Near the blackest moment of a moonless night in the Pakistani
Himalayas the young Abdul Paton silently vowed that one day he would be a penguin.
Abdul was trespassing at the time, driven from his bed by the restless budding of an obsession that would eventually become the driving force in his life. Knowing that no one else was likely to understand, but still unable to stop himself, Abdul had crept from his parents house and, careful to avoid the sleeping gutter dogs, flitted through the unlit streets of Sost to the only place he knew could find what he needed to quell the swirling torment that had taken control of his ten year old mind- the Little England School.
Sost was a dusty mountain outpost and a gateway to the lawless valley of the Karakom, a normally sleepy place with a very long history that consisted almost entirely of forgotten battles and extreme temperatures.
The Little England School, intentionally designed by a homesick colonial architect to look like a South London office block, was by far the grandest structure there. By day it was the place Abdul did the second grade, by night, with the exception of a small bathroom window that only an eager ten year possessing both determination and agility would have any hope of squeezing through, it was locked up tightly.
The night of August the 7th 1959 was not the first time Abdul had managed to squeeze himself into the empty building, but it was the first time he didn't get away with it.
Abdul was apprehended by Ms. Patel, a math teacher who in the interests of bringing quality education to the remotest corners of the brave new Pakistani nation, had been transplanted to Sost from the big city of Karachi. She carried herself about with an icy air of discontent, an individual powered by the dangerous combination of a sharp mind and a sense of persecution.
Of all the staff at the Little England school she wasn't the only one to notice that something strange had been going on. The faint child size footprints they found in the chalk dust on the floor one morning and the blackboard eraser that had moved itself to a desk from the ledge where it had been left the evening before seemed to her to be hard evidence that someone was getting in at night- but the place hadn't burnt down, and there wasn’t much to steal, so no one worried about it.
Back in Karachi she wouldn't have worried either. There teaching had just been a job. Here things were very different.
More than anything else people who visited Sost generally noticed the mountains- monolithic walls of stone that were harsh in the sunlight, soft pink at dusk and loomed huge and black in the night, hemming in the town on both sides. They gave it the look of a place that was prone to biting alpine winds, but the truth was that the walls of rock somehow trapped and intensified the heat that crept up from the baking plains below and in which, Ms. Patel thought, everything seemed to sag into a miserable torpor.
Unimpressive though it might have been as a metropolis, with its thin strip of sealed road and cluster of tea shops and flea infested inns, it was closest thing to a town to be found this far into the mountains- the only place to come for mountain men who wanted to witness the wonders of the electric light bulb or barter for a new donkey.
On any fine morning the main road was lined by men from the villages, unreformed types with polished weapons and decidedly tribal outlooks, squatting sociably in their curry stained robes, who would fall silent as she walked by with her shopping for one. She felt their frank stares and the disapproval that came with them of everything about her, from her confident walk to how she was earning her own living and especially of the way, they suspected, she was busy teaching another generation of girls to do the same thing.
The tribesmen didn't do or say anything openly, but their presence alone was enough to make her hostile and defensive in a way that real evidence never could. She looked out at the bald mountains with hatred and frightened herself by dreaming up elaborate scenarios in which she was kidnapped and forced to spend the rest of her life in some hidden mountain village slaving over a cauldron and acting as wet nurse to a flock of goats. At work she spoke English which imitated, as closely as possible, the dainty rose petal trill of the nuns who had taught her when she was a girl, and what little spare time she had was spent alone in a locked room with piles of populous 19th century English classics.
But the more difficult life got for her the more determined she became that nothing was going to make her quit.
That is why Ms. Patel, asking the permission of no one, decided she was going to stay behind after school and learn beyond any doubt what was going on. By the time the sun went down she was installed at a desk in the grade three classroom with a candle, her complete works of Jane Austin, and absolutely no idea at all of what she would do if someone really did break in. She was totally convinced that whoever was getting into the school was doing it to make her life more difficult, and by confronting them herself she was determined to show that she was not afraid.
Ms. Patel managed to stay awake until one, by which time her candle had fizzed out in a pool of melted wax. As she drifted off to sleep with her head on the desk she had just about decided that no one was going to turn up and that perhaps, somehow, she had been mistaken.
Then she was awake, suddenly vulnerable and alone in a darkened classroom. There was the smell of old chalk and the slightest hint of chill. She sat up, aware she had been woken by something, and listened intently to the silence. From the room across the hall came a distinct scraping sound that could have only been someone shifting a chair across the floor. There was no question about it, whoever had been getting in each night had come back.
Ms. Patel sat at her desk scared to breathe, let alone move, and then, fighting every shred of her formidable common sense, she was walking across the room and stepping out into the empty hallway. Across the hall, from behind the slightly ajar door of the grade four classroom, came a faint blue light and a tinny electronic whine that could have been anything. She walked up to the door, placed her hand against the wood, took a deep breath and made herself push.
Ms. Patel knew Abdul well. She taught him maths and never doubted his intelligence. But what she saw when the door swung open left her wondering if she was imagining things.
At the back of the class room a desk had been pushed against the wall and a chair placed on top on the desk. Above the chair, the cupboard door behind which they kept the school's film projector, a bulky relic from the 40s that they usually needed two adults to move, was open. The cupboard was empty. On a desk at the front of the room, propped up on a pile of dictionaries sat the projector, clicking and flickering and filling the room with the ominous scent of overheated plastic and a shaky blue light.
Abdul Paton, small bodied, large headed and described in his school reports as being precocious and friendly, sat on the floor with the same easy cross legged posture she had seen in the Hindu holy men who used to pass through her home town before the partition. His little mouth hung open, the flickering images on the screen reflected off wide eyes which were blank with rapt adoration.
Ms. Patel, too astonished to even switch on the lights, stood gaping at the silhouette of his head cast against the blackboard by the projector. She had seen the images many times before, though never like this. Abdul was playing a Russian educational film strip of startlingly poor quality which had somehow found it's way to the school after having been donated by the culturally attaché at the Soviet Embassy in the capital Islamabad. It had been part of what the attaché described as a `friendship package', which also included a set of children's picture books that tried to explain communism by portraying Karl Marx as a type of socially equitable Santa Claus and capitalists as a species of small gremlin like creatures who wore top hats. The film clip was called ‘Penguins, Our Little Comrades from the South’.
On the board thousands of chubby black birds were blurrily scuttling across an endless sea of white. A man in a heavy coat that seemed to be made out of aluminum foil stood on the ice and held up a struggling penguin by its feet. There was the myopic outline of a red ship passing slowly underneath an iceberg.
Outside it was almost three. The mountains were huge and black over the town. For a fraction of a second the sky was lit by narrow flare of yellow flame that streaked overhead towards the east, no one was up to see it. In all of Sost the only light to be seen shone from the window of the grade two classroom at the Little England School.
"Abdul" said Ms. Patel, but Abdul was elsewhere. Abdul did not turn away.
Our Little Comrades from the South was the only film ever made with the Red Flag 5000 which was, almost without any doubt, the worst camera ever made.
A unique and disastrous footnote in the history of Soviet cinema the Red Flag 5000 was commissioned to be the people's camera. The concept behind it was that it should be a machine that could be simply and quickly built by a New Soviet Man using nothing that he couldn't reasonably hope to scavenge from his tractor junkyard. It was intended to lead the way into a bright new future of technological superiority where the Americans would look up at the moon and see physically superior Ukrainian peasant girls joyfully harvesting turnips. In reality it was a hulking monstrosity powered by a small engine which (in a nod to post-war austerity) could run on watered down kerosene, and sounded like a defective chain saw.
Once the camera had been maneuvered into place, a far from simple task considering it weighed almost as much as a small car, twenty minutes of filming was enough to cause it to overheat to the point where the film, highly flammable and only made in one small factory on the edge of Vladivostok, was liable to combust and spark off a small explosion that would incinerate the unfortunate film crew.
Among people who knew about these things the manifold draw backs of the Red Flag 5000 were no secret, so how it was that, to the exclusion of all other cameras, it was the Red Flag 5000 that was brought along on the Soviet research expedition to the Antarctic in 1951 is a mystery.
If it was just a mistake, it was an exceptionally expensive one.
When it came to filming any kind of wildlife, especially the shy, noise wary creatures of the Antarctic, the Red Flag 5000 was a particularly bad choice. In ‘Our Little Comrades from the South’ almost every penguin, seal, sea lion, whale or dolphin shown was filmed in the process of fleeing in terror from what must have seemed to them like a small volcanic eruption, by a camera crew who were frightened of being burnt alive.
As wildlife films go, the result is unlike anything else. Finding themselves, after two weeks in the Antarctic, with nothing but indistinct footage of distant animals in the process of submerging under the icy water or escaping ever further towards the horizon, the Soviet scientists found themselves driven to increasingly desperate measures in order to bring home some kind of footage and thus, hopefully, managing to avoid swapping the icy wastes of the Antarctic for the icy wastes of the gulag.
Creeping up on a peacefully sleeping seal then starting the camera seemed like a good idea. It worked well the first time, the draw-backs only becoming apparent on the second take when the seal leapt up and fell convulsively twitching onto its back, apparently the victim of a heart attack.
On the third go the seal turned around and ripped a chunk out of the camera man's leg.
With the only person who could operate the camera with any semblance of safety confined to the ship fighting an infection that was threatening to take his life the decision was made to leave the seals alone.
The penguins were less fortunate. Possessing neither intelligence, land speed or sharp teeth they found themselves manipulated in ways that penguins were never supposed to be, hoisted for happy snaps by their fragile feet, snared in traps and then lobbed in front of the camera to simulate the aerodynamics for which, the scientists had heard, they were famous. None of the few people who ever saw the film failed to notice there was something very strange at a physical level about those blurry shots, solitary penguins flying across the screen, in at least one case upside down, while the narrator crooned in his best story book voice ‘look how gracefully they leap from the ice’.
It was only when the film was screened outside the Soviet Union that anyone was bold enough to point out that the palm tree distinctly visible in the background of the dolphin footage (lifted from a promotional news reel for Miami Sea World) made the whole thing less plausible as a documentary about the Antarctic.
Overall the film was so terrible that it's hard to imagine why even a ten year old who had never seen a movie and considered what he'd heard about TV to be a fairly far fetched rumor would be interested in seeing it more than once.
The answer is that there was one scene, which more from luck than anything else, truly was amazing.
At great risk to their own lives, the brave Soviet explorers of the Antarctic had managed to winch their huge camera over the side of the ship and into a life boat.
Rolling badly in the icy swell, and with some very ominous icy slush sloshing around their ankles, the camera crew made their way to the foot of a towering glacial cliff. Even with its lack of focus, it was impossible to see the footage they captured of waves crashing against the blue ice at the bottom and not shiver.
They panned the camera up to show the cliff's edge crumbling high above.
Because the Red Flag 5000 was not able to record sound, the unfortunate graduate students who had been more or less ordered to clamber onto the glacier and chase a large flock of penguins right off the edge remained not only unseen but also unheard.
To them this seemed more than a little unfair, if anything the risk they were taking was even more insane than the people in the boat. It was true that except in the unlikely event they ran across a crevice walking across the ice was perfectly safe, but in Antarctica a crevice is a completely invisible and seemingly bottomless chasm in the ice that has become plugged with a brittle crust of frozen snow, and stepping onto one is almost always enough to cause the whole thing to collapse in on itself.
They had discovered this first hand on their second day after going ashore when they watched their only dog sled vanish into the ether with a defending roar that was followed, as they stood back amazed to be alive amongst shards of ice that floated gently like the snow in a children's story book, by a pitiful doggy whimpering that seemed to come from the very center of the Earth.
Both of the students were frightened. While they were researching penguins at Moscow zoo they merely found them and their rotten fish stench to be distasteful, now they really hated them.
The men in the boat could quite clearly hear their voices floating down to sea level.
"Run you horrible little brutes, run".
A two thousand strong flock of penguins being driven across the ice by two terrified Russian grad students might seem like an exotic image, but the truth is that it sounds a lot like a flock of hungry sea gulls. The sailor at the helm of the boat looked up nervously and it occurred to him that thousands of penguins landing on them would probably be enough to put them all in the water where they would freeze in less than a minute.
And down they came.
Against all odds and expectations it was a great piece of film. The outline of the birds against a perfect blue sky, first a single one, then a small cluster of them, then a thick cloud of oily feathers, black and white with a hint of yellow. They twisted around slowly as they fell, it was possible to see them furiously slapping their stunted wings against their sides, their beaks wide open as they squawked in noisy, bird brained panic. There was drama in the way they hit the water, an explosion of salt and ice and cold, and underneath the surface, for the second before they merged into a messy blur of blue and white, they were the most solid kind of shadows, sleek and black and entirely in their element as they burrowed through the freezing ocean.
If the rest of the film hadn't been such a terrible failure then it's possible that things would have turned out entirely different. Instead of the only copy ever made being donated to Pakistan ‘Our Little Comrades from the South’ might have been distributed to schools and TV stations right across the Soviet Union. For decades to come, on dreary afternoons, in industrial backwaters, shabby apartment blocks would have been filled by the blurred reflection of light from the southern summer, and the soft croon of a man saying ‘look how gracefully they leap from the ice’.
Even before Ms. Patel caught him projecting his penguins Abdul Paton was aware that it was not possible for him to openly admit that a penguin was what he wanted to be. Ms. Patel had flicked on the lights, pulled the projector’s power plug out of the wall and said nothing. He followed her out of the room silent and self contained and knowing he didn't need to give any kind of explanation just yet.
It was five by the time the parents arrived on the scene. The three adults squeezed themselves into the undersized chairs in the grade four classroom and sat in silent puzzlement as they watched Abdul picking at the wax congealed around the base of Ms. Patel's candle.
The question Ms. Patel wanted to ask was how. She just couldn't think of any rational explanation as to how such a small boy had been able to lift the heavy projector from its place in the cupboard, let alone find the right reel of film and set it up. But she knew, for now, the more important question was why.
"I want to be a marine biologist" Abdul announced to his astonished parents. "I want to study penguins, whales and dolphins. I thought this would be a good way to start".
"Well…" his father said, managing to capture all the uncertainty and out of joint five in the morning confusion of the situation in one word.
"Well…" his mother concurred, perhaps sounding slightly more dubious. She and her husband were both vets. Like Ms. Patel they'd been posted up to Sost from Karachi, although unlike her they were happy enough in their new location. They had each other, and for almost everything else the town was enough.
Still, they were ambitious for their son, and had always hoped he would follow in their footsteps by taking an interest in science.
Perhaps the fact that he was prepared to break and enter in order to pursue his interest in the subject was more a sign of budding genius than criminal tendencies.
Abdul's parents looked at Ms. Patel, who seemed absorbed by the view from the window of the mountains turning pink with the dawn, and added nothing. To her the events of that morning already seemed like a dream. The one image that had really stuck with her was what she had encountered when she first entered the room, that totally, completely absorbed expression that had been on Abdul's face as he sat cross legged on the floor watching penguins fall from the sky.
Whatever the reason he had been getting into the school and setting up the projector, she thought, it certainly didn't have anything to do with marine biology.
Considering that he never for a moment stopped wanting to be a penguin Abdul Paton, over the following decades, lived an amazingly normal life.
Abdul grew quietly and unremarkably. He did all the things that were expected of him. He attained the expected height, facial hair and better than average grades in school. When he played football with the other boys it was noticed he did lack a certain something that wasn't quite as distinct as enthusiasm, but was still clear enough to see.
Teachers commented that he was a good student who listened in class but tended to be very quiet. It was known that he sat up late in his room poring over a scrap book that contained things that he permitted no one else to look at. Some said he was intensely religious, while another theory had him brooding over an epic, unrequited passion for Ms. Patel. None of the stories were even slightly true, but they didn't bother him.
He didn't try and justify it to himself. Abdul had seen the penguins raining into the water, he had seen the endless fields of white and blue, he had seen the icebergs towering over the sea. That was all. That was enough. He wanted to be there. Not wrapped up in a coat or going back each evening to some poky little room on a ship, but totally and completely in a way that was not possible for a human.
He just wanted to be a penguin.
It was only when the time came for Abdul to leave the Little England School and start making his way in the world via university that he thought about it more, and the more he thought about it the more it worried him. Effortlessly his lie about wanting to be a marine biologist had stuck. If people thought it was a strange choice of aspiration for a boy whose experience of sea creatures was limited to a goldfish they didn’t ever mention it to him. In the year he was to graduate, without any struggle at all, simply through saying the things he was supposed to say and writing the letters he was supposed to write, Abdul found himself standing in the family kitchen holding an envelope that contained a letter offering him a place in the marine biology course at the university in Karachi.
A celebration was held. Abdul participated as the prime attraction, the feted object of familial pride. The school hall was hired and filled with food and screaming cousins. A banner was made and strung up above the stage. `Congratulations Abdul' it read.
Abdul told everyone that he was looking forward to learning more about whales.
`But really', he thought, `I want to be a penguin'.
That night, and almost every night from then on, Abdul found himself dogged by a question that had never occurred to him before- how? As Ms. Patel, and every other adult he had ever dealt with was aware, he was a boy to whom things came easily. He himself knew that his abilities put him far above the average. Most of his life had been simple, but not this.
He tried to find out more about humans that had been raised in the wild by animals. Surely if it was possible for a baby girl from Albania to be raised by a pack of wolves practically by accident, then a well intentioned young Pakistani would have no trouble getting himself adopted by a friendly flock of penguins. But he knew it was unlikely. The practicalities seemed impossible. How would he survive the cold? What would he eat? It occurred to him that he had never learned to swim.
It takes five hours driving on a dangerous mountain road to get from Sost to the railhead at Gilgit, and from there it's a ten hour train journey to the broiling urban death maze that is Karachi. Abdul had not lived an overly sheltered life in the mountains, but until then the outside world had for him existed mostly in his imagination, a place where, in one way or another, everything was about penguins. Without thinking about it much he had somehow made the assumption that when he finally did leave, Antarctica would be the place he was going.
As the train descended to the plains Abdul saw things which wouldn't have been any surprise to most Pakistanis but were completely new to him. Out the window there were buffaloes rolling in the mud on the banks of vast brown rivers and rice paddies some color greener than emerald literally steaming with life. But what he really wanted to see were icebergs, and the way his sweat made his trousers cling to his skin was really annoying.
When the train finally pulled into Karachi, in the space of five minutes, he saw more people than he had set eyes on in his entire life to that point. Even before the train had come to a stop at the platform a man with one and a half arms and no legs somehow swung in through the carriage window and proceeded to drag himself through the accumulation of orange rinds and discarded chicken bones on the floor, mumbling an incantation that seemed to be asking people if they could spare any change.
Abdul wiped the sweat from his brow and checked that the bag his mother had packed was still stashed safely beneath his seat. He was thinking, ‘what about the penguins?’
For the first time he realized that this was going to be a problem.
The simple truth of the matter was that Dr. S Gupta, wasn't the best psychiatrist in Karachi. There were several indications of this that Abdul choose to ignore, the most obvious one being the prominent misspelling of the word psychiatrist in the ad he had taken out at the back of the city's second best cricket newspaper.
'Dr. S Gupta' it announced, 'psyciatrist'.
'Young man' the ad asked, a few lines of dirty newsprint on the bottom of a page mostly dedicated to the mail order sale of various oily concoctions that, when rubbed into the palms, were assured to result in better spin bowling, 'do you suffer timidity, irritability or uncontrollable delusions of a sensual nature? Is your inner emotional turmoil attracting the scorn of your chums on the team? Suffer no longer. Talk to Dr. S Gupta, discretion guaranteed'.
At five rupees per consultation talking to Dr. Gupta for an hour cost exactly the same as a trip to the movies.
Scarcely more encouraging was the location of his office, tucked away down a side street in the slums near the railway station. Getting to it involved walking through a tiny shop that specialized in selling slightly damaged fruit and spices, up a rickety flight of stairs and then taking a guess which door to go through. There were two tiny airless rooms on the first floor. One contained Dr. Gupta, the other a teeming family of Kashmiri refugees who, in spite of their diet of rice, weevils and the cheapest sort of curry powder, thrived and multiplied.
Dr. Gupta seemed to have grown used to the smell of curry powder and the sounds of malnourished babies because he didn't give any indication of noticing either as he perched there on the creaking wicker chair that he had inherited with the room. Strangely enough, because like most Pakistanis he was nominally a Muslim, the calendar glued onto the wall behind him was decorated with an image of the Hindu God Shiva, though it had faded since it was hung there in the month of March three years previously.
The first time he meet the doctor, a defeated looking figure hunched behind a paper strewn desk looking bleakly out at him through eyes that seemed all but glued shut with fatigue, Abdul’s impression was that he was a man who was in demand. Clearly the stresses of professional life were wearing him down. It was only after months of weekly consultations that he began to notice that the papers on his desk were always the same, and that their only reason for existing was to give people like him the impression that he was busy.
Abdul wasn’t sure exactly what vice it was that made Dr. Gupta’s face look like a desiccated prune, but it wasn’t over work.
Eventually cottoning on to the probability that Dr. Gupta, if not an outright fraud, had absolutely no idea what he was doing, Abdul developed a distaste for the man that was almost but not quite powerful enough to stop him from shelling out the money to see him each week. Always, when he was halfway up those creaky stairs and heard the wailing of the Kashmiri family's latest baby, he was tempted to turn back. What stopped him was an awareness of just how insane his wish to be a penguin was in the eyes of the world at large. Abdul knew he needed help, and although he had absolutely no idea what Dr. Gupta might possibly do, in the complete absence of any other affordable options Abdul was determined to make it work.
Each week he told himself that this would be the week when he would finally be able to get the old fool to understand. Surely that would be a start.
It went on for years.
"So, Mr. Paton”, Gupta would invariably begin, "what's new with you this week"?
At times Abdul got the impression that Dr. Gupta was unable to remember any of what he had told him the week before. Certainly he rarely or never said anything to indicate that he did.
Faced with a whole hour of being awkwardly peered at Abdul would stammer what he'd learnt about the schooling patterns of blue-fin tuna and inform the doctor of any developments in the situation with his socks, which kept going missing from the laundry.
"And" the doctor would ask, after at least half an hour, "how about your issue".
Inwardly Abdul rebelled against having what he saw as the very core of his identity characterized in this way. Although he certainly knew that he was different, he didn't much appreciate having the belief that was basis of his existence reduced to an `issue'. If anything, he thought, Dr. Gupta should recognize this and perhaps give him some ideas on how to cope with not being the same as everyone else.
When he first arrived in Karachi all Abdul could do in response to this was look down at his shoes and murmur something about how he was still having recurring dreams about icebergs. It was only after a year of weekly sessions that he finally got up the nerve to try and set the doctor straight.
"Dr. Gupta" he said "I do not have an issue. I am a penguin. I have simply been born in the body of a man. Although I accept that I cannot physically be a penguin, I believe that I will be happiest living close to if not amongst my peers, who are the penguins of Antarctica. This is who I am. These are the facts of my life. My issue is that other people won't accept them".
Dr. Gupta fixed him with a look that was supposed to convey the full extent of his penetrating insight. He said "I see you have a lot of anger inside you".
Gradually Abdul discovered that the best thing to do was simply to nod and look gravely attentive, this seemed to make him happy. Exactly why he kept on coming back week after week, year after year, he couldn't say. In the end it almost certainly had something to do with habit.
Occasionally Gupta prattled on about how it was possible that his desire to be a penguin actually resulted from an over identification with his mother ("do you see your mother as a chicken?"). Other weeks he theorized that it was a lack of exposure to healthy contact sports as a child that was to blame. On at least five occasions Dr. Gupta asked if he had had any traumatic experiences with birds.
"Can I ask you a simple question?” Gupta asked him towards the end of most sessions. Abdul never gave any indication that he consented, but Gupta always went ahead and asked anyway.
"You're a healthy young man, intelligent, studying at university, all your life before you. Yes, yes?” One of Gupta's more infuriating habits was repeating his words when he wanted to ask a question.
"And you're studying…" he had a way of furrowing his brow when he couldn't remember things, which was most of the time, "engineering".
"Yes that's it, marine engineering. And still you're wanting to run off to the north pole with all these seals and octopuses and what not? Eh boy. Silly. Very silly. Give it some thought."
It was in his final year of university that Abdul hit upon a plan.
Abdul's plan was to rise through the ranks of the Pakistani civil service with the firm though lofty goal of eventually being appointed to the diplomatic service, and from there getting himself transferred to the United Nations. Once at the UN he would, somehow, find a way to get appointed to the special commission for the Antarctic, at which point, he felt, there was no way he could fail to find a way to be with the penguins.
Abdul knew it was a long shot, but it was a lot better than no shot at all.
Although Pakistan is never going to be known as one of the great maritime nations of the world, Abdul correctly guessed that having a degree in marine biology couldn't hurt his chances of being accepted into the civil service. Abdul applied for a position that had something to do with developing fish farms in the Indus delta, but instead of being sent to the coast found himself, possibly through a clerical error, sent to an a mountain outpost deep in the wilderness of the North Western frontier, a place known more for its Yetis than any type of fish, which found the nearly complete lack of water and freezing winters very difficult to cope with.
Abdul traveled back up into the mountains, passing through Sost which his parents had left long ago, and then continuing on for another five hours.
Built on a hill high above the valley of the Karakom was a Californian bungalow with a flag post out the front, and Abdul’s job, described simply and completely, was to be there- the region’s sole representative from the Government of Pakistan.
He was granted a uniform that was he was expected to wear each day and made him look something between a postman and a British officer from the Great War.
Mostly his position involved doing nothing at all.
Abdul knew that if he wasn't careful it would be easy to get disheartened in a place like this with no real duties except to raise the flag each morning, lower the flag each evening and write the occasional letter home to let his masters in the bureaucracy know that he was still alive. It was boring, and it seemed a very long way from Antarctica. It was more than just belief in his plan which kept him going, it was faith.
He knew the day when he would be selected for promotion and put back on the road to his destiny could not be far off. He spent a lot of time gazing at the snow capped peaks across the valley thinking that Antarctica's Mount Erebus must look more or less the same. Everyday he thought ‘soon it will be time’.
Abdul’s Californian bungalow had been built on a mountain that overlooked what could only be described as a hopelessly confused circus of international geo-politics. From the window of his little office he could see one mountain that was in Chinese occupied Tibet, one that was in a part of India that claimed to an independent Buddhist kingdom, and another that was also in India but was claimed by his employers in Islamabad. Abdul discovered that by squinting through a pair of powerful binoculars at the Tibetan mountain it was possible to see the a mud brick building, grubby and fly blown even from a distance of 75 kilometers away, that may or may not have been built by foreign soldiers.
On the valley floor, in Pakistan itself, there were Pathans, Pashtuns, Tibetans, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs and Uzbeks. Thousands of swarthy tribesmen, Turkic in the main, whose long histories and proud cultures were completely misunderstood by just about all who had ever come into contact with them. In the language of one them, nobody Abdul spoke to could tell him which it was, Karakom meant blood. The tribes in the valley had been cutting each others throats with fluctuating levels of intensity for as long as anyone could remember, and it was assumed that they always would be. No one, not even the British, had been silly enough to try and bring them under direct control, but posting someone up here who was capable of working a flag pole seemed like the right thing for an aspiring central government to do.
Abdul looked over the violent valley with boredom and sent back uninspired messages of peace. Down below there were blood feuds, elopements and tribal warfare, but Abdul never went down below, nor was he expected to. He stayed on his mountain, waiting.
Something, perhaps it was the altitude, seemed to make time move slower there. The bungalow came with a cook who had begun his job in the time of the British, and was quite resistant to the idea that anything had changed. He insisted on speaking to Abdul in English using an accent that made him sound like a waiter in an expensive restaurant, and which he was constantly trying to perfect by tuning into the BBC World Service. He spent the rest of his plentiful spare time snipping away at a small rose garden he kept in front of the house that, he told anyone who would listen, had originally been planted by the wife of the British commandant.
At precisely 3.30PM every day, weather permitting, afternoon tea was served at a table in the Rose Garden. Sitting, sipping his tea Abdul would stare at the mountains in other counties and think of Antarctica. Even at the height of summer there was snow at the top of them. He liked to imagine that they were icebergs.
Abdul believed that the steady flow of letters he sent to civil service headquarters would eventually be noticed by someone. When he started sending them they were stilted and impersonal reports on the sleepy state of life at the Karakom customs post, but gradually, as the years went by and, Abdul assumed, the people at the office got to know who he was and what his aims were, they became more purposeful and bold.
‘I have continued to dedicate myself to the study of penguins’ began one letter he wrote as his tenth year on the mountain was creeping up on him, although it wasn’t really true. When Abdul wrote study what he meant was that he had memorized every word in the forty or so copies of ‘Penguin World’ magazine he had managed to accumulate over the years, and pored longingly over his old scrap book, which contained a few pages of penguin pictures he had surreptitiously snipped out of encyclopedias while at school and university. ‘This course of action’, his letter went on, ‘is one which I believe will bring glory and esteem on the Pakistani nation, and I am pleased to report it has been meet with the greatest progress. For example it has recently come to my attention that one particular species of penguin, the Little Blue Eye Penguin, has been found living as far up the African coast as Mozambique, which is a tropical country. The implications of this for the future of the Pakistani tourism industry are obvious. By introducing these birds to our own coastal regions, where all my research indicates they are acclimatized to survive, we could evoke a tourism bonanza, possibly sparking off a golden age of prosperity the likes of which this country has never before seen'.
The foreign ministry building in Islamabad that dealt with Abdul's letters was a large concrete shoe box full of dust and deep, deep laziness and very few of them were opened. Even if they had have been it wouldn’t have made much difference.
The people who worked there took it as a matter of course that officials posted to the outlying hill stations would go mad after a decade or two, and routinely ignored the memos they received from them. The news of another outbreak of foot and mouth disease among the goats of the north west frontier didn’t interest them much, and they generally weren’t bright enough to find letters of the kind sent by Abdul or that agronomist in the northern hills who kept on begging for a transfer before the aliens came back and probed him for a second time, to be very funny.
Abdul didn't know this, though as the years went by without a word back from headquarters he must have begun to suspect something. He was writing during a time of military tension with India, and it did occur to him that if he suggested that penguins could be put to some kind of military use then it would be more likely that someone would take notice of him. He went so far as to write up a letter suggesting that penguins could be trained for reconnaissance purposes. Little cameras could be strapped to their backs and they could be set loose to bring back the very latest in news about the Indian submarine fleet. The night after he wrote it though Abdul woke in fright, drenched with cold sweat by a nightmare in which he saw a flock of penguins with bombs instead of cameras strapped to them torpedoing through the water towards an aircraft carrier.
He told himself that it was nothing but a stupid dream, that not even the military would be able to bring themselves to do anything that cruel to a bird so clearly harmless and adorable, but even as he was thinking it he found himself standing in front of his desk in the dark ripping the letter into tiny pieces.
Perhaps it was despair of ever making it to Antarctica, or perhaps it was simply boredom, but some time in Abdul's 15th year on his hill above the valley of the Karakom he came up with an idea of how, while he was waiting to go to the penguins, he could do something to make the penguins come to him.
It was his cook's garden gnomes that inspired him.
The garden gnomes had been another empire building project of the British Commandant's long departed wife that had been lovingly preserved by the cook. Exactly why anyone, even an Englishman, would want to have such ugly things in his yard was a mystery to Abdul, though pottering around the rose garden touching up their pointy caps with red paint did seem to be one of his few joys in life. It was while watching the cook do this that it had come to him- a concept so obvious in hindsight that he couldn't believe it had taken him fifteen years to think of it.
Abdul's first concrete penguin looked more like a malformed rock than any kind of bird, but it was a start. He called the rock Percy and declared it was not just a penguin, but a Southern Blue Eye Penguin, the very bird that was going to bring such great prosperity to the impoverished provinces of the far south. He left the task of painting it to the cook, who coated the whole thing with the same shade of red that he used on the gnomes.
Standing in front of the bungalow, the lump of red rock between them, Abdul got as close to losing his temper with the cook as he ever had, which wasn't very. Through the lack of anyone else to talk to he had spoken to the cook about his progress on the penguin problem almost every day for the past fifteen years. There could not have been many things about penguins that he hadn’t heard. If he had have been listening at all he would at least know that they were black and white, not red. This evidence that basically the only person he spoke to on a regular basis had not been listening to him at all was infuriating. Was it possible that the people at head-quarters in Islamabad had been doing the same thing for all these years?
Abdul, unable to deal with even the thought, put it out of his mind and started to paint the penguins himself.
Gradually his penguins began to look more like the real thing. He formed the idea of creating a museum dedicated to penguins, a penguin populated rose garden (the gnomes were to be relegated to the vegetable patch out the back) where the wonder and infinite variety of these birds could be made clear for all to see. As Abdul would tell anyone who was willing to listen, there was more than just one type of penguin, and a world of difference between the different sub-species.
Of course, he conceded, there would be hurdles. For example, getting to his outpost from the nearest city involved at least a five hour trip on a mountain road that was subject to frequent rockslides, and the various war lords that controlled the territory along the way weren't known for their friendliness towards anyone, let alone holiday traffic. But, Abdul told himself, if he was the sort of person who was going to let a couple of little problems stop him he wouldn’t have even got this far.
At night Abdul allowed himself to imagine the day the president (now an air force general who had seized control of the government in a coup) would visit and stroll around his penguin park while lauding Abdul as a model civil servant and man of science. He would apologize to Abdul that he had had to spend twenty years of his life in this Godforsaken place, and immediately pass a decree appointing him as the first Pakistani ambassador to the sea creatures of the Antarctic.
The statues multiplied until there were too many of them for the rose garden. Penguins started popping up in the goat pasture down the hill. There are 45 species of penguin identified by science, and Abdul quickly recreated them all in concrete and paint. He crafted flotillas of baby penguins, penguins sitting on eggs and penguins sliding over the ice. As the years went by and he grew in skill he began to specialize in elaborate action shots that, he felt, better captured the essence of penguin life- penguins fighting over territory, mother penguin feeding baby penguin and his favorite, a small cluster of penguins standing with their beaks pointed upright, huddled together in communal appreciation of the night sky in the south.
On nights when the moon was full, or somewhere close to it, Abdul took to wandering through his concrete flock, and in the moonlight that bounced from the snowcapped peaks he was able to feel, if only for just a moment, that he had come home.
Years went by. Abdul noticed that his hair was starting to turn grey.
Down in the valley of the Karakom the perpetual cycle of bad blood between the tribes broke out into almost open warfare. For as long as Abdul could remember the government had made a point of claiming to be in full control of the road that snakes its way up into the mountains from Sost, but now they dropped even that pretence. The mail, which had come up once a week, was now reduced to once a month, and it traveled by armored car. It was no longer possible for Abdul to receive his quarterly copy of ‘Penguin World’ magazine, and his penguin pasture was visited by no one.
Determined not to be defeated by negativity, and with the vague idea that the tribal chieftains were, although prone to violence, also men of honor who would let well meaning holiday making families pass through their territory without being captured and held for random or sold into slavery, Abdul painted a sign on a wooden plank and nailed it above the door of his Californian bungalow. It said `Abdul Paton's all Pakistan Park for Penguins and Progress'.
Abdul was so pleased with the way his sign looked above the door that he even dug out his old camera and got the cook to take a picture of him in uniform posing proudly underneath.
And finally he had some visitors.
On the opposite side of the valley, occupying a chunk of Tibet, was a battalion of the Chinese People's Liberation Army who suffered badly from cold and boredom and homesickness. Their leader was a clever man from a dirt poor village who would have almost certainly fulfilled his dream of becoming a school teacher if poverty hadn't forced him into the army as a fifteen year old. He was determined. Not even twenty years of military service had been enough to kill his passion for learning, and when he arrived at his new post and peered across the violent valley of the Karakom at the Pakistani installation of the other side (a Californian Bungalow it seemed) it was educational opportunities he was thinking of.
He saw two ways he could use his exile to this remote border post to do this. In return for his word that the army would stay clear of their villages the local tribesmen were happy to supply him with pelts from the beautiful and rapidly disappearing snow leopard. He sold the pelts to Pakistani traders down in the valley and sent the proceeds off to fund the building of a school in his home town. His other method was, in many ways a trickier prospect, but he was convinced it was a good idea- instead of just peering at the Pakistanis through a pair of powerful binoculars, he planned to actually go over there and learn English from them.
Through the traders he dealt with in the pelt racket it was arranged that he and a dozen of his men, hand picked for being intelligent types likely to learn from instruction in a foreign language, would cross over into Pakistan once a month through the summer and have lessons from the resident Pakistani customs officer, Abdul Paton.
The Chinese soldiers were surprised at how different things were on the other side of the border. Counting conventionally the distance they traveled to reach Abdul’s outpost couldn’t have been more than ten kilometers, but somehow, when they crossed the invisible line that separated the two countries, everything changed. On the Tibetan side the natives were strictly forbidden from carrying any kind of weapon and, generally speaking, found an excuse to get out of the way when they saw the military coming down the road. In Pakistan every male over the age of 17 seemed to be clutching a gun of some sort, and far from stepping aside, simply stared at them in amazed bemusement as they rattled past in their truck.
By the time they arrived at Abdul's Paton’s All Pakistan Park for Penguins and Progress they were already deep in a state of culture shock.
What they found there didn't improve things.
It was a beautiful summer evening and Abdul had set up a big table on the pasture beneath his bungalow, a gentle grassy slope that had once been home to dozens of goats, but was now populated mostly by ceramic penguins.
Of all the strange things they had seen since crossing the border these penguins were easily the most horrifying. Though none of the soldiers said so they reminded them of a scene from a mural painted on the wall of ruined monastery not far from their head-quarters that depicted the horrors of a particular Buddhist hell where the damned were tormented by pint sized demons that eternally pecked at their eye balls.
Although Abdul had given a lot of thought to what he was going to teach them, and even dressed up for the occasion in a suit and bow tie, they were all far too freaked out to learn anything. But although the expedition was a complete failure in terms of education, it was a turning point in the life of Abdul Paton.
The soldiers brought their own text books with them, insubstantial looking things printed with ink that smudged at the touch of a finger on pages so easily torn they seemed to be made from recycled tissues. They didn’t need to be able to read English to see that they wouldn’t be up to much, and it was only at the absolute insistence of their political officer that they took them at all.
Their political officer, who had been very doubtful about the whole language learning enterprise from the beginning, was worried that any learning material provided by the Pakistanis (nominal allies, though unduly given to brownness and superstition) would be altogether unsuitable.
Ironically enough the material that was actually in the books he supplied couldn’t have been more unsuitable if it had have been put together specifically for the purpose of fomenting a counter-revolution by the CIA itself.
The books had been compiled many years ago at Beijing University by a professor of western language and culture whose terrible secret was that he could barely read English at all. Having worked at the university for twenty five years people tended not to ask him too many difficult questions, and he got away with mostly teaching courses that allowed him to give lectures in Chinese, drawing links between things like the American of love gridiron and their militaristic foreign policy.
From cover to cover his books were nothing but articles he'd copied directly from tabloid newspapers punctuated with word searches and crossword puzzles. Abdul, a kind man, probably wouldn't have tried to explain what the article ‘Communist China, the Looming Catastrophe’ meant even if he could have. In fact flicking through the book, Abdul found only one article that might have been acceptable to them- the story of a Scottish man who thought he was a leopard.
Unlike Abdul the man in Scotland who thought he was a leopard (his name was Gary McDonald) had lived most of his life in deep denial. True, he had had risen to the position of vice president in a company that provided integrated solutions for modern businesses, but he had only done so by burying his inner leopard ruthlessly. In human terms, with a big house in the suburbs, three well brought up children and a wife who loved him for what she believed he was, few thought of him as anything less than a success- but then absolutely no one had ever even suspected the shocking truth, which was that, really, he didn’t believe himself to be a human at all.
Whether you would call Gary McDonald’s decision to stop being a provider of integrated business solutions and start being a leopard a nervous break down could be debated. Certainly, in the months leading up to him making this decision, his disastrous attempt to invest a large portion of his fortune in a troubled factory that made frozen cheesecakes had darkened his outlook on humanity. Whatever the reasons behind it though, what we can say, without the slightest trace of doubt, is that it did represent a very serious change of direction for him.
Although he started late when Gary, aged 60, made the decision to unleash the leopard with him, he did so with complete dedication. The most visible sign of this was submitting to the slow and painful process of having virtually all of his skin, including his scalp, tattooed with leopard spots.
Whilst looking into the possibility of moving to a warmer climate, Gary's goals were further enhanced by his ownership of a small hobby farm outside Edinburgh. On private property there were no laws that prevented him (weather permitting) stripping off completely and prowling round on all fours, making the very best approximation of what he believed were leopard sounds that his human vocal cords would allow.
Feeling that feeding on something a real leopard wouldn't turn up its nose at would help him get closer to his true identity, he bought up Edinburgh's entire stock of tinned gazelle meat (a product of Namibia) and began to practice scarfing down his meals with just the clever use of his teeth and tongue.
The journalist who wrote the article that appeared in the Chinese textbook came to Gary’s farm at a time when his main project was to surpass this initial foray into feeding leopard style, by training himself to catch a real live rabbit using nothing but his own teeth and increasingly finely honed animal instincts. Gary’s great regret was that although he had got to the point where he could creep fairly close to the bunnies without them suspecting anything, after he pounced he simply wasn’t quick enough, springing along on his hands and knees, to catch them. Fortunately, he told the journalist, his legs were getting stronger with each passing day and he was certain it would be a mere matter of months until he was.
The article ended there. The text book didn’t have any pictures so its readers were deprived of the chance to see the accompanying photo which showed Gary using a toy bunny, a Christmas present that had been given to his daughter decades ago, to demonstrate how he would dispatch the small creatures when he was finally able to catch them with a powerful, well placed bite at the base of the neck.
Perhaps it was because they were so unsettled by the accusing concrete stares of Abdul's penguins that the Chinese didn't notice, when they left, that they were one book short.
This wasn't a mistake. Abdul had taken it quite deliberately.
As soon as they were gone he took the book, went straight to his bedroom and didn’t leave it for three days. How he ate, drank or went to the toilet was a mystery.
What was Abdul doing?
The answer was that Abdul was doing several things, and all them in a fevered torment of indecision, guilt and hope. Abdul was counting the bundles of rupee notes he had stacked beneath his bed without any particular interest over the years, Abdul was trying to face, for the first time, the likelihood that all his letters back to head-quarters had never been opened. Most of all Abdul was reading and re-reading the article on the leopard man. He read it silently, he read it out loud, he whispered it to himself, he even translated it into Urdu, faintly penciling his neat handwriting onto the fragile paper. Although even within his own family he'd heard of distant uncles and aunts who had made their way to the UK and returned rich after years of selling cigarettes and ice-creams to those strange pasty faced people, he had never thought that there was any way in which moving there could help him.
But the article changed everything. If it was possible that the people of Scotland were willing to accept a man like Gary MacDonald who wanted to be a leopard, then why not a man who was a penguin? There might be others like him. He could find people who would help him work towards his goal. He needn't be alone anymore.
The answer was obvious. If only he had have known it before, he might have saved himself years. He had to go to Scotland. In Scotland, surely, there were opportunities for every sort of person, even for a man who was penguin.
Neither as knowledgeable as the boy scouts nor as well armed as Taliban, although undoubtedly drawing on elements of both, the Glorious Army for Divine Salvation was a chilling example of what can occur when boredom, teenage angst and the most half witted variety of religious piety combine.
The Little England school had long ago vanished from Sost, removed almost as an after-thought during some government drive to rid the country's education system of colonial relics. The funds were allocated for a new school, but went missing along the way, instead ending up being used to fund the son of the minister of education’s personally and professionally rewarding time as a student of information and knowledge management at Cambridge University.
It was corruption, but no one cared very much.
The religious schools that sprung up all through the valley to fill the gap it left, taught very little except for religion, grammatically imperfect Arabic and the occasional not quite thought out conspiracy theory (the students had nodded their heads gravely when informed that Coca Cola laced with female hormones was being used to decimate the population of the Islamic world by turning the entire male population gay). In the cities, for the people who called the shots, this didn't seem like a problem. Up in the hills Abdul heard of what was happening, and although he occasionally meant to mention it in the dispatches he sent back, it seemed to him like a minor issue compared to the penguin problem, and he never did.
The leader of the Glorious Army for Divine Salvation was basically a nice young man, but very dim. He was a fanatic largely because he felt that if he listened too much to someone more clever than himself they would talk him out of his beliefs. He was foolish and friendly, and for most of his life had been laughed at by almost everyone, which is why the bungalow on the hill above his village, with its rumors of rose gardens and devil birds, was never far from his thoughts
Abdul Paton’s all Pakistan Park for Penguins and Progress was one of the few things in his small world which could complete with him as a living joke.
Rallying his small band of friends with the cry 'our manhood is at stake' (he had been one of the few people who had uncritically bought the story about the Coke) and an appeal to their shared frustration at hitting the advanced age of fifteen with no skills, no knowledge, or any real prospect of finding steady work, the young Adham Mehta convinced his friends that it was time for action.
In more familiar places this type of action, by those types of boys, might have involved unwanted Pizzas, or at worst a string of badly damaged mail boxes, but up in the hills of Pakistan, where weapons donated by a giving world to the cause of Afghan fratricide flowed abundantly across the border, and an automatic rifle and a clip of bullets was worth a fair bit less than a chicken, the situation was considerably more dangerous.
By pooling the proceeds of a newspaper delivery route, some pocket money picked up drying apricots and a few crumpled notes lifted from the wallets of unsuspecting parents, the Glorious Army for Divine Salvation acquired a weapon which, if not exactly in the category of mass destruction, was certainly dangerous enough when wielded by a bunch of decidedly stupid kids.
With Adham wearing a frown on his face and the rifle slung round his shoulders he led his glorious army of twelve (which had previously been known as the village cricket team, and were thus easy to arm with cricket bats) up from their village on a self funded children's crusade to destroy the devil birds.
There were two reasons that Adham was frowning. Partly it was because the rifle, which he had insisted on holding himself, was heavy and hurt his back, but mainly it was that, even now, with his posse and his gun and their self imposed mission to destroy graven images, things didn't feel the way he imagined they would.
Adham's inspiration for the destruction of the devil birds had been what he had seen on TV of the Taliban in neighborring Afghanistan blowing up the giant Buddha statues that had been carved into the cliffs near a town called Banyan.
Enormous, unlikely and indisputably wonderful the three statues, the largest as tall as a twenty story building, had been hand chiseled out of solid rock fifteen hundred years earlier when the people of the region had mostly been Buddhists.
They towered calmly over the country and its centuries of unending chaos, giants with gentle smiles and palms raised in peaceful supplication that were impressive enough to earn the praise and admiration of just about everyone who saw them right up until 1999, when the Taliban, three years into their catastrophic reign and unable to deal with the idea that these beautiful things had been built by people of a faith other than their own, gave them a very definitive thumbs down.
They announced their intention to destroy them a few weeks in advance so the media could get there and film the process for posterity.
Adham had been electrified by the highlights of the destruction that had made it onto the news, including the largest Buddha having its head literally blown off by an anti-tank rocket and the reclining one being chipped away by machine gun bullets.
The men he had seen behind the weapons had wild glassy eyes and mouths that were hard and straight. They were the people Adham, ideally, wanted his army to emulate.
As things were he just wished that they were old enough to at least grow beards, and that they would quit chattering, as they trailed along behind him, about how they were going to stop by the local swimming hole after they had destroyed the penguins. One of the younger ones had decided to try and look the part by turning up in a pair of camouflage jeans he'd taken from his older brother, the problem being they were far too long and kept on causing him to trip up. He listened to their laugher disapprovingly and thought that perhaps it would have been better if he had have made them do this at night. Sneaking out of their houses would have given the whole operation the feel of something forbidden and dangerous, the way it should have been.
Instead it was it felt like they were off to play cricket.
But when they came around a bend in the road and saw the goat pasture Abdul had populated entirely with penguins, Adham was s