Friday 30 October 2015

Klara's Son

All day, the sound of marching feet had echoed in the street, and the creaking of the harnesses of the horses, the squeaking of wagon wheels and the limbers of cannon. All day, the Emperor Franz Joseph’s troops had passed through the town, and the people had stood on the pavements and watched them go by.

My son watched them too, standing at the window and looking down into the street. When I came to call him to lunch, he seemed not to have heard.

I touched his shoulder, and felt the tenseness in him. He was hard as wood, rigid as a statue. I glanced at his face. It was carefully expressionless, like a wax mask.

“You’ve got to eat,” I told him.

“Leave me alone, Mutti.” He watched as a hussar regiment rode by, the HonvĂ©d banner fluttering in the air. “There are more important things in the world than a meal.”

I looked at him again. His grey eyes blazed with anger. “Why?” I asked. “Why are you so disturbed?”

“Mutti,” he replied, his lips barely moving. “I hate them all. Armies, soldiers, violence. All of it.”

“There have always been armies,” I told him. “There will always be armies.”

“But why?” he shouted suddenly. “Can’t we learn to live in peace? Can’t we act like humans to each other? Look!” He seized me by the shoulder and pointed down excitedly. “Look at that officer down there on the horse. A fine specimen of humanity, isn’t he? Brought up, fed, clothed, educated...trained and armed...just to fight and kill? Isn’t that wonderful, Mutti? Huh?”

“Quiet,” I said. “People are beginning to look up here.”

“Let them look,” he shouted, even louder. “They can stop looking at all the fancy uniforms and shiny guns and look somewhere else for a change. Why, Mutti? Why can’t we just tell the armies to go to hell and leave us all alone?”

“Please,” I said, wincing. “You’re hurting me.”

He released my shoulder at once, blushing furiously. “I’m so sorry, Mutti. I didn’t mean to cause you any pain.”

“I know you didn’t.” He was looking down at his hands, twisting the fingers together, as if to punish them for the bruises they’d dug into my shoulder. I stopped myself from rubbing it. “Come and sit down. Don’t keep staring down into the street, it isn’t doing any good.”

He nodded miserably, and I felt a great surge of affection for him. He was good, and tender, and had elected to come back and live with me, to take care of me, when he could have stayed back in Vienna and made his fortune there.

“Your son, Klara,” an old acquaintance had written me once, “has been mentioned in the papers. The art critic gave a painting of his an excellent review. I don’t really know much about these things, you know, but he’s supposed to be the up and coming sensation.”

I still remember the surge of pride I’d felt when I’d read that, though I knew little enough about art myself. Unlike Gustav, Ida, Otto, and Edmund, who’d all died in childhood, and unlike Paula, who was dull and listless and spent all her time in a secretary’s job on the other side of town, he could actually be somebody. If only his father had been alive to see...

I’d shaken my head. His father wouldn’t have understood. Art, to his father, had been a silly and unnecessary distraction from the important business of earning a living. His father would have been angry, or dismissive, or just plain uncomprehending.

“What is this, Klara?” I could imagine him saying. “I worked hard all my life, made something of myself, brought up my son to follow in my footsteps, gave him all the advantages I hadn’t had myself...for this? To splash pigments on canvas? And you’re proud of him?”

But then I’d felt the hard lump in my breast one day, a lump like a sparrow’s egg, no bigger, and at first I’d ignored it. But I’d been writing a letter to him, and having nothing else to put in I’d mentioned it casually. “I’m sure it’ll be gone by next week,” I’d said. “Don’t worry about it.”

The next morning, I’d still been making breakfast when there had been a banging at the door. Even before I opened it I’d known who it would be.

“Get dressed, Mutti,” he’d said without preamble. “We are going to Dr Bloch, right now.”

“Dr Bloch?” I’d repeated. “Why?”

“Don’t argue. Get dressed and come along.”

And, sure enough, Dr Bloch had found that the lump was cancer, and said we’d caught it just in time. Unconsciously, I passed my hand down my chest, feeling the odd flatness where once the breast had swelled, the breast from which my son had once suckled, the breast which had turned on me and tried to kill me.

“I’ll stay with you now on,” he’d said, sitting by my bedside when I had recovered from the ether. “I’ll stay with you and take care of you.”

“Why?” I’d asked. “Paula can...”

“Paula is useless. We both know she’s incapable of taking care of herself, let alone you.”

“But your career,” I’d said. “Your painting.”

“I can paint as well here as I could in Vienna. Don’t argue, Mutti. I’m telling you, not asking your permission.”

I looked at him now, as he sat opposite me, poking morosely at a pancake. Yes, he was still painting. His canvases hung on the walls of his room and leaned against the windowsill. But they were no longer the paintings I remembered, the palatial buildings and cityscapes, each line and angle captured in loving detail. I’d seen the one on the easel he’d been working on, and shuddered.

Under a lowering red sky, soldiers with ropes pulled a cannon over dead bodies spread on a grey plain. The blasted corpses of trees rose twisted and shattered in the distance, besides the ruins of what might once have been a city. The nearest soldier was looking out through the canvas, and on his face was a smile. It was as though the man was ecstatic at the destruction that lay all around him.

“Your painting,” I ventured. “All you do is paint things like this nowadays, terrible things. Can you tell me why?”

He was silent for so long that I thought he would refuse to answer. Outside the window Franz Joseph’s army marched on, going heaven knew where. Then he stirred.

“Mutti,” he said, “I had a dream once.” He looked up. “It was such a vivid dream that I can hardly, even now, believe it was a dream.”

I waited.

“In this dream,” he went on eventually, “I saw myself, as in a vision. It was a different me, an older me, someone so twisted with hate and ambition that I took the world in my hands and threw it down, to destroy it if it would not let itself be remade as I wished. I saw myself sending soldiers marching across the land, burning and killing, wrecking beyond redemption all truth and beauty, eviscerating all they touched. And I found myself exulting in it. Exulting!

“I paint terrible things, Mutti?” he continued softly. “Well, perhaps I do. But that’s the truth, Mutti. The truth is terrible. And the time for beautiful lies has passed, the time for palaces and monuments. I believed those lies once, and now they make me sick.”

I said nothing. I was unable to speak.

“Mutti,” he said, “can you imagine how it might have been if you’d died of the cancer? If I’d been set loose to find my own way, missing you every moment, pining for your love? How might it have been if I had found myself alone in Vienna, spurned by the high and mighty of society, poisoned by the anger that filled me? What if, instead of hating war and armies and all the rest of it that goes against the essence of a mother’s love, I had instead turned to it and embraced it, made it my own? Can you imagine?”

“But what can you do about it – by painting things like that? I mean...”

“Oh, I know,” he laughed harshly. “Everyone loves the brass buttons and the martial music. But the time has come for someone to show the other side of it, the agony and the ashes, the blood and the screaming. Maybe they will refuse to look at my paintings. They’ll close their eyes and turn their heads away. But they can’t pretend that they don’t exist. Can they, Mutti?” He paused a moment. “They can shut their eyes to the truth, but the truth will still be there. And someday...perhaps...we will have no more armies, and then we will have no more need of paintings like mine.”

We looked at each other over the table. His pale face shone, his grey eyes filled with belief.

“Do you think it can happen, Mutti?” he asked. “Do you think, if enough of us who believe in peace get together, we can make it happen?”

I nodded, filled with aching love of him. My son, my blood cried in my veins, my idealist son.

“I think you can make it happen, Adolf,” I said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Thoughts on a Birthday

Today, the 28th October 2015, is the 45th anniversary of my birth.

To be perfectly honest, I never actually imagined I would ever reach the age of 45 years. Looking back, I think I’d imagined that the mid-thirties would be about as much as I could reasonably expect. And now, I’m not all that convinced it’s been worth it.

Sometimes, over the years, I’d used my birthday to take stock of what I’d achieved (very little), what I hoped would happen till the next birthday (usually, quite a lot) and what would more realistically happen (again, very little). This whole exercise has got so repetitive that I abandoned it some time ago. The choice seemed to lie between disappointment, no matter how much effort one put in, and expectations so low that there was little to no point in putting in any effort at all.

In these pages I’ve mentioned, once in a while, the fact that I have a history of depression, which has led to episodes of major self-harm. One of the things I’ve realised is that this is something I will never get rid of; that, no matter how far it lurks, it is never quite gone for good.

For oh I have heard the leather wings
Beat through the aftermidnights
Lying awake; I have seen
The red-eyed shades of the ravening
Clawed beasts reaching to snatch away
The shred of me I could call my own.
The night is all, the shadows hold sway

Tell me not of the coming of some other day.

If I could put a face on it, this would be it. [Image source]

Over the last two years, I have gone through the kind of fire-searing mental agony I would not wish on anyone, when – after nearly thirty years – I seriously considered self-harm again. Today, I’ve reached a stage of almost Zen levels of depression, when unhappiness has become such a grey constant that I have grown to be acutely suspicious, almost fearful of happiness. A flash of happiness, after all, it seems to me, only presages the crash to come. It will go away; the depression, however, will not.

So. Looking at these 45 years, it strikes me that I have, very probably, spent over half my time on earth. Yes, lifespans have increased out of all proportion to what they were in my grandparents’ time – when “May you live sixty years” was a blessing – but the golden age is well and truly over, with war and famine and disaster not just on the horizon, but already here. Who the hell wants to live to be ninety anyway? Not I. Not that I feel old or even middle aged; I just don’t feel like anything.

There are memories of past birthdays I hold close and examine once in a while. Some are good; most only fill me with regrets at the memory of what has gone and will never come again. 

Friends we have now, good friends we've lost 
Along the way 
~BoneyM, No Woman No Cry

Well, on to more cheerful thoughts!

The first birthday gift I recall clearly was something I must have got when I was either six or seven years old. It was a book on the cover of which two large and improbably colourful lizards disported themselves among the branches of a brass-tinted tree. I think it was a book of fairy stories; at this point in time I have no memory of the contents except that the pages were printed in sky-blue ink and had illustrations here and there. It was in Bengali, too, a language which is officially my native tongue, but which I have never been particularly comfortable with and which I never read or write in any longer. The next year I got a Hardy Boys book, I think it was called The Mystery of the Desert Giant, and that was a lot better.

Yes, and this probably will not be a surprise to anyone who reads this, books are the gift I always treasured above all others back when I was a boy. Clothes? Oh, OK, um, thanks. Toys? What do you think I am, a kid? But books? Oh my. Booksbooksbooks. I could have spent a lifetime in solitary confinement if only I had a supply of books.

Then I discovered that some books were actually utter pure undiluted bilge, and that I could write better stuff. And from there it was a short step to writing that stuff. And from there, it was another step to discovering that it was almost impossible to get the stuff I wrote published.

But then that’s another story, and one you’ve heard before.

So, yeah, 45. I wonder what the next year will bring. Or, rather, I already know.

Incidentally, I share my birthday with Bill Gates and Julia Roberts. Couldn’t it at least have been someone I can actually admire? What the hell?

Bring on the apocalypse.

Monday 26 October 2015

Beasts Of No Nation: Review

Have you ever had a feeling, while watching a movie, that you’ve seen this all before?

No. I am not talking of those tired old formula films so deservedly and repeatedly mocked on websites all over the world, which recycle the same tired plot, word for word, with just the faces on the poster to tell them apart.

What if you watch a film that you know for sure you have never watched before, because it only came out something like a week ago?

What if, more than that, you know this film, know these actors, know this tale, because it’s something you’ve dreamed of, written about, and felt on a level deep within yourself, in the place from which the stories come?

I have, as I may have mentioned in these pages once or twice, a fascination with child soldiers. There are hundreds of thousands of these unfortunates in the world, from ISIStan to South Sudan, from the Central African Republic to Somalia. And why do they even exist? What use are child soldiers, anyway?

Plenty, as it happens.

As I wrote a few years ago when the internet erupted suddenly with the manufactured Joseph Kony sensation,

Children...make superb soldiers. They obey orders utterly and without question, they have no intrinsic moral compass, and they lack a sense of self-preservation. They can be utterly and fearlessly brutal without even knowing the implications of what they’re doing. They are smaller than adult soldiers, require less food and facilities, and can be kept going with drugs like amphetamines as long as required. And in an overpopulated and impoverished part of the world, when they die, they can be replaced easily and cheaply. Armies all over sub-Saharan Africa have used child soldiers to fight their battles.

This is especially true in African bush wars, where the “armies” are little better than warlord militia and “generals” are basically gang leaders with machine guns and rocket launchers. They don’t need educated, highly trained troops capable of operating complex equipment. They need cannon fodder who are psychopathic enough to kill when and whom they’re told.

This is one such story.

I first heard of Beasts Of No Nation while looking for a review of another film altogether. The name of Idris Elba caught my eye immediately.  Elba is someone I look up to as probably the single best character actor in the world today, one of the few, in fact, who play the character they’re playing, and not themselves playing the character they’re playing. I first saw him in the Rwandan War drama Sometimes In April and have revered his acting since then.

I then saw that it was a movie about child actors, and, that’s it, I was hooked.

[Incidentally, there’s a lot of guff online about this movie’s distribution. Something about Netflix etc. There’s no Netflix in this country and I couldn’t give a severed head about distribution and the like, so I’ll ignore that bit altogether. I downloaded it from Torrents, and that’s how I watched it. To hell with distribution discussions. Onward!]

Now, as soon as I began watching this movie, something struck me with the force of a machete. I knew this story. I knew what was coming. I’d gone through this all before.


A few years ago, I wrote a series of four tales on a civil war set in a fictional African country. Called The Bisaria Quartet, the second story in the series, Fun And Games, featured a boy in a village attacked by a rebel militia, whose family is slaughtered or otherwise scattered. Captured by the militia’s soldiers, he and others are adopted by a general who makes himself into a substitute father figure, trains them to use weapons, fills them with drugs...and then sends them out to kill.

You can read it here, if you’re interested. In fact, I suggest you do before reading this review further. And then I suggest you read the other three parts as well.

Really, it won’t be a waste of your time.

This is the story of Beasts Of No Nation:

 Agu is a boy in a village in an unnamed West African country. He’s mischievous, fun-loving, highly imaginative, and spends his time playing with his friends since school is barely functional. School is barely functional because there’s a war on, and – after a military coup against the government – civil war is sweeping the country. The women and children are evacuated while the men stay back to “defend their town”; the government’s soldiers overwhelm them without trouble, and massacre them all on the grounds that they’re “rebels”. Only Agu, the lone survivor, escapes into the forest...and is found and captured by the real rebels, led by the charismatic, dangerous Commandant, who puts himself up as a father figure over them.

If you’ve read my story, you’ll already have noted the parallels.

No, I’m not claiming, in any sense at all, that the film ripped off my stories in any way or is plagiarism. It goes far beyond that. Because, you see, though I never described my protagonists in detail, in my mind they looked exactly like the “rebels” in this screenshot from the movie here:

And, yes, that’s Elba as the Commandant in the middle, and, yes, that’s exactly how I envisioned my General, though I did not describe him.


So Agu is taken under the wing of the rebel group – only one, as it turns out, of a smorgasbord of “rebel” outfits swarming the country, all identified by meaningless acronyms. He’s “initiated” – by being made to run the gauntlet of a double line of stick wielding militiamen – and trained to become an automaton who he does exactly as he’s told. In a particularly gruesome scene, after an ambush, the Commandant gets him to hack a pleading prisoner to death, and rewards him with his own personal AK 47 rifle. He then uses this rifle to considerable effect, both to massacre civilians in exactly the same fashion as his own village was massacred by the soldiers...and to, um, save a woman from rape. I am not going to tell you how the latter happens.

Agu is played, astonishingly well, by a Ghanaian child...I hesitate to call him a “child actor”...called Abraham Attah. According to the reviews I’ve read, he was a street vendor whom the director more or less accidentally encountered. In fact, apart from Elba, the entire cast consists of unknowns, which is an excellent thing. And, very unusually for a Hollywood film, there is not a single white character, either as a saviour or as an eyewitness, which is an even better thing. The only white face I can even remember is a woman glimpsed for a second through the window of a vehicle in a UN convoy which passes the Commandant’s outfit as it goes to massacre a village...and does nothing to prevent the massacre. Nothing at all.

The thing about Agu that really strikes one is that he manages to convey a thousand emotions without even moving his face much, let alone open his mouth. The latter is fortunate, because the extremely thick accents of the cast sometimes make for difficult comprehension. Most of the little he speaks towards the latter part of the film is in voice over monologues, which seem in fact to have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening on the screen, and are all the more powerful for that.

For instance...

Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody's ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.

Agu and his friend Strika, who never speaks – a substitute brother, replacement for the one he lost, just as the Commandant replaces his dead father – make their way through a developing tragedy that is as inevitable as it is compelling. It’s a train wreck in slow motion, true, but a train wreck in which you care about everyone on board, from the locomotive driver to the brakeman in the guard van, from the dining car attendant to the last passenger in an upper berth. You know something terrible is coming – you just don’t know when or in what form the final tragedy will strike.

As a counterpoint to Agu is Idris Elba as the Commandant; manipulative, selfish, more than a little bit of a megalomaniac, and yet deeply insecure inside, looking for some kind of role to play that is commensurate with his own opinion of himself. Without giving out spoilers it’s impossible to tell too much about him. I’ll only mention that when he discovers that he, and his bunch of killers (whom he calls his “family”) are merely disposable tools for the politicians behind the scenes, it doesn’t go too well. And as his power diminishes, the huge man (Elba is very large) seems to diminish too, and yet, become more human by the moment. It’s a quite amazing performance by Elba, one which would have overshadowed the film if not for Attah’s own Agu.

Once again, if I might introduce a shameless plug, I refer to my General in Part Four...

The cinematography is excellent, at times almost surreal; the beauty of the rain forest on the one hand, the little hill towns with their red earth streets and market stalls – as familiar to us Asians as they are to West Africans – offset by the violence, the massacres, and the endless, meaningless conflict in which nobody knows or cares whom they kill, or even what on earth they’re fighting for; where a Japanese businessman with a briefcase is given priority over exhausted troops who are kept waiting all night for an audience; where “food” might mean a giant rat or a beetle grub eaten alive, or gelatinous half-cooked rice stirred over a smouldering fire. It’s a growing up process where babies turn – as Agu says – into old men, with no stage in between.

It should win an award, but I’m afraid it won’t. It’s probably too good for that.

Actually, this can’t be a stand-alone review. There is another film on child soldiers which everyone should watch alongside this, Johnny Mad Dog. I won’t compare the two directly, or say which I prefer; they complement each other, each filling in what the other leaves out.

Johnny Mad Dog is the eponymous leader of another group of dead-eyed psychopathic child soldiers in another African bush war. A few years older than Agu, he and his “men” are also quite different; they seem to have taken leave of their humanity altogether, along with a substantial portion of their sanity. They dress in everything from angel wings to wedding dresses, say things like “If you don’t want to die, don’t be born!” and kill and destroy with none of the mental agony Agu goes through. In this, actually, they are far more like the real-life African child soldier militias in wars in Liberia or Sierra Leone, where “commanders” like General Butt Naked (really, I promise you; really) ran their own little bands of underage psycho killers. And Laokole, a girl trying to flee the violence with her crippled father, is someone who keeps on encountering Johnny. Theirs, too, is a tragedy that is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking...and, yet, in its own way, it gives some smidgen of hope for the future.

The problem with Johnny Mad Dog is, actually, that the accents are even more impenetrable than those in Beasts Of No Nation; it’s English, and yet I found myself wishing for subtitles. And, strangely, while it’s even bleaker, if, possible, than the Elba film, the amount of explicit violence is rather less. The other thing about it is that some of the actors were real former child soldiers.

I had begun turning my Bisaria stories into a novel, and then put the project on hold. I think, now, I shall complete it.

I owe Agu and Johnny Mad Dog that much.