Saturday 12 December 2015

Another Bunglistani Ghost Story

Deep in the middle of a forest in Bunglistan, there was what had once been a village.

It had been a very long time ago that it had been a village. The people had all gone, driven away by cholera and famine. The waiting forest had swiftly moved in to reclaim the rice paddies, weeds and silt had choked the ponds, and the huts and even the huge rambling zamindar’s palace had crumbled to ruin. By day, one might have thought nothing except monkeys and rats had lived in the village for generations.

By night, of course, it was a different story.

This being Bunglistan, the night belonged to the ghosts.


Shadow soup again,” Master Bichchiri Bhoot whined. “I hate shadow soup!”

His mother, Mrs Pirito Petni, frowned terribly, as only a petni can frown. “You’ll eat what’s put in front of you,” she said, “or you can starve to death. See if I care.”

“He can’t starve to death,” her husband, Boroshoro Brohmodottyi, pointed out mildly. Everything he said and did was said and done mildly. “He’s already dead.”

“And why are you taking his side?” his wife demanded, rounding on him furiously. “No wonder he’s spoilt, the way you treat him, letting him get away with anything he wants. Well, I’m done. Do as you want, both of you.”

“But...” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi began. “I didn’t exactly take his side, did I?”

“That’s what you always say. When the neighbour’s wife, that Shomapto Shakchunni, picks fights with me you never back me up.”

“Neither does her husband take her side,” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi pointed out. “Both Prokando Pret and I have better sense than to get involved in...”

“What was that?” his helpmeet screamed. “You dare talk back to me! You never get me anything. I slave my fingers to the bone for you, and you don’t even appreciate it. I haven’t even got a gold necklace in all my afterlife. And now this!”

“I can’t get you a gold necklace,” her husband said plaintively. “Where can a ghost get one? And what would you do with one anyway? I mean, it’s not as though you’re alive.”

“That does it,” Pirito Petni yelled. “You dare taunt me with not being alive? I’m going back to my parents.” Slamming down her bowl of shadow soup on the floor, she stormed out of the hut into the night.

Boroshoro Brohmodottyi and his son looked at each other with embarrassment. “She’s always doing this,” the older ghost said. “She doesn’t mean anything by it. Don’t worry – she’ll be back in a day or two.”

“How can you be sure?” his son replied. “She looked really mad. Worse even than the time last month when...”

The Brohmodottyi winced at the memory. “No need to mention that,” he said quickly. “But it’s simple, really.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his wife had really left, and leant over closer to his son.

“Her parents can’t stand her temper either, you see.”


Meanwhile, not far away, a heavily armed band of bandits was approaching.

Bunglistan, as everyone knows, is famous for two things. One, of course, is ghosts. The other is bandits. Just as every tree and every ruin has a ghost roosting somewhere like a malevolent fruit, one never knows when one might encounter a gang of desperadoes on the rural paths or have them descending on one’s home on an evening, eager for loot and destruction. But even among them, Durdanto Dakat was a byword.

Not only was he of gigantic stature, and as muscular and heavy as a water buffalo, he had a pair of moustaches that rivalled the noble beast’s horns in their spread, and in one hand he swung a hooked sword so big that no two of his men could even lift it with ease. And so utterly without fear was he that he dared even the ghosts to fight him, boasting that he would give them such a thrashing that they would be frightened to life, and then he could kill them all over again. The ghosts had heard his boasts, and none of them had thought fit to challenge him. They’d just stayed out of his way.

Not that his gang was any less in their cruelty and bloodthirstiness than he was. As a rule, he only recruited the worst, most desperate, evillest evildoers that ever swung a sword or despoiled a defenceless home. Each man who joined his band had to have a history of barbarity behind him that would have made even other hardened bandits cringe, and if he found them suitable, they had to fight him in single combat. Only those who survived the fight without permanent injuries found a place in the group. And, tonight, they were immensely happy, because they had just ended a series of raids which had given them so much in the way of plunder that they could hardly walk upright under their burdens.

Now the bandits, of course, hadn’t gone unnoticed on their raids, and the local king’s army was chasing them. It wasn’t much of an army, not one that the bandits would normally have had any reason to fear, but they were loaded with so much in the way of booty that they couldn’t either fight or move fast enough to make a getaway. That is why they’d entered the forest to find a place to hide until the soldiers had given up and gone home, and they could move on again.

So they had come through the forest, laden with their plunder, and they finally reached the long abandoned village. In the night, the huts looked almost inviting, and the robbers were tired and wanted to rest a while and gloat over their riches.

“Yes,” Durdanto Dakat agreed, “we’ll lie up here for a bit. It looks like a good place.”

“What about ghosts?” faltered one of the newest and least bold of the gang. “A ruined village like this is bound to be just crawling with them.”

“Especially at night,” another of the newest and least bold added, before Durdanto Dakat could think up a sufficiently crushing retort.

The robber leader looked around at his men and saw that they were beginning to murmur and glance about uneasily. He knew quite well how panic could spread in this kind of situation, and realised that he’d have to do something at once to squelch it.

“I’ll show you,” he roared. “I’ll show you exactly what I’ll do to any ghost which dares to create trouble.” Stomping to the nearest hut, he kicked down the sagging remnants of the door, bulled his way inside, and in only a trice emerged, pushing a portly figure with a long beard before him at the point of his sword, while holding something small, black, and wriggling by the neck with the other.

“Look,” he bellowed, like the buffalo he resembled. “Here are a couple of ghosts for you. And just look at them! They can’t do a thing against me.” As illustration, he held the small wriggling thing up, which tried to bite him, failed, and began whimpering piteously.

“What are you going to do to them?” the first new robber said, in an awed voice.

“I’m just going to cut off the fat one’s head, of course,” Durdanto Dakat thundered. “And then I’ll break this baby ghost’s neck. With my sword and my strength, nothing is impossible. And then I...”

He never finished.

When Pirito Petni had been shouting at her husband and son, someone had eavesdropped on them with great enjoyment. This was Shomapto Shakchunni, whose own husband was on a trip away from the village. She’d been mildly disappointed when all that had happened was that Pirito Petni had stormed out instead of continuing to yell for half the night, as she had done so many times before. With a sigh of disappointment, she’d been about to go back to her own dinner, of distilled cobwebs and marshlight, when she’d seen people approaching. Putting the plate down, she’d watched as they came into the village, and the huge one with the moustaches had forced his way into her neighbour’s house. A little while later, as she watched with horrified fascination, he had come out forcing the Bromodottyi ahead of him at swordpoint and carrying the child by the neck.

Shomapto Shakchunni liked quarrels and intrigue very much, but – as a consequence of the circumstances of her demise, the precise manner of which was strictly her business – she was also strongly opposed to violence. Stepping out of her own hut, she raised a hand.

“Stop,” she said. “You don’t have to hurt anyone, you know.”

The robbers, turning, gaped at her. This is not to be wondered at. A shakchunni is not something even a murdering gang of bandits is used to seeing, especially in the middle of the night. Even a pretty shakchunni would be startling. And, truth to tell. Shomapto Shakchunni was about as far from pretty as it was possible to be. Even among shakchunnis, her face could stop a hungry jackal.

“Oh father!” the second new robber began, going so pale that he almost glowed white. “This is too much. I want to go home!”

Everyone seemed about to echo this same sentiment, with the sole exception of Durdanto Dakat. He snorted and lifted his sword high.

“Scared of this one, are you?” he jeered. “Let me show you just how fast I can turn her into pieces of ghost.” Twisting his moustaches heroically, he beckoned to Shomapto Shakchunni. “Come here, you.”

This was a bad mistake.

Prito Petni had had a disappointing night. She’d hoped, in fact fully expected, that Boroshoro Brohmodottyi would come rushing after her to beg her to come back home. Even a lady ghost, after all, enjoys drama and likes to feel wanted. But though she walked slowly enough for her husband to overtake her twenty times if he’d wanted, there was no sign of him when she made her way through the village and to her parents’ house.

And then, suddenly, a dreadful thought came to her. With Prokando Pret away from home, her husband was left at the mercy of the wiles of that strumpet Shomapto Shakchunni!

There was no time to waste. Abandoning the ghostpath, she rushed through the forest homewards, by the shortest possible route. Bursting into her house by the back door, she looked around, but saw neither her husband nor her son. And then, from just outside, she heard the unmistakable voice of the strumpet herself...

Anger took over Pirito Petni, anger in such intensity as she’d never felt before, even when she’d been alive. Snatching up an enormous iron skillet, she rushed out of her house, determined to settle the strumpet’s hash once and for all...

The reader already knows what she saw. And, because everyone’s attention, including Durdanto Dakat’s, was fixed totally on Shomapto Shakchunni, none of them saw her come.

We shall, in order to spare delicate sensibilities, omit a detailed description of the scene of violence that followed. All you really need to do is remember this:

Not even a buffalo-sized bandit is capable of withstanding an iron skillet to the head when it is wielded by an outraged lady ghost.


Do you like the necklace?” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi asked.

Mrs Pirito Petni turned it over and over in her hands. “It’s all right, I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “Nothing to those I used to have when I was alive, of course.”

“Of course not,” her husband sighed. “But it’s the best I could find from all the things the robbers left when they ran. At least you can’t say I didn’t get you one.”

“Yes, fine, you did,” Pirito Petni said. “But all you got me was a necklace. Did you see what that shameless hussy Shomapto Shakchunni got for herself? A set of gold bangles, a couple of anklets and toe rings as well. Why couldn’t you get me any of that?”

“You didn’t ask,” Boroshoro Brohmodottyi said. “But nobody else in the village has a necklace like yours now. And you did want a necklace. Besides,” he added ingratiatingly, “you’re a genuine heroine now. Nobody can deny how heroic you are. You’ll be famous in the village.”

Pirito Petni grunted. “All right, let’s at least eat. It’ll soon be day. Sit down, both of you, while I warm up supper.”

“Shadow soup,” Bichchiri Bhoot whined. “Do we have to have shadow soup again?

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Friday 11 December 2015

The Undefeated

I was ten years old when I was first introduced to the adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

It was a school literature textbook – Radiant Reader if I’m not mistaken, with a logo of a rising sun on an open book on the cover – which had a children’s version of the tale of his “tilting at windmills”. This, of course, is the one story everyone knows about him. I assume the reader of this knows the tale well enough so I don’t have to repeat it, so I won’t.

My class teacher then was one Miss Corrie. Thinking back now, 35 years later, she was probably in her mid twenties and also probably very pretty, with a cap of curly hair and a narrow intelligent face. Back then, of course, she was as old as the hills to us, and either annoying or frightening, depending on her mood of the moment.

One thing she knew was to tell stories. I mean, she didn’t just read out of the textbooks – she really knew how to tell the tale, bring it alive, at least to anyone who was interested in listening. She also knew how to pronounce Quixote correctly – ki-ho-tay, not quick-sot. To this day I am one of a vanishingly tiny minority among people I know who can call the Don by the name he chose for himself.

So, one day in class she opened up the textbook and told us the tale. Don Quixote and Sancho saw the windmills, the Don insisted they were giants, he charged at them, the windmill’s sail picked him up, horse Rosinante and all, and flung him to the ground...and what happened after that.

The rest of my classmates were either bored to death (“lessons!”) or laughed at his craziness, but I was...well, I was totally, fully on the Don’s side. Even then.

Even today, three and a half decades later, I remember the pleasure I felt when the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance...instead of being beaten, instead of owning himself defeated...he got up, brushed himself off, and declared that, basically, he hadn’t been beaten, that he would go on doing exactly as he planned. Pain be damned – he would put his blood and bone, flesh and mind, on the line and nothing would get in the way.

What a brave man Don Quixote was!

That wasn’t exactly the wording in which I thought this, obviously – I was ten years old – but the sentiments were exactly this. And, many years later, when I finally got hold of and read the book, which actually is a pretty impressively thick 120-odd chapters – I discovered that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of just how brave he was.

Yes, of course he was crazy. One has to be crazy to try and remake one’s world as one wants it, and take all the blows that said world throws one’s way. And one has to be crazy to stick it out, as Quixote did, until he arguably proved himself far more heroic than the fictional knight errants he was trying to emulate.

And, of course, he was invincible. Oh, his physical body was vincible all right. You could beat him up, and mock him, and even almost kill him. But you could never, ever, break his spirit.

If you can't break someone's spirit, whatever you do, you can't beat him.

One of my favourite adventures of Don Quixote is the time he went into a lion’s cage to prove his bravery. The lion, wanting nothing to do with him, lay down in the corner, whereupon Quixote asked the keeper to stir the animal up with a stick. The keeper refused, saying the knight had already proved himself brave enough.

Also, crazy or not, one thing Quixote was emphatically not, unlike the entire social structure around him, was evil. He may have been deluded, but he was striving against a system which was not quite as insane as he was, but actively malignant, one where the very concept of chivalry or humility would be as alien as the giants and wizards the Don thought he was fighting.

I’ve long wanted to paint him, and one of the reasons I didn’t try it before was the simple fact that I didn’t think I was good enough. Now, though I am certainly not the best of painters, I do think I am good enough.

I hesitated a bit over whether to paint him on stone, using acrylic, or paper, with gouache. Paper would undoubtedly be easier (for example I could pencil outlines as guides), but I decided the Don needed to be painted on stone, to match the granite at the core of his character. This was also undoubtedly the largest painting I have ever attempted on stone – the piece is about the size of a shoebox. Unfortunately, even then, there was no space left over for Sancho. I will probably paint them both again, though.

And I need to buy a copy of Cervantes’ book. Time I read it again.

Title: The Undefeated
Material: Acrylic on Stone 
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015

Monday 7 December 2015

One Night In The Rain

It was on the day the power went out that Naeem found the thing his cousin was hiding in his bedroom.

Naeem had been staying with his cousin for the last week, getting ready for an entrance exam to a business college. Naeem had no great wish to earn a business degree, but his father had decided that it would be of use when he came to run the family’s tyre wholesale business. So he’d been sent to the city to take the exam.

Naeem’s cousin was called Maqbool. Back when they were both kids, they’d played cricket in the fields with a rubber ball and a bat that someone had thrown away because it was cracked down the blade. Maqbool had been like an older brother to Naeem back then, but later he’d gone to the city to study, and then earn a living, and they hadn’t seen each other for years. When they’d met again, it had been with a little embarrassment, as though they were both ashamed of the past.

“You’ll have lots of peace to study,” Maqbool had said. “I’m not home much, what with my job. It’s nice to see you’re looking to make something of yourself.”

What Maqbool’s job was, Naeem didn’t know and didn’t ask. His parents had long ago decided their nephew had become “spoilt” by the big city, had probably even stopped going to the mosque or keeping Ramzan, and wasn’t really anyone they wanted to have much to do with any longer. Maqbool’s father was dead, had been for a couple of years; as for his mother, she was long since divorced and nobody knew where she lived, something which Naeem’s own mother had said was a blessing because she was a “smart” woman who talked back and didn’t know her place. Maqbool’s only sister was married to somebody in Dubai. So he didn’t have any other family to keep happy, and Naeem’s parents could drop him like a hot stone.

But when it had come to Naeem’s exam, of course, they hadn’t wanted to spend money on renting a place for him. So they’d put aside their dislike and called him.

“Of course he can come,” Maqbool had said evenly, and that was that.

In the week he’d been there, Naeem had hardly seen Maqbool except late in the evening. True to his word, he’d hardly ever come home. Maqbool rented the upper floor of a building in a ghetto on the fringes of the city, tall raw-brick houses built with common walls, narrow lanes in between choked with pushcarts and bicycles, small motorcycles and battered cars. There was a mosque at the corner, a tall minaret with a loudspeaker lashed to the top, which blared the muezzin’s call five times a day. Naeem, freed of his parents’ supervision for the first time in his life, had never set foot in it. He’d better things to do anyway, what with the exam coming up and the amount of preparation he had to do.

Only twice had Maqbool ever referred to religion. While they’d been sitting over their supper of chapattis and lentil soup, there had been some noise in the distance. It sounded like shouting.

Maqbool had put the piece of flat bread in his hand down and listened. “They’re fighting again across the street,” he’d said. “Old Zahoor must have got drunk again.”

“Zahoor?” Naeem had identified the name after a little thought. “Drunk? But I saw him coming out of the mosque just yesterday.”

“Going to the mosque and religion aren’t the same thing,” Maqbool had replied. “Didn’t anyone tell you that?”

Naeem hadn’t replied. The shouting was still going on when they’d finished eating, washed up and gone to bed.

The next day Maqbool had arrived home early in the evening, when it hadn’t even been quite dark yet. There had been two young men with him, who had glanced curiously at Naeem but not spoken to him. Nor had Maqbool introduced them. Once they’d gone, Naeem had asked who they were.

“Friends,” Maqbool ad replied, in a tone which indicated no further answer would be forthcoming.

“Let’s go out for dinner,” Naeem had suggested, on an impulse.

“Where?” Maqbool had asked. “The kebab shop in the next street?”

“Why there? I’d thought we could go out to a mall and –”

“Forget it,” Maqbool had said brusquely. “All those people buying things they don’t need and with their wives and daughters strutting about half naked? Forget it.”

Naeem had been a bit surprised, since Maqbool didn’t even have a beard or act religious in any way. But he’d decided to say nothing. In the end they’d gone to the kebab shop, and very good kebabs they were, too.

It had been raining for three days straight, and the low-lying areas of the city were under water when the power went out. The ghetto didn’t have much in the way of a power supply anyway – the civic authorities hadn’t upgraded the electric supply in years – but with the rain there was no telling when they might fix the problem.

Naeem was alone at home, and when the power went out he’d just decided he needed a break from the studying. Since there was no electricity he couldn’t watch the telly, so he walked over to Maqbool’s room looking for something to read. Maqbool, once upon a time, had been a great reader and had never been without three or four books of various kinds. He’d probably have a few around now.

This was the first time Naeem had entered Maqbool’s room alone. It was almost stark, with just a bed and a rack for clothes, a prayer mat in the corner, a table and chair, and a metal trunk along the wall opposite the bed. The only book on the table was a traveller’s guide of the city. Naeem wondered why Maqbool, who had lived in the city for years, would need it, especially since it was all about the tourist spots which he never visited anyway.

The trunk seemed the only place that might have any other books, and it wasn’t unlocked, so Naeem opened it. Inside was sheet of cloth, folded over the contents. He pulled away the cloth and looked down, frowning.

The oblong objects that were stacked in the trunk were certainly not books. They were wrapped tightly in polythene, but when Naeem picked up a piece, it was heavy and slightly pliant, like putty. Underneath, when he’d lifted a few of them aside, were several batteries, coils of wire, and a packet of little sticks that looked like cigarettes. But of course Maqbool didn’t smoke, and when Naeem picked one of them up, it was hard and not really very much like a cigarette at all.

There was also something else, wrapped in a dark coloured rag, pushed to one side. Naeem knew what it would be before he even lifted it out of the trunk and stripped off the cloth. The small, heavy revolver lay in his hand like something weighted down with doom. He wasn’t surprised to find his hands were shaking when he wrapped it up again and put it back where it was.

By the time Naeem had finished putting everything back in the trunk and returned to his room, his mind was made up. He made no attempt to put it off, to obey his first impulse to wait for the next day – because he wasn’t by any means certain what would happen if he waited till the next day. In all probability he’d lose his nerve, and decide not to do anything. Nor did he want to confront Maqbool and demand an explanation, because he knew for sure that none would be forthcoming. And perhaps his cousin would call in his friends and make sure Naeem kept silent. The more he thought about it, the more likely it would be.

Briefly, he considered calling his parents. But he already knew that all that would happen would be that his father would shout at him for poking into things that didn’t concern him, and his mother would ask him to come home at once. So that was out.

There was, therefore, only one thing to do. Calling would be of no use, they’d not take him seriously anyway; he’d have to go in person. Pausing only to pick up an umbrella and put on shoes, he left the house. Trying as hard as he could not to think, he walked to the autorickshaw stand and told the driver of the first vehicle to take him to the main police station.

“Where?” the driver frowned.

“The main police station,” Naeem repeated. “Don’t you know where that is?”

“Of course I know,” the driver said. “But what on earth do you want to do there? It’s not a place any of us...” he looked pointedly at Naeem’s salwar kameez to make sure the point went across, “...goes unless really necessary.”

Naeem blinked. “It’s not the police station I want,” he said. “It’s just a landmark I was given. The real place is near it.”

The driver frowned, and then shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.” All the way during the drive he didn’t utter a word.


The main police station was surprisingly small for a city this size, a four-storey building on three sides of a concrete yard. The rain was coming down hard when Naeem hurried to the gate, hunched under his umbrella.

“What do you want?” the constable on guard at the gate demanded.    

“I need to see the inspector,” Naeem said. “Or whoever is in charge. The senior officer.”

“The SHO?” The guard’s lip lifted briefly in a sneer. “He’s busy.”

“It’s important.” Naeem licked his lips involuntarily. “I mean, this is vital.”

“All right,” the guard said, looking him up and down. “Here, sign this register first.”

They put him in a small room, with a fluorescent light overhead, flickering slightly as though powered by a generator, as it probably was. The floor was wet and tracked with the mud people had brought in with their shoes. Some of the mud had formed patterns which almost looked like pictures, and Naeem tried to follow them, to keep his mind off what he was doing and to stop himself from wondering if it was the right thing at all.

A policeman with a thick moustache sat behind a desk on the other side of the room, clacking away at a typewriter. It was the first typewriter Naeem had seen since he was a child, and he hadn’t known anyone still used them. In between pushing the carriage back between lines, the policeman glared at him silently, as though he was responsible for something.

“How long is this going to take?” Naeem asked eventually.

“As long as it takes,” the policeman said. “You want to meet the SHO, you have to wait until he’s free. He’s got more important things to do. So sit down and stay quiet.”

Naeem sat and went back to staring at the mud.

At last another policeman came in, fat and with stars on his shoulder straps. He looked Naeem up and down with no pleasure whatever.

“Well?” he asked. “What is it? Someone stole your motorcycle or something?”

“Are you the officer in charge?”

“Never mine who I am. What’s your concern?”

“No,” Naeem swallowed. “It’s my cousin. I think he’s mixed up with terrorists.”

The fat policeman tilted his head and grimaced. “Had a fight with him and come here thinking you could cause him some grief, did you?”

“No,” Naeem repeated. “Listen.” He told the policeman what he’d seen in the trunk. The other policeman, behind the typewriter, was also listening intently.

“All right,” the fat officer said at last. “Come with me.”

He led him to another room where there were two more policemen at tables. “Now tell your tale over.”

Naeem did, as one of the two policemen wrote it all down on a form. “Name and address.”

Naeem told him Maqbool’s name and address. “So what happens now?” he asked. “Can I go?”

The fat police officer looked at him incredulously. “Of course not. Are you really that stupid? You’re staying right here.”

“But...” Naeem began to protest, but that was as far as he got. The second policeman at the table got up and grabbed hold of his shoulder.

“It’s for your own safety,” the fat policeman said.

But, from the way he was smiling, Naeem didn’t feel safe at all.


They’d taken Naeem’s mobile phone and watch away, and locked him in a windowless room so small he could barely walk five paces in it. There was a kind of bench along one wall, low and broad, and he finally went to sleep on it. When he woke, a policeman came in and gave him a tray on which was a cup of tea, two samosas and a few salt biscuits.

“I want to talk to the SHO,” Naeem demanded.

The policeman looked at him, up and down, as though he was a museum specimen, and then left without a word. Time passed, and eventually Naeem ate the samosas and biscuits, and drank the tea, which was far too sweet.

 He’d long since lost track of time before they came for him again. It was the fat policeman, and three or four others he hadn’t seen before. “Come,” the fat one said.

“I want my phone and watch –” Naeem began.

“Don’t worry,” the fat policeman said. “You just have one little job to do, and then we’ll let you go.”

“You will?” Naeem asked. “Really?”

“Really. Come along.”  

They led him to a jeep standing in the yard. It was night, he saw, and the rain was still falling. The yard was filled with activity, vehicles coming and going, armed policemen lined up on one side. Naeem eyed them warily.

“Get in,” the fat officer said.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” They drove out into the night. The streets were mostly deserted, which was odd, because it was obviously only the middle of the evening. The jeep went by ways Naeem had never seen until they were almost outside the city. The rain glittered in the yellow beams of the headlights.

The jeep stopped by the side of the highway. “Get out,” the fat policeman said.


“Get out.” The officer slapped Naeem across the back of the head. Despite the fat, his hand was hard and heavy as a brick. “Out!”

Naeem got out, his mouth dry. There was another police vehicle standing by the side of the highway, up ahead, policemen standing beside it shining torches down on something lying in the grass.

“Is that your cousin?” the fat policeman asked.

Naeem looked only for a moment. In the torchlight Maqbool’s open eyes were pits of darkness, his mouth a cave. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Good,” the policeman said with immense satisfaction. One of the other policemen dropped a crumpled piece of cloth on Maqbool’s body. It was black with white Arabic lettering on it which Naeem couldn’t read.

“What did he do?” he whispered.

“Nothing that need concern you,” the policeman said. “Right, you can go.”

“Go?” Naeem looked up and down the empty highway. Except for a distant line of lights and the torches, the night was dark. The rain lashed his face. “Go where?”

“Anywhere,” the fat policeman said. “Go!”

Naeem looked at him and then began to trudge away towards the lights of the city in the distance. Long before the first gunshot sounded behind him, he already knew what was going to happen.

And after the shooting was over, of course, he knew nothing more.


The fat policeman watched the police photographer move the pistol to one side of the corpse. “It looks more natural that way,” the photographer said. “It doesn’t look so much like the gun was planted.”

The policeman shrugged. “I couldn’t care less,” he said. “Nobody’s going to question it anyway.”

The flash of the camera was bright in the rain, the blood black on the young man’s clothes. The fat policeman watched and smiled to himself. By morning the media would have the story that the terrorists who had done the bombing had been tracked down and eliminated; both of them, and they were relatives too, so everyone would know they’d been in it together. Retribution was so satisfying, and so much more marketable than prevention. Good work, he thought, watching the camera flash away. There would be a promotion in this.

For a moment he had a flash of pity for the stupid young man who’d come and dropped the whole thing into his lap, but he shook it off.

Pity was a shallow and meaningless emotion, and he had none to waste.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015