Thursday 14 March 2013

The Missing Tyrannosaur

 The day Dhruv first rode his tyrannosaur to school, all the kids came crowding round to gawk, even before he could come in through the gate.

“Is that the one you told me about?” His best friend, Arif Hussain, asked, reaching out to touch the tyrannosaur’s feathers. “He looks great.”

“Yes, he’s the one,” Dhruv said proudly. The tyrannosaur, unused to so many people and so much noise, shifted unhappily and fluffed his feathers. “Don’t crowd round,” Dhruv added, feeling the beast’s uneasiness. “Give him room.”

Reluctantly, the kids moved back, except Arif, who stayed by the tyrannosaur’s flank, stroking the feathers. “Wonder what Kotu will think about this,” he said. Kotu was the class teacher, Kevin D’Costa, whom they all disliked and feared in equal measure. “He’ll tell you off for sure.”

“My dad took permission from the princi,” Dhruv said. “Kotu can’t do anything about it.”

“That won’t stop him,” Arif said. “Did you ever know anything the princi said to stop Kotu before?”

Dhruv shook his head. “It’s different. It’s official permission this time, right here on my dino driver licence.”

Arif shrugged, unconvinced. They’d come to the dinosaur parking pens, and Dhruv – with a fair amount of difficulty – persuaded the tyrannosaur to back into one. The young animal snorted unhappily, and Dhruv patted him on the head and slipped off his back.

“Why are you all crowding around?” he asked the kids, who were blocking the entrance to the pens. “Anyone would think you’d never seen a tyrannosaur before.” Actually, of course, he was pleased but never would have admitted it.

“What breed is he?” Arif asked, looking back at the black and white feathers. “Splash White?”

Dhruv shook his head. “Barred,” he said proudly. “You won’t find many of his sort around.”

Arif whistled. “Yes, I’ve only seen one on TV before. Is he hard to take care of?”

“Not at all. But then I’ve been caring for him since he was born, so I’m used to –“ Before Dhruv could say anything further, the bell went for class and they had to rush.

Kotu waited till after roll call before he began in on Dhruv. He’d been stuck into Dhruv for several days already, anyway, so at first it seemed more of the same old thing.

“Some of us think they’re much better than the rest,” he announced. “Dhruv, don’t you agree?”

Dhruv looked up with a start. “Sir?”

“Day-dreaming of how much better you are than everybody else, are you?” Kotu looked triumphantly around the class. “Or were you merely asleep?”

Everyone tittered. Not to be seen to be tittering at Kotu’s sarcastic sallies was to risk being picked on next, and everybody knew that. Those of the kids who were in Kotu’s good graces tittered louder than the rest, because they wanted to stay in Kotu’s good graces. “Were you asleep?” Kotu repeated, when the titters had died down.

“No, sir.”

“Then you admit you were day-dreaming, right?” Kotu looked around again triumphantly. “Day-dreaming about how much better than the rest of us you are?”

Dhruv said nothing. Anything he said would make things worse.

Kotu wasn’t anywhere near to being done. “What about that dinosaur you came riding to school? Do you think that makes you better than the rest of the class since they come by public transport?”

“I never said –“ Dhruv realised his mistake and shut up. Too late.

“Did I mention what you said?” Kotu was in full flow now, spittle flying from his lips. “Are you going deaf as well?”

“No, sir.”

No, sir? No, sir? Then you’re being impertinent, are you?”

Dhruv shook his head.

“Then just what were you doing, instead of paying attention?”

“I was paying attention, sir.”

“Lying, too? You’re going down, Dhruv, that’s what’s wrong with you. Hell of a bad, Dhruv. You’re going down.”

Things never recovered from there. Dhruv could scarcely wait for the lunch break, and when it came round at last, he rushed down to the dinosaur pens. Kotu was already there, with a few of the more obsequious of his good-graces group. “Which of these animals is yours?”

Dhruv pointed. “That one, sir.”

“Hmm. Who gave you permission...” Kotu pronounced it paarmeeshawn “ bring it to school?”

“The principal, sir.” Dhruv reached for his licence, and thought better of it. “My father got permission from him.”

Kotu glared at him. “I’ll talk to the principal,” he said. “I don’t want you bringing that dirty animal here again.”

“He’s not dirty, sir,” Dhruv protested. “He’s...”

“Are you trying to talk back to me again?”

Dhruv knew enough to shut up. Kotu muttered something else under his breath and stalked away. A few of his acolytes remained behind, gawking.

“What’s its name?” one of them asked. He was a tall, gangly boy named Anup Pratim Sharma, who never missed a chance to kiss the ground Kotu had trod and was accordingly rewarded with top grades in tests. “Does it even have a name?”

“His name is Piggy,” Dhruv replied curtly, fondling the tyrannosaur’s feathers. “Don’t you have better things to do then hang around here?”

Anup Pratim ignored the question. “Piggy?” he laughed, a high neighing sound. “Talk about a failure of imagination. If it were me I’d have called him Tyrant or Rex or something like that. Piggy!”

“There are reasons he’s called Piggy,” Dhruv said curtly. Taking out the long-bristled brush from the saddle pocket, he began grooming the tyrannosaur, who closed his eyes in ecstasy. He had no particular reason to like Kotu’s clique. They despised Kotu yet stuck to him for what he could give them. It made Dhruv sick. “Get lost,” he said. “I don’t want you disturbing him.”

Some of the others drifted away, but not Anup Pratim. “Must be nice,” he said, “having money enough to buy a tyrannosaur. Your dad must be raking it in.”

Dhruv snorted. “My dad didn’t buy him,” he said. “I worked all last two summer vacations, and bought him as an egg from my savings. They don’t sell them except as eggs.”

“You and your eggs,” Anup Pratim said. “You should sit on one, that’s all you’re good for. Anyway, sir’s going to stop you bringing him here, so you better enjoy it while you can.”

“Oh, is he?” Dhruv asked. “What do you know about it?”

“You wait and see,” Anup Pratim said. “Sir and the princi are close friends. Everyone knows that.”

“Fine,” Dhruv said. “I’ll see.” He turned back to brushing the dinosaur. When he looked back, Anup had gone.


He’s not going to let you get away with it, you know,” Arif said.

They were walking down the street side by side, Dhruv holding on to the tyrannosaur’s harness with one hand. People stared, and a few took photographs, but nobody had said a word.

“Who do you mean?” Dhruv asked. “Kotu?”

“Who else? You know he went to the princi and asked him to ban you from bringing the dino to school?”

“I know. The princi called me to his office after class, didn’t he?”

“He did?” Arif squeaked. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I showed him my licence and the letter he’d himself signed allowing me to bring Piggy to school. He seemed a bit surprised to see that. Maybe he didn’t really read it through before signing.”

Arif watched Piggy preening his feathers for a couple of minutes. “Did he cancel the permission?”

“No,” Dhruv said. “Can he do that?”

“Of course he can,” Arif said. “They can do anything they want.”

“Well,” Dhruv said, “he didn’t.”

“Kotu won’t be happy,” Arif said gloomily. “He’ll make your life twice as miserable, you just wait and see.”

“He’ll do that anyway,” Dhruv told him. “He’s picked on you, he’s picking on me, and when he tires of me he’ll pick on somebody else. Except for Anup and his gang, of course.”

“Of course he won’t pick on them. They make sure of that by kissing the dust on his shoes.” Arif checked his watch. “I’ve got to be going. See you at school tomorrow.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to get groceries on the way home, including food for Piggy. You wouldn’t believe how much his kibble costs.”

When Dhruv got home, his mother was waiting with a worried frown. “I had a phone call from your principal.”

“What about?” Dhruv asked, though he knew.

“He wants us to meet him tomorrow, your father and me. Something about the disruptive effect your dinosaur’s been having at the school. Dhruv, did something go wrong at school today?”

“No, at least nothing to do with Piggy at all. But Kotu...”

“Don’t talk about your teacher that way,” Dhruv’s mother said automatically. “I know you don’t like him, but he is your teacher and deserves respect.”

“He’ll get our respect when he stops picking on us,” Dhruv said. “I’ve told you plenty of times how he harasses us, but you don’t believe me.”

“Come on, it can’t be that bad. Go wash up and I’ll feed you.”

“What will you say if the princi tells you to stop me from taking Piggy to school? He didn’t cause the slightest problem, I promise!”

“Well, since your father’s not in town, I said we’ll meet him next week. If he says he’s withdrawing permission...we’ll ask for his reasons. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

Dhruv didn’t say anything. There was no point in it. He stabled Piggy, fed him, and went in to wash up, thinking that Arif was right. “They” would do as they wished, and go back on “their” own promises without a qualm.

Later, he phoned Arif. “Kotu’s behind it, of course,” he said.

“Who else?” Arif paused. Dhruv could almost hear him thinking. “I have a feeling that Kotu’s fan club will try and manufacture a ruckus, you know, some kind of disorder, to get your Piggy blamed for it. Do you think you’d better leave him at home?”

“I could,” Dhruv said reluctantly. “But if I do, then they’ll say I could get along fine without him, so why should I bring him to school at all. Besides, they’ll just get bolder if they think they’ve won a victory.”

“Well, then, you’ll have to be careful, won’t you?”

“I’ll be careful,” Dhruv said. “Don’t worry about that.”

As it turned out, though, he wasn’t quite careful enough.


Dhruv had been expecting Kotu to pick on him even more the next day, and Anup Pratim and his cronies to pitch in with all they could do. He was surprised, then, to find that they all left him strictly alone. It wasn’t as though they were civil to him, of course, but they weren’t actively hostile. In retrospect, this should’ve warned him, but he was too grateful at the respite to be suspicious.

Therefore, it was an even more profound shock when he came down after class and found Piggy missing from the parking pen. The dinosaur had been fine at lunchtime, and had nuzzled him affectionately. But now, he was gone.

For a long speechless moment, Dhruv thought he’d mistaken the pen. But the number was the same, and the remaining pens were either empty or held other dinosaurs. Piggy was gone.

The dinosaur, of course, hadn’t gone off on his own – he couldn’t have, because he was trained from birth not to go anywhere alone, for any reason. Someone had taken him away.

It wasn’t anyone with good intentions, of course. His mother wouldn’t have done any such thing, and his father wasn’t in town. No ordinary thief would have stolen a dinosaur, because the veterinary microchip meant that it would be almost impossible to sell the animal. That left only one solution: one of Kotu’s acolytes had stolen the tyrannosaur.

He had been standing looking at the empty pen for so long that he was startled when Arif came up and tapped him on the shoulder. “Aren’t you ever coming?”

“Piggy,” Dhruv said. “He’s gone.”

“Oh.” Arif summed up the situation at a glance. “Stolen, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Couldn’t have been Kotu – he was in class. And he wouldn’t want to be caught in the act either. Must have been one of his fan club.”

“Do you remember if they were all in the class?”

Arif shook his head. “You know I taught myself to pretend they don’t exist. They could come dancing to class in war paint and I wouldn’t know it.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. But what should I do – go to the princi? Or should I call the police directly?”

“The princi won’t like it if you go to the police without telling him. He won’t like it anyway that the dino was stolen. He...”

“Wait. I’ve realised something.”


“They must be expecting us to go to the police,” Dhruv said, speaking very fast. “They want us to go to the police, so there’s a big fuss, and you know how the princi hates fuss. Then there’s not the slightest chance that he’ll let me bring Piggy to school. That’s the way they figure it.”

“And they’re right, aren’t they? How are we going to get through this without the police getting involved?”

“Let’s find him first,” Dhruv said. “You can’t just steal a tyrannosaur without somebody noticing.”

“It won’t be easy,” Arif predicted.

Actually, it proved extremely easy. The owner of the shop opposite the school gates, where Dhruv and Arif frequently stopped to buy everything from chocolate bars to ballpoint refills, answered at once when they asked him. “Oh yes – that black-and-white one. A couple of boys led him away about an hour ago. I noticed because it was an odd time, with the school still on and because you don’t often see a tyrannosaur with that kind of striking colours.”

“A couple of boys?” Arif wanted to know. “Who were they?”

“I don’t know their names, but one of them is the tall thin one with a round face and glasses. I’ve seen him around.”

Arif and Dhruv glanced at each other. The description matched Anup Pratim.

“Which way did they go?” Dhruv asked.

“Down the street, that way. They weren’t going too fast. The dinosaur didn’t look very happy, come to think of it. They almost had to pull him along.”

“Thanks, Uncle,” Dhruv said. “Come on, Arif.”

As they walked, he spoke quickly. “If they’re pulling him along they won’t have gone far, especially if there are only two of them. Piggy can be really stubborn if he has a mind to. We’ll just have to ask at all the side streets and turnings which way they went. Somebody’s sure to have noticed them.”

They struck lucky at the fifth side street they tried. “Oh yes,” a coconut-water seller said. “They went this way, about ten or fifteen minutes ago. The boys were hot and sweating and I thought they might buy a coconut, but they didn’t even look at me. Do you want to buy a coconut?”

“We will,” Dhruv promised. “We have some work and when we’re coming back we’ll buy a coconut each from you. And thanks.

“Ten or fifteen minutes,” he said to Arif. “We’re catching up.”

“And what do we do when we do catch them?”

“I thought of something. We’ll see.”

They heard the dinosaur before they saw him. Piggy was not the kind of tyrannosaur to suffer in silence when he was annoyed, and he was annoyed now. He’d been taken away by people he didn’t know, and been dragged along for well over an hour along unfamiliar paths, and he was hungry and he wanted to go home. Finally, he’d had enough. Planting his legs firmly, he leaned back against the reins and began to hiss his displeasure.

It was a quite remarkable hiss. It was a hiss so loud that it was audible two lanes away. It was a hiss so loud that people gathered to watch. Some of them began yelling advice, further adding to the commotion. When Dhruv and Arif arrived, Anup Pratim was pulling on the reins as hard as he could, while the other boy, Saurav, pushed on the dinosaur’s haunches. It didn’t work. Dhruv could have told them it wouldn’t work.

“Stop that,” he said. “Give him back to me now.”

Anup Pratim turned a red, furious face towards him. “What are you doing here? Why should I give this dinosaur to you?”

“Because he’s mine. You stole him from me.”

Anup Pratim laughed. It came out as a dried-throat cackle. “Stole him from you?” he said. “That’s ridiculous. You never had a dinosaur in your life.”

“In that case, why is he so glad to see me?” Dhruv asked reasonably. At the sight of him, the dinosaur had stopped hissing and was trying to nuzzle him. “Doesn’t that prove he’s mine?”

“Proves nothing,” Anup Pratim snapped. “He just got tired of hissing when you came along, that’s all. Do you have anything to prove he’s yours? Do you, huh?”

“Well, do you?” Arif murmured in Dhruv’s ear. “Got your ownership documents along?”

“No,” Dhruv whispered back. “They’re at home. I just have my licence with me. But it won’t matter if this works.”

“If what works?”

“You’ll see.” Dhruv turned back to Anup Pratim. “Look, we could keep quarrelling like this, but I think we both have better things to do. So I’ll just propose a simple test. If I lose, you can take him. Fine?”

Anup Pratim eyed him suspiciously. “What test?”

The people gathered round had begun to murmur among themselves. Dhruv looked around and raised his voice so they could hear him. “You claim he’s your dinosaur, right?”

“Of course he’s mine. So?”

“So, you feed him and take care of him and everything, do you?”

“Naturally. So what?”

“So, if you give him food, he’ll eat it?”

“He would – if we had food with us. But of course we don’t.”

“No? There’s some in that pocket on the saddle. Why don’t you have a look?”

Anup Pratim looked as though he was going to refuse, but it was too late. “Yes,” someone in the crowd yelled. “Check the saddle.”

“Get it yourself, then,” Anup Pratim snapped. “If you’re so sure that it’s there...”

“No, I want you to get it. I don’t want you saying afterwards that I slipped it in there while nobody was watching.”

Anup Pratim glared at Saurav. “Check the pocket.”

Saurav, a small boy with a wizened, monkey-like face, looked unsure. “Anup, maybe we could –“

“Get the damned food!”

Reddening, Sauruv plunged his hand in the pocket and came out with a pouch of kibble. “What do I do now?”

“How should I know?” Anup snapped. “It’s his test, not mine. Ask him.”

“Open it and put it on the pavement in front of him, Anup,” Dhruv said. “Go on. Let’s see if he eats it.”

Anup Pratim took the pouch and set it on the pavement. Everyone stared at the tyrannosaur, waiting. Nothing happened.

“Eat, damn you,” Anup Pratim said. He looked as though he would have liked to hit the dinosaur, but didn’t dare. “Eat!”

Still nothing happened. Piggy sniffed at the food, but made no attempt to eat it.

“He’s not hungry,” Anup said.

“Isn’t he?” Dhruv replied. “We’ll see.” He walked over, took the pouch and set it down again. “Piggy,” he said, and held a finger up in the air. “” He snapped the finger down at the second word, pointing at the pouch. “Go!”

There was a pause – a very brief pause. And then the crowd let out its collective breath.

Face buried in the packet, Piggy was eating.


But how could you be sure?” Arif asked, raising his face from a green coconut. “How could you be certain he wouldn’t eat when Anup gave him the food, and would eat when you did?”

Dhruv shrugged, sipping at his own coconut. “There’s a reason I call him Piggy,” he said. “When he was a chick, newly hatched, he would eat just about anything put in front of him, all kinds of rubbish. I had to train him to eat only what I ordered him to. You saw how I did it.” He looked affectionately at Piggy, who stood beside them preening his feathers. “He’s completely conditioned to eating only on command. But he’s always hungry. That hasn’t changed.”

“What will Anup and gang do now?” Arif asked.

“What can they do? I didn’t threaten them or anything. There are plenty of witnesses that Piggy obeys my orders, is under complete control, and that they stole him. The police didn’t get involved, so the princi won’t have anything to say. I don’t see what they can do after this. Kotu will pick on me, of course, but then he’d pick on me anyway.”

Hell of a bad, Dhruv,” Arif said, mimicking Kotu’s voice. “You’re going down.”

Dhruv laughed. “That’s a compliment coming from you.”

Piggy snuffled loudly and nuzzled Dhruv’s shoulder.

“Yes, from you too,” Dhruv told him. “You, too.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Manifesto of the Pope Billzebub I

Gather around, all you clowns. I have something to say.

I’ve been watching the state of your world, and I am not happy. No, I am not happy at all.

Accordingly, I have chosen to assume control. As of this moment, I am in charge.

From this day henceforth, therefore, you will no longer call me Bill the Butcher. Instead, you will all address me by the title of His Holeyness Pope Billzebub I. And Pope Billzebub I has these things for you to hear:

First, your church, temple, or other place of worship or contemplation is right where you are now, and does not require any physical structure or construction. Indeed, in case you believe in an omnipresent and/or omniscient deity (the two terms are actually mutually exclusive, but let’s not go into that now), a physical place of worship is an insult to the very concept.

Secondly, that this church, temple or other place of contemplation being housed in your own mind, and lacking any kind of physical infrastructure, you do not have to make any monetary or other material donations of any kind to its upkeep. You do not have to pay for prayers to be said.

Thirdly, there are no prayers to be said. In fact, if you choose to believe in a supreme deity, prayers are blasphemous, because they posit that human demands for favours should be given priority over said deity’s master plan. And if said deity has no master plan, it is no deity at all.   

Fourth, since prayers are blasphemous and/or ineffective, the purpose of the place of contemplation in your mind is the pursuit of truth, such as it can be defined, and the shedding of illusions. There is no higher purpose than that, nor can there ever be.

The only known Ultimate Truth is this: The Universe shall burn out and die; all accomplishments, all endeavour, shall ultimately perish in the cold of eternal night.

As a logical consequence, then, all religious and political disagreements are futile and useless; and all discrimination against anyone, be it on racial or sexual or any other grounds whatsoever, is to be shunned forevermore (which term, of course, means “till the end of time and space”).

 The planet has been here since long, long before humans, who are, in essence, no more than ambulatory specks of protoplasm equipped with the means to manipulate the environment; and the planet will be here long, long after humans are gone. Therefore, there is nothing at all special about humans, or any reason to believe that they have the right to “own” the planet. This means that harming or destroying other species in the name of human welfare, or out of casual cruelty, is not just contrary to any ethical moral code but has no logical spiritual sanction whatever.

This also means that there’s nothing special about any country or nation, and no reason for any country to claim hegemony over others; and any country exists, compared to the scale of human history alone, for only a blink of time. Therefore, any country which claims that it is the “greatest” or “tallest” or the “indispensable nation” is merely ridiculous, and worthy of nothing but abysmal contempt.  

Then, you do not require belief in any deity or other spiritual being to be a good person. Indeed, to be a good person all you require is a sense of right and wrong, and exercising that sense in the absence of belief in a higher being is a greater mark of goodness than exercising it in the fear of divine punishment. Therefore, hatred for atheists or agnostics is illogical.

Since you do not require belief in a deity to be good, you do not require to take it on faith that it exists. Indeed, faith is not the basis of thought. Faith negates thought. Faith is the enemy of your status as a reasoning animal. Throw away faith. Learn to think.

And last but not least: rich or poor, black or white, fat or thin, healthy or diseased, we all have one thing in common: we will die. So, use the time you have productively, for there’s too little to waste on hate and vengeance, let alone on squabbling over whose flag is spanglier or whose testicles larger.

The Pope Billzebub I has spoken.  

Sunday 10 March 2013


My daughter came back late in the evening, when the smoke of the fires were drifting across the old railway station. She stood back in the shadows, watching me, so it was a few minutes before I was aware that she was there.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked. “Why are you standing there like that?”

She shook her head slightly, without speaking. In her black waterproof cape, which she’d been wearing when she’d gone out in the rain, she looked insubstantial part of the shadows. I could almost imagine she wasn’t there, that she was a ghost made out of my imagination and the memories of the past. There had been a lot of ghosts over the years.

“Well?” I demanded, when she made no move to enter the old railway wagon. “Come here and sit down, then.”

For a few moments longer she stood there, before stepping forward slowly, climbing off the platform with an effort. She was a tall, angular woman, my daughter, thin and looking much older than her years. That wasn’t her fault – all that we’d been through would have aged anyone.

“Are you ill?” I asked her, for the third time, watching as she took off the cape and draped it over the box in the corner. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said in a dry whisper, folding herself down across from me. In the light of the little oil lamp, her face was like a piece of abstract art, planes of light and shadow. “Nothing’s wrong. Not more than usual, anyway.”

“Did you get any news?”

“No,” she said shortly, and looked at the lamp. “There’s not much kerosene left, Father.”

“Tomorrow I’ll go and look for some,” I said.

“There isn’t any to be had. I asked.” My daughter turned the knob at the base of the lamp until the light faded to a dim glow. “Besides, we have nothing to trade with anymore.”

I lowered my voice and leaned across to murmur in her ear. “I still have a little cash hidden in my shoes.”

She shook her head. “Nobody wants money anymore. It’s not good for anything.”

“Something will turn up.” I tried to be optimistic. “It always does.”

“Is that what age taught you?” My daughter gave a tired smile. “Father. I’m too old for fairy tales now.”

“It’s not a fairy tale.”

“No,” she agreed. “It’s no fairy tale. If it were one, like the ones you used to tell me, you know, the ones where the brave girl would save the people, then by now we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, would we?”

“You still remember those?” I asked, surprised. I hadn’t told her a fairy story in twenty years.

“Of course I remember,” she said, pulling off her sandals one by one, wearily. Her pale soles were splotched with mud. “You know what struck me about your fairy stories, Father?”

“No, what?” Behind her, through the open door of the wagon, I could see the moon come up. It was full, huge and red as dark blood. I could not take my eyes off that moon. It looked as though it were pregnant, and waiting to give birth to something I couldn’t even imagine. “What struck you about them?”

“Just how they were as much not like the usual fairy story they were.” She grinned suddenly, and I realised once again that under the exhaustion and strain, she was actually a very pretty woman. “You know the drill, the way it usually goes. Beautiful princess gets caught by cruel witch, and the silly bitch has to be saved by the valiant prince. All of the women in those tales were such ninnies. Pretty much an object lesson in how a girl should not be.”

I said nothing. The moon looked ready to roll out of the sky and down on us. I watched the moon.

“But your stories weren’t like that,” my daughter continued. “In your stories, the girl was always the strong one, wasn’t she? And the ogres and giants and so on were usually misunderstood, harmless or even the protagonist.” She laughed, with genuine delight. “Do you remember the Cinderella story you told?”

“No,” I replied. “Remind me, will you?”

“I still remember the time you told me it,” she said. “I was, what, seven years old? I’d asked you what happened to Cinderella after her marriage, and you sat back and looked at me, frowning a little. I’d thought you were angry at me.”

“I can’t have been,” I said. “I don’t think I ever got angry at you for asking questions.”

“Of course you weren’t really. Not asking questions is the cardinal sin in your book, right? You were just thinking of an answer. And then you told me to sit down and started off on your version of Cinderella.”

“And that was...?” I remembered some of it, and wondered how much she recalled. “My old man’s memory is going, so you’d better remind me.”

She snorted. “You’re still as sharp as a tack, old man. Well, you told me that the official story was a bunch of lies. Cinderella – the real Cinderella – was a hard-working girl who thought she deserved a little pleasure out of her life. A night out, with a movie and dancing, maybe; just a break from the drudgery of working day in, day out.

“Your Cinderella had no cruel stepsisters. She lived with a couple of flatmates, vain young women who spent their money on fancy clothes and cosmetics and looked down on poor Cindy for living within her means. But Cindy ignored them, because she knew they were vain and foolish. But at the same time she yearned for a break – just one day’s break from the routine.

“Then she got word that the local rich man’s son was throwing a party, at which all the pretty women were invited. The two flatmates were going, of course – they never missed out on parties, even on invitation-only affairs like this. But Cindy hadn’t a hope, because she didn’t have an invite, and besides she had nothing appropriate to wear.

“Well, the evening of the party came around and the two flatmates dressed up to the nines and left, throwing a couple of good-natured gibes at Cindy as they did. Normally, Cindy would have spent the evening reading or mending her old clothes, but tonight she was filled with rebellion. She went to the window and stood looking through it at the mansion on the hill where the party was going on. She could almost hear the music.

“ ‘I will go to it,’ she decided. ‘Just for once, let me have some fun.’   

But she had nothing to wear, so she thought a bit and remembered that on the floor below, there lived someone, a man who liked to dress up in women’s clothes and put on shows where he called himself the Fairy Godmother. She didn’t know much about the man, but she had never heard anything bad about him, so she went downstairs and knocked at his door. When he opened up, she explained her problem and asked to borrow a dress, good shoes, and his expertise with make-up.

“So the Fairy Godmother – you know, Father, that was the first time I’d ever heard of cross-dressers and gay people. Your Fairy Godmother was a positive character, and I’ve never had anything against transvestites since. Well, the Fairy Godmother lent Cindy smart clothes, spiffy shoes, and even let her drive his car, on condition that she return by midnight, because he had to go on a trip early in the morning and needed the car back by then.”

I nodded. “Go on.”

“So Cindy drove to the mansion, and found that there was a man at the door checking invites. But she’d come too far to turn back now, so she sneaked round the back and climbed in through an open window. After wandering around a bit, she found the hall where the party was going on. All the people were dancing, and there was loud music and bright lights, more than Cindy was used to.

“Now the rich man’s son had grown bored with all the women at the party, and when this new young female arrived, he was taken with her at once. He came up to her, and – taking her by the hand – pulled her to the dance floor. All this without asking her permission, because he imagined that any girl who got the opportunity would be so glad to dance with him that she would never dream of refusing. He was a very rich man’s son, and had never lacked for anything in his life.

“Now, Cindy wasn’t like all the sophisticated young women this rich man’s son had known. She was thoughtful and intelligent, not careless and shallow; he was quite taken by her, and paid her so much attention that the other women all burned with jealousy, not least the two flatmates, who wondered how she had wangled an invite and where she’d acquired these clothes they’d never seen before.

“Cindy was having quite a good time, when she suddenly realised that it was almost midnight, and she’d promised the Fairy Godmother that she’d return his car by then. She started looking for a way to leave, but the rich young man was by her side, pressing a glass of wine on her, and insisting on another dance.

“ ‘I have to go,’ Cindy told him. ‘It’s getting late.’

“ ‘It’s not even midnight,’ the young man said. ‘The evening’s only just begun.’

“ ‘It’s late for me,’ said Cindy. There were only a few minutes to midnight, and she was getting frantic. Taking a moment when the young man’s attention was diverted by a telephone call, she ran down the stairs and out, quickly going to the car and driving home as fast as she could. In her haste, though, she tripped, losing a shoe, and when she stooped to put it on, she dropped her driving licence. When the young man came looking for her, that was all he found.

“Well, the next day, the young man was at Cindy’s door bright and early. Cindy was without makeup and in her own old clothes, so he didn’t even recognise her till she introduced herself.

“ ‘You left without a word,’ he said accusingly then, holding out the licence. ‘Why didn’t you wait?’

“Cindy was getting ready to go to work, and said so. ‘I can’t be late for my job,’ she said. ‘If I don’t work, I don’t earn.’

“The young man laughed. ‘Marry me,’ he said, ‘and you will never have to worry about earning.’

“ ‘Marry you?” Cindy asked. ‘Why should I?’

“ ‘Why...’ the young man repeated. ‘Because then you won’t ever have to work again.’

“ ‘And supposing I like to work for a living?’ Cindy asked. ‘Suppose I prefer to be financially independent, and responsible for myself?’

“ ‘You can’t enjoy living in this, can you?’ the rich man’s son asked, sweeping his arm around the tiny flat. ‘This is a...dump. Think of the luxury you could have.’

“ ‘A golden cage is still a cage,’ Cinderella said. ‘I prefer to be free to fly.’ Politely thanking him for returning her licence, she ushered him out. And only when the door shut behind him did she begin to laugh, thinking of the expression on his face.”

My daughter smiled, remembering. “It was such a real story, you know? You could imagine it happening to people you knew. All your fairy stories were like that.” She looked up. “Did you have anything to eat?”

I shook my head. “I’m not hungry.”

“Liar. Of course you’re hungry. Wait.” Leaning over to the cape, she fumbled out something from an inner pocket: a hunk of bread wrapped in an old newspaper. Clumsily, she tore it into two, and handed me one part. “Here.”

I didn’t ask how she’d got it. Perhaps I thought it better not to know. We ate, chewing slowly, making it last.

“Father,” she said later, lying down under the cape, which she was using as a blanket. “Are you awake?”


“When I came back, and I was watching you – I was thinking, how much we’ve been through together. We’ve lost so much, and yet we’ve gained, too, in ways that can’t be measured in possessions.”

“You think this is a gain?” I asked. “This old train wagon in this abandoned railway station in the middle of nowhere?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she said. “Don’t pretend to me that you don’t.”

“I do,” I acknowledged. “But it isn’t a life for a young person, with her future ahead of her.”

“Everyone’s future is ahead of them,” she snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

There was a pause.

“Do you think things will ever be better?” she asked softly. “Do you think we can ever go home again?”

I didn’t know, and said so.

“I heard that they’re talking about an amnesty,” she said. “Give up, ask for pardon, and you can go back.”

“Do you think we should?”

“Of course not” my daughter said. “It would be easy to give up and do as we’re told, wouldn’t it? But that’s not the way your women characters would’ve acted. That’s not the way Cindy would’ve done it.”  

“No,” I agreed. The moon was higher in the sky, and smaller, and whiter. It no longer looked like a boulder about to roll down on us. “Perhaps things will be better tomorrow.”

“Or else we’ll find a way to make them better.” She paused. “No golden cage for us.”

“No,” I repeated. “No golden cage for us.”

She was silent so long that I thought she’d gone to sleep. Then, suddenly, she spoke.

“Wonder what Cindy’s flatmates thought of her choice. You never said. Do you suppose they laughed?”

"I don't know. Who cares what they thought?"

The moon crawled up the sky. I looked at my watch. It was getting on for midnight.

“Good night,” I said. “Sleep well.”

“Perhaps,” she said, finally, “this will turn out to be a fairy story, after all.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013