Saturday 30 July 2011

The Ship From Beyond The End Of The World

There’s going to be a ship today,” the older boy said.

The younger glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “You heard someone say something about it?”

The older boy shrugged. “I just know there’s going to be a ship.”

The other boy didn’t say anything. They sat, dangling their legs from the pier over the scummy green of the river. They were both naked except for loincloths. The day was too hot to require more elaborate clothing. Clouds of tiny insects whirled above the surface of the water. In the middle distance, the river took the turn beyond which the world ended.

“If the world ends there,” the younger boy had argued, “where do the ships come from?”

“You’re too young to understand,” his parents always said when he asked questions like this – or, for that matter, any question to which they didn’t know the answer. “Wait till you’re older.”

But he was older now – all of thirteen, almost a man – and in this time he still hadn’t got an answer to the question. Not that anyone else had an answer either.

“They’re coming less and less often now,” the older boy said, swinging his legs. “Maybe soon they won’t come at all.”

“Maybe today will be the last one,” the younger boy agreed. “What do you think, Aanai?”

Aanai did not reply for a moment. “I wonder what we’ll do when the ships don’t come any more,” he said finally. “Everything we need comes with the ships.”

“Doesn’t that prove the world doesn’t end over there?” the younger boy said, pointing at the bend in the river. “If we go beyond that, won’t we find the world from where the ships come?”

Aanai shifted uncomfortably. “You’d better not let anyone hear you say these things, Kadavai. It’s forbidden talk.”

“Forbidden by whom? The chief? The council?” Kadavai gestured angrily with the hand which was still pointing. “”They can say the sun’s forbidden to cross the sky, but it still does, doesn’t it?”

“That’s different,” Aanai said stiffly. “The sun is a god.”

“If you say so.” Kadavai glanced over his shoulder at the village. It had deteriorated visibly in his own short memory, the huts fewer and more dilapidated than before, the people fewer. “Has anyone ever tried to go beyond the place the world ends, do you think?”

“How can they?” Aanai snapped. “The world ends there, doesn’t it?”

Kadavai didn’t reply. They sat dangling their legs over the water. Aanai tossed a pebble in the river and they watched the spreading green ripples.

“If the ship comes today,” Kadavai said suddenly, “I’m going to try to leave on it.”

Aanai snorted. “You’re mad. As though they’d even take you.”

“I’ll just sneak on board and hide,” Kadavai declared. “There’s nothing for me here anyway. You have your Poonai, anyway.”

“Yes…look, there she goes.” Both boys watched appreciatively as the girl walked smooth-limbed down to the river and bent to fill a container with the scummy water. She didn’t deign to look at them.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Aanai asked, as though anxious for confirmation. “Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”

Kadavai nodded, his mind far away. The ship would come today – or it would come some other day. But whenever it came, he would be ready.

He remembered the last ship that had come. It had been a big one, very large, floating easily over the scummy water, barely brushing the surface. The ship had come, and unloaded the things the villagers needed – iron and cloth and packets of food and medicine – and then as quietly disappeared. He had watched the men in the ship, with their grey clothes and smooth faces, staring down at them from their high platform, and had called up to them, asking them where they came from, and what their world was like. One of them had looked down at him and said something in a low voice to another. But they hadn’t answered his questions.

Once, and he had never told of this to anyone, he had made his way along the bank down river and to the bend, to take a look at the end of the world. It had been a white mist, and he had heard a roar as of falling water – but the river flowed as slowly, as turbid and near-stagnant as ever. He had wanted to go closer, but the banks had curved away from the mist, and he hadn’t been able to approach. He’d stood looking at the end of the world as long as he could, and then he’d come back again.

He saw the water begin to roil at the bend of the river and touched Aanai’s arm. The two boys got up and stood on the dock, watching the ship come round the bend of the river.

This time it was a big one again, though not as big as the last. It was pale blue, and bright white, and rode high on black rubber skirts brushing the water. It slid to a stop by the dock, settling down on the water with a sigh like a fat old woman, and the ramps slid downwards as the villagers came flocking forward to unload the goods.

Afterwards, Kadavai could never be quite certain at what point he sneaked on board, and why nobody caught him doing it. It must have been while everyone’s attention was on the unloading of the bales and boxes. In any event, he found himself crouching in the corner of the dark cargo hold, with his back and head bent to fit the curve of the hull. There were noises and the sounds of machinery, and then, with a soft clanging noise, the ramp withdrew and the light from the door disappeared.

For a moment that lasted forever, Kadavai was paralysed by fear. For the first time he realised what he’d actually done – left behind his village, his world, everything he’d ever known, all for faith that there was something else. And by now, he knew, the ship would already be turning away, lifting off the water on its rubber skirts and moving off down the river.

It was the fear that drove him out of the cargo hold and on to the deck. He began to be afraid that if he stayed where he was any longer, he could never bring himself to move again. He walked up the flight of metal steps and onto the deck, the river bank sliding past to the side, and up a further flight of steps.

There were three men there, standing before a line of buttons and dials and levers. They turned in unison to look at him. None of them appeared more than mildly surprised.

“That’s the one,” the one on the right said. “I told you about him, last time round, Captain.”

“So he stowed away aboard?” The man in the centre looked hard at Kadavai. “We have to talk.”

You see,” the man called Captain said, “we have a choice. We can either send you back, or you can come with us.”

“Come with you – where?”

“Beyond.” The man called Captain waved a grey-clad arm at the approaching mist. “The other side.”

“What’s there?” Kadavai asked. “They say that’s the end of the world. Are you from another world?”

The man called Captain smiled slightly and without humour. “It’s another world for the likes of you, sure enough. See, son, your village is a…nature preserve, let’s call it. It’s one of the last vestiges of a culture preserved as it used to be, as far as that’s possible in this day and age. Outside, there, is the – other world.”

“What’s it like?” Kadavai asked. “What is it like there?”

“It’s – different,” the man in grey said. “You may like it. You may hate it. But if you come along, be assured, there’s no turning back. You can’t be allowed to go back again, ever.”

“In that case,” Kadavai asked, “why are you taking me along at all? Why not simply put me back in the village?”

“Because you’ve been able to think your way past the taboo that’s been put in place. If we didn’t give you this choice, then you’d have sooner or later begun infecting the others with your doubts and disquiet. Also, it’s only fair to you that you have this chance.” He paused. “Well? Whgat will you do?”

Kadavai swallowed, watching the mist begin to curl and twist around the craft. “I’ll go with you,” he said.

The mist that marked the point where the world ended began to rise all around them.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

In their nightly little dramas...

I believe I dreamt last night that I was a Talib fighter planting landmines under a dirt track in Afghanistan.

I say I believe I dreamt it because I didn’t really think of myself as a Talib or that I was planting bombs to kill American (or NATO, which comes to the same thing) occupation forces. I was just this guy in a turban and wispy beard, kneeling by the side of a stony mountain track while I placed an explosive device armed with tripwires and stuff. I woke up before I could do any damage to anyone.

The point of this dream, then?

I remembered one of my favourite old Vietnam War protest songs, Tom Paxton’s Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation. In part the lyrics go:

Every night the local gentry
Sneak out past the sleeping sentry
They go to join the old VC.
In their nightly little dramas
They put on their black pajamas
And come lobbing mortar shells at me.

If you run an occupation of another country, you’d better make sure of a few things:

  1. That you can actually win the goodwill of the people of that nation. Just saying “We are here to do you good” doesn’t make a bit of difference, even if you believe it yourself, even if you convince the rest of the people of the world to believe it. As long as the people you are occupying don’t believe it, you can count on them resisting by all means they can. You might, for instance, tell the people of Afghanistan that you’re protecting them from the Taliban, but they know the Taliban; the Taliban (who now call themselves “mujahideen”, and aren’t really the old woman-hating, backward-looking Taliban any more) are their own sons and brothers and uncles. They won’t believe you just because you say something, however much you say it.

  1. I mentioned resistance. As the Paxton song said, anyone, but anyone, can be radicalised into taking up arms against your forces. Your soldiers can’t even depend on the goodwill of the people they’re ostensibly defending, and will have to watch their backs as much as anything else. If you want to run a successful occupation against these odds, you’d better be willing to put enough troops on the ground to place every citizen in the country under surveillance, every moment of the time.

  1. A military machine that can obliterate an aircraft carrier from halfway across the globe, or destroy enemy satellites in orbit in an instant, or blow away entire cities at the press of a button, isn’t of much use in defeating someone who refuses to fight on equivalent terms. They don’t even need sophisticated weaponry. As the Red Army found out, a teenager with a nineteenth-century muzzle-loader can kill you just as dead as a sniper with the latest Heckler and Koch scoped rifle.

  1. You haven’t a hope of conducting an occupation if you or your allies keep killing, maiming, humiliating, raping and looting the people of a nation – any nation. When it’s a nation that has a history of outlasting all conquerors, that is even more of an imperative. The Afghans know the truth behind the drone strikes, the midnight raids, the so-called insurgents blown away. A farmer who hates the Taliban will still take out his old rifle and go shooting at your soldiers if they break down his door at night, shout at his wife, destroy his poppy field (the only source of his income), shoot his brother dead at a crossroads, or bomb his son from a drone piloted by some CIA spook from halfway round the world. A million pious pronouncements won’t make a difference to that.

I could go on and on, but the simple fact is that the resistance is unquellable as long as the occupation lasts. If anyone believes the war in Afghanistan is winnable, I suggest they volunteer to go and fight in it, because they deserve whatever happens to them.

Here’s what Rudyard Kipling said, a long time ago:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Good advice.

Friday 29 July 2011

Call me Quisling: Why I am no patriot

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” ~ Samuel Johnson.

Those of you who have been reading me for a while will know that I often call myself (not entirely in jest) a card-carrying traitor. I’ve adopted this epithet quite deliberately, since I’ve been accused of being a traitor so often as to have become inured to it.

At the same time, I’d rather be a traitor than a patriot.

A few years ago, when people were still celebrating India’s “economic revolution” (before that phrase became a sick joke which nobody now cares to repeat), and the stock market index (Sensex) crossed the 20000 mark (meaning the average price of a share in certain listed companies crossed twenty thousand rupees, I assume), people were asked by the media to “feel good” about it – though well over 90% Indians don’t own stocks. Similarly, when an Indian corporate house acquired a foreign steel company, we were all asked to “celebrate” the thing, as though it did any of us any good or changed anything at all.

In other words, patriotism is tokenism – but while most tokenism is meaningless to harmless, patriotism is an actively malignant force.

Those of us with a sense of history might remember the days of August 1914 – not even a hundred years ago – when the youth of Europe were cheered on to war by patriotic crowds, absolutely forced into uniform by social pressure whether they liked it or not, in the name of “doing their bit for King and Country”. Those young men went on to scream out their lives disembowelled in collapsed trenches and gassed in shellholes, which was all fine with the patriotic crowds back home. They kept cheering anyway, and handing out white feathers to anyone with enough sense not to get into uniform. And at the end of the carnage, the empires those patriotic people cheered for were all either destroyed or so weakened that they were doomed. That’s what patriotism gets you.

There’s this argument that patriotism is a good thing – it keeps the social fabric intact, and reinforces the sense of nationality. In response, I’d say that’s like saying religion is necessary to keep society descending to anarchy and immorality. There’s nothing inherently sacrosanct about attitudes like territoriality, herd mentality and tribalism: and patriotism is all too likely to degenerate to nationalism and thence to xenophobia and jingoism.

At what point can a “patriot” claim that “this is how far I take my patriotism, and no further?” At what point does “I love my country” turn to “My country, right or wrong”?

What’s so pernicious about patriotism is that it’s so easily subverted by politicians.  As someone said (at the moment I forget who), it’s the easiest thing in the world to disarm your opponent by questioning his patriotism. Anyone who’s got doubts on that issue need only look at the US in the aftermath of 11/9 and the run-up to the Iraq war, when political and media personalities critical of the Empire’s designs were ruthlessly silenced by questioning their patriotism. Even today, when those lies are acknowledged officially to have been lies, you can bet that when the Empire finally decides to invade Iran, opponents will be called unpatriotic.

Then, in India, even the fact that a drug-resistant bacterium was named after Delhi was made into a “patriotic” issue, with people blowing their tops at this “insult to the nation” – rather than figuring out the reasons why drug resistance would emerge in India, a country rife with unregulated and wanton antibiotic use. Patriotism kills in myriad forms, it appears.

It seems to me that patriotism might be effective only in one circumstance – where one still has a hope of improving a nation, and finds the means to go and try to do it. However, I’ve become convinced that nations by and large are incapable of improvement; they are so firmly in the grasp of ruling cabals whose only loyalty is to themselves that individuals can not, however heartily they wish real change for the better, bring said change about. Even if they manage a revolution, the new power elite will capture it. Remember Animal Farm.

But screw all that, and get to the real issue. I refuse to be “patriotic” in support of a country that’s mine only by the accident of birth, and whose government does not represent me in any way. I refuse to be stamped with the duty of blind obedience that “patriotism” brings in its wake.

If that means I have to be a traitor, so be it. I accept the sobriquet with pride.   

Thursday 28 July 2011

The Love Letter

My love,

Isn’t it strange that in all these years, I’ve never dared to tell you what I feel; and now – now, when it’s all so futile, and useless, I’m trying to tell you all that I feel, scrawling it out with this stub of a pencil on scraps of paper, squinting in the first of the morning’s light, the little that comes in through the cracks between the boards of the wall?

I realise that this letter will almost certainly never reach you, and, if it does, it will mean nothing to you. At the most you might get some random amusement from it. If so, so be it – there’s nothing I can do about that; but it is something I must do. If my life is to have had any meaning, I must write this, even if you never see it.

Perhaps it is better if you never see it.

Who am I? My name does not matter. Perhaps it never did; such as me have no right to a name or a life story; no individuality attaches to us. But, nameless as I am, I want to say what I write here to you.

I know you don’t know me. Oh, you know me – you’ve known me longer than you could have ever imagined, since we were both children in that city whose name I don’t want to think now, with its elegant cathedrals and green parks, through which we used to run – you with your parents, and later with your friends – and I with my parents, then alone. But you haven’t ever connected that time to this, followed through. And if you don’t get this, you shan’t; and that would be for the best. I don’t want to run the risk of causing you any distress. That’s all the gift I can leave you, bar one.

But, for my sake, more than yours, I still must write this letter.

I still remember how I saw you the first time up close, that summer afternoon when the golden sunshine was on the grass. That was I, the small dark-eyed girl whom you hardly noticed – but I noticed you, already tall for your age, already handsome.

Perhaps – perhaps sometimes, if you think back to your childhood, you might recall that time when we first came face to face. You were chasing your football, and it rolled up to my feet where I sat at the foot of a tree – which was where my mother had made me sit while she talked to a friend. I’d picked up the ball and handed it to you, and you’d looked at me out of those wonderful grey eyes and taken it from my hands with a muttered Danke. And along with that ball, my heart had gone into your hands – only you never knew it.

I shall not try your patience with a recitation of each time I watched you, in the park, in the street, riding your bicycle – on the sports ground, while I watched, always alone, always from the sidelines. Never was I part of any group of girls, but perhaps that was only natural, being who I was, and, more important, being what I was. After all, what I was – and am – is important. It’s why I am here now. Isn’t it?

Do you remember Herr Stadlbauer’s shop, opposite the Bahnhof in the old town? Of course you do; you must. You passed by there every evening, on your way back home, and three or four times a week you’d come in to buy cigarettes and the newspaper. Do you remember the short dark girl who served you, who was so clumsy and nervous that she kept making mistakes with the change and seemed unable to meet your eyes? I don’t think you do – but, of course, it was I. I lived those days for that glimpse of you; I waited the entire day for you to pass by, hoping you’d enter, and dreading my own confusion and timidity when you did. How stupid you must have thought me!

It was then, in the shop, though, that I got to know the things that still define you to me now, no matter what came later. I got to know your name, and that you were studying law; I found that you were quiet and serious, and that, unlike your fellow-students, you didn’t spend your spare time with a young woman on your arm. Oh, how my heart used to yearn to be the woman you could take around! But even then, I knew it was impossible, of course. Not because of who you were, or the difference in our social stations – because of what I was. What I am.

Each night I would lie awake, staring up at the dark ceiling of my room, my breasts rising and falling as I imagined you by my side, the feel of your body next to mine, and I could almost feel your kisses on my lips. And soon enough my hands would creep unbidden between my legs, to bring about the only solace my body could find. It was never enough, but it was all I could have.

My mother urged me to marry, to look for a nice boy of our own kind, as she said, and even set me up with one or two of them. But my heart was not in it, and she was sufficiently perceptive, poor lady, and too loving to insist on my marrying someone I did not wish to. She did not, of course, know of my passion for you – or things might have been different.

My father was still alive then, but already old beyond his years, worn out by his injuries in the Great War. I can still see him, sitting at the window, looking out into the street (it was called Goethe Allee then, but was later renamed Bismarckstrasse) with a glass of wine in his hand. Even when the brown shirts marched along to the strains of the Horst Wessel, he kept telling himself it would all be fine, that the two years he had spent on both fronts – the gas that had burned his lungs, the bullets that had torn his thigh – that it would all be a talisman that would protect us. He could not believe otherwise, despite the warnings the others (his friends and relatives, and even the rabbi at the synagogue, though he was an atheist who never thought to visit the place) gave him. He wouldn’t even consider emigrating, to drag his battered body to another nation and begin a new life all over again. And then it was all too late, of course.

I am glad he didn’t live long enough to see the camps. The unfairness of it would have destroyed him more surely than mere physical death.

I will say this for Michael Stadlbauer: he protected me for as long as he could. But they came for me at the cemetery, after my mother had been carried off by pneumonia and I’d gone to put a stone on her grave. He could not protect me then. Don’t blame Herr Stadlbauer; he thought he was doing his duty towards me. He didn’t see me as a Jewess, just a girl alone in the world. He was a nice man, old Stadlbauer. I wonder if he is alive today – I hear the city (your city and mine) has been very heavily bombed. I hope he is all right.

I remember that I’d seen you the day before I was arrested. By then you were in uniform, the peaked cap set high on your head, the jackboots gleaming on your feet. You didn’t enter the shop – you stood outside, looking up at the sky, perhaps, thinking of something. By then I knew enough to fear the uniform, but my heart went out to you – you looked like a vulnerable young god, sent on a task beyond your capability, trying to find the strength to deal with it. After I was arrested, I never thought I would see you again.

I still remember that winter morning on the Appel ground in here in the Altkirche camp, with the snow piled over ankle-deep and the Aufseherinnen screaming at us and lashing with their cellophane whips to get us, half-frozen as we were, into line. And there you were, on the wooden platform, staring down at us, a riding crop tapping at your thigh. And after that you walked down the ranks, smiling – your riding crop tapping a chest here and there.

In the months to come, the others nicknamed you der Lachelnde Tod, Smiling Death. I’m sure you know of it – and rejoice in it. It gave me no pleasure, though, to hear you called it, and I never replied or took part in discussions about you, though I joined in with the others in condemning the Angel of Death and the other sadistic overseers and guards at the camp.

How I hated in those days! I hated the silly Oberaufseherin trollop who preened by your side as you walked around the camp – because she shared your bed, and because she could be with you. Not because she spat on us and kicked at me once with her boot because I did not get out of the way fast enough. How I envied the succession of camp girls you took to be your personal servants! You got rid of them when they had served their purpose, when you had tired of them, but for a short time they shared your life. How I yearned for that proximity to you! After all, we’re all going to die here anyway – why should I forgo that little bit of happiness?

Do you remember the meeting which Himmler himself attended? I was the girl brought up from the camp, the one who waited at the table and brought food from the kitchen. I don’t know why they did that. Perhaps someone was amused by the idea of a Jewess waiting table for Himmler. But I remember not the Reichsf├╝hrer, but you; the strain on your face, the weariness in your eyes as you nodded and answered the great man’s questions. And the moment he left the room, I could feel the relief with which you lit a cigarette and drew in the smoke in great draughts. I wished I could have touched your face, to smooth away the strain. You didn’t even look at me then, and I was not permitted to stay long.

My time is growing short, the light from outside stronger. Soon, very soon, it will be morning Appel. We all are well aware that the next selection is due today, and I know I am too weak to escape it. Today, you will stroll down the lines, and your riding crop will tap my chest. Perhaps your eyes will look into mine for a moment, those wonderful grey eyes, and I might hope to see a flicker of recognition. Probably not; I have changed, wasted away to a shadow of what I used to be when I handed you your cigarettes and copy of the Volkische Beobachter.   

I've come to believe that you are, like me, someone caught up in the machine, shaped in your own way. We're all puppets caught up in a play not of our making here; and if it was not you, it would’ve been someone else who would kill me.  And if I am to die, I'd rather die at your hands than at someone else's, even though it won't be your actual finger that will pull the trigger.

Soon enough I will entrust this letter to Beatrice, and ask her to see that it gets to you. I don’t know if she will – she may fear retribution, or she might read it and destroy it out of anger and disgust. I would not blame her for that, for to her you are Smiling Death, and in confessing my love for you I am desecrating the memory of those you have sent to the Shades.

In a moment I will sign and fold these scraps of paper. I will walk out to the Appel ground, no longer quaking with terror, but head held high, for terror no longer matters. I will wait for you to tap me on the chest, and I will stand aside to be led away to the trenches in the woods, there to await the bullet or pickaxe blow to the back of the skull. Three hours from now, these eyes will never see anything again, these hands never touch anything any more. What will happen will be beyond your control or mine; but as I am led away, I will turn my head back over my shoulder to look on you one last time.

And then, for the first time ever, I will be brave enough to give you a smile.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Review: Black Rain

“For several years past, Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, had been aware of his niece Yasuko as a weight on his mind.” This is because nobody is willing to marry Yasuko, and nobody is willing to marry her because of the persistent rumour that she was in Hiroshima when the Bomb fell on the 6th of August, 1945.

So begins the story of Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and their niece and ward Yasuko. In a bid to prove that Yasuko is “clean” and can’t have been affected by the radiation sickness that has carried away so many of the survivors, Shigematsu sits down to write his recollections of the last days of the war, from the moment when the bomb fell on Hiroshima to the moment when Japan surrendered, nine days later.

Before I go further, let me state a few things:

First, I view the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a complete and despicable war crime. I view it as such because – like using Agent Orange in Vietnam or depleted uranium today everywhere from Kosovo to Libya – the effects extend to future generations, meaning people who are not only not guilty of any part  in the conflict, but weren’t even born when it took place. No amount of self-justification can excuse that.

Secondly, I view nuclear weapons as the closest thing we have to an absolute evil, because it gives its possessors the choice to wipe out virtually all life on earth in defence of a political or economic ideology; a way of wiping out everything in some kind of universal Gotterdammerung. Just as you wouldn’t let a petulant child get its hands on a firearm, you wouldn’t want a nation – any nation – to have the means to blow everything away in a fit of temper. Don’t think it can’t happen – it very nearly has.

Third, and I should confess it clearly, I was once a supporter of the nuclear bomb; in 1998 I celebrated the Indian nuclear tests. (I should also mention that back then I was a conditional supporter of the death penalty, but obviously my views between then and now have undergone a seismic change.) I now believe that nuclear “deterrents” deter absolutely nothing, and instead promote risk-taking and certifiably insane behaviour.

Fourth, I’m not a neophyte when it comes to the effects of nuclear weapons. I’ve read Jonathan Schell’s The Fate Of The Earth. I’ve written an article on the Bomb which became the cover story of a print magazine (Eastern Panorama) in 2003. I know a lot about nuclear weapons – much more than I want to.

Accordingly, I’m not an unbiased reviewer of this book. Please understand that everything I say about it will be from the viewpoint of my anti-nuclear beliefs.

The difficulty about reviewing a book like this is, basically, that you can’t really have surprises. There’s no such thing as a spoiler, because you already know what happened and, by extension, what’s going to happen. When the ball of fire flashes across Hiroshima’s skies, it affects everyone – textile worker Shigematsu, housewife Shigeko, messenger Yasuko, doctor and reluctant conscript Iwatake, not one person escapes the effects. Physically or mentally, everyone is scarred, and nothing can ever be the same again.

On the morning of 6 August 1945, then, Shigematsu was going to work when the fireball erupted over Hiroshima. Blinded temporarily, burned on the cheek, he stumbled through the ruins, passing crowds of desperately wounded survivors, fleeing fire and collapsed buildings, until he found his wife at a park near their home. Yasuko, who had actually been in the process of being evacuated from Hiroshima, joined them just in time to escape the firestorm ravaging the city. There's a wonderful description of the mushroom cloud from the survivor's point of view:

The head of the mushroom would billow out first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever changing shades of red, purple, lapis-lazuli, or green. And all the time it went on boiling unceasingly from within. Its stalk, like a twisted veil of fine cloth, went on swelling busily too. The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce.

I’ll spare you the description of the devastation and ruins, the hardship everyone went through; there’s little to be gained in going over all that. I will however point out that their suffering was increased by two factors: first, that Japan was already on the verge of defeat, and people had almost nothing to eat (Shigeko writes a few affecting pages of her struggle to provide food for her family); and, secondly, that the few doctors who managed to survive the bombing had no idea what this new weapon was, and no knowledge of how to treat the survivors and their bizarre symptoms, which included hair and tooth loss, diarrhoea, multiple organ failure and other lovely little symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. The survivors died like flies and continued dying long after the war was over.

As the three protagonists struggle through their lives in one time (1945) they are also struggling through their lives in another time (the “present” in which the story is set, not indicated but probably about 1950) when the nation is just beginning to recover from the war. Shigematsu, now a hibakusha (a survivor of the atom bombing) suffers from the after effects of radiation sickness, and worries about Yasuko’s need to marry. At the same time, day after day, he writes his memories of the bombing down, reliving the nightmare and the moments of tranquillity amidst the horror. The present is tranquil but not fully so; the past was horrible, but in retrospect, perhaps not fully so. And there is one final threat that looms like a doom-laden shadow over everything, something everyone is determined to ignore until it is too late.

This isn’t a pleasant book to read. It’s full of immense power, and often gut-wrenchingly descriptive. It’s not about politics or right and wrong, but only about the lives of a few “small people” trying to stay alive, and wondering, when it’s all over, if it was worth it.

The translation (by John Bester) is excellent, and preserves the Japanese ethos. You never feel as though you’re reading about Europeans in Japanese clothing.

My favourite quote (from Shigematsu’s diary, after discovering that soldiers have stolen a supply of rice): “In olden times, people used to say that in an area badly ravaged by war it took a century to repair the moral damage done to the inhabitants.” Can one doubt that “…they (were) right”?

A word about the title: Kuroi Ame, black rain, refers to the radioactive fallout that descended on Hiroshima from the mushroom cloud in the form of back rain, which left stains that could not be rubbed off. 

Certainly not for the squeamish, this is a book that should be required reading for every thinking person, no matter what your beliefs are.

Read it.

Monday 25 July 2011

Breaking News: I'm a Muslim :O

I discovered something interesting today: apparently, I’m a Muslim.

I don’t mean it the way the character who called me a Taliban-worshipping Salafist meant, when I told him the Afghan people have a right to defend themselves against foreign occupation. No. Nobody actually called me a Muslim today. However, I discovered that apparently I am one.

How’s that again?

Well, you know the Kalimah, that affirmation of faith Muslims are supposed to make? It goes,

Laa ilaaha illa l-laah Muhammadu r–rasuwlu l-laah
and means, “there is no God but the God (Allah) and Muhammad is his prophet”.

Well, and?

And, it happens to be just about the only Arabic I know except the words for yes, no, hello, and I love you, darling. It also happens to be a lilting and mellifluous phrase and I’ve often enjoyed reciting it aloud…

…which, I find, allegedly makes me a Muslim, whether I like it or not. And since I’m a pork-eating dog-loving non-praying apostate, it reserves me a place in the dungeons of Hell.

But I’m not worried about that because as an atheist I was headed there anyway.

Joking apart, I cannot believe the Prophet Muhammad actually intended that anyone who recited the Kalimah automatically and irrevocably became a Muslim. The idea is as intuitively ridiculous as saying that reading my copy of the Quran makes me a Muslim – and is even more silly when you take into account that the Shia version of the Kalimah is longer than this, and that version is not accepted by the Sunni Muslim majority.

I have a strong suspicion that this kind of literalistic interpretation was introduced by someone or other during the “expansionist” phase of Islam, when getting converts was vital and the niceties of belief could wait for later. Certainly, the Kalimah features prominently in The Thousand Nights and One Night. I didn’t know Shahrazad was to be taken so literally about people being ennobled in Islam, though.

I’d like Muslims reading this to tell me their thoughts.

Close Encounter of the Sozzled Kind

On my Multiply site, a friend challenged writers to write a story or essay using one long sentence per paragraph. Here's what I came up with, and I think it ought to figure high on any list of the Worst Stories Ever Written. Enjoy!


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell from the sky in torrents, and would have soaked anyone caught outside to the skin if there was anyone stupid enough to be outside to be caught in it – but the only one so stupid was Dick the Drunkard, well-known reprobate and the last person whom anyone would believe, which is why what happened afterwards never made it to official notice until it was far too late, and the earth lay firmly under the grip of the Terrible Scourge From Beyond the Stars.

It was, then, in the midst of all the storm and stress, with water sluicing down the streets and beating down like a hammer, that the ship came down from space, lightly hovering above the village roofs looking like some kind of multicoloured ball lightning; and three spindly grey aliens came riding down on tractor beams to land on the street right in front of the astonished wino, who for the life of him couldn’t decide what to do under these circumstances.

Close to, the aliens looked at the same time handsome in a strange, elegant way, and horrible in a slippery, slimy way; their heads grew into tentacled masses which writhed in a fashion strongly reminiscent of the late Paul the Octopus selecting the winner of the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup, which had coincidentally earned Dick a lot of money in bets won and a lot of hangovers in alcohol drunk; and, below, their slim limbs were articulated in manner that resembled the stick insects the National Geographic showed sometimes in the less popular nature programmes.

“Earthling,” said the alien leader, speaking into a Universal Translator that converted its groobling speech into an equivalent of a Hitlerian bark, the kind of sound you’ll recognise if you’ve watched videos of the old Nazi Party rallies, “I am First Captain Headbanger of the Hevimettuls from Star System Laudmoozik, and according to the standard procedure under these circumstances I am expected to ask you to take us to your leader; but, looking at such a poor specimen as you, it seems unlikely in the extreme that you are in touch with any leader in any way or that they would respond in a manner we would find acceptable.

“Accordingly,” continued First Captain Headbanger, after a pause during which his beady eyes, black and glittering in the orange and green light of the spaceship above, studied Dick for any sign of comprehension, in vain, “we have decided that, since you are evidently a typical member of your species – seeing as we randomly selected a typical member for this contact – we can do no better but to annihilate or enslave you all, and we shall begin the process with immediate effect after this encounter is completed; but our laws demand that we try and ensure that we do not harm a sentient species, and we shall give you one last opportunity to prove yourself sentient: member of the bipedal primate race that occupies this planet Terra, do you have anything to say that will convince us to neither annihilate nor enslave you?”

Dick the Drunkard wiped the rain from his eyes, shook his head and tried to think of something to say; and all of a sudden (perhaps at the prompting of some personal guardian angel) the perfect response popped into his mind, and, walking gingerly forward, he raised himself on tiptoes, touched the First Captain’s tentacles, and in his best, most clearly enunciated tones, not even once slurring over the sibilants, asked the ultimate question: “Please tell me who’s going to win tomorrow’s club championship, Paul.”


Sunday 24 July 2011

Tutorial: How to write like Stephen King

You always wanted to write like Stephen King, did you? The Master of Horror himself?

Well, if you did, look no further. This is a Public Service Tutorial by Bill the Butcher. No charge.

Of course, I don’t guarantee that you’ll be as successful as King. I just guarantee that you’ll be able to write like him.

So, what should you do?

To start off with, you need some kind of plot. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a highly structured plot. In fact, it doesn’t even have to make the slightest bit of sense. I’d even go so far as to say that it shouldn’t make a bit of sense; that sense is your enemy. Eschew sense.

So, let’s construct a plot. For the purpose of this article, we’ll say that the plot involves a demon or something in your…vacuum cleaner. That sounds about right.

A few years ago, here in the little town of Castle Crock, Maine (where else?) there was a serial killer named Harry Hotpants. Mr Hotpants, who enjoyed killing children (and if you want to write like Mr King, children ought to figure prominently in your list of victims) killed himself in some peculiarly gory fashion. I’ll leave the fashion up to you, but it should involve blood, pain and suffering.

Well, to move on. Years later, your protagonist (who should be white, middle class, American, and confused about where his life’s heading –that is very important. Do not attempt to introduce a protagonist who is European, black, East Asian, upper class, or a labourer; however, if you have a black character, he must be a Magical Negro, existing only for the purpose of selflessly helping the white hero) sees this vacuum cleaner in somebody’s garage sale, and it absolutely calls to him for some reason. He doesn't really need a new vacuum cleaner, but he buys it anyway. What he doesn't know is that the vacuum cleaner has Harry Hotpant’s ghost inside it, brooding and waiting for the chance to strike.

OK, there’s our plot. Now what?

Now, if you are to write like Mr King, it’s essential that you understand something – you must stretch it out. Make it long – very, very long. You can’t call yourself an honest King imitator unless your tale is at least six times as long as your plot would normally warrant.

For instance, make sure in this case to introduce totally irrelevant plot devices; say a neighbour who scratches his testicles in public, squirts tobacco juice, says “Ayuh” every ten words, and has a back story which has nothing to do with the advancement of the plot, but does add another thirty or forty pages. You ought to make sure this isn’t a nice guy, so that you can have him bumped off in a grisly fashion by your possessed vacuum cleaner.

Now, how do you get your vacuum cleaner to kill people? Let it turn on by itself, extend its nozzle over the victim’s face, and suck out their breath. Does that sound ridiculous? Good, because that’s what it should sound like. You really can’t get too ridiculous where this is concerned. Make sure even cutting off power doesn’t stop it!

Now, make sure you put in as much gross-out as you possibly can. As King himself said, “if you can’t go for the scare, go for the gross-out.” So, even if you think you ought to try black humour instead, don’t. No, you’d be much better off disgusting your readers by describing the vacuum cleaner ripping the lungs of its victims out by the roots, or something similar. And maggots. No story is complete without maggots spilling out of something, somewhere. Maggots are scary, my friend. Take it from me. Or, rather, take it from King.

Another thing: never fail to include product placements in your text. Your protagonist’s kids can’t eat generic cereal or wear sneakers – they will have to consume Rice Crispies and their feet will be encased in Nikes. Do you Xerox, er, copy?

Now, you ought to remember another thing: never forget styling. For instance, if your protagonist is thinking about something that happened in the autumn, while looking at a paper, don’t say “He’s thinking about something that happened in the autumn”. Put it like this:

He turned to his desk, looking at the paper and

             (rustling autumn leaves in the rain)

Put in italicised fragments of sentences, over and over. You can’t overuse italics or fragments of sentences.

Then, while we are still on styling, make sure to include inappropriate emotions. If the vacuum cleaner has chased your protagonist’s kid into a closet and is sucking at the door to rip it off its hinges, don’t have him thinking, “In a moment it’s going to tear the door off and suck the life out of me.” Instead, say something like this, no matter how ridiculous it sounds:

“Another minute, and it’s gonna rip that door off and then can you breathe, hey sonny? Can you goddamn breathe?”

Or, even, “Can you fucking breathe?” Harry Hotpant’s ghost, always, must be abusive; all demons, ghosts or other supernatural forces are abusive. And in the King world, “fucking” is the heights of abuse.

Did I mention the necessity of ignoring science? If your story has bats, they must be rats with wings. If your story has a rabid dog, it must be a canine psychopath with nothing in common with how a real life rabid dog actually behaves.

Look, there’s a big flaw in most authors’ writing – internal consistency. You must fight against all temptation to have your story follow some internal logic. If one thing happens under a certain set of circumstances to your protagonist, ensure, at all costs, that the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else even under the identical circumstances.

(I should give an illustration. Suppose your protagonist can “flip over” to another world, where everything has a pre-industrial equivalent to this world’s things, and his clothes, money, everything changes. Well, then, some things ought to go over unchanged, like, say, a train full of weapons; and when he does something twice, the first and second times oughtn't to have the same effect, either.)

And, lest I forget, if you’ve ever written anything else in the past, make sure to include passing references to it, even though nobody but someone who’s read all of your earlier work will understand what on earth you’re going on about. Like, in the middle of your vacuum cleaner story, include a reference to your other story, the one where the psychotic fairy godmother goes around conferring lethal powers on Cinderella, and she burns her stepsisters to a crisp. OK?

And, of course, never forget to overwrite, overwrite, overwrite. Restraint is for wusses. Flamboyant, relentless overwriting is essential if you want to imitate King. And, never, ever, fail to leave an open ending to your story. You never know when you might want to do a sequel.

Want the perfect template on which to base your King imitation? I would heartily recommend Christine, that novel of a possessed car that turns out to include – right at the end – the former owner’s ghost as well, and which (even further at the end) comes back from being junked, melted down, and reconstructed. You can’t get any more King-ish than that.

Well, there’s my tutorial. The rest is up to you.


I'm reading a book by the Japanese author Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain, about the Hiroshima bombing, and will be reviewing it in a day or two. In the meantime, here's a view of what the actual atomic bombing of the city was like.

I'd particularly like to ask Indians who celebrate our nuclear "deterrent" (which actually hasn't deterred anything so far in the thirteen years of its existence, has it?): Do you still want to risk this kind of thing happening to you? Do you still want to inflict this sort of horror on "enemy" civilians, none of whom has any more to do with his or her government's policies than you have with ours?

Think about it.