Saturday 21 April 2012

Axe-ing Rape: Sonnet Ehlers and Rape-aXe

Suppose you’re a woman walking down a lonely street in the dead of night. All of a sudden, a man jumps out of the bushes, shoves a knife in your face, and demands that you submit to him. And then throws you down, gets on top of you and begins thrusting away.

Would you, at that moment, wish you had teeth inside your vagina so that you could amputate his penis and leave him thrashing in agony on the ground? Wouldn’t it be the perfect punishment?

Apparently, the same thought occurred to a South African doctor (also described as a medical technician; I don't know which is correct but let's give her the benefit of the doubt and call her a doctor) named Sonnet (or Sonette; I've come across both spellings) Ehlers, who happened, she says, to have heard a rape victim sobbing that she wished she “had teeth down there.” Sometime later, Dr Ehlers says she saw a man in agony due to his foreskin being caught in his pants zipper, and, putting two and two together, came up with something she calls Rape-aXe.

On the face of it, it’s every potential rapist’s nightmare come true: a device resembling a female condom, placed inside the vagina by means of an applicator, with serrated teeth meant to catch on a rapist’s penis. (The description of the device on Dr Ehlers’ website mentions specifically that it only engages the skin of the shaft of the penis – this is significant for reasons I’ll go into later in this article.) The Rape-aXe can then, again according to Ehlers’ claims, only be removed in a hospital emergency room, presumably with a policeman standing by with handcuffs.

I said, as you’ll note, that on the face of it this is every potential rapist’s nightmare come true. As soon as one looks into it with any attention, though, it seems more of a nightmare for the potential rape victim than the perpetrator. Let’s see how.

First of all is the obvious point that this Rape-aXe ceases to work if the woman isn’t wearing it at the time of attack. No rapist is going to, you know, allow her to insert and position it before beginning his crime. Therefore, in order to be protected by it (for whatever that protection is worth; not much, as I’ll talk about) the woman would have to wear it at all times except when she’s having consensual sex. Is this even possible?

There are two potential responses to this point: first, that the Rape-aXe is meant to be used only when venturing into potentially “dangerous” situations; and, secondly, that the uncertainty of whether the victim is using it will serve as a deterrent. Both these responses are fallacious.

Let’s take the “dangerous” situation first, which Dr Ehlers addresses on her site (she recommends using it when “ may be in a compromising situation, such as going on a blind date, or having to use public transport late at night”). As far as I’m aware, most rapes worldwide happen in circumstances where the woman can be got at when she’s alone, and where the perpetrator will have the time and privacy to carry out his crime without fear of interruption. Also, a large proportion of rapes are committed by friends or relatives, rather than strangers (even Dr Ehlers’ own site says 69% of rapes are committed by people who aren’t strangers); in other words one is at least as much at risk in one’s own home or in a friend’s home than in the archetypal dark street at the dead of night I talked about earlier. Or, and this is not uncommon in India, a woman can be kidnapped, put in the rapists’ vehicle, and raped as they drive around town – frequently for the duration of the night.

All this means that when a woman might think she’s in a “safe” situation, she’s nothing of the sort; and, when she’s in a “dangerous” situation, she might actually be safer than at other times since she’s far more likely to be on her guard and less vulnerable.

Then, there’s the idea of “uncertainty causing deterrence”. As far as general crime trends go, uncertainty hasn’t stopped any kind of crime – it’s merely made criminals try and neutralise the uncertainty factor. Let’s say the attacker with the knife I mentioned holds it in the woman’s face and says, "If you're wearing one of those things, take it out right now or I'll cut you up so bad your own lover won't want to ever look at you again." What will the woman’s reaction be? To take it out, right? Really, what other alternative does she have? Well, according to Dr Ehlers, she

“...would then have a free hand at which point you either grab his testis or twist them (sic) or poke your fingers into his eyes and get away from the scene. Rape-aXe will buy you time.”

It somehow strikes me that Dr Ehlers (who says she hasn’t been raped) hasn’t put herself in a situation where she has to choose between being cut up and complying with orders. Also, her entire invention is based on the idea that the victim is faced with a single rapist. A significant proportion of rapes, including rapes in southern Africa, are committed by gangs, and it strikes me that her advice is a good way of getting oneself turned into a smear on the ground.

Or, let’s take one of those facts about rape that just about everyone, including Dr Ehlers herself, agrees with: that it isn’t about sex, it’s about power. The least important part of the rape is the fact of the rapist’s penis entering the victim’s vagina. It’s the actual and total domination that the rapist exerts over his victim that matters, not the penetration itself. Therefore, it doesn’t really necessarily signify that rape will involve penile penetration of the vagina. It can be anything including forced anal or oral intercourse, or merely partial penetration of the vagina – not nearly enough to let the Rape-aXe engage its target – or penetration of any of the above with other objects. I wonder how effective Dr Ehlers’ invention will be against a baton or a beer bottle. Not very, I don’t think.

Nor does the Rape-aXe offer any protection at all against a far more important danger faced by a woman in the so-called “dangerous” situation – against assault. This may include anything from being verbally abused and/or hit, to being slashed with a knife or (and again this is quite common in India, much used by jilted suitors) being splashed with sulphuric acid. As a matter of fact, I’d even say that in a situation where women are known or suspected to be wearing Rape-aXe or similar devices, the possibility of potentially substantially more damaging assault increases. The mindset goes something like this: “So you think you’ve won, bitch? Well, let’s see how you like this.” If Dr Ehlers’ claim in her website is to be taken at face value, and rape is a “hit and run offence”, well, assault is an even easier hit and run offence.

But let’s imagine that all of Dr Ehlers’ claims are correct, and see where that gets us. Let’s assume that the Rape-aXe works exactly as she claims it to, that it engages the penis shaft’s skin, and that it can’t be removed without the assistance of facilities available in a hospital emergency room only. What then?

We’ll consider a situation where a rapist has achieved his purpose and penetrated a woman vaginally, against her will, while she’s wearing a Rape-aXe, and deeply enough for the teeth on the instrument to engage him. I don’t know if this device can cope with condoms, but let’s say it can; let’s for the sake of argument claim that it will engage his penile skin whether he’s using a condom or not. Assuming, then, that his wearing of a condom or not doesn’t matter, even if he’s caught by the Rape-aXe, he’s actually already committed the rape, am I right? It’s not a rape-prevention device, it’s just a device to try and make the consequences more severe.

And what happens if he’s not wearing a condom? I’ll just point out that this instrument is a South African invention, and that southern Africa has one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world. So, the lady might have caught her rapist, but she might have caught something else besides. Of course, that’s true of any rape, but this instrument of vengeance can’t stop her from running the risk of getting HIV, which a can of pepper spray or some simple precautions like going about in groups well might. (I should mention that according to Dr Ehlers’ site, the Rape-aXe is supposed to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases from the rapist to the victim, but she gives no data proving this contention. Nor does she mention what happens if the rapist is wearing a condom.)

Then, let’s take it from the rapist’s perspective. According to the site, he’s supposed to be hooked through the penile skin and therefore “tagged”. Well, let me tell you something as someone who’s actually – back as a kid, when I wasn’t yet circumcised – got his foreskin stuck in a zipper; it’s painful, but unlike a crushing injury (like a kick to the penis or testicles) is very, very far from incapacitating. All that the pain is likely to do is infuriate the rapist and likely end up with the woman getting the beating of her life, if not killed. It’s kind of interesting that Dr Ehlers seems to be aware of this problem – she mentions it in the FAQ (it’s, in fact, Question No 1) but her answer is anything but direct. All she does is repeat that the rapist is “tagged”; how is that supposed to stop the victim from getting her head beaten in? According to Dr Ehlers, the rapist won’t do anything further because he’ll be in “double trouble”. I doubt if an enraged rapist will stop to think of further consequences at that moment. It’s as though Dr Ehlers has never even seen anyone in a frenzy of anger. And if there’s more than one rapist, the chances of major violence increase to a complete certainty.

It’s interesting that in one of the pages on her site, Dr Ehlers talks at some length about rape as a weapon of war – and yet that rape is always one with multiple perpetrators. It’s not as though her invention would be helpful in that situation.

Dr Ehlers claims for her invention that it will prevent the rapist from urinating until it’s removed. I don’t really see how that works since according to her it’s basically a barbed latex sheath. It seems to me that the end of a latex sheath can be cut off without too much trouble, just like the end of a condom, which is also a latex sheath, can. But then I haven’t actually seen one of these contraptions for myself so I can’t really swear to that.

What I can say, though, is that even if we are to take Dr Ehlers’ assertion that the Rape-aXe can only be removed by a surgeon at face value, there’s no reason to accept her assertion that the rapist will end up being “tagged” and arrested. Where there’s a demand, it will be satisfied, and crooked surgeons aren’t exactly unknown. Any number of clinics will be on hand to quietly remove the Rape-aXe from anyone it’s attached to, if and when the time comes.

Then, we have the fact that something like this can actually be misused. In a world where we have people like Lorena Bobbitt, I can see instances where some women trap their boyfriends or colleagues into having sex with them, and then accuse them of rape. It’s not exactly a minor consideration, given that those are precisely the men who are liable to go to official hospitals to have the device removed.

In any case, the purpose of this invention isn’t to prevent rape; it’s basically Dr Ehlers’ route to fame if not fortune. A look at her website, and this becomes clear. Not only does she offer no statistics as to how many rapists have been brought to justice as a result of her invention, this is what she states as her “mission statement”:

“In this day and age there are communities where practices such as virginity testing, female genital mutilation, child marriages, arranged impregnations and then forced marriage are practiced. My mission is to highlight the plight of these women and give them the choice!”

Does this seem kind of highfalutin tripe to the average reader? How does “tagging” a rapist, even if that could work, affect in any way child marriages, “arranged impregnations” (whatever that might be) and forced marriage? But for Dr Ehlers,

“Rape-aXe is the beginning of my crusade towards curbing the scourge of violence against women and girls!”

At this point, I’d really want to see some statistics. How many rapists has Rape-aXe brought to book? A thousand? A hundred? One?

Actually, the answer seems to be zero, since 

the device has never been marketed to the public and it remains unclear whether the product will ever be available for purchase.

In other words, we have a "crusade for women's empowerment", we have a website, we have a lot of publicity - and we do not have a marketed and testable product which is supposed to achieve any of the claims made for it.

Pardon me for not ranking Dr Ehlers' credibility too high.

With all the obvious criticism that can be directed at her invention, it’s curious that Dr Ehlers addresses only two, and these two are so infantile as to be practically straw-man arguments.

The first, in her own words? “I have been accused of all sorts, my all-time favourite though is that I am the inventor of a most medieval device… my response, quite frankly is that a medieval deed deserves a medieval consequence.”  

Does this even mean anything? Rape is a crime that has been around as long as there have been humans (and is far from unknown among other animals either). Burglary and murder are crimes that have been around as long as there have been humans, too, and are to this day punished in certain nations by amputation or death. How is hooking a man’s penis skin a medieval punishment? Castration might have been more like it.

The other? “My second favourite criticism comes from Victoria Kaija, from the Center (sic) for Disease Control and Prevention, Uganda. She refers to my invention as a form of ‘enslavement’. Apparently wearing the device, according to Victoria, is a constant reminder, to women, of their vulnerability.”  

This is like saying taking elementary precautions like wearing a seat belt while driving a car shouldn’t be done because it makes you feel vulnerable; obviously a ridiculous argument, and easy to strike down. It seems to me extremely unlikely that more cogent arguments have not been made, but if so, Dr Ehlers absolutely refuses to mention them.

Rape is a serious problem, and merits serious attempts at prevention. Gimmicky devices like this are not the solution, and are actually liable to exacerbate the problem.

But in the final analysis, ladies, tell me this: would you be psychologically comfortable walking around with a latex sheath inside your vagina, which you know to be lined with metal hooks? How does that idea make you feel?

Not all that good, I’ll bet.

Friday 20 April 2012

Son Make Me Proud

The sky outside is reddening with the glow of the sunrise. Soon, the sun will push above the horizon, as red as the blood which will soon follow.

For today will be the day the war ends, the day when we make the final victorious assault.

From inside my tent, I can hear the noise of the army preparing for action. To the untutored ear it will be as chaos, a medley of purposeless sound, as of a crowd, but the military ear can easily pick out the shout of orders from the crack of whips urging on the lowing oxen as they strain in the harnesses dragging up the big guns, the creak of the cannons’ carriage wheels from the tramp of marching boots. It’s a grand sound, marking the transformation of the army from a collection of men and animals and weapons into a single fighting force.

Many times, in the past, I’ve heard that sound, sitting in my tent, and thrilled at the knowledge that this great instrument of war was mine to command. And to this day, every army under my command has won every battle it has ever fought. The instrument of war has never failed me.

I have no doubt that it will not fail me now, but for the first time ever, the thought brings no joy.

I should be going out now, out of the tent to where my staff officers await me, to plan out the battle; I have to go, but I don’t want to, not today. I want to postpone the going as long as possible, because the coming battle fills me with dread. The fact that I know quite well that we shall win is the most dreadful thing of all.

If only I could have, I think, I’d have left this battle to one of my generals, but on this occasion I have to be in command. It’s perhaps the most important battle of my life, certainly the most important I’ve fought since I ascended the throne, and the fact that I’m going to win it makes no difference to that at all. I cannot leave it to a general – not even the most trustworthy of them is quite trustworthy enough for this.

From where I’m sitting, if I look over my left shoulder, I can see the battlements of the fort through the tent’s entrance, the red sandstone like clotted blood in the dawn. I know this fort very well. I lived in it for years, and each passage, each staircase, is familiar and precious to me. Yet, today, my own artillery is going to blow those walls down.

Right now, the captains of artillery will be emplacing the batteries of cannon so as to be able to concentrate their fire on vulnerable spots of the fort wall; spots I’ve marked out myself, because there’s nobody in this army who knows this fort quite as well as I do. My artillery, bought from the French down on the coast, is the best anyone in this country has, and my gunners, trained by the same French, can hit a coin-sized target with the fire of an entire battery at these distances.

The enemy, who crouch now behind those battlements, and stare out fearfully through slit windows at our army’s trenches and earthworks, know these things too. They know that their defeat is certain, and that before the day is out our flag will fly above their fortress and those of them who survive will be in chains and dreading the morrow. That is the lot of the weaker side in battle, and always has been, and I wouldn’t normally feel the tiniest grain of pity for them. If the situation had been reversed, they would have given as little quarter as we’d give them.

But this time it’s different, because the enemy army in the fort is of our own people, not an invading horde; and their commander, the rebel against my Imperial Crown, is my son.


The partly folded-back flap at the tent’s entrance is raised slightly, and my colonel of cavalry peeps in. “Sire,” he says, “the officers are waiting.” He looks faintly surprised to see me not yet dressed for battle in my chain mail vest and helmet. “We’re waiting for you, Sire,” he repeats.

“Yes,” I grunt, without rising. “I’m coming.” The colonel of cavalry has a thin, ratlike face with wispy grey whiskers. I don’t like him at all, but I can count on his loyalty – and in a civil war, loyalty is a rare and precious resource. “I’m coming,” I repeat, and finally he withdraws, still staring. The tent flap falls back into place.

It’s a strange thing, loyalty. If you’d asked me which of my senior officers would stick with me if one of my sons had risen in rebellion, this cavalry colonel wouldn’t have been among those I’d have thought of. But the general I’d have named, who’s been at my side through many campaigns, is now in that fort, by the side of his chosen new master, my son.

My son, the Prince Jamil, the rebel and traitor.

I still remember the shock I’d felt when the news of his rebellion had first reached me. It’s not that I’d been oblivious to the possibility that one of my sons might rebel, but he would have been the last one I’d have expected. I’ve not yet named an heir, but I’d planned on him succeeding me. All he’d have had to do was wait.

Now, of course, there’s no question of anything like that.

Before I’d left the capital on campaign, his mother had come to me. The Begum Sahiba Faizunnisa isn’t my principal wife, but she is and has always been one of my favourites. I’d been talking to one of my ministers, and she’d waited quietly until I’d finished and the man had gone.

“What are you going to do?” she’d asked. Her eyes had been red and swollen from crying, but, typically, she’d lined them with kohl and made herself beautiful before coming to me. “He’s not really a bad boy,” she’d pleaded. “He’s been put up to it by others.”

This is actually almost certainly true. I even know who those people are, plotting to be the powers behind the new occupant of the throne. My assassins have already gone to take care of those of them who are within reach. But that makes no difference as far as he’s concerned.

“Whether that’s true or not,” I’d explained, “it’s not just against me, personally, that he’s raised his hand in rebellion, but against the Empire. If the Empire has to endure, I can’t allow any kind of rebellion or secession, and I can’t forgive rebels and traitors. You do see that?”

“But Jamil is your son,” she’d pleaded. “You watched him being born. You’ve played with him on the floor and you held his hands when he first learnt to walk. He’s not like your Ethiopian or Hindu generals or one of those oily Turkish ministers. Can’t you just forgive him this once?”

“And then what?” I’d asked her. “Suppose I do forgive him. Will he be willing to let the past go? Will his backers allow that? Or will they keep on with their intrigues?”

“I could get a message to him.” Of course she has her own network of spies and couriers; everyone does. It’s a necessity of survival in the political maze of the Court. “I could tell him to ditch them and come back to you. He might listen to me.”

“That wouldn’t work,” I’d explained. “Do you think this can be allowed to pass? However much I want to, I can’t spare him. See here, Faizun,” I’d added, sitting by her and taking her hands in mine. “What kind of message would I be sending out if I forgave him? That anyone can get away with raising his hand against the Imperial Throne if he’s got the right family? Just how long do you think it would take before my other sons rebelled too? They’re already straining at the leash. In six months the Empire would dissolve in civil war, brother fighting brother to succeed me.” I didn’t add that we were already in civil war, and that the provincial governors were watching with keen interest. Unless I scotched the rebellion speedily and brutally, the more distant provinces would begin declaring independence, and after that we’d never stop the slide. She’s more than intelligent enough to work that out for herself.

“Well then,” she’d said, and it was clearly her last throw of the dice. “Abdicate in his favour. Hand him over the entire Empire while it’s still intact.”

“It’s too late for that, Faizun,” I’d replied. “The moment Jamil took the advice of those who put him up to this, he showed himself unfit to wear the crown. Somebody who doesn’t know his own mind can never be the Emperor. At times like this, a weak monarch will bring disaster down on everyone. Besides,” I’d added, cruelly but unable to help myself, “nobody who launches a rebellion quite so incompetently can be allowed to succeed. Anyone fit to win the crown should fight for it properly or not at all.”

“At least then,” she’d begged, “spare his life. Can you at least do that?”

I’d said nothing, unwilling to make a promise I knew I couldn’t keep. Faizunnisa caught it at once.

“You love him,” she’d wailed. “You must save him for the sake of that love!”

“It’s because I love him,” I’d finally told her, shaking my head, “that I can’t spare his life, and won’t. If I take him prisoner, at the very least I’d have to blind him and lock him away for the rest of his life. The other princes will settle for nothing else. Can’t you see that? And when I die, the first thing whoever succeeds me will do is have him poisoned. He’ll spend years in a tiny room, unable to see, waiting for death to come without notice in his food or water. Do you want that for him, Faizun?”

“Go, then,” she’d said, turning her face away, and, rising, left on silent feet without saying goodbye. I’ve not seen her again since then.

Sighing at the memory, I get up from my stool and beginning pulling on my armour. From my days as a soldier, I’ve always preferred to do this for myself, clumsy as the chain mail is and though it would be convenient to have an attendant. Also, I always use the armour of an ordinary officer; the only function a king’s ornate helmet and breastplate have, it seems to me, is to attract the attention of any enemy soldier with a good musket and a keen aim.

Outside the tent, the noise is beginning to die down, as the army settles itself and readies for the battle. The artillery will be emplaced now, behind the earthworks my men have thrown up overnight, their cannonballs stacked in pyramids behind them. The infantry will be waiting, crouching in their trenches, waiting for the thunder of the guns. And once a hole is blasted in the sandstone walls, they’ll charge the breach, hunched over, hidden in the swirling clouds of dust and gunsmoke. The cavalry, under the whiskery officer who had looked in on me, will sweep out to the flanks, to prevent the enemy breaking out in an attempt to escape.

The slaughter shall be savage. I know this, having seen it many times before. The terraces of this fort will be washed in blood by the time the fighting ends; and the blood will be all our own, the blood of brothers fighting each other to the death.

I wish it could have been different. I wish I might have tried siege warfare, to starve the other side into submission, but there’s no time for that. Nor is there any time to try and establish contact with the men inside the fort, to sniff out someone to bribe and open the gates. This war must be concluded at the earliest, before anyone among the generals or the governors begins getting ideas.

Outside, my officers will be waiting, for the final briefings before I give the word for the artillery barrage to begin and signal the start of battle. I will go out to them in a minute, but I take one last moment to whisper a message to my son, Prince Jamil, in the fort across the lines.

“My son,” I tell him, as though my whisper could reach his ear. “Do you remember, once, how we had gone out hunting the lion, you and I? Do you remember how the lion had turned at bay, full of valour to the last, ready to die but not to yield? You had called that lion a hero, and asked me to spare its life.” I visualised the scene as I remembered it, the tawny monster backing away into the scrub, yellow fangs bared, defiant even in escape. “I have just one request to you. Do not permit yourself to be brought to me in chains, broken in spirit and cringing. Do not let yourself be taken alive. Fight, with knife and sword, with musket and bare hands, but fight until you are killed. Die as you would have wanted to have lived, like the lion, like a hero. Make me proud of you, my son. Make me proud.”

Ducking my head to avoid my peaked helmet catching on the tent cloth, I go out into the red glow of the rising sun.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Thursday 19 April 2012

More War Porn

So, the Rulers of the World have screwed up again. Imperial stormtroopers have been fooling around with the body parts of dead Afghans, and have been stupid enough to be photographed doing it.

Bad show, men. Bad, bad, bad show. Bad apples, the lot of you.


If, each time the Empire's brave boys in Afghanistan (or, earlier, in Iraq) are caught out in war crimes, it's "a few bad apples" who are to blame, isn't it time the Empire went in for some fumigation of its orchards? Murdering people for body parts as trophies, posing with SS insignia, raping kids and shooting them, urinating on corpses, etc....if there are so many bad apples, why shouldn't the entire crop be condemned? I can't think of any.

I’ve read that the Empire’s military chiefs attempted to stop the pictures of Imperial stormtroopers posing with the bodies and body parts of dead “Taliban suicide bombers” (we only have their word that these were even Taliban, and as I’ve said many times before I wouldn’t trust the Empire to tell me the sun rises in the east). This is significant on several distinct levels:

First, that these are the same, exact people who have made “war porn” a legitimate term and have, whenever it suited them, displayed positively ghoulish delight in displaying the corpses of the Empire’s “enemies”. Remember the parade of Saddam Hussein’s sons’ bodies across Iraq? Remember the incinerated Iraqi bodies on the Highway of Death, lovingly photographed by the Empire’s pet correspondents? Anyone who’s seen the movies in which Hollywood tries to prove the Empire won the Vietnam War will remember the piles of “gook” corpses bulldozered into shellholes after each battle.

Also, to this day, the Empire chooses to justify the destruction [warning: graphic video] of the Iraqi city of Fallujah by pointing to the fact that the incinerated bodies of four Blackwater mercenaries (not stormtroopers, who have a right to protection under the Geneva Conventions, but mercenaries, who are not, in Imperial parlance, “legal combatants” and also, by the same Imperial conventions where it comes to Guantanamo detainees, have no rights whatsoever) were strung up on a bridge. Presumably, all the inhabitants of Fallujah were responsible for this “atrocity”, not merely a small number of them; otherwise how does one justify the devastation of the entire city, including the fact that to this day babies are being born with birth defects from the depleted uranium and chemical munitions, including white phosphorus, that were used on them? Therefore, and this is hardly the first time we’ve seen this, laws and morality all hinge on who does the moralising.

Then again, as I said, the Empire chose to try and stop the Los Angeles Times from publishing the photos of stormtroopers posing with corpses. These are the same people who would have screamed press censorship and tyranny if something similar had happened in Russia or China, let alone in target nations like Iran or Syria. Again, law and morality seem to depend on who’s doing the talking. Yes, it’s true that this is a general phenomenon, but at least most others who do this don’t claim to be an Exceptional Nation with a Divine Right to Rule the World. 

If one were a completely uninformed reader encountering this phenomenon, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was an exceptional circumstance. Unfortunately, it’s anything but; it’s just the culmination of a couple of centuries of trophy hunting. Continuing the ancient tradition of taking enemy’s heads, the Empire’s forces went from scalping Native Americans to taking Japanese skulls as souvenirs in the Second World War (not German skulls, though – they were ethnically of the same stock). They then made necklaces out of Vietnamese ears, and it’s only a short step from that to putting up photos like these on the internet – photos I remember seeing as far back as 2005, so it’s hardly as though it’s either new or the work of a few “bad apples”. The racist old White Man's Burden, it seems, isn't dead yet. It's just changed names.

And it's not even restricted to humans. When the training the Empire inflicts on its stormtroopers includes eviscerating live goats, there's hardly any reason to expect human feelings from them afterwards.

It seems, though, that institutional protection is the Empire’s main focus in these cases. At first, deny, and if that doesn’t work, then claim that it was the action of a few individuals. If there’s a case of mass murder of civilians, find a convenient scapegoat and blame it all on him. If there’s a case of systematic torture of detainees, blame a few of the warders who were idiotic enough to get photographed doing the torturing. At all costs, try and protect the system, because the system is the meal ticket.

As the war in Afghanistan drags on, Pakistan withstands daily drone strikes, the creeping invasion of Central Africa continues, and the planning goes on for attacking Iran and Syria (attacks which are certain to take place unless Russia and China stand firm), there will be more and more “bad apples” taking the blame. What will not happen is that those responsible for putting these “bad apples” – many of whom are far less morally evil than the victims of situations outside their own control, uneducated poverty draftees fighting immoral wars in nations they can’t locate on the map in order to enrich corporations which care for nothing except the balance sheet – into trouble will be punished for their actions.

Footnote: It’s becoming more and more difficult to write satire. In the wake of the major Taliban attack on Kabul a few days ago, I’d written a piece in which I’d made a “NATO spokesman” claim that the attack was a NATO victory. I was faintly surprised to find actual NATO spokesmen making that same claim, in part because all the attackers had allegedly been killed. Since it was, by the Taliban’s own statement, a suicide attack, claiming that it was a victory is like saying it’s a victory for gravity if someone jumps off a building and falls to the ground. I was slightly more surprised to read Australian PM Julia Gillard said her nation will withdraw its occupation forces from Afghanistan early, because, apparently, there have been “significant security improvements”. Yes, having the enemy attack your embassies in the centre of a fortified security zone, that’s how you know security’s improved, all right.

It’s not even funny anymore, if it ever was.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Two or three thoughts about fame

Whenever I hear about celebrities who burn out because they "can't handle their fame" I have a strong desire to ask them to exchange places with me, because, damn it, I want that fame. I want it very much.

But then I remember that I don't actually enjoy the society of people at all, especially people in large numbers. I also like to have my time to myself rather than hand it out slice by slice to multitudes of faceless "fans". Also, I kind of enjoy my privacy.

And after that I go back to reading or writing; something I don't think the average celebrity has the time or inclination to do.

Frankly, I no longer blame celeb-twits for their staggeringly mindless comments, like Angelina Jolie on KONY2012 where she said she doesn't know anybody who doesn't hate Kony. These people have essentially painted themselves into a corner where they have to play the "celebrity activist" and yet lack the time, intelligence or patience to do any research on anything. So they have people to feed them predigested pap and spew it out for the cameras.

And there are those who are no longer anything more than a packaged product, subject to market research and evaluation. Can you imagine changing yourself to suit what your fan base think you should be like, to dress and act as they want you to, even to weigh as much as they think you should? I can't.

No, I'm glad I am not a celebrity. I mean, I like a bit of fame. But I want it on my terms.

Otherwise, forget it. I'd rather be me.

Tuesday 17 April 2012


One morning, when Gregoralingam Samsamurthy woke from uneasy dreams of buxom maamis with big breasts and oiled black hair, he discovered that he had been changed in the night to a gigantic insect.

Yes, it was all there, he saw, lying on his back and looking down the length of his body through his compound eyes – the three pairs of jointed spiny legs, moving spasmodically; the relatively long antennae whipping back and forth, the mouth parts which he worked against each other in a futile attempt to lick his teeth.

“I’m an insect,” he thought. “Now how did that happen?”

Trying vainly to wriggle into a more comfortable position, he thought about how it might have occurred. “Perhaps,” he said to himself, “it was that woman in the dream with the very big – I mean the one who told me to quit bugging her when she caught me looking at her very big...! Well, if she didn’t want me to look at her she shouldn’t have walked around without anything on but panties, even if it was a dream.”

This train of thought gave way to another. “Assuming that this is not also a dream,” he thought, “I suppose I am actually an insect. This is a bit inconvenient. The kids in school won’t take too kindly to being taught by an insect. Especially in biology class,” he added, “they’re going to say they want to dissect me!”

The idea proved so distressing that he tried to find solace in the poster he’d bought from the bearded old Muslim man who had a stall in the lane behind Kumaramangalam Hardware Stores and sold porn books and photos under the counter. He’d bought the poster just yesterday in the evening and had intended to hide it away before sleeping, but had forgotten, and it stood propped up against the cupboard, the woman smiling coyly at him over her bared and, if truth be told, rather pendulous bosom. He couldn’t bend his head enough to see down to her exuberant thicket of pubic hair, but for some reason she no longer looked appealing at all. He wondered what he’d ever seen in her.

Ayyo!” he thought. “Maybe I’ll only ever be sexually interested in insects again. I don’t even know how one would go about seducing a cockroach or a beetle, even supposing one could find one my size.” The thought was so appalling that he forgot to worry about the kids for some time. But the growing demands of his body brought his mind back to the situation.

“I had better get up now,” he thought. “It’s probably something like six in the morning and if I don’t get up soon I’ll be late for the morning tuitions.”

This proved to be easier said than done. His carapace, with its chitinous plates, was convex, inflexible, and proved difficult to manoeuvre on the soft mattress. He hated the mattress, but his mother had insisted on him putting the softest one in the house on his bed. “You work hard,” she’d informed him, as if he didn’t know that, “and you need to sleep comfortably.” So he’d had to take the accursed thing, which was so soft that it had always hurt his spine. Now, of course, he didn’t have a spine, but instead of giving him leverage to get up, it just led to his wriggling around like, well, a bug on its back.

As he lay wriggling, there was a knock at the door. “Perianna”. It was, of course, his sister Umaparvathi. “Perianna, your kaapi is ready. You should get up now. You’ll get late.” Samsamurthy waited, hoping she would go away, but Umaparvathi was a persistent girl, always had been. “Perianna,” she called, knocking at the door, “are you sick? Your kaapi is getting cold.”

Samsamurthy began to get exasperated with her voice. He’d never, he thought, noticed just how whiny it was, and he wished there was some way of making her shut up. But she just went on and on and on.

Amma Appa,” she called, “Perianna is not answering. I think he may be sick.” This, quite predictably, brought Amma scurrying. “Kanna,” she called urgently. “Kanna, open the door. Are you ill?”

Samsamurthy attempted to deny this vigorously. Indeed, he was not ill. He was merely an insect. But all he managed was a kind of hissing noise through his spiracles.

“I can hear him coughing,” Umaparvathi said.

“Maybe he’s got the whooping cough,” Amma replied. “I can hear the whooping noise. I’m sure he’s got whooping cough. Get a doctor, quick.”

“What’s going on?” it was Appa’s voice, heard faintly. “Where’s my breakfast? What are you two doing outside the boy’s room? Why isn’t he up yet, anyway? He’s getting lazy; he needs a good beating, but you never let me hit him when it would have done some good.”

Samsamurthy listened to this peroration with mounting irritation, and tried without success to push himself upright in the bed. All this did was bring the poster into full view, dimples of cellulite, unkempt pubic puff, unshaven legs and all the rest of it. It provoked a moment of such pure nausea that he tried to close his eyes so as not to see it. But, not having eyelids, he couldn’t. Hissing with disgust, he sank back on the bed.

“Now I’ve had it,” he thought. “At least I hope I’ll be interested in female insects.”

There was a much louder banging on the door. “Get up!” Appa commanded. “You young ones have it too easy, disobeying your elders and betters. I’ve a good mind to break my walking stick across your back.”

“He’s sick,” Amma protested, in the whispery little voice which was all she dared use in counter to her husband. “He has whooping cough.”

“Whooping cough?” Appa yelled. “When I was his age I had malaria, and measles, and still I wasn’t ever one minute late getting up. Open, you! I tell you, if my dad had caught me locking my door, he’d have whipped the skin off me. I’ve been far too indulgent with him.”

Appa,” Umaparvathi broke in. “The students are coming for morning tuition. I can see them from the window.”

There was a pause. “You get up,” Appa shouted. “You’re supposed to be a teacher, and you know that the tuition brings in more money than your salary, and you owe it to us to earn, and...”

With a convulsive movement, Samsamurthy rolled off the bed and fell on to the floor with a thud. Fortunately he fell the right way up and didn’t hurt himself too much. He was about to scuttle to the door and open it when he thought of the poster. His parents couldn’t be allowed to know that he had bought a nude poster. It wasn’t what good boys did – good bachelor boys weren’t even supposed to know or care what a naked woman was like. Even though the thought of a naked woman was enough now to make him puke, he went to it and yanked it down from where he’d propped it up on the wall. Not finding anywhere else to put it, he finally slid it under the bed.

Then he went over to the door, but he found himself labouring for breath, since his spiracles couldn’t oxygenate his tissues fast enough. Whistling like a boiling kettle, he heaved himself up to the door and somehow slipped the latch open.

Perhaps he should have known what would happen next. In his defence, though, he wasn’t exactly thinking straight.

Fortunately, though there was a stampede, nobody was hurt.


I’ll go to Tirupathi Temple tomorrow,” Amma sobbed, “and shave my head. I’ll beg the Lord Balaji to cure him.”

It was later in the day. Samsamurthy was locked inside his room, his parents and sister whispering urgently outside. They’d phoned him sick at work, and sent away his tuition kids. Fortunately, none of them had caught a glimpse of the big insect or it would have been the talk of the town.

“I talked to the astrologer,” her husband said. “He says it’s because of the positions of Rahu and Ketu, and we shouldn’t do anything until the malign influence passes.” From inside his room, Samsamurthy could hear Appa’s urgent whisper. “Most of all,” he said, “we can’t let it out that this happened. Who would marry Umaparvathi then?”

“I don’t want to get married,” Umaparvathi said sullenly. “I want to become an engineer.”

Her parents ignored her. “This is what happens when we don’t keep tight control over children,” Appa said. “They go wild and then the gods get angry, and this kind of thing happens. I told you again and again, he needs to be beaten, but you would never let me put a hand on him. Now see where that gets you.”

Samsamurthy tried to protest, but only ended up hissing angrily.

“Listen to him!” Amma said. “The poor boy must be suffering. Now if only Lord Balaji takes pity on him then everything will be all right.”

“In any case,” Appa responded, “he has to recover quickly, so as to keep earning. We can’t risk his losing his job.”

“At a time like this,” Amma sobbed, “all you can think of is money?”

“Well, what do you suggest I think about? If he doesn’t recover, who’s going to earn? Do you expect me to go to work at my age?”

“I can work,” Umaparvathi declared. “I can easily get a salesgirl’s job in Muthuswamy and Sons. They pay well, and I can work in the evening, after school. All I’d have to do is give up music class. I hate music class anyway.”

Neither parent looked at her. “Your music class is important,” Amma said. “You’ll be able to get a better husband if you can sing. And I won’t let you go work somewhere like Muthuswamy where you can talk to boys.”

“The astrologer told me he’ll do some special calculations tonight,” Appa said to Amma. “He’ll be able to say when the influence of Rahu and Ketu will ease.”

“Give your brother some dosa to eat,” Amma told the girl. “He’ll be hungry and dosa is his favourite.”

The thought of dosa made Samsamurthy’s stomach turn over just as the naked woman in the poster had earlier, but he was hungry. Suddenly he realised he was famished. So when his sister pushed open the door and timidly slid a plate of dosa into the room, he made an attempt to eat. But he could not taste the food at all, and found it excessively crumbly – his mouth parts couldn’t handle it. So he flung it down again, and, disconsolately wandering about the room, suddenly he smelt something that felt to him like heaven. Throwing himself upon the bookcase, he pulled out the school textbooks, and, one by one, began to eat the paste binding the pages together.

Later, he had a sudden idea. He had heard Appa going out, stomping angrily across the floor, and knew he was going to the astrologer to find out what the reading had disclosed. Amma was sitting in front of her household shrine, praying loudly, and Umaparvathi had gone to evening music class. He decided to see if he could crawl up the wall and through the ventilator under the ceiling.

It turned out to be extremely easy. His spiny legs proved able to adhere easily to the plaster, and his broad but flat body squeezed without difficulty through the narrow space. He didn’t even have as much trouble breathing as he’d had down on the floor.

He squatted on the terrace of the building, looking out at the city, and especially at the big shopping complex opposite. Without too much difficulty, he thought, he’d be able to crawl across the intervening space and through ventilators like the one he’d just come through, all the better to find things he could eat, like the wonderful glue earlier in the day. He could even perhaps rob a safe or two and bring back the money, and leave it lying around, so his parents wouldn’t feel the pinch. He’d do it tomorrow, he thought. For tonight, it was enough that he knew he could do it.

After a while, he climbed back through the window, rooted around and ate a little more, and then went to sleep.

That night he had a dream. He was scuttling around in a huge room full of other insects, all of whom were very attractive and female. One particular lady cockroach drew his attention immediately, with her long sexy antennae and the come-hither look in her smouldering compound eyes. He ran after her, trying to caress her with his own antennae, but she kept on flicking him away. At last, with an angry hiss, she scuttled away faster than he could follow, squeezed through a hole in the floor, and disappeared. And when Samsamurthy looked around, he found that all the others had disappeared as well. He was alone.

He woke so bitterly disappointed that it was some time before he realised that his spine was aching. This was followed by the discovery that he had a spine, and a moment after that he realised that he had the usual four limbs again, and a nose and mouth and the rest of it. In the wan light of dawn, he saw that he was sprawled on top of his terrible soft mattress, human once more.

Ayyaiyyo,” he said. “I wonder if I’m attracted to women again? There’s only one way to find out.”

Leaping up eagerly, he bent under the bed and pulled out the poster, his heart already thumping with excitement. And then, looking at it, he let out a hollow groan.

Sometime during the evening, he’d eaten most of it.

Inspired by, but with no apologies to, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Monday 16 April 2012

But If Mars Has Life

One of the most interesting bits of news in the last few days seems to have been largely ignored by media obsessing over what some “celebrity” wore in a function or what a politician’s latest profundity on this or that might be.

Simply put, it was this: that there is, almost to a certainty, life on Mars. And this life was discovered as long ago as 1976; only nobody recognised the fact till now.

Think about that; 1976, when I was just starting school, the Vietnam War had been over only a year, a mulitlateral world order still existed, there was no such thing as a cell-phone or the internet, and the Viking rovers were digging into Martian soil. The scientists didn’t recognise it then, but the data didn’t vanish, and re-examination showed that there’s, apparently, a 99% chance that the Red Planet actually has life. In most statistical systems, a 99% chance is considered about as close to a sure thing as you can get.

In other words, there are almost certainly Martians, though they aren’t climbing into cylinders and blasting through space to land in your backyard and disgorge tripod fighting machines. Not yet, anyway.

These Martians are, if they exist, bacteria, or organisms analogous to bacteria. You know bacteria? Those tiny things somewhere between the worlds of the viruses and the earliest, smallest algae, which aren’t even eukaryotic in their cell structure? I mean those bacteria, or organisms equivalent to them.

This might not seem like a big deal. And, actually, it isn’t a big deal.

It is a humongous, a gigantic, a titanic deal.

From our viewpoint as self-appointed lords of the earth, bacteria aren’t significant. In reality, they are so significant that life as we know it would be impossible without them. Everything – but literally everything – that can be considered “life as we know it” ultimately depends on bacteria. (And a note here, referencing HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, in which the Martian invaders died off because Mars didn’t have bacteria and so they had no defences against them; that is simply not possible. Without bacteria, Wells’ Martians could never have existed, since all organic matter would have been locked up in corpses which could not decompose and release their nutrients to the environment. The first generation of complex life would have been the last. So there.) And there are, correspondingly, more bacteria than there are anything else. In terms of numbers, almost all life is bacteria. Such gigantic creatures as blue whales, humans or cockroaches are infinitesimal compared to them.

It’s not just that bacteria are somewhere else, either. A few days ago I’d written an article in which I pointed out, inter alia, that we humans have, on average, a hundred trillion bacteria in our bodies. When we’re looking in the mirror, we are viewing a composite organism, most of which is bacterial. We are part bacteria ourselves.

So, yes, bacteria on Mars are something of a gargantuan deal; but it’s more than just the fact that bacteria are important to life.

Mars, as you may know, isn’t exactly the canal-irrigated, hospitable world that nineteenth-century science fiction would have led us to expect. It is, in fact, a cold, extremely arid planet where there hasn’t been running water for billions of years, a planet with an atmosphere that isn’t exactly breathable by our standards – what little there is of it. Think of the moon with a thin wrapping of carbon dioxide, and you wouldn’t be all that far off.

And yet, Mars has, it seems, bacterial life. And I don’t mean possible fossils in an ancient meteor, though those are important enough; I mean actual, feeding, reproducing, bacterial life.

What does this mean? It means something extremely important, so important that we humans should stop murdering each other and think about the implications. And those implications are these:

Firstly, if Mars has life, active bacterial life, then we are not alone in this solar system, let alone the Universe. It doesn’t matter that this life is “just” bacterial life; its very existence immediately knocks humanity off its self-styled pedestal as the pinnacle of creation. All right, so it’s “only” bacteria; but, as I said, bacteria (or equivalents) are essential to the existence of any more organised life. If you don’t have bacteria, you have nothing. Ergo, if bacteria exist elsewhere, the fundamentals of life exist elsewhere. And that means...

...that, secondly, if bacteria can exist in an environment as inimical as Mars, then they can exist just about anywhere; in fact, we don’t have to depend on “goldilocks planets” to find life. If life can exist on Mars, then we can expect to find it almost anywhere, from the seas of Europa to the atmosphere of Jupiter, from the planets orbiting nearby stars to the gas clouds between the galaxies. It might well be that lifelessness is the exception.

Now think about that for a moment; not in scientific terms, but in philosophical.

Not so very long ago, the earth was a flat disc, around which the sun, moon, and entire cosmos revolved. It was the centre of all creation, the only favoured place of the gods, and, of course, the ruling species was the pinnacle of creation – so much so that the majority of religions ascribed to the gods the same physical characteristics as humanity. But time passed, and the earth – in spite of the efforts of the Catholic Church, which burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for stating that the sun was a star and other worlds could have life – shrank to a sphere orbiting the Sun, which briefly took its place as the centre of creation, before becoming an ordinary little star on a spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy in the seas of time and space; hardly a fleck in the heavens. And, simultaneously, that most favoured species of the gods became just another ape, the result of random mutations and evolutionary pressures; a creature which has existed for the blink of an eye, and might vanish tomorrow when circumstances change – as they will.

So now, when we suddenly have to consider the fact that we are definitely not the only place in the cosmos which has life, and we have to consider the possibility that the cosmos is teeming with life, what does that do to us, the former Centre of All Creation? We shrink to the position of, perhaps, a gnat, or worse. We are as nothing.

Can we – do you think human society, especially human society as regulated by absolutist Abrahamic religions, is ready to deal with that realisation? When you consider that the nation which arrogates to itself the right to rule this planet as its private domain, the nation which claims to be the fount of enlightenment and liberty, still can’t make its own citizens accept the fact that they are simply evolved apes, then what chance do you think this further realisation stands?

And this is why, I think, we aren’t going to hear much about the Martian bacteria; in fact, I’ll even say efforts to confirm their existence will be killed off by deliberate underfunding and suchlike underhanded tactics. Unless there’s a potential military or other profit-making applicability, the powers that be are scared of science. They absolutely do not wish to know. And if these bacteria are confirmed, you can bet the news will be carefully buried in other chatter.

Of course, that won’t stop the Martian bacteria from existing, just as the Creationists can’t erase evolution just by denying it. Even King Knut couldn’t turn back the tide.

But it’s a tragedy on a Cosmic scale that we allegedly rational creatures don’t take this opportunity to measure our own place in the wonder that is the Universe, and realise what a precious bubble of life we inhabit – this beautiful blue planet, where bacteria are just the foundations on which everything from elephants to earthworms, from earwigs to echidnas, have evolved. We should come together now, to preserve what we have. Unfortunately we just keep on destroying it.

Looking at it from the level of sustainability, then, the Martian bacteria may be the favoured ones.

Further Reading:

Good Mourning Afghanistan

Kabul, 16th April 2012. Rueters. On the second day of  massed attacks on diplomatic enclaves, military strongpoints and other targets across the embattled Afghan capital, NATO spokesmen said confidentially that these attacks prove the weakness and desperation of the Taliban.

"We've done the Taliban so much damage across the countryside", Brigadier General T A L Storie said, "that they have no other option but to assault the cities." As he spoke, plaster from explosions rained down from the ceiling.

"All the counter-Taliban fighting," he said, "is being conducted by our brave Afghan allies. It's absolutely not true that NATO is helping in any shape or form. If you don't believe me, go look out of this window, but don't blame me when your head gets shot off. What, nobody wants to do that? There you are, then.

“Under the glorious leadership of our Commander in Chief, President Obama,” Brigadier General Storie continued, ducking under the table as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the window sill, “the Taliban has been practically annihilated. Our troops will not only be able to conclude all their combat operations by 2014, but will then be able to remain forever in peaceful occu...I mean, in peaceful partnership with the Afghans to ensure the Taliban never return.”

To the questions of the assembled reporters, shouted over the sound of the barrage, the Brigadier continued, “Also, the Taliban are cowards. Cowardy-custard cowards. They don’t fight fair. That’s why they’re outside there shooting at us from close quarters. Otherwise they’d come out in the open so our brave boys could blow them away with drones and stealth bombers flying at stratospheric levels. Now that’s what I call a fair fight.”

As reports came in of further Taliban raids across the country, the Brigadier emerged momentarily from under his desk. “It’s absolutely not true that the Afghan security forces are riddled with Taliban,” he said. “All Afghans in the National Army and Police are absolutely loyal. Those cases where so-called Afghan soldiers and police have murdered their NATO overlords...I mean trainers...were, in every case, Iranian agents. We have proof of this, supplied to us by Israel.” 

In response, the White House announced another 1234 sanctions on Iran, this time targeting olive oil vendors and cobblers, and announced that it would “understand” if Israel felt compelled to drop a billion tons of bombs on Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Taliban spokeman, Mullah Barakuddin, claimed that his organisation had launched a Spring Offensive designed to carry the war to the occupation forces. In response, President Obama proclaimed “Bring Them On!” and announced that he would launch another 5678 daily drone flights over Pakistan. These drone flights, he said, by expending large amounts of munitions, would also further speed up economic recovery in the United States.

“Anyone opposing the Commander in Chief’s decision,” a White House spokesperson declared on condition of anonymity, “is a traitor and a peacen...I mean, terrorist, and the Commander in Chief reserves the right to terminate such persons without trial, and their families as well. Remember Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.”

The Most Honourable Order of Obama Worshippers immediately nominated the President for further Nobel Prizes in Peace, Economics, Medicine and Chemistry. “If it were not for the unpatriotic refusal of the Physics Committee,” its spokesperson, Brownne Oser, said, “to consider the Commander in Chief for an award in that subject, we’d have nominated him for that as well.” A spokesperson for the Nobel Committee declined comment.

Just in: Taliban forces have overrun the office in which Brigadier General Storie was giving his briefing. Last heard, the gallant officer was shouting for the stampeding reporters to return, and insisting that the attacking insurgents did not actually exist.

"They're all dead," he shouted. "I tell you, they have all been killed!" 

It is not known what happened afterwards, but presumably the dead Taliban ate his brains.

Pictured: Afghan soldiers shooting at nonexistent Taliban attackers