Friday 6 November 2015

Cover for Fidayeen

I told you a while back that I've finally found a publisher for my Kashmir terrorism story. Here's the cover. Not exactly what I wanted but I'm assured that it will be marketable.

Let The Darkness Come

[Note to reader: This was inspired by a recurrent "waking vision" I've had for the last several days, of my own corpse being dragged down the street with ropes. Any connection with recent political happenings in North Africa is, of course, fully intended and not at all coincidental.]


The hard light of noon pours down on the street, down on my blood that trails behind me, glittering rich red in the sun.

This is not the death I’d imagined for myself. When I’d pictured my demise, I’d always thought that it would happen sometime in the evenings or the small hours of the night, in a room shrouded in darkness, with nothing but silence to mark the occasion. I had not thought that I would die in the bright hot sunlight of a summer day, with a crowd gathered round.

They have tied my body with ropes around the ankles, and are dragging it behind a pickup truck. The vehicle is driving slowly, so that everyone gets a good look, and that I’m not too badly mutilated by the time they’re done. Each bump and crevice in the road surface jolts my body, throws the trailing arms around, the curled fingers twitching as though they still want to reach out and grasp at the life that has slipped by.

Almost curiously, I watch them drag along my corpse. Now that the moment has passed, the moment everyone dreads, I can afford mild curiosity, a detached near-amusement. When my head bounces in a pothole with a crack hard enough to be heard over the little pickup’s labouring engine and the voices of the crowd, when one of my eyes, still half open, is covered with a smear of mud, all I do is watch. Not that there’s much more I can do anyway.

Momentarily drifting lower, I look at my body, realising that I’m bidding it farewell. It was a good body, hadn’t given me too much trouble, and lately had borne up extremely well under stresses it had never had to deal with before. I study it almost like a laboratory specimen; the shabby business suit I’d worn as a disguise, the hole in the head from which the red blood still bubbled on to the ground.

Here, on my body’s left hand, I can still see the scar that I’ve borne since my teens, when I had tried to commit suicide by slashing my wrists. The right hand scar – made by my weaker, more unsure left hand – had long since faded, but the other one never quite did, and now is an angry weal on the skin. I’d survived then, but it seems I’d only postponed my death.

Well, don’t we all?

It’s strange to think that even half an hour ago, I’d been not just alive but filled with hope for the future. I’d been hunted for weeks, in the towns and from the air, but I was still free, still going, and, after months of “freedom” and “liberty”, more and more of the people were beginning to agree that I’d been right after all.

I had to travel light, sometimes alone, sometimes with two bodyguards at the most, men who were loyal to me, who had stuck with me since the old days. I, who had once dwelt in rooms with plush carpets on the floor and air conditioning round the clock, had learnt to adapt. I had spent nights in tiny village storehouses, sharing my space with sacks of grain teeming with weevils and learning not to flinch as rats scurried over my face and hands. I’d crouched in a dugout under a field with my ear pressed to the wall, listening to the sound of boots through the wall as they walked around above. I, who had dined on gourmet dishes on the finest china at state banquets, had found that a disc of flat bread and sour wine was enough to live on for a day, and counted myself lucky if I could get it. And though once I’d had doctors at my beck and call, I’d found that illness, as long as I could still move and talk and walk, was an irrelevant distraction from the important things in life.

Yes, I’d changed, from the man who had made speeches on the television that everyone had listened to and then analysed and discussed for days, not just here but abroad, in the halls of power in countries on the other side of the world. I’d become leaner and harder, and I’d realised again what I’d forgotten: that honour and loyalty and friendship are more important than palaces and luxury and the trappings of power, but even honour and loyalty and friendship are not the equal of having a tattered blanket to wrap around you in the cold of a desert night.

I had learnt more, too; I’d learnt to tell a genuine look of sympathy and friendship from the plastic smile of insincerity, to know when to tarry and when to leave. I’d developed a kind of sixth sense which had told me more than once to stay away from a village that was just a little too quiet, or not to cross a road which might be under observation from a hill in the distance. I’d learnt, once again, to trust my instincts, and  most of the time they had served me well.

Not today, though. Today, my instincts had failed, and at the worst possible time.

Furqan had tried to warn me, to stop me from coming. “I have a very bad feeling about this,” he’d said. “We can leave it this time, President, sir. Please don’t go in there today.”

“I’m no longer the president,” I’d told him for the hundredth time.

“You’ll always be my president,” Furqan had replied, also for the hundredth time. “The traitors won’t hold on for much longer. They can’t. Even those who backed them at the start are wavering now. Another six months and we’ll be on the way back, mark my words.”

“I know,” I’d replied, smiling at him affectionately. Furqan, who looked so much like the young Fidel Castro, tall and broad shouldered with his curly beard. Even though he no longer wore his peaked cap and green uniform, nobody who saw him would mistake him for anything but what he was – a warrior through and through, though one touched by compassion and a sense of decency that never went away, not even in the worst times. If I’d ever married, if I’d had a son, I’d have wanted him to be like Furqan. “But it won’t happen by itself. We have to make it happen. And this is an important meeting; the opportunity won’t come easily again.”

“Then let me come with you,” Furqan had said, his huge hands clenching and unclenching in agitation. “At least I can do my best to keep you safe, if something happens.”

“If something happens,” I’d pointed out, “you, all by yourself, won’t be able to do a thing for me. I’ll be able to sneak in and out of town if I’m alone, anyway. A single person attracts less attention.”

He’d given in reluctantly, and stood watching as I’d driven away in the old, dusty red car we’d been using for the last week. The car had been lent me by the owner of a house in which we’d spent two nights after I’d hurt my foot and hadn’t been able to walk for a while; I’d promised him that we’d return it before the month was out.

Now he’ll never get that car back. I hope that at least he has the good sense to get out while he still can, before they trace it back to him. Unless, of course, it was he who had tipped them off about me, once I was safely far enough away. If they pay him at least a part of the reward they’d offered, instead of killing him and keeping it all to themselves, he can afford to buy another car, after all.

They’d known what to look out for. I had changed drastically from the night I’d fled my presidential residence, crouched down in the back seat of an old SUV. I’d grown a beard, been burnt deep brown by the sun, and lost weight. Besides, I’d had false papers, showing me to be a small time businessman, living in the city. None of it had helped.

They’d got me at the first checkpoint. I should have been more alert, knew to park the vehicle in an alley and walk on. But my mind had been elsewhere, on the upcoming meeting with the arms dealer, and the promise of weapons which we needed if we were ever to overthrow them and take the country back. Now, I wonder if the arms dealer had even been there, or if that had been a trap, too.

The checkpoint had been deceptively sloppy to look at, little more than a few oil drums scattered on both sides of the street, the gaps between them stuffed with sandbags, and a pole laid across the space in the middle. The buildings on both sides were still streaked with soot and marked with bullets, the result of the fighting earlier in the year. They had promised “freedom” but hadn’t even got round to cleaning up before falling on each other over the spoils. I’d had those buildings constructed, and people, at last, were beginning to remember that. Too late, perhaps, but then is something ever too late? Really?

I’d safely negotiated a hundred checkpoints like this, so I’d braked automatically to a stop while reaching for the fake driver’s licence and registration papers in the glove compartment. My mind had still been on the meeting with the arms dealer, what he might have to offer, what I could get, and how I could arrange to pay. Only when the pickup truck had rushed up behind me, armed men spilling out of it even before it skidded to a slantwise stop across the street to block my retreat, did I know what was happening.

I’d not gone without a fight, though. Even now, when it no longer matters in any way, I’m obscurely proud of that. I’d come out of the car shooting, and had even managed to get past the first few of them before they got me. I don’t remember anything about that – a flash of pain, and then I was floating above the street, looking down at them looking down at me.

They’d been disappointed and angry. A quick death for me, with no opportunity for a little casual sadism followed by a show trial and a public execution – this wasn’t what had been planned. A death fighting alone against overwhelming odds is a heroic death, not one a monster ought to have.

Of course, by now a lot of people have already realised who the real monsters are.

Once, people had lined the streets like this, when I’d gone on my first public motorcade, waving to them from the back of a car. Now, I’m going among them one last time, and my flopping hands wave as they drag along the ground, bloodstained fingers signing a final farewell.

I drift over the heads of the crowd, watching them watch my corpse. Some of them are eagerly snapping photos, mostly with cell phones, though a few have digital cameras with long telescoping lenses and at least one has an ancient black box which probably uses real film. I wonder for a moment where he intends to have it developed. By tonight these photos will be all over the net, and self-satisfied newscasters will interview smirking politicians speaking of how summary justice was visited on the fugitive dictator. And then they’ll move on to the sports news or the latest high tech release from Hollywood.

The crowd doesn’t seem to be as enthusiastic about my death as the men in the pickup, in their assorted uniforms, had expected. People, even those who are taking photos, are beginning to look around at each other, and murmur uneasily. The men sense the unease, the growing apprehension, and this makes them in turn apprehensive and angry. They lift their automatic rifles and glare at the people, daring someone to do something to give them an excuse to shoot.

The people know, though, they already know what is going to happen. They can see for themselves that without me, without my being held up as a bogey, an enemy, they will fall apart even faster, begin fighting among each other even more openly, and soon the country will remember my time with sighs of nostalgia. The people know, and the men in the pickup, I think, are beginning to realise it as well.

It’s only a matter of time before they start looking at each other with suspicion, wondering which of them will be on the other side of the new frontline a fortnight from now. I can see the thing grow in their eyes, like a slow-rising tide.

I find myself drifting higher, and now I think I can see where they’re taking me. Up ahead is the bulk of a hospital. It’s going to have a morgue, and there they’ll probably put me on ice, to display to the world. Pink faced politicians with deep pockets will come from distant countries and smile for the camera, saying that they’re sure my death will be an important step forward for the country and the cause for freedom. Then they’ll dash into their cars and rush back to the airport, never to return. They’ll be able to see which way the wind is blowing, and they’ll know that the primary objective now is to avoid blame and association with the disaster.

I wonder what Furqan will do. We had, of course, planned for the eventuality that something might happen to me, and I’d left him strict orders that if I weren’t back by midnight he should assume I’ve been captured or killed, and take over the movement. I’m sure he’ll do a good job, a better job than I would myself; and, besides, he’s not tainted by direct association with me. Nobody outside my immediate circle even knows who he is. But they will, I think, they will.

I hope he is not going to go looking for revenge. There are much more important things at stake than that. Besides, what is the point of revenge? I’m through with all the pain and fear, the agony and the ecstasy. There’s nothing to avenge any longer.

More time than I’d thought has passed, and I’ve drifted higher. The town is a purple smear below me, the sun a red swollen ball in the west, red as the blood that had dripped from my shattered head. Someday, that sun will swell further, a hungry giant that will burn this planet to a cinder of dead rock, and all I’ve striven for, all that I fought to build and then to regain, will be as meaningless as the greatest symphonies and the most poignant love songs ever sung. Someday this will all be gone anyway.

But not just yet, I think, my thoughts slowing, coming harder. Someday, but not here, not now.

Darkness is beginning to close in. I do not know if it’s the coming night or my own dissolution.  Not that it matters to anyone anyway. Least of all to me, any longer.

Let the darkness come.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

[Image Source]

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

Let's talk about sex, baby
Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let's talk about sex
~ Salt’N’Pepa

I was, if I am not mistaken, eleven years old when I first discovered sex.

No, I do not mean I got laid at eleven, so you can put your eyeballs back in their sockets. No, this is what I meant:

I was eleven years old when I first found out what men and women did with each other so babies were made.

OK, I was not exactly that innocent. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know that babies came out of a woman’s belly and that the male parent had something to do with it. But the mechanics had been pretty much a mystery to me.

I think I shall have to take a step back and begin at the beginning.

My parents, it will not be a surprise to anyone to learn, never ever mentioned the word “sex” to me. Nor did they ever actually come out and admit the fact that I grew out of an embryo inside my mother’s belly – though, being a Caesarean, I allegedly nearly killed her (my father had to donate blood to her! Horrors!) and it was one of her recurrent grouses in later years, until I was in my teens, that she was still feeling the pain of giving birth to me.  

Of course, as I may have mentioned earlier here and there, neither of my parents had much to do with bringing me up. That was left to my paternal grandmother, whom I called “mother” until the age of three or four when she taught me different. My grandmother, a noted liberal for her day – she was born in 1907 – had not as much compunction about telling me about things as my parents did. The first time I asked her about where I’d come from – I must have been four or younger at this time; it is one of my earliest memories – I remember that she replied that my grandfather had “prayed to god” and I’d come floating down from heaven on a lotus flower. [My grandfather died when I was four, and he was alive at this time, which is how I know my age when I asked this.] By that time I had independently heard that my birth had had something to do with a hospital, so I had to somehow reconcile the flower story and the hospital story. I don’t think I ever did.

Some years later, my grandmother gave me a more detailed account of how a child came into the world; it grew, I learnt, inside the mother and later emerged. How did it emerge? I didn’t at that time think to ask, though somehow or other I took it for granted that it would be through the navel. I mean, it made sense, didn’t it? The navel was right there, in the middle of the belly!

No, actually I was not totally ignorant of the fact that males and females had different genitalia. I grew up with a cousin – whom I’ll call Miri – who was born exactly, to the day, a month before me. As kids, we saw each other naked all the time, and when I was visiting my maternal uncle, his kids and I also played naked in the heat of the summer day. So I knew that girls were different from me between the legs. I just didn’t know what it meant.

I remember one time when my maternal cousin and I were playing with their neighbour’s daughter. We were all naked – all of us were maybe five years old, so this was hardly something scandalous – and the girl (whom I remember to have been very pretty, even then, with a lovely little triangular face) told us solemnly that the previous night she’d woken up and seen her mum pulling her dad by the penis. All of us had a good laugh at the idea. Only many years later did I understand that she must have actually seen them having sex.

At that time, of course, I had no notion of what on earth “sex” was, anyway.

So, back to the navel. I once, probably around the age of eight or so, asked a family friend, all unwitting, if unmarried women never had children; I’d noticed that only married women seemed to be mothers. He blushed bright red and muttered something like “No, no, it only happens when you marry.” I then – curiosity totally unquenched – asked further if the baby did come out of the navel. He nodded vigorously and if I recall took the first opportunity to leave the room.

My grandmother had overheard this conversation, and she later drew me aside and informed me that the baby actually entered the world via the mother’s vagina, and that was how she’d had all her (eleven!) children. Only she didn’t say “vagina” – I did not know the organ existed – but used a child’s word that included both the male and female genitals. The English equivalent might be the “hoo-ha”. I was flabbergasted at this, because by then I’d long since got past the stage when I was still permitted to run around in the nude. By then I’d been taught that the genitals were shameful and had to be covered up. So I stared at my grandmother and asked her, “Weren’t you ashamed that the doctors and nurses were looking at your hoo-ha?”

“I was in so much pain,” she replied drily, “that I couldn’t spare any thought about who was looking at what.” And that was how I learnt that the birthing process was painful.

During all this time, of course, my parents – my actual, biological parents – had never once mentioned a word about how children were born to me.

No, we had no sex education at school. As far as I know, there is still no sex ed at school. And as long as the Hindunazis and other antediluvian morons rule over us, there still will not be any sex ed at school. After all, a couple of years ago yet another government commission decided that sex education was “unnecessary” because “sex comes naturally and does not have to be taught.”

Really. They think sex education is about teaching children how to have sex. I am not making this up.

I will return to that point in a bit.

Naturally, just because there was no sex education at school didn’t mean that kids didn’t pick up things from outside, and by the time I was ten I began to hear giggly whispers in the classroom corners about “fucking”. I didn’t know what it meant. I assumed, from the little I picked up, that it meant “marriage”. So one time I made a fool of myself by replying, in front of the whole class, to a question about what I thought two characters in a story might do at the end: “I think they’ll fuck.”

I brought the house down, and I didn’t even know why.  

Later on, I heard some muttering that led me to think that someone was actually saying that the man put his hoo-ha inside the woman’s hoo-ha. Of course, I rejected the idea at once. It didn’t even bear thinking about. Such a ludicrous thing could never happen. How could anyone ever come up with it? So when a biology textbook coyly suggested that “fertilisation happens when the male sperm swims to the female’s egg and fuses with it” I envisioned the sperm crawling out of the man’s body, wriggling over the bedsheets, and then worming its way inside the woman. That was far more believable than one hoo-ha being put inside another.

And then I was eleven years old, and one rainy Sunday – which is etched clearly in my memory – I was going through the bottom shelf of a cupboard full of books. The top shelves were for the books everyone read – I was already, it will be no surprise to learn, a voracious reader at eleven – while the bottom shelf gathered all the detritus: old textbooks, Reader’s Digests, and the like. I was going through them looking for something interesting – I’d found a book of fairy stories there, and another on dairy farming, on earlier occasions – when I came across one with no cover on it, and no title page. It was bound in plain white paper front and back.

Curiosity aroused, I opened it at random, and – I promise you this – this is the first sentence my eyes fell on: “...after the natural insertion act of the penis.”

It was a sex manual. I think it was my father’s, though it might have been an uncle’s as well. I never knew whose it was. Not that it mattered. What mattered is that it was a bloody sex manual.

It was an extremely badly written sex manual. I think it was called the Koka Shastra. I don’t know who wrote it or why anyone would write such utter bilge. Sperm, for instance, were described as “small worms”. Men and women belonged to four different types each dependent on the lengths of their penises and the depths of their vaginas, and it was only when the matched pairs got together that they could be happy in their relationship; I recall three of the men being “rabbit, deer, horse” while the only woman type I recall was known as “she-elephant”. These were illustrated with coy line drawings of men and women chastely embracing each other. The men were all mostly dressed, the women at least had their breasts and pudenda modestly covered. There was not, in the whole entire book, a diagram of the human genitalia. And this was supposed to be a sex manual.

The whole book, in fact, was written for the male only. It was assumed that the reader would be a male. He was told how to seduce the woman, who was a naturally frigid creature who had to be warmed to want sex. The book specifically warned against sex with “very much laughing girl” and for some reason “woman with green eyes.” Don’t ask me why. Maybe laughter or green eyes meant lust?

This is part of the scintillating prose that is, after all these years, indelibly stamped in my memory:

“The man should lie the woman on the bed and tell her sex talk and coitus tales. By this the woman’s desire can be raised to some extent. Then the man can request the woman to remove cloth. First naked your male organ and press woman’s bust hardly but not so cruelly. Signs of woman’s desire: The woman will begin breathing fast, her eyes will become red and sweets will come out of hair veins. The woman will then become shameless, spread her limbs and let the man to do anything with her body as he wishes.”

Deathless erotica. Deathless, I tell you!

There was a little bit about pregnancy, including the information that the growing foetus caused pressure on the bladder that made the woman urinate more frequently, an interesting bit of trivia I hadn’t known. There was of course not a word about sexually transmitted disease, though there was some confusing and confused material about condoms...including one “which fits over the head of the penis only but I find not safe.” The only sex position described, of course, was missionary. Heaven forbid that the woman get on top, because that would need her to take the initiative instead of being led by the hand, after all!

In one way, though, I am still profoundly grateful for this utter and undiluted tripe; it was, however ridiculous, at least information; unlike the gurgle of rumour and innuendo which filled the classroom. At least I had some facts to work with – while they had none.

In after years I came to realise just how lucky I’d been; I had, and have, no sexual hang-ups, from genital size to belief in any myths about virginity. I later discovered highly educated men who were so crammed to the brim with misinformation about sex that they could barely be called functioning sexual beings. I mean, they could breed and all that, but in that they were little better than sperm donors. I doubt they ever gave their partners an orgasm except by accident.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that they would have regarded their wives having an orgasm with deep suspicion. “Where did you ever learn to have pleasure in sex?” would be the idea floating above their heads. “How dare you have pleasure? With whom will you go looking for it if I don’t give it to you?”

This was all, of course, before the mental meltdown of my late teens, a phase marked by obesity, deep depression, acute loneliness, and death thoughts which culminated in three suicide attempts in five days; even if I’d had access to female company, and being in an all-male educational institution run by Catholic monks I didn’t, I had rather more important things on my mind than girls. The question of just how I would kill myself, and when, for instance. It wasn’t until a few years later that my attention returned to the female gender, and that was when a certain young woman in an evening class took me home, took me to bed, and then informed me – after rubbing herself off to a couple of orgasms on my body – that she didn’t want sex. That, again, pretty much killed off my sexuality for a while.

But that’s enough about me.

During the course of this narrative, I’m sure, the reader will have noticed that I have repeatedly said that my parents never mentioned sex to me. I think the only time my father even skirted the topic was once when I asked him, and this was before I found the book, how a woman knew she was pregnant. He replied, without even looking at me, that “when she thinks she’s pregnant, she goes to a doctor and has tests done.”

Was this an answer?

This reticence wasn’t, and isn’t to this day, unusual among Indian parents. Quite the reverse. Among all my friends, acquaintances, and lovers, I have only known one person who told her daughter about sex. And she later met another young woman the age of 23...did not even know she had a vagina.

Not joking.

This, you understand, is in a country with appalling levels of overpopulation, with cities whose infrastructure is falling apart at the seams, with a still unacceptable rate of maternal mortality, where women of all but the upper classes still have virtually no control over what to do with their bodies. This is a country where men still don’t even know that you can get diseases from sex, or, if they do know, they think it can be cured by such expedients as deflowering a virgin. Brothels even have virgins laid on for customers willing to pay for this kind of privilege. (I will refrain from pointing out the college students in the West who similarly auction their virginities to pay for college tuitions.) This is a country where 53% of the children are sexually molested to some extent or other at some point – more than half – yet they are never told about sex, let along what touch is “inappropriate”; and they don’t even know they can be sexually exploited until they already have been.

I recall some years ago, after the figures about child molestation rates came out, there was a debate in the execrable tabloid known as the Telegraph of Calcutta (an even more right wing excuse for journalism than the British Telegraph). The topic was whether children should be warned about sexual exploitation to save them from it. The instant response from parents was “No, it will spoil their innocence.” It would be laughable if one didn’t know that a substantial proportion of the sexual exploiters of those kids...were their own parents.

And this is the country whose government claims sex education is not necessary because “sex is natural and does not have to be taught.”

In fact, yes, it does have to be taught. Prakash Kothari is India’s most well known sexologist, who had pioneered the field when it was almost taboo. He has recounted several pathetic and hilarious cases. For example, once, a woman brought her daughter and her son-in-law in for an examination, since the younger woman had not become pregnant even after a few years of marriage. Kothari speedily discovered that the couple had never had sex. The man, when asked about it, however, angrily denied that they hadn’t done it. “We have sex every night,” he said.

“How do you do it?” Kothari asked.

“Why,” the man said, “I embrace her and go to sleep, of course.”

Kothari calls India the Land of the Unconsummated Marriage. Of course, a lot of them are also “lavender marriages”, where gay men get married to try and pretend, even to themselves, that they aren’t gay. Not surprisingly, they can’t exactly rouse themselves to passion with a female partner. And then they both suffer in silence, unless they have the courage – as an increasing number do – to file for annulment or divorce.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Go back a couple of thousand years, when the Kama Sutra was being written, and Indian society was open about matters sexual. Women routinely went topless, men didn’t wear that much in the way of clothes either, and sex education was imparted in the most direct way. Young men went to temple courtesans to be initiated into sex. Young women grew up together, and it was expected that they would experiment with each other, and of course they did. Even the artwork of the time made no bones of that. The most popular Hindu deity of the period, Krishna, was a hypersexed multiple seducer who had a huge harem of concubines, and whose most torrid relationship, described as sacred, was with a woman who was very much not his wife.

You could not say Indian society, whatever other faults it had, was shy about intercourse.

What happened?

The Muslims came, with their Puritan ethic. They stayed, mellowed a bit, but never fully. They were the rulers, and they imposed their cultural Puritanism. However, it didn’t totally destroy Indian sexuality. That was left up to the British. The Victorians, you know.

Today, Indian laws, including sexual laws, are almost all still based on British edicts passed a hundred and fifty years ago. That’s why (male) homosexuality is still illegal in this country; lesbian relations aren’t because Indian women, being pure, are supposed not to have any sexual desire anyway.

Just how ludicrous the whole situation is can be seen by the simple fact that actual Indian society isn’t sexually isolated at all. In fact, ever since the 1990s, India’s been going through a quiet sexual revolution. Even before the days of the net, porn was freely available in back alley bookstalls, and contraceptives can be bought over the counter at any pharmacy. It’s a totally different thing that since there’s no sex education half the people don’t even know what the hell contraceptives are and wouldn’t know how to use them anyway.

Today, airport bookstalls have highly detailed sex manuals of an infinitely superior standard to the awful Koka Shastra, sold perfectly openly, right next to shelves with children’s comics, and, as a certain actress said a few years ago, “No educated man should expect his wife to be a virgin.” In fact, there are hardly any virgins among educated young people any longer. I don’t know of any among my, admittedly limited, acquaintance. But having sex and having safe sex are different things altogether, and how many of them do the latter I wouldn’t venture to guess. Especially since they have to mostly do it surreptitiously, hiding the fact from their parents that they are sexual beings.

That's probably why most towns have ads promoting quacks who promise remedies for all sexual ailments, come to that.

Yes, I believe parents have a duty to tell their kids about sex. No, I do not believe they will do so. And nowadays, with the internet, they imagine there is no need for them to do it, since it’s all available online anyway.

Literotica as a sex education manual. That’s going to work so well, right?

I’m, of course, not a breeder, and never will be one. But if I were, I’d definitely tell my kids all about it.

That is one thing I could do for them.

[Image Source]

Monday 2 November 2015

The Girl, the Ghost, and the River: A Tale of Bunglistan

Once upon a time, long, long ago, somewhere in the depths of Bunglistan, there lived a poor fisherman.

He lived with his granddaughter by the side of a little river, in a hut with a thatched roof and mud walls. When it rained the thatched roof leaked, and when it rained heavily, the river flooded its banks, licked at the mud walls of the hut with hungry tongues of water, and threatened to carry it all away.

The fisherman was very poor. Almost all he owned in the world, apart from the clothes on his back, were a tiny boat, on which he would row out daily into the river, and a net, which he would spread out afterwards to dry on rocks on the river bank, and mend whenever it got torn. The net was so old, and had been mended so many times, that there was none of the original net left; it was all patchwork, in a hundred different kinds of thread and as many different sizes.

Poor as the fisherman was, he was not unhappy. For he had his granddaughter, who was as beautiful as a star in the twilight, as graceful as a ripple on the water, as soft spoken as the shadows of the evening, and as intelligent as the rays of the noonday sun was bright. Her name? It was Shorothkumari, but everyone called her Futki.

Futki never complained of her lot, living with her poor grandfather, who was burned as dark as old wood and who had not a spare cowrie to give her when the fair came to the village once or twice a year. She kept house for him without complaint, and cooked their meals in a brass pot over a fire of sticks and dried leaves.

There was a story of how the fisherman had come by that pot, which was the only other possession they had except for their clothes, net and boat. A few years ago, when the rains had been so heavy that the river had risen until only the thatched roof of the hut was above water, floating like a straw hat on the flood, the fisherman and Futki had been forced to leave for higher ground. The fisherman had been despondent, blaming himself bitterly for not having looked for some other kind of employment when he’d been younger, and that the river had now, like a hungry crocodile, eaten whatever little they had.

“Don’t cry, Grandfather,” Futki had said. “The river has kept us for all these years, and when we get back, she will keep us again.”

“But the flood will have destroyed whatever little we have,” the fisherman had said, unwilling to be comforted.

“Don’t cry anyway,” Futki had replied. “When the flood goes down, we’ll go back and then we’ll see what we find.”

Then when the flood went down, they went back to their hut, and, as the fisherman had said, it had swept away all they had had, including their pots of baked earth on which they had done their cooking. But, right in the middle of the hut’s earthen floor, the river had left the huge, thick brass pot, larger and heavier and more valuable than anything the fisherman had ever owned before.

“See, Grandfather,” Futki had said, clapping in delight, “the river has paid for the damage she did, and given us more in exchange!”

Now, of course – this being Bunglistan, where ghosts were everywhere, in the trees and down by the water, roaming the winds and riding the moonbeams on a summer night – the fisherman’s hut had a ghost too. It was a fairly innocuous ghost, which lived on the wooden cross piece under the thatched hut roof, and never did anything to annoy anyone. In fact, so quiet was it that the fisherman and his granddaughter didn’t even know it was there.

One day it so happened that a dreaded bandit, by the name of Hotochchara Hamladar, led his gang down into this region of Bunglistan, slaughtering and looting everyone who was luckless enough to come in this way. Finally, the gang amassed so much loot that Hamladar’s men demanded that he share out the booty among them and let those who wanted go their own way.

However, when the sharing out started, the bandits fell to fighting among themselves over the spoils, until only Hamladar himself survived. This was not, he thought, altogether a bad thing, because now he, alone, had all the looted riches to himself. Triumphantly twisting his immense moustaches, he hoisted the bag of booty on his shoulder and set out homewards. Finding his way blocked by a river, he walked along it until he found a boat on the bank.

Of course he stole it to cross the river with. By now he’d stolen so many things that a mere boat was nothing at all.

Unfortunately, the immense combined weight of the bandit and the bag of loot was too much for the boat. It turned turtle, and little by little, drifted with the current back to the shore at the same point from which it had started off. Hotochchara Hamladar, along with his bag of treasure, sank like a stone.

It was, of course, the fisherman’s boat Hamladar had attempted to steal. And it was his hut that the bandit’s ghost saw first, when, breaking free from its former owner, it drifted to the top of the water and set out for the shore.

“A house!” it said to itself. “Just what I needed.”

So it went to the fisherman’s hut, and, without further ado, caught the quiet little resident ghost by the scruff of its inoffensive little neck, and hurled it out through a chink between the walls and the thatched roof. Then it settled its considerable ghostly bulk on the wooden crosspiece, sighed contentedly, and went to sleep.

This was the evening, and the fisherman had gone to the village market to sell the day’s catch, and, hopefully, earn enough to be able to buy some rice, salt and mustard oil for him and his granddaughter’s food tomorrow.

Futki, in the meantime, had settled down at the open hearth outside to cook supper in the brass pot: the little rice that remained in the hut, flavoured with a sliver or two of fish and a pinch of turmeric. By the time the meal was ready, the fisherman came home, and he and the girl sat down to eat.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and lightning flashed.

“As I was coming back from the market,” the old man said, “I saw that clouds were gathering, and I think it will be raining hard before the night is out.”

The girl sighed, remembering how rain meant water dripping into the hut, and the rising flood water, and wished that she and her grandfather could have afforded a grand house, like one of those in the village; one with a real roof and a door which actually closed, built high enough that the river didn’t come visiting each time the rain god decided to shower his blessings. But of course she didn’t say a word of any of this.

Sure enough, even as they finished eating, the skies opened up and the rain came rushing down, with such force that the roof began to leak almost at once. The water dripped on the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar where it slept on the crosspiece. Growling in irritation, the ghost tried to get away from the dripping water, and finally pushed itself into a corner where the drip was a little less.

“Did you hear anything?” the girl asked. “I thought I heard a noise like a snarl. Do you think a mad dog is around somewhere?”

“It’s just the thunder,” the fisherman said.

But it wasn’t the thunder, and, as the night passed, the water dripped and dripped until the bandit’s ghost could take no more. Finally, with a roar of anger, it jumped down from the crosspiece, and landed up to its ankles in river water. With another howl, it grabbed the fisherman by the throat and yanked him up from his bed.

“You do something about this,” it shouted. “Stop the water dripping on me, or I’ll break your neck like a stick.”

When the fisherman had managed to recover from the shock of finding himself dangled off the floor by a ghost half the size of an elephant and as massively built as a water buffalo, he finally managed to find the ability to speak.

“Spare me, ghost, my father, my uncle,” he said. “It is the will of the gods.”

“I care nothing for the will of the gods,” the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar said. “You either stop this rain falling on me or I’ll...”

“My dear ghost,” Futki, who had also woken at the commotion, interrupted. “My dear, handsome ghost. Please let me explain.”

Now the ghost of the bandit had never seen the girl before, and was instantly smitten by her beauty. “This is exactly the kind of wench I need,” it said to itself. “I must have her!”

“What could you explain?” it replied, dropping the wretched fisherman like a sack of potatoes. “Let me hear what you have to say.”

“It’s perfectly simple,” the girl replied, thinking furiously. “The hut is under a curse. Whenever it rains, it is condemned to leak water, and there is nothing anybody can do about it.”

“Why not?’ the ghost demanded. “What will happen to anyone who fixes up the hut, then?”

“This hut was cursed by a great sage,” Futki said. “He was passing by once when he tripped on a pebble fell down outside the door and twisted his ankle, and, in a rage, said that anyone who tries to repair it again will die. You know what unreasonable tempers these sages have. And so, you see...” she spread her hands helplessly. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“Is that so?” the ghost roared. “Is that so? I refuse to be rained on because of a curse laid by some piffling little sage. I’ve killed hundreds of sages, and I’m not scared of them.”

“But it’s different for you,” the girl pointed out. “You don’t have a life to lose. I mean, not any longer. But we do, my grandfather and I. And also you’re big and strong, and we’re only a weak old man and a girl.”

“You’re right about that,” the ghost said, swelling up with pride. “I’m strong and I have no fear. Nothing has ever scared me, even when I was alive, and nothing will now. I will repair the house!”

With a rush of wind, it swept out of the door, and in less time than it takes to write of it, had returned with wood and bricks from somewhere, and had begun to work at top speed. By the time dawn’s light started filtering weakly through the clouds, it had replaced the hut’s dissolving mud walls with sturdy brick ones, set with actual windows and even a door that could be closed, and had put up a roof that kept out the rain. It had even dug a trench which diverted the river water away from the hut, so that the building stood in the middle of a little island above the flood.

At last the ghost stood back, arms akimbo, and surveyed its achievements with satisfaction. “There,” it declared. “Now that is a dwelling fit for a ghost like me. And for my wife too!”

The fisherman and his granddaughter exchanged alarmed glances when they heard this. “You mean...?” the old man quavered.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” the ghost thundered. “I intend to marry this girl here, of course. She will make a good wife for me.”

The fisherman’s face went pale under his sunburned skin, and he began to gasp for breath at the thought of his beloved granddaughter married to this dreadful ghost. “You intend to marry her?” he managed.

“Of course, and live in this house here. I don’t intend ever to leave this place.” The ghost peered at the fisherman. “Don’t even think of refusing, or I’ll...”

“No, no,” Futki interrupted quickly. “My grandfather isn’t thinking of refusing you my hand in marriage. Why would he? You’re so brave and strong and handsome. Where would I ever find a better husband?” She paused a moment. “But, you know...”

“Well?” the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar demanded, when she hesitated.

“ know, a married woman has to have a certain standard in life, more than a girl like me who’s only ever known hardship. My grandfather is bowed down with sorrow at the thought that we have no means to provide for my married life, no money or the means to make any. All we can do is just about provide for ourselves. So, you see, we can’t, much as we like, agree to the marriage.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the ghost thundered. “All my life I was a famous bandit, and I haven’t lost my touch. Right away I will go and loot the royal treasuries of Bunglistan for you. How can you refuse me then?”

“No, no,” the girl said quickly. “We couldn’t let you do that. We could never be happy, my grandfather and I, if we had to live on the proceeds of crime. Besides, the kings you intend to rob won’t rest until they run the thieves to earth. What if they find their way to us? What will we do then? Can you protect us against their armies?”

The ghost considered a moment, and then brightened up. “I know!” it said. “I was carrying a bag of treasure when I was drowned. It’s there at the bottom of this river. Bring it up, and it will serve your needs for all your life and to spare.”

The fisherman gave a resigned sigh at these words. “You should let the ghost break my neck,” he muttered to the girl. “At least then you could still get away. That would be far better than to become wife to such a vile creature as this.”

“Don’t give up hope yet!” the girl whispered back. “Let me see what we can do.”

“What are you muttering about?” the ghost demanded.

“We were just planning the wedding feast,” Futki responded quickly. “Now, how do we get this treasure?”

“Nothing simpler,” the ghost said. “All you need to do is go out into the river, dive down and pick it up from the bottom.”

“But how can we do that?” the girl asked, pointing out to the river, now a raging torrent. “We would be swept away the moment we entered the water. We are, you know, only a weak old man and a small teenage girl, while you are a huge, strong ghost.”

The ghost thought about that a while. “All right,” it said. “You row out in the boat, and I will dive down and get the treasure.”

Seeing no way out, the girl nodded. “All right,” she said reluctantly. “Grandfather and I will get the boat ready.”

So they rowed out into the torrent, the girl at one end of the boat, the fisherman at the other, and, between them, the huge brooding bulk of the ghost, hunched over like a buffalo. When they had rowed out far enough, the revenant signalled them to ship the oars and slipped overboard. A moment later it had come up again.

“Well?” the girl asked, hope dawning in her breast as she saw that the spirit was empty-handed. “Did you not find it?”

“Of course I did,” the ghost responded testily. “But the bundle I was carrying it in tore as it sank, and the treasure is scattered all over the river bottom. It will take forever to pick it up a piece at a time and bring it up. You must bring something I can take down with me, fill with the treasure, and bring up again.”

The fisherman and the girl looked at each other. “There’s only the big brass pot...” the former said.

“That’ll do,” the ghost ordered. “Bring that, and I will load it with the treasure.”

So the girl and the fisherman rowed the boat back to land, while the ghost swam back to the bottom of the river to gather what it could of the treasure. “We are lost,” the old man wailed. “You should have let it break my neck. Now there’s nothing we can do.”

“Of course there is,” the girl said. “Don’t you see that this is our chance?” She bent over the oar, murmuring quickly in her grandfather’s ear. A little later, the boat bumped the shore, and she scampered on eager feet to fetch the brass pot and something the fisherman had bought from the market the previous evening. The old man, meanwhile, went to get his tattered old fishing net, as Futki had directed.

“Let’s just hope this works,” the fisherman muttered desperately, as they left the shore again, rowing out into the driving rain.

“It’s just got to,” the girl replied. “We simply have no other option but for it to work.”

When the boat reached the middle of the river again, the ghost popped out of the water like huge black rock. “Give me the pot,” it said, and, snatching the heavy brass receptacle from the girl’s hands, disappeared. Some time later, it emerged from the water again, holding up the pot in both hands.

“Here’s some of it,” it said. “Empty it into the boat and give me the pot again, and I’ll go down and get the rest.”

Futki upturned the pot, a cascade of ornaments and coins spilling out across the bottom of the boat, and peered into the receptacle doubtfully.

“What is it?” the ghost demanded impatiently. “Give me the pot and I’ll go down again.”

“I think there’s some ornament sticking to the bottom of the pot,” Futki said. “I can just see it glittering, but try as I can, I can’t reach it to take it out.”

“What?” the ghost demanded. “Let me see!” Jumping out of the water, it peered into the pot. “I can’t see anything.”

“It’s there, to the side,” Futki insisted. “I’m sure you can see it, and get it out, if only you look close enough.”

“Wait,” the ghost said. “I’ll check.” It bent over the pot, squeezing its head and upper body inside.

“Can you see it now?” Futki asked, frantically signalling to her grandfather.

“I can’t quite...” the ghost’s muffled voice emerged from the pot, past the bulk of its body. “Maybe if I went right inside...” Suiting itself to its words, it squeezed into the pot.

In a trice, Futki had taken the fisherman’s tattered old net and crammed it into the pot’s mouth, plugging it up. And the fisherman had then, exactly as the girl had instructed him, poured the entire contents of the gourd of mustard oil he’d purchased at the market on the net.

Mustard oil, as you must know, is an impenetrable barrier for spirits; and though the ghost of Hotochchara Hamladar roared and shouted and struggled frantically, it was as tightly sealed inside as in the most secure prison. Without a word, Futki pushed the pot off the boat into the river. With an almighty splash, it hit the water and disappeared.

“Well, that’s that,” the girl said. “The river gave us the pot, and we’ve given it back to her again. And as for the treasure, our wants are few, and we have more here than we’ll ever need.”

“We can at least buy a new pot and a net,” the fisherman said, smiling with relief.

“Yes,” Futki said, laughing, as she bent over the oar, “that we can do, all right.”

When they entered their house, they suddenly realised they weren’t alone. Something was sitting on the crosspiece, staring down at them shyly.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” the thing said. “I used to live here, and some other ghost threw me out yesterday. I’ve been hanging around, and I wondered if it was safe for me to move back again. Unless you mind, of course. If you do, just say the word, and I’ll go right away again.”

“I think you can stay,” the girl said. The fisherman looked at the ghost, compared it to the one they’d faced earlier, and nodded. “I don’t think the ghost which threw you out will be bothering any of us again.”

“Thanks so much,” the ghost replied. It looked around. “There have been changes around here, haven’t there? What happened while I was gone?”

“You might say we had a spiritual experience,” Futki responded, smiling.  

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Sunday 1 November 2015

Fashion Designer to the Caliphate

Those of you – and how many of those are there? – who read my cartoon strip will be aware of the ongoing The Great Big ISIS Movie Extravaganza storyline, and that among the most prominent members is someone named Jihadi Colin.

A few months ago, I did a particular episode in which Jihadi Colin acted in one of those ISIS beheading videos, in which he appeared as here:

Now, Jihadi Colin is, obviously, purely a product of my imagination. He does not exist in reality, and, like all other Raghead characters, is a stereotypical construct designed to be easily recognisable by being dressed in very distinctive clothing; in his case, a wraparound face and head cover, a salwar kameez with a sleeveless ammunition jacket comprising two rows of receptacles; upper small pouches on the chest and lower large ones.

I had never seen any actual ISIS member – and, as I said, I do a lot of research on the group – who looks or is dressed like Jihadi Colin. He was, as I said, someone I made up, and his clothes were also made up by me.

Now, we all know all those famous ISIS beheading videos where men in spiffy black outfits (such as “Jihadi John”) stand behind crouching hostages in orange jumpsuits making threats against their lives. Those black beheading suits are so characteristic of ISIS they might as well be called a marketing logo.

But sometimes images need a makeover.

A few days ago, I came across a video (which, trust me, you do not want to watch) released by ISIS last week in which a purported Syrian soldier was crushed to death under a tank. There are questions about whether that video is genuine – in so far as any ISIS video is genuine, given the group’s carefully cartoonish malevolence – but it was preceded by the usual hostage lecture. Only this time, the ISIStani lecturing wasn’t dressed in the trademark outfit. Oh no.

Look at what he was dressed like:

Does this look familiar somehow?

I’ll give you a clue.

I can see only two alternatives here:

First, either by some remarkable coincidence, by totally random chance, ISIS came up with a new sartorial style which looks exactly like Jihadi Colin’s outfit, down to the two rows of ammunition pouches on the sleeveless jacket, as well as the not-particularly-practicable head and face covering, and then posed him in exactly the same situation as Jihadi Colin was...or else –

- or else ISIS is reading my comic strip and using it as inspiration for fashion designs.

What next? Jihadi Rose burqas? Al Hollywoodi caps with constantly shifting logos? Catwalks with Jihad Fashion Week? At this point I have given up on sarcasm. It seems there’s no way of creating satire without it becoming fact before you know it.

Actually, is it possible that someone from ISIS did read Raghead and copied my designs? Yes, it is possible. I get a fair number of hits from Saudi Barbaria and Turkey...and you know where ISIS is located.

So, ISIStanis, if you’re going to copy my designs, I think you ought to at least pay me a royalty.

Some of those dollars Obama gave you should be mine by right.


Little Sammy steps out in the street
Dressed up as a fearsome fellow
His face is pale, his fangs are long
His jacket bright red and yellow.
Sammy goes tricking, Sammy goes treating
Brings home sweets with a happy sigh –
While his parents watch horror movies
Zombies, ghosts or human fly.

Little Abdul steps out in the street
His eyes all wide and wary
Clutching the edge of his checked kaffiyeh
A shield against a world so scary.
Somewhere above, in the inky sky
On soaring wings, a shadow flies
A finger moves, a lever pressed
A roar, a flash, and Abdul dies.

Sammy’s parents sip red wine, and kiss
Abduls’ weep their child’s red blood
Somewhere, fear’s sold in the marketplace.
Somewhere, it comes in on the flood.
Sammy’s parents will go off to work
Tomorrow, Sammy will run off to school
And Abdul’s father - 

Abdul’s father will pick up a gun.
And there are no more rhymes
In his world
Or in his wife’s
Ever again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015