Friday 22 April 2016

For Earth Day

Ladies and Gentlemen, in honour of Earth Day, here is an animal I have painted before and will almost certainly paint again: India’s National Aquatic Animal, the Ganges River Dolphin, Platanista gangetica. Note the elongated rostrum (“beak”), the tiny eyes – little more than pits in the sides of the head – and the swollen, prominent melon (“forehead”). This animal is functionally blind and relies entirely on sonar and touch for navigation and hunting.

Title: Ganges Dolphin
Material: Acrylic on Paper
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Thursday 21 April 2016

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Expected answer: To get to the other side.

Actual answers:

Social Justice Warrior: It’s a white chicken walking right over a black-topped road, so it’s obviously racism. And it’s even worse because the white chicken is dynamic and the black road can’t even move!

Barack Hussein Obama: I have only two words for this chicken: Predator Drone. I’m really good at killing chickens. [Dutiful titters from audience.] Now give me another Nobel Peace Prize.

Donald Trump: It’s an illegal immigrant chicken coming to steal the egg laying jobs of American chickens, I am going to build a wall across the road to stop it, and I’m going to make the chicken pay for it. And it’s gonna be yuge!

Killary Klingon: What difference does it make anyway? We came, we saw, the chicken died. Vote for me!

John Kerry: The chicken was a Russian invader carrying out yet another invasion of Ukraine. We will immediately send more arms and money and trainers to Ukrainian Nazi militias to help them repel it.

Angela Merkel: We don’t see that blaming anyone is helpful, hope the question of the chicken and the road can be successfully and peacefully resolved through diplomatic negotiations and...[gets phone call from White House]...Jawohl, mein F├╝hrer! Heil!...[puts down phone, wipes sweat from brow]...what was I saying? Yes, it’s all totally Putin’s fault! We will impose more sanctions at once!

Sultan Erdogan: It was a journalist chicken making jokes about me, so I was totally justified in locking it up in a cage and throwing the key away!

Binyamin Netanyahu: Its attempt to cross is an existential threat to Israel, and we are totally justified in dropping 50 million tons of bombs on Gaza at once! And you're anti-Semitic if you criticise this!

Hindunazis: Was it a Hindu chicken or a Muslim chicken? If it was a Hindu chicken, it was an innocent female chicken trying to escape from evil Muslim persecution. If it was a Muslim chicken, it was an evil male chicken looking to seduce innocent female Hindu chickens for a “love jihad”. And we will never give up Kashmir!

Indian patriots: Why is the chicken naked? Naked chickens are a threat to Indian Culture! And we will never give up Kashmir!

Mamata Bannerjee: The chicken crossing the road is a conspiracy of all my opponents to defame me!

The Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi: It was a brave true believer chicken which carried out a successful martyrdom operation with suicide explosives against Assad murtaddin on the other side of the road! Allahu Akbar!

The Guardian: In order to stop all these disputes about chickens and roads, Assad must be overthrown at once!

King Salman al Saud: The chicken is an Iranian-backed Houthi terrorist! [Bombs Yemeni marketplace, killing 200 people] Oh, thanks, Obama, for these new weapons with which to bomb even more markets!

US Supreme Court: It was Iran’s fault that the chicken crossed the road, and Iran must pay $2 billion as compensation.

Adolf Hitler: It is necessary to preserve the pure Aryan racial essence of the chicken, and in order to do that and to secure its birthright of Lebensraum, the chicken is crossing the road to subdue the inferior Negroid and Semitic races of chickens on the other side. The law of survival is a cruel one, and the chicken is fully justified in seeking the improvement of its Aryan racial essence over the inferior chicken races.

Climate change deniers: Ha ha ha, it’s cool enough for the chicken to cross the road, which means global warming is a myth! Ha ha ha!

Creationists: Ha ha ha, if evolution actually existed the chicken would have evolved a way to get across without having to walk across. Ha ha ha, evolution is a myth!

Richard Dawkins: I haven’t read the chicken’s justification for crossing the road, but I often say chickens crossing roads are the greatest force for evil today. And since crossing roads is something you can decide to do, being anti-chicken is not racist!

Sam Harris: We should racially profile all chickens, and any bird which even looks as though it might be a chicken. And if a chicken coop ever gets the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon, we should pre-emptively nuke it at once!

Celebrities: People are all talking about the chicken instead of me. Boo hoo hoo! And here I am with my new leaked sex tape and silicone implants and nobody noticed! Boo hoo hoo!

Hollywood: Can we make a film about a giant mutant chicken crossing a road to threaten an innocent, white, American family? Can we get Tom Cruise to act in it?

Mark Zuckerberg: [At meeting] How can Facebook monetise the chicken crossing the road and use it to mine data to sell to advertisers? I’m waiting for suggestions!

Pharmaceutical companies: We can create a demand for a drug to reduce the neurotic desire of chickens to cross roads. How fast can our labs create and patent a drug molecule for this?

Monsanto: Was it a GMO chicken? Our GMO chickens not only do not cross roads, they don’t lay fertile eggs, so you have to buy new chickens from us each year! And GMO is good for you!

Aung Sang Suu Kyi: I will not answer questions about chickens. I did not know that you were a chicken, or I would not have agreed to this interview.

Pope Francis: Chickens crossing roads should be allowed to do so without hindrance; chickens are creations of God too. It's terrible how chickens are being treated. [Goes off to enjoy chicken dinner.]

PETA: How dare anyone keep chickens in captivity? Domestic chickens are an abomination! This chicken should at once be euthanised, and all other domestic birds as well!

Maoists: To bring revolutionary thought to the oppressed peasantry on the other side of the road. Love live the revolution!

South Korea: Kim Jong Un has issued a decree banning North Korean chickens from crossing roads, and ordered all North Korean women to grow hairdos like chickens. And all North Koreans are starving to death! And it's your duty to believe all this!

Albert Einstein: Depending on your frame of reference, the chicken is marking time in one place and the road is moving under it. Also, whichever of them is moving, time is passing slower for it than for the other one.

Stephen King: When the chicken crossed the road in Castle Rock, Maine, it did not know that it was about to set off a chain of events involving a three-hundred-year old curse and a 900 page book I’m going to write, which will involve murderous chicken demon clowns with maggots instead of eyes.

Sigmund Freud: Obviously, the desire of the chicken to cross the road lies in its inner conflict with its sexual identity, and the latent homosexual pathology which is subconsciously forcing it across the road in search of a cure.

Anti-vaccine activists: The vaccines the chicken was given were infected with enzymes which cause uncontrollable road crossing! STOP VACCINES NOW! 25 Reasons the chicken crossed the road! Number 16 will shock you!

Judean People’s Front: It’s a People’s Front of Judea chicken SPLITTER!!!!!!!

Liberals: The freedom-loving gay chicken is being forced to flee across the road because of the tyranny of a Putin-supported LGBT-hating dictator! We must launch a humanitarian invasion and regime change operation at once to protect the chicken! Won’t anybody think of the chicken?!?

Chicken and Road: Why the hell can’t you people all find something else to obsess over?

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Save the Taenia solium! Sign now!


Demand that immediate and urgent steps be taken to protect Taenia solium right now, and save it from going extinct!


Dear friends,

While the world is, not without justification, obsessive about the fates of elephants and seals, bears and tigers, whales and fruit bats, it is unconscionable that we’re neglecting other creatures which are sliding towards extinction; animals which might not, by conventional standards, be “cute”, but which have exactly as much right to survive as a wolf or a dolphin, a platypus or a rhinoceros.

Most of these poor animals have no one to think of them, nobody to speak for them. Nobody makes cartoon characters based on them, there are no stuffed children’s toys of them. Animal rights activists do not march on the street waving placards in their defence. Hardly anyone will know or even care if, or rather when, they go extinct.

And yet these are living creatures too, as much as you or me or your dog. They have hopes and dreams, and they feel pain and sorrow; we have no right to deny them what we give freely to creatures which, simply by an accident of evolution, appeal to our aesthetic senses.

Let us consider Taenia solium, for instance. This poor creature is so misunderstood that its common name is even used as a synonym for greedy – and, yet, far from being greedy, it does not even have an intestinal canal at all!

Taenia solium has a hard and dangerous life enough as it is. It starts off life as a tiny, teeny egg, one among millions and millions of others, all of them desperately competing for a chance to survive. Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to fight against millions and millions of siblings if you wanted to survive? How would you like to start off life like that?!?

This tiny, tiny egg – having spent its entire previous existence snug and warm in its parent’s body – is suddenly thrust out into the hard, cold, cruel world. If it is fortunate enough not to be washed away, or dried out – fates that affect almost all its siblings, my friends – it has to somehow manage to get eaten along with food; and food which has not been boiled or cooked. If the food is boiled or cooked, the poor, poor egg will be cooked alive, too, scalded to death in its little shell along with the new baby inside. Can you imagine cooking a chick or duckling alive in its shell? Then how can you condone what happens to this poor Taenia?

But its travails do not end, my dear friends, even if it’s fortunate enough to be eaten with uncooked food, which has not been washed so the poor dear egg is flushed away. It can’t be eaten by just anything or anybody; no, the egg will have to be swallowed by a pig.  Yes, a pig. Nothing else will do!

Can you imagine how fortunate our poor baby Taenia must be even to get so far? How many million die in the attempt, and just one might succeed?

Now, once in the pig’s stomach, our egg has a chance to hatch. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe; not at all! From the pig’s stomach, it has to survive the acids and juices of the creature’s digestive system, and then burrow through the immensely tough intestinal wall to get into the blood. How tough is the intestinal wall? Well, it doesn’t rip apart if you eat fish bones and the like, does it? And you’re a mere human. A pig’s is much, much tougher still.

And then what happens when our egg gets to the blood? It must find pig muscle, and burrow into it. If it loses its way, and reaches an eye or the brain, it won’t do. The pig might get seizures or go half-blind, and be eaten by a predator. No, we need our baby to find its home in pig muscle. There, temporarily – but, sadly, only temporarily – safe, it can make itself a home. If it were so lucky as to own a mouth, it could have fed; but it has no such thing, and cannot even revel in the sensation of taste. As you tuck into your gourmet meal, this poor creature can only helplessly absorb nutrients through its integument, what in your case would be a skin!

And all this is in addition to having to fight off the pig’s natural defences, its immune system! At every moment, the baby has to fight antibodies and white blood corpuscles, a bitter chemical warfare, just to stay alive! While we cry for children gassed in Syria, this poor, helpless egg is being attacked by far more dangerous chemicals, ones which might digest it alive, every single minute!

In any case, this reprieve in the pig’s muscle is only temporary. Our poor dear Taenia is in a race against time now; it has to stop being an egg and grow up into a little bladder, before anyone kills and eats the pig. Otherwise, all the effort will go to naught – the poor creature will die, wasted, a tragedy; a bud nipped before it could spread its petals in the sun and its perfumes in the wind.

And what happens when the egg finally grows into a little bladder? Well, then, it still has to wait – it has to wait for someone to kill and eat that pig. If nobody does, if the snouted, rooting creature lives to a grand old age and dies somewhere to decompose to food for scavengers, it won’t do. The scavengers will simply eat our dear little Taenia, and digest it alive.

No, the pig has to be killed and eaten – but not by a tiger or a hyena, a wolf or a lion. No! A human, and only a human, has to kill and eat the pig; and this human, once more, cannot boil or thoroughly cook the pig meat, or the poor Taenia will writhe around in torment as it is slowly, painfully, cooked to death.

As we can all see, the chances of one tiny egg winning through to get into food are small; to get into a pig, smaller still; for that pig to be killed and eaten by a human after the egg becomes a bladder, even smaller; and for the bladder to be swallowed, uncooked, by a human so small as to be almost infinitesimal. And you think winning a lottery is hard? Shame on you.

And what happens if, after all this struggle, our bladder enters the human? Well, its journey is by no means over. Before it can get washed away along with the food, it must pull its tiny little head out of the bladder, and with the cute little suckers on that head, and the hooks on the end, grab hold of the lining of the intestine – grab hold so tight that it can’t be torn away. And then, only then, is its long journey over, and it can have a little rest.

Not that life is kind to it, even then. No! Even as our Taenia now can let itself grow, turning from a bladder to an adult, it must go through the same yearnings as you or me, the same surges of romantic feeling, but they’re always, always, unrequited! It’s hardly surprising that almost never will two Taenias be so fortunate as to survive the appalling journey to reach the same human; even less, that they will be able to hold on to the intestinal lining close enough that they can meet and fall in love. One might possibly lie in one loop of small intestine, and another just another loop away – and yet they could be as far from each other as the far side of the moon. All the poor Taenia can do is grow older and bud off bits of itself from its rear end, filled with eggs which it must create by fertilising itself, since no other can do it.

Can you imagine living, not just without sex, but having to fertilise yourself if you choose to reproduce? Can you?

Such is the tragedy of the poor Taenia, my friends. Surely it deserves some pity? Some peace and quiet for the rest of its life? After all, it wants nothing more now than to stay where it is. It doesn’t cause any fever; it is even beneficial; after all, when its human overeats, the Taenia will loyally absorb the surplus and make sure that human doesn’t get fat from it. You’d think the human would be grateful to it.

But no, gratitude is something it never gets. Just as the poor animal finally has a real home in which to spend the rest of its life, just as it can, as it were, sigh with relief, what happens? Some antihelminthic tablet comes rolling down the human’s throat, and sends poison rushing down on the poor helpless Taenia solium!

Just imagine what it must feel like for the poor creature. As I said, it does not even have a mouth to eat with, or the equivalent of lungs with which to breathe. It is, in fact, totally environment friendly; it absorbs food through its integument, or skin, and what little breathing it does, it does through its skin as well. It cannot, obviously, overeat or waste resources in any way. And, equally obviously, its skin, being what it uses for these functions, is as tender as the inside of your mouth and the lining of your lungs.

So imagine what the poor, terrified animal must go through as a torrent of poison comes rushing down on it, attacking it all along its body! It’s completely helpless. It can’t run away. It can’t close its mouth or hold its breath until the poison goes away. All it can do is writhe helplessly in agony as its skin burns, taking in the evil chemicals that the poor beast knows will bring its death.  

Can you imagine what your emotions would be if it were, say, a mouse in a cage which was being gassed with chemicals, and you were forced to watch? Would you not call it animal cruelty? So what stops you from rising up in protest at the agony suffered by the poor Taenia? Merely that it’s not cute?

Let me repeat: not only does this poor animal deserve peace after all it’s gone through; it doesn’t even ask for anything more than to be left in that peace. It does not, cannot, waste food or oxygen. If anything, it deserves a place of honour, statues put up in its honour, novels and poems written in praise of its struggle and valour.

Instead, it is called a parasite and poisoned to death by people who feel self-righteous while doing it.

We, therefore, demand that Taenia solium must be protected fully and without further delay. To this end, we propose the following steps:

First, that Taenia solium be placed immediately on the list of endangered creatures.

Secondly, that animal rights organisations, in particular PETA, immediately use all means at their disposal to bring to the general public’s notice the plight of this poor animal. If baby seals can be loved and protected, why can’t baby Taenia?

Third, that these poisons which murder the poor helpless Taenia solium, these so-called antihelminthics, be banned immediately.

Fourth, that people’s aesthetic senses need to be forcibly changed. If they can like an obese, huge mouthed, oily-skinned, nearly hairless, almost insanely aggressive animal such as a hippopotamus, why can’t they spare a moment to appreciate a three metre-long white ribbon of segmented ribbon-flesh, with a tiny sucker and hook-studded head at the end? Why can’t they make Taenia toys and sell them to children? Why can’t they sell Taenia eggs as diet aids, a friend that will reside inside you, just under your heart, always there to help when you eat too much, a friend closer than any other, one which will never let you down?

Help save the Tapeworm! Sign the petition today! 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016 

The Deal

Monday 18 April 2016

An Evening At The Bazaar

It was a chilly evening, and the small knot of women who had gathered at the corner of the bazaar huddled around a smoking charcoal brazier, occasionally waving a hand when the smoke blew into their faces.

“So Robinson Sahib went home to Vilayat?” Munni Devi asked Sheetal. Her eyes glittered in the glow of the charcoal avid for gossip. “Why?”

Sheetal shrugged noncommittally. She was a slim, pretty girl, seventeen and still not married, and this was the cause of considerable comment among the other women. It was not decent for a girl of seventeen not to be married. What was even worse was that she was rumoured to be able to read and write. “It’s not my business,” she said, not looking up from the fire. “He went home because he wanted to, I suppose.”

Munni Devi snorted. “Don’t give me that. You know what they say about him and you?”

Sheetal looked up quickly. “About me and Robinson Sahib?  Who are they? What do they say?”

“Never you mind.” Munni Devi savoured the silence and the uneasy glances that went around the charcoal brazier. “But Robinson Sahib had no wife, and the other memsahibs at the Officer’s Club didn’t give him the time of day. We all know that.”

“Despite all his yellow hair and those lovely blue eyes,” Ram Dulari mourned. Her broad face wagged in mock sorrow. “I would have gladly thrown away my old scarecrow of a husband if only Robinson Sahib had looked my way once, but what can you do? He had his eye on a younger morsel.”

Munni Devi looked at Ram Dulari, torn between embracing her as an ally and resenting her trying to take over the conversation. “Yes,” she said finally. “And if the younger morsel has a baby one of these months, I’ll bet it has yellow hair and blue eyes, too.”

“Likely the morsel would think that only that kind of baby would be good enough for her,” Ram Dulari said triumphantly. “Our own men aren’t to her taste. What do you say?”

Sheetal looked from one face to another, and saw only a mix of curiosity, hostility and a smidgen of triumph. She wanted to get up and leave, but knew that if she did so, the entire village would be talking of nothing else by tomorrow morning.

“I never shared Robinson Sahib’s bed,” she said. “I am not going to have his baby. You all know this as well as I do.”

“Oh, but you know why he went home to Vilayat, don’t you?” Munni Devi said. “The real reason? After all, everyone saw how he was fine in the evening, when he came back from the Burra Sahib’s office, and the next morning he was running around emptying his bungalow, and left in the afternoon.”

“You were the only one in the bungalow with him,” Ram Dulari said. “You cooked and cleaned for him. And you stayed in the bungalow all that night with him; everyone in the village knows that. You really think we’re such fools as to think you didn’t open your legs for him?”

“Let’s say you didn’t lie with him. But then...” Munni Devi leaned as far towards Sheetal as the charcoal fire would allow. “If you don’t know why he left, who does?”

Sheetal looked around the faces once more, one by one. “All right,” she said. “I’ll tell you what I know. And then you can think whatever you want to.”


I know well enough none of you like me, [Sheetal said] and that you’d be happy enough to believe anything at all you hear about me, as long as it’s a lie. I know you would like nothing better than to imagine that I’m carrying Robinson Sahib’s child, and that I asked him to marry me, and that’s why he ran away. But that’s not true, and even if you all want to believe that, it won’t become true.

The truth of the matter is that Robinson Sahib never touched me. He never even looked at me in that way – his eyes were always for Evans Sahib’s daughter, Miss Charlotte. You all know Miss Charlotte. But she would never even smile at him.

He had a small portrait of her, I don’t know where he got it from, in the top drawer of the desk by his bed. I wasn’t allowed to touch that drawer when I was cleaning. He always kept it locked. Each night he would come in from the club, take the portrait out and look at it for a long time – half an hour, maybe more. He would do nothing to the portrait, wouldn’t kiss it or hold it to his heart. He would just sit motionless and stare at it. And if he saw me looking in while he was staring at the portrait, he would get up and close the door.

One evening, a week before he left, he came into the kitchen when I was chopping vegetables for his dinner. “Sheetal,” he said. He always called me by my name, not Hey You like some of the Sahibs do, like Jenkins Sahib whom I used to work for. That was one good thing about Robinson Sahib, he would talk to you like you were a person. “Sheetal, you know I love Charlotte Evans.”

I did not say anything. It is better in these situations not to say anything.

“I would do anything in the world to marry her,” he continued, as though I’d responded. “But that old fool Evans has poisoned her mind against me, I think. She won’t even look at me now, and she used to be friendly as anything once.”

“I am sorry, Sahib,” I said.

“Do you know – have you heard Charlotte say anything about me?”

“Miss Charlotte does not talk to me, Sahib.”

“I’ve got to do something,” he said, restlessly going to the kitchen window, looking out, and coming back again. “She’ll go back to England next summer, and I’ve no idea what will happen then. Maybe she’ll meet some bounder and take up with him.”

“Your dinner will be ready in an hour, Sahib,” I said.

He merely pulled up his chair and looked at me chopping vegetables, while he lit his pipe. After some he cleared his throat. “Sheetal,” he said, “do you know anyone who could help?”

“How do you mean, Sahib?” I asked.

“You know what I’m talking about,” he replied. That was another thing about Robinson Sahib, he didn’t treat us like little children who have to have everything explained to them. “You natives know things we’ve forgotten in the West, if we ever knew them. The old witch-women, perhaps, they knew them, but everyone’s forgotten it now.”

I put the cabbages I was slicing down. “Sahib,” I asked, “are you telling me that you want to find someone to cast magic for you to get Miss Charlotte?”

“What else?” he said impatiently, puffing at his pipe. “Do you know anyone?”

“I would not advise you to do that, Sahib,” I said. “For one thing, I don’t believe it will do any good. For another...” I hesitated.

He stared at me through a cloud of pipe smoke. “What?”

“Sahib,” I said, “do you really think it would be fair to Miss Charlotte, to turn her head with magic? If she won’t come to you of her own desire, wouldn’t it be right not to force her?”

“That’s none of your concern,” he said. “In any case, it’s not as though I would be forcing her. I just want to remove the poison old Evans has put in her mind about me. After that she can do as she wants.”

I didn’t say anything for a moment. “Sahib,” I said at last, “I don’t know much about these things, but from what I hear it might not be safe.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he repeated. “Do you know someone or don’t you?”

I thought back to my uncle from Lakhanpur village on the other side of the river. Three or four years ago, I’d gone to visit his family, and then the thing had happened with his neighbour Yashpal. Yashpal had a son who had the bleeding sickness, ever since he was a small child. Yashpal had killed a snake when his wife was pregnant, and he said the boy’s sickness was the result of the curse of the snake’s mate. Then when I was there he called in the witch-man to get rid of the curse and cure the boy.

 I don’t know what the witch-man did; I wasn’t allowed to watch, though a lot of the adults in the village went. The witch-man did something, at any rate, and by morning, the boy’s bleeding had stopped. But the adults who went to watch didn’t want to talk about what they’d seen, even to each other.

“I know someone who once called in a witch-man,” I said to Robinson Sahib. “But that’s all I know about it.”

“I’ll see to it,” he said, sitting up straight in the chair. “Who is it and where does he live?”

That, as I said, was a week before Robinson Sahib left. The next day was the Sahib-people’s church day, but instead of going to church Robinson Sahib took his horse and went away early in the morning, telling me to wait until he returned, and that he’d be back in a few hours. He actually came back late at night, and went straight to bed, not touching the food I’d made. He didn’t say a word to me about what had happened, but I guessed he’d been to Lakhanpur and talked to Yashpal.

The next day onwards things went back to the old routine. Each night Robinson Sahib would come back and stare at his portrait, and he still closed the door if he saw me peeking. He didn’t talk about Miss Charlotte or the witch-man to me again, and by the middle of the week I decided he’d given up on the idea.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One afternoon, he was late returning from work, and I saw him looking at a scrap of paper in his hand as he walked up the path to the bungalow door. When he saw me, he put the paper quickly inside his pocket. After that he went straight to his room and kept the door closed for an hour or more.

That evening, he stopped me just as I’d finished making his dinner and was preparing to leave. “Sheetal,” he said, “I want you to stay here tonight.”

“Sahib?” I said, astonished. “What...?”

“I’ll make it worth your while, don’t worry.” He shook his head. “It’s not what you think. I’m expecting a...visitor...and I don’t want to be alone when he comes.”

Then I understood that he had received some kind of message, and that it was to do with the witch-man; and I also realised that he was frightened. I had never seen a sahib frightened before. I didn’t know it was possible. He hid it well, but I could see it in his eyes; not just fear, but mixed with eagerness, as though he knew something was going to happen that was terrible but which he wanted desperately anyway.

“You’re the only one I can trust,” he said. “So I’m, I’m begging you, Sheetal. I’m begging you to stay here tonight.”

I’d had it in my mind to refuse, for I knew that if I stayed, my reputation in the village, already low, would be dirt. But when I saw the helpless pleading in his eyes I couldn’t say no. I could never have believed that I’d see a sahib grovel, begging me on his knees. But that night I did.

So I stayed. He asked me to have dinner with him, for the first time ever, and I did, though neither of us did more than pick at the food. Afterwards he lit his pipe and sat back in his chair, taking out the scarp of paper from his pocket and reading and rereading it anxiously.

“Sahib,” I said at last, “just what is it that you...”

At that moment there was a sound at the back door, the kitchen door. It wasn’t a knock, but a scraping noise as though someone was scratching at the wood with his nails. Robinson Sahib, waving me back, jumped up and opened the door.

“Come in,” he said. His voice had no expression at all. It was like wood.

A man entered. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about him to look at. He was quite old, wrinkled, dark as sun-burned wood, and from the dirty white turban on his head to the cracked shoes on his feet could have been any farmer from this country. But there was something in his eyes, something I can’t describe, but which I’d never seen in anyone else. His eyes did not look as though they saw what anyone else saw; it was as though he was watching something else entirely; when he looked at you it was as though he was actually looking at something just behind your shoulder.

He had a large cloth bundle in one hand, which he dropped unceremoniously before squatting on the floor. “I am here,” he said without greeting.

“Thank you for coming,” Robinson Sahib said.

The witch-man began untying he bundle. “I did not want to come. My magic is for my people, not yours, and is not to be used lightly. But your threats left me no choice.”

“I will pay you well,” Robinson Sahib said.

The witch-man glanced up from his bundle. “That I do not doubt,” he said. “You will pay well, in one currency or another.” I noticed that he did not call him “Sahib,” or indeed make any attempt to be deferential. And though he was smaller than either of us, and was squatting on the floor while we were both standing, it was as though he filled the room with his presence. Even the oil lamp with the glass chimney seemed to grow dim.

“So,” he said, throwing some pebbles on the floor. “You want the woman to come to you. Are you certain you want it?”

“Yes,” Robinson Sahib said. His voice was again filled with that eagerness along with the fear.

“I will ask you again in a little while.” The witch-man took out a small pot from his sack and shook out some reddish powder, with which he marked patterns around the pebbles he’d thrown. “You, girl.”

I started. “Me?”

He didn’t even look up at me. “You’re a woman, the one he calls is a woman. Blood calls to blood. I need some blood from you.” His arm shot out and gripped me by the wrist before I could even think of drawing back. I felt a sharp, momentary pain in my finger, and saw a tiny hooked blade disappearing back into his bag. Dark red drops of my blood, almost black in the lamplight, began falling on the floor. He held my hand over each of the pebbles in turn, so my blood sprinkled over them, and nodded before releasing me.

“I will ask you again,” he said to Robinson Sahib, as I sucked my finger. The cut was tiny, but blood kept welling out. “Do you want the woman to come?”

“I do,” Robinson Sahib whispered.

“I will ask you again in a little while,” the witch-man said. “Now get me her likeness and something that belongs to her. I know you have something.”

Robinson Sahib nodded and went to his room. I heard the key turn and the drawer pulled open. The witch-man looked at me.

“You will need that blood, girl,” he said, his strange eyes apparently looking at something behind me. “Do not try to stop it.” He took out something from his bag which was like an old book, the pages made of thin wooden plaques tied together with a cord through a hole at one corner. “You will not call on me, ever.”

“I won’t.” I shook my head. “I didn’t want him to.”

The witch-man nodded. Robinson Sahib came back in, holding out the portrait and a large pink handkerchief with frilly edges of the kind memsahibs use. “This is hers.” He must have stolen it from her and kept it in the drawer. Heaven only knows what else was in it.

The witch-man took the handkerchief, tore it into pieces, and put one piece over each of the stones daubed with my blood. The pink cloth turned dark with the blood. He looked up at Robinson Sahib.

“Do you want the woman to come?” he repeated. “I will not ask you again.”

Robinson Sahib’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “Yes,” he said at last.

“Very well.” The witch-man opened a page of his wooden book, touched it to the face of Miss Charlotte on the portrait, and then took up the pieces of handkerchief and wiped the portrait with them. My blood smeared all over it, until her face was obscured. “Now I am going,” he said, putting the pot, pebbles and book back into his bag. “I have done my job. I do not wish to remain here any longer.”

“But,” Robinson Sahib began. “Charlotte...”

“The woman will come. What you do then is up to you.” The witch-man picked up his bag and went to the kitchen door. He turned to dart one last, bleak look at us. “Girl,” he said. “Remember what I told you.” And then he was gone.

For a little while neither Robinson Sahib nor I said anything. Everything was silent except for a jackal’s call in the distance. He seemed unwilling, almost unable, to move. The portrait lay on the floor where the witch-man had left it. At last I stirred. “Shall I go now, Sahib?”

“No,” he said. “I want you to stay for now at least.” He shook himself, all over. “If she comes,” he muttered, half to himself, “it will have been worth it.”

“I will clean the floor,” I said, and went to get the cloth and a pot of water. I came back into the kitchen and found Robinson Sahib standing staring at the back door, like a statue.

“Sahib?” I asked. He seemed not even to be breathing. “Sahib?”

His lips moved ever so slightly. “Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear her knocking at the door?”

“I hear nothing,” I said, and then I heard it too, a knock, but so faint that it was as though it was the fingers of the shadows of the night outside, not of a human hand. “Sahib,” I said, urgently, suddenly knowing, with no possibility of error, that something monstrous was about to happen. “Don’t open the door. Please don’t open the door.”

I was too late. As though ropes had tied his limbs in place and suddenly fallen away, he jerked forward. I forgot myself so much as to grab at his sleeve to hold him back, all I managed was to leave a smear of blood from my finger on his cuff. Crying out something in the Angrezi language, in which I heard Miss Charlotte’s name, he threw open the door.

And there she was, standing outside. I knew her at once, though I’d only seen her a few times before. It was Miss Charlotte, dressed in a white night gown, her hair loose around her shoulders and her feet bare. Her eyes were half closed, as though she was walking in her sleep. She raised her arms, holding out her hands.

“Charlotte,” Robinson Sahib said. He raised his hands, to take hold of hers. “Charlotte.”

And then I saw it happen. Miss Charlotte’s fingers closed like iron bands around Robinson Sahib’s hands, and she began to walk backwards, without a glance, dragging him out into the darkness. And, as though caught in a dream, he began walking with her too.

Then I knew that I must do something, but I had no idea what. Miss Charlotte turned her head towards me, her half-open eyes looking at me and I found myself unable to move, such freezing terror came over me.

Then I knew it was not Miss Charlotte that had come to us, but something in her body, something that the witch-man had summoned. I knew that whatever it was walked the night with malice in its heart, and that it was something so distant from humanity that one might look up into the sky and feel oneself closer to the stars than to it. And the fear that still lingered on me was such that I wanted to let her take him. I wanted them to leave me and go.

And that was what might have happened, had not Robinson Sahib’s foot caught in a crevice in the ground outside the kitchen door, and he hadn’t stumbled so that he almost fell. The thing that walked in Miss Charlotte’s body turned her head towards him, those half-open eyes leaving mine, and suddenly I could move again.

In that instant I heard the witch-man’s voice, whispering in my ears, telling me that I would need the blood which still dripped leisurely from my cut finger. And my eyes saw the portrait, kicked away heedlessly into a corner by Robinson Sahib as he’d rushed to open the door – the portrait whose face was effaced with my blood.

I do not remember very clearly what I did in the next moments. I recall throwing myself on the thing that rode Miss Charlotte’s body. I remember her hissing like a snake, squirming away from me, one hand leaving Robinson Sahib’s to push me away with such force that I staggered back and began to fall. But my cut finger did what I’d intended, and threw drops of my blood into her eyes and across her face.

Then I fell, striking the ground with such force that I was almost struck senseless. I saw Robinson Sahib falling, too, as though thrown away by something with great force. And as I lay on the ground, I saw something white and flapping vanish into the darkness, rushing away into the night from which it had come.


And that is all,” Sheetal said. “Robinson Sahib got up and went into the house without looking at me. After some time I went in and found him sitting in his room, with his head in his hands, the drawer hanging open. I did not go in.

“I stayed the rest of the night, though he did not ask me to, though he did not respond when I called to him, and though he never spoke to me again. I did not leave because I was frightened; yes, I was frightened of that thing with the half-open eyes, which had taken over a woman called by another woman’s blood, and by blood sent home again.

“I was afraid that if I went out into the dark, it would come and take me.”

Nobody said anything, not even Ram Dulari. From far away, beyond the village, a jackal howled. Sheetal shivered, despite the charcoal fire.

“You know the rest. In the morning Robinson Sahib began getting all his things together, and he left the same day. He did not talk to me, or even seem to notice I was there. After some time I left him alone to do whatever he desired.”

“He must have made terrible threats,” Munni Devi said finally, “for the witch-man to take such terrible revenge.”

“The witch-man’s revenge?” Sheetal stared at her with contempt. “You really don’t understand, do you? None of you understand, do you?”

They looked at her blankly.

“The revenge was mine,” Sheetal said softly. “He wanted to go with her, don’t you see? He wanted to go with her, and I stopped him. I kept him chained back, when he thought he was about to be free.”

She got up and looked around at the women. “That was why he left,” she said. “Not because I’d saved him; because I’d stopped him from getting what he wanted, in all the world. I’d turned this land into a prison for him, a constant reminder of what he’d almost had and never would again.” Her lips curving in a strange and terrible smile, she looked round at them, and not one of them could meet her eyes.

“I wish you a pleasant evening,” she whispered, and walked away into the gathering night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Sunday 17 April 2016

Living With Depression

Let’s imagine.

Imagine you’re at the rim of a deep, deep well – a well that’s almost bottomless, but not quite. It’s filled with sluggish, dank, liquid that is so dead that it has nothing in it, not even microorganisms – nothing so life-affirming as a bacterium. You can see this liquid if you look over the edge of the well, but you don’t want to.

The thing is, you don’t have a choice.

Oh, you know this well. You know it very thoroughly. You know what it’s like to sink into it, feeling yourself drop into the airless dark, struggling and yet knowing that the struggle will do no good. You know that in the end you’ll be at the bottom of an insurmountable shaft of darkness, filled with cold and despair.

You would do anything to not fall into this well again. You would do anything to turn round and walk away. But you can already feel the ground beneath your feet soften and turn slippery, like wet rubber; you can feel yourself slipping, sliding, falling, towards the edge. However hard you struggle, it does no good; you know you’re going to end up in the dank liquid, falling through it anyway.

Imagine. Imagine that you’re watching a movie, one of your favourites, on your laptop, let’s say; something totally innocuous, such as Run Lola Run or Monsters Inc. – and out of nowhere you find yourself sobbing your heart out, bent over with your arms tight around yourself, crying as though your heart will break, crying as though your heart has been broken into a million pieces and will never be put together again, crying until you can’t breathe, and then pausing for breath only in order to cry again.

Can’t imagine? Well, then, let’s  imagine you’re lying awake in the middle of the night, looking up into the darkness, unable even to blink or move, as though you’re a fly trapped in amber, only the amber is an airless block of silence and despair. Imagine playing back your life, thinking about scenes from your childhood, only the memories bring a bitter, aching pain at the back of your throat. Imagine wishing you had never been born, not just once in a while, but every moment of every day. Imagine wishing your suicide attempts as a teenager had succeeded, and how much better it would have been for you if you were dead. And then imagine your mother telling you, after you survived the last of those attempts, that you were “insane” and belonged in an asylum.

Imagine thinking about your achievements, such as they are; a couple of books, some stories, which those who read them said made them happy, sometimes; but not you, not you. Because you’ve done writing them, they’re in the past, they’re what you already did, not something that you can still do; because you know that you’re only as good as the last thing you did, and that it’s all down, down, into that pit, and that you can never come back all the way again.

Can you imagine this? Can you think of what it feels like to know – not think, not feel, but to know – that you’d be much happier if you could choose to die and set yourself free? And can you imagine, in this state, to have to talk to people, function like a normal human, and try and go on for days to weeks until you start to feel better again?

But, oh, that “feeling better” isn’t all it’s cut out to be either; because you know that you’ll never climb quite all the way back. Even when you’re out of the well and on to the plain, it’s all grey dust, not shining silver, and the sky overhead has not a single star; and the reason is, you know, as sure as the night follows the day, that you will fall into the well again.

Imagine. Imagine thinking over how you could have made your life differently, the choices you might have made, obsessing over them until you feel like tearing out your own throat in order to get rid of the pain of it. Imagine that the only comfort you can find is your dog licking away your tears and nuzzling you, troubled at the stink of grief coming from your body.

Are you done imagining yet?

I won’t blame you if you can’t imagine any of this; if you can’t put yourself into the place of someone who feels like this, not sometimes; not once in a while; but over and over and over, until it’s a normal condition of existence. I won’t blame you, because you’ve never been depressed, and I hope you never will be.

Let me say this clearly: a depressed person isn’t sad. A depressed person isn’t merely unhappy. A depressed person inhabits a wholly different state of mind, where one might actually look at happiness with distrust and suspicion, because one knows it won’t last. A depressed person can actually take hope in the knowledge that he can always kill himself, and keep going by telling himself that he’ll commit suicide tomorrow, not today.

I don’t think you can comprehend what it is to lie awake at 3 am, dreading the day to come, and telling yourself that you need to stay alive just a few more days, and then you’ll see. I don’t think you can understand the state of mind where you’re walking along the street and you have a flash of yourself with blood pouring from your shattered skull, and the only thing that distresses you about this is that you know that it wouldn’t be fatal.

Can you imagine what it feels like to read news items about drone strikes and feel the fire-blast of the rockets on your own skin, the cries of the children weeping for parents, the agony of a moment that has changed everything forever? Can you imagine what it feels like to wish you were in a civil war like Syria so that you had a good chance that you would be killed by a bomb and it would all end?

Can you understand what it is like to find pain in every little thing?

Can you know what it is to wake from a dream in which you were made to kneel with your neck on a leather pad and then your head was chopped off? How about then seeing your own skull on display, and then wandering through your empty house, the rooms stripped bare, wishing you were anywhere else, and knowing you could never leave? How about having dreams like that over and over again, until even sleep held only despair for you?

If you don’t know what that means, if you have never felt that, I am happy for you, and I hope you never will.

A request:

No, I am not going to tell you not to tell someone depressed to “get over it”. I am not going to tell you not to say that others have it worse. I have more respect for your intelligence than that. Here is what I have to say:

Please don’t tell a depressed person you understand what he or she is going through. I can assure you that you don’t. Not even one depressed person can ever understand what another depressed person feels. The experiences I’ve written about above are mine; other depressed people will have their own. None of them are any less real for all that.

So what can you do?

A suggestion:

Just be there. We may not be like you, but we’re human too. We have needs, and a shoulder to cry on. We need a touch of a hand on our cheek, someone to listen even though they can’t understand, someone to cry when we do.

If you can’t do that, then just leave the depressed person alone. Because anything else you do will merely cause us even more pain. And, really, we don’t need that.

You know what the Hippocratic Oath says? First, do no harm.

How do we cope? We don’t, not really. We just hang on in quiet desperation, knowing that it won’t go away. But we hang on. Somehow.

Thank you for reading this. Normal service on this blog will resume tomorrow.

All the best to you all.