An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce (please read till the end)

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners–two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest–a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
 
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground–a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators–a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieu tenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
 
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good–a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
 
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
 
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift–all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
 
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
 
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
 
 
II
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
 
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only toe, happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
 
“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”
 
“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.
 
“About thirty miles.”
 
“Is there no force on this side the creek?”
 
“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
 
“Suppose a man–a civilian and student of hanging–should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”
 
The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow.”
 
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
 
 
III
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened–ages later, it seemed to him–by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness–of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!–the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface–knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought? “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”
 
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
 
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf–saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat–all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
 
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
 
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
 
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieu. tenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly–with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men–with what accurately measured inter vals fell those cruel words:
 
“Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready! . . . Aim! . . . Fire!”
 
Farquhar dived–dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
 
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
 
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
 
The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”
 
An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
 
A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
 
“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me–the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”
 
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round–spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men–all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color–that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream–the southern bank–and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of ?olian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape–was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
 
A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
 
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
 
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
 
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue–he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
 
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene–perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence!
 
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

The Torch

Nuhash Humayun November 13, 2013

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I was ten years old, on a bicycle, taking the only path I knew. I was going from my mother’s place to my father’s. People would ask me what it was like, having parents who were separated. I never really had an answer. Honestly, it wasn’t strange for me, it was the only life I knew. It was always like this, as far back as I remembered. My sisters would tell me that we were once this one big happy family, but those were just stories to me, fairytales almost. I had almost no recollection of seeing my parents together, ever. As far as I knew, this was life. I had a happy family too, just a little separated. And separations were temporary, right? It’s just one big fight that takes a while to fix.

People would ask me what it’s like living with your mother and only seeing your father once a week, or even less. My friends would ask me how I “picked” who I would live with, they asked if it was like the movies with a court and a judge and a lot of drama. It was fairly simple. It was kind of a given that I would live with my mother and my three sisters. My father was always busy anyway, how would he even take care of me? It was fine. I was fine seeing him once a week, maybe even less. And it didn’t really matter who I lived with did it? Because sooner or later, it would be all of us living together. Just like the old days.

I got my first cellphone when I was eleven. I went to my father’s place one day and he casually asked me if I had a cellphone. I said no, he seemed to have no reaction. Except the next day he came over to my place (as in my mother’s place) with a brand new phone. I was really happy with it. It was small and grey. It had eight different ringtones. It even had this torchlight. And what was even better, I was one of the first kids in my school to have his own phone. I went to school the next day and told my best friend about it. He was really excited too, the two of us went to all three sections of my grade and wrote down my phone number on the blackboard. It was a good day.

Did I mention I hate afternoon naps? I hate afternoon naps. The next day, I came home from school and almost instantly fell asleep in my sister’s room. This wasn’t going to be a long nap, I’m sure my sister would wake me up once she comes home from her college. She didn’t, I slept for hours. I woke up at around 8pm. I thought I would get scolded, for sleeping the entire day, not doing my homework. I didn’t even change out of my school uniform. I walked around the house, everyone was home. It was 8 pm, I was walking around in my school uniform looking very confused. No one seemed to notice me. I felt invisible.

My sister was the first to tell me, my parents got divorced. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Everyone looked shocked and really upset. I could only guess, this was worse than a separation. This wasn’t just one big family living separately anymore. I wasn’t sure what this was. I felt bad. It was strange seeing my mother and my sisters this upset all at once. A part of me wondered why I didn’t feel the same way, why I wasn’t as upset. I guess I would be just as sad, if I remembered our big happy family.

The first few months were particularly cold. It was like something had happened but no one was to speak of it. Every path I could take in this unspoken tragedy seemed morally ambiguous. Was my father to blame? Should I stop talking to him? Or would that be wrong, wrong on him? Should we stay in touch, or would that be wrong on my mother, would that hurt her? The questions weighed me down, there seemed to be no way out without hurting someone close to me. The guilt that was eating me up from the inside was so much worse than the initial shock of the divorce.

There would be long stretches of time when I wouldn’t see my father but we would always talk on the phone. My father was a writer by profession, an immensely popular one, but he referred to himself as a storyteller. His novels were national bestsellers every year, his films were just as popular and his television dramas were the highlight of every holiday season programming. Storytellers occasionally need rather bizarre facts for their stories and he would thus call me sometimes with rather strange requests: What are ten of the rarest phobias? Do animals dream when they sleep? How long is a gold fish’s memory? I was essentially the middleman between him and an Internet search engine. Urgent storyteller requests aside, we would talk about my day, how school went and a bunch of other things. It was strange really, I still don’t know how to explain what gradually happened. I guess a little time apart can say a lot about what really matters. As time went by my father and I grew closer.

391556_477941988901389_959954807_n1-300x241I was 13 and was reading A Brief History of Time in my father’s library while he wrote. Once he was satisfied with the day’s writing we would head to Rifles Square and pick out DVDs. He would pick One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and No Man’s Land, all the movies he wanted me to watch. I would pick Spider-man and Space Jam. Once the stack was large enough I’d review the titles we picked. Much to the chagrin of the store owners, I’d point out the movies in our stack that we had already watched (my father was a little absent minded, if it weren’t for me these people would’ve been selling him four copies of the same movie in a month). We would watch all kinds of films, I can confidently say I’ve watched more movies with him when I was younger than with anyone else, ever. Sometimes, when I would spend my weekends with my mother and not at his place, I’d get a text in the middle of the night, “Baba, I miss you. I’m lonely.”

That’s all he would say. My mother never said a word about how I spent so much time with him, well, not to me at least. I overheard her on the phone once, I think she was talking to my aunt.

“You know how he is, he has a way with words, he has a way with people. He knows how to mesmerize. Nuhash is obsessed with him. – And it’s great how close they are, it would’ve been terrible if they grew apart, but, Nuhash doesn’t know what he’s in for. His father takes him on trips and watches movies with him. I scold him about his grades. It’s only natural he loves his father more. But the man never takes responsibility. I’m just afraid someday he will really hurt the boy.”

She sounded deeply concerned; I wasn’t sure what it all meant. By then, I tried not to feel guilty. I devised a philosophy that I still live by today. Love is specific, different, for every person. You can’t show your love for one person by taking away your love for another – you can’t even if you wanted to. You can’t take away love, right?

My mother wasn’t too far off, I was crazy about my father. I was very much fascinated by my father and his world. My early teen years were a race to be like him, I paid acute attention to everything he did, whatever he said, how he spoke. When he spoke, the world stood still. Everyone in the room listened to him. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t a roaring politician or a passionate performer. He told stories. Everything was a story. His morning walk was a story and so was what he had for lunch. He turned mundane anecdotes into enchantments. He told the best stories. I have no idea how he did it. I used to spend hours in front of my mirror, trying to talk like him, move my hands like him – pause like him. Those pauses gave me chills. He would pause in the middle of a story, eyebrows cringed, eyes wandering off. You would be afraid, afraid he had forgotten what he was saying, drifting off into another story, another world that’s just as mesmerizing. And the silence would clench your heart still. It wouldn’t beat until he spoke again. I started reading his books, wondering if his written word could capture his magic. They changed my life. When my friends were reading Harry Potter, I was reading Himu. Himu is one of his most popular recurring characters. He’s a delightfully witty young man who wanders the streets of Dhaka in a yellow panjabi. My sisters found my obsession with this Himu character endearing, one of them made me my own yellow panjabi. My father was ecstatic when he saw me wearing it, his face lit up. It meant something to him. It was me embodying his work, his creation. His one seed in the vessel of another. It didn’t quite make sense to me how childishly excited he was about all this. He wasn’t anywhere near as taken the day I told him I got all A’s in my O Levels – he calmly looked at me and went, “Of course you did Baba. You’re my son, I expected no less.”

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A lot changed over the years but we had one ritual that was incorruptibly consistent. Every Eid, I’d go to his place early in the morning, wake him up and head off for prayer at the Eidgah mosque. When I was younger, he would be afraid I’d get lost in the crowd so he would carry me on his shoulders; I had the most beautiful view of the entire field, hundreds of people quietly making way in their white prayer hats and a blotch of colour in the distance — a few balloon salesmen circling the gates. I was 18 now, the prayers were done with and my father invited me over for breakfast. The necessity of an invitation said plenty — things had been different for a while. His house, which now smelt of chips, chocolates and baby powder, was now fully equipped with a fancy Macbook and high speed Internet. The apartment that was once my safe haven, my second home, was now home to new racks of DVDs. Tom and Jerry, 4 in 1 cartoon collections, 8 in 1 Hindi movie collections. Three copies of ‘A Beautiful Mind.’

Gone were the 3 am texts telling me he misses me. I wished him the best of luck, he didn’t need me to be happy (good luck watching the same movie thrice though Baba). I just wish he had told me himself, I had to find out about his marriage from some tabloid. We never spoke of it, time went by and we let it kill us from the inside. One day he asked me what my plans were for vacation, I casually said I had plans with my family. It took me a while to notice how hurt he was. Another day I called and said I was on his street. He said he wasn’t home. Out with his family. He didn’t notice how hurt I was.

I was 19, in university, everyone doing classes with me was at least a semester younger than I was. See, a few months back, my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. I dropped the ongoing semester at BRAC University as soon as I found out. My father had once mentioned, in passing, that he would love it if I went to Dhaka University. I spent the coming months studying for the entrance exam. As supportive as they were, my mother and my sisters told me it wasn’t the best idea, even if I passed the exam on such short notice I might not fit in. I wasn’t thinking about any of that, I was determined to get in. I rarely left the house, I studied seven to eight hours a day, it kept me busy. It gave me a sense of purpose. I couldn’t cure him but maybe I could make him proud. The results were out, I went to visit him. He smiled calmly when I told him I didn’t get in, shrugged it off. We shared a few laughs.

I picked up the next semester at BRAC, my father left the country for treatment. The news moguls had the prolific writer’s health covered through frequent updates. Some days they said he was getting better, other days he was doing worse. I would stop reading the articles before the line, they always ended the same — “He is residing in New York with his family…” I could take separation, I could handle divorce and I could take the news of cancer, but I never got used to feeling invisible. I felt broken and forgotten. Not a son, just a stranger reading up on a star.

He was back in Dhaka again after a long painful run of chemotherapy in New York. He called me and told me to come over, he mentioned having some things to say. There were a lot of people in his house. He was attending to them the entire night. I quietly paced around his house, I never liked crowds. It was getting late and the guests were leaving, he called me to one corner. I was shivering a little, I don’t think he noticed. He said he misses my sisters, and he should’ve stayed closer to them. I wondered if he had anything else to say, I waited. He started talking again, he spoke very slowly these days. He said he’s worried about his family, what would happen to them if he doesn’t make it. He said he can’t sleep at night, thinking about his two little sons and their future. He paused, I waited. It was a long pause. My heart stopped beating. I kept waiting until I finally realised what had happened, he had things to say, just not things to say to me. I turned around and left the house, slowly, hoping he would have something else to say. He didn’t. It wasn’t a pause. This was the last time I saw him.

Photo: Rittika AliPhoto: Rittika Ali

Winter came along, I was still 19. It was his birthday, he was still in New York. I wished him over a video-call. I couldn’t recognise him without his hair. Winter went by fast, it was my 20th birthday. I didn’t really do much. A friend of his showed up at my door with a cake. It didn’t say happy birthday. It was a plain chocolate cake that said, “Baba, I miss you.” It was a good day, I was happy. I was always happy with my strange little family.

Mid July that year, my sister woke me up. She said my father wouldn’t make it. He was in New York, unconscious in the ICU of a hospital there. She said he had an hour. After an hour, his bodily functions would stop and he would be declared dead. The house was eerily quiet. I almost lived this day before. I hated afternoon naps.

Whenever writers describe painful events they write things like, ‘It was all a blur’ or ‘everything just went by.’ Or sometimes, ‘I felt nothing.’ That hour took exactly an hour, time didn’t care. My sister got the call, she told me he was gone. There were no blur. No lapses in memory. I remember every detail that followed. I felt everything. I remember every text, every phone call.

I felt like I was born again. Born dead, empty. The next few days were meeting every friend, every acquaintance and every stranger; every girl you’ve ever loved, every girl you never knew love you, everyone who never cared and everyone who cared the most came and found me, looked into my eyes with all the sympathy, all the care they could muster and see nothing but emptiness on the other side. It’s not a wound, a separation, that mends and heals, it’s one that spreads and makes your body its home, your very own personal cancer.

It was early morning. They would bring him back from New York today, for his janajah and burial. Everyone was quietly getting ready. I woke up to find a white panjabi, nicely ironed and folded, left at a side of my bed. My sisters told me we would leave in half hour or so. I said nothing. They were about to head out, they were waiting for me to get ready. I came out of my room, they looked shocked. They said nothing for a while.

“Do you really want to wear that?”

I said nothing.

“You know…everyone’s going to be talking about this. You won’t like it. They are going to think — they are all going to think you’re trying to be Him-”

My other sister interrupted her and came up to hug me.

Motu, wear whatever you want. Whatever makes you happy. Whatever you think would’ve made him happy.” My sisters always called me things like Motu or Potka. I used to be a very chubby kid, the nicknames stuck.

My father’s death was a national phenomenon, a public phenomenon. The entire nation was mourning. The cameras flashed. There was no quiet, no moment alone. My final goodbyes to my father was being telecast live for the entire country to see. It didn’t matter. The crowds didn’t matter. This is where I wanted to be. The time had come for his janajah, the final prayers before his burial. All eyes were on us — me carrying him through the sea of people that filled the Eidgah mosque, reliving our tradition one last time. I carried him over my shoulders, he would never be lost.

This wasn’t the first time he left, but this time, I could carry his weight on my shoulders. This time, I knew who I was. That should’ve never mattered. I am his biggest fan, his harshest critic and his eldest son. I knew who I was. They all knew.

I’m 21 years old. I have lived a very privileged life, I’ve never had any complaints. I have an amazing mother, who understands me and supports me in whatever I do. I have the best sisters, and they all have their own children now, and being an uncle is great — a lot of fun, little to no responsibility. And I’m a proud son of a father who told the best stories. It’s a little strange how close we were despite all the odds, and it kills me to think of how we slowly grew distant. Whenever I’m alone and idle, my mind wanders off into its darkest corners, where a tiny voice whispers, telling me I was nothing but a hobby he distracted himself with till he found happiness. My lifelong journey for his approval shaped all my interests, habits, traits that never left. Made for him, but not enough for him. I never listened to that voice, his was always louder, my father and his stories. He wasn’t always there for me, but his stories were. And he loved me. I’m sure he did. And maybe we got distracted, maybe he found happiness and stopped being lonely, but see, no one can ever be replaced, you can’t take away love.

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Nuhash Humayun, a physics student in BRAC University, is the son of writer Humayun Ahmed.

Ami Tomay Bhalobashi

Bedford College Magazine (my first short story)

The sound of the bolt seemed to grate loud into the night as he locked the door. For a fleeting moment he flustered as he imagined every person in the enormous house knowingly smile at hearing the sound. It was her he was more worried about; locking the door when they were the only ones in the room seemed to have sinister implications somehow – but, surely it was understandable, after all they were now man and wife. Continue reading “Ami Tomay Bhalobashi”

The Trial of Tony Blair

Channel 4. 2007

A very well made film. Fiction, but too close to the truth to be comfortable. I can’t believe this film hasn’t gone viral. Are people even scared of watching a spoof’ C’mon folks. Share this widely.

Mick Jagger on ‘Gimme Shelter’

Mick Jagger Tells the Story Behind “Gimme Shelter” and Merry Clayton’s Haunting Background Vocals

In the fall of 1969 the Rolling Stones were in a Los Angeles recording studio, putting the final touches on their album Let it Bleed. It was a tumultuous time for the Stones. They had been struggling with the album for the better part of a year as they dealt with the personal disintegration of their founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, whose drug addiction and personality problems had reached a critical stage. Jones was fired from the band in June of that year. He died less than a month later. And although the Stones couldn’t have known it at the time, the year would end on another catastrophic note, as violence broke out at the notorious Altamont Free Concert just a day after Let it Bleed was released.

It was also a grim time around the world. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring–all of these were recent memories. Not surprisingly, Let it Bleed was not the most cheerful of albums. As Stephen Davis writes in his book Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” And no song onLet it Bleed articulates this dread with greater force than the apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter,” in which Mick Jagger sings of a fire “sweepin’ our very street today,” like a “Mad bull lost his way.”

Rape, murder!
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

In an interview last November with Melissa Block for the NPR program All Things Considered, Jagger talked about those lyrics, and the making of the song:

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One of the most striking moments in the interview is when Jagger describes the circumstances surrounding soul singer Merry Clayton’s powerful background vocals. “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it,” said Jagger. “We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–’Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’–but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”

The daughter of a Baptist minister, Merry Clayton grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans. She made her professional debut at age 14, recording a duet with Bobby Darin. She went on to work with The Supremes, Elvis Presley and many others, and was a member of Ray Charles’s group of backing singers, The Raelettes. She is one of the singers featured in the new documentary film, 20 Feet From Stardom. In aninterview last week with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Clayton talked about the night she was asked to sing on “Gimme Shelter”:

Well, I’m at home at about 12–I’d say about 11:30, almost 12 o’clock at night. And I’m hunkered down in my bed with my husband, very pregnant, and we got a call from a dear friend of mine and producer named Jack Nitzsche. Jack Nitzsche called and said you know, Merry, are you busy? I said No, I’m in bed. he says, well, you know, There are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come? He said I really think this would be something good for you.

At that point, Clayton recalled, her husband took the phone out of her hand and said, “Man, what is going on? This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant.” Nitzsche explained the situation, and just as Clayton was drifting back to sleep her husband nudged her and said, “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.” Clayton had no idea who the Rolling Stones were. When she arrived at the studio, Keith Richards was there and explained what he wanted her to do.

I said, Well, play the track. It’s late. I’d love to get back home. So they play the track and tell me that I’m going to sing–this is what you’re going to sing: Oh, children, it’s just a shot away. It had the lyrics for me. I said, Well, that’s cool. So  I did the first part, and we got down to the rape, murder part. And I said, Why am I singing rape, murder? …So they told me the gist of what the lyrics were, and I said Oh, okay, that’s cool. So then I had to sit on a stool because I was a little heavy in my belly. I mean, it was a sight to behold. And we got through it. And then we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, Ooh, that’s really nice. They said, well, You want to do another?  I said, well, I’ll do one more, I said and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.

Clayton sang with such emotional force that her voice cracked. (“I was just grateful that the crack was in tune,” she told Gross.) In the isolated vocal track above, you can hear the others in the studio shouting in amazement. Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career, it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage. It has generally been assumed that the stress from the emotional intensity of her performance and the lateness of the hour caused the miscarriage. For many years Clayton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing. “That was a dark, dark period for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin

The Dark is Beautiful campaign hopes to halt India’s huge appetite for skin whitening products, and has a new champion in film star Nandita Das

  • Nandita Das
Nandita Das: ‘Indians are very racist. There is so much pressure that perpetuates this idea that fair is the ideal.’ Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

“You look green!” said a friend. “Are you ill?” asked another. Last year, a respected Indian newspaper published a photograph of me online which had been lightened so drastically by the art director’s magic wand that I called the editor to complain and he apologised and replaced it with the original. The art director had thought he was doing me a favour by whitening my skin.

India‘s obsession with fair skin is well documented: in 1978, Unilever launched Fair & Lovely cream, which has subsequently spawned numerous whitening face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that claim to lighten the surrounding skin. In 2010, India’s whitening-cream market was worth $432m, according to a report by market researchers ACNielsen, and was growing at 18% per year. Last year, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.

Cricket players and Bollywood stars regularly endorse these products. But now the film star Nandita Das has taken a stance against the craze and given her support to the Dark is Beautiful campaign which challenges the belief that success and beauty are determined by skin colour. “I want people to be comfortable in their own skin and realise that there is more to life than skin colour,” she says, adding that an Indian paper had written “about my support for the campaign and then lightened the photo of me that went alongside it”.

While she agrees that there is a long history behind the obsession with skin colour, owing to caste and culture, she thinks the current causes should be targeted first. “Indians are very racist. It’s deeply ingrained. But there is so much pressure by peer groups, magazines, billboards and TV adverts that perpetuate this idea that fair is the ideal,” she says.

Das has often faced directors and makeup artists trying to lighten her when she plays the role of an educated, upper-class woman. “They always say to me: ‘Don’t worry, we will lighten you, we’re really good at it,’ as a reassurance. It’s perpetuating a stereotype that only fair-skinned women can be educated and successful.”

In 2005, the cosmetics company Emami launched Fair & Handsome for men, with an ad featuring the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan tossing a tube of whitening cream to a hopeful young fan, which the Dark is Beautiful campaign is seeking to have withdrawn. “Shah Rukh Khan is saying that to be successful you have to be fair,” says Das. “Don’t these people have any kind of conscience? You can’t be naive; you know what kind of impact you have and yet you send out the message that says: ‘Forget about working hard, it’s about skin colour.’”

Read more: http://www.shahidulnews.com/indias-unfair-obsession-with-lighter-skin#ixzz2gIrNHQW0Nandita Das: ‘Indians are very racist. There is so much pressure that perpetuates this idea that fair is the ideal.’ Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

“You look green!” said a friend. “Are you ill?” asked another. Last year, a respected Indian newspaper published a photograph of me online which had been lightened so drastically by the art director’s magic wand that I called the editor to complain and he apologised and replaced it with the original. The art director had thought he?was doing me a favour by whitening my skin. Continue reading “India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin”

The Gift of Photography

By Joe McNally

Is one that is given, or accepted, freely. As a shooter, you can be the recipient of many gifts over the years: The grace of someone’s time, the whimsy of their expression, the fleeting emotion of their eyes the lens traps, forever.

Behind the lens, you are a gift giver as well. You honor someone’s humanity, beauty, or spirit. You wordlessly transact, and that transaction, fixed in pixels, becomes the stuff of memory. Nobility can be enhanced, or conferred, upon someone who has never been so recognized. If done properly, at least occasionally, what transpires within the mundane mechanics of a shutter clicking or a light flashing becomes a certain kind of poetry, the legend of both the subject and the shooter. When the house is burning down, and all the people and the pets are out safely, what does someone often save? The photo album.

I met the young lady at the top of the blog, Milk Cruz Mendoza, earlier this year in the Philippines. She was, at first, a typical, unabashedly enthusiastic young photog, eager to learn, eager to accelerate skills, ready to wade into the visual cacophony of the digital world and make people notice her pictures.

Then I saw her tattoos, covering her forearms. They were images from a couple of books I wrote, one called The Moment It Clicks, of the cover, and one from the interior pages of another tome on lighting, called Hot Shoe Diaries. Significantly, the cover is a woman’s hand, holding a jagged shard of a mirror, reflecting her eyes, against the sky. Milk’s words below…..

It was nearing my birthday 3 years ago when I was heavily emotionally in pain and I saw that photo online which immediately made an impact on me. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw that photo is that the gesture of the lady staring on that piece of mirror was the same gesture I saw a few days back. A girl staring and holding a broken mirror with swollen eyes, unruly hair, wind-chapped lips, slightly bleeding nose—just not beautiful, scared and insecure. Only her arm was bleeding too. That was me. And upon seeing the photo I felt the need to know something about it. There must be a story behind it. Then that’s when I ended up knowing you. Eventually that’s when it hit me too that maybe I can express myself through something more productive and way less painful. I wasn’t really successful with painting but maybe in photographs. And maybe, I can also reach out to some random girl or guy whom my photos can make some connection too! I don’t know. But, I know I’m about to take a big step towards making myself better. So, I struggled trying to get my own camera.”

Milk was in an incredibly difficult place in her life, and she expressed her pain, and her feelings about her lack of worth, through cutting herself. The picture she tattooed on her forearm covers the scars.


When I met her, and she began to tell me things about the struggles of her young life, I became quite inarticulate, not an unusual event for me. I did two things—I hired her immediately for a shoot we were doing on the streets of Manila with Kris-Belle Paclibar, of Ballet Philippines. Milk became an assistant, and our documentarian.

And, I asked if I could make her picture. I’ve said before, as photographers, we often can’t find the words, but we can find a way to make a picture, and let that speak for all concerned.

Again, her words…..”I am a nurse but not practicing in any setting because I preferred to take care of my son and the elders at home. I have an asthmatic son, a diabetic father, an 87 year old grandfather recovering from stroke and an 84 year old grandmother with progressive dementia. I’d accept any type of temporary work…..in 10 months I was able to save and buy myself a consumer entry DSLR. Eventually, a friend invited me to go with him on a basic photography workshop. I saved up again and enrolled myself in it. It is the best 3,500 pesos I’ve ever spent. The months of yearning on how to use it and make good photos out of it is finally paying off.

 She followed with another workshop with Laya Gerlock, a fellow Filipino photog, who graciously discounted the class and gave her extra time. She is on her way, finding subjects in her local community, making portraits, and the beginnings of a bit of money.

 Her other arm is dedicated to the K-Man, a good friend, fellow photog, and lover of fedoras.

“The other tattoo on my forearm which is a man wearing a fedora hat, lighting a cigarette is simply a symbol of the man who challenged me physically, emotionally and mentally to become better and make some positive changes for myself each day. That man would occasionally use fedora hats and never missed lighting one cigarette in his life since 12 years old.”

 Mark was also very moved by her story, and stunned to find his image imprinted on someone like Milk. He writes of it in his blog, Jersey Style Photography, tomorrow. Worth a visit there.

Milk has a page on Facebook……

She wrote: “I am truly deeply thankful and blessed to learn from you, spend time with you and witness how you do things photographically….the photo that’s covering my scars on my forearm which was the lady staring at a broken piece of mirror was the most significant because it prompted my career in photography and a stop to my self-infliction habit.”

Your stay here was such a remarkable experience for me because I did not, even in my dreams, have I ever expected these things to happen. Not a single bit of it. I have never imagined that I’d be able to go with you on a photo shoot and let me use the things that you use on a set. That I’d hear you first hand how you plan and organize a photo shoot and learn from it. Then, one unexpected thing after another. You asked me to do a portrait which to me was so surreal. I felt so beautiful and special at that time. You even hired a make-up artist for me and waited. Your patience with me and your effort for me is priceless. I can never ever repay that.”

I think the equation is reversed, actually. I can never repay her, anymore than I can repay any subject who stands in front of the camera and offers a courageous gift. I have doubts that any of my pictures deserve the display Milk has offered them, but I do know that our photographic intersection made a difference, and I feel enriched having placed my camera in front of her. Some of it just might have to do with the fact that I’m a father of two girls, Caitlin and Claire, both of whom are Milk’s age or older, and know the path to adulthood for young women can, at least sometimes, be a tough one.


And I also know that photography, that facile, flip, irreverent, ubiquitous, quickie thing we all have access to via the phone/internet in our pocket, always has the potential to make a difference, as it did for Milk–a new beginning, a departure from a painful path, and an open door to a future hopefully as full of promise as she is.

Forced to Participate In War Crimes

In Suicide Note, Iraq War Veteran Says He Was Forced to Participate In War?Crimes

by Rania Khalek in Dispatches from the Underclass

Dan Somers (right) performing at his band?s CD Release Show (Phoenix New Times/Melissa Fossum)

On June 10, 2013, 30-year-old Iraq War veteran Daniel Somers killed himself after writing a powerful letter to his family explaining his reasons for doing so.
?My mind is a wasteland filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety, even with all of the medications the doctors dare give,? reads the letter, which Somers? family allowed?Gawker?to?publish. Somers went on to reveal the source of his pain: Continue reading “Forced to Participate In War Crimes”

Eid without Talha. Held for seven years without trial.

Syed Talha Ahsan is a British poet and translator. He has been imprisoned for seven years without a trial. The family is spending another Eid without him.

Continue reading “Eid without Talha. Held for seven years without trial.”

The Barometer Story

Here is the problem a professor of physics had at the beginning of the XXth century:

“I received a call from a colleague about a student. He felt he had to give him a 0/20 to a physics question, while the student claimed a 20/20. Professor and student came to an agreement to select an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a building with a barometer.”

The student replied: “I carry the barometer to the top of building, I attach a rope to it, I lower it to the ground, then I haul it back up and then I measure the length of the rope, which gives me the height of the building. “

The student was right, he had truly answered the question and accurately. On the other hand, I could not give him the exam: in this case, he’d receive his degree in physics without having shown me any knowledge in physics.

I offered to give another chance to the student giving him six minutes to answer the question with the caveat that for the answer he had to use his knowledge of physics. After five minutes, he had not yet written anything. I asked him if he wanted to give up but he said he had many answers to this problem and he wanted to choose the best one.

I excused myself for interrupting him and I asked him to continue.
In the next minute, he hastened to explain: “The barometer is placed at the height of the roof and is dropped: in calculating the fall time with a stopwatch, then using the formula: x=gt2/2, I find the height of the building. ”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He replied in the affirmative and gave the student nearly 20/20

Leaving his office, I recalled the student because he said he had several solutions to this problem. “Well, he said, there are several ways to calculate the height of a skyscraper with a barometer. For example, you place it outside when the sun is shining. Height of the barometer is measured, then the length of its shadow and the length of the shadow of the building, then with a simple calculation of proportion, it’ll give you the height of the building. ”

“Good, I replied, what else?”

“There is a pretty basic method that you will enjoy. You climb the stairs with a barometer and you mark the length of the barometer on the wall. Counting the number of lines gives the height of the building in barometer length. This is a very direct method.
Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at roof level. From the difference of g, the height of building can be calculated.
Similarly, you attach it to a long rope and on the roof, allow it to get down about the street level. You swing it like a pendulum and the height of the building is calculated from the period of precession. ”

Finally, he concludes: “There are other ways to solve this problem. Probably the best is to go to the basement, knock at the concierge’s door and say.” I have a nice barometer for you if you tell me the height of the building. ”

I then asked the student if he knew the answer I expected. He admitted that yes, but he was tired of school and teachers who tried to direct his way of thinking. ”

The student was supposed to be Niels Bohr and Rutherford the referee.
[Rutherford – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1910]
[Bohr – Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922]
The links in the comments lead to question the authenticity of the anecdote.

The myth of Niels Bohr and the barometer question
Barometer question