Thursday 27 June 2013

The Tank Man Today: Shades of Irony

I’ve not, so far, talked about l’affaire Edward Snowden except in passing in another article, and I do not expect to talk about him in detail in future. In any case, any regular reader of mine will be able to surmise exactly where I stand on that topic.

However, my attention was drawn to a cartoon that appeared at the time Snowden was in China, and was taken apart by one of my own favourite cartoonists, Ted Rall. It was a take on the old Tank Man picture from the Tiananmen Square “protests” of 1989, and depicts Snowden standing in front of a line of Chinese tanks. A voice from the lead tank says, “Why, sure, you can count on us to protect your civil liberties, Mr Snowden.”

The (intended) subtext is clear: Snowden has run to a nation which tramples on civil liberties, or, to be more exact, grinds them under tank tracks. It’s so obvious a subtext that only someone totally uninformed would miss it – or else someone well-informed enough to see through the sham.

Part of the latter informed view was voiced by Rall himself, who commented :[1]

“...China really did look out for Snowden, protecting him in a special police-run district and then permitting him to leave despite America’s...move...of annulling his passport.”

Actually, though, it goes way beyond that.

Now, I’m a bit of an authority on the Tank Man photo. I analysed it, after all, in excruciating detail in an article I wrote on the so-called Tiananmen Square “massacre”. Part of what I had to say is as follows (the whole analysis of the photograph is much longer and is available at the link):[2]

“It’s called one of the “100 most famous photographs of all time”; actually, there are several versions of the photo, and there’s a video of the episode as well, which has its own peculiar significance. Taken on the morning of 5th June 1989, it shows a lone man, in white shirt and dark trousers, with what seems to be shopping bags in his hands. He stands in front of a line of tanks. In the most well-known version, that taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, there are four tanks. In other photos, taken from further away, there are more tanks behind those four. They are Chinese Type 59 tanks, with the crew “buttoned up” inside; i.e. the hatches shut. 

As seen in the video, the man gestures angrily to the tank with his bags. The tank swerves to one side in order to drive around him. The man steps again in front of the tank, and the heavy vehicle again tries to steer around him. Finally, it stops, and the man clambers on it, has a brief exchange with the crew, and descends. As the tank tries to drive on, he again steps in front of it and again it stops. People from the crowd then pull the man to safety and the tanks drive on (this last bit is typically excised from videos of this episode posted on such sites as YouTube).

According to the standard mythology of the event, one so standard that it’s practically sacrilege not to believe it, the man displayed almost unbelievable courage in the face of overwhelming Chinese military aggression. This “lone hero” became an instant icon, known as the “Tank man” and a symbol of courage worldwide.

...Now, if we look at the video, we see the tank shifting to the right and back again in an effort to avoid the man. If the Chinese troops had already shot and crushed down hundreds to thousands of unarmed civilians, and according to standard mythology they were, even on this 5th of June, shooting students trying to re-enter the Square, why would the tank have gone to such trouble to save the life of one miserable counter-revolutionary? There can be no reasonable explanation but the fact that  that the tankers were exercising the maximum restraint in the face of provocation."
Therefore, whatever you believe about the rest of the events surrounding the so-called Tiananmen Square Massacre, this much is undeniable: the Tank Man episode does not depict military brutality. It, instead, depicts Chinese armoured forces going out of their way not to hurt or kill a single isolated demonstrator. Seen in that light, the cartoon is ironically true – in a way its cartoonist never intended.

Then, there’s this interesting little fact that in 1989 the Tank Man was called “heroic” for standing up to armour. Now imagine if there were major domestic disturbances in a Western “democracy” today, attempting to overthrow a government deemed tyrannical by a section of the population.  Now, imagine that troops/National Guards were called out to quell these disturbances. Suppose an unarmed demonstrator were to step out in the path of one of these columns of troops, moreover, carrying bags in his hands, bags which might contain petrol bombs like other demonstrators have used to burn troops alive.[2] What would happen to him?

I’ll give you the likely answer in two words: Rachel Corrie.[3] And she wasn’t even armed, nor was there any kind of demonstration going on.

But let’s assume he’s not run down. Let’s accept that the armour stops instead, and waits for him to get out of the way.  But, let’s then posit that he climbs on top of the lead vehicle, apparently in an attempt to talk to the crew. He’s still carrying his shopping bags with him, bags which for all the crew knows might contain Molotov Cocktails or explosives. What would the crew do under these circumstances? Wouldn’t they be justified in assuming their safety came first?

Either way, the answer is the same: if Tank Man had attempted his stunt in a “liberal Western democracy” today, where one can be chased down and killed on the Underground[4] for the crime of having brown skin and “looking Arab”, for instance, he’d have been toast. And the crew would not only have been able to have got away with killing him, they would have been criticised for recklessly endangering themselves if they hadn’t blown him away. What he might or might not actually have had in his shopping bags, or whether he might be mentally disturbed[2], would be immaterial.

And, of course, after they’d killed him, they’d have called him a terrorist. Or a terrorist-sympathiser, which amounts to the same thing.

I’ll leave it to your imagination what would have happened if Tank Man had tried his thing in Until-Recently-Occupied Iraq, Still-Occupied Palestine, or Occupied Afghanistan. How things change according to time and circumstance.

Irony isn’t dead, after all.


The Invisible Dragon in the Garage and the Warlock From the Inner Dark

There’s an invisible dragon in the garage,” Tapas said.

He looked in the mirror and tried again. “There is an invisible dragon in the garage.”

He shook his head and sighed. It was no good. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t make it so anyone would believe him. Besides, the mirror was very dusty, so he couldn’t see himself very well. He considered dusting it, and decided not to. If he dusted it once, his mother might expect him to dust it every day.

“There’s an invisible dragon,” he said, “in the garage.”

Worse than ever. He glanced over his shoulder towards the door, suddenly worried that someone might look in. But there wasn’t anyone home, except him. And except the dragon, of course.

He tried to imagine what would happen if he went to his mother and told her about the dragon. He could imagine her fat face crunching in a scowl. “Topshe,” she’d say, “you’ve got too much time on your hands. Go sit down and study, right now, and study out loud so I know you’re studying.”

No, it wouldn’t do to tell his mother. And if he tried to tell his father, he knew exactly what would happen. His father would nod and peer myopically at Tapas. “Tell your mother,” he’d say, and go back to hiding behind his newspaper.

And he couldn’t tell his friends, of course, because he didn’t have any. His mother didn’t approve of friends. “Dirty, nasty boys,” she always said, “teaching each other bad words and destroying things. You stay home and study.”

Maybe he could go to the police? He could just imagine his short, fat figure standing before a policeman, telling him about the dragon in the garage. He could imagine the policeman laughing.

So, no, there was nobody to tell, even if he could think of a plausible way of telling it. And there was still the dragon in the garage. He amended that to himself. There was still the invisible dragon in the garage.

He supposed he ought to make sure it wasn’t a figment of his imagination, he decided. Reluctantly, because he was uneasily aware that he was a timorous boy, he went downstairs and to the garage. It was a small garage, and didn’t need to be large, because all it had to contain by way of vehicles was his father’s old Bajaj scooter, which his father hardly used anymore, and the bicycle he’d been given by an uncle for his birthday last year but never ridden. He’d never ridden the bicycle because his mother said it was dangerous.

“You’ll fall down and break your arms and legs,” she would say each time he brought the subject up. “Your uncle should never have given you such a thing. The idea!”

So there was no bicycling for Tapas. To be perfectly honest, he was more relieved than anything at his mother’s opposition, because he had no idea how to balance on a bicycle and had no great appetite to find out.

Still, the bicycle sat in the garage, mocking him each time he saw it, with its rust spots spreading on the chain and its growing festoon of cobwebs. He disliked going into the garage because of it. And now, there was the dragon as well.

He was a timid boy, but some things couldn’t be helped.

He entered the garage cautiously, squeezing past the scooter. The back of the garage was filled with boxes of old junk, so it wasn’t just dark and confined but filled with clutter, and he wondered just where the dragon found space for itself.

He accidentally knocked over a box of old newspapers. Dust rose in a cloud, and he sneezed.

“Bless you,” the dragon said.

Tapas jumped. He’d known it was there, but he still jumped, as anybody would if they heard a disembodied voice at their shoulder, even if they were not a fat, timid, Bunglee boy who couldn’t even ride a bike.

“Oh, yes,” the dragon said. “I’m very much here. I haven’t gone away, and you didn’t imagine me.”

Tapas whirled about, searching. For an instant, in the corner of his eye, he’d thought he’d glimpsed something – a rainbow glitter on a scale, perhaps. But there was nothing.

“So,” said the dragon conversationally, “did you try to tell anyone about me?”

“No,” Tapas said bitterly. “Whom would I tell? And what would I say?”

“Nobody would believe you?”

“Of course they wouldn’t.” Tapas sat down on the pile of newspapers he’d toppled, because it was less uncomfortable than standing squeezed between the scooter and the wall, his head bent beneath a shelf loaded with rusting hammers and hacksaw blades. “I see their point though. Who’d ever believe a dragon could be in a garage, and in Bunglistan of all places? Shouldn’t you be in a castle or something, someplace in Europe, and a thousand years ago?”

“Why,” the dragon asked pleasantly, “should I fit myself to your preconceived notions, seeing especially as you didn’t even know dragons even existed until this morning?”

Tapas had nothing to reply to that. He couldn’t even glare at the dragon, since it was invisible, so he glared at the bicycle. There was a large spider hanging on a line from the handlebars.

“There’s a spider,” he said. “You’d better go, or it might bite you. Spider bites are poisonous.”

The dragon chuckled, with a noise like rustling autumn leaves. “According to you, I’m supposed to live in caves and dungeons, right? And those are full of spiders, aren’t they?”

“My father will be coming home soon,” Tapas said. “When he finds you here, he’s going to throw you out.”

The dragon laughed outright this time. “How’s he going to know I’m here if I don’t show myself? And how would he go about throwing me out, I’d like to know.”

Tapas stopped trying to scare the dragon into leaving. “Why did you talk to me, anyway?”

He could almost feel the dragon shrug, the heaving of invisible wings. “You looked a sorry mess. I suppose I felt a moment of compassion. Always been soft that way, I have.”

Tapas couldn’t decide whether to be gratified or offended. “Where did you come from?” he asked.

“Now that’s a secret,” the dragon said. “I could tell you that I was a prisoner in the warlock’s secret basement, and that I escaped, and that I’m hanging around here till the coast is clear. But if I told you that I’d have to kill you, you see.”

Tapas couldn’t make out if the creature was joking. “What warlock?” he asked at last.

“The warlock from the Inner Dark.”


“Oh, he’s a great and evil sorcerer. All full of evil magic from his pointy shoes to his pointy hat. ‘Course, he’s a modern mage, so he doesn’t have pointy shoes or a pointy hat, but you get the idea. Always assuming he exists, of course, but, as I said, I couldn’t tell you if he did.”

“Because then you’d have to kill me.”

“Because then I’d have to kill you,” the dragon agreed cheerfully. It seemed to be speaking directly above Tapas’ right shoulder, but he couldn’t see anything there when he looked, except grime on the underside of the shelf. “I don’t like killing people, even if they are fat little boys who’re scared of their bicycles.”

“I bet you can’t even kill anything anyway,” Tapas replied, stung. “I bet it’s all a boast.”

“If you bet, you lose,” the dragon said. “Look at that piece of paper over there.”

Tapas looked at the piece of paper. It lay, a crumpled ball, on the floor next to the bicycle’s rear tyre. As he watched, it twitched, straightened out slightly, and then fell to pieces.

“There you are,” the dragon said. “Burnt, as advertised, by my Super Dragon Breath.”

“It didn’t burn,” Tapas objected.

“Cold fire,” the dragon explained. “Go ahead and check the paper. It won’t burn”

Tapas picked up a fragment of the paper. It was hard, like plastic, and cold, like ice in the fridge his mother had nagged his father into buying two years ago. When he pressed it in his fingers it fell to powder.

Tapas looked at it and at the other pieces on the floor. Then he looked at the bicycle tyre, the rubber of which was fissured and ripped. “Hey,” he objected, “you’ve gone and destroyed the tyre too.”

“Sorry,” the dragon said, not sounding sorry at all. “But then you never rode the bicycle anyway.”

“If you can kill anything you want,” Tapas objected, “why don’t you simply kill this...warlock?”

“Because – if he existed – he’d be proof against it, of course,” the dragon said. “Luckily, for you that is, he doesn’t.”

“So you’re going to stay here until...”

“...the warlock, who of course doesn’t exist, gets tired of looking for me and gets diverted to something else. Shouldn’t be long, just a matter of twenty or thirty years.”

Tapas gulped. “Twenty or thirty years?”

“Might be only ten. Or even five. But it’s bound to happen, sooner or later.”

“You mean, it would’ve been bound to happen, if the warlock existed – but he doesn’t.”

“That’s right,” said the dragon cheerfully. “Isn’t that your mother coming home? I recognise the cement mixer voice.”

“I’ve got to go,” Tapas said hurriedly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll be here,” the dragon told him. “You can absolutely depend on that.”


Tapas didn’t like school. It wasn’t just that he had no friends. He didn’t even get bullied, because none of the bullies cared enough about him to take the trouble of bothering him. That was all fine, just as it was fine that nobody ever asked him to join in their football games. And the one time he’d played cricket, the team captain had begged him to go away after the first two overs.

The reason Tapas didn’t like school was the teachers. He was terrified of them all, and most of all he was terrified of the mathematics teacher, old Castanets as the boys had nicknamed him from his habit of clicking his dentures together. Old Castanets was, to all appearances, a harmless man, elderly, balding, and old-fashioned enough to wear a dhoti instead of trousers. But he had a gimlet eye behind his thick spectacles, and his thin lips could curl into sneers so sarcastic that they turned Tapas’ knees to water.

Today, Old Castanets was in an especially evil mood, even by his standards. This was a singularly unfortunate coincidence, because Tapas’ head was so filled with thoughts of the dragon that he hardly took in anything the teacher was writing on the ancient blackboard. He was looking down at his exercise book, unseeing, when he realised that the classroom had fallen completely silent. He looked up quickly, to find Castanets standing beside his desk, glaring down at him.

“Show me what you’ve written so far,” Castanets said, so quietly that the clicking of his dentures was louder than his words. Trembling inside, Tapas presented his blank page. Castanets looked at it and then at him.

“There’s something very interesting which you’re thinking about? The new Bollywood movie? A cricket match? Or is it the political situation?” He paused, his bloodshot eyes glittering. “Well?”

Tapas didn’t say anything.

“I’ll have a word with your parents,” Old Castanets said through clenched dentures, and turned to stalk back to the blackboard. “Now, everyone, if we take the square of x and add xy...”

By the time Tapas returned home in the afternoon, he was a bundle of nerves. There wasn’t a single teacher he hadn’t fallen afoul of, and then when halfway home from school he’d found he’d left the science homework back in class and had to go back for it. And when he reached home, his composure wasn’t helped by finding Old Castanets ensconced in the living room with his mother.

“Topshe,” his mother yelled. “Your sir has come. He says you don’t study at all. You get in here.”

Trembling again, Tapas entered. Old Castanets sat in the best chair, a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits before him, watching impassively as Tapas’ mother continued to shout.

“You bad boy, is this why we send you to school, so that you can sit in class and daydream? When I think of how many times I told you to study, but no, your mind’s always in the clouds. I have a good mind to sit over you with a stick. I told your father to beat you, but he’s too soft. I knew you’d get spoiled...”

Old Castanets let her rant on for a while and then pointedly cleared his throat. The little noise cut Tapas’ mother off in mid-flow.

“Anyway,” she said, sounding suddenly deflated, “your sir is kind enough to offer to teach you after school, in his house. He says he’ll make sure you soon pick up the basics. You thank him now.”

His mouth going dry with fear, Tapas thanked the old man. He was astonished, too, to find Castanets had made good on the threat to contact his parents. Nobody had ever imagined the old crank cared enough about any of his charges to take a personal interest in their progress or help them on his own time.

Castanets didn’t seem to be gratified by the thanks. “You’re starting tomorrow,” he said. “You know where my house is?”

“Yes, sir.” It was on the way home from school, worse luck, so Tapas couldn’t even use the excuse of it being too far away.

“I’ll see you there, half an hour after school.” Old Castanets stood to go. “If you or your husband have any questions,” he said to Tapas’ mother, “feel free to phone and ask.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said hastily. “Won’t you have your tea?”

“No, thanks. I’m not hungry. I’ll see you tomorrow, boy.”

“See your sir to the gate. Topshe,” Tapas’ mother ordered. “These boys, they’ve forgotten all manners. Why, when I was a girl...”

Without waiting to hear what had happened when she was a girl, Old Castanets walked out, forcing Tapas to accompany him down the stairs. The old teacher peered around myopically on the stairs and when outside, paused, blinking, in the bright sunshine.

“You be sure to be there on time,” he said. His mood seemed to have improved to its normal state of foulness. “I don’t tolerate lateness.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And make sure you finish your homework for tomorrow. Just because I’m taking extra classes for you doesn’t mean you can neglect it.” With a final glare, Old Castanets stalked off toward the gate.

His heart hammering with fear, Tapas watched him go.



It was an hour later. After yelling at him for as long as her voice could hold out, his mother had gone out to a gossip session with her friends, ordering him to sit with his books and not move a muscle until she came back. Tapas had waited fifteen minutes after her departure, and come quickly down, to see if the dragon was still in the garage.

“Hey!” the voice called again.

Tapas’ head jerked. He turned quickly, and almost guiltily, to look over his shoulder, at the low wall which separated his parents’ house from the neighbour’s. A grinning female face was looking at him over the wall.

“Can I come over?” the girl asked. Without waiting for an answer, she hoisted herself quickly to the top and jumped lightly down on Tapas’ side. “That’s better,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Tapas. But,” he added, “my mother calls me Topshe.”

“You must hate that,” the girl said, with a quick grin. She was about Tapas’ age and height, but slim and with wiry strength in her brown arms. Her hair was cut short, almost like a boy’s, and she was dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt and denim shorts. She even had a wristwatch. In other words, she was the absolute antithesis of the “good girls” Tapas’ mother talked about.

Of course, it didn’t matter whether she was “good” or “bad”, Tapas’ mother would have an apoplectic fit if she caught him talking to any girl, ever. Good boys never, ever, even noticed the existence of the other sex, or they would be “spoiled”. Tapas had actually never before spoken to any girl who wasn’t a member of the extended family, and none had ever spoken to him.

“Your mother shouts a lot, doesn’t she?” the girl said. “I can hear her clear over in my bedroom.”

It wasn’t a statement Tapas could honestly refute, so he didn’t try. “You live there?” he asked, pointing over her shoulder at the neighbour’s. A new family had moved in last week, he’d heard, though he hadn’t seen anything of them and hadn’t had the curiosity to try and find out. “What’s your name?”

“Bornali,” she told him, giggling. “Awful, right? But you can call me Bee.”

“Bee,” Tapas repeated awkwardly. He wondered how to talk to her. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“You too.” She looked quickly toward the house. “Won’t your mum be angry if I’m here?”

“She’s not home, won’t be for a couple of hours. And my father always comes back late from work...” Tapas hesitated. “As late as he can.”

Bee nodded, quickly. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I see you each day, and you seem such a serious boy. Don’t you have any friends?”

Tapas blushed. “She doesn’t want me to have any friends.”

There was no question who he meant. Bee nodded again. “Anyway,” she said hurriedly, “I came to see you for a specific reason. Is there something wrong with your garage?”

“Wrong with the garage?” Tapas’ heart, which had just settled, began racing once more. “Why do you ask?”

Bee looked a little embarrassed. “ isn’t any of my business, not really. But I was looking out of my window a while back – I can see your garage door from it – and it seemed like there was something in the opening. I mean, I could see the scooter inside and all – but in front of it, there was something, moving, but I couldn’t see it, not really. It’s like the way air shimmers on a hot day, you know? Only not quite like that, because it seemed to have a shape. If I believed in ghosts I’d have said it was a ghost or something.” She laughed quickly, and began turning away. “Anyway, I’m just being stupid. I’ll go back now, shall I?”

“No, no.” The thought of her leaving suddenly seemed unbearable to Tapas. “Wait. Sit down here and I’ll tell you about it. Only please understand that I’m not making it up.”

“What are you talking about?” Frowning prettily, she sat on the step beside him. “You mean there is something in the garage?”

“Yes. It’s an invisible dragon.” Tapas spoke quickly, so that she didn’t get a chance to interrupt. “He’s really there, can talk and everything. One can even see him, almost, sometimes. And he breathes cold fire.” He rushed on, telling her of what the dragon had said about hiding from the warlock, and how he’d freeze-burned the paper.

She took it better than he’d expected. “And he’s in there now?” she asked, when he finally paused from lack of breath.

“Yes. If you don’t believe me, we can go and look.”

“Well, of course, I believe you. But we’ll go and look, too. I wouldn’t pass up this chance for the world. Why, it’s like Eragon.”

“What’s Eragon?”

“It’s a fantasy novel about a boy and a dragon. Don’t you read fantasy?”

“I don’t read anything except the school textbooks. She doesn’t like me reading story-books.”

“Um. Well, we’d better go and visit the dragon, before your mum gets home.” Without waiting for his answer, Bee jumped to her feet and walked towards the garage. Tapas, suddenly reluctant, was left with no alternative but to follow.

The dragon was waiting for them just inside the garage door. Tapas could feel it, coiling in the air, and could imagine its great eyes, studying the girl. “Who’s this you’ve brought?” it asked.

“I’m Bee,” the girl introduced herself, which showed Tapas that she, too, had heard the dragon. Nor had she screamed and run as he’d half expected – as he had almost done when it had first spoken to him that morning. “I’m Tapas’ new neighbour – and his friend.”

Tapas’ heart gave a glad leap at the last word. “She saw you at the garage door,” he explained. “I mean, not you, but –“

“The disturbance in the air. I understand. I got careless a little.” The dragon coughed delicately. “I take it you didn’t mention me to anyone else –“

“No,” Tapas said indignantly. “What do you take me for?”

“That’s all right then,” the dragon said smoothly. “I’ve got to be careful, see.” They felt it move away a little, to the back of the garage. “I’ve been looking in this junk here. Fascinating stuff. Some of it might actually be quite valuable.”

“My mother will be back soon,” Tapas said. “I’ll have to go.”

“I’d better be going too,” Bee added. “My parents are pretty easy-going, but I don’t want any awkward questions. Will you be here tomorrow afternoon? I’ll come over if you are.”

“Of course –“ Tapas began. Then, remembering, his heart sank. “No, I forgot. I have mathematics tuition.”

“You two go off,” the dragon said. “I’ll be fine.”

“What will you eat?” Tapas asked. “Should I sneak something from the kitchen, or –“

“That’s no problem,” the dragon assured him. “We dragons don’t eat, whatever you might have heard. We absorb energy from cosmic rays.”

Tapas had only the vaguest idea what a cosmic ray might be, but it sounded comfortingly scientific. “Bye for now, then.”

The dragon laughed lightly. “Good night, kids. Sleep tight, because the mosquitoes are sure to bite.”


Something woke Tapas. He lay on his bed in the dark room, staring up at the ceiling. And, after a moment, it came again.

At first he thought it was hail, striking the windowsill, but there was no sound of rain, and a pale moon shone dimly through the curtains. Then the sound came again, and he realised what it was. Somebody was tossing gravel at the window.

Quickly, trying to make as little noise as possible, he got out of bed and stumbled to the window and drew back the curtains. After the gloom of the bedroom, the moonlight outside was so bright it hurt his eyes. So it was a moment before he saw Bee standing below and gesturing urgently.

Carefully, he opened the window, and leaned out. “What...?”

Grimacing, Bee put a finger to her lips and waved at him to come down. She certainly looked very excited about something.

There was no light in the corridor, but the reassuring noise of twin snoring from his parents’ room covered his clumsy stumble down the stairs. He opened the door and hurried to where Bee waited. “What’s going on?” he whispered.

She was in a loose T shirt over pyjama bottoms and bare feet – she must have come here straight from bed.  She put her mouth almost to his ear. “There’s someone in the garage.”

“You mean besides the dr-“

“Quiet, damn it!” She pulled at his arm. “I couldn’t sleep with the excitement of the dragon. So I went to the window to see if I could get another glimpse of it. Instead, I saw someone enter the garage.”

“Enter the garage? But the gate’s locked.”

“How should I know how he got in? Maybe he climbed over the wall or something. But I saw him going in, right enough. And then there was a weird red light, very dim. I knew something very strange was going on, so I came to call you.”

For the first time, Tapas looked at the garage. Its door was open, as always, and at first he thought it was dark as usual in the moonlight. But as he opened his mouth to tell Bee that she must have been imagining things, he noticed a very, very faint red pulsing, like a scarlet stain in the air.

“You see it?” Bee asked.

“Yes...” Tapas wanted to go back up to bed. He wanted nothing more than to go back up to bed and pretend this was a dream. “What is it?”

“We’d better go find out, hadn’t we?” Still holding his arm, Bee began walking towards the garage. Tapas didn’t have a choice but to follow.

At the door of the garage, they paused, craning their necks cautiously to peer round the edge.

On the back of an upturned packing box, a tiny candle burned, throwing the dim red light. A man was silhouetted against it, and for an absurd moment it looked as though he had wings and was trying to fly. Then Tapas realised that his upper body was, despite the warmth of the night, wrapped in a shawl, and he was raising and lowering his arms rhythmically. And with that realisation came another.

He knew the man in the garage. It was his mathematics teacher. It was Old Castanets.

It was the warlock. The warlock from the Inner Dark.

Now, suddenly, everything fell into place. Old Castanets’ exceptionally bad mood in class earlier; the escape of the dragon would have sent him into a fury. And then, when he’d seen Tapas’ preoccupation, he must have realised something was wrong – so he’d made up an excuse to visit his house. And once there, his mood had improved dramatically; of course, he’d sensed the dragon, known exactly where it was hiding. And tonight, when everyone slept, he’d come back for it.

No wonder he’d managed to cross the locked gate, Tapas thought. To a warlock, all things were easy.

He was still wondering what to do when the air beyond Old Castanets seemed to solidify and the dragon became visible...

If he’d not already become dry-throated with fear, Tapas might have gasped with terror and awe. He had never even imagined the dragon was like this.

It was power and beauty, it was the night come alive, it was the essence of the gulfs between the galaxies brought to terrible, splendid life. It reared from the floor of the garage till its head touched the roof, its immense claws holding it high. Its great wings twitched, making the candle flicker slightly. It was as of air turned diamonds, the red light reflecting and gleaming inside its crystalline body. Its gigantic head arched, antennae whipping, nostrils flared. It opened its mouth and roared, but the noise was like a whisper, barely audible.

“Come,” said Castanets. Reaching inside his shawl, he brought out a plain earthen pot and set it down beside the candle. “Inside.”

The great dragon shook its head, left and right, so violently that the air inside the garage seemed to shudder. “No,” it said, its voice faint as a breath. “I won’t go.”

“You have no choice,” Castanets said. His arms rose and fell, faster and in more intricate motions, and suddenly the dragon began to shrink. Swiftly, so swiftly that the eye could barely follow, it was a diminishing sparkle, collapsing into the pot. Castanets reached out to pick up the pot, but paused suddenly. Slowly, he turned his head, until the round discs of his spectacles were staring at Tapas.

“I know you’re there,” he said. “Come here.”

Tapas’ legs seemed to obey of their own volition. He found himself stepping forward, past the scooter and the bicycle, until he stood before the old man.

“So,” Old Castanets said. His dentures no longer clicked, and Tapas realised he looked slightly different, younger and stronger. “Spying, were you?”

Tapas said nothing.

“I’m disappointed in you,” Old Castanets said. “You really had to screw this up at the last, didn’t you? It’s always like this with you, Tapas. If there’s a mistake to make, however unlikely, you’ll make it.”

“Please,” Tapas whispered. “Let the dragon go.”

Old Castanets laughed. “Not likely,” he said. “Not after I went to all this trouble to track it down. Besides, it’s useful to me. But you aren’t.” He cocked his head, like a terrier, and looked at Tapas with his red-gleaming spectacles. “What shall I do with you? I’ll have to think. But for the moment, you’ll come with me.”

 “I can’t,” Tapas said. “My parents...”

“Who cares about them? Stupid people. Even more stupid than you.” Old Castanets stood up, and reached out a hand. It seemed much larger than a hand ought to be, and the nails were long and curved, like talons. “Come along.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Bee said. Silent on her bare feet, she strode into the garage, raising her own hand. The stone in it flew straight and hard, and smashed into the earthen pot. “Nor is the dragon.”

“No –“ Old Castanets began. “You can’t...”

The air inside the garage seemed to roil and twist. From the shards of the shattered pot rose the dragon, glittering, rearing. It spread its wings wide, and they spanned the garage and were still not fully open. It stretched its legs, and its claws were like pillars rising from the floor. It threw back its head and roared, the antennae whipping like live snakes around its awesome head.

Throwing himself forward, Old Castanets began raising his arms to make his passes.

“The candle,” the dragon shouted. “Blow out his candle, boy!”

It was probably the fastest Tapas had ever moved. He hurled himself towards the flickering flame, reaching out to take the candle, to hold it up and blow it out. Instead, clumsy as ever, he hit it with his hand and knocked it over.

With the slightest sputter and a wisp of smoke, the candle went out.

Old Castanets changed. In the moonlight that leaked through the doorway, they saw him change, melt like flowing wax, his limbs pulling back into his body, his torso hunching grotesquely, and falling in on itself. In a moment, he was no more than a puddle of shadow on the floor. A moment longer, and he was gone.

There was a long, long moment of silence.

“We did it,” Bee said at last. “We did it, didn’t we?”

“Is he dead?” Tapas asked, his heart hammering. “Did we kill him?”

“No such luck,” the dragon said. “He’s just beat it. But we defeated him, right enough. And once he’s beaten, he can’t do anything to us. We’re rid of him.”

“That means – no mathematics extra class tomorrow?”

“Class?” Bee looked at Tapas.

“He maths teacher,” Tapas admitted. “He was in the house this afternoon, to talk to my mum. That’s how he must have known that you’re here. I’m sorry, it was all my fault.”

“You couldn’t help it,” the dragon said. “You can take it that there won’t be any extra class. Nor will he give you a hard time any longer.”

“And you,” Bee asked the dragon. “What are you going to do?”

“Well, no point my hanging around here any longer, is there?” The dragon paused, thinking. The edge of one wing caught the moonlight, and glimmered faintly. “I don’t want to hang around the world, though. There are other warlocks, and many of them wouldn’t mind a dragon slave of their own.”

“Where are you going then?” Tapas asked.

“Up there,” the dragon told him. “To the stars. That’s where I’ll be safe and free. Besides, there may be other dragons there.”


“Right away,” the dragon confirmed. The air at the garage door gleamed faintly with refracted moonlight. “Come out,” it said. “What are you waiting for?”

 Blinking, Bee and Tapas emerged. In the light of the moon they could faintly distinguish the outline of the dragon, towering over them. It reared, flapping its titanic wings.

“I’m leaving now,” it said. “Thanks, kids, and don’t forget one very important thing. It isn’t what the world thinks of you that matters, but what you think of yourselves.”

Without a further word, it launched itself into the air. They saw it one last time, a sparkle of light climbing towards the stars.

Silently, hand in hand, they watched it go.


Topshe,” Tapas’ mother called. “What on earth are you doing?”

Tapas looked up from his work. “I’m cleaning the bike, mum,” he said patiently.

“Weren’t you supposed to go to your mathematics sir for extra class? And why are you touching that filthy thing?”

“ answer your first question, he told me in class today there’s no need for me to get extra coaching. Besides, I got all the maths answers right today. You can check the book, it’s on my desk.” He looked down at the bicycle and up at her again. “As for your second question, the bicycle isn’t filthy any longer. And I’ve cleaned it because I’m going to take it now to get the rear tyre fixed and the chain oiled. After that, Bee is going to teach me to ride it. Bee is the new neighbour’s daughter.”

Tapas’ mother opened her mouth to begin yelling, but the words somehow seemed to freeze on her tongue, so she could only open and close her jaws, like a fish.

He pushed the bike past her, and paused at the gate. “And one more thing,” he said pleasantly. “My name is Tapas, all right? Not Topshe. Tapas. It should be easy enough to pronounce.”

With a smile, he pushed the bicycle into the street. As he wheeled it by the neighbour’s house, Bee came out. They hugged briefly, one-armed.

Together, talking earnestly, they pushed the bicycle down the lane.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Raghead: Pipe Dreams



Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Monday 24 June 2013


If you are against the destruction of the environment
To enrich Big Business
To turn forests into charcoal and slag
And tear the heart from the earth’s dark breast
Then you are a Maoist.

If you’re filled with rage
When villagers are killed, houses burnt
By the police and the state’s death squads
Looted, raped, locked away without charge,
You are a Maoist.

If you think crony capitalism is evil
And sucks the blood of the poor
If you think that riches never trickle down
And the poor get only poorer
You are a Maoist.

If you think an inflow of foreign money
Is not the way to prosperity for all –
If you point out that the British first came as merchants
And that when they pay you, they buy you
Then you are a Maoist.

If you are against competitive corruption
Of the politicians, and say
That they are all on the same side – theirs, only
And that they only work for themselves
Then you are a Maoist.

If you think democracy is rule for the people, by the people
And does not mean just holding elections, and numbers of seats won
Alliances made, promises betrayed –
If you believe the system has failed, was meant to fail
You are a Maoist.

If your ears ring to the screams of tortured people
In the prisons, trampled under police boots
If you refuse to be diverted by the latest cricket scores
The latest political shadow-play
You are a Maoist.

If you think land should not be taken from peasants
To give to companies to build factories, at gunpoint,
If you think a thousand cars are not worth one drop of blood
One dammed, murdered river, one trickling tear
You are a Maoist.

If you think the government should serve the people
And not stock market figures,
If you think “growth” for the sake of “growth”
Is not a worthy goal for anyone
You are a Maoist.

If you point out the hypocrisy, and the lies
The fairy tales told by the media,
If you mock the Muddle Class
And hold up a mirror for it to see
You are a Maoist. 

You don’t have to take up a gun
Or even throw a stone.
You just have to think for yourself,
And have the courage to speak out.
And even if you never heard of Mao

They will call you an enemy of the nation
They will call you a traitor to the state
They will try to silence you
Yes they will crush you down
And they will call you Maoist.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Sunday 23 June 2013

The Mite Family at Dinner

The family dispute on the third upper eyelash on the left was getting so loud that the neighbours were beginning to grumble.

“It isn’t right,” old Grandma Demo, who lived one eyelash away, said. “Never a moment of peace and quiet since they moved in.”

“Oh, don’t be such a grouch, Grandma,” her little granddaughter, Folli, said. “Culo’s fun.”

“Maybe she is, I don’t know.” Grandma Demo would’ve glared if she’d had eyes. “But I’m not talking about your friend, I’m talking about her parents...and her brother.”

“You’re right there, Grandma,” Folli said judiciously. “Rum is a bit of a brat. Culo was telling me yesterday that –“

“Never mind what she told you. I’m talking about all their yelling.” Now Grandma Demo’s own voice was rising angrily. “Ever since they moved in it’s been so that nobody can find a bit of peace. It’s always screaming, screaming, at all hours of the day and night.”

“Hey, Grandma,” Dex, who lived over on the next eyelash, shouted. “Pipe down, can’t you. You’re getting too loud over there.”

“Pipe down?” Grandma bawled. “You dare to tell me to pipe down, Dex Mite? What about all the noise you make when you go out skin-crawling every night? Who are you to tell me to shut up?”

Folli closed off her ears to the noise and scraped at a drop of oil with her mandibles. She was getting quite good at ignoring shouting, really. Sometimes, Culo and she would compare notes on it.

Meanwhile the quarrel in the upper third eyelash was going on, as strong as ever.

“I don’t want to stay here,” Rum shouted, a bit muffled because of the fragmented tissue in his mandibles. “I want to go away on vacation.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” his father shouted, “or I’ll clout you one. If I’ve told you one time about politeness, I’ve told you a thousand –“

“You never let him have his say,” Rum’s mother, Bre, snapped. “It’s no wonder he acts out, not being able to say anything. Besides, you’re a fine one to talk about politeness. I remember back when I married you...”

“Vis went on vacation to the eyebrow last week,” Rum said, quite undaunted by his father’s threat. “He said it was great. I want to go on vacation to the eyebrow.”

“To the eyebrow?” his father spluttered, spewing out fragments of oil and debris. “Do you have any idea how far that is? How long it would take to get there?”

“They went there in a night,” Rum said. “And they came back in a night. So that’s how far it is.”

“What about the cost, then? Do you know how much it would cost?”

“If you only had been less exoskeleton-lazy,” his wife screamed, “you would’ve gone out and got a job, instead of eating oil all day long. And then we could’ve afforded a vacation once in a while.”

“A job doing what, exactly? You know the state of the labour market.”

“Did you even try to find a job, ever?” Bre yelled, her leg stumps quivering with fury, so that the eyelash vibrated slightly. “If I’d known what a deadbeat you were, I would’ve taken any of the other offers I was getting. Just look at you. You couldn’t cause rosacea if you tried.”

“I want to go to the eyebrow!” Rum yelled.

Both his parents rounded on him. “You shut up,” his mother snapped. “Almost ten days old, and you’d think by now you’d known how to stay out of adult’s talk, but no. What did I ever do to deserve you, I have no idea.”

“Listen to your mother,” his father added. “You should think of her once in a while, instead of your own selfish desires.”

Culo began backing carefully out of the hair follicle. She made it halfway before her parents noticed.

“And where are you going, missy?”

“I’m running away,” Culo said. “I just can’t stand it any longer. This constant squabbling is getting to me.”

“Running away, are you? And just where are you running to?” her mother asked.

Culo paused, trying to think of a reply. “Anywhere,” she said.

“If you take one step outside,” her father added, “you’re on your own. Do you get me?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore, dad,” Culo said wearily. “I’m tired of this. I’ll just move in with Folli.”

“And just what makes you think Folli would have you?”

“I just want to get some peace and quiet, OK?” Culo began backing out again. And as she did, someone poked her head cautiously over the hair follicle rim.

“Culo, is that you?” It was Folli. “Can I come in? I’ve run away.”

“I’ve run away too,” Culo said.

They both listened to the shouting inside and next door.

“Let’s run away together,” Culo suggested.

“Yes, let’s,” Folli agreed. “But where should we run away to?”

“The eyebrow,” Culo said. She giggled. “I hear it’s wonderful this time of year!”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013