Wednesday 31 December 2014

Happy Old Year

In a few hours, as I write this, it will be 2015.

As a matter of fact, it is already 2015 in the extreme eastern parts of the Eastern Hemisphere, Cape Dezhnev in Russia, for instance, or New Zealand. But here in India we still have a little shy of six hours to go.

Yes, I know that this division into “years” is somewhat arbitrary, and that the planet itself neither knows nor cares that we’re measuring its revolution around the star Sol by numbered sets of 365 days each. But for the moment, at least, we are in a phase of human history in which such numbering seems to be necessary.

So. All over the world today, people will be partying, enjoying themselves, dancing, drinking themselves into stupendous hangovers, and getting killed in ridiculous accidents, and the best of luck to all of them. I won’t be doing any of those things, but then I never do.

Nor, however, will I be writing a New Years’ Special, something I’ve done as a tradition ever since I began writing semi-regularly on the Internet way back in 2005, and which I usually try and make humorous to whatever extent I can manage. This time, I’ve quite deliberately refrained from it.


For one thing, the only thing I can find to celebrate is that 2014 is over. It was a year which for me began with heartbreak, and ended with my being under psychiatric treatment for acute depression, treatment, by the way, which has been far from effective. It was a year in the course of which I went into downward spirals during which, for the first time since I was a teenager, I seriously planned to kill myself. It was a year in which I lost more than one good friend to death, and during which I totally lost my ability to be satisfied with my own company.

Under no circumstances can this be considered a good year.

Oh, it wasn’t all bad. I met some very old friends, right at the end of the year, and had a few good days – when not lying awake crying at night, that is. I began painting again, which I’ve always found calming. And, professionally speaking, though this year was far from the best I’ve had, it was also by no means the worst.

But that’s all that can be said about it.

Then, I can make no positive predictions, even in a light vein, about 2015. If the coming year ends without any more major extinctions, if there isn’t any nuclear war, if the Hindunazis don’t succeed in completely taking over the country with their fascist agenda, that’s about the best that can be expected. I can foresee more hypocritical lies and aggression by proxy from the Evil Empire and its NATO handmaidens; I can see Russia and Venezuela, at the least, fending off Obama-instigated colour revolutions; I can see the US finally abandoning all pretence and invading Syria. I can safely predict more wars over the planet, all bought and paid for by Washington. I can see increasing upheavals from climate change, rising food insecurity, and suppression of dissent. Surviving the coming year may well be the best we can hope for.

Sometimes, I’ll tell you truly, I wish they’d get their nuclear war on and over with. It’s time the human race exited the stage and let the so-called lower animals (or what’s left of them) begin over.

So, sorry for the downers, but I won’t wish you a Happy New Year 2015.

Instead, I’ll say, Happy Old Year, 2014.

In a year’s time, take it from me, this will look good to you.


Saturday 27 December 2014

This Our Reality

You can’t be serious,” the Doctor Professor said. “He can’t possibly have claimed that.”

“But he did.” His assistant cocked her pretty head at the computer screen. “See for yourself.”

The Doctor Professor leaned over her shoulder and peered myopically at the screen. “So he did,” he confirmed. “That’s certainly very curious. Very.”

“This won’t do his reputation any good,” the assistant, who was young and ambitious, observed. “And he says this is the most important discovery in the history of the human race!”

“No, it won’t.” The Doctor Professor took off his white lab coat – an unnecessary indulgence in his line of research, but one he affected as a kind of homage to the giants of the field – and headed for the door. Halfway there he stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Well?”

“What, Professor?”

“Are you coming along? I’m going to see him.”

The assistant furrowed her pretty brow. “Why?”

“Because I know him, and I know he's not stupid,” the Doctor Professor said. “I want to talk to him and find out why he says this. And then we’ll see what we will see.”

The assistant grimaced – with her back to the Doctor Professor, so he wouldn’t see it – and got up from the computer. The old man must be slipping, to go trying to save loonies from themselves.

The fact that the loony in question had been the old man’s favourite research student made no difference at all.


Professor.” Knowall was a big man, who could have been handsome if he had taken the effort to be. Even as he hurried across the office to greet his visitors, he seemed as if he would have fitted into an old film about intrepid young scientists battling an alien menace. “How nice to see you.”

“You know why we’re here,” the Doctor Professor replied without ceremony.

“Of course,” Knowall grinned. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“That’s why you sent me your research paper, I suppose?” The Doctor Professor sat down in the nearest chair with a sigh. “You’re setting yourself up for a whole lot of trouble, Dr Knowall.”

Knowall bowed his head in mock contrition. “Guilty,” he said cheerfully. “But how on earth am I to convince everyone of the truth otherwise? If they mock at me, at least they’ll have to read what I’ve got to say first, don’t they?”

The assistant glanced at the Doctor Professor and back at him. “And once they read what you’ve got to say?”

“Then they’ll either have to try and check my results, and if they do, then they’ll come to the same conclusions.”

The Doctor Professor frowned. “You’re actually serious about this.”

“Of course I am.” Knowall looked from one of them to the other. “Did you think I wasn’t?”

“But it’s so…” the Doctor Professor waved a hand. “So unbelievable. So fantastic.”

“But it’s true.” Knowall leaned forward in his chair earnestly. “I know.”

“How do you…know?”

“I’ve been there,” Knowall told him. “I’ve seen it all for myself. That’s how.”

The Doctor Professor sat back in his chair and rubbed his beard. “Tell me,” he said.


I first had the idea two years ago (Knowall said). I was at a conference listening to research papers which were so pedestrian that my mind began to wander. I began to wish I was anywhere but in that auditorium listening to stuff that was breathtaking in its banality, and cursing whatever fate had put me there. And I began to wish I was in a parallel universe, where I could have been doing something more interesting.

Then I had a startling thought – what if parallel universes actually could be shown to exist? What if we could visit them?

Once I thought that, other ideas began following in its trail, thick and fast. I scarcely remembered what happened during the rest of the conference. I didn’t even wait for dinner.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Sitting at my laptop, I hammered out ideas and thoughts, and by morning I’d convinced myself that what I’d initially taken to be the fancy of an idle mind was not just possible – but testable.

I won’t take up time now in detailing the slow and tortuous steps by which I conducted my research. The details are all there in that flash drive. I’ve kept them ready for you, to take back and check for yourselves. For two years, I scarcely paused but to eat and sleep. I spent all my research grants, sucked my own bank account almost dry, and yet success seemed as far as ever.

And then one day I had my breakthrough. All along I’d been imagining that parallel universes were alongside us, sharing our own three-dimensional spacetime. But suppose they weren’t. Suppose – just suppose – they were in completely different dimensions. Then what?

Once I’d thought of that, I knew which way I had to go.

You're familiar with transdimensional theory, I take it? Each dimension is at right angles to all the others, so a fourth dimension would be at right angles to our three, and a fifth dimension at right angles to those four, and so on. I'd have to twist anything through ninety degrees if I wanted to send it across a dimensional boundary. That turned out to be less difficult than I thought it would be, once I accepted the fact that it could be done at all.

So I designed a machine. It wasn’t a large machine, just a tiny model. Here.  It doesn’t look like much, does it, for something that can twist space through ninety degrees? But it works. How it works!

I remember the scene exactly. For my first working experiment I’d decided to use something small, that I could send across without too much effort. After some time I selected a pencil eraser. I plugged in my machine to the mains, put the eraser in the pan here, pushed that lever there, and my eraser twisted, blurred and disappeared.

Well, no, it didn’t altogether disappear. A tiny smudge was left, floating in the air above the pan – the cross section of the eraser which was still in our universe. Because, as I'm sure you'll understand, anything can exist in a lower dimension only as a cross section of itself, just as you have to slice an apple to make it lie flat along the same plane as a sheet of paper.

Can you imagine my mental state at that moment, when I knew that I had won? If my efforts had been frenetic till that moment, they redoubled, trebled in intensity. I spent all I had, I borrowed recklessly, and I finally built the machine I have in a warehouse down by the river. The address is there in the flash drive too.

What is it like? Imagine a larger version of this machine here, but with an enclosed seat, in a bubble cockpit with heat and oxygen. I couldn’t know what it would be like across, of course. I’d sent over rats and mice, and brought them back alive and seemingly unharmed. But a rat or mouse doesn’t exactly have the same physiological requirements as a human.

Of course I took other precautions. For one thing, I put my machine on a timer. If I wasn’t – voluntarily – back within five minutes of crossing over, it would bring me back on its own. Five minutes, I considered, was good enough for a first trip. If it went well, I could always go back again.

And so the day finally came when I could send myself across. I sat in the capsule, set my instruments, pulled on my levers, and sat back to see what would happen.

The first thing I noticed was the shimmer. It spread from the centre of my visual field., as though the air was breaking into pieces, shards of light flowing out and falling together. The light felt as though it was invading my body, twisting my nerves and breaking them, showering through me in a cloud of a million million photons. The light grew until it seemed I could not bear it any more without bursting into flames, and just at the point where I had reached out for the emergency button to stop the process and bring me back, the light faded.

It faded so quickly that I thought I’d gone blind. And then something else came to take its place – something I can’t categorise as light, because it didn’t have any obvious source as in this universe. But, in its radiation, I could see.

And what I saw turned my entire concept of reality upside down. What I saw made me, for a long moment, wish I’d never come, that I’d never even begun thinking of parallel universes. But the panic faded, and what replaced it was wonder.

What was it like? I can’t describe it fully in terms you could grasp, because it was in a completely different dimension, at right angles to ours. But I’ll do my best.

Think distance. Distance endless, with no horizon to mark an end, distance which went on so far that it stretches literally forever. Far, far, away, there were many indeterminate smears of luminescence which I could not make out clearly.  Later, thinking it over, I decided that they may have been the stars.

But I had no time to think about the distance then, or the smears of light. For there in front of me, stretching in all directions as far as my eyes could see, was something. It’s not possible to describe what it was, except by analogy. Think of an endless mass of snaking, writhing tubes, stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see, above, below, to your sides, all of them tracing back to a central node. Think of something in the node, a vast and calm intelligence, engaged in actions that are beyond even our puny comprehension. And think of the slow astonishment of that intelligence when it detected my presence – an astonishment far exceeding my own.

I hung among the myriad tubes, regarding this wondrous being, and I felt it turn its enormous intellect towards me. I felt it try and understand what I was, and what I was doing there – and even with all its powers, failing. It was as though I was something to it that not only should not be – I could not be. And as it turned its attention towards me, the capsule and my machine began jerking and twitching, as if it would shake itself to pieces.

Then, fortunately, the timer cut in and the scene dissolved into shards of light. The next thing I knew, I was back in my warehouse, and the familiar walls looked back at me.


I’m sure you’ll understand,” Knowall said, “why I decided to talk to you before I gave out my discovery to the world.”

The Doctor Professor’s jaw worked. “Why, man, if this thing you say is true – you understand the implications of what you’re saying?”

“At least as well as you do, Professor.” Knowall leaned back in his chair. “That’s why I called it the most important discovery in the history of the human race.”

“You’ll need,” the Doctor Professor said grimly, “protection from lynch mobs.”

Knowall suddenly looked thoughtful. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose you’re right. It can’t be helped, though.”

The assistant looked back and forth from one to the other. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why should he need protection from lynch mobs, even if this thing exists?”

The Doctor Professor barely glanced at her. “Don’t you understand? This – creature, or machine, or whatever he’s described. What do you think it was?”

“God?” The assistant frowned. “But that’s impossible.”

“Of course it wasn’t a god,” Knowall laughed shortly. “It wasn’t even aware that I existed. It couldn’t even begin to comprehend how I’d reached to where it was. And when it tried to feel what I was, all it managed to do was almost shake me to pieces. What does that tell you?”

The assistant shook her head silently.

“Think of why people throughout history,” Knowall said, “have felt their lives not to be their own. Think of why philosophers have given names to the forces they said were controlling them – Fates, Karma, Furies, whatever best seemed to explain what was otherwise beyond their comprehension. And then think of something at right angles to our spacetime, engaged in its own inscrutable purposes, not knowing a thing about us, as astonished that we exist as we would be if this sheet of paper here disgorged something that came out and looked us in the face.

“Lady, don’t you understand? That thing across the dimensions is working at something we cannot even begin to understand. As for us, we are merely…”

“Its tubes,” the Doctor Professor finished. “We are merely its tubes, moving around in this our reality.”

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

I no longer like malls

I no longer like malls
With their crowds young and old
Their movie theatres and tattoo parlours
Their bookstores and ice cream –

I no longer like evening walks
Under tall trees lining the pavement.
The waves of the sea
Hold no attraction for me
As they grow from out of the deep –
And shatter on the shore.

The lights of the living city
Once were a jeweled necklace flung around
The dark throat of the night.
Now all they are is spots of glitter
On the rusting iron of the corroded world.

I no longer like waking in the morning
Or going to bed at night.
Now they hold nothing for me
But agonised memory.
Only you
In everything

Only you.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Thursday 25 December 2014

Fifteen Things I Learnt While Watching PK

Some time ago I’d written a review of a film called OMG which if you didn’t read, you probably ought to. It’s right here.

Then last night I watched a film which is attracting rather a lot of attention these days, another acronymic title called PK. The flick apparently is well on the way to becoming a superhit, just like OMG wasn’t. Which would go to prove some kind of point, only I can’t think what. Or rather I can, but it’s pretty much a clichĂ© along the lines of “nice guys finish last”.

So, before we get any further, let’s go over the main points:

One day at high noon, in the desert of Rajasthan in Western India, a gigantic spaceship comes sailing down out of the sky and decants an alien. Said alien (Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, who isn’t the worst of the Indian acting stable by a very long shot) rather closely resembles a human being, but for permanently goggly eyes, a stilted gait, and stuck out ears. Oh, and he’s – apart from a blue glowing crystal on a chain round his neck – completely naked. You know, like all space travelers are in the softcore porno SF movie genre.

Well, and a local villager sees him, tears off his crystal and runs off with it, leaving him stranded. Said crystal was actually a “remote control” which would bring back the spaceship to take our alien home – because he’s here on a mission to research humanity. I’d have thought watching a few TV shows before landing might have been useful. But oh well. I’m not an alien and I can’t answer for their thought processes.

Meanwhile, far, far away, in Belgium, our heroine – a waiflike young lady called Jaggu – is desperately trying to get a ticket to attend a show featuring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. But the show is sold out, except for one single, solitary ticket offered by a scalper. As luck and stereotyping would have it, Jaggu has competition for the ticket; a handsome and dashing young Pakistani called Sarfaraz. And they fall in love, kiss and sleep together, all within the time that the sun hasn’t moved appreciably in the sky.

Oh well. Jaggu’s dad is a Hindu fundie who’s a devotee of a certain sleazy “godman” called Tapasvi. Jaggu tells dad over Skype about Sarfaraz, dad hits the roof, and goes rushing to Tapasvi, laptop in hand and open. Tapasvi lectures the girl on her ingratitude for loving a Pakistani Muslim and predicts the failure of the relationship. Just like any perfectly normal and well-adjusted girl would do, Jaggu immediately proposes marriage to Sarfaraz, you know, to prove the godman wrong. And the next day she’s at the registrar’s office, where all she finds is a letter saying, basically, and in BLOCK LETTERS, “SORRY, I CAN’T MARRY YOU”.

OK, so we jump six months to the future and Jaggu is in Delhi, working as a TV show hostess sick and tired of the crap she’s hosting. I don’t know, if you get enough money out of the job, most TVites would go right along. I mean just check the Western reporting on Ukraine. But sick and tired or not, she’s on a Delhi commuter train when a bizarre looking individual in strange clothes and a yellow crash helmet comes in, gives her a pamphlet saying God is missing, and leaves. Her curiosity aroused, she follows.

You know who this weird character is, don’t you? Our friendly neighbourhood alien, that’s who. So we find out – in an interview conducted in a jail cell of all places – that he got hold of clothes and money, was knocked down by a car and rescued by a friendly musical band leader, and learned Bhojpuri (a language closely allied to Hindi) from a hooker. He can read minds and learn languages from holding people’s hands, you see.

Being told that his remote control is probably in Delhi, he went there, and began asking around. Everyone mocked him as a “peekay” (drunkard) and told him god knows where his remote would be. So – like an alien might do -  he went around looking for god, and didn’t find him anywhere. Oh, he found plenty of godlets and idols and mullahs and priests, churches and temples and gurudwaras. But as for the god, he didn’t find it anywhere. So he started passing around posters asking for information about the missing deity’s whereabouts.

Read no further! Spoilers!

OK, so you will read further. On your own head be it.

So, to cut an overly elongated story short, the TV anchorwoman makes a star out of the alien, now called PK, who ends up challenging Tapasvi – who turns out to own the missing remote control, because coincidence – to a debate. During the course of the debate, the godman claims he has a direct connection to god and “proves” it by saying he’d correctly predicted the end of Jaggu’s relationship with Sarfaraz. PK then does some mind-reading, there’s some more conincidencing, and, don’t you know, all’s well that ends well, in the world and out of it.

Before I go on to the things this flick taught me, I’ll say a couple of things to the people who made this:

First, if you’re going to rip off OMG, try and be a leeeeeetle less obvious about it. Don’t repeat things almost verbatim. And please leave ET alone, that’s been copied about a hundred times. Doesn’t leave too much to the imagination if you can see everything coming twenty minutes in advance.

Second, you guys are supposed to be professionals. You’re supposed to know when to quit while ahead. A film that works in its first half and falls off the cliff in its second half, mainly because you decided to make it maudlin and saccharine emotional,  you have  only yourselves to blame.

Anyway, I’ll thank you, makers of PK, for teaching me the following things, hitherto unknown to me:

1. You can totally sail a gigantic spaceship, in bright metallic colours reminiscent of a new car, over an Indian state bang on the Pakistan border, with no camouflage but an odd-shaped, fast-moving cloud. You can then land it in broad daylight next to a railway line, on which a freight train is running, and then take off again after landing someone. All without being noticed. And then you can do it all again at least twice more. Hell, I knew India’s air defences were overhyped, but I didn’t know they were as bad as that.

2. On the outskirts of every desert village in Rajasthan, you can find people – adults – having sex in cars in daylight with their windows open and all their clothes off. Also they’ll be so busy screwing they won’t notice when you reach in through the windows and filch their clothes and money. And there are enough of them as to constitute your primary source of clothing and income.

3. You can bribe your way into a jail cell to interview a prisoner, and then bribe him out of the prison. Come to think of it, that last bit isn’t all that far fetched.

4. You can always find crowds of identically-dressed religious people to chase you through slum alleys, baying for your blood.

5. Random strangers – old men, ticket scalpers, boatmen and the like – in Belgium speak and even sing Hindi. And they also like to attend Amitabh Bachchan shows, even if they have to rip you off to do it.

6. If you’ve been ripped off along with someone of the opposite sex, the correct course of action is to fall in love with them within minutes, have sex with them, and announce them to your ultraconservative family – all without losing a moment. And if you meet the old Hindi-speaking, Bachchan-liking crook who stole literally all your money, the correct thing to do is to kiss him on the cheeks after chasing him to the verge of a heart attack.

7. If your family then gets a sleazy godman to predict the end of your relationship, of course you ought to immediately get married just to spite the lot of them – like the very next day.

8. If you’re at the registry office and your Significant Other hasn’t showed yet, but someone brings a note (unsigned and in BLOCK LETTERS) saying the writer can’t get married to you, clearly the correct course of action is to walk out and leave the country, not to, you know, call and ask him or her to explain.

9. If your girl dumped you at the altar, so to speak, you must then quit the country, and every day thereafter at the same time, call your country’s embassy to ask if she’s called. Not, you know, look for her on Fakebook or something. And the people at the embassy have nothing better to do than indulge you.

10. Bombs in trains explode with rolling balls of fire like napalm, not shockwaves and shrapnel.

11. If you are an alien from a distant world, clearly you will fall in love with a human woman. The fact that – as the encyclopaedia The Science In Science Fiction said – this is considerably less likely than sexual attraction between a woman and a lobster is irrelevant.

12. There is obviously enough money in robbing blind beggars and temple collection boxes to finance poster campaigns with multicoloured pictures asking for god’s whereabouts. And though you know perfectly well how to make money out of religion, you’d rather rob beggars, etc, rather than lay your hands on the filthy lucre the (obviously) easy way.

13. If you’re an alien from a distant world who’s a researcher on earth customs, please do not attempt to learn anything about Earthlings before landing, like what clothes are, for example. And if you manage to get back home by the skin of your teeth, the logical next step is to lead back a tourist party – all of whom are naked – rather than, you know, put them in clothes or something, even though you know enough to teach them Bhojpuri.

14. Obviously, the best solution to the problem of taking back your beloved’s voice recordings to your world is a clunky old tape recorder and a trunkload of batteries and cassettes, not, I don’t know, use a mobile phone or something. I mean, I’m not an alien, but if I had filched enough money to afford a poster campaign and new sets of clothes every day, I’d probably have enough to lay out for a midlevel mobile phone with a voice recorder. But I’m no alien.

15. And if you’re a young man in Belgium who reappears in Pakistan a year later, you’ll be wearing the same clothes, with the same hairstyle and even the same length of beard stubble. Because people totally do that.

Ah, well, I shouldn’t turn down the opportunity to learn. And at the earliest opportunity I’ll go watch OMG again and blame it for not enhancing my education in such wondrous ways.

At this point I’m about ready to go become a godman myself. Anybody willing to become my disciples?

No, I didn’t think so.

My expression was like Aamir Khan's here, really.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

This Means War!



In a terrifying video address to the world, the terrorist group called the Islamic State, known generally by the acronym ISIS, claimed to have captured Santa Claus and threatened to execute him by beheading.

The recently released video displayed Santa Claus, tied up and made to kneel in front of a black clad and masked man who appeared similar to the “Jihad John” who had appeared in previous videos with ISIS hostages.

“Ay up, you kaffir infidels,” he said, speaking with a strong British accent. “We’ve captured your Santa Claus, and without him you aren’t going to have any Christmas, ya tossers.”

Santa, the ISIS spokesman said, had been caught while attempting to sneak into Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s tent. “The fat wanker fell on the tent and caused it to straight up fall in on the Caliph’s head, Allah save him,” he said. “When we caught the bellend ‘e said ‘e was delivering toys to the Caliph’s kids. Toys, I ask you. Likely story, innit?”

It is believed that Santa, in a misguided attempt to bring peace to the world, overestimated the tent’s ability to bear his weight – as well as the fact that tents do not usually have chimneys. “I repeatedly asked him to go on a diet,” a sobbing Mrs Santa said from the North Pole, “but he said he had to keep up his image to cater to market demands.”

The ISIS spokesman, however, claimed that Santa had attempted to murder al Baghdadi or perhaps plant espionage devices in the toys. “We found a huge sack of toys the plonker was carrying along wiv ‘im,” he said. “We put them out in the desert and ‘arf an hour later a drone came along and blew ‘em all up sky fuckin’ high. You tell me why they’d do it if the toys weren’t all fixed, eh?”

The revelation that the toys had been bombed caused seismic tremors among the Christmas shopping industry. “It’s a horror, a crime,” a major retail outlet manager sobbed. “ISIS shall pay for this!”

Several Western nations said they would put together children’s armies to fight ISIS. “If these criminals hate children to the extent of taking their toys from them, they have to be annihilated,” an anonymous Internet blogger said. “And children, being directly affected, have not just the right but the duty to fight against them.”

It's thought that the children, given their video gaming skills, will be utilised as drone pilots. A marketing company has already been given the contract to advertise for recruits. 

 “It’s all part of the Muslamic War on Christmas,” another online commentator said. “With a Kenyan in the White House, we should have known something like this would happen.”

Meanwhile, reacting to the news of the video, President Barack Obama issued a strongly worded statement. “The threatened execution of this iconic figure, whom we all hold dear to our hearts,” he said, “is an intolerable affront to freedom and democracy. I will immediately impose another 12345 sanctions on Russia until Putin recognises reality and leaves office!”

Asked by a reporter what Russian president Putin had to do with the crisis, President Obama responded by saying it was all Putin’s fault. “If Putin hadn’t insisted on backing Assad, Syria would’ve been capture...I mean, liberated, by now, and ISIS wouldn’t have become so strong, so it’s all Putin’s fault, really.” His remarks were greeted with applause across the length and breadth of America, which prompted him to impose an additional 67890 sanctions.

However, the news of Santa’s capture did not make everyone unhappy. One elf interviewed by this agency said he had been recently dismissed for questioning the Claus Corporation’s employment conditions. “It’s slave labour, pure and simple,” he said. “Don’t mistake it for anything else. We don’t even get lunch and loo breaks, let alone days off. As for unions, forget it.” Pressed further on the matter, he admitted he was hoping ISIS would chop Santa Claus’ head off. “That obese, judgemental, creepy, bearded megalomaniacal busybody needs it if anyone does. Maybe getting rid of his head will teach him to act like a human. I hope whatever ISIS’ demands are, nobody agrees to them.”

ISIS, however, did not appear to have any demands. “It’ll be ace to cut this ponce’s head off,” the masked spokesman said, waving his knife around Santa’s throat. “I always wanted head from Santa, you know what I mean?”

Santa, those who knew him said, looked wan and unhappy in the video. He could not be reached for comment.

The whereabouts of Santa’s reindeer are unknown, but there are strong rumours that they fled to Ukraine, where radical nationalists of the Azov Battalion caught and ate them. It's thought that Rudolf's red nose prompted them to declare him a Communist.

Further details will be provided as soon as they become available.

Cartoon by Ted Rall. Used, hopefully, with the cartoonist's permission.

Selective anger and the killing of children

One of the more disheartening things about hanging around internet fora is to experience the sheer amount of ignorance, bloody-mindedness and sheer racism, often dressed up in more “acceptable” clothes like anti-terrorism and antitheism.

And each time an alleged Muslim commits a terrorist crime, of course, the fora boil over.

A few days ago, a lone gunman took a cafe full of people in Sydney hostage. The coverage on BBC et al was saturation level, like a Hollywood movie circus. The Australian people, though, almost all refused to be panicked, or to target their brown/Muslim compatriots. They made it clear to all that this wasn’t a religious war.

Well, except for one Australian who put up something starting “The Religion Of Peace At It Again”. When it turned out that the maniac responsible was a lone nut who hadn’t found any mosque willing to indulge him, I waited to see if said Aussie would issue a corrective. You know already that he didn’t, don’t you? I’m sure you do.

 Then there was the Tehrik-i-Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar, in which over a hundred and thirty kids were killed, along with plenty of others. You know how all of a sudden the net boiled over with indignation? The media too. How dare those evil Taliban kill kids? What utter unprincipled evil. (And the subtext, sometimes openly uttered, sometimes not: Islam Is To Blame.)

I often think these days that a lot of people, especially in the west, should go down on their knees in gratitude to Islamic terrorists, whether the cannibal headhunters of ISIS or mere terror bombers like al Qaeda or fidayeen attackers like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. These terrorists, after all, give them a perfect excuse to indulge their racist impulses to their hearts’ content, all in the name of being “objective”.

So, back to these Taliban, only they weren’t Taliban. They were Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a completely different organisation comprising Pakistani Pashtuns who are of different tribes from the Taliban, who are Afghans and who owe allegiance to Mullah Omar. Not to reduce the enormity of the attack on the kids, but the only reason anyone would mix up the two is ignorance or deliberately as an excuse to continue the occupation of Afghanistan.

One of the blackly funny parts of the anger over the attacks is how, you know, many of these furious ladies and gentlemen would have a hard time locating Afghanistan or Pakistan on the outline map of the world, let alone differentiate between the Taliban and the TTP. These are the same people who would rush to blame Islam, despite the fact that the TTP themselves said they had launched the attack in retaliation for the Pakistani Army’s actions against the Pashtun tribes of the Afghan frontier.

I get it that people are furious. Of course it’s condemnable when civilians are targeted, kids or otherwise. So where was this fury when the US starved half a million Iraqi children to death in the 1990s? Where was this fury when five hundred Palestinian children were massacred by Zionist tanks and bombs in Gaza only a few months ago? Did these ladies and gentlemen get hot and bothered when the EUNazi junta in Rump Ukraine shelled schools in Lugansk and Donetsk, murdering children? Do we hear anything of this anger when the Nobel Peace Prizident’s drones blow Yemeni, Afghan and Pakistani children to pieces, well, every day?

Gaza, 2014. Go ahead, tell that guy that Islam, not Zionists, killed that kid. [Image from]

And that brings me to the point. If you get angry when children are killed, let’s see you getting angry when all children are killed. Not just pick and choose when the kids getting killed are on the “right” side. Is everyone ready for that?

The Beslan Massacre, 1 September 2004. The top Chechen terrorist warlords responsible are today sheltered and protected in London and Washington. 

I’m not holding my breath.

Also read:


Here in the south, in afternoon in late summer the air is drenched in sunshine, and looks as heavy as though it is full of honey. And when a vehicle passes, the dust from its wheels hangs in the air as though suspended in the liquid and reluctant to come down to the ground again.

It was an afternoon in late summer when Alyosha’s tank came over the bulge of the little hill and clanked down the trail through the birch forest. Tanks and soldiers had already passed this way, and the air was still so hazy with dust that Alyosha had to squint through the driver’s hatch to see to steer.

“Keep your mouth closed, fishling,” the bow machine gunner, Fyodor, said from his right. His large face was creased with dirt mixed in with his beard stubble, and he rubbed his jaw with a finger and held it up to demonstrate. “You don’t want that in your mouth. All the pretty girls will laugh at your teeth.”

Alyosha flushed. They all kept making fun of him, because he was the new one, straight out of tank driver training, and they called him fishling. It wasn’t his fault that he was young and green and they were all veterans, or that he was the replacement for the former driver, who had been killed by a sniper bullet right through the front hatch.

That memory made him nervous, as though someone was drawing a bead through a sniper scope at the top of his chest, but there was nothing to be done about it. Besides, he told himself, the enemy had gone from this sector and there was no fighting left to do.

Yes, but suppose they had left behind a few men to delay the advance and fight to the last?

His thoughts were interrupted by the commander’s voice in the helmet headphones. “Driver, slow down. We turn off in fifty metres.”

“Da, tovarish Starshina.” Alyosha stamped on the clutch and yanked back on the gearshift as hard as he could. It amazed him as always how much strength it took to change gears on the T 34/85, and once again he wondered just why he’d been chosen for tank driver training when he was so small and thin. Once he’d asked and been told, leavened with plenty of profanity, that it was because he was so small and thin. 

“It’s little fishes like you who can jump in easily through the driver’s hatch,” Fyodor had said, rotating his shoulders, hefty with muscle. As though, Alyosha had thought sourly, he didn’t have to crawl in through the same hatch. And Sasha the gunner had added from behind and above, “Besides, you’re so small that if some sniper shoots at you through the hatch he’ll probably miss.” And everyone had laughed except Alyosha himself and Tereshchenko, the senior sergeant tank commander.

“Turn off to the left,” Tereshchenko called now, over the intercom. “Ten metres.”

Alyosha pulled in the left steering tiller and jerked the tank into the turn. Through the open hatch he could see the village, a jumble of houses across a stretch of fields. Some people were watching them from outside the houses.

“Back before the war,” Fyodor said conversationally, “you could have a good time in these villages. They knew how to live, no complexes on their backs like city people. And the girls after harvest time, they...”

Alyosha tuned him out, concentrating on driving the tank up the rutted trail to the village. The ruts were so deep that each time a track would hit one the entire tank tilted slightly, and the squad of soldiers riding on the rear deck swore and shouted abuse. Here, off the main track, the dust was less thick but still enough to make his eyes smart. He wished he had a pair of goggles.

They passed a line of ditches dug into the fields perpendicular to the track, and arrived at the village. Alyosha brought the vehicle to a juddering halt without waiting for the commander’s order. Leaning back in his narrow seat, he switched off the engine. The sudden silence was sweet.

A small knot of people was coming up the village lane towards the tank. They looked apprehensive, and were led by an old man with long grey moustaches.

“You’d think they’d be happy to see us,” Fyodor grunted. “Instead just look at them!”

The loader, Akhmetov, laughed harshly. “All these days and you still expect gratitude?” He knelt on the ammunition crates on the floor to peer over Alyosha’s shoulder. “Wonder if they were all in bed with the Nazis.”

Alyosha watched the corporal in charge of the squad of soldiers walk over and talk to the old man with the moustaches. He nodded and came back to the tank.

“He says the Nazis weren’t here,” he called up to Tereshchenko in the turret. “He says nothing happened here, no one came.”

“Yes?” The senior sergeant’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Ask him about those trenches we drove past in the field.”

“I already asked him, Starshina. He says they dug them to stop German armour coming, in case they turned up.” He spat eloquently on the ground. “A likely story, seeing they left the track untouched and the trenches are all pointing east.”

“Take your men and search the village,” Tereshchenko said. “Stay ready to move fast if anything happens. Akhmetov, load anti-personnel. Everyone on alert.”

Alyosha watched the villagers through the front hatch. They stood where they were, looking uncertainly at the tank and at the soldiers who were now beginning to move through the village. A chicken began clucking and quickly fell silent.

“How long,” Sasha the gunner muttered, "are we planning to stay here, Starshina?”

“As long as it takes,” Tereshchenko said irritably. He sounded on edge, and this worried Alyosha because Tereshchenko was normally as emotional as a block of wood. “I want to find out what’s going on here.”

“Starshina,” Fyodor said. The old man with the moustaches was stepping warily towards the tank. “Looks like we have complaints.”

“The soldiers,” the old man said to Alyosha through the hatch, since he was the most easily visible. “The soldiers are stealing the chickens.”

“What’s it to you, dedushka?” Fyodor leaned over to glare up at the old man. “We’ve come to liberate you, and all you can talk about is chickens? The soldiers need food. We need food.”

“Enough, Fyodor,” Tereshchenko called from the turret. “Listen, Dyadya,” he said to the old man. “We haven’t had a proper meal or sleep in days now, and we still have a long way to go. I think a few chickens are the least of your worries.”

“If you want food,” the old man said eagerly, squinting myopically up at the turret, “we have bread and even a few eggs. You’re welcome to them.” His watery blue eyes blinked earnestly. “But please don’t disturb the chickens, and the women –“

As though on clue, someone screamed in the village, a woman yelling. Alyosha glanced uneasily at Fyodor, but he was fumbling with the lock of his machine gun.

“Listen to them!” the old man said.

“What do you expect in a war?”’ Akhmetov leaned across Alyosha’s shoulder. He squinted at the afternoon sunshine, his narrow Kazakh eyes almost disappearing. “Soldiers are men, old man, and they need their fun.”

“Fun?” The old man was outraged, his jaw quivering. “You call that fun?”

“Oh yes.” Fyodor didn’t look at anyone, and he might have been talking to his machine gun. “After days and weeks of facing death constantly, not knowing if you’ll ever even see a woman again, I’d call it fun. All right.”

“That’s enough,” Tereschchenko said. “We aren’t the Nazis. Get them back here.”

At that moment, there was a shot, ringing out sharp and loud, from the other side of the village. Everyone in the tank stiffened. Alyosha grabbed at the steering tillers. Fyodor swivelled his machine gun, the stubby barrel traversing the street.

“Zhopa,” Sasha swore softly. “What the hell is going on?”

Nothing happened for a long moment. Alyosha, watching the old man, suddenly had a feeling that he’d been expecting the shot, that this was what he’d been trying to head off with his complaint about the chickens. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to crouch in the dust like the others. He’d just turned round and was looking back at the village.

Then the corporal and two of the soldiers emerged from between two houses, pushing a girl between them.

“Starshina,” the corporal called. “Look what we found.”

“She was hiding behind a barn,” one of the other soldiers said. “Dug herself into the hay. When we found her she took a shot at us and tried to run.”

The girl was now close enough for Alyosha to get a better look at her. Straw was sticking in her hair and clinging to her brown dress. She was still struggling, her oval face red with effort and her deep-set eyes snapping with fury.

“Shot at you?” Tereshchenko asked. “What with?”

The second soldier held up a pistol. It was a German model, with a narrow barrel sticking out of the end like an admonitory finger.

“A Walther,” Tereshchenko said without surprise. “So, Dyadya,” he called to the old man, “nobody was here, wasn’t that what you said? And here we have people taking potshots at us with German guns.”

“She’s not from here,” the old man said, not looking back. “I’ve never seen her before.”

“He lies!” One of the men who had come along behind the old man strode forward. His face was working with fury and some other emotion. “This hell-bitch was the German commandant’s whore. And she acted like the queen of the whole district. Had people shot for looking at her crossways.”

“That’s a lie!” The girl glared at the man. The muscles in her arms were tense with effort, and she looked magnificent in her anger. One of her shoes had come off, and in order not to have to look at her face, Alyosha stared at her bare toes clenching in the dust. “I had nothing to do with the German commandant.”

“He just left her behind when they pulled out yesterday,” the man said. Alyosha could identify the other emotion in his voice now, along with the fury. It was triumph. “She was running behind them, with the other collaborators, begging them to take her along. But the German pretended he couldn’t hear her.”

“He’s right,” one of the other men said. “This bitch, she isn’t from this village, but she came here just after the war started. Mother dead and papa in the army, she said, and said she’d come where she knew she could find shelter.” He spat. “Nice daughter of a soldier she turned out to be. The moment the Germans came she rushed into their arms.” His upper lip lifted in a sneer. “Probably her dad’s one of the traitors who went over to the Germans, too.”

“Ask her what her name was, the one the Germans gave her.” The first man glared up at the turret. “Go on, ask her if it’s not true that they called her Snow White.”

There was a sudden silence.

“Snow White,” the corporal said. “Are you sure?”

The man nodded, saying nothing. For an endless moment nobody spoke.

“Snow White,” Alyosha mouthed silently. Even he had heard of Snow White, word of whose cruelty had filtered back through the partisans to the troops. He couldn’t believe it. Snow White should be a tall, jackbooted Nordic ice queen with flinty blue eyes and a cigarette in a holder. She shouldn’t be an oval-faced village girl with straw in her hair and dirty toes.

“All right, corporal,” Tereshchenko said from the turret. “Hold her. Fyodor, call battalion and report that we’ve got Snow White.”

Alyosha stared at the young woman. Now that she was no longer struggling, there was something almost familiar about her face. From being someone who should have been a Nordic ice queen, Snow White had become someone whom he seemed to have known for a long time.

“Starshina,” Fyodor said, “the Kombat says to take her back to battalion. She’s to be sent on from there.”

There was a brief pause. “Very well,” Tereshchenko said. “Tell the Kombat we’ll be bringing her back. Corporal,” he added, “get the people to go back to the village and stay here with your squad. Keep an eye on everything.”

“But, the woman, sergeant,” the corporal said. “How do you plan to take her back? Someone like that, inside the tank, she might get hold of a submachine gun or a grenade and –“

“I’ll talk to her,” Tereshchenko said. He swung himself out of the turret and dropped to the ground. Alyosha could see him out of the corner of the hatch, in his brown uniform and black helmet for all the world like someone from another world in the honey-drenched summer light. “I’ll talk to her and convince her to behave. Get the people indoors and keep watch.”

“Starshina –“ the corporal protested.

“I said I’ll talk to her, damn it.” Tereshchenko plucked the Walther out of the third soldier’s grasp and grabbed the girl’s shoulder. “Let’s take a little walk,” he told her, his fingers digging so hard into her that she winced. They passed out of sight to the side of the tank.

Nobody said anything for a moment.

“Snow White,” Akhmetov said finally. “That wasn’t what I thought Snow White would look like.”

“None of us did,” Fyodor said. “Well, live and learn, as they say, right?”

“What happens to her when they get her back to Moscow?” Alyosha wanted to know.

“What do you think, fishling?" Akhmetov laughed shortly. "Some good hard interrogation and a firing squad, what else?”

“What’s the Starshina doing with her?” Fyodor asked.

“I can’t quite see,” Sasha said from the turret. “They’re over by the trenches. They –“

“What?” Alyosha asked.


There was a shot, the clear crack of the Walther. A heavy tread came closer to the tank and Tereshchenko climbed in through the turret. “Let’s go.”

“The girl?“

“Forget the girl. Let’s go.”

“Starshina,” Akhmetov said. “The Kombat said –“

“Let’s go, I said.”

Alyosha switched on the engine and turned the tank round. They clattered unevenly up the track and passed the trenches. From the nearest of them, a bare foot protruded, smeared with blood.

The tank drove on towards the setting sun.


I only found out about the rest of it later,” Alyosha said.

His granddaughter sat back against his chair and hugged her knees. “What happened to the sergeant?”

“To him? Nothing. I don’t know what Tereshchenko told the Kombat. Probably that the girl had tried to escape and he’d been forced to shoot her. We never heard anything more about it anyway, and he was killed in Berlin.”

“So what did you find out, Dedushka?”

“It was right at the end of summer. We’d halted one night in a little town right on the Polish frontier. It was a cold night for that time of year, and since the Germans were nowhere near we’d built a fire. We even had some food and vodka, so we were feeling pretty content. You’ve never been in that situation, so you don’t know how it feels to be content with only a little meat and alcohol, when you have a fire and nobody’s shooting at you.

“Then somehow or other we got to talking about the girl, Snow White, and what had happened in the village. Then Akhmetov asked casually, ‘Aren’t you from some village in those parts, Starshina?’

 “Tereshchenko’s face froze right up. ‘Yes,’ he said shortly, and looked into the fire.

“I was sitting right opposite him and I saw that look on his face, and it was suddenly as though I’d seen that look – that exact same look – somewhere before, somewhere framed by honey-coloured air.

“ ‘A traitor who went over to the Germans,’ he quoted, and his voice was proud and defiant and filled with regret.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014


Part 2:  Nadezhda

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Last Liberator

To my military aviation enthusiast friends:

The photo is of a B 24 J Liberator bomber now in a museum in Britain. The plaque near the nose shows that it was donated by the Indian Air Force.


Yes, the Indian Air Force operated B 24 Liberators, which it did not finally retire till as late as 1968. This is an especially interesting fact since not one of those Liberators was ever acquired officially.

Here’s how it happened. During WWII, a lot of B 24s were transferred to Britain by the US and many were based in India for use against the Japanese in South East Asia. Under the terms of the Lend Lease agreement, at the close of hostilities they had to be either returned or destroyed. The US didn’t want them back – after 1945 the B 29 and its successors were their main bombers and they were scrapping their own B 24s as fast as they could. So the British gathered the B 24s in a plane graveyard in Kanpur in North India and wrecked them by bulldozing them, pouring sand in the engines and so on. The technicians made a less than complete job of it though since they were anxious to go home after years of war. And they also thought the incompetent Indians could never make use of them anyway.

In 1947 India became independent and almost immediately began fighting a war with Pakistan over Kashmir. India had no bombers, so Pakistani forces were “bombed” by crewmen in DC 3 Dakota transports shoving explosives out through the doors. (Obviously, this was less than effective, and yet in December 1971 Indian aircrew did the exact same thing with Antonov transports over East Pakistan.) That and the prestige requirement for heavy bombers led to the demand for India to acquire some.

Britain, then India’s go-to country for weapons, offered the already obsolete Avro Lancaster. The IAF rejected that. There was no money to shop from elsewhere and the Indian government of the time was still chary of buying weapons from the USSR, a situation that would not be corrected till the late 1950s. So it seemed that India might have to do without the prestigious heavy bomber...

...until, in 1951, someone remembered those wrecked B 24s lying in the aircraft graveyard and decided to do something about it.

So the technicians from Hindustan Aeronauticals Limited, the state run aero-engineering company, went over and began constructing complete aircraft from the component parts of the wrecked ones. Not only had they been wrecked, they had been sitting in the weather for years totally without any kind of protection. The technicians had to work with what they could find, and as soon as an aeroplane was in a flyable condition they’d fly it over to the main HAL depot in Bangalore (about a thousand or so kilometres south) where proper repair work could be done. Each of the planes was constructed out of bits and pieces of several, most of which were in different paint schemes (and were different model B24s as well). So you might have a plane with a natural metal finish fuselage with desert pink wings and a jungle green tail section, flying with four engines taken from four different aircraft and only a few cockpit instruments. Amazingly, every one of the planes that could be salvaged managed to make it safely to Bangalore for proper repair. Ultimately, enough B24s were salvaged – about 44 of them – to equip three squadrons (Nos. 5, 6 and 16), not bad when one remembers that they were deemed unusable by the incompetent Indians.

There were two rather amusing sequelae. The first was when the Americans became aware that the IAF was flying squadrons of B 24s. They decided that India must have acquired the planes illegally from some source which had not wrecked Lend Lease aircraft as mandated. It took a lot of persuasion for them to accept the truth. The other one I’ll tell you about in a bit.

In the late 1950s, the British finally decided that India was capable of flying bombers and decided to supply the Canberra. (The USSR had offered the Il 28 – and the MiG 17 – but India was still at the time not “buying Russian”, a situation fortunately corrected since.)  Nos. 5 and 16 Squadrons then dumped their Liberators for Canberras, and No 6 Squadron – which no longer had the bombing role to perform – had theirs converted to the maritime reconnaissance role. The useless waist machine gun positions were removed and the ventral ball turret was replaced by a radar in a retractable housing. So, instead of looking like this:

The No 6 Squadron B 24s ended up looking like this:

When India invaded the Portuguese colony of Goa in December 1961, No 6 Squadron B 24s conducted leaflet raids on Portuguese positions. During the war with Pakistan in 1965, they flew maritime reconnaissance missions which had nothing much to do since the Indian Navy stayed hiding in harbour for fear of politically damaging sinkings. And they were finally retired in 1968 and consigned to another aircraft graveyard, in Pune near Bombay.

And there they might have remained, if only the West hadn’t suddenly woken up one day and found they had almost no B 24s left, let alone any in flying condition.

So it came about that some of the surviving B 24s were – once again – cleaned up, oiled, put back into running order, and flown over vast distances to their final resting places in museums. The final one – the one in the photo with which I started my article – didn’t reach its RAF museum till 1974.

Now here is where the second funny sequel I mentioned happened. As one of the planes was being flown to Britain, circa 1970, off the Pakistani coast, Pakistan scrambled jet fighters to intercept it. Because Pakistan hadn’t yet heard that it was no longer an active Indian type.

That the B 24s didn’t actually do much during their service with the IAF is obvious. They did almost achieve something extraordinary, though, something that might have changed India altogether. At one time in 1953 the IAF decided on a live bombing drill near Delhi at a test range. Through some combination of geological factors the bombs dropped by the B 24 formations – all in a straight line – caused earthquake-like tremors in Parliament House and caused the assembled politicians to run for their lives.

If the Parliament building had collapsed on their heads, or one of the bombs fallen a bit further on, we could have got rid of the political class in one fell swoop.

Further Reading:

Monday 15 December 2014

Burnt At The Stake

"Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack. Where men enforcèd do speak anything." 
- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 3

I still remember clearly the first time I saw the Abu Ghraib torture photos. That was also the first time I ever visited, where a lot of them were published. I don’t remember feeling sickened or horrified as much as a kind of cold, steely rage. But then, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, just about any action of the occupation in that country was guaranteed to be angering anyway.

As time went on and nobody could pretend any longer that Abu Ghraib was an “isolated incident”, I got faintly amused by the way the Empire’s media and officialdom kept wriggling around to avoid using the word “torture”. My personal favourite was “harsh treatment of prisoners”. You see, I have a book called The Knights of Bushido which enumerates, with diagrams, Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners of war during the period 1941-5. They had stress positions, beatings, simulated drowning, the lot – only nobody said they were “harsh treatment of prisoners”.

But then, as I say, being Exceptionalistan means never having to subscribe to the rules everyone else has to follow.

When, a few days ago, the much-celebrated Torture Report broke, I was of course not among those who was surprised. I was, frankly, quite cynical about it changing anything, and my cynicism has not been misplaced. In this case, the whole world knew the USA was torturing prisoners, illegally kidnapping people, paying its puppet dictators to torture them on its behalf, and so on. Only the particularly nauseating details of rectal “feedings” and the like were new. But I assumed that the average American, having the attention span of a mayfly with ADHD, would forget it in a week.

Going by internet commentary, even a week may have been too much to expect.

Insofar as the reactions I’ve seen have gone, barring a small minority of honest and principled people (Ted Rall and Cindy Sheehan come to mind), most American reactions (among those who deigned to react at all) fell into two categories, depending on their political stance:

“Torture doesn’t work. If it worked it would probably be fine, and anyway, it’s all over and done with, so nobody should make a fuss.” No surprises whom these people voted for.

“Torture is fine because 9/11”. No surprises whom those people voted for either.

Of course it doesn't work, but that's not the point. It doesn't have to work to fulfil its purpose, as I'll talk about in a moment. Also, of course it isn’t over, and everyone knows it, but as long as the money trail from the bribed dictators doesn’t lead back to the office occupied by a certain Nobel Peace Prize winning mass murderer and war criminal, nobody has a problem.

I was thinking of the kind of psychology, though, that would justify torturing anyone at all, if that is one isn’t a psychopath and isn’t personally doing the torturing. What would provoke this kind of support?

I can think of one – fear. Pure, unthinking, fear.

And that immediately put me in mind of another time when common citizens justified the torture and murder of harmless innocent people by the high and mighty – the witchcraft trials. They seemed to be identical in their essentials; a coalition of religious and secular rulers – in order to secure their own ends – spreads fear among quite ordinary, and abysmally ignorant, people about other people. Those others can then be quite openly deprived of property and liberty, tortured for confessions everyone knows to be fake, and then ceremonially murdered. 

History repeats itself, and not necessarily as farce.

So here is my comment on the torture “scandal”. I chose the anonymous masked face of the Abu Ghraib detainee as the symbol for all the victims of the neo-witchhunts. I chose, also, to frame him against a background that suggests both a mushroom cloud and a crucifix. The reasons should be obvious enough for me not to have to explain.

Unusually, I painted this in acrylic, not water colour. It was the whim of the moment, but was a highly interesting experience. Acrylic is much easier than water colour to layer and provide texture. It is, however, extremely difficult to blend into subtle shades – hence the bright appearance, which I don’t necessarily like. I still think it works, and I shall be using both water colour and acrylic in future as the needs of the painting suggest themselves.

Title: Burnt at the Stake
Material: Acrylic on Paper
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Sunday 14 December 2014


In these last moments of my life, I wish I could understand.

I know these are the last moments, well enough. With my head pressed flat against the stone, I can barely move, and there’s nothing I can do to get away.

Above me, the old man’s bearded face holds a curious expression. I can’t say what it means. He seems almost excited, and yet at the same time disappointed, as though he had wanted to do something else, something which meant a lot to him and killing me is second best.

Not that it matters – I’m dead either way – but in these last moments I do wish I could know at least why this is happening.

I have no illusions about my life, I do not pretend it is important in any way or to anyone. It didn’t last long and it didn’t make any mark on the world, and I don’t think anyone will even notice it go. But it’s still all I have, and I would like to know why it’s ending. I’d say I have a right to know.

I remember well how it all happened. I had lost a fight, not the first time I’d lost, but I didn’t know it would be the last either. If I’d known, perhaps I’d have fought harder, because then I wouldn’t have been trailing despondently round the side of the hill. I’d been hungry and tired and hurting all over, and I’d been looking for something to eat.

I’d seen the pair of them on the hilltop, and not taken much notice at first. You don’t see that many people out here, and they don’t really bother anyone if they do come. But there seemed something different about these two. And, because I was curious, I ventured a little closer to watch.

The bigger of the men was quite old, with flowing grey beard and hair. He had a hand on the shoulder of the younger – a boy, thin and frightened looking – and was pushing him up the slope, shouting. The wind whipped his words away, and, besides, I would not have understood him anyway.

He pushed the young boy to the top of the hill and knocked him to the ground, and that’s when I noticed that the kid’s hands were tied behind him. Still shouting something, the old man took a leather thong from around his waist and tied the boy’s legs together, too. He then left him on the ground and walked away, gathering dried branches and brush from the hillside. Soon he had a respectable pile beside the boy, who was lying still and – I could see it – trembling violently. I heard him say something in a small voice, and the man replied loudly and angrily. The boy didn’t speak again.

By now I was very curious. I was still hungry, of course, but I’d been able to get my mind off it a little, and I’d almost forgotten my pain and the humiliation of my defeat. Obviously, something was going to happen to the boy, and it was unlikely to be very good. I wished I could help him somehow.

Far above, in the sky, a hawk wheeled.

The old man had finished his pile of wood, and now he returned to the boy. Lifting him up bodily – he was a muscular old man and the boy was young and thin – he put him down on a large flat rock, holding him down with one hand. With the other hand he fumbled at his belt and lifted out something which glittered in the noonday sun. Shouting hoarsely, the old man lifted his hand, the thing flashing back the light. I crept a little closer, for a better look.

It was a knife, and the old man was poised to bring it down on the boy’s neck.

Now I know life is brutal and pitiless, and I’ve seen my share of bad things happen. But I’d never come across something like this before, something so pointlessly cruel. I shied back in fright, instinctively. Right next to me was a thorny bush. My horns got tangled up in it, and I could not pull myself free.

Oh, given a little time I could have freed myself, of course. But I was frightened and struggling, and I did not have the time.

Then the hawk swooped downwards.

I can’t say why it swooped. Perhaps it was after some hapless prey animal. Perhaps it wanted to peck away at the corpse of the boy after the old man had killed him. But it flew down low above the pair, and the old man abruptly stopped his ranting and looked up at it. He cocked his head, as if listening to it, but I could hear nothing. The hawk swooped down, looped and flew by again, and then it soared up into the air and away.

There was a long moment of silence. And then the old man turned his head, looking around the mountain slope.

The first thing he saw was me.

Now I’m lying, legs tied together, on the same rock on which the boy had been lying only a short while ago. The boy, whom I’d wished I could save, helped the old man tie me and lift me up here, and then set fire to the pile of wood. I can smell the smoke, which is rubbing my throat raw. I can feel the heat.

The old man looks down at me and raises the knife. It won’t be long now. I shall no longer feel the sweet grass in my mouth, feel the nuzzling of a ewe, hear the bleats of newborn lambs, my children. I don’t know what I did wrong to deserve this. Perhaps, if only I could have asked, the old man could have told me.

Or perhaps he wouldn’t. Again, I see the curious expression in his eyes, and I know now that he would much rather have killed the boy. I, I am second best, my death not even having the meaning of any real value. Well, it was a small and meaningless enough life, and I suppose it shouldn’t matter too much, even to me.

I wish I could close my eyes as I wait for the blow, but I can’t. Try as I might, I can’t stop looking.

High up, past the upraised knife, past the smoke from the fire, a speck in the sky, the hawk is soaring.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Rembrandt, The angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, 1635. Source