Saturday 23 June 2012

Drone Pilot

When I grow up I want to be a drone pilot.

I want to fight for freedom
On the other side of the world
Sitting here, in front of this screen,

Watching the action
Like a war movie
Or a video game.
I play video games well. I blow lots of enemies away.
Well enough to be a drone pilot.

You can be a hero when you are a drone pilot
Flying in alien skies
Killing the bad guys. It’s easy.
Press a button and they die.

Yes the rockets fly out, there’s a flash and a puff of smoke
No mess, no blood to deal with, no smell of burst open guts
No sound of screaming.

You look at a screen. You press a button. The bad guys just die.

And they deserve to die
Because the enemy’s evil, cowardly and sly
And sneakily crawls on his belly

While my drone flies missions for freedom
Bravely in the sky.

When I grow up I want to be a drone pilot

I want to live science fiction live
And fight the war the way it was intended
Without the loss of a real life.
Just images on the screen blowing apart
On the other side of the world

I want to spread my wings in foreign skies
Fighting Evil
Bringing Liberty
Truth, Justice
And Democracy.

My missiles the voice of God
And anyone who doesn’t listen
Struck down from on high
Like a bolt of lightning
From a cloudless sky.

When I grow up I want to be a drone pilot
And blow evildoers away.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012 


Black in the Dark

I’m told you’re different, brother
That you and I are far apart
For your eyes are blue as the sky, brother
Or your hair’s curly and your skin is dark
And you should be bound in chains brother
Of ignorance and of shame –
For you are not the same as me, brother,
For you are not the same.
But it doesn’t matter what you are, brother
They’re way off the mark
For we’re all black in the dark, brother
We’re all black in the dark.

They tell you you’re weak, sister
That you shouldn’t look a man in the eye –
That you should know your place, sister
And watch the world pass you by.
For they are afraid of you, sister
The female essence is your power
If you rose up against them, sister
They would not last out the hour.
They force you into silence, sister
In hijabs made of cloth or of words.
They think your sexuality a sin, sister
And whore it out or shut it in
But we’re all naked in our skin, sister
We’re all naked in our skin.

They tell you that you’re a hero, soldier
That as a hero you live and die –
You must know that they lie to you, soldier
You must know that they lie.
When they give you a medal, soldier
Tell you liberty and peace you defend
They send you to die in their place, soldier
You’re a means to serve their end.
You paint your bayonet with blood, soldier
But time will pass and the steel will rust
And the flag flying so proud, soldier
Will be a scrap of cloth in the dust
The flag you guard with your life, soldier
Will be blowing in the dust.

You tell the people of heaven, Holy Father
You fill them will fears of hell
You turn their heads with words, Holy Father
Faith is all you have to sell.
You give no proof or reason, Holy Father
Except that they must believe
For you’re the one with the line to God direct, Holy Father
And you decree when to joy and to grieve.
But your time is growing short, Holy Father
Not much longer can you pretend
For we know we’re all dead in the end, Holy Father
We know we’re all dead in the end.

Come together, brother and sister
Let’s shed the scales from our eyes
Let’s pull down the blinkers and see for ourselves
Sift the truth from the lies.
When we’re together we’re invincible, brother and sister
The walls will come tumbling down
The light of knowledge come flooding, brother and sister
And nothing will ever keep us down
And nothing will ever keep us down.

For we all have eyes we need to use
Ears with which we must learn to hear
And we’re all brothers and sisters
Wherever we are, far and near.
There are no divisions no borders between us
Just the vital human spark
And we’re all naked in our skin
And we’re all black in the dark.

                                                                                                         Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

The Salesman

When Lollola announced that he was planning to sell silk to the Goblins, everyone assured him that he was crazy.
“You’re nuts,” they informed him, their eyes wide with consternation. “You’re stark, raving crazy.”
“Why?” Lollola replied, quite calmly. “I’ve won the Salesman of the Year trophy for three of the last five years, and was runner-up the other two. I’ve sold beef recipes to the Indians, bikinis to the Taliban, and atheist literature to the Americans. I need challenges to overcome!”
“But why choose Goblins?” they asked. “They don’t even wear any clothes!”
“Which makes it even more of a challenge,” Lollola replied smoothly. “And, besides, can you imagine the commission I’ll earn?”
Leaving them still shaking their heads in bewilderment, Lollola went off to get his sample case.
It was a grand sample case, which Lollola had inherited from his great-great-grandfather, who had been known to all as the Emperor of all the Salespeople. It was made of polished leather, ancient but soft and glossy, fitted with magnificent silver buckles. Nobody else had such a case, and nobody else knew where it came from. Family lore had it that the great man had won it gambling with the Little Folk, but that was certainly too ridiculous, because everyone knew the Little Folk did not gamble.
Wherever it had come from, Lollola always thought that the very sight of the case sealed a good half of his deals, and so he polished and buffed it until it gleamed, and packed it with all the different samples of silk he had. Then off he went.
Although he’d never had any dealings with the Goblins before, they weren’t hard to find. He tracked them down easily enough by the smell. They lived in the creepy old castle just three left turns past the edge of town, the one in the forest, with the moss-green walls. Lollola walked past the three left turns and through the forest until he came to the castle. Ignoring the purple smoke oozing from the chimneys and the lunatic howls echoing up from the basement, he climbed up the stairs and hammered on the big front door.
In his mind, all the while, was the Salesman’s Golden Book, written by himself, which had a precept on each page: homilies such as LOOK THE WORLD IN THE EYES and NEVER FORGET A SMILE; IT MAY BE YOUR PATH TO AN ORDER. Even though he’d written it, he suddenly felt a need to keep repeating the homilies to himself. Of course he wasn’t nervous or something of the kind; he just had never dealt with such clients as the Goblins before.
The castle door opened to his touch, of course – as the old grandmother had told him, the Goblins never turn a visitor away. Also, of course, there was nobody in the doorway when it opened, because the Goblins are shy and do not, as far as possible, wish to be seen. But Lollola knew they would be watching him, so he strode in and plonked his sample case down on a table on which a candle stood burning.
The howls from the basement stopped, and now, all around, he could hear scurrying and whispers, as though rats were scuttling through the walls. He could also smell the characteristic odour of the Goblins, which an ancient grandmother had once described as a mixture of ripe cheese, decaying tomato, and lavender, with a whiff or two of kerosene mixed in. He knew they were watching.
One by one, Lollola spread out his silks on the table – the coarse heavy material first, fashioned into socks and undershirts for demonstration purposes, and then the finer, shimmering stuff, shining like liquid rainbows in the candlelight. He held the silks up and twirled them around, in a waterfall of light, and kept up a steady patter, though he wasn’t at all sure if the Goblins could even understand English. The aged grandmother hadn’t been all that clear on that point. He had just done a slow pirouette with the largest, finest and gaudiest piece in his case when, looking back at the table, he saw a Goblin sitting on it.
“Hello,” he told it, smiling brightly. “Good morning. Nice Day, isn’t it?”
The Goblin took no notice of him. It looked like a little wizened mummy, dressed only in a red leather cap, and it was picking up and examining his samples one by one. Lollola was about to speak to it again when it turned its head and signalled that it could not hear him. Then it went back to examining the silks.
Lollola had not won the Salesman of the Year award so many times for nothing. ALWAYS EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED, he had written in his book. NEVER THINK THINGS WILL GO YOUR WAY JUST BECAUSE YOU WANT THEM TO. He had a notepad and pencil all ready, and he began noting down prices for the Goblin’s benefit. The creature took the notepad, read the rates without reacting, and went back to examining the silks. Lollola sighed mentally and prepared to start offering discounts.
Then the Goblin regretfully shook its head, threw down the last piece of silk, and gestured at its naked body, indicating to Lollola that it didn’t wear any clothes and so had no use for the material. Nor did it want tablecloths, curtains, or bedspreads, or indeed anything else that one might conceivably use silk for. Even Lollola was finally disheartened and began packing up his material. One of the attributes of being a good salesman is never to give up, but there’s a point at which one just knows when one is beaten.
It was then that the Goblin noticed the sample case.
Even if Lollola hadn’t been the greatest salesperson of his generation, he wouldn’t have missed the gleam of avarice in the Goblin’s beady little eyes, or the way it reached out for the case, only to jerk its fingers away at the last moment, as though the leather was red-hot. Lollola looked at it and at the case, and then reached for his notebook.
The Goblin wanted a hundred.
Now this was a problem, because there weren’t a hundred sample cases like this one. There was just one, and it was lying on the table with the Goblin salivating over it. But Lollola hadn’t become the Salesman of the Year so many times by bowing to such details. All right, so there weren’t a hundred cases like this one. So what? He’d have a hundred made. If the money was right, he’d have a thousand, ten thousand, a million.
But that was if the money was right.
And what did the Goblins use for money?
In Lollola’s plans for selling silk to the Goblins, he’d missed out on one crucial point: the mode of payment. Goblins weren't cooperative enough to participate in the modern economic system, so, despite their fabled riches, they had no actual currency. Of course, he intimated to the Goblin, he couldn’t actually accept the order without an advance. The Goblin quite understood and went scuttling away. In a breath of time it was back, and holding out something to Lollola. This something was a large and roughly-cut diamond.
Lollola was, of course, a good salesman. He was also not an idiot. The diamond was huge and worth a king’s ransom, but it would as surely bring the most unwanted of attention on him, from the government or from crooks. He’d be lucky to hang on to it long enough to turn it into any cash at all.
“Sorry,” he muttered, shaking his head handing the diamond back. Looking around, he searched for something more easily convertible into money. And, looking around, his notice fell on the candlestick, which was exquisitely worked and of a heavy yellow material like old ivory.
If Lollola had only paid a bit more attention to his old grandmother, he’d have known that the Goblins turned the bones of their revered ancestors into such items as candlesticks, bowls and mirror frames, and that these items were of almost incalculable holiness. But he’d only been listening for information on how to find the Goblins so he could sell things to them, and he did not know.
So it was not really his fault that he stepped forward, yanked the candle out of the holder, popped the stick in his pocket, and - a cheery smile on his lips (ALWAYS SMILE; MAKE THE CUSTOMER FEEL SPECIAL) - turned towards the door.
The Goblin was there already, blocking his way and snarling. And the others, who had been waiting, came boiling forth from the shadows.
As they grabbed hold of Lollola and began pulling him to pieces, he remembered a casual remark of his grandmother’s. The Goblins welcomed all visitors, she had said.
But they were reluctant to let them go.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Wednesday 20 June 2012

To Pick a President

The time has come for you to choose
You’d better get it right
-       Motörhead, Lost Johnny

Well, Heaven have pity upon us, how the time does fly!  Here we are, and it’s 2012 already, and we’re all getting ready for the nation-shaking, no, make that Universe-shaking*, Presidential Election.

What? No, I’m not talking about that election. Whether Barack O’Bummer or some other war criminal-cum-corporate proxy takes over the Evil Empire is immaterial from where I’m standing, because a change which makes no difference is no change at all. No, I mean a Presidential Election much, much closer to home – in Delhi, as it happens.

For those of you who don’t know: yes, we have a President – kind of.

The office of the President of India is a curious one. In theory, the incumbent is the nation’s First Citizen and Supreme Commander in Chief. In practice, he (or she) is a colonial throwback, and functions as little more than a glorified rubber stamp for the powers that be.

In order to understand the reason behind this, a little history lesson might not be inappropriate. I’ve often enough characterised Indian society as inherently, almost genetically, feudal. This is the reason that a few thousand British managed to rule over a subcontinent of hundreds of millions essentially unchallenged; they set up a comprador class of “brown sahibs”, educated and made in their image, to rule over the unwashed masses as imperialist proxies. As dispensers of patronage, these “brown sahibs” had the feudal loyalty of the common people; and, they, in turn, gave their own feudal loyalty to the white overlords.

These brown sahibs were, on the whole, very successful. They were the originators of today’s Great Indian Muddle Class, extremely sensitive towards their own interests, and therefore as extremely unwilling to rock the boat. They served the British Empire remarkably well, both directly as administrators, lawyers and policemen; and also as “safety valves” to let off any popular resentment, by leading the fictional nonviolent Indian “freedom struggle” and ensuring it stayed nicely manageable. The leadership of the so-called nonviolent Indian freedom struggle, not excepting Gandhi, was almost entirely comprised of brown sahibs. Elsewhere I’ve made the point that the real Indian freedom struggle was a violent one, and was unsuccessful primarily due to its own unorganised nature and systematic sabotage by the brown sahib class.

In any case, by the end of the Second World War, it was obvious to everyone that the British would leave fairly soon – they no longer had the capacity to hang on to their Indian colonies. The question then arose of what kind of government the newly-independent India would have. As the default ruling class of the New India, the brown sahibs wished to preserve and take over, in every way, the rights and privileges of the British masters. Therefore they moved into the halls and palaces vacated by the departing British, and – among other things – preserved the old colonial penal code almost in its entirety.

[This is, incidentally, also why they continued with a police force which was (and is) completely under political control and whose primary function was (and is) to, first, protect the ruling class and, secondly, to keep the masses under control in the name of “enforcing law and order”. Crime detection comes a distant third in the list of priorities. This is also why the military remained until the early 1960s a bolt-action-rifle-equipped force suited more to internal security duties than open warfare. And today, when a nuclear arsenal has made open warfare virtually impossible, the army is quickly returning to its internal oppression service roots.]

Almost all these brown sahibs were helpless admirers of the British, and hence slavish emulators of them as well. It is entirely due to this that when the time came to draft a Constitution for their newly independent nation, they could not conceive of any which was not as close a copy as possible of the British system. The British had a House of Lords, for instance, which was not directly elected by the people. Ergo, the new India had to have an equivalent Upper House of Parliament, which would also not be directly elected by the people. The British had a “first past the post” system of constituency based elections, therefore India must have the same and not a proportional representation system, even if the latter might have far more accurately represented the will of the majority. The British had a Prime Minister who held powers which made him the de facto ruler of the nation, so the new India should have one too. And the British had a King, so the new India ought to have one as well.

At this point the slavish emulation broke down, because the brown sahibs were committed to a republic. Actually, they had to be, because at the time the British left, the Indian subcontinent had 543 quasi-independent principalities and petty monarchies; how would one choose a monarch from among these competing aspirations? So, there couldn’t be a monarch, but a similar figure had to be substituted as head of state.

The answer was a President without powers, a figurehead who had no role but as a rubber stamp to approve of the decisions made by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The President’s role was made explicit – he would “have a Prime Minister and a Cabinet to advise him” and he could not reject any “advice” they offered. At most he could refer the “advice” back to them for reconsideration, but if they again sent it to him, he had no choice but to approve. And, since this President was so utterly powerless, it was, at least theoretically, safe to put anyone in the seat, even someone outside the brown sahib power elite.

And since the feudal nature of the brown sahib government was so closely modelled on the British, there was only one place this monarch-substitute could be housed; the sprawling pink sandstone edifice in Delhi which used to be the British Viceroy’s palace, and was renamed the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence). Even the uniforms of the flunkies were kept the same. If I remember right, until as recently as the 1980s (when the threat of terrorist grenades became serious) the President would be driven to the Republic Day function in a British era horse drawn open carriage surrounded by mounted and elaborately turbaned bodyguards.

Now, obviously, the President was meant to be a complete featherweight, and had no real power at all. However, the brown sahibs had missed out on a crucial point: by substituting the King with a President in an instinctively feudal society, they had imbued the position with a certain monarchical gravitas. The President might be, politically speaking, a cipher, he had no power but to return a draft law for reconsideration, and his concerns could be summarily overruled. However, if he did exercise this one right he possessed and returned a law, that pretty much scuppered it because it would be virtually an act of lese majeste for any Prime Minister to ignore the Presidential will.

Initially, this did not really matter, because the first Prime Minister of the nation, Nehru, was the anointed of Gandhi himself and therefore had almost divine sanction; despite his democratic pretensions, he ruled as a virtual dictator until the last phase of his reign when rising political challenges and military defeat to China compelled him to listen to other voices. Nehru could afford to allow strong personalities as Presidents, men of some spine and ability. But after he passed from the scene, political corruption and infighting meant that a pliant President was essential for a Prime Minister to get away with whatever he or she wanted.

Thus it was that the nation saw such Presidents as Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who spinelessly signed away Indian democracy in 1975 when the then Prime Minister, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, declared an internal Emergency and imposed a two-year dictatorship. Thus it was that a few years later, the same Indira Gandhi put her former Home Minister, Zail Singh, into the Presidential Palace; this Zail Singh declared himself ready to “sweep the floor” if Indira Gandhi ordered him to. Some First Citizen of the Republic!

Of course it must be clearly understood that the quasi-monarchical nature of the President’s post meant that the incumbent could not be directly elected by the populace. Indeed, the Indian system is highly suspicious of empowering the population to directly decide on any point whatsoever (for example, the current so-called Prime Minister of the country is a rubber-spined ex-bureaucrat who has never won a single open election in his miserable life). [Incidentally, this is one of those points where I’m an admirer of the American system; at least there the people get to choose which lackey of the military-industrial complex will get to screw them over. It’s better than having the lackey foisted from above without a pretence of choice. One might hope that Tweedledum will ride on one’s back a little bit lighter than Tweedledee.]

Theoretically, any sane and solvent Indian citizen who was at least 35 years old could stand for election to the post of President, but this was felt to be too dangerous – there was an outside danger that someone far too radical might get in, and in any case too many candidates could dangerously dilute one’s own candidate’s vote. So, in the name of eliminating “non-serious” candidates, so many regulations were imposed that it’s difficult now to stand for the post unless one’s the nominee of one political alliance or another.

So this is how they do it: the President is elected every five years from an “electoral college” comprising primarily the elected members of the political class, which was – and in its top echelons still largely is – drawn from amongst the brown sahibs. Since these elected politicians (at the state and the national level) are almost entirely members of political parties, and since these parties are in loose alliances, the “contest” for the post of the President boils down to the relative strength of the alliances, and turns into a power struggle by proxy, each side trying to get its own man into that pink sandstone building.

There are complex calculations to arrive at the “right” candidate. Naturally, he must be pliant and reliable, but that’s not all. Since – as I’ve mentioned many times before – most Indian political parties are basically family-owned private businesses, the choice of Presidential candidate is their one main chance to prove their liberal and socially responsible credentials. Despite India’s alleged secularism, everyone knows perfectly well that a Muslim or Christian can never become the Prime Minister. Therefore, we’ve had a disproportionate number of Muslim Presidents (and a couple of Vice-Presidents as well). We’ve had a man from a former “untouchable” caste – KR Narayanan – as President (he gave the brown sahibs a scare, since he turned out to be a man of integrity and backbone, so he wasn’t given another term). And right now we have a woman President, thus proving the current government’s feminist credentials, and distracting attention from its failure to pass any meaningful pro-woman legislation. Incidentally, this woman President, Pratibha Patil, has been openly called a disgrace to the office she occupies. Even by the standards of pliant figureheads, she plumbs a new low.

Well, now, Pratibha Patil’s five years of disgracing the Presidential Palace are drawing to an end, and nobody has even attempted to seriously suggest that she be given another term. Therefore, the political shenanigans are on to put up candidates for next month’s election. Who is going to succeed her?

A little background to the current political situation is essential in order to attempt to find an answer to this question.

 If there’s a metaphor which accurately sums up the state of the current government, led by the Congress Party, it’s “zombie”. Hammered by one corruption scandal after another on one hand (the sums are so mind-boggling as not to make any sense), and by skyrocketing inflation on the other, the government has pretty much ceased to exist, let alone govern. It’s just shambling around, dead to all intents and purposes, but refusing to lie down.

The Congress Party’s Great White Hope (more accurately Great Half-White Hope, since he’s half-Italian) was the dynastic scion and Crown Prince, Nehru’s great-grandson Rahul Gandhi. As I said here, the incumbent “prime minister” is an unelected and unelectable ex-bureaucrat called Manmohan Singh, whose primary qualifications for the post he holds are his fealty to the Congress Party’s ruling dynasty and his complete lack of a political base, which means he can never be a threat to the said dynasty.  His role was envisaged as a combination of proxy for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a chair-warmer, who was expected to stand aside in favour of the Crown Prince when the time was ripe. (As it happens, there was speculation three years ago that 2012 would be the year when the time became ripe, with Singh being kicked upwards to the Presidential chair and Rahul Gandhi taking over as prime minister.)

But after a recent string of electoral defeats, it’s now more than obvious that Gandhi himself is incapable of winning votes for his party, and putting him into the Prime Minister’s position would mean making him captain of a sinking ship. The Congress Party being a Gandhi family fief, the imperative is to shield him at all costs. Nor can the dynasty risk someone with a political base of his own getting into power – the last time this happened was in the early nineties, when someone named PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister; it took years for the dynasty to recover control of the party.

Narasimha Rao is now long dead, but there are at least two powerful candidates in the Congress who might emerge as rival power centres to the dynasty. I’ve mentioned them before as potential replacements to Manmohan Singh: the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who had come close to the Prime Minister’s chair before more than once; and a sleazy ex-corporate lawyer and mining company shill called P Chidambaram, who serves as the dynasty’s Home Minister. Of these, the unsavoury Chidambaram is far the lesser threat, but Mukherjee is a serious danger. He’s not known to be corrupt and actually retains something of a spine, which is a remarkable achievement in the Congress Party. With Manmohan Singh now one of the living dead, it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify his continuation in the prime minister’s chair; but he can’t be allowed to vacate it either.

Therefore, the only real Congress candidate who might replace him, Pranab Mukherjee, had to be got out of the way. If he could be made President, the dynasty would actually achieve several goals all at once. Right off the bat, I can think of at least five:

First, it would remove him from the succession (after a stint as President, he’s supposed to be above active politics) and neutralise him as a threat to Rahul Gandhi.

Secondly, though in recent years Mukherjee has largely followed the neoliberal economic policies dictated by India’s new overlords in Washington, he’s one of the last survivors of the Congress Party’s old guard, which had once had vaguely socialistic credentials. Mukherjee simply isn’t capitalistic enough to suit certain people. If he can be made president, the post of finance minister can be filled by someone more supinely pro-Big Business even than he. Already the talk is that he will be replaced by Montek  Singh Ahluwalia, another unelectable ex-bureaucrat with no political base. This Ahluwalia is (in)famous for proclaiming that food prices in India are rising because people have so much money to spend (this, while the poor have access to less food than before and stockpiled grains rot in silos). I’d say his actions as finance minister might be fairly predictable.

Third, Mukherjee is – like the majority of India’s official “left” (as distinct from the real left, which shuns electoral politics) an ethnic Bengali. The Congress government originally came to power with the help of the “left”, which it then dumped in order to cosy up to Washington. But now, with the Hindunazi right resurgent, the Congress probably feels the need to build bridges with the “left” again. Since Bengalis are among the most parochial people in the world (I know; I’m one myself), the Bengali members of the “left” would react with enthusiasm to the idea of one of “their own” becoming President. [That this calculation wasn’t off the mark was clearly borne out by the fact that the larger of the two main “communist” parties (actually, a washed-out pink) has welcomed the idea, despite its alleged ideological opposition to Mukherjee.]

Fourth, the chances are that the next national election, due in two years’ time, will see the Congress-led coalition government thrown out of office. If a ramshackle coalition succeeds them, it would be extremely useful to the dynasty to have a Congress proxy in the President’s chair to take advantage of any splits or political crises to ask the Congress to form the government again. If the Hindunazis succeed them, it would be similarly useful to have a Congress President to stymie, as far as possible, the new government’s policies. Remember what I said about the President’s monarchical status?

Fifth, the Congress party is at the mercy of a most troublesome ally: the Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee. This woman leads a party called the Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress, over which she rules as absolute dictator, and in recent times she has begun acting so autocratically as to have become an extreme embarrassment to the Congress. The Congress was looking for an opportunity to put the Trinamool Congress in its place, and since (for whatever reason) Mamata Bannerjee is vehemently opposed to Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature, making him the candidate was the perfect means of achieving that end.

Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the Congress has decided on Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate; what’s surprising is that it took so long to decide it. Till a relatively recent time, it kept insisting that it couldn’t spare him; I wonder when the penny dropped, or who was responsible for it dropping. Not Mukherjee, you can be sure. He’s far too intelligent not to know when he’s being kicked upstairs.

From left: Unelected "Prime Minister" Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherkjee, and dynasty head Sonia Gandhi

The move seems to have caught the Hindunazis flatfooted. They still haven’t, as of this writing, decided on their own man for the post. There was talk of putting up Pratibha Patil’s predecessor, “Dr” APJ Abdul Kalam, who was also Mamata Bannerjee’s favoured candidate, for a second term. But “Dr” Kalam is a canny individual, who has achieved a level of mass popularity through judicious self-promotion (for example, the “Dr” he sports before his name is merely an honorary doctorate, but he allows it to be assumed that he has a PhD). He has little reason to risk this popularity by getting down into politics again, and has let it be known that he won’t contest unless assured of getting a minimum of 60% of the votes. He knows this won’t happen because even though he’s popular and though he is a Muslim, he’s far too closely associated with the Hindunazis, whose candidate he was last time round.

So, the Hindunazis are still floundering around for a candidate. Meanwhile, they’ve had an additional shock: the most openly Nazi of the Hindunazi parties, the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra state, has even decided to support Mukherjee.

As of this writing, the only declared opponent to Pranab Mukherjee is the former Chief Minister of this state, Purno Agitok Sangma. A couple of decades ago, Sangma was a politician with a bright future, with his star clearly in the ascendant. But he fell afoul of the Congress dynasty and left the party. Now, he is almost a pathetic figure. reduced to pleading his case as a candidate who, because he is a Christian and a tribesman (he belongs to the Garo tribe), deserves to be President. Even his own Nationalist Congress Party (like its fellow offshoot the Trinamool Congress, the NCP is a Congress ally) has threatened to expel him unless he withdraws; but Sangma is, as of this writing, still in the fray. It’s unclear what support he has, if any.

Again, as of this writing, it seems that Pranab Mukherjee will likely be the next President, unless the Hindunazis pull a rabbit out of their hat. Either way, it hardly makes a difference in the long run.

A rubber stamp by any other name would ink just as blue.

*We Indians don’t merely shake worlds; we shake entire Universes. Let the Chinese carry out their puerile space expeditions and their pathetic little successful orbital docking manoeuvres and so on. We Indians are better than them!  Someday we will rule the galaxies with hypersonic planes! After all, our ancestors invented everything from the nuclear bomb to genetic engineering. And yah boo sucks to you!

Monday 18 June 2012

Alice in Thunderland

The Interesting Thing happened on a Sunday. This is rather rare, you understand, because Interesting Things so seldom happen on Sundays, when people are at home to see them. They usually happen when everyone is in school, or sitting in their offices, or maybe late at night when they are sleeping, and then one only reads of them in the newspaper, and that a couple of days late.

But this Interesting Thing happened on a Sunday, and it happened just after lunch, when nobody could ask Alice to do lessons or to come in for the meal, so that she saw it all for herself, and thought herself very fortunate.

Alice was lying on her back in the grass and looking up at the sky. “Now,” she thought, “that’s a strange-looking cloud up there. It almost looks like a kind of boat, flying up in the sky under a kind of balloon.” And she waved at the cloud, though she felt a little foolish doing so.

“It is a boat,” someone said near her ear, in a small piercing voice. “And it is flying up in the sky under a balloon.”

Alice turned her head to see who had spoken, and found a large brown grasshopper watching her with bulging eyes. “Now,” she said, “how would you know something like that?” For she thought it was very strange that a grasshopper should know anything of boats, not to speak of balloons. If it had spoken of carts or horse carriages she would not have been surprised.

“I know everything,” the grasshopper said solemnly, moving its feelers and staring at her out of its bulbous eyes. “There is nothing I don’t know. Go ahead, ask me a question. Any question.”

“All right,” Alice said reasonably. “What is the moon made of?” she asked after a moment’s thought. “I read it’s made of dust and rock.”

“Dust and rock!” the grasshopper repeated with contempt. “Did you ever see the moon?”

“There’s no need to be rude,” Alice replied. “Of course I’ve seen the moon.”

“I suppose,” the grasshopper said, “you know then that the moon is white. Did you ever see white dust and rock? No?”

“What’s the moon made of then?” Alice asked a little uncertainly, thinking that somewhere there must be white dust and rock but quite unable to think of where that might be.

“Why,” the grasshopper said, and rubbed its wings together. “The moon’s made of cheese, and a big rat in the sky eats it bit by bit until it’s all gone. And then the rat goes away looking for food, and the moon grows big again, and continues to grow until the rat gets the smell of the cheese and comes back to eat it. Do you understand?”

Alice was saved from answering this question by a voice from above. “Well then,” the voice said peevishly. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”

Alice looked up to see that a most curious object was hanging in the air just above her head. It was a wooden hull like a boat, only it had cables running up from its sides and over a long white balloon shaped like a big fat cigar which floated above it, which she had first thought was a cloud. A small man with a curious leather cap on his head was leaning over the side of the boat and gesturing at her impatiently.

“I beg your pardon?” Alice asked, for she had recently learned to Be Polite. “I don’t understand.”

“Are you coming aboard,” the little man with the leather cap said slowly and clearly, “or aren’t you?” His voice grew peevish again. “If you didn’t want to come,” he asked, “why did you signal to me?”

“I didn’t signal to you,” Alice said indignantly. “I didn’t do any such thing.”

“Of course you did,” the man said. “You waved. Didn’t she wave?” he asked the grasshopper.

“Yes,” the grasshopper agreed. “If you didn’t want to go aboard,” he asked Alice, “why did you wave?”

“Well,” the little man said, “I can’t wait any longer. If you aren’t going to come aboard I’ll fly off to Thunderland.”

“Thunderland?” Alice asked. “Where’s that?”

“Don’t you know anything?” the little man asked in disgust.

“No, she doesn’t,” the grasshopper said. “She told me the moon was made of rocks and dust. Rocks and dust!”

“Everyone knows where Thunderland is,” the man said, peering at Alice. He really was a very strange-looking little man, she saw, with his round leather cap and huge black moustaches on his thin face, as brown as a walnut. “Are you a foreigner or something?”

“Certainly not,” Alice responded more indignantly than before. “I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never heard of Thunderland.”

“Do you want to see it then, or don’t you?” the man asked. He did something with his hand, like turning a wheel, and the boat began to rise and fall a little, just like a real boat on a river when there are waves. “If you want to come, then get in.”

It was on the tip of Alice’s tongue to refuse, but then she remembered that this was an Interesting Thing, and that she should take full advantage of it. Besides, if she stayed behind she would have to listen to the grasshopper talk about the moon and how she didn’t know anything. So she remembered to Be Polite, and made a little curtsey.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “I’d like to come aboard.”

The little man didn’t say anything, but a short flight of steps opened from the bottom of the boat, so that she could easily climb into it. When Alice got into the boat, she saw that he was a very little man – he hardly came up to her shoulder – and that he was dressed as warmly as though it was winter and not the middle of summer, with a long scarf wrapped round his neck, heavy gloves and a leather overcoat which hung over his boots.

“Aren’t you feeling hot, dressed like that?” Alice wanted to ask, but one of the lessons of Being Polite was never to make Personal Comments. Instead, she looked curiously around her, and found the inside of the boat wonderfully furnished with all manner of queer knobs and levers and wheels, one of which the little man began to turn furiously. The boat gave a lurch and began to rise. In less time than it takes to write of, they were high in the air, and the clouds were floating by. Then the man pressed and pulled some knobs, and something like a windmill at the back of the boat began to turn round and round. It began to move forward slowly.

“Oh, look,” Alice said, as a flock of pigeons flapped by. “There are birds flying past us.”

“Of course there are birds,” the little man snapped irritably. “What do you expect to be flying – elephants?”

Alice giggled at the thought of elephants flying. “They would have to have very big wings,” she decided.

“Now,” the little man muttered, thrusting his hand in one of the pockets of his coat and fishing out a wrinkled and folded map, “which is the way to Thunderland?” He handed one end of the map to Alice and began unfolding the other end. It kept unfolding until the boat was half full of paper. The little man kept muttering constantly under his breath. “Half a left turn at the Pillar of Air, and then down the Road of Sunlight, but we can’t go too far or we’ll lose our way in the Moors of Moonlight,” he said, and took back his map. Then he pressed on a lever, which caused the boat to change direction and then again.

“Let me introduce myself,” Alice said, because it was rude not to do so. “My name is Alice.”

“And I am Professor Wunderkind,” the little man informed her. “This is my airship.”

“Airship?” Alice asked doubtfully. “It’s too small to be a ship, isn’t it? Though it is like a boat, rather. Maybe you could call it an airboat.”

“What’s that?” the Professor snorted. “Airboat, indeed. I never heard of such a thing. How many ships have you seen?”

Alice was forced to admit she had never seen a ship.

“There you are then,” the Professor said. “How do you know it’s too small to be a ship?”

This seemed unanswerable, so Alice did not try to answer it. They flew on in silence until the Professor changed the airship’s direction again.  

“We’ll be there in a jiffy,” said Professor Wunderkind. “Look, there are the first hills of Thunderland.” Alice, looking out, saw a line of purple clouds which rose up like hills.  As they came closer, she could see palaces and parks and houses of all kinds on the clouds, which rumbled and grumbled constantly with thunder.

“So that’s why they call it Thunderland,” she said. “Don’t they get a headache from the noise?”

“Not a bit of it,” the Professor said. “Why should they?” He began pressing knobs and pulling levers for all he was worth. The airship turned towards the clouds and began to sink. “We’re coming down,” he said. “You’ll be getting down, I daresay?”

“Won’t you be getting down too?” Alice asked. “Thank you very much for the ride,” she added politely.  

“I?” the Professor asked, letting down the stairs for Alice to climb down. “I’ll just be flying around here and there.” Without a further word, he pulled up the stairs as soon as Alice had climbed down them and lifted his airship off from Thunderland.

“Well!” Alice said. “Without even waiting to say goodbye too. Fancy that!”

Then she turned and began walking through Thunderland. It was curious going, because the ground wasn’t really much like proper ground, but more like thick wet cotton into which her feet sank at every step. And the thunder rumbled constantly, so that she felt it vibrate up through her ankles.

“It’s cloud, you know,” said a voice, and Alice saw that it came from an egg. The egg was sitting in a chair, and had a top-hat on, very black and shiny; and a rather natty collar and tie too. “It’s not really ground – it’s cloud, and that’s why your feet sink in.”

“This is really Interesting,” Alice said. “I did not know eggs can talk – or see.”

“Not in your country, maybe,” the egg said pleasantly. “But why should eggs in Thunderland suffer from the same limitations as those elsewhere? You see,” it said, leaning forward earnestly in its chair, so that Alice was afraid it would roll right off, “Thunderland is the kind of place where nothing is limited. Everyone can do anything, provided that he or she wants to and the Most High Grand Panjandrum allows it.”

“The Most High Grand Panjandrum?” Alice asked, thinking that she didn’t much like the sound of that.

“Why, of course,” the egg said. “Without him, none of us would have been able to do whatever we wanted. I, for instance, would have to wait until I hatched to see and talk.” It shuddered so much that it did roll off the chair, but Alice was near enough to grab it before it fell and put it back on the chair.

“Thanks,” the egg said with immense dignity, “but that’s not necessary. I’m always falling off the chair – I fall off every day. I’m, in fact, the Champion Chair-Faller of Thunderland.”

“Oh?”  Alice asked uncertainly. “Well, I never heard of a chair-falling championship; but then I’m a stranger here, you see.”

“A stranger, are you?” the egg repeated. “In that case, you’d better go and meet the Most High Grand Panjandrum right away. He doesn’t like it when people come to Thunderland and don’t make themselves known to him. Why haven’t you gone already?”

“I don’t know where he lives,” Alice said defensively. “If I did, I’d have gone.”

“Just go up that way,” the egg said, but because it had no hands or fingers to point with, Alice could not understand which way it meant. The egg noticed that she was still there, and got angry. “I told you,” it said. “Go up that way. Really, you’re a most aggravating girl. You don’t let me fall off my chair in peace, you don’t go to the Most High Grand Panjandrum, and now you stand there with your mouth open like a fish.”

Alice was about to ask where the egg had ever seen a fish, but then she saw a school of flying fish gliding by. The fishes stared at her derisively, and seemed to be laughing at her lack of wings. Besides, the egg was beginning to get so angry its shell was emitting crackling noises, and she was afraid it might hatch out of anger. So she said “Thank you” quickly and walked away.

At first she walked up a path which took her over a ridge of cloud, but it shivered and quaked so much with thunder that she was afraid she would fall down. Just as she thought this, though, she saw something falling down the ridge towards her, rolling over and over like a ball. It came to rest at her feet and a cautious head and pair of feelers poked out.

“Am I still falling?” a voice asked.

“No,” Alice informed it. “You’re not.”

“Thank goodness.” The ball unrolled and revealed itself to be a wood louse, which brushed and tidied itself. “Much obliged for the information,” it said. “It’s difficult to know whether one’s coming or going, let alone whether one’s rising or falling.”

“Is it?” Alice asked doubtfully. “I see.”

“No, you don’t see,” the wood louse proclaimed. “If you saw, you’d be like my great aunt Millicent, who saw so much that she saw round to the back of her own head.”

“Did she? What happened?”

“Why,” the wood louse said, “she began walking round and round in a circle, trying to see to the front again. It does get awfully tiresome if you can see only the back of your own head.”

“What happened to her?” Alice asked.

“Ah,” the wood louse replied, “that’s a sad tale. A very sad tale. She became a spokesperson for the Most High Grand Panjandrum It’s the only job where you have to keep watching your back. Well, then, I have to be going.”

“Wait!” Alice exclaimed. “I’m looking for the Most High Grand Panjandrum, and...”

It was too late. The wood louse rolled itself into a ball and flung itself down the slope, rolling swiftly away. “Am I falling?” Alice heard it calling out as it went. “Am I still falling?”

“Well now,” Alice said to herself, “I’ve seen everything except flying elephants.”

“I’m not invisible,” something said at her shoulder, in a deep voice. “So if you haven’t seen me, you’ve been wandering around with your eyes closed.”

The elephant was quite small, only about as large as a horse, and had a pair of long grey wings sprouting from its back. It flapped them up and down and glared at Alice.

“I do think,” it declared, “that it’s rude to walk around with your eyes closed.”

“I haven’t been walking around with my eyes closed,” Alice responded indignantly. “Not at all.”

“You must have,” the elephant replied logically. “Or else why didn’t you see me? Anyway,” it added, “it doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t go bumping into people. If you do, they might not sing for you.”

“Sing for me?”

“Must you repeat everything I say?” The elephant raised itself up and glared down at Alice. “I suppose you don’t even want to hear my singing.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice said humbly. “I’d love to hear your singing.”

“All right then,” the elephant said, and curling up its trunk, it closed its eyes, took a deep breath and began to sing.

“It was Midnight on the Seventh Sea
All dry and greenish was the shore
And the Grand Octopus of the Deeper Depths
Cried that it wasn’t even more.

“ ‘For I want to marry the Jellyfish,’
Shedding bitter tears said he
‘And she wants to wed on the shore
Not in the depths of the sea.

“ ‘She wants a wedding to remember
A wedding on the sand
And says she won’t marry me
Until I bring her to land.’

“Meanwhile the fishes came
Came each and every beast
And crab and starfish, crawling too
Came to the wedding feast.

“And the sun and moon danced together
Until the sky turned white
And the assembled wedding guests
Said they couldn’t eat another bite.

“So the moon shone all day
The sun glowed as much as can be
And it was hot as hot, it was
There at the bottom of the sea.

“And the Grand Octopus said, weeping...”

The elephant sang extremely badly, and showed no signs of even pausing for breath, so – seeing its eyes were still closed and it was trembling with ecstasy at its own voice – Alice quietly slipped away.

After walking aimlessly for a while, she heard a lot of shouting in the distance, as though a big crowd was arguing over something. The noise was coming from a large building in the shape of a bolt of lightning, and as she came closer she saw that its edges were snapping and crackling as if it were made of lightning as well, so that she thought it might be better to stay away from it. But just as she was about to turn away, a tiny man darted out of the door and grabbed her by the arm.

“You there, little girl,” he said, though he was only as high as her waist and had to reach over his head to get hold of her arm. (He also had a white beard made into a pigtail, and wore a hat shaped like a cylinder with a tassel on top, but she only noticed these details afterwards.) “Come with me and judge a dispute.”

Alice was alarmed. “Judge a dispute?” she exclaimed. “But I can’t. I’m looking for the Most High Grand Panjandrum to let him know that I’ve just arrived in Thunderland.”

I’m the Most High Grand Panjandrum,” the tiny man snapped. “And it’s a very important case you have to judge, because it’s so complicated that none of us can arrive at a solution.”

Alice began to have the uneasy feeling that the Interesting Thing had started to go a bit too far, but she couldn’t think of anything to do about it except follow the tiny man through the door in the bolt of lightning. Inside there was a room filled with people who were all shouting at once, so that nobody could hear themselves speak and shouted all the louder in consequence.

“These are the Politicians of Thunderland,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum shouted into Alice’s ear. “They are discussing whether the Blue Party or the Yellow Party won the election yesterday.” And when Alice looked at the shouting people again, she noticed that about half of them wore yellow hats and the rest, blue. (They all had teacups and saucers in their laps, but Alice didn’t take much notice of it at the time.)

“You have to decide which side won,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum continued. “It’s a matter vital to the future of Thunderland, you see.”

“But,” Alice asked, “how should I decide? Surely,” she said with some vague memories of what she had overheard her parents say, “all you have to do is count the votes?”

At this everyone fell completely silent, and stared at Alice so that she began blushing for embarrassment. “Count the votes,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said in an awed whisper. “Now, why didn’t we think of that?”   

“Genius, pure genius,” one of the yellow hats murmured.

“What brilliance!” a blue hat responded. “What sagacity!”

“How did you decide on who won the elections all these days?” Alice asked, trying to change the subject.

“Why, on the basis of which side shouted louder and longer, of course,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum replied, ushering Alice to a seat. “Only this time they both kept on and on and I couldn’t decide. But your solution – none of us could ever have thought of something so brilliant. Who are you, little girl?”

Alice introduced herself. “I’ve just arrived in Thunderland,” she said.

“Yes, yes, you’ve told me that already.” The Most High Grand Panjandrum took off his cylindrical hat and polished it on his beard. “And a very fortunate arrival it was too. Now we can have a nice cup of tea, just as soon as we can decide who’s won.”

“Why should we have to wait for that?” Alice wondered. “They haven’t even started counting the votes yet.”

“Because,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said, “only after we know who won can we decide whether to put the milk and sugar into the cup before adding the water, or after.”

“Milk and Sugar First!” a yellow hat shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

“Traitor!” a blue hat screamed back, eyes gleaming fanatically. “Water first, water always!” Shouting broke out again, and the two groups seemed about to come to blows.

“There they go again,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum said sadly. “Such an important question of state requires cool-headed discussion, don’t you think?”

“That’s all?” Alice asked incredulously. “That’s all they’re fighting over – whether to add the water first, or afterwards?”

“Yes, and it’s such an important question too,” the Most High Grand Panjandrum replied sadly. “The future of Thunderland is at stake.”

“I’ve never,” Alice snorted, “heard of anything so ridiculous in my life!”

As before, silence fell, and everyone stared at Alice, but it wasn’t an awed and pleased silence. At length it was the Most High Grand Panjandrum who broke it.

“How dare you!” he whispered, trembling with fury. “How dare you disrespect our democratic values!”

“Tyrant!” everyone shouted at once. “Anti-democrat! Fascist! Communist!”

“You’re all mad,” Alice declared. “I’ve never come across people as mad as you are.” She began to stand up. “Next you’ll be telling me that you fight over whether one should sleep on one’s right side instead of the left.”

A concerted howl of hatred and anger greeted her. “Red Party propagandist!” someone screamed, and they all began flinging their cups and saucers at Alice. They smacked into her face and arms, stinging, and the water in them began wetting her dress.

“I’m going to teach you manners!” Alice shouted back, and began to throw back the cups and saucers at them, but the more she threw, the more they threw at her, and she started getting really wet, as though it was raining, hard, and...


...and she was lying on her back in the garden, wet through, and it was raining hard, after all.

The Interesting Thing was over.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012