Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan

01 July, 2010

What happens when Europe is colonised by India in the not too distant future? Welcome to Scandinavistan, where a beef-eating Swedish minority is ghettoized by cow-worshipping desis and IAS officers run what is now the Asiatic Union. Watching over its crime-stricken harbour town Gautampuri (née Gothenburg) is Herman Barsk, bumbling public intelligence officer and loser extraordinaire, not-so-hot on the heels of a cannibalistic serial killer last spotted at the Tandoori Moose but fast in pursuit of his lady Kumkum.We bring you an early look at Zac O’Yeah’s hilarious comic debut, a darkly disgusting satirical thriller.

Excerpted with permission from Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan by Zac O’Yeah (forthcoming from Hachette Books India, August 2010)

BESIDE THE ROAD the river flowed past, murky and greyish, like an unflushed toilet.

When the drizzle stopped, the night air filled with steam again, the sweaty hot-house heat turning his shirt into a wet rag. Herman Barsk’s clammy fingers tightened around the steering wheel. He was always tired, red-eyed, grumpy. He had been driving for hours. Now he shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat of the undercover-Volvo that looked like it had been driven at high speed, many times, through a cow wallow, but it was just coated with a generous slather of the spring mud and night soil that covered all of Gautampuri’s streets.

Barsk could sense the lull; the whole town was hunkered down, lulling. The antisocials were gearing up for the day of the parade, when carnival floats were driven through the town and law and order was almost completely suspended for a day. Or two. People usually kept their pants on until then, till the last days of April, as they waited for their salary slips. But you could never tell. A week from now the carnival procession was going to fill the streets with its violence and drunkenness, and the native Swedes would go berserk. Bottles in hand, they’d scream and vandalize. Most people had forgotten the origins of the ritual, Barsk thought, as he adjusted his rear-view mirror.

On certain nights, he smelled cold blood in the water that lapped against the quays, in the creaks and groans from battered ship hulls. The town’s nature was reflected in the refuse caught in its sluice channels—decomposing seaweed, dead fish, engine oil and the beery vomit of drunken sailors. Towards the end of the previous millennium most of the merchant navy had been registered under the flags of Third World countries. Now the tarmac between the old warehouses was broken. The harbour had fallen into decay.

As had Barsk.

How long would he carry on trying to find cures for this sick town? Barsk took the cigarette from his lips, studied it, and sighed—unsure for a moment whether to light it or not. He finally returned it to the pack unsmoked, chucking the pack on top of his camera and his service gun into the glove compartment. Of late he had begun to believe that non-violence might well be the only rational policy to enforce.

Tonight, because of the pre-payday calm, he was spending his time on some extracurricular activity. He was tracking down an adulterer. Or at least he hoped to prove as much to the sinner’s wife. And to the court. So that with the husband out of the way Barsk himself could – in the best of worlds – marry the ex-wife.

It was a complicated affair.

He drove up the desolate Godown Road, past rusty warehouses and installations for vague Defence Ministry projects lined with barbed wire fences. He switched on the radio and heard the bleep and burp of atmospherics and then the climactic final beats of a Hindi film song followed by a social message broadcast in the Common Language, English: ‘Wear helmet. Head is not replaceable. One head per lifetime. Yesterday’s head count...’ followed by a Mollywood hit mix. He hummed along to the familiar tunes.

Emerging from the harbour he turned in the direction of Friendship Chowk. Since the country’s reversion to left-hand drive he had to approach Andhra Lång Street from the Olcott Boulevard side. The Volvo jumped from pothole to pothole along Dr Ambedkar Avenue, recently fitted with new streetlights. According to statistical findings, functioning streetlights were supposed to significantly reduce crime, but modern scientific crime prevention schemes didn’t impress old farts like Barsk. Especially since the cost of streetlights prevented road repair.

A sudden rattling sound on the radio caused Barsk to nearly swerve into a lamppost. ‘Go weeest’ a chirpy male chorus belched. The disco beat morphed into another tune: ‘In the Navy’ followed by other classics of the western world. He switched the radio off abruptly, realizing it was probably an illegal propaganda transmission from an enemy submarine anchored offshore.

The avenue had tracks for the trams to Friendship Chowk. Up ahead he glimpsed the Ashoka Pillar, the lion capital that guarded the square. The four lions looked on sadly as the streets emptied of people, until the last drunks – staggering around, cursing the existential desolation that had landed them at the bottom of samsara – fell asleep in a gutter. In front of the cinema hall a hoarding promoted a Phillumappa Ishtarjee-starrer. The guy had the largest sideburns in the world. Music from his romantic action-comedies played on the radio every night.

The brake lights of the Volvo flashed once, red and sour, as Barsk, detecting somebody Committing Nuisance in a Public Place, slammed them on. Nuisance was against the colonial law. He pulled up next to a line of rickshaws parked in Friendship Chowk’s three-wheeler stand. The air over the chowk was as steamy as a sauna crowded with Finnish drunks. Beedies glowed in the dark. Barsk longed to start smoking again but sheer stubbornness kept his last cigarette unlit; stubbornness and the advice from his doctor. His diastolic blood pressure was higher than his IQ and Doctor Patel had told him that it ought to be the other way round. Barsk greeted the rickshaw-drivers with a curt nod. Their turbans suggested unnaturally large brains. Four bare feet stuck out of the passenger compartment of one rickshaw. It rocked. Hard to find decent accommodation these days.

A derelict, verdigris-covered fountain sculpture depicting North, West, South and East in the form of ethnically diverse maidens stood in the middle of the square. Innumerable gulls had crapped on it. Then there was a real-life maiden: a small-built woman so busy puking into the fountain that she didn’t notice Barsk approach. He studied her derriere for concealed weapons under a miniskirt of some black plastic material, net stockings, and a tight leather jacket cut so short that most of her back was exposed. Slicks of night-time vomit, pale food-colouring red, and chunks of meat fell into the water.

‘So, what’s the matter here?’

‘Get lost, pig,’ she said.

Apart from being cross-eyed and on the plump side, she was of nondescript native Swedish stock.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’


‘Shut up and answer my question.’

He watched her with tired eyes. She swayed, very doped: could be dangerous. Heavily made up, but the kohl was smudged by the steaming air. He was no fashion expert; he tried not to judge dogs by their hair. Still his hunch was that the girl belonged to Gautampuri’s old-time Swedish underworld.

He stepped back, out of range in case she attempted to stab or bite. It was not easy to practice non-violence after midnight, but Barsk did his best.

‘You want me to shut up or answer?’ She smiled seductively and made sucking motions with her lips. She looked familiar; maybe he had arrested her before.

‘Shut up. What’s your name?’

‘Who? Me?’

‘Yes, you,’ said Barsk. He’d had the exact same exchange with thousands of antisocials of all ages, sexes, creeds and castes.

One of her hands started moving towards a pocket. Before she could pull out a gun he smashed his forefinger

into her chest. She was so wasted she sat down on the lip of the basin, in her own puke, nearly toppling over into the fountain.

She drew her hand from her pocket. It was empty.

‘Don’t get stressed, big pig,’ she said.

Barsk massaged his finger. Might have sprained it. He didn’t want to go see the doctor again and hear another sermon on blood pressure.

‘You ought to know better than to create a nuisance around historical monuments.’ He pointed at the signboard that said ‘Protected Monument. Nuisance Prohibited’. The fountain was a legacy of the town’s maritime past, back when it had been a harbour for the Royal Swedish East India Company, and Barsk was proud of his heritage. Then his eye caught a brännball bat floating in the fountain.

‘And what’s this supposed to be?’ he said, fishing it out.

The wood had cracks in it, maybe the bat had been used for vandalism. But one could not prohibit bats. Brännball, an ancient game, played with phallic bats and much machismo and accompanied by serious drinking, was part of the local culture; the way cricket was part of the lifestyle of the colonial masters who had moved in from Asia. The bats were popular as weapons too; lots of young feminists favoured them.

Barsk confiscated the bat. ‘If you behave I’ll let you off with a warning,’ he said, trying to speak non-aggressively to counter people’s negative impression of his profession. The girl said something vulgar, a new and ugly expletive that Barsk didn’t bother to ask her to repeat. His stock

of bad language was large enough—a legacy from his departed mother.

‘You didn’t happen to just drop this bat here?’

‘Never seen it before. I’ll bloody report you for sexual harassment, pig.’

He grabbed her by the neck and dragged her to a trashcan, a green rabbit, a few yards away. Trash covered Friendship Chowk, while the trashcans were hardly used, which bothered him. ‘Like to puke, höh? So kiss this,’ he said and rammed her head between the rabbit’s smiling lips.

Being a public intelligence officer, he had more important things to do than drag dope-heads to the office of the P.I.D. Deep inside Barsk knew that he ought to be more tolerant towards both humans and animals, but one had to draw the line somewhere. He searched her. She wasn’t carrying any concealed weapons. All she had in her pockets were cigarettes and an unused vomit bag from a restaurant called the Tandoori Moose. He was quite familiar with the place. It was one of those eateries that stayed open late every night.

The girl hadn’t committed any serious offence, the bat wasn’t necessarily hers, and he felt sorry for her when she puked again, this time over herself. Barsk handed her back the vomit bag; she tried to wipe her jacket with it. ‘Feeling unwell?’ he asked in a sluggish, retarded tone (he believed it made him sound fatherly, grey-haired and animal-friendly).

He’d never understand the youth of today. He had no kids and had put behind himself – in what seemed to be another lifetime – a marriage that had lasted a couple of weeks. Most of his knowledge of human behaviour came from sharing an apartment with a dog whose psyche was relatively less complicated than a human being’s.

‘Keep away from the streets at night,’ Barsk advised the girl, as he walked away.

He walked like a duck; he had a bullet-wound in one leg – rather high up on the back of the thigh, to be honest. He chucked the cracked bat in the back seat of his Volvo and watched the girl stumble away from the corner of his eye. He wondered if he ought to have arrested her for her own safety. Somewhere in the night, maybe an untoward karma, worse than death, awaited her. Better drive by the Tandoori Moose and check the place out, he thought to himself.

Maybe he could get himself a free midnight snack while he kept an eye on the illegal nightclub in the adjacent building. That was where he had followed Kumkum’s husband just before eleven, more than an hour ago. With some luck he’d photograph him coming out of the building in the company of a sex worker.

Barsk couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was that attracted him to Kumkum, but he was prepared to go far for her. To catch her husband having an extra-marital affair was the least, the easiest thing, he would do.

TO THE WEST OF OLCOTT BOULEVARD lay the district whose population’s votes belonged in the ‘Over-My-Dead-Body’ category in the ‘Chutney Referendum’—the treatise that had led to the country, along with many other European nations, with the single exception of the United Kingdom, joining the Asiatic Union. A class of South Asian bureaucrats had then been installed at the helm, competent IAS-officers, used to running cities with twenty million inhabitants.

Barsk was thankful that, by and large, law and order ruled post-modern society. There were only a few districts, like Masthugget, which were volatile.

And Masthugget was his beat.

On maps this district was called ‘Masthugget Native Zone’. Barsk peered warily into each side street till he turned into Andhra Lång Street. Driving through the

matrix of shady back streets, where the clocks had stopped ten years ago and antisocials hustled in the vernacular, gave Barsk peace of mind. The Swedish quarters were a

living museum.

The sewers fermented during the hottest months, making the area smell like a public lavatory, the stench hanging like a thundercloud over one’s head. And this despite the notice on the walls: Commit No Nuisance Here. Offender Will Be Liable To Rigorous Imprisonment And/Or Fines Of Rupees 300. By Order. The signs were all in the Common Language, which was a tactical error.

There were better methods. Landlords who were perturbed by the relentless defecation pasted posters of old progressive musicians and writers at knee height. Only those with a grouse against the particular artist would stain such a wall. The countless times he’d sat at a window table in a night cafe only to see the bums pee against his Volvo parked outside! Barsk occasionally directed a hobo towards the ‘Toilet-Cum-Bath Pay-Use’ booths in Friendship Chowk or the market square inside Masthugget, but the hobos had no money so he ended up forking out a couple of coins towards the toilet fee.

Barsk drove past the biggest known dealer in stolen goods and forged art: Rich Look Antiques, whose display windows covered half a block. Wooden chests with Dalecarlian floral motifs, mouldy rag dolls and any bric-a-brac, as long as it looked traditional, were in high demand. However, most of the Mora clocks and Lapp birch-bark baskets, unless stolen from museum collections, were brazenly manufactured by skilful forgers in the backyard. Dubious businesses flourished on the ground floors of greying tenement houses with makeshift workshops that made everything to order: from country guns and armour-plated vests for gangland shootouts, to opium-dipped charas for yuppie parties. Booze bars and massage parlours behind anonymous doors took care of the lost mind and wasted body. A family planning centre was having the last days of a perennial sale, a final chance to buy ‘educational’ films – Secrets of Women, A Lesson in Love, Scenes from a Marriage (risqué flicks by an old native cinema director, Ingmar Bergman); because time stood still in the native zone, the sale had lasted for years.

On the pavements, beggars jostled for sleeping space in the doorways. A person stepped out from a cyber porn cafe trimmed with pink lanterns. A few ragged customers drank Thums Up in front of the Kool Kiosk passing

around a paper bag made from recycled newspaper that contained their bottle of Old Monk. With a squeak the Volvo’s wipers went into motion. If it wasn’t for the rain, Barsk would have walked over and told them a thing or two

about liver disease.

A few eateries stayed open very late and served coffee Swedish-style, black with complimentary seconds. Like all natives, Barsk was genetically programmed to be an unflinching meat-eater and coffee-drinker. He found it difficult to reconcile with vegetarianism. Barsk drove past the dark entrance of Military Hotel’s Attached Permit Room (No Lodging), Gösta’s Multi-Cuisine Dhaba and the tiny Royal Kebab Palace, R.K.P.’s for short. All serving Non-Veg. All closed, as the sale of alcohol was prohibited after eleven. Only outside N.A.W.P. Club a lone red bulb indicated the availability of illicit liquor. No signs of life.

Barsk parked outside the Tandoori Moose.

As a rule of thumb you got the best grub in the grubbiest joints. Always closing late, sometimes not before dawn, these were a reliable pick. Twenty years ago, Barsk hadn’t cared much for spicy cooking, but then the change had taken place. Alien food was tasty and hot spices killed off bacteria that were bred by the greenhouse effect. During a call at the port of Mumbai, the owner of the Tandoori Moose restaurant, Hammar, a retired sailor, had hit on the idea of marinating moose in yogurt and spices overnight so that the meat was tender and flavourful. It was then roasted in a red-hot clay oven. Sceptics felt that tandooried moose was a sacrilegious treatment of the King of the Forest, while others thought it was about time—no more stringy meat. There were also those, like Officer Persson, who claimed that the difference between moose, dog, and sundry road-kill wasn’t that easy to make out. Such talk annoyed Barsk, who hadn’t yet got over Bobby’s death. Bobby—his faithful Eskimo dog.

Heavy drops of rain ricocheted off the bonnet, splattered on the windscreen. He reached into the glove compartment, tossed aside the packet of Charminars and the broken walkie-talkie, and found his sweetening tablets. He stuffed his service pistol into his waistband. It was an ancient weapon that ought to have been exchanged for the standardized IN-35, but older officers like Barsk still used the Sig Sauer. Budgetary concerns. The gun was slimy and rust flaked from it.

When he slammed the car door a woman looked up from behind the counter. The notice on the window had made the Tandoori Moose notorious: ‘Disposable Vomit Bags Available Free—Out of Consideration for Fellow Diners.’

He stopped dead; another sign maintained the restaurant was closed.

Barsk tapped on the glass pane with knuckles roughened by the weather and the war against antisocialism. The chef wasn’t much older than your average juvenile delinquent. She looked up for a fraction of a second, put the lid on the clay oven and dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

He hammered on the door. He was starving. He pulled out his Public Intelligence Department identity card while she dried her hands and walked towards the door. They stared at each other through the glass: her upper lip was pulled back, revealing a row of strong white teeth. Meat-eater’s teeth. A healthy native blonde, Barsk thought, and pressed his ID against the glass.

She unlocked the door.

‘Closing time already, höh?’ During the short wait his hair had got plastered to his skull and neck. But his mood improved when he smelt burning lard.

‘Yes,’ she said, not going out of her way to be polite, but was forced to step back as Barsk pushed inside to evaluate any possible threat. It was general knowledge that every individual in the zone at this time of night was either a potential informant or a criminal. Those who weren’t directly contributing to crime statistics were supplying the food, drink, dope, sex and anything else the underworld craved at 12.45am (Barsk noted the time with one eye on the clock).


It was unusually early for the Tandoori Moose to close. Yet the Formica-topped tables were spiked with upended chairs.

‘No customers, höh?’ he said taking a deliberately slow look at the tables pushed against a wall. Water dripped from his trench-coat.


‘Seen any buggers come out from N.A.W.P.?’

She shrugged. None of her business, obviously.

Well, it ought to be from now on, he thought.

‘Middle-aged man in salmon pink shirt, moustachioed. Höh? I’m speaking of an Asian fellow.’

The tables had been wiped but greasy rice grains, turmeric yellow, were evidenced around the edges. A single red rag on the counter. The swing-door to the kitchen held open by a bucket of soapy water. All signs indicated that the restaurant was closing for the night. Yet he could smell animal fat wafting from the oven. Strange.

‘What’s on the menu tonight?’

‘The food is finished.’

She was lying, so Barsk pretended not to have heard and took down a chair for himself. Its metal pipe legs squeaked. He threw his feet up on the table. ‘I get the impression you’re new.’

The woman nodded, ‘I’m a substitute. Was just cleaning up...’ She made a defeated gesture towards the kitchen door.

‘Nothing is just “just” around these parts,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you’re really doing.’

‘Pardon me?’

She’s got something to hide, Barsk thought and said, ‘Show me your Income Tax Office PAN-card.’

She bit her lip.

‘Höh! The backbone of society? And just as you were enjoying the benefits of a non-taxed income, I walk in the door.’ He let his coat fall open to unveil his pistol and reeled off his spiel: ‘Around here ain’t a safe neighbourhood,’ it began and then he continued on autopilot—‘No, ma’am. The seediest area in town at the worst time of day’, and ‘the most unhygienic restaurant since the Public Health Board went into exile’—as he studied the room.

She sucked hard on a section of her lower lip as her eyes drifted to a calendar on the wall. Barsk followed her gaze. It didn’t feature one of those usual naked Californian

body-builders, but a long forgotten native god, Thor, armed with a hammer, ready to destroy the world. A day

towards the end of the following week – Thursday – had a ring around it. Barsk frowned. The day for the natives’ carnival procession.

‘Bad karma for you, but I may have to take you in and you’ll miss the carnival.’

She was twisting a lock of blonde hair that hung outside her chef’s toque. Her voice was barely audible, ‘Please, tell me what you want and let me finish my job.’

Now that’s better, Barsk thought. The point was to teach them to respect law and order. On occasions like this he felt like a Greek philosopher, always prepared to explain the intricacies of human society to those in need of instruction. Aloud he said, ‘You should be glad to be alive. I won’t arrest you if you get me coffee. Black, with separate sugar.’ A pool of muddy water had formed under his shoes, on top of the table. The tandoor was fuming.

She nodded.

He continued, ‘What meat is that?’

Her lips were pulled stiff for a fraction of a second: a meat-eater who didn’t want to share its quarry.

His hand reached for the Sig Sauer but stopped halfway. No use over-reacting, he reminded himself. He tended to have difficulties in his relationship with women ever since... he had to think for a moment. Well, ever since forever. There was something weird about them. Perhaps the feeling stemmed from the recollections of his dead mother. Perhaps it was how crudely his wife dumped him. It was a known fact that he hadn’t had sex in over a decade.

She went behind the counter and fetched him a plate. Grilled liver.

‘Have some yourself, because you and I are going to sit down and talk about your future. I’m not really the worst Public Intelligence officer in town, you know. I just don’t want to see your face the next time I unzip a body bag. You hear me, young lady?’


‘So what the hell are you waiting for?’

‘I just poured out the coffee. Got to make a fresh pot.’

He sent her away with a roll of his head. She carried off the bucket of soapy water that had held the kitchen door open, and it creaked on its hinges as it slowly shut. He heard a refrigerator’s door open and close—maybe he was going to get lucky and be treated to dessert. Barsk chewed on the liver. The first part of the lesson had gone down well. Food had been served.

No sugar, no salt, no fags, no booze, Doctor Patel had told him. Chai instead of coffee for anti-oxidants. And preferably no meat. Maybe then, living in such perverse asceticism, he’d last another ten years. What he would live for, Doctor Patel could not tell.

He coughed. A black cloud hovered above the oven. The fan fought the smoke, but spewed back nearly as much as it sucked in.

A rasping pain tore his lungs.

‘Meat’s burning!’ he shouted between mouthfuls of liver.

No reply.

He swallowed the last bit, took his plate and walked around the counter to look for more.

The smoke was so thick he had to crouch.

Beneath the counter were shelves with plates, glasses, cups, utensils he didn’t know the names of – he wasn’t a kitchen man – and stacks of disposable vomit bags block-printed with the restaurant’s emblem: the head of a moose sticking out of a clay oven. He pressed a handful of vomit bags over his mouth and nose.

Alongside the back wall were a frying table and a trough with scraps of marinated meat. To the side was a niche with a holophone, the projection lens blinked vacantly. And there was the coffee percolator.

He whisked away smoke with the vomit bags and found that there was, contrary to what she’d said, coffee left.

Barsk got himself a cup and felt the percolator: the coffee was lukewarm. He stuffed the vomit bags in his pocket and poured a cup of the thick mush, shook out some sweeteners into his palm, and stared lethargically at them before he popped them into his mouth.

He looked around for a milk carton—none in sight. Barsk backed off with his cup and kicked open the swinging door. The back kitchen was lit by fluorescent lights; smoke hadn’t yet seeped in. An assortment of dirty cookware, kitchen machines for cutting, grinding and slicing. A large stainless steel worktop was covered with pools of red fluid.

Barsk didn’t see the cook. He shouted, ‘There’s no milk!’

The door swung shut again.

The fluid seeping from the rag on the counter looked like blood. Turning he caught sight of the dregs in the meat trough and something stared back at him. He went closer.

It was an eye.

Barsk blinked from the smoke. The eye didn’t. It had no eyelid; it was a lifeless brown iris on a white ball. A chopped-off nerve hung from its back.

The eye of a dog? He felt nauseous at the thought that he might have eaten a brother of Bobby. Smoke got into his tear ducts and he started to cry.

He left his cup on the counter and looked around for an electric switch to turn off the oven. He had to do something before the place caught fire. His foot hit a cast-iron skewer on the floor. Barsk picked it up and poked the oven’s lid. He dug out heavy chunks of burnt meat from the tandoor. Soon he couldn’t see his own hands anymore because of the smoke. He felt his way around the counter and made a run for the exit and at last in the street he breathed rain-fresh oxygen.

The surging smoke created strange shapes under the streetlights. Barsk dipped his handkerchief in gutter water and tied the wet cloth over his nose and mouth. He went back inside and pulled out a chair, jammed the door open.

As the air cleared, he spotted – near the kitchen door – a tiny locket of some weird Oriental fashion. It was too expensive to belong to a dog’s collar. He picked it up, wiping the blood off it against his trousers, but before he could study the intricate gold-and-silver design, he saw something else: the charred pieces of meat he had fished out of the tandoor were a pair of human arms and a handful of fingers.

Barsk did the only thing an old cop could do in a situation like this: he shat his pants.

Then he reached for his service pistol. It was stuck in his waistband. He kicked open the kitchen door. The tube-lights flickered in the back kitchen. Not counting the row of Kelvinators, there was only one other door in the corner. Must lead to a bathroom, he thought; she’s locked herself into the bathroom.

Barsk wrenched his pistol free from his pants.

He shouted: ‘Come on, goondi! Come out with your hands over your head.’

THE NIGHT HAD BEEN ROUGH and around dawn the eastern skies were lined with bloodshot clouds. The tram rattled up Dr Ambedkar Avenue and turned south at Bengan’s Mollywood Talkies on top of the steep ridge.

Barsk sometimes still experienced a culture shock when a new tropical morning dawned, and he found himself sitting on the tram among dark-skinned, well-dressed co-passengers in mundus, or chanting maroon-clad monks holding rosaries encased in rubbery rain covers. Many got off at the first stop on Coconut Avenue, their small knotted cloth bundles heavy with offerings for the Dagoba on Sacred Hill Street; people visited shrines on their way to work.

He found their religiosity very impressive although he understood little of it. Helga Barsk, his mother, faithful to her church as she had been, went to mass only sporadically and with a cigarette stump clenched in her maw, making it a point to never drop anything into the collection bag other than the nuts and bolts she screwed off cars in the church’s parking lot. If she were forced to give cash, she’d make it a point to get some change back—usually so that it was she who made the profit, telling herself that God didn’t need money in heaven. At home she spoke mostly of the Devil, who was expected to come and take away her son.

The traffic on Coconut Avenue was slow, cows with morning-fresh flower garlands stood in the middle of the road, chewing on discarded cartons. That Bangatan had been renamed, like so many other streets (and entire towns), was perhaps nothing to be surprised about, because it led up to a park where coconut trees swayed around a water tank.

Coconuts: the weather had transformed alongside the political and economic changes, bestowing a sense that it was all fated to happen—that it was all pre-destined. The atmospheric fluctuations had been long known, and to some extent expected, even though international think-tanks had tried to cover up the fact that the sun was shining stronger than ever before.

Botanists had announced that the greenhouse effect, which had provided Europe with a round-the-year tropical climate, had been enhanced by the methane gas farts emitted by cows eating milk cartons lined on the inside with a hard-to-digest plastic laminate. It had been suggested that the cow population be slaughtered to save the world. However, too many people considered the cow holy, and others felt that all life was sacred, so it proved impossible. Even the female moose had become something of a holy cow, so hunting it was prohibited, and moose meat could only be eaten illegally at joints such as the Tandoori Moose.

The milk carton manufacturers refuted the criticism with their own research. The problem according to them was global and could therefore not possibly have anything to do with them. They pointed out that around the North Pole (where there was no dairy industry to speak of) the icebergs had melted and many polar bears had drowned; surviving bears – who were very angry – had attacked Canadian coastal towns where they pillaged supermarkets and ran amok until they were shot down by the Mounties. This could hardly be directly connected to one or two milk cartons.

Nobody was the wiser for such debates, least of all Barsk. In any case, whatever the cause of the environmental disaster – corporate capitalism or a cumulative effect of human idiocy – the telltale signs had been visible for years. For many years before the change, newspapers had been reporting small irregularities—winds changing direction, ocean currents altering their character or creating huge waves, and holes in the ozone layer flapping about in the sky over every smoggy city. No snow had been seen for a generation, while the monsoon winds had left Asia and now blew over Europe. One year, when a million chickens died of heat stroke, the chicken breeders organized a national barbecue party to silence any criticism of the incident. Then they installed air-conditioning in the coops. This had resulted in increased air pollution and the temperature in Gautampuri went up by two degrees. People pretended not to notice. Experts didn’t dare accuse the influential broiler industry of drilling holes in the ozone layer.

The greenhouse effect relocated the Sahara desert northwards; the Mediterranean dried up completely and Europe was covered in sand dunes as high as the Eiffel Tower all the way up to central Denmark. The Danes accepted their fate without complaining, lit up a few joints and became Bedouins, with the sole exception of a small group of nudists who refused to dress in caftans. Sometimes Danish camel merchants came all the way north to Gautampuri where they were seen as an exotic splash of colour in the town’s crowded bazaars.

Despite these warnings, people were taken by surprise when the first few palm trees took root in central Gothenburg. After that, there was no looking back. Lovely tropical climate, many felt, and cancelled their holiday trips down south. Instead of worrying they prolonged their mid-day siestas and shopped for new sunscreen lotions which, it was claimed, contained ozone.

What followed what? Well, nobody really knew. The heat made people reluctant to work as hard as they used to. Foreigners took over all the tough and sweaty jobs. Cheap restaurants serving Asian food opened everywhere. The food was tasty, the servings were generous and cheap, many put on weight and stopped having sex—it was sticky and messy the men felt, while according to a survey in Femina women were not, generally speaking, attracted to ‘balding fatsos’.

According to statistics, from the first few decades of the 21st century, no fertile woman gave birth to more than one child. Not even health-clubbing yuppies. The radiation from their mobile phones had rendered most of

them sterile, the incidence of this increasing rapidly

from the 1990s onwards. When sperm production within the upper and middle classes practically ceased, the political parties closed down their youth organizations and

recruiting offices. The authorities did their best to save the Viking descendants from extinction—in certain areas daily power shutdowns were introduced between 10pm and

midnight, so that people would spend less time in front of the idiot box and make more babies. But the population took up the challenge and fought back. Most families bought cheap imported Bajaj generators from India; these ran on diesel and supplied enough power to activate a home theatre system.

It was as if nature itself had confirmed the changes in the global economy. When the European Union was being liquidated, and its member countries sold off their industries and privatized their highways and railroads, international conglomerates with head offices in Asia bought up pretty much everything. Sweden was given away as a special discount offer when Germany and Switzerland were sold—perhaps due to the fact that most people could not really tell Sweden and Switzerland apart. These things happen in a global economy.

Despite scattered protests from the aristocracy and retired bishops, most people accepted the logic or perhaps the inevitability of what followed. During the ‘Chutney Referendum’ a majority turned out to be in favour of a formal joining up with A.A.R.C. or the Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, originally founded in 1985, because there really wasn’t any viable alternative.

According to modern history books – written from an Asian perspective of world history – the industrialized world’s welfare model was an artificial construct based on the plundering of poorer countries. A Nobel Prize winner of Economics claimed that: ‘The world is cracking under the weight of the western civilization. Ecologically sound economical models must show the way in the future.’ (Economical and Political Weekly, volume 54, issue 26.)

At a time when Europe was becoming poor and de-industrialized, joining Asia was a step up the ladder. The new A.A.R.C./E.U. was seen as a positive development, a progressive and popularly acceptable counterweight to the U.S./U.K. double act, that had become somewhat of a handicap to global development and protection of natural resources.

People like Barsk were happy to no longer be citizen of a country in crisis, financial as well as spiritual. The roots of the new administration were to be found in the Indian Administrative Service—the Nehruvian steel frame installed in decolonized India by which thousands of lifetime administrators handled the welfare of billions. They had, over time, turned into an educated caste of professional bureaucrats who could handle any mess, no matter how big or how dirty. According to official historiography, after they took over there had been no financial crashes nor any other large-scale problems in Europe.

In the first few months after the unification of Eurasia, the people of Gautampuri felt as if they were living in a laterally inverted, mirror world. Many Volvos crashed in inexplicable traffic accidents and had to be traded in for Ambassadors with the steering-wheel on the right. It was like waking up left-handed one morning after having been right-handed all your life. Still, people got used to it. The fairy-tale climate, with swaying palm trees and coconuts, was a bonus that made life reasonably effortless for most people.

Those who were uncomfortable with globalization – rabid priests, inbred aristocrats, and some rightwing extremists – migrated to Nueva Suecia in a forest-covered high plateau in South America, where they established a miniature Sweden in perpetual financial crisis and lived on the leftovers of the welfare state. As luck would have it, their neighbours were an ancient colony of Nazi descendants from the previous millennium, who had been experimenting with human genes, and so the Swedes could get themselves artificially inseminated. However, their sperm bank dated from the 1940s and the quality of the blue-eyed genes had degenerated somewhat. So the children born in Nueva Suecia often suffered from tunnel vision and couldn’t survey a golf course without turning their bodies like periscopes. (Barsk had read a report on this in the Gautampuri Post.)

In Gautampuri, on the other hand, slightly overweight natives walked about singing dreamily in the parks among giant ferns and enjoyed the bright sunlight as they plucked coconuts and bananas off the trees. These coconuts were said to be smaller than those in Asia, but only a month ago, a spring breeze had brought down a cluster, killing the postman who worked in Barsk’s neighbourhood.

His replacement had been a woman called Kumkum...

He’d got to know Kumkum about a week after the death of his old postman.

He had barely fallen asleep when he’d been robbed of whatever meaningless dreams he’d dreamt (‘Here Bobby, Come, boy, Bobby catch that crook!’) by an electric ring on the door. It had been her first day on the job and she had been looking for an addressee, frustrated by the old name of the street on the envelope.

She wore a khaki sari, a military style cap, and a small diamond stud in her nose. She lugged a large bag. (He later learnt that Kumkum had won the Miss Bihar beauty pageant title in her youth. Despite having put on sixty pounds since then she was still a woman capable of making Barsk go sticky all over his innerwear.)

The dust balls on the floor had blazed like small fires in the bright glare of the morning light. Barsk had handed back the envelope with the words ‘Oljekvarn Street is nowadays Saar Kapoor Sahib Mohalla’ and their fingers had touched fleetingly. Hers smooth as Ayurvedic shaving lotion; his coarse like charcoal-baked psoriasis.

‘If it’s not a bother, could I have a glass of water? I’ve been climbing up and down stairs all morning,’ she said.

Instinct told Barsk that this was perhaps the last time a woman would come knocking at his door, so he led the way into the kitchen, where she looked around sceptically at the mould growing out of the dirty dishes, as he attacked the freezer compartment of the Kelvinator to prise out the ice-tray: it was one solid permafrost slab of ice, big enough to sink a small Titanic.

‘You should defrost it once in a while.’

‘Höh?’ said Barsk.

She bent beside him and pointed to a small switch, revealing blooms of perspiration under the sleeves of her sari-blouse, ‘Idhar dekho, push that red button next to the lamp. When you defrost, the fridge will use less electricity. You’d be saving both natural resources and money on your power bill. Besides, it is good for the condition of the machine.’

‘The red button?’ Barsk said but couldn’t take his eyes off her.

She had a red dot on her forehead. He could smell sandalwood talcum powder. The natural scent of women, he thought.

Kumkum pressed the small red button under the iceberg.

‘Nothing’s happening.’

‘Dheeraj rakho, it’ll take time. Trust me.’

Barsk was thrilled by this lesson in refrigerator defrosting, despite never in his life having been remotely house-proud.

He handed her the glass of water.

‘Shukriya,’ she thanked him and taught him a new word for his slowly growing vocabulary of nice things to say.

She sat down on one of the rib-backed wooden chairs at the dining table and took off her uniform cap. A long jet black braid with a slight, henna-red lustre uncoiled down her back.

‘You know, I’m somehow starting to doubt that this is the right job for me. Or the right life,’ she said.

Her words were an enigma to Barsk whose only career ambition was to get his salary every month and his pension before he died.

She held the glass of water to her nose, as if it was a bottle of perfume.

‘The first day on a new job is always tough,’ he said.

She nodded.

‘What does your family think of your work?’ he asked her.

‘I’ve left my husband,’ she said, closing the topic.

She tried to sound casual, but Barsk could tell there were problems in her life. If he were more like his colleague Persson, they might have torn off their clothes the moment she pressed the red button. But he was as far from Persson as a politician is from truth.

Yet he felt a stuttering jubilation within: it was the classic example of a lonely man having met a woman and finding out that she was available.

She wanted to use the bathroom. Barsk showed her the way through his bedroom—it was the first time in thirty years that a woman had set foot there. He hoped that he had remembered to flush. He carried her empty glass to the kitchen; it had a clear lipstick print. He kept it in the kitchen cupboard, feeling strangely possessive about it.

He heard the water pipes flush, and hovered around impatiently in the living room until she returned.

‘You don’t have dandruff,’ she said.


‘Do you have a dog?’


‘There’s a dog-dandruff shampoo. I’m like a real detective, hai na?’

Images of Bobby barked in his mind, of afternoons when he had shampooed the light brown, water-resistant coat of the Eskimo dog, and then rolled curlers into the white chest fur.

‘Used to have. That bottle is ages old.’

She frowned. ‘Arrey, what happened?’

‘He died before he got rid of his dandruff. Of incurable liver disease.’

It felt good to talk about Bobby’s death with her.

‘I am truly so sorry.’

She came closer and turned her face up to him.

‘He wasn’t in great pain. But I miss him.’

‘I can imagine, for a human it is hard to find a better friend,’ she said and then added, ‘You look like a lonely man.’

She’d picked up her uniform cap from the table and wished him a nice day.

Barsk counted that as their first date; not a proper date, but a kind-of sort-of date.