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 cliché 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.