Friday 4 March 2016

Suhas And The Man From Space

In the morning, after the storm had finally blown itself out and the thunder and lightning had stopped, Suhas found the man from space lying in his father’s paddy field.

Of course Suhas knew right off it was a man from space. He’d been reading some of the books his father so disapproved of, the ones that were very much not part of the curriculum of the village school, and in those books he’d seen pictures of men from space more than once. And this one was obviously one of them.

For a few minutes, he stood on the earthen dyke of the paddy field, looking down at the man from space. He was lying partly submerged in the water of the paddy, with only his head, arms and the upper part of his torso showing. And if Suhas hadn’t been all familiar with men from space from the books he read, he might have been scared.

The man from space was big. To Suhas, who was small and skinny even for his age, most men, even those from the village, looked big, but this man looked even bigger than them. His head, itself, had to be at least the size of the big copper pot in which his mother fetched water from the well in the yard. It looked a bit like the pot, too, being round and hairless, only black, not copper coloured. His body too was black, and covered with seams and ridges as though he was wearing a leather jacket, but Suhas could not see any divide between it and his head and hands.

It wasn’t all that much a mystery how he’d come there either. Hadn’t there been that strange orange flash of lightning in the middle of the storm, so bright that it had illuminated every bit of the inside of their house? And hadn’t it been followed by a clap of thunder so great that the house had trembled on its foundations and Suhas’ mother had begun loudly praying to all the gods until his father had snapped at her to shut up? Suhas had read enough stories of the space people’s rockets to know one must have crashed somewhere nearby. In fact, looking around, he saw something partly buried on the far side of the paddy, a curve of metal that looked like the back of a huge chair.

“Suhu?” he heard his mother call, her voice skipping with the ease of long practice past the plantain grove beyond the fish pond, on the homeward side of the paddy field. “Aw Suhu! Where are you?”

Suhas ignored her for the moment. He fancied he saw the man from space stir slightly, moving his arms and trying to lift his head. He stepped a little closer, right to the edge of the dyke.

“Man From Space?” he asked. “Are you all right?”

The man from space moaned something that might have been words, and pushed himself upright in the paddy. His ridged hands came up and began wiping mud and water from his face.

“Suhu!” his mother yelled. “Where are you? Always off somewhere instead of reading-writing. Just wait.”

Suhas ignored her for the moment and took a couple of cautious steps towards the man from space. He was cautious because he remembered that men from space tended to have ray guns with which they burned people who tried to attack them. But of course he wasn’t trying to attack the man from space, and the latter didn’t bring out a ray gun and blast him, either.

“Man From Space,” he repeated, this time in English, the unfamiliar syllables crawling slowly over his tongue, “are you hurt? Do you need help?”

Evidently the man from space wasn’t hurt, or at least not so badly that he needed help. Slowly, as though pushing against an immense force, he stood up, swaying. And then Suhas gasped and stepped back fast, because the man from space was at least as tall as his parents’ house, if not more.

He was quite clearly a man from space. His huge spherical head had no visible nose, mouth, or any features except two flat round eyes, from between which a ridged appendage like a pipe hung down to the middle of his torso. His elbows and knees were swollen ovoid masses the size of melons, and his hands so large they looked like the jute sacks old Uncle Shomoresh from across the village sold for everyone to pack their rice in. He held one hand out to Suhas and moaned some more.

Although Suhas didn’t understand the moaning, there was no mistaking that gesture. He leaned forward and took the man from space’s hand, and the man from space came up out of the paddy with a huge squelch of mud and water that splashed everywhere, and got up on the dyke beside him.

“Well,” Suhas said, “do you need to go somewhere? Is your rocket somewhere close by?”

Apparently the man from space did not need to go somewhere. He moaned and shook himself, spraying mud and water all over Suhas’ white singlet and shorts, and stood waiting.

“I suppose you should come home with me then,” Suhas said. The man from space seemed agreeable with this and followed him.

They’d just rounded the plantain grove when they came across Suhas’ father, who was coming down the path with bloodshot eyes and his thick cane in his hand. He saw Suhas first.

“Where have you been?” he bellowed, raising the cane. “You need a lesson. Always running off instead of reading-writing. I’ll break this over your back today. I’ll...”

And then he saw the man from space, and his mouth went a funny shape and the cane dropped from his hand. “Babago,” he groaned, and fell over backwards in a faint. His head landed on a pat of cowdung, so he didn’t get hurt.

“What? What has happened to you?” Suhas’ mother, who had evidently been watching from the house, screamed, loud as knitting needles driven into one’s ears. “I knew that boy would be the death of us. Did he raise his hand to you? Did he...” She came rushing down the track, jumping clear over the little ditch in the way, and then came face to face with Suhas and his companion.

“My friend, the man from space,” Suhas explained.

“Mago,” his mother groaned, and would have fainted, too, only there wasn’t another convenient cowdung pat for her to land on, so she contented herself with clutching hold of a plantain and swaying with her eyes rolled right up under her upper eyelids.

“He’s not going to hurt anybody,” Suhas said. The man from space moaned in confirmation.

And it was at that point that, drawn by all the recent yelling and wanting to see the fun, the neighbours arrived.


Of course they didn’t believe he was a man from space.

“It’s the god Ganesha,” they said to one another. “The god Ganesha has come to us!”

“He doesn’t really look much like the god Ganesha,” one or two doubters murmured. “He doesn’t have a paunch...or elephant ears...or tusks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the rest snapped. “Look at that trunk of His. Who can it be except the god Ganesha?”

“He’s a man from space,” Suhas bleated. “I found him, and he’s my friend the man from space.”

“Shut up,” someone said. “Don’t meddle in your elders’ affairs.”

“But,” Suhas persisted, “he really is a man from space. His rocket crashed somewhere last night and he...”

Someone else cuffed him sharply across the back of the head. “Mind your own business,” he or she said. “Go and do some reading-writing. Talking too big to fit your mouth!”

So Suhas went off a little way, rubbing his head, though he didn’t actually go off to do anything. The whole village was gathered around the man from space by now, and people were bringing him fruit and sweets and flower garlands. He ignored the fruit and sweets and his head was far too big for the garlands. He just moaned a few times.

“He’s talking god-language,” some people said.

“No, no, that’s elephant-language,” others replied. “He’s got an elephant head, so He’s speaking in elephant language.”

“He’s just tired,” others gave their opinion. “It must be a long way from the halls of heaven, after all.”

“Maybe He’s angry,” the remainder replied, shuddering fearfully. “He needs to be in a temple where He can be properly worshipped, not out here in the open.”

“We need to take Him to the temple then,” everybody agreed. “He needs to be put in the temple. That’s only His rightful place.”

But there was a problem, because the only temple in the village was a Shiva temple, since nobody thereabouts had ever worshipped Ganesha. It was also far too small for the man from space to enter, even supposing he wanted to.

“There’s a bigger temple in the town,” someone pointed out. “If we took Him there He could fit in it.”

“Why should we take Him to the town?” other man said angrily. “He came to us, to our village, and you want to force Him away? What kind of blasphemer are you?”

For a moment it looked like the two would come to blows, but the village priest, Pandit Girish Bhot, intervened.

“All we have to do is build a newer and bigger temple,” he said, licking his lips greedily. “The old one’s too small. And now that Ganesha is here in person, there will be much greater pickings...uh, I mean we need a bigger one anyway.”

“It’ll take some days to construct,” people said. “Where does He stay till then?”

“I’ll tell you where He’ll stay,” Suhas’ father, who had long since recovered and wiped the cow faeces off his head, said. “He came to my field, not yours, and He met my brat, not yours – so He’ll stay here on my land until the temple is ready. Got it?”

Girish Bhot looked less than happy, glancing wistfully at the piled fruit and other offerings, among which was an increasing amount of money. “Very well,” he said reluctantly. “But the faster you get a move on with building the temple, the better. And,” he added, with another look at the pile of offerings, all of which was untouchably on Suhas’ father’s land, “not a word to outsiders until the temple is ready and he can move in.”

Of course there had been no school that day, because everyone was there gawking at the man from space, and no other work done either. Fortunately, the policeman, Brijmohan, from the police station in the next village didn’t put in an appearance either, so the news didn’t get out.

All through this the man from space had stood, with his expressionless spherical head towering over the crowd, with only the dangling trunk twitching to and fro. Then, all of a sudden, he raised one of his immense hands and pointed.

Everyone turned to see where he was pointing. It was at Suhas, who was sitting on a branch of the mango tree eating a half-ripe mango, since he’d had nothing else since breakfast.

“The god Ganesha is angry with that boy,” some of them yelled. “Throw him out of here.”

“No, the god Ganesha wants to say something to that boy,” others shouted back. “Bring him here.”

The two factions, once again, may have come to blows, but just then the man from space stepped forward, and, as the crowd melted away before him like water, he went to the tree and gently lifted Suhas out of it.

“The god Ganesha wants to keep the boy with Him!” the people said. “He wants him to be His priest!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Girish Bhot said, turning white. “That slip of a boy can’t be a priest. Why, he...”

He was shouted down. “You think you know more than Ganesha Himself what He wants?”

“Have it your way,” Girish Bhot subsided, muttering angrily. “See if I care when He loses his temper and breaks all your necks.” But nobody paid him any attention.

“My son’s good for nothing else anyway,” Suhas’ father said to Uncle Shomoresh. “He never helps in the field or does any reading-writing, just his story books. So if Ganesha wants him as priest, he’s welcome to him.”

“My son is the greatest,” Suhas’ mum burbled to her neighbour Shreemoyee. “That’s why Ganesha chose him out from all the others in the village. Isn’t my son great?”

“Um, yes,” Shreemoyee said, edging away. “Totally. Absolutely.”

Meanwhile the man from space had taken Suhas by the hand and pulled him into the middle of the plantain grove. There, he sat down with his back against a stout plantain and sat Suhas down next to him.

“I think He wants to be left alone with the boy,” the people said. “He must have divine secrets to tell him.”

“We’ll be back later,” they all decided, drifting away to make lunch.

“Bring more offerings when you do,” Suhas’ father called after them, as his mother began gathering up all the fruit and money as quickly as she could. Soon, only the flowers were left, scattered on the path.

By now it was mid afternoon. The man from space looked at Suhas and made moaning noises.

“I can’t help it,” Suhas said. “They think you’re someone else. A...” he tried to think of how to explain. “A man from heaven, not a man from space. They don’t even know what space is.” He pointed up at the sky through the plantain leaves. “You know...from up there.”

The man from space moaned excitedly. His long fingers fumbled at one of the ridges on his thigh, and a seam seemed to split open. He pulled out a rounded pinkish object.

“What’s that?” Suhas asked, looking at it. It resembled nothing so much as it did a conch like the one Girish Bhot blew in the temple every evening, with a spiral at one end. Holding it up, he fiddled with it.

Suhas wasn’t quite sure what happened next. There was a brief flicker, almost purple, in the air, and an instant when he heard a hooting noise, rather like a conch as well. Then the flicker and the hooting noise seemed to rush skyward as fast as they could go, leaving a great silence behind. Suhas could even hear the yapping of Aunt Shreemoyee’s dog.

“What was that?” he asked. But the man from space had put the pink thing back inside his thigh and only moaned in reply.

“I suppose if must have been frightening when your rocket crashed, wasn’t it?” Suhas asked. “What happened, did lightning hit your rocket? My mother says lightning is an iron rod which falls from the sky and when it hits the earth, gas comes out from holes in it. But my book says it’s elec-tri-city.” He tilted his head and thought of the word, nearly certain he’d said it correctly, but not quite. “When I told my mother that she was wrong she slapped me and told me not to contradict my elders and betters.”

The man from space moaned a little. His moaning sounded commiserating.

“When I grow up,” Suhas said, “I’m going to go to the big city, maybe even Calcutta, and I’ll be a big scientist. Then I’ll make a rocket and go into space and another planet, and I’ll be a man from space myself, just like in the books.”

The man from space moaned encouragingly.

“Of course I can’t expect anyone from here to understand,” Suhas said. “They don’t know anything about life outside the village and they don’t care. They...”

“Suhu,” his mother shouted. “Leave the god a while and come and have your supper.”

“I’ll be back,” Suhas said, rising. “I’m a little hungry, actually. What about you? Should I get you something to eat?”

The man from space moaned in negation. Suhas was really getting very attuned to his moans.

“You probably have something to eat inside your suit,” Suhas said. “Is our earth food poisonous to you?”

The man from space moaned noncommittally.

When Suhas returned it was dark, and fireflies were flitting through the plantains and over the paddy. His mother had given him a kerosene lantern, and in its light he saw that someone had evidently been there, and left another pile of fruit and money. At first he couldn’t see the man from space.

“Man From Space?” he called anxiously. “Where are you?”

There was a moan, and he saw the tall silhouette of the man from space on the other side of the pond. He was standing by the water, shaking himself as though he’d just emerged from it. When he saw Suhas he walked back to the plantains.

“Were you hiding in the pond from the stupid people?” Suhas asked, sitting down next to him. “They won’t do you any harm, you know. They came to worship you, not harm you.” He looked up at the sky. “Which planet did you come from, Mars? All my story books say that men from space come from Mars.”

The man from space looked up at the stars, too, but didn’t say anything.

“Only in the books they always come to earth to invade it, but you aren’t invading it, are you?” Suhas wondered which of the planets was Mars. It was supposed to be red, but they all looked white to him. A mosquito landed on his ankle and he slapped at it. “I wish I could go to space with you. I have no friends here, you know? None of the other village boys wants to play with me. They say I’m weird.”

The man from space moaned enquiringly.

“Yes, I read books other than those they make us study in the school, and I don’t like playing guli-danda with them, and I’d rather watch the stars at night than sit at home reading as loudly as I can from the textbooks so my parents know I’m studying.” He flicked a plantain leaf moodily. “Will you take me with you if you go back to space?”

The man from space moaned.

“I wonder what your planet’s like,” Suhas said. “Does it have red skies and yellow grass? I wish I could see it. Are there people there thinking about you?”

The man from space moaned again.

“So when you go back, I want to go with you.” Suhas rubbed his eyes. “My mother said I can stay with you for the evening, but I’ve got to go back to the house to sleep.” He yawned widely. “Could you call me after some time? I’m feeling as though I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.”

The man from space moaned encouragingly, so Suhas leaned back against the plantain and went to sleep.

He dreamt of the man from space firing a rocket at the sky. The rocket was long and blunt ended, and the man from space threw it up and it went up and up with a trail of violet smoke, and then exploded in tiny points of fire, green and purple and yellow, which were so bright it hurt his eyes to look.

His eyes flicked open. He was lying on his back, and though the lantern had gone out it was not dark.The sky above was filled with points of fire, green and purple and yellow, so bright it hurt his eyes to look.

Sitting up quickly, he looked for the man from space, but he wasn’t there. Scrambling to his feet, he finally saw him, standing by the pond, looking up at the sky. He ran to stand by the man from space’s side.

“What is it?” he asked. “What are you looking...”

Then he didn’t say anything more, because it was obvious what the man from space was looking at. Something huge hung just above the bright sparkling points of light, something so incredibly huge that to Suhas it looked bigger than the village, and though he couldn’t see it clearly because of the lights, it seemed to have wings everywhere.

The man from space took out his pink thing again, and blew on it. The sound was exactly like a conch.

The man from space’s rocket came out of the pond. First the water bulged, as though it was a sheet, and then it burst and fell apart as the rocket emerged. It was so large that it was hard to believe that the pond had been able to hold it at all. And it didn’t come out like the rockets in Suhas’ books, with smoke and fire. It simply came out.

“Don’t go,” Suhas said desperately. “You promised you’d take me with you”. But it was already too late. Reaching out with one of his long arms, the man from space took hold of the rocket and swung himself aboard. He slid into a hole in the top, displacing a wave of scummy water, and blew on his conch again. He reached out and his hand touched Suhas’ briefly.

“Goodbye, then,” Suhas said. “Don’t forget me when you get home.”

The man from space moaned and waved, and then his rocket rose to meet the vast winged object hovering above. There was a last burst of bright light, and then it was gone.

Suhas turned away to see the entire village rushing towards him, drawn to the noise and bright light.

“The god’s gone,” people shouted. “The boy’s driven the god away.”

“I knew he was a rascal,” his father stormed. “Good for nothing, doing nothing all day. No wonder he offended Ganesha. Just you wait till I get you home.”

“He wasn’t a god,” Suhas said desperately. “He was a man from space, and he’s gone back to Mars or wherever he’d come from.”

“The boy’s right,” Girish Bhot said, chuckling. “Don’t beat him. But since we’ve been thinking of making a new temple, we’d better begin making one right away. Next time it might be a real god.”

While they were arguing, Suhas walked away a short distance and looked at the thing in his hand, the thing the man from space had put in it when their hands had touched.

Tiny and pink, the little conch lay glowing on his palm.

He looked at it and suddenly his spirits lifted. In that instant, he knew that all he had to do was blow on it again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016 

That's it, right?

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Nothing Lasts Forever

She found the god just as the long evening shadows blanketed out the day.

Behind her, the ocean beat on the rocky beach, and in front the cliffs soared skyward, their tops lost in the blackness. And in between, there was the god, crouching.

The god was sitting over a small pile of pebbles, picking one up, examining it, putting it down and picking up another. He kept doing it as she approached, never looking up, never picking up the same pebble twice, never putting it down in the exact same place as he’d picked it up.

She stood watching him for a while. The god looked like a boy of maybe six, with hair that was so long that it fell over his face; but of course he was a god, whatever he looked like.

“You’re right,” the god said. “I’m a god.”

She opened her mouth and closed it again. Of course, since he was a god, he’d know what she was thinking.

The god examined a pebble, shook his head, and flicked it away. It bounced on the beach near her foot and rattled off into the darkness.

“You have been looking for me a long time,” the god said.

“I have,” she acknowledged. “And you knew I was coming.”

The god looked up at her at last. His eyes roved over her, indifferently, from the greying hair on her head to the scuffed sandals on her feet. “Yes,” he said. “I knew.”

“You could have gone away,” she said, “if you hadn’t wanted to meet me. But you chose to let me find you here.”

He examined another pebble and put it down. “Why should I go? This is my place, after all. I created it. It’s you who are intruding, and why should I flee from you?”

“Indeed,” she acknowledged. “Why should you flee from me, unless you have a reason to fear me?”

“I have no reason to fear you,” he said. “I am a god.”

“Perhaps you do not,” she acknowledged. “Perhaps you do. We shall see.”

He did not bother to respond. Waves crashed on the beach and the night turned thick and dense, and yet he kept arranging his pebbles.

“And you know why I have been seeking you?” she asked at last.

He tilted his head and studied her. “Does it matter?”

“Does it matter?” she repeated. “I’ve been looking for you all through the shadowed halls of dream. I’ve hunted for you along the cloud-slopes of the hills of myth. I’ve crawled naked through the slime of caverns below the mere imagining, where things with teeth scraped away my skin. And you ask if it matters?”

“Either way,” he said, “now you’ve found me – so what?”

“So now I’ve found you – give him back to me.”

“Give him back to you?” The god picked up another pebble and rolled it between his fingers. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“You know what I mean. He was all I had, and you took him from me.”

“I didn’t take him from you. It was a traffic accident.”

She laughed, bitterly. Her laugh sounded like brittle twigs cracking. Behind her the surf roared on the stones. “And how would it have happened unless you willed it?”

“I don’t will things,” he said, rolling the pebble between his thumb and finger. “Things are as they must be.”

“He was good,” she said. “I’d searched forever and a day until I found him, and I pledged to love him, too, forever and a day. And then it was just like that – a car which jumped a traffic light. He wasn’t even in it.” She laughed again. “Forever and a day, over in a second.”

“There’s no such thing as forever.” He flicked the stone away.

Quick as a striking snake, her hand flashed out and grabbed the pebble. “No,” she said. “No more of that.”

He sat back on his heels and stared at her. “Do you even realise what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I do.” She held up the pebble. “Whose life was this? Whose dreams and happiness were you throwing away on a whim?” She tossed it back on to the pile, one among thousands of others. “Not this time.”

“You...” He jumped up, his eyes blazing. “You have no right to do that.”

“No?” She crossed her arms under her breasts. “But you give yourself the right to play with lives, and amuse yourself with them?”

“I am a god,” he said. It sounded as though he was reminding himself as well as her. “I am a god.”

She looked at him then, really looked at him, and the look that she gave him sent him stumbling several paces back. “Were a god,” she said. “You’ve played with your stones long enough, little boy.”

“No,” he said. He fell to his knees, scrabbling through the pebbles, looking for hers, hunting. “No.”

“Yes. You were a god. You have to earn the right to stay a god. You’ve lost that right. It’s time to grow up now, little boy. It’s time to go home.” She held up a finger. “Haven’t you got it yet? There’s no point in looking for the pebbles any more. They’re”

“You’re dreaming,” he said desperately. “You’re just dreaming.”

“I was,” she acknowledged. “But I’ve woken up now.”

A void opened in the darkness. It began as a tiny spot of pure black, so intensely black that it seemed to suck out the light from the stars overhead. It grew, faster and then yet faster, turning as it expanded, whirling round and round, an open mouth reaching for the god, sucking him in, his fingers sliding, slipping in the spinning dark, his own mouth open and silently screaming as it swallowed him down.

And then he was gone.

The woman stood there for a while. “Nothing lasts forever,” she said, and her voice was low and very calm. “Nothing lasts forever, not even forever and a day.”

Then she kicked over the pile of stones, scattering them, and turned and walked down the beach towards the pounding, sucking, waiting sea.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Monday 29 February 2016


The evening shadows were thick and purple over the eroded eastern hills when the thing awoke.

It awoke little by little, one stage at a time. Somewhere deep inside it, a switch clicked, sending electric impulses which told its brain to become active. Still half-sleeping, it began the process of bringing itself awake. Like a man blinking his eyes, it tested its sensors, turning them on and off one by one; and like him stretching his arms, it turned on the motors mounted behind its wings, its propellers turning, first slowly, tasting the air, and then faster, chewing hungrily.

All around it, inside its underground shelter, was darkness, and, except for the whirring of its electric motors, silence. There were no crew close by, handling trolleys and fuel tanks, watching to see everything went well. No eyes watched. Far away, on the other side of the hard-packed earth of the valley floor, a sentry leaned against the side of an armoured vehicle and glanced incuriously in its general direction; that was all.

Fully awake, now, it went over its mission for the night, step by step. It was not a particularly difficult mission. It was nothing it hadn’t already done before. But still, going over the steps by rote, it checked.

Beneath its long, elegant wings, as long and slender as those of a wandering albatross soaring over the distant sea, were the heavy blunt-headed missiles. It had not used them on its last mission, and they still hung in place, ready and waiting. It checked them, too, and found everything satisfactory. If something had been wrong, this would have been the time for it to attempt to correct them, and if that didn’t work, to call for help from the repair teams. But there was nothing.

Motors humming, it waited for the night.

It was a marvel. Nothing had ever been made like it before, had never even been thought possible outside the writings of authors who imagined they were creating dystopic fiction. In the world in which the stories had placed it, there were fleets of its kind, fighting colossal battles against each other, or against heroic resistance fighters in the wreckage of cities which had been shattered to scrap.

In the world which it actually inhabited, it flew above quarry utterly helpless to fight back, and it hunted alone.

The first stars had just appeared when it finally rolled out of the shelter, up the ramp, and onto the valley floor. Here and there, partly embedded in the earth, were little ultraviolet lights, invisible to human eyes. It could see them, though, and they marked out a path for it, as clear as a signposted highway along the valley floor, past the stretches sown with buried landmines, past the other disguised underground pens and weapon stores.

Reaching the end of the short runway, it checked for wind. The motors picked up speed, the blades spinning faster and faster, the sound running up from a low hum to a moan, the moan to a scream as of the shrieking of the warm evening air being cut apart, and further, to a level almost beyond hearing. It trembled, poised like a gazelle on its tall legs, and then the brakes slipped from its wheels, and it rolled down the hard-packed earth, until the air beneath the long wings was moving fast enough to bear it aloft.

Like a shadow-demon of the night, it rose into the darkling sky, only the agonised susurration of shredded air to mark its passage.

Banking in a great curve, it turned towards the north, towards its hunting grounds.


The sickle moon had begun shimmering over the eastern horizon when it crossed the border. There was, of course, no marker on the ground, no fence or river to mark the frontier, just the wrinkled, rocky hills, one as identical to another. But it had brushed electronic fingers over the ground, and had asked questions to a chunk of metal and plastic and silica spinning round and round the planet high overhead; and the satellite assured it that it was exactly where it had to be.

Raising its nose slightly to bring more of the hunting grounds into view, it climbed.

Sometimes, it had specific prey, one given over to track and consume, a gift to it, to be shared with nobody else. Tonight, as much more often, it had no such quarry; it was merely out to forage for what it could. All night might easily go by, and it might find nothing.

That might have frustrated other hunters, but it knew neither hunger nor frustration. If it found nothing tonight, tomorrow it would come again.

This time, though, it found something almost at once. It was still far away, a tiny speck crawling along a hillside, like an ant along a thread. Diving slightly to pick up speed, but not altering the pitch of its motors beyond that required for maximum endurance, it turned for a closer look.

The closer it came, the more clearly the images grew through its cameras. The thread broadened into a road, the ant into a car, a largish car whose engine sent a heat-image as clear as though it had been driving along at high noon. Its dim headlights fumbled through the night like searching fingers.

Throttling back to keep the vehicle below and ahead, the thing fixed the cameras on it, the image intensifiers going to work. The vehicle was no longer a smear of light on the heat sensors now – it grew, lines sharpening, the broad roof turning from a pale oblong into a sheet of metal on which dents and patches of rust were visible. The back windscreen was a black rectangle moving through the night.

It was possible prey, the thing above decided. The algorithms checked out – a vehicle travelling alone at night, nondescript, battered; it was almost enough to justify consuming it without further delay.

But there were further protocols to follow, a few more things to check; and the road was narrow and twisting, and it had time. Slowing further, allowing itself to sink a little closer to the ground, it whispered to the satellite far above, telling it of its plans.

The headlights, blotches of washed out yellow, flickered along the hillside, unpausing, unaware.

It knew well in advance where the car was going. The satellite, checking its route, whispered back the location of the town that lay ahead; a town the thing had hunted over more than once already. A teeming maze of clogged streets and buildings made of raw brick, it was filled with the Enemy, and filled with prey.

The car below was now promising prey. The thing switched its targeting computer in anticipation of the meal to come. All it needed was the final confirmation.

The car was climbing the hillside, the town on the plateau above a splash of white and yellow light, glitter flung by a giant. The thing lifted up higher, a great bird of prey, one camera tracking the car while the others studied the town, seeking out other meals, other quarry. The propellers whirred.

Entering the town, the car took one side street, and then another. And, as though tied by invisible strings, the thing above followed, too, slipping through the night sky. One of its underwing pylons lowered, pivoting, an electric impulse arming the stubby, heavy missile. The thing was getting ready to eat.

At this hour, though it was still relatively early, the town’s streets were already deserted. A lorry passed in the distance, piled high with boxes; possible quarry, but not this time, not for now. A movement in a dark alley, a smear of heat in the infrared camera, but too far away and too brief to follow, even though it seemed as furtive as it was momentary.

And then, all of a sudden, the car turned to the side of the street and stopped.

It stopped so suddenly that the raptor above was taken by what passed with it for surprise. It had already passed overhead, and had to turn in a tight, wheeling semicircle to come back towards it. But at no point had its cameras lost sight of the vehicle, not for a moment; and they  watched as the man got out of the car and slammed the door shut.

There it was, the final confirmation. The man fitted all the specifications. He was about forty, and heavily muscled, his shoulders bulging under his shirt. He had a thick beard, visible clearly in the camera’s eye; and he carried a bag in one hand, a large bag, more than bog enough to pack weapons and explosives, which was heavy enough that he set it down on the pavement for a moment before picking it up again.

Crosshairs moved to intersect over the man’s torso. The thing sent one more impulse down the wires, to the missile under the wing.

The waiting was over; the time had come to eat.

Nothing happened. The missile did not go streaking down to turn the prey into a ball of erupting fire and fragmented flesh. People in the neighbouring houses did not throw themselves under their beds as their windows blew in, showering glass on them. Quickly, the thing tried again, sending the impulse once more.

Again, nothing happened. Some tiny component, some bagatelle, a microchip or relay or electrical connection had failed, and the missile would not fire.

There were other missiles, of course, but they would have to be armed and targeted, and the thing had already overshot the quarry. Banking so hard that it almost stood on a wingtip, it turned again, fulfilling its orders, though knowing that it was already too late.

It was already too late. The man had disappeared into one of the buildings beside the alley, and there was no telling which. Also, the programming didn’t allow strikes on houses without specific orders. And in this case there were no specific orders.

 If it had been human, it might have been furious and frustrated. Instead, all it did was rise higher and turn back towards the frontier, towards its base on the valley floor, and its pen under the sheltering ground.

The quarry had escaped this time; but there would be other prey, and it would be back again.


As he waited for his wife to open the door, the man frowned and shook his head. For some time he’d been having the strangest feeling that he was being watched and followed. Once or twice he’d turned his head to look, but the road behind his car had stayed dark and empty.

Well, whatever it was, it was gone now.

His wife opened the door, her face tense, and relaxed visibly when she saw him. “Why were you so late?” she asked, pulling at his arm in her haste to get him inside. “I was so worried!”

“I was held back at the hospital,” the man said. “Two emergency surgeries, and of course the phone network was down.”

“It’s Papa,” the woman called over her shoulder. “She was waiting up for you,” she said with a distracted smile. “She kept saying she wouldn’t go to sleep till you were back. I think she’s gone to sleep now, though.”

“It’s all right,” the man said, dropping the bag with the groceries on the floor. “I couldn’t get her doll, I’m afraid. It wasn’t there in the usual shop, and I didn’t have time to go looking elsewhere.”

“You can get it another time,” the woman said. Her eyes brimmed with sparkling tears. “I’m just so glad you’re back safe. I kept having the most awful thoughts.”

“I’m fine,” the man said, and once more he remembered that strange feeling of being followed and watched. Well, if there had been something it was probably keeping him safe anyway.

“You work so hard,” the woman said. “And I worry about you so much. You’re all we have, the two of us.”

“I’m fine,” he repeated, and drew his wife to him with his fine delicate surgeon’s hands. “Don’t worry. Everything’s all right.”

Blinking away the tears, she reached out and hugged him as though she’d never let him go.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Sunday 28 February 2016

Lucknow and Memory: Photo Feature 2016

Some weeks ago, as I’d said here, I was in Lucknow. For a few hours, I wandered through old haunts, seeing how the city had changed. Some of the changes were expected, even positive; Lucknow is no longer the overgrown village it had been when I used to study there two decades ago. Some of the changes, on the other hand, were disconcerting.

I only paid a brief visit to my alma mater, where I discovered that I was most definitely an outsider. The last time I’d been there, back in December 2014, I’d been part of a group – the 25th anniversary of our class – and accepted and welcomed. This time, I felt like a total stranger, a fifth wheel. I wasn’t a student, a staff member, or a patient, and so nobody really knew how to behave with me. I didn’t linger long.

Here’s the dental department. Back when I was a student, this was a crumbling building housing a couple of laboratories and lecture halls while the main department was on the other side of the street.

This is the main gate of the college. Back when I was a student the statue didn't exist.

This is the bridge across the Gomti river, behind the college, which I used to cross four times a day back in 1990 to classes and back.

In early 1990, there was a murder down there on the bank on the other side - a man stabbed with iron rods and his head smashed with a rock to prevent identification. I don't know if they ever found the culprit.

TG Hall: this used to be the hostel where I lived in 1989-90. Back then it was a dusty yard surrounded on three sides by a crumbling two storey ancient building with stairs at the corners and a pump in the middle for water. Look at it now.

Nine storeys, and lifts and all.

I think I would like this guy.

I walked the streets for hours. This area, Chowk, once had raw brick buildings and the lanes were packed earth. Now it’s a market of sorts.

There used to be a great little shop at this corner, where we students used to buy excellent sweet milk drinks (lassi). It was an institution. Gone, and replaced by a...shoe store.

This is called the Bada Imamabara, built in the 18th century. Although it’s just behind the college, in all my years in Lucknow I’d only visited it twice before. The big gate is called the Rumi Darwaza.

Part of it has a maze called the Bhulbhulaiya which legend says is impenetrable without a guide. I went all the way through it and back again in an hour, without a guide of any sort. I detest tourist guide patter anyway.

Look at the way we Indians “respect our ancient culture”:

It’s verboten to wear footwear inside the Imambara – but scribbling on walls is fine.

This is the Martyr's Memorial. I used to come here sometimes on summer evenings to relax.

A godawful tacky “park” allegedly commemorating India’s so-called victory in the 1999 “war” in Kargil (Kashmir):

I can think of better ways of commemoration than those awful figurines.

Here’s a squirrel to make you feel better.

Here is where I learnt German and met a certain young woman who, shall we say, taught me certain things. No, I don’t know where she is now.

This is the downtown of Lucknow, Hazratganj. It used to be a ritual for us back then to wander around here on Saturday evening, an activity known as "Ganjing". The benches weren't there then.

One thing about Lucknow that has emphatically not changed is the horrible traffic. I wouldn't dare drive here.

This is the cathedral. Directly opposite was a movie theatre called Mayfair which was the only one in Lucknow which regularly screened English movies. Gone.

This part of Hazratganj is called Janpath. 

Near here, in 1990, on the left of the picture, was a signboard for an electronics shop advertising “Video and Nudio.”

There used to be a wonderful book store called Hobby Corner here, right next to this henna booth, where you could find out-of-print books at farcically low prices; I bought HR Trevor Roper’s The Last Days Of Hitler there for just twenty rupees, among others. Gone.

These fountains didn’t exist back then, though. Not all change is bad.

Sunrise over Lucknow as I left at dawn the next day.

Overall, it was a distinctly mixed experience. If it were not for a couple of old friends I met and who made me feel welcome, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go back again.