Saturday 25 June 2011


This story grew out of a dream I had last night, which was quite remarkable in the technical detail into which it went on my fictional "Supertrain". I've only used a small part of that detail in this story. My Supertrain looked like a cross of a World War One tank, a Maglev train, and the Millennium Falcon's cockpit. Fascinating, really.

Isn’t this exciting!” Little Sister said.

I looked at her, trying to snort like our English teacher. “Exciting, for kids,” I said. “For little kids.”

“I’m not a little kid,” she said angrily. “And you’re just as excited.”

“Am not,” I said, though I was, just a little.

“Stop fighting, you two,” Mummy said, over her shoulder with that special look, the one that meant that she meant what she said. “This is a great day, for your father and the country.”

Little Sister and I went quiet. The noise around us, of the crowd, was so great that we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other unless we shouted, anyway. There were men with guns and black uniforms everywhere, and we had to walk through a little gate after which Mummy had to open her bags for the men to look through. They even took Little Sister’s doll and put it through a thing like our washing machine.

“Shut up,” I told Little Sister, who had begun bawling. “You’ll get it back.” And just as I’d thought, her bawling stopped like magic when the men took her doll out of the machine and gave it back to her.

“Why are all these men with guns?” I asked.

“Because of terrorists,” Mummy said. “Terrorists are bad people.”

“Only good people can come in?” I asked.

“Yes,” Mummy said and laughed. “Only good people can come in here.”

We walked down a long corridor with pictures on the walls. There were shops at the side selling things, but we were walking too quickly for me to look at them to see if they had toys.

“Stay close to me, you two,” Mummy said. She had her hands full with the bags, or else she’d have pulled us along like she had earlier when the porter in the red uniform had been carrying the bags. But the men with guns hadn’t let the porters in the red uniforms past the gate.

“It’s too bad of them,” Mummy said to a fat auntie, “to make us carry our bags.”

The auntie was so fat that I felt like giggling when I looked at her, but Mummy wouldn’t like it. “Yes, what are the porters for, if we have to drag along our own luggage?” she asked, her cheeks wobbling. “Next thing they’ll say is for us to bring our own food!”

At that I imagined her dragging along a suitcase full of food, and I did giggle, but luckily Mummy didn’t notice.

Little Sister did, though. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” I said. So she started sulking and began talking to her doll.

“Isn’t your husband coming along?” the fat auntie asked Mummy. “Did he send you by yourselves?”

“He’s at the inauguration,” Mummy said proudly. “He’s one of the scientists who helped set up the system.” She said other things, but I could tell the fat auntie wasn’t listening.

We came to a big hall full of people, and Mummy pushed us towards where some men and women were sitting on a sort of stage with a lot of flowers. Among them I saw Papa.

“See, there’s Papa,” Mummy said, and I waved. Papa wasn’t looking at us though. He was talking to some of the other men and women and looking at his watch. I could see that he was impatient.

“What is he doing there, Mummy?” Little Sister asked.

“Hush,” Mummy said. “The Minister is coming at last.”

Papa and the others stood up and clapped as a fat uncle in rumpled white clothes came on to the stage, surrounded by so many men in black uniforms that we could hardly see anyone else. The men in black uniforms stood in a line, facing us, and held their guns up. They looked very fierce.

“This is ridiculous,” an uncle next to me muttered. “What do they think we’re going to do, lynch the bastard?”

“What’s a bastard. Mummy?” I asked. “What’s lynch?” Mummy said nothing, just glared at the uncle and pushed us to her other side. The fat uncle in the white clothes then stood behind a tall narrow desk and began to talk.

I didn’t understand a thing he talked about. “New vistas of transport technology…a great leap forward in communication…uniting the nation by bringing people together…” He talked for so long that people around us started muttering to each other and moving around like grown-ups do when they’re bored but don’t want to show it. All through, the men with the guns glared at us from the stage, and I couldn’t see Papa at all.

At last, the fat uncle stopped talking and stepped away from the narrow desk, and everyone began clapping. He then went off with the men with the guns and everyone on the stage, including Papa, followed him.

“I’m tired,” Little Sister whined.

“Let’s go to boarding,” Mummy said. “Your father will meet us inside.”

We went through some more gates with more men with guns, and Mummy gave her all her bags except one to a counter, and then we went through a doorway onto a concrete platform. Something so huge was standing there that at first I thought it was a long building, but then I realised that it was the Supertrain Papa was talking about, the one we were to go on.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Mummy asked us. The Supertrain was shining white and bright yellow, and had yellow tracks like the bulldozers on TV, winding up the front all the way up to the roof. At the front there were two places like spaceship cockpits from the movies, one at the level of the platform and one much higher. There was a man in a blue uniform and a black cap sitting in the lower spaceship cockpit. I waved at him but he didn’t look at me.

“Leave him alone to do his work,” Mummy said.

“Why are there two of them?” I asked, pointing up at the higher one.

“I don’t know, you can ask your father. Maybe the upper one is to see further along the track. Now come on.”

We met the fat auntie from earlier, but she pretended not to see us. I know it was pretending because she looked at us and turned her head away. We entered through a door and took a moving stairs up until we came out on a shining floor with rows of seats and large windows.

“There’s Papa,” Little Sister shouted.

We saw Papa coming towards us. He looked tired and a little angry, like when he came home from the office after a hard day and before he and Mummy began fighting. But they wouldn’t fight here.

“We’re two hours late already,” he said. “That damned minister kept us waiting. Can you, imagine, he couldn’t even cut the tape because…”

“Don’t say things like that out loud,” Mummy whispered. “You never know who’s listening.”

“I know, but this is the first run, damn it. And we’re already late!”

Papa looked round at us and smiled, like he did when you knew he was making himself smile. “You two OK?” He pointed at the seats. “Sit down quickly.”

“I want the window seat, Papa,” I said, but Little Sister had already run to it, and grabbed on to the armrest, glaring at me. Papa wouldn’t have let me pull her away, of course, so I had to sit next to her and Papa to my right. Mummy sat on the other side of Papa.

All around us the seats were filling up. A boy and girl in front of us were quarrelling in a language I didn’t understand, and suddenly he slapped her. Everyone there began shouting.

“That’s a good start,” Papa muttered angrily.

I suddenly realised that we were moving. Outside, where there had been metal roofs, was now open air. But there was no noise.

“We’re floating through the air above the railway line,” Papa murmured in my ear. “It’s a magnetic field, holding us up, and the tracks on the train are generating the magnetic field. Do you understand?”

I nodded, though I didn’t of course. Papa must have realised that. “Never mind,” he said, shaking his head a little. “I’ll tell you later.”

“Is this the biggest train ever built?” I asked.

“The fastest too,” Papa said. “Earlier we’d have taken two days for this trip. Now, we’ll be doing it in three hours and twenty-five minutes. Or,” he added, “we would have, if we’d started on time.”

“We’re flying in the air, like a plane?” I’d never been on a plane, but I’d imagined it many times.

“Not quite, we’re just off the track. But we are going very smoothly, aren’t we?”

“You made all this, Papa?”

“I did a little bit,” he said, smiling. “Only a little bit.”

“You’ll never get further in your career if you don’t begin promoting yourself,” Mummy said to him, in the same tone as she used when she was getting ready for a fight.

“We’ll talk about this later, all right?” Papa said to her, and she sighed loudly.

A girl in a blue uniform came round with sweets and tiny bottles of cold drinks, and both Little Sister and I were busy crunching the toffees and sucking on the bottles of drinks. Then I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, there were tall buildings outside, grey and very dirty, and I could see that we were moving slowly.

“We’re almost there,” Papa said, “Wake up, both of you.”

“What are those buildings?” I asked. “Why are they so dirty?”

“Low class people live in them,” Mummy snapped. “Dirty people, slum people. Not good people like us.”

We stopped, and everybody got up. Papa took Little Sister and me by the hands and led us over to the side wall. A line of small rooms had opened up, shining metal like bathrooms, and Papa and Mummy ushered us into the nearest.

“We’re going down.” Papa said, and the room began moving, the other rooms lining up behind us. Just behind us was the fat auntie, who was staring up at the roof.

Looking to the side, I saw the rooms were moving alongside the big tracks, which were moving slowly now, and outside I could see buildings and people. We got to the bottom and Papa and Mummy took us by the hands and out. “I’ll get the luggage from the carousel.” Papa said. There were TV people with cameras, and everyone coming out of the train waved and smiled.

“It’s a great day for the nation,” someone shouted.

On the way to the taxi stand, Papa bought us ice cream.

As we were eating it, a beggar came up to us, rattling a cup, and Papa gave him a coin.

Mummy was angry. I could see that from the way she tightened her lips. But there were people around, so she didn’t say anything. It didn’t matter. I knew already they’d fight all night, anyway.

The train trip was over.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Friday 24 June 2011

Story Written On My Cell Phone

"A third part of a hundred, no more." The witch glared over her shoulder at the shadow in the corner. "I had been promised a thousand."

The thing in the corner rustled leathery wings. "You have not fulfilled all that was asked of you," it said, in a voice like the winter wind. "You will be rewarded appropriately when the task is done."

The witch was still young and not uncomely. She dared not look too closely at the demon in the corner. What she'd seen of it was frightening enough, with its stick-thin limbs, leathery bat-like wings, and the glowing yellow eyes in its beaked, bony face. "I have done what I could," she protested.

"That may not be good enough," the black demon said, rustling. "The charge was laid upon you. See that you fulfil it, or next time I may not be so forgiving."

"I shall not fail," the witch said.

"If you do," said the demon, in its voice like the winter wind, "you should see what awaits you."

An instant later the witch found herself high above a city of nightmares. The grey, windowless buildings almost touched the sky, the streets between them alive with mindless, unceasing movement. And all over it lay a deathly cold, as at the end of the world.

"This is what Man has wrought," the demon whispered in her ear. "The bricks of this city are made of terror, the streets are paved with screams. Blood flows in the taps like water. This is what awaits. Only you can stop it. Only you."

The witch shivered involuntarily, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, she was hn her home, and the demon was gone. Only the cold lay in the air, ice still frosting on the panes though outside a summer moon painted the village roofs.

"I will do it," the witch whispered. "You leave me no choice."

Slowly, moving like an old, old woman, she gathered the things she needed, set her fire and cast her spells. As the fire blazed higher, she stripped off her clothes, applied the unguents to her vagina, and let the chemicals flood through her body.

Enunciating as clearly as she could, she began reciting the incantations she knew would open the portal and let the hordes of hell through into the world.

The Cheque Is In The Spam

One of the ways I entertain myself is to analyse the spam I get. In contrast to actual mail, which is small to almost nonexistent, my spam folder gathers anything from five to twenty scrapings from the bottom of the cyber-barrel per diem. Before I delete them, and if time allows, I usually take a look through them, and recently I’ve noticed an evolving pattern.

Used to be that I’d get a lot of offers from credit card companies offering low-interest loans, and from online pharmacies trying to sell me V1agRa – or even \ /!Agr@ – at bargain basement prices. Recently, those seem to have given up in despair. Nor are any more electronic repair shops in Afghanistan begging to fix up my equipment. Hell, now that I think of it, I haven’t got any offers from lovestruck West African ex-officials’ daughters desperate to marry me in months either. My looks must be slipping, damn it.

So what have I got?

Well, going by my recent recurrent spam, it seems:

  1. My penis is in urgent need of lengthening, and I can’t satisfy any woman unless I buy the absolutely safe medication that will lengthen it. I tell you, my penis shrivelled up in shame when it heard how tiny it was, and at any moment I expect phone calls from past conquests demanding their orgasms back.

  1. I must be the luckiest man alive, because once a week on the average, I win millions (almost always in British pounds) in lotteries selected from random email addresses. With such luck, why aren’t I rich? It isn’t fair!

  1. I must also be the trustworthiest man alive, from the number of rich women dying of cancer who want to give me the money their husbands left them, of which I have to donate a part to any true Christian church of my choice. My standard response is to reply asking why the person doesn’t donate the money directly, and I have never received an answer. Must be one of life’s unsolved mysteries.

  1. I must have lost millions, without knowing it, to 419 scammers, and a department of the Nigerian government, in its infinite goodness, is determined to refund my lost millions. OK, now I know why I’m not rich, despite all those lottery wins.

  1. I’m not educated enough, and I can easily enhance the strings of letters after my name by clicking on the provided link for a genuine online degree. And then I suppose I’ll land that professorship at a premier dental college, the one I was always hankering for, even though I didn’t know I was hankering for it, myself.

  1. And I must be desperately sick, because kind online pharmacies are eager to serve my medical, as opposed to recreational, needs. I’m disappointed, I tell you; heartbroken at the lack of offers to sell me LSD. Or something.

OK, so this means that your favourite blogger (which means me, right? Right?) is appallingly ugly, so badly-hung as to be incapable of pleasuring the ladies, undereducated, sick, and (while lucky and trustworthy) also incurably gullible.

So I suppose I’d better go and kill myself now.


The Red Lights

During the time I was an intern, I was posted for a month and a half in the Emergency department of the medical college in Lucknow, known locally as “Lal batti” or “red lights” from the illuminated red crosses at the door.

Basically, the job involved checking up on admissions and routing them to various departments depending on their symptoms.

(Incidentally, as I’ve written elsewhere, this was also the time I consider myself to have been responsible for the death of a man, but this post isn’t about that.)

This posting was occasionally interesting in a whimsical way, like the time we had two kids brought in one after the other. The first one’s name was Ideal Kumar. The second was called Saddam Hussein.

Much of the rest, though, was interesting in a quite different way.

For instance, there was a guard in the admission department clinic, armed with a good stout bamboo stick. Why did the department have a guard? Well, simply put, he was there to prevent people getting violent after they brought in dead bodies and discovered that their son or brother was long since beyond help. It always became the doctor’s fault when he or she couldn’t bring back the dead.

I remember one such corpse, not just dead but so long dead that the body had gone into rigor mortis. The family insisted that the man was only “sleeping”. I suppose that was one way to put it. At their insistence I forwarded the corpse to the medicine department, and they sent him straight to the morgue. I don’t know what the family thought about that.

Then, it would be at night that the dead babies were brought in. Each week would reliably bring in at least three or four. Somehow, they always came at night, and the story was always the same; the baby “lost consciousness” suddenly, without being ill in any way. Somehow, I doubt that they were all crib death victims. One reason was that I never saw one that was brought in before nine in the evening, and the second was always that they were of an age; just about old enough to go home from the hospital. And North Indian mums of the working classes, to which these babies invariably belonged, don’t usually use cribs anyway. The kids are always in their care or in the care of an older sibling.

Now, I didn’t enquire about the kids’ gender, but I’m as sure as I can be that if I’d lifted the swaddling cloths to look, I’d have found that nine out of ten were female. And I’m willing to bet that nine out of ten of them were smothered quite deliberately by their parents as a way of ridding themselves of an unwanted female child. If they’d been richer, of course, the kid would have been aborted after a quiet (and quite illegal) sex determination test, but since they couldn’t afford that, they killed the kids and used the medical college to get a death certificate. After all, we couldn’t prove murder, could we?

Then there were the phone calls, which were pathetic really; people calling in asking if so-and-so had been admitted, or if any unknown person answering to such-and-such description had been brought in. I fielded many of these calls, and I never could tell anyone that their missing loved ones were in the hospital. I don’t know whether any of them were ever found.

Then there were the trauma cases. Some of them were accidents, like the horrific one in which a retired army officer crashed his car. I remember seeing the list of injuries in the surgery department’s report, among other things, it included open fractures of both lower legs, a ruptured scrotum, avulsion of intestines through his abdominal wall, and crush injuries of his ribs. No, he didn’t survive.

There were other trauma cases, including a remarkable number of gunshot wounds. Almost all of these were of teenage males who had taken shotgun blasts to the face, and the stories were always the same; Master X had been “playing” with the family gun and had accidentally hit the trigger. (As it happens, later in my internship I had the task of removal of bone fragments and lead pellets from a pre-teen kid who had blown his face apart with a shotgun; an eminently memorable experience.) About the others I have grave doubts where the official story is concerned, because none of them showed any powder tattooing or other evidence of close-range firing. And since they were all, without exception, from the villages, and since in the villages of North India gun ownership is a sign of masculinity, and having enemies and carrying on blood feuds is another sign of masculinity (the North Indian villager is proud to call himself a Dushmandar Aadmi, a “man with enemies”), I’m ready to wager a substantial number of them were shot in family feuds.

That’s yet another reason why I detest guns and think of gun nuts as dangerous idiots.

Then there are two cases I recall especially vividly.

One evening, about seven, I was sitting in the admission department when a crowd of people brought in a woman. She’d – in front of hundreds of witnesses – jumped into the river Gomti from a bridge, and been hauled out by boatmen who’d quite fortuitously been paddling by. By the time she was brought in, she was fully conscious, though soaking wet, covered in river sand, and trembling all over. When I tried to take her pulse and blood pressure, she glared at me, gnashed her teeth, and ground out, “Let me go.” Well, I couldn’t let her go, of course; I referred her to Medicine for observation, and they sent her to Psychiatry after that, I suppose, if they didn’t hand her over to the cops. Attempting suicide was classed as a crime in India at the time, still is for all I know.

Oh, and that was the first time I got interviewed by reporters. They came in shortly after she’d been taken away, and wanted details about her. I just told them she’d been brought in and admitted, and I’d no idea who she was.

Yeah, and there was the frog. As the woman was being stretchered off, a tiny frog jumped out of her clothes. Really miniature, small enough to sit on my thumbnail. I may be mistaken (all this happened in 1994), but I seem to remember it was purple. The poor wee thing must have had a shock, swimming about in the shallows when this whacking great mammal came down on it like a ton of bricks and began thrashing about, caught it in her clothes, and took it away to a place of bright lights and cacophonic noise. I picked it up and let it go outside. I hope it made its way to somewhere it could live in peace.

Then there was the other memorable specimen. This one must count as one of the most bizarre cases I’ve yet encountered. It was another woman, brought in about ten or eleven at night by her father-in-law and brothers-in-law if I’m not mistaken.

“She’s got a pain,” they told me.

“Pain? Where?” The woman was lying on the examination table, tossing and turning restlessly. She was in her early twenties, quite pretty, but looked spaced-out, with her eyes rolled up under her upper eyelids. She was barefoot, and in a sari with her midriff bare. “Where is her pain?”

“We don’t know,” they told me. “We think it’s the stomach, but we aren’t sure.”

“Where is your pain?” I asked her directly.

She looked up at me, and her eyes were even more spaced out. “In my…” she mumbled, lifting her legs.

“Where?” I asked. “In your legs?”

In response she bent her knees till they touched her breasts, grabbed my hand and put it to her feet. A moment later, she straightened her legs and lay back, clutching her stomach.

“Are your feet hurting?” I was completely confused by now. “Or your stomach?”

“She was saying the stomach was hurting,” the father-in-law said.

“Where is the pain?” I asked, palpating her abdomen. “Here?”

“Here!” she said, grabbed my hand again, and, quick as a flash, thrust it under her sari and right into her pubic hair. You can imagine I yanked my hand out as quickly as I could, though she still had a death grip on my wrist and seemed determined to push my fingers into her vagina.

After that I talked briefly to her in-laws. They said her husband (their son and brother) had abandoned her and disappeared some time ago, and she’d begun behaving increasingly erratically after that. I don’t know if it was sex starvation that sent her over the edge or something else, but over the edge she most definitely was. I referred her to Psychiatry, without telling the in-laws what the department was about. If I had, they’d never have taken her there, because they’d think she was “mad” and it would “taint” the family. Such were the days.

It’s been years since Emergency has no longer been an essential posting for interns in my old college, and it’s a pity, really. I learned a lot about life in there.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Bombs Over Libya

High over the Mediterranean Sea, two bombs were hanging side by side from the wing hardpoints of a NATO fighter jet, on its way to bomb Tripoli.

Because the flight was long and they had nothing better to do, the two bombs were chatting.

One of the bombs was a Smart Bomb, and justifiably proud of the fact. The other, a mere dumb bomb, humbly listened to its colleague, and only once in a while ventured a comment.

“I,” boasted the Smart Bomb, “am the result of years of research and effort. I’m one of the most advanced pieces of weaponry the world has ever seen. Scientists in laboratories have worked their fingers to the bone to produce me. As for you-“

“I’m a mere dumb bomb,” the dumb bomb replied. “There is nothing new about me.”

“See that you do not forget it,” sniffed the Smart Bomb. “I don’t even know why they bother with you. You’re just a waste of payload, a source of drag. The pilot should just dump you into the sea.”  

“I’m sure you’re right,” the dumb bomb said. “But-“

“Don’t interrupt!” the Smart Bomb snapped. “I was saying that I am a work of art. I have laser, inertial and GPS guidance. I can glide to a target from fifty kilometres away. Quite as much money has gone into my making as would equip and run three schools and two hospitals in some Third World hellhole of a country.”

“Mightn’t the money have been better used in building schools and hospitals?” the dumb bomb wondered.

“You do not understand finances or What Is Good For The Economy. My making has enriched great corporations led by men in elegant business suits, who sit in offices in skyscrapers and own millions of shares in all the most important companies in the world. My creation created Wealth. What Wealth would a school or hospital in a Third World hellhole create? Nothing.”

“True. You understand all these things. You are a marvel.”

“I am. I never, ever, fail; I’m incapable of failure. Whereas you just fall at a target and sometimes hit it, sometimes not. And if you do hit it, you sometimes explode, sometimes not.”

“I can’t help it,” the dumb bomb apologised. “My design is old, you see.”

“I don’t see why they brought you along at all,” the Smart Bomb said condescendingly, “unless it’s to see how the job should be done properly. Maybe after you watch a master like me in action, you’ll properly appreciate how primitive you are, and how unworthy of hanging under the same wing as the likes of me. You are only fit to be used on carping peaceniks who protest against the Mission we are on.”

“What exactly is the mission we are on?” the dumb bomb wondered. “Are we at war?”

“Not at all,” the Smart Bomb said loftily. “The President of the Universe has declared that these are not hostilities[1] and that we are on a humanitarian mission.”  

“A humanitarian mission? How are we to fulfil that?” the dumb bomb wondered.

“Why, by bombing the hell out of the Tyrant, of course!” the Smart Bomb snorted. “After all, he is a Legitimate Military Target[2], even though the Mission Objective authorised by the United Nations is not for his removal.”

“So, he is a Tyrant? How is that so?”

“He is…tyrannising his people. They all want freedom from him. That’s why a few thousand of them[3] have taken up arms against him and are fighting in the desert. They are glorious freedom fighters and need to be helped and supported to win.”

“If they all want freedom from him,” the dumb bomb said, “why are only a few thousand fighting? What about the rest? Are they swimming in the sea?[4]”

“You do not understand these things,” the Smart Bomb said. “These people are heroic freedom fighters, even though they have fought against the President of the Universe earlier in our other Glorious Humanitarian Missions. They deserve support here because they are fighting a Tyrant.”

“And if they can overthrow the Tyrant, what will they do? Bring in freedom? What if they fail, or, if they don’t fail, they don’t bring in freedom? What happens then?”

“That is for the President of the Universe to decide. After all, He is a Man of Peace, and knows what the right thing is to do, anywhere and at any time. All I have to do is blow the Tyrant away, or some of his tanks.”

“I’m, of course, only a dumb bomb,” the dumb bomb said humbly, “but I heard someone saying the Tyrant had ordered his troops to use light weapons and trucks, not tanks. Only the rebels have tanks, I heard.”

“That’s as may be,” said the Smart Bomb. “I trust to my magical sensors and capabilities to do exactly what I have to. Nobody will fool me.”

"And once the Tyrant has been overthrown and freedom won," the dumb bomb said, "what Wealth will be created?"
"Why, from Oil and Reconstruction. Humanitarian Missions are all about creating Wealth. Tyranny stops us from creating Wealth. Therefore Tyranny has to go."

"I see," the dumb bomb said. "Thanks for explaining."

The coast of Libya came up underneath. “Here I go,” said the Smart Bomb. “Watch and weep, dimbrain.” It fell away from the wing, coasting easily through the night air, and crashed into an orphanage, killing fifteen children.

The dumb bomb? It went back home, still under the jet’s wing, having watched and wept, as advised.

NATO denied, of course, that any children had been killed at all.

Further Reading:

Happy Solstice to everyone

...winter or summer, wherever you may be.

So - where is all the naked dancing? Give me an invite, damn it. I want to join in!

Or maybe not

One Soldier's War in Chechnya : Review

Among the things in my past that will remain a blot on my escutcheon is, along with my initial enthusiasm for an Indian nuclear bomb, my initial support for the Chechen insurgency in the Caucasus. Said support lasted from approximately 1995 through 1997, and petered out quickly thereafter, and the very last vestiges of sympathy died out in the ruins of the school in Beslan. (Incidentally, in 2002, at the beginning of the Moscow Theatre Siege, I predicted quite accurately that the way it would be brought to an end would involve sedative gases; a prediction met with derision when I made it.)

Part of the support was due to my disgust with the Yeltsin regime in Russia; a regime which turned a great nation into a pathetic ruin in an incredibly quick time, a process from which it has not yet recovered and probably never shall. Part was due to my revulsion at the smashing of Grozny by Russian artillery, which killed many thousands of civilians, and did hardly anything to hurt the Chechen defenders. And part was due to my till today quite undiluted support for the Kashmir freedom movement, which I felt at the time had strong parallels with the Chechens. 

Yes, I admit I cheered (mentally) when the Chechens, in the Second Battle of Grozny, threw out the Russian army in a matter of five days in 1996. I thought that, if nothing else, would make the Russian people rise up against Yeltsin and reach for the greatness they were capable of. I was wrong.

But, by then, I’d already begun getting disillusioned.

Part of the disillusionment set in with the pretty open support the Chechens were getting from the West at the time, with Time Magazine and the like making openly pro-Chechen comments (one I recall was “Most authorities consider this a national liberation, not a terrorist, movement”. Which authorities? Where?). Part was the involvement of foreign militias, which the Kashmiris can tell you is the kiss of death to any national liberation struggle. And part was due to the criminalisation of the movement, which began early and led to large numbers of Chechens to defect to the Russian side.

(And, if I think back now, I can see more reasons to be disillusioned; the West, which condemned the Russian ultimatum to the besieged city of Grozny during the Second Chechen War, had no problems with the US uttering a similar ultimatum to the people of Fallujah five years later, for example; and the bandit regime of Hashim Thaci in Kosovo, which trades human organs for profit, is a perfect example of what an independent Chechnya would have been like; the Chechens had an open slave market in Grozny, for instance.)

The Chechen liberation war, such as it was, is of course long over. The last vestiges of it ended  on 31 October 2007, when pro-separatist websites published the announcement of Doku Umarov that the Ichkerian Republic had been dissolved and replaced by the Caucasus Emirate. It’s now just another battle for the cloud-cuckoo land of the Caliphate, and as doomed in the long run. 

But I never lost my fascination with them.

When I was in Russia in 2005, I saw some of the veterans of the two Chechen wars; former conscripts still in their mottled green uniforms, hobbling on crutches, and often begging for money for medicines. The husband of a friend, a former officer, apparently still wakes screaming at night from what he underwent during that war. And I was racially profiled in the airport on my way back because I apparently look like a Chechen.


Recently, while researching various things online, I came across reviews of a book, One Soldier’s War in Chechnya, by Arkady Babchenko, a former law student who fought the first Chechen war as a conscript and the second as a volunteer on contract. It’s even a book that comes with a recommendation by one of the greatest anti-war novelists of today, the former US Marine Philip Caputo. 

I wanted to read this book.  I wanted to read it very badly. And, eventually, I got hold of a copy, and I did.

I was - quite frankly - acutely disappointed.

For starters, let me say that I've always had a keen nose for the smell of bullshit, and my nostrils began twitching almost at once.

Where do I begin? It would probably be best to give a brief account of the book before going to particulars. It’s divided into three, very unequal parts, each divided into – again very unequal – chapters. There is also a preface in which the author gives a rough overview of his military service, and mentions that he has changed around some dates and names (more on that anon).

The first part of the book, and the shortest, is a completely random collection of “episodes” of the war; so random, in fact, as to be completely incomprehensible as a narrative. It’s like finding seven photographs and trying to construct a life out of it. I read this section several times and I frankly can’t understand why it was written in the first place.

The second part is much, much longer, and talks about Babchenko’s experiences as a conscript in the first Chechen war, and part of his experiences as a regular soldier (“kontraktnik”) in the second. This is the part that reeks so much of bullshit that I can’t really get the odour out of my nostrils.

As I said, I do know something about the Russian army, and the brutal treatment of conscripts by their seniors, called dedovschina, is nothing unknown to me. So, I have no problem with believing that some pretty brutal practices went on. But Babchenko’s account of his own experiences, which seem to have included daily beatings that ought to have killed any normal human, allied with starvation (apparently nobody fed his unit) reminded me of a book I read a long time ago...Papillon.

I assume most people who’re reading this are familiar with Henri Charriére’s Papillon, the alleged autobiographical account of a French convict’s prison years in the penal colonies of French Guyana. The book’s impressive, a rattling good read, a great testament to the human spirit...and a total, complete and absolute fake.

Charriére was a prisoner, true, though far from the heroic figure he painted in his book. He was a trusty who pumped other prisoners for their accounts of their exploits, dramatised them, stitched them together, and, on his (entirely official) release, made a bestselling book (and a sequel named Banco) out of them.  The fact is simply that the experiences he related were so dramatic it’s impossible for a modern reader to believe one man could have lived through them all. And, of course, he didn’t.

Such is the case here. Babchenko’s account reminds me so overwhelmingly of Papillon because it’s so obviously a compendium of many individual’s experiences, put together and made his own (and of a few friends, not one of whom is identified fully and completely). It’s impossible to believe that one man could withstand all that hurt without any long term effects – and that day after day, week after week, without medical help or even food. And, also, the soldiers themselves apparently spent all their spare time stealing things from their base to sell to the Chechens across the wire, in return for food and money and booze, all of which was to be handed over to their seniors. I have no problem believing this happened once in a while, but the way he describes it, nothing would have been left.

Babchenko then goes into a brief, very brief account of his service in Chechnya in the first war. It occupies scarcely one chapter, and segues into his service with a penal battalion in Moscow after he was arrested for overstaying his leave (granted on the death of his father) due to illness. And the next we hear of him, he’s back in Chechnya, and it’s 1999, and the Second Chechen War is in full swing.

And that’s what the rest of the book’s about: the Second Chechen War.

Right away, my bullshit detectors began howling. Babchenko’s account, superficially highly plausible, just doesn’t hold up when you think about it in detail. There are holes; chronological holes, logic holes, contradictions, and all without any particular reason why they should exist.

The chronological problem is great in itself. Babchenko writes in page xi of the Preface, “A few of the stories have been complied from several real episodes that have been compressed into a single period and shifted in time.” (Emphasis mine.) Why shifted? Who knows? Babchenko doesn’t say.

A great part of the book is devoted to the Battle of Alkhan Yurt, where Babchenko played an observer’s role, if one is to believe him, calling in strikes, helping carry out reconnaissance, and the like. All this begins most dramatically on New Year’s Eve, 2000, with our hero, in the ice and mud of Chechnya, thinking of home and so on (there’s also an unexplained misdating of the Russian Orthodox Christmas thrown in for good measure). Then he talks in detail about how they got into their vehicles and moved out and their travails over the next days as the battle of Alkhan Yurt developed around them.

Well, here’s what: the battle of Alkhan Yurt ended on the first of December 1999, a full month before Babchenko claims it even started, and involved claims of a massacre by Russian forces of Chechen civilians – a massacre Babchenko, an alleged witness of everything that happened, completely fails to mention, even to deny that it happened.

Then there are the logical inconsistencies. 

Babchenko talks (Page 193) about a captain named Sitnikov, and says right away that he was one of those officers who get decorations but get all their men killed. Dangerous people, as Babchenko says. We follow Sitnikov and Babchenko around for several tens of pages, in and out of battle. In all this time, do we see the captain’s hunger for glory, which Babchenko has told us about at the outset, successfully poisoning our attitudes towards the man? No, we see a man who seems to be a careful, professional officer. Are there two different captains called Sitnikov, and Babchenko has forgotten which one he’s talking about?

Then there is the unnamed mortar battery commander, a man who (page 255) never doubted the correctness of his actions and was prepared to kill readily, and even happily. This man is described as a superb professional, who has total command over his troops, and obeys orders rigidly. So, when his unit is ready to fire on a certain sector of the battlefield, and orders come on the radio from headquarters to cancel the bombardment and withdraw, what does our by-the-book commander do? Does he withdraw? No, he waxes furious, orders his men to load their bombs, and to get ready to launch the bombardment anyway, as though he was some kind of warlord independent of the main command. And yet when another infantry officer informs him that the Russians are now in the target sector, he accepts that and cancels the bombardment – the exact orders he had just refused to obey when conveyed directly from headquarters. Is this professionalism?  (Of course, since the bombardment was never launched, and the officer never named, there’s no way to check on whether Babchenko is telling the truth about this episode.)

The third part of the book continues about Chechnya, in the tense peace that followed the formal end of fighting. The same Babchenko who joined the second war of his own free will suddenly can’t wait to go home; but even though he claims that a kontraktnik can demand to be sent home in the middle of the fighting, he apparently makes no attempt to ask to be sent home; the circumstances of his discharge from the army in April 2000 are never explained.

During this period, Babchenko slips back into observer mode; lambasting the corrupt Russian officer corps, where according to him, generals beat colonels, colonels beat majors, majors beat captains, and so on, all the way down the line, and nobody cares about anything but themselves. In true Babchenko fashion, he then describes (page 365) a Captain Vladimir Shabalin, a compassionate, courageous officer, who brings flowers to the grave of a soldier who saved his life in an ambush. Babchenko doesn’t even seem to notice his own self-contradictions.

All in all, a book that probably has some basis in facts, but is so full of demonstrable holes that the entirety doesn’t hold water.

I’ve heard this book compared to Catch-22 or to All Quiet on the Western Front. Catch-22 it certainly isn’t; it has none of the satire and dry humour of Joseph Heller’s masterpiece. As for All Quiet, I didn’t notice any similarities to Remarque's book (except a virtually copy-paste rendition of the description of Paul Bäumer's fellow-soldiers in the first chapter), and I should have, for it's a personal favourite of mine. I however did notice similarities to a much less well known account of a German soldier’s wartime experiences: Hans Peter Richter’s Second World War memoir, The Time Of The Young Soldiers. In its episodic style and its narrative structure, its recounting of similar experiences, and its refusal to give names and correct dates, it’s so similar that I find it difficult to believe that Babchenko hadn’t read Richter’s book at some point.

Well, so far, I’ll admit, my suspicions about Babchenko’s account were all subjective. So I decided to do a little checking on Babchenko himself, and there it was; the proof.

In an interview, Babchenko (who wrote on that conflict as well) openly claims that Russia was responsible for the 2008 war between itself and Georgia, which led to the latter’s defeat; even though the US, Georgia’s military and propaganda backer, itself admitted (in the person of Condoleezza Rice, no less) that Georgia had started  the war.

In other words, he’s a professional anti-Russian propagandist, the kind who always gets a ready audience in the West, because those of us who keep our eyes open know that anti-Russian propaganda is alive and well among the neo-imperialists in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels.

To get back to the book, then. Its production values are fair, though the disjointed and episodic nature is intensely irritating, as is the disproportionate emphasis on the Second Chechen War (so disproportionate that I wonder if that is all the author experienced). The translation (by Nick Allen) is relatively good (but for consistently using lay for lie) and for once is into British English (and not American English, which always sets my teeth on edge). But it has its own pitfalls in that British idiom sits ill on Russian tongues, and Allen even fails to use the pejorative word Russians use for Chechens, and for Caucasians in general (churka). Can one imagine an American Vietnam War memoir without the word gook?

Yes, there are some good quotes. Sample:

We were herded into this war and killed by the hundred. We didn’t even know how to shoot; we couldn’t kill anyone, we didn’t know how. All that we were capable of was crying and dying. And die we did. We called the rebels ‘uncle’, and when our boys’ throats were cut at the block posts, they’d beg the rebels, ‘Please, uncle, don’t kill me, what did I ever do to you?’ We so wanted to live. Get that into your heads, you fat, smug generals who sent us off to this slaughter. We hadn’t yet seen life or even tasted its scent, but we had already seen death. We knew the smell of congealed blood on the floor of a helicopter in a forty-degree heat, knew that the flesh of a torn-off leg turns black and that a person can burn up entirely in lit petrol, leaving just the bones.”

But good quotes don’t make a book. Do they?

Update (July 2012): I've just reread this book, and I found it even more inconsistent and contradictory than at first read.

For instance, in the second part of the book (the section discussing the First Chechen War), the author claims to have been in Mozdok, which is not in Chechnya, unloading corpses and watching necropsies (performed with a bread knife, no less) after the Second Battle of Grozny. And after that, he claims to have been sent off to fight in Chechnya and witnessed at first hand the destruction of Grozny. This is absolutely not possible for a simple reason: the Second Battle of Grozny, as a peek at Wikipedia will inform you, led to the signing of the Khasav Yurt accord and the withdrawal of all Russian units from Chechnya. Babchenko could have been either in Chechnya or in Mozdok; he could not have been in both places at once. Translation: He is either making the whole thing up or passing off someone else's experiences as his own.

Then there's the episode in the part of the book set in Mozdok where a senior conscript called Timokha demands Babchenko find 600,000 rubles for him. Babchenko tries to find something to steal and sell to the Chechens for money, but can't - the only items he does find are cannon shells he fails to sell, though he was offered a million rubles for a rocket launcher. Yet, after a couple of pages, he reports that he was (on alternate days) in charge of the armoury, from which this same Timokha and others could freely steal weaponry and sell for cash, and it was simplicity itself to fudge the accounts. It passeth understanding why Babchenko didn't steal the weapons himself.

I could go on and on and on...

Sunday 19 June 2011

The Gold Crush

Among my relatives on my mother’s side of the family are a couple (an uncle and his wife) who could be called, politely, superstitious. Also, objectively, crazy.

For instance, these people have a son who was, in his younger days, epileptic. Rather than trust to medicines to treat him (medicines are so scientific, you know), they went to all manner of astrologers, fakers fakirs and sundry charlatans to rid him of his grand mal episodes. To no avail.

Then, one day, two men turned up at their house, proclaiming themselves snake charmers. So what, they asked, did snake charmers want with them? This: the snake charmers claimed there was a nest of snakes in the house; they’d discovered the snakes through magical means, and would rid my relatives of them for free.

And, lo and behold, in a short time they emerged from behind the house with a wriggling bagful of snakes. Far be it for me to be so uncharitable as to suggest that they had themselves concealed the reptiles there earlier. For they were honourable men.

They proved just how honourable they were by offering to rid my cousin of his epilepsy, by magic, absolutely for free. Not only did they know of the epilepsy (well, just about everybody in their locality knew of it, as well as anyone who had anything to do with the astrologer/mystic/shaman set in their town) but they – out of the kindness of their hearts – wouldn’t take a penny for their efforts.

The catch? Oh, nothing much. It was just that the cure would take all of a week of daily worship at my relatives’ home...the worship of all the gold ornaments they owned.

This is as good a time as any of pointing out the fetish-like love Indian women have for gold ornaments, even if these are never worn, and even if they look tackier than tacky. But then I’ve never figured out why anyone would like gold.

Anyway, so this was the deal: the snake charmer duo would come to my relatives’ house each day for a week, and spend their time worshipping the gold, which was to be sewn up in a pillowcase. The family could watch them worshipping the gold, of course, and keep it once the daily worship was over.

The first day of the worship, every eye in the house was on the pillowcase-full of gold, and as soon as the two great and honourable mages had left, the pillowcase was unstitched. The gold was quite intact. As it was the next day; and the day after that.

By the time the sixth day had come around, a certain level of ennui had stolen over the proceedings. Nobody bothered to keep a constant watch on the two Merlins, and it was kind of a pain to unstitch and stitch up the gold every night once the duo had left. So they didn’t bother any more. They could, after all, feel the gold through the cloth, couldn’t they?

So, on the sixth evening, the altruistic magicians proclaimed as they left that the morrow would see the culmination of the cure. They wouldn’t come as early as on the other days – but they’d come for lunch, and they requested a good spread be laid on for them. Afterwards they’d do the final rituals, formally return the gold, and all would be fine.

You know where this is going, don’t you? The seventh day rolled around, and a sumptuous lunch, fit for the palates of such august personages, was laid on...but said palates didn’t turn up. The hours magicians. People were asked if they’d seen them. Nobody had.

Finally, someone had the bright idea of opening up the pillowcase...and discovered, of course, fake custom jewellery.

To this day, these people still haven’t learned. They’re still slavish devotees of some “godman” or other, the "guru" of some sect near their town, and who I expect is merrily fleecing them. For once I can't say that I’m not on the side of the exploiters.

With idiots like these, serve them right.

More religious nutjobbery (and a candidate for Astra's Batshit Roundup)

A Jewish rabbinical court in the Zionazi pseudostate (that's the so-called state of "Israel" for those new to my world) sentenced a dog to death by stoning.

What was the dog's sin? Apparently, it was the reincarnation of a lawyer who had insulted the court's judges twenty years ago. And the punishment for this behaviour was that the lawyer's spirit was cursed to be reincarnated as a dog.

(On a side note, as a dog lover, I wouldn't mind being reincarnated as a pit bull or a Tibetan mastiff.)

Now, how did our canine hero - this specific canine hero - get the honour of being identified as the carrier of the lawyer's spirit? To quote from the link:

According to Ynet, the large dog made its way into the Monetary Affairs Court in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, frightening judges and plaintiffs.

Maybe the dog just liked the look of all those rabbis? Just wondering.

Anyway, they decided to have the dog stoned to death. By children.

I don't know whether that was supposed to harden the children's hearts and make them more ready to throw bombs at Palestinians later. I don't see any other reason why the learned judges couldn't do the dirty work themselves, unless of course they were scared of casting the first stone.

Or maybe they were afraid the dog would curse them?

Fortunately for everyone, the dog escaped. I wonder though what would have happened to the dog's "spirit" if they had stoned it. Would it have become a rabbinical judge?

Another and more serious question. Just suppose it was some semiliterate mullah in an Islamic country which had done this. Can you imagine the shrill howls of righteous Islamophobic wrath all over the blogosphere, the protests from PETA and Holloweed Hollywood stars? Can you imagine the anti-Muslim sentiment disguised as the wrath of animal lovers?

You can, of course, because you've seen it all before.