Saturday 4 June 2011

Chapter One of a Possible New Novel

I'd strongly request feedback on this. It may, or may not, be Chapter One of a new novel. I don't know how it will go - yet. I'm experimenting. There will certainly be a Chapter Two and Three; after that I don't know.

This story is set in the fictional African state of Bisaria, a few years after the events of the stories of the Bisaria Quartet:

  You can read them first, or go right ahead with this story:

                                                  THE DREAM

He’d been having the same dream again.

Dingane opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. The morning light stole through the chinks in the curtains and painted the walls a granular greyish-white, mottled in places where the water had stained the plaster after the previous month’s water leak. It wasn’t an attractive room even at the best of times, but in the dawn it looked particularly bleak.

Dingane ignored the room. He lay on his back, eyes half-open, and worked at exorcising the dream. He had long ago evolved a routine for ridding himself of it, because until it was pushed back into the darkness, he couldn’t function.

He started off by imagining a huge sheet of tough black cloth, so large that it spread over his memory of the dream, from the bloodstained grass to the smoke-stained sky. He allowed the cloth to grow, until it blotted out everything, until he could see nothing but black cloth, so thick that not a single ray of light, not a single sound, could pass through it. He then began to push the cloth from the edges, to fold it over the dream, until it was wrapped up in a black parcel. He then dug a grave and buried the parcel as deep as he could, and shovelled the earth back over it.

Sighing, he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. He had won. The dream was dead again.

Until next time.

He could hear his girl, Stellah, moving around in the kitchen. When he came out of the bathroom, she was sitting on the bed, a mug of coffee for him, tea for her. She patted the mattress next to her and stared at him.

“Dreaming again?”

Shrugging, Dingane took the coffee. It was too hot, too strong and not sweet enough, as usual. Stellah never drank coffee herself and hadn’t the faintest idea how to brew it, but Dingane let her make it because she liked thinking that she was caring for him.

“I asked,” she repeated, “if you’d been dreaming again. I heard you moaning. It woke me.”

Dispassionately, Dingane nodded and sipped the coffee. “Yeah.” It came out sounding like “You.” He stretched his legs, one by one, feeling the muscles expand and contract. He didn’t look at Stellah.

“It’s been happening more often, hasn’t it?” Stellah slurped her tea with enjoyment, and ran her bare toes up Dingane’s shin. Annoyed, he moved his leg away, and turned so he was facing away from her. Stellah sighed.

“Why don’t you see a psychiatrist?” she asked. It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question. “Why don’t you get help?

“I can’t afford it. You know that.” It was true, his salary as a security guard barely paid his bills. “Besides, it won’t help. It’s not as if I’m imagining all that. It really happened.”

“So you say. But how do you know unless you try?”

Without answering, Dingane got up and walked to the kitchen. He dumped the remaining coffee into the sink, rinsed the mug out, and returned to the bedroom to dress. Stellah sat on the bed watching him.

“One of these days,” she told him suddenly, “I’m going to leave you.”

Dingane shrugged, pulling on his T shirt. “You’ve said that before.”

“This time I mean it.” There was a new, intense note in her voice. “One day you’ll get home and I just...won’t be here.” She paused, looking down into what was left of her tea. “You don’t really care about us, do you?”

“I care about you,” he told her. It was true.

“Oh yeah. But you don’t care about you. Which means you don’t care about us.”

Dingane looked at her, as though seeing her for the first time. She was pretty – he had always thought someone like him didn’t deserve anyone as pretty as she was – with the figure of one of the models in the ads on the billboards, her features marred only by the scar across her forehead and down the bridge of her nose. For all the world it looked like someone had struck her with a machete, and well it might, because back during the civil war someone had done that precise thing. She, like him, was a child of the war.

“I do care about us,” he said slowly. “I care...whichever way I can.” The thought of losing her was a novel one. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it. He decided to keep it for later, and finished dressing.

“You aren’t going to have breakfast?” she asked. “Where are you going?”

“Out. I have to clear my head. Do you mind if I take the car?”

“I don’t have to go to work till ten.” She was a cashier at a women’s clothing emporium. It wasn’t a bad job at all, considering the alternatives. “As long as you’re back before that.”

“I’ll be here by nine,” he promised, hardly thinking about it. His thoughts were drifting back towards the dream. “Don’t worry.”

Silently, she raised her face to his for the brush of his lips on hers. The kisses had become a formality in recent days, like most else between them, and he didn’t even remember when he’d last made love to her of his own desire. It was another thing to think about. Later.

As he left, he glanced at her one last time over his shoulder. She was peering back down again, into her mug of tea, as though she could read the future there.


The car had once been blue, but had been repainted so many times that it was impossible to decide which shade it had originally been. It belonged to Stellah. She was probably its fourth or fifth owner, and it looked as though the previous three or four had used it to bulldoze their way through roadblocks and piles of brick. Its bodywork was dented, rust showing through where the paint had worn away, and the glass of one headlight was missing. But it ran well enough, as long as one didn’t stress the engine too much.

Dingane drove slowly and carefully. He’d learned to drive on heavy trucks with clutches that had to be pressed almost to the floor, and gearshifts that had to be yanked back with all the strength of his shoulder, and the car still seemed absurdly light on the touch for him. At this hour, the streets were mostly empty, and he could afford to drive along with most of his mind considering the dream he’d had.

It had first come to him about a year ago, and he’d woken screaming, tangled in the sheet and wet with his own sweat. Stellah hadn’t been with him that night – she’d been away, visiting her parents in the country – and he’d trembled, lying awake till the dawn. Only many hours later had he been finally able to shake off the effects of it, and that night he’d dreaded going to bed, trying desperately to keep himself awake as long as possible until exhaustion claimed him. But the dream hadn’t visited him again for three weeks, and when it had come again, Stellah had been there to hold and soothe him.

But he’d grown used enough to the dream not to wake screaming with fear, and Stellah no longer had to hold him to her breast while he trembled. On the surface of it, he’d learned to handle the dream much better.

In reality, though, he was slipping.

He knew he was slipping, the dream coming closer, the memories no longer content to be wrapped away in black cloth and buried. He dreamed it more often now, at least once a week in recent months, and now, in this last week, it had already visited him thrice.

It varied a little in details, but the essentials were always the same. It began with the waving grass, so long that they could crawl through it without anyone’s head showing. The grass was green before his face, his hands pushing it aside as he crawled. And alongside him, behind him, there were the others, all together, their guns over their shoulders, their machetes at their waists, and the drugs burning in their brains.

Ahead of them was the village. They were going to the village, for food and women and then for some fun. They had done it many times before, and they’d do it many times again.

The houses had already been on fire when they’d reached them. Dingane never knew who had set the fire, and at the time none of them had cared. The people were cowering where they could hide, and he and the other boys had pulled them out, laughing, smacking them with the flats of their blades, driving them together into the village square, the women screaming and the old men mumbling. There had been no young men; all the young men were in some army or other. The boys had been angry because the village was on fire and they couldn’t find any food. But they had the women, and once they were through with the women, they could have some fun.

By the time they’d finished with the fun the village was a heap of smouldering ashes and the village square had been slippery with blood. That was nothing new, and they’d all seen it often enough before. Dingane, all of thirteen that summer, had sat unconcernedly on the naked corpse of a woman and smoked a cigarette. The woman had taken a long time to die, and had been a lot of fun. But the cigarette didn’t quite take away the hunger in his belly.

That time there had been a few survivors. One had been the daughter of the woman Dingane had killed. The girl had been five, maybe six years old, all stick-thin limbs, a mass of frizzled hair, and huge frightened eyes. Her face had seemed to be all eyes and screaming mouth when Dingane had ripped her from her mother’s arms and thrown her aside. The others had dragged her off to one side to wait with the other kids. Some of the kids were usable sometimes; Dingane had been one such child, in the early days of the conflict. So Dingane hadn’t killed the girl, just thrown her aside, and continued with his fun, and later sat on the woman smoking his cigarette.

Until this point the dream always followed reality more or less accurately, with the sky raining pieces of burning village and the ground underneath sticky with blood. But, as Dingane finished smoking, he knew now that he was dreaming, and that something bad was going to happen.

He jumped off the woman and looked all around. Always, in the dream, he was suddenly alone at this point, standing in the middle of a monochrome waste of ash and smoke. The colour had gone from the sky and the land, and everything was white and grey, and the blood was black.

Stirring slowly, the ash began to rise, mixing itself with the black blood to mould itself into shapes monstrous and terrible, with huge round mouths studded with crystal teeth. They reached for him, shuffling slowly through the grey murk, and he turned and ran, but he could never run quite fast enough. The faster he ran, it seemed, the less far he got, and the monsters came crowding round him, reaching.

Sometimes, he woke up at that point. But most times the dream went on, and she was there – the young girl, the one he’d pulled away from her mother, running through the ashes in her flower-patterned dress, the torn cloth flapping round her bare legs. Usually, he merely stumbled after her, desperately following but never quite catching up. Once or twice, though, he’d actually caught up with her, and touched her – grabbed her arm or her shoulder, and she’d turned and looked up at him.

And this was the point Dingane had never been able to sleep past. Nor could he ever bring himself to remember what he saw when the girl had looked back at him.

Up ahead, police had erected a roadblock and were checking vehicle papers. Dingane fumbled in his pocket to make sure he’d remembered to bring his driver’s licence, and feeling the edge of the laminated card, relaxed slightly. The last thing he could afford was a bribe to the police to let him go without a fine.

The face of a policeman appeared at the window, fat and round, the skin shiny with sweat even this early in the morning. “Licence.”

While the cop was dubiously turning the licence over and over, Dingane went back to thinking about the dream. He would have to do something about it, he thought, and soon. He couldn’t go to a psychiatrist – he couldn’t afford one, and besides his past was something better hidden. The former child soldiers had a rough time of it these days. If a word of his past got to his employer’s ear, he would be on the streets looking for a job before the hour was out.

The policeman returned the licence with a surly frown, unhappy at not having found something wrong. “Where you going?”

“Goodtown,” Dingane said, without thinking. It was the oldest part of the city, now mostly a sprawling slum. “I’m going to Goodtown,” he repeated, suddenly realising that it was where he’d wanted to go.

The policeman peered suspiciously at him for a moment longer, and at the inside of the car. “All right,” he said finally. “Go on, get out of here.”

The lanes of Goodtown were narrow and rutted, the sky between the unpainted concrete walls of the buildings sieved through a net of wires. Dingane hadn’t been here for a long time, and at first he drove around aimlessly, trying to get his bearings. A line of women in colourful skirts and headscarves stood at a tap for water, and stared at the car as he passed. A fat man in a dirty white T shirt straightened up from under the hood of a small truck and spat on the road, glaring at Dingane with incomprehensible hatred. A few children scattered screaming from an alley mouth, almost coming under the car’s wheels. It was just another morning in Goodtown.

Dingane now knew where he was going. He hadn’t been there before, but knew the place by reputation; past the old market, where later in the day squawking chickens and stacks of thick green bananas would share space with second hand clothes and picture frames, and up the narrow alley towards the top of the little hill.

The old woman lived there, in a tall narrow house with peeling green shutters on the windows and faded yellow paint on the walls. She had a reputation built over many years, and Dingane had heard tales about her that he’d never credited. But maybe it was time to begin believing them now.

At least, she might be able to help him, where no one else could.

“Is Mama Cynthia up?” he asked the gnome-like servant who answered his knock. “I need to consult her.”

The gnome wrinkled his brow, “She will be able to talk to you in half an hour.”

Dingane glanced at his watch. It was old, with a scratched dial, and hadn’t told accurate time to within fifteen minutes in years. He still had an hour before he had to get back to Stellah, anyway. And if he couldn’t make it in time, she could take the bus for once.

“I’ll wait,” he said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

In Hell

To work!” The demon’s lash fell violently, cracking. “To work, every last one of ye.”

The Souls stirred, sluggishly moving from their torpor. The Sun of Hell glared through the open windows, already bright and hot to the limits of tolerance, burning huge and red in a black sky. From the streets of Dis the sounds rose, mumbles and scrapings and the occasional demonic howl.

“To work!” The demon’s lash curled in the air, cracking.

The Souls shuffled out of their chamber into the street outside. The chamber itself was built of their pain, the streets of their despair, harnessed by the demons and turned into brick and stone. The entire city of Dis was built of and by the Souls, and more flooded into the work gangs by the day. The demons had no shortage of labour.

The streets were already crowded. Gangs of Souls were being led off to labour, guarded by watch- demons of many different types. Among them moved other demons; tall, spindly ones with eyes on stalks, whirling by at the speed of the wind, squat, sluglike blobs with mouths full of needle teeth, giants so huge that their size was beyond guessing, or tiny ones that skittered between the legs of the others. Bent on their own business, they all ignored the watch-demons and the Souls alike.

The Souls all looked alike; grey, virtually faceless and featureless, with only approximation to their original shape as human beings. None of them was entirely complete; some lacked a hand, others eyes, or ears, or mouths. All shuffled on together with an identical gait, heads drooping, into the misery of another slice of eternity as slaves for the demons.

The Souls were alike in another way as well. None of them retained personal memory or a sense of individuality; they had no idea who they had been or why they were here. They were utter automata, serving their demon masters, with their labour and their suffering, until the end of time.

Group by group, parties of Souls began to be separated from the main group, to be taken off to different sites where they would work the day away. Many of these slaved away endlessly on the huge, blocky buildings which never seemed to be finished and whose nature and purpose was known to the demons alone.  Many of the others, more than half those remaining, were led off up the winding road leading to the great palace of the Demon Lord of Dis, there to build up the titanic black walls and furbish the gates with carvings.

The remainder, now quite a small group, only a few thousand strong, shuffled on, under the cracking whips of watch-demons, towards the city gates. They towered over the city, huge and black, carved with screaming tortured faces and glaring, terrorised eyes. There were already Souls from other parties hard at work on the gates, carving, rubbing and polishing. They did not look down at the passing Souls, and the passing Souls did not look up.

Outside the gates and the city walls was the broken plain, black rock under the black sky, lit only by the dim glow of the great red sun of Hell.

The road that led from the gates of Dis was raised slightly above the rough stone of the plain, and had been smoothened by countless caravans over the millennia. The road branched within sight of the city walls, the smaller path leading off to the mines. With a crack or two of the whips, the watch-demons led their charges on to this path and began herding them into the mines.

Among the Souls there was one who was confused. This one had been among several which had only arrived in Dis during the night, and it had not yet endured the crushing routine of suffering that removed the last trace of spirit. It had no memory of itself, no thoughts of the past; it, however, thought that there had been some other reality, which it had known. It still retained enough humanity to know sadness, and confusion.

The watch-demons began to lead the Souls down into the mine-pit. It was a hole in the ground, dimly lit by heat so intense that the rocks themselves glowed a reddish hue, and the air would have seared the lungs of any who might have breathed it. But of course neither the demons nor the Souls breathed.

A watch-demon which somewhat resembled a great squat toad glared through reddish eyes at the Souls. “Some of you are new,” it ‘said’. “Some of you may think of trying to escape. Don’t even waste time on the idea. Out there...” it gestured, “are endless distances full of heat and rock, where the beasts of the Abyss roam by night and the Salamander devils hunt by day. Even demons don’t venture to journey to the other cities of Hell except by caravans. You would not last a work cycle there. Now, dig.”

The Soul which was confused followed the others down into the mine. It was a honeycomb of passages, branching and meeting and heading off into blind ends, completely without plan or structure, and the Souls had to scrape away at the rock with nothing but their own substance and their suffering. All through the honeycomb of passages there were only Souls crawling, digging and pulling along the rock the diggers had removed. Watch-demons moved among them, their whips cracking ceaselessly.

The Soul crawled through the narrow passages, squeezing itself through smaller and smaller tunnels, its substance broiled by the heat from the rocks and yet not destroyed. Suffering oozed from it like sweat, and impregnated the rock it scraped at, to be collected later by the Demons and used for their purposes.

The Soul’s confusion pulsed inside it like a live thing, refusing to be crushed out of existence. It scraped at the rock, following other Souls sometimes, going along by itself when it had to, not knowing where or for how long. And then, suddenly, it found a way out.

No doubt the way had existed for a long time, and perhaps might have been used earlier by some Soul or other to try and escape. It was nothing more than a near-vertical chimney leading up through the rock, and at first the Soul simply thought it was more of the same kind of passage it had crawled along for so long. So it scraped its way upwards, leaving its suffering and pain like the trail of a snail on the stone. It scraped its way upwards, ever higher, until it suddenly emerged on the surface.

So sudden was its emergence that it reacted with shock, almost retreating back into the pain-filled but familiar confines of the rock tunnel. It lay on the black rocky plain, under the sullen red globe overhead, the searing heat of which felt almost cool after the mine. It would have gasped for breath, if it could. It lay like that for a very long time.

Eventually, it rose somewhat, though still crouching as though the blazing ball overhead would crush it utterly on the black rock around. It rose, and began trudging off across the plain. Where it was going, it had no idea, just that it had to get away from the city, and the mine. The walls of Dis, the tremendous gates, and the high-domed palace of the Lord Demon fell behind to be swallowed up by the gloom.

Little by little, thought began to return to the Soul. It was no longer merely an it – it had begun to reassume an identity.

I am she, the thought came. I am – I was human. A woman.

She knew this much, now. She did not remember why or how she had got to be here, but the knowledge of her humanity and femininity was enough for the moment. She clutched to that as tightly as she could.

Away to one side, the road stretched, rising over the broken bedrock of the plain. The Soul, now less confused, moved towards the road and walked in the shadow of the embankment, where it was slightly cooler.

Things moved in the shadows by her feet, little things with many teeth that snapped at her but could do her no harm. After the first few attacks she ignored them.

She knew now that there was no way back, that she was to spend eternity here, or perhaps – if the dangers the watch-demon had spoken of existed – there were even worse places, the Hell of Hell itself, which even the demons dreaded. The Soul had no wish to taste of the perils of such a place; and yet she had, now that she had regained some sense of herself, could never return to slavery and suffering in Dis or any of the other cities of the Abyss.

Not knowing where she was going, she trudged on along the road.

The interruption came so suddenly that she was entirely taken by surprise. A gigantic shadow fell over her, so large that it blotted out the red sun. The creature was so huge that it could not possibly have noticed her, its gigantic feet coming down soundlessly on the rock of the road as it passed. And, walking alongside it, were demons of various types, warriors armed with spears of condensed fury and armour of distilled hate. More gigantic beasts followed the first, laden with bundles and boxes, with other demons riding their backs.

The Soul could not even find the time to hide. She stood where she was, beyond fear now, waiting to be recaptured and enslaved again, and this time for good, She waited for the spark of self that had wakened in her to be snuffed out – but she waited in vain. The caravan passed on, uninterested. Some of the demons glanced down at the Soul, the expression on their fanged faces unreadable. Souls were too common to bother tracking down a runaway. She was not worth their time.

Besides, she caught the backwash of a thought, she would be destroyed soon enough anyway.

That backwash gave her the impetus of fear. Waiting until the end of the caravan had passed, she clambered on to the road and followed in its tracks, walking behind the last of the gigantic beasts. Obscurely she hoped that the protection of the caravan might extend to her too, for as long as she might dare to walk along with it.

Overhead the red sun was at the zenith, the heat a live thing now, long past the point where she might have thought it unendurable. Such words had long since passed from her vocabulary. She had no choice but to endure. Therefore, she endured. It was that simple.

Once or twice the beaked demon walking behind the last of the gargantuan beasts looked back at her. It was a fearsome creature, with a beaked face set with many eyes, but it made no acknowledgement of her existence or attempt to stop her from following.

She began to think about the life she no longer remembered. Had she had people who had loved her and still remembered her? Had she had children? How long had she been here? Were her children, if she had any, still alive? Were they down here, perhaps? How could she ever tell?

The journey went on as the red sun began to sink to their backs.

Once in the while something would hold up their progress, and the demons would become excited. The toothed thing at the end would stride to the edge of the road, and crane its neck to see what was happening, and others would stand up atop their beasts to have a better view. The Soul wondered if perhaps it was the Salamander devils the watch-demon had mentioned, but each time the delay was only temporary, and they went on once more.

She never realised just when the red sun finally sank, because the black sky had begun to light up with the dull flames of night. Distant orange and yellow flags of fire played and writhed along the horizon, and the caravan began to move faster, as though afraid. Dim things moved out on the plain, enormous and vaporous, and the Soul could not decide if they were real, or illusions.

The flames began crawling up the sky from the horizon, attenuating, growing dim, but meeting overhead in a flickering glow that cast shadows that wavered and shifted so much that it became impossible to tell what was real from what merely seemed to be. At times it seemed as though great mountains reared up from the horizon, and at other times, as though the road was at the bottom of a well, whose walls were made of fire.

She began to remember, a little of who she had been. She remembered sunlight making rainbows on falling water, the flash of colour of butterflies on the wing, the aroma of a rose on the thorn. She remembered the tartness of lime juice on a hot day, the warmth of a fire on a cold night while torrential rain fell outside. She remembered the feel of kisses and the sting of tears, and the pain grew of knowing she could never have them back again.

But, she thought, at least I have the memories. If they are all I can have, I can at least refuse to let them go.

At some time during the night she realised she was alone. Somehow, the caravan had vanished, and she was walking off the road and over the broken rock of the plain. Try as she might, she could not see the road again.

Something rushed by overhead on many flapping wings, and other things, great and small, stirred among the rocks, felt, but not seen. And now she was frightened, because she had begun to come back to herself, part of the way, and now she had something to lose.

But she had no idea where to go, in which direction to run. All she could do was stumble on as she was, trusting to luck and blind instinct to carry her to safety.

The fires in the sky glowed bright and dull, pulsating, and things moved all around, shapes that might catch a Soul and twist it around like toys, chew it to shreds in their gaping maws, but they brushed past her without noticing. They were not demons, and to them a Soul was an insubstantial wisp, not worth the noticing.

Long before the dawn came, and the red sun came up again, she had found a crevice in the rock, and crouched there, waiting for something to happen, to put an end to this. Almost anything, she thought, would be better, for she had begun to remember the details, the details of her life, and how love had put her where she was.

She wondered where her lover was now, and whether he mourned her. She sincerely doubted he did.

The image of her last moments came to her, lying back in the bathtub while the water turned red with her blood and the ceiling wavered and turned grey.

If she could have wept, she would have. But she didn’t even have eyes to weep or tears to shed.

Alone in a world of pain and suffering, she wallowed in her memories, clutching herself and howling in silence. She could not even scream her pain.

It was there that the Salamanders found her when the dawn came. There were many of them, male and female, and they gathered around her, watching her, not speaking. In their own way they knew something of compassion, though they didn’t really understand Souls. They watched her, and they waited for her to come back from whatever dark spaces she was wandering.

Little by little, her silent howling eased. Soon afterwards, her head lifted.

Still later, she got up and joined them.

At least they gave her a promise of a future.

                                                                Painting by Wayne Barlowe

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Thursday 2 June 2011


I have this thing about economics.

I don’t understand the first thing about it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve never sat in an economics classroom, and when I bought a book on the subject I didn’t get far without my mind boggling and threatening a shutdown.

See, the thing that gets me about economics is that it doesn’t seem to square with what I call logic.

Of course I’m biased. Before I go on further, let me quite openly admit my anti-Economics bias. I’m biased because I live in a country ruled by a so-called “eminent economist”, who incidentally has never won an election in his life, and among his significant achievements has hugged George W Bush and told him that the people of India loved him. This same Eminent Economist runs a government full of corruption so mind-boggling the figures make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and claims he has no way of getting rid of the corrupt politicians because of the expenses of another election. This same Eminent Economist’s government increases fuel prices on a weekly basis, exports food items, and still claims not to know why prices are rising through the roof.


So I’m biased, but I still can’t comprehend this subject.

For one thing it seems to me that economics treats humans as robots. Take this thing called the trickle-down theory, for example. If you cut the taxes of the rich to the bone, they will allegedly use all that surplus money to buy extra goodies, which will stimulate the economy, and benefit everyone down to the beggars in the streets who will get more coins in their cups. So you cut the taxes of the rich to the bone.

So, what actually happens? How many chandeliers can the rich fit in their opulent homes? After even the loos have their own crystal chandeliers, what next? How much caviar can they eat daily? Will they actually spend the millions they’re now saving in taxes, or simply park them in bank accounts or stocks? Is it so difficult to guess the answer?

Then, think about the alleged virtues of capitalism compared to socialism. Apparently, the competition inherent in the capitalistic system ensures both efficiency and the consumer receiving the best deal. Is it just my failure to understand the brilliant simplicity of this idea that makes me think that the logical end point of said competition would be the elimination of all the firms that failed to maximise profit by cutting all expenses to the bone and by any other means, including bribery to government figures, necessary to maximise those profits? Am I stupid when I think that the logical end point would be a monopoly which could then do just as it wanted with a customer base who had no other alternative, who are henceforth enslaved to it?

Maybe I’m being stupid. Maybe not.
Recently I was talking to one of my specimens, who happens to be a professor of economics at the local university. I asked him about the idea that human wants – and hence, the economic activity designed to satisfy those wants – can be expanded indefinitely. For instance, I said, suppose we’re talking about the car industry. How many cars can a family own? One per member? Then what?

Well, he said, then the family will want better cars. “Better” as in what, I wanted to know. Bigger? We in India already have an unmanageable problem with traffic. How many cars can the streets accommodate? What about the fuel prices, and the pollution? At a relatively early stage, traffic will go into gridlock, and then what? How, exactly, will people use the five cars they own – and where will they park them?

No answer from the Doktor Professor.

The law of diminishing returns beats economics. Common sense beats economics. Human nature beats economics.

If it were astrology, it would probably be no less scientific.

But they take it completely seriously anyway.

The Ten Most Important Things I’ve Learned From Reading

For those of you who don’t know, Crapped is a “humor” (sic) website which advertises itself as being “America’s Only Humor (sic) Site Since 1958.” It’s also a site that specialises in lists of this and that. Accordingly, I’ve decided to make my own list of the Ten Most Important Things I’ve Learned From Reading Crapped

In no particular order, here they are.

10. The word “badass” is badass.

If you want to write a truly badass article, the word “badass” has to be used once every ten sentences. Otherwise you fail the Crapped test for legibility and should go and drown your sorrows in some little known Kenyan bootleg drink, changaaa for instance. In any case, you aren’t fit to be seen in society.

9. Never, ever, let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Oh, hey, you know that the tale you’re telling about the amazing exploits of the Guy Who Strangled Himself has been debunked, like, 999 times on the ‘net? You don’t? Never mind, go ahead and post it anyway. It’s a “humor” (sic) site, as your defenders will point out while jumping en masse with hobnailed boots on anyone pedantic enough to point the facts out in the response column.

8. If someone does something stupid, he or she is “retarded”.

I suppose calling that someone stupid, moronic or idiotic isn’t funny enough, and calling him or her something like autistic is too over the top even for Crapped So, everything is...retarded.

7. Anyone brave has elephantiasis of the testicles.

If you’re brave, you need, for example, a wheelbarrow to carry around your balls. This makes one wonder if the sheer existential torment of testicular hypertrophy is what makes one want to end it all by acts of such mindless courage that one gets the reputation of needing wheelbarrows to carry one’s testicles around.

6. All Germans of the World War Two period are “Nazis”.

Self-explanatory, and has the great advantage of not requiring one’s readers to do any thinking whatsoever.

5. Gratuitous insults directed at the French are always good for laughs.

You know how all the French are – well, I don’t think it’s PC to call them “cheese eating surrender monkeys” any longer – eager to surrender as soon as the first shot is fired? No? Well, you know how all French men have bizarre accents and even more bizarre moustaches? No? Well, you certainly know it now, this being Crapped

And if you can’t find some way to insult the French, try insulting the Japanese, Russians or Germans, in that order.

4. Anything American is universal, while nothing non-American is.

You know that baseball record nobody outside the USA has ever heard of, in a sport that just about nobody outside North America gives a damn about? Well, boys and girls, this is Crapped, so that record is one of the Most Hallowed In All Sport, Anywhere. You know that obscure cultural trope nobody even in the US gives a damn about, except for a tiny fan community? Well, again, that obscure cultural trope is Number Three (or whatever) on the Ten Most Awesome/Most Retarded Acts of (Fill In The Blanks) Ever Attempted.

Meanwhile, a billion people elsewhere might be doing something more recognisable to the world at large, but for Crapped, it just...doesn’t...signify.

3. Anything unusual, by your standards, is “insane”.

You know how your dog turns around three times before lying down? Well, that’s “insane” behaviour. You know how your cat brings home dead rats and gives them to you? That’s “insane” too...explained by science, but still “insane”. You know how that message hidden in some video game was overlooked by you? Well, that was because it was...insane.

2. Australia is full of things out to kill and eat you.

If it’s Australian, it’s evil and full of poison, and its only purpose of existence is to destroy you. Even if, in reality, it couldn’t kill you if it stuffed itself down your throat to try and choke the life out of you.

1. A single idea can easily be padded out into a list.

For example, you read somewhere about a strange coincidence (of course, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t check to see if it actually happened or if it was a hoax). Now, you want to expand that into a list of strange coincidences, but you really can’t come up with any others to match it. Never mind, bung in anything, even if the last ones on the list barely merit being called “strange”. As long as it’s on Crapped, it’s kosher. After all, see Point number 9, above.

Honourable Mention: The word "Freaking" is to be used whenever you want to emphasise something.

As in, the battleship Bismarck sank the battlecruiser Hood with one freaking shot (a real, almost verbatim, and completely inaccurate quote from an actual Crapped article).

Now you see why I call it

Update: Oh yeah, and Teddy Roosevelt is the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived. Bar none.

The Only Good Zombie Is A Dead One

(Written especially for Will :D May he forgive me. Or not.)

The Zombocalypse struck next Friday.

All over the world, the dead rose from their graves, even in those nations where the dead were cremated and had no graves to rise from. They rose though they were too decomposed to rise, kicking and clawing through their wooden coffins and the earth over their graves, or the concrete doorways of their burial crypts, even though the impact should have broken their rotting bodies into pieces.

All over the world, the dead shambled towards the living, arms outstretched, drooling even though their salivary glands were dead so that they couldn’t produce saliva; and moaning, even though they were dead and so didn’t breathe and therefore shouldn’t be moaning.

All over the world, then, the zombies moaned and drooled and snacked (but only snacked) on the living, so that they, in turn, then began snacking lightly on more of the living. All over the world, militaries who would have thought nothing of tearing apart enemy armoured divisions were overwhelmed by a few rotting corpses staggering around. All over the world, bulldozer operators who might have shovelled the dead back into the ground abandoned their vehicles and ran away, truck drivers who could have turned the zombies to paste beneath the wheels of their giant rigs gave up the ghost and joined the undead ranks, and civilisation tottered and began to fall.

Enter the heroes. There were five of them – five precisely. The first was the Tough Guy, a survivalist who had prepared well ahead for the Zombocalypse and was loaded down with all the attitude, training and aggression he needed. The second was the Stupid Moron Who Almost Gets Everybody Killed. The third was the Beautiful Woman, the hope for the continuation of the human race. The fourth was the Sneaky Cowardly Guy, easily identified by his whining. And the fifth was the Everyman, who doubled as the True Hero.

Our quintet went first to a local gun store to load up with weapons. The gun store, of course, hadn’t been looted by the 1,987,654 other living humans in the city who had got the same idea.  Nor had its owner, who, presumably, also wanted to live, defended his store with the 124 shotguns, 78 hunting rifles, 32 converted assault rifles, or 386 assorted handguns on his premises. Our quintet loaded themselves up with the weapons and then went on to a mall, similarly deserted, where they packed their pickup truck full of food, drink and sanitary napkins. The Beautiful Woman was about to take along some birth control pills as well but was stopped by the Tough Guy.

Then they drove out of town, because they’d heard that there were no zombies in Alaska, if only they could get there; it was too cold for them, and, besides, Sarah Palin spent her spare time shooting any stray zombies from helicopters while not shooting Russians from her living room window. On the way they found only a few scattered vehicles, of course; certainly no bumper to bumper traffic jams caused by 654,321 cars frantically attempting to escape the city. They could also stop to fuel their truck at a petrol pump. Unfortunately, they were attacked by the pump’s attendants, who were now zombies, and the Tough Guy had to shoot these Dead Fucks through the head to put them down.

Soon afterwards they came across ten zombies forming an immovable mass in the middle of the street. The Stupid Moron, who was driving, swerved to avoid them and drove into the ditch. In order to conserve ammunition, the Tough Guy and the Everyman destroyed these Fiends and Ghouls by bashing their heads in with crowbars, while the Coward snivelled and whined. In the process of all this Ghoul-whacking, both the Tough Guy and the Everyman got liberally splashed with zombie blood, but, of course, weren’t infected with anything. They didn’t even stink enough afterwards to disturb anyone.

They were trying to get the truck out of the ditch when the Evil Militia arrived, captured them and dragged them off to the Compound of the Grand Dictator, who was planning to rape the Beautiful Woman while turning the other four into slaves. On discovering this, the Tough Guy suggested a plan to escape. This plan involved climbing over the roofs of the camp buildings to the armoury, the most heavily guarded building in camp, breaking it open, stealing all the weapons and fighting their way to the vehicle park, there to steal a truck and destroy all the others to prevent pursuit.

Quite predictably, this magnificent plan was betrayed to the Grand Dictator by the Coward. Now, quite naturally, the Grand Dictator kept a group of captive zombies penned up in a part of the camp for his amusement and to dispose of unwanted people. The Grand Dictator intended to feed the entire survivor group, except for the Beautiful Woman, and including, as always in these cases, the Coward, to the zombies. However, the Tough Guy bent apart the iron rods on the window of their cell block, single-handedly killed 32 militiamen, broke out the others and carried out his original plan. In the course of this, the Coward tried to stop them by breaking out the zombies from their pen, whereupon they promptly ate him and the Stupid Moron, who clumsily got in the way.

The three remaining survivors drove north in their captured truck, until they reached the sea. Of course there was a launch tethered there just for them, fully fuelled and provisioned, just waiting to be sailed to Alaska and safety. But before they could set off on it they were attacked by zombies and the Tough Guy was bitten. Realising his fate was sealed, he sacrificed himself by turning his truck into a firebomb which incinerated the attacking zombie hordes.

The Everyman and the Beautiful Woman, together and alone at last, sailed tearfully but with dawning hope in their hearts across the ocean to Alaska, navigating easily across the open sea even though neither of them had operated a boat of this size before. And they made landfall on a pristine, zombie-free shore, with happiness theirs for the taking.

And then a polar bear ate them.

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Butchering the Zomboy

One of the crimes I must plead guilty to is the act of sometimes writing zombie fiction, especially for the benefit of sites like the Home Page Of The Dead. Or, perhaps, it’s probably more accurate to say I used to write zombie fiction; the last one I wrote was simply titled Probably the Last Zombie Story I Shall Write.

Of course I haven’t mentioned the other component of the writing I do, to this day, in this genre: satirical parodies like On the Care and Feeding of Zombies, for example. They are, actually, a fairly accurate depiction of my real feelings towards the zombie genre: a mix of frustration and bloody-mindedness.

Why, yes, I do get bloody-minded sometimes. And in my usual convoluted way, let me attempt to explain why.

I’m – as you all know – a multi-genre writer, and mostly I write material in genres I enjoy reading. I write a lot of SF, but I’ve been an SF fan from my early teens. I write horror, but I’ve been a horror fan from approximately the same time. I write general fiction, and I’ve never hidden my appreciation for a good general fiction story. By and large I like fantasy, except for the Conan the Barbarian heroic genre, but that’s mocked and parodied so often that I don’t know if there’s anyone who takes it seriously anymore. And then there are the zombies.

Recently, on another site where we horror writers gather to chew the gristle, somebody was complaining that the zombie genre seems to be dying off, and began a discussion of why. The thread, to which I came late, tiptoed round the subject, discussing every reason but the real one: that the genre is dying off because of the brain-dead nature of the typical zombie fan.

And here I must make my second confession: I wrote zombie fiction not because I liked to, but because my contempt for zombie fandom allowed me no other recourse.

Yeah, the thing about the zombie genre that infuriates me is the fanboy brigade. Unlike the fans of other genres, vampires or science fiction or whatever, the zombie genre fanboy set is probably the most brain-dead group of individuals on the surface of the planet today; certainly as brain-dead as the zombies they despise, if not more.

Believe it or not – many of these people are actually preparing for a real-life zombie apocalypse. They’re as serious about it as vampire or werewolf fans aren’t serious about werewolves or vampires. As in, they’ve got internet fora and groupings specifically dedicated to cater to their survival on the day the living dead rise from their graves and stalk the earth.

No, I do not mean the CRapture. I mean the other kind of living dead.

In order to get a full picture of just how daft the idea is, consider the modern “zombie.” (I’ll take a minute to express my sympathies to the true meaning of the term – the Haitian allegedly made a mindless slave by the use of voodoo and probably a good dose of brain-burning poisons. Rest in peace, Haitian voodoo zombie.)

Anyway, the modern “zombie”, as depicted in film and story, is an animated corpse which shambles through the cities, biting living folk and apparently out to snack on their brains. Anyone, apparently, who gets bitten or scratched by one becomes a zombie in turn, unless of course it’s the hero, for whom the rules are a little different.If he's scratched, the zombie nails don't penetrate his clothes. If he's bitten, the zombie is a toothless retiree. And so on.

It’s very, very important, by the way, that they happen to be reanimated dead. They can’t, for the true fanboy, simply be living people infected by rabies-like neuroviruses that make them aggressive and infectious, like the “zombies” of the film 28 Days Later. That, I’m told, is merely an “infection film”. It cannot be called a “zombie film”. 

                                                                Baron Samedi wept.

Anyway, so these zombies are animated corpses, slow, mindless and – to any rational individual – as threatening as a shambling mass of putrefying carrion could possibly be. I won’t allude to the stink for the moment except to say that the lack of an olfactory sense would be an asset to any survivor of the Zombocalypse. I will however say that the simple process of decay, which apparently continues to affect these corpses, should lead to them falling apart at an early stage of events. Even an undead muscle fibre can’t contract when the actin and myosin fibrils fall apart due to bacterial action and maggot mouths, can it?

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the Zombocalypse struck tomorrow. In a very, very large part of the world, where most people are cremated, the consequences would be mostly nonexistent. A few cadavers might reanimate in morgues, but except for biting a person or two, would be pretty easy to subdue, especially if they’re deep-frozen. In the countries where most people are still buried, the average reanimated corpse would either be a set of bones, unable to move because the ligaments holding them together have fallen apart, or else mostly older people, badly decomposed, who might fall apart from the simple process of digging their way out of coffin and earth. Exactly how much of a real danger would these things be, to you and yours?

Answer: in all probability, the danger from a Zombocalypse-load of these things would be considerably less than that of being run over by a car driven by a drunken teenager receiving a blow-job from his crack-head girlfriend. I suppose you might be able to give yourself blood-poisoning if you punch or kick one of those legions of undead and cut yourself on one of its bones, but that’s about it. But then I’m trying to be rational here. The zombie genre fans, whom I’ll call “zomboys” henceforth, aren’t.

You know what at least 90% of the zomboys are like, from my own experience of encountering them on the zombie fan fora? Immature males with a great love of guns, yet in all probability an almost zero actual experience of firearms; moreover, with a love of mindless gorefests with a maximum of crudity and a minimum of plot structure and sense.

I repeat – these are people who actually believe the Zombocalypse is coming, and also believe that it’s coming in a very, very specific form. You can’t have infected, living zombies. You can’t have “fast zombies” – that’s blasphemy, as any zomboy can tell you. Zombies, apparently, just “aren’t that way.”

So this is how the typical zombie story (and I’ve come across websites advising you how to write successful, i.e. popular, zombie stories) goes:

The walking dead rise from their graves and shamble over the earth, against all logic successfully subduing the (living) human race and depopulating the cities.

A small group of heroic survivors raid gun shops, which are inexplicably abandoned by their owners instead of being defended tooth and nail, and go around on a zombie-destroying mission (zombies can be destroyed only by shooting their brains out, duh, even though they’re dead and mindless) while finding an unending supply of food in malls and warehouses. For obvious reasons, zombie stories are almost always set in one particular nation, which is awash with privately owned guns, gun stores, and something called the Second Amendment. I’m yet to read one set in, say, Malaysia.

Anyway, our gallant heroes will call the zombies “ghouls” (which they are not), “fiends” (which they also are not), “dead fuckers” or any other term they can think of, and go out of their way to spill zombie blood, which somehow still flows liquid through zombie veins but doesn’t infect the heroes when it splashes all over them, even though nail scratches are lethal. Every drop of zombie blood spilled has to be described in excruciating detail, because the zomboy is incapable of using any imagination, and absolutely hates having to use imagination. Oh well.

These heroic survivors will include the requisite Tough Guy, the Beautiful Woman who Needs To Be Protected, the Bumbling Idiot Who Endangers Everyone, and inevitably have at least one slot open for the Everyman, the reader/viewer who’s supposed to be empathised with, the one who was nobody in the real world but turns out to be the True Hero when the Zombocalypse gets going. Zomboys are as insistent on the exact, cliché-ridden formula as a kid is on the exact, word-for-word. repetition of a familiar fairy story.

You know, I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Immature young men who are childishly hung up on the exact, clichéd rendition of the story, and  of whom many actually believe that this accurately depicts the shape of things to come; and films and books on this ridiculous premise finding a ready and reliable market...can it be that the Zombocalypse is a religion with these people, and filmmakers like George Romero are the prophets? Can it be that the Zombocalypse is the Day of Judgement, and the survivors (among whom the zomboys, of course, count themselves) are the Zombie Rapturists?

Answer: you bet your boots it can. In fact, it bloody well is.

Once you realise that this is a religion, of course, the whole thing falls into place. And that’s why the writer who was groaning about the dying genre shouldn’t have been surprised. The zomboys are killing the genre, because they won’t tolerate any but the same story, told over and over again, with nary a deviation allowed from the formula. Any author who’s attempted innovation has discovered that, and has either quit the genre altogether or succumbed and turned out the same pre-digested, preordained pap.

And now you know why I’m bloody-minded? After all, just about all of you who are reading this know what my response is to a religious ritual: screw that. And it’s out of this bloody-mindedness that I write mocking send-ups of the genre like Dead Camp or Graah. It gives me a great deal of pleasure when some zomboy idiot sends me semiliterate, furious feedback telling me how much they hate my writing. At least they had to read the damn thing first in order to hate it. Right?

Sometimes I wish there was a bloody Zombocalypse, just so I could watch the zomboys try to act out their fantasies. I wish I could watch them try and raid the gun stores and the malls, and form their little militias, while the world just went on its own way and a shambling corpse quietly rotted on the street – until the zomboys went to destroy it.

I wish there was a Zombocalypse so I could sit at my window with a tub of popcorn and listen to them screaming.

Monday 30 May 2011

The girl who wasn't

Back when I was an intern, and was posted in Surgery, I was shown a kid in the paediatric surgery ward with a rather unusual problem.

The child was, if I recall, something like three years old (this was a long while ago; I’m talking of 1994, and my memory of the little details is hazy at this distance in time). Her problem was a hypertrophied clitoris; and I mean hypertrophied. The organ was literally much larger than the average penis at that age.

Obviously, sexual fantasies aside, this was not a good thing.

The only treatment possible for this condition was clitoridectomy: surgically reducing the clitoris to something approaching normal size; and this was what the surgeons proposed doing. So far so good, and if that had been all to it I’d not even have bothered to remember this.

The point was that the kid’s parents hadn’t brought her in because she had an enlarged clitoris. They hadn’t even realised that it was an enlarged clitoris. They’d brought her in because she had a cleft below her “penis” instead of other words, they weren’t even aware that she was, in fact, a she.

I still remember the ruckus they raised when they discovered that the surgeons, instead of closing the cleft and rendering their precious “son” fully male, intended instead to turn “him” into a girl. They were screaming about how the college was conspiring to rob them of their son.

I still have no idea what finally happened to the kid; it’s more likely than not that they took her away and disappeared when nobody was looking, and decided to bring her up as a male until her breasts began sprouting and her menstrual blood began to flow. If she was lucky, they wouldn’t have taken her to some village quack who’d have stitched her vagina shut. If she was lucky.

All these years later, I still wonder what happened to her, and where she is now.

Now go ahead and tell me how women are oppressed in Afghanistan.