Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

What I Thought I Knew About India When I was Young

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I had a jigsaw of a map of India but it wasn’t a proper map. It had the names of cities on it but it was covered in pictures too, scenes of ‘typical everyday life’ for people who lived in various parts of the country. This jigsaw introduced me to India. I saw lots of elephants and tigers and women picking tea and men drinking the tea and coconut trees and mountains and a few deserts. The trees, elephants, tigers, women and mountains were all the same size. Sri Lanka was included in the map and because it is a much smaller landmass it only had room to show one elephant and one woman picking tea.

This jigsaw was one of several jigsaws that I had in the same series. They were all the same size too, so that I came away with the mistaken impression that India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South America were all as large as each other. I have checked just now and I see that these jigsaws were made by Waddingtons and called ‘jig-maps’ and now I also learn that the Indian one didn’t contain Sri Lanka after all. The fallibility of memory! Looking at it for the first time in almost fifty years I discover that Bangalore is represented by a man playing a flute to two cobras in a basket while a wise mongoose looks on. Was Bangalore ever really like that? Was it like that when the jigsaw was made? Clearly a lot has changed in half a century.

The jigsaw was only the starting point of my intellectual discovery of the Indian subcontinent. Films augmented my growing awareness. Films showed me that the meaning of India could be found in elephants, tigers and women picking tea, not to mention men drinking tea, coconut trees, mountains, deserts. The place seemed marvellous. I decided to go there one day. But when? The thing to do was to consult a proper atlas, not a jigsaw, in fact a battered old atlas bound in ripped green cloth that dated from the 1920s and was probably a book once owned by my great-grandfather.

India seemed far away, yes, but not as far as Australia, and because I had cousins in Australia who had come to visit (bringing me a boomerang as a gift), I knew the voyage was feasible. First, I would reach France, that was the first step, and I felt confident I could walk to France. There was the inconvenience of a stretch of open sea between Britain and France, but I believed I could construct a raft from driftwood and sail across without too much trouble. Once I arrived in France the remainder of the journey would look after itself. I equipped myself for the walk. I took a penknife and a flask of orange squash, and I set off. There was woodland near the house where I grew up and I walked for ten minutes or so before meeting a boy I knew who was unsuccessfully trying to climb a tree. He came down with a crash, asked me for a drink and I obliged. Half the squash went down his gullet and I knew I could never hope to reach France on a half empty canteen. I returned home.

But I never abandoned the quest to reach India, I merely postponed it. The country had snakes in baskets! How could I resist that? Where I came from, the only stuff you found in wicker baskets was laundry. Boring in comparison! The snakes in India were musical and loved flute melodies. That also was amazing. It occurred to me that snakes were flute-like themselves and perhaps had even evolved from flutes (or vice versa) which explained the association. What if the strong resemblance led to a flautist accidentally trying to play a snake instead of a flute? The question alarmed me for days.

Maybe the music produced as a result would be the best ever heard by any human ear? Or perhaps it would be the worst! Yet another thing to find out for myself when I got to India. In the meantime, to continue my research, I spent a lot of time with a toy called a ‘View-Master Stereoscope’ that showed images on slides in 3-D. It was a plastic box with two lenses and a lever that rotated a disc on which the images were fixed.

One of the discs in my possession was an arrangement of “spectacular views” from around the globe. It included Banff in Canada, the Golden Horn in Turkey (those are the only other two I remember) and yes, a frontal view of the Taj Mahal. I studied the Taj Mahal carefully. It was vast and white. What clues could I glean from it? I wasn’t sure. Someone told me it was constructed by elephants. I accepted this but wondered what use elephants had for such a grand monument. It wasn’t edible. It wasn’t a bun.

On a school trip I was taken on a bus to Bristol Zoo, which seemed to lie at an extraordinary distance from the small town where I lived. We were shown an elephant and informed by a teacher that it was an Indian elephant, because it had small ears. Those ears looked vast to me and from that moment I had no choice but to regard the teacher as incompetent, a fool who didn’t know the difference between big and small. The incompetence of adults was something I learned the hard way, like most children. For instance, another teacher told us that crude oil was ‘liquid gold’ but I knew he was wrong. Oil was black and gold was golden, they couldn’t be the same. He had neglected to explain it was a metaphor. That might have helped his credibility.

My grandmother knew a little about India because one of her uncles was a sailor and had been there. He came back full of stories about it. People in India were able to levitate cross-legged, he had told her, after studying a thing called yoga. But yoga was dangerous. Some men had tied themselves in knots doing it and couldn’t be untied. They had spent the rest of their lives as a knot. Only the lightest men could levitate as far as the ceiling. Occasionally one of them would go up the chimney and drift away on the breeze. He had sometimes been far out at sea and watched them drifting over his ship. He had waved to them but if they broke their concentration they would come back down and make a splash, so his cheerful greetings were ignored. No offence taken, he said, he understood their predicament. Well, that was India for you.

In Calcutta he had seen a magician with a rope who had thrown it up high in the air and it had become rigid. Then he climbed it and vanished at the top. It was an impressive trick but he couldn’t see the point of it. He preferred the men who slept on nails instead of mattresses. Had he actually seen any of these chaps himself? No, not exactly. Nails grew on trees in that country and during his stay there had been a drought and a bad harvest and there weren’t enough nails to spare and those magic men had to sleep on porcupines instead. It was better than nothing, he supposed. My grandmother passed these tales onto me, uncritically and with evident approval. She always regretted not being born a man and going to sea herself. She wanted to be a pirate.

My grandmother’s uncle knew all about curries but I didn’t and I waited a long time before I tasted my first. It blew off the roof of my mouth, but looking back, I imagine, it was a very mild curry. Like most British men I soon acquired a taste for spices and eventually I became what is known in common parlance as a ‘chilli head’, going so far as to munch on the spiciest raw chillies available and insisting through a forced grin that they were “nothing special”, but that was later. My first curry was an eye opener. On second thoughts, it was more of an eye shutter, as I squeezed back the tears into my ducts. Yet this experience is a necessary rite of passage for all British males. It is the ‘test of fire’ and no less important than ‘the test of liquid’ (one’s first beer in a pub) and the ‘test of hair’ (the first shaving of the chin). These are the three essential tests, although there might be some others of lesser importance.

It must also be admitted, and I don’t say this cheerfully, that Kipling had a deep influence too on what I thought I knew about ‘India’. He is a problematic author now, one who made too many assumptions about how acceptable it was to work within the rigid structures of an imperialist system and only petitioning for greater humanity within that system. We can look back now and chide him for not opposing the system itself, but as a young British boy, I had no thoughts about systems of any kind. I was unhistorical despite my interest in history. The past was a place of knights bashing each other with maces, the distant past was a place where cavemen bashed each other with clubs. The present could never be history because it wasn’t the past, a simple equation in my head, and when Kipling wrote of his contemporary India, I received his impressions in my own time. Therefore, his India became mine too. ‘Gunga Din’ was exactly the sort of chap one might meet in the streets today. It never occurred to me that Kipling was a relic, an antique, for the reason that his books stood on my bookshelves now, and thus had contemporary relevance.

My sister’s best friend at school was an Indian girl, Joya Ghosh by name, but because we lived in a small town in Wales, I don’t think it registered in my mind that her parents had come from elsewhere. I didn’t think about the matter very much, if at all. She was merely a person with a deep laugh, much deeper than the laugh any child ought to have, thinking back on it now. It rumbled. It was the sort of laugh I later came to associate with hearty men with big beards, Captain Haddock or Taras Bulba types. She didn’t have a big beard or even a small one, at least I don’t recall seeing one.

She once courageously interceded in order to stop a pillow fight between myself and my sister. Her diplomacy in maintaining her neutrality as she did so impressed me considerably. But I never asked her anything about India. Maybe she wouldn’t have known much, but that is beside the point. I never even made the attempt. Nor do I remember meeting her parents or siblings, though I surely must have. She was here and India was elsewhere, so no connection could be logically made. The Jungle Book cartoon film filled in all the gaps anyway. I learned that in India wolves held conferences, that monkeys had kings, and that vultures were willing to join forces with humans to frustrate the machinations of tigers. This seemed perfectly reasonable.

When I was 14 years old, a brief article on Buddhism in an encyclopaedia captured my imagination. I wanted to know more about this philosophy. Where should I turn in order to find out more? There were no books on the subject in my local library, which was the only source of reading material in the town, and no adults I asked knew anything about it. The Buddha had found enlightenment under a tree in India. Would I have to travel to India to find enlightenment about his enlightenment? That seemed probable. My grandmother’s uncle hadn’t said anything to her about it, strangely enough, so I had to extrapolate from that one encyclopaedia article. It mentioned reincarnation and I liked this idea. To get an opportunity to be every other animal under the sun! To understand that already I had been many of those animals. Sublime!

The deeper aspects of the philosophy were passed over in that article. But my mind was made up, I would henceforth be a vegetarian, and I have been one ever since. There was familial opposition to my decision, of course. If I was no longer going to eat meat, what would I eat? British food back then was famous for being terrible (some would say it still is) and there was no tradition of tasty vegetarian meals. A vegetarian meal was simply an ordinary meal but without a lump of meat included, in other words a plate of boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, boiled cabbage, sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was years before the Curry Revolution that shook our island nation to the core, threw out our complacency and shattered our culinary blandness.

I now decided that I was a Buddhist and would go to live in a monastery in the mountains when I was older. Unlike my first attempt at walking to India, my second attempt would see me equipped with more than just a penknife and flask of orange squash. I would go equipped with inner tranquillity. That was the idea anyway. If I met with an accident during the journey, savaged by wild beasts or attacked by bandits on mountain slopes, it wouldn’t matter too much because I would be reborn as some other animal, maybe a squirrel or goose, and have an interesting life in a new form. I might even be reborn as an animal with enough strength to turn the tables on my attackers. A rhinoceros or hippopotamus. That would be fun and I regretted that I wouldn’t be there to see what happened, even though in another sense I was there…

But I kept putting off the day of my departure. There were too many other things to do first, such as pass my school exams and save enough pocket money to buy a new bicycle. Also, I didn’t want to shave my head. Time and tide wait for no man, or so they say, and weeks turned into months, months into years, and then I lost interest in walking seven thousand kilometres overland because I had started to go on hiking trips with friends and was learning what distance really meant to legs and feet. My first proper manly hike was 28 Km through forested hills and my feet were blistered on the soles so badly that for the next three days I walked on tiptoes like a conspirator but while making noises that no conspirator would make, “Ouch!” and “Yow!”

I grew up even more than I already had, went to university, graduated and travelled. I had friends who went to India and came back and they told me tales of their adventures. These adventures were suspiciously devoid of canyon rope bridges and cobras swaying to flute music, and equally suspiciously full of ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer. I eventually made it to India, but I went first to Sri Lanka, for reasons too complicated to outline in an article of such a short length. Yes, there were ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer shortly after I landed in Bangalore, but I think that was just coincidence. As for canyon rope bridges I still haven’t encountered any, but I did see an incredibly rickety broken bridge when I went to Coorg, absolutely the sort of thing one finds in old adventure novels or in the films adapted from them.

And now I sit under a magnificent banyan tree and consider how all my current knowledge about India deviates from what I thought I knew about the country in my distant youth. I think I have only really learned one thing, which is that India is simply too large to comprehend. There is too much of it, and it is full of people doing things, and those things are baffling even when explained because the explanations, no matter how lucid they are, are also baffling. This is a complicated way of saying I haven’t found any snakes in my bed yet, no bears in my bathroom, and I still haven’t been eaten by a tiger and reincarnated as a mongoose. But anything at all can happen.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Love for R.K. Narayan

R.K. Narayan gives me a ‘warmer’ feeling than any other novelist. This doesn’t mean that his books make life seem easy. On the contrary, his work is absolutely committed to dealing with the travails of existence, but there is a deep humanity about his style that strongly appeals to my better nature, and I love immersing myself in his world. I feel that no more genuine and sincere guide can be found to our common reality than this author.

He was an author I was aware of for a long time before I actually read him. I planned to read his books one day, but most things that are postponed until that magical ‘one day’ seem never to happen. Finally, I dipped into a very small book of his short stories when I had a bout of flu. This was a sampler volume, pocket sized and easy to race through, but I paced myself at one story a day. They were a gift to an unwell man. I loved them. Nearly all of them had a twist at the end, but the twists didn’t feel at all contrived.

There was some other quality about them that intrigued me. They seemed to display not the slightest trace of self-consciousness. They reminded me of the authors I had most enjoyed when I first discovered the joys of literature, Robert Louis Stevenson, the early H.G. Wells, some Dickens. They allowed me to be a pure reader again, rather than an aspiring writer who was always on the lookout for ways to improve his own technique.

Hot lemon tea and short stories just like these are what a man needs when the flu takes hold of him. I finished the slim volume and recovered my health. I now knew that Narayan was an author who strongly appealed to me. Therefore, it was necessary to seek out his other books. I went to the local library, a library that happens to be one of the best I have ever visited, but all the Narayan books were already on loan. However, there was another author with an Indian name on the shelf very near where Narayan should be. I decided that he might act as a temporary substitute and I took out a volume at random. It turned out to be the very first book of V.S. Naipaul, certainly an Indian writer, but one who was also a writer from Trinidad, on the opposite side of the world to India. I read it, loved it, found it very different from Narayan.

Miguel Street is a brilliant collection of linked stories. These tales are set in one street in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, and written in a deceptively simple style that Naipaul claims was inspired by the author of the old picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 and probably written by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, a book I read a few years ago with great enjoyment. But there is a rhythmic music to Miguel Street that clearly has little to do with that earlier work. It is a funny book, but behind the comedy is a certain measure of pain, and behind that pain is more comedy, and so on. The stories are therefore multi-layered, and this concealed complexity of form works as a very satisfying contrast to the singsong language of the telling. But these tales are hard. They aren’t as warmly embracing as Narayan’s.

I came to the conclusion, one I think I still hold, that Naipaul and Narayan are opposites, that they represent two poles on one spectrum of literature, that the first is hard and cynical, the other yielding and benevolent. Naipaul always seems to be a pessimist, and even in optimistic passages he is pessimistic about the worth of optimism. Narayan always seems to be an optimist, and even when things go wrong for his characters, he is optimistic about their pessimism. More to the point, their pessimism doesn’t endure, it dissipates rapidly. I admire both authors immensely, but I would much prefer to meet Narayan and drink coffee with him than meet Naipaul over any drink.

After I finished Miguel Street I returned it to the library, and now Narayan was back on the shelves, so I helped myself to The Bachelor of Arts, a novel that flows with incredible smoothness. It tells of Chandran, who graduates from college and falls in love with Malathi, a girl he sees on the river bank one fateful evening. His yearnings for her lead to the most dramatic adventure of his youth, as he impulsively but bravely decides to reject the world when he is unable to have her as his wife. But that is only one extended incident among many. The story is delightful, charming, innocent, but it also has elements of melancholy. It is humorous and yet serious. Reading it, I fully understood why Graham Greene said that Narayan was his favourite writer in the English language. Greene also claimed that Narayan had metaphorically offered him a second home in India, and that was exactly the way I felt too.

Then I learned that The Bachelor of Arts was one volume in a loose trilogy, and I obtained the other two books linked to it. Swami and Friends turned out to be almost as engrossing and fascinating, though a little simpler in structure. The English Teacher, on the other hand, was much more sombre in tone, with a plot concerning an English teacher who loses his new wife to typhoid. Narayan lost his own wife to the same disease. The sadness and poignancy of certain scenes in this novel are thus intense, yet the author never allows his narrator to become self-indulgent and the ending of this novel is beautiful. This is a trilogy that can be regarded as authentic, and what I mean by this is that there is no sense that the truth is being operated on by the tools of the writer’s trade for effect. Truth here is unadorned and more effective as a result. It takes gentle courage to write this way and succeed so admirably.

I do feel with Narayan that he is befriending the reader as well as relating a narrative. As I have already said, Narayan gives me a warm feeling that no other writers do to the same degree. His style is perfect for the needs of readers who wish to forget about the technical aspects of literature and feel exactly the same way they did when they were young and launching themselves into the mighty universe of literature for the first time.

Narayan is able to do two contradictory things simultaneously, namely (1) show that we are all the same throughout the world, and (2) show how cultures and people around the world differ from each other. And although other authors can pull off this trick, with Narayan it doesn’t feel like a trick at all but a natural expression of his being. It is true that I have enjoyed some of his books less than others, he is far from being the perfect writer. Talkative Man, for example is one of the weaker works, a short novel, more of a novella really, set in the fictional town of Malgudi as are most of his books, and it is charming and humorous and a little bit haphazard, a semi-picaresque in which the action always seems to be episodic and wide-ranging but in fact is firmly grounded in that one small town in a sleepy backwater of Southern India.

But it lacks bite, for although Narayan’s novelistic bite is gentle, unlike the bite of Naipaul, it is a bite all the same. The Painter of Signs bites, and although there are some slapdash passages in this novel (as there are in Talkative Man) they are easy to forgive, thanks to the compelling soft force of the poignant story about two individuals who despite being on different life-paths, meet and become deeply involved with each other.

Yet there is one Narayan book that is supreme above all his others, at least in my opinion, and it is a collection of stories I took with me when I travelled to East Africa and wanted a companion light enough to carry in my small rucksack and amusing enough to make each mosquito-filled night pass smoothly. The one quality possessed by Narayan that makes him such an agreeable companion on a long journey is that he never lectures or talks down to the reader but invites him to share his world, his vision. His fictional town of Malgudi feels absolutely real to me, so much so that it is my favourite invented location in all literature, and I always accept the invitation to stroll its dusty streets.

Malgudi Days is the title of this wondrous volume. I read it in Mombasa. It is a collection that displays enormous variety within the compass of its fictional setting, the remarkable town of Malgudi, only occasionally venturing outside it, into the countryside or the jungle where tigers and angry gods cause difficulties for the people who stray into their domain. Most of the time, the people settled in Malgudi, or just passing through it, devise deeply human strategies for coping with the difficulties thrown at them by circumstance and fate, often making their own difficulties through the accretion of actions over years. Despite the warmth of Narayan’s prose style, the gentle mood he evokes, the benign ambience of the setting, there is suffering and guilt here too.

Characters are not infrequently criminals who have fled the scene of their misdoings and have relocated to Malgudi in order to start afresh. Not always can they leave behind their pasts. And yet there are no simple morality lessons here, the resolutions are often chaotic, ambiguous, the stories of some lives are left hanging. Narayan is in control of his material but not of life and life bowls balls that his characters can’t always bat…

It is difficult for me to enthuse too precisely about this collection without ending up saying things I have no wish to say. The individual stories are superb, but the sum is greater than its parts. To choose individual tales to praise seems a mild insult to the integrity of the whole, though I am aware that it is perfectly acceptable to pick out particular pieces and talk about them. The collection was not designed as a whole anyway but amalgamated from two existing collections and updated with a handful of new stories.

I am merely delighted that I discovered R.K. Narayan and I fully intend to read everything he published. And there are districts of Bangalore and Mysore that evoke some aspects of Malgudi and are there to be explored without having any specific ‘sights’ to seek out. Ambience is everything. Friendship within that ambience is a blessing. Narayan is a friend on a shelf, a genuine friend, and the black ink of his words on the white pages of his books are like reversed stars on a night sky that is as radiant as daylight.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

India Pale Ale

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I thought that I didn’t like India Pale Ale until I came to India. I wasn’t pale at the time but I was certainly ale (and arty)[1] because I had just spent three months in Sri Lanka and had acquired something of a tan. Maithreyi, my companion, took me to a place that sold ‘craft’ beers and I changed my mind about the merits of India Pale Ale and my mind has been changed ever since.

The notion of a ‘craft’ beer is one that intrigues and baffles me. I think of a craft as something involving working with wood, chiselling it, shaving it like an orthogonal chin with a plane, drilling it, fitting it together into a chair, table, ark for animals, or something beautiful but useless that looks like furniture but also might conceivably be a petrified tree stump.

Therefore, how can one ‘craft’ a beer? The foam on the surface of the brew once it has been poured into a glass can be removed with a flat tool, the blade of a knife or a metre long ruler or even a credit card. Yes, that is plausible and once or twice I have seen it done. But what other crafty actions remain to be taken in regard to the beer in order that it should be regarded as ‘crafted’? Drilling a beer is a futile exercise. We have all done that with our noses and understand the lack of permanent effect. Who among us has never surrendered to the temptation to dip our noses into the meniscus of our beers?

Let me adjust that hasty statement. Many or at least some of us have done that with our noses, at one time or another, probably long ago when we were the callowest of youths, students at some college or other and fairly new to the rite of drinking beer. The dipping of the nose might even have been accidental. Who can be a harsh judge in such circumstances?

So, it is settled that beer can’t be drilled, nor can it be sawn in half. We have all heard the wise saying that the optimist regards the glass as ‘half full’ and the pessimist regards it as ‘half empty’ and we instinctively know that the liquid in those philosophical glasses is beer. What kind of beer is less clear. If it is totally unclear then it must be a dark beer, but I suspect it is only unclear with a foggy opaqueness, which tends to lead me to conclude it is India Pale Ale. It becomes easier now to picture the scene in the drinking den, whether that den is posh and plush or crude and rude. We see the optimist and the pessimist, good friends but mismatched, holding up their depleted glasses.

Both are drinking India Pale Ale and have consumed exactly fifty percent of the contents of what once were brimming vessels. The optimist looks down at his glass with a large smile, “Ah, it is still half full. What excellent luck!” while the pessimist looks at his own glass with a deep frown, “It’s half empty already, what a blasted nuisance the world is!” But something strange has happened, and we have only just noticed it. We suppose that a ‘half empty’ glass contains beer in the bottom half and air in the top half.

Because this is a vision we are having, and visions aren’t subject to all the laws of physics, especially not gravity, we are amazed to peer closer and see the beer in the pessimist’s glass is confounding our (unreasonable) expectations. It contains the air at the bottom and the beer at the top. The optimist is impressed and cries, “What marvellous luck! You don’t need to tilt your glass at a steeper angle anymore in order to receive the India Pale Ale into your mouth. You can slurp it up from the summit of the glass.”

I am sure the pessimist will object to this positive interpretation of a beery situation and find some convoluted reason why this defiance of gravity is a bad outcome. But I am weary of these two fellows now. Let us leave them in peace to get drunk together, the optimist thinking that being drunk is good, his friend concluding that it’s not as good as he was led to believe it is, and head to a quite different location for a drink of our own.

The place Maithreyi took me to that sells ‘craft’ beers, including the India Pale Ale that is the subject of this small essay, was somewhere in Bangalore not far from Blossom Book House. We had bought books in that house, as we often do, a decent haul, and went to celebrate with beer and nibbles, and later, when we were just a little tipsy, we hurried back to Blossom Book House and bought more books. But this isn’t an article about books. It’s an article, or what passes in my mind for an article, about beer, specifically about the type of beer that is known as India Pale Ale. Where was I?

Oh yes, I was in that place that sold craft beers, and I have decided at this point to stop writing the word ‘craft’ in inverted commas. There were too many craft beers on offer for an easy selection to be made, so we ordered a sampler of many kinds, and they came on a big tray. They were in small glasses, dark beers and golden, reddish beers and greenish, fizzy beers and still beers, and perched on the end of the rectangular tray, two glasses of the mythic India Pale Ale. My reluctance to try these hangers-on is comprehensible when one considers how dreadful a non-craft India Pale Ale can be.

Back in Britain, decades ago, when first I allowed beer to pass the gates of my lips without turning it back, IPA was fairly popular among those unfortunate drinkers who lacked taste buds. Why they lacked taste buds was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Presumably they had lost them overboard while sailing from the Far East on packet steamers. It was a long time before I knew that IPA was an acronym for India Pale Ale. I assumed it was a word in its own right and that its own right was wrong. I would say that most beers sold in pubs in Britain in the 1970s were abominable, but this suggests that the Abominable Snowman would like them, and I doubt that he would.

I have done a little research (a very little, almost too little to be regarded as anything other than mildly faffing around) and I learn that India Pale Ales were once a noble style of beer, invented in the 18th Century for export by the sneaky imperialists of the East India Company. It was flavoured with hops, lots and lots of hops, more hops than a kangaroo would do, if it had a chance, and the adding of these extra hops had some effect that meant the ale would mature or whatever the word is during the difficult sea voyage.

I don’t really understand the chemistry of it, and I don’t really want to, I am merely repeating what I found out just now. IPA was an EIC product, proving to my own satisfaction that acronyms aren’t relatively modern inventions but have been around for a very long time. The decline in the quality of IPA, and all beers for that matter, during the 20th Century, is perhaps a mysterious one or maybe it has something to do with the big breweries rapaciously wanting to increase their profits by using less lovely ingredients and processes. I don’t especially like the taste of hops at the best of times. At the worst of times hops make me wince and frown like some kind of wincing frowner, a very lazy comparison, true, but my powers of simile and metaphor are temporarily on hold, for I haven’t recovered from a rather severe bout of acutely remembering the IPA and other beers of my early days on this gracious planet of ours.

A strongly hopped beer tastes, to me, like mouldy bread. The IPA of those long-gone days tasted like a sack of mouldy loaves swung around the head of a gorilla and used to bash one on the bonce. My powers of simile and metaphor, such as they are, seem to have returned. And yet when I took a cautious gulp of the IPA in the place that Maithreyi had guided me to, my preconceptions and established prejudices melted with the delightfulness of the taste that confronted me. What a magnificent India Pale Ale! I tried the other IPA on offer. Golly, this was even more wondrous! Let’s order more!

I say, my dear, we have bought books in our favourite bookshop. Isn’t it an astonishingly beneficial way to pass the time, obtaining books? And it’s not as if we buy them but never read them. We read them! Wouldn’t it be a jolly romp to return to the bookshop, once we have consumed more beers here, and engage in the act of purchasing more books? Indeed!

A final observation from an unobservant chap (myself). Any British fellow who guzzles IPA with gusto and ends up with a sodden moustache and beard as a consequence can be regarded as a ‘Pale Ale Face’ which is what ‘Indians’ in old Westerns almost called cowboys on occasion. Anyway, this essay appears to be over now, and the page on which this final paragraph has been written is an empty glass at last, the brew of its words fully consumed by your eyes, leaving only the dregs of a footnote at the bottom.

[1] Hale and hearty, a description used frequently in my youth, but which seems to have fallen out of favour. Falling out of favour is easily done if the speeding favour brakes to a sudden halt and the thing that was in favour isn’t strapped in properly. When it falls out of favour it often lands with a painful bump and favour drives off with a monstrous laugh. Even flavours can fall out of favour or back into it.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Climbing Sri Pada

I climbed Sri Pada on the 10th of January of the year 2023. I was still calling the mountain Adam’s Peak when I went up it, but on the way down I decided that it was more respectful to call it by the name the locals use. I had first glimpsed the mountain during my first visit to Sri Lanka, a year earlier. I saw it through a car window in the distance. “One day I will return and climb it,” I told myself, but I never imagined that I would do so just twelve months later. I often create lists of ‘things to do’ and items on those lists tend to remain on those lists for decades. I can be slow at compiling these lists and I found myself in the position of having to scratch out the words ‘Climb Sri Pada’ before I had even added them. Life is full of such ironies, luckily or unluckily.

Climbing mountains is one of the greatest delights of my existence, but the number of mountains I climb per year is low, on average just one, and I attribute my lack of drive to the typical mountaineer’s ‘peak lassitude’, which isn’t like the ‘peak performance’ of other kinds of athletes. You go up a mountain, stand on the summit and take a good look, then you climb down and look up, to see where you have been, and it is the theory of the climb, which has just been done in practice, that seems to be so exhausting. That’s my theory, anyway, or maybe it’s not quite deserving of the name ‘theory’. Perhaps it’s just a speculation or an excuse. But as I’ve always said, an excuse is as good a reason as any. I climbed Sri Pada and am still enjoying my fatigue.

Having arrived in Colombo by modern jet aeroplane, as one usually does, I caught a bus to the village of Maskeliya in the Central Province of the island, or rather a series of buses, as I couldn’t work out how to catch a direct bus there.

In fact, I first went to Kandy, a city on the way, or almost on the way, and stayed in a pleasant and cheap hotel for one night. I went to the Royal Bar for a meal and a drink, one of my favourite pubs in the world, and a place with strong nostalgic overtones for me. It’s a restored colonial building and I often feel like a restored colonial man, so it matches me perfectly. What I mean by this is that I’m getting old and cranky, but my foundations are solid, and my façade can be regarded as a noble one. There was a power cut while I was sitting at a chair on a balcony that overlooks an inner courtyard and the chef wasn’t able to prepare hummus in the dark, so I made do with chips and ketchup.

Sri Lanka was still reeling from the effects of economic mismanagement. I was expecting food and fuel shortages and disruption of public transport, as well as frequent power cuts, but I experienced little inconvenience, and I wouldn’t complain even if I had. Stiff upper lip and all that. A few days later, my British legs were stiffer than any lip has any right to be. But now I am jumping ahead. I couldn’t jump anywhere when my legs were stiff. I could hardly walk. But now I am drifting off the point, just as I drifted off the route when I was hiking to the base of the mountain. I am jumping ahead again. Let me go back a little and let me explain that all the inconvenience I didn’t experience because of economic mismanagement is still there, adversely affecting the people of the island, even if visitors don’t notice it. It’s important to be aware, even if the only thing we’re aware of is that we aren’t really aware.

From Kandy I caught a bus to Hatton. Every seat of this bus was occupied, and I had to stand. I wasn’t alone in standing, many other passengers were doing the same thing, and it was only the pressure from all these other standing bodies that prevented me from falling over on the winding road to the town of Hatton. I say ‘road’ but in fact it was just a series of bends that climb higher into the hills, an impressive drop on one side, no barriers, and a driver who liked to accelerate on those bends, presumably to teach them a lesson, or to teach us a lesson, about inertia and maybe some other laws of physics. It is cheaper than paying to use a rollercoaster and rather more sociable.

But the landscapes are beautiful. Tea plantations on undulating slopes with mountains in the background, and plenty of lakes. We reached Hatton and I tried to find another bus that would carry me the remaining distance to Maskeliya but I failed in this endeavour and caught a tuk-tuk with a talkative driver who acted as a tour guide on the way. “That’s a mountain over there, don’t know its name, and down there you can see a lake, not sure what it’s called, and reflected in the water is that very mountain. Imagine!”

At the time I had no idea that Hatton was the birthplace of one of my mightiest heroes, the explorer Eric Shipton, a man who climbed for real all the mountains I just gape at in picture books, and who probably found genuine evidence of the yeti, unless he was playing a prank and made the footprints himself. Who knows?

The tuk-tuk arrived in Maskeliya, which turned out to be a small place in which all the restaurants were closed, and it was impossible to secure a cup of tea or coffee. The fact we were surrounded by tea plantations and innumerable coffee bushes meant little, for all the tea and coffee was exported to Britain. I should have had a cup before I left my own country, I was informed. I replied that I had come from India where tea and coffee are daily occurrences, or even hourly occurrences, if necessary. There are numerous similarities between India and Sri Lanka, but also some differences. No snow-covered mountains on the island, for instance, therefore no yetis.

My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off on a dusty street full of holes over which his vehicle had been bouncing like a distorted rubber ball, and I found the place where I was staying. I was warmly greeted by my hosts and their two dogs. My room was above a garage and this building was the very last one in the village. I was given a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits to celebrate my arrival in such an obscure location. So, there was tea to be had in Maskeliya after all! I found it to have a pleasant but unorthodox flavour.

After I had drunk half a pot of the stuff, I was told it was coffee. So, there was coffee to be had in Maskeliya after all! Coffee that tastes like tea. Or rather, coffee that tastes like tea that doesn’t taste quite like tea. I learn something new every day, or nearly every day, even if it’s only that I don’t learn something new every day but only once a week. Does that make sense? I won’t say the altitude had affected my mind, because although we were quite high, we weren’t really very high. Maskeliya has an elevation of approximately 1205 metres. Nothing to write home about. But I only have an elevation of 1.74 metres, so who am I to pass judgement? I drank more of the tea.

For a few days, I prepared myself mentally and physically for the coming climb. I played with the dogs and read some books. One of the dogs had a habit of sunning himself on the roof of the house and I couldn’t work out how he got up there, onto the corrugated iron. Maybe he turned into a monkey by the light of the moon and turned back to a dog once he reached the roof. Magic is always a useful explanation for such mysteries.

At least it is useful until we know better. And often that ‘better’ turns out to be worse. Whatever the solution to the mystery, he was a nice dog and that’s what ultimately counts. An abacus also counts, but rarely ultimately, because it is limited by the number of beads on its wires. I went for a walk at a waterfall on the far side of the enormous lake that dominates the region horizontally, in the same way that Sri Pada dominates the region vertically. That was also part of my preparation. I drank more coffee.

During my walk to the waterfall, it began raining and I ran for shelter. It’s a terrible thing to get wet on the way to a plummeting column of water that fills the air with spray and wets the onlookers. Almost as if the sky is trying to spoil the surprise. I found shelter too, in a lookout point with a roof. Two young men were sheltering there and they had a drum with them and they invited me to play it, which I did, while they did a peculiar dance. Perhaps it was the opposite of a rain dance? I didn’t think to ask, but I should have. The rain stopped. We left the shelter and went our separate ways. I ambled along a narrow path to the top of the waterfall and looked down.

Lots of gushing water making a roar. The world is God’s bathroom and he had left the tap on. That’s what it was like, a little anyway. I ambled back the way I had come and caught a bus to Maskeliya. An old man waiting at the stop thanked me for being British. It was the British, he told me, who brought tea to Sri Lanka. Before we came along, they only had mango juice and coconut water to drink. Appalling! I am uncomfortable when I am thanked for being British, and it does happen, more often than one might suppose. When the bus arrived, he was too emotional to board it and decided to wait for the next one. Personally, I like mango and coconut.

The day of the big climb arrived, or rather the night, for I had to depart my comfortable room at 2:30 in the morning and sit in a less comfortable tuk-tuk for an even less comfortable ride to a mountain that I could very uncomfortably climb to the top. I later wrote a poem about my climb which asked the question, why do I climb mountains at night in order to see the sunrise? The punchline of my poem was that I didn’t know the answer until I reached the top and then it dawned on me. Many or most poems don’t have punchlines, mine do. But this doesn’t mean mine are in the right. Sometimes I imagine they are punch drunk and that’s surely wrong. Punch can be made with mango and coconut as added ingredients, but probably not with tea.

The tuk-tuk stopped and I dismounted and began my hike to the base of the mountain. There are several routes to the base of Sri Pada. Some are easier than others, and some of the easier ones are much longer than the harder ones, making them harder in some ways. That’s mountains for you. I walked up a stony path and into a forest. I began to suspect that this was the dry bed of a stream rather than a proper path and I thought of my own dry bed in my room in Maskeliya. Too late, I was committed to the climb. It was a forest where leopards and elephants roam, but I didn’t know that until later, for there was no sign of them as I trudged up the inclines.

After a few hours I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. The mountain should have loomed above me, but it wasn’t to be seen. That was weird, but I am used to getting lost on hikes and climbs. I even get lost in cities when I have maps. I’m not saying that I am a terrible navigator, but I would be very unlikely to employ myself as a guide to anywhere. I decided to push on in order to see how lost I actually was. The only way of doing this efficiently is to become even more lost and then compare the degrees of lostness, if lostness is a real word, which probably it isn’t. Ah well! I noticed a light far ahead that was a beacon of hope, and I increased my speed.

The light belonged to the isolated hut of a tea picker. At least I assumed the hut was a worker’s shelter, but it might have been something else, of course. I had hiked out of the forest and into a tea plantation. Yes, I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and now I needed to go back and find that somewhere. But if I looked for it, I probably wouldn’t find it. Best not to look for it and stumble on it by pure chance. That was my strategy.

And it worked. I wandered off the path again, the wrong path, and luckily managed to end up by accident on the right path. The Buddha told us to follow the middle path, but there were only two paths here. I would worry about this at the top of Sri Pada, where there is a shrine to him. Incidentally I am extremely interested in Buddhism, it’s a religion I find most compelling, the one with the most reasonable ideas, but what do I know?

I can’t honestly say that my attempt to climb Sri Pada was a pilgrimage as well as a minor adventure. It would be nice to make that claim, but it would be dishonest. Maybe one day I will return in a more spiritual frame of mind and try again. I finally reached the 5500 steps that led up the side of the mountain and I climbed them and was rather astonished to find tea shops on the way, tea shops open all night. So, this is where the tea really went! Then I asked myself, how are these shops supplied? The tea must be carried up on foot, step by step, as there’s no other way of doing it, unless it is dropped by parachute, which is so improbable an option we can disregard it.

Five thousand five hundred steps up and five thousand five hundred steps down makes eleven thousand in total, and that’s a lot of steps. At first it seemed easy, because it was easy, then it began to seem more difficult, because it was more difficult. When things are exactly the way they seem, I find that it focuses my mind acutely. My legs were tired halfway to the top, but I told them to take heart and not let down the other parts of my body, which still wanted to get to the summit and were relying on them. I also told my heart to take heart. It didn’t really require that advice, as it happens.

Finally, I reached the top. The sun came up. It came up effortlessly, without the need for steps. The sun is five billion years old but acts like a youth, setting a good example to us all. Funny how it sets this example when it is rising. But I am wandering off the point, and the point is not a path. I took off my boots and approached the shrine, which stands on a small area at the very apex of Sri Pada and overlooks the other mountains and hills in every direction. Inside this shrine is the footprint, but it has been covered over with a golden seal in the shape of a foot and I can’t report on what it actually looks like. I also rang the bell that has been provided for the use of summiteers.

I don’t know if ‘summiteers’ is a real word. I could check but I worry that it might not exist in the lexicons and then I would feel obliged to change it, and I don’t want to do that. Musketeers is a real word, so I don’t see why lexicons should feel a need to pick on summiteers. If they picked on musketeers, they’d soon be sorry! The bell at the summit of Sri Pada should be rung the number of times the ringer has climbed the mountain. I rang it once. Then I began the long descent. I found this harder than the climb because my knees were sore, and my legs were shaky. They wibbled and wobbled like jellies in the shape of limbs, a very cunning pair of jellies no doubt, but a feeble set of legs. Nonetheless, down I managed to go, slowly, surely, puffingly.

On the descent, two boars crossed my path. They were very casual, a more nonchalant couple of wild pigs can hardly be imagined. They trotted out of the undergrowth on one side, stopped to admire the view, then carried on into dense undergrowth on the other side. I noticed that their legs didn’t wibble or wobble. It’s true that I might not be able to tell a wibble from a wobble when it comes to a pig because I’m not a trained vet. I’m not even a wild vet. I am no kind of vet. That goes without saying. I went without saying too, downwards again, until at long last I reached the bottom, exhausted.

All the photographs have been provided by Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

I Went to Kerala

Photo provided by Rhys Hughes

I went to Kerala for Christmas, travelling from Bangalore on the night bus. It wasn’t the first time I had taken a night bus in India. The first time was when I went to Madikeri, high in the hills of Coorg. That bus was one with berths that one can lie completely flat on. In fact, you have no choice but to lie flat because there are no seats. It should be more comfortable than sitting upright all night, and I am sure many passengers find it so, but the vibrations of the engine made my body vibrate in sympathy and every bend in the road made me slide around the berth uncontrollably and when the bus climbed a slope all the blood rushed to my head, which was oriented towards the rear of the vehicle. I decided never to use this restful method of travel again.

This is why I chose a more old-fashioned style of bus in order to journey to Kerala. I understand seats. Your head is always up and your feet always down, and if this happens not to be the case then it quickly becomes obvious that some disaster has happened. Head up, feet down, seems to me the natural order of the universe when travelling a great distance. It was a twelve-hour journey. In India that might not be so remarkable, but I come from a small country where twelve hours on a bus is sufficient time to drive right across the land and a fair way out to sea. “Captain, there seems to be a bus overtaking us!” “Have you been at the rum again, bosun?” The immensity of India is something I doubt I will ever get used to. It is big even in terms of bigness.

Not that the bus with seats was completely free of problems. The seats had a lever by the side of them, and if this lever was pulled, the seats reclined. I was expecting something of this nature, but I was completely taken by surprise at the extreme angle they adopted. They reclined to an excessive degree. All was fine for the first fifty kilometres or so, then the young lady in the seat in front of me decided it was bedtime. She reclined the seat so precipitously that it whacked on my knees, and I was given no choice but to stare directly at the top of her head which was almost touching my chin. The only solution was to recline my own seat. I did so and heard a yowl from behind. I had taken my turn to crush some other innocent knees. And so I lay in this absurd position, sandwiched between two sleepers as the hours slowly passed.

The bus was soon filled with snorers and all of them were out of time with each other. I am a jazz aficionado, I love music with complex rhythms, and I also love polyrhythms, but the point of such intricate music is that there is resolution at some point along the melody lines. The contrasting rhythms ought to come together at least sometimes, in order to provide structure, but the snoring was far too avant garde for that. It was atonal and without time signatures. A man in a forest of lumberjack gnomes probably feels the same way I did, as the sawing takes place and the trees topple with a crash. There was no crash for me during that night, thank goodness, but plenty of jolting as the bus ran over potholes in the highway or swerved around unseen obstacles or accelerated to overtake rival night buses also full of snoring passengers.

Well, all this is a nuisance but one that is necessary for travellers to endure. I reached my destination safely and that’s what really counts. It was morning in Kerala and the heat was already intense. Bangalore is at altitude and altitude is a restrainer of temperature. The landscape shimmered and the port city of Kochi pulsated under the sun. No matter! Time to find my hotel and rest for a while in order to catch up on all the sleep I had missed on the night bus, whose motto is ‘sleep like a baby’, which turned out to be accurate, for I slept not at all and felt like wailing for hours. I went to the correct address and found that the hotel had been closed for the past two years. Ah well!

We are always advised to expect the unexpected, and we do this well, but I don’t think we are ever prepared for the types of unexpectedness we encounter. I was ready for the bus to break down, or for me to lose my way in the narrow entangled city streets, or for crows to swoop and peck my head. I wasn’t ready for a hotel to not exist. I soon found another and it was a better establishment with two ceiling fans instead of one, a balcony, even a fridge that was on the verge of working. That fridge later held two bottles of beer and cooled them from hot to lukewarm, and I drank them one evening and regretted it because I have no stomach for beer. Because of that warm beery incident, I missed out on sampling the palm wine that Kerala is so famous for.

The old part of Kochi is picturesque and labyrinthine. I wandered where I would and ended up somewhere, but I’m still not sure where. Christmas lights were strung between the buildings, large glowing stars had been erected on the summits of walls, on roofs, or dangled from gables. One church I passed had a façade in the form of a gigantic angel. This was really quite surreal. We tend to think of angels as radiant beings with a human form, perfect men and women, but if you read the Bible you will soon see that most angels have an appearance that is not human at all. The highest rank of angels, the Ophanim, resemble sets of interlocking gold wheels with each wheel’s rim covered with eyes. They float through the air without needing wings. A church façade based on one of these angels would be an example of experimental architecture. But the church in the shape of a personable angel was endearing.

I walked past another church and saw a fleet of Santa Clauses mounted on bicycles about to set off. Is ‘Clauses’ the plural of ‘Claus’? I have no idea, for it has never occurred to me that there might be more than one of them. This fleet consisted of children in costume and I have no notion of where they were going or what they would do when they arrived. I strolled onwards and they rode past me, guided by two men on a scooter, one steering and the other holding in his arms a loudspeaker and facing backwards, like a Pied Piper who has entered the Electronic Age. One by the one, the Santa Clauses pedalled past, laughing, waving, generally enjoying themselves.

This was Christmas at its most gentle, innocent and benevolent, a far cry from the Christmas ritual I witnessed exactly thirty years ago in Prague, where the tradition involves a saint, an angel and a devil chained together who stalk pedestrians in order to give them lumps of coal that represent the sins of the year. Prague was freezing, Kochi was broiling, and I know which I prefer, but the beer in Prague is certainly better. I reached the waterfront and sat under a tree and wondered if the mass migration of Santa Clauses I had seen was truly a fleet. Maybe it was an armada instead, or a division? Is there a collective noun for Father Christmas? A Splurge of Santas?

Kochi is riddled with waterways, and it feels like an excellent location for a port, which it is. No wonder it was established at that spot. I felt a small connection to the ancient mariners who had sailed here from the West long ago, from Europe and around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. One day I will travel from this very place to the islands of Lakshadweep. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, since I was eight or nine years old. I had entered a competition run by the Twinings tea company and I won. A map of the Indian Ocean was given with the names of islands removed and the entrants had to fill in those missing names. I consulted an atlas to do this, as I imagine every other entrant did, but I had an unknown advantage.

My atlas was very old, a green battered thing, and the Lakshadweep islands were marked by that very name. In other atlases the island chain was apparently named as the Laccadives. The administrators were looking for Lakshadweep and that is how I won a year’s supply of tea. It came regularly via the postman in an endless series of little tubs, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Peach Oolong. But in the end, this endless series finally ended, and my tea luck turned out only to feel inexhaustible rather than to be so. I have never won a competition since or even come close. But I have had a fondness for tea and Lakshadweep ever since, so it is imperative that I sail to those islands one day.

During my time in Kochi, I travelled on a boat only once, from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island. A battered rusty ferry crammed with foot passengers, cars and motorcycles. Cost of ticket? The equivalent of three British pennies. This is far cheaper than the cost of any ferry I have ever been on, with the exception of the occasional free ferries that I have encountered around the world, such as the one that takes passengers across the Suez Canal from one side of Port Said to the other, or the ferry that travels back and forth between Mombasa, which is on an island, and the African mainland. Sea travel is something special and I have done too little of it in my life. If I could have sailed back to Bangalore, I would have. As it happens, I went back on another night bus, but this time the person in the seat in front of me only reclined their seat to a reasonable angle. My knees were not crushed, and in return I did not crush the knees of the person behind me. I like and admire reasonable angles. They make geometry sweet.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Some Differences Between Wales and India

I am from Wales but now I live in India. I am therefore in a very good position to note any differences between life in the two different countries. The first of these differences concerns food. Indian food is the main kind of food in public eating places in both locations. But the food itself isn’t quite the same. Indian food in India is Indian by default. In Wales no one knows whose fault it is. I fell into a curry in Wales once. I slipped on discarded laddoo peel (we peel laddoos over there because we think they grow on trees) and into the pot I went. It was a good curry and might be considered authentic. After I fell into it, ‘in authentic’ was the correct term for it. I wiped myself clean with a large naan bread. Later I wore the naan bread as a cloak. Waste not, want not.

So much for food. I am writing this short essay at the end of November. India is especially different from Wales at this time of year. Here I am playing badminton in shorts and a t-shirt. Back in Wales it is so cold that the sunbeams have frozen solid and I would be hanging my washing on one of the horizontal rays. In the afternoon, here in India, I will probably read a book of poetry under a banyan tree while drinking mosambi juice and listening to sitar music. But in Wales, I would be snapping off that frozen sunbeam and using it as a long lance while riding my yeti[1] over the misty mountains.

Traffic is another difference. In India the roads are choked with cars, autos, tuk-tuks (yes, I know that autos and tuk-tuks are the same thing but I need more wordage in this essay), trucks, buses, bicycles, wheelbarrows and cows. Wales doesn’t really have roads and the only traffic consists of crows. A crow perched on the back of a cow would make a perfect official emblem for a Welsh-Indian Friendship Association. If there are no roads in Wales, how do we get about? It is a pertinent question. We jump, is the answer. This not only enables us to reach our destinations but keeps us warm in winter.

In India there are monsoons but in Wales they are never soon, they are here already. The only time it stops raining in Wales is when the clouds go on strike for more pay. Lightning also goes on strike. There are puddles everywhere, even on the surfaces of lakes and ponds. Because we jump everywhere, there is a lot of splashing in Wales. This splashing puts most of the moisture back into the air where it forms clouds and perpetuates the cycle. I once perpetuated a cycle. It was a bicycle originally but I sent it away to get an education and it came back as a unicycle. I connected it to a motor powered by a rainfall gauge. Off it went on an endless journey around Wales. I would never attempt something like that in India. So there’s another big difference.

India is actually a very advanced country in terms of technology. Based in Bangalore, I am able to order anything I like with an app on my mobile phone. If I want food or drink or a bicycle, I just have to tap a few keys and a delivery guy will turn up with the ordered stuff. I once ordered a delivery guy using one of these apps and a different delivery guy turned up carrying the first delivery guy over his shoulder. But then I decided I didn’t really need a delivery guy so I sent him back and obtained a full refund.

It’s not like that in Wales. We only acquired mobile phones very recently in history and they are of a decidedly primitive sort. We started with parrots that one keeps in a pocket and speaks the messages to before releasing them to land on the shoulders of the recipients, where they recite the messages. This meant the pockets of our trousers had to be enlarged but we felt it was worth the cost. The parrots didn’t like flying through the endless rain and the messages usually went astray. So we progressed to a more advanced model, which consisted of riders on bicycles holding tin cans connected by string. You can’t order food on our mobile phones or even new trousers.

Wales is behind the times in other ways too, in fact in all ways. Wales is so belated in every respect that when the end of the world finally takes place, the country will continue for a few more years as if nothing has happened. I suspect that very slow processes, such as continental drift, evolved in Wales. I suppose that even evolution evolved in Wales, considering how slow it is and how long it takes a dinosaur to change into a chicken. I can change into a chicken with a great deal more efficiency, but I prefer pretending to be a gorilla or a chimp. It’s a very relaxing thing to do. Why not try?

Also in India you have holy men, but in Wales we only have holy socks. A holy man can open himself to the secrets of the universe. A holy sock is open to the weather, which is generally wet, and not much else. Holy men can levitate if they are sufficiently pure in spirit, or so I have been told. I once saw a flying sock, but it had been lobbed at me by a neighbour and wasn’t pure at all. That’s not the only thing I have seen rushing through the atmosphere in Wales. Parrots with sad expressions, of course, but also gloves. Why this should be so was a mystery for ages but recently the enigma was solved by an enigma machine and the answer is that “glove is in the air, everywhere I look around”. Or perhaps it is just the wind. Yes, I think it’s the wind.

The Enigma machine was used in the early- to mid-20th century, especially in WWII, for commercial, diplomatic, and military communications. Courtesy: Creative Commons

An enigma machine, incidentally, is a device invented in Wales that looks like an abacus, but it has small onions on wires instead of beads. Crows perch on the wires and peck the onions and move them into different positions, which gives the answer to any question. But the answer is cryptic and must be studied by a druid, who will interpret it. Druids are common in Wales. They aren’t holy men, strictly speaking, but are highly respected because they wear intact socks. They also wear cloaks made from naan breads but if you ask them, they insist they are made from wool and cobwebs.

You are probably beginning to ask yourself, is this a serious essay? And at this point you might be harbouring doubts that it is. There are many harbours in Wales, which has a convoluted coastline, but not many in the interior of India. That’s another difference. I have already mentioned laddoos and the fact that we peel them (and I mentioned it in brackets) but we also peel bells. I don’t think bells are ever peeled in India. They are rung instead. The peel of Welsh bells is used to make the tall hats that old women wear, conventionally on their heads, that you might have seen in vintage photographs. Bell peel is more enduring than satin or any other kind of fabric. It means that every old woman always knows what the time is when their hat bongs.

India is full of palaces. Not long ago, I visited Mysore Palace and found it truly impressive. In Wales we have nothing quite like that, but I often mention Mysore Feet after all the jumping I have to do to get anywhere. And now one final difference before I go. In India, the essays that writers write are generally detailed, comprehensive and lengthy. In Wales they often end abruptly in the middle with three dots, as if the writer was eaten by a yeti unexpectedly… but not this one. No yeti. Not yet anyway.

[1] The Welsh yeti, Abominablis Boyo, is only distantly related to the Himalayan species.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Infinite Tiffin

Because Indian food is the best in the world, as everyone knows, a scientist who worked for an educational institute on the outskirts of Bangalore once tried to devise a method of ensuring there was more of it. The more the better, was his motto. His attempts to construct a machine that would multiply chapatis, vadas, dosas, idlis and bowls of curry failed, for it turned out to be impossible to create new matter from nothing — thanks to the physical laws of the universe. But this scientist wasn’t a man to be so easily discouraged. Where there’s a will there’s a way, was his other motto. He had two mottos, just as he had two arms, two legs, two eyes and a pair of spectacles on his nose.

He thought of a way he could get around the particular law of physics that had sabotaged his first plan. Instead of multiplying the food in order to increase the amount available, why not shrink the eaters instead? A man or woman the size of a thumb would be confronted with chapatis that were like islands, vadas like boulders, bowls of curry like the craters of active volcanoes. Yes, that was the best solution. He got to work on it right away and he even stayed late in his makeshift laboratory at the institute and ignored all phone calls from his parents, who wanted to know when he was going to marry a nice girl, or failing that, any girl at all. He was wedded to his experiments.

At last, he chanced on a viable method of shrinking people to a specific size. He celebrated by going home and sleeping for three days. When he awoke, a wide smile on his face, he knew that finding volunteers would be fairly easy. He placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, and it wasn’t long before people began contacting him. He would pay them a small honorarium for taking part in the trial run and they would be allowed to eat as much food as they wanted. So many applicants contacted him that he was overwhelmed, and he had to declare that the offer was over. No more volunteers were required. He had two suitable candidates and wanted to use them immediately.

Pawan Kumar and Shruti Patil were both at loose ends, like pieces of string that knew knot what they had let themselves in for. That’s a pun, but neither one of them cared for wordplay. Pawan was an auto driver and Shruti worked as a maid in a gated community. Neither were gluttons but it must be admitted that they hadn’t had a notable feast for a long time. They jumped at the opportunity that the scientist offered. And in case you are wondering why this scientist has remained nameless so far, it’s because after what happened he preferred to stay anonymous for all time, and we must respect that.

Pawan had found a copy of the newspaper left by a passenger on the back seat of his auto, and Shruti had found one stuffed into the bin that she took out of the apartment she was cleaning. Both had paused for less than one minute in order to read the advertisement. This was a happy chance, if chance can ever be said to be truly happy and isn’t faking it, and then and there they had decided to plunge headlong into this new adventure. They were perfect volunteers, in other words, without a twinge of anxiety between them.

The scientist said, “Are you sure?”

They both nodded in agreement, bemused that he should seem more nervous than they were. All they were risking was their existence, but he was risking his entire career, and success in this unfortunate world is often held to be more important than life itself. He continued, “There might be complications, but I don’t think it is likely. I just want you to be aware.”

They were aware, fully so, and he ought to worry less.

“So be it,” he said dramatically.

It’s still a trade secret as to how he shrank them from ordinary sized people to miniature versions of themselves, so I am unable to describe the machine he used and the green rays it beamed on them from a series of crystal lenses all of which were carved into different shapes that were offset polyhedra, and even the copper coils and capacitors and diodes as big as cucumbers must be passed over in discreet silence, nor can I say how the whole contraption was powered by an array of solar cells on the institute’s roof.

Pawan and Shruti found themselves diminishing rapidly but that’s not how it seemed from their perspective. It appeared to them that the outside world was expanding, rushing to inflate itself, and the effect was so startling and alarming that they clung to each other for comfort, despite the fact they hardly knew each other, and their parents didn’t know each other either. This embrace also helped them to keep their balance as they rushed down the scale until they were almost exactly the size of the scientist’s thumbs.

The scientist spoke and his voice was so deafening that it boomed like the thunderclaps that sometimes echo from the crowded buildings of Bangalore and rumble down the streets before fading. They understood none of his words and it was a minute before they could gather their wits to act on their own initiative. He had simply said, “Please begin eating.”

He had picked them up and was lowering them on a long table that groaned with the amount of food it held. He was careful not to squeeze them too tightly. Then he released them, and they wandered in utter amazement among the plates, bowls, dishes and banana leaves, all heaped with delicious foodstuffs. The idea that they should devour this landscape seemed as absurd to them as any resident of Mysore supposing he can munch his way through the Amba Vilas Palace. It was too overwhelming, far too miraculous.

The scientist now clapped his hands impatiently. “Come, come, tuck in, I don’t have all day. Let’s see what happens!”

But his voice was still too low in pitch for their tiny ears to hear anything more than an incomprehensible booming. That was of no importance because the mission that had been assigned to them was plain. They had to eat as much as they liked in the time available to them.

It never occurred to Pawan or Shruti to ask whether the miniaturisation was permanent, and in fact even the scientist didn’t know if the effects would wear off naturally, or if he might find it necessary to try reversing the polarity of his machine in the hope it would restore them to their former size. But they had full faith in his competence and began nibbling at tasty objects that were in their vicinity. They were only a little cautious.

Soon they grew confident, then became joyous. They bounded between dishes and plates, climbed mounds of sweet and savoury foods, waded through curries, cavorted among the vegetables.

In the meantime, a reporter from the newspaper was on his way to the institute on the outskirts of Bangalore to find out why this scientist needed the volunteers he had asked for. The reporter smelled a story in the making. When he entered the building, after showing his press credentials, and approached the laboratory, he smelled something beyond a story. It was a banquet! He rapped on the door with his knuckles and cried: “Good afternoon, sir.”

To which the scientist replied, “Go away! You are disturbing the future of the human race. The door is locked.”

“I merely wish to interview your volunteers.”

“They are far too small to answer your questions. You must depart now. I will have you ejected from the premises if you refuse to leave of your own free will. The volunteers can’t understand your words, no matter what language you speak. They are cavorting on the table.”

“How so? You mean that they are monkeys?”

The scientist cursed at this.

The reporter struggled to see anything coherent through the frosted glass of the door. All he could make out was the shape of the banqueting table, which at this distance was like an operating table, and parallel rows of foodstuffs, which to him looked like an array of gadgets. The scientist stood with a spoon ready to serve rice onto plates and to the reporter it seemed he was clutching a surgical instrument that could probe brains.

“Is he brainwashing monkeys? Turning them into robots or assassins! I will write an article about this scandal.”

And he dashed out of the institute building as fast as he could run. During this rumpus, Pawan and Shruti had gained even more confidence. They started to eat with gusto and passed from dish to dish like explorers among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, taking morsels from every alluring display. Most of this food was from Karnataka but not all.

They chewed and swallowed bisi bele bhath, maddur vada, Dharwad peda, akki roti, saagu, upma, ladoos, three variants of idli, namely thatte idli, rava idli and Muday idli, churumuri and many other typical foods. They were soon full, but they continued eating, more on aesthetic grounds than from physical need. It was like a chain reaction. They would keep going until something exploded and that something would be their bellies.

But now something strange happened, and the simple adventure became a much more complex and tricky exploit. Pawan found a paper dosa, a very long and crispy example, and it had been rolled into a tunnel and he peered into the mouth of the tunnel and he was baffled.

“The landscape on the other side of the tunnel looks different,” he said to Shruti with a frown. “Come and see.”

She did so and she was no less astonished.

“There’s a garden there.”

“Yes, there is, and it makes no sense.”

A dosa with a tunnel. Courtesy: Creative Commons

They exchanged meaningful glances, but the exact meaning was unclear to both of them. Nonetheless they tingled with anticipation and Pawan gave into temptation and suggested they walk together through the dosa tunnel in order to see what the far side might actually be like.

Have you ever walked through a dosa yourself? It is surely an odd feeling. They stumbled on the batter, which yielded too readily to their feet, cracking a piece off here and there, but soon enough they emerged from the exit. And what they saw was remarkable. They were no longer on a table in a laboratory in an institute on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Pawan and Shruti were unworldly people and had never heard of the myth of the Garden of Eden, but that’s what they found on the other side of the magic dosa. There are some special points in our world that are portals to other worlds and if you step through them, you will end up in that new dimension. They saw that the garden was full of trees, but the trees had gulab jamuns hanging from the branches instead of fruits. Gulab jamun trees! Was that even possible? Clearly, yes it was, here in this incredible place.

Gulab Jamuns. Courtesy: Creative Commons

As they strolled deeper into the garden, enchanted by the sights, they took slightly diverging paths and ended up alone. Shruti stopped by a tree and despite the fact she was full, she reached up to pluck a gulab jamun that glistened most invitingly just above her head. And that’s when the snake appeared. It slithered down from the top of the tree and said:

“You are allowed to eat the sweets from any tree in the garden with the one exception of this tree, which is the tree of knowledge. But I think you should be a rebel and eat it anyway. Why not?”

The snake had the voice and face of the scientist.

Shruti pouted at him.

“Because that would be greedy,” she said.

“Don’t be so timid!”

“Knowledge is overrated. You have plenty of knowledge and what has it done for you? Turned you into a snake.”

“Don’t say that. I am an intellectual benefactor.”

“You eat it then.”

And she held out the gulab jamun for him.

He hissed and swayed in annoyance, his forked tongue flicking, but at that very moment Pawan came over to see what the fuss was about, and he shook his fist at the snake and warned him: “I am an auto driver. I often have passengers like you. I will throw you out of the garden if you don’t behave.”

The snake continued hissing angrily but it slid away and they still don’t know where it went because they have never seen it again. Meanwhile, the scientist mysteriously disappeared from the laboratory and the only theory that explained his vanishing was that he had turned the rays of his own machine on himself and shrunk down to a dot and then to an atom.

But why would he do that? Nothing made sense any longer. Pawan and his wife, Shruti, still live in the garden beyond the dosa, and because all the food in the laboratory has been taken away, there is no way for them to return to the real world. They don’t care about that. They are satisfied where they are. They keep the gulab jamun of knowledge safe and maybe one day they will take bites from it. But they are in no rush to do so.

The reporter wrote his story about monkey robots and assassins, but it was never published because his editor thought he had gone mad. He was told to take a week off work and go on holiday. He went but never returned. Searching for him proved futile but rumours persisted of a monkey on the coast who liked to read the newspaper as if he understood the words. Probably some sort of coincidence. The world is stuffed full of them.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Crossing the Date Line

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I have long been fascinated by the International Date Line, which I have never yet crossed but still intend to. I have unreasonable qualms that crossing it will change a person in some way, will project them into the past or future by a day and that some part of them will always remain displaced from the present. Even if they cross the line again in the opposite direction, they won’t entirely be back in alignment with themselves. It is difficult to explain without resorting to vague words such as ‘soul’ and the idea is without any basis in fact anyway. Yet it is a feeling that persists beyond logical thought.

I suppose that the origins of my excessive interest in the Date Line can be found in one of Jules Verne’s best novels, Around the World in Eighty Days, a book with one of the best twist endings ever devised. Phileas Fogg the explorer makes a bet that he can circumnavigate the Earth in only eighty days and thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances he fails by one day. Or does he? He has crossed the Date Line from the east in order to enter the western hemisphere and thus has gone back in time one day. When he realises this fact, he uses the extra day to win the bet. Geometry saves him.

For a long time, I wondered why Verne wasn’t praised more highly for this brilliant plot device, but now I ask myself if it wasn’t a conceit he borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe, of whom he was a great admirer. Verne’s novel was first published in 1872 but thirty years earlier Poe’s short story ‘Three Sundays in a Week’ utilised the same ingenious idea for quite a different purpose. When the name of Poe is mentioned, we imagine tales of horror and bitter despair, morbid scenes, grotesque irony, but he also wrote strange comedies and ‘Three Sundays in a week’ is one of his lightest and happiest.

The narrator, Bobby, wishes to marry Kate, but her obstreperous father, Mr Rumgudgeon, is against the match while pretending to approve of it. He offers a generous dowry with his blessings but when Bobby asks that a date be fixed for the wedding, Mr Rumgudgeon replies that it will happen “when three Sundays come together in a week!”. This impossible condition is a cruelly humorous attempt to forestall the wedding. But Bobby is a clever young man. He knows a way in which the unfair condition can be met.

He arranges a dinner for himself, Kate and her father, and two guests, both of them sea captains who had lately returned from voyages around the world. The crucial point is that Captain Smitherton and Captain Pratt sailed in different directions while circumnavigating the globe. The dinner is held on a Sunday, but it is only Sunday for Bobby, Kate and Mr Rumgudgeon: for Captain Smitherton yesterday was Sunday and for Captain Pratt the next day would be Sunday. Thus, the impossible condition is met. It is a week with three Sundays in it and no further objection to the marriage can be made.

Poe was very clear in his mind about the technicalities of time difference in such voyages, as was Verne, but confusion about east/west crossings of the Line forms one of the recurrent absurdist jokes in W.E. Bowman’s The Cruise of the Talking Fish, in which the crew of a pioneering raft accidentally disrupt, at great cost, the launching of an experimental rocket from a remote Pacific island. This book was published in 1957 (one century after the midpoint date between Poe’s short story and Verne’s novel). It is a magnificent comedy that manages to make the reader doubt their own knowledge of how the Date Line works. And in truth the mechanics of the crossing still confuse me.

Yet another novel that utilises the Date Line and the oddities surrounding it is Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before in which a becalmed sailor on a ship near an island that lies on the other side of the Line indulges in speculation as to the physical and metaphysical significance of our conventions of time. The island is unreachable but remains as an anchor that tethers his mind to the topic and he is unable to stop wondering (and extrapolating this wonder) until flights of fancy turn into mathematically-based obsessions. There is always the lurking suspicion that the Line is not just a human convention but something true that is now embedded in nature as a thriving paradox.

Deep down, I still believe that crossing the Line is an act of time travel, not only in terms of human timekeeping but also in relation to the natural world, so that a man who sails into tomorrow can find out the news of the day and learn such things from the newspapers or radio as to who has won a cricket match, then recross the Line in the opposite direction and lay bets on that team, raking in huge winnings. Or a man who has suffered an accident and is badly wounded can be carried back one day into the past, where he is well again and when the following day dawns, he can take evasive action.

I know that none of this is true, but I feel it is right nonetheless, and I have written my own stories in which the Date Line features, one of them being ‘The International Geophysical Ear’, which is about a gigantic ear positioned on the Line itself that can hear both backwards and forwards in time, and another being ‘The Chopsy Moggy’, concerning a talking cat who unfortunately turns up late for an inter-species conference that will determine the future of humanity. There are others and undoubtedly more will be written.

The Date Line has been host to rather strange happenings in reality as well as in fiction. On the map, it is no longer a straight line that follows the longitude of 180 degrees east and west. It veers abruptly to avoid landmasses, taking wide detours around islands. But once it deviated not one inch. It speared through the atolls and islands it encountered, dividing them in half, so that a person had the opportunity of standing with one leg in today and the other in yesterday or even tomorrow. Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, the last dwelling place of woolly mammoths (still around when the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt), was one of these special places. Three Fijian islands too: Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Rambi, where unscrupulous plantation owners forced workers to cross the Line on Sundays to prevent them having a day off.

There is also the interesting fact that the equator crosses the Date Line and that a point therefore exists where it is summer and winter simultaneously while also being today and tomorrow (or yesterday). The SS Warrimoo was a ship that routinely travelled between Canada and Australia. On the last day of December 1899, the ship was very close to the point where the equator meets the Date Line and Captain Phillips realised that if he positioned the SS Warrimoo exactly on that point, something very curious could be achieved. He gave instructions for this to happen and on the stroke of midnight his vessel lay at 0 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude. Magical coordinates…

The forward part of the ship was now in the southern hemisphere and thus in summer while the rear remained in the northern hemisphere and in winter. Half of the SS Warrimoo was in the year 1899 (December) while the other half was now in the year 1900 (January). Captain Philipps was skipper of a vessel that was in two different days, two different months, two different seasons, two different hemispheres and two different centuries. Of course, the objection can be raised that December 30 is not the last day of a year. But the Captain waited until midnight before reaching the miracle point. December 31 did come but it flashed past in less than the blink of a mermaid’s eye. The ship leapfrogged an entire day, or at least the vast majority of it.

My hope is that there was a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days on board the ship when it made that spectacular crossing, or maybe a collection of the short stories of Poe. It is highly unlikely this was the case, of course. And I have just now had another thought. Suppose you are reading Verne’s novel on a ship that crosses the Line in an easterly direction. You have been reading it all day and have reached the last few chapters. Suddenly the ship crosses the Line and you are back in yesterday and find yourself only on the first page again. You might be frustrated not to know the ending to the book. Let me assist you. The hero and the heroine do get married.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Chopsy Moggy*

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I sat down to write a new story and as I did so, I thought aloud: “I want it to be about a talking cat,” and much to my surprise my own cat, who happened to be crouching on my desk, shook her head.

Then she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” I wanted to know.

“It’s corny and a cliché. It has been done too many times before. It’s twee and awfully sentimental. Childish too.”

“I feel rather discouraged now,” I admitted.

“Oh, don’t take it so badly. You can write my story, if you like. Just don’t say I’m a talking cat when you do.”

“And what is your story? I knew you when you were a kitten. You haven’t done much since then, to be honest.”

“You are wrong. My life has been dramatic.”

“I don’t call sleeping most of the day and sitting in boxes very exciting. In fact, your ability to talk is by far the most interesting thing about you. If I can’t mention that, why should I bother?”

“You don’t know what I get up to at night. But I will tell you. Pick up your pen and get ready to make notes.”

I did as I was bid and my cat began…

You are generally fast asleep (she said) when I go off on my adventures. There’s a rug in the lounge that is a magic carpet. You don’t know this because you have never tried to activate it. Scratching it in a certain way, pulling out threads here and there, makes it fly. I discovered all this by accident, of course. It was a night last spring and you had left the window open for a cool breeze. The rug rose in the air and carried me out into the garden.

Then it climbed higher and higher and soon the town was tiny beneath me. I didn’t know how to control the thing and I padded it with my paws in various places. Eventually I learned how to steer it by moving my weight from one side to the other. I used my tail as a rudder to make steering even more precise. And when I wanted to go faster, I just opened my mouth wide and mewled. I flew off and enjoyed exploring distant countries.

Where did you get the rug from? Magic carpets are far more common than people think. You assumed it was just an ordinary floor covering when you went into a shop to buy it. The threads woven into it might originally have come from India or Persia. I wondered how fast it could fly and so I decided to find out. I mewled and mewled as loud as I could and the rug accelerated until the ground beneath me became a blur. That was fun!

The wind stroked my fur and it was a pleasant sensation but it occurred to me that I might crash into a mountain if I couldn’t see where I was going. I shut my mouth and immediately started to slow down. It was night and the stars were big and bright above me and then I saw stars below me too, and I was baffled by this, because the lower stars seemed cleaner, as if they had been washed. Maybe some giant cosmic cat had licked them?

It took me a long time to understand that the lower stars were reflections in the sea and not real stars at all. I was over an ocean. I can’t say I was pleased by this, because water has always seemed a suspicious substance to me, something not to be trusted, avoided even, though I concede that it’s often necessary to life, which is why I sometimes stoop to drinking it. But all this is irrelevant. No land was in sight in any direction. I had flown halfway round the world and was now cruising above the Pacific. How risky!

My calculations were instinctive rather than mathematical, but cats have an aptitude for sensing where they are and as a navigator I’m reliable, but my exact latitude and longitude was impossible to specify. I was still travelling forward at a reduced velocity and I noticed other objects flying to my left and right, smaller than aeroplanes and soundless, and after a while it became clear they were much nearer to me than before, converging at an unseen point ahead, some destination beyond the horizon, and I was intrigued.

Soon enough, I was able to discern the details of these mysterious craft and I saw they were rugs of many different colours, magic carpets just like mine, an armada of levitating floor coverings, a flotilla if you prefer, all piloted by sundry animals: dogs, rabbits, snakes, squirrels, wombats. And the rug on my starboard side was so close that its occupant, a monkey of some kind, was able to shout at me and be understood. He yelled:

“You are the cat representative, I take it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You must be. You are a cat sitting on a magic carpet and you are flying to the assigned rendezvous. Therefore–”

“But what is waiting at that rendezvous?”

“An urgent meeting.”

“But a meeting with whom?”

“With us!” he cried, astonished at my ignorance. “One talking animal from every species on the planet.”

“The point of this meeting is what?”

“The conferring of special powers on attendees, as promised in the oracles of ancient days. Surely you haven’t forgotten the words of the oracles? They are unambiguous about this event.”

He continued to talk, despite the shaking of my head. He said, “We talk but that’s the only way we exceed our limitations. After the meeting we will be able to do everything that humans can.”

“Already we may do more than men.”

“True, but we can also do less. It depends on the task, and they are superior when it comes to power. After the meeting, this imbalance will change. We will be better than them in every way.”

“I never received an invitation,” I protested.

“Yes, you did, or you wouldn’t be here now, on a magic carpet, heading in the right direction. Do you expect me to believe that you are here by accident, a rogue feline who flies to the island thanks to coincidence alone? Do you wish to imply that the genuine cat representative is elsewhere, perhaps having overslept in a basket, as your kind often do?”

“I can’t say,” I said.

“The oracles have given us the sacred date. The day that humans call May Day and shortly those tyrants will be calling ‘mayday’ when we dislodge them from their undeserved thrones.”

“May Day,” I repeated, still puzzled.

“Yes,” he said, pleased.

“I never know the names of days.”

“The island is not far now. Soon it will be visible. I know your ignorance is a pretence. Now let us focus on flying. We are converging from every direction and the sky will be thick with magic carpets. Accidents will happen if we aren’t very careful with our steering.”

I nodded, for I knew not what else to do.

And then I saw it.

A mountain rising out of the sea.

It was an enormous peak, shaped like a pyramid, with smooth sides and a truncated summit, so that instead of a sharp apex it had a flat space at the top, an area the size of a square dinner table. But that flat space was utterly black and I realised it wasn’t solid. It was an entrance into the hollow mountain. This was a place where animals could meet secretly in considerable safety. The only danger was the chance of midair collisions as all the magic carpets tried to dive down into that small opening. I grew nervous.

I decided to drop behind a little, to give the others a chance to enter before me and clear the airways for my own approach and descent. I still wasn’t sure I was supposed to be going to the meeting or not. Maybe I had been invited ages ago and had forgotten. It was possible. I thought that if I went I would find out for sure, and I doubted I would be deeply in trouble if it turned out I wasn’t the official delegate. I applied the air brake.

In other words, I raised my tail and increased the drag coefficient. Soon my speed was only half of the other flying carpets and they flew ahead. One by one they reached the mountain and zoomed through the narrow entrance and to my astonishment there were no accidents. The sky cleared and at last it was my turn and I felt more confident about a safe landing. The mountain was just ahead of me now and so I began a smooth descent.

But I am a cat and my essential feline nature took over. How could I settle down to rest on an island without circling it first? I was filled with an irresistible urge to fly around that island a few times before dipping into the opening on the top of the mountain. And that’s what I did. Clockwise around the island flew my rug as I gracefully steered it. I circled the mountain four and a half times and the number seemed right to me. Then I dropped into the hole and landed on a basalt platform far below in a very dim light.

I thought that the interior of the mountain would be crowded with the other animals that had preceded me, but it was empty. No creatures and no carpets. At first I supposed they had gone off into an adjacent chamber for their meeting but it soon became obvious that the chamber I was in was the only room down here. Just this immense space inside a hollow mountain and nothing else. It was the greatest mystery I had encountered in my life. The animals had vanished! What could be the reason for this? And how?

I pondered the matter for a long time, an hour or more, and then the answer occurred to me. The island was located in the Pacific and so is the International Date Line. I surmised that the line itself passed right through the middle of this peculiar mountain. I circled the island four and a half times, which means that I entered the hollow mass of rock from the opposite side to the one from which I had approached it. In other words, I had crossed the Date Lane and was one day early for the meeting. Instead of it being May Day it was the day before. What a curious situation to be in! So I waited.

I sat patiently on my rug for an entire day and when midnight passed and it was tomorrow again, I was ready to receive the other animals, who were due to arrive on May Day. But none of them showed up. Then I examined what I knew about geography and I realised my terrible mistake. I had crossed the Date Line in a westerly direction, ending up in the eastern hemisphere, which meant that I had arrived a day late rather than a day early. May Day had been and gone. The meeting was over and I had missed it.

This made me feel despondent and I scratched my rug to cause it to ascend through the hole and hover above the mountain. I now saw I wasn’t the only one to have made a mistake. The dog delegate was still circling the island, having an even stronger desire to go round and round before settling down than I did. We called out to each other and I told him the meeting was over. At first he doubted my words and thought I was just a cat trying to trick him, as cats often do, but I eventually convinced him of the facts.

With his tail between his legs, he zoomed away, howling forlornly, his ears flapping in the breeze as he accelerated. I also turned my carpet in the direction of home. I wondered if the real cat delegate had turned up or not. I asked myself if all other species of animal would now have special powers with the exception of cats and dogs. It was sobering. Dogs would definitely miss out, but cats still had a chance. It depended, as I have said, on the official cat guest. Even to this day I don’t know if he or she successfully attended the meeting. I don’t feel an increase in my powers, but who knows?

I returned home and glided in through the open window while you were in the garage tinkering with something or other. You came into the house and were delighted to see me. I had been missing for a full day and more and you thought I might have become lost or stuck up a tree. You hadn’t noticed that the rug was gone too. You aren’t very observant really. But that works to my advantage, so I don’t mind. You made a fuss of me and that was the right thing for you to do. It is my longest journey on the magic carpet to date, but I might go even further in the future. It all depends on how I feel.

“And that’s your story?” I cried.

“Yes,” said my cat.

“And you want me to write it down?”

“You can, if you like.”

“But without mentioning the fact you can talk?”

She nodded. “Indeed.”

I was exasperated and shouted, “How can I leave out that detail? The entire point of your story hinges on the fact you can talk. It is about speaking animals. If I’m not allowed to mention your vocal abilities, I might as well not bother to write the story at all. You have set me an impossible task. To omit the one thing that makes the tale worth telling!”

She shrugged. “You are the human, not I.”

“What do you mean?”

“Humans are the ones who think they are so clever and capable. They give the impression that they can achieve anything, that we are just dumb beasts and they are the supreme intellectuals.”

I was unable to find an appropriate reply.

She continued, “So if you can’t think of a way to square the circle and tell my story without telling it, that’s not my concern. But I strongly advise you not to tell any other story about a talking cat, because it’s a theme that is worn out. It should be my story or nothing.”

She curled up and purred and closed her eyes.

My desk was no longer a desk.

I laid down my pen.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

*British slang for “The Talkative Cat”

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Mini-Sagas: A Dozen Examples

I first became aware of the flash fiction form called the ‘mini-saga’ in the mid 1980s. They were invented by the author Brian Aldiss (1925-2017). The British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, held annual competitions for the public and the winners were published in the newspaper and also in a series of anthologies.

I submitted a few mini-sagas on a number of occasions but never won. I never even made it as a runner-up. All I can remember of those early pieces of mine was that one of them involved a submarine that somehow was turned upside down while it was diving and went the wrong way through the atmosphere and ended up in outer space.

A mini-saga consists of a story told in precisely fifty words. They aren’t easy to do well, but they get easier with practice (like everything else). The title should have an upper limit of fifteen characters, but this rule is not such a strict one. Because there are so few words to work with, the title is often an essential part of the story.

About twenty years ago I wrote a mini-saga that I was pleased with. It was translated into Portuguese and printed on a T-shirt. For many years I regarded this as my only successful mini-saga. Later I wrote another, not as good, and then forgot all about the form.

But when I was staying in Sri Lanka earlier this year, I read Brian Aldiss’ book, 50×50, fifty mini-sagas in total, a very short collection, and I wondered if I might do something similar. But I decided to write 500 instead of 50. This turned out to be perhaps too much to chew on, but I had already bitten it off, and so I persisted and intend to keep persisting.

My book of 500 mini-sagas will be published when it is finished. So far I have written 216. Some are obviously better than others. I am pleased to now present a short selection from this project in progress.

Plate Armour

The army is on the move, crossing borders and conquering new lands, and the key to their success is mobility. They never stop for meals but eat as they go along. They wear armour specially adapted to hold the curries, pickles, bread, cheese, rice and puddings they enjoy. Plate armour.

Ulysses offering wine to Polyphemus. Courtesy: Creative Commons

A Gift for the Cyclops

Odysseus: Here’s a birthday present for you.

Polyphemus: A strange object?

Odysseus: Binoculars is the name. They permit you to see further. Hold them to your face in this precise position.

Polyphemus: Like this? But I can’t see a thing!

Odysseus: Quick men, let’s escape while he is temporarily blinded.

Bytes, Not Scratches

You are typing on your computer when your cat reaches out a paw and deletes your work. That’s the end of the story. If your dog does the same thing, you can say “Fetch” and it will leap into oblivion, find the document and retrieve it for you, tail wagging.

Pinocchio’s Brother

Pinocchio has a brother whose nose grows shorter whenever he tells a lie. He is the opposite of his more famous sibling in this regard. If he tells enough lies his nose retreats into his face, leaving a deep crater. He is unfortunately too popular with the fraternity of golfers.

In Sheep’s Clothing

An eccentric shepherd in these parts has dressed his sheep in pink frocks. The wolf is reluctant to clothe himself the same way but remembers he is cunning and to fulfil the conditions of his reputation he has no choice. He takes care not to be seen by other wolves.

My Nose

My nose was in the Guinness Book of Records. It’s a volume that lists the most extreme instances of various things. There’s a chapter about the tallest person ever, the longest hair and so forth. My nose was in that book. Then the librarian told me to take it out.

Going for a Walk

She said she was going for a walk with a book. I imagined she wanted to sit and read somewhere, but when I went to the park later, I saw her with a Tolstoy novel on a lead. It was opening its back pages against a tree while she waited.

The Haiku Hiker

The haiku poet went hiking and somewhere along the route he lost count of his syllables, so he just kept going. After walking far, he found an isolated tavern in the enormous forest. He fell on the beer like a shooting star. The syllables could find their own way home.

Runny Honey

Runny honey: see the jar sprinting down the street. It grew legs secretly at night in the cupboard when no one was looking. When I opened the door, it jumped out and escaped! I chase it with a spoon. I will never buy runny honey again, only the solid kind.

He was Mighty

An early start was required. He rose from his bed in the castle and called for his squire, who carefully dressed him. A frown for his forehead, an increased pulse for his chest, perspiration for his skin. Now the mighty worrier was ready! Off he went to do anxious battle.

The Toothbrush Duel

There were no other weapons available, all the swords and pistols were missing or broken, so they decided to duel with toothbrushes. They met at dawn, saluted each other, then battled for an hour on the field of honour. Toothpaste squirted into the air. It was a good, clean fight.

Something More Comfortable

The woman took the man home. They had met only an hour before but had felt an instant attraction. “Allow me to change into something more comfortable,” she said. He nodded eagerly. In a flash she transformed into a big fluffy white dog that jumped up to lick his face.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.