Friday, 26 September 2014

Another Christmas Story



Anjali’s Christmas Break


It was Christmas Break and Anjali was very excited. For the first time she was going to travel all by herself in a plane, without Mummy or Daddy! And she was going to spend three weeks with Mummy’s elder sister, Sushila Aunty and Dayaram Uncle, who was a big Inspector of Police. Mummy told her that Dayaram Uncle was an Inspector General, but that couldn’t be quite right for he was a big police officer, not anybody general. And Sushila Aunty and Dayaram Uncle lived far away amongst forests, and she would see lions and giraffes and tigers and hippos!

When the day came for her to fly off, Anjali was a little scared and clung to her Mummy, who told her that the flight was only an hour long, there would be big beautiful girls on the plane to play with her, and before she knew it Sushila Aunty would be there to take her home for lunch. Her Aunty’s cook had already baked a great big chocolate cake for her, with pink icing which said: ‘Welcome Anjali!’

In the car to the airport, Anjali forgot her fears, she was so excited to be going somewhere. She had on her nice pink shoes, which Mummy said didn’t match her blue frock, but she was allowed to wear them anyway. Pinned to her right shoulder was a large piece of paper with her name and Uncle Dayaram’s name, telephone number and address.  Anjali felt really important as Mummy kissed her goodbye and handed her over to a nice lady, also in a blue dress. The lady also had a name tag on her right shoulder, and it said ‘Puja.’

Puja was very beautiful with bright red lipstick. Anjali decided that when she grew up, she would also become a Flight Attendant. She clasped her new friend’s hand tightly and chatted away as she was led to the plane. It was so exciting! Mummy was right, she had a grand time on the plane. She was even taken to the cockpit of the plane. A big handsome man was there. He smelled a bit like Daddy. He wore a blue jacket with four gold stripes on the arms. Puja said that meant he was The Captain! He let her hold the steering wheel of the plane as Daddy did sometimes in their car, and then she was back in her seat and down the plane glided to Uncle Dayaram’s airport! It was not big and shiny with a lot of glass like her own airport, but it a nice low yellow building. Aunty Sushila was standing at the bottom of the steps as she came out and gave her a great big hug as she always did. There were policemen in khaki everywhere, even the driver of the car was a policeman!

The cake ‘specially baked for her was scrumptious as Mummy had promised. Happy and sleepy, Anjali was led to a large room, which was to be her own room while she stayed with Uncle and Aunty. As she fell asleep for her afternoon nap she thought it was a perfect holiday, except that there were no children for her to play with. Once, Aunty had told her rather wistfully that though she had no children of her own, she would share Anjali with Mummy, and Mummy had said, ‘Yes, do keep her all to yourself!’ – but it was said just in fun, for Mummy loved her too much to give her to Sushila Aunty, she knew.

Uncle and Aunty did not live in an apartment overlooking the sea as she did back home, but they had a huge old bungalow in the middle of a large untidy garden. She wanted to explore the garden all by herself, but Uncle said a policeman should always be with her to guard her, though she was quite grown up, almost all of seven, well, six and a bit  really, but she felt grown up, and that was what was important as Shanti Teacher had told her once. Except for the flower beds in front of the house, there was nothing much to see in the garden. Most of it was full of thick prickly bushes. She was getting quite bored of playing in it when Uncle announced that they were all going to camp, where she would see a lot of animals!

Anjali jumped with joy and said she couldn’t wait to see lions and giraffes and hippos. Aunty Sushila laughed, and hugged her tightly, and said those animals were to be found only in Africa and not in Indian forests. But she would see spotted deer, and bison, and any number of birds. Anjali was quite disappointed for she had seen deer in the zoo and she knew that bison were just like cows and not much fun.

Aunty brought out a big book and showed her pictures of all the birds they were likely to see, and what calls they made, and what their eggs looked like. They were such beautiful pictures, and Anjali wondered if she could take home a bird as a pet.

‘Maybe, darling, we just might be lucky enough to see a tiger,’ said Aunty brightly.

Anjali brightened up. ‘Are there ever so many tigers in camp, Aunty?’ she asked hopefully.

Aunty laughed. ‘Well, I hope not in camp, but they are bound to be in the jungle. I shall tell your uncle to have you taken round in a jeep, and who knows you might spot one! But mind, you will have to get up very early in the morning while it is still quite dark, and be very quiet, quiet as a little mouse.’

Anjali plied her with many questions, and Aunty became quite enthusiastic herself and told her many stories of all the animals she had seen, and the adventures she had had. Next morning, they set off for ‘camp’ in a convoy of jeeps with Uncle looking magnificent in uniform with badges and ribbons of his chest. He had a pistol in a shiny brown leather holster buckled to his belt, and though she pleaded, he refused to take it out. He kissed her fondly and said pistols were bad things, and definitely not to be touched by children.

The police camp was very different from the camp Shanti Teacher had taken her class to. The police tents were huge, almost as big as a small house, she thought, and inside there were chairs, desks, tables, carpets, in fact just like a house! There was a tent for a bathroom, and if you drew aside a curtain, there were beds to sleep on, just like home! They were to be there for ten days, almost till it was time to go home, and Anjali knew she would have a great time, and see lots and lots of animals.

Ravi Kumar, a nice young Inspector, was deputed by her uncle to take her round in a jeep to see the animals. Aunty got her up very early in the morning for her safari. She packed a basket with half-a-dozen club sandwiches, and a flask of hot milk for her, and another with tea for the Inspector. Within five minutes of setting off, the Inspector had told her with a nice smile to call him ‘Ravi,’ and she knew they would be great friends. She did see lots and lots of spotted deer, families of them, on her safari, cute little fawns, beautiful does with white spots along their shiny brown flanks, and of course every now and then majestic bucks with long graceful antlers.

The second morning, Ravi stopped the jeep at a corner of the jungle road, and pointed out the Barasingha. They were much bigger than spotted deer, but they looked smaller for they were very far off in the middle of a jungle pool. She asked Ravi to take her closer but he shook his head and said it was not safe to stray far from the roads.

‘Barasingha are just big deer, Ravi, they can’t harm us, can they?’ she said, trying to persuade him.

He gave her a quiet look and said, ‘Anjali, there are other animals out there, much worse, and your Uncle will skin me alive if I take you into the jungle.’

‘What, you mean tigers, Ravi?’ she asked excitedly.

He shook his head and laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t care about tigers – much, much worse animals than tigers!’

‘Much worse than tigers?’ She was bemused.

‘Oh, tigers are rather jolly,’ Ravi said, changing the subject. He started the jeep and they moved on again. ‘Let me tell you about all the times I have met tigers face to face in the jungle!’

‘Did you shoot them with your pistol?’ she asked him.

Ravi looked at her gravely. ‘It’s wrong to kill tigers, or, or any other wild animal,’ he said solemnly. ‘It’s against the law. If I catch a poacher trying to kill a tiger, I put him in jail straightaway!’

‘Tigers are dangerous!’ continued Anjali. ‘They always tell us that at the zoo.’

‘Yes, they are,’ agreed Ravi, ‘but they don’t mean to harm us. If we respect their ways, they respect ours, and keep away.’

Anjali was much impressed. She didn’t like the thought of killing animals, and at dinner time always tried to make an excuse and not eat chicken. She asked Ravi what he did do when he met a tiger, and Ravi was quite entertaining with his stories, though Anjali was shrewd enough not to believe all that he told her.

That evening she went to the cook’s tent and hung around there asking him questions and tasting the kheer he was preparing for dinner.

The cook was a big jolly man with a huge big floppy moustache that fell over his mouth.

‘Baby Sahib, will you like to make some chapattis for us?’ he asked smiling down.

She clapped her hands. ‘Yes, I want to make chapattis,’ she said eagerly.

‘Then you go over to that corner and Chottelal will show you how to make them,’ said the cook.

Chottelal was a boy, almost double her size, and chocolatey black. He gave her a wide grin, and showed her how to roll out the dough. He talked Hindi in a funny sort of way but she understood most of what he said. He told her that if she came early in the evening next day he would show her peacocks. She promised to meet him by four next evening, and was quite reluctant to stop making chapattis when Aunty called out to her.

Next evening as the sun was sloping down over the forest trees, Chottelal took her to the edge of the police camp and there sitting on top of a police tent was a peacock, a gorgeous peacock with a bright blue neck and a long graceful tail. She clapped her hands in excitement and Chottelal laughed.

‘He is tame, is he yours?’ she asked.

Chottelal shook his head. ‘He is free. He likes to come here in the evening and eat grain from that rubbish heap.’

They watched the bird in silence for a few minutes. Seeing them get closer, it let out a strange lilting call and lifting its long tail it flew away slowly into the jungle.

That was how Anjali first made friends with the chocolatey-black boy. Though he was much bigger than her and much older, he was the only child in camp, so she would sit by his side at the cook’s tent while he washed pots and pans, brought firewood for the oven, rolled out dough, and did other odd jobs for the cook. He told her many stories about his village in the jungle. He spoke in a simple matter-of-fact way, even when he told her strange exciting stories she hardly understood, how he had dodged the charge of a bison, how his mother had frightened off a tiger with a firebrand when it wandered into the village one night. She believed him more than she believed Ravi, for he didn’t laugh at her as the inspector did.

‘You mean you can talk to animals?’ she asked in admiration, when Chottelal said something about animal languages.

The boy smiled and drew a circle in the sand with a stick before answering. ‘No, I don’t, but I understand a lot of what they say, and they also I think understand when I call out.’ He shook his head and got up. ‘I can’t explain but it happens.’

That evening she was late getting back to Aunty for the cook had promised her a hot sugared muffin the moment it came out of the oven. He had danced the hot muffin between his hands to let it cool a little before giving it to her. It was truly the best muffin she had ever eaten in her whole life.

She heard her Uncle’s angry voice as she neared the tent. Through the gauze flap of the tent door she saw that he had taken out his pistol and was waving it about, and instinctively she shrank back in alarm.

‘I tell you I shall finish off the Naxals tomorrow,’ said Uncle Dayaram to her aunt, laying down the pistol on the table with decision. ‘Ravi is clever. He’s found out their lair. We will surround it, and damn me if I don’t shoot them dead myself as they sleep! Good riddance to bad vermin!’

Aunty saw her first and ran forward with a glad cry. But Anjali saw the warning look she gave Uncle, who merely frowned as he stuffed back his pistol in its holster. Normally, Anjali would have asked questions because her Uncle and Aunty were the friendliest grownups she had ever met, taking her seriously and answering all her questions as if she was another grownup. But there was something about the air that evening and Anjali said nothing.

What Uncle had said kept troubling her right through dinner. So, as Aunty was tucking her into bed that night, she asked timorously, ‘Aunty, are Naxals very bad animals?’

Aunty leaned down and kissed her fondly on her forehead. ‘Yes, dearest darling, they are very bad creatures. But don’t trouble your head about them. You are quite safe here in camp.’

Anjali kept on being worried and didn’t go to sleep for several minutes. Ravi had told her it was wrong to kill any animal and those who did would be sent to jail. But here was her own uncle who was going to shoot them the next day. She didn’t want any animals to be killed, and she most certainly didn’t want her uncle to go to jail. She was very unhappy as she fell asleep, and in her dream she saw the bad Naxals, who were big as elephants with tiger heads and hippo mouths, creeping up on her poor uncle. She tried to shout a warning but no sound came from her throat, and she couldn’t run to save him either, she just couldn’t move at all! Then Chottelal ran out between the Naxals and her uncle and shouted to the animals.

‘Go away! Uncle Sahib respects your ways! Go Away!’ shouted Chottelal, and the Naxals turned and lumbered back into the forest.

She sat up with a jerk. The night was still and dark. She heard the cicadas chirping peacefully outside the tent. After a few minutes, Anjali curled back in bed, drew the coverlet well over her head and went back to sleep.    

Next evening, as Chottelal was threading together a garland of flowers for her, she decided to tell him what had been troubling her all day.

‘Chottelal, you said animals understood you,’ she said.

He was sitting on his haunches, carefully threading the bright red hyacinths and blue cornflowers into a chain. He smiled at her over his shoulder.

‘Sometimes, yes, they understand,’ he said.

‘Do you know where the Naxals live?’ she asked.

Chottelal put down the flowers on a stone and looked at her without saying a word.

‘Uncle is mad at them,’ she said slowly. ‘And, and Ravi has told him where they sleep at night – in their lair – Uncle is going to creep out tonight and shoot them!’

‘Did Uncle Sahib tell you that?’ asked Chottelal seriously.

Anjali shook her head. ‘I heard him tell Aunty. I know it’s wrong to shoot animals but he is very mad at them. Chottelal, tell the Naxals to go away! I don’t want my uncle going to jail, and I don’t want any animals hurt!’

Chottelal threw back his head and laughed.

Anjali was cross. ‘You shouldn’t laugh. This is not funny!’

Chottelal looked at her. ‘Uncle Sahib going to jail is funny,’ he said. ‘He won’t, so don’t worry. I will tell the Naxals to run away. But don’t tell anyone else or something bad may happen.’

Anjali promised. ‘Are Naxals very bad?’ she asked. ‘I dreamt last night that they are really tigers but as big as elephants!’

Chottelal laughed again. ‘Oh, they are bigger than elephants,’ he said, ‘and very, very bad. But they will go away, I promise.’

That night she kept awake for quite a bit. She heard her uncle and her aunt whispering, she heard Ravi come to the tent, and then she heard the men leave very quietly. Her heart was pounding. She hoped that Chottelal would be as good as his word, and send the Naxals away. She didn’t know when she fell asleep, but it was broad daylight when she woke up.

She and Aunty had breakfast together. Aunty said something vague about Uncle being busy. He didn’t return till well past lunch time, and he remained grumpy all day. Even her special friend, Ravi, had a long sour face, and didn’t take her on a safari. She went to the cook’s tent in the evening to ask Chottelal whether he had sent away the bad Naxals, but he was nowhere to be seen. The cook told her the boy had returned to his village because his mother was unwell.

The next morning, quite early, she heard her uncle shout orders, and policemen started to strike down the tents. Her aunt was busy as well packing their things, and closing suitcases. Soon Anjali was bundled into their jeep and they were off bumping down the road.

‘Where are we going Aunty?” asked Anjali.

‘Home, darling, home,’ said her aunt cuddling her. ‘Uncle has finished his work here.’

‘It was all pointless,’ growled Uncle Dayaram from the front. ‘There is an informer among the orderlies, I am sure. Wait till I catch him! Some rascal warned the Naxals, I am dead sure!’

‘Hush, not before the child, dear,’ said Aunty warningly.

Uncle waved a dismissive hand, and was silent.

Anjali had been on the point of telling Aunty about Chottelal and what she had asked him to do, but she realized that Uncle was very, very angry, and she didn’t want her boy friend to get beaten.

Chottelal was right. It was a secret, just between the two of them, and she would tell no one, not even Mummy when she got home. But in her heart of hearts she was very glad that the Naxals had not been shot, and that her kind uncle would not go to jail.

The End

Should Culloden be Forgot and Never Brought Back to Mind?



The Scots Back Off
The Scottish Nationalist Party forced through a referendum on September 18, to ask the Scots if they would vote for independence from the United Kingdom, and dissolve the 307-year-old Union. A ‘No’ verdict was delivered by a simple majority of less than 500000 votes, or by 55% of the heavy 85% turn-out voting against. David Cameron, the British Prime Minster, who had said earlier his heart would break if the United Kingdom were dissolved, said in a relieved speech that the nationalist aspiration was dismissed at least for a generation. He added hastily that powers over taxation, welfare and local affairs would be devolved to the lower Scottish parliament as soon as possible, and similar devolution would take place in Wales and Northern Ireland. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland [as the leader of the Scottish parliament is termed] has resigned saying defiantly that the dream for independence ‘would never die.’
A sigh of relief has gone up from several European governments, which have been facing demands for independence from unhappy regions. The European Union saw the referendum as a threat to itself, for success would definitely have been followed by similar separatist demands from all over the continent. The Basques of Spain have waged armed struggle for decades, and the Catalans of the Barcelona region have also demanded separation. The Lega Nord of Italy would like to carve out the richer part of northern Italy from the poorer south. The Dutch speakers of Belgium have never got along with the Walloons. The grave ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, setting Europe and Russia at loggerheads, could be replicated elsewhere. Even further off, the ‘no’ verdict set at rest English fears in Canada that the referendum could reignite Quebec separatism, to say nothing of Tamil eelam aspirations in Sri Lanka.
The search for Scottish independence has very old roots. They are a different people from the English, with Celtic ethnicity, and once speaking Gaelic in the remote mountainous regions to the north. Even during the days of the Roman Empire, two-thousand years ago, they remained a fiercely independent people, and the Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall to demarcate their lands. Later when marauding English tribes overran Britain, they still could not take Scotland. English kings who came to power in the Middle Ages fought fierce battles with their northern neighbours. Edward I, ‘the Bane of the Scots’ said famously on his deathbed that they should carry his bones to battle the Scots. Mel Gibson’s fictionalised epic Braveheart recently popularised this period. The two crowns were merged when Elizabeth I died issueless and James VI of Scotland was crowned as James I of England.
Scottish resistance was finally broken in the cruel battle of Culloden of 1746 when the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, crushed the Scots, and permitted his troops to commit unspeakable atrocities against the defenceless civilian population. The clans of the highlands were dispersed, and even a famous hero like Rob Roy was forbidden to use his clan name of Macgregor. Even to this day, many of the Scots have not forgotten what happened long ago, and will not permit  ‘the Campbells’ to come into their homes, remembering the role they played in that infamous battle.
The English rulers having conquered and ‘pacified’ the Scots, along with the Irish and the Welsh, recruited them for their armies to conquer other nations. Millions emigrated to settle colonies. Over five million people of Scottish origin live in Canada today, and that country owes a great deal to their pioneering efforts. Many rose to be great men, like lords Dalhousie and Munro, and others became rich capitalists like Andrew Carnegie, the steel-magnate of the USA. But many among the English continued to treat the poorer Scots with contempt over the years, the most famous being Dr. Sam Johnson, who insulted them often, once stating in his famous dictionary that ‘oats was eaten by horses in England and by men in Scotland.’  
Such slights were not forgotten by these proud people and pressures continued to build up for greater autonomy, especially after the end of the British Empire. Finally in 1998 the British Parliament established the lower Scottish parliament in Holyrood – similar to Indian state-level legislatures – with limited powers. The Scottish Nationalist Party began its drive for independence, despite dire warnings that it would turn Scotland into a failed state. The people around Alex Salmond the nationalist saw no reason why Scotland should not be as successful as – for example – Austria, especially since she had North Sea oil. Scotland has an excellent history of producing professionals and experts, and was better positioned – say – than the UAE to survive a post-oil crunch. However, a skilful propaganda campaign carried out by British parties seems to have undermined their confidence, and the voters weighted towards the elderly chose the status quo rather than an untried future.
The 800-year old struggle waged by the Irish first broke the hold of the English over their near neighbours. The Indian freedom movement that followed ended the British Empire. If the Scots had not backed off this week, they might have finally helped the English to break away from memories of their imperial past and start living in the present as Europeans. Unfortunately, journalist-historians like Niall Ferguson, who romanticize the empire, have kept the English psychologically locked into a dysfunctional past, losing them a key role in the shaping of new Europe, and making them nothing but a subservient de facto colony of the USA. 

Vithal Rajan
Hyderabad
Vithal.rajan@gmail.com

Thursday, 25 September 2014

ATOMIC SINS



Secrets of the Midnight Nuclear Deal


It started with a kiss, a regulation diplomatic peck on the cheek, but it left Sarada flustered, unable to pay undivided attention to the morning’s opening salvos between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations on whether Iran had or had not nuclear capability.

His hand had been on her bare skin at the back, above the deep cut of her blouse, pressing her to him for just a second. As Foreign Secretary in waiting, she was not unaccustomed to meaningless Western greetings in cold friendship, so she was surprised his touch had got through so easily to some secret spot under her skin. Was it the onset of menopause, she questioned again, listlessly rifling through the papers obsequiously handed to her from time to time by an Undersecretary sitting behind her. No, that crisis was at least two years away she had judged that morning, pinning the cascading folds of her silk sari to the thin strip of blouse at her shoulder.

She had not felt the need of a husband throughout her hectic career, you missed out if you didn’t catch them early at the training academy, but she had had no regrets, in fact only relief, and she was still free to enjoy the occasional discreet friendship her career permitted. Was his touch a signal, a query? No, it had never started like this before…

The German studiously ignored her during the coffee break. She had unconsciously drifted in his direction, holding a coffee cup and two arrowroot biscuits on the edge of the saucer, but he had continued a technical discussion with the Moroccan expert. All right, she could play games as well. She plunged into light-hearted chatter with the Danish boy almost half her age, but as far as the German was concerned she need not even have been there. A little cross, a little uncertain about herself mostly, she returned to her seat at the deserted conference table and purposefully shaking herself free plunged into her papers. During the buffet lunch she was steered to a corner by her minister, and she politely nodded at all his meaningless instructions. Yes, it was vitally important for the country, for half meeting the growing energy requirements of industry, that a deal should be struck. Yes, it had to be done without fanfare. Yes, God only knew what the crazy environment brigade would think of next. Yes, no, they could not afford to be stymied this time. Yes, she was very grateful the honourable minister was entrusting her with the delicate negotiations. Yes, the best technology must be secured at all costs. Yes, yes, she knew that, without his breathing a word even to cabinet colleagues, that the system must be able to supply plutonium for defence needs. Of course everyone knew that, but, yes, it cannot be talked about, God only knew what the stupid peaceniks would do – he knew and she knew that they could masquerade as so-called ‘Gandhians,’ but really who knew if it was not after all a Pakistani ISI plot? It was a relief to get away from her minister, partly because she got very tired of listening to diplomatic clich├ęs as if they were heavenly revelations, but more so because of his bad breath. Had he never heard his wife complain? Most probably she had never gone near him in twenty years, except for giving him the conventional early morning cup of coffee.


During the afternoon session ‘he’ was absolutely brilliant. He spoke on the international necessity of cooperating on the development of safe nuclear power, sharing of knowledge and expertise so that all humanity would benefit. It was her own favourite theme. Unlimited sources of energy were needed if poverty was to be abolished from the earth. The only such source lay in the heart of matter, everyone knew that. Without access to nuclear power all nations, big and small, would be in competition, in disastrous competition, for scarce resources, and that would lead to unimaginable consequences. Her heart warmed to hear him take up her own passionate pleadings at international conferences. The situation, he said, was not dissimilar to what Europe faced before the Treaty of Westphalia. Small states at war or in fear of war, a Hobbesian scenario. That treaty established a framework for international cooperation. He went into details. Not all the princes of Europe were ready for it, or even willing to consider an international binding agreement. He regaled everyone with comical anecdotes of all the behind-the-scenes deals, the affairs, the idiosyncrasies of the negotiators and their princes. Of course, she knew he was a historian of repute with a deep knowledge of medieval diplomacy, but it was not mere dry erudition, he made the times come alive, as if he had been a direct eye witness. Through her eyelashes she looked at his handsome Germanic profile, the startling contrasts of his face, long straight black hair framing the white bloodless pallor of his skin, and striking light blue eyes which pierced her soul. He had chilli red lips, they could burn her mouth…she realized her fingers were trembling slightly as she doodled on her pad. She shook herself free of fantasies. If it was to happen, it would happen, but she must focus on the job at hand, to secure the best possible advantage for her country. By late afternoon she had almost fully recovered from the passions that had haunted her earlier. She had plunged determinedly into the discussions, and political negotiating had had a calming effect on her nerves. It always did.

Dinner was a lavish affair, as usual, and as usual the Brazilian made an obligatory pass, and she responded with her expected flirtatious smile. The BRIC brigade were to be shown special consideration. The minister was seated next to the imperturbable, impenetrable Chinese delegate. She smiled to herself. They would both bore each other without saying anything over the long evening. Her senior as was to be expected was volubly seated next to the Russian. She would have been Foreign Secretary if he had not been given a year’s extension on the strength of his knowing Russian like a native. Well, he should, after having run through two Russian wives. So, she had got Brazil to sit next to. His hand was on her knee once again, and smilingly she brushed it off, once again. Would he try and seek the bare skin of her back? That thought reminded her with a thrill of the German’s light touch that morning. The thrill turned to a shiver as the Brazilian sought that exact moment to grip her waist and massage her skin invitingly with his fingers.

‘You have to let go of me, Dom Antonio,’ she whispered with a smile, bending her head low towards him, to convince anyone who might be watching that it was all in play.

‘But, of course, Madame,’ he said releasing her with a polite dip of his head, ‘with the greatest regret.’

His lips smiled provocatively at her beneath his straight black moustache. If she had not been a highly trained diplomat she would have punched him one in his rotund paunch, or even better swiped his bald head off. All she could do under the circumstances was give him a non-encouraging coquettish smile and turn to the Canadian on her right. A straight up and down fellow who bored everyone with his fixation for a global non-proliferation treaty. Which world was he living in, other than the one he had inhabited in the protest-filled sixties?

It was later that night, upstairs in her room, that she noticed ‘his’ card. It fell as she removed her bra. He must have slipped it into her blouse at the back as he touched her that morning. With a suddenly pounding heart she picked it up. He had scrawled Moghul Bar – midnight. Yanam. She flung it away indignantly, stepping towards the bathroom, but then turned and picked it up again. Yanam? Oh, God!  How did he know about Yanam? It was a most secret project, protected from newsmongers for fear the crazy environmentalists would get there and spoil everything. Yanam, a sleepy hollow, as sleepy as when the French had been there a million years ago. Now, a place for cheap liquor, and a bit on the side, for Andhra landlords who wanted to get away from bossy wives for a weekend. The villagers fished, boozed, earned what money they could, not much, pandering to rich folks tastes. On the forgotten part of the Coromandal coast, the perfect spot for a fast-breeder reactor that could feed the grid but more importantly supply fissionable plutonium. Few in the cabinet knew about it, certainly not those below the salt, ministers dealing with agriculture, social welfare, rural development, those with that sort of non-consequential portfolio. Then, how had ‘he’ come to know? Some of her staff would sell their mothers for a hundred rupees, she thought bitterly. Well, the news was out, but it was in his interest to keep everything as quiet as possible. If the world’s crazies got wind of it, there would be no deal for anyone. So, what would he want, demand, of her? He could demand a great deal, and she would have to give in. No choice, even if exclusive purchase agreements were demanded. She had one card to play. She could involve him, soften him. She smiled to herself. Who was she fooling? She wanted him, never mind the nuclear power plant. It could be besieged round the clock by environmentalists for all she cared, if she had him safe in her arms. She sank luxuriously into her bath.

She felt and looked rose-petal fresh as she stepped into the darkened bar in a soft white Bengali sari lined in gold. She would pretend she had come down in the line of duty, but that charade would not last more than a few minutes, he was no fool. He would end it masterfully, she knew ahead of time, and her waiting and the tense knot she felt in her tummy would be released in a flood of passion.

She did not see him at first, and then he rose from a darkened corner. She went over and squeezed herself next to him on the small sofa. In the darkened room his face looked pale as a ghost, but his thigh was warm against hers. She started to say something, then desisted as his red lips reached out to hers. Without saying a word he had her in a crushing embrace, his lips locked to hers, his hands searching her body. She gasped and then he kissed her again. She had almost swooned in his arms, when she felt him picking her up with swift ease. He swung her out of the bar, and then they were in the brightly lit yellow corridor outside. Gently, he lowered her down. She leaned back against a marble pillar in the corner, bewildered. Was he going to take her there in the bright light, standing propped against the pillar, or on the rough carpet below?

‘Out of range of CCTVs,’ he said softly. ‘It will look like I have taken you to a bedroom, but they are all bugged. We can talk here.’

She looked at him with wide open eyes, searching his face, trying to understand.

‘I know about your government’s plans for Yanam,’ he said evenly. ‘I also know you want to do a Reagan on Pakistan, lead them into an unsustainable nuclear arms race that will split the country.’

She gasped. Oh, God! What next? He was looking at her through that deathly white face, and a little smile hovered round those chilli red lips.

‘What, what do you intend to do?’ she managed to whisper at last.

His smile widened. ‘Nothing. We are no friends of Islamists,’ he said. ‘We must protect Israel – punishment for the past.’

She had to pull herself together, she had to, she had been trained to do so. Her personal life had always come second, anyway till that moment, but even now when she longed for him, she had to do what was required of her. She gave herself a little shake like a puppy.

‘We – we were going to come to you for the technology,’ she ventured as an opener.

He smiled even more broadly, and flicked the tip of her nose with a long finger. ‘Liar, sweet liar,’ he said, ‘you would have gone to the French. I know everything.’

She wanted to ask him how, but no sound came from her throat.

He bent down and kissed her very lightly on the lips. ‘I have had agents here for a very long time.’

She had guessed as much, but she still felt bitter about it. It somehow reflected poorly on her abilities. But the detection and the firings could wait.

‘Do the Americans know?’ she asked, a desperate edge to her voice.

He shook his head reassuringly. ‘No, of course not, silly. They don’t know if they are coming or going.’

‘They should not know!’ she gasped.

‘No, no, no. They are clinging to Sunni Pakistan as a base for attacking Shia Iran. They think they can bring back the Shah’s grandson.’

This was news to her and it left her breathless. ‘No! That can’t be true! They – they can’t, they are not that stupid…’

‘I am afraid they are. Anyway, they don’t need to bother us.’

She was trying to be cool, and get back to just plain manila envelope wheeling-dealing.

‘But your people don’t want nuclear power now,’ she said in a business-like manner. ‘And environmental agitation in Germany may jeopardize our supplies.’

He smiled. ‘No, it won’t. Germans only want a clean backyard, and they have a flexible conscience how they get it. Most will understand why we must sell nuclear technology to you. If we don’t, the Euro will sink, and my government with it.’

She drew herself up with some assurance. ‘Perhaps…an enhanced power grid is in our national interest, anyway. We have hesitated so long, because, because your guys will set up a human rights howl.’

He smiled again. ‘It will be all quiet on the western front,’ he whispered.

She nodded, and moved out of the corner. ‘Our actions will be based on how you react next week at the General Assembly when the issue of regional terrorism comes up. We will speak about the necessity of protecting our people, however expensive defensive mechanisms become. We would want your support.’

He nodded. There was nothing more to be said. ‘Good night, then,’ she said cheerlessly, turning to go.

He caught her hand and clasped her to his bosom. ‘There is one more thing,’ he said quietly into her ear.

She looked up into his pale face, and the open red lips. A strange sweet smell came from his mouth. What could it be? She should know, but it was just beyond the edge of her reasoning. Those cold blue eyes were looking deep into hers, deep into the very depth of her soul. Strangely, very strangely, that look of his reminded her in an inconsequential way of a tiresome movie she had watched the other day with her young niece. A wild thought entered her head which she dismissed instantly. She was being absurd! But those blue eyes were insistent, persuasive, and as she gazed back into them a longing gripped her to belong to him, forever and ever, till time had no meaning. Her eyes swimming, she saw his face change, grow harder, leaner, bluer. Even his everyday jacket turned into a silken blue coat, his own hair grew crowded under a powered periwig. She knew the wild truth then, she struggled slightly against it in her own mind, and then, sighing, surrendered herself deliciously into his world.

‘You were there at Westphalia, centuries ago?’ she whispered, as if it was the most ordinary thing to ask.

‘Yes, I made them sign the treaty,’ he said confidentially. ‘And many others, over the years.’

She bent her head obediently. Her soft creamy white neck looked delicious like a dish of panna cota. Greedily, he sank his canines into her neck, and started to suck the ruby red drops of her blood.