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Ironwood Poacher and Other Stories

Finished at last! A collection of ten short stories that will appear in print in early November, around 48,000 words. Anyone willing to proofread the final pdf of the MS in the next two weeks, please let me know. You will get a free dedicated copy of the book after final publication as a thank you. The Afterword from the volume that follows below says a little bit about each of the stories, but is meant more as a background narrative of the circumstances in which they were written, rather than as a synopsis of the stories themselves.


The Ironwood Poacher: In December 2012, a young woman and her male companion were attacked in a private bus on the outskirts of Delhi. The man was beaten with a metal bar and left incapacitated while the girl was brutally raped and then seriously injured in a frenzy of bloodlust as an aftermath of lust. The case attracted wide media attention and struck a chord in the hearts of millions of urban middle class who were shocked that such a thing could happen to one of their own kind. When the girl died of her injuries thirteen days later, there was an outpouring of grief and violence nation-wide. The mass protests and agitation in urban centers throughout the country were an expression of anger and disbelief that the nation that nurtured Gandhi and non-violence could harbor individuals like these.

Indeed, in 2005, one month prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city of Mumbai experienced unprecedented and disastrous flooding. In contrast to New Orleans, however, the Mumbai floods were not marked by social disorder and violence, but by widespread acts of generosity and altruism. Based on such experiences, the complacent Indian view was that the “Third World-ness” of megacities like Mumbai and Delhi was a positive thing; a virtue that excused the country’s sadly crumbling infrastructure and made it bearable, because it did not have the “culture of violence” found in American cities.

Of course, this complacence was totally delusional, since anyone who cared to look found inescapable signs of the most egregious exploitation everywhere. And behind the exploitation exists systematic violence and intimidation. The people who bear the brunt of this bad treatment are the poor and the disenfranchised, in urban centers of course, but more so in the countryside. Most of these people are voiceless in the media, so their stories are rarely told. The Ironwood Poacher is an attempt to tell such a story.

India is a very large, teeming country, so it may come as a surprise to many middle class Indians living unthinking, sheltered lives in a comfortable cocoon with servants at hand to cater to their needs, to know that violence is deeply ingrained in this society. This violence has many roots. Deeply held beliefs and gender bias, the caste system (especially in rural areas), and the tremendous disparities in income.

The Ironwood Poacher was written long before the Delhi outrage happened, and was prompted by observations of the everyday tyranny of low-level government officials abusing their power. There is plenty of opportunity for petty officials in every town and village, themselves poor and underpaid, to abuse their power, sometimes with the collusion of local landowners or upper caste supporters. So the tribulations of Neela, the poacher’s wife, are played out in thousands of variations across the country daily and weekly, these stories barely making the pages of the local or national news. What is remarkable amidst all this human misery is that retaliatory deeds like Murugan’s happen so rarely. That is one of the true miracles of India, and probably the most positive attribute of the deep spirituality widely evident wherever one travels in the country.

The Flood: The European Union is an unprecedented, brave and bold experiment by thirty-odd countries venturing into uncharted territory. Many economists have predicted that the experiment is doomed, and there is no shortage of possible reasons for failure.

Critics fail to recognize that any bold experiment can fail. For example, the dollar was chosen to become the monetary unit of the United States in 1785, nine years after the declaration of independence.  The coinage act helped put together an organized monetary system in 1792. The Federal Reserve Act was passed only in 1913, organizing a national banking system and a central bank, nearly one hundred and thirty years after the dollar was chosen as its currency. And this delay occurred in a vast country only slightly smaller than the area of the European experiment.

Small wonder that populations in EU countries have misgivings about the wisdom of their leaders’ attempts to stabilize the common currency and dispute the need to support the economically weakest members of the union. The Flood is a parable on the need for myths to weld communities together. In the case of Europe, the common roots doubtless lay in ancient Greece and Rome, ironically two of the most economically troubled states in the current union.

Cassie: In the 1990s I was fortunate to have an almost brand-new car to make a long journey across the United States. The car was a driveaway, a one year-old, two-door, cream-colored Cadillac Eldorado hardtop with very few miles on the clock. When I picked it up from an upmarket address in San Francisco for delivery in Miami two weeks later, the owner handed me the keys and papers and said, “I’ve had the car serviced. There’s a full tank of gas, so you shouldn’t have any problems. Here’s the address where the car has to be delivered in Miami.” I handed him the papers from the auto driveaway agency to sign and he did it without bothering to look through the document. Liking his casual, trusting manner, I decided to be up-front with him.

“Look,” I said. “I’m a tourist and I’d like to see as much of the US as I can. The agency said that normally coast-to-coast delivery times are ten days. I’d like to make some stops along the way. Do you mind if I take longer?”

“Sure,” he said at once. “Keep it for longer if you want. This is my mother’s car, and she’s moving to Florida to stay with friends after my father died. She won’t need it for the next four weeks.”

“Thanks very much. That’s very kind of you. One last thing. The agency said I was to inspect the car with you for dents or damage before you fill in and sign this piece of paper to confirm the car’s condition.”

“The car’s in good shape,” he said. “Here! I’ll sign the blank form now and you can fill it in if you find anything you want to note down.” Disarmed and made speechless by the man’s trust and generosity, I wordlessly took the keys and drove away without bothering to fill out the form.

Twenty-four days and four thousand miles later, I had a similar pleasant experience at the other end. I called the Miami number I had been given in San Francisco, and a friendly female voice asked if I’d had a comfortable journey and then gave me detailed directions for the drive to the house.  I parked in the shade of a tree-lined driveway and was welcomed into a comfortable living room by a gracious gray-haired woman in her sixties or seventies who patted my hand as I gave the keys and offered me a drink. I chatted with her over coffee and she was very interested in my impressions of the USA and the places I’d seen along the way.

I offered her the agency form to sign before I finally rose to leave. This was to confirm that the car had been delivered to the owner in good condition and ensure that I got my deposit back from the driveaway agency that had insured the risk and helped me find the car.

“Won’t you come out and take a look at the car before you sign?” I asked. She looked at me briefly.

“Did you have any problems on the way?”

“No. The car’s almost brand new and it ran beautifully.”

“Then I don’t need to look at it. I’ll sign that paper for you. Make sure you’ve taken all your things out of the car,” she added as she walked me to the door. I was doubly glad then, in the face of this gentle generosity that, a short while earlier, I had stopped at a service station to have the car shampooed and polished to a high gloss before I returned it with a full tank of gas.

As I rode in a cab later that day to Miami international airport and the flight home, I thought about the countless acts of everyday kindness and trust encountered along the way across America. In a sudden flash of insight, I realized I had stumbled on a principal source of America’s greatness. Something beyond the wealth of nature’s bounty that this nation enjoyed. Trust. Pure and simple. When there is mutual trust among large segments of a population, and rule of law, civil society will flourish. The increasing levels of mistrust and suspicion implied by the gun culture today, especially in the aftermath of nine eleven, does not bode well for America. It implies a gradual diminution of the national store of goodwill and a proportional crumbling of trust.

Contrary to popular myth, there was plenty of good food in small-town America, not just fast food but wholesome fare at reasonable prices in diners and family-run eating establishments throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Staying overnight in a run-down motel east of a north Dallas suburb called Plano, in a nameless little town beside a picturesque stream, I was woken at night by a fierce argument between the couple in the room next door. Objects large and small were thrown about, harsh words were spoken, and the next morning I glimpsed a weary couple check out just before I did, with two small boys in tow.

I went into a roadside diner for breakfast an hour later, and there was a foursome, the father from the motel with the two boys, but instead of the bleary eyed wife I had seen earlier was a pretty young woman who was obviously adored by the boys. Cassie’s tale was born on the drive from Plano to New Orleans. The ramshackle motel became Cassie’s little house and the picturesque stream beside it was where the boys caught their fish for her.

So absorbed was I in the birth of this story while driving that I did not remember to set the Cadillac’s cruise control to the speed limit, and the speedometer needle inched up from sixty-five miles an hour to seventy. I ignored it, thinking five mph over the speed limit was negligible. I was wrong. Not in Texas, as opposed to the adjacent state of Arizona where large trucks seemed to ignore speed limits with impunity. A few miles later, I noticed a car with a flashing blue light behind me. I waited for it to overtake, and when it didn’t, I ignored it for a while until a short wail of a siren told me I should stop.

The police car pulled over behind me and a policeman in uniform with a hand on his holster asked me to lower my window and remain seated. He came up, saluted, and asked for my papers.

“Sir. You have been driving for the past three miles at sixty-nine miles an hour. Why didn’t you stop when you saw the flashing light?”

“I’m sorry officer. I thought you’d overtake if you wanted me to stop.”

“Where are you from?” The tone is incredulous. I tell him.

“We don’t do that over here,” he explained. “My partner was shot last week as he approached a car to check a driver’s papers.”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea…” He looked mollified, and then asked what was in the trunk.

“I don’t know,” I said. “This is a driveaway, and the owner asked if I’d mind if the trunk was filled with his mother’s things. She’s moving to Florida,” I added, seeing the officer’s skeptical look.

“Please open up the trunk.” His hand was on his holster again. I depressed a dashboard button and the entire front seat began to incline backwards. The second button brought it back to rest. The trunk lid rose slowly and majestically in response to the third one I tried, the policeman sternly watching my antics all the while. I got out of the car and saw that the trunk was full, as the owner had told me in San Francisco. My small suitcase rode in luxury on the back seat of the car and I’d not bothered to check the trunk’s contents.

“What’s this?” He pointed to a large cardboard carton that looked like a typical box of detergent.

“Detergent, I hope,” I said, opening the carton. It was filled with a fine white powder. To put it mildly, my heart sank. He put a hand in to take a pinch between two fingers, smell it, and touch a fingertip to his tongue.

“Looks like detergent, smells like detergent, tastes like detergent,” he said, lightening up with a sudden grin.

“Phew.” I was truly relieved. “What would have happened if that powder hadn’t been detergent?” The policeman smiled a grim smile.

“You don’t even want to think about it,” he assured me. “I’m going to let you off without a fine today. But no more speeding in Texas.” With that he saluted and went on his way.

Maestro Ladrini’s Villa: Another day, on another continent, driving between the walled city of Lucca and Viareggio in Italy, there is a small turning to the right that leads up into the surprisingly steep hills and a dusty village called Chiatri. A little beyond Chiatri, at the end of a curving driveway, stood an imposing villa with wrought iron gates, and a private orchard. I drove up to the villa and the door was opened by a handsome woman in a maid’s uniform of knee-length black dress with a brief frilly white apron. She wore dark stockings and elegant black shoes. This was somehow not what I expected from a two-week holiday rental in Tuscany, but the address seemed correct.

“Si?” she said imperiously. I stood on the porch like Johann Strauss, the writer of westerns, and stuttered in broken Italian that I was looking for a rental villa where I was to stay with friends. She pointed imperiously to a round stone tower behind the villa.

“You have to take the road behind this house.”

Later, sitting with Italian friends over a meal of wild boar and polenta at a neighboring farm, I was told that this area was a favorite haunt of the great composer Puccini who liked to hunt and drive fast cars along these narrow roads, so we could imagine him sitting down to enjoy just such a meal as the one we were having.

The story of Maestro Ladrini was an amalgam of all the impressions gained from this holiday; the magical Tuscan countryside, the patrician villas, the dry heat, and the excellent food. I never saw the stately housekeeper at the villa again, but it was not far from Chiatri to Torre del Lago and the lake itself was often referred to as Lago de Puccini instead of by its proper name, Massaciuccoli. We learned later that the stone tower into which our two comfortable holiday apartments had been adapted was the former servants’ quarters of the adjacent villa. Perhaps the Maestro really did live in the villa once.

Heavy Duty: If the Ironwood Poacher gives readers a totally negative view of social conditions in India, Heavy Duty should go a little way to improving it. Rural life is not all abject poverty and social misery. People are people everywhere, and live and laugh and love just the same on all continents.

The Orbs of Celeris: Many arid parts of North Africa and the Middle East were poor for centuries, until oil was discovered and they became fabulously wealthy. Thoughtful people in these countries know that this new wealth cannot last forever. Sheikh Rasheed bin Saeed al Maktoum, who is responsible for the economic transformation of Dubai, has been famously quoted as saying: My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel. As some energy specialists point out, however, this insight applies not only to citizens of oil rich nations in the Middle East, but also to everyone else. Fossil fuels are finite, and they cause enormous environmental damage at the current scale of extraction and use.

If the initiators of Desertec and other like-minded projects have their way, oil-producing desert kingdoms will flourish again, this time fuelled by the sun. Vast swathes of desert covered with photovoltaic modules and mirror arrays, focusing light on a heat exchanger to produce concentrated solar power, will provide electricity for continental markets through a high voltage direct current grid. That is the plan. There is much that can go wrong before these great plans come to fruition; not least the current widespread social and political uncertainties in the region.

At another extreme, in the far north, similar potential exists to generate electricity that can power the world economy and save it from the environmental consequences of excessive dependence on carbon based forms of energy; coal, oil and natural gas. In these latitudes, the potential to generate electricity lies in the wind and the waves. There are northern isles where onshore and offshore wind farms could today generate sufficient electricity to power a continent, but here again, it is not likely to happen. Why? NIMBY (Not in my back yard), unwillingness to change, fear of visual pollution of landscapes, forgetting that the very landscapes they wish to preserve are themselves the product of centuries of transformation, that some of the landmarks so cherished are themselves the result of human action.

The Orbs of Celeris is the story of a dreamer, a Don Quixote who tilts, not at windmills, but at established mores. Ironically, the lance in this tale is a windmill. The story ends in tragedy, but in real life perhaps it will not. Only the future will tell.

Macawley: The old adage says: if you stand at New York’s Times Square long enough, the whole world will walk by. Macawley explores the truth of that saying. On a trip to New York years ago, I was asked to drop off a package at a Manhattan address for the friend of a friend. I accepted, with some hesitation. In retrospect I am glad I did. Otherwise, I would never have met the person who is called Mrs. Macawley in the story. It’s an author’s privilege to dissemble the truth that is stranger than fiction, and it is for the reader to decide what is truth and what is fiction in the story.

Conception: And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. These words from the Nicene Creed are repeated countless times in Christian liturgy and represent the mainstream definition of Christianity for most Christians. One reads that in both Christianity and Islam the second coming of Christ, sometimes known as the parousia, is the anticipated return of Jesus to earth.

In the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, it says: Now when they had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven.”

It is also widely believed that history does not repeat itself. But what if it does? Conception is a playful investigation of what the second coming could look like in the twenty-first century.

Enigma: On September 12, 2013, BBC News reported, “Voyager I has become the first manmade object to leave the solar system.” Scientists calculate the moment of escape to have occurred on or about 25 August 2012. The two Voyager space probes were launched in 1977, and their primary mission, to study the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, ended in 1989.

According to Mars One, an organization that has been calling for applicants to make a one-way trip to Mars, more than one hundred and fifty thousand people have expressed their willingness to make a one-way trip to the Red Planet. Organizations like Mars One and the Mars Society show that there is plenty of public enthusiasm for space exploration, and Enigma was a result of this realization.

A Night at the Taj Mahal: An estimated 1.7 million engineers graduated from India’s 3500 colleges in 2013 alone. Apart from the fifteen percent graduating from top tier colleges, most of these young men will struggle to find a job. In 1964, employment prospects were also bad, but the number of job seekers was nothing like it is today. The population was around 450 million, less than half of what it is now. Nevertheless, the economy was developing at a pedestrian pace in 1964, and as access to medical care and food distribution became more equitable after independence, birth rates also shot up. It is in this context that the sixteen year-old protagonist of A Night at the Taj Mahal tries to find a shortcut to a University education and the secure employment that is presumed to come with it.

Aviott John
Hong Kong
October 2013



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