Friday 30 September 2016

Heroes and Zeroes

The reason I prefer ISIS to al Nusra is that the former is considerate enough to have a simple flag, easy for me to draw!

Thursday 29 September 2016

Armageddon of 2019, Redux

I seem to have inadvertently become famous.

Let me explain.

A little over three years ago, I wrote a speculative story about a war between India and Pakistan I predicted would take place in 2019. If you haven’t read it already, you can either click here...

<----------------- or look to the left of the page where it’s right on top of the list of popular posts, and where it seems determined to stay for all time to come.

In fact, at this point I strongly suggest you read it, if you haven’t already, so you know what it is that I thought might happen if India and Pakistan went to war.

It’s a story that’s got me a lot of vituperation, including multiple threats of violence and a couple desiring my death. All, without exception, of these threats were from anonymous persons purporting to be Indian patriots, that is, Hindunazis. I’m fairly certain not one of these gentlemen ever put on a uniform, or has any intention of putting on a uniform and laying his life on the line. For Hindunazis, the keyboard is their weapon and shield, the only thing that gives some validity to their lives.

But even then, a lot of people seem unable to differentiate between fact and fiction, to the extent that I’ve had people asking whether this actually happened. And Arsalan Ghumman, whom I’ve given a role in the story, told me that a Pakistani military person of his acquaintance informed him that this story was written by an Indian intelligence agency (RAW) “element”. Both of us had a good laugh, though it wasn’t funny.  

Yes, you imbeciles, it is a story. It is as much a story as the vainglorious crap you might prefer to read with Ramboesque Indian supersoldiers massacring evil Pakistani terrorists. Only it’s not fantasy, and if it doesn’t fit into your comfort zone, too bad. Nobody put a nuclear bomb to your head and made you read it.

Do I think India and Pakistan might actually go to nuclear war? No. But if India and Pakistan did go to full scale war, it could not, in my opinion, stop short of going nuclear. The reason is simple. In the far north, the frontier along the divided state of Kashmir is mountainous and heavily fortified on both sides. There is no way an Indian attack across the frontier there would achieve anything. Next is Punjab, which is also heavily fortified (I read of one Indian defence account which called the Pakistani fortifications “mind boggling”) . Any Indian attempt to attack there would be doomed. The southern end of the frontier, in Gujarat, is marshy and unsuitable for large scale troop movement. The only place where any Indian offensive has a good chance of success is in the central sector, where the Thar Desert lies across both countries. An offensive across this desert could cut Pakistan in two.

Pakistan is well aware of that possibility, and has prepared by mounting tactical nuclear weapons on short range battlefield missiles, to be used on its own territory. Those missiles essentially make any major Indian offensive impossible, and India cannot counter in the same way because it has no tactical nuclear weapons. It’s threatened to retaliate by nuking Pakistani cities, which is basically the only option open to it. And in that case, Pakistan, which has many more and likely better nuclear weapons than India, can do exactly the same. And then India will suffer massively because almost all of its industrial and economic centres are concentrated in the north and west of the country, within easy rage of Pakistani missiles and aircraft. Modi’s own home state, Gujarat, which is the westernmost Indian province, especially wouldn’t stand a chance.

No, a full scale war is not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean one can’t write speculative fiction warning of the consequences if it did.

[As I write this, I heard of the Indian government claiming it had conducted “surgical strikes” on “terrorist camps” in Pakistani Kashmir. I do not believe one single, solitary word of it, and anyone who does needs a brain transplant. The story is an obvious fabrication by the Modi regime to placate its right wing constituency and claim that it “defends the nation”.]

A few days ago, I discovered that a Pakistani television channel had done a programme based on my story. It’s basically a narration of my story in Urdu, with visuals added, mostly from films depicting the bombing of Hiroshima. It does compress things a lot and makes some errors, but these are relatively minor, not even worth discussing here. The thing is, someone read the story and thought it important enough to make a programme on it. And they did it not as entertainment, but as a plea for peace.

Here is the video:

It is significant that it’s the “warmongering” Pakistanis, who, according to one person who saw fit to comment on my story, only want their “72 virgins”, are the ones who used my story to make a plea for peace, while my allegedly “peace loving” Indian compatriots call anyone who wants peace a “commie traitor” or – as per one Twitter feed – “pro-Paki doves.” It is absolutely no surprise to me, though it may be to some people. India pretends to be peaceful, but it’s a hyper violent country with an enormous chip on its shoulder, which wishes it was a great power and reacts violently to reminders that it is not.

No, the Pakistani channel didn’t ask for my permission to make the programme, though they did show my photo and name. They should have asked, but I won’t make a big fuss on the point.

If it helps give some idiots a new perspective, it will be worth it.

Oh Batman Had A Baby

Oh Batman had a baby
He called him Lad Robin
He dressed him in shorty shorts
And dropped him in the bin.

Oh Lex Luthor found the baby
Who was quite cute, no doubt
Lexy took him along on crime sprees
To act as his look-out.

Robin grew to boyhood
A fine figure of a boy was he!
He wore bright clothes with shorty-shorts
And a mask through which to see.

Oh Luthor had a plan so good
It would make the world sit up, for sure
He needed Batman out of the way
For that he set a lure.

Robin put on his yellow cape
His yellow cape wore he!
And in his red and green and shorty-shorts
Stood down by the sea.

And the tide it began to rise
The tide it rose so high!
As the full moon, like a swollen balloon
Lurched slowly across the sky.

Someone saw Robin on the shore
As the tide surged around his feet
And signalled, the Batsign out
Glimmering above the nightswept street.

Then Batman came on his Batmobile
He roared along the beach!
Like a movie scene, stopped the mighty machine
By Robin, near close enough to reach.

And then it was that the Boy Wonder
Said, “You left me for dead.”
Took a stick, or maybe a brick
And smashed it on Batman’s head.

Batman fell with a hollow groan
And drowned in the rising tide
Yes, Batman drowned, in the rising waves
Drowned right until he died.

Then Batman was a goner
You can check if I lied!
And Lad Robin, with a wicked grin
Took the Batmobile for a ride.

Lex Luthor in the meantime crimed
Oh what a crime spreed he!
And with his load of ill gotten gains
 Back homewards he started to flee.

Now the cops were on his trail
And fast it was they came!
Lex Luthor moved his fastest
But it wasn’t the same.

It was as though it was all over
He’d lost everything once more
Bitterly he thought, and almost forgot
That he’d sent Robin to the shore.

But the Boy Wonder came roaring up
In the Batmobile he came!
And stopped by Lex, laughing aloud
As though it was a merry game.

“Get in, you bald old coot!”
He shouted, and he grinned
And the Batmobile, like the Devil’s wheel
Through the streets it spinned.

And Lex won to his hideout
Got home with all his take
And he lit a candle, on his laden mantle
For his arch-enemy’s sake.

“I’ve done enough,” he declared
“This heist I’ll never top,
So it makes sense, even to the dense
That now I’d better stop.

“I’m the King of Crime right now
What more could I ever need?
I have infamy and fortune
And the Batmobile as my steed.

“So I’ll hand over my reins
You’ll be the King of Crooks, won’t you?
Come with me and we’ll celebrate
With a trip to the zoo.”

And now it is that Lad Robin
Strides across the World of Crime
While Luthor sits in luxury
Batman’s bones roll in grime.

One day perhaps a Catman will rise
Or better yet, a Ratman grow
From out among the oppressed throng
And a gauntlet he’ll throw.

And then maybe the world will see
The beginning of Robin’s fall
But until then, the criminals’ friend
Will stand over the city tall.

And to think it was Batman’s fault
To bin the brat he bred!
It was indeed, that he deserved it
This had to be said.

Someday when the wind moans so
And the sky with clouds is filled
Look for his bones, among the beach’s stones
And if you find them, don’t be thrilled.

Batman was a selfish pig
A capitalist lord as well
And he deserved his warm reception
Among his partners down in hell.

Long may the Lad Robin shine
In his shorty-shorts and yellow cape!
And with his rule, you stupid fool
You yourself need to shape.

And Lex Luthor, holiday home
A blessing on his baldy head!
Long may it glow, in calm and in blow
Until we’re all long dead.

And then the world will be a better place
When Ratman and Robin see
That apart they’re enemies, but
Friends is the way to be.

Then it will be peace and calm
A Golden Age will come!
The only ones who demur then
Will be the criminal and the bum.

Oh Batman had a baby
He called him Robin, oh delight
And Robin killed Batman

And took the world overnight.

[Image Source]

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Fidayeen He Wrote

A couple of days ago I got an email from a young lady whom I'll call ZA. This is what she wanted to know:

Mr. Purkayastha, 

I'm ZA, in my first year doing undergraduate degree in Sociology in ******** College, New Delhi. As part of the first project assigned to us, we were asked to do a book review on any fiction/non-fiction and sociologically analyse it. I chose Fidayeen, which I found to be super interesting. I feel it's a book that must be read by more people, especially in the present context. 

My question of clarification is very much simple, sir. It is, "What made you write Fidayeen? Or what was the context that led you to its writing?" 
I hope my polite inquiry is genuine, as it's not easy and takes a lot of courage to write on a topic so controversial.

Expecting your reply soon, as the deadline to submit the project is very much near.

Best Regards
BA(Hons) Sociology, ****** College, New Delhi

As some of you may or may not remember, I wrote this book:

And as it happens I got an award for it:

I thought you might also like to know what made me tick when I wrote this. If you don’t, then don’t read further.

This is how I replied (slightly edited to remove identifiable information and spoilers):

Hi, Ms A.

I’m glad you liked the book. I’ve not much idea what a “sociological analysis” is, but I’ll be waiting eagerly to read your review.

You ask what made me write it. Now, I think you’ll understand well enough from reading it that I’m not a “nationalist” or a conventional “patriot”; I do not believe that everything a country does is fine only because one happens to have been born in it. Especially in regard to Kashmir, I’ve found the situation very troubling on many levels.

Back in 1989 – this will likely have been long before you were born – I was a student in Lucknow when the Kashmir rebellion broke out. Within a matter of weeks, the Kashmir valley had virtually gone out of control. My classmates pulled a publicity stunt of signing letters in their blood and sending it to the prime minister of the day – I think it was just after Vishwanath Pratap Singh had taken office – pledging to “give their blood for Kashmir”. It was an absurd publicity stunt, and of course not one of them ever actually joined the army.

It was around the same time that a friend of my uncle’s, who was at that time a lieutenant colonel in the army (he had earlier fought in Sri Lanka and been wounded by an LTTE grenade) was posted to Kashmir and saw some combat there. I recall meeting him in 1991 or 2 when I was home on holiday and so was he. He showed me photos of his deployment to Kashmir, including pictures of combat, and gave me detailed descriptions of some battles. You remember the battle in the village where Mushtaq and the others are in the house, and then one of them was hiding in a pipe in the field? That’s an almost exact retelling of one of the episodes he’d told me about. He also told me that the army actually did mistreat Kashmiris very badly, and that most of the allegations about the army murdering civilians and torturing prisoners were based on fact.

So at that time I was already deeply interested in Kashmir. I was also not ignorant of military and militant matters – there was an insurgency on in this state at that time, under the terrorist Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) which has now been virtually wiped out but was then very strong. In 2001 I was 50 metres from an HNLC attack in which five people were killed. My first book, Rainbow’s End, was a fictional account of the HNLC insurgency. So I already had a good idea of how it feels like to live in the middle of terrorism and civil conflict.

Around this time I also read several books on Kashmiri insurgency, especially Manoj Joshi’s Lost Rebellion, which is a detailed history of the Kashmiri rebellion from the start in 1989 to the late 90s, and Death of Dreams by Aditya Sinha, which is the authorised biography of the militant leader turned politician Firdous Syed Baba. Both these books gave me a detailed historical and personal insight into the whole Kashmir conflict which I might otherwise not have got, including the machinations on both the Indian and Pakistani sides.

Around that time, the mid 2000s, the first fidayeen attacks started in Kashmir, targeting army and CRPF or BSF camps. This was, of course, not a new tactic; the Japanese used kamikaze attacks in World War II and I’d read a lot about them. Also, suicidal mass attacks had been carried out by the Chechens in Russia in 2001 in Moscow and 2004 in Beslan. But the idea of a small force of two or three men penetrating a military establishment was new to India then. And it was fascinating.

Right at this point I’d like to say something: just as I do not consider kamikaze pilots cowards, I do not consider fidayeen attackers cowards. In fact, and this is without taking into account their aims, I consider them extremely brave people. Unlike those who pack explosives into a car and set them off in marketplaces, fidayeen attackers quite literally sacrifice their lives for what they believe in. And this, obviously, raised the question of why they should do this. What would make a normal human being give up his hopes and dreams and his family to go off on an enterprise which would inevitably result in his death? What is in this belief system that makes them feel that their lives are less important than fulfilling whatever mission it is that they are on?

At this point I was not planning to write any book on fidayeen. However, I was reading on them, all I could, and I kept newspaper clippings and website bookmarks which threw any light on them at all that I found. This was alongside other things I read up on, and to this day I read up on multiple topics that I find fascinating, on which I might or might not write something in future.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with It’s now gone, but in the period I’m talking about – approximately 2003-7 – it was extremely popular, not as much as Facebook is today, but still very important as the first great social network. I met and became friends with several Pakistanis there, some of whom were extreme religious fundamentalists. They gave me a good deal of insight into their thinking, though I was only vaguely planning a book at that point and I had nothing concrete in mind.

Then, around 2007, I wrote a story which I posted on – another wonderful site which is now gone. It was only a little story, and it was about a boy called Ali in Kashmir who was lame and sitting in a park when he was approached by the narrator. The narrator gets friendly with Ali, asks him questions, and Ali tells him that his sister is engaged to a militant who visits her in the evenings. At the end of the story it’s revealed that the narrator is an Indian intelligence agent and that the whole idea was to lay a trap for the militant. The story wasn’t much but it got a lot of favourable comment from readers, who asked for more stories on Kashmir. I then wrote another one of a small group of militants coming at night into a village because the mother of one of their members lived there. She hadn’t seen him for years but they could only spend a couple of hours before they had to go again. This too was very popular with the readers and it told me that I was capable of, at the least, writing a book on Kashmir. And that was the point when I seriously started thinking about it.

Right away, I realised that the story was much more than just the fidayeen. They had a context in which they operated, the situation in Kashmir; they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s pointless to just blame them on Pakistan. It was India which created the situation in which they could appear, and if the source was Pakistan, it was still India’s fault for creating the circumstances under which Pakistan could take advantage of the situation. The context, then, included India and the Kashmiri people, and the people included, in turn, the Kashmiri militants. They, strangely enough, did not conduct fidayeen operations, giving their lives for the cause – their cause – while the foreign militants did. This was also very interesting, and required a lot more plot development, including tracing the different psychologies of the two groups. At that point the idea of contrasting two militants – Mushtaq and Abu Hassan – was born.

I did not, of course, choose one or the other of them as “good” or “evil”. I do not believe anyone is fully good or fully evil. I consider them both victims, as I do the Kashmiri people and the Indian soldiers who were sent to fight for it. My own thoughts about Kashmir are really irrelevant to the topic, because I am not Kashmiri, but if you want to know what I think it’s that the state should be given independence from both India and Pakistan. In one small part I mentioned a Kashmiri whose house Raja Bhattacharya was searching and who lectured him on Kashmir. That’s more or less what I think, but as I said it’s not relevant.

Nor was I ever going to write a stupid action book like the Cobra series. I detest action books, movies, and the shallow effort that goes into them. What I wanted, basically, was a fictionalised history of a facet of the Kashmiri insurgency, a little like what the Kenyan writer Meja Mwangi did in Carcase For Hounds about the Mau Mau revolution. I was only unsure if I was up to it.

At this time I wrote the first few chapters of Fidayeen and let it lie for a while. In the meantime I wrote another book – The Call Of The Khokkosh – which has nothing to do with militancy in any form. I may not ever have returned to Fidayeen because I had a bit of a writer’s block on it. My friend Sujay Panyadi (whom I mentioned in the dedication) kept nagging me to finish it, but I didn’t really think I would. I felt I couldn’t do it justice, and assumed that it probably would never get published anyway.

But then the Mumbai attacks of 2008 happened. I know Mumbai very well – it is my favourite Indian city – and also I suddenly found that I knew more about what was going on, due to my research, than the talking heads in the television studios. And afterwards I went right back to the book. I rewrote the chapters I’d written and started again from the start, and the more I wrote the easier it became to go on. At that time an ex classmate of mine who was then a major in the army was visiting town and he told me all about the Indian Army’s counter-terrorist protocols in Kashmir, which I’ve also described. In fact all the research fell into place.

Putting myself into the heads of Sabira, Nausheen, Mushtaq and Abu Hassan, Loveleen or Raja Bhattacharya was no problem at all. I’ve never had any trouble putting myself into the point of view of people with whom I have otherwise nothing in common. I have written stories from the points of view, among others, of a Nazi concentration camp commander, a murderous Zionist settler in Occupied Palestine, at least three separate ISIS men (one of those stories is a novella length detective story) and Moby Dick (the whale). Once I’d done the research, knew what the background information was like, the story itself came easily.

In the end I finished writing the whole book in less than a month – 25 or 26 days I think – and then discovered that I couldn’t find a publisher to save my life. I’ve talked about that on the blog article you read, I think – it was only in 2015 that a publisher could be found brave enough to take it on. I was on the verge of just putting the whole thing online at that point. Now I am researching for a planned sequel called The Black Flag which will bring back ... (names deleted to avoid spoilers) ... and other survivors of the first book, and which will revolve around ISIS trying to infiltrate the Kashmiri insurgency. I will almost certainly be writing it next year. Publication, though, I don’t know.

I hope this account of mine is helpful...As far as your comment about “courage” goes, I don’t think I am particularly courageous. It was a topic that needed to be written on. Someone had to do it. I did. That’s the way I think of it. As such, I’ve been attacked many times over the years for my opinions, including death threats, and if those didn’t shut me up criticism of this won’t.

If you have additional questions I’d be glad to answer them.


[If she sends me the review I'll let you know.]

In The Dark Again

Apologies if this isn't up to my usual standards, but I did it directly on MS Paint in half an hour instead of my normal technique of first drawing it on paper in pencil, then scanning and processing it, etc.

The New God

There was a giant sitting on a mountaintop outside town. The giant was so large that he was actually larger than the mountain, and he hadn’t moved in a long, long time.

The giant was a former god, who’d stopped being a god when people no longer worshipped him. The people of the town said that he was sitting there thinking about why he was no longer a god, and that someday he would realise why. That day he would stir, and rise from the mountain, and he would crush the town like an anthill in his fury, before going out to destroy the earth.

For many years, the priests of the town gods had tried to find a way to keep the giant quiescent. They could not, of course, worship him, because he was no longer a god. Nor could they beseech their own gods to keep him quiescent. To point out that they, too, would inevitably drop from divinity when people no longer worshipped them, and that other, future gods might then be called on to imprison them in turn, would only rouse them to fury. And yet, with every year that passed, the day the giant would finally stir grew ever closer.

“I thought I saw his knee twitch this morning,” one of them reported one day. “But it was only for an instant, and I saw it from the corner of my eye, so I can’t be sure.”

“We must keep a closer watch,” the other priests declared. “We will have to build an observatory with a telescope at the foot of the mountain, to keep him under constant surveillance, and let us know of every movement, no matter how slight.”

So they built a mighty observatory at the foot of the mountain, with a huge telescope trained on the gigantic figure sitting on the crag. All day the junior priests watched the giant, ready to rush to report at the first sign of movement. As sometimes happened, clouds would hide the giant, and then they waited with the greatest anxiety for the skies to clear again. And at night, they still watched, as best they could, by the light of the moon and the distant, glittering stars.

Then one day the High Priest of the Grand Temple called a meeting. All the archpriests and assistant priests, the sub-priests and the acolytes, gathered together – all but the team at the observatory, which, of course, had to keep watch. The High Priest ran his fingers through his beard as he looked gravely upon the throng.

“It is clear,” he said, “that the day the giant arises cannot be far off. With every day that passes, more and more do we see him stirring. It is only a matter of time until he wakes in fury.”

“What can we do then?” an archpriest asked. “Should we evacuate the city? Ask everyone to take their things and move away?”

“Where to?” another archpriest asked. “It’s not as though the giant will sit down and go back to silence if he finds the city empty. His fury will be such that he will not be content until he destroys the land.”

“Could we...destroy him?” one of the sub-priests suggested timidly. “Is it possible?”

“How?” the High Priest asked, raising a hand to cut off the contemptuous jeers of all the archpriests and assistant priests, not to mention the other sub-priests, who jeered more loudly than everyone else. “He might be a former god, but he still has enough powers that no mere human power can harm him.”

“Only another god can kill him,” an archpriest snapped, “and of course they will not help.”

The sub-priest, who was very young, only just more than an acolyte, gulped. “In that case,” he said, even more timidly, “we must look for a god who will help.”

“And where can you find a god who will do that?” the High Priest asked, amused despite himself. “Where does such a god exist?”

“Maybe he should go and find the god,” the arch-priest who’d spoken earlier said. “It would be of more use, at least, than his making such ridiculous suggestions.”

“Yes, send him,” everyone else added, the other sub-priests loudest of all. “Send him to go find such a god.”

“Very well,” the High Priest shouted above the jeering. “Go and find a god who will help, so that we can get some discussion done.”

“And don’t take too long about it,” the archpriest called. “Or the giant will get up and do for the world before your god can do him in.”

So the young sub-priest, having no way out, walked sadly away. He left the Grand Temple, passed the other temples, and then came to the streets of the city. He had no idea what to do. Where do you go looking for a god whom you don’t know to exist? Besides, he didn’t even know the city; he was from a village far away, and had never left the temple complex before since he’d first arrived as an acolyte, years ago. So all he could do was wander about, glancing up once in a while at the distant giant on his mountain. It was a clear day, and the giant was very visible.

“Why does a priest look so sad?” a voice asked at his elbow.

The sub-priest turned around to see who had spoken. It was a plump old woman at the door of a shop. She smiled at him warmly.

“What’s the matter?” she repeated. “Why is a priest so sad?”

“I’m not a priest,” the young man confessed. “I’m only a sub-priest, and I don’t think I’ll ever rise any further.”

“Well, then, sub-priest, you still don’t have to look so sad. Why don’t you come in here and tell me about it?”

Having no other option, no idea what to do, the sub-priest followed her into the shop. It was old and dark, and after the sunlight outside the young man could see little. The woman motioned him into a chair.

“Tell me,” she said. “What is the problem?”

So the young sub-priest started telling her, and once he started talking it became difficult to stop. She listened without interruption till the end and nodded. “So all you need to do is find a god to destroy this former god before he wakes, is that so?”

“You talk as though that’s a little thing,” the sub-priest said bitterly.

“It’s not that difficult,” the old woman said, her plump cheeks dimpling. “I can tell you where to get a god. Only, you have to be quite sure that you want him.”

“Quite sure? Of course I’m sure. I’ve just told you, haven’t I?”

“So you have.” The old woman didn’t seem put out in the slightest. “My dear young sub-priest, I wouldn’t tell you something if I didn’t mean it. Now, if you want a god, I can tell you where to get one.”

“Where?” the sub-priest asked. “Do you have one to sell or something?”

“Almost,” the old woman said, and there was a strange note in her voice. “But they aren’t for sale.”She picked up and lit a tiny candle. “Come.”

“What do you mean?” But even as he said this he found his legs carrying him behind the woman into the depths of the shop. It seemed to go on and on, much longer than it should have. And in the half-light the things on the shelves grew more and more strange, their shapes bizarre and twisted. The sub-priest moved in a dream.

“What is this place?” he asked, finally, when they seemed to have been walking for hours, and the things on the shelves bore not the slightest resemblance to anything seen in the normal, everyday world. “Where are we going?”

“To answer your first question,” the woman said, and her voice had changed, become more powerful, “you aren’t in the town anymore. You aren’t even in the world you call yours anymore. This place is...between the worlds.”

“What are...what are you?” the sub-priest whispered.

“Think of me as a guardian of the spaces,” the woman said. “In your world, I am an old shopkeeper woman, who dabbles a little in spells and cures on the side. In the world on the other where you are going, to answer your second question...I’m merely a keeper of the gate. But this space, in between...this is my domain.”

“The other world,” the sub-priest repeated. “What’s there?”

“Everything else.” The woman’s voice was almost unrecognisable. The tiny candle, which should have melted down to nothing long ago, was still burning somehow, and when the sub priest saw the shadows it threw, he didn’t want to look at the things whose shadows they were. Least of all did he want to look at his companion.

“This god,” the sub-priest began.

“Yes,” the woman said. She stopped, holding her candle high, and its light illuminated a square panel in the floor. “Lift that,” she ordered. “There will be stairs. Go down them, and you will find what you want.”

“I don’t understand,” The sub-priest had to swallow several times before he could make himself speak. “You say there’s a god down there? How?”

“Not just one,” the woman told him. “You can choose the one you want.”

The sub-priest knelt and pried up the panel with his fingernails. It came up surprisingly easily, as though it weighed almost nothing. Wooden steps vanished down into darkness. “I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be here.” The woman held her candle so that it illuminated the stairs. “You come looking for a god, to save you from a god who is no longer a god. And you haven’t even thought what that means.”

“What does it mean?” The sub-priest looked down the stairs. They were steep and narrow, and made of wood which looked warped and cracked.

“When a god is no longer a god, it’s because you replaced him with other and newer gods. Well, have you thought of where those new gods come from?”

The sub priest blinked. “”

“Go down,” the woman said, and her voice was ancient and terrible. “And mind you choose well, because the gods are not all the same.”

“Aren’t you coming?” the sub-priest asked. He was suddenly very reluctant to descend those stairs, and he’d rather have the woman, or whatever she was now, with him than to go down them unaccompanied.

“No. From here on you go alone.” The woman’s candle flame dimmed abruptly. “Go now.”

Abruptly terrified of being with her in the darkness, the sub-priest began climbing down the steps as quickly as he could. The candle flame dimmed rapidly, spurring him on, and from behind and above him he heard something that sounded almost like laughter. “You really should have thought this one through,” she said. And the next moment the candle flame went out and he was in darkness.

But not for long. Only a little ahead of him, there was a dim glow, which crawled and flickered around the stairs and the walls, from a myriad of pinpoints of light that came and went like twinkling stars. They seemed almost close enough to touch, but as he advanced down the stairs they seemed to be as far away as ever. Then he realised that they were very far away, and they were much larger than he’d thought. And then, at last, when he’d gone so far down the stairs that they were no longer pinpoints, he realised what they were.

They were baby gods.

They were all shapes and sizes, a million different gods. Some were hard to see, little more than pulsing flashes of light. Some were huge-horned and leathery, with tusks sprouting through their mouths. Some writhed and twisted on innumerable tentacles, snapping at the air with sharp-toothed jaws. And there were those who looked human, like the sub-priest, but were not.

“Which god should I take?” he asked aloud. “How can I choose?”

One of the gods curled up nearby opened little black eyes and stared at him. “Why would you want to choose a god?” it asked.

The sub-priest stared at the god. It looked human enough, though he couldn’t determine its gender. It uncurled itself and yawned delicately.

“Well?” it asked. “Here we wait for the aeons to pass, until someone, somewhere, thinks of a god who is just like one of us, and begins worshipping him or her. And then, only then, can we be born. Some of us have been waiting since the start of time. And you want to choose one of us?”

“I need a god,” the sub-priest confessed. He explained his problem. “Will you help and be our god?”

“It might be eternity before my chance to be born comes round,” the baby god said. It stepped out of its little pool of light and on to the stairs next to the sub-priest. “Of course I will go with you.” It was already no longer a baby. “Let’s go. No, not that way,” it added, as the sub-priest began climbing the steps. “A god has powers to go the way he wants.”

A shaft of light appeared overhead, like a spear poking down from the ceiling, and the god stepped inside. With a moment’s hesitation, the sub-priest joined him. The shaft of light rose, carrying them with it.

They emerged into the inner yard of the Grand Temple, where the High Priest had been holding his meeting. There was no meeting now. The archpriests and assistant priests, the sub-priests and the acolytes, and the High Priest himself were still there, but they were rushing around in terror and confusion.

“The giant,” they were screaming. “The giant has risen!”

And over the roofs of the Temple complex loomed the giant himself. His head touched the sky, and as he turned it from side to side, blinking slowly, his immense beard shook with the sound of a million cyclones. He took one slow step forward, and another. The ground shook.

“Do something,” the sub-priest pleaded to his god. “Do something, please.”

The god grew. And it grew, and grew. It hurtled up towards the sky. Its shadow blocked out the sun. Night fell across the city. The giant halted, looking up at something many times its own size, astonished.

And then the god struck. It struck with an enormous fist, a blow that might have been felt in all the many worlds, and the giant crumbled. One moment it was there, and the next there was only a puff of powder, blowing away.

The new god came down again to the Temple yard. “All done,” it said.

The High Priest and the other priests had gathered around in awestruck silence. It was the sub-priest who made the introductions.

“You asked me to find a god who would save us,” he said. “I did.”

“Only this god could have saved us,” the High Priest declared. “From this moment onward, it is our god, and none other.”

“Wait...” The sub-priest said, appalled, recalling the woman’s last words as he’d started down the steps. But it was already too late.

And the next morning there were giants sitting on all the mountains around the town.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016