Saturday 6 July 2013


On Xiaoping’s eleventh birthday, his mothers decided to take him to meet the Qlorq.

This was quite a treat, because most kids didn’t get to see the Qlorq at all, let alone meet it, and certainly not at only eleven. But then Xiaoping had influential mothers.

They gathered round him in their bright blue gowns, their hands fluttering, just like a flock of twittering birds. Their eyes glittered like wet pebbles, as they told him just how lucky he was that they were so influential.

“And now,” First Mother said, frowning importantly so that Xiaoping would know she was saying something important, “we’ll take the rocket to Imperial City, and there we’ll go to meet the Qlorq.”

“You’ve got to be on your best behaviour,” Second Mother added. “It’s a tremendous privilege to meet the Qlorq. Hardly anyone outside the royal family gets the chance – at your age. You’ve got to make the best of the chance you can.”

Third Mother had been waiting impatiently for her turn to speak, so impatiently that she began talking even before Second Mother had quite finished and in consequence was glared at by her. “I hope you understand,” she said, “that it wasn’t easy for us to arrange this meeting for you. In fact, it was very, very hard. We couldn’t have done it without a lot of effort – even with all our influence. You ought to be grateful to us.”

They all looked at Fourth Mother, but she said nothing, just lowered her eyes. She was the youngest and least beautiful of the four, and hardly ever spoke anyway. The three other Mothers waited just long enough to be polite, and then turned back to Xiaoping.

“Come on,” they said, almost simultaneously, so their voices overlapped, like the chirping of birds. “The rocket will soon be here.”

Xiaoping had only travelled in a rocket once before, and that was a long enough ago that he hardly remembered it, so that he looked around with keen interest when they arrived at the port. The rocket was green and gold, with a prow in the shape of a dragon’s head and stabilising fins like serrated wings. It was called “Wind Spirit.” A good name, everyone said, a blessed name; the Emperor had chosen it himself.

Actually, the Emperor hadn’t chosen anything himself, because he was a four-year-old boy who could barely write his own name, not that it made any iota of difference. In any case, Xiaoping and his four mothers got on and sat down in their places, which were all near windows except for Xiaoping’s and Fourth Mother’s seats. Then a tall, mannish woman attendant passed round cubes of opium flavoured candy which all the three elder Mothers ate, though they wouldn’t let Xiaoping have any, and Fourth Mother refused with a shake of her head. After a while, the rocket took off and flew quickly over the mountains and seas, which Xiaoping couldn’t see since he wasn’t sitting at a window. Soon enough, anyway, they came down to the port at Imperial City, where the mothers had hired rooms so they could freshen up and rest before they went to meet the Qlorq.

The mothers had, of course, not seen the rooms before they’d hired them, so they immediately started to look for someone to complain to, all but Fourth Mother who took Xiaoping aside and dressed him in his new red and black  robe. The robe was too large, of course, because his mothers believed in buying clothes he could grow into, and the hat was so large that it kept trying to fall over his eyes. Finally Fourth Mother solved the problem by pinning it to his pigtail.

The Qlorq had a palace to itself, which was a personal gift from the Imperial Regent and was known as the Hall of Blessed Melancholy. What the Qlorq thought about the title only it knew – nobody had ever asked it, or, if anyone had, it hadn’t deigned to answer. Still, for all its gloomy name, the Hall was a rather grand palace, painted Imperial Yellow except for its green doors, windows, and curving roof. When Xiaoping and his mothers – the first three still squabbling, in turn, over whose fault it was that the rented rooms were so unsatisfactory – finally reached it, they were late. The guards at the gate crashed their halberds on the ground and refused to let them in. Xiaoping was still wondering what the point of arming guards with halberds was, when First Mother reached inside her robes and passed something to the guards, and they let them through at once.

“Opium,” First Mother explained succinctly, as they climbed up a set of broad stairs. “I’d brought a pouch full along. It’s worth much more than money, in Imperial City.” Xiaoping thought this as strange as the halberds the guards were carrying, but he didn’t say anything. His mothers didn’t approve of him asking questions. It wasn’t polite, they said, that a boy should question his elders.

The Qlorq lived in a single room deep inside the palace, a room reached by corridors filled with fluttering eunuchs, several of whom competed to open doors and guide Xiaoping and his mothers. Each one of them had to be given some opium as a reward, and First Mother’s face had settled in deep lines of bitter disgust. Xiaoping watched the lines covertly and with growing dismay, because he knew that later he’d be made to pay for them.

“See how I had to give away all the opium just so you could have your birthday treat,” she would begin. “And do I see the slightest flicker of gratitude on your face, you ungrateful boy?” And it would go on from there, Second Mother and Third Mother joining in turn by turn so that First Mother wouldn’t then blame them for leaving her to discipline Xiaoping alone. Only Fourth Mother wouldn’t say a word, but then they wouldn’t care about her, because she never said anything anyway.

Fortunately, just as Xiaoping had decided that if the lines on First Mother’s face grew any deeper he’d suggest they forget it and go home, they reached the last door, behind which was the room occupied by the Qlorq itself, the room it never left. There was no guard at this door, just an officious little man in the green robes of the Imperial household service.

“Yes, very good,” he said after asking for and checking their permit. “The boy alone will go in, of course.”

“No!” First Mother said sharply. “We will all go in.”

“No knowing what kind of trash the Qlorq will fill his head with otherwise,” Second Mother said.

“You can’t trust the boy,” Third Mother added, glaring at him. “He’s always dreaming, and no telling what he might do in there.”

Fourth Mother said nothing.

“If it’s a question of something extra...” First Mother began, her hand reaching into her opium bag.

“I’m sorry, great ladies.” The official shook his head, with obvious regret. “It’s not something I have discretion over. The Qlorq itself does not see...subjects...unless they’re alone.”

“Alone?” First Mother repeated.

“Why does the Qlorq want that?” Second Mother queried.

“What should we do then?” Third Mother asked.

There was a brief silence. The mothers looked at each other, and First Mother opened her mouth to speak.

“Go,” Fourth Mother said, hurriedly. Since it was her turn to speak, if she chose, First Mother could do nothing but glare in baffled fury. “Go,” Fourth Mother repeated, and pushed him gently towards the door. “We’ll wait out here.”

“Wait –“ First Mother began, but she was too late. The official had already ushered Xiaoping to the door, and was in the act of opening it with the other hand. A moment later, Xiaoping was inside.

The Qlorq’s room was sheathed in silvery metal, which covered the floor, ceiling and all the walls, and was chill, almost freezing. Inside, mists shifted and curled, silvery too, so that it was difficult to see anything, and one might almost think the room was empty. But a few moments later the fog parted, and Xiaoping gasped involuntarily.

The Qlorq sat on a low platform, one of its foreclaws grasping a stalk of sugarcane, the other end of which was clamped in its round mouth. Its heavy head swung towards Xiaoping, as though it could see him, though it had, of course, no eyes or visible ears.

Xiaoping stood perfectly still, his heart hammering, his breath caught in his throat. The Qlorq shifted its huge bulk round until it was turned fully towards him, and raised its other foreclaw in greeting. For a minute or two, which seemed to stretch out forever, nothing happened. There was no noise but for the faint crunch of the Qlorq chewing at the sugarcane.

Then Xiaoping felt something in his mind, like a feather brushing along the surface of his brain. Though he’d expected it, had been told it would happen, his first impulse was of freezing terror. He felt as if his limbs were congealing, and his mouth went dry. If he could have moved he might have tried to run away.

Then, suddenly, the crawling silver mists of the room vanished, and he was standing on a high rocky ledge, with clouds floating around him. At his feet the ground fell away in a vertical precipice, down to a great plain which went on and on as far as the eye could see. It was so sudden that he gasped and staggered involuntarily.

Then it was as though a hand steadied him, and turned him so he looked to one side. There, winding through the land like a great dark ribbon, was a river. His eyes followed its course, till far away, at the limits of the horizon, he saw it vanish into a dark smudge that stretched till it met the sky – and he knew it was the sea.

“Is that what you want me to look at?” he asked. “The river?”

For a long moment there was no answer. Then, abruptly, the river seemed to jump closer, till he could see the water moving, slowly and sluggishly, full of mud and the branches of trees. In the middle of the flood he saw something else, something pale that bobbed in the water. At first he thought it was another piece of jetsam, and then he saw an arm raised in the air, waving as if for help.

“He’s going to drown –“ he began to say, then broke off, because a piece of wood came down the flood, at first sight no better than a mere wooden plank. But the searching arm found it, and pulled the exhausted body out of the water; and the plank stayed firm. And even as Xiaoping gasped, as in shared relief, he saw that it was a boy, about his own age.

“Is he going to try and make for the shore,” Xiaoping asked, “or will he make for the sea?” For a very long time there was no answer, and all he saw was the body lying on the piece of wood. The river bank was close by, and within easy reach, but instead of making for it, the boy on the raft, seemed content to let it sweep him down towards the sea.

Then he saw, on either side of the river, buildings rising, until a mighty city towered over the boy and his wooden shelter, a city of towers and walls that seemed to touch the sky, and streets so broad that nobody had seen the like. There were steps leading down to the river, and at one such the wooden plank drifted, and there the boy stumbled off the river and onto the shore. Before walking up, though, he looked around, hesitated a moment, and then went back down and pulled the makeshift raft on shore. For an instant he looked round at Xiaoping – and the face he had, Xiaoping saw without surprise, was his own.

Moments later the cliff, the plain and river, all disappeared, and a new scene took its place. At first Xiaoping thought it was the room back again, but then he saw that it was smoke which clouded the air, not mist, and that the ground underneath was not the silvery metal of the room, but rather a layer of grey-black ash. And behind the veil of smoke there was red flickering light, as from a great and distant fire, and he seemed to hear a faint noise, like the rustling of leaves, or a million stifled screams. It was as though a city burned on the horizon, and the ash fell from the sky like rain.

He stood on the plain, and beside him stood a figure, silhouetted against the red glow of that far fire. By his side he held a plank of wood, and though he couldn’t see the face, Xiaoping knew who it was. The figure’s shoulders drooped, the attitude full of sorrow, yet defiant at the same time. And there were footsteps approaching, through the smoke, as of many marching men; footsteps coming closer and closer.

Then he was standing atop a high dais, looking down at a cheering throng. And they were looking up at him, and cheering – not at someone with his face, but him, Xiaoping, cheering and waving fluttering banners. And though he waved back and smiled, he felt his heart burdened with worry, because he knew the hard part was still to come.

Then he was standing in the room full of silver mists, and the Qlorq, still chewing on its cane, was staring blandly at him with its eyeless face. He knew he wouldn’t get any more, that he’d been told as much as he needed to know. But he had the right to ask one question.

He asked it.


Years later, when Xiaoping had led the rebellion that had overthrown the Imperial Dynasty, and wrested the Empire from the corrupt band of eunuchs and officials who had drained it and brought it to the verge of ruin, he would look back at that moment.

“I still don’t really know,” he told Fourth Mother, who, though very old now, was still his chief confidant, “what might have happened if I’d chosen to drift on down to the sea, or steered my way to the shore before I reached the city. The Qlorq knew, of course, where it would all lead – it knew that it was showing me a path full of pain and sorrow – but that it was the only way for me. Yet that wasn’t the most important thing that I learned in that room on that day.”

He paused. Fourth Mother raised her ancient, wrinkled face from her reading and looked at him, waiting for him to continue.

“It was what the Qlorq replied when I asked it what it wanted. Nobody else had ever asked that question. I don’t know why I asked it – more out of pique than anything, perhaps, since I was angry with it for showing me a future I didn’t want. But then it showed me...”

He paused again, because his throat was dry. “It showed me,” he said when he could go on, “a world of such beauty, such aching loveliness, that I have no words to describe it. Imagine blue skies over blue water, and ice cliffs towering in the distance, while more ice rises in the foreground, in turrets and arches and flying buttresses. It was an ice city, lovelier by far than anything we can ever create, or even imagine.

“And the Qlorq yearned for this place. It yearned for it with the desperate ache of someone who is exiled from a home he can never hope to see again, with the terrible agony of not even being able to shed a tear to lessen his sorrow. The Qlorq wanted to go home.”

He thought a moment, rubbing his face, trying to find the words to express what he wanted to say. “And that’s why I did, actually, steer to shore at the city, with you, revered Mother. That was why I rebelled, and why we fought those battles, and destroyed so much and harmed so many. That is why I overthrew the Emperor. Not because I wanted to do any of those things – but because I wanted to be in power, so I could release the Qlorq and let it go home.”

He closed his eyes, and he saw again the Qlorq fitting its stubby body into the grey shell of its craft, about to set out on its long, long journey between the stars. “Who knows what it will find?” he asked. “Who knows whether its home has changed beyond imagining? Maybe it was better where it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent it away.”

 “You did the right thing,” Fourth Mother said. “It gave you a vision. You gave it its life back. Anything else would have been unworthy.”

But Xiaoping still wondered, and worried; but as the years passed, he drew comfort from one thing.

Just before it had drawn the lid of its capsule shut, the Qlorq had raised one stubby forelimb, and though he told himself it could have been anything, any gesture at all, Xiaoping knew that, at that last moment, it had waved to him.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Thursday 4 July 2013

The Pyramid Scheme: Egypt and the Politics of Revolution

Yesterday, there was a military coup d’├ętat  in Egypt.

It was not, as is commonly supposed, aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammad Morsi. Yes, Morsi was overthrown, and is allegedly currently being held in an “undisclosed location”, but he was not the primary target of the coup.

Why do I say this?

I say this because Morsi has been among the walking dead for some time now. When thirty three million people rise up in protest against you, you’ve only two options. Quit, or unleash holy hell on them. If you’re to do the latter, better be sure that either you’re a nuclear power with a credible deterrent, or you’ve got what Chinese Emperors used to call the Mandate of Heaven (said Heaven being Washington these days; that’s why the Bahrain regime can get away with gunning down protestors on the streets with hunting rifles). Otherwise, you’re toast.

Obviously, Morsi had neither. In other words, he was going down.

Now, let me say a couple of words about the Egyptian Army. The Egyptian Army is not a very nice institution. In fact, it is a completely brutal, thoroughly politicised, institution full of thugs whose allegiance is not to Egypt, but to its own interests (it directly controls more than one-third of the Egyptian economy), and to its own interests alone.

Let us not forget that the ex-dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in 2011, and who is in prison now, is a former Egyptian army general and that he only fell when the army no longer propped up his regime.

Ever since the early 1970s, the Egyptian Army has no longer been the property of the Egyptian state. It has, instead, been the property of the United States of America, which provides it huge amounts of military assistance, and which, in consequence, controls all its activities. The Egyptian army could never have contemplated this coup without the blessings of the US, just as it could never have abandoned Mubarak till the US gave the go-ahead to abandon him.

So just why should this army suddenly be so filled with concern for the protesting people that it would overthrow the new ruler, as it allowed the old one to be overthrown?

The answer is, of course, that it didn’t.

The coup wasn’t aimed at unseating Morsi, who was as good as gone. It was a pre-emptive coup, aimed against the people of Egypt, and with only one end in mind – to prevent the emergence of a genuinely popular government or leader. Whoever takes over now will do so under the army’s supervision, and will be under the army’s control.

Why should the army want to keep the government under control, and why should the Empire allow this?

The first part of the answer is that, as I said, the Egyptian Army only looks out for its own interests. The last thing it wants is for any genuine popular government which will clip its wings. It’s seen what Erdogan did in Turkey to the Turkish army, and it has absolutely no desire to be similarly cut to size.

As for the Empire...

Of all the Arab nations, Egypt is probably the most important. Saudi Arabia is important because of its oil; Iraq because of its oil and its strategic position near Iran; but Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, sits between Asia and Africa, and connects the two halves of the Arab ummah together. Also, it’s right on the border of the so-called state of Israel, and the Zionist entity’s security trumps all other considerations where the American empire is concerned.

Therefore, the Empire wants to – in fact, the Empire must – control Egypt. It got its lucky break when Nasser died, and his successor Sadat handed the nation over to it on a platter. It’s fine with a fundamentalist Muslim government being in power – after all, Muslim fundamentalism and American imperialism have always been the best of allies – as long as the fundamentalists manage to hold on to power and the lid down on protests. However, if the protests grow to a critical level, the Empire has to step in and manage a transformation.

That’s why, until it grew evident that he couldn’t hold on any longer, the Empire backed Mubarak – and that’s why it’s still backing Erdogan in Turkey, where the protests haven’t yet reached critical mass. Once the protestors reach that level, though, the formerly loyal dictator becomes dispensable – the Empire’s only desire is to maintain control, by all means possible. Since it owns the army, the tool’s ready to hand.

Therefore, the people who are rejoicing at the overthrow of the Morsi government are seriously deluded. Morsi was not overthrown by the people; if he had, there would’ve been cause for optimism. He was overthrown by the army – and the army is emphatically not on the side of the people.

At this point, the fate of Morsi is probably unimportant, except to prove again to Washington’s toadies that being an American lackey has a short shelf life. Morsi can go to the wall as far as his relevance goes; it’s who’ll come after him that matters. This person will either be an army-backed dictator, or a rubber stamp owned lock, stock and barrel by the US Empire. Either way, his only purpose in power will be to perpetuate the military’s and its American masters’ interests.

Since this isn’t the medieval era, the facts won’t be hidden forever, and just as the overthrow of Mubarak was soon followed by protests against Morsi, so the next puppet ruler will soon face protests of his own. Over a period of time, these protests might force a genuine change. It might happen someday. But it will not happen as long as the Zionist entity and the American Empire do not allow it.

That’s something the people cheering at Morsi’s fall are about to find out for themselves, I think.

Further reading:

Purkayastha's Four Laws of Modern Internet Debate

Isaac Newton had his Three Laws of Motion. Arthur C Clarke had his Three Laws of Technological Progress. The other Isaac, Asimov, had his – fictional and already disproved, but still – Three Laws of Robotics. Well, in the footsteps of these great thinkers, and of course desiring to go one better, let me now propound for your delectation Purkayastha’s Four Laws of Modern Internet Debate:

Purkayastha’s First Law (also known as the Law of Racist Trollery):

(Cf. Godwin’s Law, which states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.”)

In any internet discussion involving Barack Obama, the probability of any dissenting person being labelled an ignorant racist troll by True Believers increases exponentially the less the True Believers know about the dissenting person.

Corollary: If the dissenter is known to the True Believer, the reaction will centre round the proposition that the Nobel Peace Prizident is doing the best he can in the face of extreme and unprincipled opposition from the rival party, which is stifling all his initiatives. If the dissenter then asks why the Prizident, if so crippled, doesn’t resign his post, or why he appoints advisors who are known to be complicit in the crimes of his inglorious predecessor, the questions shall be ignored.

[Obviously, I have a long history of being labelled an ignorant racist troll and conservative right-wing Tea Partier by Obama religionists whom I have asked about the Peace Prizident’s war crimes. Apparently, they’re so hard-wired to respond in only one set of terms to all dissent that they can’t bring their minds round to formulate a new set of abuse to fit the circumstances.

[The most extreme – and pre-emptive – version of Purkayastha’s First Law I’ve yet come across was in November 2008, when Obama religionist and former Multiply member auntb93also declared – on the occasion of the Prizident’s first election – words to this effect: “(Obama is) ... a black man so superior that any criticism of him can only stem from racism”. Auntie B deserves full credit for inspiring the First Law, and I gratefully acknowledge her contribution.]

Purkayastha’s Second Law (also known as the Whistleblower Smearing Law):

The probability of any self-styled “left liberal” commentator launching a smear campaign against a whistleblower increases in direct relation to the distance said whistleblower’s personal lifestyle or political beliefs are from those of said commentator.

Apparently, to these people, in order to be acceptable, a whistleblower must be exactly like them - must have the exact same viewpoint on everything. Otherwise, he must be a fraud of some kind, and he is the Main Enemy; what he said can be ignored.

[I’m, of course, not talking about right-wingers in this because their response to any and all whistleblowing is predictable. But the “left-liberal” – by which term I mean the American kind of left, which is not left, and the Hollywood kind of liberal, which is not liberal – commentators who are making a daily routine of smearing Edward Snowden are a perfect example of this breed. When they can’t find anything new to smear Snowden with, they smear those who defend him. For example, when Snowden claims his life is under threat, they mock that assertion. And when the plane of the Bolivian President is forced down and searched on the allegation that Snowden might be aboard – and thus directly vindicating said claim – they frantically look for new targets to smear.]      

Purkayastha’s Third Law (also known as the Anti-Semitic/Kapo Law):

In any internet discussion involving the actions of the so-called state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people, defenders of the Zionist entity will invariably reflexively label all opponents as Jew-hating anti-Semites. If the opponent then cites the many Jewish organisations which are openly and strongly opposed to the Zionist entity, the defenders will immediately call those Jews traitors and Kapos.

(Kapos being Jewish or other prisoners who acted as trustees in the concentration camps, ruling over their fellow inmates in return for better living conditions and food.)

[I once had occasion to point out on one such forum the fact that any Jew who therefore arrogates the right to speak for all Jews, and to decide who’s a “traitor”, is displaying the essence of fascism. That didn’t go down well with the forum members, who added “jihadist” and “pig” to the “Jew-hating anti-Semite” tag they threw at me. It wasn’t a very intelligent forum.]

Corollary: In any internet discussion involving the actions of the so-called state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people, in a forum with an anti-Zionist majority, there will be a commentator who will blame its crimes on all Jews and will go on to deny the Holocaust happened. If one then cites the many Jewish organisations which are openly and strongly opposed to the Zionist entity, said person will claim that those Jews are merely providing a smokescreen for the crimes of the Jews as a group.

Purkayastha’s Fourth Law (also known as the Revolutionary Law):

The likelihood of a “popular revolution” being nothing of the kind increases in direct proportion to laudatory internet commentary praising it. Conversely, the more sceptical one is about such “revolutions”, the less likely one is to be surprised about the eventual outcome. Also, the more sceptical one is, the more likely one is to be at the receiving end of criticism or abuse from “revolution” supporters.

[The obvious example is the so-called Libyan Revolution. Remember all the talk of Gaddafi ordering his planes to bomb civilian protestors and the alleged impending massacres in Benghazi? Remember the “brave rebels” praised by Hollywood Liberals like Sean Penn? Well, we all know how the (so-called, Western-backed) Libyan “revolution” turned out, don’t we? And we all know how the so-called Arab Spring, so widely praised online, has morphed with extreme speed into a fresh Arab Winter, with the people now rising against the governments which came to power during those protests two years ago.

[I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this to some extent. I was always sceptical of the Libyan Revolution, but I was initially taken in by the anti-Hosni Mubarak First Egyptian Revolution, though I recovered fairly quickly from that delusion, I’m glad to say.]    

I'm sure these black Libyans are just feeling SO free

Other Laws will probably be added as and when I think of them. In the meantime I invite you to add your own.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Inside, Outside

They would release the old man tomorrow.

The news sped through the prison, from the guards in the watchtowers, to the convicts peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Nobody could quite believe it, and yet, to everyone, it came with a thrill almost like joy.

The old man was called Grandpa by everyone. His actual name, by this time, no longer mattered. He had been Grandpa to a whole generation of prisoners, who had come and gone, and in some cases come again. In the files he was a number, but even that didn’t matter. The prison administration, when they talked about him, called him grandpa.

Grandpa sat in the warden’s office, huddled in a chair, looking frightened and forlorn. He had wrapped his arms around his middle, and rocked slowly to and fro, seeming to have shrunk into himself. Nobody, seeing him now, could have recognised the huge man who had ruled the prison like a father figure for so many years.

The warden looked at him with a mixture of pity and slight contempt. “Well, Grandpa,” he said. “Good to be leaving, is it?”

Grandpa glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t say anything.

“Never thought we’d ever get the order to let you go. How many years has it been, Grandpa? Forty? Forty-three?”

Grandpa’s lips moved just a little under his grizzled moustache. The lips shaped the word “forty”, but without any sound.

“There you are. You’ll be glad to be getting out, eh?” The warden beamed at the old man. “Just goes to show you.” What it went to show, he did not attempt to explain. “Nor did I expect that they’d pardon you, not after all these years. Must be someone who imagines you were innocent, huh?” The warden laughed. “Tomorrow, this time, you’ll be a free man, and can do whatever you want. Going to have a good meal first thing, are you?”

Grandpa’s lips moved again, but it was impossible to make out what he said.

“Well, then, you can go back to your cell for the night. Kind of to say goodbye, you understand?” The warden looked at his watch, at the computer screen, and back at Grandpa. He raised an eyebrow.

Grandpa didn’t say anything. Still huddled, he rose to his feet and stumbled out of the office.

Shaking his head and muttering something under his breath, the warden turned back to his files.


Grandpa wandered the corridors of the old prison, as though for the first time. This wing of the prison had been unoccupied for years, so he was alone in the corridors, passing the rows of abandoned cells. A couple of guards saw him, but though, strictly speaking, he shouldn’t have been out at that hour at all, let alone in this wing, neither said anything.

The corridors in this old wing were narrow and dark, the floors covered with a layer of dust. The only illumination came from a few old floodlights in the ceiling, patches of yellow in the gloom. The cells were tiny, too, and the doors had small windows, through which anxious eyes might have once peered, had footsteps echoed in the night as his were echoing now.

Once upon a time, many years ago, Grandpa had occupied a cell in one of these corridors. He walked along, looking for it, first casually and then with increased desperation, as though it were vitally important that he locate the precise cell. At one point he hesitated, looking around as if to check his bearings. But then he shook his head and moved on.

Finally, halfway down a corridor, he found the cell he’d been looking for. He tried the door, and let out a sigh of relief as it slowly pulled open under his hand. It was almost completely dark inside, and even smaller than he remembered. But that was all right.

Grandpa went in, and sat down on the old bunk. Many of these cells had been turned into storage rooms, full of sacks of cement and lumber, but this one was still empty. Grandpa leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.

The darkness behind his eyelids flickered and melted, and the years fell away, as though they never were...

“Your appeal’s been rejected.” The lawyer didn’t even bother to look directly at him. “It’s life.”

“But I’m innocent,” he repeated for the hundredth time since his arrest. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Life,” the lawyer repeated. “And you’re lucky not to hang.” He made it sound as though it was due to his own personal effort that the death sentence hadn’t been imposed. Not that it mattered to him, since the court had appointed him, and it wasn’t even a glamorous case. Just another crime in the sleazy underbelly of the city.

Even now, all these decades later, Grandpa could feel the metallic rage and despair in his throat. It wasn’t as though the man hadn’t deserved killing – in fact, he’d deserved a lot more than that. But it wasn’t Grandpa who had killed him. And he’d been young then; life had stretched before him. And now?

Grandpa held out his hands in the darkness. He couldn’t see the wrinkles, but he knew they were there. He knew, too, the scars – and the broken nail which had never grown back properly. The nail had been crushed by a guard’s boot. It had been Grandpa’s third day in the prison.

If he wanted to think about it, he could remember everything about those first days, from the sound of the first gate as it clanged behind him, and the blinding shaft of pain as the guard’s boot had come down on his hand. It hadn’t been his fault any more than the killing had been his fault. All he’d done was defend himself when an older prisoner had shoved him to the wall and knocked him down. But the guard had hit him, trampled him down, not the other man.

He’d learned some lessons in those first days, lessons which he never forgot, and which he’d tried his best to pass on to the generations of prisoners who’s come after him. They were important lessons, in how to stay alive. Just one lesson he couldn’t give them, though.

“How do we get ourselves back together when we’re released?” more than one fresh-faced young inmate had asked, full of doubt and excitement at the prospect of release. Grandpa had looked at them all, drug pushers or pickpockets or thieves, and felt their excitement, vicariously, even though he knew most of them would be back behind bars – if not in this prison, than another. But he couldn’t tell them how to make their way outside, because that was something he’d never experienced.

Once there was a boy he’d liked a lot, a thin young man, barely eighteen, with delicate girlish features. Grandpa had looked out for the kid, because he was just the sort to be brutalised in the prison. The boy had slashed another boy with a knife over a girl, a crime in the heat of the moment, which had sent him inside for three years. By the time he’d left, he was no longer so thin, and – despite all of Grandpa’s efforts – no longer so innocent. Still, the old man had hoped he’d make a way in life for himself.

It was a forlorn hope. Two years later, Grandpa had seen him again – as an inmate of death row. He’d wondered then if things might have turned out different if he’d been able to give advice, some good solid advice on how to live after release. And his lips had curved in a tight smile. Who was he to give advice? He’d never get out.

Only now he was getting out, and there was nobody to help him.

A long time ago, there had been a girl. He could barely remember her face, or the sound of her voice – for that matter he could hardly recall when he’d last seen a woman – but she had been there for him, once. He sighed. It had been a long time ago, before the walls had shut him in, and she’d never contacted him again. He didn’t even know if she were still alive.

His gnarled hands clenched in the darkness. How he hated these walls, this cell, the bars that diced the light through the windows into attenuated cubes. How he hated them for what they’d done to him.

But he was getting out tomorrow. The realisation came back suddenly, like a punch in the guts. The years inside were over. This time, tomorrow, he would be a free man.

Suddenly, he was crying. Sitting there in the darkness, he felt the tears on his face, and could not wipe them away.

After a while, he slept.


Goodbye...Grandpa.” The guard was new and shy, a very long way from the man who’d crushed Grandpa’s hand so long ago. “Have a good time on the outside.”

Grandpa smiled at him. The boy looked so eager to please, so absurdly sure he was doing something great and useful. Grandpa was glad he wouldn’t be around to see the boy’s idealism sour, and turn to bitterness, as it would given a year or so.

“I hear you’ve been exonerated,” the boy burbled. “It must feel so great knowing you’ve finally been vindicated, right?”

“Yes, thanks.” He waited for the guard to push the buttons which unlocked the final gate. “ of luck.” Shouldn’t it be the guard who should be saying this? “You’ll need it,” he added.

The guard nodded, smiling, not understanding. “It’s a nice day to be out, isn’t it?” He was still smiling as Grandpa walked past him and out of the gate. Then he pressed the button which shut the doorway and cut the prison off from the outside world.

Grandpa stood for a moment, looking around. Suddenly, everything seemed too bright, too new, as if he’d just got a new pair of spectacles. He breathed deeply, and the air felt new, too, and sharp.

He wondered, then, where he was going, and what he would do.

And as the bus drew away from the prison, down towards the waiting city, he looked back one last time, and if he could have said anything at all, it might have been, Take me back, Take me back.  

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013