Friday, June 17, 2005

Fate will not be cheated (short story)

Fate will not be cheated …

Rakhi wandered through the fair. Her son Rahul was taking a ride on the big wheel with some friends and, now Rakhi glanced through the stalls to find something to amuse herself.

An odd, even comic looking ramshackle hut caught her eyes. The board advertised a palm reader, a teller of fortunes, but was so ridiculous in its wording and its list of suggested questions that one would like answered, that Rakhi who was an advertising executive, could not help smiling. She worked for a fairly big ad agency and had taken a recently long overdue 2 months break. Unfortunately Sandeep, her architect husband, had got saddled with a project just then and there plans of a long vacation had been delayed to the second month. This was how Rakhi found herself wandering around a fair with Rahul and his friends.

Rakhi looked at the sign again. How did people fall for the tricks these fraudsters played, she wondered? But she knew the answer — people believe what they want to. Let’s see if this one can fool me, said Rakhi to herself, as she pushed aside the curtain and entered the dim interiors.

Her eyes took time adjusting to the darkness. It was not complete — the night sky of the thatched roof was starry with pinpricks of light, and the occasional beam wandered like a lost stranger to disappear in the murky corners. A single beam shone well on the central wooden table. No dark crystal ball lay in the spotlight, but the plain worn wooden surface reflected enough to help illuminate the face of the palmist who had been waiting patiently for Rakhi to notice her.

With a gesture the fortuneteller invited her to sit on the chair opposite. Seating herself Rakhi was surprised to find herself still in the dark. She had expected the palmist to try and get a look at her face in order to guess something about her.

Instead they both lay in the darkness, with the beam of light in between them as a barrier. There was a moment of silence, and then Rakhi placed her palm on the table like an offering.

The palmist bent forward slightly. She was an old woman. She hardly seems to look at the palm as she traced her fingers over the lines that lay engraved in the soft supple skin.

“Where shall I start?” she asked. “The past, the present, the future?”
“The past and the present,” said Rakhi with a note of challenge in her voice.
The palmist smiled slightly. Rakhi knew she was not the first to put her to this test.
“You are a young woman of about twenty-seven, with a husband and a single son. You will have a daughter in about nine months.”
Rakhi caught her breath. She had gone to the hospital for the pregnancy test just that morning. She hadn’t even told Sandeep yet. But this woman knew……

Rakhi was convinced. After a pause, the old woman laid out her past. For the most part she gave a brief outline, but occasionally she gave astonishingly personal details. She was embarrassed to find such details written clearly on her palms, there for those who could read them.

“And now the future.” The fingers moved along a line. A small frown crossed the palmist’s face. She went back and forth over a certain spot, circling it, then with a slightly troubled face move down the line.

“Your daughter will be a special child. Two years from now you will change your job. You will become involved in social work. You will become very religious. You will be swindled a lot of money by fake fortunetellers…”
‘Sandeep will never allow that’, thought Rakhi.
“You will find—you will have a good father for your children”, said the palmist.
“What do mean ‘find’?” said Rakhi, puzzled.
“I am sorry my child,” she said in a low whisper, as her fingers went back to the same spot. “Your husband will die in a month.”

Everything in her brain screamed it was impossible, it was irrational, but she had already seen this woman read her life like a story from a book, she needed to know…

Her throat like a dried fountain, a trickle of voice whispered, pleaded, “How?”
“In a car accident.”

Rakhi leaned back. A wave of dread, then a surge of love for her husband, for the father of her children; she would not let this happen, she would stop it, she would warn him.

She hurriedly opened her purse and put down some money on the table. She ran to the door.

“You will try, but you cannot cheat fate.” The voice stopped her. She looked back at the old woman, who leaned slightly in to the shaft of light. Rakhi gasped and then rushed out. The woman had cataracts in both her eyes.

Outside, she reached into her handbag for her mobile, and then hesitated. Wishing to clear her mind, she started walking in the nearby park.

She had never believed in fortune telling, but today all that had been turned upside down. She tried to rationalize. How could the old woman have told her in such great detail how her husband was going to die? In a car accident — in such detail? But she knew she loved Sandeep deeply--such things could be written on her palms as well as his.

But she did not believe in inevitable fate. She would fight. She would change it. She wondered if that too was written on her palms. Would she succeed? Could she change the lines?

On reaching home, Rakhi was less certain about telling her husband. The thought of the way Sandeep would ridicule her when he found out that she had believed a fortuneteller did more to convince her then rational thinking. Perhaps the woman knew a nurse in the hospital … but it was all very unsatisfactory.

The next morning she quietly suggested, “Why don’t you take the train to work today?”
“The train?” he laughed, “why it would be twice the distance, what with going to and coming from the station. Why what’s wrong with the car?”
“Oh, it pollutes and all that…”
“I could join a car pool if you like”.
“No, I just don’t want you to go by car for a few days.”
“Why on earth?”
“Well, there could be an accident…”
“Rakhi, it’s been two years since we brought this car. Why the sudden fear of an accident?”
“Oh, I read that there are a lot of accidents these days and … oh, nothing.”

She stalked off.

He took the car to work. He returned as usual at 5:30pm. She heaved a sigh of relief as she watched the car turn into the garage of their house. She had been waiting by the window for the last two hours.

The next day at 5:30 he hadn’t come in. She started to reach for the phone when it rang. It was him, on the mobile. He was stuck in a traffic jam, it looked as if it would last for a couple of hours. When he reached home, he found her tensed but controlled. He tried to talk about it, but the conversation at the dinner table was one sided. Rahul was asleep.

The next night he returned at 7.30pm. He found her sitting on a chair in a corner, the room dark except for a lit table lamp near her. She was huddled up, her dark curtain of hair hiding a face streaked by golden trails of tears.

He approached her cautiously. “Shashank got a promotion. We were celebrating at his place. I tried calling up at six but the phone was engaged…”

“It was engaged because I was calling the police station and all the hospitals.” She lifted her face and he saw her red eyes.

“There is no need to be so worried when I’m late. I …”. His words fell limply in the air as she walked into the bedroom and locked him out.

They breakfasted in silence. When he reached for the car keys her self-restraint broke. She grabbed him and begged him not to go by car.

Slowly, between sobs, he extracted the story. At first he tried reasoning with her. She could not convey to him the stunning accuracy of the blind palmist.

“You can bring your work home—you can work from here—you used to do it.”
“How long would you want this to go on?” he asked in exasperation.
“Just another twenty-seven days…”

He walked out in anger. She ran after him and stood in front of the car.
Two hours of arguments later he gave in.

Twenty days passed. Rakhi did all the shopping. She never let Sandeep step out of the house. One week left.
The seven days dragged slowly. Sandeep was short tempered and exasperated. The days passed with Sandeep working alone in his study and Rakhi in the kitchen. Conversations consisted of silences and hot words. Rahul was confused and sad. He had been glad that his father was home more often, but he didn’t see much of him. He was sad and lonely and took to playing in the hall at the top of the stairs.

The last day dawned. Rakhi was up early making breakfast. She came out of the kitchen and saw Sandeep standing at the top of the stairs. They paused and looked at each other.

“The last day,” he called out.
“Yes,” and a smile crossed their faces.

He laughed and took a step down with his arms open to hold her.

What happened next would always remain to Rakhi a series of stills, like photos taken under a flashing light.

He slipped—a look of surprise crossed his face—he sailed forward—he fell—he hit his head—he tumbled down the stairs and landed spread-eagled at her feet.

Her screams brought the neighbours.

As they covered the body with a sheet, Rakhi reached down to pick up the object on which he had slipped. A look of incredulous fear passed over her face and she fainted. When they pried open her hand, they found a toy of her son’s—a small toy car.


Icecandyman: creative rewrite

Warning! This piece should only be read if you have read the novel "Ice candy man" by Bapsi Sidhwa. Watching the movie Earth (aka 1947 Earth) is not sufficient.

Creative Interrogation
Creative Piece

(This rewritten ending takes place after Hamida is hired, and after Lenny has seen Ayah in the taxi.)

The creak of the gate signaled Hamida’s arrival. As she came in I ran to her and asked, “Well, did you see her?”
Hamida looked at me a long while as I stared at her expectantly. Then with a sigh she sat down on the floor. I threw myself into her lap and she massaged my legs, for the moment ignoring my demanding, “Well?”
At last she said, “Yes, I met your Ayah.”
Yesterday the Ice-candy man had come to our house searching for Ayah, and had then tried to enter the fallen women’s camp, but the Sikh guard had beaten him up. Today he sat outside the camp, waiting for her.
“So how is she? Where was she? How did she get here?” I shot off the questions.
“She is well… now. When I saw her, she looked tired, but happy.” Hamida fell silent again. She seemed to be thinking of something that she could not quite understand.
“And? Did she become an actress? And who were those two poets I saw her with?” I prompted her.
Hamida looked at me slightly shocked. Then it seemed she made up her mind about something, and told me,
“When I saw her, I thought I would just sit with her and let her cry. But she wanted to speak. She wanted to tell me her story… I have never seen a woman yet who wished to speak of… but she talked. When the ice-candy wallah took your Ayah, he took her to… Hira Mandi, where she was mistreated… by several men… her honour shamed. She was a dancing girl… and then when Baiji tried to get her out, your ice-candy wallah married her.”
“She’s a bride!” I said, pleasantly surprised. I was still slightly bewildered at having heard so many sentences all at once from Hamida. Usually you had to push her into conversation. Hamida continued inspite of the interruption.
“But though she was his wife now, though she had become a Muslim – Mumtaz,” – I liked the name, and tested it on my lips – “she could not love him, she could not forgive him for what he had done to her, what he had taken from her, no matter how well he treated her now. So a few nights ago, she ran from his house, and came here and met Baiji.”
“She met Mother?! But Mother never told me!” I was dismayed – they all knew how long I had been waiting and searching for Ayah, why wouldn’t they tell me when she came?
“Lenny baby, it was a secret. He might have come and taken her again. She had to be kept safe, so Baiji sent her to the camp.”
Of course, I though bitterly, how could they trust a secret to my treacherous tongue? I sighed - would I never escape that curse? Would I have to cut it out?
I left these vexing questions for later, and asked,
“Is Ayah a fallen woman?”
Hamida was silent, and then said with a surprising strength of voice which I had never heard before – “If she was fallen, she has risen again. All the women like her, like myself, that I have seen till now, they all moaned their fate - but accepted it. She talked of it, but did not simply accept it. She said that if she had accepted fate as it came, then she would have stayed in his house. But she would not – so she ran by herself, rather than wait for someone to come.” Hamida smiled slightly at some remembrance, and continued, “So I asked her, do you believe then, like Lenny baby, that you can change the lines on your palm?”
“And? What did she say?” I asked excitedly. “Did she remember me?”
“Yes, she did. And then we talked of you for a long time. She misses you.”
“Then they have to let me go and see her!”
“No, Lenny baby. Not yet,” said Mother, who had been standing in the doorway silently listening to Hamida. “Soon, but not yet.”
That evening I climbed onto the rafters to look down on the camp. I thought I saw a familiar figure… “Ayah!” I called. Several faces looked up, but the one I had called to looked long and smiled, then turned and moved away. It must have been her! But in the dim light she had looked changed.
The Ice-candy man came everyday, waiting till night, for a glimpse of Ayah. That was all he got. Ayah came out rarely. The first few times she never looked at him, but eventually she looked past him as if he wasn’t there. He sat there, declaiming couplets and Urdu poetry. He sometimes sold ice candies, but most he gave away free.
I continued to ask to see Ayah, protesting to Mother and Godmother, “She’ll want to see me!” They were uneasy but unwilling. I suspected that she visited our home while I was out with Hamida, and I always hurried Hamida back to try and catch Ayah at our house. I think they kept me from her because they were afraid, either of what Ayah felt for me because of my accidental betrayal of her, or of my doing her some harm again with my tongue. But I knew they were wrong. Things would be the same between us.
Then finally one night I saw her. She was at the door of our house, talking in the moonlight to Mother as the Sikh kept watch near the gate. I listened, desperate to catch her voice, their words. She was thanking Mother, and also Godmother, for their help with the authorities. Now she was leaving for Amritsar.
“What if they will not take you back?” asked Mother, worried.
“They will have to. If not, I will manage by myself.”
There was a pause.
“Goodbye, Baiji.”
“Goodbye, Shanta.”
She turned and started walking away. Halfway to the gate she stopped, looked back and saw me. She held my gaze, and then opened her arms. I ran to them and she hugged me. After a long moment, I disentangled myself and looked at her. Something had changed. She was no longer the roly-poly bouncing teasing Ayah. Some of the Ice-candy man’s iciness had trickled into her. We gazed at each other and then I turned and ran.
The next day instead of watching from a window, I walked up to the Ice-candy Man. He was reciting poetry to himself and looking through the basket of flower petals he had brought to throw over the wall of the camp.
“Ice-candy wallah,” I called.
He looked up, seeing me. There was a moment when he looked at me vaguely, and then –
“Lenny baby! Come, I’ve got ice candy for you.” But the look remained, as if I was only half there. Absentmindedly he held them out to me.
My heart was thumping. Was I making a mistake? Was this another truth I should not tell? But a feeling of both pity and wanting him to be gone came over me, and I said it:
“Ice-candy wallah, she’s gone.”
I waited to make sure it had sunk in, and then ran back into the house.

The Ice-candy man never came back.

A week later, Hamida asked to see my mother. This was a little unusual – what followed was even more surprising.
“Baiji, I would like to have a few days to go somewhere.”
This was very surprising – meek Hamida asking for something, and wanting to go somewhere on top of that. Mother raised her eyebrows inquisitively.
“But where to, Hamida?”
“To my house… I want to see my children,” said Hamida, with a faint smile at her lips.

The Wisdom of Solomon (original, creative rewrite, explication)

A Wise Ruling

Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. One of them said, “My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him to her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son – and he was dead! But when I looked closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”
But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.
The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘ No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”
Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword fro the king. He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”
The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”
Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”
When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

The Wisdom of Solomon

(An extract from the writings of Jehoshaphat, son of Ahilud, recorder to the King)

In the fourth year of his reign, two women appeared before his Highness King Solomon, and asked for judgment.

The first approached the King and said, “Your majesty, I am a poor woman; I live in a hut near the edge of the city. Four days ago I gave birth to a boy. Last night there was a storm, and this other woman, this rich woman, who was passing by with her servants, asked for shelter for the night. That night she gave birth to a son. I let her sleep in my room, on my bed.
During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him to her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son – and he was dead! But when I looked closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
The other woman approached his majesty and said, “Your Highness, it is true that I slept in this woman’s hut, and I went to sleep with my son by my side. This morning when I woke, this woman was mad with grief because her son had died. Then she saw my baby at my breast and started shouting that I had taken her baby. But the truth is that the living baby is mine, and the dead one is hers.”
But the other woman insisted, “No, the living one is mine, and the dead one is hers.”
They started to fight, and Ahijah, son of Shisha, who was secretary for that day, stopped the fight and separated them.

Then his majesty spoke. “Leave us. We shall consider the matter.”

The women were taken away, and the King turned to his personal adviser Zahud, son of Nathan.

“Well, Zahud?”
“The second woman, the rich one, is Abigail wife of Shimei son of Ela -”
“The district governor,” murmured the King.
“Yes, your majesty. She is famous for her kindness and generosity, and her charity to the poor. The other one is Tamar. She is… a prostitute. We are not sure who the father of her child is.”
“The reputations of these women cannot decide who is right or wrong, Zahud.”
“Yes, sire, but they are indicative of their characters, and that is relevant.”
“True. Have you spoken to the other people present that night?”
“Abigail’s people were outside the hut, in tents. The women were alone in the hut, except for Abishag, the wet nurse for Abigail’s child. She says she would have woken if Abigail had gotten up, and says that she did not.”
“Of course, she could be lying and following her mistress’ orders.”
“True, sire.”
“So there are no witnesses, except the baby, and he cannot tell us anything.”

The King rose from his throne, and started to pace the floor.
“Sire, there is one thing you must consider.”
“Yes, Zahud?” said the King.
“Shimei is governor of the district of Benjamin. As you know, this last year there have been uprisings and rebellions there, and Shimei has always done your majesty’s will and suppressed them.”
The King turned in anger and said, “And you think I should reward him with a son?”
“Not reward, sire. But if Shimei is denied a boy who may be his only son and heir, then he may not carry out your majesty’s wishes with such… devotion.”
“Such men are traitors, and I can have them executed.”
“Which would not be wise, sire, for Shimei is a popular man, and to wrong him would be to strengthen the rebellions.”
“But what of the truth, Zahud? I cannot simply ignore it. I swore I would rule my people wisely.”
“Yes, sire, think of the people. The kingdom cannot suffer the rebellion to grow. Be just to your people, your majesty.”
“What of justice to the mother? Does she not have a right to her son?”
“And what of justice to the son, your Highness? Abigail is a rich woman, and a good one. This child can grow up strong and wise under her care. Tamar is a prostitute, she is poor; with her, the child may die of hunger, or disease. She has nothing to offer this child.”
“Do not forget, Zahud, that my father’s father was but a shepherd, and yet my father David, by the grace of God, rose to be King of Israel and Judah.”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Zahud, and was silent.

“Truth, and justice. What must I–”

And suddenly the King smiled, and said, “I know how I may determine both.”

He turned in triumph, and said, “Zahud, I will have those women called before me. Then I shall say that since I cannot determine who the mother is, I will have the child cut in half, and one half given to each woman.”
“Your Highness!”
“Patience, Zahud. The mother, moved by love for her child, will surrender the baby to the other woman rather than have any harm come to it. The other woman, motivated by spite, will agree to the division, reasoning that they both would have dead sons then. The mother is thus identified, and the child may go with she who loves him most.”

Zahud bowed deeply before the King, and said, “Truly, the Lord our God has made you wise, your majesty. But if I may ask, what if both women, moved by love for the child, ask, that he…”
“Be spared. If both women honestly believe that the boy is their son, then it is likely that Abigail’s son did die that night. The wet nurse, Abishag, seeing the baby lie dead, was afraid of losing her position, or perhaps wished only that her mistress be happy, and so changed the babies.”
Once again, Zahud bowed before the King. “Your are wise, sire. But, forgive my foolishness, permit me one more question, your majesty.”
“If that is indeed the case, that both women believe the boy to be truly theirs, and that the wet nurse changed the babies, what will you rule, sire?”


In detective fiction, the detective is the investigative agent. His/her aim is to determine the truth. In most detective fiction, the detective is also the moral centre of the narrative, and it is his moral framework that the reader uses to determine what is just or unjust. While the detective may not be called upon to dispense judgment and justice, the reader uses the implied moral structure of the text to pass mental judgment on the characters and their actions.

In the original ‘A Wise Ruling’, the truth and the action it dictates coincide with justice. Solomon, subjects the women to a simple test, observes their reactions and determines the truth, and thus the necessary justice. The characters are simplified and one dimensional: there are two prostitutes, one is a caring mother, the other a spiteful and jealous woman. The king is wise and just, and accessible to his people. The good people and the bad are clearly delineated.

It was this simplicity that attracted me to this story, which may be considered as one of the earliest detective stories. Real life, as well as latter day detective fiction, is rarely that straightforward, in terms of solution, or in terms of moral frameworks.

In my rewrite ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I complicate the text by introducing several possibilities and questions. What is the purpose of the detective? Is it to simply determine the truth, or to determine justice as well? Solomon’s position is of course complicated by the fact that he is not only a detective: he is also the judge. He must not only determine what is just – he must execute the appropriate action.

Even if we allow that the detective must concern himself with justice, at least to some extent, then the question is raised: what is justice? Is it justice to the individual or to society (the people of the kingdom)? After all justice is all about recognizing the consequences of your actions, and addressing them, so Solomon cannot afford to neglect how his actions may affect the kingdom. And even if justice means justice to the individual, which individual is that? The mother, or the son? And does justice to the son mean sending him with his birth mother, or with the woman who might do him the most good? Implicit in this of course are class judgments of the women involved. In ‘A Wise Ruling’ the women were both prostitutes, neither women had anything special to offer, and the consequences of the case were limited to the baby and the two women. In ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I had the women come from different social strata, in order to bring out prejudices that arise in almost every trial, formal or informal. A person’s background influences our perception of them; though in this story, like the original, Solomon himself remains kind and fair. Zahud, however, sees Abigail as more trustworthy woman, and a woman deserving of a judgment in her favour. Solomon, ever mindful of his own humble roots, is able to see past appearances.

The rewritten text also introduces a point which in the original had often bothered me – what if both women cared enough for the child to give it up? What would the King have done then? In my text I allow the King a way out – a third person is present in the hut, who may be the criminal. But that still leaves the King with a choice to make – should he announce the truth, or should he conceal it in the best interests of his people, and possibly in the best interests of the baby boy?

In the rewrite, except for Solomon himself, the characters are shown in shades of grey. Zahud seems prejudiced against the prostitute, but has the health of the state in mind. Abigail, the rich woman, may have stolen the baby, but she is famous for her charity and kindness. Tamar, the prostitute, may be a caring mother. And Abishag, who may have stolen the baby, may have been motivated either out of fear of losing her job, or out of love for her mistress. Just as the ‘right’ course of action is left uncertain, our moral judgments of the characters is problematic. Only Solomon is shown without flaws, though he has the burden of making a decision.

The rewrite has been presented as an excerpt from the writings of the King’s recorder, a man who would be nearly invisible, but constantly at his side. However, given his sensitive position, he would himself be ‘sensitive’ as to how the king was portrayed. To show the king as unfair to the poor, or inaccessible to them (note that it is the poor woman who is shown as bringing forward the case), would be bad – for the king’s image, and thus for him. This attribution accounts for the text delving into to the inner workings of the King’s court, as well as the uniformly positive portrayal of King Solomon. It also invites the reader to take everything narrated with a pinch of salt, though we are not shown any reason to doubt the veracity of the account.

I have renamed the account, for in this case, the moral framework having been complicated, the ruling that the King must make is not clear, and his final decision is not narrated, but is left to the reader’s imagination and judgment. The name ‘the Wisdom of Solomon’ was chosen because that is what Solomon was famous for, and that is what is being tested by this case – what is the wisest or best ruling?

Thus in ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I raise several questions which I leave unanswered, and try to make the situation more real by complicating the case, and the characters involved. I leave it to the reader to impose his own moral framework on the text, and come up with the ‘wisest’ ruling.

Tiger trilogy Part 3: Who made you Tiger?

Who made you, Tiger?

Who made you Tiger?
So perfect, with beauty bright,
Who made you bold and courageous
With a stout heart and mind?

Who taught you sly and clever ways
Who gave you strength and will?
Who taught you to hunt the swiftest deer
To hunt them and to kill?

Who gave you majesty so dignified
Who made you calm and serene?
Who made those curving fangs of white
Who made those eyes so green?

Who made your skin so beautiful
Who made your fur so fine?
So much as to cause your end
Killed by men with greedy minds

Tiger trilogy Part 2: A shadow in the forest

A half-starved mahout
On his great grey beast
Lumbering slowly through green fields
Waving under a bright sun.

A well trod path
He takes, to return
To his village, from whence he came,
In the morning, with his huge friend.

The jungle nears
He has heard talk
Of a demon
With green eyes and fangs
Who feeds on poor people
God help them!

The jungle draws closer
He mutters incantations
And invokes the name of god
To drive off the demon.

The jungle enfolds him
Shivering he peeps
Past bushes and creepers
And starts at everything
As his beast lumbers slowly

A rustle in the grass!
Is it he?
But no, ‘tis but a bird
Aflight, and calling
His mate to come

But what was that?
A flash of green, a glint of white
A shadow flying like the breeze?
‘Tis he!
He comes now,
He of the angel’s beauty and the devil’s twisted mind
He that strikes terror
As if with his claws
Deep into the hearts of men
Who fear unknown,
The demon! He comes!
Death in its greatest beauty
But little for those its jaws embrace
He comes!

Where is the fleeting shadow?
Is that rustle but of the breeze?
Are those his markings or shadows waving
Are those mortal eyes that shine so green?

Where is the shadow who hunts me?
Where be the tooth and the fang?
Where is death inexorable
Made by immortal hands?

Faster he comes now and faster
Seeking my blood and my bones
Shadows so dreadful leap before mine eyes
How much longer till this life is gone?

Shadows are now all around me
Darkness and Death now approach
His image leaps now all about me
Be there a glimmer of hope?

He leaps!
But it cannot be!
He leaps!
But he leaps not at me!

His jaws seek no human blood
‘Tis not for me he craves
A swift-footed deer is all he seeks
The jungle lord’s lawful prey

Come streaming now, sunlight and freedom
Freedom from a merciless death
Come flooding the joy of living
Comes fast and relieved my breath.

The mahout leaves the jungle
To leave his village no more
He will not chance the game with Death
A wise man is he now.

The jungle lord, in shadows grey
Green eyes blink but once
He lays himself down and slowly starts
To eat his lawful prey.



Dawn is hours off
Yet a new sun will rise
Seconds tick
The masses wait
Not for day’s light
But midnight

This is the stuff
That history is made of
Swells the heart of man
Lifts up
In a wind of spirit

A deep yearning, ‘tis.
The suppressed
Filled with new power
But for midnight they wait
To declare
To announce

The strokes
A bell
A dawn of new era
In the darkness of the night
No whisper,
No murmur
No sentence
But a feeling
A world of emotion
A swirling
The wind
A shout
A roar it is.

Rise up
‘Tis free
The land
The people
‘Tis independence

Poem/Anti-poem Part 1

To The Indian Who Died in Africa
-T.S. Eliot

A man’s destination is his own village,
His own fire and his wife’s cooking;
To sit in front of his own door at sunset
And see his grandson and his neighbour’s grandson
Playing in the dust together.

Scarred but secure he has many memories
Which return at the hour of conversation
(The warm or the cool hour, according to the climate)
Of foreign men, who fought in foreign places,
Foreign to each other.

A man’s destination is not his destiny
Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his.
Let his village remember.

This was not your land, or ours: but a village in the Midlands,
And one in the Five Rivers, may have the same graveyard.
Let those who go home tell the same story of you:
Of action with a common purpose, action
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgement after death.
What is the fruit of action.

Anti-/To the Indian who died in Africa

This was not your war, but theirs
A battle of misplaced patriotism
The glory of a battle
Which had to be fought
A glory you may not wish
A glory for a country not yet free
Fight for the freedom of others
When your countrymen still thirst for it.

The blessing of the workhorse on you
Of the sparrow or lark that once flew free
But now with clipped wing, sing as a songbird
In a gilded cage
Dying and earning glory
They do not wish
Anything, but freedom.

Second coming (short story, followed by explication)

Show and Tell
Second Coming

Zayin Daled-Beis stood trembling in wonder. For twenty years he had searched at the Aleph’s command, ever since the dream. Others had joined him, called by the same voice, the same dream. There were many in the University who had thought him mad; even his beloved, Reish Ayin-Gimel, had at times doubted him. But now they all stood on the slopes, grass rustling in the wind, watching a star bright enough to be seen by day, race towards them, and then slow, and slow yet further.

Zayin gripped little Mem Reish-Zayin with his right arms and held him tight, his whiskers reveling in the feel of the fresh polymers of his child’s exo. He wished he could lift him, but Mem was tall, he had been tall ever since his finding. He remembered standing in the cave of Aleph, with Reish by his side, awed but hopeful, as they had beseeched the Almighty to grant them a child. He and Reish had placed their lower right palms on the wall of Ancestors, and had felt the tingle of communion with Aleph. They should have gone then, but they had tarried instead, taking time to recite slowly the kind of child they wanted. It was mere superstition, none knew better than they that Aleph was not swayed by such requests. What was written in the code would be fulfilled, neither more nor less. Yet they had spoken – and it seemed that their wishes had been answered. For, months later, they had obeyed the summons and had found - it had been the happiest day of Zayin’s life, discovering his child, taller than his father, with the build of his father’s father, and the speed and grace of his mother. He was a son to be proud of - he was already progressing rapidly in the Oratory. In a week he would leave it and join the University, and perhaps if things had been different, he too would have joined the Search. But the Search was over. One day, Mem would tell his children that he had been there on the day that the Shin-Vet, these strange visitors, had descended from the sky.

The star slowed further, and cooled with surprising rapidness from a blinding white to a dull orange. They could judge its size now. It was as large as a small mountain, and had the strangest structure…why, there was not one, there were two! One nestled behind the other, and it was cooler still, merely red.

Slowly the vessels, looking like two cones nearly touching points, turned, circling slowly around Samech, where lay the cave of Aleph. Surely this was a sign to the disbelieving – these Shin-Vet had been brought by Aleph, praised be its name!

Tighter and tighter the circles wound. A strong breeze rustled the grass around them, bearing a stench of burning metal from the two cones. They stopped, aligned perfectly above the Samech.

Then came the voices.

They were like the voice of Aleph, but they came not in dreams. Unless this was all a dream. But no, he could still feel the wind, still feel Mem. He let go of him slowly. He could not understand, these voices were strange, speaking a language that raised strange echoes in his mind, things he could not consciously understand. He felt strange urges, movements rising involuntarily. He struggled in his head, unsure whether to give in. Surely these were from the Shin-Vet, and had they not come at the word of Aleph? Surely Aleph would not mean harm to its people, surely this was the code working in mysterious ways. Yet it felt so strange, and he was… he did not know the word to use, for he was afraid, and had never felt so before. He trembled again, and now it was not with awe or wonder, but with disease, as if possessed by a virus. Dimly he noticed the others suffering too, and then with a low moan he collapsed on the ground.

Mem watched, without understanding, as his parents and their friends collapsed. He could hear whispers in his head, and it ached dully, but they were just whispers. But his family was sick. He looked around and saw other groups writhing on the slopes surrounding Samech, and again, saw others, young ones like himself – he recognized Yud, Nun, Pay, Tzadi – standing among the groaning bodies and thrashing arms.

Something was wrong. These Shin-Vet - had they truly come at Aleph’s Word? Why would Aleph hurt? Unless… the Shin-Vet were… against Aleph. But it could not be! Had not Aleph commanded them to search for these Shin-Vet? Had not Aleph awaited their coming? Why did Aleph not speak? Did they not listen to It?

Doubt seized him…if they heard not Aleph’s Word, but Aleph bade by theirs....

His world was crashing round him. His kin lay dying, his God dethroned. He could not let it be. He would fight while the currents still ran in his body. He screamed noiselessly in rage at the black cones hovering, a hurricane of hot wind still roaring from them. With a shout echoed by those still standing, he ran down the slopes and up the mountain, his steps ringing on the metal that was Samech. As the group converged on the peak, they futilely raised their arms against the hovering vessels, and once again screamed their noiseless rage.

Then all was light.

“Well, that job’s finally done. By next watch, we should be 20 light years away and back at home base and … what are you looking so glum about?”

Peter Falstaff shook his head. “I had the headphones on. I heard them.”

“Sure, so did I,” replied Thomas Mann, “Merrily shouting on all the radio frequencies you could imagine. Thought they’d trigger something by mistake. Good thing we were shielded. It’s over now, anyhow.”

Falstaff shook his head. Mann rolled his eyes and said,

“Don’t tell me you’re upset over a bunch of robots? I mean that’s all they were, robots manufactured by a stupid computer that survived that crash. If it hadn’t been signaling us it would have taken another ten years to find them, and God knows what would have happened by then. I mean you can’t say we didn’t try to rehabilitate them. But they’d changed too much, they just wouldn’t listen to the damn instructions. Lay there moaning and groaning, most of them – and the rest were trying to scream us out of the sky. It was us or them, so I had to use the blast gun. You can’t be upset over that.”

There was no response. Mann shrugged and left, whistling at the thought of home base. Falstaff merely sat in silence, shaking his head, whispering softly to himself.

“You didn’t hear them. They screamed.”


In Second Coming, I decided, mainly from personal preferences, to write my vision of the future in the genre of Science Fiction. Science Fiction visions of the future appeal to me because they are more than simply visions of places and times different from ours – to an extent, if one imagines an infinite universe where everything that is possible within the laws of nature happens, they are actually probable. The short story is the most common weapon of choice for the science fiction writer, and I proved no exception, choosing the freedom of prose over the rules of rhythm in poetry.

The story takes the one of most common ideas of literature – the Hostile Other – and turns it on its head to reach another cliché – the Violent Man. The Hostile Other is a ploy that has often been used in science fiction, typically pitting an alien against a human or man against machine. This theme has been repeated ad nauseam in the visual media in various movies and TV shows. The assumption behind it is a valorization of the human, raising human values to the highest level and using them to judge all else, despite the fact that the others are alien. The opposition between Other and Self is often used in stories to illustrate a conflict in which human values/intelligence triumph. A story of conflict also allows the easy introduction of elements of suspense. Second Coming superficially avoids the idea of Hostile Other by giving an alien narration, but given that there is no sign of a value system very different from a human one, the inversion is incomplete. Also, it is simply an inversion; the conflict remains. This was done to easily introduce suspense and some slightly more dynamic action.

The story ends up embracing another idea which has been used before in movies such as ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, and ‘The Abyss’ – that of the aggressive Man. Typically these movies showed benevolent aliens saving Man from self-destruction, and enforcing their will by means of superior technology. In this story, Man is the aggressor, threatening the existence of the aliens. The greater part of the story is narrated from the point of view of the aliens, thus relegating Man to the position of the Hostile Other. To complicate things further, the aliens are robots, thus encompassing two estrangements in one – that between Man and Alien, and that between Man and Machine.

The aliens, who are robots, have evolved a religion around a computer that manufactures them – he is their Creator. By his command they have been searching for the ‘strange visitors’ – it is their counterpart to our SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Their Search is successful, but the result unexpected. If as Roy Batty says in Blade Runner, “It's not an easy thing to meet your maker”, how easy is it to find that your Creator is not supreme? This is one issue that the robots must struggle with.

The story portrays conscious robots as developing a religion of their own. Typically sentient robots are treated as ‘rational’ and therefore either unable to understand human irrationality, or else they explain human behaviour in terms of psychological models. They do not ‘believe’ in the irrational themselves – the concept of religion rarely arises. An exception is a short story by I. Asimov in which a robot ‘Cutie 1’ (QT-1) declares himself the Prophet of a religion. Second Coming thus questions this separation of rationality and religion. Are the two incompatible? Given that the only other sentient beings in the story – men – are typically portrayed as having a religion, does that imply a causal link between consciousness and religion? However it is conspicuous that there are no explicit religious references made by the men in the story – I am excluding the comment ‘God knows’ as being common usage, not necessarily indicative of personal beliefs.

Given that the robots Creator is unmasked as a computer, this by analogy raises uncomfortable questions about man’s idea of God. The robots receive ‘messages’ in dreams, have a holy cave and mountain, and beseech their God to answer their prayers. They even have a kind of fatalism, “What was written in the code would be fulfilled, neither more nor less.” In many ways they are not too different from men. How different then are their religions and Gods? One interesting point is that though the relation between the robots and their creator is clearly outlined, the idea of the Creator having made the universe (typical to most religions) is not explicitly given, though the assumption of omnipotence lies behind the robots’ initial thought that the Shin-Vet came at the bidding of the Aleph.

Thus the author appears to questioning human religion, or at least its typical distance from ‘rational’ beings.

The men of the story have been engaged in a search for the crashed ship and its computer, just as the robots and computer have been searching for them. But when the men find the ship and robots, they do not treat the robots as conscious equals. They are treated as human property, as wayward creations, and when they do not obey, they are destroyed. For one of the humans, that is the end of the story, but the other returns with a troubled conscience. It is not easy being Godlike to a people, nor being personally responsible for the destruction of conscious beings. By giving the robots characteristics associated with humans, while immersed in an environment that is clearly alien, the story questions the implied distance between the Other and the Self, turning the Other into a double of the Self.

The story is titled Second Coming. This echoes the Judaeo-Christian myth of a God returning, but the story is perhaps closer to the events that occurred when the Europeans came to Central and South America. They were hailed as Gods whose return had been prophesied, and they took advantage of the situation to exploit the natives. In the story the computer awaits the return of the humans, patiently signaling and waiting for them. The computer is an interesting if neglected character – all it was doing was its job, and it willing called out to those who would eventually reduce its work to naught, and destroy it.

The story is narrated in third person, but from three different circumscribed points of view (POVs). In the first case the limited perspective is that of Zayin Daled-Beis, then followed by that of Mem Reish-Zayin. The third viewpoint is not specifically that of any one person, but is placed among the humans in their ship.
The third person narrative is not exactly omniscient, being limited in perspective in each case, though the answers to most questions are eventually revealed. Visually, the story is divided into three parts separated by double spaces. While it would have been more logical to divide the narrative according to the narrator viewpoint, that is Zayin, Mem and then human, the first part is from Zayin’s, the second from Zayin’s and Mem’s and the third from the human viewpoint. What marks the end of each section is a moment of suspense created by a short terse line, which is further elaborated upon in the next section. There is also an apparent progression from weaker to stronger – Mem outlives Zayin, and is in turn outlived by the humans.

The language used for the robots’ POV narration is suffused by a certain ‘old style’, constantly invoking their Creator, and full of rhetorical questions. ‘I think therefore I am’ comes to mind – by these questions we deduce the conscious and ‘rational’ nature of the robots. Their memories and emotions are brought up, giving us a personal glimpse into their ‘feelings’ and life. In contrast the language used for the POV that describes the humans is more impersonal. This difference in language helps further the inversion of Man and Machine.

The names for the robots as well as Shin-Vet, Samech and Aleph derive from the Hebrew alphabet. Following Gematrias, a scheme for assigning numerical values to the letters, Daled-Beis becomes 4-2. Similarly, Reish Ayin-Gimel becomes 273. 42 is of course a tribute to Douglas Adams, the late popular science fiction writer, while –273 deg Celsius is absolute zero. As for the naming of children, the hyphenated double surname is derived from the first names of the parents: thus for Mem we have Reish-Zayin. Aleph codes for 1, as is appropriate for a God. The God is referred to as ‘It’, that is without gender. The human names were chosen more randomly, with Falstaff coming from the Shakespearean character, though he is nothing near jovial here (and of course he is no longer John, but Peter), and Thomas Mann being chosen to identify his viewpoint with the dominant viewpoint of ‘Man’. The assonance between Mann and Man was the main reason for the choice of this name, which by accident ended up being that of the 1929 Nobel laureate in Literature, who interestingly wrote ‘The Magic Mountain’.

Is there a gender bias in the story? Both Mem and Zayin are depicted as male, Reish is just mentioned. While the surname encompasses the names of both parents, the child that Zayin and Reish ask for ends up being Mem. Did they ask for a male child? That is not specified. The two humans on the ship are also men. While the God of the robots has been carefully rendered as non-gendered, it is to be suspected that the author has an unconscious male bias.

Thus we see that Second Coming probes the distance between Self and the Other, by reversing roles, as well as crediting the Other with human characteristics. It also highlights the destructive nature of Man, and his callous treatment of other sentient beings. There is a theme of a Search, with unexpected results for both sides, as both are searching for the other. The story also probes the relation between religion, consciousness and rationality.