Mata Hari was still in Paris. As a Dutch citizen, since the Netherlands was neutral, she could actually travel to both France and Germany through the Netherlands, and she continued performing. But by this time she was growing older and other, younger women had begun copying her and dancing naked, so instead of dancing her income mostly came from being a high class courtesan for very rich men. Then the Germans seized the furs and jewellery that she had in Germany for "wartime requirements". Mata Hari never forgave them for this. And, as we'll see, like her fluency in languages, this was to come to be used against her later.

The French soon became suspicious of this Dutch woman who was intelligent, fluently multilingual, had rich and powerful lovers, and being a citizen of a neutral country could go to Germany if she wished. They also desperately needed a scapegoat by 1916 because they were losing battle after battle because of the incompetence of their own generals. The French soldiers no longer wanted to fight. On at least one occasion three soldiers were even picked out at random and shot by firing squad to "encourage" the others to fight; this was later to be made into a famous film, "Paths Of Glory". So the French needed someone to blame and Mata Hari seemed a good choice. Her extravagant lifestyle when France was at war was already making her notorious in any case.

While on a journey to Netherlands via Spain, Mata Hari's ship halted at Brutain and she was interrogated and searched as a "possible spy"; one of the reasons recorded as being against her was that she could speak so many languages. Then back in Paris she was again followed, and then the French intelligence agency summoned her, accused her of being a spy, and when she denied it, made her an offer that they would pay her expenses if she would actually spy on the Germans for them. They said she could go back to the Netherlands via Spain and England (couldn't go directly because Belgium was half under German occupation and direct routes were cut). Actually the French had absolutely no intention of using her as a spy; it was an entrapment operation.

Mata Hari, accordingly, went to Spain and took ship for the Netherlands. When it stopped in Brutain the Brutish took her off the ship, took her to London, interrogated her (in all the languages she could speak), and accused her of being a spy. She protested that she was on a mission from French intelligence. The Brutish contacted the French, and the very same officer, one Major something (I forget his name and I'm not interested in looking up the nomenclature of such a maggot, let's call him Major L) said he had never heard of her. The Brutish deported her back to Spain. There she was approached by a German diplomat, who offered her money to spy for Germany. She took the money but never did any spying. The reason she took the money was because she considered it compensation for her things that were seized by Germany when the war broke out. She then, because there was absolutely nothing she could do in Spain and because she loved Paris, went back to France. At this time she was forty years old.

In Paris Mata Hari soon found that the Major L who had employed her now acted as though she did not exist. He didn't pay her, he didn't answer her letters; his agents however kept following her. She began running out of money and started moving from one hotel to a cheaper one and a cheaper one still (but still very luxurious, such as from a 5 star to a 4 and then a 3). At the same time she met and fell in love with a Russian officer, one Captain Maslov, who was deputed to the French army. Maslov loved her too and invited her to his frontline post. She had to pretend that she had health problems and needed to visit a spa in the area in order to get a permit to visit him and when she did she found that he had been badly injured in a gas attack and was in danger of losing his eyesight, yet she proposed marriage to him and vowed to remain with him throughout life.

This visit to the frontline would later become another "proof" in the case against Mata Hari.

Meanwhile Major L claimed (this was in February 1917, when the French army was beginning to fall apart and entire divisions were mutinying) that his signal station on top of the Eiffel Tower had intercepted messages from the German diplomat in Spain claiming that Mata Hari was a German agent, H-21. It's extremely likely that the messages were totally fictional because the original messages were never found, just the alleged French translation. There is a source that claimed that the German diplomat considered her a liability and may have sent a message in a code he knew the French had broken in order to get rid of her, but in that case the original messages should have survived. Based on the message, in any case, Mata Hari was arrested in her hotel in April 1917, accused of being a spy, and confined in a prison for prostitutes. As a punishment, she was regularly moved into filthier and filthier, more vermin infested, cells, while the case against her was fabricated in a military court. The chief of the tribunal was a French officer (Bouchardon, if I remember correctly, but let's call him B) who hated sexually liberated women and who in any case was also determined to find a scapegoat for France's military defeats. Mata Hari was only permitted a civilian solicitor who was a former lover and who knew nothing about military law; he wasn't even allowed to cross examine witnesses. Letters from Maslov were deliberately withheld from Mata Hari and when her solicitor wanted to call him as a defence witness he wasn't permitted to. The Dutch embassy ignored the letters she wrote protesting her innocence. The French regime media was also whipped up to a frenzy, claiming that Mata Hari was responsible for the deaths of "50000 French children" (soldiers who were children of French parents; this was a brilliant propaganda move, one must admit). No evidence was ever presented for any of this, of course; one of the tribunal members would later admit there wasn't enough evidence against her to "flog a cat". In July she was sentenced to be shot by firing squad, and was executed at dawn one day in October 1917 at the age of 41: she was shot by a firing squad of Algerian troops in red fez caps in service of the French. She refused a blindfold and refused to be tied to a stake to be shot, and one of the firing squad later said "the lady knew how to die".

After her death her body was sent to a medical college to be dissected because nobody would claim it.

Ironically, a few days after her murder, the Major L who had framed her as a German spy was arrested....on suspicion of being a German spy.

In 1930 the German government officially announced that Mata Hari had never, at any time, been a German spy.

To this day the French regime has made no such announcement.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Bhola Babu And The Bhairaas: A Ghost Tale From Bunglistan


There is a reason why, in this day and age, there are so few ghosts in Bunglistan.

**************************************************************************

It eej,” Bhola Babu said, “not poseebool to leebh weeth thees woman.”
    Of course he did not say it aloud. “This woman”, that is to say his wife, would skin him alive if he summoned the courage to utter such a sentiment in her hearing. He didn’t even dare mutter it under his breath, in case she saw his lips move and demand to know what he was saying. So he had to content himself with saying it inside his head to himself, and even then he could not summon the boldness to shout it, but kept it to a whisper.
    It wasn’t enough. His wife, who had been berating him from the kitchen, stuck her head out of the door and glared at him.
    Bhola Babu’s wife’s name was Opurboshundori. Everyone, of course, called her Futki Boudi. She had the voice of a dysfunctional cement mixer, the skin of a coconut, and the build of a sumo wrestler. When she walked the walls shook. When she spoke the paint flaked off the ceiling. And as for her face, well, mirrors wished they could jump off the walls and take to their heels. Not being able to do that, they settled for committing suicide by falling on the floor instead.
    “Hwat are you saying?” she demanded now. “I know you are geebhing me bad waards. Don’t try too deny eet.”
    Bhola Babu looked at her, and suddenly decided enough was enough. “I am,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster, reaching for his long umbrella, “going out. I habh waark to do.”
    “Hwat waark?” his wife replied suspiciously. “You habh no waark at thees time of night.”
    “Shomoresh Babu,” Bhola Babu said, inventing desperately, “asked me too teech heej saan how too do erithmetic. You know tha boy hej felled heej ekjamination for tha laast two yearj.”
    “Eef you are going out,” Futki Boudi told him, “don’t forget too weyaar your maask, or elj you weel bee stopped by the pulish. And breeng back one keelo obh feesh from tha maarket. Bee sure that eet eej not rotten and smelly thees time.”
    “Eet waj not rotten and smelly laast time,” Bhola Babu whispered to himself resentfully in his head, tying on the cloth mask as loosely as possible. “You ate eet all and gabhe me not a beet. And hwaile eating eet you kept shouting at me that eej waj rotten.” But he knew, once again, that he’d not dare say a syllable of it aloud.
    Bhola Babu’s real name, or, as he said, his “good name”, was Gyanendrochondro Ghoshal. He had been named by a grandmother who had decided that it would be a “mouth filling name”. And that was apparently the last time anything had filled his mouth, because he was as short, skinny, and balding as his wife was big, obese, and hirsute. And his station in life had kept in accordance with his appearance, for he was still, as he had been twenty years before, a lower division clerk in an insurance office.
    That had not stopped Bhola Babu from dreaming big dreams, though. “Eef only I could get reed obh thees woman,” he had often thought to himself, “I could become reech and famous. At least I could get promotion too aapaar deebheeshon claark or eebhen an ofeesaar.”
    But that had been back when Bhola Babu still could have some time off from his wife; he could go to work every day and his wife went back to her parents’ house at least a couple of times a year for a visit. Now he hadn’t gone to work in months; his office was closed off in a containment area, and his wife couldn’t go to visit her parents either. It was driving him out of his mind.
    “Eet eej tha fault obh theej Chaineej,” Bhola Babu told his friend Nobeen Babu, whom he met in the street outside Shopon Dotto’s Calcutta Sweets Shop. Nobeen Babu, whose “good name” was Troilokkonath Mojoomdar, was Bhola Babu’s only friend, or so Bhola Babu had it. It had been hard for Bhola Babu to catch up with Nobeen Babu, who had for some reason been waddling along as fast as his immense paunch would permit, despite Bhola Babu waving his long umbrella in a desperate attempt to draw his attention. You’d almost think Nobeen Babu was desperate to avoid Bhola Babu’s company.
    “Hwat eej?” Nobeen Babu asked, wistfully ogling Shopon Dotto’s glass display cases from the corner of his eye. Piles of sweets sat on trays under the glare of tube lights, crawled over by fat black houseflies which took time off to sit on the glass, happily rubbing their forelegs together. Nobeen Babu was resentful of the houseflies, whom Shopon Dotto didn’t ask to pay to eat his sweets. He wanted a nice plate of the jeelebees and another of the roshogollas that the flies were clustered most thickly over, proving how tasty they must be, but if he went in he’d have to invite Bhola Babu too. And none of Nobeen Babu’s money went to feed anything but his considerable stomach. “Hwat eej tha fault obh tha Chaineej?” he repeated absently.
    “They eenbhented thees dijij, thees Coronabhairaas,” Bhola Babu replied, waving his umbrella around. “They deed eet to cauj lockdown so aj to draibh ebhrywaan een thees caantry crayjee becauj obh being shouted at bai theyar waibhes. Then they can capchaar all tha land een Ladhaak.”
    “Wheyar eej thees Ladhaak?” Nobeen Babu answered automatically, eyeing a particularly large fly squatting on a particularly tasty looking roshogolla. “I theenk eet eej an Arob caantry, eej eet not?”
    Bhola Babu impatiently waved off the suggestion that Ladakh was an Arab country. “And eet eej warking. I am already half crayjee weeth my wife’s shaauting. Eny more and I weel be foolly mad.”
    “Een that case,” Nobeen Babu responded, trying to keep from drooling, “why don’t you keel her and set yourself free?”
    And thus the Great Idea was born.

**************************************************************************

Of course this was easier said than done. Even Bhola Babu realised that. He also realised that there was not the slightest chance that he could possibly murder Futki Boudi by himself. For one thing he hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about it.
    “Kaam een,” he sighed, pointing to Shopon Dotto’s shop, “and habh saam sweets. We maast talk about thees.”
    Nobeen Babu needed no encouragement. “Theyar aar many ways too keel people,” he said, round a mouthful of roshogollas the flies had lately been crawling over. His mask, pulled under his chin, bobbled rhythmically as he chewed. “You can find methods on tha eentarnet. Look at tha eentarnet, Bhola Babu, you weel find ebhrytheeng you want on eet.”
    Bhola Babu waved off the suggestion of looking for murder methods on the internet. “I do not understand thees computer-shomputer,” he said. “Also, eef eet eej on the eenternet, eet eej known way to maardaar, eej eet not? Then the pulish weel know that she has been keeled, and then they weel catch me and geebh me hanging.” He shuddered at the thought of the noose around his neck. “Also, eef I try too keel her she weel peek me up by tha legs and dash my brens out. She eej beeg enough too do thees, you know.”
    Nobeen Babu shrugged and began on his second plate of jeelebees. “I theenk then,” he said, “you can only hope that she weel get thees coronabhairaas and die obh eet.” He snapped a finger at the waiter. “Oi boy, breeng me a plet of shondesh, queeklee. That shodesh, theyar, tha one the fliej are seeteeng on.”      
    “How?” Bhola Babu groaned, partly at the problem and partly at the rate at which Nobeen Babu, free of the requirement of having to pay, was polishing off the sweets. “She nebhar goej anywheyar now. Eebhen eef she needs a box of matchej she sends me to buy eet. Arlier she ujed to go to her friends for goseep baat now she only talks to them on tha mobile phone, for hawars and hawars ebhry day een between watching telebheeshon. And,” he added pathetically, “I habh too pay tha beel.”
    Nobeen Babu made an inarticulate noise around the last piece of shondesh, and began eyeing the lalmohans. They didn’t seem to be too popular with the flies, so they probably weren’t much good, he concluded regretfully. But there were the borfis in the corner, at least three or four flies were walking on them. He began to raise his hand again to snap his fingers.
    Bhola Babu saw the direction of his gaze, the lifted hand, and got up hurriedly. “I maast be going,” he said, sidling towards the desk where Shopon Dotto sat, glowering at his clientele. “I weel see you letaar.”
    Nobeen Babu, whose mouth had been liberally watering at the thought of the borfis, which he could all but taste on his tongue, was filled with furious disappointment. “Een that kess,” he snapped, “you go get eenfected by tha coronabhairass yourself, and geebh eet to her.”
    And, after goggling for a few seconds, Bhola Babu decided that this was exactly what he needed to do.

**************************************************************************

Baat,” Bhola Babu thought to himself, hurrying away from the sweet shop in case Nobeen Babu ordered the borfis and told Shopon Dotto that he, Bhola Babu, would pay for them. “Baat, how eej eet possibool to get thees coronabhairaas? Who haj eet that I can get eenfected by eet?”
    It was not an easy question to answer. Though the state government of Bunglistan was less than active in the anti-coronavirus efforts, it wasn’t as though it was waiting on every street corner to jump on passers-by. It wasn’t even as though he could walk into a coronavirus-infected area and get it, like going to a brothel to get syphilis. The very thought of a brothel brought to Bhola Babu’s mind the supple naked limbs of girls in lingerie advertisements in magazines he had sometimes bought on the way home from work, and always thrown away in dustbins before entering his house. Futki Boudi would wring his neck if she ever knew that he wasted money on magazines. And some of those other magazines in those shops! Just the idea of touching them, something he had never dared to do, of course, made Bhola Babu go red as a tomato and his heart hammer like a tabla player banging away at top speed. If only he could buy one, just once! But he knew that if he did, Futki Boudi would smell it on him, and then tear him limb from limb.
    “Once she eej dead,” he had a sudden thought, “nobody weel tell me hwat I can buy or not buy. Then I can get those magajeens eef I want.”
    His mind so filled with happy thoughts of opening fold-outs of topless women  that Bhola Babu quite forgot what he was doing and where he was supposed to be going. Turning down a lane that meandered down towards the old temple, he found himself in semi-darkness under the heavy branches of an overshadowing tamarind tree. And there he collided heavily with someone who he couldn’t even see in the darkness.
    “Look heaar,” the other person whined. “I waj not geebhen one minute of peace hwen I waj alibhe. Can’t I ebhen get to claaimb up into thees tree een peace now that I am dead?”
    “What?” Bhola Babu was so deep in his cheesecake fantasy that he even forgot to be afraid. “Deed you say you are dead?”
    “Yes,” the other person replied. “I died two hawars ago een the hospital, from thees coronabhairaas. Now I am a ghost and I need to go up eento a tree and leebh theyar. Thees eej a tamarind tree and so ideal for ghosts. Baat you come banging eento me and geebhing me not ebhen peace now.” And the ghost burst into tears.
    Bhola Babu registered only one word, the magical word, coronavirus. “Wait,” he told the ghost, grabbing it by the arm. The arm was very thin and reedy, so that even Bhola Babu’s tiny hand could grasp it easily. “Wait, I want saamtheeng faarst.”
    The ghost emitted a terrified squeak. “Let me go,” it pleaded. “l am not haarteeng you. Pleej let me go.”
    “Only when you geebh me hwat I want.” Never had Bhola Babu felt so bold and in control. He gave the ghost’s reedy arm a shake.“You had coronabhairaas? I am looking for coronabhairaas. You get thees coronabhairaas for me and I weel let you go.”
    “That eej all you want?” The ghost wriggled in astonishment. “I can get eet for you. They habh not baarnt my body yet, so theyar are many coronabhairaases een eet. And eef I get them for you, you weel let me go?”
    “That I weel,” Bhola Babu affirmed. “Baat eef you do not caam back weeth tha bhairaas...” He threw his mind back to half-remembered childhood tales to recall what might coerce a ghost. “Eef you do not caam back weeth tha bhairaas,” he finished, “I weel find you, and then I weel pour a bottle of maastaard oil on you.”
    The ghost whimpered in even greater terror than before. “Pleej,” it begged, “not maastaard oil. I weel breeng tha bhairaas to you heaar. Let me go and I weel be back een five minutes.”
    And it was as good as its word. In fact, it wasn’t even five minutes before it returned, clutching something between its clasped hands. “Heear eet eej,” it said. “I habh brought all the coronabhairaases een my dead body. What should I do weeth eet?”
    “You geebh me the bhairaas,” Bhola Babu replied. “Then you can go hweyarebhar you want.”
    “You weel not haant me weeth maastaard oil?” the ghost asked fearfully.
    “No,” Bhola Babu told it. “I weel not haant you weeth maastaard oil. Now geebh me tha bhairaas.”
    “How?” the ghost asked, reasonably enough. “Eet eej not as eef tha bhairaas can be poot into a bottle or saamtheeng.”
     Bhola Babu was nonplussed for a moment, but only for a moment. The prospect of freedom and cheesecake seemed to have sharpened his mind wonderfully. “Thees eej how,” he said. “Raab the bhairaas on my clothes.”
    And so the ghost did, its spindly hands vigorously swarming over Bhola Babu’s apparel. It then shinnied up the tree and disappeared.
    Bhola Babu was so excited at getting the virus that he didn’t even realise that he had forgotten to be afraid of the ghost – a real live ghost! – he’d met. He’d also forgotten to buy the fish, but that was all right, because he was reminded about that.
    His wife reminded him the moment he stepped through the door, and didn’t stop reminding him all night and into the next day.

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The first sneeze was so explosive that Bhola Babu nearly cracked his nose on the shelf on which, at his wife’s orders, he had been stacking her old almanacs. The almanac he’d been in the act of raising began to slip from his hand. He grabbed desperately for it and his clutching fingers ripped the cheap pink cover almost in two.
    “Hwat deed you do too my almanac?” Futki Boudi shrieked, like a steam engine venting its boiler. “How dare you tear eet?”
    “Eet waj a bhery old waan,” Bhola Babu protested weakly. “See, tha det eej from ten yearj ago.”
    “Eet eej a holy book.” Futki Boudi was totally unmollified and began bearing down on Bhola Babu like a steam engine with a malfunctioning brake. “Eet eej tha waard of grate guruj and god and you tear eet! I weel tear your ear for thees. I weel...” And then she sneezed too.
    It was a very impressive sneeze. It started somewhere near the pit of Futki Boudi’s ample belly, rode up her vast bulk, gathering force all the while, and finally emerged from her nose in the manner of twin artillery shells. “Hacchhoo,” she sneezed, and her arm, raised in the act of reaching for Bhola Babu’s ear, dropped to her side. It was, after all, a very bad omen to do something after sneezing, even if that thing was the eminently laudable act of tearing off her husband’s ear. “I weel take care obh you letaar,” she said, feeling the beginnings of another sneeze gathering. “I weel go and lie down for a while. You cook and clean tha keechen and aftaar that I weel tell you what to do next.”
    Bhola Babu could feel sneezes playing around in his nasal passages as well, and a burning, tickling sensation in his chest climbing up into his throat. But the prospect of Futki Boudi confined to bed, and, therefore, not able to rip him limb from limb, was agreeable. Besides, her sneeze could only mean one thing. “She weel soon be dead,” he thought, and got to cooking and cleaning the kitchen, as ordered. Despite the burning in his chest, and the suspicion that he was beginning to develop a temperature, he would have whistled, if only he knew how to.
    “I am feeling seek,” Futki Boudi said, raising her huge, healthy face from the pillow, when Bhola Babu came to report that he had fulfilled her orders. “You weel go and do tha shopping, then clean tha weendows obh tha front room. And then you weel scraab tha floors. Do you aanderstand?”
    “Yes,” Bhola Babu said, between coughs. “I understand.”
    “And don’t you dare cough at me. Don’t you know I am seek or saamtheeng?”
    That night, Bhola Babu’s cough worsened, and he definitely had a fever. But, as he went about his list of chores, he was filled with joy at the thought that Futki Boudi would soon be dead, and then he would be able to do whatever he wanted and buy what he wanted, too. When his wife thundered at him to “Breeng my deenaar to me een bed, and don’t cough een heeyar, don’t you aanderstand that I am seek?” he even smiled in genuine happiness.
    It got even better. “You sleep on tha sofa,” his wife decreed, as she gobbled down her third helping of fish curry and rice. “I am so seek that I can’t ebhen eat a spoonfool, and I need to sleep weethout being deestarbed by your snoring.” Since it was Bhola Babu who normally lay awake nights listening to the elephant-like trumpeting that she emitted, this was more than welcome. He even grinned to himself, between coughs, as he made his bed on the sofa, and used a wet handkerchief to wipe his burning brow.
    Soon, he thought, there wouldn’t be any snoring at all.

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Bhola Babu woke suddenly.
    He’d slept badly, as he had the last several nights, his sleep disturbed by coughing, headaches, and bad dreams. In some of the dreams the half-naked girls in the magazines he wanted to buy were in his room before him, beckoning alluringly, but when he took a step towards them they turned into his wife. Sometimes there was only one of them, sometimes three or four, and when there were three or four there were three or four of his wife, all out to rip his ears off and tear him limb from limb.
    Waking from these dreams was always good, because his wife, in the real world, stayed resolutely in bed, complaining of being sick and unable to sleep or eat. True, she ate like a starving prize sow, and she snored like an air raid siren, but she did sneeze sometimes and even felt slightly warm whenever she demanded that Bhola Babu stopped thinking only of himself and feel her raging fever. So she must have the virus, and she would soon die of it, and that thought kept Bhola Babu happy while he shopped, cooked, scrubbed floors, washed up, and coughed and reeled with fever in between all the while.
    Tonight, though: tonight he felt great. He’d had some exceptionally bad dream, in which Futki Boudi had been strangling him with one hand while thrusting him into a furnace with another, and had woken just as the heat and choking were together consuming him. But as soon as he woke, he felt wonderful. Even the fever and headache were gone. With as close to a merry laugh as he could manage, he jumped to his feet.
    And screamed. On the sofa, where he had been lying moments before, there was a corpse.
    It was quite a genuine corpse. Ugly, scrawny, its face still flushed an angry red, it was very dead. It even looked vaguely familiar.
    “Eet maast be saam rascal who came een heaar to die.” Bhola Babu bent low for a closer look to see if he could recognise the rascal, and screamed again. It was impossible to deny; the corpse was his own.
    “I am dead,” he thought frantically. “That meanj I am a ghost. That also meanj that I habh to get out obh heaar aj faast aj I can go. Becauj soon she weel be dead too and then she weel be a ghost and then I weel habh to spend eetarneetee weeth her.” The very thought turned his ghostly limbs to water, and, like the same water, he melted down to a puddle on the floor and oozed towards the door.
    He had managed to slide under the door and leak down the stairs when he discovered that he wasn’t alone. All around him, flowing like him down the stairs, were tiny specks. He peered at one and saw that it was a tiny, ghostly sphere studded with knobs and spikes. They gathered around him, prodding and poking at his ghostly body, slipping in through all its orifices and pores.
    “Hwat...hwat are you?” he whispered at the sphere he was peering at.
    And the tiny sphere replied! It spoke in English, a language that Bhola Babu had, as befit a middle class Bunglistani gentleman, little acquaintance with, especially when spoken, as now, in crisp but unidentifiable foreign accents. But his fear was so great that, somehow or other, he managed to understand. “We’re the ghosts of the coronaviruses that infected that female monster up there,” it said, before forcing itself into him through his ghostly nostrils. “Now we need a new host. What did you think we were?”
    Then, at last, Bhola Babu knew. His wife wasn’t going to die from the coronavirus; she’d murdered the virus instead.
    A moment later he sneezed, and then he began to cough.
   
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And that was the beginning of the Great Coronavirus Ghostdemic of Bunglistan, which all but wiped out the ghost population; and that is why there are so few ghosts in Bunglistan now.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2020