Friday 24 August 2012

Long Pig

You know the story, repeated ad nauseam in bad nineteenth-century novels like RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, a whole genre of Italian exploitation films, and cartoons galore: explorer or missionary goes into the jungles of darkest Africa or South America, or ends up being shipwrecked on a Pacific island. Explorer or missionary is captured by savage native peoples and – if not saved at the last moment by the hero – is boiled in a pot and eaten. There’s even a name for it: Long Pig.

Well, did this ever actually happen?

Back when I was in school, I remember reading an article in a science magazine on cannibalism. According to that article, actual verified instances of cannibalism were incredibly rare, if one disregarded instances of starving people resorting to it in extreme situations (or, as a corollary, psychopaths like the German cannibal Armin Meiwes). 

These are not cannibals

This is a cannibal

Specifically, the article considered cultural cannibalism – cannibalism as a cultural practice. What it said was that most instances cited could be put down to one of these factors:

       1.     Missionary and explorer propaganda, designed to impress Europeans with tales of the savage and how valiant white men had to take on the burden of civilising them. One instance would be an account during the voyage of Captain Cook, where

“As Cook examined one of these bones, he realised in consternation that it might be from a human forearm. He asked one of the family members if these were not dog bones, but in answer the man took hold of the flesh of his own forearm and pretended to chew it.

Joseph Bank noted later: Tho we had from the first of our arrival upon the [New Zealand] coast constantly heard the Indians acknowledge the custom of eating their enemies we had never before had a proof of it, but this amounted almost to demonstration: the bones were clearly human, ... and on the grisly ends which were gnawed were evident marks of teeth, and these were accidentally found in a provision basket. [Source]

However, unless those bones were preserved and can be tested today for toothmarks in a forensic lab, I’d say that without independent confirmation, Captain Cook’s account can be firmly put in that category.

   2.  A lot of tribes told tales of other tribes who ate human flesh. In fact, these tribes used it as a propaganda weapon against their rivals. Missionaries told of how tribes would tell them, “Do not go up river, because the tribes there are fierce, and they eat men.” Whether they actually ate people was moot – the intention was to prejudice the listener. (And this also raises the question of why the listener should be prejudiced by hearing this, which is something we’ll be discussing later in this article.)

In either of these cases, the “evidence”, such as it is, seems anecdotal rather than hard; rather like the “evidence” for the Loch Ness Monster, which only makes sense if one accepts the Monster (or the phenomenon of cannibalism) is real to start off with, rather than keeping an open mind.

This isn’t meant to be confused with headhunting, a practice which most definitely existed, and well into the twentieth century among some peoples like the Shuar (“Jivaro”) of South America who are infamous for creating shrunken heads. In fact, the Shuar practice was actually encouraged by Westerners who bought the shrunken heads as curios and created a market for them.

Also, there’s the curious case of human sacrifice, which occurred all over the world, from the Aztecs (who cut the beating hearts out of their sacrificial victims with obsidian knives) to India, where bandit gangs would sacrifice captives to the goddess Kali. (As a matter of fact, stray incidents of human sacrifice, generally of kidnapped children, still occur in India today. One happened in the western part of this state earlier this year.) The interesting thing is that both taking heads for trophies and sacrificing humans to please the gods stood as stand-alone practices. They were not followed by the general consumption of the flesh of the victim, even though sacrificed goats or chickens are eaten.

Going on that basis, there does seem to be something of a cultural taboo against cannibalism.

I’m not saying there weren’t stray incidents of cannibalism, of course. It’s perfectly possible that some warriors might have eaten, for instance, the hearts of their enemies in the belief that it would give them the enemy’s courage. What I am saying is that this wouldn’t rank as a regular, continuous practice which might be considered to be part of a culture.

Why should this be? Why should humans, who consume caterpillars and whales with equal felicity, have a revulsion against eating their own kind? 

If one can eat this...

I believe we can find an explanation.

If you think about it, cannibalism isn’t all that common in nature. Starving lions and hyaenas, wolves and jackals won’t eat dead members of the group even if in extremis. Spiders, scorpions, sharks and Humboldt squids will, on occasion, but you’ll find that on the whole there are more predators who won’t eat their own sort than those who will – and among mammals, cannibalism is remarkably hard to find.

Yes, there is forced cannibalism, as of cattle being fed the ground up body parts of their fellows along with their fodder. This is a routine practice in factory farming, but hasn’t had very good effects – bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called “mad cow disease”, is spread when cattle are forced to consume beef products to give them cheap, easily assimilated protein. The cause of this is something called a prion.

What are prions? This isn’t a digression, because I believe prions are an important explanation for the relative rarity of steady cannibalism in human societies and in nature.

A prion is probably the simplest and smallest external disease-causing factor which exists. Unlike bacteria, fungi or protozoa, prions aren’t living organisms. They aren’t even on the border of living and non-living, like viruses. Prions don’t have DNA or RNA; they are simply improperly folded proteins. When introduced into an organism, like a crystal which when put in a saturated solution of a salt causes salt to precipitate out of the solution, the prion causes normal proteins to convert into the prion form, which then goes on to cause cell damage and eventually cell death, to the detriment of the organism as a whole. Cows develop holes in their brains caused by swallowing prions along with beef products meant to fatten them up. That’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

And it’s not just cattle, either. There’s the case of human spongiform encephalopathy.  

As far as I know, there’s only one cultural instance of what might be called cannibalism, and that is in the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea. Among these people, the bodies of the dead used to be ceremonially consumed by their fellow villagers, in a practice intended to return the deceased person’s “life force” to the village. This was the cause of transmission of a prion causing a disease called Kuru or “laughing sickness”, an incurable degenerative malady of the central nervous system.  One of the features of Kuru is that the majority of victims were women and children; this was because the prions were concentrated in the brain, which was among the body parts left for women and children to consume after the men had taken the choice parts, the muscle and fat.

Considered on this basis, the taboo against cannibalism might make real, evolutionary sense. Some ancient protohumans, like Peking Man, were perhaps cannibals, but the practice doesn't ever seem to have become widespread across protohuman populations. Why not?

If a society – or a species – had a high incidence of cannibalism, the circulation of prions would mean that there would be a high level of debility and mortality among those who did eat their own kind. Those who did not, for whatever reason, would have a higher chance of spreading their genes to the next generation, thus ensuring that their offspring would also be less liable to be eaters of their own dead. Simple evolutionary competition would then mean the non-cannibals would displace the cannibals.

Pretty soon, cannibalism would become a biological threat to the tribe, even though its members wouldn’t consciously verbalise it to themselves in such terms. What they’d do is condemn cannibalism as a forbidden act, like incest, another extremely common taboo worldwide. (If at all it was allowed, only specific categories of people - like priests - would be permitted it, and then only of ritually permissible parts of the body, like the heart, which wouldn't be loaded with prions.)

In general, cannibals would be worthy of disgust and hatred, something less than human.

And that’s why the missionaries and the explorers lied.

Thursday 23 August 2012

An Eye for an I

You know how we Indians love and honour our women? Oh, you don’t? Well, we Indians love and honour our women. Don’t take it from me. Take it from our moral guardians.

What moral guardians? Oh, there’s no shortage of moral guardians in this country. It’s lousy with moral guardians, whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh or whatever. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a moral guardian, who will then wax wrathful and throw ten thousand stones at you.

So, yes, we do love and honour our women. A classic example how much we love and honour them was this little episode today where a fifteen-year-old girl in the state of Bihar had one of her eyes shot off because someone wasn’t happy with a shave.

Now this kind of demands an explanation, so in brief, this is what happened: the girl’s father is a barber. She was in his barbershop when a couple of characters, at least one of whom was known to the father by name, entered. Apparently the guy wasn’t happy with the quality of the shave the barber gave him, so the two of them began beating him up. When the girl intervened, they grabbed her dupatta (a shoulder wrap). And, when she turned to look at them, they shot her in the eye.

On many levels, this is a perfect illustration for the dysfunctionality of modern Indian society. First, of course, is the reaction of the character who didn’t get the shave he wanted: his immediate recourse to violence is something Indians are very familiar with. We love to maintain a national myth of being peace-lovers, but in reality we’re an extremely violent people with incredibly short fuses, especially when our tempers are exacerbated by the pressures of modern city living (and I’m not excluding myself either: I plead guilty to recurrent road rage).

So, not being happy with the way his beard was handled, our anti-hero’s first reaction was to lash out – quite literally. And then, when the girl tried to stop him, his second reaction was to assault her instead.

You see, we love and honour our women so much that they bear the brunt of physical and mental assaults, rapes and molestation, day in and day out. Only a few weeks ago there was a case in Guwahati, just a hundred kilometres from here, where a mob stripped and assaulted a teenage girl in full view of TV cameras, and that was in the heart of a large city. In the small towns and villages, women are beaten, raped and worse, probably many times a day.

And then, let’s not forget the gun. I’ve given up arguing gun ownership with Americans, and come to the conclusion that they can own as many hundred guns each as they want as long as they keep their love for firearms within their own borders. But there’s an Indian gun lobby, too, which draws its inspiration from the American, which tenaciously tries to propagate the myth that gun ownership is a good and desirable thing, and which claims that Indians have been systematically disarmed by tough gun laws.

Now, although gun permits aren’t as easy to come by in this country as in some other nations (the state I live in, for example, doesn’t give out gun licences unless one can prove one’s life is under threat, which means in practice that it does not hand out gun licences), in absolute numbers it has one of the highest gun ownership levels on earth. Some of these guns are illegal, made by gunsmiths on the sly, but a large number of the firearms in the hands of private citizens are obtained legally with official permits. Now, what do you suppose happens when people have short-fused tempers and guns ready to hand, and a woman to use them on?

Someone gets shot, that’s what.

I suppose one might say the teenage girl in Bihar was lucky in a way. At least she’s only lost one eye. A few years ago, there was an infamous occasion in Delhi where a celebrity bartender (a model named Jessica Lal) was shot dead in front of a roomful of people (among whom was Steven Seagal, as it happens) by someone called Manu Sharma because she told him the bar was closed and he was too late to get a drink. Since that roomful of people developed collective amnesia, it took years to bring the culprit to book. And there have been many other cases, with women high on the list of victims.

And, yes, I’ve been threatened with physical harm more than once. If one of those people had a gun to hand, I can’t answer for what might have happened. And if I’d had a gun, I might have used it pre-emptively, as well.

Not that any of this addresses the root cause of the problem, though. With mounting overpopulation, stress and social breakdown, the girl in Bihar will soon be just a statistic.

For the moral guardians none of that matters. Nor does it matter when girls are selectively aborted or murdered as soon as they’re born. Woe betide any unmarried couple seen holding hands in public, or kissing, though.

That matters, very much. Then it is the end of the world, unless someone's taught a lesson.

And if that someone's a woman who winds up dead, that's just too bad.


Raghead 23/8/2012

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Wednesday 22 August 2012

...And I hate you

And I hate you.

Because you dare to threaten me
With your weakness.

Because you are
Too human to ignore,
Grubbing out an existence from the dirt,
Making babies, making noise,
Demanding that I notice
Your existence.

Just who the hell do you think you are?

Go back to your sewers, crawl in the slime
Where you belong. Don’t raise your head
And ask to be noticed. You
Have no right to blight my future
By thrusting yourself into my world.

You are what is wrong with the world today
You stink of poverty, of failure,
Of the end of hope.

Simply put
I have a future.
You don’t.

You may think you are undefeated
Because of your weakness
You will be always there
Like the rats in the walls.

But rats, that is what you are,
What you will remain.
And we know how to take care of rats.

Get out, or be trampled down
The choice is yours
To live by my word, or to die.

Keep in the shadows,
And I might let you live.
Get lost, Disappear. Vanish.
You lost, and I won. I own it all
You’re a trespasser in my world.

And I hate you.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Child Soldier

I’m ten years old, sir
I’m all of ten years old
And all I know how to do, sir
Is what I’ve been told.

I have never read a book, sir
And on a blackboard all I’ve ever seen
Is the pattern of a minefield, sir
And the inside of an M16.

I do what I’m told, sir
I do what I’m told
And if you tell me to be bold sir
Why then I will be bold

If you tell me it’s right sir
It's fine to slash and kill, why then I would
Because if you tell me something sir
It’s an order received and understood.

I wonder if it’s right sir
To pity the children soft and weak
While I play with life and death, sir
They just play hide and seek.

Childhood, why that’s a dream, sir
That’s a dream over and done
And maybe I’ll have a rest, sir
When you tell me your war is won. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2007/12

The Night Train

The engine’s whistle is a moan in the night, punctuating the rhythmic cadence of wheels on iron rails.

The locomotive is an old one, steam and iron, the firebox door leaking orange-red light round the edges. The big headlight above the boiler carves a yellow path through the darkness, but there’s little enough to see. Forests give way to dark, sleeping towns, and then it’s open desert, lifting slowly to hilly terrain and then forest again.

It’s always night where the train travels, and has been night as long as I can recall, since the first moment I found myself on the footplate of the engine, peering through the window as my silent companion shovelled coal from the tender into the firebox. Since that moment, we’ve never stopped, never slackened pace, and only our mournful whistle has punctuated our passage through the endless night.

Behind us drags the train, long carriages rocking side to side as we hurtle through the darkness. When we go round a curve, I can see them, a line of yellow light in the darkness. Each time I look, there seem to be more carriages.

Of course there are more carriages. When I first stood on this footplate, there were only three or four, and now I can’t even count them. But the train seems to travel the faster, the longer it gets; and as long as the train travels, there will only be more.

I’m not the one driving this train. I could try if I wanted, of course; many times, I’ve hauled on the long regulator lever, trying to throttle back, to slow down or stop, but it’s never worked. The train seems to be driving itself, with only my companion feeding the firebox from the stack of fuel in the tender.

I glance at my silent companion, who has turned back to the tender for another shovelful of coal. I’ve never seen him, not really, except as a silhouette. I’ve never touched him, either, except once, early on – and then my hand went through him, as if he were made of shadows. After that I’ve not touched him again.

Most times when I find myself on the train, I stand on the footplate, peering out at the darkness; but sometimes I feel the need to walk back through the train, carriage by carriage. I can do this easily enough if I want; there’s a little door under the tender. I haven’t done it for a while, though, and I don’t know if I should do it again.

If I did, though, I’d walk through the carriages, looking down at the faces, some familiar and some not so familiar. There will be those I’d known for years or all my life, parents, grandparents, cousins and other relatives; and old girlfriends, most of whom I hadn’t even thought of in years, but they will be there, all of them. They might look up at me, but more likely they’ll be talking quietly among themselves, sitting in their little groups. I hope they don’t look up at me – there’s nothing I can do for them. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to any of them.

Beyond that first carriage are the others, those I haven’t known in nearly as long – colleagues from work, and then old teachers, classmates from long-forgotten schooldays, and the school janitor we called Silly Billy because that’s the name one of the teachers gave him. They, too, mostly know each other, but have long since run out of things to say, and stare dull-eyed out of the windows into the darkness. Once or twice they try to talk to me, but I hurry on.

Further beyond are the other carriages, the ones full of people I can hardly recognise myself. There’s the girl who, I’m pretty certain, sold me an insurance policy, and the old man who once began yelling at me when I tripped over his leg in a bus. I think I can recognise a shop assistant or two, and a policeman who once gave me a traffic ticket and was aggressively rude about it. But the rest are unknown, though, of course, I must have met them somewhere, sometime.

There’s a certain pathos about walking down the length of the train looking down at these faces, wishing I could help them, knowing I can’t. It’s one reason that I feel less and less of a desire to do it – that, and the knowledge that each day the train grows longer, and its load of passengers more numerous, and that I can do nothing about it, at all.

There’s one point in the train at which I always stop and turn back. Only once have I been beyond that carriage, and I never want to do it again. No matter how long the journey lasts, I don’t want to go beyond that point.

I remember very well the one time I went further. The carriage beyond had been just like the others, unknown people gazing blankly at the walls or at each other, numbed beyond resentfulness. Only she hadn’t been numbed.   

I remember how she’d stood up from her seat and pointed an accusing finger. “You.”

I’d stopped, amazed that someone had spoken to me, for the first time ever, on the train. “Yes?”

She was short and thin, not pretty, and appeared to be somewhere in her late teens. There was something vaguely familiar about her, though for the moment I couldn’t tell when we’d met, or under what circumstances. Her eyes blazed with anger as she stared into mine.

“Why have you brought me here?”

“I haven’t.” The train had swayed sharply as it turned a curve, and I’d had to grab on to a seat back to keep my balance, which had afforded a moment’s distraction. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“No?” Her upper lip had risen scornfully, over small white teeth. “Then, why am I here – do you want to explain?”

“We must have had something to do with each other sometime,” I’d told her. “I just don’t remember...”

“Of course you don’t.” She’d sat down, and pointed at the seat opposite her. “Sit down there. We have to talk.” And such was the power in her voice, in her eyes, that I’d sat without a word.

“You don’t really remember me at all, do you?” she’d asked.

“No,” I’d confessed. “Not really. But you look...familiar.”

“I should,” she’d replied. “But then I’m probably not important enough – even though I’m the reason why you are where you are. You know, professionally speaking.” She turned up her wrists to me, showing the insides. “See these?”

I stared at the welts on the insides of her wrists, and the years rolled away, the train disappearing around me, and once again I was in that dank little room, the smell of blood and fear in my nostrils, and the past was as if it had not rolled away – the past was now.

They had brought in the girl, her arms lashed behind her back with ropes, already battered with the beating they’d given her. “Maoist bitch,” one of the police commandoes had said, giving her a hard push in the back so she fell face-down on the floor. “Caught her in a sweep through a village. See what you can get out of her before we finish her off.”
I’d picked her up and dropped her into a chair. Despite her ropes and the beating she’d got, there was wiry strength in her underfed frame, and she’d twisted and fought me, kicking and trying to bite. It had taken three of us to get her tied down in the chair, and then the interrogation had begun.

“I’ll make it easy on you,” I’d said, as I’d said a hundred times before and since to a hundred others. “Tell me whatever you know, and answer all the questions, and I’ll make sure they don’t kill you. A year or two in prison, and they’ll let you out. If you don’t answer, though...” I’d left the rest of it unspoken.

My mind refused to remember just what had happened after that, though I recall the end of it, the slight figure slumped in the chair, head hanging, while blood dripped onto her lap. We’d interrogated her for hours, but she hadn’t broken. I’d almost respected her for that.

“I didn’t have a choice,” I’d said to her, back on the train now. “You were the enemy, and it was a war.”

“I was only a village girl,” she’d replied. “I kept telling you, but you wouldn’t believe me. The more I told you, the more you beat me.”

“You confessed,” I’d reminded her, though we both knew this was not exactly the truth. We knew what she should have said, so we’d made up a confession. That’s all the people at the top needed, a confession. “If you’d just told us all that at the outset, we wouldn’t have had to beat you. But you didn’t say a word.”

“You killed me,” she’d interrupted, holding her wrists up to me. “There’s more damage, much worse, inside. I didn’t survive the night.”

“I didn’t know that,” I’d responded, stricken. I’d assumed the police had shot her afterwards and claimed she’d been killed in a firefight, like they always did with prisoners. “But there’s nothing I could have done...”

She’d made a noise halfway between a sob and a laugh. “Just listen to yourself. You were the innocent, were you? But it worked out for you all right, didn’t it? You got your confession, and the promotion you were angling for.”

I hadn’t said anything. The train’s whistle had moaned, sobbing into the black night.

“I could’ve had a life, you know,” she’d responded with quiet intensity. “But, instead, I’m stuck on this train. I’m not even alive any longer, but I’m stuck on this train. Your train.”

“It’s not of my choice that you’re here. It’s nothing of my doing that any of us are here.”

“Yes...none of your doing. But here we all are. And the longer you live, the longer this train gets, and the longer your load of prisoners. How does it feel, being jailer of a lifetime of people you’ve met? Powerful?”

I hadn’t answered.

“Somewhere,” she’d said, “there must be other trains, mustn’t there? Trains running through the night, just like this one, only there are other jailers, like maybe that man over there, and you’re a prisoner on that train, an unimportant little prisoner. How does that make you feel?”

“Not exactly happy,” I’d told her honestly, and tried to rise. “But since I can’t do anything about it...”

“Wait,” she’d snapped. “But there’s no train which belongs to me, you know. There’s no such train, and there never will be. And you know why.”

I’d turned then, and run back through the swaying carriages, listening to her voice chasing me. “Because you killed me,” she’d shouted. “You killed me before I ever had a life.”

Now I stand on the footplate and stare out at the night, knowing that I can’t ever go back into the train again, but that won’t stop them gathering, back there in the carriages, in their multitudes. I think about the other trains that must be rushing through the night too, where I’m a passenger sitting in a carriage, with nothing to say and nobody to talk to. I think about them and I wish I could give myself a voice, and perhaps then I could speak.

Beside me, my silent companion pulls open the firebox flap and shovels in coal from the tender. With each shovelful of coal the amount in the tender falls, but it’s still far from empty. I wish it would fall to empty, because then the train would stop. But until it does, it will keep getting longer, and filled with more reluctant prisoners. And I, their jailer, am the most complete prisoner of all.

I think about the girl, and how I wish I could set her free. And I know I never can, as long as the train rushes on.

High above, a meteor arches through the darkness, a little train of fiery light, and I watch it until it snuffs itself out.

Another low moan of the whistle, and the train rumbles through the night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012