The Dragon Nightmare: The Flying Shadow

AUTHOR BRIEF: Hemendra Kumar Roy was a very popular author of children’s and young adult fiction, not that there was much of a difference between the two at his time. Society was rather different then – India was still a colony, for a start – and therefore the flavour and style of Hemen Roy’s stories are rather different from what one might expect today. This is also what makes them particularly interesting, despite Roy’s somewhat bombastic style.

Part 1. The Flying Shadow
Crime-solvers Jayanta and Manik are quite the celebrities these days. Young people in Bengal, I am told, wait eagerly for news of their new exploits.The adventure-seeking duo of Bimal and Kumar are just as famous. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that their unequalled acts of bravery have bought them an equal fame.

Strange circumstances had once compelled these two pairs to work together. Today, I shall recount in full that uncanny and mysterious tale.

The newspapers were in an uproar. Two horrendous murders had been committed within days of each other, and the murderer in each instance had escaped. However, beside each corpse, they had left a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon, and the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4.

It was in such a time, on a rainy pre-dawn, that Jayanta awoke.

The flute had always been a favourite of his. If he didn’t play the flute for a few moments every morning, his day didn’t feel complete.

That day, when he blew out the first notes of the Ramkali melody, dawn hadn’t yet broken. And yet within moments, someone began banging on his door. Irritated, Jayanta got up and undid the latch… and Maniklal stormed into the room.

“You!” exclaimed Jayanta, astonished. “It’s not even morning yet!”

“The dragon, Jayanta!” panted Manik, “The dragon has appeared again! The third time!”

Jayanta blew experimentally through his flute.

“A third murder, Jayanta! And the murderer has escaped again!”

Jayanta resumed the Ramkali.

“Are you listening to me? It’s not just a newspaper report, I witnessed it all first-hand this time!”

Jayanta lay the flue down. ” I can see there’ll be no music this morning, ” he sighed. “Well, go on then. Tell me everything. I don’t like listening to excited bits and pieces.”

Manik collapsed on a chair. Jayanta raised his voice to order breakfast for the two of them, and then sat facing Manik.

“It was past midnight when I left your place yesterday,” began Manik. “It was still and humid, and I had a hard time falling asleep. Finally, in the final hours before dawn, there was a short burst of shower, and a cool breeze broke the heat. Just as I was beginning to drop off, a scream shattered the night.

You remember the house next to mine, Jayanta? That’s where the scream seemed to come from. For the last six months, it had been the residence of Niradchandra Basu and his family.

Now, you can imagine what happens when one hears a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night! I froze in bed for a few moments. And then an uproar went up from next door. Many voices started shouting in unison. I could discern ‘Murder!’ ‘Robbers!’ ‘Police!’. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window. There was still a drizzle at that point, but mostly it was a storm. The wind was high, and there were frequent lightnings.

Now, Jay, you know how the mind plays tricks on us, especially when we’re as shaken and confused as I was then. So when I what I saw, even I couldn’t believe it was really happening. Here’s what I saw: in a burst of lightning, a dark figure flew skywards from Niradbabu’s roof. Visibility was poor, but it looked human to me. Now normally, I would have dismissed this as an illusion, but I remember when the first dragon murder happened, some witnesses claimed to have seen a similar figure flying away from the victim’s roof.

Anyway, onto more concrete things. I shook off my stupor and hurried next door. I knew Niradbabu a little. We’d met a few times, and he’d asked me over for tea a couple of times.

Before you ask, this is what I know about Nirad Basu. He’s retired, but not more than fifty. His wife passed away some time back, leaving behind two grown sons, both married. Niradbabu used to work in Military Accounts. During the last World War, he was posted in China. He left that position abruptly to move to Rangoon, and a few years later moved just as abruptly to Kolkata. I don’t know why he left his job or why he moved back suddenly from Rangoon. Rich people are often eccentric, and Niradbabu was rather obviously rich.

When we reached the first floor, I saw Niradbabu’s lifeless body on the floor. It was horrible. Strong hands had wrung his neck, and terror was etched on his frozen face. Beside the corpse, there was a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon. Not too different from the pictures of dragons one sees in encyclopaedias and books: body like a huge snake, terrifying unnatural face, tendrils of fires snaking out of its nose. And on its back, there were the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. All numbers except the last had been crossed out in red ink.

There was an iron safe in a corner of the room. Scuffs on it showed that the murder had tried to open it, but fled because of the noise we made. His way in and out of Niradbabu’s room must have been the window, because the iron grill on the window frame was bent out of shape. But it’s a mystery how he entered the house, or how he escaped from it. There’s some fallow land all around the house, so the question of jumping from a neighbour’s roof doesn’t arise. Both the front and back entrances had guards – don’t ask me why – and they both claim they’ve been undisturbed all night.

This is what has brought me to you, Jayanta. Crimes are not uncommon in Calcutta, and most murders appear mysterious at first glance. But this one is absolutely confounding! How could a murderer enter and leave a locked, isolated house? Why would he leave drawings of dragons behind? And what was the dark, shadowy figure I saw speeding skywards?

Jayanta stood up and paced around the room thoughtfully. “There have been, as you say, two more murders of exactly the same kind in this city recently. Clearly, the same people – or at least the same brain – is behind all three. The first victim was Anathnath Sen; the second victim was Chandranath Dutta. This time, it’s your neighbour Nirad Chandra Basu. If I am to take up this case, I first have to see how these people are related to each other. About the flying figure: some of Anathbabu’s neighbours claimed to have seen a similar figure the night he was murdered. I would have dismissed that as fancy, but I am incapable of dismissing your testimony. But the most important thing, Manik, is that these three murders indicate a future murder. Have you caught onto that?

“How so?” said a startled Manik.

“I read in the papers that the picture left behind at the first murder, just the number 1 had been crossed off. Now, at the third victim’s murder, you say all the numbers except four has been crossed off. Clearly, there is a person or a group somewhere that has decided that these four people must die, only the fourth person is still alive.”

“Goodness!” breathed Manik.

“The dragon is an indicator,” mused Jayanta. “It’s the symbol of the person or group responsible for these crimes. Why would such people want these four dead?”

In the ensuing silence, heavy footsteps were heard thumping up the stairs.

Jayanta sat up. “That’s Inspector Sunderbabu”, he whispered, and picked up the flute. Sunderbabu had a distinct distaste for flutes.

The very next second, a wobbling tummy and shining pate pushed through the door, announcing Sunderbabu’s presence. Jayanta blew through his flute, pretending not to notice.

“Hrrump!” said Sunderbabu, instantly irritated. “Here I am, tearing my hair out, and you’re playing the flute! The flute!”

“Don’t be like that, Sunderbabu,” said Manik sweetly. “Jayanta’s only trying to soothe your troubled soul.”

“Don’t you make fun of me, Manik”, Sunderbabu growled. “I cannot abide your jokes. Especially at a time like this!”

“What’s so sombre about this time?” asked Jayanta, lowering his flute.

Sunderbabu jiggled into a nearby chair. The fight seemed to go out of him. “Just my luck,” he said dejectedly. “All the rotten, ridiculous cases always drop on my plate. If those blasted murderers had just taken Nirad Basu elsewhere to kill, I wouldn’t be involved in this ghostly mess. But no…”

You’re in charge of the Niradbabu murder?” interjected Jayanta.

“Who else? It’s always this old soldier doing the dirty work. But ghosts, I ask you! Dragons! Flying shadows! My liver is quivering in my tummy, I tell you! I want no part of this. I’ll apply for leave straight away.

Better Local Governance: Electing vs. Assigning

Much of the US was a structural shock to my system. When I first heard that such key offices as Commissioner of Police and district attorney was elected rather then appointed from a national, rotating pool, for example, I was aghast.
Popular punditry often conflates democracy with the mechanism of elections, but elections today are the epitome of a rigged game, favouring only those with the connections, funds, and social identities most accommodative of popular prejudice. Consider the USA, for instance. A country predicted to soon become – amongst much media headlining – not predominantly white, has not had two black senators serving simultaneously in their version of the parliament. Politics by colour of class might seem regressive on the surface, but the continuing structural violence against groups incapable of sponsoring enough elected members to the House is for all to see.
In the wake of the police brutality at Jadavpur University, though, I have had to reconsidered my deeply rooted colonial stance. On the one hand, it seems generally sensible to select and train officer-level police personnel (that is, those who bear arms and make the decisions) at a national academy, than to accept any average eighteen-year old who hasn’t ever left his home town, and present him with the privileges of uniform.

On the other hand, however, there are such civil positions as deans and chancellors and registrars of universities. These fine women and men used to be elected to office from a group of their peers, and in many places perhaps still are. This ensured two things:

  1. The person entering office has spent enough time within her new domain of authority to be familiar with its workings and its idiosyncrasies
  2. And s/he has earned the respect and confidence of his/her peers to be elected to be the the boss of them.
The two combined is likely to encourage a situation of greater campus democracy, instead of the detached show of might we’ve witnessed. An administrator with an organic connect can help avoid a great deal of avoidable trouble to students, faculty, university productivity, and the public image of the political party at the helm of state-assisted units.
Of course, to be fair, there are several possibilities of exceptions I am not exploring here, and in the general scheme of revolution and resistance this might seem a little dull. But with the #hokkolorob movement intensifying without a clear goal except protesting to tyranny, tedious matters such as this is worth considering.

Progressive India and Social Media

In 2005, when I was an undergrad at JUDE, our canny Registrar went on a holiday, and in the absence of his velvet-covered iron gloves, things fell apart spectacularly. What could have been a small matter, easily handled, became a scandal of novella proportions.

Plotwise, 2005 was almost exactly similar to 2014: legitimate problem, indifferent admin, discontent students, peaceful sit-ins, marauding police force under cover of night. What is different, though, is the reaction of the people.

Back in oh-five, watching the news was hard for us. In the absence of social media, we could only converse with the public via the media houses, and they exploited this power to the full, letting through only the most incendiary edits of interviews, conversations and audience-response. Their TRPs soared, and at the end of the first two days, there was no doubt in the minds of middle-class deltaic Bengal that JU students were spoilt, elitist, alcoholic, drug-peddling, violent colonial dregs in constant state of sexual indulgence.
Similarly, there was little doubt in ours that we were adrift in a regressive, authoritarian and violent society that was hysterically obsessed with our imagined ‘western’ lifestyle because it was too dumb or too indifferent to the violation of our rights and bodies. Almost all of us reported to being grilled by our neighbours and families about “what really happened”. Some of us had scared parents attempting to keep us away from campus.

Imagine my delight and joy when, this time, I saw social media flooded with supportive comments and pledges of solidarity with the students. In eight intervening years, the people have found a platform for their voice, and the media has had to stop defaulting to slut-shaming female students, belittling their concerns, and labelling them agents of violent political militia.

It speaks volumes of great stuff for Calcutta (and Bengal overall) that its residents are contradicting, challenging and openly shaming the city police force on their Facebook page without the comforting veil of anonymity. It’s even more euphoric – yes, euphoric – to see the old popular defaults being trotted out after two full days of fulsome support, as a last-ditch smear effort… and being mocked and shouted down by people who, from their profile pages, appear otherwise conservative citizens.

It’s not true that every dark cloud has a silver – that’s just a silly platitude – but damned if this one wasn’t just shading the whole big sun.

How to Manage the Media: A Guide for India

An interesting aspect of the police brutality at Jadavpur University today has been the response of West Bengal’s most powerful media house’s response to it. As my former classmate and friends SD and PP have pointed out (that latter rather colourfully, much to my delight), the ABP house – as evinced by their print reportage in the Anadabazar Patrika – first chose to speak of the protesting students as a disturbant, a ticking bomb, a threat imminent to ‘shikkhajogot’ (the world/sphere of education).

Then, this morning, the mob that aided the police in beating up and molesting the students made the mistake of being carried away by their licence to violate, and assaulted a Star Ananda journalist (Star Ananda being the house’s television channel). And ABP instantly snapped around and bit a chunk off its former allies.

Of course, in the coming days the state shall broker peace with ABP, and after a few TRP-boosting stunts (perhaps a few studio debates, a special report on campus violence and gendered crimes), ABP will drop the matter completely. But the lesson helmspeople of the Indian state need to learn, once and for all, is that the media is not the same as party cadres. Their loyalty, when not backed by cash or other tradable commodities, is revoked when a kick is delivered to their groins. Unlike the junior cadet waiting to rise in ranks or the senior member waiting for their next ticket, they don’t accept it as a regrettable accident in a mêlée. Besides, attacks on journalists will give media houses higher viewership than parroting a party line anyway.

So be nice to your media partners, parties. It’s part of their payoff package. And breaking the deal will cost you.

Same Old Spilled Blood

This morning, I woke up at 5:30 to be greeted by the news of brutal police assault on Jadavpur University students just three hours prior. One person is in coma, female students had their clothes torn off, and about 30 students are in hospital. Here is a video of part of the violence, and here is a post about it.

In many ways, universities are sites of violence. Mostly, this violence is bloodless, and at an abstract or structural level, teaching young people to think in certain ways that either serve or superficially disrupt systems of power (the government, the market, social mores). In India, however, the violence on campus often takes a more literal form. Inexpensive state-aided universities are where many meet experience diversity for the first time. They meet and socialise with people from different backgrounds, conflicting, discomfiting, debating, resisting, and melding with one another. In a country that offers as much diversity as India to this scenario, this makes the university an institution of great political potency. It is little wonder, then, that most university admins in this country choose to remain authoritarian and ‘traditional'; it provides them with a sense of stability and control, in the face of a community whose very essence, at least superficially, is change.

Generally, this works more or less successfully, because Indian authoritarianism prefers the ‘blind eye’ approach to the ‘ferret and punish’. Students can party, but not too loudly; students can drink, but not too much; students can smoke, if they are willing to pretend secrecy; and students can screw, if they pretend they’re not even holding hands. When students break this unspoken covenant, the administration responds either by ignoring them till they fade, exhausted, or by assaulting them till they drop, destroyed. And then things spring back to their usual form, for life, for all its violence, has great elasticity.

Occasionally, however, this elasticity should be resisted for as long as possible. Life must return to normal, but that must not mean aiding the obscuring of uncomfortable facts.

This is the third (or is it fourth?) time I have witnessed police brutality on campus. The last time things were this bloody, cops had been sneaked into campus at night to disperse a 24-hour non-violent student sit-in. Same story this time. Here’s a brief summary: today at 2AM, the police put about 30 students in the hospital, tore clothes off female protesters, arrested about 40 students, and threatened further violence if the sit-in wasn’t dispersed.

The following is a compilation of the timeline that I’ve managed to construct from online sources.

28th August: during the ongoing festival Sanskriti (note irony), a second year student from the Department of History was allegedly dragged inside a hostel and molested by a group of people within campus premises. Her male friend – not a JU student – was beaten up.

29th August: she gets in touch with the VC. He says that (a) he will need 15 days to act on the matter, (b) she should stay home for that period for ‘security issues’, and (c) he would’ve installed security cameras but students would protest. (NOTE: students did indeed protest, during my MA years, to security cams. Details on that in a forthcoming post.)

1st September: she lodges an FIR at the JU Police Station, identifying one of the alleged molesters. Police remains inactive.

5th September: in support, the university students organise a protest rally to Jadavpur Police Station. Same day, two alleged representatives of the University admin. pay the alleged victim a visit at home. They refuse to show identification and question her clothing and sobriety on the night of the alleged assault. This is a violation of the Vishakha guidelines that assert that there should be no external pressure either on the victim or the accused during the investigating procedure.

8th September: students organised a protest rally to the VC’s office, demanding to know the Uni’s victim-blaming stance. The ICC (Internal Complaint Cell), charged with the investigation, refuse to make a public statement. The students’ rep to the ICC, also the GS of AFSU, (Arts Faculty Students’ Union), resigns from her post in protest, citing a biased investigation. In response, the students decide they will not let the ICC leave campus till they’ve opened dialogue on the matter. Finally, three student reps are allowed an audience with the ICC. The ICC denies bias, and urges the students to not sensationalise the matter by speaking to the media.

9th September: speaking to a daily, an ICC rep. claims she was assaulted (kicked, strangled) by students while leaving the building. Students, however, claim that they had only formed a human barricade, and that un-uniformed men arrived to provide protection to the ICC, and they assaulted all students, irrespective of gender.

10th September: students decide on an indefinite sit-down at Aurobindo Bhavan, the uni admin. building. Later they decide to petition the Chancellor to set up an independent investigative committe, since the ICC has violated the Vishakha, attempted to pressure the alleged victim, and is accused of bias. The VC states he will ask for police intervention on campus. Police does arrive and attempts to intimidate students sitting in.

Jump to 17th September: news breaks that after a week of protest, police were brought into the uni tonight at around 2AM, with men identified as TMC goons (not sure about the authenticity of this identification). They assaulted the sit-in brutally, landing some 35 students in hospital, including one who is reportedly now in coma. 40 more were arrested. The RAF (Rapid Action Force) was also visible, and the police has threatened further violence if students will not disperse.

Rural Bengal in Bombay

I started a crowd-sourced project on this blog and on Facebook, about spatial memories. Predictably, absolutely no one responded to the blog, and lots of people embraced the idea on Facebook. Owing to various things – chiefly embarrassment at having to claim ownership of something actually successful – I avoided the Facebook page for ages. Today, however, having woken up uncharacteristically early, I was driven to finally read the stories people posted on the group. Here’s why.

My family had a couple of houses in Jhargram. Well, we had considerably more than a couple of houses, the entire market was built on land my great-grandfather donated from the family estate, but by the time we came along it was just a house on my grandfather’s side, and a house on my grandmother’s. The grandfatherly house had permanent residents (cousins of my mother), so whenever we visited – and it was rare, because the annual Durga pujas has stopped by then – we stayed at the maternal abode. This morning reminds me of those mornings: the sense of clarity and peace the coolness of dawn brings, especially when it’s punctuated with stray crow-call sand the sound of brooms hitting the ground. The gold-edged eastern leaves and grass, and the house would cast its shadow beyond the western boundary wall and onto the red road outside. A low mist would sometime hang in the distance, lending a soothing, almost physical caress to the sense of solitude in the landscape.

Going back to rotten Calcutta after living in IIT will be hard. This place, with its lakey mist and greenery, has become the vessel for so many of my blissful childhood memories, homeless for years in my loud urban life. I think we’ll stay here for as long as I can.

Book Quotes: Push by Sapphire

After ages, I have discovered a cache of e-books that were stashed for a suitably rainy day in one corner of an old storage drive, and promptly forgotten. My memory can always be counted upon to keep me from my little treats.

Anyway, Push, by Sapphire, is the first of the lot my finger landed on, and right now I am a sleep-deprived, red-eyed, shaken-and-stirred person who cannot let go of Precious Jones till the last word about and by her has been read. I’m going to keep this post open and record bits of the book that grab me especially hard, so I can have them at hand to read back later. Although it isn’t the entirety of Precious’ troubles, this book drives home the fact that ‘body image issues’ is not just code for ‘I hate that I am not thin’. It is rage against the hierarchy of genetic attributes, self-hatred for involuntary pleasure, and a desire for dissociation from one’s embodied life experience.

p. 13:
It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.

p. 35:
The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver—my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit… And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist.

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. I know who they say I am—vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

p. 35:
Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out.

p. 78:
ABCDEFGHUKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.
Thas the alphabet. Twenty-six letters in all. Them letters make up words. Them words everything.

p. 130:
My clit swell up I think Daddy. Daddy sick me, disgust me, but still he sex me up. I nawshus in my stomach but hot tight in my twat and I think I want it back.

p. 135:
Ms Rain say write our fantasy of ourselves. How we would be if life was perfect. I tell you one thing right now, I would be light skinned, thereby treated right and loved by boyz. Light even more important than being skinny; you see them light-skinned girls that’s big an’ fat, they got boyfriends. Boyz overlook a lot to be wif a white girl or yellow girl, especially if it’s a boy that’s dark skin wif big lips or nose, he will go APE over yellow girl. So that’s my first fantasy, is get light.
Then I get hair. Swing job, you know like I do with my extensions, but this time it be my own hair, permanently.
Then, this part is hard to say, because so much of my heart is love for Abdul. But I be a girl or woman—yeah girl, ’cause I would still be a girl now if I hadn’t had no kids. I would be a virgin like Michael Jackson, like Madonna. I would be a different Precious Jones. My bress not be big, my bra be little ‘n pink like fashion girl. My body be like Whitney. I would be thighs not big etc etc.
I would be tight pussy girl no stretch marks and torn pussy from babies’s head bust me open.
That HURT. Hours hours push push push! Then he out, beautiful. Jus’ a beautiful baby. But I’m not.

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