Wednesday 4 May 2016

The Horror From The Stars

The first that anyone saw of the thing, it was a tiny smudge in one corner of a photograph taken by a telescope during a routine exposure of star fields of the Milky Way. Nobody even noticed it at first. It was only two weeks later, when another routine photo was taken and compared to the first one, that it became worthy of any attention.

The director of the observatory was informed. He tilted his head this way and that, and wrinkled his forehead. “It’s just a minor planetoid,” he said at last. “Don’t waste your time on it.”

“It’s larger and closer to the centre of the photo,” the graduate astrophysics student who had noticed the object said nervously. “I think it’s coming closer.”

“We don’t have budget allocations for looking at unimportant things,” the director snapped. “Don’t bother me about it again.”

But two weeks later, it was still there, even closer to the centre of the photo and clearly larger than ever. The graduate student, more nervously than ever, went to the director.

“Well,” he told her, frowning again and looking at the figures, “it’s clearly coming closer, and could be of some significance. I’ll handle this myself from this point on.” And, licking his lips in anticipation, he set about making sure he kept the credit for the discovery entirely for himself.

By the next morning, however, several different observatories from various parts of the world had begun talking about the object, and all their directors had announced that they were the discoverers, so nobody got the credit, and a huge fight seemed to be brewing. And then the fight was rendered moot by a singular discovery by the original graduate student, who hadn’t been able to resist temptation and, against orders, had taken another look at the object.

It was even closer, and the computer analysis she ran showed that it was about the size of earth’s moon. That was remarkable enough.

What was even more remarkable was that its projected trajectory would bring it close to earth. It would bring it very, very close to earth indeed.

A week after that there was no doubt. The new planetoid would, without the slightest possibility of error, strike the planet. And it was more than large enough to wipe out all life.


All across the world people stopped what they were doing when they heard the news. Politicians stopped stealing public funds for long enough to go on television and assure their constituents that it was all Putin’s fault. Moderate cannibal headhunters stopped shelling hospitals long enough to blame it on Assad. Oil drilling companies ordered their geologists to see what impact the strike might have on opening up fresh deposits. Climate change deniers claimed that it was all a conspiracy by the government. And still the planetoid came on.

All across the world, people began worrying. Omens began to appear. A celebrity claimed to have given birth to a two-headed goat. An ancient temple in India crumbled and fell, and the pure gold statue that stood within it vanished. It was true that the temple was very old, and badly maintained, and that a priest disappeared along with the statue. But enough witnesses claimed they had watched the statue fly through the air and away, so it must have been an omen. And still the planetoid came on.

By now it was clearly visible in the sky, a star in the south-west, which grew larger each day. It was reddish, like an inflamed eye, and as it grew closer, it began to get so bright that the moon itself began reflecting a bit of its glow and looked pinkish.  

In the halls of the United Nations, politicians and diplomats from all the nations of the world – except North Korea, which was not allowed – came together in urgent consultation. So great was the crisis that even Russia was allowed, though the Nazi government of Rump Ukraine promptly walked out in protest; Syria was allowed, though the fascist government of Turkey did the same; and so was Iran, which led to the withdrawal of the zionazi government of Zionistan. So all was as usual.

“We must launch nuclear strikes on the planetoid,” the diplomats and politicians said. “That is the only way to turn it from its course.” And by then so dire was the threat that not even Avaaz objected.

After a lot of discussion and argument, they decided that the Security Council would arrange the nuking of the planetoid, and two weeks later a hundred hastily-reengineered rockets rose off their launch pads and rushed off into the sky, carrying all the nuclear warheads in all the arsenals of the planet. All over the world people watched their television screens, as breathless anchors announced the countdown to the first strikes. And then they saw them, little flashes of light that appeared and vanished, sparkles all over the planetoid.

They were much fewer than they should have been, though, and only afterwards did everyone realise why; all the Security Council members had kept back warheads to use on each other, hoping the others had expended all of theirs on the planetoid. So it had got only a fraction of the strikes it ought to have got. But it didn’t matter anyway, because the bombs that had gone off hadn’t had the slightest, teensiest effect on its path. And even if the Security Council members would agree on a second strike, there were no rockets available for the job, and no time to make them. In which case, they'd first have to agree to honestly send their remaining warheads anyway. And that was not going to happen. 

And still the planetoid came on.

“It’s up to the gods now,” the leaders of the world said. “Science has failed, and there is nothing more we can do.”

So a great interfaith meeting was held, at which all the priests and pastors, mullahs and imams, lamas and wiccans, every believer in any form of religion whatever, came, and they argued and split hairs, and bickered loud and long. Then they all prayed for god to turn the thing aside, and they prayed some more.

And still the planetoid came on, and by now it was so close its red glow filled the windows.  And there were earthquakes and volcanoes across the lands, and rivers changed course and flooded the cities.

At last just three days remained before it would inevitably smash down on the earth, and destroy everything and everyone, including the nuclear weapons that had been held back.

And it was then that the graduate student who had first found the planetoid had a vision. Or, as she put it, a Vision.

No longer was she a mousy little student. No longer did she tremble in fear before the slightest  criticism. Now she was bold with a Mission, a Mission born of a Vision. She was Priestess, and she knew what was to be done.

“We must sacrifice a virgin,” she said. “That will be the only way to appease the planetoid, and turn it aside.”

“Where and when must we sacrifice her?” the people asked.

“We must do it on the very morning of the day that it will strike,” she said. “and we must do it on the lip of a volcano. I myself will rip out her heart with an obsidian knife, and fling it into the boiling lava.”

“It shall be done,” the people said. “O great Priestess and Enlightened One, it shall be done.”

And so it was that one day passed, and the new Priestess took an obsidian knife from a museum, and consecrated it according to rites she had seen in her Vision. And still the planetoid came on.

And so it was that another day passed, and the new Priestess chose a volcano, from among the many that were now available, after divination according to rites she had discovered in her Vision. And still the planetoid came on.

And so it was that the Day of Sacrifice dawned, and the Priestess stood on the lip of the crater of the volcano, her obsidian knife held high, while the multitudes watched; and she chanted the magical Words she had seen in her Vision. And the planetoid was red and huge in the sky.

And then she turned round to the people. “Bring me a virgin,” she called.

Nothing happened.

“Bring me a virgin to sacrifice,” she shouted again.

Nothing happened.

“Bring me a virgin, damn you,” she shrieked.

And the multitude looked at each other uneasily, and at last one of them spoke up. “We are so sorry, Priestess,” he said, “but there seems to be none.”

“No virgins left anywhere,” another confirmed. “Not one.”

“Not one,” the murmur went round. “Not one virgin, not one.”

“Why don’t you sacrifice yourself?” someone asked.

There was a long pause. “I can’t,” the Priestess said at last. “I’m not one either.”

And there was a great silence, while the planetoid came even closer.

And there was no next day, of course.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

A Few Words FYI

I’m a raghead, too
I’m a gook, a dink, a sand nigger
And whatever epithet you choose to spew.

I have walked these lands since the birth of time
The skies overhead have been my ancestors’ skies
Now you say they belong to you.

I am just an inconvenience, pebble in your path
Just a pebble to be kicked aside
Tell me now, is that not true?

And when I refuse to bend
When I fight back for me and mine
It is horror and anathema to you.

I may be a raghead
Gook, dink, sand nigger, the trash of the earth
But I am human too.

Believe it or not, you are not gods
And time will grind your towers to dust
Just as we are now dust to you.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

[Image Source]

Monday 2 May 2016

Despatches from Hindunazistan: The Wind Beneath Their Wings

So what’s been going on in the great Republic of Hindunazistan since I sent you the last despatch from the front lines?

Plenty, of course; so much that I won’t even bother with most of it, entertaining as it might be, with tales of state elections involving prima donna politicians – believe me, Indian politicians can put Donald Trump to shade in egotism without even trying – or the travails of so-called sports stars, heat waves and the like. This particular Despatch will confine itself to discussing two major “scandals” which have consumed media time and attention over the last couple of months, and which, as we’ll see, are indirectly connected.

The first is the saga of Kingfisher Airlines.

[Image Source]

Until the so-called “economic liberalisation” of the early 1990s, India had first two, and then three, state-owned airlines: Air India, which serviced the overseas routes, Indian Airlines, which flew domestically (and to a couple of heavily travelled destinations in the vicinity, such as the Persian Gulf and Nepal) – and Vayudoot, an ill-starred attempt at a feeder airline serving smaller destinations, such as in eastern India. But with “economic liberalisation”, while Vayudoot, er, crashed and burned, and Indian Airlines was forcibly merged with Air India, a whole mess of other privately owned airlines entered the fray. A lot of them, naturally, failed. At least one, Jet Airways, thrived, and continues to thrive, but its finances were, and are, murky in the extreme. There have been multiple and repeated accusations that Jet is a Mafia money-laundering scheme, but for some strange reason no Indian government seems at all eager to take a look at this. You’d almost imagine that Jet’s owners (or “alleged owners” as one critic put it) are paying off successive regimes to look the other way, but that surely can’t happen, can it? I mean, Indian politicians can’t possibly be corrupt, can they? Of course not!

As the initial bloodletting among the private airlines subsided, and the field stabilised a little, one Vijay Mallya decided that he wanted to get into the business as well. Mallya was the heir to a brewery empire – United Breweries, which makes Kingfisher Beer – and also a politician, with a seat in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament and multiple cronies across the political spectrum. He, of course, needed money to start this airline, which was to be called Kingfisher, just like the beer. To get this money he approached the nationalised Indian banks for loans.

Now, this might be surprising to you, but normally banks aren’t all that eager to lend money unless they’re more than certain they’re going to get it back. If I – and I am a perfectly solvent citizen with a criminal record comprising two parking tickets – were to go asking for a loan, as I have had to on a couple of occasions, they’d check my credit rating, my tax returns, and my projected future income back, front and sideways before telling me they’d be able to lend me a fraction of the amount I’d asked for. And that’s even though I am a qualified dentist and the loans I was asking for were entirely to do with running my clinic.

Not so for Mallya. Even though he had no, zero, experience of running any kind of airline, the banks seemed to have absolutely no problems pouring in money. Soon enough, he bought a fleet of planes, hired staff by enticing them away from other airlines with much greater salary offers, and started flying operations. And in order to make his airline stand out from among the others, he started offering things that none of the rest did, such as paying for booking on other airlines if one of his passengers missed a flight. And in order to keep his employees happy, he continued to pay them more than anyone else, invited them all to gala parties, and the like.

All this, of course, was on the money he’d borrowed from the banks. Please remember this.

The airline business, contrary to what a lot of people might imagine, is actually extremely capital-intensive, and almost all earnings are ploughed right back into keeping things going. I’ve read that the profit margin can be as low as 3%. Therefore, if one starts out by increasing one’s expenses far beyond the competition, one must be able to compensate by increased income, or one will be faced with bankruptcy. And with the strictly limited paying capacity of the Great Indian Muddle Class, one can’t increase income beyond a very small limit because the customer will simply choose the cheaper alternatives. This is only logical; it doesn’t need an airline executive to figure it out.

But, apparently, this was beyond the cognitive capacity of a beer baron.

By the mid-2000s, then, Kingfisher Airlines was so far into the red it would have been time to man the exits. But instead of restructuring and taking a hard look at his business model, Mallya apparently decided that the problem was that he wasn’t flying to enough destinations. Kingfisher Airlines, at that time, was only cleared to fly within the country; Mallya wanted international routes.

To do this, he decided to buy another airline.

The airline he decided on was Air Deccan. Air Deccan could be called the polar opposite of Kingfisher. Owned by a former airline pilot, Captain Gopinath, it was ruthlessly efficient, extremely cost-conscious, and provided a totally no-frills flying experience for its passengers, keeping them coming with fares below anyone else’s. But Air Deccan had one precious thing Mallya wanted – it had rights to fly to foreign destinations. So he made an offer Gopinath apparently found impossible to refuse, and bought the airline.

Once again, you do not buy an airline with the contents of your piggy bank. Guess where Mallya obtained the funds to purchase it?

Let’s play a little mind game. We’ll assume that you’re a moneylender whose livelihood depends on earning interest on finds you loan out. I come to you asking for money to set up a bread bakery, even though I have no idea how to make a loaf of bread. Without the slightest hesitation, you lend me the money I ask for.

After a couple of years, the bakery is on the rocks, earning so little that after paying staff salaries and my suppliers I have not enough left over to even start paying your loan back. Now, I decide that the solution to my problems is to buy another bakery, one which makes fancy cakes. I have failed at a business that depends on making bread, and now I want to make fancy cakes as well. Right.

So I come to you, demanding even more money to buy this cake baking business. What would be your response? You’re totally going to throw open your cash drawer and give me wads of currency notes, aren’t you? I think not.

Well, guess what happened with Kingfisher. I bet you can’t. Oh, wait, you can. Anyway.

Earlier, Kingfisher had signed an agreement with Deccan promising not to poach staff from it. Now, after buying the airline, Mallya promised that he wouldn’t lay off anyone, even though this would mean a considerable amount of duplication of personnel. How many separate sets of baggage handlers and check in counter staff does an airline need at one airport, anyway?

So this might have endeared Mallya to his new employees, but it did nothing to help Kingfisher to get out of the red. Of course, it did have those new international routes. They would make it money, right?

Wrong. On the international circuit, Kingfisher was suddenly faced with competition from the big boys, people like British Airways and the like. More than obviously, they weren’t keen to see their profits cut into by an upstart like Kingfisher. And, unlike Mallya, they had the financial resources to undercut the competition and wait for it to collapse.

Again – once again! – let me remind you that all this was happening on the money Mallya had borrowed from the nationalised banking sector. The taxpayer, in effect, was financing all this.

Also, let me remind you that Kingfisher Airlines was not Mallya’s main source of income. That remained United Breweries and Kingfisher Beer.

By now, though, the banks were at last becoming alarmed at Mallya’s failure to reimburse their loans. So they demanded he start paying them back, or else.

Or else what? As it turned out, what it meant was that or else the banks would enmesh themselves even more in the Kingfisher wreck.

This was the proposal Mallya made the banks: instead of paying back the loans, he would pay the banks back with shares in Kingfisher Airlines. A magnificent offer indeed!

Let’s again go back to my bakery. I can’t run a bread making business, I’ve just bought a cake shop on top of that, and you want your money back. I instead suggest that I give you a sleeping partnership in the (clearly failing) business. Would you accept?

Can you doubt that the banks did?

By 2012, Kingfisher had finally reached the end of the road. It could no longer pay the staff the extravagant salaries to which they’d grown accustomed. It abruptly declared a lockout, shut off the fund flow, and ceased flight operations. The shares with which Mallya had paid the banks became worthless scraps of electronic paper. The airline came to ground, a flaming wreck.

The impact of this was felt, of course, by the laid off staff only. Mallya himself had his cash flow from Kingfisher Beer and other business concerns coming to him uninterrupted. But his erstwhile employees had become so used to their inflated salaries, and so certain that they would continue uninterrupted, that a lot of them had taken to living well beyond their immediate income. They’d sent their children to the most expensive private schools, taken huge personal loans to buy swank houses, and the like. Now they were not only cut off from those funds, they couldn’t find jobs in the airline sector, which had suffered even further contraction. The children left the posh schools, the fancy houses went in distress sales, and several of them even committed suicide.

But none of this touched Mallya. He continued with the same old playboy lifestyle, being seen with the crème de la crème of society, and nobody raised a peep. That is, until early this year, when he made the tactical error of buying a professional cricket team. The media, on the lookout for a sensation, suddenly began asking on what basis he was buying this pro cricket team when he was so deep – to the tune of 90 thousand million rupees – in debt.

Try saying that to yourself, ninety thousand million rupees. Try imagining the zeroes. I’ll wait.

Mallya’s response was anger. His debts, he fumed, were a business between him and the banks. Nobody else had any right to talk about them. But his political connections were so well known, and the resentment against the moneyed class so high, that the media latched on to it like manna from heaven. The banks, too, finally began to find their voice and bleat for payment. The whole thing became a media circus, but the politicians, strangely, stayed totally silent.

They were so silent, in fact, that if only they hadn’t been obviously incorruptible and upright Indian politicians, you’d have thought they were terrified that Mallya had information on them that he was threatening to spill.

You’d have by this time thought it likely that Mallya was someone who had every reason in the world to run away from the country, and that the obvious thing to do would be to seize his passport – something eminently within the rights of the government – to prevent him from leaving. No such luck. On 4th March, 17 banks, led by the State Bank of India (in which, by the way, I have an account) moved the Supreme Court to stop him leaving, and to have him arrested for the non-payment of the 90 thousand million rupees he owed. This was a pretty strange motion to make, seeing that Mallya had already left the country; he flew to Europe on 2nd March...first class.

Is it a surprise that he'd sold his stake and taken a huge amount as severance pay, leaving his former employees high and dry?

Where in Europe did he go? Which is the world’s acknowledged refuge for financial criminals and oligarchs of all sorts, welcoming them and their ill gotten gains with open arms?

London, of course.

While the government was still expostulating that it was sure that Mallya would return, a journalist tracked him down in England and interviewed him. He claimed that he “hoped” that he would be able to return to India “someday”; anyone not totally brain dead would be able to deduce that this “someday” would never come.

Mallya’s case is, basically, a perfect illustration of the crony capitalist system, where robber barons are allowed to do as they wish with public funds in return for kickbacks to enabling politicians. If India chooses to embrace the capitalist system, it can’t complain when unscrupulous criminals get away with murder; in this case, the Kingfisher employees who were driven to suicide, for example. Capitalism rewards greed and punishes principles; and Mallya is the perfect product of that system. Possibly his only misfortune was that he’s Indian and not Amerikastani; in the latter instance he could have applied for a bailout from the blood soaked war criminal Barack Hussein Obama, and got it too.

Now here’s an interesting thing; books have been written, literally, about the fall of Kingfisher, and yet they somehow all manage to completely fail to mention this simple fact. So remarkable is this omission that I can’t see it as anything but deliberate. Criticism of the capitalist system is verboten in India today, except for Maoists and environmentalists, who are, as the government has repeatedly certified, enemies of the nation.

While in exile, and still making vague noises about returning in April, Mallya made an offer to return part (much less than half) of the loan amount to the banks. They turned the offer down. The government then, very late in the day, cancelled Mallya’s passport. It did no good, of course, in London; a place that shelters Russian oligarch crooks and Chechen jihadi terrorists won’t be in a hurry to throw out someone who has still immense personal funds at his disposal.

I am deliberately not suggesting that the Indian government sent back channel messages to Britain to not put Mallya on a plane back to India, even though, without a passport, he’d be an illegal resident in England. That would imply that the Indian government is not interested in getting him back to stand trial, which in turn means that the Indian government is complicit in his crimes and fraud. That couldn’t be, could it? Right?

After his passport was revoked, Mallya finally announced that he would never return to India, something that should have set the media afire, but didn’t; not a ripple. That was because by then the chattering heads on the telly were eagerly discussing something else entirely...

...the affair of the Augusta Westland Helicopter Deal.

[Image Source]

Before I begin on this, let me go over a little bit of recent history. You’ll see why this is important in a minute.

Currently, India is ruled by the Hindunazi BJP party of Prime Minister Narendrabhai Modi. It will be nothing new to readers of this blog when I repeat that I despise both the party and Modi himself; but I acknowledge that they genuinely won the last election, albeit with just 31% of the vote. Modi may be vile, and he may have betrayed all the dewy eyed expectations of his dupes, I mean voters – but he is a genuinely elected prime minister, and when he issues orders, said orders come from himself.

That was not the case, though, until 2014. From 2004 to 2014, for ten whole years, India was ruled by the Congress Party. The Congress was once genuinely socialist, though those days are long, long gone; today, though non-Hindunazi, it’s even more right wing than the BJP where Big Business is concerned. Also, the Congress is not really a political party; like most Indian parties except the Communists and some of the Hindunazi groups, it’s basically a private proprietorship.

The owners of the Congress are the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, currently represented by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul. Though they own the party (quite literally – it’s an open secret that the party’s funds are held in their names), they found a handy way of not taking responsibility for the actions of the government their party led; when they won the election in 2004, they installed a pliant, rubber-spined nonentity, one Manmohan Singh, as prime minister. Manmohan Singh had only one thing to commend him: he was totally colourless, utterly without any charisma or ability, and had never, not even once, won any election in his life, not even at the municipal level. He therefore had no political base whatsoever, and could never, under any circumstances, emerge as a threat to the dynasty within the party. It was known to everyone that all orders given by Manmohan Singh were passed on to him by the dynasty; he himself was a rubber stamp in a blue turban, no more.

The point, therefore, is that anything done by him in an official capacity was merely as an instrument for the dynasty. This has to be kept in mind.

Now, in 2010, the Air Force, for reasons unknown, decided to purchase 12 helicopters for the specific purpose of transporting top government officials, including the president and prime minister. Why this purchase was decided on I’m sure I couldn’t tell you; all these decades the purpose was served perfectly well by Russian-built Mi 8 and Mi 17 helicopters, and there had never been any complaints about them. Suddenly, though, the air force needed a squadron of luxury VIP transports.

[Of course, I could suggest to you that the air force would never have decided on any such purchase without orders from the government, in fact could not legally have decided on any such purchase without orders from the government. I could then suggest to you that the “government” in this case was the Gandhi dynasty. But they’d just be hypothetical suggestions. Please don’t imagine I am accusing anyone! All Indian politicians, even if they were born in Italy, are pure as the driven snow!]

Having decided on the purchase of these machines, the air force then called for bids from manufacturers able to meet the specifications demanded. One of these specifications was a service ceiling of 6000 metres, presumably so that the big-shots being given rides in these planes could visit high-altitude Himalayan destinations. At a meeting called by the then Air Force chief, one Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, though, the decision was abruptly made to reduce the ceiling requirement from 6000 metres to 4500. That’s a whopping 25% reduction of the performance parameters, if you’re keeping track; not a matter of a minor adjustment.

Now, there was the Italian company Finmeccanica, which owns the Italian/British aviation company Augusta Westland. Its AW101 model was nowhere in the running for the contract as long as the ceiling requirement was 6000 metres; as soon as it was reduced to 4500, though, not only did it suddenly become eligible to bid, it magically won the contract at once!

Let me take a moment to remind the reader that this was under the Congress government, which is just a name for the Gandhi dynasty. Let me further remind the reader that Sonia Gandhi is of Italian origin, as is Finmeccanica. I would also venture to say that Italy is the country that keeps cropping up in political controversies in India, more than all other nations put together, ever since a (by the standards of the time) giant scandal over the purchase of Bofors howitzers by the army back in the late 1980s. An Italian crony of the Gandhis, Ottavio Quattrocchhi, was among those implicated in getting kickbacks from slush funds in the deal; the Gandhi dynasty helped him skip the country, and made sure he was never extradited back to face trial as long as he lived.

I am sure it’s a total coincidence that another Italian company should be involved this time round, though. Please keep in mind that I am totally not suggesting Sonia Gandhi used her power to influence the deal in favour of another Italian group. That would mean she was dishonest, and, of course, that can’t be true.

Now, the deal with Augusta Westland was signed in 2010. By early 2013, though a huge advance had been paid, not a single helicopter had been delivered. Manmohan Singh’s “government” was in dire trouble, staring at defeat in the elections due the following year. It was at that stage that a commission alleged massive bribery in the deal, with payoffs being made to, among others, SP Tyagi and his relatives. Finmeccanica’s CEO, one Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested in Italy on bribery charges, the government belatedly cancelled the contract with Augusta Westland, and arrested an infamous crooked arms dealer who had served as a middleman in the deal.

[Said arms dealer and his Romanian wife are incarcerated in Delhi’s Tihar jail, but apparently enjoy such facilities as candlelight dinners together every week. I can’t even recall when I last had a candlelight dinner, assuming I ever had one, unless it was when the power went out while I was eating. The perks of being a rich jailbird!]

And, remarkably, one day after the Central Bureau of Investigation submitted charges about the corruption in the deal in 2013, another middleman, a Brit called James Christian Michel, was allowed to escape the country. Isn’t it remarkable how people are magically permitted to leave in the nick of time? Quattrocchhi, Michel...Vijay Mallya?

Time passed. The Congress was wiped out in the 2014 elections, being reduced to just 44 seats. Modi took over among high hopes, and dashed them so quickly that his worshippers are still unable to believe their eyes. Meanwhile, Orsi was acquitted of bribery by a court in Italy, and it seemed that the Augusta Westland tale had reached a dead end.

That is, until now, when another Italian court overturned the acquittal of Orsi, and exposed a lot of dirt that had been ignored so far; including the fact that Augusta Westland had earmarked funds to influence air force officers and politicians to sway the deal in its favour. Among said politicians named by the court were several dynasty flunkies, not to speak of, oh heavens, Sonia Gandhi and her son themselves!

Can you doubt that the Hindunazis seized on this like a starving moderate cannibal headhunter leaping on a dead Syrian soldier’s heart?

Also, Augusta Westland seems to have earmarked funds to pay off the Indian media to “look the other way”, according to the Italian court. Apparently their silence was bought for three years, but the money has run dry now.

No tears need be wasted on the Congress, which, if you've been paying attention so far, you'll conclude is even more despicable than the Hindunazis. Its response has basically been bluster, meant for one purpose only – to protect the dynasty. All other considerations are secondary. The bluster has been spectacularly unsuccessful, but that doesn’t really matter since everyone knows perfectly well that nothing will come of it in the end. When everyone’s hand is in the till, if one thief gets punished, the other might get his hand chopped off tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Hindunazis have used this opportunity not just to quietly bury the Kingfisher controversy, but to cover up their continuing agenda of anti-Muslim fascism. Indian writers in the Urdu language have been ordered to sign an oath of loyalty; apparently Urdu (one of the official languages of the Indian Union) is an anti-national language now. Why not simply, you know, ban it outright?

The next date to watch is 19th May, when the results of multiple state elections will be declared. If the Hindunazis are successful, they will assume their tactics are working, and will continue with them. If, as I anticipate, they are badly defeated everywhere, they will conclude they are not being fascistic enough, and will intensify their campaign of hatred. The effete, corrupt Congress will in either case merely try to protect the dynasty, and wait for 2019 and a fresh shot at power.

This has been your latest report from Hindunazistan. Stay tuned for fresh bulletins as and when they become available.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Hryushik and the Train

As long as Hyushik could remember, the old steam engine had stood opposite his uncle’s house. It was visible from anywhere in the living room; all you had to do was look out of the window.

Hryushik visited his uncle every summer, because that was when his mother stopped trying to pretend that she could stand him, and took off somewhere or other after dumping him at his uncle’s. Hryushik didn’t mind all that much. He didn’t like his mother any more than she liked him, and his uncle’s house was fun.

For one thing, it was quite far out of town, and you could see stoats and other small animals scurry across the overgrown garden in the early morning or evening. For another, his uncle had worked all his life for the railways, and the house was near the old, abandoned little station where no trains ever stopped any longer. And the steam engine was there.

It was a very large old engine, with a huge black boiler and a chimney stack which still bore a band in faded yellow. It stood on a short section of track which was closed off at both ends with mounds of wood and earth, the rails sinking into the ground and weeds growing over the bottoms of the wheels. It wasn’t all by itself; there was a small freight wagon, little more than a rust-red box on wheels, on the track behind it, coupled to the engine with hooks and fraying hoses. Hryushik didn’t really care much about the wagon, since all it had inside was what looked like decades of accumulated trash and dust. He was only interested in the engine.

Hryushik had always been fascinated by trains, ever since he’d been just old enough to know what one was. He’d loved to watch the old movies on television, where the chuffing iron monsters pulled out of stations trailing dense clouds of smoke and steam. And though his mother had said that the old steam engines were noisy, dirty and sent cinders back down the train to burn holes in your new clothes, he’d been fascinated by them most of all. He’d been bitterly disappointed when he’d discovered that they had all been retired, and the only trains these days were pulled by what looked like shoeboxes on wheels without any character whatsoever. So he thrilled through and through when he saw this real engine at last. That it was a dead, cold husk meant nothing at all.

Fortunately, Hryushik’s uncle, Utkonos, didn’t really care what his nephew got up to, and left him to himself. “Just don’t go cutting yourself open on rusted cans or something,” he’d warned the boy once, long ago, and that was all. Hryushik had mostly obeyed, and the few scrapes he’d acquired had never been bad enough that he’d needed to go to anyone for bandaging.

Utkonos wasn’t a bad man, but he had other things on his mind than his sister and her tendency to dump her kid on him every year. He was a widower, so he didn’t have a family to worry about, and could afford to concentrate on his job. When during the summer the boy was with him, he’d give him a packed lunch before leaving for work in the morning and trust that he’d find him in one piece on returning in the evening. And, unlikely as it seemed, that was how it happened always.

The reason for this was, of course, that Hryushik didn’t go roaming all over the countryside; he always went straight to the old platform, and to the old steam engine. Earlier, he’d been too small to climb up the iron steps into the cab of the engine, but last year he’d become tall enough. And the very first day of his stay with his uncle, he’d rushed off to climb into the engine.

And it was so fascinating! Even the very first time Hryushik peeked into the cabin, still holding on to the handrail alongside the steps, he knew that this was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. All those pipes and levers and gauges, and the wheels just asking to be turned round and round; that large, squared hole in the middle, with a metal lid hanging half open! Those curved oval windows to left and right, so much more interesting than the windscreen of his mother’s car, stained by bird droppings as they were! And there were the two seats, one on each side, the upholstery torn and the stuffing spilling out, but still grander than a throne to Hryushik. When he pulled himself on the left hand side one, he could imagine himself leaning out of the window, like the engine drivers in the pictures he’d seen, watching the track as the train he was pulling roared round a bend. The glass tubes in their holders were broken and the faces of the dials cracked, and the big levers, when he tried to move them, were stuck fast in place with dirt and rust; but to him they were all his to do with as he wanted, and he was driving the train off to the journey of his life.

That night he went to his uncle’s little library, and after poking around he found a book on steam engines. It wasn’t a children’s book, so he didn’t understand much, but there were plenty of pictures of various types of engines, and once he found the sort that looked like the one at the station, he spent his time avidly looking at all the pictures of its parts, and the cabin, and he read what he could understand of which was what lever and gauge, and what it was supposed to do.

It was the next day when he was sitting in the engine’s cab that it first happened. He’d leaned as far out of the window as he could, his right hand on what he’d read was the regulator lever, and his mind’s eye was filled with smoke blowing overhead and scenery rushing past. When a voice said, “Slow down!”, he, therefore, took a moment to understand that it wasn’t something he’d just imagined. A voice had actually spoken to him.

“It’s been a long time I’ve been waiting for you,” it said.

Hryushik turned so fast that he almost fell off the seat. There was a man standing beside him; a man in dark blue overalls and a battered, shapeless cap. The man looked at him and shook his head.

“Don’t jump like that,” he said, “or you’ll hurt yourself. It’s easy to hurt yourself in here, what with all these things.” He patted a wheel to demonstrate.

Hryushik’s mouth opened and closed several times before he could speak. “I wasn’t doing any harm,” he said. “I didn’t do any damage to the engine. I was just playing, that’s all!”

“No, no,” the man said, shaking his head and smiling. “You don’t need to worry. I wasn’t trying to chase you away. I was just wondering how much longer I’d have to wait until you got in at last.”

“You’ve been waiting for me?” Hryushik asked uncertainly.

“Waiting and waiting,” the man said with a sigh. “I’ve been waiting for you since the first time I saw you standing by the platform looking up at the engine, Hryushik. That was years ago.”

“You know my name?”

“Oh, I know everything about you.” The man sat down on the right hand side seat, and leaned toward Hryushik, resting his elbows on his knees. “I knew you’d come up here sometime, only not when.”

Seen close up, he was quite an old man. His short beard was white and white hair straggled out from under his cap. The skin of his face and hands was wrinkled and spotted, but his eyes were sharp and clear.

“Where were you watching me from?” Hryushik asked. “I’ve never seen anyone here, and I’ve come so many times.”

The man grinned and pointed down at the metal floor of the cab. “Here,” he said. “I’ve been right here all along. And you didn’t see me because I couldn’t show myself to you.”

“You mean...” Hryushik frowned, disbelievingly. “You mean you’re a ghost?”

The man shook his head impatiently. “No, no. There’s no such thing as a ghost, young man. Do I look like a ghost, whatever that might be?” He didn’t. His clothes, the strands of his rough white hair, the spots on his hands, all looked perfectly real. “Here,” he said, holding his hand out. “Feel.”

Hryushik felt his hand. It was warm, dry and utterly solid. “So who are you?” he asked.

The old man looked at him silently for a while. “Think,” he said at last. “You know it already, just allow yourself to say it out loud.”

Hryushik blinked, and suddenly he knew. “You’re the...this engine?”

The man nodded, smiling. “That’s right. And now you’re wondering how I can be here, talking to you like this. Well...” He turned for a moment to look past Hryushik out of the side of the cab, and for an instant the landscape outside blurred again, and the boy felt wind rush through his hair. “Well,” the man continued, “you’re the one who made me.”


“All these years you’ve been yearning, haven’t you? Some other boys, they might do it for a day or a week, but nobody else has ever done it like you, on and on, year after year. Sometimes...when you want something comes into being. It becomes alive.”

Hryushik blinked at him in confusion.

“Each time when you came, when you stood there looking up at me, I became a little more alive. Before that, I’d merely been a mass of cold iron. But then you came, when you warmed me to life with your longing. I began to relive the memories, the vibrations of my wheels on the rails, the blaze roaring in my firebox, the superheated water in my boiler, the smoke rushing through the tubes and out through my chimney. And I began to remember, too, the things I’d seen, that I’d done and been through during all those years when I was steaming along the tracks, not rusting here by a crumbling platform in a station that no longer even has a name.

“When you went away, even though it was only to that little white house across the field there, I began losing my identity, to forget who I was and slip back into cold, dead iron. But this was the thing – I never fully forgot, never completely went away. I was mostly gone, but enough of me was left that when you came back, I wouldn’t have to start over again from the very beginning.

“So each time you came, I grew a little stronger, just a little. I became more alive, more able to take a shape that you could relate to. And today, the final little thing happened, when you came up here, and brought me fully alive. And,” he said, “there you are.”

Hryushik hadn’t understood everything the man had said, but he’d managed to get the idea. “You’ll be here always?” he asked.

The engine-man shrugged. “How can I say? The moment you go back, I may vanish again. But I think I’ll be here if you keep coming.”

“I’ll keep coming,” Hryushik said. “You can depend on it that I’ll keep coming.”


Over the next days, Hryushik discovered a world he hadn’t known existed.

The train man - “Call me Engine if you want,” he said – showed him the controls, taught him which wheel and lever did what, what the gauges and tubes would have shown if they hadn’t been cracked and jammed. He took the boy down to the track and, crouching next to the giant iron wheels, told him about rods and pistons, and how the flow of steam could drive the engine in one direction or the other. He told him about the mechanics of fire and steam and vapour, and how they powered the entire engine, allowing it to drag along a train weighing hundreds of tons at a hundred kilometres an hour. And for a wonder, Hryushik, who found it difficult even to thread a shoelace into his sneakers without missing a hole here and there, somehow found no difficulty in understanding it at all.

But his favourite time was when Engine sat with him in the cab, which he knew now to call a “footplate”, and talked about his experiences, and all the places he’d been, and how it was often difficult to get there.

“Hills,” Engine said once. “I like hills, to look at. They’re nice from a distance. But it’s bloody murder to climb them, I tell you. Each slope needs a different steam pressure, and the fireman has to slave like a machine to keep the fire loaded properly, because the heat and the pressure have to be just right. If there’s too much steam pressure you have to blow off the extra, and that wastes coal and water. But that’s still better than if there’s too little. One time there was this new fireman, thought he knew it all, he loaded too little coal while we were climbing up a long slope.” He raised an eyebrow at Hryushik. “So, from what I told you, can you tell me what happened next?”

“The engine stalled,” Hryushik said promptly. “You were stuck till you could raise steam.”

“That’s right,” Engine nodded. “Exactly. You know it, but that idiot fireman, who was supposed to have been trained, didn’t. We had to stay there on the slope until we could raise steam pressure again. Bloody embarrassing, I can tell you, apart from throwing the whole schedule off. That’s why I said hills were bloody murder. Give me deserts any day – the track straight as a ruler, and you never saw anything as pretty as a desert at night, I’ll bet.”

“I’ve never seen a desert,” Hryushik said.

“You’ve missed something. The red desert up north, that’s the best. Especially at night, when the moon’s shining down, and when you’re passing the old ruins – that desert is full of old ruined forts – you can almost see the camel caravans going through the gates, can imagine princesses sitting in tower rooms looking out over the desert, waiting for their lovers. And then the bridges across the great rivers – some of them are so long they look like they’re merging into the sky, and you feel as though you’re driving up into the stars, on a bridge spanning the Milky Way.” Engine sighed. “Of course it didn’t last.”

“My mother says steam engines were dirty and noisy,” Hryushik replied.

Engine nodded. “There are lots who said that, and they weren’t all wrong. In any case, we did a lot of work, and it wasn’t all just routine pulling around of people and goods either.” He paused, his fingers tapping on his knee. “There was the time we went to evacuate the people during the riots down south.” He snorted. “They called it ‘rioting’, but it was nothing less than organised mass murder. We went down there taking loads of relief supplies – food and clothes, old blankets and mattresses that people had donated. But even as we were pulling into the station, we saw it was crammed with people. The platforms were stuffed with them, they were spilling on to the tracks, and as soon as we had finally managed to get to the platform that they rushed the train. There were people literally hanging on to the handrails by the sides of the boiler and sitting on the fenders on the front. When we left the station we had to go at less than half speed to make sure nobody fell off. And, really, you don’t want to know the things they had been through, those poor people. But,” he added, “we saved them all. Not one was lost on the way back.”

“It was a wonderful thing you did,” Hruyshik said, looking around at the engine and imagining the people hanging on desperately, the men and women and the little children. For a moment he could almost glimpse them, hanging on to the sides of the engine. “A great thing.”

Engine shrugged. “Humans. They made me, so I did as they told me to. I could never imagine why they hated themselves so much, though.”


That was last year.

This year, things had gone wrong even before they’d started.

“Your uncle’s being transferred,” Hryushik’s mother said, the day she dropped him off. “He’ll be leaving this autumn for another place. So make sure you don’t make trouble for him. He’s busy getting his work in order.”

Hryushik felt a fist catch hold in his gut with cold fingers and twist. “You’re too old to come here anyway,” his mother said. “Next year I’ll see if I can find a summer camp or something for you.”

Hryushik didn’t want a summer camp. He didn’t want anything but Engine. But his mother had already driven off, without a backward glance, leaving him standing by his suitcase.

The second thing that went wrong was when he arrived at his uncle’s place was the sight of huge yellow machines hulking around the old station.

“Oh, those,” Utkonos said casually. “They’re planning to tear down the old place. The railway is going to build storage sheds there. They should have done it long ago. Criminal, really, to let this valuable property lie idle for so long.”

“The engine,” Hryushik asked. “What about the engine?”

“They’ll scrap it, as far as I know,” his uncle said. “I think they’re taking it away tomorrow.” He poured a glass of soft drink for his nephew. “I take it you’d like to rest?”

Hryushik did not want to rest. It was already late afternoon, but he slipped out at the earliest and ran out to the old station. The construction crew had put up some tin sheets as barriers, but there were plenty of gaps, and he squeezed between them and on to the platform.

It seemed a totally different place. The demolition work hadn’t really started yet, but the ancient brick station house which had stood, silent and abandoned, at one end was already mostly gone. The metal shelter that had kept rain off the heads of waiting passengers had vanished too. What was left looked as though it was waiting to be eaten by the hungry yellow jaws of the waiting machinery.  

It was Sunday, and therefore there was nobody except Hryushik on the platform. He ran to the engine, for once not looking where he was going, uncaring of his own safety. The engine and the lone wagon were still there, but they looked as though they were diminished, somehow, awaiting their own turn to be ripped apart and consumed.

“Engine,” he called, desperately, scrambling up the steps to the footplate, certain that there would be no reply. “Engine.”

But Engine was there, holding out a hand to pull him up. “Hryushik. How tall you’ve grown!”

“Engine,” Hryushik said, desperately. “They’re going to take you away and...scrap you. My uncle said so.”

Engine shrugged. “I suppose it had to come sooner or later. I’m just lucky I had the chance to be alive, and for that I have to thank you.”

“But they’re going to kill you!”

“Well, they haven’t yet, have they? We still have some time together – this evening, if you want.” He slapped the fireman’s seat. “It’s been waiting for you impatiently.”

Hryushik got on to the seat. He’d gained a lot of height during the year, and it was no longer as high for him as it had been. Nor did the levers and wheels seem quite as outsized as before.

“It feels good to be back, doesn’t it?” Engine said. He grinned. “You’re looking as though you just got back home after a long, long journey.”

“That’s right,” Hryushik said. “And I don’t want to go away again.”

“You never did,” Engine said. Dusk was falling fast, and he hummed, moving around the footplate, doing things which the boy couldn’t see clearly. “Right from the start you never did, Hryushik. That’s why this is happening now.”

“Happening now? What do you mean?” Hryushik looked around. Suddenly, it was as though things were wavering and shifting. There was something strange, something that wasn’t quite as it had been before. And whatever it was had nothing to do with the hulking yellow metal predators all around. “Engine?”

“You don’t get it?” Engine pointed. “Look at the glass of the windows, the dials. Can you see it?”

And Hryushik suddenly realised what it was. The dust-opaqued windows were now clear; he could see the glimmer of a star through one. The glass of the dials was no longer cracked. Even the glass tube that showed the water level, which Engine had only told him about, was back in its holder. It was as though the engine was being readied for a place in the museum, instead of the scrapyard. He glanced quickly across at the blue-overalled man with the white beard.

Engine nodded. “You’re bringing it all alive again, boy. First it was me, and now it’s the whole engine. And it’s not just the looks, either. Try the firebox door and see. Be careful that you don’t burn yourself though.”

“Burn myself?” But even as Hryushik moved the lever that opened the firebox – it moved easily, when he’d never been able to shift it before – he saw the dull red glow of a fire inside.

“Care to go for a trip?” Engine asked. “All I need is a fireman, and you know enough about the job now to make a fair apprentice. There’s the shovel behind you, and the tender’s filled with coal.” He touched the long regulator lever with his mottled old hand. “Get off that chair and get to work. We’ve got steam to raise.”

Hryushik turned and picked up the shovel. The load of coal was light in his arms, so light.


Nobody ever saw Hryushik again. The police was told, but after a perfunctory search gave up. After all, his uncle really had other things on his mind, and his mother was glad enough to have the burden of taking care of him removed from her life. They all finally decided he’d simply run way, and reminded themselves that this wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, either, and it wouldn’t be the last.

The railway authorities never found the little train - a steam engine and an old goods wagon - that had been slated to be scrapped, and had mysteriously disappeared the night before it was due to be taken away. It was impossible for anyone to have stolen it, because it was a huge, heavy engine and a big enough wagon, and because the track was closed off at both ends. The police searched much more thoroughly for it, but they didn’t find anything, either. It was sometimes mentioned as a footnote in books of modern mystery.

But sometimes, people say, when you’re in the red northern desert, you can hear the sound of an old steam engine roaring along, and you can even see it, the blaze of its light carving a tunnel through the darkness, as it hurtles past the old forts where camel caravans pass, and in whose towers princesses sigh for absent lovers. You can, even, sometimes see the red glow of the firebox, and the sparks that come out along with the smoke from the chimney. It’s not a ghost, they say, this train of an engine and a wagon, but you will never catch it, because it’s on a trip which will never stop, never end.

And, sometimes, they say, if you look up at the night sky, you’ll see it there, leaping across the Milky Way, crossing the bridge to the stars.

Perhaps they tell the truth. Perhaps they lie. Perhaps they are just mistaken.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

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