Friday 20 November 2015

The Temple In The Fog

Cigar smoke eddied in the air as we sat back, replete with supper, and sipped at our brandy. The fire burned brightly in the grate, filling the room with a cheerful flickering glow. Outside the curtained windows, pea-soup fog rolled through the London night.

“What shall we talk about?” I asked. “The world situation?”

Graeme-Phipps grimaced. “Not that old chestnut again. I’m tired of talk of the situation in China and the Turkish question. You’d think the papers had nothing else to print.”

“Well, it is the nineteenth century,” Robinson pointed out. “The papers do have to compete with each other for sales. So they print only what they think will sell – all of ‘em.”

“I’m still sick of it,” Graeme-Phipps said, puffing morosely at his cigar. “You’d think somewhere in Queen Victoria’s Empire there would be something else to talk about.”

A brief silence fell. A coal broke in the grate with a shower of sparks.

“Someone ought to tell a story,” Hobbledehoy-Hicks said. “Perfect weather for it, don’t you know.”

“We’ve all heard each other’s stories, a hundred times,” I replied.

“Well, there’s Richards,” Robinson said, nodding towards our guest, who had hardly opened his mouth all evening. “He’s just returned from our Indian possessions, didn’t you, Richards? You’d know a story or two.”

The man called Richards stirred. “I know a couple, I suppose,” he said. “But they’re really very boring. It’s not nearly as interesting a place as you would think from all the penny dreadfuls, you know. There aren’t really any fakirs who can sleep on spikes, I’ve never seen a Thuggee highwayman in all my years there, and the Indian rope trick doesn’t really exist.”

“Well, you must have seen something,” Hobbledehoy-Hicks urged. “Come on, old man, we’re all relying on you.”

“Well,” Richards said, “now that you mention it, there was something very curious that happened, just a little bit before I came back...I don’t know if it’s worth talking about though.”

“Come on,” Graeme-Phipps urged, as eager as a puppy. “Tell us, do.”

“It’s just that you probably won’t believe it.” Richards coughed discreetly. “I could scarcely believe it myself.”

“Is it a ghost story?” Robinson asked. “I hear India’s full of ghosts.”

“Of course it’s not a ghost story,” Richards said. “There are no such things as ghosts. You need to remember that. There are no such things as ghosts.”

We exchanged looks. “Well...” Hobbledehoy-Hicks said, “you might as well tell your story, and then we can talk about that.”


Late last year, (Richards said) I was posted by the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta as tax collector to Korangustan. It’s only a tiny place now, but had once been a considerable city, the capital of a kingdom. There were half buried temples and ruined forts in the surrounding hills, and in the winter you could sun yourself on the crumbled walls of the old town, which still poked here and there from the jungle.

I arrived on my horse, on a morning in early winter, when the fog lay so thick on the ground that it was hard to see where we were going and the sun was only a faint glow overhead. As I neared the town, I stopped to ask at a potter’s kiln by the roadside if I were on the right path to the dak bungalow where I was to put up.

Once the potter, a middle aged native, had got over his surprise at my fluent Hindustani, he pointed along a path that wound away through the forest. “Go along this, sahib, and you’ll pass the old clock tower. Turn left at it and you’ll reach the dak before noon.”

I saw that there seemed to be a narrow path that went in a much straighter line through the jungle, and turned my horse towards it. At this, though, the potter reacted with alarm.

“No, sahib,” he yelped. “Please do not go that way.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s not a good road. Nobody goes that way.”

This was obviously not true – the path, though not broad, was clearly in use – but I’d learnt long ago that it wasn’t wise to unnecessarily disturb the natives. They’re primitive, superstitious people, and can panic at anything. To start off on the wrong foot with one of them might get me a reputation as a harbinger of evil as long as I remained posted to the district.

“All right,” I said. “Have it your way.” I turned my horse towards the path he’d indicated. Once I looked back over my shoulder, and through the fog I saw that he was standing outside his kiln, still watching me.

By the time I found the dak bungalow, the sun had finally burned the fog away, and had taken the chill out of the air. The building was not in particularly good repair, with peeling walls and a veranda the roof of which was missing on one side, but it was large and sprawling, and I decided at a glance that it would do. In my many years in India I’d often had to live in places much worse than this.

The bungalow was charmingly sited. Behind it, on the other side of a little river, wooded hillocks reached up towards the sky. On either side, the scrub forest stretched, like embracing arms, enveloping the dak bungalow and the path by which I’d ridden.  

At my call, an aged chowkidar appeared, and led my horse away after unlocking the bungalow. “My name is Chedupuram, sahib,” he said when he’d returned. “I will get you some water for you to wash.”

He was a magnificent specimen of the best sort of native, tall and strong-boned, with a high brow and a magnificent set of moustaches. If only his skin had not been the colour of old mahogany and his eyes black as pitch, you might have put him in a sergeant-major’s uniform in the Coldstream Guards and nobody, I wager, would have been any the wiser.

“Thank you,” I said. “And you’ve lived in this place all your life?”

“Yes, sahib.” He pointed to a small hut behind the dak bungalow. “That is my home.”

The dak gharry with my trunk seemed to be taking a very long time to arrive. When it finally did, I went to ask the driver why he’d taken his time.

“It is a long way past the old clock tower, sahib,” he said, as he unloaded my trunk.

“Why?” I pointed in the direction of the straight path through the forest I’d seen earlier. “There’s a much shorter way.”

He paused and glanced quickly at me out of the corner of his eye. “No, sahib. That is not a good way.”

These peoples’ superstitions were really quite ridiculous, I thought, but at least my things had finally arrived. Later, as the dusk lay thick outside and the huge moths flapped softly against the lamp, I decided to ask Chedupuram about it.

“Really, sahib,” he replied, not looking at me, “that is not a good way. You were told rightly not to go by that path.”

“Why?” I asked reasonably. “What’s wrong with it?”

He didn’t want to tell me at first, but gave in after I demanded an answer. You have to be firm with these natives. “It is the evil god’s path.”

I frowned. “What do you mean by evil god? I’ve been in Hindustan thirty years, and I’ve never heard of an evil god.”

“He lives in this land though, sahib,” he said.

Who lives in this land?” I demanded. “Who is this evil god?”

So Chedupuram sat down and told me the tale of the god Mootaipoochi and his consort, Kuruda.



Many years ago, when the sun was bright and new and the moon so close to the earth that a man could climb on his roof and reach out to touch it, a god was angry. Nobody knows why he was angry; it is not for us to judge the gods. But his temper was directed at the king of a kingdom far to the north, whose name was Kazhuththu. He told the king to leave his kingdom, or he would consume it in fire.

Now Kazhuththu was a great king, an honest and just king, whom all the people loved. So when the god told the monarch to abandon his kingdom, the people, all of them, down to the youngest child who played in the fields, together and in one voice decided to follow their king into exile. They picked up all their possessions, took along their horses and their cattle and their dogs and cats, and all of them went along with the king. It is said that even the rats and mice of the kingdom loved Kazhuththu so much that they followed along, slinking in the grass behind the people.

So the anger of the god was averted, and the kingdom was not consumed in fire; but it lay desolate and barren, and there was nobody to offer the god worship and sacrifice any longer.

So he sent a curse after the departing people, that they would never find a home again, and would be condemned forever to wander the land, until the end of time; and then he retreated, brooding, to his abode in the skies. So much for him.

Meanwhile the people followed the king through land after land, through thirsty deserts and trackless forests, under the frowning stares of huge mountains and along the shores of nameless seas. But nowhere did they find a place they could stay; for each time they thought they had found such a place, flood or famine or disease would visit them, or enemies would send armies to hunt them down; and so they would have to move on again.

At last the King Kazhuththu, who had shed tears a thousand times at the plight of his people, who had followed him from their own love of him and had suffered so much in consequence, called them all around him, and looking at them with eyes filled with sorrow and compassion, he said:

“It is time you let me go on alone, and return to your homes; for this road we are following has no end, and I can no longer bear your pain.”

But the people made outcry; his advisers looked at each other, and said, “O Great King, it would make no difference, for the god who cast you out also cursed us, and would not wish us back; and after so many years other people have doubtless moved into our lands, consider them their own, and will meet us with swords if we ever go back again.”

Then the King sighed and shed tears, and at last he said, “Then there is but one thing left to do. I must approach the other gods, pray and make sacrifice to them, and entreat them to lift the curse that hangs over us.”

So the King’s sages and priests got together, and built a sacred fire, over which they made many incantations, and watched the smoke rise up towards heaven with their prayers. But the god who had cursed the people had prevailed on the others to ignore all their prayers, and turn their faces away from them forever; and so answer there was none.

And so the sages and the priests finally banked their sacred fires and shook their heads helplessly. “We can do nothing more.”

But there was one god who had been watching and listening, who had said nothing; the god Mootaipoochi was his name. Mootaipoochi was a rebel among the gods, and had been turned out from among them long ago. This was because he had dared to love a small image that belonged to another and greater god, an image made of cold and fire, light and darkness, forged into the shape of an ape. He had dearly wanted that image for himself; had dared to take hold of it in his hands and touch and fondle it. For this, he had been expelled from among the other gods, and been condemned to wander the world of men.

That had been long, long ago, when Mootaipoochi had been young. Then he had been fair and kind, but as the years and decades had passed into centuries, his anger at his unfair expulsion had grown in him, and twisted and hardened him, until he thirsted only for revenge.

So, when he saw that the sages and priests had been so cruelly rebuffed, his heart filled with joy; and, taking the form of a great black buffalo as high as a mountain, which breathed fire from its nostrils, he appeared before them. The earth trembled under his hooves, the sky was darkened by the spread of his horns, and the people, terrified, fell to the earth.

And Mootaipoochi looked on them, and in a voice like thunder said: “O people of Kazhuththu the just and glorious king, I, too, have heard your prayers; and I have borne witness to how cruelly the gods have treated you. I, too, have been worked most wrong by them, and I am willing to use the powers I still have, the powers of a god, to lift this curse that hangs over you. But in return, I wish for something.”

When the king had recovered somewhat from his fear, he looked up to the monstrous buffalo, and replied, “O lord and master, we have run out of hope; if it were only for me I would gladly move on for the rest of forever, but I cannot see my people suffer like this. For that reason, and that reason alone, I will agree to anything that you may require of me. You have only to state it.”

Mootaipoochi lowered his immense head until his red eyes were looking into the king’s own. “There are two things I want. The first is something that lies in the abode of the gods. I want you to go there, O King, and retrieve it for me.”

“How can anyone do that?” the King Kazhuththu asked reasonably. “Men cannot reach the abode of the gods.”

“I will lift you there,” Mootaipoochi said, lowering his head. “Climb on to my horns, and I will lift you to the heavens.”

So the King Kazhuththu, seeing no alternative, climbed on the buffalo’s huge horns; and in a trice Mootaipoochi increased his size until he was so big that he spanned the gap between earth and the heavens, until the tip of one of his horns lay at the gods’ very doorstep.

“Now remember,” he said to the king, “that you must get only the image I want. Do not touch anything else. Because the other gods have already turned their backs on you, they will neither see nor hear you; but take only what I sent you to fetch, for if you touch anything else the gods will notice that it has been disturbed, and then you are lost.”

So the King crept from the buffalo’s horn and under the edge of the gods’ immense doorway. The guards, busy scanning heaven and earth for all manner of threat, did not see him as he passed them by. And as he passed through the great halls and chambers where the gods gathered and talked among themselves, none of them saw him either, even when they looked in his direction, for their minds had forgotten him altogether. Then he came to the room where the image stood, just as the god Mootaipoochi had described; and, clasping it to his bosom, he made his way back again, past the gods and their guards at the gate. And, just as nobody had seen him come, none of them saw him go.

Then Mootaipoochi took him again on his horns, and brought him down to earth; and the god’s twisted heart was filled with triumph as he saw the image the king had fetched for him. “This is good,” he declared. “Now I have the first part of what I wanted, and in return I will give you this land, where we are now, for your own. But if you wish to remain here, free of the curse that lies upon you, you must do something more.”

“What is that?” the King asked.

“I, too, need a home,” Mootaipoochi said. “I have been wandering for long, with no place to call my own, with nothing left to me but the fierce love of this image you have brought, and my anger at the gods who had harmed me so unjustly. I, too, wish to settle down, and have a people to rule over, those who will worship me and offer sacrifice. If you wish to stay here, free of the curse, you will need a god to watch over you, and I am the only one who will do that.”

Then the king and his advisors were thrown into consternation, for they had recognised that he was an evil god; but there was nothing for it, so they agreed reluctantly.

“Good,” Mootaipoochi said. “You shall build me a temple. It need not be a large temple, for my needs are modest; but it will have an idol of stone in the form of a buffalo, just as you see me now. And between the front hooves of the buffalo, you will place this image that you have purloined for me from the gods. As long as I am in that idol, watching over the image that is so dear to me, your kingdom will remain safe.”

So the people set to building the god a temple, small but well-built of good black stone; and in it they placed the idol they had made of the same material, of a great black buffalo. So well-carved was it, in fact, that you could almost imagine the thing was alive and might step off the platform on which it had been placed.

Then came the god Mootaipoochi, and saw the temple and the idol, and pronounced himself satisfied. “All I now need,” he said, “is someone to take care of me, to be by my side and be my eyes and ears. For myself, I wish to spend all my time contemplating the image, which, now that I have finally obtained it, is my only desire.”

“My greatest priests are at your disposal,” the king offered. “Choose among them whom you want.”

But the god Mootaipoochi regarded them all with disfavour. “None of them,” he said, “would be wholly for me; all of them, in the depths of their being, are pledged to the other gods, for all that they turned their backs on your people. No, I will need a consort; someone who will be wholly for me, who will never turn to anyone else. Only then will I be able to spend my time in peace, contemplating the image; and only then will your new kingdom know peace too, O King. Find, from among your people, a woman fit to be mine.”

Then the king and his advisors all grew pale, and the monarch wished mightily that he had never listened to the god’s offer in the first place. For he knew at once the only young woman in all the kingdom who would be fit to be a consort for a god, even an evil god like this; only one who was as beautiful of heart as of face, as intelligent as learned, as serene as the moonlight and yet as graceful as the play of sunlight on water. It was none other than his own daughter, Kuruda.

“I cannot...” he began, through ashen lips. But before he could continue, and who knows what might have happened if he had, the girl herself stepped forward and stood by the god’s side, a hand draped over his huge horn, and smiled on her father.

“With pleasure will I perform this duty,” she said. “Nothing is too great a burden to bear for the welfare of the people, and, besides, I am grateful indeed to the god for deciding to take pity on us and help save us from our endless years of wandering. I will be proud to be his consort and dwell by his side forever.”

And so it was that the people had a land to dwell in once again, a home to call their own; and the kingdom grew in time to the mighty land of Korangustan. The centuries have ebbed and flowed, but the god’s temple still stands here, and the image still sits between the hooves of the idol in which the god resides.

It is said that all will be well as long as the two are not disturbed; but woe to him who dare to do that, for then the god shall awaken, and never shall he know peace or happiness again.


It’s a nice tale,” I said, when Chedupuram had finished. “Though I suppose many people do believe it, and that is why they tried to stop me from coming along the path as I’d intended. I suppose some old ruined temple lies along there, and it’s the source of these superstitions?”

“There are many temples of all kinds, sahib,” Chedupuram replied ambiguously. “But there is only one Mootaipoochi, and there is but Kuruda.”

Clearly, there was nothing further to be gained from the discussion, so I sent him away for the night and settled down with some brandy, a book and a smoke. Outside the dak bungalow the jackals howled and the fireflies flitted through the scrub in their thousands, a blizzard of tiny flying lights. It was the essence of the India I loved, not the festering towns and the lying, superstitious natives; it was the calm of the tropic night, and I was content.

For some weeks thereafter all went well. My duties weren’t heavy; most of the work was, in any case, handled quite adequately by my staff of natives, lorded over by a munshi with a huge red and gold turban and thick moustaches. I rarely had reason even to visit the town, dirty and crowded as it was; all I had to do was ride to my office in the morning, and, when the day’s work was done, come back again.

Most mornings, it was too cold and foggy to go riding far; but when the sun was dropping towards the west, the golden sun throwing elongated shadows across the fields, it was sheer pleasure to gallop as fast as I could go, leaning low over the horse’s neck, the air sharp as ice in my nostrils and burning in my chest.

As the weeks grew to months, if there was anything at all that I missed it was the company of other Englishmen, for I was the only one among this mass of natives. Still, as unwashed and superstitious as they were, they did have one great thing to commend them: unlike so many of their kind elsewhere, they did not importune me ceaselessly with petitions and demands, but left me alone.

On one occasion I mentioned this to the chowkidar. “That, sahib,” he relied evenly, “is because they know it would be no use to do so. If the god Mootaipoochi had wanted, he would have provided, and there would be no use for petitions. If he does not want it, then whether petitions are presented or not would make no difference; for then it would not happen anyway.”

Again this superstitious tale about Mootaipoochi! For a moment I was intensely irritated. Then I reminded myself that it was because of this tale that I had time to spare, and that I could go riding out without men holding on to my stirrup while begging to thrust some creased and dirty scrap of paper on my attention. It was better, I thought, that I leave it alone.

Sometimes, I would walk over to Chedupuram’s hut and talk to him sitting outside in the sun. He never invited me in, and of course I never entered uninvited; but it was all right. The man might be a superstitious old native, but he had plenty of interesting conversation on this and that, and he knew a lot of lore about the country. Most of it even he admitted quite frankly to be just common myths; but on one topic he would never be shifted, that of the god Mootaipoochi, and I soon learnt to leave that alone. As we talked, his much younger wife and two children would peek at me from the corner of the door, and disappear in a flash if they noticed I was looking back at them. I never really got to know what any of the three of them looked like.

Now, as you will know, the recent years have not been quiet ones in our Indian colonies. There have been murmurs against our enlightening mission, at our attempts at dispelling the darkness of ignorance and false religion that have hung so long like an eclipse over these poor devils’ lives. Increasingly, there have been agitationists moving around, fomenting rebellion, and the massacre of Englishmen. Fearing for my safety – for, as I have said, I was the only Englishman in the whole district, with not even an assistant by my side – the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta sent me a message, ordering me to hand over my duties to the munshi and return at once.

This did not fill me with great pleasure. I had just got used to the solitude, and my light duties left me so much time for relaxation that it was almost like being on a holiday. To give up all that, and doubtless be reassigned to some crowded little accounts bureau in the Viceroy’s office, was like being imprisoned. Also, I did not believe for a moment that the locals would ever lift a finger against me, for the same reason that they had never presented a petition: if their god willed it to happen, it would; otherwise it would never happen, no matter what they did. So why do anything?

But orders are orders, and I could not remain in defiance of them; and, so, with the greatest reluctance, I decided on the last day of February as the day I would leave Korangustan. It was a Monday, as it happened, and by Saturday I’d finished handing over what passed for my duties to the munshi. I’d tasked Chedupuram to see to the packing of my things, and satisfied myself on Saturday night that he had done so.

The next day, Sunday, I had nothing to do; and, as it seemed like being a fine morning, I decided to go out riding on my horse, roaming the countryside one last time. Accordingly, I left after breakfast, taking a route through the hills I had not before. My intention was to ride on till noon, eat the small lunch I’d taken along with me while letting my horse rest and graze, and then return to the dak bungalow by another way.

At first this all went just as I had planned.  The ride through the hills, while tiring because of the scrub that grabbed at my boots and scratched my mount’s flanks, was exhilarating; and the wildlife, from the monkeys that chattered angrily at me from the branches of the trees, to the kites that circled high overhead, and the sudden crashing and plunging as a wild boar broke away at my approach – was wonderful. But as I rode on, a cold wind blew up, the skies clouded over, and little by little mist began to roll in. By the time I had finished my meagre lunch and turned my horse for home, the hills were blanketed by a thick and clinging fog.

As you may imagine, I was not totally lost. I had, of course, never been this way before, but I did know roughly in which direction I had to proceed in order to finally arrive back at the dak bungalow. However, the hills were, though not high, rugged, and in places the scrub was so thick that my horse could not force a way through; and quite naturally I had no compass and no way to see the sun through the opaque murk. It would almost have been funny in other circumstances, but I had no desire to be stuck in those hills when darkness fell, if the fog was still there. The last thing I needed was for the horse to break his leg in a crevice. And at dawn the dak gharry was to come to take my trunk away...

It was just about then that we stumbled on a path. It wasn’t much of a path – little more than a goat-track – but far better than wandering around in the fog. Best of all, it led down in the direction in which the dak bungalow must lie.

The fog was as thick as ever, but my mood was lifted out of all proportion at this discovery. I felt like singing with happiness in the saddle, and might indeed have done so, but for the thought that some native might hear me and decide that I was drunk or off my head. An Englishman has a reputation to maintain out there – the natives must always realise that we are their superiors, or else they begin to imagine that they can get away with anything, and that’s the end of the Empire for you.

So I kept my silence, though it was hard to do so when the goat track broadened and smoothened, and even more so when I realised that I was out of the hills altogether and on the plain once more.

It must have been late afternoon already by then; the light had changed, and a kind of golden glow suffused the fog to what I knew by now to be the west. The way was quite easy going now, and I had relaxed completely in the saddle, and begun thinking about the journey I would be making on the morrow. So when the dark mass grew out of the fog to one side of the path I must have looked at it, my mind elsewhere, for quite a full minute before it occurred to me to notice its existence. Then, because now I had plenty of time, I reined in the horse before it and took a proper look.

It was a small temple, made out of black stone. Once the walls must have been quite intricately carved, but the figures were now obliterated with time until it was nearly impossible to make out what they were. Besides, creepers had partly overgrown the walls and crawled up the short pyramidal spire, so that it looked almost as though it was growing out of the earth, emerging from it to smell the air and look at the sky. Only the entrance was clear, an oblong of darkness with a short flight of stairs down to the roadside.

I might have ridden on then – I almost certainly would have – but for a singular occurrence. In the strange manner of fogs, a wind began to blow, and ripped the mist into scraps and tatters that fled away and were gone. The great golden sun shone directly into the open doorway, as though beckoning me to enter.

I hesitated long enough to look around to make sure there was nobody watching. Then, slipping off the back of the horse, I went into the temple.

You must remember that Eastern people demand that one removes footwear before entering a place of worship. Unlike other Englishmen, I have never seen the point of not doing such a simple thing; I would even recommend it in churches when the weather is snowy or muddy. It is merely having the common decency to keep the ruddy place clean.

So, slipping off my boots, I entered. At once I was struck by how tiny the temple was. It was, in fact, just a single small room, which was almost filled by the huge object in the centre. I gasped aloud at my first sight of it. It was devastatingly, beautifully, well-wrought, magnificent beyond anything to be conveyed in mere words.

It was, of course, the statue of a gigantic buffalo. The beast’s shoulders seemed almost to touch the ceiling, while its lowered head, bearing a spread of horn so immense that they stretched form one wall to another, gave forth an aura of immense malignity. One felt that the beast was on the verge of breaking loose from the floor, that its enormous split hooves would then bring it crashing forwards to crush anyone foolish enough to approach. And yet the eyes, inserts of white marble in the jet-black stone, did not glare at anyone before it. They were, instead, fixed on something that stood between the front hooves, something small, that was set in a little square pit in the platform on which the buffalo stood.

It was an exquisitely crafted image, showing an ape or monkey. It was made of some dark material, which was not wood, nor yet stone, but seemed to be halfway between the two. It reminded me of the petrified forests one can find in parts of the world, where trees of bygone times have turned to stone, and perhaps it was made of material like that. The thing was of a brown so dark it was almost black, except for the face, which was a rich mahogany colour. There was a suggestion about the features of a man, though it was clearly meant to number among the lesser simians. The moment I saw it, I realised that I must have it for my own.

Of course, in other circumstances, I’d never have touched it. I’d have known that the people would immediately have known who it was who had taken it, for certainly none of them would have dared. But it was almost night, and I was leaving at dawn. There wouldn’t be time for anyone to discover the little image was missing, far less connect it to me in time to stop me. Even so, I hesitated a long few minutes, waiting for someone to come. Usually, there would have been a priest, but this little temple obviously didn’t have one. There was almost no space even to squeeze past the buffalo, let alone for rituals. But there were as obviously visitors, because a little heap of fruits and flowers had been placed below the creature’s stone muzzle by way of offering. The flowers were just beginning to wilt, though, and the skins of the fruits were dull. They had probably been placed that morning.

And yet, though there was obviously nobody there, I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. It was perhaps the whole atmosphere of that place, the strange little temple, unlike any I’d ever seen, with nothing in it but the gigantic statue of a buffalo watching the image of an ape. Perhaps it was the beast’s white eyes, which seemed as though they could in an instant turn bloodshot with rage and turn towards you with a terrible glare. And perhaps it was the shadow that drenched the corners, in which one might imagine a thousand eyes, watching. In fact, there actually seemed to be someone in the shadow, just out of sight, but that was clearly ridiculous. There was no space even for a cat to secrete itself there.

“Stop dithering,” I said to myself. Taking a deep breath, I seized the image, for a moment imagining that it would take the strength of a thousand men to wrench it from the pit in the rock. But it came easily enough. It was, after all, merely a small image a little bigger than my fist, and about as heavy as something made out of wood might be.

Stuffing it inside my coat, I turned to go, imagining again that there was something watching me, something that would reach out, grasp me by the collar, and pull me back. But I passed safely out into the waning sunlight, pulled on my boots, mounted my horse, and rode on home.

By the time I reached the dak bungalow, it was already dark, and the jackals were beginning to call. Chedupuram was looking a little anxious and welcomed me with evident relief.

“I’d thought you were lost, sahib,” he said, as he took the horse. “Everything is ready for the dak gharry tomorrow. Your things are all packed.”

“Thanks, old fellow,” I said. “I think I’ll turn in early.  I’m tired out and I do have to make an early start.”

Once the chowkidar had left, I undressed, turned down the oil lamp, and went to bed. The little image I kept inside my coat, which I’d slung over the back of my chair in the other room. I intended to carry it inside the coat during my journey, so as not to risk losing it if something happened to the dak gharry carrying my trunk. I hadn’t been exaggerating to the old chowkidar; I really was very tired, and as soon as my head had touched the pillow, I fell into sleep so deep that it seemed to have no bottom. The last thought I had was of setting the little image on my study shelf in England when I came home on my next leave.

I don’t know how long I’d slept when I suddenly awoke, with the distinct sensation that there was something wrong. It was very dark, so dark that not even a stray spark of starlight seemed to enter through the curtained windows. I reached out for the lantern, but the glass globe was cold, and the little flame had long gone out.   

Then I suddenly realised that there was someone in the room with me. I saw a shadow, standing by the side of the bed; a woman, it seemed, dressed in black, with her head and face covered by a hood.

“Who are you?” I asked. “How did you ever get in?”

Without answering, she stepped back from the bed, and walked away a few steps, so silently that I heard not the slightest noise of her feet on the floor. Then she stood, looking back over her shoulder, as though expecting me to follow.

I found my body, apparently of its own volition, begin to rise from the bed. Pushing away the blanket, I stood up, wondering for an instant if I were dreaming. But the chill of the floor under my feet was real, as was the shiver that ran up my spine. From under the hood that shrouded her features, the woman still looked back at me, expectantly.

“All right,” I muttered. “If that’s the way you want it. I’ll make you tell me how you came in here and who you are.” I took a couple of steps towards her, whereupon she walked on towards the other room. The door stood ajar as I’d left it when I’d gone to bed earlier.

At that moment I felt a sudden shaft of fear so strong it almost froze me to the spot. In a long life spent among the worst, most savage parts of the world, I have been in many hard situations. I’ve had an Ashanti warrior’s spear at my throat, and an Afghan jezail ball rip through my sleeve. I’ve lain, hardly breathing, in a tent as a tiger clawed experimentally at the canvas next to my face. But I have never been as terrified as I was at that moment – and I did not even know why. For, hooded in black or not, it was just a woman, and a young and slim one at that.

But fear gives you a kind of desperate courage. I strode forward, and she, with that same silent, gliding movement, passed from the room through the open door into the next, again looking over her shoulder at me to follow.

“No, you don’t,” I muttered, suddenly realising what this was about. “You aren’t getting that image. It’s mine.” Striding forward, I snatched up the coat from the chair and clutched it to my chest. “It’s in here, and...”

I never got any further. She took hold of my left hand, and all the strength seemed to go out of it. I found myself holding the coat up as she flicked it open and reached in to pluck out the image.

I growled something – I can’t say what – and with my free right hand I pulled her hood back, to get a look at her face. And then my breath seemed to stop in my throat, and I thought my heart would stop forever.

Under the hood there was nothing. All I could see was darkness, darkness so infinite that it seemed to stretch on forever, as total and infinite as the lightless, inimical gulfs between the stars. And, very dimly, hanging in that darkness, were two faint red dots, as of glowering, angry eyes.

I have no clear memory of what happened next. When I came to my senses, I was standing in the middle of the dark room, the coat hanging from my hands, alone. But I had a sense that a door had just closed, somewhere.

Suddenly feeling the strength return to my limbs, I rushed to my bedroom and pulled away the curtain from the window. Outside, the night was still, with only the glim of starlight to dispel the darkness. And in that faint light I saw something; I cannot be sure of it, for I glimpsed it only for a moment, and it was already at the edge of vision.

But it looked just as though a gigantic black buffalo had drifted away into the darkness, a buffalo with a woman riding on top of it.

I sat down on my bed, clutching the coat in my hands, and though I tried my hardest, I could not stop my teeth chattering. And I never got back to to sleep that night.


There’s not much left to tell,” Richards said. “The dak gharry came at dawn the next day. Chedupuram helped load my trunk on it, and if there was anything odd in my behaviour, he made no mention of it. After the gharry had left, I got on my horse and followed, and never was I so glad to leave a place. I did not look back even once, and I have no wish ever to go there again.”

“And what of the image?” Hobbledehoy-Hicks asked. “Do you know anything of it?”

“I imagine I know where it is now,” Richards replied drily. “Although you can depend on it that I would never want to go back and get it.  I don’t want to see it, even in my dreams.”

Everyone fell silent for a while. Then I stirred. “Well, it’s a very intriguing story, sure enough. I never thought of ghosts like that and –”

“Ghosts again?” Richards snapped. “I told you there were no ghosts. I told you again and again there were none!”

We exchanged glances. “But if they weren’t ghosts, and as you said, the woman in the room...”

“It must have been Chedupuram’s wife,” Richards said agitatedly. “It must have been his wife. She was young and slim, as I said. They must have known that the image was missing, she and Chedupuram, and realised I must have it with me. Then they must have made the plan, between themselves, to scare me into returning it. That’s what it must have been, I tell you. It can be nothing else.”

“But that face you described,” Graeme-Phipps said. “Under her hood, the emptiness, except for the dim red eyes – how would that be possible if it was only the wife?”

“I must have imagined that part,” Richards said, standing up quickly. “I must go. It’s late. I should never have started talking about this. I must go.” He strode to the hat and stick rack in the corner. “Besides, I know I didn’t imagine at least one part of it – something that proves it wasn’t a ghost.”

“What?” I asked.

Richards stood at the door for a moment, his hat on his head, as though debating his answer. “The prints,” he said at last. “I saw them on the path, as I rode after the dak gharry. They were the prints of cloven hooves – as though a titanic buffalo had walked up to the dak bungalow, and then walked away again.”

Turning away, he tipped his hat. “Good night, gentlemen,” he said, and the door closed behind him.

For a long moment there was silence.

It was Hobbledehooy-Hicks who finally spoke. “But why does he insist on it not being a ghost, why is he so set on saying it was real, just the old man’s wife...”

“Do you remember what he’d said earlier?” Robinson cleared his throat. “According to the legend, anyone who awakens the god shall never know peace or happiness again.”

Nobody spoke for a very long time.

“I was wondering why Richards came home on leave,” I said.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Tuesday 17 November 2015

A Brown Note

This is just a short observation: I won’t take up much of your time.

Over the past day or two, I’ve spent an illuminating few sessions browsing comment fora online here and there, and it's amazing the amount of hate boiling out against not just "terrorists", or Muslims, but against all Arabs, and further, against all people with brown skin.

Of course, the average totally non-racist Islamophobes exercising their freedom of speech couldn't tell apart a Muslim from a Sikh or a Hindu, or for that matter an Arab from an Afghan or an Iranian from an Indian, but that doesn't, unsurprisingly, reduce in the slightest the amount of vitriol thrown at all us brown-skinned people. It's also more than perfectly obvious that the Paris attacks were just an excuse to let all this hate out; one particular commenter claimed that he'd spent a year in Morocco and knew that all Arabs are "liars, thieves and cheats" who would "rat out their mothers".

As I recall, most of these same people were condemning France when the then ancien, by today's standards, regime refused, most uncharacteristically, to help invade Iraq in 2003. But when it comes to fellow white Western “Christians” (not that France has much in the way of Christianity) being hit, then all the hate comes pouring out. I say Western because Russians or Serbs, for example, seem to be fair game.

I just realised yet again that being brown skinned is itself a crime these days, and that being racist against brown skinned people is perfectly socially acceptable, as was being racist against blacks and Jews a century ago. And, of course, knowledge is not something that is welcome. Knowledge is itself a shield against bigotry and racism, and one can’t have that. A two minute CNN or Fox news item is all that is necessary to tell these excellent ladies and gentlemen all they need to know about the world.

I should probably be thankful that my own online circles include people who are highly intelligent, egalitarian and knowledgeable, so that I can remind myself that not everybody is like that.

I do wonder, though, how say a young French Arab in the slums of Paris, already having been a lifelong sufferer from discrimination, say, might react when he reads something like that. And when he’s then told that he can strike back by joining a radical Islamic movement, I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

What’s even worse is the Hindunazis who, desperate for acceptance, will take the side of these racists, making the so-called “point” that it’s the evil Muslims who are responsible, and that they, themselves, are simon-pure innocents who are said racists’ natural allies. These Vichy Quislings merely solidify the racism of those excellent people, who now can see for themselves that at least some of the brown-skinned savages are eager to sell out their own kind.

I probably should stay away from the net for a day or two. This kind of thing makes me sad and leaves me with next to no hope for the future of the world.

Meanwhile, I’d like to say that I am disgusted by the tokenism and historical illiteracy of the sudden rash of French flags proliferating online.

Stay well, all of you.

Monday 16 November 2015

The Marketing of ISIS as a Global Brand

Let me ask you a question.

Would you, gentle reader, go off to join a group on the other side of the world, whose main distinguishing mark seems to be its penchant for hacking off heads on camera, or burning people alive?

What was your answer?

I am probably correct if I say that, even while you probably react to the suggestion with horror, you equally have not the slightest hesitation in identifying exactly which group I am talking about. It’s the Islamic State, alias ISIS. Right?

Well, actually, you’re wrong. I was talking about the Sinaloa drug cartel[1] of Mexico, which also has a penchant for hacking off heads[2], gutting people with chainsaws, or burning them alive in oil drums. But why did you immediately imagine I was talking about ISIS?

It’s because of the relentless media coverage of ISIS, isn’t it? It’s because of the brand that is ISIS now, one which is immediately, at once, so recognisable that not only can it not be mistaken for anything else, others stand in danger of being mistaken for  it? Just like all petroleum jelly is, in popular consciousness, “Vaseline”, all toothpaste, in India at least, “Colgate”, and all vacuum cleaners in Britain are “Hoovers”, all Islamic, or suspected Islamic, terrorism is “ISIS” now, am I right?

Why do you think this is so? Why has ISIS reached a level of mass identification, instant brand-name recognition if you will, which other outfits like al Qaeda can only dream of? It doesn’t happen just like that, and it certainly isn’t the level of brutality that determines its familiarity in the popular consciousness. The aforementioned Mexican drug cartels could certainly give ISIS a run for its money in terms of sadistic brutality; and even other Islamic groups like al Shabaab of Somalia are at least as viciously brutal as ISIS when it comes to the treatment of captives, and in some ways significantly worse[3]. But who knows about them?

There is one obvious answer: marketing.

I assume that anyone who reads this article is familiar already with the highly theatrical execution videos ISIS routinely puts online and which usually appear on sites like LiveLeak or As part of my self-imposed task of satirising ISIS on my comic strip and discussing them more seriously on my blog, I do watch these videos, and I have come to some conclusions about them:

1. They are of two broad categories, meant for very different audiences. One set is clearly made for dissemination in the West, and that is the type familiar to everyone, the one where prisoners in orange jumpsuits are made to kneel while knife-wielding men in ninja suits, such as the ludicrously named "Jihad John", harangue the viewer in impeccable English. At first, the ultimate demise of the prisoner would not be shown on camera, and this led to accusations, which in at least one case were undoubtedly accurate[4], that some or all of these videos were faked. Lately, the videos are actually beginning to show the full decapitations (or, in one recent case, death by tank tread), and I can assure you that they are anything but faked, and also that they are anything but easy watching.

However, the videos were, and are, remarkably theatrical, with carefully composed shots, multiple camera angles, often clearly made with multiple takes, and put together very slickly with fancy logos and music. The whole intent is to be eye catching, immediately recognisable theatre. One recent one I watched, for instance, was from Afghanistan, and this is what I had to say about it:

There seems to be a shortage of orange jumpsuits in Afghanistan. Maybe the CIA delivery channels are having problems with distribution. 

However, there are obviously enough black-ninja-suit-wearing ISIS men with equestrian skills, enough horses, enough morning-mist-shrouded Afghan mountainsides, and enough Hollywood production to compensate.

Also, evidently beheading has palled as a method of execution. Blowing up people en masse with dynamite is the bold new way to go.

However, even that video had the victims blown to pieces and body parts bouncing around in front of the cameras. ISIS has apparently decided that it has to achieve a higher level of brutal realism to gain attention.

The second set of videos, which have not changed since they first came out, were meant very much not for Western consumption. There are no speeches, no fancy camera angles, no musical soundtrack, no jumpsuits, no ninja outfits, and the camera – often obviously a mobile phone camera or a hand held camcorder – does not discreetly move away when the knife comes down. The videos are exceedingly brutal, were always exceedingly brutal, and nobody, at any time, could have had the slightest doubt that they were genuine.

If the intent of the first set of videos was to gain attention and branding, the purpose of the second is much simpler: terrorisation of actual, real opponents – people whom the makers of the video could actually be fighting – and to break their morale and will to resist. In other words, it is actual terrorism, the application of fear as a weapon, indistinguishable in its object from what George W Bush had hoped to accomplish in Iraq with his Shock and Awe.

Do you get what I am talking about here? The purpose of the second set of videos is psychological warfare. The purpose of the first set of videos? Brand recognition, on as broad a level as possible, among as many people as possible.

In other words, they're advertisements.

ISIS is coming to get you! Boo!

2. The first set of videos could not have been made without at least some level of professional expertise, including studio editing, and, if we are to believe some alleged “experts”, with the use of green screen technology. Someone is obviously providing substantial software services. Who is this “someone”? Was this “someone” recruited by the ISIS Human Resources from among the best Hollywood has to offer? Only in a universe where the Easter Bunny has dinner with Santa Claus at the restaurant run by the Tooth Fairy would this make some kind of believable argument.[5]

3. Also, I am not exactly convinced that any band of literal cutthroats and desperadoes in the desert of Iraq can just get hold of orange jumpsuits and black ninja outfits, enough to equip a whole line of hostages and an equal number of knife wielders. I live in a reasonably modern country with a reasonably modern market, and I doubt I could get hold of a jumpsuit, orange or otherwise, easily – let alone those spiffy all-black outfits, not to mention horses.

Therefore, the general run of videos that are presented to the West by ISIS are, first, made for publicity and brand recognition, and, second, depend heavily on the kind of slick direction and production that is the hallmark of the average feature film.

Then there is also the matter of the ISIS flag. I have said once before that[6]

In the course of drawing this strip, I realised – somewhat belatedly – something I think worth mentioning. You know that – as in today’s episode – I have frequently had cause to draw ISIS flags. Have you ever thought about this ISIS flag? It’s interesting, for more reasons than are immediately apparent.
For instance, it’s instantly recognisable, and nobody will ever mistake it for any other flag, anywhere. For another, it’s easy to copy and reproduce (fortunately for me, and, I imagine, other cartoonists), unlike, for example, the horrendously complex flag used by its parent organisation, Al Qaeda. In fact one doesn’t have to know a word of Arabic to be able to reproduce the ISIS flag, even from memory alone. I mean, even I can.
Now, isn’t this – from a marketing point of view – very interesting? An instantly recognisable logo, setting out one’s brand on the market, totally unique and easy to spread further, with ethnicity and linguistic ability no bar whatsoever? Lots of companies would kill for that kind of recognition…in a manner of speaking.
I wonder, somehow, if ISIS had the benefit of some top level marketing professionals in selecting its emblem. But that’s really too absurd, to imagine top level marketing professionals would design a jihadist group’s flag, for maximum impact. Right?
Or they can directly appeal to potential recruits with memes like this, which allegedly would make young men rush off to join:

You can add to this the ISIS magazine – yes, they have a magazine! – Dabiq; the alleged ISIS “currency”, mention of which was made on the so-called mainstream media before people realised it was too tall a story to swallow; and ISIS’ grandiose plans to take over everything between Spain to the western part of India, illustrated  by a map. A map! Even I could draw a map saying that, say, Botswana is my personal property. Doesn’t make it so.

Now, I’m going to ask you all something: suppose you had a new start up company, which was desperate to make a mark on the public consciousness: what might it do to do so? What might a marketing professional advise it to do?

-Create a very distinctive profile, so characteristic that anyone can instantly identify it? How might it do that, in a market teeming with competitors? One answer – go further than them. Do the same things, but more brazenly, more eye-catchingly, so that people identify you with the action, not your competition?

-Create an instantly identifiable logo, so distinctive that, for example, even other, totally unrelated things might be mistaken for your logo, just on the basis of the colour alone? A beard club outing, for instance?

-Make what might be called a huge IPO on the stock market? Now, I am a dedicated opponent of capitalism, so I have never owned a share and never will, but as far as I’m aware, the value of a company on the stock market has little or nothing to do with its real value. It’s mostly what the perception of it is, what people think that matters. The stock market is a grand Ponzi scheme, in other words, one long endless boondoggle. So if people think your new company is big and powerful and the up and coming thing, your stock will rise through the roof, even if the reality is nothing like that. In fact, the more mythical your capabilities get, as long as people continue to swallow the claims, the further your stock will soar.

Putting these together, the whole public perception of ISIS becomes one of a marketing phenomenon, which has turned heads all over the world, and which has obscured what the group really is, or rather was (because, like any other animal, it’s a plastic, amorphous, evolving organism).

So what is ISIS?

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: the core ISIS, the one in Syria and Iraq, is not a guerrilla organisation. It’s a conventional fighting force, which tends to fight fully conventional campaigns, something which actually renders it extraordinarily vulnerable to any opponent with the weapons and desire to strike it. There is next to no reason why the US, for example, with its allegedly greatest military force in the history of the world, the country which turned Saddam Hussein’s army to slag, can’t knock out lines of Toyotas driving serenely through the desert...if it really wants to. Only, maybe it doesn’t[7].

Secondly, ISIS is, even as a conventional army, only a light infantry organisation. It has relatively little armour, artillery, or anything much in the way of air defence. It has no air force, no navy, no complex net of command and control (to have that third would be suicidal against any enemy with strong electronic warfare capabilities – command centres would be at once located and destroyed). As such, its fighting ability depends mostly on movement, tactics, and terrorising the enemy into, for instance, beheading prisoners, thus terrifying opponents by showing them exactly what will happen if they stay and fight.

As a military force, however, its abilities are strictly third grade against a powerful enemy. In comparison, I would like to cite the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE had a far greater level of control, armament, and organisation than ISIS has. It had not just artillery and a measure of popular support, but also a navy of speedboats and mini submarines, a worldwide fund collection and supply network, even an air force of Czech-made Zlin light aircraft converted for bombing. But even with all this, it was defeated and destroyed by the relatively tiny army of Sri Lanka, with almost no external help at all.

Can anyone explain why ISIS can’t be wiped out by an alleged international coalition while the much more heavily armed, equally fanatical, LTTE could be taken out by Sri Lanka alone?

Basically, then, ISIS is a light infantry force, which by all rights should have been destroyed a long time ago by the West, if it had really been interested in destroying it. Instead, it’s taken a space in the public consciousness as a kind of gigantic, unstoppable force of absolute evil and darkness, a kind of Orc army, against whom all hatches must be battened down, and everyone take to arms.

Really, and I mean this totally unironically, the ISIS marketing strategy should be taught in business schools. People could learn something from it.

But if the West isn’t interested in destroying ISIS, and if ISIS’ entire public image is an exercise in brand building, what does that mean?

The answer is obvious: build up a sufficiently evil opponent, a Black-and-White Peril if you will, and anything you do is all right in order to fight it. Suspend civil liberties, close down borders, declare martial law...invade and occupy nations on the other side of the planet...everything goes when it comes to fighting Absolute Evil of that magnitude.

Really, when you can create something like that, why would you ever want it to end? It’s the goose that lays the golden egg.

Now, there’s one very significant way in which ISIS has been dramatically more successful at drawing attention, even among Sunni Muslims, than al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, when all’s said and done, is a Sunni Arab organisation from West Asia with almost no members from anywhere else. Its appeal has never been particularly widespread, and other disaffected Muslim fundamentalist groups have preferred setting up their separate outfits rather than identify themselves with it. Even when they wanted to identify themselves with it, al Qaeda itself has often been chary of giving them official recognition. It’s like a very conservative, old style business.

ISIS, with its aggressive marketing strategy, has succeeded in unexpected ways. When Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph Ibrahim, he also automatically declared himself Amir ul Momineen, that is, the Commander of the Faithful, whom it is every “true” Muslim’s religious duty to obey. At one stroke, therefore, he broke through the West Asian Sunni Arab straitjacket of al Qaeda and made himself, potentially, the king of all the world’s Muslims. No wonder that one of the groups that reacted with the greatest rage to this announcement Qaeda.

I’ll explain what this means. In simple terms, no Muslim jihadist group now needs to carefully build up its own identity, an image for itself, and attract support. All it has to do is swear allegiance to ISIS, declare itself an affiliate of the organisation or part thereof, and it immediately is guaranteed of attention and even of recruits. Not everyone can spend money to travel all the way to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, and even if they want to, the very difficulty of the trip is often more than sufficient to squelch the dream and keep it in the realm of “if only...” But what if an ISIS franchise is right there next door – or you can set up one yourself?

How much does it cost to make those black flags anyway?[8]

This is probably not what the people who had helped set up, arm, train and finance ISIS had anticipated. The franchise has broken the bounds of the intended market, and become so well known that exactly what happens to ultra-well-known consumer products like Reebok shoes or Louis Vuitton bags has happened to it.

In short, knockoffs.

At this point, it no longer really matters if the core ISIS is destroyed, for the survival of the brand. It does not even matter if the Caliph al Baghdadi is killed or is already dead or even if he never really existed. He’s become the Ronald McDonald, the Michelin Man, the Colonel get the idea. This is why ISIS is sprouting in countries as disparate as Bangladesh[9] and Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia.

Normally, then, one would anticipate a certain amount of disquiet, even incipient panic, in the capitals of the west; a desire to try and dial back the demons they unleashed. But there seems to be no such thing. Instead, they are intent on their farcical bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which seems to be more about destroying Syrian infrastructure and limiting Iranian influence than about fighting ISIS; and they’re gearing up further towards confronting Russia.

It would seem then that they think ISIS still has a lot of potential as a brand, one can still turn a dividend for stock holders.

I will close with this prediction: In two years’ time, at the most, we will hear talk of “moderate ISIS” the West can deal with, people who share “democratic values” and can be “partnered with.” We will see them being armed and trained, increasingly overtly, and unleashed on recalcitrant nations with Muslim populations around the, oh, Russia or China, for example.

Don’t believe me? It’s already happened with the Taliban, it’s happened to al Qaeda[10].

With ISIS it’s as inevitable as the rising sun.


 Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

A Letter from Hindunazistan

It’s time again to find out what’s been happening in the great and wonderful Republic of Hindunazistan.

A few weeks ago, in the last episode of this series, I’d said something about a major state election which Narendra Modi was on the road to losing. I’d also told you lot that it wouldn’t have been a major election, and it wouldn’t have been Modi who lost it, but for the fact that he campaigned as the face of his party (the BJP) in the state, making the election a de facto referendum on his rule.

As you’ll know by now, that rule, now well into its second year, has not exactly produced the promised results. In fact, as even Hindunazi ideologue Arun Shourie – an acerbic writer whose wit I have always enjoyed while disagreeing with him on just about everything under the sun – says, the BJP’s rule has been “the Congress plus a cow”.

The Congress refers to the previous, totally venal, regime of the Congress Party, which was so dysfunctional that even people who despised the Hindunazi ethos voted for the BJP in 2014, desperate for a change. As for the cow – well, as the BJP’s promised Golden Age recedes further into the distance with each passing day, it  has fallen back on hardline Hindu fascism, as symbolised by its obsession with the cow.

If you haven’t read my previous article on Hindunazistan, you might as well go and do it at this point, because I’ve talked about the cow in that in some detail.

That election I talked about was in the state of Bihar. It was at one time the heartland of empires which ruled the Indian subcontinent from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal. Today, though, it’s a highly overpopulated and desperately poor province, plagued by underdevelopment, illiteracy, and endemic crime and lawlessness. Under a succession of venal political leaders who exploited caste and religious divides for their own purposes, the condition of the state grew so bad that people began leaving in droves to work as carpenters, cobblers, barbers and labourers all over the rest of the country – only to be resented and often attacked by others who claimed they were taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to the locals.

Does this sound familiar from elsewhere in the world?

The situation in Bihar probably reached its nadir in the 1990s when a populist politician called Laloo Prasad Yadav took power. A showman if there ever was one – Donald Trump could take tips from him – Laloo Prasad Yadav had only one single saving grace; he was, and is, a committed secularist and an opponent of Hindu fascism. He put a stop to the savage communal riots that ravaged Bihar in the 1970s and 80s at regular intervals and totally smashed the Hindu right in the state. On the other hand, he allowed corruption to reach unprecedented levels, and criminals from his Yadav caste ran amok with impunity. By the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Bihar was under what was called “jungle law”, where kidnapping for ransom was an industry, village workshops made illicit weaponry and sold them to criminals, and the rule of the government existed not at all.

Laloo Prasad Yadav

Laloo Yadav was at the time in jail, after he was implicated in a major scam. When he was forced to step down as the state’s chief minister, he – in a typically jaw-dropping act of audacity – put his semiliterate wife, Rabri Devi, in power in his place. Rabri Devi was, naturally, a rubber stamp – Laloo Yadav and his coterie of bureaucrats ruled through her. As before, there was peace between the religions, but in every other way the situation got worse and worse.

At last the people of Bihar had had enough. They voted out Laloo Yadav’s party, the RJD, and put into power an alliance between the BJP and the JD(U) led by one Nitish Kumar. It should be noted that this would not have happened unless substantial sections even among the Muslims (who form 15% of the population of Bihar and had of course supported Laloo Yadav) and other non-Yadav castes had changed sides. Laloo Yadav’s misrule had alienated so many people that everyone assumed he was finished.

You couldn’t imagine just how much they were wrong.

Meanwhile, Nitish Kumar had taken over Bihar. There is something very strange about Nitish Kumar: as far as anyone can make out, he is one of that almost mythical species, an honest politician. Like Laloo Yadav, with whom he has had a long friendship, he is also a secularist. And, unlike Laloo, he has no tolerance for corruption and crime.

Nitish Kumar

Under Nitish Kumar, then, the endemic Bihari lawlessness began, slowly, to reverse itself. Kidnapping for ransom stopped. Development, albeit in dribs and drabs, finally reached villages which had never seen piped water or electric lights before. Nitish Kumar had a BJP deputy chief minister, Sushil Modi (no relative of Narendra Modi) who made no attempt to stoke up religious passions and in fact helped in the development agenda. Bihar, if it didn’t quite prosper, was no longer sinking into the morass.

And then it was that Narendra Modi became the BJP’s candidate for the prime minister’s post in Delhi.

I have said that Nitish Kumar was a secularist. Narendra Modi, as I have said in every single one of my articles mentioning the man, is anything but. Nitish Kumar may have been, as he has been accused of doing, looking to dump the alliance with the BJP anyway; but in any case Narendra Modi was not acceptable to him as the prime minister. He withdrew from the alliance, the BJP won a huge number of votes – and seats – from Bihar in the national elections, and Narendra Modi came to power in Delhi with a huge majority.

It would seem that Nitish Kumar had gambled and lost.

Meanwhile, Laloo Yadav had been released from prison on bail, and had apparently been doing some hard thinking of his own. He and Nitish Kumar went back a long way; the latter had even, as I recall, gone to get Laloo’s mother’s “blessings” before taking on her son in the elections which he’d won. So it wasn’t exactly a handshake across barbed wire when the two parties, the JD(U) and the RJD, formed a “Grand Alliance” along with the remnants of the Congress Party to fight the elections this year.

[There is another extremely venal Yadav politician, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who heads the Samajwadi Party in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh, who has a history of canoodling with the Hindunazis, was given an opportunity to join the alliance too, but refused. His reasoning probably went this way: if he joined it, then Laloo Prasad Yadav’s chances of winning would improve. If Laloo Prasad Yadav won, he would be better placed than Mulayam Singh Yadav for the position of leadership of the Yadav caste. So it would be better if Laloo Prasad Yadav lost. It was a typical bit of cynicism by Mulayam Singh, whom nobody now trusts at all.]

Meanwhile the BJP had also tacked on an alliance of a disparate collection of a few small caste-based non-Hindunazi parties, which it assumed would attract the votes of the castes they represented.

Apart from all these, there was a Muslim party of such overwhelming lack of significance that even Muslims laughed at it, and a small Maoist presence. So this was the lineup going up to the elections, which were to be held in multiple phases in October and November.

Now, remember this: despite Nitish Kumar’s best efforts, Bihar is still a desperately poor state with abysmal levels of development. Its contribution to the national economy is at best negligible. The Biharis are perfectly aware of this, and know that there’s still a long way to go – but, significantly, they know now that this is something that is now possible. It’s not as though they’re condemned forever to wallow in the slough of despond. And, as a corollary, on the national level, who rules Bihar is not that important. It’s just another state, or should be.

Therefore, the strategy that the BJP should have attempted was to focus on development. It had a perfectly good candidate in Sushil Modi, who had done as much as Nitish Kumar to help the state recover from the misrule of Laloo Yadav and his predecessors, and who, besides, had no interest in sectarian rabble-rousing. Instead, in a decision as predictable as it was moronic, it unleashed Narendra Modi on the state.

Narendra Modi

Why was this predictable? Because, as I’ve said in past articles, Narendra Modi is virtually the dictator of the BJP now. He’s shunted aside all his seniors and rivals in the party, and rules by Führerprinzip through a small coterie, which controls all access to him. This coterie is headed by a particularly toxic individual called Amit Shah, who is despised by many in his own party but who has Narendra Modi’s total trust. 

Amit Shah

Narendra Modi, as Führer, does not delegate. His style of ruling is 100% top down. He’s been set up to the admiring gaze of his acolytes, the Modi Bhakts as they’re called, as though he’s god almighty, and nothing is impossible to him. That he should yield centre stage to a mere underling like Sushil Modi was nothing he would countenance.

And why was this moronic? The people of Bihar have no interest in communal violence. They’ve suffered terribly from it in the past, and then learned to live in religious harmony for a generation. It has been 26 years since there was last a communal riot in Bihar, and, as a Bihari woman said, all she wanted was that her children should be able to grow up in peace. And in Laloo Yadav they had a man who was, whatever else he might be, a hundred per cent secular; while in Nitish Kumar they had another man who was not only secular but also honest and in favour of development. Why on earth would they look elsewhere unless given excellent reasons to do so?

But Narendra Modi gave them no reason to do so. He unleashed what has been called the ugliest, most communal campaign in years. He informed the Biharis that “a particular community” (meaning, Muslims) would siphon off their jobs if they voted for the Grand Alliance. Amit Shah went one further – Pakistan, he said, would celebrate with firecrackers if the BJP lost. The party also loaded local newspapers with advertisements about the cow and how it had been insulted by Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar.

Meanwhile, the media, which is these days more of a public spectacle than anything serious, went to town pumping up the election as a referendum on Modi, that it was a make or break affair, that it would decide if the “Modi wave” was still on, and the like. It would not, of course, have done so without at least partial BJP encouragement. The election was all about Modi’s ego, and the BJP wanted nobody to forget who was in charge.

In other words, all this was exactly what it should not have done.

All this, of course, was information anyone could access. And anyone with half a brain and the analytical ability of a grasshopper could have seen the way the wind was blowing and come up with exactly the same conclusion as I did, that is, the Grand Alliance was on the way to wiping the floor with the BJP – and that when it did, it would be Modi’s defeat, more than anything else. Remember, I had said weeks ago that the BJP would lose.

Somehow, though, this seemed to have totally escaped the attention of all the opinion pollsters and the news channels. They all – with one exception – predicted a victory for the BJP and its caste ally parties. The one exception was a poll which couldn’t even, according to the people who carried it out, find any major channel willing to publicise it...even though it had got the figures almost a hundred per cent correct.

Then the results came in: the Grand Alliance swept the polls, getting over a two-thirds majority; the BJP’s allies were wiped out, and the BJP itself saw its seats almost halved. Among the rest, the Maoists got two seats, and the Muslim party I mentioned got, predictably, nothing at all.

And the media was shocked. Shocked, I tell you! How could this ever have happened that everyone got it all so wrong?

The message from the people of Bihar was so unmistakable that one would have thought even the Hindunazis couldn’t but see it. They told the BJP, in no uncertain terms, “Please stop treating us like fools. Stop telling us how to live our lives, what to eat and wear, whom we can or can’t fall in love with, what movies or books we can read or can’t. Stop trying to divide us by religion. We’ve been there before and we don’t want to go back there again. You were voted to power to govern. Go back to governing, or you’ll find that when the next national election comes round in 2019, you’ll be tossed out on your ear in Delhi just like you were here. You have been warned.”

Do you think the Hindunazis took the warning?

One of the most illuminating ways of judging Hindunazi mood is to read the comment sections of online news sites, such as Outlook magazine. Hindunazis are hugely overrepresented online. For one thing, they have specifically targeted young urban professionals for brainwashing, because of course those are the people who can be of most use to them and who are already invested in the Hindunazi pro-capitalist, pro-Big Business ethos. For another, Modi has a troll army whose only function is to shout down all dissent online.

So this was the response of the trolls, when they’d finally got over their shell-shock: the blame was to be put on the Muslims, who voted together against the BJP. That the Muslims form 15% of the population of the state, and are concentrated in only a few areas, wasn’t relevant. Nor was it that the Muslim party was wiped out. It was somehow the Muslims’ fault, because they all voted together. And it was also the Hindus’ fault, because they didn’t unitedly vote for “their” party, the BJP, but for the Grand Alliance, even though said Grand Alliance was almost totally comprised of Hindus as well. Solution: the Hindus, obviously, will need to be made more “united”, that is, more fascistic, more driven by fear, more amenable to do exactly what the Führer tells them.

Do you think this is a strategy which will work?

Obviously, in a party now run on Führerprinzip, the Führer himself can’t be blamed for anything, and since he depends on his coterie, the coterie can’t be to blame either. So the BJP circled wagons, muttered to each other, and came out with a response that “everybody” was to blame for the debacle. As critics at once pointed out, this basically meant that nobody was responsible. After all, you can’t punish everyone.

So farcical had this become that a section of senior leaders in the BJP, who had been shunted aside, made their dissent known. Most of them had held top positions in the last government the Hindunazis had held in Delhi, from 1998 to 2004. The prime minister of the time had been a genial buffer named Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, despite being a Hindunazi, preferred consensus to rule by diktat, had excellent personal relations even with the Communists, and who had even decided not to send troops to Iraq to help in the Amerikastani invasion after the Congress Party had protested. Today, Vajpayee is old and decrepit and nobody knows exactly what his thoughts are on anything, but his former deputies are clamouring loudly – and accurately – that the current course followed by the party will only bring disaster. In this, whatever their motives, and bringing Modi down is certainly one of them, they are undoubtedly correct.

And, of course, this was too much truth for the Hindunazis to handle. They’d managed to smear Arun Shourie (he of the “Congress plus cow” comment) by claiming he was no longer a member of the BJP; but they couldn’t blow off these others so easily. So they came out with a statement saying that these sentiments “should not have been aired in public”. Of course, the very idea of making the statement was to air it in public, so that everyone knew that there was dissent in the BJP. But the BJP no longer tolerates dissent.

Meanwhile, as I said earlier, more and more intellectuals have been turning in their public awards as a form of protest against the increasing fascist intolerance in the country. The figure I cited last time was forty; it now stands at well over four hundred. There was no way the Hindunazis could ignore it. They could react in two ways: they could either mend their ways, go back to governance, and drop the radical Hindunazi agenda like a hot potato. Or they could, you know, call the protestors anti-nationals, traitors whose only purpose was to defame India in the eyes of the world.

Do you have the slightest doubt which course they adopted?

The day before the Bihar verdict was out, a superannuated Bollywood actor and failed quiz show host, Anupam Kher, who has never hidden his Hindunazism, conducted a “march” in Delhi to protest against these dissenters and traitors. He got together a full five hundred people, including other failed actors, third line celebrities, and common hoodlums, and conducted a procession up to the President’s official residence. The media covered it like it was the most important event of the year, but it was only a small procession of foul-mouthed, abusive Hindunazis who taunted and insulted female journalists and the like. After the Bihar verdict, Anupam Kher vanished from public view like a frog slithering into pond scum.

The Hindunazis have not, naturally, learnt their lesson. In the largely Hindu, but also very egalitarian and cosmopolitan, state of Karnataka, they are now leading “protests” against the state government’s move to honour the memory of a former king, Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan, who died fighting against the British colonial imperialists, is in the Hindunazi view a tyrant who oppressed Hindus. In reality, he had granted concessions to Hindu temples and contributed large sums to their upkeep, but when did reality ever matter to Nazis anywhere? All this campaign – which has included death threats to people including senior actor Girish Karnad, a Hindu – has done is to disgust people even more.

At this point, I will do something that is not in character. I will tell the Hindunazis exactly how they can turn this whole shambles round and still somehow salvage the situation before they drive off a cliff. I’m generous like that, but I’m also perfectly safe in assuming that not only will they never read this, if they do, they’ll disregard all advice coming from a despised leftie like me. So here goes:


Dear Prime Minister Modi

Let me remind you that you were elected on a plank of development, progress, and anti-corruption, not on an agenda of spreading Hindu fascism. It will not do to assert, as one of your minions did some time ago, that since the people voted for you they’ve given blanket permission to do as you like. If you had campaigned on a plank of Hindu fascism, you would never have got anywhere near power. I am sure you are aware of that.

Let me further remind you that you were elected by people across India. You are not a rubber stamp of a political dynasty, one who has never won even a municipal election, like your contemptible predecessor Manmohan Singh. You are a politician who has fought his way up. You know how easy it is to fall.

And fall you most certainly will, unless you immediately change not just your course, but your very method of governing. This is not, as you may have discovered, a nation which will be dictated to. People resent being told what to do, especially when they also find that those doing the telling have not made the slightest attempt to fulfil the promises that they have made.

So this is what you must do:

Sack the coterie around you. Get rid of them once and for all, most importantly Amit Shah. He is an individual so despicable that getting rid of him alone will fill people with relief and a measure of gratitude towards you. It shouldn’t be so difficult for you; you’ve certainly used enough of your former colleagues and subordinates as disposable stepping stones on your path to power. Do the names of, say, Gordhan Zadaphia, Mayaben Kodnani or Haren Pandya ring a bell?

Once you have got rid of the coterie, re-engage with your party. Start talking to people, including party members. Remember that democracy is about consensus. Even the opposition parties have a role to play; and if you talk to them, discuss things with them, you can even sow dissension among them and prevent them getting together. At the moment, all you’re doing is driving sworn enemies into each other’s arms, to band together against you.

Third, please get rid of the Hindunazi fringe. They do you no good whatsoever, they don’t translate into votes, and they are actively losing you support among the vast majority of Hindus, who are, and will remain, probably the single most liberal set of religious believers in the world. Remember what the people of Bihar told you? Do you want to hear all the people of India say the same thing?

Fourth, kindly get rid of the troll army. Insulting people online does you no good, because the trolls are not only pathetically inept, they are also useless. Till today, only a tiny fraction of Indians go online at all, and of those who do, most don’t even look at news sites or the contents of online debate fora. All these trolls do is tell you that you have a much greater amount of support than you actually do.

Fifth, stop trying to influence the media. You’ve canoodled with them long enough to know that they won’t get you votes. And when they fail to get you votes, your minions insult them, thus ensuring their support to you next time round will be less than wholehearted.

Sixth, please stop spending almost all your time abroad and get down to work in this country. You weren’t elected to spend the next five years going on jaunts at taxpayers’ cost all over the earth. Even your supporters are beginning to look at this behaviour with consternation.

Lastly, learn to be humble. You are not the owner of the nation. Still less are you a Grand Leader of any kind. The more you set yourself up as one, the worse the consequences when you fail.

I say all this in the knowledge that you will do none of these things, and, as such, will doom your party to further degradation and defeat.

Yours cordially,

Bill P.