Thursday 8 May 2014

Only The Dead

This is the third part of a trilogy of sorts. It follows Shifting The Sand and The Road To Nowhere. They are, however, independent stories in their own right, and it's not necessary to read them before this.

Only the dead have seen the end of war.” ― Plato

This is the third day I’ve been lying out on the side of the road. It’s still early in the morning, too early for the vultures to start wheeling overhead, but they will as soon as the air warms up. You can plot the thermals by them, as though they’re climbing round invisible spiral staircases in the sky.

At one time, back in school, I’d been interested in such things as thermals. Back then, I’d fantasised about someday being a glider pilot, soaring high above the earth on slender, silent wings. I’d follow the thermals up into the blue yonder until the land was like a map laid out below me, and then when the thermal gave out, I’d swoop down till I found another and climbed right back again.

The only soaring wings that are overhead now either bring death or follow behind, to feast on death’s aftermath.

I suppose that I must be dead. I can’t move or feel any pain, I can’t blink my remaining eye, and I don’t think I’m breathing. By now I must have been dead several days, then, and I should by rights have been buried. But I don’t think anyone’s going to bury me.

Not that I care anymore. If this is death, if this is all there is, burying me won’t make any difference to anyone among the living . It will mean I can’t see the sky anymore, and that’s all that’s left to me.

If I could turn my head just a little, I would have seen, over my shoulder, the shattered and charred hulks that line the road. I know they are there, because I had been on one of the trucks in that line, that night when we’d been ordered to withdraw. We’d crammed into all the vehicles available; we, and the civilians who’d chosen to come along with us rather than face the enemy. But we hadn’t gone far before the traffic jammed up, converging lines of vehicles fighting for space on the road north. Soon, we were at a standstill.

My hands had been slippery with sweat on the wheel of my truck, and I’d wiped them on my thighs. Jameel, my old friend, had been riding beside me, and I’d looked across at him.

“Do you think they’ll bomb us?” I’d asked. “If they do, we’re sitting ducks. We can’t fight back, nor can we run.”

“No, why should they?” Jameel had replied. He was a big man with an equally big laugh, always cheerful. “We’re pulling out as they demanded, aren’t we? By tomorrow we’ll be across the border, and that’s all there will be to it.”

“I hope you’re right,” I’d mumbled. “I just hope you’re right.”

“You and your pessimism.” Jameel had guffawed and tapped his fingers on the dashboard. “Of course I’m right. Can’t you ever look on the bright side for once?”

“I’ll look on the bright side when we’re back over the border,” I’d told him. “And then –“

The first bombs had exploded at that moment, like blooming flowers, rising pink and red and orange over the lines of trucks and cars ahead. The concussion raced down the road at us, flinging vehicles over like toys, in a storm of fire and shattered glass and mangled metal.

I hadn’t waited. I’d opened the door on my side, ready to jump, and looked across at Jameel. He was staring open mouthed at the scene ahead, at the explosions marching down the highway towards us. “Jameel!” I’d shouted. “Get out!”

He hadn’t even turned his head in response. I don’t know if he’d even heard my shout, over the shriek of enemy jet engines and the deafening sound of the explosions. He’d been looking open-mouthed at the scene through the windshield. I’d reached out to grab hold of his sleeve, to pull him from his seat and down on the road, but he hadn’t responded. I think he was frozen with shock.

I’d only run a few steps, past the side of the truck and onto the side of the highway, when there had been a blinding flash and something had picked me up and thrown me down again. I’d felt dizzy for a moment, blacked out, and when I woke I was as I am now.

I still wonder what happened to him, to Jameel. Is he, like me, lying somewhere close by, staring at the sky? Did he get away somehow? I hope he got away. Jameel and I, we go back a long way. We played football in the street together when we were kids. He has a wife and a daughter, who calls me Uncle and likes to pull my moustache.

He had a wife and a daughter, who called me Uncle and liked to pull my moustache.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

I wonder, though, if I’d have got away if I’d jumped out at once, instead of trying to save Jameel. Could I have been running across the desert to safety, instead of lying on my back staring up at the sky? And would it have been worth it?

Could I have lived with myself if little Bushra had asked me what had happened to her father?

These are questions without answers, questions to which there can never be answers. If I could distract my mind from them, I would. But what else do I have to think about?

Is it my family? My mother is dead, my father long since married again, to a woman I still find it impossible to tolerate. They both greeted my departure to the army with sighs of relief, and I don’t think either of them has spared a moment of thought for me since. I must say that I have scarcely spared a moment for them, either.

Maybe now they’ll wonder. Does it matter if they do?

I hope nobody will cry for me. It’s not something that would make any difference, so why shed tears? The earth will keep turning anyway, the tides will rise and fall, and the sun will burn towards its final swollen end.

I am glad, at least, that I had never had any time for religion. I’d been told many times by many people that I would go to hell for my lack of belief, and my answer had been the same; that hell could wait. I’d a life to live. Now that life is over, and there’s still no hell, or heaven, or anything else.

A flight of the enemy’s ground attack aircraft flies over, so low that I can see their stubby wings and high-mounted engines, the rows of underslung missiles hanging from hardpoints. It must have been aeroplanes like this that had blown us apart the other night, and killed me. I wonder if they’re going to kill somebody else now.

Yesterday, they’d been over, too, just before we’d had visitors. One of those visitors had stood over me. That was the first time I had seen a soldier of the enemy.

I’d looked at him as well as I could with my one remaining eye, while he stared down at me. He was dressed in the enemy’s uniform, pinkish-yellow splashed with brown and grey, and his young pink face had been flushed with excitement and a little fear. I realised that this was probably the first time he’d seen death close up, at least violent death. To him, death had probably meant an aged grandparent in a coffin, surrounded by flowers and the scent of incense, not putrefying flesh and clouds of buzzing flies.

I was vaguely amused by this young warrior, who’d licked his lips nervously and grinned up at someone I couldn’t see. Even the way he’d held his rifle, gingerly, as though it was an accessory, was funny. He’d almost certainly never used it in combat, and never would. To the enemy, war is something to be fought at a distance, with artillery and missiles, and bombers taking off from bases a quarter of the way round the world. To them, fighting means blowing apart images on a video screen, for all the world as though it were a game. And then there are pink-faced boys of this sort, to follow along in the tracks of the attack aircraft and of the tanks with bulldozer blades, to look down at the carnage and make jokes to try and pretend they aren’t scared, or disturbed.

I’d watched him take out his camera and take a few pictures of the wreckage behind me. He’d gestured at someone, apparently adjusting a pose, and taken a couple more. Then he’d pointed it down at me.

It seems that I wasn’t positioned satisfactorily. I’d felt his boot under my shoulder, pushing me to the side. I may have shifted suddenly, or perhaps something had fallen off, because he’d jumped back, laughing self-consciously. Then he’d bent forward, eye to viewfinder, to take his picture. The flash had made a tiny spark against the glare of the sky.

I wonder what he’ll do with the pictures. Ten or fifteen years from now, when he’s a store manager or a car salesman, these photographs will be an embarrassing reminder of the past, something he’d rather keep hidden. He won’t want to talk to his wife and children about the blasted corpse he’d kicked around and taken pictures of. Perhaps he’ll want to throw the photographs away, but probably he won’t be able to bring himself to do it.

These things leave a mark on you.

After his visit, I’d felt immensely calm. After all, the worst had happened that could happen. I was dead. I would never have to lie awake at night, feeling the years ticking away, the stiffness in the joints and the rasping breath in my throat marking away the passing of the time. To be sure, he would know things I would never again feel, the breeze on my skin, the touch of a lover’s lips, the majesty of a mountain sunrise. But those pleasures are fleeting, and loss and sorrow follow hard upon them, and the fear of loss and sorrow.

I’ve done now, with loss or sorrow. I’ve been freed from the monster that still held him in its claws, though he would never know it – until, perhaps, many years later, when he would come to the same state as I. Then he would know.

I almost feel sorry for him, and the others.

The thermals are rising now, the first vultures already circling. Soon, if there is nothing to scare them away, they will come down, lower and lower, until they land here, around us. Today, probably, they will visit me.

That I can still do for them, provide hospitality, one last time. I used to feed birds once. I shall feed them again.

And the sun will wheel across the sky, the night will come, and the days will turn to weeks and months and years. All that I knew will pass, and what comes will pass in its turn. A verse comes to me, out of a poem read a long time ago:

Tomorrow, I may be
Myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.

And the seasons will come and go, till no record even remains of this time, till this war is as forgotten as a clash of tribal warriors in Africa when the world was still empty and new. All this will fall to dust, and from dust it shall rise again.

The first vulture is coming lower. Its huge wings, feathers spread against the light, send me a message. Death is temporary and unimportant.

They say in fairy stories that the prince and princess live happily ever after. They lie, and they do not lie. The prince and princess will die and they, and the memories of them, will blow like dust in the wind.

It is life that will go on.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014  

Wednesday 7 May 2014


I'm a zombie, oh yes ma'am
You'll know me for what I am
I don't roam, seeking brain
I just stink like a sewer main.

Stink, did I say? That's not all!

A crow ate my left eyeball
A leaf fell onto my right
I hope the tree gets done by blight.

My left hand is somewhat gone
Lost its cunning, my right its brawn.
As for my legs, to the toes
I can't feel them, or my nose. 

I don't bite, or besiege all
The story's heroes in a mall
My legs won't work, my jaws won't go
My teeth fell out all in a row.

At night, the rats, out they creep
Of my rotting corpse they eat deep. 
And I haven't told you of the flies
Breeding maggots of wondrous size. 

In my belly, germs devour
More of my innards by the hour. 
Like a blimp up I swell
Till I'm round as a bell. 

If I could rise, if I could walk
It isn't you I would stalk. 
I'd take a flame thrower to myself
And turn to ashes on the shelf. 

But even then, I am afraid
My epitaph will not be said.
In the urn the ashes thrill
To the whims of a zombie will. 

Something worse than lying out
On the roadside, bloated stout
Eaten by rats, flies and more
Drained of muscle, nerves and gore

You think worse it couldn't get?
I feel for you, my little pet.
Far worse than a rotting pile
Worse than maggots by a mile

Is a zombie heap of ash
That can't even stir, let alone dash
And if you hear a rustling in my urn
You know I didn't even burn.

Oh I'm a zombie, yes I am
Romero grew rich on zombies, ma'am.
But all I do is rot and trust
Someday I'll fall to dust. 

And then I'll be in the breeze
Inside your nostrils. Wheeze, sneeze
I'll be in you, I'll do my thing
And then I'll be the King. 

Beware, cringe, be very afraid
I'll go but I’ll never fade
And when you die you will be
Another zombie just like me.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Thought for the Day

Oppression always rides on the back of a carefully crafted lie: that the victims are the real oppressors, and that the perpetrators are merely defending themselves. Once that narrative has been successfully instilled in popular consciousness, anything goes as far as hurting the victims is concerned. 

At times this approaches farcical dimensions. I recall reading an account of a German born in Romania justifying the Nazi Holocaust against Jews in something like these words: "You keep talking about what we did to the Jews, but you never talk about what the Jews did to us!"

So what was it that the Jews did? Did they eat German babies or something? You're eager to find out. And then this same guy goes on to say that his father, a farmer, was shortchanged by a Jewish wholesaler.

That's it. A Jewish wholesaler - in Romania - made a questionable deal (allegedly), and therefore this justified the massacre of not just that Jew in particular but all Jews, including Jews from countries on the other side of the continent.

Then we have the case of Zionistan, where the Chosen People justify their own racist genocidal policies against the Palestinians by claiming that a Qassam rocket - in essence, more an upgraded firework than a weapon - is justification for systematic starvation of the Palestinian people, their confinement to Bantustans, and periodically, their massacre by bombing and the like. The simple fact is that, statistically, a Zionist is more likely to be killed by a peanut than a Qassam, but facts aren't the motive factor here.

In this country, you can safely substitute "Muslim" for "Jew" or "Palestinian", with the Hindunazis going to even more ludicrous lengths to justify their bigotry. Since they're hard put to find recent examples to justify their chauvinism, they fall back on alleged "massacres" perpetrated by Muslim rulers a thousand years ago. Asked to provide actual, verifiable figures for this, from genuine historians, of course, their response is vituperative abuse or silence.

None of this is surprising. It's difficult to justify murdering another people by claiming that they look, or pray, or dress differently from you. But claim that they have sinned against your people, and it's easy.

Aye, the perpetrators have a right to defend themselves, after all!

Muslim man "getting what he deserves", Central African Republic.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Rukhsana Kausar: Terrorising the Terrorists

There was once a man named Abu Osama.

This would not be a significant thing, except that his name wasn’t really Abu Osama. I don’t know what his real name was, though I assume he must have been issued one by his parents at some point after being born. But, after becoming a terrorist, he abandoned it, so it probably doesn’t matter so much what it was, anyway.

Terrorist, did I say? Why, yes. Abu Osama was a member of the Pakistani jihadist terrorist group, the Lashkar e Toiba, and in accordance with the rules of his outfit would have abandoned his birth name during training and taken on a quniat, or nom de guerre. This quniat, for Lashkar men, usually comprises two parts, Abu (literally “father of”) and the name of one or the other “revered” Islamic warrior. In this case, unless I am much mistaken, said Islamic warrior would’ve been the bin Laden himself.

Some random South Asian Islamic terrorists, maybe even Lashkar. They don't exactly wear uniforms.

Anyway, after finishing his training, probably in one of the Lashkar training camps in the hills north-west of Islamabad, the newly-minted Abu Osama was sent, like others of his ilk, across the so-called Line of Control in Kashmir (the actual border between India and Pakistan, though neither country is willing to admit it). By 2009 he was the commander of his own lashkar (sub-unit) operating in Jammu, just south of the Kashmir valley, and had made himself notorious enough to have a price on his head. How much that price was depends on which website you believe – the equivalent in Indian rupees of between US$ 4000 to 6000, a considerable sum even at the exchange rate at the time.

Now, by 2009 the original insurgency in Kashmir was long since over. It had been stamped out by the mid-to-late 1990s, with all the insurgents who took up arms in 1988-89 either dead, captured, or surrendered and turned into politicians. After that, the vast majority of insurgents in Kashmir were foreigners: some Afghans, a few from further afield (including Chechens and even the odd East African), but mostly Pakistani Kashmiris – or Pakistanis like Abu Osama. The remaining Indian Kashmiri insurgents were mostly restricted to one, and increasingly marginalised, group, the Hizbul Mujahideen. Unlike the original insurgents of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the Hizb are Islamists, but not nearly hardline enough to suit the likes of the Lashkar, who think the Indian Kashmiri version of Sunni Islam tantamount to heresy and idolatry.

This isn’t the place to examine the reasons for the decline and fall of the Kashmir insurgency, a fascinating topic which I’ll talk about in future in case anyone’s interested. But two of the reasons came together in the person of Abu Osama.

First was the fact of his being a foreigner, a Mehman Mujahid, or “guest freedom fighter”, as the foreign jihadis were called by the Kashmiris when they first appeared in the early nineties. The foreigners had neither the family ties and local support the native insurgents had; nor did they have any sympathy for the Kashmiris, whom they considered contemptible idolatrous mushriks  who needed to be taught True Islamic Values and who were too weak and cowardly to fight for their own freedom anyway.

The second reason actually predated the appearance of the Mehman Mujahideen. When the rebellion began in 1988-89, the authority of the state vanished almost overnight. A huge number of criminals joined the rebellion along with students, unemployed young men, and others. These criminals, of course, used their newly acquired training and weapons for less “honourable” pursuits than the insurgency. One of the things they did was force their way into village homes and demand food and shelter. Soon enough, this extended to forcing themselves on the women of the house, especially if they were young and pretty. Even those who weren’t criminals, corrupted with their new power, soon joined in. A former army officer I know personally, who fought both against the LTTE in Sri Lanka and in Kashmir, told me of how the terrorists would force the men of the house to act as lookouts while they spent the night with their daughters and sisters.

Obviously, these things did not make for good relations between the “freedom fighters” and the people for whose freedom they were allegedly fighting. The Mehman Mujahideen proved no less susceptible to the Kashmiri damsels, no matter how much they detested their version of the Muslim faith, and were as prone to forcing their way into their homes in the dead of night. Abu Osama was no exception.

Now, in a little village about 30 kilometres from the Line of Control, there was a girl named Rukhsana Kausar. In 2009 she was 19 going on 20, and Abu Osama was taken by her charms. (Let’s take time to point out that Indian Kashmiri women don’t wear the hijab and aren’t veiled, so our Abu wasn’t exactly unable to see her face. Also, Rukhsana Kausar is a Gujjar, not an ethnic Kashmiri, reinforcing a point I’ve often made, that the ethnic complexities of Kashmir make it a far less simple issue than “Indian versus Kashmiri”) In July 2009, some local goons had abducted her and her aunt, though they had subsequently been released. As is usual in these cases in India, the police had done nothing about her complaint.

Then Abu Osama decided that he’d like to “marry” her, which didn’t exactly thrill her, because no sane woman, of course, would actually want to go with a psycho killer with a rapidly shortening expected lifespan. Apparently the fact that she wasn’t enthusiastic made him somewhat unhappy, because he asked her to “beware”. What he threatened her to beware of, I have been unable to discover, but I can imagine, can’t you?

So could she.

 Then, on the night of 27th September, 2009, Abu the not bin Laden decided that enough was enough, and he was going to get his hands on this woman, come what may. Taking two, three, or five of his men with him – depending on whom you believe – he went off to her village, arriving there at about half past nine in the evening. Apparently he wasn’t sure which her house was, because he went first to her uncle’s home. At gunpoint, he then forced the uncle to take them to Rukhsana’s parents’ home, which was next door. The commotion was enough to tip off Rukhsana’s parents, Noor Hussain and Rashida Begum, who stuffed her and her eighteen-year-old brother under the bed before the terrorists could break in.

And what happened when they broke in? Well, brave Abu Osama came in with two of his men and began beating the hell out of them with sticks, because apparently that passed for asking for their daughter’s hand, and also because that’s what you do if you’re a tough armed militant and you want to show some defenceless villagers who’s the boss. While this was going on, Rukhsana Kausar and her brother, Aijaz, were under the bed, watching.

They didn’t watch too long. There comes a point in some people’s lives when they have to make a fundamental choice; and that point arrived in the lives of Kausar and her brother. They could keep watching and hope the Abu would leave after expending his pent-up anger, merely beating their parents to a pulp instead of killing them. Or they could do something about it.

They decided to do something about it.

By “decide”, I don’t suppose they held some kind of confabulation there on the floor under the bed. No, the “decision” would have been on the spur of the moment, and Kausar’s own words after the incident give the idea that she was the prime mover in what happened next:

"I couldn’t bear my father’s humiliation...I thought I should try the bold act of encountering militants before dying."

The word “encounter” in this sentence may be difficult for the uninitiated to understand. After all, hadn’t Kausar already “encountered” the militants? Well, actually, this word has a special meaning in India. “Encountered”, in Indian police and military lexicon, means “had a firefight with”. There’s a whole deeper layer of meaning to it, because you can take it almost for granted that when the cops claim to have eliminated a gangster or terrorist in an “encounter”, what they actually mean is that they arrested him and then shot him in a staged gunfight. It’s so much part of the Indian culture that the word has even become shorthand for “kill with legal impunity.”

Also, Kausar obviously had no illusions about what her fate would be; she’d obviously decided that being killed was inevitable – and preferable – to watching this home invasion any longer. She felt she had no choice in the matter.

Here’s a bit of advice, gratis: If you’re set on a course of violence against someone, never, ever, leave them no way out. Once you leave them with no alternatives, you’ve pretty much cooked your own goose.

If Abu Osama had ever known that, he’d forgotten it by that time. Too bad.

Because this is what Rukhsana’s decision to “encounter” her uninvited guests led to: she and her brother rushed out from under the bed, grabbed an axe which happened to be in the room, and gave Abu Osama an almighty whack across the back of the head with it. As he – not unexpectedly – collapsed from this sudden and unexpected assault from the rear, she grabbed his AK 47, hit him with the stock, turned it on him, and pumped him full of bullets.

The great Lashkar e Toiba commander with a price on his head had been smoked by an outraged teenage girl who had never held a gun before in her life.

Yes, you read that right. Rukhsana Kausar had never before touched a firearm in her life, had never fired a thing. How did she know how to shoot it?

She had watched movies.

I’m not joking. Her words:

"I had never touched a rifle before this, let alone fired one -
but I had seen heroes firing in films and I tried the same way.  Somehow I gathered courage."

Somehow I get the idea that Rukhsana Kausar is a young woman it wouldn’t be a good idea to cross.

At this point it would be appropriate to mention that if Abu Osama had taken the elementary precaution to, you know, keep his safety catch on, he might have survived with nothing worse than a cracked skull (do you recall the last action movie to show anyone taking off a safety before blasting away? I don’t). I don’t know if they left out that little detail in Lashkar training camp or he thought it was macho to wander around with his safety off. I suspect the former, because...

...having gunned down Abu Osama, Kausar turned her gun on the other two, and shot and wounded one of them. The two formerly brave freedom fighters promptly ran for their lives, dropping one of their guns, which Kausar then tossed to Aijaz. Apparently this gun also had its safety off. The brother and sister then began a brisk firefight with the two to five (depending on whom you believe) terrorists outside, which lasted – according to some accounts – up to four hours.  I find that somewhat hard to believe because I don’t see how two AK magazines, even full, could last that long, and I don’t recall the last action movie which showed anyone changing magazines, either. I have, however, no problem believing that the gunfight seemed to last four hours to the people inside the house. At some point in the proceedings, Kausar’s uncle took a bullet in the arm, but that was the only casualty on the side of the good guys. As for the terrorists, later on the police found blood trails, in the plural.

Never, ever, thoroughly piss off someone and then leave them with nothing to lose, is the message I’ll keep repeating.

Having finally had enough, Abu Osama’s thoroughly defeated men withdrew, and Kausar and her brother shepherded her family to the nearest police outpost, Aijaz firing into the air at intervals to keep away the terrorists. I think they’d had enough for one night anyway.

(Later on, there were revenge attacks on Kausar’s family home, including grenade attacks. But nobody was hurt because they had been relocated by the government to accommodation in a protected area, and besides, the grenades missed the house. The Lashkar’s grenade-throwing training also needs work,)

Rukhsana and her brother went on to get medals for bravery, which is actually...not quite enough recognition for what they did, come to think of it. Rukhsana was appointed a constable in the Jammu police, which means that now she has legal licence to blow away terrorists if they come calling, and presumably knows a little more about guns, too. The siblings also got some money for Abu Osama’s by now cracked and very dead head. 

They also taught the Lashkar a lesson: for the third time, never push someone to the point where they have nothing to lose.

I doubt the Lashkar took it, though.

She has that gun to remind them.