Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Way of the Unicorn: A Fable

Once upon a time, there was a herd of unicorns in a forest in a far and distant country.

The unicorns were too small to use as draft animals or for riding, they were too ugly to be decorative, and they didn’t compete with humans for food, so they were left alone.

Now, unicorns had rather special horns, which weren’t made of keratin like other horned animals. They were made of blahnium, a mineral which was unique. It was, you see, so useless that it could be used for absolutely nothing.

And so the years turned to decades and centuries, and most people hardly even remembered that the unicorns existed.

But then, one day, a scientist in a laboratory owned by one of the nation’s top industrial concerns – who had been imported from another distant nation with the lure of high pay – invented a new entertainment device. It was a mega-revolutionary advance in the entertainment industry, overnight turning plasma screens and the like obsolete. And, of course, it had tremendous defence and propaganda applications as well.

Nobody else, in the whole wide world, had anything like it.

What was the secret of this entertainment device? It depended on electron flow through a sheet of material with very unusual properties.

This material was, of course, blahnium.

And nowhere was blahnium found, barring trace quantities, except in the horns of unicorns.

At the prompting of the defence and entertainment industries, and especially of the concern which employed the foreign scientist and so owned the patent, the government of the nation declared that the unicorns were now a Strategic Resource.

Therefore, it ordered that all the unicorns should be rousted out of their forest, and confined in a concentration camp, where their horns could be regularly harvested for their precious blahnium. And so men with nets and guns and cages came to the forest, and captured the unicorns, even the newborn foals, which had no horns; and locked them all away behind barbed wire.

There, each animal would have its horn cut off, with camp officials assuring the media that the horn had no nerve endings and so the animal could not possibly feel pain; while the unicorns cried bitter tears of agony, and dreaded the moment when the horn would grow back again, when it would be hacked off once more.

Of course, there were unicorns in a few other countries in the world, too; but with its new gadgets and is weapons, the nation attacked all of them, overthrew their governments, and locked away their animals for its own use. Soon, it controlled all the unicorns in the world.

Now among the unicorns there was one who was brave and resourceful, whose name was Midnight; and he was the strongest and most intelligent of them all.

One day, while rooting for grass near the barbed wire, Midnight saw a few strands loose, and he broke out through them and ran away as far as he could. But he was all alone, and though he wandered through many lands, he never found any more of his kind.

This made him very sad and unhappy. Finally he decided to kill himself.

“I’ll go to the edge of the world,” he thought, “and jump off into the void. That way, at least, they will never get to my horn.”

So he walked and walked, through many a desolate wilderness, until he finally reached the end of the world.

And then he jumped off, and he fell.

But at that moment, the moon was passing by, on her daily voyage round the world. The unicorn fell on the moon, and rode her down to the bottom of the world, which no eyes had ever seen before.

And the bottom of the world was full of blahnium. It grew in spires and spikes, lay along the ground in twisted sheets like rock, and bubbled molten from volcanoes, spilling into the sky.

The unicorn was entranced. “All I have to do,” he thought, “is tell the humans about all this blahnium just lying around for the taking. Then they can let us unicorns go, for surely we can be of no further use to them.”

So Midnight rode the moon up to the other side, till she rose past the edge of the world, and then, neatly as you please, he jumped off. After walking through many strange and unknown lands, he finally reached the concentration camp from which he had escaped. And, making his way past the guards, he managed to reach the camp commandant’s office.

“I have great news,” he said, and proceeded to tell the commandant of all the blahnium which was lying around for the taking, at the bottom of the world.

But the commandant frowned terribly. “Cultivating unicorn horn is big business now,” he said. “Unicorn horn futures sell high on the commodities market. If free blahnium becomes available, the market will implode, the investors will lose heavily, and we’ll lose our jobs. Besides, the country will no longer have an excuse to occupy foreign lands with unicorn populations.”

And he hit his alarm button to summon his staff, to recapture Midnight and put his back with the others; but they had grown slow and complacent, so that he just managed to get away.

This caused a mighty consternation in the industry and the government. “If that wretched animal tells anyone about the free blahnium,” the government said, “other countries, which now depend on us for the mineral’s supply, will become independent. We will lose our exceptional status as controller of the world.”

“Worse,” said the industry, “we’ll lose our profits.”

“We have to destroy this unicorn at once,” they both decided. “Even if we have to sacrifice the horn to do it.” Which goes to show just how concerned they were.

So they sent out kill teams with sniper rifles, and drones with missiles, and made announcements on the media of rewards to anyone who would give information about the evil rogue unicorn.

And the snipers shot several horses in error, and the drones bombed many cattle; but of Midnight they found no sign.

He had found shelter, with people who grew their own food, did not believe in the capitalist system and trickle-down economics, and did not invest in the stock market. This proves that they were rebel scum, anti-national terrorists and worse. But they were also clever enough to hide Midnight in a way that nobody found him.

“We are not interested in blahnium,” they said when he mentioned it. “But if they are hunting you, you’re safe with us, for their enemies are ours as well.”

And so many months passed.

Then, one day, in another of the nation’s top laboratories, another imported foreign scientist made another ground-breaking technological breakthrough. Far superior control of electron flow patterns could be achieved by substituting greedium for blahnium.

Overnight, blahnium was obsolete.

And greedium was found only in the brains of capitalist robber barons, sleazeball politicians, smarmy religious leaders, and other thoroughly morally corrupt, degenerate people. The more corrupt they were, the better the quality and quantity of greedium one could get out of them.

The blahnium market collapsed. The Greedium Wars began.

And, in the crash of the collapsing economic system, nobody noticed as the unicorns went free.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the tale of how the unicorns were emancipated from slavery.

Of course, nobody believes a word of it. It’s all far too ridiculous to be true.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014 


Listen, brother, I have a story
That you might want to hear.
Shall we sit down a moment? That stone will do
As a seat. It will have to do.

Forgive me, I have no chairs to offer you
Brother, but that stone you’re sitting on
Was once a wall of mine,
On which my daughter hung posters
Of Turkish pop stars

Those posters irritated her mother
Like the jeans and sleeveless tops she wore.

Now, it’s of more use, perhaps –
As a buffer against the ground beneath
Muddy with the blood
Of those who have gone.

Look here, past my pointing arm
There, I used to sit of evenings
And talk to my neighbours. Their children played
Football on the beach.
Now they play nothing anymore.

One night, I sat there
Looking up at the stars
And my son sat beside me. I told him
Of galaxies and quasars
Of black holes beyond the reach of time and space.

My son asked me, then
Whether one could fly up into the sky
And reach the stars, and there to be free.
My daughter came up behind us
And told him he could go
She would remain to be with me.

I wish you could have met my daughter, brother
She had a smile like the sun,
And wanted to be a doctor. But she’s gone.
My son is gone.
Only the stones remain.

And I
Waiting to speak a word
To someone who passes by.

Tell our story to the world, brother
Tomorrow I will not be here
And the tanks will crush these stones
Under their iron treads.

When you leave this all behind you, brother
Tell the world of my son, my daughter.
Do not let our stories
Wither and die.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014

Photo by Antonio Olmos

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Wham Scam

Something interesting happened Saturday.

Actually, a lot of interesting things happened Saturday, including people so far round the bend that they needed a psychiatrist, not a dentist, but that’s a story for another day.

But this is what happened:

Now, I bought – like most Indians who have life insurance – policies from one primary source, the state-run Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). I have three policies from them, all bought together about thirteen years ago. I’m not really a believer in life insurance, but I get a tax rebate for the investment, just FYI.


On Saturday – that’s 26th July – at just after 1230 pm (remember that time – it’s important), I was at work when I got a phone call from a person  who identified himself as Rohan Sharma and started asking questions about my LIC policies. He verified that I had LIC policies, and immediately asked if I was still in touch with the agent from whom I’d bought the policies. I said I wasn’t. (Actually, the agent was an ex-girlfriend who is now not associated with LIC in any way and with whom I no longer interact in any fashion. We have...a history.)

As soon as I’d said that I wasn’t in touch with the LIC agent, the caller’s voice changed. He said he was from Future Generali India LIC Ltd. (a private insurance company of which I hadn’t previously ever heard until that moment). He said that my LIC policies had earned “benefits” of over 130,000 rupees, payable on 30th December 2014 – these “benefits” (of which I had never before heard either) were allegedly the interest on my policy premiums, which were reinvested by LIC and FGILIC in the ratio of 30:70.

So far so good. But...?

But, this Sharma said, the money would not be paid to me since the company had received my file back with a notification saying “please cancel his benefits” and the amount would be then returned to LIC and my LIC agent. Horrors!

So – you understand that it was my lunch break, so I had some time free – I asked him what I should do. I’ll pass you on to my superior Rahul Khanna, he told me, and gave me a file number (ADN 17417) to quote. So I waited for a few seconds and was put through to this Mr Khanna, who for all I know might have been sitting in the same room. Right.

The first thing Rahul Khanna asked me – again – was whether I was in touch with my LIC agent. I said I wasn’t, and again at once I could just about hear his voice change instantly. (If I’d have told them that I was in contact with my LIC agent, they’d have dropped the conversation immediately.) He then went over the same ground as the earlier guy. I asked him what I was supposed to do.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll help you. I’ll give you some personal advice.”

Thank you so much, and what is this personal advice?

“You could buy a fresh policy from us,” he said, “one which matures on 30th December. So on that day when your policy matures the sum will be returned to you along with the 130,000 rupees of yours lying with us.”

But there was a catch. “You’ll have to do it immediately.” Because if I waited, the file would be “closed”. In fact I would have to buy the policy immediately, right away. Like in half an hour.

How do I do that, I asked.

No problem, he said, all I had to do was courier him (to an address he gave me, in Pune) some things. What things?

1.     A photocopy of my PAN card (a tax card for Indian taxpayers).
2.     A photocopy of my driving licence (for ID purposes)
3.     Two passport sized photographs and
4.     Two cheques (Ah, you were wondering when I was going to get to that):

                  (a) A crossed cheque for Rs 20,100/- favouring Future Generali India LIC Ltd
                  (b) A cancelled signed cheque.

All these had to be sent by 2pm – less than an hour and a half, while I was talking to him. I told him I didn’t have a copy of my PAN card available, just to see how he would react. No problem, he said, you can send that later.

And after couriering these things, I was supposed to let him know the courier consignment note number (so they could pick up the envelope at the courier office, I assume) and I need have no further worries.

Why not?

Because as soon as he’d got the cheques he would provide me with a “secret log on” which I would have to use to recover my money at the appropriate time. Sounds legit, yeah.

By now, of course, two things were already screaming “scam” at me, apart from the fact that I’d never heard of any such “benefits” from anyone who had ever taken an LIC policy. The first was his extreme insistence on haste. What was the tearing hurry? How come, if Saturday was the “last day”, did he have to wait till then to call me, and then till 1230? Incidentally, the LIC working hours on Saturday are from 1030 to 1230, so since he called just after that I shouldn’t have been able to contact them to verify the situation. Also, it seemed to me that the rush was meant to prevent my taking the time to think.

And the second thing? Well, that private insurance companies are closed on Saturday.

As soon as he had terminated the conversation I walked over to the LIC office, which is only a short distance from my clinic. As I anticipated, the staff was still there, and I managed to speak to one of them. He told me what I already knew, that there was no such “benefit” due me. Just to check, I looked up the Future Generali India LIC head office phone number online and called them. The only person I got was a security guard who informed me, sure enough, that the place was closed on Saturday. He did, though, give me the FGILIC customer service helpline number, and I called them. What they told me was that their office never contacted non-customers in any manner and that this was a scam.

Meanwhile, the scammers kept calling me at roughly five minute intervals from 130 pm onwards, probably desperate to prod me into sending the cheque. I didn’t take any of the calls, and they stopped abruptly after 2 pm. Incidentally, these calls were allegedly coming from Pune, but my caller ID identified it as a Delhi number.

The whole experience was both fairly instructive as well as entertaining, and it gave a good window into the modus operandi of these criminals. It’s certain that they are either employees of FGILIC or have someone on the inside, who will cash the cheque for them. They also, without a doubt, haven’t tried this only on me; and I’ll bet that they get busy every weekend, when people are mostly at home and have time to talk to them, but not enough time to think, and no way to check up.

I’ve sent a letter describing these events in a more abbreviated version to the local paper, and in a much more formal version (with the purported names and phone numbers of the scammers) to the LIC here. Let’s see if they take any action.

I can imagine the scammers’ pleased anticipation when they’d imagined they’d got me in the bag, and their baffled fury when I stopped taking their calls. Well, at least they wasted time on me (not to mention phone bills) they could have used to successfully scam somebody else.

Like scambaiting, the great cyber sport where one keeps Nigerian princes and deceased Sierra Leonean businessmen’s daughters busy with outrageously funny email exchanges, that’s a victory.

Caveat insurer.