Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Great Brush-Off

Back when I was a little kid, toothbrushes were kind of infra dig.

I don’t mean there were no toothbrushes, of course. But, to the average ultra-parsimonious Bunglee middle class family (those days, the early 1970s, the middle class was still the middle class and hadn’t yet evolved to today’s Great Indian Muddle Class) the thought of shelling out money for a foreign-designed plastic contraption which would have to be thrown away in a couple of months, not to mention horrendously expensive tubes of toothpaste, was disheartening. And as for fancy things like floss, who'd even heard of them?

This wasn’t just for dental care products. Bunglees came up with all kinds of ingenious explanations for not using modern conveniences. I remember how reluctant my grandmother was, for example, to use an electric fan. She said it produced an “electric wind” which was bad for health, so she used to cool herself with a hand-held wicker fan which produced little to no air movement. It was light, but after half an hour’s waving around, one’s wrists felt as though they were about to fall off.

There were many similar examples. I don’t think it was just about parsimony; a lot of these people were actually terrified of modernity, of anything that was new in their closed-in lives. They wouldn’t clip their fingernails or go on a journey without consulting an almanac. They wouldn’t even think of going to a new place on vacation; the wife would gather up her brood and vanish to her parents’ place, to re-emerge when the schools restarted. They’d slather themselves all over with mustard oil before taking a bath, rather than use soap. But their attitude to dental hygiene – to toothbrushes and pastes – perfectly symbolised their attitude to it all.

Oh, there was toothpaste – Binaca was the brand of choice then to us kids, because each box contained a little rubber or plastic animal toy alongside the tube. (I built up a huge collection of those plastic animals over the years – there must have been well over a hundred, including a little purple seal I particularly liked. Then while I was in school, my mother gave them away to some kid or other. I wonder how long they lasted with him.) There was Forhan’s, touted as having been “invented by a dentist”, but it tasted horrible and didn’t foam, so nobody much used it. And for a brief while in the late 1970s there was something called Signal, which somehow or other squeezed out red-and-white striped paste. That was popular, of course, with the kids; but I don’t believe I ever got to use any before the red part of the paste was discovered to be carcinogenic and Signal quietly vanished from the market.

Time passed. We grew older, the seventies melted into the eighties. Television arrived and taught us that there was a world outside. Binaca turned into Cibaca and the animals no longer inhabited the packaging, Forhan’s disappeared, and Colgate dominated the market to the extent where it became a synonym for “toothpaste”. Nowadays I often get people asking me if they should “Colgate their teeth with Colgate or some other Colgate.” But all that came later.

Back in the early to mid seventies, though, the pastes were still, basically, considered to be for the hoity-toity. Many people used other things to clean their teeth. I once had the privilege of watching someone use powdered coal (yeah, you read me right – coal) to scrub his teeth clean. Salt wasn’t all that unusual either. As recently as the early 2000s I read a beauty column where a beautician named Suparna Trikha Dewan was telling her victims clients to scrub their teeth with a lethal mix of lime juice and salt to remove stains. But most people used one of two means of cleaning their teeth.

The first was one of any of the brands of “tooth powder”. There was Colgate, again, in a red and white tin can with a red cap, which was still being advertised on Indian TV as recently as the late 1990s. Then there were the less expensive varieties. One, which I remember with particular loathing, was called “Monkey Brand”, came in a grey plastic container, was black, and tasted sourish and gritty. Another was brownish-yellow and claimed to be of ancient herbal origin.

These tooth powders could be used on toothbrushes in lieu of pastes, but the more usual method was to spread them over your index fingertip and rub said fingertip all over your gums and teeth. Pastes were also used similarly, and in fact some people today still use them that way. Quite a lot of people, actually. But, when all was said and done, these pastes and powders were all “foreign”. There had to be something more indigenous.

That something was the neem twig, or daatun as it's called in Hindi. Actually, pretty much any twig would do, but the twig of the neem tree was the preferred one due to its alleged medicinal properties. These twigs were (and as far as I know still are)  sold in bundles on railway platforms, stripped of leaves and cut to pieces about as long as the average pencil. The idea was to chew on one end until it splayed out and then scrub one’s teeth with it. No paste, powder or even water necessary!

I remember one time when I was at college in Lucknow and coming back home by train. There was this old Muslim man sitting next to me, the mullah type with white beard and lace skullcap. In the typical fashion of Indian railway travellers, he began quizzing me on where I lived, what I was doing, and so on. And when he found out I was a dental student he perked up at once.

“Dentists are all wrong,” I remember him saying, in Hindi, beard wagging. “You people talk about toothbrush and Colgate, but these things are not needed. They are foreign and our ancestors knew much better. Neem sticks!” He held one up before my eyes. “That’s what we need. Neem sticks are the best. I’ve used only neem sticks my whole life long. Look!” He leaned towards me, his mouth yawning open, exposing a terrifying array of eroded, blackened teeth.

Though I say it myself, I’m proud of my self-control. I didn’t contradict him. I didn’t in fact, say a word.

Also, I managed not to throw up in his lap.  

On Hindunazism

Regular readers of this site may have noticed that while discussing Indian right-wing Hindu-centric parties, I routinely refer to them as “Hindunazis”. I’ve been asked in the past whether I’m implying that they’re Nazis merely because they’re right-wing, or because of my personal detestation of their policies. 

Well, in case you're wondering, the answer to that is no. Nor is it because the Hindunazis openly admire their Nazi forebears, though they do. There are a lot of ignorant people out there who worship the Nazis without knowing much about them, and that doesn’t make them Nazis, just ignorant idiots.  

No, it goes much deeper than that.

I thought a great deal before I labelled these Hindu parties (there are several of them, grouped together in a conglomeration called the Sangh Parivar) “Nazis”. Other terms describe them partially, but nothing so absolutely as Hindunazis, because of the many similarities between the two. Let’s have a look at a few:

The Nazis considered the Aryans to be a superior Master Race, who were responsible for virtually all achievements of the human race. The Hindunazis, who consider themselves Aryans, think themselves to be a superior Master Race, and claim that ancient Hindus had already invented virtually everything that is now being “reinvented” by humanity.

The Nazis identified a national “enemy” – the Jews – who were blamed for just about everything (as well as being dubbed agents for foreign interests and Bolshevism), and proceeded to block them from public life and confine them to ghettoes, imposed economic blockades on them and began anti-Jewish pogroms on the flimsiest excuses (until they began the mass deportations and the death camps). The Hindunazis identified a national enemy – the Muslims and secondarily the Christians – dubbed them as agents of Pakistan and the West, imposed in at least one state (Gujarat) which they control completely, an economic blockade on the Muslims, have pushed them into ghettoes after a pogrom, and are actively trying to marginalise Christians and Muslims wherever they can. Just as the Nazis had slogans calling for the destruction of the Jews, the Hindunazis had a slogan, Pehle kasai tab Isai (first the butcher, i.e. Muslim – the butchering business being predominantly Muslim-dominated – then the Christian). In practice the Hindunazis have targeted both religions equally in areas where they were strong and the other side vulnerable.

Before attaining power, the Nazis attacked intellectual dissent by violent mob oriented means (for instance, by disrupting screenings of the 1930 film version of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front). After attaining power, they organised the burning of books they didn't like. The Hindunazis have repeatedly used mobs to assault art galleries and research institutes in the name of "protecting Hindu sentiments", and when in power have banned books they didn't like.

The Nazis had their Bible, Hiter’s Mein Kampf. The Hindunazis have their Bible, MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts. In both cases what’s written there, however contrary to normal common sense, is sacrosanct. Also, just as most Germans didn’t actually read Mein Kampf, most Hindunazis haven’t actually read Golwalkar.

The Nazis portrayed their chosen “internal enemy” as a greater threat than any external foe. The aforementioned Hindunazi ideologue Golwalkar identified “three major internal threats” – in this order, the Muslims, the Christians and the Communists – who were “a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside."

The Nazis subverted the forces of law and order and made themselves virtually immune to prosecution, no matter what crimes they might commit. The Hindunazis have systematically sidelined honest police officers and made themselves virtually immune to prosecution by “saffronising” (saffron being the colour identified with radical Hinduism just as green is with Islam) the police force and filling it with their ideological followers. The classic case was in that aforementioned Gujarat state where the police was ordered to stand by and watch while the Hindunazis carried out their pogrom, and not infrequently joined in looting, raping and murdering Muslims with great enthusiasm.

Despite calling themselves “National Socialists”, the Nazis were aggressively anti-socialistic, openly and extremely pro-business, crushed trade unions, and clamped down on all left-wing activity. The Hindunazis are openly the party of the business class, have crushed the trade unions wherever they were in a position of power, and oppose any form of liberal and left-wing activity.

The Nazis were militaristic, worshipped war as the first option, condemned pacifists as "traitors", and tried to infiltrate the military services with their ideology (such as promoting officers sympathetic to their cause to positions of power), as well as setting up armed militias on the side. The Hindunazis are militaristic, worship war as the first option, condemn pacifists as "traitors", and have their own armed militias as well as infiltration of the defence services. And they have, like their non-Hindunazi right-wing competitors the Congress, systematically promoted officers sympathetic to their ideology to staff positions.

Spot the difference: Nazi SA (above) and Hindunazi RSS (below)

The Nazis said the Germans should breed prolifically in order to produce soldiers for the nation and also to outbreed competing races. The Hindunazis say Hindus should breed in large numbers (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which serves a kind of ideological centre for the various Hindunazi parties and gives its name to the Sangh Parivar, declared a few years ago that each Hindu couple had a duty to produce not less than seven children) to outbreed other religions and to produce soldiers for the nation.

The Nazis perverted history, deliberately confused mythology with fact, and promoted astrology until they began to confuse fact with fiction and lost all touch with reality. The Hindunazis promote theological legends as historical fact, deliberately rewrite history, promote astrology (which they made into a university subject during their period in power), and have repeatedly demonstrated that they have almost no link with reality anymore.

The Nazis wanted Lebensraum – the idea of a Greater Germany – in the East at the cost of the Slavic nations. The Hindunazis have long at least pretended to the people of India that they want to expand the nation’s borders to the West, up to, and beyond, the River Indus in Pakistan.

The Nazis tried to revive Nordic mysticism and tried to use it to explain away their crimes. The Hindunazis tried to revive Vedic mysticism and if they had succeeded (as they still might) would have used it as an excuse to explain away their crimes.

The Nazis loved the idea of Empire, were enamoured of the dominant imperialistic power of the time, Britain, and went to war against that country with extreme reluctance. The Hindunazis love the idea of Empire, and have been cravenly appeasing to the dominant imperialistic power of today, the United States of America, and the dominant imperialistic proxy of that power in Asia, the Zionazi pseudostate of “Israel”. They came within an ace of sending troops to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and one of their prime ideologues cheered the invasion on the grounds that Muslims were being killed. It’s not their fault that their successors in power, the Congress, have been even more cravenly appeasing to these same imperialists.

The Nazis were excellent rabble-rousers but in practice proved highly incompetent rulers, who had to keep rabble-rousing and using fear as a tool to perpetuate their rule. The Hindunazis are excellent rabble-rousers, but in general have proved extremely incompetent rulers and where they have managed to hang on to power they have used fear as a tool to do so.

The Nazis tried initially to solve the "Jewish problem" by forcing the Jews to emigrate, and only later came round to the idea of concentration camps like Dachau (and, later still, extermination camps such as Auschwitz). Hindunazis and their followers have often said that in India, Muslims should have no place, since they were given their "own country" at independence and should be forced to emigrate there. I've myself heard Hindunazi drawing room conversations where it was openly said that Kashmir could be let go, but only if all Indian Muslims could be forcibly deported there.

Hitler (above) and RSS (below)

The Nazis had a "martyr", SA man Horst Wessel, who was raised to almost mythological status after his death, the circumstances of which were obfuscated. The Hindunazis have a "martyr", politician Shyama Prasad  Mookerjee, whose death in custody has made him into a hero after his death, even if the exact circumstances of that death remain unclear.

The Nazis used a fire they instigated, aided and abetted (the Reichstag fire) to crack down on political opposition and begin a reign of terror they had planned well in advance. The Hindunazis used a fire on a train, which a judicial commission found had started accidentally, to begin their preplanned anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper stated in The Last Days Of Hitler, the Nazi government wasn’t a government so much as a court with various ministries and bureaucracies competing for power and not afraid to sabotage the common effort to do so. The Hindunazis are a court with competing factions busily stabbing each other in the back, and this is why they may yet manage to lose the next election even though their Congress opponents have earned virtually everyone’s visceral hatred with their corruption and mismanagement.

The Nazis said the Germans were a single people, a Volk (which really translates more accurately to “tribe” than “people”). The Hindunazis claim that Hindus are a single people and should therefore all eat the same food, dress the same (approved) way, worship the same gods, follow the same (mythologised) “culture”, and speak the same language, despite the fact that India is probably the world’s most heterogeneous nation and Hinduism is more a collection of broadly similar religions than a single unitary faith. There is, for instance, almost nothing in common between a Manipuri and a Marathi in culture, language, ethnicity or religious practice – and yet they are both Hindu.

The Nazis attempted to “Germanise” the Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans settled in other nations), many of whom barely spoke German and had little to no interest in Hitler’s plans for their future. The Hindunazis similarly have attempted to Hinduise the tribes of the forests of Central India, most of whom were never Hindu and have their own religions and customs. And just as the Nazis used the Volksdeutsche as cannon fodder in their war, the Hindunazis have used these tribespeople as expendable militia in their anti-Muslim and anti-Christian offensives.

There are many other similarities, including the use of "Aryan" symbols (the swastika for the Nazis, the trident for the Hindunazis), the notion of a nation with “eternal frontiers” that must be preserved at all costs, and the like; but these aren’t as important as those I’ve already listed.

Of course there are differences: the Hindunazis (with the single exception of the Hindunazi party from Bombay, the Shiv Sena, and its offshoot the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena), unlike the Nazis, aren’t ruled by a single all-powerful F├╝hrer, but prefer instead to follow a succession of venerable dodderers who lead the RSS and its affiliates. Also they  have been nowhere near as successful as the Nazis at taking control – in part because India is such a diverse nation ethnically and religiously and because Hinduism is (as I’ve said) by nature an amorphous religion which means many different things to many different people.

But the similarities outweigh the differences so thoroughly that I don’t see what other term can actually be applied to these people.

Hindu Nazis, that’s what they are.

Monday 2 July 2012


When Arif thought about it later, he realised that he probably shouldn’t have opened the package at all.

After all, he hadn’t any idea why the Maulana should be sending him anything, seeing as they hadn’t talked in years and, if truth be told, couldn’t stand each other. Besides, the Maulana was as stingy as a dried skull in the desert, and had never been known to give away anything at all, ever.

Also, nobody knew just where the Maulana was; he seemed to have dropped clean out of existence as far as anyone could tell, and the rumours had gone around that he’d died or gone mad or opened a brothel or joined a terrorist group in Yemen or Abkhazia. But in recent months even the rumours had died down. After all, nobody really cared where the Maulana was, or even if he was. At most they were simply glad he wasn’t breathing down their collective neck.

Yet here, in Arif’s hands, was the small package with his address written in the Maulana’s unmistakable crabbed hand. Someone had pushed it into his mailbox so awkwardly that he’d had a difficult time extricating it. It had been hand-delivered, evidently – there was no post-office marking and no return address. With a distinct sense of foreboding, he weighed the packet in his hand, and finally decided that something so light couldn’t contain anything too lethal.

Though he realised it only much later, in this, as in so much else, he was wrong.

Sitting at his kitchen table, he carefully cut open the packet. Inside was a much-folded sheet of paper, covered with writing and wrapped round something the size of a baby’s fist. When he unwrapped the paper, a small Zip-loc bag fell out. It contained a few scraps of dried material, ragged and flaking.

Frowning, Arif turned to the paper, which turned out to be a letter from the Maulana. The words and lines were cramped and ran together so often that he had a difficult time deciphering it, and at one point there was a large hole in the paper, which had swallowed up much of the writing.

“My dear nephew,” the letter started. Arif snorted. Since when had the Maulana declared him a nephew? At most they were cousins, and second cousins at that.

“My dear nephew,

“I know it’s been a while since you heard from me, and I realise that you must have been surprised at my abrupt disappearance. I can only say that due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to take a sudden leave of absence from society and vanish into the wilderness. Where I went, I’m not at liberty to disclose, because I may need to seek shelter in those places again if my current plans do not meet with the success I anticipate.

“As I said, I’d had to leave in a hurry – in such a hurry, in fact, that I couldn’t even take a change of clothes with me. Fortunately, I had a couple of close friends, whom I’ll call M and S, and from whom I got help in getting out of town. They put me up for a couple of days and arranged my passage out. You don’t need to know the details, but it was not an easy trip.

“After several weeks of travel, much of it alone and on foot, I found myself in a little village on the edge of a rain forest. That village had nothing in the way of modern amenities at all; not only was there no electricity or running water, nobody in it had seen a TV set or heard of such a thing as the internet. That was precisely its attraction, and why it was safe for me go there.

 “Although M and S had provided me with a fairly substantial amount of money, much of it had been spent in the course of my travels. Still, I had enough left to be able to live for a while, especially in a village like this one where the cost of living was almost nothing at all if one was able to adapt to the environment. And I was perfectly willing to adapt.

“I had secured for myself lodging with one of the village elders, whom I’ll call Jumdo. That isn’t his real name, or even the name of anyone else in the village, so you won’t be able to locate the place by that. This elder was a charming old man, with a roguish smile full of worn-down, blackened teeth. He and I spent a lot of evenings together, while he swigged bottle after bottle of the local brew and complained that I wasn’t a real man if I didn’t drink. I tried to explain that my religion did not permit me to imbibe alcohol, but I never could decide if he really understood me, because each evening he would renew his offer, and tell me how disappointed he was when I refused.

“Jumdo had travelled a fair bit in his youth, and had even been down to the coast and visited a city or two. He was full of tales about the wonders he’d seen, trains and buses and cars, and how people lived in buildings which touched the sky. Unlike the rest of the villagers, he wasn’t completely ignorant of the outside world, and so he and I could find some common ground for conversation. He was quite obviously curious about my past and what I was doing in the village, but I had a cover story to go with my forged identification papers, and I stuck to it.

“Life in that village was, frankly, excruciatingly boring, and looking back I can’t believe that I stood it for so many months without going crazy. I suppose that if I’d known I’d have to stay there so long I’d have gone off the deep end, but I’d arranged to be contacted as soon as it might be safe for me to return. I lived each day in the expectation of receiving that message, but it never came.

“So I spent my time in idleness, reciting my daily prayers alone, since I was the only Believer there; talking to old Jumdo, and in general turning into a vegetable. The villagers were a fairly indolent lot, too, it seemed to me, satisfied with what they could get to furnish their daily needs, with little interest in the morrow. I might have given them up as not worth my time, except for one singular thing.

“Each new moon night, a few of the village elders would gather in the chief’s hut in the evening and then go off together into the forest. And once they had gone, the other villagers would shut themselves indoors, douse their oil lamps, and wait in fearful silence through the hours until they returned just before dawn.

“Jumdo was one of the elders who went on these expeditions, and quite naturally I asked him where they went and what they did. At this, the old man, who’d always been free and open with me on everything, suddenly clammed up. ‘It’s the business of the elders,’ he mumbled, looking away. ‘Don’t ask about it – it’s secret, and dangerous for anyone else to know.’

“Not surprisingly, far from quietening me, this raised my curiosity to fever pitch. I believe that if Jumdo had merely said they went off to pray to their god or something similar, I’d have been satisfied. But Jumdo was no liar, and it was obvious that he had something to hide. And from the fact that only the elders took part, while the rest of the village – even the young toughs – hid, I surmised that it was something to do with maintaining control over the people.

“Clearly, it was something to investigate, and I kept my ears open for information. By then I’d begun to understand the dialect fairly well – you’ll remember that I’ve always had a facility with languages – and I thought I’d be able to overhear something that might give me a hint. But though the villagers chattered among themselves as much as sparrows, talking about everything else in their small worlds, they never seemed to mention this particular topic. It wasn’t as if they were skirting around it – it was as though they’d so excised it from their collective mind that it no longer existed at all.

“Now, I’d noticed something else: when Jumdo returned from these nocturnal expeditions, he seemed changed. It was as though his body was moving around and talking, eating and drinking, but his mind was somewhere else. I don’t mean that he was dreamy; it was as if his mind was actually not there, as if it was in some other world, far away, seeing things his body didn’t see. At these times I didn’t feel I was with him. I didn’t feel as though I was with a real human being, only with some kind of biological robot. It would be a couple of days before he’d get back to normal.

“So one new moon, I resolved to follow him. I was quite safe from observation, for as I told you the other villagers spent the lying in the dark for the night to pass. I waited till he’d left, and then went to a spot where I could watch the chief’s hut while myself remaining in the shadows. It was only a few minutes later that the elders all came out in a body, and turned towards the forest. There were seven or eight of them, and they carried things in their hands, bundles and machetes.

“I can’t tell you how long or how far I followed them through the jungle. For one thing, they knew the way, and I didn’t, so I’d had to divide my attention between keeping them in sight and watching where I placed my feet – not an easy job in the darkness; it was a new moon night, remember. Then, also, I couldn’t risk getting too close to them or making any noise. Fortunately, they seemed to be following a path of some sort, so it wasn’t as hard going as it might have been otherwise.

“After a while I noticed a light through the trees. It was a dim bluish glimmer, so dim that had there been even a little moonlight to filter through the leaf canopy overhead I’m sure I’d have missed it. At first I thought it came from starlight gleaming off leaves, but as we got closer I saw that it came from underneath – from the forest floor.

“There was something weirdly beautiful about the light, something which drew me to it, but at the same time I was wary of the elders in front of me. They might have been older men, and physically weaker than me, but they had those machetes in their hands and somehow it seemed to me that it would be a very bad idea to get too close. Also, I became afraid that the increasing light would reveal me to them, so I began to hang back. But I needn’t have worried – they never looked back. Apparently, they were so convinced that nobody would dare follow that they did not think it necessary to look over their shoulders to check.

“Suddenly I realised that I’d lost sight of the men in front. They seemed to have disappeared completely. Yet I could see the spot they’d been only moments before, and beyond that, trees they shouldn’t have reached yet. Therefore, I thought, they must have sat down, and I came closer very cautiously. Because of the light I could see a little of the path and could avoid making any noise.

“They were in a small clearing in the forest, and the clearing was full of the bluish light. I couldn’t at first make out where the light was coming from, because they were all squatting in a circle round the centre. And when I got closer, I saw that they were crouching over a mound, and that the mound was covered with mushrooms. The blue glow was coming from the mushrooms.

“The elders were snipping the mushrooms off with their machetes, and spreading them out on cloths they unwrapped from their bundles. They were working in complete silence, and with such concentration that I felt as if I could have walked across and looked over their shoulders at what they were doing. But I remembered their silent, intent air, and the machetes in their hands, and I didn’t dare.

“But even from where I was sitting I could see clearly what happened next, when the chief took up a large mushroom and held it up to the air. He...”

Several dozen lines of writing must have been lost in the large hole that had been ripped in the paper at this point. Arif fingered the edges of the rent, wondering if it had been cut out, but the paper was old and cheap and it seemed as if it had simply given way there. He wondered just who had enclosed it in the envelope and delivered it. Not the Maulana, he was sure, else he’d have made sure the letter was intact.

He turned to the bottom of the sheet, where the writing began again.

“...and when I went back the next morning, creeping like a frightened rabbit even in the light of day, I found only a few small scraps of the mushrooms left. I picked up as many as I could and hid them in the bottom of my shoe. That same evening I left the village. You’ll understand that after what I’d seen in that forest, I was far too terrified to stay there any longer. I know I was in no immediate danger, but at that moment nothing would have made me spend another night under Jumdo’s roof. No wonder the villagers chose to huddle fearfully in their huts on that night of the month.

“From what I’ve told you, I’m sure you realise the absolute necessity of cultivating these mushrooms as quickly as possible. I have told nobody else of all the details, and the person who is to get these to you does not read English well enough to understand this letter. I’m sure at least some of the spores are still viable. If you bury them in wet earth with some pieces of rotting wood and leaves, in a month the first mushrooms should start appearing. Look for them to come up around the time of the new moon.

“And at all costs be careful – extremely careful. Remember what I saw in the forest!

I’ll get in touch with you when I can, but it might be a while.

With regards,

Sadiq Cheema.”

Arif read through the letter again and then tried to make sense of the fragments of sentences round the hole. There were words and phrases and parts of words, which made no sense without a context. Some of them were definitely intriguing: “...I got a whiff of the smell...” was followed, on the opposite side of the page, by “mouth,” and, further down on the same side of the page, by “...lood.” Blood? Then, a little further down, “...silence. If only they had cried out then I...” and again, “that smell”. And, last of all, in lettering that had almost torn through the paper, as though the writer had been agitated: “the things... horrible.” He frowned, wishing he could have read the rest of it. He wanted to know what had scared the Maulana so badly.

Next he examined the contents of the Zip-Loc bag. Though flaked and shrivelled, he could make out that they were pieces of mushroom caps, though of a type he’d never seen before. The tops were a dark purplish, and the gills were small, deeply set, and completely black.

His first impulse was to throw them in the trash, burn the letter, and forget the whole thing. But obviously the Maulana had gone to considerable trouble to send him the stuff, and besides he felt a sudden and overwhelming curiosity to know what had been written on that part of the paper which had been torn away. Besides, he remembered that there was a large flower tub in the back of the garage, full of soil and debris. He’d often thought of growing flowers in it, but somehow had never got round to it.

With a weary sigh, wondering if he were doing the right thing, he took the packet and went down to the garage.

That night, he did not sleep well.


During the next few weeks, Arif was extremely busy at work, so much so that he had little time to himself. He was so busy, in fact, that he almost forgot about the Maulana’s letter and the scraps of mushroom he’d buried in the flower tub. Only once or twice, while passing around the back of the garage, he saw the flower tub in the corner, and once when he thought the soil was getting a little dry he moistened it with a cupful of water. But most of the time he had neither the time nor the energy to think of it at all.

One night he woke up with a vague feeling of uneasiness, as if something wasn’t quite right. For a while he lay staring up into the darkness, trying to decide just what had woken him. It wasn’t the noise of someone who’d broken into the house, he decided after a few minutes of straining his ears. Apart from the faint susurration of the ceiling fan whirling above him, he couldn’t hear a thing. He stared at the ceiling fan a while more before it came to him that, since the light in the room was off, he shouldn’t have been able to see the fan at all.

Yes, there was a definite bluish light glimmering through his window and illuminating the ceiling. Quietly, he got out of bed and, going to the window, pulled back the curtain. Just below the bedroom window was the garage, and the bluish light was pouring out through the ventilators under its sloping roof.

Arif was not a particularly brave man, and if he’d thought longer about it, he probably wouldn’t have left his bed and gone down to the garage. But he wasn’t really thinking very clearly, and it was almost as in a dream that he walked down the stairs and unlocked the inner door to the garage.

The light was coming, of course, from the tub at the back. It was a dim glow, but had a peculiarly penetrative quality, so that there seemed to be no shadows except in a pool under the car. Arif stepped into the garage, for some reason latching the door open behind him.

The mushrooms were tall, but spindly, their purple caps deeply convex. The glow came from the entire surface of the cap and stalk, and when he reached out a finger and touched a mushroom, the glow from all of them brightened suddenly, spreading out from his finger in waves, pulsing down to the earth in the tub and back up again. Alarmed, he pulled back his finger and examined it. There didn’t appear to be any damage, so he reached out and touched it again.

He had been poking the mushrooms for a while, and discovered that he could induce different patterns of glowing, when he first noticed the odour. It was a raw, musty smell, quite faint, and he thought it came from the moist earth in the tub. But it rapidly grew stronger, until it filled the air, became so thick that it seemed to clog his nostrils with every breath he drew, and he grew so dizzy with it that his sight began to blur. The last thing he saw, as he slumped to the floor by the tub, was the light glowing brighter and brighter, until it seemed to fill the world.

When he woke, it was with an extraordinary sense of well-being. He opened his eyes lazily, and looked around with great interest.

He was lying on his back on soft ground, which rose and fell in a succession of low hillocks and shallow valleys. Above was a black, starless sky, but it wasn’t completely dark.

The mushrooms were huge, their stalks columns that reached up until they were almost out of sight, and the caps great arching canopies overhead. Arif got up unhurriedly and walked towards them, quite unafraid. His feet sank a little into the soil, so that at every step he kicked clods aside, but he hardly noticed that. He wanted to get to the mushrooms, because there was something he had to do there. He frowned, realising that he’d forgotten just what it was that he was supposed to do, but try as he might he couldn’t remember it. But he did know that it was very important that he get to the mushrooms. Everything would be all right once he got to the mushrooms.

Suddenly, at this thought, he realised that everything was not all right. The shadows were abruptly full of hidden menace, the darkness like a beast of prey waiting to pounce. He began to hurry towards the mushrooms, faster and faster, until he was moving in a stumbling run, but they didn’t seem to be coming any closer. When he looked up, they seemed even further away than they’d been. Looking up towards them as he ran, his foot slipped in the soft soil and he fell on his face.

It was as he was picking himself up that he saw the thing. He did not see it clearly enough to be sure what it was; a movement in the shadow where no movement had been before, as though something was coiling and slithering through the dark, something so huge that he could only see a hint of its shape and movement; something he had no wish to see at any closer quarters. Clambering up, he began running again, desperately now, rushing towards the mushrooms. Legs pumping, unwilling to look behind him for fear of what he’d see, he ran on until he collided with the nearest stalk and fell over again, on his back.

He was staring up into the concave bottom of the nearest of the caps, which spread across the sky above him like a roof. Along its inner margins things flew on bat wings, scraps of darkness, which swooped lower and lower, staring down at him with electric-blue glowing eyes filled with a cold and dreadful hunger. And it suddenly came to him that he’d been lured there to satiate that hunger, and that when they finished with him, there would be nothing left.

It was then that Arif finally gave way to complete panic. He had no clear memory of what followed, but he had vague recall of hurling himself through the darkness, shrieking, while things flapped through the air behind him and something huge and implacable twisted, writhed and coiled, and waited for him with gaping jaws. He was running in utter terror and completely blindly, so it must have been out of sheer luck and good fortune that he stumbled through the door he’d left open and into the house. Slamming the door shut, he threw himself against it, panting, and slowly slipped to the floor until he was sitting with his back to it. It was a very long time before he felt able to get up again.


So what did you do after that?” I asked Arif. In the sunshine that sloped down on the little cafe, the tale he’d told me seemed so fantastic and improbable that but for the crumpled letter on the table before us I’d never have believed a word, even though I’d known Arif for years and knew he was as honest and unimaginative as the day was long.

Arif shrugged. “It was high noon the next day before I dared go back into the garage. There was a faint earthy smell, and I at once threw open the outside door and the ventilators, to air the place out as much as possible. In daylight the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and the tiny, wilted mushrooms in the tub looked pathetic. I was almost ashamed of myself for imagining such stuff.”

Almost?” I repeated, catching the inflection in his voice.

“That’s what I said – almost. It was like a particularly vivid dream, and I might not have credited any of it. But there were two things which persuaded me it wasn’t all a dream. There was, for instance, the quite undeniable fact that I’d spent half the night sitting with my back to the garage door, panting with fear.”

“It was a new moon night, of course,” I said.

“Of course,” he agreed. “What else could it have been?”

“So what did you do with the mushrooms?” I asked.

He looked down at his hands, twisting together on the table top. “I dumped all the stuff from the pot, earth, mushrooms and all, into a paper bag, and sealed it. Then I covered that paper bag with inflammable trash, everything I could get hold of, old newspapers, a couple of cardboard cartons, rags and even a wooden crate, and burned the lot. I poured a little petrol on once in a while to keep it going, till there was nothing to burn any longer.”

I raised my eyebrows. “A little extreme, wasn’t it?”

Arif’s lips twisted. “Not if you’d been through what I’d been through,” he said. “I can only say I was lucky I’d left that door open. If not – if I’d remained inside that enclosed garage for much longer, breathing that...” He trailed off into silence.

“The smell was the factor, then?” I asked.

“I believe so. If I’d been out in the open, it might not have affected me so much. In that closed space, it was nearly lethal. I think,” he added, “that if there are several people, the effects are...ah...distributed among them, so nobody suffers too much. I suppose that’s why the elders the Maulana mentioned always came out in groups. Maybe they stuffed their nostrils closed as well. I don’t know.”

“Why do you suppose they didn’t just destroy the mushrooms?” I asked. “Why all the ritual?”

“How can I answer that? Maybe it was some kind of spiritual experience for them, some ritual way of fighting evil. I don’t know, and, frankly, I don’t care. As long as I never have to go through that again.”

I leaned across the table. “You said there were two things which persuaded you it was real,” I said. “what was the other?”

He pointed at the letter. “You’ve read what the Maulana wrote about the smell, and the rest of it? I think that he smelt enough of it to have felt some of the terror. Not enough to drive him nearly out of his wits like me, of course, but enough to make him experience some of what I felt. Or something equivalent, anyway.”

“So,” I said, sipping at my coffee, “the question remains: what was it all about?”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” he agreed. “And I think I’ve formulated an answer of sorts.

“Those mushrooms give off some kind of chemical – perhaps it’s a pheromone of some kind, perhaps something else – with extremely potent psychogenic properties. I think it uses them to capture and then literally kill its prey with fear.”

“But...” I began. “I know you got a heavy dose in the garage, but surely a human in the open air is too big to –“

“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” he interrupted. “But I believe humans are only accidental prey. It probably looks for something smaller, of the order of a monkey perhaps, small enough to be overcome but with a brain big enough to be attracted by the light and then frightened to death. And when that happens, the mushrooms have so much more organic material to use.”

“No wonder the Maulana thought he might be able to make use of it,” I observed.

“No. He was always a bastard.” He grimaced. “I won’t spend a moment grieving if they wipe him out.”

I studied him unobtrusively as he sipped his cappuccino. Despite the fact that he said it had all happened weeks ago, he still seemed wan, with dark circles under his eyes, as though he hadn’t been eating or sleeping properly. “You aren’t telling me everything, are you?” I asked.

He looked up at me with his haunted eyes. “I’d have thought you’d be able to work it out for yourself,” he said. “There are two things, really.

“The first is that these fungi are survivors. Obviously, they can’t depend on capturing prey at each new moon, so they have to make the most of whatever opportunity they get. Simply put, they release all the spores they can when they put up their fruiting bodies – the mushrooms. It’s probably the spores which carry the pheromones, and they release them when touched. Remember how the light play started when I touched the mushrooms, and how they kept me engrossed until the odour could begin its work. And obviously these spores would be very light, and some of them would have blown away on the wind.” He paused. “They could be anywhere.”

We both sat silent, mulling over that idea. Neither of us felt very happy about it. Certainly I didn’t.

“And the other?” I asked at last.   

“I’ve become a consulter of almanacs,” he said irrelevantly. “Like my mother used to be. Do you know what tonight is?”

We looked at each other for a long time.

“I think,” I told him at last, “that I’ll be staying awake tonight. Just for the hell of it, you know.”

He smiled for the first time, a wintry smile devoid of warmth or happiness.

“I know,” he said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Sunday 1 July 2012

New Look

Let me know what you think. I was kind of getting tired of the old template.