Saturday 3 March 2012

Update India: Birth Dates, Imperial Stormtroopers and How Homosexuality Corrupts Children

Warning to readers: Lunacy is to be found herein. Abandon all hope, ye who enter.

Even by the standards of our exalted rulers, the last few weeks have been baffling. Entertaining, yes, if you’re into mud-wrestling with knives, but baffling.

There are so many things to talk about that I’ll just focus on a few to go on with.

The first was the Case of the Army Chief’s Age. This has been something dragging on in the background for some months now, and I deemed it so unworthy of notice that I didn’t even try and entertain you lot with mention of it until it suddenly jumped from plain Stupid to Eye-Buggingly Awesome.

So what’s it about? It’s like this: the chief of the army at the moment is one General VK Singh. This officer’s date of birth is, according to some of the army records, 10th May 1951. According to other records available to the government, including records from another branch of the army bureaucracy, his date of birth is 10th May 1950 (I’d like to clarify that having two separate dates of birth isn’t at all unusual for Indians born in the 1970s and earlier, when birth registration wasn’t yet compulsory and birth dates were shifted around in records to take advantage of this or that age deadline). I can’t be bothered to go into the excruciating details of the whole damned thing – you can check here if you’re seriously interested in being bored out of your skull – but the point of the whole rigmarole is that if Singh is deemed to have been born in 1951, he would retire on 30th May of 2013. If he’s deemed to have been born in 1950, he’s got to retire on 30th May of this year.

Obviously, Singh isn’t too keen on losing out on a whole year of pay, perks and prestige, so he’d rather have his date of birth recognised as 10th May of 1951. Also, since promotion in the upper echelons of the army depends (among other spoken and unspoken factors like commands held and political reliability) on seniority, if Singh held on for an additional year, the next officer in line to succeed him would have retired and another lieutenant general would end up succeeding him as army chief. Both of these lieutenant generals, obviously, have a vested interest in the date of Singh’s retirement.  

Besides, do you think he'd want to stop wearing all those medals?

Since the government in this country (in the shape of the Defence Ministry, currently headed by one AK Anthony) holds a position above the military forces, the Defence Minister’s word is supposed to be final in the matter. And that word was that Singh’s date of birth would be taken as 1950 and he would retire on 30th May of this year.

Did that stop the whole thing? Did it hell. Singh (while at the same time loudly proclaiming his loyalty to the system of civilian supremacy) promptly approached the Supreme Court. In other words, the already staggeringly overburdened legal system was tasked with deciding when the hell the chief of the army was born.

At that level it gets crazy, but it doesn’t really get awesome. Not yet.

After a staggeringly convoluted and utterly mind-numbing (to me, at least) media circus, Singh withdrew his petition from the Supreme Court, having made whatever the hell the point was that he apparently wanted to make, when the court said he should either withdraw it or the judges would be “forced to pass an order on the issue” (meaning, Singh was screwed anyway). Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry ordered the Army to amend all its records to show Singh was born in 1950. Surely that was the end of the controversy?

If it was, do you think I’d even be wasting my time with this?

In an interview I read today, Singh said the Supreme Court had “created more confusion” and that he was born in 1951, whatever anyone said, and the “inadvertent error” of his date of birth being entered as 1950 was corrected even before he entered the military academy as a cadet. In other words, the documents that mentioned his birth date as 1950 shouldn’t exist, no matter that they do, and everything that happened to him was someone else’s fault.

That’s...pretty politician-like, actually. I see a post-retirement future for General Singh in right-wing politics, fighting AK Anthony tooth and nail in coming elections.

But that’s not the Eye-Buggingly Awesome bit I promised.

Yesterday, there was a report that the Defence Minister’s office was found bugged, and the most likely source of the bugs was the army chief’s office. Today, after removing army personnel who were manning the Defence Ministry communications, the same Ministry said the office wasn’t ever bugged.

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice to herself! Maybe we have a shift to an Alternate Universe like I write about in my science fiction stories, one where the bugs vanished? Maybe a Transdimensional Bug Eater came along and licked them up?

OK, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the office was bugged. Who else might have bugged it, you ask? Well, there is one other possible candidate...

...the Americans. I’ve previously stated on many occasions that our beloved leaders like bending themselves backwards into hoops to please the Empire. It must be in our cultural legacy of Yoga that we find such utter spine-bending flexibility when it comes to pleasing foreign overlords. I’d once said, not entirely in jest, that the Americans didn’t need spies in the Indian military – they probably had, I’d said, someone sitting in the Defence Minister’s office reading his files.

Well, what do you know? I might not even have been joking about that.

The head of the US Pacific Command, one Admiral Robert Willard, announced quite definitively that the Empire’s Special Forces have been deployed in India, apart from Pakistan and some other South Asian nations, to fight the Lashkar-e-Toiba (the same group probably responsible for the Bombay attacks of 2008, but remarkably inactive since then). Apparently these Special Forces are meant to “train” Indian troops in counter-insurgency strategies. You know, the same people who have had their asses handed to them by resistance fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan are training our army, who have been fighting insurgencies successfully for sixty years now, in counter-insurgency. How brilliant is this?

Extremely brilliant.

Now, Willard was definite that these forces are meant only for training and nothing else, which would hardly be anything new since our military has been in bed with the Empire and its vassals for over a decade now. But, instead of letting the matter slide without comment, both the government and the American control room embassy in New Delhi denied the existence of these forces at all. The Indian Foreign Ministry even denied that the Empire had asked or been given permission to station these forces, which means that either Willard – the Admiral in charge of the Empire’s entire Pacific Command – is lying through his teeth, or the Foreign Ministry is lying through its teeth, or that they are both speaking the truth and the Special Forces are in India without the knowledge of anyone in this country except possibly at the topmost levels of the Indian government.

You know what? The more I think, the more I’m leaning towards that third possibility. After all, we didn’t even know Imperial stormtroopers were in Yemen until they got attacked, did we now?

And I wonder what kind of “training” they are imparting to our army, all in secret. Any guesses?

Those guns are pointed at you


I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fact that male homosexuality was illegal in India under a Victorian-era British law (lesbianism wasn’t, because pure Indian women couldn’t possibly feel sexual desire, let alone for each other) until 2009, when the Delhi High Court passed an order declaring the law unconstitutional, effectively decriminalising homosexuality. This was followed by Gay Pride parades in Indian cities, which is actually something to be proud of.

Well, apparently not for some people.

Even though the government had said at the time it wouldn’t appeal against the order in the Supreme Court, one of its Additional Solicitor Generals, PP Malhotra, claimed that (English as in the original, missing articles and all)...

Our constitution is different and our moral and social values are also different from other countries, so we cannot follow them...(g)ay sex is highly immoral and against social order and there is high chance of spreading of diseases through such acts.”

This painting is therefore totally not Indian and totally not homosexual

 At the same time, another government institution claimed before the same court that legalising homosexuality would increase child abuse because...

Children will grow up seeing this kind of behaviour in the open. These people will also try to convert children to their way of thinking. This affects [the] institution of marriage, family.”

Since not all Indians are brain-dead morons, these enlightened arguments brought forth a storm of protest from gay rights groups and anyone else with a shred of decency. The government – already under pressure on just about every issue you care to name, from corruption to prices – decided discretion was the better part of valour. So it sent another Additional Solicitor General to try and wriggle out of the situation, claiming that Malhotra had acted on his own, having only been asked to "assist" the Supreme Court, and did not represent India’s Home Ministry – you know, the people who are paying his salary – and that the government wished to withdraw its arguments. The Supreme Court promptly clamped down on this bit of drivel and said that the government couldn’t withdraw statements it had already made. And, while the Home Ministry was still wriggling on the hook, Malhotra said that he had been acting on behalf of the government, not in his personal capacity.

Confusion worse confounded, did someone say?

As yet I have no idea what the court finally decided on this topic, but I don’t see the gay rights genie being forced back into the bottle of repression. It’s kind of late for that.

But this being India, anything at all might happen.

So, watch this space.

Friday 2 March 2012

The Burning Question: How to Lose Hearts and Minds

Statutory Warning: As usual, this post is a statement of my beliefs, my sources are as indicated, and I am in no way responsible for any fights, quarrels or disagreements arising from discussions on this article on any website or other medium where it appears or is discussed. 

Something more than merely some Qurans lies smouldering in a garbage pit at the Bagram Airbase outside Kabul, where they were tossed by uniformed US soldiers before being rescued, partly charred, by Afghan workmen. What lies there, in cinders, is the last forlorn hope of the Imperial project in Occupied Afghanistan.

And, tempting as it is to look at it in those terms exclusively, it is not about a few fanatical Muslims losing their cool about a few burned Qurans.

How do we know, in fact, that it is not about a few burned Qurans, however much uninformed and bigoted individuals in media and elsewhere insist on the contrary? How do we know that it isn’t just because Muslims, for some irrational reason, get violently upset if their holy book is sent up in smoke, whether or not that holy book is actually holy or merely, as some would insist, a terrorist instruction manual?

We know it, because the Afghans themselves clearly and unambiguously say it’s not about burned Qurans.

After all, it isn’t as though the Afghans have been exactly living in paradise under the Empire’s colonial occupation (“liberation”) since 2001. They have had the world’s most venal puppet “government” imposed on them, one which cannot even control the capital but claims legitimacy. The rest of the nation is a bone for contention between savage warlord armies of “freedom fighters” (that’s what the term Mujahideen means, as in the “heroic freedom fighters” the West paid, armed, trained and promoted against the USSR in the eighties and then left to their own devices) and a resurgent and quite clearly unstoppable Taliban insurgency. There is no such thing as rule of law barring the (instant and brutal, but at least not corrupt) justice of Taliban mobile courts. There is no hope, nothing to look forward to, except more of the same.

Meanwhile there are the occupiers, who claim to be “liberators” and friends, yet do such charming things as routinely bomb civilian homes and weddings, kill children gathering firewood and then claim they were armed, murder civilians for sport and collect body parts as trophies, urinate on dead Afghans (we don’t even know whether they were Taliban or murdered civilians), break into their houses in the dead of night, and pose with Nazi SS flags. These are the occupiers who shoot unarmed protestors and then claim that they were “restrained” because they didn’t kill even more, and who can do nothing to prevent the return of the Taliban, something that grows more inevitable by the day.  

With friends and liberators like this, the Afghans may be justified in thinking, who needs enemies?

So, the Quran burning is just the final straw that broke the camel’s back, the spark that set off the conflagration. The anger simmering needed a fuse, and the ineptness, arrogance, and stupidity of the occupation provided that spark.

Always, in such cases, the ideals or motives of the perpetrator don't matter. It's the victim's view which matters, and the victim who reacts according to his own perception of the situation. The Empire might have been sincere in its motives (though, as will be discussed in a moment, there's no reason to think it was) - but if the Afghans are convinced it wasn't, then that's all that matters.

That is why Afghanistan went up in flames. Not because of irrational anger over a book, but because it was  the final drop of humiliation that made the cup run over.

Often, in such a situation, there are some things that tend to get overlooked, like driftwood adrift on a sea of data, which carry the actual important information, if only one knows where to look, and is interested in looking. There are several such things in this particular situation, which actually are of far greater import than the protests themselves.

First is the little fact that the response of General John R. Allen, the U.S. war commander in Afghanistan, that all U.S. military personnel in the country undergo ten days of sensitivity “training in the proper handling of religious materials.” 

If after occupying a nation for over a decade, a nation which is well known for being deeply religious, the occupation forces still have to be given “sensitivity training” in handling “religious materials”, that displays a failure so staggering that mere ineptness can’t begin to cover it. Even the old imperialist powers realised that in order to rule over a restive populace, local customs must be, as far as possible, respected. But the old imperialists, for all their faults, knew that they were mortal. The new Imperial levies cannot even begin to assimilate the idea that other peoples can have different cultural mores and value systems than their own, and therefore see no reason to treat any such cultural and religious mores with anything but contempt. Systematic brainwashing meant to instil hatred of Islam and Muslims (often given such charming appellations as “ragheads,” “diaperheads” and the like) has its own part to play. It’s even more pathetic that ten days of “training” is supposed to instil “sensitivity” that over ten years of colonial occupation could not.

Next is the case of the two American officers, a lieutenant colonel and a major, who were found shot dead inside an office in a “secure” portion of the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul after they allegedly mocked the protestors. Now, more and more Afghan troops and policemen are beginning to turn their weapons on their “liberators”, so in itself the shooting isn’t anything new. But in this case, there’s something else that’s important – the fact that this particular shooting happened in a “secure” part of the Interior Ministry, the command and control complex. The word “secure” here meant that most Afghans themselves had no access to that part of the building, even if they worked in the Interior Ministry, though officers of the American occupation forces had no such restrictions.

If after ten years of “partnership” (or whatever the current dispensation in Afghanistan is supposed to be), the locals can’t even be given the run of their own government buildings, there’s such a deficit of trust that it can’t ever be bridged – least of all when the metaphorical ceiling is falling down on the occupation’s collective head. And the extent to which the rot has spread is indicated by the fact that they were shot dead inside that “secure” office, by one of the (presumably tried and tested and found loyal) few Afghans who were permitted access. Whether the man was a Taliban mole or acted on his own can’t be independently known, because he successfully escaped – but that is less significant than the fact that someone at such a high level went over to the enemy. This means, just as clearly, that there is no such thing as a friendly Afghan any longer, where the occupation forces are concerned.

Not that this little fact was unknown to the troops on the ground, the ones responsible for training and liaising with the so-called New Afghan Army and police. That these forces are disasters is to put it mildly; but that’s not the point. The point is that they are not just far too riddled with inefficiency and corruption to ever take care of their nation’s security, they are lethal; not to the Taliban they are allegedly fighting, but  to their “allies”, the occupation forces who live among them and train them. No partnership can possibly survive if one side has to constantly guard against the threat of having its throat cut by the other. But the cases of this kind are increasing very rapidly since the Quran burnings, leading to the Empire's European vassals hurrying to pull out their own contingents from the line of fire - and, logically, the reason is that latent anger has been sparked to active violence by the Quran burning, with even surrendered Afghan insurgents returning to the resistance.

It’s not enough to glibly say that the Taliban are taking advantage of the anger over the burnings, as if it were some kind of foul in a game. Of course the Taliban are taking advantage; anyone would in such a situation. If the circumstances were reversed, the Empire would have taken advantage of the situation, quite unapologetically. To state or insinuate otherwise is a travesty of common sense.

Having put itself in an untenable position, the Empire then promptly made things much worse for itself. After a lot of natter, the Obama administration “apologised”. Said “apology” was another travesty, because after making it, in order to deflect Republican criticism, the Nobel Peace Prizident promptly backtracked, saying

…my criteria in any decision I make…is what is going to best protect our folks and make sure that they accomplish their mission…

In other words, he apologised not because he was sorry, but because it allegedly, as he also claimed, “helped calm things down”. It was an apology of convenience, not one of sorrow, and was seen as a hollow sham by Afghans, who took it as a further marker of contempt. In fact, since apparently Obama didn’t consider the possibility that the Afghans might be aware of his explanations for his apology, it is difficult to see what it could be taken as except a fake.

Ultimately, whatever twists and turns the occupation resorts to, the Afghan enterprise has failed. Nobody can win if they create more enemies than they eliminate, and there is nothing the Empire can do in Afghanistan that won’t make the situation worse for itself. They have never set a foot right after the Taliban were (temporarily, as it turns out) ousted in 2001, and they can’t set a foot right now if they try. Even if they leave tomorrow, they will leave as hated foreign interlopers, not as friends and liberators.

So what can the Empire do to save the situation? In a word: nothing. On the battlefield, the world’s most powerful military has been fought to a standstill by illiterate peasants in flip-flops and turbans. Off the battlefield, it has been stymied by its own arrogance, greed and hubris. Its defeat is complete and total.

I suppose, in the aftermath of ruin, the Empire could send in nuclear missiles and turn Afghanistan into a sea of molten glass, and try and make up some plausible sounding excuse for why that had to be done. But then such an excuse wouldn’t fly even among the domestic populace, who are now overwhelmingly against the war. And, more importantly, the Empire then wouldn’t have access to the pipelines and the minerals under the ground, which, of course, is the real reason for the Afghan occupation.

But then the Empire isn’t getting them anyway.

Further reading:

Thursday 1 March 2012

Some Thoughts on Root Canal Therapy

Statutory warning:

1.     This post is likely to be of interest to dentists only. It also uses technical terminology without making any attempt at explanation for the general reader. Read at your own discretion.

2.     As a general practitioner I have no access to in vitro or in vivo laboratory tests to validate the claims I am about to make in the course of this article, at least one of which is a direct challenge to received dental wisdom. I am, however, approaching the topic from the point of view of logic and practical experience – the latter reinforced by the fact that endodontics forms the overwhelming majority of my dental practice.

Back when I was a student in dental college, one of the standard tropes of root canal treatment was the enlargement of each canal to the upper limit of the file or reamer set being used; usually that meant No. 40 for a posterior tooth canal or 80 for an anterior tooth canal. The teachers would insist on it. Even the textbook we were using at the time stated, and I quote, “the canal should be enlarged to at least two sizes larger than the first reamer that binds.”

Now, obviously, the idea behind this enlargement was twofold:

1.     To remove enough dentine from the canal wall to be relatively confident of having removed bacterial inclusions in the dentinal tubules and

2.     To shape the canals to the appropriate preformed gutta percha cones (of course this is more true now with NiTi rotary instruments with preformed F1/F2/F3 cones, but the idea is the same even with the old stainless steel instruments and obturation using the lateral condensation technique and the 15-40 and 55-80 GP points.)

The problem was, unfortunately, that the concept of enlarging in every case to “at least two sizes larger”, let alone to 40 or 80, was utterly faulty; and we found out the problems on our own, right away.

Just think about it. Once you’ve shaped a canal to take a GP cone, any additional enlargement is just a way of creating additional space making it more difficult to fit your GP cone, and forces you to enlarge even further to fit the next larger GP cone in the series, and so on. Allied to that was the insistence on the step-back technique, something I always eschewed because I know no better way to create ledging and hence failure of obturation than that step-back technique. But either way, additional enlargement will result in only one thing – the removal of additional radicular dentine that you frankly cannot afford to lose.

But what about the bacteria in the dentinal tubules? There are two possibilities, logically speaking (and, as I shall repeatedly stress in the course of this article logic is a rara avis where RCT tropes and received wisdom are concerned).

The first is that the pulp of the tooth being root treated is vital, or non-vital but uninfected, and in that case, assuming that one’s instruments are sterile, there shouldn’t be any pathological bacteria in the root canal in significant numbers anyway. In any case there will be organic material in the tubules, primarily odontoblastic processes. These cannot be removed and will degenerate in time.

The second is that the tooth is non-vital and infected/gangrenous. In this case, there will probably be some bacteria in the dentinal tubules – but these bacteria are largely irrelevant. The primary point of failure, if any, of the treatment will come from the root tip. Properly obturated canals will seal off the tubules and prevent the bacteria from communicating with any pathological foci at the root tip, unless it is an endodontic-periodontic lesion, in which case the periodontic therapy will in any case form part of the treatment process. Even with an endo-perio lesion, any bacteria that manage to get through dentine and cementum to the periodontal ligament will be in very small numbers, and likely to be a smaller problem than bacteria from other sources – for instance, blood borne bacteria, or bacterial remnants in the periapical region.

Therefore, whether the tooth is vital or otherwise, the idea of enlarging in order to remove bacteria from the dentinal tubules is invalid.

So, from an entirely logical point of view, the canal should not be enlarged more than the minimum required to achieve removal of the canal contents and irrigation of the root tip adequate to achieve sterilisation.

However, since said logic was missing from our training, we kept enlarging the canals beyond the required level, which led to two perfectly predictable sequelae:

1.     Excessive removal of radicular dentine, leading to weakening of root structure, gouging and transfer of the apical foramen (due to the stiffness of the larger files/reamers, this was an exceedingly common occurrence), and subsequent splitting of the root with vertical fracture.

2.     Separation of instruments at the root tip region because of attempting to push thicker reamers beyond curvatures.

As I said, these were predictable sequelae, and yet they kept happening because everyone kept doing the same thing, over and over. If repeating an already failed action and expecting a different outcome can be called insanity, then what we were doing was insane.

However, that was more than fifteen years ago, and things have changed for the better now, haven’t they?

Actually, no.

Another of the standard claims – I want to say myths – of endodontic treatment I’ve come across is the idea that all canals must be filled to the root tip, and not even a millimetre or two less. This particular trope has a bizarre longevity; as recently as October of 2011, I attended an endodontic seminar in town where the idea was repeated, forcefully, by the speaker (this same speaker was guilty of claiming that open dressings should not be resorted to; anyone who’s drained an alveolar abscess will recognise how silly that bit of advice is). From our endodontic textbooks of the 1990s to the current age, the lesson is the same: fill the canal to the tip of the root. Overfill if you must, but underfilling is a cardinal sin.


First, there’s practical experience. Anyone who’s done endodontics is familiar with the canals which have been obturated only part-way, sometimes up to a curve in the canal in the apical third, or even less; canals which by the fill-to-the-apex rule should have failed long ago yet which are perfectly asymptomatic and radiographically problem-free decades after they were obturated. This is a perfect example of not fixing something which isn’t broken; the obturations may not be aesthetic (more on that in a moment) but they do the job of providing an adequate seal, which is what they are meant to do.

Let me pause here a moment to repeat the primary rationale of root canal treatment, a rationale which seems to have been lost sight of by almost all “eminent endodontists”  (like “eminent economists”, the ideas of “eminent endodontists” set my teeth on edge). The purpose of root canal therapy is to provide an adequate radicular seal; no more, no less. (I’ll explain in a bit why I said radicular and not apical seal.) It doesn’t matter at all if the obturation doesn’t fit the conventional definition of what a properly obturated canal is supposed to look like, as long as it does its job. We are in the business of providing healthcare, not intraradicular beauty treatments.

The thing is, you may not be aware of that fact if you listen to the average endodontics advice. The same seminar I mentioned earlier included radiographs of teeth, with the speaker asking which we would rather have – the ones filled exactly to the apex, with beautifully curved canal preparations flowing like rivers perfectly following the shape of the root, or less aesthetically obturated canals which were also filled up to the same general area but perhaps a millimetre less?

The answer, of course, is that it didn’t matter a damn whether it was the “aesthetic” canal obturation or the other one – the important thing was whether either or both solved the problem of providing a viable radicular seal.

I will now commit an act of endodontic heresy and claim that, all other factors being equal, a slightly short obturation is to be preferred to one exactly extending to the apex, let alone one that is overfilled. Let me explain why.

Even the most ardent advocate of obturation to the apex admits that it’s impossible to limit the obturation to the apical foramen. Some amount of sealant, inevitably, will leak into the periodontal membrane, if not into the alveolar bone. Also, there’s a high likelihood of protrusion of part of the GP cone, silver point, or other obturation material into the periradicular tissue.

Now, said protrusion is, obviously, a source of trauma to the tissue. It causes an injury. Remember that the tissue at the root tip (PD membrane or alveolar bone) has very little scope for trauma avoidance; and inflammatory pain after an obturation is so common an occurrence that one can almost expect it after a posterior RCT in a high occulsal stress area. This damaged tissue may recover entirely, but also it may not.

What happens of it does not – if it heals by scarring and leaves some devitalised tissue in the periapical region?

If we have a scenario where the tissue recovers only partially, we are throwing the door open for subsequent colonisation of that damaged tissue by bacteria (via bacteremia, or subsequent periodontal disease) and the formation of an alveolar abscess. Even the most perfect root canal obturation will not prevent the appearance of that abscess; in fact, the “perfect” root canal obturation is the cause of that abscess.

However, if we fill the root short of the apex, as long as we seal the root adequately, we are running no such risk. If the tooth pulp was vital, the pulpal stump will maintain its vitality since its blood supply will not be affected (and this is why half-filled vital roots remain successes decades after the event). If the tooth pulp was nonvital, as long as sterilisation has been achieved, the obturation short of the apex will detract in no significant way from RCT success. It will also absolutely guard against the possibility of extrusion of material into the periapical region.

There is another consideration. There is always a high chance of secondary canals in the apical region, forming an anastomosis. These canals are impossible to instrument, let along obturate. Usually they are even invisible to radiographs. Even a “perfectly filled” root canal will leave these canals unfilled, and hence, there is no such thing as a “perfectly filled” root canal. The obturation that stops a millimetre short of the apex will achieve the exact same level of radicular seal as the obturation that extends to, or beyond, the apex, and will cause substantially less secondary trauma.

These, then, are the conclusions I draw from this article:

1.     Do not overprepare or over-enlarge the root canal.

2.     Do not obturate precisely to the apex. A slightly shorter obturation does as well, or better.

Of course it’s not going to be all that aesthetic, but it works.

At least, it works for me.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

That was the day they were going to fit the girl with her artificial leg at the clinic.

The girl and her mother were already waiting outside when the doctor arrived, the girl sitting on a small plastic stool. The mother was peering anxiously down the street in the wrong direction, and the girl attracted her attention by tugging on her ao dai at the doctor’s approach. She turned, with a relieved smile.

“Good morning,” the doctor said carefully. It wasn’t easy for her to speak the language, because the tonal variations often proved too much for her to manage. “I am glad to see you.”

The mother ducked her head, grinning shyly. She looked even thinner and more tired than when the doctor had seen her last, three weeks ago, when she had come for the check-up and measurement of the girl’s stump. The girl herself was happy and cheerful, just as she’d been each time the doctor had seen her.

The girl’s name was Truong. She was seven years old, with a round face which fell naturally into a grin – a grin made even more engaging by the fact that she was in the stage of losing her upper front milk teeth. She was vivacious, friendly, and in love with the world – even though she had lost her left foot and most of the leg below the knee.

The doctor had done the emergency amputation herself, several months ago, just three days after arriving in the country. She still remembered the mangled mess of tattered flesh and splintered bone which had hung from the girl’s unconscious body, that night in the hospital with the big moths fluttering at the window. She had done what she could, clamping off the blood vessels in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding, knowing that despite all her efforts the girl was almost certainly going to die.   

Truong had stepped on an anti-personnel land mine. She’d been running through the fields with her family dog, when the mine had gone off under her left foot and hurled her through the air, her lower leg smashed. The dog, who hadn’t been harmed, had fetched help, otherwise Truong would have bled to death right there in the field.

The country was full of the mines, left over from the war, though the war was over a decade or more ago. They were vicious little things, flat plastic cans coloured to match the earth and leaf mould, and not even merciful enough to kill outright. They were far more sadistic than that.

The doctor had come to this country specifically because of the landmines. She’d heard of them, of course, with some disquiet but not a lot of interest. After all, they were only ever used in little bush wars on the opposite side of the planet. And then, one day, just after she’d finished her surgical residency, she’d – to please a friend, an anti-mine activist – gone along to an exhibition by an anti-landmine group in the city.

The exhibition had a lot of things that had dismayed and disturbed her – pictures of wounded kids and crippled farmers, dogs and buffaloes with missing legs, maps of the countries where mines had been planted with shading indicating just how much still needed to be cleared, the legacy of long-dead wars.  But the most disturbing part of the exhibit had been much more personal.

It was simply a stretch of raked ground, over which visitors were invited to walk. What they didn’t know, but soon found out, was that fake anti-personnel mines had been randomly planted under the dirt, ready to go off at the slightest pressure and shower their legs with puffs of talcum powder. The doctor had frozen, terrified, halfway through the stretch, suddenly wet with a cold sweat as she imagined the talcum powder replaced by high explosive and shrapnel.

The next day she had signed up with a UN agency as a volunteer to do mine-clearance work. They had accepted her with open joy, because they’d needed someone like her. As a surgeon, she was assigned to a trauma clinic, to repair the damage done by the mines, not to remove the mines themselves. But she was still an important part of the effort.

She was also throwing away a lucrative career as a surgeon in one of the top hospitals of her home city. Nobody had understood – not her parents, not her classmates from the medical college, not even the activist friend she had gone to the exhibition with. But it was not important that they understand. Two weeks later, she’d been on a long distance flight, with vaccines in her body and no clear idea of what awaited her in her mind.

And three days after that, there had been Truong. Looking at the girl now, the doctor still couldn’t quite make herself believe she’d survived. The morning after the surgery, it had seemed a miracle enough that she was still alive. And now, several months later, the stump had healed up and she was finally going to get her prosthesis.

As the doctor inspected and massaged the stump of her leg, Truong prattled on in her own language. The doctor could only understand a word here and there, and got only that the girl was talking about all the things she intended to do with her new leg.

“You will have to take great care of the stump,” the doctor told the mother, slowly and carefully. The instructions could have been given much more quickly and clearly by one of the nurses, and in any case would be repeated by them, but it was important to her that they would be understood. She felt personally responsible for Truong. One of the things she asked herself sometimes was that if it had been another, more experienced surgeon, whether the girl’s leg perhaps couldn’t have been saved. “You must wash the stump daily with soap and water, dry it and apply the elastic sock, and after that...”

As she spoke, fumbling for the words, the doctor looked up at the mother, wondering if the other woman herself thought someone older and more experienced might not have saved her daughter’s foot, and if she secretly distrusted the doctor, this big ugly foreign woman with the freckled pink skin and straggling brown hair. But the mother was only listening, nodding her head, and clutching her daughter’s hand tight, so tight that Truong winced and said something sharply.

Afterwards, when the false leg was fitted and Truong took her first few steps, the doctor looked up suddenly from the girl to find the mother’s eyes were fixed on her. She had a very strange expression in her eyes, and once again the doctor wondered if the woman shared her doubts about whether the girl’s leg could have been saved. But the woman, though thin and aged beyond her years, had a kind of grave tired dignity, and it was impossible to see through it to her real emotions.

Later, when the leg had been adjusted and Truong had achieved some control over it, the mother smiled, almost apologetically. “Thank you, doctor,” she said, slowly so the doctor could understand. “We, her father and I, we did not think she would be able to walk again.”

The doctor was embarrassed, and began going over the care of the prosthesis again. But the woman laid a hand on her arm.

“I know all that,” she said. “You told me already, doctor. Her father had said, it is enough if she lives. But when he found out she can walk, he could not stop crying.”

“Her father?” The doctor asked uncertainly. She had never seen the girl’s father. He had not come even the first time, the night of the mine, and the woman had not mentioned him earlier, not even once. “He cried?”

The woman nodded her head with slow gravity. “Her father, you are wondering why he did not come. Four years ago, when Truong was three, he stepped on a mine. It blew both his legs off at the thigh. Walking is like a miracle to him.”

Smiling again, gently, she took her daughter’s hand and led her out of the clinic.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Last Time

Big Li tightened the parachute harness and pulled at the crotch of his G- suit. “The last time,” he said.

“Don’t talk like that.” Zhang was much shorter, almost a head shorter than the bigger man. He clipped Big Li’s parachute on to the harness. “It’s bad luck to talk like that.”

“But it is the last time, you know.” Big Li enjoyed baiting Zhang, who was superstitious. “Even if I do get back, I’m going on leave tonight. You know that.”

“You’ll come back from leave.”

“Oh, by then the war will be over.”

It would, too, thought Big Li, walking over the cracked concrete to his plane. The peace talks were almost done; any day now the truce would be signed, and they could all go home. He hoped so. He hated this place, this Manchuria, so cold and barren, so unlike his native Yunnan. He even hated the ice-blue sky above, not the cloudy warm sky of home. And he had been here too long, had lost too many friends. It was all very well to talk of the revolutionary spirit being the only important thing, but a friend was a friend.

The MiG-15 came alive under his hands, as it did every time. He plugged and strapped himself into the craft, becoming as one with it, radio and air supply and parachute harness. He switched on the engine, and felt the vibrations. The ground crew snapped shut the canopy. Li pulled the throttle slowly back and the immense silver bird began to move.

The air above was like a sea, a clear blue sea with only a distant patch of cloud or two to break the continuity. The land below was a smudge of brown undulating earth, sans trees or vegetation or visible habitation, except far to the left where a stack of factory chimneys trailed a pall of dirty grey smoke. Li climbed steadily, wheeling to the south in a great curve, his wingmen behind and to the side. Looking back he could see the dust trails as the last of the squadron took off. Zhang would be there, somewhere.

The Yalu lay below, a winding black band through the barren brown countryside, even more barren than before after three years of war. Had it been the south, the hills would have been covered with trees, and the sky mottled with cloud. He wished he was back home.

Well, this would be the last time. He was going home tonight. And when he was home, he would meet his parents and then go out for a stroll in the town, and maybe he would meet Guo Xiumei. He looked forward to meeting Guo Xiumei. Now that he was an authentic war hero, maybe she would pay some attention to him. He hoped.

He thought all this while obeying the clipped instructions from ground control radar in his earphones, climbing steadily, changing course to west of south, the rest of the squadron following, silver fish in a clear blue airy sea. He thought all this while charging the guns, while setting the ejector seat handle, while scanning the sky to the south, looking for the enemy. All that was second nature to him by now.

He saw the bombers first by their long white contrails, far in the distance, and he turned further and raised the nose of his plane, the movement of it through the air ramming tons of air through the gaping nose intake every minute, smashing and cutting and twisting it through the engine blades, and blasting it out in a blast-furnace hot tail of fire behind. He checked to ensure the other planes were in position, and set his course for the enemy.

By the time he could actually see the American bombers, the tiny silver cross-shapes of the B29s against the blue, he was already well past them and high above, and he tipped a wing and plummeted down on them from behind and above, the air screaming over his swept wings, his thumb shifting on the gun buttons as the first B29 grew in his sights, and as the huge enemy aeroplane fell into the crosshairs he hit the buttons and the guns opened, deafeningly loud even through airstream and engine and outer helmet and inner helmet and earphone static, and the cockpit began filling with cordite fumes. Excitement and adrenaline were metallic and dry in his mouth. Only a moment, and he swung the control column to the side, and he was slashing past the bomber, almost close enough to see the helmeted head of the tail gunner swivelling frantically, and then he was past, and the B29 was trailing smoke, and then he could see it no more.

He never saw the Sabre that jumped him. He had just begun to flatten out from his power dive, and was looking for his squadron, to regroup and rise again for another assault. The F86 must have followed him down and got under him, and now the American pilot hit him from beneath. One moment he was easing back to level flight and the next the aircraft shuddered trembled screamed in agony as a volley of machine gun bullets smashed into it.

He reacted by instinct, throwing the MiG onto its side, the Sabre flashing past, and he fired but it was gone already, and there was only him in the stricken plane, and he was alone.

The MiG began to die. He felt it die through his connections to it, the static in his earphones falling silent, the controls going slushy, the air beginning to taste of hot, burned metal. It was time to leave.

He set off the explosive bolts and the canopy flew off. He pulled the ejection chair release, automatically, not thinking at all while doing it, and a moment later the parachute flew open with a sound like a gunshot and he stopped falling with a jerk, and was hanging from the straps and swinging down over Korea. He had just time enough for a quick look around. There was not a plane to be seen.

He landed in a ploughed field. He landed badly, one ankle twisting, falling heavily, the pain making him cry out. He unclipped the parachute and let it fall in on itself like a great white flower. He took off his boot and felt his ankle. It wasn’t broken, and he put on the boot again quickly before it could swell and stop him from putting on the boot at all.

When he looked up from the boot he saw a Korean standing nearby and looking at him. The man was probably a farmer, he thought, with a wrinkled, lined face and a few isolated clumps of whiskers. The man looked at him some more, and Big Li finally got up and hobbled over to him.

“Pardon me,” he said in Korean. His Korean was very poor. He had to think each syllable in his mind before uttering it. “Where is the nearest unit of the Chinese People’s Volunteers?”

“I’ll take you to them,” the old man answered in Mandarin. His Mandarin was better than Big Li’s own. “But do you mind if an old man asks you a question first, young man?”

“No, please ask whatever you want.”

“Good. Why are you here?”

“Why am I here? I was shot down. In the battle.”

“No, I mean, why are you really here?”

“How do you mean that? I don’t know what you mean by that. Do you mean why I’m fighting, or what?”

“No, no. I mean, why are you here in this field at this time?”

“I told you. I was in the battle.” Was the old man crazy?

“And why were you in the battle?”

“Because I’m a pilot of the People’s Liberation Army.”

“So. Why are you here, in Korea?”

“Why? Because the Americans attacked your country.”

“And the Americans? Why are they here?”

“Why?” Li began to feel strange. “Because I think they thought we would take over your country. Or something like that.”

“Precisely. Why are you here, you and the Americans? This isn’t China, is it? It isn’t America, is it? Why don’t you just leave us alone? Who told you to come here? We were all getting on well enough without you, all of you.”

“All of us?” Big Li put his weight on the hurt foot and winced.

“Americans. Chinese. Japanese. Who called you here? Haven’t you any problems of your own to fix? Who asked you to come here?”

“All right,” muttered Big Li. “I get the idea.” He began hobbling away.

“Why are you here, anyway?” the old man called after him.


That was sixty years ago,” said Li. He pushed back his chair and thoughtfully rubbed his face. His old skin looked like fine parchment, with its mesh of wrinkles. “I walked for two days on that foot before I found a Third Field Army unit. But,” he added, “I still can’t forget it. He was right, you know, that old man, although why he picked on me that day I’ll never know. But he was right.” He heaved himself off his chair. "That was his country and we had problems of our own, every one of us. But if I'd had a gun then, I'd have killed him. Even though he was right.

“You’ll have some more tea,” he said. I nodded.

“Wait,” he said, and hobbled over to the kitchen door. At every step, his artificial leg squeaked.

"You see," he said, above the clink of porcelain. "It was a rotten war."

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Another Orphan

Cold, black; black and cold, all around.

Black lightens to midnight blue, the weight on me, around me, drops steadily, and as the other hunger in me drives me up, up, towards the other world, each stroke drives me faster and faster. Once, when I was much younger, I would have driven myself on as fast as I could, and emerged into the other world, thrusting myself free of the water in a leap that seemed to take me halfway to the blue sea far above, but that was then. I am old now, and weary, and I have taught myself the need to conserve my energies.

The water around me is pale green now, a dapple of light and shadow, and above me I can sense the end of the water and the beginning of the other world. I slow the tempo of my strokes, and hunch myself, orienting so that I come out in the other world with as little of a splash as possible, and sate my other hunger in a hissing blast of exhaled air. I swim along, breathing, filling my tissues with the sweet essence of this other world that is so alien to me.

Swimming, I feel my stomach full, and that is good. A full stomach on a single dive is a rarity, something to be happy about, and satisfied. Of course the meal did not come easy; my face still stings and burns and I know I must be cut about my head and jaw. I feel some sympathy for the creature I have eaten, large and savage though it was; it can’t be a pleasant experience to be bitten to pieces and eaten alive.

Around me, the ocean is empty. Once there might have been more of my tribe in the distance, but not around me, since I am of no pod. Once there might have been the fountains of steamy air from others related to me, the twin spouts of the slow-swimming right whales and the joyous splashing of the humped ones with the long flippers; but today I am alone.

I push myself to the top of the water again, and draw in another deep breath. Something glitters far in the distance, on the surface of the water, far away. It catches my attention at once. I am not fond of distant glittering things. Distant glittering things are all too often followed by the taste of blood in the water. I know all about that, more than I want to know.

I raise my head a little to glance again at the thing, which is no longer glittering but certainly much closer and like a white bird on the water, swimming in the sunlight. It’s time for me to go.

I push my head into the water and throw my tail up, and go right down like one of the stones that sometimes fall from the other world. The surface light fades, dappled light and shadow darken to green to midnight blue to black, and the water, the cold, cold water, tightens around me, presses on my skin like a living thing, and I still keep going. There is no light around me now, nothing but profound, total darkness, and I begin to click, the stream of noise telling me there’s nothing before me but deep, deep water.

I have always enjoyed diving deep, so deep that the weight of the water around me feels as though it will crush me to nothing in an instant, so deep indeed that the water is almost devoid of my slashing, tearing, many-limbed prey. Today I keep on going, deeper perhaps than I have ever gone before, because I have a fear that the things in the white swimming birdlike thing from the other world have seen me, and I do not want to meet them. If I go deep enough, they will probably go past by the time I have to breathe again.

The clicks bounce back at me. Something large, soft, many-limbed and desperate, squirms and writhes, transfixed in the beam of sound. It is prey, and I consider turning off the clicks and turning on the sonic hammerblows that will smash at it, crush its body, stun it, knock it semi-conscious, so that I can swoop in for the kill. But I have already eaten well today, so I simply sideslip slightly and pass it by. I can feel its touch on one flank, can feel its thrill of terror, and obscurely I feel a moment of sympathy for it. And then it is gone.

I have never been so far down as this before, and I know that I must very soon begin to level off. The clicks come bouncing back to me again, but vague and diffuse, from the Underworld beneath the water, the Underworld I have sensed many times but never seen. I am gliding above it, my clicks telling me of a flattish, undulating surface, void of any feature, crushed by the weight of the water, cold and uninviting.

I am just about to press down with my flippers and arc up through the dark when I hear the stream of bounced clicks change and harden. There is something ahead of me in the Underworld, something angular and hard, something that does not belong.

It’s more than curiosity that makes me swim over for a look. It’s something that thrills through me, something I have rarely felt, a mix of rage and terror that I can’t, so far from the Other World far above, begin to explain. Many times I have felt it there, on the edge of the Other World, but never down here.

I begin to understand once I’m close enough for the echoes to tell me about the thing. It’s smashed and broken, a wreck of what it used to be, but I know it for what it was. It is no part of this Underworld. It is far more alien to it than I am. The old rage boils up within me, so that for a moment I want to hurl myself upon it, because, in this crumbling, shattered ruin, I see a brother to the white-winged bird that swims on the water and makes the sea taste of blood.

Then the air-hunger, the other hunger, kicks in, too hard to be ignored, and I finally abandon the Underworld and the ruined thing and begin swimming upwards through the endless dark.

I remember the first time that I saw the white-winged bird. I had been but a calf then, swimming by my mother’s side, part of the pod, but more a part of my mother. I had still not been completely weaned even though I had begun eating for myself by then, and I swam always by my mother, so close that her flipper brushed my flanks and every now and then her head nuzzled mine.

The white bird had come out of the west, painted reddish by the rays of the Light Above in the early day. The pod had noticed and tried to scatter, but by then the white bird had begun laying its smaller eggs, that crawled quickly through the water with the strange small Other Creatures in them, the pirate dwarfs that hurled sticks that hurt and cut and finally killed.

Slowed down by me, unwilling to leave my side, my mother had been struck almost at once. I had felt her shiver as the stick struck, and then another. I had tried to come to her, to help her, but she had thrust me away hard from her, rolling in her death agony as blood spumed from her blowhole instead of moist breath and spray. I would still have gone to her then, to her side, but the pirate dwarfs had thrown their sticks at me too, though they did not hit me. Squealing in fear, I had swum away.

After that the pod was no longer my home. I know now why others of my kind reject me, and accept it. But then I did not know, and I was filled with anger and despair, anger at the  pirate dwarfs in their shells for killing my mother, anger at my mother for thrusting me away (at the time I did not understand that she was trying to protect me) and dying, and anger at the pod for rejecting me. Over the seasons, the anger, slowly, passed – at the least, most of the time.

And then it was that one day the pirate dwarfs struck me for the first time, and I felt the fire-pain of the stick in my side, and tasted my own blood in the water. Then it was that the anger came rushing back, turned my brain to red lust as blinding and deadly as the dwarfs, and I hurled myself at them, smashed and scattered them, and sent them reeling back to their white bird and swimming away across the sea. And yet they came back, and they came back again.

Long ago I have come to the belief that the pirate dwarfs are out to kill me, to destroy me specifically. My hide is as marked and scarred by their sticks and their ropes as it is by the slashes and scratches of my prey. I know the pain of their strikes, and have fought back, and won every battle with them that I have fought. But I’m getting old, and I can’t win forever, and now I would rather dive deep than fight.

I still do not really know why I cannot be left to a life of my own. Alone, yes, but if nobody hurts me, if nobody wants to destroy me, I will do nothing to harm them, the Great Whale knows. All I want is peace, the peace they will not give me.

I swim upwards through the lightening water to the surface, seeing the sparkle of the Light Above on it, feeling the warmth of the water about me, feeling again the skeleton of the dwarf that had clung to me and hacked against my flank after the last battle, had lain until the ropes securing it to me had rotten and it had dropped away. I feel the spot in my head that still aches sometimes, the spot with which I had struck, and struck again, mad with a frenzy of pain and anger, until the dwarf’s white bird had gone down into the water and the sea was calm again.

The sea is calm now; the bird has gone. It is empty too, empty of the others of my kind, of the pods that once splashed and hunted and played together. Not that it would have made any difference, because they would not have anything to do with me, for my jaw is twisted where theirs are straight, and where they are grey, I am an alien, evil white.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Monday 27 February 2012

The War-Beast

All that morning we’d waded upstream, the huge trees hanging their branches overhead, shrouding us in a green gloom. On either side the banks rose, so steep and thickly wooded that we could not have made our way through them fast enough to keep to our schedule.

The river was shallow and sluggish, the bottom firm with sand and gravel, so the way was not particularly hard going. But I disliked this country, with its crowded spaces and its lack of room to manoeuvre. The soldiers in their armour and heavy-visored helmets were tense, too; I could even feel it in the way my driver’s legs gripped the sides of my neck. I had become able to understand the soldiers’ language a little, as one will through constant listening, and I could tell that they were full of doubts about what we were doing, and a lot of them wanted to turn back. But one did not turn back when one was a soldier in the army of Gurkan the Great.

Behind me, all down the river, the army was strung out. The soldiers had started in battle formation, but had begun to straggle long ago, so that they were scattered all down the line of march, trudging through the water. Only we war elephants kept our assigned positions, but because of the narrowness of the stream we could only go in single file. It was not an advance in the proper sense of the word; it was more a weary plod.

Up ahead rose the mountains, reaching as it seemed for the sky. For weeks now we’d been on the march towards them, and the rolling plain on which we had conducted our spring campaign was already a fading memory. Somewhere on those mountains, the remnants of the enemy had retreated, after we’d scattered and routed their legions on the battlefields that lay now far behind. The Lord Gurkan was determined to eradicate these remnants, lest they grow to be a threat in future years; and this was why we were chasing them up these tenebrous slopes.

On my back, the heavy wooden tower swayed awkwardly, the huge curved metal shields making it top-heavy. Ordinarily, the shields would have been taken down in the line of march, but the army was expecting trouble. I was carrying the full complement of four troopers inside the tower, pointing their crossbows nervously at the forest. My driver had even put full combat armour on me this morning, before we started on the trek. I disliked the armour plates, especially those that went on my face and head, because they tended to chafe my trunk. But my driver had been quite firm, so I had not refused.

I would do anything to please my driver. His name does not matter, because to me he was my driver first, last and always. He was a small man, small even by the standards of his people, but broad-shouldered and immensely strong. We’d been together for many years, and he was the one who’d taken me in hand and trained me for my task.

I still remember, as it was yesterday, when I first saw him. I could hardly forget, because he was the first man I’d ever seen.

My family and I had been fleeing the drums that thundered in the distance, full of alien menace, for an entire day. I’d been trotting at my mother’s side, as close as I could, so that my flank brushed against her legs. She was the centre of my existence then, the most powerful being in my universe, and I couldn’t bear to be away from her for even a moment. Even in sleep I curled against her side, so that she grunted in exasperation sometimes and pushed me away with her trunk. But that day of the drums was like nothing even she had ever known.

We would go in one direction, only to hear the thrumming, and turn away in another, only to run once more into the sound of drums, coming closer. Today, knowing how the humans work, I can recognise that we were being driven towards the capture pits, but then we did not know. My mother’s trunk had curled in disquiet, and she’d trumpeted uneasily. I remember how her great wrinkled brown flank had heaved by my side, and how she had paused uncertainly again and again. But in the end she’d led us straight towards the pits, just as the humans had intended her to.

As darkness had fallen, the drums had been joined by lines of glimmering torches, the flicker of fire sending terror shooting through us. We’d rushed confused here and there in the darkness, as the humans drove us back and forth through the lines of trapping pits, their shouts and howls added now to the drums and the fires. I’d tried to stay as close to my mother’s side as I could, but somehow in the night I must have got separated, because suddenly the ground had disappeared under my feet and I fell hard enough to stun me a moment with shock.

To this day I don’t know what had happened to my mother and the others of the family. I don’t know why they did not come back for me, though I cried out for help, and kept crying through the night. I think they got away safely, because I never saw any of them again; none of the others was caught in the pits. I can only presume that my mother had found a way out of the cordon and judged the safety of the entire family as being of greater importance than me. It was a hard choice, but I can’t blame her. In her place, as the leader of the family, I’d have done the same.

Dawn had just lighted up the sky when the humans had come. I’d heard them coming, the sound of their footsteps and voices, and then smelt their rank unfamiliar scent. By then I’d stopped crying out; exhaustion and dehydration having overcome my fear, but at that odour I had started up again with terror, and tried desperately to scramble up the sides of the pit. It was, of course, too steep – the men had known what they were doing. And then, just as I voided my bowels in abject panic, the first of them had appeared at the edge of the pit and stood looking down at me.

Even though it has been years, I can still see him as I saw him then, his broad brown face framed by his heavy black hair, already streaked with grey. He’d stood looking down at me for a long time, alone, not moving, waiting until I’d got over my initial panic and extended my trunk to get a closer whiff of his scent. Only after I’d calmed down had he climbed down into the pit, murmuring soothingly to me all the while.

In the months that had followed, he’d become my only friend, the substitute for the mother who had left me behind in the pit. He’d taught me the words of command I respond to, and fed and groomed and taken care of me. But even he never realised just how well I grew to understand his words and moods, and by extension the words and moods of other humans.

And time passed, and I grew, and grew, until I was by far the largest war elephant in Lord Gurkan’s army, until even the other elephant drivers looked at me with apprehension and muttered fearfully amongst themselves about the damage I might do if I ever ran amok. My driver would say with simple pride that I was the largest elephant he had ever seen, perhaps the largest that had ever been, and pat me as I twined my trunk around him affectionately.

One day Gurkan himself came to look at me. That was the first time I’d seen him, a tall slender figure with a forked beard, dressed as simply as one of his common soldiers. He’d stood by my side, stroking my trunk and talking to my driver, and I’d understood that he was considering taking me as his royal elephant. But in the end he’d decided against it. I was far more useful in the line of battle, with my titanic size and my capacity for violence.

Yes, my driver had trained me to deal out violence, and I had dealt it out on many battlefields in the service of Gurkan the Great. I would wait in line with the other war elephants as the fighting swayed back and forth across the field of battle, waiting for the moment when our troops would move aside and the trumpets would sound the charge. And then we would go in, thundering at the enemy lines, the ground trembling beneath our feet, the enemy soldiers scattering before us in mortal terror. My driver would only have to put the slightest pressure on the sides of my neck with his knees to tell me what to do. I’d charge, swinging my spiked iron ball, trampling the enemy underfoot and picking them up with my trunk and tossing them aside like so many toys. How many times have I not seen enemy troops throw down their weapons and surrender themselves rather than face my charge, and after the battle, cower visibly as they caught sight of me walking past their miserable columns? In time I became, not just the biggest of Gurkan’s elephants, but the most famous, the one they nicknamed the God of War.

What they didn’t realise, not even my driver, was that I didn’t enjoy the fighting and the killing. I hated every moment of it, but I went through it each time because my driver told me to. For him, I would have done anything. I would have walked off the edge of the world.

And it was because I was the God of War that I was out in front of the army today, walking through water under the green tunnel of leaves.   


By early afternoon, the level of the disquiet among the soldiers increased sharply. 

Long before then, all organisation had disintegrated, and the army was a straggle of men and elephants strung out along the river. The terrain itself seemed to have grown more sinister, the banks higher, the stream narrower, and it had begun to twist and turn, so that if I glanced backward I could hardly see the next elephant in line. The four crossbowmen in the tower on my back were talking together in hushed tones, in which I could clearly detect doubt and fear. I could feel the tension increasing in my driver’s body, too, transmitted to me by every touch, as when he leaned over my neck to scratch me behind the ears.

There had been no opportunity to stop and eat, for men or for elephants. Thirst was, of course, not a problem – all I had to do was squirt a trunkful of river water into my mouth – but I was getting hungry, and a day’s slogging through water will exhaust even an elephant. I could scarcely imagine what the men on foot were going through, weighed down with their armour as they were.

However, to my mind, there seemed to be no reason for the anxiety. The enemy we had fought on the plain was not a worry; they had been so routed and destroyed that they could scarcely think of fighting us until they could gather to reorganise on the high plateaus across the mountains. It was precisely to prevent them from attempting this reorganisation that Gurkan the Great had sent this detachment of his army into the hills. Who else could even think of resisting our armies, ever victorious in every battle they had ever fought?

The previous night, in camp, I’d been tethered at the end of the elephant line, within earshot of the soldier’s cooking fires. I’d listened to their talk of the demons of the hills, ogres and trolls which they had said tore apart anyone who dared enter their realms. The routed enemy, they claimed, must have already met that fate, so it was doubly foolish for Lord Gurkan to send us on a suicide mission. It was at that point that the sergeants had threatened punishment for treason, and the muttering had stopped. Everyone knew the penalty for treason in Gurkan’s army, and that death was much to be preferred. 

But now, wading along the river, the fears of the night were stirring again among the warriors, and transmitting themselves to me. Though I tried to keep myself calm, I felt myself increasingly on edge; and though my driver, realising this, tried to soothe me with murmurs and caresses, his own tension was too obvious for me to ignore.

Besides, there was something else.

Increasingly through the hours that passed, I’d become convinced that something was watching us, and following us as we trudged upstream. I could sometimes smell it on the air, a strange sharp odour that I could not identify. But it was there, and on top of everyone’s tension, it made me nervous and edgy.

And yet, when something finally happened, I scarcely recognised it for an attack. In my experience, battles were organised affairs, with formations of our own troops deployed against equivalent formations of the other side. Battle meant the rumble of war drums and trumpets sounding signals from commanders, the clash of arms, and, for us elephants, the frontal assault on the enemy. It did not mean half-seen flickers of movement in the green gloom of the banks, the shaking of leaves and bushes without wind, and noises that sounded like the call of birds.

So when the first arrow cracked into the armour plate near my left eye and ricocheted away, I was so surprised that I nearly reared on my hind legs and upset my riders. It was only the rigid training my driver had imposed on me that kept me from doing precisely that. Even as that first arrow tumbled into the water, the air was suddenly filled with them, arcing through the air to fall all around us. Several more struck my armour and fell away, and my driver threw himself down flat on my neck, shouting the order to me to keep steady. A moment later the crossbowmen in the tower let off their bolts, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were aiming at. I couldn’t see a single enemy, only the arrows coming down as thick as rain.

Our soldiers were already going down. Strung out so that they could not cover each other, wading up to their thighs in the water, weighed down by their armour, and faced with an invisible enemy, they hadn’t a chance. Shouting, the sergeants tried to rally them, but it was already too late. All around me the soldiers were falling, their blood staining the water red. Behind me I could hear screams as those of our men behind the next bend of the stream were attacked and died in their turn without a chance to fight back. In only a few moments, except for the soldiers on my back and my driver, I was alone.

And yet the arrows came, faster than ever, and now they were all aimed at me.

I was completely confused. If this had been a normal battle, I’d have known precisely what to do, even isolated and under attack. War elephants have to be adaptable to circumstances. But here I didn’t have any room at all, not even to turn round without presenting my flank to the arrows, and there seemed to be as many of the enemy behind me as in front. Paralysed by indecision, I paused, while the arrows splashed into the water around me and struck my armour and the wooden tower.

That pause may have given the enemy the confidence they needed. Suddenly, not far away, some figures stepped out of the forest and onto the rocks by the river banks. Raising their bows, they drew aim at me and let fly. I could see the arrows flashing through the air, too fast to avoid – and, stuck where I was, I couldn’t even try.

And then my driver screamed, a cry of agony that struck me to the heart.

If there is one thing guaranteed to enrage me till I literally take leave of my senses, it is to hurt my driver.

I have no clear idea what I did next. I have a vague memory of rushing upstream at those little figures, the water splashing up in waves as I went. I think I remember swatting aside arrows with my armoured trunk, charging far too fast for the suddenly terrified enemy to retreat back up the bank. I’m sure I recall picking up one of them with my trunk, holding him aloft, and smashing him down on the rocks until there was nothing left of him to smash. I must have trampled down several more, crushing them under my feet. Shrieking mad with fury, I heaved myself out of the water and followed the survivors up the bank, chasing them until the wooden tower and heavy metal shields on my back caught in the branches, until the ground underfoot suddenly slid away, and, staggering desperately to keep my balance, I fell.

I may have fallen on a rock. Something struck the side of my head a terrific blow, strong enough even through my armour to stun me, and for a little while I knew nothing more.


When I regained consciousness, the first thing I noted was that I was lying on rocks, the hard bulk of them pressing on my body. The next thing was the smell. Having been part of Gurkan’s army for so long, I’d become used to the complex mix of odours including leather, sweat, cooking food, the stink of the latrine pits, and the smell of the soldiers themselves. This smell was sharp, strange, alien to me – it was the odour I’d sensed on the wind before the attack.

There were the voices too – many voices, speaking a language I had never heard before. But one of the things I’d learned early on in Lord Gurkan’s army was that the tone of human voices conveys as much information as the words themselves, probably much more information than the average human realises. And listening to this unknown speech, I could tell that there were many conflicting emotions amongst the speakers – a lot of anger and fear, but some excitement and fascination too.

My head was still throbbing, and for a long time I lay where I was, listening to the voices, unwilling to move too suddenly or open my eyes. I could understand that I was the centre of attention of a fairly large crowd of people, and that whatever they were saying, it was mostly to do with me.

Finally, some of the voices began to drift away, and the pain in my head began to lessen. I shook my head, flapped my ears, and opened my eyes as I clambered to my feet.

I was in a rough enclosure, obviously thrown together with great haste. It was made of logs and stone, lashed together with ropes. All around the outside of the enclosure was a ring of faces, staring up at me – faces full of hostility, or fear, or curiosity.

For the first time, I got a good look at the “ogres” and “trolls” who had attacked us. The “demons” were small people; the tallest wouldn’t have come up to much more than shoulder-level to the average trooper of Gurkan’s army. They were sturdy, broad-shouldered, with pale skin and round faces with narrow slanted eyes. Their clothing was as remarkable as their appearance, for they were dressed as if they were part of the forest, in green overalls and hats, with frills designed to resemble the leaves. I now knew how they had followed us so easily and attacked us without being seen.

Many of them had bows in their hands, some with arrows notched and pointing up at me. Although I knew the walls of the corral were too weak to hold me if I made a determined effort to break out, and even though I was aware that I could survive numerous arrow wounds – for I have taken my share of arrows on the battlefield – these arrows made me pause. I was still groggy from the blow to my head, and slow; and before I could break down the wall, those arrows would be streaking for my eyes. I wasn’t afraid of being killed – without my driver, I had nothing to live for anyway. But I was frightened of being blinded. Blind, I could do nothing, not even take revenge. So I stood where I was, looking at the green-clad men, who looked back at me over their levelled arrows.

Beyond them, now, I could see others – small people, like the green-clad warriors. Women and children, and also a few old men, sparse white whiskers on their faces. They gawked at me, pointing, the children chattering shrilly, and it came to me that I was probably the first elephant they had ever seen.

From where I was, I couldn’t see the river. The trees on the slope behind me screened it from view, but I could see shattered branches showing the way I had come in my furious charge. The thought of the charge reminded me of the battle, and I became aware that the heavy wooden tower on my back had gone, along with most of my battle armour. I had no idea what had happened to the soldiers in the tower.

I had begun to feel acutely hungry by now, as well as thirsty, but there was no way to convey my hunger and thirst to these people. I didn’t even know whether they had any idea of what food an elephant might eat. If only my driver had been here, he would have fed and watered me. My driver had always thought of my welfare before anything else, even his own.

The thought of my driver brought a wave of such grief over me that I squeezed my eyes shut, and curled my trunk under my neck. In that moment, I wished I had been killed by that first arrow, so that I’d never have had to endure a moment without him. The grief was so great that it overcame my hunger and thirst, and along with my physical tiredness caused exhaustion so great that I knelt back down on the mossy rocks and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I woke, it was to the sensation of someone stroking my forehead. For a long moment I imagined it was my driver giving me a rubdown, and lay there enjoying the sensation. Then I remembered that my driver was gone, and that meant that whoever was stroking me was a stranger. I would have lashed out with my trunk at that moment, but I could feel no hostility from the person stroking me – nothing but tenderness.

Moving slowly so as not to cause fright, I opened my eyes and pushed myself up on my chest. The person stroking me stepped quickly back, one hand still raised, and stared up into my eyes. Even sitting on my chest, my eyes were higher than he was, for it was a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen.

Tentatively, saying something in a soft voice, he reached out to touch me again. I responded to the touch despite myself, rubbing my forehead against his tiny hand, and reaching out to sniff at him with my trunk. He squealed at that, like an elephant calf, and laughed breathlessly.

That squeal of laughter brought men, shouting angrily as they peered over the top of the stone and wood corral wall, their anger aimed at the boy. It was obvious that he’d come inside without their knowledge, and that they were ordering him out of the enclosure. He looked up at the men, back at me, and said something to me that conveyed an impression of sadness. I touched him with my trunk and sniffed at him, and he wrapped his arms round my trunk for a moment. But there were more angry shouts from the men, so the boy climbed over the wall and vanished, dejection in every movement he made.

Looking around, I became aware that there were only a few men on guard now, instead of the throng that had been around me earlier, and that it was almost evening. The men who were on guard, however, were settling in for the night, and began making preparations for a cooking fire not far from the corral. As they worked, they kept glancing toward me, and a couple always had arrows ready and pointing.

My thirst and hunger had returned now, my stomach clenching painfully, and I could hear the rumbling noises from my gut. The men must have heard them and decided that something should be done, for after some talk among themselves, all but three or four of them went away and returned, just as darkness was falling, with armfuls of tall reeds, which they tossed over the wall. It wasn’t grass, but I could eat it, and it took the edge off my hunger. As I swallowed the last of it, they brought up some river water in a wooden bucket and balanced it on top of the wall, from where I could easily suck it up with my trunk. Now that I had some food inside me, I felt much better, and looked around me with curiosity.

Night had fallen now, and the darkness was thick under the trees, but there was the distant glimmer of fires – not just the fire of the men guarding me, but others, further up the slope, dim and flickering, but telling of a military encampment, like one of those in which I’d spent most of my life, or a village. From that direction came the distant voices of women and children, so I decided that it was probably a village. And that meant, in turn, that these people hadn’t been driven by blind hatred when they had attacked us – they had probably imagined that they were defending their village.

Lord Gurkan would not see it that way, though – and when he heard of what had happened down on the river, Gurkan’s vengeance would be terrible.

I was still wondering whether this would be a good or bad thing, in view of what these people had done to my driver, when the tiredness took over again and I went back to sleep.

That day must have caused me more damage than I’d thought.

As I slept, I had a curious dream. In it I was standing in the middle of a town, like the great cities of the plain I’d passed through on campaign, but I was taller than all the buildings. I was so big that I could look down even on the tallest of the golden spires and marble domes, and I could look out over the city, from wall to wall, as flames spread through it and the buildings burned to ashes. In my dreams, the people came to shelter under my legs, begging for my protection from the fire, but I could not move at all, only curl my trunk around them and draw them to me, in an effort to keep them safe until the fire passed them by.

And then I woke, and between my legs, curled against my chest, I could feel a small shape, breathing deeply in sleep. From the smell I knew who it was, the boy who had been with me earlier. I curled my trunk around him carefully, and lay still, not daring to move so as not to wake him, or, worse, to alert the guards that he was here with me.

High overhead, through the branches, the bright point of light that was a star moved across a patch of sky, and I watched it pass, and wondered if it was true, as the soldiers said, that it was the soul of someone who had died. And I wondered if the soul was looking down at me.

The boy mumbled in his sleep and hugged my trunk. It was a chilly night, out on the rocks, and he must have been grateful of the warmth. I was grateful to him as well, for the company. Such small things are more important than most realise.

Out by the dying fire, my guards snored until it was their turn to wake, and somewhere in the forest, an owl hooted.

The star moved across the patch of sky.


The boy’s name was Cithan. He told me that himself, pointing at his chest and repeating it several times, after the guards had finally quit ordering him away and left him alone. He didn’t seem to belong to anybody -  no parents or master came to haul him off, though with daybreak the crowd of yesterday began to form again.

By now, I was feeling much better; my head had cleared and a second meal of rushes and water had given me energy. I could probably have broken out now, because I had my strength back and because my guards had relaxed their extreme caution of yesterday. But I did not, because the boy was with me, sitting between my legs and talking away. It seemed to me that he not only had no family, he had no friends, nobody to talk to.

I had met kids like him before, amongst the towns of the plain – orphans, children whom nobody wanted, not exactly outcasts, but existing on the fringes of society, living on their wits. Some of them were orphans, some runaways, but they had one thing in common, the desperate desire for a friend. Often, they would sneak into the encampments and hang around the soldiers’ tents, not looking for food or money, but just a bit of companionship. From what I could understand, some of them went on to become soldiers in their turn, and I often wondered if they fathered children who were left, similarly parentless, in the course of their travels.

Over the next few days, Cithan began to spend almost all his time with me. By then, I had begun to acquire more of a feel for these peoples’ language, both from Cithan’s talk and from carefully listening to the speech of the guards and the people who came to stare at me. It was a completely different language from that used by Lord Gurkan’s troops, but I was listening more to the tone of the words than to their meaning, and little by little I began to understand something of it.

There was a word they used to refer to me. The closest I could get to its meaning is “war-beast”. That may not have been the exact term, but it was a good term, something which depicted me perfectly. I might not have been the God of War, but I was a war-beast, sure enough. I had been a war beast for longer than I cared to recall. Even if I never fought in another war, I would never be anything else.

I thought then, whatever men call me, to myself I shall be the war-beast from now on.

A week after I’d been captured, my corral had begun filling up with dung, and also the crude stone walls were breaking down. It was obvious that the enclosure would not serve to hold me much longer, and once more I began to have thoughts of breaking out. Then one morning the men came with ropes – thick ropes, but not nearly as thick as those used by the drivers of Gurkan’s army to tether us elephants. These people had no real idea, I realised, of my strength.

While several of them pointed spears and arrows up at me, others bent at my feet and tied the ropes round my legs. I followed them out of the stinking corral, immensely glad to be away from it. Citahn walked beside me, holding on to my trunk.

They led me down to the river, where I took the opportunity to spray water over myself and drink down as much as I could. I would have happily rolled in the water and washed the filth away, but the men were pulling at the ropes, and I had to wade across and up to the other side.

Here, among the slopes, we came at last to the main village. Lean brown dogs came running out, took a look at me, and retreated barking to a safe distance. Women and children, many of whom I recognised, came to see me, also from a safe distance. The guards merely held the ropes – it was Cithan who led me through the village to a cleared space on the far side, where they tied me to the trunks of two large trees.

Over the next days, life settled into a routine. They would feed me twice a day, mornings and afternoons. The food wasn’t adequate either in quality or quantity, but it was better than nothing and in any case I was in no danger of starvation. And they would take me down to the river, where I would be allowed to bathe myself, rolling in the water, while Cithan splashed around me with glee.

Cithan was with me almost all the time now. As I’d suspected, he had no home or family, and ate what he was given by villagers as leftovers. In his own way he was an immensely courageous and resourceful – I couldn’t imagine the bravery it had taken for him, coming from a people who’d never seen elephants before, to have come to me and tried to make friends. And, increasingly, the other people of the village began asking him questions about me, and he answered them. I didn’t know what he said, but they went away satisfied.

A few times I’d caught up Cithan in my trunk and lifted him on to my shoulders. The first time he’d stiffened up in shock, but then laughed and hugged me. Soon he got used to it, and now when I went down to the river, he’d always ride my shoulders there and back, the people staring up at him with wide eyes.

One of the things I tried to understand was why they hadn’t killed me or let me go. I couldn’t see what good I was doing to them, because all I did was eat, and they hadn’t tried to put me to work. I got the impression that they were awed by my prowess as the “war-beast”, and wanted to figure out a way of making me part of their own military. They had enemies further in the hills, against whom they thought I would be a formidable weapon, if only they could find a way to use me. And yet, because they hadn’t ever encountered elephants before, they hadn’t the slightest idea of how this was to be achieved.

By this time I was scarcely ever guarded. Except when I went down to the river, when men with pikes and spears accompanied us, Cithan was the only one who stayed with me. I could, really, have got away – but where should I go?

Now, more than ever, I felt the immense loneliness of my existence. Without my driver, cut off from my world, I was completely isolated. Cithan was a friend, but he was only a boy – and not a boy who had anyone to take care of him either. If I went away, even assuming I got away uninjured, what would he do? And as for me, where should I go? All around me were the hills, and the only way I knew was the river, downstream, to the old battlefields of the plain. I could never get down that way fast enough to avoid getting caught.

And at the same time, I was growing conscious of something else. Gurkan’s army would be on its way, and it would be coming in strength now, and this time it would be prepared. Those of our detachment who had escaped, as surely many had, would have told him of the ambush, and Gurkan never, ever, repeated a mistake. This time, the tribe’s warriors would not have a chance, but they wouldn’t know they didn’t have a chance. They’d won a victory over a disorganised and unprepared detachment. They would try the same tactics against the main army, and they’d be massacred.

I wished I could warn them, but there wasn’t a thing I could do. Unless...

Little by little, I began to germinate an idea.


The day of the battle dawned like any other. I’d gone down to the river with Cithan, and noticed nothing out of the way. The last day or two there had been no guards at all, but as we came back up the path, a squad of warriors with pikes appeared from the direction of the village, surrounding us excitedly, and talking so quickly I couldn’t understand them at all. Obviously, something was going on, and it didn’t take too much effort to understand what that might be.

By the time I reached the village the scene was of confusion. People were running around, apparently trying to ready themselves to evacuate at short notice. The warriors pulled me back to the trees and tied me tightly to them, and stood not far away, darting hostile looks in my direction. They seemed to have remembered suddenly where I’d come from.

From further up the hill, a number of green-clad warriors appeared, carrying bows and arrows and vanishing down towards the river. I knew by now that the tribe had a military camp separate from the village, one which I’d not seen but which I’d managed to locate without much trouble. That camp was a major factor in the plan I’d made, the one by which I just might be able to save the village.

Lack of exercise and underfeeding had sapped some of my strength over the last weeks, but I hadn’t been the biggest and strongest elephant in Gurkan’s army for nothing. When I lowered my head and smashed into the nearer of the two trees, it splintered and collapsed with a crash, and the guards cried out and scattered. Before they could get their wits back, it was a simple matter for me to break the weak ropes. That they had been stretched tight merely made them easier to snap.

I raised my trunk, I trumpeted with all my might at the sky. The guards, already frightened and off balance, fell back in terror, just as I’d intended them to. I scarcely needed the brief charge I made to send them running for their lives. It had been easier than I’d thought, so far – I hadn’t had to hurt anyone. Yet.

Cithan had wandered off to find out what was happening, but now he came running back. I had a moment of doubt, as I wondered what to do with him. The course I was about to follow would put me in immense danger, and, if he remained with me, it would inevitably put him in danger too. But even as I turned away, he ran after me, calling out, and I realised that in this terrain I couldn’t outrun him. And, rushing beside me, he could very easily get hurt from the weapons that would soon be hurled in my direction. I might even trample him without meaning to.

So, very reluctantly, I wrapped my trunk around him and hoisted him on to my back. He clung to me, trembling, and I realised that he was terrified. I’d almost forgotten that despite his assurance with me, he was still only a boy.

Up we went, then, through the village and along the track to the military encampment. I made no attempt to avoid any obstacle, smashing aside anything that stood in my way, trumpeting to warn people off. Speed was of the essence – the entire success of my plan depended on how fast I could move.

Halfway up the hill, a long branch hung low over the track, at eye level to me. I didn’t even pause – sliding my tusks under it, I slapped my trunk down on top and wrenched it downwards. The branch snapped off in my trunk, and I was about to throw it away when, rounding a bend in the track, I encountered an entire squad of the tribe’s warriors.

I couldn’t say whether it was my training or instinct that took over at that moment. Wrapping my trunk around the branch, I swung it round in a huge arc, smashing it across the trail at torso level for a human. Struck by the mass of twigs and leaves, the line of men went down, swept off the trail like a broom sweeping dust off a garden path. I hardly had to break my stride to avoid stepping on them. Despite its size and unwieldiness, I kept the branch – it was a handy tool.

A few moments later, we thundered into the encampment.

It was just where I’d placed it, a double line of long huts with an open space between. This open space was full of men, hurriedly pulling on their green outfits, stringing bows, and getting spears ready. They paused, looking up at me, paralysed with astonishment.

Here I came, the war-beast, trunk raised to the sky, ears held out, trumpeting loud enough to make the heavens shake. Here I came, the long tree branch swinging, swatting men aside like flies. Lowering my head, I charged the nearest hut, smashing it into splinters with a blow of my forehead. It was far too flimsy to bear an elephant’s charge.

A javelin thudded into the ground by my foot, a near miss, and the first arrows began whistling by my ears.

Screaming, I turned, and came racing back. These people had only ever seen me move slowly, wading through the river or hobbled by ropes. They had no idea just how fast an elephant can run in a frontal charge, and how terrifying one can be.

I was no longer just an elephant, nor even a war-beast. I was a mountain of death coming down on them much faster than they could run. I was the God of War incarnate, shaking the world as I came. In that moment, I was a monster out of their worst nightmares come alive. I was the mouth of hell, I was terror on four gigantic legs, I was Retribution.

Yelling with fright, they dropped their weapons and scattered.

I eradicated the camp. I took almost a delight in that destruction, stamping the huts into matchwood, crushing the stacks of spears and javelins into the ground, lifting the pots by the cooking fires high and flinging them into the forest. Except for a few arrows shot at me from the forest, there was no opposition.

Devastation achieved, I turned back on my tracks. The second part of my plan would be much more dangerous, because the warriors would be getting over their initial shock and surprise, and down on the trail and by the river I’d have far less manoeuvring room. Before going back down, I took a last look around to see if there was anything I’d missed destroying, when I noticed the small hut.

It was set away from the others, under the trees, and for a moment I was tempted to let it go. But it might be an armoury, and the more I could disrupt the tribe’s war-fighting ability, the more likely I was to be able to force them into withdrawing rather than getting into a suicidal clash with Gurkan’s army. So, although I could not really afford the time, I turned aside to demolish this hut as well.

Running at top speed, I was almost on it before the door opened and a man with a bandaged leg hobbled out...

There are times when one is taken so much by surprise that one’s heart seems to stop in one’s chest. My body reacted before my mind did, my reflexes taking over instantly, digging my feet into the ground so I managed to stop my charge, sliding to a stop in a shower of dust and pebbles a moment before I’d have struck the man and knocked him down flat. For a long, incredulous moment, I stood looking down at him, and he, up at me. And then there was a movement of his hand, a little gesture, and I knelt, automatically, to let him climb upon my back.

Yes, it was he, the one who had taken the place of my mother. It was he, my life, my purpose of existence, the one I thought I had lost forever, my driver.

Cithan was still clutching on to my neck – I’d almost forgotten about him, but he was still with me, hanging on through it all – and my driver had to get on behind him, because the boy would not yield the space. It was awkward for him, with his hurt leg, but there was nothing for it. Although incredulous with the joy that was still sending shocks through my body, I could not forget my main purpose, and now I had less time than ever to spare.

Picking up my trusty branch, once again I rushed down the trail. A few of the tribe’s warriors – these were almost certainly those whom I’d already knocked down earlier – were coming up, but saw me and ran away in fear. More would be coming, though, at any moment. I couldn’t let myself be caught between two groups of them.

It was time to leave the trail.

There is little that can resist an elephant in the full force of his charge, and the trees in this part of the forest were far enough apart so that they did not provide much in the way of obstacles. I went between them like a shadow, silent now, leaving the village with its panicking residents on my right. My driver, knowing almost instantly what I was planning to do, guided me by the pressure of his hands on the sides of my neck, but I scarcely needed the guidance. I knew the terrain better than he, and I knew just what I was about to do.

Down by the river, a line of the warriors had assembled. They were nervous and restive, knowing that something was going on up on the slopes, something which had stopped reinforcements from coming down to them, and yet unable to go up and see for themselves because they knew Gurkan’s army was coming. Their attention was divided between downstream and uphill, so when I came rushing down on them from upstream, from their rear, they were taken utterly by surprise. It was far easier than I’d imagined; as soon as I began to swing around my branch, they dropped their weapons and ran away as fast as they could.

The tribe’s military had ceased to exist as an organised force. There would be no more fighting from them today.

I waded into the river, gasping, and squirted a trunkful of water into my mouth. I was still trying to assimilate my utter victory; only now did I realise that I’d not expected to survive it. Even more than anything else, I had found my driver.

Even as I thought of him, he slipped down my side, standing up to his thighs in the water, and leaned his head against my side. He was shaking, and I thought he’d been wounded again, but then I realised he was crying.

As the tears dripped from his eyes like rain, I caressed him with my trunk and wished I could cry too, that I had that human ability. And then I heard another sound of crying – it was Cithan, on my neck, and he too was weeping as though his heart would break.

Gently, I lifted him down, and set him down in the river beside my driver. I hugged him to me, as he was hugging my leg, and snuffled in his ear until he stopped crying and began to smile. My driver stood watching, and then said a few words, tentatively, in the villagers’ language. He must have picked it up during his weeks as a prisoner.

Cithan, still clinging to me, replied. I could understand enough to be able to tell that my driver was asking him to go up to the village while he could, and he was refusing to leave. In truth, he had nowhere to go; there was nothing for him there, and by now the villagers would be in full flight anyway.

“All right then,” my driver said at last, with such clear gestures that I could not possibly mistake his words. “Come with us – after all, I’ll need an apprentice, and you might as well fill the part.”

If I could have smiled at that moment, I would have, as I lifted them one by one to my shoulders.

From not far away downstream, another elephant trumpeted. Gurkan the Great’s troops were coming.

With a last look up at the slopes above, we waded down the river to meet them.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012