Saturday 1 March 2014

One Of Those Things

We’re there,” my host said, stopping the car by the side of the road and opening his door. “Let’s go.”

“Here?” I asked, looking around. There was nothing to see except dust brown scrub forest in all directions. “Where is it?”

“In the forest,” my host said, pointing away to the right. “Did you expect something huge? I did say it was a small place.”

I shrugged, getting out of the car and reaching in for the bag with my water and camera. The day was hot and the sweat began trickling down my neck immediately. “Yes, well, let’s get along and see it.”

My host grinned. Though he was fat and ten years older than me, he didn’t seem at all affected. “Sure you want to come?” he asked. “We’ll have to walk through the forest a bit.”

“Let’s go,” I repeated. The heat was already irritating me, and a cloud of tiny insects had decided to start accumulating around my head. I swatted at them, and they scattered only to gather again.

“Come along then,” said my host, and started down the embankment. I followed him down to where a narrow, almost invisible trail wended its way into the wood. “Mind your step,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s rough. Not too many people come this way anymore.”

We walked into the scrub forest. The trees were short, hardly above head height, and spiny. “All this was farmland once,” my host said, pushing aside a branch that had thrust itself across the path. “It’s only gone back to scrub over the last hundred years or so.”

There were ruins among the trees, the remnants of walls and tumbled stones. It was almost impossible to identify what they had once been, but it was probably a large village at one time. The stump of a broken pillar thrust up towards the sky like a shattered tooth.

My host pointed it out. “That was still standing when I was a boy,” he said. “There was a parasol on top, maybe to give shade to travellers on hot days. A lot of this has deteriorated over the last few years.”

I took a swallow of water. “How old are these ruins?”

My host shrugged. “Nobody knows. Actually, nobody’s interested in finding out. Two hundred years, perhaps.” He stopped and pointed a finger. “There’s the temple.”

I looked. It was a hump of black stone, barely visible above the trees. “That’s all?” I asked, disappointed.

“Yes, it’s small. Want to turn back?”

I hesitated, and checked the time. My train wasn’t for two hours yet. “No,” I said.  “Since we’ve come this far, let’s just go and have a look.”

My host grinned again. “You won’t be disappointed,” he said. “The architecture is quite unusual, and that’s what you want to see, isn’t it?”

A moment later, we ducked under a spiny expanse of branch and arrived in an open space. Before us was the temple.

It was, I realised, rather larger than I’d imagined at first, being low and spread out. The sides and back merged into the rock from which it was carved, and there were carved pillars supporting a porch at the front. The carvings were partly effaced, but enough was left to show that they had been fairly elaborate once.

“The rock caves are inside,” my host said, leading the way up the shallow steps to the porch. “The temple’s much older than the village back there. Again, nobody knows how old it is, but perhaps four or five hundred years.”

I’d expected the inside of the temple to be dark, but it was surprisingly well-lit, sunlight entering through narrow windows set high up in the rock walls. The floor was of roughly finished stone, the walls smoother and covered in paintings which had faded over the years until they were scarcely visible.

“The idols have all been removed,” my host said. “I think they’re in a museum somewhere. They should really restore this place, but nobody’s interested. I once sent a letter to the Archaeological Survey about it.”

“And what did they say?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he told me. “They never replied.” He waited while I took pictures of some of the better-preserved paintings. “Now come this way.”

I hadn’t noticed that the back of the chamber had a narrow passage, leading deeper into the rock, and low enough that I had to bend my head in order not to bump it. Only a few steps, though, brought us into another chamber, round, airy, and filled with light.

“Wow,” I said. It was all I could find to say. “Wow.”

My host laughed. “I thought you would like it,” he said. “Nice, isn’t it?”

“It’s lovely.” I looked up at the ceiling, where a circle of apertures set like a rosette let in golden afternoon sunshine, which reflected off the highly polished pillars. “I wish I could have seen it when it was in use.”

“You mightn’t have liked it much,” my host said dryly. “This temple was dedicated to the god Sarvagunasampanna, and according to what I know he wasn’t one of the nicer ones. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him? There are tales of human sacrifice and so on.” He preceded me down a set of stairs into another large chamber, to one side of which was a stone dais. The wall above the dais was scored and cut about.

“There he is,” he said.

I peered at the wall. The carving had almost vanished with time, but I could make out lines and the shreds of old paint. The figure was hulking, vaguely simian, and faintly suggestive of brooding menace.

“There’s one statue still here,” my host said. “It’s out this way.”

We walked out of the temple and down another flight of stairs. “You mean the idol is outside the temple?” I asked. “That’s a little unusual isn’t it?”

“It used to be inside, on the dais,” he replied, glancing at me over his shoulder. “At least so the story goes. But it’s been outside for centuries at the least.”

We walked down another path. This one had clearly been much wider and better kept once, and paved with flat stones which were now cracked and pushed apart by gnarled roots and by grass which had itself grown old and wiry.

“There was a battle here once, long, long ago” my host said. “If we went a little further and dug around a little, we’d probably still find some of the old weapons, swords and spears, maybe a helmet or so.”

“Oh?” I asked, not particularly interested. Battles aren’t my kind of thing. “Who fought whom?”  

“I’ll tell you later.” We turned a bend and my host pointed to the left of the path. “There,” he said. “That’s the god Sarvagunasampanna himself, on his flying chariot.”

I looked. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and then the statue jumped into view. It was a mass of polished black stone, much higher than a tall man. The chariot hadn’t any wheels that I could see, or horses, but black wings spread out on either side of a hulking central figure, one hand raised, finger pointing. A smaller figure knelt in front, probably in the role of charioteer.

My host said something, but I hardly heard him. The statue pulled at me, drawing me to it. The feathers of the wings, heavy and stylised though they were, looked as though they’d start flapping at any moment, raising a storm of dust and dried leaves. The charioteer was exquisite in detail, his muscled arms flexing as he pulled on invisible reins, his face sharp-featured beneath a conical cap. But the entire shape of the statue drew one’s eyes upward to the god himself.

The god Sarvagunasampanna was a giant. His immense pot belly thrust out proudly from under an immense chest. His arms were like trees, one movement of which might overturn mountains, and ended with hands like clubs. His shoulders were humped with muscle, ridges of it flanking his thick neck. And his face...

I blinked. Somehow, I couldn’t see the god’s face. I could see his head and the coils of his hair, but his features blurred and shimmied in the sunlight. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again. It was still the same.

Stepping over the broken stones, I went closer to the statue and stood looking up at it. Even from here, I couldn’t see the face. It was as though one of those maddening specks which float in one’s eyes had decided to take up residence in front of the statue’s features.

“If you’re going to take pictures,” my host called, “you’d better take them. We’d better start back if you’re going to make your train.”

I glanced at him. He was watching me with a strange expression, as though filled with inner amusement which he didn’t want to let out. Suddenly impatient, I turned back to the statue and took some photographs, and put the camera back in the bag without checking the images. “Let’s go,” I said.

“Of course,” he said, with a tiny bow. We went back the way we’d come, but skirted the side of the temple and made our way back to the car in silence. I was sweating and irritable, and glad that we weren’t talking.

It was only when we were back on the road, and the air-conditioning had dried the sweat on my body, that my host spoke. “Got good pictures, I hope?”

“I think I have,” I said, “but I’d better check.” Taking out my camera from the bag, I went through the images. The temple had photographed much better than I’d expected, the sunlight through the narrow windows filling the chambers with a soft glow. I went through all of them with approval, and then came at last to the pictures I’d taken of the god on the chariot. And then I hesitated and shook my head.

Even in the pictures, the statue’s face was blurred and obscured. In every single photo I’d taken of the god, though I could see everything else perfectly clearly, the statue’s face was invisible.

“Well?” my host asked. I glanced at him. He was watching me out of the corner of his eye as he drove. The same amused expression was on his face. “How did the pictures come out?”

“Um, excellent, really. Except there seems to be a problem with the camera with a few of them. Maybe a spot of dirt on the lens...”

“Oh, your camera’s fine,” he said. “There’s no problem with your camera, though it didn’t take photos of the face of the statue.”

I frowned. “How do you know that?”

He didn’t reply for about a kilometre. The scrub forest slid by on both sides. Then he shook his head.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “nobody can see the face on that statue. It’s been photographed many times – I’ve done it myself, often, on film back in the old days and now on the digital camera – but it’s impossible to see the face on the pictures either. You can actually climb on the statue and feel it, and the features are there – but you can’t see them. At least not...ordinarily...if the tales are correct.”

“What tales?” I asked.

He glanced down at his watch as he drove. “There’s just enough time to tell you the story,” he said. “Mind you, all this is just something I’ve heard. I can’t answer for its veracity either way.”


 His name, (my host said) was Qutb-ud-Din, but he referred to himself as the Destroyer. He was one of the raider chieftains who came down from the hills back in the old days, to storm and loot the cities and temples of the plains, and return home laden with pillage. But Qutb-ud-Din wasn’t quite like that.

Unlike his peers, who raided for loot, Qutb-ud-Din’s one passion in life was the destruction of idols and temples. He was a fanatic in that, and led an army of like-minded fanatics who burned and hacked their way across the plain, reducing even the smallest shrines they found to rubble. Even the Sufi Muslim tombs of the saints weren’t immune from the Destroyer, for he considered Sufism the equivalent of idol-worship.

Back then, there was a small kingdom here, little more than a principality. It had been substantial once, but by the time of this story, war and famine had reduced it to the point where it was only a matter of time till it collapsed completely. Only the fact that it had neither riches nor fertile land to offer had saved it from invasion by the stronger realms to the east and south.

On the throne sat the king Rudrakumar. He was young and callow, and completely under the thumb of his ministers, who ruled what was left of the territory for their own profit – but the treasury was empty, and profit there was almost none.

It was at this time that the Destroyer swooped down from the north on one of his expeditions. If he were anyone else, of course, he would never have bothered with Rudrakumar’s territory – it was too impoverished to be worth the trouble. But the Destroyer wasn’t out for loot, he was out to wreck temples; and Rudrakumar’s kingdom had several.

Now Rudrakumar had a wife called Shashikala, who was young and beautiful and had a fiery temper. The story goes that when Rudrakumar heard that the enemy was coming, he was advised by his ministers to abandon the kingdom and flee. But Shashikala would have none of that.

According to the tale, she stormed into the meeting where Rudrakumar and his ministers were discussing his plans to flee, with a sword in her hand. “If you won’t fight,” she said dramatically, “then I will – with this sword, I will fight on my own and do what I can. Surely, when the men flee like women, the women can fight like men!”

So Rudrakumar was shamed into agreeing to fight, but he had almost nothing to fight with; his poverty-stricken kingdom could only muster an army of couple of thousand, and there was neither time nor equipment to raise further forces. Obviously, an army as small as that could not hope to defend the entire kingdom – it could, at most, fight one battle. After talking it over with his generals and his astrologers, Rudrakumar chose this area to fight the Destroyer, should he invade.

At the time I’m talking about, the temple we just visited wasn’t lying abandoned as it is now. Though it was never as grand as the great temples to the west and south, it was very well-known in this part of the country, and pilgrims came even from neighbouring kingdoms to worship at it and ask for the god’s blessings. So if the Destroyer came, he would most certainly try and destroy it. And it was clear to everybody that he would succeed, because what could Rudrakumar’s tiny army, ill-equipped and badly trained, hope to achieve against his hardened host of warriors?

One day word came that the Destroyer was definitely coming down country and would reach the kingdom’s borders within days. The ministers held meetings among themselves, and muttered darkly about the queen and how she had turned the king’s head and would be the cause of the doom of them all. The generals drilled the soldiers and tried to mould them into fighting shape, but it was a lost cause, and everyone knew that too.

Then it was that one night, when the moon was new and only stars lit the land, the queen Shashikala quietly left the palace on silent feet, with a black cloak thrown over her to hide her from prying eyes. She walked through the darkness, along the path that we had seen, until she came to the temple. And there she threw off her cloak, flung herself down in front of the great idol of the god, and begged for his aid in this moment of calamity. And in return she promised him human sacrifice – blood in such amounts that he had never tasted before, and never would again.

Nobody knows if the god answered. But the next morning, when the priests came, they saw that the great idol – with its winged chariot and charioteer – had somehow moved bodily out of the temple, and was standing by the side of the path, looking out across the fields. And though they tried their utmost, they could not shift it, for it seemed to have become part of the bedrock beneath.

There’s an old inscription on a palm-leaf book that is in the local museum. It’s mostly about things religious, and has nothing directly to do with the story, but when it mentions the god Sarvagunasampanna, it has some curious words:

His face is the sun and burns him who would look upon it –
But life is a shadow unto night
And when done, the sun again
Shines, on him who can see.

Be that as it may, the priests could make nothing of the moving of the idol, or decide if it were a bad omen or good. Nor did they have time to gather and pore over their books to decide, for that night the sky in the north was glowing with the red of burning villages, for the Destroyer had come.

The battle happened right before the temple, just as Rudrakumar’s generals had thought. The sun glittered on the swords of the Destroyer’s men as they swarmed forwards, not imagining that they would face any resistance at first. And when they saw Rudrakumar’s pitiful little army they laughed and kept coming.

But they did not laugh long. Some say that the god himself came to life and showered boulders down on the invaders from his flying chariot. Others claim that his fiery gaze swept over the enemy and charred them to cinders. Even so, there was a time when the defending army swayed backwards, and would have broken in defeat; but of a sudden, a figure appeared in the midst of battle, loose hair flying in the wind, and sword slashing. It was Shashikala, and she slew ten with each blow, if you can believe the tale. Be that as it may, by the time evening came, the Destroyer himself and no less than five thousand of his men lay slain on the ground before the temple.  But on Rudrakumar’s side, all lay dead too, with just the king himself kneeling on the ground, cradling the dying Shashikala’s head on his lap; for she had kept her promise to the god, and sacrificed herself too.

And even as the last of her life slipped away, she turned her head and looked up at the idol, and her eyes widened with surprise. Though Rudrakumar turned to look, he could not make out what she saw; and when he turned back to her, she had slipped away from him, but her eyes were still open and fixed on the statue. And then he saw that the eyes of them all – the Destroyer’s soldiers and his own – were turned towards the idol, even though the dust of battle drifted down into them from the darkling sky.


Here we are,” my host said, braking. “Still in time, too.”

The little railway station was almost deserted in the heat. A couple of small dogs lounged in the shade, tongues lolling. A solitary worker trudged along, pushing a wheelbarrow. Everything seemed to be sleeping.

“Thanks for everything,” I said, getting out of the car and reaching for my bags in the back. “I really appreciate all of it.” I hesitated. “If I can ask you, though – what do you yourself believe, about why we can’t see the statue’s face?”

“I?” He shrugged and looked away. “I don’t know – there has to be some explanation, but I can’t think of any. It’s just one of those things.”

A whistle sounded in the distance. “You’d better go,” he said. “Your train is coming.”

A couple of years later, I met the person who had first introduced me to my host. We got to talking, and the subject of my trip came up. “He showed me around,” I said. “He was very pleasant and filled with local lore. How is he, do you know?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard?” my friend replied. “He’s dead.”

“Is that so? When did that happen?”

“A few months ago. He hadn’t been in good health for a while – not since his heart attack last year. One morning he wasn’t there at home. They found his car parked on the roadside near an old temple cut from the rock –“

“Yes...I know the one you mean. And?”

“They found him lying in front of the statue that’s outside the temple. You’ve probably seen it, it’s huge. He’d been dead for hours already by then. Just one curious thing.” She hesitated.

“Yes?” I already knew what was coming. “What was curious?”

“They say he was found with his eyes wide open, and staring up at the statue’s face.” She glanced up at me from her coffee. “The doctor who examined him said that the way he was lying when he died – he must have wrenched his head around to look up at the statue. Now you tell me why he wanted to go out there in the middle of the night to die, and why he was looking up at the old idol’s face?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just one of those things, I suppose.”

“People,” she replied. “They’re strange, aren’t they?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Heavenly Reward

One night Rebecca woke to find an angel sitting at the foot of her bed.

She rubbed her eyes and made sure that she was awake and not imagining things. She wasn’t. It was a real live angel, white nightgown, wings, halo, everything. The angel smiled at her and extended a celestial hand.

“Hello, Rebecca,” he said. “I’ve come to take you to Heaven. Come along.”

“Take me to Heaven...?” Rebecca asked, astonished. “You mean, the real Heaven? Me?”

“You,” the angel confirmed. “Shall we go?”

“But I’m not dead yet!” A sudden thought came to Rebecca. “I’m not dead, am I?”

“No, no, not at al.” The angel shook his head deprecatingly. “Death is for other people. You will reach Heaven just as you are. Come.”

Well, one doesn’t turn down an invitation like that, so Rebecca got out of bed, just as she was, and took the angel’s hand. At least , she thought, she was dressed for the part in her own long white nightgown. Probably she’d grow her own wings and halo in time.

A shimmering silver staircase opened up on the other side of the room. The angel led Rebecca to it and they began climbing Heavenwards.

“What’s Heaven like?” Rebecca asked.

“It’s wonderful,” the angel enthused. “You’ll see in a minute. Plenty of entertainment, a great medical plan, the works. Of course,” he added, “few people get there in their own bodies like you, so their experience might be a bit less...complete.”

“Why am I chosen for this honour?”Rebecca asked. “Is it because I attend church every day and never miss a prayer meeting? It’s that, isn’t it?”

“No, no.” The angel waggled a wing. “All that doesn’t matter. Plenty of people go to church every day. We don’t care about that.”

“Then it was my opposition to gay marriage? I did always say homosexuality was unnatural!”

“Gay, straight, bi, what do we care?” The angel laughed so hard his halo threatened to fall off, and he had to grab at it quickly. “Doesn’t make a difference.”

“Oh, then it was because I was always against abortion. I knew threatening to kill those abortionists would bring me my reward.”

The angel shrugged. “Whether a kid gets killed before or after getting born, it’s still dead either way. As far as we’re concerned it’s not a factor.”

“It was because I refuse to believe in Evolution, is that right? I knew I was right in rejecting it as the work of the devil!”

The angel smiled at her over his shoulder. “Forget about all that,” he said. “Evolution exists, whatever anyone believes about it. The devil doesn’t exist, though.”

“The devil doesn’t exist?” Rebecca was flabbergasted. “What about hell and damnation, then?”

“Doesn’t exist either. Heaven does...but it’s all integrated these days. An all-faith Heaven. You’ll see.”

They had come to a set of huge gates made of pearl and inset with silver and gold. The angel took a platinum key from his pocket and inserted it into a lock. With a creak of unoiled hinges, the gate swung open.

“”After you,” he said.

“So what was it that earned me this honour?” Rebecca asked. “I’ve always been good and chaste. I haven’t drunk or fornicated or listened to that evil rap music or...”

“There you have it,” the angel interrupted.

“What? That I haven’t drunk or listened to that disgusting rap?”

“No, the bit about not fornicating. That was what we wanted.”

“That’s all? That I’m a virgin? Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.” The angel ushered Rebecca on to a landscape of clouds in tasteful pastel colours. “Here we are in Heaven.”

“I knew it,” Rebecca said, feeling the excitement rush through her veins. “I knew I was right in abominating those sluts, fornicators and Jezebel whores. I just knew I would get my reward for keeping my purity.”

“Yes, you do.” The angel squeezed her hand encouragingly. “And now for your reward, as promised.”

“What is it?” Rebecca jumped up on her toes like a little girl in excitement.

The angel smiled again. His teeth were very straight and white, proof of Heaven’s excellent dental plan.

“You get to shag a suicide bomber,” he said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Friday 28 February 2014

Wham Bam Thank You Scam

In the beginning there were the mugus. You know who they were – if you’ve been online at all, you will have got mail from them at least once or twice. “Dear Friend,” the letters would begin, “forgive my indignation at contacting you in such a manner, but...” and he would go into a description of how he has funds in a foreign bank which he’s desperate to share with you. Or she would have a heartbreaking story of how her parents were killed in a civil war in Darkest Africa, leaving ten million dollars, and she’s stuck in a refugee camp and desperate to get out. You know the drill.

I used to have a lot of fun with mugus. Baiting them is a superb cyber sport, but one needs both patience and an audience for that. I mean, what the hell’s the point of mocking mugus if you don’t have someone to laugh and applaud as you go along? And I’m not the Ebola Monkey Man, after all.

In recent times, anyway, the mugus seem to have disappeared. I can’t tell the reason. Maybe I no longer give off whatever vibes attract mugus these days. Maybe all the mugu mail is going to my spam folder and I no longer check my spam folder, I just delete the lot outright. Maybe it’s just that people are getting smarter.

Here, hold that last thought. What am I saying? People are not getting smarter. People are not getting smarter at such an accelerated rate, at least here, that some of the older scams are resurfacing. Like, you know, the text message sent to your phone saying “you’ve won a random phone lottery and send your contact details including phone number back to us.” If your phone number won the lottery, idiot, and they’ve sent you a text to the phone, ask yourself at least why the hell they would want your phone number?


But these morons are everywhere, apparently, since according to the police they’re complaining that they were ripped off by people who promised them the money they’d won as soon as they paid the processing fees. I’d say the scammers are welcome to their money because obviously they’re too dumb to deserve it.

But a couple of the other scams going around aren’t that simple at all.

The first is the Facebook Friend Scam. This is apparently quite popular in India now, especially in this part of the country where the young have just discovered Fakebook. It works like this:

The scammer sets up a fake ID, pretending to be a young and attractive person living in a foreign country – preferably somewhere on the other side of the globe. He/she (or, for convenience, it) then befriends young and callow people of the opposite sex, and gets close enough to them to find out what they want most of all. They then say they’ve sent the dupe a gift of that item by parcel.

A few days later, then, the scammer or a confederate phones the dupe, claiming to be from the Customs and Excise, and says that the parcel has been seized by the department for non-payment of import duties or some other gobbledygook. The dupe is asked to pay the difference (an account number being helpfully provided) or else the parcel will be disposed of or returned to sender. Obviously, this “gift” being something he or she really wants, the dupe won’t want to lose it. If he or she contacts the “sender”, it says it’s so sorry and will send the money, but it’s going to take a few days, so please go ahead and pay it, honey pie. Of course once the money is paid, neither the “sender” nor the “customs office” is ever heard from again.

Who was that masked man?

Now in all these cases the dupe’s own greed is the motivating factor; nobody who isn’t greedy can be scammed in this way. But there’s another route to scamming, and that deals in something more powerful than greed: fear.

This, then, is the other new scam here: you get a phone call from a distant part of the country, too far for you to visit easily or conveniently, saying that a case has been registered against you in a court there and the police have issued a non-baliable warrant for your arrest. (This is more plausible than it sounds; the Indian police have been known to make false cases against people in order to ask bribes to withdraw them; I myself know a man in Goa who is, at this writing, defending himself in court after refusing to pay a bribe to have a false police case withdrawn.) They tell you that they are a law firm who are willing to go to court to fight your case for you and get a stay order on the arrest warrant, as soon as you forward a retainer to the account number they’ll provide. If you fall for this, of course, they will continue asking money for affidavits and court appearances till you wise up.

The essential requirement for this scam to succeed, of course, is that you have to be driven to panic and unable to think clearly.  Otherwise you might wonder, for example, how police in a part of the country you’ve never visited even know you exist, let alone register a case against you. And they try and pile on the pressure, pretending that the handcuffs are already clinking, so that you can expect the cops anytime. You cannot be allowed to take the time to think. Is that clear?

Because these are on the way. Yo.

Now, I can think of a couple of ways of turning the tables on these crooks. If your Fakebook “friend” talks about sending you a gift, insist on sending one to her first. Say that in your culture, it’s forbidden to accept a gift unless you’ve given one already. Watch her immediately try to wriggle out of being sent a gift, because that would immediately prove that the address she gave (if any) is fake.

And if the other lot call, just say, “Oh, my brother the police officer will take care of that. What was your number again? He’ll call to discuss the case with you.”

Evil, aren’t I?