Tag Archives: fiction

A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
~

A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

~
tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

~

There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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The nineteenth floor.

‘Paanch rupya.’ The dent in the kevlar was roughly the size and shape of a five rupee coin. It was also nearly a crack, and placed where it was, two inches inches below the heart, would be fatal if not for the added fortifications to the chest and rib areas. Even if the shell didn’t find its way past the midnight-shaded armor, the risk of trauma injury was too high. Through the frayed latex, he rubbed the almost-hole thoughtfully with a gloved finger while considering the plan of attack.
He was on the nineteenth floor, by the window. He couldn’t help looking outside, at the sea and the monument beside it. It would have been a lovely night, but for the stench of gunpowder and corpses, and a fog of despair cloaking the Gateway. He took a step inside, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His boot immediately stepped into something wet, a macabre puddle splashing viscous fluid onto steel-toe.
He fished out a candle-sized stick and snapped it roughly with his teeth, even as his left hand undid a length of cord. The bright neon-yellow glow from the stick instantly illuminated the scene: first his teeth, and then the room. The first body lay two feet away from him, next to the writing desk, whole except for the head. He closed his eyes for a second. Not in silent prayer, but, his fingers flicking a button near his temple, to turn up the infra-red. There’s only that much neon can do, he thought wryly, tucking the yellow stick into his belt, alongside the oval buckle.
He stepped forward towards the bed and looked at the other body. Female, in her fifties. In the red tint of the eyewear, the neon of the stick and the pool of crimson she was lying in, her cotton nightgown was the colour of death: noone could tell what it originally used to be. Powder blue, he sighed, rebuking himself for watching all that sensationalist news coverage. ‘War,’ the bastards on TV called it, giving these nutjobs such a spotlight. An empty Kalashnikov shell clattered near his feet. And there were footsteps outside the door.
He stopped cold, as did the steps. The corridor was dark as tar, and in one swift jerk of the wrist, the yellow tube flew out of the window like a boomerang, right into the jaws of the ravenous city. There hadn’t been any firing for several minutes, making the prevailing silence a dominatingly still one. Convinced he heard a safety-catch being taken off, he crouched to the ground. His breathing slowed, as, he imagined, did his potential assailant’s. He let the cord slip out of his hand as he inched towards the door, slow as the blood seeping through the carpet. He reached near the door and calculated possible scenarios, all featuring the element of surprise. His hand crawled up to the doorknob, gloved fingers wrapping around the brass, when suddenly the door was thrown open, and his left hand pinned to the wall.
His right hand moved quickly towards a switchblade in the belt, but a boot caught him in the jaw. He looked up into the shaking nozzle of a machine gun held by a sweating young Sikh in black-cat outfit. He let out a sigh of relief even as the commando swallowed hard, looking in all the world like he’d seen a phantasm. ‘Who.. Who…?’ The lad stammered as he smiled and reassured him. ‘Yes. And I’m on your side,’ he said in broken Hindi. Usually it took more convincing, but here the soldier withdrew the gun and yanked him to his feet, giving him an awed once-over. He stopped the youngster from apologising, and shook his hand as the still-shaken boy briefed him on the current situation.
They stood in the corridor and waited. There had been sounds in the room five doors down from them, he was told. He handed the soldier his blades, explaining how much more effective than a gun they prove to be, in a compromised-space situation. Young Hartej listened intently, before suddenly glaring and hushing him. There was a crack behind him and he whirled around, barely in time to see a silhouette appear in the corridor unleashing white sparks of machinegun fire in their direction.
His jaw dislocated as soon as he hit the ground. The crack would have been loud in the silence instants ago, but was muted by the current crossfire. He’d been shoved roughly to the ground by Hartej, who was now literally on top of him, covering him on all fours as the firing got louder. He could feel the young man’s shoulder recoil shudderingly even as his arm stayed unwaveringly steady. The infra-red let him see another silhouette pop out behind the first one which was now falling, and he tried to warn the soldier. It was unnecessary, the youngster having already tossed a grenade with flawless accuracy.
It was over. He had never felt more helpless in combat. Or more relieved. Save for the crackle of walkie-talkies confirming the final target, silence resumed. Only this time, it didn’t feel like the air was holding its breath, but like it had finally exhaled.
He rubbed his paining chin as he stood alongside Hartej at the same nineteenth floor window. The soldier tried to stop him, but, ignoring many protestations, he stripped off his belt, gloves and the rest of his blades and handed them to the boy. Then he insisted young Hartej sign a slip of paper. ‘A reciept?’ the confused Sikh asked. ‘An autograph,’ he smiled. He told him that there would surely be more blood, and more sickening, cowardly attacks on the innocent, but that he wouldn’t be needed around. ‘You guys have it covered.’
He jumped even as Hartej gasped. He leaped from the nineteenth floor, eagerly ogling the magnificent, impossible city as he plummeted past the windows. He waited a good ten floors before unfolding his titanium-dipped fiber wings and gliding to a shadowy landing. Gotham needed him, India didn’t. And he really must come back in civvies sometime.

‘Paanch rupya.’

The dent in the kevlar was roughly the size and shape of a five rupee coin. It was also nearly a crack, and placed where it was, two inches inches below the heart, would be fatal if not for the added fortifications to the chest and rib areas. Even if the shell didn’t find its way past the midnight-shaded armor, the risk of trauma injury was too high. Through the frayed latex, he rubbed the almost-hole thoughtfully with a gloved finger while considering the plan of attack.

He was on the nineteenth floor, by the window. He couldn’t help looking outside, at the sea and the monument beside it. It would have been a lovely night, but for the stench of gunpowder and corpses, and a fog of despair cloaking the Gateway. He took a step inside, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His boot immediately stepped into something wet, a macabre puddle splashing viscous fluid onto steel-toe.

He fished out a candle-sized stick and snapped it roughly with his teeth, even as his left hand undid a length of cord. The bright neon-yellow glow from the stick instantly illuminated the scene: first his teeth, and then the room. The first body lay two feet away from him, next to the writing desk, whole except for the head. He closed his eyes for a second. Not in silent prayer, but, his fingers flicking a button near his temple, to turn up the infra-red. There’s only that much neon can do, he thought wryly, tucking the yellow stick into his belt, alongside the oval buckle.

He stepped forward towards the bed and looked at the other body. Female, in her fifties. In the red tint of the eyewear, the neon of the stick and the pool of crimson she was lying in, her cotton nightgown was the colour of death: noone could tell what it originally used to be. Powder blue, he sighed, rebuking himself for watching all that sensationalist news coverage. ‘War,’ the bastards on TV called it, giving these nutjobs such a spotlight. An empty Kalashnikov shell clattered near his feet. And there were footsteps outside the door.

He stopped cold, as did the steps. The corridor was dark as tar, and in one swift jerk of the wrist, the yellow tube flew out of the window like a boomerang, right into the jaws of the ravenous city. There hadn’t been any firing for several minutes, making the prevailing silence a dominatingly still one. Convinced he heard a safety-catch being taken off, he crouched to the ground. His breathing slowed, as, he imagined, did his potential assailant’s. He let the cord slip out of his hand as he inched towards the door, slow as the blood seeping through the carpet. He reached near the door and calculated possible scenarios, all featuring the element of surprise. His hand crawled up to the doorknob, gloved fingers wrapping around the brass, when suddenly the door was thrown open, and his left hand pinned to the wall.

His right hand moved quickly towards a switchblade in the belt, but a boot caught him in the jaw. He looked up into the shaking nozzle of a machine gun held by a sweating young Sikh in black-cat outfit. He let out a sigh of relief even as the commando swallowed hard, looking in all the world like he’d seen a phantasm. ‘Who.. Who…?’ The lad stammered as he smiled and reassured him. ‘Yes. And I’m on your side,’ he said in broken Hindi. Usually it took more convincing, but here the soldier withdrew the gun and yanked him to his feet, giving him an awed once-over. He stopped the youngster from apologising, and shook his hand as the still-shaken boy briefed him on the current situation.

They stood in the corridor and waited. There had been sounds in the room five doors down from them, he was told. He handed the soldier his blades, explaining how much more effective than a gun they prove to be, in a compromised-space situation. Young Hartej listened intently, before suddenly glaring and hushing him. There was a crack behind him and he whirled around, barely in time to see a silhouette appear in the corridor unleashing white sparks of machinegun fire in their direction.

His jaw dislocated as soon as he hit the ground. The crack would have been loud in the silence instants ago, but was muted by the current crossfire. He’d been shoved roughly to the ground by Hartej, who was now literally on top of him, covering him on all fours as the firing got louder. He could feel the young man’s shoulder recoil shudderingly even as his arm stayed unwaveringly steady. The infra-red let him see another silhouette pop out behind the first one which was now falling, and he tried to warn the soldier. It was unnecessary, the youngster having already tossed a grenade with flawless accuracy.

It was over. He had never felt more helpless in combat. Or more relieved. Save for the crackle of walkie-talkies confirming the final target, silence resumed. Only this time, it didn’t feel like the air was holding its breath, but like it had finally exhaled.

He rubbed his paining chin as he stood alongside Hartej at the same nineteenth floor window. The soldier tried to stop him, but, ignoring many protestations, he stripped off his belt, gloves and the rest of his blades and handed them to the boy. Then he insisted young Hartej sign a slip of paper. ‘A reciept?’ the confused Sikh asked. ‘An autograph,’ he smiled. He told him that there would surely be more blood, and more sickening, cowardly attacks on the innocent, but that he wouldn’t be needed around. ‘You guys have it covered.’

He jumped even as Hartej gasped. He leaped from the nineteenth floor, eagerly ogling the magnificent, impossible city as he plummeted past the windows. He waited a good ten floors before unfolding his titanium-dipped fiber wings and gliding to a shadowy landing. Gotham needed him, India didn’t. And he really must come back in civvies sometime.

~

Unpublished. Written November 29, 2008.

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